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In the distant future...

It is a time of legends and myths, of technology and magic,
of epic struggles and journeys to the stars...

A time when great heroes confront the forces of darkness...

A time when adventure beckons across the Billion Worlds of Outlaw Galaxy!

Outlaw Galaxy 2: Fugitive Among the Stars

An Outlaw Galaxy novel
by Bill Smith

www.BillSmithBooks.com | www.OutlawGalaxy.com

See the Author's Note following this story to find out about other books in the Outlaw Galaxy series.

Sign up for Bill Smith's newsletter: Email bill@billsmithbooks.com and type "subscribe."

Preview

Trip and his friend Johnnie O. visit Johnnie's cousins for a simple vacation riding anti-grav scooters in the trails and woods of Karrison's wilderness. However, their plans are interrupted when an out-of-control freighter crashes near their campsite and they rescue its badly injured pilot, Bosh Tippen. The boys find themselves pursued by gunmen looking to capture Bosh and return him to vicious gangster Croll Weixx!

Just $2.99. Novel, 72,500 words, 241 pages, reading time: about four hours, 45 minutes.

Order the book at: Smashwords (all formats), Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo or buy direct from the author.

Chapter 1 * Deep Space, 6.3 Light Years from Saronon

Captain Corris Thyne calmly sipped the steaming chaskul and carefully placed his cup back on its saucer. As he moved his hand away, he noted with satisfaction that there was barely a ripple across the surface of the milky white liquid.

The Port of Artheorse's lightspeed engines were that smooth.

Thyne strained to swallow, forcing the bitter, frothy liquid down his throat.

Now, if only Liam could find a way to make the chaskul palatable. How can the humans drink this stuff? Do they utterly lack taste buds?

Captain Thyne smiled up at Liam, who hovered beside his chair, eagerly anticipating his response. A Physhan, one of the countless human races, Liam was perhaps twenty years old, with bright pink skin and stark, fiery red hair. His clear secondary eyelids flashed shut, then opened again while his main eyelids remained wide open. The odd effect was that of an unending, unblinking stare. The secondary eyelids were an evolutionary adaptation to keep out grit from the dust storms that bombarded his desert homeland on Aelion.

Liam couldn't yet grow a beard, one of the signs of human maturity, but he was experienced and knowledgeable when it came to starship engines. He'd proven his worth by keeping the Artheorse's engines running to perfection. In between rebuilds and drive system calibrations, he found time to act as the ship's cook.

Of course, that was a mixed blessing as far as Captain Thyne was concerned. His digestive tract was still in full rebellion when it came to stomaching the boy's native cuisine.

"How's the chaskul, Captain?" Liam asked.

"Oh, it's -- "

Wonderful almost slipped out but Thyne couldn't bring himself to lie.

"It's unforgettable. Simply...unforgettable," he said, squeezing out a smile. "Thank you, Liam."

The Physhan grinned. "My pleasure, Cap'n. It's a family recipe."

"I'm sure you come from hardy stock, I'll give you that," Thyne quipped, thinking, The food kills the weak ones.

Then he saw the Artheorse's pilot, "Ragz" Gotom, chuckling. Ragz was seated at the control station at the front of the bridge.

"Mr. Gotom," Thyne called out, letting a trace of irritation creep into his voice. "Status report, if you please."

The blue-skinned Braecht glanced down at his control panels before announcing, "On course, Captain Thyne. We'll arrive at Kuttlemuir's Rim in...approximately seventeen hours, forty-two minutes. Currently, the nearest system is Saronon, six-point-three light years away, bearing one-twelve horizontal, forty-two vertical."

"Good," the captain said, checking his wrist chrono. "We'll be arriving at the Rim a little bit early. Excellent work, Ragz. Changing routes at the last minute hasn't slowed us at all."

"Better to be safe, Captain," Liam added enthusiastically. "We don't want to make it too easy for pirates to find us."

Captain Thyne grimaced. Why did he just do that?

Captain Thyne was a Liegar and, true to his heritage, he was superstitious and quick to worry. To Liegars, it was dangerous to mention any mishaps that could befall a ship while in flight. Saying such a thing was a challenge, a sure way to draw the attention of the dark, mercurial forces lurking in the universe's shadows.

And now Liam's comment had tempted those fates.

We don't want to make it too easy for pirates to find us.

It was a slip of the tongue, innocent enough some would suppose, but Thyne knew that those dark forces lurking out there would see the comment as a brag, a taunt.

The boy hadn't meant it that way, but the harm had been done just the same. It was as if the boy had said, Come and get us, I dare you.

Captain Thyne shuddered as if someone had stepped on his grave. He stared at the young crewman.

"I appreciate your support, Liam, but let's never speak of such things again, shall we?"

Liam backed away and looked down at the deck. "My apologies, Captain Thyne. No offense meant."

Captain Thyne glanced up at the main viewport and watched the swirling rainbow-color patterns and ripples of energy that were characteristic of hyperspace.

"Once we safely get to Kuttlemuir's Rim, no offense will be taken," he whispered.

Thyne tried to push his thoughts away from the possible dangers but his mind rebelled and drifted back to the beginning of this run. At the time, he had been nervous, worried...no, concerned was the proper word.

Reports of pirate raids had prompted him to make a last-minute course change just before the Port of Artheorse jumped to lightspeed.

Thyne had been in this game of piloting big, almost defenseless freighters for twenty years. He'd been in dozens of battles with raiders and pirates. A few he'd won. Most he'd merely survived. He had little desire to add another skirmish to his record.

Of course, Captain Thyne knew his biggest victories had come when he'd outsmarted his enemies. They were the times he'd fooled his attackers by changing flight routes or had scared them away by arranging for an armed military escort. He had been hoping for one of those quiet, unnoticed victories on this particular passage from Shreilei to Kuttlemuir's Rim.

Now Liam had thrown that hope into jeopardy by taunting the fates.

Captain Corris Thyne had long ago learned to trust his instincts. In fact, his stellar record was why GPX Vardo Lines Pulsar had put him in command of the Artheorse. This lumbering old freighter -- a big, bulky ship over four hundred feet long and nearly a century old -- was filled to the airlocks with robots and sophisticated electronics. The cargo was worth millions of Steds.

Defenses? Just three energy cannons. The Artheorse had no fighter escorts, no assault shuttles, no heavy cannons...just three underpowered guns, barely suitable for blasting at unarmored shuttle pods much less raiding ships, and she was running out in deep space, far from the protection of GPX Vardo's fleet of combat ships or the Frontier Rangers.

Captain Thyne knew that the Artheorse's best hope was to run silent and hidden. Escape the notice of those who coveted his cargo.

That was the plan.

Vardo is just cutting corners, Thyne had thought bitterly when he'd first read his mission orders. A few fighters would be a fine deterrent, but the data pushers at Vardo headquarters are more concerned with shoring up the balance sheets and trimming expenses. That means not deploying extra personnel or equipment unless absolutely necessary. Besides, if things go wrong, their heads won't be on a platter.

Snapping back to the present, Thyne took another gulp of chaskul, trying to steady his nerves.

Raiders don't want a fight. They're just looking for easy pickings, he reminded himself. Unfortunately, that's precisely what we are right now. Easy pickings.

Thyne knew that going in when he took this run. He knew the danger as soon as he received the flight plan. He felt the simmering tension and concern on the part of the crew the moment as he stepped aboard the Artheorse.

Still, he'd accepted this cargo run for several reasons. Foremost was the fact that he couldn't afford to turn it down. He was getting older and closing in on retirement age. The last thing he needed was to be labeled a coward. Work was hard enough to find as it was. So Thyne took this assignment and hoped for the best.

He looked around the bridge. At least I have good men and women aboard.

The veterans like "Ragz" Gotom knew what they were doing. They were alert and ready to act.

The younger ones, like Liam, were too confident, too excited, too raw to be scared -- but they'd learn.

Thyne's mind drifted back two days. As they were waiting for permission to leave the stardocks at Shreilei, Thyne had felt that familiar gnawing sensation creep up on him. Something was wrong. Something was calling out to him, trying to warn him that danger was ahead.

"Never turn your back on advice from the spirits," his father always said. "Trust them. They know the ways of the universe."

Thyne smiled as he thought of his father. Father was also a freighter pilot, just a simple man, but he'd logged over three thousand flights without any serious incidents -- no crew fatalities, no lost cargoes, no shipjackings. One couldn't doubt a record like that.

Father was retired now. He was probably spending the day on the lake, harassing the fish.

Captain Corris Thyne had acted on those warning instincts, just as his father would have.

"Ragz, plot a new course, routing near Vashuungor Minor. Same entry and exit points," Thyne had ordered when the dock moorings released the Port of Artheorse and the ship's thrusters pushed her away from Shreilei and towards open space.

Ragz looked at his captain, puzzled about the course change, but immediately turned to his work.

"Keep it quiet for now," Thyne remembered saying at the time. "Just get the route calculated before we reach the lightspeed jump point. I have a feeling about this...."

Pilot Ragz Gotom had served several missions with Captain Thyne, going back nearly six years. Ragz had good reason to trust his captain and his mysterious "feelings."

With the new route calculated -- a completely different path to Kuttlemuir's Rim, far removed from the flight plan registered with the stardock's flight controllers -- Thyne relaxed a little.

Thyne knew there were too many possible loose ends back at the stardocks: cargo handlers, starport controllers, even employees of GPX Vardo. Any of them could know the scheduled travel route. A group of raiders would pay handsomely for that travel route information since they'd stand to make a fortune should they be able to capture the Artheorse and steal her cargo. A bribe of a few thousand Steds was a lot of money to a cargo hauler who tossed modules around in zero gravity for fifteen or twenty Steds an hour. A pile of money could tempt any starport controller who wanted a few of the nicer things in life. It could even loosen the lips of a mid-level Vardo corporate drone who's realized he has nowhere to go but down, who has a house he can't afford and a family that spends money faster than he can make it.

No, there are too many people who could sell out this cargo ship, Thyne thought as he watched Ragz furiously tapping away at the lightspeed computer, calculating a new hyperspace jump route.

Thyne could hear the raiders' sales pitch in his mind, picturing a seedy broker holding a bag full of Steds, his voice low as he won over his informant. "Dozens of ships disappear every day, my friend. There's deep-space collisions, mechanical failures and, of course, pirate raids. No one will notice -- or care about -- the disappearance of just one more ship. Besides, the crew won't die."

Now the broker would flash a reassuring smile. "Only the stupid ones die, friend. The smart ones surrender. They're returned to their families in a few days. Here's a few thousand Steds. Don't let it bother your conscience. Go buy your wife that new dress she's been eyeing. Take her out to a nice dinner. Now, the ship's route, my friend...."

Over the years, Thyne had been approached with similar offers. He knew how tempting the money could be. He knew how even the most elaborate safeguards could be overcome if enough money was thrown around.

And this is not exactly a high-security mission, Thyne had reminded himself.

So, in truth, Thyne knew he had a target on his back from the moment the Artheorse lumbered out from Shreilei's starship yards. As they pushed out into space, Thyne nervously reviewed Ragz's revised route and checked his chrono. One minute before the jump, he'd nodded to Ragz and the new coordinates were loaded into the lightspeed computer.

That will throw the maraudhounds off the scent, Thyne remembered thinking at the time.

The jump to lightspeed had been smooth, without incident. There was the standard shudder, the vague feeling of falling into a deep, deep hole as the stars were blotted out by a brilliant flash of light, and finally the smooth roar of the Artheorse's lightspeed engines cycling to full power. Through the viewport, Thyne and the others on the bridge watched the multi-colored streams of red and blue, yellow and silver and every other color imaginable, patterns forming then eroding away in fractions of a second as the chaos of hyperspace swirled around them. It had been a smooth, flawless jump.

The only discrepancy in it all was Communications Officer Clire's announcement that he'd detected a stray transcomm signal -- a coded signal, just a brief burst -- originating near the Artheorse in the scant seconds immediately before the lightspeed jump. Thyne wanted to dismiss it as a transcomm flutter. Nothing to be concerned about.

That was thirty-five hours ago, Thyne thought as he looked around the bridge. Just over seventeen hours to go until we reach Kuttlemuir's Rim. Come on. Just a little while longer.

All had been going well. That feeling of imminent danger had faded. That little voice of warning had been quiet.

Then Liam calmly, casually, half-joking, shattered the illusion of calm.

"We don't want to make it too easy for pirates to find us," he'd said, not knowing any better, not meaning any harm, but still, he'd challenged the fates. Thyne shuddered. He knew what it felt like to stare death in the face.

Captain Corris Thyne tried to calm down. Nothing had gone wrong, he reminded himself. Besides, only he and Ragz knew the new lightspeed route. Not even the company knew where they were. There was no time for a traitor -- should there even be one among the ship's tiny crew -- to pass word to partners off-ship. There was no chance that raiders could find them.

Still, that feeling of uncertainty kept gnawing at him.

He glanced at Liam and wanted to reprimand him, but the young man still looked skittish, afraid of his captain's wrath. He's just a kid. No need to scold him now. Besides, we're safe. No one knows we're here. Corris, you're just being superstitious in your old age.

Thyne grabbed his cup. He sipped the chaskul, then took a deep, full drink of the bitter white beverage and swallowed. Next time, I'm bringing my own firemead from home no matter how expensive it is.

He drank again, smiled and nodded towards Liam.

We're safe. No one knows we're here.

But as he thought about it, something in that stray transcomm signal bothered Thyne. It was a high-density, short-burst signal. Ordinarily that would be of no concern. Space, especially in heavily trafficked systems, was full of such transcomm signals. But Clire had said the signal was close to the Artheorse.

What if that signal was from the Artheorse? What if there was a data transponder in the lightspeed computer? And what if it was linked to a transcomm signaler, coded to transmit the lightspeed computer's coordinates as soon as the lightspeed drive was activated?

Thyne looked down as he heard the cup clack, clack on the saucer. His hand trembled, almost of its own accord. And, back there at Shreilei, if there was a ship out there with a transcomm sniffer keyed to the signaler's frequency....

The warning voice inside his mind screamed, Something's wrong!

The Artheorse bucked and lurched as if it had smashed into a wall. Liam crashed to the deck with a cry of surprise and pain. Captain Thyne, Ragz Gotom and Clire, safely secured in their chairs by their restraint belts, all held onto their consoles, steadying themselves as the Artheorse was buffeted back and forth.

