Friday Fragment! This week: Chapter 1

I decided to start a tradition of posting a fragment of writing each Friday.  Sometimes it’ll be flash fiction, sometimes it’ll be a poem, other times a piece of non-fiction and sometimes even a chapter, finished or in-progress.   Some weeks they’ll be new, other weeks they’ll be from my personal archive, which means some weeks they’ll be examples of REALLY BAD WRITING. 

Today it’s chapter 1 of The Finder, which is book one (of three) of The Remembrance War.  The titles may change, of course. 

I’m not a pro.  Even if I was, the following would be true:  Feel free to comment.  I think I can take it, and if I can’t, what’s the worst that will happen? 

It probably goes without saying, but the following is mine.  If I find it online somewhere, lawyers will be mobilized. I’m pretty sure it’s not so wonderful that anyone would do that, but I’m covering my bases, here.

And so, it begins:

Chapter 1

The thing the books, vids, and hologames don’t tell you about space travel is that, generally speaking, it’s boring as hell. Sure, there’s the occasional fight–but that’s rare, unless you’re in the military, and I’d left the service years ago.

Well… it was rare.  Before the war.  Before humanity discovered just how much we’d been lied to. 

It all started with a distress signal…

I was heading for the Jahn system at a pretty steady clip–about 75 percent of the speed of light.  Even at .75C, I’d been traveling for ten hours from the nearest jump point, and I was bored out of my mind.  I’d sung three musicals, played an entire ceilidh’s worth of celtic folk tunes, and was about to start rehearsing what I’d tell my brother if I ever saw him again when the computer notified me of a distress beacon about fifteen light-minutes out. 

I thought about letting it go–the odds of actually receiving a given distress signal are so astronomically low that the sender probably didn’t expect help anyway, and life’s pretty cheap on the outskirts of the Imperium. 

The moment that thought crossed my mind, however, I was disgusted with myself.  I locked in the coordinates and swung my ship around, cutting out of chain drive for a moment to reorient my heading, then leaping straight into max acceleration.  Five minutes later I dropped out of chain drive again, heading at full burn toward a full-on clusterfuck.

No fewer than twenty marauders were hassling a single freighter.  The trader was id’ed by my tac implants as the Maggie’s Pride.  The marauder vessels all had names like Death Dealer, Die Now, and my personal favorite, Screw You. There were so many little red boxes and their attached vector trails that my tactical view looked like a red flower blossoming in the stars.

I locked onto the nearest marauder with a combination of mental commands and quick movements of my left hand on the throttle control stick, and fired with my right hand on the control yoke. I’d been doing this kind of thing for a little more than half my life; it was second nature.  The bright yellow pulses of particle beam fire stabbed out from my ship, causing small flashes of light as metal from his hull liquefied under the onslaught. I must have gotten lucky with that first hit; the entire ship blossomed into a bright yellow ball of light as I flashed past, already selecting another target. 

My tactical implants alerted me to a whole lot of incoming missiles.  I began juking all over the sky, losing some of them with decoys, maneuvering others into hitting marauder ships, and firing at others when I could.  Eventually I shed them all, taking out a few marauders in the process.  Luckily these guys didn’t have ships in good condition–my own ship was taxed to the breaking point by that fight.  Had they been one of the wealthier, more together Marauder bands, I would have been toast.

The rest of the fight took about ten minutes.  Eventually my ship was floating next to the Pride, alone.  I activated my comm system and kept my voice even; there was no sense in letting them see how relieved I was to still be in one piece.  “Attention vessel Maggie’s Pride, this is Captain Teren Hunt of the Second Chance. Anyone still alive over there?”

“Captain Hunt,” came back the trader in a rich female voice.  “This is Katherine Lawson of the Pride. Our engines are completely shot, Captain.  Do you have towing capability?”

Inwardly, I groaned.  I could tow them, but at towing speeds, I’d miss my appointment–and therefore a lucrative cargo run–in the Jahn system. But I’d saved them; I couldn’t then leave them out here to die.  I used my implants to quickly scan a database recorded on one of the data solids embedded in my brain.  An entry for the Maggie’s Pride flashed green.

