Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.
An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.
Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.
After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.
These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself. Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.
Bolts glanced around the room, analysing everything he saw. They were in the forward lounge, sitting on the floor with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A mixed-species group of men armed with blaster rifles standing guard over them. The intruders had surprised him in the corridor near the stairs to the upper deck. He had been on his way to the engineering room next to the cockpit to check on why they had just lost power when they had burst from around the corner and opened fire. The stun blasts had hit him first but the intruders had quickly moved to stun the others. Within minutes, they had been over powered. Tsukiko was lying on her side, still groggy from the stun blasts. Korodo was awake and alert, his larger body mass helping him to overcome the stun effects. Barak should have been awake to, but the orc had fought with the intruders and he had taken a particularly vicious blow the head. He was unconscious, blood dribbling from the head wound onto the floor.
A burst of static washed over his vision, his optical sensors still a little frazzled from the stun blast. Despite his human appearance, Bolts’ nickname was a reference to more than just his chosen profession. He was a Soulmech. A living soul contained within a cybernetic chassis. Although advanced robotics had been in use since before the founding of the Dragon Empire, artificial intelligence continued to elude imperial scientists. Theologians claimed that the reason for this was that for something to be sentient, it must have a soul and the creation of souls was the province of the Gods alone. Whether it was true or not, it meant that self-aware robots and computers were still the stuff of science fiction. However, like many such limitations, a way around it had been found using magic. At the heart of each Soulmech was the Soul Matrix. An enchanted crystal into which the soul of a, sometimes unwilling, volunteer is placed. In their new body, they are effectively immortal and immune from the daily needs of an organic body. All they need to do is replace the power cell for their robotic chassis every five years. Most Soulmech’s had an artificial appearance with pale plastic like skin and hairless bodies. Bolts’ chassis was different. Covered in a biosynthetic skin substitute, his “flesh” was warm to the touch with hair and imperfections designed to give a realistic human appearance. The stun blast had barely affected him but he chosen to act like it had when he realised how outnumbered they were. If the intruders had found out that he was a Soulmech, they would have used an EMP to disable him. As long as his systems still functioned, he could be off use. As it was, the electrical energy of the stun blast had knocked some of his systems offline but his self-repair routines had quickly repaired them.
“Don’t play games with me,” Dorga growled holding a bloodstained hooded top, “we got this from your sick bay and it has his DNA all over it. Where is he?”
“The kid?” Korodo said, “When he wouldn’t talk, my associate here got a little too rough with him.” The half-dragon shrugged, “we flushed his body out of the airlock hours ago.”
Tsukiko’s empathic abilities picked up a stab of anger from Dorga. However, beneath that anger, only barely suppressed, was an emotion that surprised her, concern. For a brief second, she felt the guildmaster actually concerned for the boy before he got his emotions under control again. Given what she had picked up from Trace and what the boy had told her, she found it surprising that the man who had spent more than half the boy’s life making it a living hell might actually care for him.
Suddenly, the lights flickered back to life intermittently. At the same time, computer screens around the room filled with static and garbled text. A siren started wailing, spluttering and stuttering before quickly dying. “Intruder Alert,” an electronic voice announced, “Warning: Computer Core at 45 percent.” The message repeated in draconic. “Athilal Aralath, Valathath: Kathar Kela ath kalathath 45.”
“What the hell is that racket?” Dorga barked at one of his men.
“I think the main computer is trying to reboot itself, probably some sort of disaster recovery system,” the gnome replied uncertainly.
“You think?” Dorga said pointedly. “Don’t you think you should find out? After all, this is what I pay you for.” The gnome began tapping away at a forearm-mounted computer, walking over to the console by the wall and plugging in a few leads. “Well, I’m waiting?”
“This isn’t right,” the gnome said nervously, “the access protocols have been scrambled; someone’s locked everyone else out of the system and activated the emergency systems. We’re broadcasting an automated distress beacon.”
“Well,” Dorga said coming up behind him, “fix it.” The gnome nodded and left the lounge heading for the upper deck.
The guildmaster sneered at Korodo. “You might be a red, scale face, but I somehow I don’t think that torturing a kid for information is your style.”
“Apparently you do it for fun,” muttered Tsukiko in retort.
Dorga heard her and he pulled his fist back and punched her. She grunted with the impact but looked back up at him defiantly. Snarling, he prepared to punch her again. Before he could do so, there was a noise from behind him followed by a grunt of pain.
“Hey boss,” one of his men said, a muscular dwarf carrying an assault blaster, “look what he found crawling through the ventilation ducts.” In front of the man, on his knees with his hands on his head, was Trace.
The guildmaster took a step away from Tsukiko, aiming his blaster at Trace. The red dot from the gun’s laser sight hovered over the boy’s head. “Well if it isn’t my favourite mongrel.”
“Screw you Dorga,” Trace spat.
“After everything I’ve done for you over the years,” Dorga said ignoring him, “this is how you repay me? By betraying the Guild to this noble scum.”
