FROM FINDERS KEEPERS
Careless Venture’s intruder alarm erupted through
the cavern with a harsh wail. Trilby Elliot shot to her feet,
knocking over the makeshift repair table. Sonic welder and
integrator cables clattered against the cavern floor.
bolted for her freighter’s rampway. Overhead, a nest
of sleeping bloodbats burst out of the rocky crevices like
small, leathery missiles. The panicked bats, a crazed cluster
of dark speckles, spiraled in front of her. Screeching, they
fled through the wide mouth of the cavern into the lavender
reached her rampway just as a silver object flashed across
the sky behind them.
Double damn.” Another ship here meant big trouble. Even
a little trouble was more than she could handle right now.
sprinted through the airlock.
of black conduit snaked down the freighter’s corridor,
humped over the hatch-tread into the bridge. She sidestepped
the cables and reached for the alarm, slapping it into silence.
A flick of her thumb activated intraship. She shouted the
obvious. “Dezi, we got incoming! Take the bridge.”
my way, captain.” A reassuring reply came from three
decks below in maintenance.
then, Dezi couldn’t see what she could.
blinked in a crazed staccato on the scanner console. Data,
ominous and irritatingly incomplete, spilled down the screen.
The incoming ship was small but her malfunctioning equipment
refused to pin down its origins. It could be a Conclave scout
ship; it could be a pirate probe. It could also be the first
of a squadron of fighters from the Gods-only-knew-where.
grabbed her binocs and laser rifle from the utility locker,
tabbed the intercom back on. “Main scanner’s still
not cooperating. I’m going outside for a visual.”
second acknowledgment responded, calm as the first.
wave of late afternoon heat assailed her as she passed under
the cavern’s high arch. She crouched down between a
nest of scrub palms and moss-covered boulders, scanned the
sky with her binocs. The bright rays from the setting sun
flared into her eyes.
She flicked her thumb against the auto-filter. Nothing happened.
The filter was stuck, again. She smacked the binocs against
her thigh, winced, and then brought them back up.
hazed for a moment then adjusted. She panned the horizon,
looking for movement, listening for something other than the
jungle’s thick silence and the pounding of her own heart.
Five minutes passed. Sweat stained her drab-green t-shirt
in dark, uneven patches.
a flicker, a metallic glint. She locked the binocs on it.
The image came into focus and her sweat-dampened skin chilled
as she recognized it. It was a Trahtark, a ‘Sko high-powered
fighter, its distinctive slant-winged shape silhouetted against
the sun’s final flares.
she panned a three-sixty. The rest of the squadron must be
there, somewhere. Which also meant a mothership in orbit.
Somewhere. And somewhere was a place much too close for comfort.
the darkening violet skies showed nothing. Nothing but the
fighter blinked in and out of the purpling clouds, skittering
like a frightened mizzet on a sheet of ice. Even blind drunk,
Trilby knew she could fly better than that. It veered out
of a cloudbank. She saw the unmistakable signs of laser damage
scoring the portside flank. Now the fighter’s seesawing
motions made sense.
wasn’t the lead attacker, but the prey.
took another quick scan of the sky. A Conclave border squadron
in pursuit of the Tark might pick up her own energy signature.
She’d have a bit of explaining to do, then. And no doubt
a handful of fines to pay with money she didn’t have.
But the scan revealed nothing.
the Tark dropped so close to the top of the jungle that she
held her breath, waiting for the sound of impact.
came with a grinding, screeching, snapping sound — metal
against damp wood — then metal against rock. The Tark
screamed to a halt on one of the few areas of jungle floor
that wasn’t submerged under Avanar’s infamous
swamps. Trilby was already on her feet, surveying the area
with her binocs now set on night-watch. The first glimmer
of orange flame licked into the night sky. A few minutes later
she smelled a hint of acrid smoke, invisible in the diminishing
panned another three-sixty. A Conclave patrol would have been
here by now. But the skies were empty, quiet.
breathing and heartbeat slowed to normal. And a wicked smile
crept across her face. The Tark’s status had just shifted
from threat to profit.
judged the crash site to be about two miles to the south.