“Affirmative, Captain.  I assume Hammerhead Station will do fine?”

There was a pause while she assumedly checked her own database, and then a sigh of relief.  “Yes, captain, that would do.” 

#

At maximum safe towing speed, it would take about four days to get to our destination.  To kill the time, I played my violin, played hologames, and talked with Captain Lawson over the comms.  Her video pickups were a casualty of the fight, so it was all audio-only.  She had a sultry voice, with a trace of an accent that placed her as being from Albion, the oldest human colony, the first one the Zhen:da permitted under the Contract.  I’d always been a sucker for an Albion accent, and I’d been alone for several months.  I’m a loner by inclination, but I do get lonely, so I’d been taking every opportunity to talk to her. 

After a few hours, we’d used up all the usual pleasantries, and she’d begun to ask me more personal questions. “So, Taren.  Is that old gaelic?”

“No, it’s not an Earth name.  There’s a superstition in my family that naming a kid with a true name from Old Earth is bad luck.  Most of us have names adapted from the literature the Exiles brought with them or from the aliens in this part of space. My brother and I thought it was stupid.  He named his kid with an Earth name.  Dad wasn’t happy, but he didn’t interfere.”

“So where’d Taren come from?”

“It’s adapted from a Kelvaki name.  The literal translation is something like ‘Finder of the Way.'”  My dad rendered it as ‘pathfinder;’ he thought it would be portentous.  I’ve always thought pretentious was  a better word, but… it’s my name, you know?  At least he managed to transliterate it in a way that humans can say it.  My turn–who is Maggie?”

“Maggie was my mother.”  There was a pause, as if she was considering her words.  “The name’s sarcastic, really.  She didn’t want me to be a trader captain; said it would lead me to a bad end.  So I did it anyway, and named my ship to annoy her.”

“She ever come around?”

“Eventually, yeah.  Said it was a waste of my life, but that I was doing ‘okay’ anyway.”

“Sounds like a character.”

“She was.  She’s gone now.”

“Sorry to hear that.  What was it she wanted you to do?” 

What came over the comm sounded suspiciously like a snort.  “She wanted me to join the family business and become a Courtesan.”  That was an established–and quite profitable–occupation on some worlds; like the Oiran of old Japan, Albion’s Courtesans were often experts at creating a mood and entertaining their clients even before the sex, and sometimes without it.  I’d never had reason–or the means–to hire one, but I’d heard a lot about them in the mess halls during my time in the service.

“Not your cup of tea, I take it?”

“Not at all.  I mean, hey, I like sex as much as the next–” she seemed to realize what she’d been saying and shut up.  “Um. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.”  I didn’t say more, because I was too busy trying to calm my breathing.  It sounds stupid, I know.  I’m not fifteen anymore, for fuck’s sake.  But it had been a long time since my last relationship, and her voice was so damned sexy to me that I got a little bout of heavy breathing for a moment.  “I won’t hold it against you.” 

“Thanks,” she said, obviously a little shaken at having said so much openly.  “Um, I’ve got to go; crew’s calling me to dinner.” She cut off before I could reply. 

“See you tomorrow,” I said to the empty air.

She didn’t respond to hails the rest of the trip.

#

Hammerfall station was an almost-forgotten resupply station in the back end of Known Space, a squat, multi-limbed monstrosity from the early days of interstellar travel.  The design had been bought from the Zhen:da and “modified” for human use, which mostly meant the Zhen “facilities” were traded for human toilets and the corridors were painted a different color.  For the first century of its operation, it had been “sponsored” by a Zhen businessman who thought the world it orbited would become the next colony world.  Unfortunately for his business, the exploratory teams discovered that the world was eminently unsuitable due to the deadly stellar radiation that bathes the world every 100 years. The station is shielded, but nothing the Zhen have can protect the planet itself. When he died, it was written off by his heirs as an unprofitable mess.  The human staff had taken it for themselves, buying it from the heirs in a backroom deal and bribing someone in the registry offices back on Zhen’Ko to erase it from the archives.  In the three hundred years since then, it had basically become the capital of Free Human Space.  Hammerfall station was a place few non-humans ever came.  In other words, it was a secret–and we liked it that way.  Only here could we escape the heavy taxes owed by every human business to the Zhen:da government.  It was a dangerous life, living outside the System, but I loved it.