Thyne watched the saucer and cup shoot forward, seemingly in slow motion. A stream of milky white chaskul arced through the air, splattering across Clire's transcomm and sensor consoles. The cup and saucer tumbled to the deck and shattered, fragments bouncing through the air as they careened towards the main viewport at the front of the bridge.

Thyne's eyes rose to the viewport. A flash of white light blotted out the colored swirls of lightspeed. Then, as his stomach threatened to rise up his throat and he was overwhelmed by a sense of falling, falling long and far forever...Thyne saw black, star-filled space.

They were no longer in hyperspace.

Directly ahead of them drifted dozens of asteroids. That could only mean one thing.

"Raiders!" Thyne screamed.

Clire checked the sensors. "Captain, the route ahead is blocked! Asteroids forced the lightspeed drive to disengage."

"Ragz, plot a course around the blockade," Thyne screamed. "Get us clear! Engage the lightspeed drive as soon as possible! I don't care about the vector, just get us out of here!"

Thyne felt the Artheorse's sublight engines power up. The ship vibrated under the strain and yet the view changed only slightly as the bulky freighter tried to turn away from the asteroids.

We won't have time to get out of here, Thyne thought, panic rising inside him.

"We'll be clear of the asteroid field in seven minutes," Ragz reported, his voice steady and calm.

"By then it won't matter," Thyne muttered.

"Incoming ships!" Clire screamed. "Three fighters to port, three to starboard, closing fast! There's also a small freighter to port, just out of range of our cannons. They're hailing us and demanding our unconditional surrender. It's their command ship."

Thyne paused only a second. He knew what would happen to the crew if he surrendered. They would all face death. Raiders couldn't leave any witnesses alive to identify them. There would be no surrender. Their only chance was to make a run for open space and hope to jump to lightspeed, even if it was a blind jump.

Thyne keyed the Artheorse's internal transcomm. "Gunners to energy cannons! We're not going down without a fight!"

Chapter 2 * To Battle!

The Port of Artheorse's Chief Gunner, Devin "DeadEye" MagArgoll, raced through the freighter's cold halls, skidded to a halt and then climbed up the ladder to his gun turret. He settled into the padded seat and frantically pulled on his transcomm headset, flipping rows of switches to bring the power generators and lasing barrels to life.

Devin felt the energy cannon's machinery shudder around him as power coursed through the weapon. His holographic heads-up targeting display projected images into the air directly in front of him. Range numbers popped up while distant blue specks were highlighted by brilliant, neon blue outlines. Those specks would be the enemy, Devin knew as he watched the attack fighters crisscross space. They were still out of range of his weapon, but they were coming.

Oh yes, they're coming in fast.

The Port of Artheorse's shipboard communications blared in his left ear. Captain Thyne was screaming about incoming raiders.

Like that's a surprise, Devin thought as he finished pre-battle system checks.

Devin knew there was going to be trouble when the Artheorse's lightspeed drives ground to a halt and the ship bellyflopped back to normal space, sending the cards and wager chips flying across the pilots' cabin. He and the Artheorse's other two gunners, Dvir and Stryer, ran for their cannons even before the order was given.

Devin sighed. Talk about bad timing. He'd had a good hand.

I really could use the money, he thought, wincing at the thought of losing the stack of Steds that he'd built up. Four hundred Steds! When's the next time the cards will be that kind to me? And now? Nothing!

Devin pulled on his gloves and searched open space as the gun turret circled around, satisifed that the rotation servos underneath the turret were working smoothly. Devin's turret was mounted near the Artheorse's nose and he had the duty of protecting the forward half of the ship. His partners, Jascho Dvir and Bethailia Stryer, had the tail guns, Dvir on top and Stryer on the bottom side. They simply had to protect the engines.

Of course, that only sounds easy until you realize there's six fighters picking away at us, Devin thought as he looked out across the darkness. The view is spectacular but it's always the same. Big, black, endless space.

Off to his right, Devin saw the cluster of asteroids and a small, nondescript cargo freighter far off in the distance. Directly ahead of him, three fighters were headed straight for the Artheorse. They would be in range in a few seconds. His targeting screen showed another trio of fighters behind him, racing towards the Artheorse's tail.

Devin cued up the transcomm. "Stryer, Dvir, you boys ready to roust a few raiders?"

Stryer's voice whispered silky smooth. "Sir, I'm ready...and remember, I'm not a boy."

Not much chance of that happening, Bethailia, Devin thought. That'll get her riled up -- not that she needs it. She's already a better shot than I am. Devin's fingers flexed as he grabbed the controls, his thumbs hovering over the bright red firing studs. No, she's not better...but she is in my league....

Communications Officer Clire keyed in. "Gunners, fighters are incoming. Twenty seconds until they engage us."

Devin keyed his transcomm. "Already have them on visual, Clire. We'll keep ‘em plenty busy. Count on it."

"Hey, boss, time to earn some bonus money!" Dvir shouted over the transcomm, referring to the bonus payments Vardo offered for taking out any vessel attacking one of its ships.

Leave it to Dvir to find the positive side of this mess.

Devin watched as the Artheorse pulled away from the distant freighter and the asteroids. That's gotta be their command ship, Devin thought as he studied the unremarkable freighter. He saw the freighter's engines flash as she maneuvered out in open space, beyond the reach of his guns.

Come on in for a closer look, Devin thought. I'll show you who you're messing with.

He keyed his transcomm. "Gunners, keep your eyes open. Protect our engines. We only need a few minutes until we can clear the asteroid field and jump to lightspeed."

"Six minutes, thirty seconds until we can jump," Clire added in answer.

Devin checked his sensors. Six fighters plus a command freighter...six and a half minutes?

His stomach churned. That might as well be forever.

Devin rotated his gun turret, turning to face the Artheorse's nose. Three of the vicious-looking fighters roared in towards him. The fighters were a deep blue in color, with long, wide fuselages. Long fins climbed from their noses, rising up at a steep angle, forming a "V" shape. At the end of each fin was a large, powerful sublight engine, round and oversized compared to the thin wing that held it in place. The engines' placement, far from the fighters' main body, greatly enhanced their maneuverability in space combat.

The fighters' cockpits were dark and set far back from the motors, molded into the tail of each ship. A pair of energy cannons were neatly tucked underneath each fighter's nose. Armored tubes ran from the nose cannons almost back to the cockpit, nearly thirty feet long, almost the entire length of the fighter. The tubes were probably packed with power generators, cyclers and lasing cores -- the energy cannons must be heavily modified -- and Devin guessed that they packed a significant punch.

Towards the tail of each fighter was a thick support strut, like a stubby wing, stretching out from the left side. At the end of the wing was a triangular missile pod, large enough to carry several missiles.

As Devin processed the information, his slim hopes collapsed. They're heavy assault fighters.

Devin checked his range meter, counting down the seconds as the fighters closed to within range of his cannons. Six heavy assault fighters...opposed only by the three energy cannons aboard the Artheorse.

They're going to tear us to shreds!

"Hey, DeadEye," Stryer shouted, calling Devin's nickname over the transcomm. "You see how those fighters are armed? They're not kidding around."

"No, they're not," Devin answered. "Remember, we just need a little over six minutes and then we're out of here. Just hold them off!"

That'll be easier said than done, won't it? Devin asked himself as his gray eyes scanned the turret's sensor screens.

His fellow gunners were silent. They weren't buying it. They knew just as well as he did that they were facing long odds.

The lead fighter was headed straight for Devin. It unleashed a hailstorm of energy bolts. Dozens of red energy pellets shot from the fighter's cannons.

The energy pellets reached across space and slammed into the Artheorse, slicing through the freighter's energy shields. Bright flashes of yellow-white light lit up the ship's hull as plumes of flame and bursts of molten metal fragments sprayed into space. The energy bolts gnawed their way into the ship's defensive armor plating.

The other two fighters peeled away from their leader, fanning out to the sides of the Artheorse, unleashing strafing runs that triggered rows of the fearsome fireballs. In a matter of seconds, space was filled with glowing metal fragments chipped from the freighter's armor plating. As the explosions died out, the Artheorse's hull was left pockmarked and scarred.

Devin spun his weapon to focus on the lead fighter as it tried to roll to the right and away from the reach of his energy cannon. He saw the fighter's port engine flash, vectors aiming jets of thrust downward, sending the fighter rolling as it spun down and away from the Artheorse, but Devin's eyes were keen. He glimpsed the underside of the fighter for just a second. Relying on reflexes honed in a dozen battles, he pressed the cannon's firing stud.

Shimmering yellow-orange bolts of energy burst from his energy cannon. The energy bolts found their marks, striking the enemy fighter's belly. A burst of white-hot light and flame lit up space as the fighter exploded into thousands of metal shards. The fighter's port engine, sheared from its now vaporized wing, tumbled away into space before exploding.

One fighter down. Five more to go, Devin thought grimly.

With luck, there would be time to celebrate later.

Devin spun his energy cannon turret a quarter-circle towards the Artheorse's port side, trying to track another fighter. Already, this ship had fired on the Artheorse, the energy beams digging into the freighter's hull with deadly accuracy. Devin felt his ship shudder and heard explosions echo up into his turret from inside the Artheorse. Scraps of the Artheorse's armor plating flecked away from the hull, leaving a cloud of metal fragments hanging in space.

Devin searched for the fighter, which now seemed to have ducked to the underside of the Artheorse.

Stryer's down there. She's got a good eye. He won't get away.

Devin looked out, searching for the other enemy fighters, but none of them were near him. Instead, the attacking fighters were clustered around the Artheorse's tail.

They're going after our engines. Of course. They want to disable us and board us! It was a standard raider battle plan.

Devin stared towards the rear of his ship and saw a torrent of energy beams shoot from the topside cannon. Then there was a distant explosion. Another enemy ship was gone.

"Good shooting, Dvir!" he called out.

"Thanks, DeadEye! I'm telling you, though, it's crazy out here! There's a lot of traffic...and a lot of energy flying around us!"

Dvir was not prone to panic, but his voice betrayed his nervousness. Devin watched, feeling helpless as a shower of red energy pellets descended upon the Artheorse from the four fighters that circled around the freighter's engines. Devin cursed under his breath as he watched Dvir aim and fire, each time his reflexes off by a fraction of a second as the enemy fighters dove and circled around the Artheorse's tail. His shots raced harmlessly off into space.

Dvir's rattled, Devin thought. Rattled and scared, and that's throwing off his concentration.

Devin keyed his transcomm. "Dvir! You can get these guys! Just calm down!"

There was only silence as more bursts of energy shot into space from Dvir's cannon. Again they missed the enemy fighters.

"I'm trying, boss," Dvir finally screamed, his frustration coming through.

"You can do this," Devin reassured him. "Just take your time. They'll come into your sights. Pick your shots!"

Devin stared out into space. The Artheorse lumbered along the edge of the asteroid field, pushing for open space as fast as her thrusters would allow. Still, she was a large, slow freighter and burdened with a full cargo. That much mass took a while to get moving.

The enemy fighters easily kept pace with her. They had their target surrounded. For the raiders, it was just a matter of disabling the Artheorse before she could clear the asteroids and jump to lightspeed.

Devin saw a flash of movement to his right. He brought his energy cannon to bear just as one of the raider fighters climbed above the lip of the Artheorse and started a strafing run. Angry red energy pellets danced along the Artheorse's hull, explosions ripping along its surface in a dotted line that ran up the port side and across the top of the ship.

Devin saw his chance just as the fighter tried to twist, spin down and dive out of view. His fingers reacted without thought, jamming the firing stud. Yellow-orange energy beams flashed across space, slamming into the nose of the enemy fighter.

The fighter's nose disintegrated in a powerful explosion, the engine struts tumbling away, seemingly in slow motion. Then the energy blasts detonated the engines' fuel lines. Massive explosions rippled up the struts, reaching the oversize engines, which exploded in beautiful but terrible twin blasts of light and flame. The fighter's main fuselage, lacking engines, spun and tumbled, propelled away by the explosion that had sheared off the ship's nose. The cockpit section spun over and over, rolling on a trajectory that would launch it off into deep space.

You'd better hope your rescue teams saw that or else you'll be drifting out there for a very long time, Devin thought with wicked glee.

Devin looked for the remaining three enemy fighters, but he was too slow. Directly above him, one of the fighters barreled down towards the topside of the Artheorse, racing down at full throttle. The energy cannons spat the deadly red pellets, followed immediately by a volley of six missiles. The energy pellets smashed into the Artheorse directly amidships, triggering brilliant flashes of white-yellow light as they overwhelmed and burned out the shield generators. Molten metal fragments, cut from the freighter's armor plating, spun into space.

Devin flinched in anticipation of the inevitable. The missiles homed in on the newly opened wound on the Artheorse's hull and slammed into the freighter. The blasts rocked the ship violently. Devin watched in horror as the hull seemed to peel away. Layers of armor flaked off and spun away from the ship as explosions burst from inside the Artheorse's cargo bays. Cargo modules spun out into space. A stream of debris burst from the ship, propelled by a geyser of energy that vaguely looked like an exploding volcano.

A deep hull breach!

Devin knew that the Artheorse was badly damaged. Now, there was no way the freighter could risk a jump to lightspeed since the stresses of such a jump would fracture the hull and cause the ship to splinter into pieces.

We're stranded here! There's no escape!

Chapter 3 * Fighting for Survival

As the explosions died down, fires from inside the Port of Artheorse were snuffed out by the loss of air. The missile attacks had been devastating, slicing the freighter's hull wide open. Cargo containers tumbled into space.

Inside his gun turret, Chief Gunner Devin "DeadEye" MagArgoll felt the temperature plummet. He gasped and could not catch his breath.

Then the turret's blast door slammed shut, trapping him inside the weapon, but quite probably saving his life. Simple sensors in the turret sealed the blast door as soon as they detected a drop in air pressure, indicative of a hull breach. In principle, the system protected the rest of the ship should the turret be destroyed or sheared away in battle.

However, this time, it was the Artheorse itself that had been breached. Air was being sucked from throughout the ship and out into space. The turret's blast door now created an airtight seal between Devin and the rest of the ship, preserving a limited air supply for him even as the rest of the ship was being drained.

Emergency bulkheads must have been sealing across the ship to protect other compartments from the breached cargo hold. With luck, crewmembers in the breached compartments would have emergency breathers and vacuum suits close by.