“Oh my gods,” Trace laughing out loud, “are you high or are you really that stupid? Is that what you think happened? They way I hear it you sold me out to the snakeheads so they could whack the scale face over there.” Ignoring the fact that he had a gun pointed at his head, Trace stood up and glared at Dorga. “I’ve a had a real bad day,” he said through gritted teeth, “I’ve been shot, tortured and nearly killed by a snakehead, and to top it off, been set up to take the fall for a murder. Right now, the Guild can go to hell for all I care.” To Tsukiko, Trace’s mind was a storm of conflicting emotions. She could sense the anger and hatred that the boy felt for Dorga. At the same time, there was fear and reluctance. She could tell that it had been some time since Trace had openly defied the man in such a way and he was scared of the consequences. In his mind, he was still a slave to guildmaster, a mentality that he was struggling to break. That was when she picked up something else, something beneath all the raging emotions. “49 dragon scales, 48 dragon scales, 47 dragon scales.” It was almost as if Trace was counting down to something in his head. “You killed my mum, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles; you butchered my entire family in front of me. For ten years, you’ve made my life hell, beating and starving me to force me to become a thief. Well, I’m through working for you!”
The Guildmaster strode over to Trace and struck the boy’s face with his gun. Trace was knocked to the floor by the force of the blow, spitting a glob of blood on to the deck plates. Dorga bent down and picked Trace up by the collar of his top, shoving him against the wall. “And I’ve just about had it with you,” Dorga said jamming the blaster under Trace’s chin and switching off the stun mode. “It’s been fun watching you squirm and suffer, but I’m beginning to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Leave him alone,” Korodo yelled from the other side of the room.
“Any last words,” said Dorga, “before I put you out of my misery”
Trace looked down at the floor. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill everyone and leave me alive? What did we do to deserve that?”
Releasing his grip on Trace and pushing him into the arms of one of his men, Dorga stepped back from him, a sly smirk on his face. “How many times have I told you I own you? You’ve been the property of the guild since before you were even born. Your mother knew that when she fled. It may have taken five years to track her down, but no one steals from me and gets away with it.”
“I’m not your property,” Trace muttered under his breath before looking up. “I was never your property, I was your son!” He yelled the last part at Dorga, his eyes red with tears.
Tsukiko gasped, she knew that there had been something between Trace and Dorga beyond a simple Guildmaster to Guild member relationship. However, the idea that Dorga had been the boy’s father and had still done all those things to him made her sick. Judging by the shocked looks passing between Dorga’s men, the fact that Trace was the Guildmaster’s son obviously wasn’t common knowledge in the Guild either.
“And that’s the only thing that’s kept you alive until now,” Dorga yelled back, “that witch fled because she didn’t want her child growing up to be a thief like its father. That and she knew I would’ve had a half breed like you killed at birth.”
Trace wiped the tears from his eyes and in his mind, Tsukiko could hear the same countdown continuing. “22 dragon scales, 21 dragon scales, 20 dragon scales.” This time however, she pushed a little too hard and Trace felt the psychic intrusion. The only sign he gave that he had noticed were his eyes flicking towards her and a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “If that’s how you felt, then why didn’t you kill me when you found us?” Trace said focusing his attention on Dorga. It was at this point that Tsukiko realised that Trace was stalling, buying time and waiting for something.
“When I found you hiding under your bed I was going to do just that. But then I thought, what better revenge than to turn her darling little boy into the thing she hated the most, a thief.” An unfriendly smile came across Dorga’s face. He stepped in front of Trace and roughly grabbed his chin, forcing the boy to look up at him as Dorga looked down. “And you know what, despite how hard you tried to resist it, it came to you naturally. It’s like you were born to be a thief. Your mother would be so disappointed.”
“Shut up!” Trace yelled half-heartedly.
Dorga jammed the blaster into Traces gut, dialling up the power to its highest setting. The blaster emitted a high-pitched whine as it charged and upon hearing it, the man holding Trace’s arms let go and stepped aside. Suddenly the siren started wailing, this time strong and steady. Red emergency lights on the ceiling began to flash and they were accompanied by an announcement spoken in both common and draconic. “Alert, integrity of reactor controls compromised, magnetic containment field failing. Core breech in two minutes. All hands abandon ship.” Everyone looked around for a second in confusion. Everyone that is, except for Dorga who was studying Trace’s face intently. The boy was muttering “crap” repeatedly and as well as looking extremely nervous, he also looked slightly guilty. His eyes narrowed, Dorga unclipped a communicator from his belt. “Is that alert genuine.”
“I think so,” said the voice of the gnome, “I found something attached to the main computer, looks like a shuttlecraft power module. The whole setup looks like an improvised power source and they’ve used it to screw up all the safeties. There’s no way I can fix this in two minutes.”
“What did you do?” Dorga hissed at Trace.