A safe distance but clearly workable. Not for a rescue; a
Conclave ship in distress would’ve had her already moving,
hollering at Dezi to load a ‘scooter with a med-kit.
was ‘Sko. Which was, as far as she and every other Independent
freighter captain were concerned, just another word for intergalactic
intergalactic garbage, but garbage all the same.
catalogued her options. The sun had slipped away as she watched
the ship, and the night air wrapped around her bare arms like
a damp and heavy cloak. The first of Avanar’s three
moons had risen, pale and sickly.
the most ideal conditions in which to perform a salvage attempt,
especially on a fire-damaged ‘Sko fighter. If she waited
until morning, the flames licking at the starboard wing of
the Tark would have died, the metal cooled. And the ‘Sko
pilot, if injured, would be weakened, or preferably dead.
Probably should wait until morning, although she’d be
battling sweltering temperatures then.
the fire flickered out as she watched. Doused, she assumed,
by an emergency extinguisher system.
was good. In fact, it could be more than good, she told herself,
realizing she’d already made the decision to inspect
the downed Tark in spite of the encroaching darkness and unknown
status of the pilot. It was the answer to her problems. With
minimal fire damage, there was sure to be something salvageable,
something to sell at Port Rumor or Bagrond. ‘Sko components
were rare and brought more than decent money, even at salvage
money was something Trilby was a bit short of right now. And
her supply of indecent money was running perilously low...
caught the glint of Dezi’s metallic, somewhat humanoid
form as she turned around. The DZ-9 ‘droid waited at
the base of the Venture’s rampway. The bulky freighter
loomed over him, almost protectively. They’d been in
the middle of repairs when the alarm had wailed in warning.
like we got a keeper," she told the ‘droid as she
trotted towards the slanting metal rampway. "Bring out
two AGS with loaders. I’m going to grab some more firepower,
just in case we’ve got company."
She patted his tarnished shoulder as she passed by. "Thanks,
quite welcome, captain. It’s always my pleasure to be
She ducked through the airlock, grinning, as Dezi’s
voice trailed off behind her. Four months ago that small courtesy
would’ve sparked a big dissension. Jagan had always
found her habit of thanking Dezi annoying. ‘Droids were
one of many things that didn’t require appreciation,
in his way of thinking.
But she was no longer concerned with Jagan Grantforth’s
way of thinking, and so was free to revert to her impulsive
and irresponsible ways. Or however it was that Jagan and his
mother had termed how she lived her life.
She could still see his handsome and haughty face on his last
transmit: "Mother was right. You are nothing but low
class trash from Port Rumor."
Better than high class trash from Ba’grond. She’d
wanted to tell him that, but never did. By that point in their
relationship, she knew they didn’t even speak the same
She shook off the bad memories, plucked her faded service
jacket from her closet then went in search of an extra laser
pistol that worked.
She stepped off the ramp to find Dezi complaining about one
of the AGS.
do believe, captain, that the support stands for these units
must be replaced very soon. You can see here where this bar
is completely rusted. Should something of a greater weight
than I be seated—"
She sighed. "We’ll add it to the list, okay? But
the AGS are going to have to wait until we get the comm pack
back on line and my portside scanner replaced. AGS stands
aren’t going to be a whole lot of help," she said,
straddling the bulky scooter, "in avoiding ‘Sko
nests between here and Port Rumor."
was only making the suggestion for future reference."
very thorough. I do appreciate it, believe me."
thank you. I always try to—"
The ‘droid cocked its tarnished head in Trilby’s
go. There’s a wreck waiting for us."
yes. Right. I was just about to—"
But Trilby had already gunned her scooter, activated the anti-grav
unit and dropped over the ledge and out of sight by the time
Dezi reached the point of explaining just what he was about
to do. And doing it.
She set the AGS down as close as she could to the smoldering
wreckage. The ‘Sko fighter had flattened an area in
the jungle at least twenty feet wide and three times as long
before it ended up in a grove of gnarled harelnut palms. One
of the bronze giants tilted sideways, its long drooping fronds
sooty and brittle from contact with the remains of the Tark’s
fire-blackened engine. Headlamp flooding the scene before
her, Trilby flicked the safety off her pistol.
The sleek fighter was skewed into the soft ground, its starboard
wing ripped from the fuselage. The port wing impaled the thick
fronds of another tightly packed grove of palms. But other
than that, it was surprisingly intact. She didn’t know
if she should give credit to the pilot or the auto-guidance
She placed her headlight on wide-beam, throwing a swatch of
light over the wreckage. Dezi followed suit.