As I maneuvered into position at Hammerfall, my neural implants notified me I had a message coming in.  I sent the mental command to bring it up and smiled ruefully.  It was a canned message from the Maggie’s Pride, informing me of the repair slip they’d been assigned.  I towed her close to it at a crawling speed and released the tow cables.  Once she was free I turned and activated my comms with a line to Hammerfall station.  “Hammerfall docking control, this is the Second Chance requesting docking instructions.”

Second Chance, proceed to quad 4, docking tube 47.”  The voice on the other end seemed bored, but the docking assignment made me roll my eyes, grit my teeth, and bite back the plasma-flame of a reply I wanted to send.  Quadrant 4 was the quarantine zone, where ships suspected of carrying contraband–or government spies–were asked to dock.  Strictly speaking, operating the station wasn’t illegal, but the taxes the station and every businessman docked there would owe the government if the place were discovered would spell the end of the place.  Once a ship docked in Q4, a dog-and-pony show of being good Client Humans was put on while the ship was vetted and identities confirmed.  It was standard operating procedure for Hammerfall station the first time any ship arrived, or when a known ship arrived with new crew.  But I hadn’t brought any new crew, and I’d been a regular at Hammerfall station for years now.  Putting me there was a message–and I had a good idea who sent it.  But a protest would get me denied access completely at best, and blown out of the sky at worst, so I just sent back a terse confirmation and maneuvered to the assigned dock.

#

Four hours after I arrived at Quad 4, I finally got clearance to leave my ship.  I’d long since shut her down and locked her systems, so it only took me a minute to get to the docking port and key it open.  When I saw who’d come to check me out, I very nearly punched him–John Quince, local administrator and asshole extraordinaire, shadowed by two minor functionaries. 

It was Quince who I guessed had had me assigned to Q-4; a way of telling me that I wasn’t immune to his power.  Four years ago, while we were working different sides of a convoy job–I was protecting it, he was raiding it–I’d bested him in a combat that had trashed his ship pretty badly and left him floating in space for three days, limping homeward and hoping for someone to answer his distress beacon.  Me, I’d have sucked it up and moved on with my life;  he decided to hold a grudge.  Thing is, he’d parlayed his misfortune into an administrator’s post on one of the most important ports in space.  By any real measure, he’d beat me: he had money, influence, and prestige, while all I had was my ship–plus another one I’d probably never take out of storage–and my skills.  My credits were always low, my ship was too small to get the good contracts and my low cashflow meant I couldn’t afford to hire the crew to use my other ship even if the co-owner would let me have her.  But I’d beaten him, and that was enough for him to hate me and take every opportunity to make me remember he had the power now.  On any other station, there’d be authorities that could deal with him; in Free Human space, he pretty much was the authority. 

Putting me here was one way to remind me of that; bringing his lieutenants with him was another.  That meant I couldn’t punch him, so instead I gave him my brightest smile on the theory he’d hate it more than a grimace.  “Quince!  Buddy!  Been a while!  To what do I owe this honor?”

I’d scored a hit, he scowled at me and proffered the manifest I’d transmitted.  “This accurate?” he asked sourly. 

“Alas, yes,” I said, feigning great sadness.  “I could have made a better run, but I had to rescue a freighter from a marauder attack a few systems over, and that cost me my window of opportunity.”  I shrugged.  “That’s what I get for being such a dashing guy, I guess.” 

Quince rolled his eyes and took the pad back.  He signed an authentication with his fingerprint and handed it to the subordinate behind him.  “You won’t mind if we check your ship for contraband, right?” he said, phrasing the question as a statement. 