The boy smiled mischievously. “I kinda set the reactor to explode.” Bolts and Korodo looked at each other. The half-dragon mouthing the word “What?” while the engineer shrugged in return. “I figured,” Trace continued, “in the chaos I could boost the shuttle from the launch bay and make a run for it.”
“Leaving these people here to die,” Dorga said waving a hand towards Korodo and the others.
“It’s not like I owe scale face and his lackeys anything.”
“Hey boss,” one of Dorga’s men said nervously, “shouldn’t we be getting out of here?” The guildmaster looked around and reluctantly realised that the man was right.
“Pack and pull out,” Dorga said to his men as he took out a pair of handcuffs and turned to Trace. He dragged the boy over to the wall and yanked one of his arms up, cuffing it to an overhead pipe.
“Hey,” Trace said pulling at the cuff as Dorga walked towards the exit, “you’re leaving me here? You can’t!”
“For once,” Dorga said standing at the door, “I’m a believer divine justice. You set the reactor to blow up; it’s only fair that you stick around for the fireworks.”
“90 seconds to reach minimum safe distance,” the computer announced.
“Say hi to your mother for me.” The door slid shut behind him. Trace yelled after him, pleading for mercy and one last chance. However, the smile on his face didn’t match the desperate panic in his voice. As soon as the door closed, he began to fiddle with the cuff.
“All right, what’s going on?” Korodo asked.
“Yeah,” Bolts agreed, “the Chimera doesn’t have a ‘reactor’, she’s powered by a mana tap.”
Trace looked over as he slipped his wrist out of the unlocked handcuffs. “But they didn’t know that.” He ran over to where they were sitting and started unlocking their cuffs with the key he had lifted from Dorga’s pocket.
“30 seconds to reach minimum safe distance.”
“I hoped that the alert would send Dorga and his goons running,” Trace had unlocked Tsukiko’s handcuffs first and she was already checking on Barak. “Of course, getting caught in the vents wasn’t exactly part of the plan.”
Korodo looked at the boy, a small measure of respect on his face. “You used the shuttle’s power module to jump start the main computer?” Trace nodded as he freed Bolts, “but you could’ve used the shuttle to escape. Why did you stay and help?”
“You saved my life, consider the favour returned.” Trace finished up by freeing Korodo.
Dorga’s shuttle streaked away from the noble’s ship, the guildmaster keeping watch on the rear scanners. The cramped cabin was silent; no one spoke as the pilot attempted to put as much distance as possible between the ship and the shuttle. Dorga’s reputation as a ruthless man was well deserved, but the fact that he had left his own son to die unnerved them.
“Boss,” the pilot said hesitantly, by my calcs, the Chimera’s reactor should have gone up by now.”
“Suki, take Barak to the medbay and get that head wound checked out,” Korodo said helping the orc to his feet. “Bolt’s see if you can get the starcaster up and running.” Everyone hurried out of the forward lounge leaving Trace standing there by himself feeling slightly out of place. A twinge of pain shot up his leg and he slumped down onto a chair. He concentrated again, trying to summon his healing energy but all he got was a weak flicker. As he sat back in the chair, he thought of the shuttle in the launch bay. It still had two out of its three power modules and that was more enough to get back to Jurrika. But, did he really want to go back to that planet. Dorga would find him again, no matter where he went and there was nothing left for him there anyway. He had no family, and his friends Tobs and Sammy would be halfway across the sector by now.
He was still trying to decide what to do when the ship bucked to the side, rocked by a sudden impact. Alarms sounded, this time real, as weapons fire struck the ship. Trace was knocked to the floor by a particularly violent impact. A blur sped past the window. In the split second it was visible, Trace recognised it was one of Dorga’s shuttles. “Not good,” he muttered under his breath.
Trace picked himself up off the floor and shuffled across the floor, holding on to the wall for stability. The stairs up to the upper deck were hard on his injured leg, but he gritted his teeth and forced his way up, stumbling onto the cockpit. Korodo was sat in the pilot’s seat. The cockpit was rather cramped with only two other seats. Hearing him enter, the half-dragon turned around. “What are you doing up here?”
“Let’s see,” he said smiling tiredly as he leaned against one of the vacant seats, “I’m where I shouldn’t be, we’re being shot at by bad guys, and by the way you’re looking at the controls, you can’t fly. Anyone else feeling déjà vu right now?”
The half-dragon scowled at Trace. “And I suppose you know how to fly a starship?” Korodo asked sarcastically.
Trace shrugged. “My grandpa taught me how to fly an old Kelenbaum dropship. It’s a bit smaller than a Kestral-Class but all of Kenelbaum’s ships have identical controls. That’s why they get all the big imperial contracts.”
Against his better judgement, Korodo slid of out the pilot’s seat and let Trace sit down. The kid was a reckless pilot, wild and undisciplined. Right now though, that recklessness is precisely what they needed. However, he wasn’t exactly confident about entrusting a 15-year-old with the controls of a two and a half thousand tonne starship. “So,” he said nervously, “your grandfather let you fly.”