"You start aft. I’ll take a look up here."
She grabbed a hand beam from the AGS’s utility compartment
and played it over the cockpit area. The canopy had sheared
off, leaving the cockpit open and exposed. She steeled herself
for the inevitable mangled remains in a flightsuit; she’d
seen no chute deploy prior to impact so obviously the pilot
didn’t have a chance to eject.
But the cockpit was empty.
great," she said softly, then, louder: "Dezi. Over
She heard the thudding of his feet on the ground. "Can
I be of assistance?"
my back." She transferred her beam to her left hand and
brought her pistol, primed, into her right. "Our pilot’s
The ‘droid stepped closer and inspected the empty cockpit.
that to the pilot when we find him. ‘Cause he’s
not in there. Which means," she played her beam in a
slow, wide circle around her, "that he… or she…
is out there. Somewhere."
The night seemed to close in on her. The pale light of the
moons elongated the shadows, and they danced and wove eerily
in the periphery of her high beam.
Someone or something was out there. She listened carefully,
hearing only the sound of her own breathing and the slight
squeak of Dezi’s joints as he moved in the opposite
direction. She damned herself for not latching the datalyser
on her utility belt. But the life-form sensor had been relegated
to her growing pile of nonfunctional equipment.
Well, live and learn. She hoped she would manage the former
long enough to do the latter.
She swept the area with her beam again, probing the recesses
of the night, searching for the telltale red of the ‘Sko
uniform. Blood red, like the carnage they caused devastating
trade depots, mining colonies, cargo freighters. The ‘Sko
acquired, butchering whoever stood in their way, including
their own wounded.
She shivered slightly, in spite of the hot night air.
better be dead, you motherless-son-of-a-Pillorian-bitch.
After all, she didn’t ask for the ‘Sko to crash,
right in her front yard. But the fact that he did, and the
fact that Trilby was, as far as she knew, the only sentient
being on a world that most of civilized space wanted nothing
to do with, gave her the unalienable salvage rights. Finders
keepers. It was worth the risk.
She desperately needed the money. And only someone as desperate
as she was would be crawling around in the Avanarian jungle
at night, looking for a—hopefully—dead ‘Sko.
She found his boot heels first and froze in her stance. A
male, from the size of the boots. Her beam traveled up the
length of his uniformed legs. Black. Not red.
The black form lying face down in the deep grass wasn’t
The thudding steps came quickly this time.
appear to have found him." The ‘droid’s beam
played up the length of the man’s back and over a head
covered with dark hair. The pilot had fallen face first, his
arms extended crookedly over his head.
dead, isn’t he?" Trilby asked hopefully.
Dezi bent closer to the pilot’s head. "Actually,
no. There is evidence of a slight respiration."
Trilby hunkered down next to the pilot, the light from her
beam illuminating his pale profile. The long grasses hid all
but one dark brow and a closed eye. A purplish bruise had
already formed on his cheekbone.
She pulled at the dark cloth of the jacket collar, revealing
a black shirt, and a collar with a distinctive gray diamond-shaped
design. Beneath, she found the pulse she was looking for.
It was strong.
Again, she swore. Softly. "I can’t, we can’t
just leave him here."
I strongly advise against bringing an Ycsko—"
not ‘Sko, he’s Zafharin, judging from the uniform."
Empire. Well, yes. That’s different."
Was it? Trilby asked herself as she and Dezi carefully loaded
the unconscious form on the expanded pallet of the AGS. The
Empire and the Conclave, in which she claimed a loose citizenship,
were rivals, maintaining a trade relationship with only the
barest sheen of civility. But they had been enemies in the
past. The Imperial-Conclave War had ended about three years
She wasn’t political but neither was she stupid. The
Zafharin Empire was powerful, very powerful. If it hadn’t
been for the advent of ‘Sko aggression, they probably
would have annexed all of Conclave space years ago.
A three-year old truce declared she could no longer look upon
the man on the pallet as her enemy.
But she could still be careful. Very, very careful.
He had, she reminded herself, been dumped on her doorstep
courtesy of the Ycsko. That alone would take some explaining...
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