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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 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. And even a little trouble was more than she could handle right now.
She sprinted through the air lock.
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 the intraship. "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 could.
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 Trilby's 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 came, calm as the first.
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 painfully into her eyes.
"Damnation!" She flicked her thumb against the autofilter. Nothing happened. The filter was stuckagain. She smacked the binocs hard against her thigh, 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 mother ship in orbit. Somewhere. And somewhere, when it involved the 'Sko, was a place much too close for comfort.
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. Trilby knew that, even blind drunk, she could fly better than that. Then the fighter veered out of a cloud bank, and she saw the unmistakable signs of laser damage scoring the portside flank. Now the fighter's seesawing motions made sense.
It wasn't the lead attacker, but the prey.
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 impact.
It came with a grinding, screeching, snapping soundmetal against damp woodthen 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 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.
Priceyand dangerousintergalactic garbage, but garbage all the same.
She cataloged 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 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. Dead would be nice. Everyone knew an injured 'Sko could be even more blood-crazed than a healthy one. She 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 salvage rates.
Decent money was something Trilby was a bit short of right now. And her supply of indecent money was running perilously low.
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 toward the slanting metal rampway. "Bring out two AGSs 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 air lock, 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 Bagrond, she'd wanted to tell him, but never did. He wouldn't have understood. By that point in their relationship, she knew, they didn't even speak the same language.
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 AGSs.
"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 AGSs are going to have to wait until we get the comm pack back online 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 future reference."
"You're very thorough. I do appreciate it, believe me."
"Well, thank you. I always try to"
The 'droid cocked his 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 antigrav 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. Her 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 autoguidance system.
She placed her headlight on wide-beam, throwing a swath 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 AGSs 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 flight suit; 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. A jolt of fear roiled queasily in her gut. "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 'Sko 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 heor sheis 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, and it was 'Sko armed and 'Sko trained. 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 datalyzer onto 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 wayincluding 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 didand 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 withgave her the unalienable salvage rights.
Finders keepers. It was worth the risk.
Plus, 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 aGods willing and luck with herdead '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 uniform. Not red.
The black-clad form lying 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 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." For one thing, he was obviously human. The 'Sko . . . well, no one was really sure what the 'Sko were. "He's Zafharin, judging from the uniform."
"The 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 ago.
She wasn't political, but neither was she stupid. The Zafharin Empire was very powerful. If it hadn't been for the advent of 'Sko aggression, they probably would have annexed all of Conclave space years ago.