“Are you kidding,” Trace said laughing, “what sort of person let’s a five year old kid fly a spaceship. But I watched him operate the controls.” Korodo stared at him in horror as he brought the engines online. The half-dragon was thrown back into one of the seats by a thrust of acceleration and he quickly buckled himself in as he realised that his life, and the lives of the others, were now in the hands of a kid who had never flown a starship in his life.
Caldrin stood at the window, looking out over the cityscape. Dawn sunlight was streaming in from the horizon, bathing the city in a golden-orange glow. The office in which he was standing was part of a suite that belonged to one of the many faceless corporations that did business on Jurrika. The corporation the suite was registered to, Universal Shipping, was a front company used to conceal sensitive ISPD operations. Operations like the covert assassination of a minor noble.
It had been nearly five hours since he had teleported out of the alleyway. By the time he had returned, his target was long gone. A search of the private starport used by the city’s wealthier individuals had revealed that Korodo’s yacht had taken off prematurely, leaving behind a very irate starport controller.
He glanced at the reflection of the drow standing behind him. His grim faced assistant was holding a data slate; a wafer thin, touch sensitive handheld computer. “Central’s sent another message via the ansible; they’re demanding an update on the operation.”
“Have we located Korodo’s vessel yet?” Caldrin asked quietly.
His assistant looked uncomfortable as he spoke. “You can’t keep ignoring Central. We’ve been able to keep the incident at the penthouse out of the news, but Central will eventually hear about it.” There was a long pause.
With a slight edge to his voice, Caldrin calmly stated, “You didn’t answer the question.”
“They’re in low orbit around Jurrika’s moon,” his assistant answered putting the data slate containing the ship’s coordinates on Caldrin’s desk.
“Good,” Caldrin said, “then they haven’t left the system. Find me some mercenaries with access to starfighters.”
“But what about Central?”
“That was an order.”
“Yes sir,” the assistant replied resignedly, leaving Caldrin alone in the office. As he watched the cityscape awaken, the first grains of a plan began to form in his mind. He chuckled as the thought strands coalesced together. “Two problems, same solution,” he said to himself as he picked up the comm. Caldrin was still smiling when the call was connected. “Dorga … it’s about the boy … we might have a problem,” he began.
Checking the feed from the security camera on a handheld screen, Tsukiko unlocked the door to the storeroom. Normally the room held a few extra spare parts and emergency food packs. However, since they had abruptly taken off ahead of schedule, the supplies had not been loaded and it was currently empty. Empty that was except for their young guest. Trace had regained consciousness soon after being brought on board and had surprised Tsukiko by healing his own wounds. Although the healing magic had repaired the most serious injuries, he had been left with multiple bruises and his leg still required a cast. Numerous aches and pains accompanied the newly healed bones.
After he had been treated for his injuries, Barak and Korodo had questioned the boy extensively for several hours on his involvement with the failed assassination. Although Trace had told the truth when he denied any involvement, his answers hadn’t satisfied the two men and they had locked him in the empty storeroom while they decided what to do with him.
Wearing an oversized white t-shirt and shorts loaned to him by Bolts, Trace was sitting with his back to the wall facing the window. His cuffed hands in front of him, the short-sleeved t-shirt revealing the black guild tattoo on the underside of his left forearm. He was staring out of the window, looking at the cratered surface of the moon as the ship orbited the airless orb of rock. When the door opened, the boy didn’t seem to notice as Tsukiko stepped inside, closing the door behind her.
“There’s an old legend,” he said without looking up, “about the moon. Long ago, back before the Empire. Way before even the first explorer’s from the old Forongorn Confederation launched themselves into space on top of primitive rockets. It says that the sun never used to set and that the day lasted forever. Back then there was no sickness and no one ever died of old age.” As he spoke, Tsukiko sat down against the wall next to him. “The light from the sun bathed Jurrika in an endless noon. There were things though that shunned the light, despised it. Some say they were creatures that lived deep underground. Other tales say they were demons from beyond the sky and that they lived far beyond the sun’s rays. Whatever the truth, they attacked Jurrika bringing death and destruction. The Sun God and the World Spirit fought the darkness and drove it back but the damage had already been done. Weakened, the sun couldn’t remain in the sky all the time anymore. It had to rest, you know, to recover its energy. This was how the first night came about. Because of this,” Trace said the next unfamiliar word slowly, “en-tro-pe or something entered the world and along with it came illness and ageing. Without the sun in the sky, the world was vulnerable to attack by the darkness during the night. So to protect the life of the world, the sun and Jurrika used a portion of their essences to create a daughter. This daughter, Seastyl, would guard Jurrika during the night hours, defending it against the darkness. According to the old legend, that’s where the moon came from.”
“That’s an interesting story,” Tsukiko said carefully, “who told it to you?”