And if not...this battle will be over soon enough.

Devin's turret had a thirty minute emergency air supply, but this battle would be decided long before the air was gone. Either the raiders would be defeated and the Artheorse's crew would suit up for emergency repairs...or the Artheose would be defeated and the ship would be in the hands of the raiders.

And our crew? Devin knew what fate lie ahead of them if they were captured. Sucking vacuum's a better way to leave this existence than to be a prisoner of those raiders.

As Devin's mind raced, he saw another of the attacking fighters in the distance, behind the Artheorse's engines and closing in fast. At the tail of the Artheorse, Dvir, in the top turret, spun around to attack the incoming fighter but he was not fast enough.

The enemy fighter's energy cannons flashed. The volley of energy pellets struck Dvir's cannon with unerring accuracy. A ball of flame consumed the turret. When the brief flash died out, there was only a melted, charred stump of metal on the Artheorse's hull. Debris drifted through space. The turret was gone.

There was no way Dvir could have survived.

"No!" Devin screamed, but it did not matter. He didn't have time to think about how much he would miss Jascho Dvir, nor even to pause to say goodbye. He couldn't think about how things would never be the same without him in the gunners' lounge, ready to wager on anything or share a bawdy joke.

What mattered now was that the fate of the Artheorse lay in the hands of Devin and Stryer, the bottom-side tail gunner. It was just the two of them and they had to destroy the three remaining enemy fighters.

The fighter that had killed Dvir angled low as it raced above the Artheorse, closing to point blank range and firing again with its energy cannons. It unleashed a volley of six assault missiles, headed straight for the Artheorse's engines. The missiles struck home. Explosions expanded in rolling balls of flame as the Artheorse shook, this time much more violently. Devin would have been thrown out of his gunnery chair had he not secured his restraint belts.

The violent tremors faded, but the Artheorse had started to spin, seemingly sliding sideways in space, now drifting towards the asteroids.

It's over, Devin thought. Our engines are destroyed. There's no escape.

Devin's anger surged. He wanted to destroy that fighter, to blow it out of the stars...but something made him pause. He glanced down at his targeting scanners. The lead raider ship, their command freighter, was closing.

They're coming in to board us.

Devin checked his weapon. His power generators were off-line. They were probably destroyed when the engines exploded, most likely due to energy surges backing up into the Artheorse's main power systems. The Artheorse was dead, adrift in space.

Yet Devin's weapon still stored some power in its cyclers. He checked his gun's meters.

There's enough for one blast...just four energy bolts.

He watched as the raiders' freighter closed in on the Artheorse. The enemy ship eased in close to his own vessel. Rage overwhelmed him.

They know we're dead in space. They think it's safe....

He examined the enemy ship. It was just a civilian freighter, perhaps one hundred feet long, and fitted with half a dozen external docking tubes for the fighters. The freighter's weapons were minimal, just two light cannons. Most importantly, the ship appeared to have little armor plating.

Devin watched the remaining three fighters circle around the Artheorse while their command freighter cozied up to his own vessel. The enemy freighter was now just fifty feet away, close enough to extend her boarding tubes and clamp onto the Artheorse so the raiders' boarding parties could force their way aboard.

One blast, Devin thought as he bit his lip. Just one. I have to make it count.

The enemy ship drifted ahead of him. He had a clear shot at her hull...but taking out her weapons or blasting at the hull would be futile. Such an attack would be an irritant, nothing more.

Devin wanted to make them pay for what they had done to him, to his ship...to his friend.

For Dvir...for all of us, Devin thought. He watched and waited. In just a few seconds, the enemy freighter's engines would be in range. If I'm going down, I'm going to take them with me.

Devin sat in his gunnery seat, his transcomm silent because the Artheorse's internal communications were out. He was trapped in this turret, alone with his thoughts. He knew that he would not survive this battle. At least he would fight down to his last breath....

The attacking freighter drifted closer. And then his target hovered into view. He took a deep breath and carefully lined up the engines in his sights, taking care to minimize his gun's movements so that no one aboard the attacking freighter would notice that his energy cannon was still active.

Then he pressed the firing stud. The four orange-yellow energy blasts crossed the gap between the Artheorse and the enemy freighter in an instant. The energy blasts smashed into the freighter's engines, now unprotected by the shields, which had been lowered now that the battle appeared to be over.

The explosion was so bright that Devin had to shield his eyes and turn away. The primary blast sent pieces of molten metal rocketing out into the void. A series of smaller explosions -- power surges and overloads from his precise attack -- cascaded through the enemy ship's engine decks, burrowing deep inside the freighter. Gouts of flame shot from the engines' exhaust nozzles.

Pieces of metal, once intricate engine parts but now just melted slag, tumbled chaotically in space. The attacking raider freighter, like the Artheorse, now drifted, dead in space.

The two freighters, both crippled, rolled and pitched, drifting apart, unable to alter their courses.

A few seconds later, a message drone shot from the Artheorse. The small, missile-shaped craft raced off into space, leaving the crippled freighters behind. One of the raider fighters turned to chase the drone, frantically trying to destroy it.

The drone raced away from the battle site, the fighter closing the gap. The fighter fired, its energy pellets reaching out towards the drone. Just one of the pellets struck the drone, but it was only a glancing shot as a tiny flash of light dug into the drone's hull.

Trailing a tail of white energy, the drone disappeared in a small, sudden burst of white light as it jumped into hyperspace.

Get help! Devin prayed, but he knew the effort was probably hopeless. The drone had been launched in a rush, probably with no time to plot a course to a settled system. Captain Thyne had probably just recorded a plea for help, loaded the Artheorse's current coordinates, entered hastily calculated destination coordinates into the drone's lightspeed computer, and launched the drone while the attacking freighter was preoccupied with Devin's attack. Devin suspected the drone would just shoot off into open space and never be heard from again.

If there's any luck at all in the universe, now's the time for a big payoff. Come on...get help, Devin silently pleaded to whomever might be listening, hoping that somehow, someone would receive that distress signal and send a rescue ship.

Then Devin MagArgoll saw one of the three remaining enemy fighters turn towards his now powerless weapon turret. The fighter angrily bore down on Devin's energy cannon, obviously identifying it as the weapon that had disabled the raiders' base ship.

Devin watched the fighter close in on him and checked his weapon's energy meters. His cannon was out of power. He was helpless.

He closed his eyes and turned his head away. He tried to make peace with the universe.

Help for the Artheorse, if it came at all, would be too late to save him.

Chapter 4 * Craz's Starship Repair

"Hey, Brick! Could you give me a hand with this lifter strut?"

Trip pushed out from under the freighter Tamri's Mercy, sliding along on the anti-grav work pad, which drifted a few inches above the floor. Putting his feet down on the permacrete floor to stop the pad's glide, Trip sat up and looked around Craz's Starship Repair.

"Where is that robot?" Trip muttered under his breath.

Then Trip heard the heavy clomp, clomp of Brick's footsteps, echoing from across the repair bay. Trip wiped the sweat from his forehead and tugged twice on the front of his shirt, but still the material clung to his chest. He grabbed the water cylinder lying on the floor and took a long, cool drink. He held the chilled metal cylinder up against his forehead, trying to get some relief from the sticky heat that hung in the air.

Outside Craz's Starship Repair, it was perhaps fifty degrees. It was the middle of winter here in the city of Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port. This time of the year, at least here in the upper plateaus and mountains, frosts were a nightly occurrence and light snows were common. Days were generally chilly and the thermometer often struggled to reach fifty degrees, just like today. In just a couple of months, another warm spring would be upon this city, with sweltering summer not far off, but today there was an unmistakable chill in the air.

Yet, even with the chill outdoors, it was uncomfortably warm inside Uncle Craz's cavernous repair bay due to all of the machinery in operation. Even with the street-level cargo doors wide open, the air in here was still humid and sticky.

Trip loved fixing starships, but it was hot, sweaty, backbreaking work.

Trip looked up at the underside of the Tamri's Mercy. The cargo freighter's landing gear system was stripped down, pieces littering the floor around the ship. Normally a ship would be sitting on its landing gear, supported by lifter "legs" that projected from the bottom of the hull to keep the ship steady when its engines weren't running. In this case, however, Trip had been charged with repairing a catastrophic failure in the lifter system.

The ship was held four feet above the bay floor by Uncle Craz's lifter brace. This massive piece of equipment was perhaps fifty feet across and projected a powerful anti-grav field to keep the ship hovering and stationary.

The Tamri's Mercy's engines hummed softly, shunting power to the freighter's own anti-grav units, which acted as an emergency backup to keep the ship aloft should the lifter brace fail. The engines baked the air around Trip and filled the bay with the acrid smell of starship exhaust.

The landing gear lifters had been torn apart, their metal casings carefully laid out in a ring on the floor, while the heavy armor plates protecting the lifters and the landing gear assembly had been removed and were stacked off to the side on the grease-stained floor.

The lifters' long, cylindrical lift tubes had been removed, while the rectangular strut servo casings had been cracked open, exposing internal circuitry, control differential modules, stabilizer arms, and lift servos.

Several hours of work still lie ahead for Trip. He had to replace the lifter tubes, repair or upgrade any worn components in each casing and, finally, reassemble the six power lifters.

Brick, Uncle Craz's labor robot, approached the Tamri's Mercy, his heavy steps ringing as he marched up to the freighter.

"Trip, what do you need me to do?"

The robot's voice was soft and quiet, a bewildering contrast to the robot's powerful appearance. Brick was almost seven feet tall and nearly half as wide, with a huge torso and thick arms and legs. Trip had seen the machine lift thousand-pound cargo crates with ease, but Craz had long ago pressed the robot into general repair work at his starship repair business.

Spots of bare metal showed through Brick's faded red and blue paint job. The robot moved cautiously, his pistons and servos whining and clicking with each thundering step. His neck clicked as the robot looked at Trip, his glowing, pinpoint-sized blue optical scanners settling on the boy.

"Thanks, Brick. I need you to adjust that lifter tube. I'm not strong enough to shove it into place." Trip pointed at the new lifter tube that he had half-fitted into the power lifter second from the right. "In fact, I'm going to need some help installing all of the new lifter tubes."

Trip glanced over at a stack of over twenty lifter tubes lying a few feet away. Brick's head slowly turned, following his gaze. The robot nodded. "Tell me what to do."

Then Trip saw a flash of blue fur among the lifter tubes. A long, twisting tail slithered behind the tubes and out of view.

"I believe your creature is playing among the lifter tubes," Brick observed calmly.

"Yeah, I noticed," Trip muttered. Then he called out, "Comet! Comet! What are you doing?"

Trip stood and walked towards the stack of lifter tubes. A small, fur-covered head popped up into view. A long, pink tongue whipped out to smell the air and then slid back inside the creature's long snout.

Comet was Trip's pet drannet. He looked like a miniature, fur-covered dragon, with a long neck, a tooth-filled snout, long ears amd deep-set orange eyes. Comet was small, only about a foot tall and he weighed just seven pounds -- maybe eight if he managed to gorge himself, which he was known to do as often as possible. However, his sharp teeth and the long claws on his four paws meant he was quite capable of defending himself.

Trip had picked up the drannet a few months ago when he and his friend Jinx had been prisoners on Diamond Black Joe's pirate ship, the Diamond Shadow. At first, Trip didn't want anything to do with the beast, but it almost immediately started following him around. The drannet even managed to save Trip's life during a battle with Diamond Black Joe's cruel lieutenant, Whistler. By the time he'd returned back home to Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port, Trip had developed a certain fondness for Comet. Besides, Jinx's Clanmother Son'knex wouldn't let Jinx keep the drannet aboard their starship.

Drannets were scavengers by nature and almost universally detested aboard starships, which they tended to infest if given the chance. Yet Trip had found Comet to be a good pet in the two and a half months he'd had him. Obedient? No. Still, Comet was a loyal, affectionate friend to the teenage starship mechanic.

At the sound of Trip's voice, Comet jumped up onto the pile of new lifter tubes, balancing precariously. The drannet extended his claws to get a grip on the top lifter tube's metal covering, but instead, the drannet found no traction and skidded along the top of the tube, which started to roll under the drannet's weight. The entire pile shifted as Comet jumped back and forth to hold his balance. The drannet leapt to the floor with a scared yelp. The top lifter tube tumbled to the floor, sending seven or eight other tubes spinning away with loud clanks as they bounced across the permacrete floor.

Comet scampered away from the rolling tubes, dragging his tail along the floor. Trip ran over and frantically tried to scoop up the rolling tubes. He couldn't allow them to be damaged before they were even installed on the Tamri's Mercy.

Brick grabbed a couple of runaway tubes. With the robot's help, Trip needed only a few minutes to restack the lifter tubes.

As soon as the commotion was over, Comet ran up to Trip, growled, and then let out a low-pitched snarling cry. He rubbed up against Trip's pant leg.

Trip sternly stared down at his pet. "Go lay down!"

The drannet yelped and growled again, his tail snaking back and forth playfully as he bared his teeth.

"No talking back!"

Comet lowered his head and turned away, sulking.

"Over there!" Trip said, pointing towards one of the partitions between landing bays. A blanket had been spread out along with several toys, including chewed-up rubber balls and gnawed-on plastic creatures that squeaked when Comet chomped on them.

"I told you before, Comet! Either you stay out of the way or Uncle Craz won't let you come to the shop. Then you'll have to stay at the house all day. Now, go lay down!"

Comet slunk across the repair bay towards his blanket, head low to the floor. He perked up as soon as he reached the blanket and pounced on one of the balls, batting it back and forth between his front paws. A few seconds later, the drannet bit into the ball, skewering it with its teeth, and ran back over to Trip with the ball clutched tightly in his jaws.

"No! Not now," Trip scolded. "We'll play fetch when I'm done working."

Comet stopped, let out a soft growl, and turned back towards his blanket.

"Comet is not very disciplined, Trip," Brick said gently.

"I'm working on it!" Trip snapped. "It's not like he was trained before I got him! And at least he's house-trained now."

"Uncle Craz was hoping he'd pick up on that."

Trip watched as Comet ran around the repair bay, his tail wriggling ferociously as he searched for something to do. He swung his snakelike neck back and forth, surveying the stacks of tools and starship parts. Trip sighed. "Comet's a lot of work, that's for sure, but he's mine...even though Uncle Craz doesn't like him."

