Thom Forster finds a secret hiding in the wreckage of the starliner Star of Corrill
|The wreckage of the passenger liner Star of Corrill began glowing with incandescence as the once-great ship started to kiss the atmosphere of Drellis Major.
"What a mess," Thom Forster said as he guided the Starhawk through the debris field. Navigation was treacherous. Smaller chunks of debris disintegrated harmlessly against the shields, but other pieces were as big as, or larger than the Starhawk itself. The last thing I want is to join all those unfortunate passengers in a death glide through the Drellis Majors' atmosphere.
Beside him, K'Tran Pasker was shaking his white-haired head as he monitored his sensor board. "I'm not picking up any signal beacons," he said. "They may not have had time to launch any life pods."
They flinched as a stray piece of debris spattered against the shields just in front of the viewport. Before it finished disintegrating, Thom could see it was not metal, but a chunk of space rock. "Star of Corrill's distress call said that they hit an asteroid that strayed into their hyperspace lane, though I can't fathom where any asteroid might have come from. There are no major belts along this route."
"Another mystery to be solved by the Transit Guild," K'Tran said. "Maybe it fell off an ore hauler?"
"They had time to issue a distress call and give coordinates, so the destruction couldn't have been too immediate." Thom guided the ship between two particularly large slabs of wreckage; fires fed by escaping gases still burning deep within. "Scan for life signs. There may be pods out there that had their beacons disabled by the crash."
Turning to his instruments, K'Tran began scanning as Thom continued to pilot through the debris field. After several minutes, K'Tran shook his head again, causing strands of his shaggy, silver-white hair to fall in front of his face. "There's nothing," he started, cutting off when his sensors began to ping. "Wait, there is something. One life sign, very faint." He called off the coordinates, which were further back where the starliner first erupted from hyperspace, and Thom turned the ship to follow.
The debris was not as dense here, making maneuvering less difficult. Narrowing his sensor sweep, K'Tran homed in on the source of the sensor reading. In the distance, the pod was coming into view. "Reading's still very faint."
As they drew nearer, Thom locked onto the lifeboat with the Starhawk's tractor beam, hauling it toward the cargo hatch in the ship's underbelly. Before it disappeared out of sight beneath the ship, they could see that the spherical rescue craft was as battered as the rest of the wreckage.
With the pod locked into place, they moved the ship a safe distance out of the debris field, then made their way back to the cargo bay. The bulk of the pod remained outside the ship, with only the access hatch protruding through the cargo bay doors and atmospheric containment shield. Cycling the hatch open while K'Tran grabbed a med-kit from a sconce on the bulkhead, Thom saw wisps of smoke escape the pod, along with the ozone scent of burnt circuitry.
Gripping the side of the hatch, Thom lowered himself into the dark interior of the pod, playing a portable lantern around at the control boards. "Radiation from the wreck must be playing havoc with the sensors," he called back to K'Tran. "Either that or we've got the wrong pod. There's no one in . . ."
The swaddled bundle lying in one of the seats was the size of a large duffel bag, but small enough that, at first, he didn't bother to take any notice of it, until the hint of motion caught his eye. Thinking his eyes were playing tricks on him, he settled his light on it, watching until he was sure of the movement this time. As the bundle fidgeted more noticeably, he thought he heard the slightest gurgle escape from within.
Thom approached, drawing his sidearm, should whatever was jostling around in there decide to turn on him. I can just see the news headlines. Bounty hunter eaten by hungry blanket monster.
With exaggerated caution, he reached forward, grabbing at the corner of the blanket and pulling it back. To his surprise, two tiny feet—one covered in white fur, the other mottled with brown spots—popped into view, four stubby toes on each wiggling wildly. Wrong end. I hope.
Less cautious now, Thom pulled back the blanket flap on the opposite end. First, two rounded, mouse-like ears popped forth, followed by the rest of the head they were attached to. Dark eyes fixated on him until they caught the light from his lantern, then blinked in irritation as the little creature chattered its discontent. Chuckling softly, Thom made sure to move the light away and the chattering became a more pleasant cooing.
"You find something?" K'Tran's concerned voice carried down from the Starhawk's cargo bay.
The critter had freed a stubby paw from its blankets and had latched onto one of Thom's fingers. He marveled at the strength in the tiny fingers. "Someone is more like it," he answered finally. "A very little someone."