He paused before responding, as if embarrassed. “My grandpa told me when I was little, but it’s a load of crap isn’t it? We know the moon is a planetoid captured by Jurrika’s gravity during the early formation of the solar system. We have a night ‘cos the planet is round and turns on its axis as it orbits the sun. Seastyl is not a goddess, but a lifeless hunk of rock scarred by aeons of meteor impacts. Science robs all the magic from the universe.” Trace said with a hint of sadness.
“I disagree,” Tsukiko said after a moment, “without science we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Before science, other planets were just pinpricks of light wandering through the night sky. When the first telescopes came along, for the first time anyone could look and see the beauty of another world, not just mages and clerics using magic. As they got better, we could see them in greater detail and we could see even further out into space. Some of those pinpricks became huge nebulas, splashes of colour light years across. Paint on the canvas of the Gods if you will. Eventually we were able to leave the confines of our own worlds and look down on them from above. For the first explorers, this was a humbling experience. It is true, science does take away some of the magic but it adds so much of its own. Without it, we would only be able to appreciate a fraction of the Gods’ design. Magic and faith tell us who created the universe, science tells us how to appreciate it.”
Trace looked over at Tsukiko. “Never thought of it like that before,” he said smiling. She saw for the first time how tired he appeared.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out two plastic-wrapped ration bars and offered them both to Trace. “I thought you might be hungry after all those questions.” Trace snatched the bars out of her hand, ripped off one of the wrappers and stuffed the bar hungrily into his mouth. He didn’t care about its taste has he hungrily wolfed down the ration bar. Tsukiko laughed, “Guess I was right.” Trace paused mid-munch, crumbs tumbling from his mouth as he grinned sheepishly. With his mouth full, he mumbled an embarrassed thank you.
Swallowing a mouthful of the processed synthetic nutrients, Trace gave Tsukiko a sidelong glance. “I know what you’re doing you know.”
Tsukiko blinked nervously. “And what would that be?” She asked sweetly.
“You’re the good cop to their bad cop,” he said between mouthfuls, “it’s the oldest trick in the book. Shiv, I bet they were doing it before they even had books to write it down in.”
“Is it working?” She asked laughing. Trace smiled in response. “So, do you want to tell me what happened?”
Trace’s eyes narrowed and he stopped eating, his expression hardening slightly. “Why don’t you ask your friends? I already told them everything.”
“I could,” she explained, “but I want to hear it in your own words.”
“Fine, long story short, I was told to slice the security on scale face’s penthouse and boost his jumper. Only it turns out I was being set up the snakeheads. They used me to get past security so they could kill your boss. Afterwards, the blame was going to be pinned on me. Satisfied?”
“Why you though?” She asked.
“Because I’m an expendable ‘street punk’ and I narked off the guildmaster. The guild’s supposed to get a cut out of anything you take only I was cooking the books so to speak…”
“You stole money from the guild!?” Tsukiko said, cutting him off.
“Hey, it were my money to start off with and it’s beside the point,” Trace snapped. “The guildmaster found out and after a good beating he ordered me to boost the jumper if I wanted to keep breathing.”
“You could have ran, gone into hiding.”
“If I’d done that, Dorga would’ve had me killed within a week. I didn’t have any choice,” he said looking at the floor. “Turns out he was setting me up though, either way he wanted me gone. Looks like he’s finally had enough of me.”
Tsukiko laid her hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. “This Dorga was the guildmaster wasn’t he?” She asked softly. “Sounds like a real nice piece of work.”
“Lady,” he said quietly, barely above a whisper, “you have no idea.” When Trace had been brought into the ship’s medbay, during her examination she had noticed old linear scars criss-crossing his back. They were the telltale sign of repeated whip strikes and her medical scans had revealed a number of old bone fractures.
He shrugged her hand off and forced a smile. “Yeah, well that’s the past. Unless I can convince your friends, I ‘aint got much of a future have I. ‘Cept maybe getting shoved through the airlock without a suit.”
Shocked by the boy’s cynical words she knelt in front of him, making sure to make eye contact. “I give you my word, that won’t happen.” Trace grunted in response. He had no reason to trust her; he’d been lied to before by adults. She did sound sincere though and Trace wanted to believe her. She made her excuses to leave, saying that the other’s would be wondering where she had gotten too.
Tsukiko left the storeroom and headed towards the forward lounge. Located in the Chimera’s bow, the spacious lounge was an extravagance in the otherwise utilitarian Kestrel-class’s design. Originally intended as a military courier, Korodo had “acquired” the ship through his contacts with Galactic Insurgency. Heavily modified, the now elegant exterior allowed the noble to maintain an air of playboy respectability while simultaneously giving him a ship with some teeth. Something that came in useful when he needed to carry out work for the insurgents. Work that it now appeared that someone in the ISPD had discovered.
