The 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.
She 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 twilight.
She reached her rampway just as a silver
object flashed across the sky behind them.
“Damn. Double damn.” Another
ship here meant big trouble. Even a little trouble was more than
she could handle right now.
She sprinted through the airlock.
Coils 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.”
“On my way, captain.” A reassuring
reply came from three decks below in maintenance.
But then, Dezi couldn’t see what she
Lights 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.
She 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.”
A second acknowledgment responded, calm as
Good ol’ Dezi.
A 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.
“Damnation!” 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.
They 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.
Then 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.
Quickly, 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
But the darkening violet skies showed nothing.
Nothing but the lone Tark.
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
It wasn’t the lead attacker, but the
She 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.
Then the Tark dropped so close to the top
of the jungle that she held her breath, waiting for the sound of
It 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 light.
She panned another three-sixty. A Conclave
patrol would have been here by now. But the skies were empty, quiet.
Her 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.
She 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.
This was ‘Sko. Which was, as far as
she and every other Independent freighter captain were concerned,
just another word for intergalactic garbage.
Pricey intergalactic garbage, but garbage
all the same.
She 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.
Not 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.
But the fire flickered out as she watched.
Doused, she assumed, by an emergency extinguisher system.
That 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
Decent money was something Trilby was a bit
short of right now. And her supply of indecent money was running
She 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.
"Looks 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, Dez."
"You’re quite welcome, captain.
It’s always my pleasure to be useful."
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
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.
"I 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."
"I was only making the suggestion for
"You’re very thorough. I do appreciate
it, believe me."
"Well, thank you. I always try to—"
The ‘droid cocked its tarnished head
in Trilby’s direction. "Yes?"
"Let’s go. There’s a wreck
waiting for us."
"Oh, 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
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
But the cockpit was empty.
"Oh, great," she said softly,
then, louder: "Dezi. Over here, now."
She heard the thudding of his feet on the
ground. "Can I be of assistance?"
"Watch my back." She transferred
her beam to her left hand and brought her pistol, primed, into her
right. "Our pilot’s disappeared."
The ‘droid stepped closer and inspected
the empty cockpit. "Highly unusual."
"Tell 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.
You’d 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
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 moving.
The thudding steps came quickly this time.
"You 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.
"He’s dead, isn’t he?"
Trilby asked hopefully.
Dezi bent closer to the pilot’s head.
"Actually, no. There is evidence of a slight respiration."
"Damnation." 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."
"Captain. I strongly advise against
bringing an Ycsko—"
"He’s not ‘Sko, he’s
Zafharin, judging from the uniform."
"The Empire. Well, yes. That’s
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
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