“Be my guest, O Mighty Ozymandias,” I exclaimed, stepping aside and gesturing him in. 

He didn’t move, but his two buddies went in with scanners.  “Ozy-what?” he asked sourly. 

My family’s penchant for Old Earth artifacts and literature wasn’t shared by Quince.  I just smiled and said “Nothing.”  He grunted and we waited for his inspectors to get back.  When they did, they shook their heads at him and left; he grunted again and slapped a red tag on my ship’s hatch.  “You’re free to go, Hunt.  But your ship’s impounded.”

“What the hell, Quince?  Your guys didn’t find anything wrong.  On what grounds are you impounding my ship?”

“On the grounds that there’s something wrong here.  And even if there isn’t, there is until I say otherwise.” 

“O’Connell won’t stand for this, Quince.  When I get her on this, you’ll–”

“O’Connell died last week.  So now your free ride around here is dead, too.” 

Shit.  Linda O’Connell was–had been–the station’s majority owner.  While she was largely content to let Quince run things, she’d retained oversight.  And since she’d always had a soft spot for me, I got some leeway from her when I needed it.  With her dead, Quince was now completely in charge–not what she would have wanted, but with his money, he could easily have bought up her shares, and she hadn’t had an heir.

I wanted to pull my pulse pistol and shoot him right in his smug little face.  But it wouldn’t have helped.  “What’s it going to take to get my ship out of impound, John?” I asked him.

“Dunno yet.  I’m sure I’ll think of something.  In the meantime, keep your nose clean.”  With that warning, he turned and left the bay. 

“Asshole,” I muttered.  After talking to him for even that short a time made me thirsty; I needed a drink, and I knew the best place on Hammerfall to get one.  I shut the ship, locked her up, and made my way to The Anvil. 

#

Right about the time I hit my fourth drink, a woman sat in front of me, brushing shoulder-length black hair out of her way.  As her hair moved, I saw strands of cobalt blue–my favorite color–hidden within; the effect was a tonic for my nerves.  I looked up at her and said nothing, partly to play the tough guy, partly because she was attractive enough I wanted to look at her for a bit before she realized she’d picked the wrong guy, and partly because I was drunk enough the words weren’t coming to me yet.  She smiled, and as it reached her almond eyes it lit up the table, if not the room.  She was gorgeous.

“You’re Captain Hunt, yes?”  Her voice was familiar: rich, lilting–

“Captain Lawson,” I said as recognition dawned.

“Call me Katherine,” she said.  I looked her over appreciatively, trying not to be a pervert about it.  The minor scars along her arms, combined with the toolkit slung around her slender waist, told me she did her own repairs. 

“How’s your ship?”  To be honest, I didn’t really care about her ship.  But I wanted to avoid mention of that last conversation, if I could. 

Lawson shrugged and tapped an order into the table’s computer.  “It’s toast.  This is my retirement dinner.”

“Come on, it lasted four days to port.  It can’t be that bad.”

She gave me the sort of look ancient Earth schoolteachers must have given particularly slow students.  “I lost both slipspace capability and the chaindrive.  They need full replacements, and that’s way outside my means.  So now I need to drink until I’ve got the guts to tell my crew they need to find new jobs.”

Ouch.  Losing her slipspace drive meant she couldn’t go superluminal, and without that ability to jump between star systems, she’d be stuck doing inner-system work.  Hammerfall station didn’t have a lot of that, so she’d have to pay for a larger ship to piggyback her somewhere else where she could get work–and that would require finding a Sponsor.  That was bad enough.  But losing her chaindrive, too, meant that she was reduced to thruster speeds only.  The Chain Drive was one of the better refinements to our ships the Zhen:da had given us.  The drive system exploited a trick of quantum engineering to enable ships to travel at speeds sufficient to travel across a star system in hours or days rather than years. 

Without either system, she was stuck.  And with Quince running the show, that wasn’t likely to change.