When she entered the lounge, Barak and Korodo looked up from hologram they had been watching. Projected from a device embedded in the six-seater dining table in the centre of the room, it showed the interior of the storeroom. Trace had curled up on the floor and seemed to have fallen asleep; the oversized clothes making him appear smaller to Tsukiko than he actually was. Bolts was sitting at the end of the table staring intently at several datapads.
“Well?” Korodo asked as she sat down at the table.
“He’s telling the truth.”
“What,” a surprised Barak said, “are you sure?”
“I’m only a talent, but I was able to scan him while I was in the room with him,” she explained, “I couldn’t go too deep otherwise he would have noticed. What I did get was that he didn’t know anything about the attempt on L K’s life and he was telling the truth about only being there to steal the jumpcraft.”
“Is that it?” Korodo asked leaning back in his chair.
Looking thoughtful, Tsukiko shook her head. She had sensed something else whilst scanning the boy’s mind. His emotional state suggested that a deeper connection existed between him and Dorga. The impression she’d received had been vague and pushing deeper would have tipped Trace off about the empathic probing. Still, whatever the truth behind the matter was, she felt it had no bearing on his trustworthiness. There was no need to bring it up.
“The question now then is what do we do with him?” Korodo asked the others.
Trace jerked awake suddenly, his head banging against the metal bulkhead. Cursing, he sat up rubbing the back of his head. A muted red light flowed in through the half-open door from corridor outside. The air was still and silent, the only sound was the sound of his breathing and the creaking of the ship’s hull. A sound that unnerved him, a ship should not make that noise. His hands still cuffed, he grasped the edge of the metal shelving and pulled himself to his feet. Carefully he made his way across the storeroom to the door, more out of concern for his still plastered leg than in an attempt to move silently.
The corridor outside was lit by red emergency lights, their glow imparting an ominous red hue to everything within sight. Acting as a hallway, the corridor was actually a large open area in the centre of the ship providing access to the sleeping quarters at the rear of the ship, the medbay and workshop on either side, the forward lounge, the bridge deck above and the small cargo deck below. A solitary handgun lying discarded in the centre of the corridor drew his attention. Cautiously he approached the weapon, unsure whether this was a trap or not. He was still technically a prisoner and it would probably be a bad idea to be discovered loose and wielding a weapon. As he looked around, a shiver ran down in spine. There was something terribly wrong with this situation. He picked up the gun and, checking that the power cell was charged, hobbled over to a computer panel on the wall. The screen was blank and the controls were completely unresponsive.
A sound from behind caused him to spin around, aiming the gun wildly at the source of the noise. On the opposite side of the open space, a door opened and a figure slowly stepped out. The figure was dressed in the same bodysuit that the assassins at Korodo’s penthouse had worn and his face was scorched and blackened from a blaster wound. “You … I killed you!” Trace said in horror, recognising the assassin as the one he had shot at Korodo’s penthouse. The assassin staggered towards him, its arms outstretched, sightless eyes staring blankly at him. Trace stepped back, his aim wavering until he backed against a closed door. Slapping the door controls was useless, the door refused to open. With the assassin was just a few feet away, Trace had no choice but open fire. Repeatedly pulling the trigger, he sent a flurry of blaster bolts towards the assassin. The bolts struck the assassin in the chest causing him to jerk spasmodically. Trace continued to fire as the assassin collapsed to the floor, the pistol bleeping softly with each trigger pull as the power cell ran out of charge.
With the body of the assassin lying on the floor in front, Trace leaned against the door panting, his heart pounding in his chest. The door suddenly opened and he fell back into the darkened room landing roughly on his back. Before he could react, a shotgun was shoved into his face; Trace could only stare helplessly down the barrel at the man holding the weapon. It was Dorga; he smirked cruelly as he pumped the shotgun’s cocking mechanism. “I always knew you had the killer instinct inside of you. Turns you’re just like your old man after all.” As Dorga’s finger tightened on the trigger, Trace screwed his eyes shut as a crash of thunder and a booming white light washed over him.
Barak opened the door and entered the storeroom. Trace was asleep, curled up against a wall and drenched in sweat. When the orc reached over to wake the sleeping boy, Trace bolted awake with a shout. The sudden movement caused Barak to jump back slightly. Panting heavily, the boy’s eyes were wide as the impact of the nightmare he’d been having remained fresh in his mind. “Up and at ‘em kid,” Barak said holding out his hand to Trace to help him up. The boy glanced at him with a tired and suspicious look as he took Barak’s hand.
“More questions? I’m exhausted; can’t we just skip to the airlock and get it over and done with?”
The orc laughed, “Kid, what is it with you and that airlock? You got a death wish or something?” He helped him up and led him out of the storeroom. Trace looked down at the floor as they slowly walked across the central corridor towards the crew quarters. As they walked, Barak glanced down at the boy. He seemed to not be paying any attention as they walked, operating on autopilot. Completely different to the cocky, street thief he had questioned earlier.