Brick spoke softly, as if he was sharing a secret. "Trip, Uncle Craz likes Comet. He's just not used to having a small creature under foot. The last time anything like that happened was when he adopted you. That was nearly fifteen years ago."

Trip smirked. "I can't imagine Uncle Craz changing my diapers. Knee deep in grease and coolant? Sure, no problem. Carrying a dirty diaper to the sanitizer? That's a stretch."

Brick's vocalizer made a soft whirring noise. Trip knew it was the robot's version of a chuckle. "That was my job. It was a stretch beyond my original programming, but I...adapted."

Trip smiled. "I'm sure you did, Brick."

Then he paused. Something was wrong. It was quiet. That was never a good sign.

Now where did that pile of blue fur and teeth go?

Trip looked up at Brick and muttered, "Now, what's he gotten into?"

Then, Comet's blanket seemed to spring to life. A shape rose up underneath it, a Comet-shaped shape which jumped back and forth, pushing towards the edge of the blanket. Comet's head, the ball still skewered by his sharp fangs, emerged from underneath the blanket. He swung his head and neck to the side, opening his jaws wide, sending the ball bouncing across the floor.

Comet burst out from underneath the blanket and ran across the floor, chasing the ball. The drannet jumped into the air, leaping with a shrill hunting cry, paws spread wide and claws out. He landed on the ball and rolled onto his back, the momentum sending the ball flying back up into the air and bouncing towards the back of the repair bay.

Comet sat up, looked at Trip and yelped again, then looked around the bay, searching. He spotted the ball bouncing across the floor in the back of the repair bay. Instantly, he jumped to his feet, tail snaking back and forth, panting as his tongue hung out. He let out a snarl, bared his fangs, and scampered out of sight.

Trip grinned at Brick. "At least he can amuse himself."

Brick nodded. "Let's get to work, Trip. Tamri wants her ship done by tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow morning, huh?" Trip looked at the collection of starship parts scattered across the floor and wiped more sweat from his brow. "Tell her it's nice to want."

Brick scolded him. "I'm sure we can finish it by tonight, Trip, even if we have to work late."

"That's what I was afraid of. This is a lousy way to start my vacation," Trip said in defeat as he sat back down on the anti-grav work pad and slid back under the ship's engine cowling.

Brick bent over and effortlessly shoved the lifter tube into place.

I couldn't even budge that, Trip thought as he watched in amazement. He turned back to disassembling the power lifter units. The lifter gears were badly worn and no longer within safety tolerances. They could be rebuilt given enough time, but with such a short deadline, Trip had to focus on getting the new power lifter units installed on the Tamri's Mercy.

A few minutes later, Trip heard Uncle Craz call out, "Trip? Where's that creature of yours?"

Trip slid out from under the Tamri's Mercy and grabbed a rag from his back pocket, wiping the grime off his hands.

Uncle Craz walked up to the ship. His face and puffy white beard were smeared with black grease.

"Trip, where is the little beast?"

Trip looked around and shrugged. "Last I saw him, he was off playing with one of his toys."

Trip took a few steps out into the bay and called out, "Comet? Comet? Come here, buddy!"

A few seconds later, the drannet came prancing out of the shadows in the back of the repair bay. He clutched the ball in his teeth while his tail snaked back and forth. Trip could tell the drannet was thinking, You wanna play? You wanna play? Comet almost looked like he was grinning as he rushed towards Trip.

He dropped the ball at Trip's feet, growled, yelped twice, and then pushed the ball towards Trip with his nose.

"Sorry, Comet. Not now."

The drannet growled, as if challenging Trip and demanding to know, So why did you call me over here?

"Just keep him out of the way," Craz said. "How's Tamri's ship coming?"

Trip pointed at the parts scattered all over the floor. "Slow. Repairing the lifters is a lot of work. It's very time consuming, Uncle Craz."

"It will be ready by tomorrow morning," Brick called out from under the Tamri's Mercy as he shoved another lifter tube into its socket and pressed the support braces into place. He smoothly connected the power conduits.

Craz looked at Trip for confirmation.

"Yeah," Trip said, shaking his head in disgust. "We'll have it done...but it'll take most of the night."

Craz smiled. "Good! Good! Tamri has a delivery in Sorsel River tomorrow. This is an emergency repair. Now she'll owe me a favor I can call in later."

Trip hmphed! "An emergency? Well, Ms. Tamri Ransignath should have thought about that before she let those lifters go! It looks like they haven't been rotated or cut in two years. Now they're junk!"

Craz glanced at the ship. "Well, she's a paying customer -- and she's paying a lot. Trip, how about a bonus if you get this job done tonight?"

Money! Now that changes things! Suddenly the prospect of working late wasn't so bad.

"How much, Uncle Craz?"

"I could offer, say...one hundred Steds? You could use them on your vacation."

What vacation? Trip thought with a dash of bitterness. "It won't be much of vacation," Trip grumbled. "Even Johnnie's going away this week! He's visiting his Mom out in Leeshorrin. He gets to go race scooters all week but I'm stuck here."

Uncle Craz grinned. "I've been thinking about that."

"How so?" Trip asked. "You told me I couldn't go."

Craz paused. "Let's say...I've changed my mind." Then his voice took on a serious tone. "But be careful."

Trip's eyes lit up. "Really! I can go?"

"Get the ship done tonight and you can go," Craz said firmly.

Trip said a quick "Thanks" to his uncle and raced back over to the Tamri's Mercy, crawling under the ship with renewed enthusiasm.

"Come on, Brick! Hurry up! We've got a lot of work to finish tonight!" Trip called out in excitement.

Brick looked at Trip and then turned towards Craz. His mechanical voice was steady, showing no signs of frustration or irritation as he said, "I am now and always have been working at the fastest speed possible."

Craz laughed. "Help him out, Brick." Then he added in a harsh whisper, "Don't let the boy get careless."

Trip sat up and stared at the robot. "Come on, Brick! I'm on deadline! My vacation starts tomorrow!"

Chapter 5 * Aboard the Freighter Kyadis

Bosh Tippen hunched over the vid monitor and stared at the screen. His brow furrowed with concentration. He impatiently punched the forward button.

"Distant Galaxies? No. Papradich? No. I'd fall asleep before it's over. Something Gone Horribly Wrong? I can't sit through that again."

Bosh's fingers punched the forward button twice more, but the options grew no better. Bosh sat back in his chair and dropped his head into his hands.

"Mite-72!" he screamed.

Bosh heard a high-pitched, almost child-like electronic voice call out, "Coming!"

The distinctive whirling sound of a tiny anti-grav drive could be heard coming up the corridor to the Kyadis's bridge. A few seconds later, a small sphere, merely four inches in diameter and covered with tiny antennas, shot into the room. The machine hovered about five feet away from Bosh, lazily hanging above the empty co-pilot's chair.

The little robot spun around, revealing the robot's miniature vocalizer screen. Directly above the screen was a glowing blue point, the robot's single vid sensor. Bosh had painted two small blue eyes above the vocalizer screen to give the robot the semblance of a face.

"Mite-72," Tippen repeated in frustration.

The robot hovered in the air without answering. The high-pitched whirl of the anti-grav unit filled the bridge.

Eventually, the squeaky voice nervously asked, "Is there a problem, Bosh?"

"Yes, there is," Bosh said slowly. "Before we left Morku, I thought I asked you to order some new entertainment vids. In fact, I'm certain I did."

"You did, Bosh," the robot said cautiously. "I did as you requested. There are several new items in the library."

"Look at this!" Bosh said, pointing at the vid screen in disgust. "You ordered Something Gone Horribly Wrong? I hated it the first three times I saw it!"

"But it's got such a happy ending," the robot squeaked. "The servant robot is so heroic."

"Mite, do I care? These are all vids you like!"

The robot dropped a foot down in response to the scolding. The machine hovered in silence for a few moments. Finally, he offered, "My sincerest apologies, Captain Tippen. I...I obviously did not consider your tastes. I will be more careful in the future."

Bosh sighed. Guilt welled up inside him. There was no sense in getting angry at the little messenger robot.

"I'm sorry, Mite," Bosh explained. "I just...I guess I'll need to better explain what I'm interested in watching. If you want, you can see Papradich again. Just keep the volume down!"

"Really!" the robot chirped excitedly. "I'll cue it up right now!"

The robot hovered over to the Kyadis's control panel. A small cover on the robot's left side slid aside and a tiny extension arm with three mechanical fingers shot out. The fingers reached down towards the small vid monitor nestled in the ship's control panel.

"Not in here, Mite," Tippen warned. "Watch it back in the cabin."

Mite let out a soft mechanical whistle. "I was hoping we could watch it together. The ship's lightspeed course is programmed, so your full attention isn't needed. Watch it with me, Bosh. Please!"

"You'll be fine, Mite. Just enjoy the story."

"But it's so scary," Mite fretted. "There's the scene where they're racing through the woods...and then the coilers attack...and then -- "

"Enough!" Bosh jerked his thumb towards the back of the ship. "In the cabin. It's perfectly safe."

"If you insist," the robot whined sadly. Mite slowly left the bridge and headed down the corridor towards the pilot's cabin, in the back of the Kyadis.

Bosh Tippen shook his head. He chuckled in spite of his irritation. The little messenger robot had so many personality quirks. He'd been programmed for loyalty, but instead of simply doing his duty, he spent all of his time with Tippen, clinging to him like a lost puppy.

And then there was the little machine's fascination with entertainment vids. Bosh guessed it was reasonable to assume that the more intelligent robots got bored too, but Mite demanded to watch his favorite programs over and over. Perhaps demanded was too strong a word. He simply whined and pouted until he got his way.

I bet the programmers had fun putting his personality together! Bosh shook his head and smiled. Of course, Mite-72's programmed to learn and grow on his own. Maybe he just evolved that way.

robots' personalities developed as much from their experiences as from their original programming. This adaptability made them useful since they could learn new skills, but it also sometimes resulted in odd personality quirks. Sometimes even dangerous personalities developed over time. The solution to dealing with a faulty or troublesome robot was to have the machine's memory wiped and then reprogram its skills and personality.

Bosh wondered if he should have Mite's personality reconstructed. It would be better not to have him following me around all the time. And it would be nice not to have to sit through those vids again.

Bosh sighed as he mulled it over. But then I'd miss that chirpy little voice and that "I can do anything you want" attitude. I guess Mite could be a lot worse.

Bosh had to admit that he liked the little machine, aggravating personality quirks and all. He'd miss Mite if he weren't around. Of course, he'd never tell Mite that. If that slipped, Bosh would never get any peace from the chattering little robot.

Bosh sat back and closed his eyes. They still had three hours in hyperspace until they reached StarStation Dekimunor Prime, orbiting around the planet Karrison in the Saronon system. Three hours and then I can take a break.

What Bosh wanted most was a short nap, but he rarely relaxed when he was at his ship's controls. His old fighter pilot instincts hung on even though it had been two decades since he'd last flown in fighter combat.

One slip, one moment when you're too comfortable and not paying attention, and you can find yourself in somebody's crosshairs. If that happens, the only thing memorializing your existence will be a skull stencil below some fighter jock's canopy.Bosh shook his head with a shudder. Those instincts don't die easily.

But once they got to StarStation Dekimunor Prime, he was certain about what he wanted. Some sleep, a real shower -- with water instead of the sonic unit here on the Kyadis -- and a fornii steak, a nice and juicy prime cut, at Quasar's Watering Hole.

These were some of the rare "luxuries" Bosh granted himself. He could afford little else. Owning a freighter was a hard life and money was always tight, but this was a path Bosh knew he was called to follow. He loved the feel of a starship drive as he hurtled through space. He looked to each new planetfall with anticipation even if he'd visited the world a hundred times before. The Kyadis, more than any other place in the galaxy, was home. In fact, that's why Bosh had picked the name. In the HursaLang trade tongue, Kyadis meant "My sacred home."

Bosh glanced out the main viewport and watched the multi-colored swirls of hyperspace, the patterns hypnotically shifting so fast that his eyes could barely follow. Here, in deep space, he was alone -- well, as alone as he could be with Mite-72 aboard -- and he was at peace.

Bosh saw his own reflection in the viewport. He was still a handsome man, but youth was slipping away a little more every day. Gray specks dotted his thick brown hair. There were wrinkles around his bright brown eyes. Now he was probably twenty pounds heavier than when he first pulled on a pilot's pressure suit as an eighteen-year-old cadet. That was twenty-seven -- no, twenty-eight -- years ago.

I've covered a lot of light years since then, haven't I?

Bosh looked away from his reflection and turned back to the catalog of entertainment vids stored in the ship's computer. He gave up a few moments later. Nothing interesting.

He turned the viewer off and closed his eyes, slightly reclining his pilot's seat. He listened with satisfaction to the smooth, droning rumble of the engines as they pushed through hyperspace.

Then he snapped up, alert. What was that? He though he'd heard a voice crying out over the transcomm.

He pulled on his headset. He listened carefully, boosting power and tuning the transcomm's filtering system to screen out as much distortion as possible. He searched the transcomm bands, but all he heard was static.

It was probably nothing, he told himself as he reached out, ready to turn the board back down to normal levels.

Something made him hesitate. Then he heard it, just barely above the static, terribly distorted and choppy, but there nonetheless.

"Under attack...help!"

The voice was garbled and distant, the signal very weak.

"It's probably just an old signal," Bosh muttered to himself. "I don't have time for this. I have a schedule to keep. I'll just report this to the Frontier Rangers when I dock on Dekimunor Prime."

Bosh let the Kyadis race on through hyperspace, trying to push the distress call from his mind, but his conscience picked at him.

If the ship sending out this signal was crippled, it might be too late by the time he got to Dekimunor Prime and told the Frontier Rangers. Bosh knew that.

Bosh had been stranded in space before. It was a helpless feeling, knowing exactly how long you had until your air ran out, frantically calling out for help on the transcomm even though you knew the odds of anyone intercepting the signal in time to help you was so low as to be almost impossible. But that was the only choice. You could call for help...or you could just wait to die.

He disengaged the lightspeed drive. The Kyadis bounced and rocked roughly. The pounding of the ship's engines dropped an octave as the lightspeed engines shut down. Bosh's freighter shot back to normal space as a flash of white light filled the viewport. His stomach lurched in the rough transition.

Thousands of stars now replaced the colors and patterns of hyperspace.