I was about to ask her plan when my PDA lit up; I’d received an offworld message in the usual mail download I had it set to perform at every station that offered the service.  Hammerfall, though, wasn’t connected to the main HoloNet; that would have defeated the purpose of being a hidden Free Human station.  But people with the right knowledge could get messages shunted to the outlaw ‘Net that Free Humans had been running for years.  Only a handful of people I knew had the codes to reach me out here, and none of them would use it unless they really needed me, so I motioned to Maggie that I needed a minute and called up the message. 

On the screen appeared a young kid–a teenager, really.  She was cute, and vaguely familiar, with red hair and green eyes over freckles.  I couldn’t shake the feeling I knew her.  I’d like to say I figured it out quickly, but the truth is, once she said “Hey, Uncle Taren,” it was kind of obvious. 

“I wish I didn’t have to send this message; I’d hoped to talk to you in person.  I guess you’re out too far, though,” she said, a tiny glint in her eye telling me she knew the truth of where I spent most of my time.  “I need you here, Uncle.  On Galileo.”  I cursed under my breath; not only was Galileo weeks away, but my ship had been impounded and I didn’t have the cash available to get it out–in truth, nobody alive had enough cash to convince Quince to lighten up. 

I realized I’d missed something on the message, and quickly tapped the screen to rewind the message a few seconds.  On the screen, Kiri wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and said “my dad died yesterday.” 

#

It took a while for my brain to catch up to the fact that Kiri had been talking for some time without my understanding the words.  I thumbed the message off, saving it so I could review it later, when I had time.  Right now, my brain needed to figure out some things. 

My brother was dead. 

We hadn’t spoken in nearly fifteen years; since his wife’s funeral.  He had a daughter to raise alone, and I had my guilt, so we didn’t put much effort into contacting each other.  Occasionally there’d be a message, but I didn’t even read most of them, and I never replied.  I sent regular messages to Kiri, and got some in return, but I never saw her in person after the funeral.

Now I could never say all the things I’ve wanted to.  I could never apologize.  All my fantasies of making things right between us, of balancing the scales, were over.  All those probabilities had now collapsed into a future in which I would never see Daav again, never hear him lecture me about human history, never … yeah, you get the idea. 

Ok, Taren.  Stop flailing and figure out what comes next. 

Daav was dead, and Kiri  needed me. I had no desire to go back to Galileo, but my niece was only 15 years old.  Daav, Kiri and I had been all that was left of our family, and Daav’s late wife had been an orphan; if we had any other relatives at all, neither Daav nor I had ever heard of them.  It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen Kiri since she was a baby.  She needed me, and that was that. 

And then there was the matter of the Pride.

The Pride of Earth was the Hunt family ship.  She’d been mothballed when Daav and I were born; our dad had decided he wanted to stop traveling.  She’d always been meant for us to use together, but Daav went into academics, and I went into the Zhen:da military.  When I resigned my commission, I didn’t want to ask for the ship, and I couldn’t afford a proper crew for her, anyway.  So I used my muster-out pay to buy the Second Chance and started working odd jobs outside the “civilized” worlds.

To get to Galileo wouldn’t be too difficult; I’d be able to find transport from here fairly easily.  Once I got there, I’d need to find my way through the legalities, help Kiri out, and hire a crew for the Pride.  Fortunately, I knew a crew here on Hammerfall who needed work. 

“Hey, Katherine,” I said with a smile, “How would you feel about signing on with me?”

<<<<>>>> 

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
This entry was posted in Friday Fragments, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Friday Fragment! This week: Chapter 1

  1. Raven says:

    I always like a good bit of space opera. I especially love that the Marauders’ ship is called Screw You. I have some nitpicks though 🙂 Friendly nitpicks…the word ‘assumedly’ jarred me when I read it…so you might think of replacing it. Also, you call them ‘tac implants’ before you give the full name of ‘tactical implants’. Nothing serious, just easy fixable things. But other than that, so far so good…

  2. johnstonmr says:

    Thanks for the input; I appreciate it.

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