Normally Trace would have paid close attention to the route they were taking, memorising every detail of the corridors as they walked and looking for anything that might increase his chances of escape. He certainly would have noticed the signs pointing towards the launch bay as they left the central corridor, crossed the midline passage that ran between the launch bay and cargo bay and entered the crew quarters. However, he was preoccupied, hardly seeing any of this. The events of that last several hours had come at a rapid pace and he’d had precious little time to process any of it. Now, he finally had a chance to think. As he reflected on what had happened and what his part had been, part of him was troubled.
Trace wasn’t proud of what he was, although he was proud of his level of skill, the life he led was not one he would have chosen for himself. Forced into it by Dorga, he had learnt from an early age that he had little choice but to be very good at it if he wanted to survive. He had done things that he was not proud of and seen things that would probably haunt him to the day he died. Trace had tried to leave on more than one occasion, but he had always been dragged back by Dorga or one of his henchmen. The punishment he received had always been harsh and eventually he had given up trying to escape, accepting that this life was what the hand of destiny had dealt him. Despite this, there had always been one line that he had never crossed. One act that he knew, once committed, he could never take back, the taking of someone’s life. No matter what Dorga had forced him to do, no matter what the situation, he had never before killed someone. That had now changed. He knew that it had been self-defence, that he’d had no other choice but to fight for his life. Yet none of that changed how he now felt. He’d broken the one rule he swore never to break and it had shaken him deeply.
Bara shrugged as they entered the crew quarters, dismissing the boy’s docile attitude as the product of fatigue and exhaustion. The Chimera had quarters for six crewmembers, each of them single room berths arranged around an octagonal chamber that possessed an impressive skylight. He opened the door to the spare berth, his eyes lingering for a brief moment on the door to Duncan’s room. They had never been what you would call friends; Barak had served in the Imperial Legions while Duncan had served in the Navy. However, they had been shipmates and a certain amount of professional respect had emerged over the years they had worked together. Duncan’s loss had also put them in an awkward position, although both Bolts and Barak had received basic flight training to some degree, it was Duncan whose job it was to fly the Chimera, its shuttle and the jumpcraft stored in the cargo bay.
The room that Trace was led into was spartanly furnished. There was a single bed against one wall and a desk with a small computer display on the opposite wall. A small amount storage space for clothing was located under the bed and a triangular cupboard occupied one corner. Shelving, currently empty, ran along the wall above the bed. Lying neatly folded on the bed, slightly cleaner than they were the last time he had seen them, were the clothes Trace had been wearing when he had been brought onboard. However, what attracted his attention was what was sitting on top of the clothes. It was the photo of Toby, Sam and himself. “I thought I’d lost this in the crash,” he said picking up the photo and looking at Barak gratefully, “thank you.” Barak shrugged as he unlocked the handcuffs. Trace sat down the bed taking the weight off his plastered leg and rubbing his sore wrists. “So, what happens now,” he asked.
“Get some rest,” the orc said, “we’re still trying to decide what do with you.”
“You’re gonna hand me over to the cops aren’t you?”
Barak looked at the boy for a second before answering. “You may not have knowingly been a part of the attempt on Lord Korodo’s life, but you are partially responsible for Duncan’s death. That makes you an accessory.” Trace looked at the floor, as much as he wanted to protest, he knew Barak was right. “But, for some reason an ISPD agent wants you dead. Handing you over to the police now would be giving you a death sentence. I sent enough young men and boys to their deaths when I served in the Legions. It’s not something I want to make a habit of in civilian life.”
Trace smiled, and looked up at the orc. “You’re from the stonebreaker clan, ‘aint ya.”
Barak raised an eyebrow. “How did you guess?”
“The ritual scarification,” he said pointing at the orc’s upper arms, “my face recently got up close and personal with the fists of someone with those same markings.”
“What’s your point?”
Trace shrugged. “Nothing, ‘cept stonebreakers are a pretty honourable lot. When they give their word, you can count on ‘em meaning it.”
“Like I said before kid, get some rest.” With that, Barak left Trace alone in the room. As the door closed, the control panel turned red indicating that it was locked from the outside. Trace lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating his future.
The shuttle drifted through space, approaching the Chimera from astern. With the shuttle’s stealth characteristics, it was unlikely that the Chimera’s sensors would detect it. The Guildmaster was furious. After everything he had done for the boy, the brat had betrayed him and his client. Now the drow was putting pressure on him to “deal with the problem.” So here he was, piloting a smuggler’s shuttle with a team of his best men. It reminded him of a similar situation ten years ago, which was ironic given his current target.
Dorga brought the shuttle to a relative stop above and behind the Chimera’s stern. Either side of the larger vessels main engines sat the doors leading into the cargo bay and the launch bay. The cargo bay on the port side of the ship and the launch bay on the starboard side. They were drifting just a few meters away from the Chimera’s hull, the shuttle’s airlock aligned with the door to the hanger. Making sure that everyone’s suit was sealed, Dorga slowly decompressed the shuttle. When the atmospheric pressure inside the shuttle reached zero, one of his men opened the door of the shuttle and stepped out into the void. The man drifted towards the Chimera, propelled by little puffs of compressed gas from his EVA harness. He carried a line with him and he fixed it to the hull of the Chimera with a molecular bonding clamp. Carefully pulled a combat knife from an armoured pouch on the side of his suit and pried off the cover of the external controls for the airlock. He used a pair of leads to connect the door controls to a small computer device and set to work.