Bosh turned to his ship's transcomm station and scanned visual signal records, which were displayed as a chart. A single flat line indicated a complete lack of transcomm activity. He scrolled back a few minutes and spotted fluctuations which looked like a series of waves. The incident was four minutes and fifteen seconds back. Judging by the size of the waves, the signal was very weak and lasted for just twelve seconds.

Bosh turned to the Kyadis's lightspeed navigation computer, backtracking along his ship's flight path.

Mite-72 made his way up to the bridge, peppering Bosh with a flurry of questions. "What's going on? What's wrong? Why did we drop to normal space?"

Rather than explain, Bosh told his robot to go hover above the co-pilot's seat.

A few moments later, the stellar navigator displayed the Kyadis's current coordinates, as well as the coordinates where he'd detected the distress signal. Bosh programmed a short lightspeed jump back to that point. He turned the Kyadis about and vectored to the new lightspeed jump point.

Bosh knew it might be an old signal. In fact, this probably was a false alarm. But he also had to be certain. The odds of picking up a distress signal while in hyperspace were incredibly low. Communications signals only traveled at the speed of light. It would take years for a distress signal from a crippled ship to reach the nearest star. For just that reason, most starships carried at least one message drone. In an emergency, a ship would launch a message drone to the nearest inhabited system, programming in a distress call and the stranded ship's coordinates.

For Bosh to intercept a signal out here, in deep space, it meant that for some reason a message drone had been deliberately sent out there. That didn't make any sense. Bosh was using an obscure trade route that didn't get much traffic.

That then left two options. First, it could be an old signal, in which case, no harm was done if he investigated and found nothing. He'd only lose a few hours.

The other possibility was that a message drone had malfunctioned and dropped out of hyperspace in the middle of deep space, where it would be almost impossible to get the attention of the few ships that ever passed this way. If that was the case, Bosh might be the only person to detect the signal for weeks, maybe months...maybe years. The fates of the people on the ship that sent that signal might hinge on whether he decided to respond.

Bosh waited as the chrono counted down to zero, and then engaged the Kyadis's lightspeed drives.

A little over four minutes later, the Kyadis dropped from lightspeed back to normal space. He cued up his ship's transcomm system and quickly homed in on the signal. It was weak but it was there. Bosh boosted his transcomm's power. A voice, distorted but understandable, came through the cockpit speakers.

"This is Captain Corris Thyne of the freighter Port of Artheorse, bound for Kuttlemuir's Rim. We are under attack! Our lightspeed drives are disabled! We are preparing to repel boarding parties. Please send armed assistance! Bring the Frontier Rangers! Our need is urgent! Please help!"

The Artheorse's location coordinates followed the distress message.

The message repeated over and over, but each time the signal's strength dropped. Checking the degradation, Bosh could see that the signal would be gone in a few hours.

Bosh checked the message's time code. It had been recorded a day ago.

It's not an old signal!

Bosh focused his sensors in on the message's origin point, only a few kilometers away. The sensors detected a message drone, a small cylinder perhaps six feet long. He guided the Kyadis in close to the drone. Through the main viewport, he saw a gouge on the drone's side.

An energy blast, Bosh thought grimly.

The drone's drive systems were shut down. Bosh's sensors indicated the drone's transcomm system was drawing from backup power, which was dwindling fast. Soon the drone would be just another piece of space junk.

"It's a miracle I detected this signal," Bosh muttered to himself.

Bosh fired the Kyadis's magnetic grappler and snagged the drone. Mite zoomed to the viewport for a closer look.

"I don't know about this," Mite fretted. "It could be dangerous. It could be boobytrapped! Don't bring it onboard."

"I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, Mite," Bosh reassured the robot as the message drone was reeled into the Kyadis's airlock. "I just want to take a close look while we're en route."

Mite-72 fluttered over to Bosh and squealed, "En route? En route to where?"

"Wherever that drone came from, Mite."

"No! We can't go there! Didn't you hear? The ship that sent this drone was in a battle. A raider attack! It's dangerous!"

Bosh nodded. "Yes, it might be dangerous...but these people need our help. I'm sure the battle is over by now. There might be survivors to rescue."

Bosh cued up the navigation computer and loaded the coordinates from the message, programming in the location of the Artheorse. Once the lightspeed computer indicated that it was ready, Bosh turned the Kyadis about and flew towards the lightspeed jump point. Bosh felt his stomach lurch as the Kyadis's lightspeed drives kicked in.

He turned to Mite. "Let's see if we can help."

Silently, he added, Let's hope the people who sent this are still alive.

Chapter 6 * Aftermath

Bosh Tippen watched the chrono count down as the Kyadis raced towards the point for the reversion from hyperspace to normal space.

He charged the Kyadis's energy cannons even though his ship was ill-prepared for a battle, especially against a group of raiders. The Kyadis was a simple freighter, not truly capable of fending off space fighters or raiding ships.

No, this was a rescue mission. He was responding to the Port of Artheorse's distress call. He hoped he'd find survivors and be able to get them to StarStation Dekimunor Prime for medical care.

Bosh looked over at his tiny robot, Mite-72. The robot hovered above the co-pilot's station, three tiny arms reaching down from his spherical body, nimbly playing across the computer consoles.

"Mite, is the escape route plotted and cued up? We need to be ready to run if we're outnumbered."

"Ready, Bosh," the robot's voice chirped in an almost birdlike tone. "Just say the word and I'll feed the coordinates into the lightspeed computer. We'll be able to jump out of there in a flash."

Bosh relaxed just a bit. Mite would get the job done.

The chrono rolled down to zero. The Kyadis dropped to normal space with the familiar tumbling lurch that sometimes made even experienced pilots ill. Bosh Tippen snapped into action, automatically scanning the area with his ship's sensors, while his cybernetic lowlight eyes searched space through the viewport.

Bosh saw asteroids and flickers of starlight off metal. The area was a debris field. A fierce battle had been fought here.

Bosh was stunned into saddened silence as he looked upon the destruction. Dozens of asteroids hung in the distance, obviously a blockade built by raiders to force the target ship out of hyperspace. Much closer to the Kyadis, Bosh watched in silent horror as chunks of metal tumbled into view.

Pieces of fighters -- wings, engine housings, fragments of hull plating -- drifted past the viewport. Off to his left, Bosh saw a large cargo freighter, maybe four or five hundred feet long. It was now a dead hulk, its engines blown apart. The hull was scarred by numerous energy blasts and the ship was nearly split in half. Stumps of metal stuck out from the hull, charred black by the blasts of energy weapons. Cargo modules in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, looking like children's blocks from a distance, drifted around the ship in a cloud.

A little bit farther off, Bosh saw another freighter, much smaller than the first but with several clamps for docking with other ships. Bosh assumed it was the home base of the fighters, since fighters were generally too small to have their own lightspeed engines. This ship was also heavily damaged. The engines had been blasted apart. The engine explosion had seemingly taken most of the ship with it. The wreck hung at an odd angle as it spun slowly, twisting upside down.

The smaller, second freighter drifted straight towards an asteroid. Inevitably, a few seconds later it slammed into the rock. Both the asteroid and the wrecked starship bounced away on new trajectories, leaving behind a cloud of rock shards, dust, and small chunks of hull plating ripped away in the collision.

This had been a battle in which it appeared that neither side, aggressor nor victim, had escaped.

"Mite, any life signs? Any transcomm signals?"

Bosh watched in silence as the remnants of a destroyed space fighter drifted by. The canopy was punctured by ugly blast holes. There was a huddled, motionless shape visible through the canopy. The pilot had not ejected from the wreck.

"Bosh, I'm not finding anything," the robot said somberly. "There are no life signs. No distress calls. No energy signatures...there's nothing at all."

Bosh looked down at his sensor screens. They also indicated a total absence of transcomm signals or life-signs. "Not even in the cargo sections, Mite-72? Perhaps some of the crew were able to lock themselves in airtight compartments? Maybe they got to the escape pods? Scan everything."

Mite turned his visual sensor towards Bosh. "Bosh, I've already scanned the entire area. There are no life signs. I'm...I'm sorry."

Bosh's voice trailed off weakly. "Then they destroyed themselves."

Bosh looked at the bridge's ceiling and took a deep breath. He had been in dozens of battles in his life. He had even, long, long ago, been a proud fighter pilot who'd charged into battle and strafed enemy ships without hesitation. He'd seen more than his share of death.

Now, as he looked upon this scene, Bosh felt empty. The youthful thrill of battle was long gone. He'd seen too many men die in airless, frigid space. Now he recognized war for its gruesome brutality. He was only terribly, terribly numb.

"Mite, record these coordinates," Bosh said, sadness thick in his voice. "When we arrive at StarStation Dekimunor Prime, we'll report this to the Frontier Rangers. Whoever owns this ship will want to mount a salvage operation to recover the cargo...and the bodies of the crew."

"Right away, Bosh."

"And Mite," Bosh said softly. "Do this as quickly as you can. I want to get out of here."

"In case there are more raiders?" the robot asked.

"Yes." Bosh nodded. "But also because I feel like a ghoul. I have to get out of here before this graveyard is the only thing I see when I close my eyes tonight."

Chapter 7 * Vacation Time!

Trip filled his lungs with crisp winter air as he walked down the streets of Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port, heading for Uncle Craz's repair shop. From a nearby bakery, the smell of fresh-baked glaze-cakes and drough-muffins made his mouth water. It was a beautiful morning, with a clear pinkish-orange sky, as Saronon, Karrison's orange-red sun, slowly rose.

The city's citizens emerged from their evening slumber, prepared for another busy day. Most jobs here in Pennick's Crossing revolved around the starship transport industry, from loading and unloading the many ships that arrived from a hundred different worlds every day, to starship repairs and maintenance, load brokering and cargo warehousing.

Incoming cargoes were often sent by transtube down to Karrison's great cities in the vast plains below the lip of the Bornerock Plateau, off to the east. Most of the outgoing freighters leaving Pennick's Crossing carried vegetables and fruits, both raw and fully processed, many of them destined for the many StarStations orbiting Karrison or Flarestaff, Karrison's only moon. Flarestaff supported a large population inside its network of domed cities. Its deep ore mines provided jobs, but the moon produced only a small percentage of its own food and was dependent on imports from Karrison and nearby systems. Other ships were headed for the colonies on the outer moons of Saronon's gas giants or the others worlds and systems of the Trishellian Frontier.

Unfortunately, Pennick's Crossing was also a haven for smugglers, troublemakers, con artists and other petty criminals. The local security forces were mostly concerned with keeping order in the city itself and seldom bothered to arrest anyone except those who caused trouble locally. It was well known that if you kept a low profile here, you would generally be left alone. For Trip, working at Uncle Craz's repair bay meant doing business with smugglers, just a part of ordinary life, but Craz was choosy about the customers he took in. Outside of the time he'd been captured by Diamond Black Joe's pirate gang, Trip seldom felt any sense of danger around these people.

Trip sprinted to the bakery, simply named Tandt's, eager to get a fresh druppa-pie and a cup of caffedrul for the trip. As he stood in line, he watched pilots, dock workers, laborers, and traders hustle past the restaurant's large windows. It was a typical bustling morning in the Cargo Port.

Trip had long been looking forward to time off from school, but Uncle Craz's unexpected promise to let him go scooter racing with Johnnie O. was such a surprise that Trip couldn't stop fidgeting. He'd only gotten about three hours of sleep last night. He and Brick were working on Tamri's ship until nearly two in the morning and after he'd gotten home and showered, he was still too excited to sleep. He tossed and turned for over an hour, getting growled at each time his movements woke Comet, who was sleeping next to his legs. He finally drifted into a restless sleep just past three in the morning.

The alarm went off only three hours later. Trip rushed out of bed to pack since he had to meet Johnnie at Uncle Craz's repair bay by half-past seven. They still had to purchase their tickets for the transport, which was scheduled to leave at eight-fifteen. With luck, they'd be in Leeshorrin by late afternoon.

Trip glanced at his chrono. It was nearly seven-fifteen already and the line was in crawl mode. Trip started getting antsy as the moments ticked by. How hard can it be for these people to order their breakfast pastries? It's not like the menu changed overnight!

By the time he got to the front of the line, Trip's good mood had started to crumble. He had to be at Uncle Craz's in fifteen minutes...that would mean a mad dash across the Cargo Port.

His worries vanished, however, when Kandria took his order. Trip knew her from school.

Correction. I don't know her. I just know her name.

Trip liked the way she seemed to be always smiling, but he rarely talked to her. He was always too shy...and the time never seemed quite right, not even just to say, "Hi," on the way to class.

As he took his pastries and change, she smiled at him and said, "Have a nice day."

Trip blushed, mumbling, "Yeah. You, too."

He was tempted to say something more, maybe to wish her a good vacation, but by the time he'd scooped the coins into his pocket, she'd moved on to the next customer, a short Aniloem in a dock worker's oversuit.

Trip's tongue seemed to get tangled up as he tried to say something, and the huffy sigh from the Aniloem suggested that he should move aside. Trip picked up his backpack. He looked at Kandria one last time as she turned to grab more pastries from the racks on the back wall. As she came back to the counter to hand the Aniloem his order, her deep blue eyes met Trip's for just a second.

"Have a good vacation, Kandria," Trip said quickly, blurting it out before he had time to think too hard about what he was going to say and thus trip over his tongue and say something stupid. No, this time he spoke clearly, managing to say every word, just another ordinary chat with a girl who had the most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen.

She looked up at him and smiled. "You too, Trip. See you around."

Trip's heart fluttered. He looked away, embarrassed, and turned for the door. He stepped out into the street, moving aside for a pair of short, chattering Lajjirians who didn't even thank Trip for holding the door open for them. He glanced back into Tandt's and watched Kandria rushing around behind the counter.

She talked to me! She talked to me! Trip ran down the street, biting off a huge hunk of the druppa-pie. I'm going on vacation with Johnnie! A week out of school! And Kandria talked to me...she even knows who I am!

The young man had not a care in the world as he dashed into the heart of the Cargo Port, running for Craz's Starship Repair.

Trip finished his druppa-pie just as he got to Uncle Craz's. A blast of hot air rolled over him as he turned into the shop. The whine of anti-grav units and starship thrusters filled the air. Craz and Brick were already hard at work, the two of them off to the left of the main entrance. It looked like they were rebuilding the power cyclers for the bottom energy cannon on Oevan's ship. Parts were scattered all over the floor. Brick used a plasma cutter to slice open the casings around the cyclers. Uncle Craz had been working well past midnight and he was already at the repair bay when Trip got up just after six. Amazingly, he looked fully rested.