Trace, unable to sleep, was sitting at the desk looking at the computer display. He was idly searching through the ship’s entertainment library. This was all he could access on the computer without a proper login ID. If he wanted to, he could easily slice the system in order to forge one but he didn’t have the energy. Besides, the last thing he wanted to do now was antagonise his “captors.”
As he searched through the surprisingly extensive archive of old comics, the system slowed to a crawl. The terminal’s connection to the ship’s network faltered and froze as a “System Busy” message was displayed. “What the,” Trace said as he pressed a series of keystrokes and accessed the terminal’s command line functions. “Someone’s tied up the all the server’s processing power. This ship’s got a state of the art system, that shouldn’t be possible.” The lights suddenly went off and the terminal screen went dark as the power died leaving Trace sitting in complete darkness. “Unless someone was hacking the system in order to shut down main power.” A red emergency winked on bathing the room in a blood-red glow. The door lock clunked as it automatically unlocked, a safety measure in case both main power and backup power failed. He sat there, listening to the silence. With the power out, the life-support system was also out. The only reason why Trace wasn’t bouncing off the ceiling was that despite all the Empire’s technology, no way other than magic had been discovered to generate an artificial gravity field. The Chimera’s artificial gravity, like on most ships, was a by-product of the starcaster, the powerful magical artefact that made interstellar travel possible.
Trace got out of the chair and went over to the door. Grunting, he forced the door to slide open. Dim red lighting illuminated the chamber beyond. A feeling of déjà vu overcame him and a shudder ran down his spine as he realised the scene was similar to the dream he’d had earlier. Creeping out into the octagonal central chamber, the boy froze when he heard a voice filtering in from the corridor beyond. It was Dorga. “Tear the ship apart if you have to, but find that boy. Oh and Brak, I want the little brat alive.”
“Crap, Dorga,” Trace thought as he retreated into the room, “this doesn’t sound like a rescue attempt.” He looked around the small cabin but apart from the small cupboard, there wasn’t anywhere to hide. He started to panic but then a thought hit him. He knelt next to the bed and looked underneath. In the darkness beneath the bed, he saw the metal grill of a ventilation duct. Grabbing the photo, trace crawled under the bed, pulled off the grill and climbed into the vent. It was a tight fit but he was small for his age, irregular meals and surviving off food scraps had seen to that. For once, Dorga’s mistreatment of him was working in his favour.
As soon as he had crawled inside, he heard footsteps in the chamber outside of the room. Hurriedly, he scrambled down the vent, tumbling headfirst into the maintenance crawl space beneath the deck. The crawl space was illuminated by the dim green glow of phosphorescent strips fixed to the ceiling, another emergency measure. It was dark, but the strips gave off just enough light for him to see by. Once again, he was thankful for his mixed-race heritage.
Behind him, he heard someone enter the room and begin roughly searching it. “He’s not in this one, check the next room.” Trace breathed a sigh of relief. “Trickster,” he said, silently addressing the god of thieves and rogues, “why does my life have to be so interesting? Did I offend you somehow in a previous life or do you just enjoy tormenting me?” His musing was interrupted by the sound of blaster fire. Trace ducked instinctively but the fire wasn’t directed at him. The distinctive sound of blasters set to stun was reverberating down the crawl space from another part of the ship. Maybe it was just paranoia, but Trace was scared. He was alone, unarmed and trapped on a space ship with a man that probably wanted him dead; he had to escape.
He started crawling through the crawl space, eventually he found a hatch leading up into the launch bay. Lifting the hatch slightly, he peered into the bay. Like the rest of the ship, the bay was in darkness and lit only by battery powered emergency lights. The bay was empty apart from a single shuttlecraft. He climbed up out of the crawl space and crept over to the shuttle. The shuttle wasn’t locked and its hatch opened when Trace pushed the button. “Talk about piss poor security,” the boy muttered as he climbed in and closed the hatch behind him. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, Trace looked over the controls. With main power down, he’d have to use the shuttle’s cannons to blast the launch bay doors. It wouldn’t be subtle but it would do the job. He was about to begin the shuttle’s start-up sequence when he hung his head and sighed.
The people on this ship had saved his life. Was he capable of abandoning them like this? A conscience was normally a hindrance in the world in which he moved and right now, it was telling him that he couldn’t just run out on the people that had risked their lives for him. Trace aborted the power up sequence and got out of the chair. He lifted up one of the deck plates in the floor of the shuttle and disconnected one of the glowing power modules. Looking at it, a mischievous grin spread across his face.