How does he do this every day?

Off to the right, in the back of the bay, right beneath the roof's closed blast doors, sat Tamri's Mercy. The freighter was finished and ready to fly. Trip's hands ached from yesterday's hard work, but the ship was done. Tamri would be pleased.

Trip walked over to the main counter and placed his backpack on the floor.

"Good morning, Uncle Craz!" he called out.

Craz looked up and walked over to Trip, limping on his bad leg. "Good work last night, Trip. Here's the bonus I promised you."

Craz reached into his pocket and handed him five square, bright blue tokens. Each was worth twenty Steds. "Spend it wisely. I'm not going to send more if you run out."

Trip took the money eagerly. "Thanks, Uncle Craz. When's Tamri getting here, anyway?"

Uncle Craz glanced at his chrono. "Should be any minute now. She wanted her ship done first thing this morning."

"Johnnie O's meeting me here in a few minutes, too. We're going to walk over to the transport station together."

Craz looked steadily at his nephew. "Now, Trip, I know you've heard all of this already, but I wouldn't feel right if I didn't say something. Be careful. Use your head when you're riding. Those helmets and crash suits don't provide much protection."

"I know. I know. You can trust me. I'm careful, Uncle Craz."

"The scooter you wrecked a couple of months ago may beg to differ, Trip."

"That was an accident," Trip muttered as he stared down at the floor in embarrassment.

Trip didn't want to blame his friend Johnnie, who'd told him to race down an unknown path and over a huge jump. Trip destroyed the scooter while trying to land. All in all, it had been pretty remarkable that he hadn't rolled the scooter and turned himself and Johnnie into mush during the crash landing.

At least I made the jump, Trip thought. No, Uncle Craz won't be impressed with that!

"Trip, I know you and Johnnie sometimes push yourselves too hard. Now think. I wouldn't let you go if I didn't trust you. You've got a good head on your shoulders." Uncle Craz frowned. "Just don't get it knocked off by doing something stupid."

Craz reached out and messed up Trip's hair, causing the boy to sigh and push away from his uncle.

"Hey, Craz, quit bothering the help!" Tamri's voice called from the entrance. "My ship had better be done if you're goofing off like that."

Tamri walked up and pounded the counter with her gloved hands.

"Service," she brashly demanded with a hearty laugh. "I've got a schedule to keep!"

Her smile seemed to stretch across her whole face. Her eyes flashed, hinting at the streak of mischief that seemed to form the core of her personality.

Tamri Ransignath was human, about thirty-five years old, with long brown hair, sharp features, and enchanting brown eyes. Even though she was probably old enough to be his mother, Trip thought she was undeniably pretty. She wore a tight, fitted red blouse and dark blue spacers' work pants. An energy pistol was strapped to her left hip.

Trip wondered if she had to put up with a lot of flack from people in the smuggling -- make that cargo hauling -- business, but then he glanced at her energy pistol. The handle was well worn, the barrel and energy beam chamber clean and well maintained. The weapon's condition made it obvious that Tamri knew how to handle herself in a tight spot, even if Trip thought she looked like she belonged in front of a classroom or pushing data in an office rather than in a shoot-out.

Appearances can be deceiving, a small voice inside Trip's head reminded him.

"Tamri, of course your ship is ready," Craz said soothingly as he made his way behind the counter. "Your ship was our top priority. I keep my promises, young lady."

"I know, Craz," she said as her eyes fluttered at him. "That's why I come to you...even though you are more expensive than Jome. Not to mention slower."

Uncle Craz snorted. "You take your ship there and it's likely to come back infested with lice and drannets."

"Hey!" Trip cried.

Trip knew that most people, especially freighter jocks and spacers, considered drannets to be little more than space pests who'd clean out your food stores and multiply beyond control all the while chewing through your power cables and electronics. Comet was a pest, too...he was just a particularly cute pest.

"Sorry, Trip," Craz backpedaled. "Your pet drannet excepted, of course."

Tamri grinned. "How is that fleabag anyway, Trip?"

"He's doing fine. He's back at the house today. I'm going away on vacation."

"Good. Have fun," Tamri said absent-mindedly, already eyeing her ship. "The lifters are working?"

"Yeah, Brick and I got them done early this morning," Trip said. "Of course, the old ones were worn down to the gears and starting to slip. You might want to get them checked out -- "

Trip stopped as Uncle Craz coughed. Craz frowned and gestured towards the other side of the repair bay with a roll of his eyes. In his mind, Trip could almost hear Craz scolding him. Never lecture the customers.

Tamri looked at Craz. "Craz, the kid's right. It was my own fault. Money's been tight...and that's when you end up letting stuff go. It's been tough out there the past few months. Raiders and the Biloz'heem have been stirring up trouble." She smiled in her carefree manner. "But now it's time to go make some money, friends. Next stop Sorsel River, then a little place called Eivix I'm never even heard of before, but there's a cargo there and a stack of Steds with my name on it. Then, it's off Karrison and back into space."

Craz printed out a copy of the bill while Trip picked up his backpack and checked his chrono again. Johnnie was due any minute.

Trip walked out to the street to watch for his friend. The morning sun was warm on his face. It was going to be a nice day to travel.

Then Trip spotted Johnnie coming his way, a small backpack slung over his right shoulder and munching on a fluft-cake. He saw Trip, smiled and shot his hand up in the air to wave.

As Johnnie rushed up to him, Trip said, "Right on time! We'd better get going to the transport station!"

Johnnie grinned. "Yeah! I'm ready for some fun! Five days of nothing but riding! This is going to be a blast!"

Trip looked at him. "And?"

Johnnie shrugged. "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course I'm excited about seeing my Mom. But I'm not going to say that. That'd be girly."

Trip grinned. "Let's go say goodbye to Uncle Craz."

The two teens headed back into the repair bay. Tamri was already inspecting her ship, while Craz hit the button to open the rooftop blast doors. The massive roof panels slid aside, the sound overwhelming the roar of starship thrusters.

Craz nodded at Johnnie. "Good morning. You ready to escape Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port?"

Johnnie shrugged. "Doesn't matter much to me. The Port isn't so bad. Leeshorrin is kind of a farm town, so there's not a lot going on out there either...just wide open spaces and plenty of riding trails."

Craz warned his nephew, "Trip, be a polite guest while you're there."

Trip shot his uncle a glare that could melt armor plate.

"Okay. No more nagging, I swear," Craz said with a grin. He stared seriously at his nephew and his friend. "But Trip, Johnnie, both of you be careful."

Trip stood with his arms across his chest, waiting. Uncle Craz smirked. Finally, Trip skeptically asked, "That's it?"

Craz smiled. "That's it. I've said my peace."

Trip and Johnnie looked at each other and grinned.

"One last thing," Craz said.

"What?" Trip whined impatiently.

"Have fun," Craz said with a wink.

Trip rolled his eyes, but Johnnie laughed, adding, "We will, Uncle Craz. We will."

The two hoisted their backpacks and headed for the street. Trip looked at his friend and said, "Let's get out of here. It's time for some excitement!"

Chapter 8 * Ready to Hit the Road

Johnnie and Trip waited in line as the driver stowed other riders' luggage in the bin underneath the transport's passenger cabin.

"Looks like we won't be too full this morning," Johnnie said, counting less than twenty other passengers. He pulled out his portable computer, a tiny pair of earphones, and a small, red leather case filled with vid and music discs.

Trip glanced down the line with relief. "At least there aren't any screaming infants. I could use some sleep."

Johnnie stepped up to the driver, a short and chubby Sheinahiv Dwarf with dark blue skin. His wide-set yellow eyes peered up at Johnnie. His long, floppy ears twitched as he eyed the boys, the lips of his long snout curling back to show short but sharp teeth. He shook his head, causing the eight or nine strands of braided, blue-black hair that reached halfway down his back to fly around like whips. His muscular tail curled behind his booted feet.

The driver looked Johnnie up and down. "Morning, son. Just to let you know, this isn't a school transport. I've kicked a lotta kids your age off for being too loud." He peered up at Johnnie warily, adding, "I can do that, you know."

Johnnie was taken aback by the warning, merely mumbling to the driver, "I was planning on just sitting and enjoying the ride."

The driver chuckled, apparently amused that he'd intimidated the boy. "Good. We'll get along fine then."

Johnnie handed his backpack to the driver. "Careful. It's heavy."

The Sheinahiv Dwarf grabbed the backpack one-handed and lifted it above his head.

"Doesn't look heavy," he said as he grinned at the boys. He slapped a tracking tag on the backpack and handed Johnnie a matching claim check. Then he casually tossed the pack into the cargo bin, sending it all the way into the back with a forceful thump.

"I'm glad there's nothing fragile in there," Johnnie whispered to Trip.

Trip also checked in his backpack, holding onto his portable computer, entertainment disks, and a water cylinder. He held his hand over his mouth as he yawned. "Some sleep is definitely in order," he muttered.

"Looks like this one won't be any trouble," the driver said as he studied Trip. "Don't sleep through your stop, son."

As they walked towards the cabin door, Johnnie leaned over to Trip and whispered, "Do I look like that much of a troublemaker?"

"Nah," Trip said with a grin.

The transport was essentially a low altitude, flying shuttle. As on many other worlds, these transports were used for passenger service between neighboring cities.

The transport shuttle was painted white and red, with a row of windows on each side. The only other exterior ornamentation was a small, unimaginative black line-drawing of a transport with its flight wings extended, a swirl of lines behind it to represent motion, and "Bornerock Express," the name of the passenger line company, written in plain letters.

The transport's single main cabin had seating for perhaps sixty people, while cargo storage and the anti-grav engines were neatly tucked under the cabin and concealed by the transport's exterior body panels. The engine thrust nozzles protruded from the vehicle's tail. Sliding panels about a foot tall ran along the base of the vehicle. Right now the panels were closed, but once the transport got out of Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port, the panels would slide out of the way and the transport's flight wings would extend.

These vehicles were simple transportation and nothing more. The transport shuttle was now in ground travel mode, hovering a foot above the ground. Once it got out of town, with the wings extended and the anti-grav engines boosted to full power, it would climb to a cruising altitude of perhaps a thousand feet, flying at nearly three hundred miles per hour. Higher speeds were possible, of course, but this was a practical travel speed considering how many stops they had to make at the towns along the route.

Judging by the transport's dated styling, Trip estimated this vehicle was probably forty or fifty years old. While the transport lacked style, it was cheap, and that's what mattered most to Trip and Johnnie. Their tickets to Leeshorrin only cost twelve Steds each. The boys were still too young to have their highway or flight licenses, and neither Uncle Craz nor Johnnie's father were interested in losing a day of work to take them all the way to Leeshorrin, so this was their best option.

Trip and Johnnie sprinted up the three steps leading into the passenger cabin. The shuttle's interior smelled like a sweaty locker room mixed with fumes from the idling anti-grav motor. Apparently, the air conditioning and filtration system was not working.

Eight hours on this thing, huh? Trip sighed. It's going to be a long day.

This was hardly travelling in luxury. There were two seats on each side of the aisle and while they were large, well-padded and looked comfortable, there were rips and greasy stains on their plasti-hide coverings. The boys walked six rows down, passing a few passengers who had already settled in. Trip dropped into the driver's side row, while Johnnie sat across the aisle. Johnnie flopped into his seat with his back to the window and put his feet up on the aisle seat.

Trip curled up to make himself comfortable and closed his eyes. As soon as he sat, he felt weariness from the lack of sleep the night before creep into his muscles.

Trip opened his eyes as he felt footsteps approaching. A woman with a toddler in tow stopped in the aisle directly between Trip and Johnnie. The toddler, just two or three years old, had brown hair and eyes, and was dressed in a stained white shirt adorned with an image of Claxxer, a popular children's show character. The boy was busily pressing the buttons surrounding the picture of Claxxer, causing a flurry of music and singing in the character's annoying high-pitched voice.

The boy looked at Trip and giggled, then looked at his shirt and pressed the same button three times in succession. Trip was certain the phrase, "Let's be nice to our friends" would forever be etched into his brain.

Then Trip heard several bags hit the seat immediately behind him. There was a larger thump and Trip felt his seat shake a bit as the mother sat down. The mother's hand tugged on the boy's arm. His eyes grew wide and he let out a squawk of surprise as he was pulled into his seat.

The mother's harried voice screamed out, "Sit down and stay quiet, Rees. Quit wasting time! There are people waiting in line."

Trip glanced towards the front of the transport. The people waiting in line must be invisible.

Trip was not the least bit surprised when he heard the first few sniffles, followed by a deep intake of breath. Then finally, above the mother's frantic urgings to calm down and be quiet, a piercing cry of distress erupted from young Rees's mouth. The wails continued for several seconds.

Trip glanced at Johnnie, who was busy pulling his earphones from his jacket pocket.

"I cursed us, didn't I?" Trip asked Johnnie, screaming to be heard above the child's cries.

"Cursed yourself, it sounds like," Johnnie said with an evil grin as he pulled out his portable computer and pressed a button. He smiled and closed his eyes as he slipped on his earphones and wedged himself deeper into the seat.

"This is no longer my problem," Johnnie said rather loudly, eyes still closed peacefully. "Do you want me to wake you when we get to Leeshorrin?"

Trip rolled his eyes. "I don't think I'll have to worry about getting any sleep."

Trip also reached for his earphones, then grabbed his portable computer and cued up a song. He had to crank the volume well past the halfway point to drown out the child, but at least it was familiar noise that was damaging his hearing instead of a preschooler's screams.

Trip watched as the passengers filed onto the transport, his music drowning out their conversations and comments, although the distressed looks on their faces gave away their feelings. The passengers were a mix of humans and aliens, including businesspeople in suits, older ladies in gaudy dresses and a few teenagers like Trip and Johnnie, all dressed in worn, comfortable pants and casual shirts.

After a few moments, the Sheinahiv Dwarf driver trudged aboard. He shot a disgusted look down the aisle before he crawled onto the driver's seat. The transport doors snapped shut and sealed. Trip felt the anti-grav engines power up, a steady, droning vibration rumbling beneath his seat.

Trip hit the pause button on his portable computer. Instantly, the shrieks of young Rees replaced the music.

Boy, that kid's got a set of lungs on him!

Trip got up on his knees and looked over his seat and into the row behind him. The mother sat crouched low in her seat, eyes directed out the window, trying to ignore the screeching child sitting next to her. Rees was strapped down with the seat restraints, his fists pounding on the worn plasti-hide and tears streaming down his cheeks. His mouth closed briefly to take a breath before he unleashed another wail.

The mother shot Trip an angry glare, obviously wishing he would just ignore the whole spectacle.

It's only an hour until the first stop, Trip thought as her glare bored into him.

Then Trip looked down the rows at the other passengers behind him, most of whom wore pained looks of barely restrained rage. For the safety of the boy and the sanity of all, Trip decided to do what he could to stop this.

"Rees," Trip said quietly, waving at the little boy.

The toddler took a breath, wiped his nose with his shirtsleeve, and then...then he was quiet.

He looked up at Trip. "I'm Rees. Rees Rafferty." The boy's lisping toddler speech made it sound like he'd said, "Wees Waff-ah-tee."

"Hi, Rees. I'm Trip. How are you doing?"

The boy looked at Trip and then his mother, who was still glaring at Trip. Then he took another deep breath, about to let out another cry that could most likely wake the dead.

Trip waved his hands frantically to get the boy's attention. "Whoa! Whoa! Hey, Rees, where are you going?"

"See Gramma an' Grampa!" he said proudly.

"Really? That's great! Now, who's that on your shirt there?"

The boy looked down at his shirt and then up at Trip.

"Claxxer?" he asked.

"That's right! Now, what do those buttons on your shirt do?"

The boy started pressing the buttons. He looked up at Trip and giggled as a voice from the shirt prattled inanely, "We can be friends! I like you!"

Trip smiled and laughed. The boy soon joined in. Trip asked, "Now, Rees, I bet Gramma and Grampa are excited to see you, aren't they?"

The boy asked, "Almost there?"

"Yes, almost there," Trip lied. "So why don't you play with your shirt while we fly to go see your Gramma and Grampa?"

The boy laughed again and looked down, playing with the buttons on his shirt. Trip smiled at the mother, who seemed not to appreciate his efforts judging by the stern look on her face. Trip turned and sank back down into his seat.

Soon, the voice of Claxxer filled the transport, spouting songs and silly phrases, but it was a welcome change from Rees's shrieks and screams.

"You're going to make a great dad someday," Johnnie taunted.

"Maybe in a couple of decades," Trip shot back.

Trip settled into his seat and turned his music back on. The anti-grav engines shuddered into action as the transport pulled out into the street.

It took nearly half an hour for the transport shuttle to maneuver through Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port's busy streets, working around cargo barges, transport trucks and anti-grav cars. As they reached the outskirts of town, the clusters of houses and stores gave way to widely scattered buildings amongst the scrub brush. Their transport filed onto one of the highways headed east. Trip glanced back at the city, which now looked like just a jumble of buildings. He saw the flashing forms of starships -- small freighters and large transports alike -- rising up into the sky and dropping down to land, sunlight glistening off their hulls. It was another hectic day in the Cargo Port.

As soon as the road was clear, the transport extended its wings and the whine of the main anti-grav thrusters rose as the driver poured on more speed. The transport shot up into the air, climbing ten feet, then twenty feet, and as the thrusters rumbled up to full power, Trip and Johnnie felt a gentle push back into their seats as the transport's nose pointed skyward.

The transport quickly climbed to its cruising altitude, nearly a thousand feet high, and flew east. Trip again looked back towards Pennick's Crossing, but now the city was a distant blur, with just a few of the tallest buildings shining in the sunlight. He saw a small, distant dot in the sky, which at this distance had to be one of the huge cargo ships. It dropped towards the ground, coming in for a landing in one of the Cargo Port's hundreds of docking bays.

Trip couldn't see it just yet, but he knew that about one hundred miles ahead lie the ridge of the Bornerock Plateau. After crossing the ridge, they'd be dropping into the lush Lindendown Valley, the agricultural center of Karrison.

Johnnie pointed to what looked like a giant blue tube that crossed across the scrubland. To the east of them, it burrowed into the ground at a sharp angle. Trip sat up and looked at the transtube line. Inside the tube, a silver cargo car flashed past, heading east at an astonishing speed.

That network of transtube lines was essential to Karrison's economy. Transtubes were a fast and economical means of shuttling people and goods between the main starport cities up here on Bornerock Plateau and the Lindendown Valley far below. The tube line in Pennick's Crossing offered passenger service and would have been a quicker way to get to Leeshorrin, but at fifty Steds a ticket, Trip and Johnnie figured they would rather have the inconvenience of the long transport journey and have the difference as spending money.

Trip looked out across the plains around Pennick's Crossing. The arid grasslands were covered with short, brownish-blue yachya grass, apparently not much use for cattle grazing or for other agricultural purposes since most of the land was undeveloped. The only thing breaking up the monotony of the plains and gently rolling hills were thickets of brush, bushes, and sparse groves of trees. He could see mountains in the hazy distance.

They had a long journey ahead of them, with several stops at small towns along the way before they were scheduled to arrive in Leeshorrin late in the afternoon, but at least they were on their way.

Chapter 9 * Croll Weixx's Office, Prynnairk

Croll Weixx watched the morning sunrise through the armored windows of his mansion. This was his favorite time of day. The air was crisp. Most people were still in bed, but he was up early, planning, acting, considering his next move. Controlling his destiny.

Croll did his best thinking now, when he was alone with his thoughts and best able to plot the delicate maneuvers and actions that were essential to his success.

He looked out across the landscape of his estate. The lake was calm, the water deep green. His men were already on the dock, charging the boat's power cells for the afternoon cruise.

The northern blueseed trees were starting to look a little shabby. Their branches drooped low, almost obscuring the garden, burdened by their thick, purple leaves.

I'll have to speak to the groundskeepers about that.

It was just one little thing out of place, but Croll Weixx knew from experience that little details could not be overlooked.

Little problems, if neglected, have a way of haunting you.

If there was one thing that Croll Weixx could not tolerate, it was something -- or someone -- out of place.

Croll had spent a long time away from Prynnairk, his homeworld, but he'd thought of this land every day while he was gone. Returning home had meant many things -- triumph, success, but most of all, vindication. He was a powerful man instead of the poverty-stricken child who'd been dragged away and sold into the service of GPX Vardo Lines Pulsar. Of course, GPX Vardo had made their money off him, exploiting his skills for their own profit, but now it was time for Croll to get his fair share from Vardo.

Of course, the current project was not merely about profit. It was about justice. It was about putting things as they should be.

It was time to repay those corporate vipers for what they had done to him.

Croll clenched his fists, irritated at himself. He had let his anger seize him, even if only for a second. Discipline was needed now. Discipline. Control.

The blue-green grasses rippled in the crisp morning winds. Croll enjoyed these rare moments of calm.

Sadly, the calm would not last. Events far from Prynnairk were spinning out of control. He had no proof, but Croll could feel it. His plan was beautiful in its simplicity...and yet something was wrong.

Weixx was determined not to let this prize slip through his fingers. With success, he'd pocket several million Steds. By day's end, he would have control of that cargo ship...or someone would pay a terrible price for failing him.

Savdarv and Ganyoriell sat behind him, ears back and twitching while their eyes followed his every movement. Their sensing spikes, one below each eye and a foot long, moved back and fort, sampling the air, waiting for their master's order.

These two slashurrs were his favorite pets. He'd had many hunting beasts over the years, but these two were special. They were exceptionally intelligent and loyal. They were also well trained. With just a snap of his fingers or a single word, they would strike and they would kill.

He loved -- no, that was not it. Love was a word carelessly used by too many people. Love was an emotion he rarely felt. He looked down at the slashurrs.

Croll appreciated them.

The slashurrs were long and lean, vaguely wolf-like and feline at the same time. They were pure, deadly predators, stacked with muscle and possessed of an aggressive temperament. They were among the most feared beasts on Prynnairk.

They had short black fur, indicative of their Northern Darker origins. Croll liked the breed for the way the black fur made their green-yellow eyes gleam. Even in the daylight, the glowing eyes seemed to have a supernatural bent, suggesting that perhaps those myths about slashurrs being possessed by the Wind Demons of Prynnairk were not merely fanciful stories. Of course, according to those same myths, anyone controlling such beasts was also a demon....

No, I'm not a demon. Croll chuckled at the thought. I'm just very, very dangerous to those who cross me.

He sipped his water. Yet, if others are willing to do my bidding because they secretly fear my supposed "powers," so much the better. Power is power, even if the source is foolish superstition.

Savdarv twisted her head around and licked at her claws, then rubbed her front paws across the sensing spikes and her snout. She snorted, a most undignified sound for such an elegant creature. She gave Croll a withering look, eyes wide and vulnerable, almost an apology for the lapse in etiquette.

Croll smiled and turned back to the window. He heard a growl near his feet. It was Ganyoriell.

"Quiet!" he snapped.

Loyal and intelligent, yes, but still just animals, easily frightened and manipulated, controlled by their emotions and instincts. Just like people.

"Quiet. There's nothing for you just yet," Croll assured the slashurrs.

The slashurrs dropped their heads in deference to their master, silently shifting on their hindquarters, sliding back away from him.

Croll saw a flash of metal in the sky, streaking towards his mansion. His shuttle.

He knew it was his ship for the simple fact that an unauthorized vessel would have been blown out of the sky by his estate's energy cannons.

Shade and Bloth must be aboard. They had better be bringing good news.

"Mr. Weixx?" Karla's voice called out from the transcomm built into the conference table.

He stepped over to the table. "Yes, Karla. How are you doing this morning?"

"I'm doing fine, Mr. Weixx, thank you."

He heard her giggle. She was smart enough to play dumb. He appreciated that, too.

Karla was attractive, very pretty in fact, seemingly approachable but always keeping herself just out of reach. She knew how to play the game and he respected that. Of course, she was also loyal to him. She had to be. He knew her weaknesses. He knew where her family lived. She knew the consequences for them should she ever betray him.

"Mr. Weixx, Mr. Shade and Mr. Bloth will be landing in a few minutes."

"Yes, I'm aware of their shuttle approaching. Send them right up to my office."

"Yes, Mr. Weixx."

He flipped the transcomm off and watched as the winged shuttle, a plain dull gray ship with blue and yellow striping, swooped low across the grounds. Braking thrusters fired to slow the ship as it reached the mansion. The shuttle hovered above the rooftop-landing pad on the mansion's south wing and extended three landing struts before slowly settling.

Sroka, the lone guard, approached the shuttle, clutching a long-barreled energy rifle and wearing a transcomm headset. Sroka was a C'gavt, a little taller than Croll at six and a half feet, with stark white skin and solid black eyes as dark as space. Thick, interlocking but flexible bony plates covered his head. His thick, rasping voice and tendency to use the harsh barking cries of his native language mixed with the common Trade language completed the eerie impression of an animated, talking skull.

He wore the traditional garb of his clan, a thick, woven tunic made of coarse local fibers. It stretched down to his second set of knees. Frankly, Croll would have preferred that Sroka and the five other C'gavts assigned to his estate selected more "modern" apparel, meaning clothes that fit human norms. He chided himself for imposing his expectations on them. The tunics featured ornate, beautiful patterns. More than merely decorative, the woven patterns reminded the C'gavts that they were here to serve and honor their clan. Any failure in their duties would shame the entire clan, an unbearable burden to such a tradition-bound people.

Croll thought back to his first meeting with their clan leader, Majja Shimso. Indeed, sometimes it is good to bring the slashurrs along on business trips. I certainly wouldn't have gotten the Majja's respect without them by my side. Making the deal to hide a base in the clan's territory was made all that much easier because the Majja thought I was a demon...it's amazing what you can get people to agree to when they're afraid you'll turn them into a pile of ash if they turn you down. I never claimed to have supernatural powers...but why dispel that misperception? Why, indeed, considering that the C'gavts have a reputation for executing unwelcome visitors?

Sroka, standing ramrod straight, walked up to the shuttle and waited patiently as the landing ramp slid down to the walkway.

The shuttle carried just Weixx's two agents. And, oh yes, a set of lightspeed coordinates. Those coordinates were all that mattered to Croll Weixx on this clear, crisp morning. He watched as the two men walked down the ramp and waited for Sroka to escort them inside. Mr. Weixx studied his men.

Margiss Shade was first. He was twitchy by nature, but meticulous. He was dressed in a freshly pressed business suit. As always. Croll liked the show of respect. Shade was one of his most reliable men.

Trusted? No. No one could be trusted.

But Shade was steady and reliable. He was not spectacular, certainly not as ruthless as some of the others, and with his plain features and thinning brown hair, he was not the handsome high-roller some of Weixx's other men tried to be. However, Shade could be counted on to wrap up all the loose ends, to silence flapping lips. He was a detail man who excelled at cutting off the trail and eliminating those who were just a little too curious.

Following was Shade's new assistant, Witrin Bloth, a few steps behind. He was young, just a couple of years out of school. He wore his light blond hair long and messy. He seemed to be perpetually stifling a smirk and most probably a sarcastic comment, as well.

He was dressed in a simple shirt and pants, with cheap, casual shoes. He always looked sloppy, disheveled, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. A puffertac hung from his lips, a curtain of smoke curling around his face. Young Witrin looked around the rooftop and then winked at Sroka, an obnoxious affectation that was somehow supposed to suggest that he, Witrin, had it all together while implying that everyone else did not.

That boy needs to evaluate his style, Weixx thought with a grimace. His manners reflect poorly upon me.

Weixx watched as the two men made their way from the landing circle towards the gallery doors. Shade had a certain deliberate precision in his steps, as if he had to concentrate with each step, and his face was grim, emotionless. Croll Weixx had seen that look on his face before.

Shade is...concerned. He's worried. Weixx refilled his glass and looked down at his slashurrs, who watched him with wide, cold eyes. He hoped they would not be needed in the next few minutes.

However, I believe an explanation is in order.

Chapter 10 * A Little Problem

Margiss Shade and Witrin Bloth entered Weixx's conference room slowly, trying not to let their worries show. They stopped and stood silently just inside the door.

At the far end of the room, in front of the broad bay windows which offered an enthralling view of his estate grounds, Weixx stared out at the lake, his back to his two agents, arms clasped behind his back. The two slashurr guard beasts, lying on the floor just a few steps from Weixx, raised their heads as their foot-long sensing spikes snaked into the air. The two deadly creatures studied the men.

Shade's neck muscles tightened as he stared at the slashurrs and their gleaming eyes.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Weixx finally announced with a calm, emotionless voice.

"Come in," he added a few seconds later.

Weixx turned and eyed the two men. At his feet, the slashurr named Ganyoriell growled. Weixx whispered sharply, "Lay down."

The two slashurrs obediently dropped their heads to the floor, but they remained vigilant, ears back, sensing spikes curled atop their snouts, their eyes never leaving the new arrivals.

Croll was in no danger despite not having a weapon within reach. If necessary, his slashurrs could pounce on the men before their energy pistols were clear of their holsters. The slashurrs weighed nearly two hundred pounds each and had four-inch fangs. They tended to put guests into the proper frame of mind.

The lethality of slashurrs was known throughout the Trishellian Frontier. In Weixx's experience, the stories of their merciless attack skills were no exaggeration. His slashurrs' cybernetic enhancements -- improved hearing and vision, adrenaline boosters for added strength and improved reflexes, augmented skeletons, and internal transponders -- were also hidden from view, only apparent when his girls sprung into action.

Shade looked nervous, as always. He was breathing deeply, trying to calm himself, but his pulse was elevated. Croll could hear that with his cybernetically enhanced hearing systems. Croll's eye sensors detected elevated levels of perspiration on Shade's brow, invisible to normal human eyes but which stood out plainly to him.

Frightened, Margiss? Good. That brings out the truth.

"You look like you could use a drink, Mr. Shade," Croll said with a hint of a grin, gesturing towards the bar.

Shade looked around nervously, like a student who'd been called on by a teacher to provide an answer he didn't have. "No thank you, Mr. Weixx. I'm fine."

"If you should change your mind, the invitation stands."

"Thank you," Shade added.

Courteous and respectful. Croll liked that.

"It was just a long night," Witrin Bloth piped in. He blew out a cloud of smoke from the puffertac that hung on his lip.

Croll's jaw clenched in irritation. What am I going to do with this young pup?

Croll knew that Witrin Bloth had valuable talents. He was young and aggressive, not hesitant to take dangerous assignments. He'd solved a number of problems and not failed yet...but he was too cocky for his good luck to last. He was also eager to advance up the ranks. Too eager.

For now, young Witrin could be manipulated and controlled, but someday, most likely sooner rather than later, the boy would have his own ambitions. Ambitions were dangerous. Witrin Bloth was becoming popular in the organization, making friends, gaining allies...all very foolish things to do. He'd have to be humbled, soon and very publicly.

Croll glanced at his slashurrs. The two beasts were tense, ready to leap into action. Yes, at this rate, young Mr. Bloth will meet a bad end, won't he, my lovelies?

Croll lowered his voice menacingly as he looked back up at Witrin. "I believe I've asked you not to smoke in my presence, Witrin."

Croll made a point of not saying "Mister," nor of using his last name. There was no need to show respect to someone who hadn't earned it.

"Sit down, gentlemen," Croll said, gesturing to two chairs off to Croll's left, only eight feet from the slashurrs.

As the two men made their way to their seats, Savdarv lifted her head and let out a growl, soft and low, almost inaudible, but Croll's enhanced hearing picked it up. He simply tapped his foot once. Savdarv lowered her head back to the floor and fell silent.

Witrin looked around, then ground out his puffertac on a glass coaster.

"My apologies, Mr. Weixx," he said, sitting back in his chair and stretching his arms above his head.

That smug little grin must go, Croll thought as he turned back to the window. "So, gentlemen, where is my ship?"

There was a nervous silence.

Croll's jaw clenched again. He paused, took a drink, then looked down and rattled the ice around inside the glass. There was still no response. He turned back to face them.

Shade and Witrin looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"Gentlemen? My cargo ship. Where is it?"

Witrin spoke first. "We're looking for it. We have people on it."

The boy sounded confident and comfortable. That would have to change. Now.

"I don't understand, Witrin," Weixx said slowly. "You sound so...calm. There's not a hint of concern in your voice. And yet your answer suggests that the Port of Artheorse is not currently in your possession. Further, you imply that you've taken the initiative to personally recruit others to go searching for it, like this is some sort of -- "

Croll's voice trailed off as his hard stare met Witrin's. "Like this is some sort of treasure hunt."

Witrin sat up abruptly, his voice rising in anger. "Well, we can't find it! What did you want us to do? We've done everything we were supposed to!"

Croll calmly took another drink of water.

Keep shooting your mouth off, Witrin. Dig your own grave. It's been a while since I've had an opportunity to make an example of someone.

After a long pause, Croll said, "Well, Witrin, I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to share your feelings with me, no matter how inappropriate they may be."

Witrin flinched. Croll's enhanced hearing systems picked up the sound of the man's jaw snapping shut, a reflexive gesture of internalized aggression. Croll could hear the man's teeth grinding, his pulse increasing.

He's angry. Good. Fear will be next. Both are emotions I can use to my advantage.

Witrin started to stand, ready to go on, but Shade reached out and put his hand on Witrin's right arm. The younger man stopped, looked at Shade, paused uncertainly, then settled back into his seat.

Croll said nothing, instead raising his left eyebrow as he looked to Shade. He sensed the tension between the two. Shade clearly didn't like his younger partner. Croll had assigned the two to work together, hoping that Witrin would learn how things were done in this organization. Either that or, if Witrin was not "trainable," Shade would quietly take matters into his own hands.

Shade looked at Croll for permission to explain. Croll nodded ever so slightly.

"What Mr. Bloth is saying, Mr. Weixx, is that the GPX Vardo cargo ship appears to have disappeared. We understand our operatives received information about a course change just before the Port of Artheorse jumped to lightspeed. Our team also changed course to intercept but did not have time to relay the new ambush location to us. They have not been heard from since."

No further word? Croll didn't like this. There were millions of Steds at stake. To have such a juicy target be lost was simply unacceptable.

Croll breathed deeply and unbuttoned his suit jacket. Then he slammed the glass to the table. Ice cubes bounced out onto the rich, red lelret wood tabletop and skidded off the table, tumbling to the thick, plush carpet.

"I'm sure you can understand why this disturbs me, Mr. Shade," Croll finally said, more calmly than either man expected.

"Yes, Mr. Weixx, I can," Margiss Shade said quietly.

Croll turned back to gaze out the window, calmly holding his hands behind his back.

"So, Mr. Shade, what are we going to do about this?"

Shade paused and gathered his thoughts. "We must assume the worst. Our forces are presumed crippled. The target ship is assumed to be destroyed -- "

"My operatives were instructed to be precise in their attack," Croll interrupted. "GPX Vardo's ship may be damaged, but it, no doubt, has not been destroyed."

Shade nodded. He wasn't as certain as Croll, but he wasn't about to argue the point either. "GPX Vardo has quietly approached a handful of companies specializing in the recovery of lost ships. They are offering a substantial reward."

"Really?" Croll asked. Recovery companies? That means GPX Vardo doesn't know where the ship is either.

"Yes. A substantial reward. Several salvage firms and privateers are searching the space between Shreilei and Kuttlemuir's Rim. Of course, GPX Vardo has been discreet in this matter. They have a vested interest in seeing that the loss of a valuable cargo ship does not become a matter of widespread knowledge. It appears that we are in a race."

Croll breathed deeply. Losing track of the Port of Artheorse was unanticipated. He hated being forced into action without time to make a proper plan.

"I see," Croll said after a few moments of careful consideration. "I expect you to win this race, Mr. Shade. There is a great deal of money at stake. I also have a personal interest in this. It is my strongest desire to see GPX Vardo humiliated. Make sure I am not disappointed."

"We will be successful," Shade said simply, confidence returning to his voice.

Croll's cheek twitched. "Fine then," he said after a few moments of silence. "Now, about these operatives you've hired. You are certain there are no direct ties between them and our organization? It would be very unfortunate for all of us should the Frontier Rangers be able to track this attack back to me."

"The matter will be taken care of to your satisfaction, Mr. Weixx," Witrin offered, humble and submissive.

Much better, Witrin. You're learning, Croll thought. Still, it's not yet time for you to relax, is it?

"Really?" Croll barked. "And you are certain of that, Witrin? You're willing to stake your life on it, Witrin?"

The young thug looked away uncertainly. Witrin's eyes settled on the two slashurrs. The color drained from his face. Weixx tried not to grin as he watched the young man's discomfort. It was not yet time to let the pup off the hook.

"We are certain there are no traceable ties, Mr. Weixx," Shade added. "We have several teams throughout the region, at StarStations and cargo ports, watching ship movements and the like. There are also ships tracking the most commonly used lightspeed routes in the area. We will find the Port of Artheorse."

"And none of your teams know who their ultimate employer is?" Croll asked.

"None, Mr. Weixx. They simply know Witrin and myself. They do not -- will not -- know about your involvement. We will be operating from Karrison. I'm a native of that world and still have reliable contacts in some communities. I will be able to operate without suspicion or scrutiny. If they get any information, they have been instructed to meet me on that world, near my hometown of Leeshorrin."

"Going back home, I see," Weixx said.

"Not willingly," Shade snapped.

Weixx shook his head. "Such anger, Mr. Shade. Your hometown molded you. It made you the man you are today. You shouldn't hold such contempt for it. You must appreciate the value of your experiences."

Shade flashed a joyless smile. "I'll appreciate it when I can plow the whole place under."

Croll laughed. That was a rare occurrence. Neither Shade nor Witrin knew quite how to react.

Croll flashed a cold grin. "As you will, Mr. Shade. Never underestimate the satisfaction of well exacted revenge." I'll have to look into this place and learn what has him so agitated. Such information may, at some time in the future, be a useful lever against him.

Shade and Witrin watched nervously, trying to read Croll's reaction. He heard their pulses pounding. They were still very concerned, very frightened. It was time to send them on their way.

"I approve of your plan, Mr. Shade. You've never let me down before. I expect that you will not disappoint me now."

Shade nodded, visibly relaxing.

"Mr. Bloth, you do know what is at stake, don't you?"

Witrin glanced at Shade before looking his boss in the eye. "I can guess if you like."

"I will not grant you the privilege of wasting more time," Weixx said sharply.

Witrin looked down at the floor and sulked. Croll was about to continue, but then he saw Witrin's jaw move, even if only slightly. Croll's cybernetic auditory sensors strained, but they picked up the words the young punk was muttering under his breath.

It was a language he had not heard in years, but the coarse words instantly brought him back to his own youth. It was Capessian Thieves' Cant, the language of the street criminals of Capessia's lower classes. Croll Weixx had learned it long ago. While assigned to Capessia by GPX Vardo, he'd spent much of his spare time in the dark, dangerous back alleys of that world. He'd quickly figured out how to make a few Steds by fencing stolen goods -- goods, in fact, that he'd arranged for GPX Vardo to "lose" so that he could later recover them and sell them in more lucrative markets. It had been one of his first criminal ventures and a rousing success.

Croll smiled inwardly as he listened. The boy was actually cursing at him. Croll's opinion of Witrin Bloth plummeted, if such a thing was possible. Not only was the young man overly ambitious, but he now had proven himself to be profoundly stupid. Witrin assumed that because Croll had never used this particular tongue in front of him that he did not know it, but one didn't become a powerful figure in the criminal underworld without an unerring instinct for survival. Part of Croll's success over the years involved mastering a score of languages.

Croll took a deep breath before responding in the Cant. "And now that you have shown such disrespect, how do you feel? Better perhaps, Witrin?"

Witrin looked up in alarm, confusion and fear emerging on his face.

"I know this tongue, too, child. You will take back what you said by your words...or by your blood."

Witrin looked down. He spoke in Trade, the standard language of the Trishellian Frontier. "My apologies, Mr. Weixx. I seek forgiveness."

Croll smirked, speaking again in Capessian Thieves' Cant. "Not in Trade, pup. Show respect enough to apologize in the same language in which you cursed me."

Witrin repeated the apology, this time in the Thieves' Cant.

Croll nodded, continuing in Capessian Cant. "You assumed I would not know this language. By doing this, you underestimate and insult me. In other circumstances, this would cost you your life...but now I give you a chance to learn from your youthful mistake."

Witrin nodded slowly, respectfully.

Shade looked back and forth between the two men, bewildered. He obviously did not know the Capessian thieves' tongue.

Croll cocked his head to the side and reassured him, "Nothing to concern yourself about, Mr. Shade. It was a private matter between the two of us. Now it is resolved."

Croll smiled at Witrin, who returned an angry glare, but then submissively looked down.

Good. He'll learn from his anger.

"It's time to make sure you understand the situation, Witrin. That cargo is worth millions of Steds in the right markets. It is very important to me. Very important."

Weixx looked at Shade. "Mr. Shade, you are to stop at nothing -- nothing -- to acquire that ship."

"Understood, Mr. Weixx. I will find the Artheorse."

"That's very good, Mr. Shade. When you succeed, you will be well rewarded for your efforts."

Croll paused.

Witrin squirmed. His casual indifference was plainly revealed to be an act. Now, his fear was readily visible.

"Mr. Weixx, what do I do?" Witrin asked cautiously.

Croll grinned and stared at Witrin until the young man looked away. He was becoming submissive. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.

"Witrin, you will do whatever Mr. Shade tells you to do, without question or hesitation, and, if need be, without concern for your physical safety. If Mr. Shade reports any unacceptable deviations, your service to me will be at an end."

Croll let the word end linger in the air as one of the slashurrs yawned.

"Mr. Shade, you and your assistant are dismissed. I believe you are going to have a busy day."

Croll noted with some satisfaction that Shade seemed to be just a bit more confident as he stood up and walked to the door. Confidence was good. Still, he hoped Shade was not naive enough to believe that failure could not have severe repercussions, even for him.

Witrin Bloth pushed out from his chair and stomped out of the room, head down, defeated.

Savdarv sat up and lifted her head. She growled loudly at the young man, baring her sharp fangs.

"Savdarv," Croll warned quietly as the men departed.

After the door shut behind them, Croll grinned. "Good girl."

This ends the free preview. Order Outlaw Galaxy 2: Fugitive Among the Stars

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Author's Note

Bill Smith is proud to be an independent author and publisher. Rather than depending on a large publishing company, I do it all myself. It's more work, but it's also a lot more rewarding. Being indie gives me the freedom to write the stories I want to write and the ability to share them with readers around the world.

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