Picking up the creature as gently as he could, Thom turned back to the hatch, handing the bundle up to his partner. "Congratulations Mister Pasker. It's a boy. I think."
"Very cute," K'Tran commented, as he examined the creature while Thom pulled himself up through the hatch. "It's not a species I recognize."
"I do," said Thom. "It's a Warwick. They're actually a pretty far-flung race, but they originated on Ardentia, I think."
K'Tran cringed. "Not the friendliest planet to be from. They're in the middle of a civil war, aren't they?"
Thom nodded. "Pretty much since the end of the war with the Harkonians."
K'Tran was smiling at the creature in his arms. It was cooing contentedly, large eyes drooping as sleep began to overtake it. "What do we do with him?"
Sighing, Thom scratched his head. "I'm not sure. We're so far out that it could be days before any other rescue ships arrive. Plus, there's the question of why this little one is all by himself."
K'Tran regarded him. "You starting to think this wasn't an accident?"
"I don't want to jump to conclusions. There are too many variables to consider." Moving to the wall panel, Thom pressed the controls to close the inner cargo hatch, then turned and headed for the bridge. "Asteroids don't just show up in the middle of commonly-used hyperspace lanes. The odds of one falling off an ore hauler are just too high."
"Also, why did whoever put this little guy in there launch him all by himself? Why not abandon ship with him? It's not like there wasn't enough room in that pod. Why launch an infant into the great by-and-by all on his own? I would think that his parents would want to keep him close. If Caitlin and I were on board a ship that was going down, there's no way in the galaxy that we'd put Jesse and Alyssa in a pod by themselves."
Stepping through the hatch to the bridge, K'Tran moved to one of the lounge couches on the side. After making some strategic adjustments of the cushions, he laid the Warwick in the middle, ensuring that it would not roll off and injure itself. It was already snoring softly.
With their new passenger resting comfortably, they resumed their controls; K'Tran already plotting a course out of the system. Thom began priming the engines when something made him stop. It was a feeling, nothing more. He switched the sensors over to long-range scan again.
"What's the matter?" K'Tran asked.
"Something's not right. I just have a feeling . . ." He broke off, staring intently at the sensor readings. Something near Drellis Major itself . . .
And there it was, coming around the gas giant from the far side. A ship. Small, maneuverable, and coming at them damn fast.
"Predator-class attack ship on intercept vector. No affiliation ID," K'Tran called out the moment the ship's computer made identification. He shot a look at his partner. "Wish I knew how you do that."
"It's a gift," Thom shrugged, hands flying across the controls as he redirected more power to the shields. "Jettison the pod. Charge the cannons."
"Already on it. I take it you don't think they're part of a rescue team?" K'Tran asked, rising from his seat and moving back to the gunnery chair.
"Not hiding behind the planet like that. They were watching us; waiting to see if we found something." Thom turned the Starhawk to face the newcomer.
"Maybe they're the ones who misplaced that asteroid?"
"Them, or someone affiliated with them," Thom answered. "Damn, I hate it when I'm right." He pressed for the comm button. "Predator attack ship, this is the hunter ship Starhawk. State your business in this sector."
The comm screen on his console flickered and the craggy face of a Volkov filled the view. "Starhawk, I am Lantros. You are harboring a fugitive. You will turn it over to my custody, now."
Thom glanced back at K'Tran, who raised a white eyebrow at the demand, and gripped the firing studs of his gun chair a little tighter. "As I stated before, this is a hunter ship. We have fugitives aboard all the time. However, we don't have any to turn over at this moment. We are here responding to the distress signal from the Star of Corrill. You are impeding our search efforts."
That carved-from-stone face fixed Thom with a look that could have cut through a plas-steel bulkhead. "You just jettisoned an escape pod docked to your cargo hatch. I want whoever was within."
Thom took a deep breath. This guy is doing his best to piss me off, and it's working. "No one was aboard. We got a false reading. That pod was just as dead as the rest of the debris field." A beat and Thom added, "Exactly who do you represent, anyway? I don't know of any Lantros with any of the hunter guilds."
Lantros leaned in closer to his viewer, red eyes seething with barely pent-up rage. "You will hand over the occupant of that pod to me now, or I shall open up your ship and take him myself," he growled.
Thom shot a quick glance back over his shoulder to K'Tran, got a nod of affirmation from his partner. Turning back, he met Lantros' glare with one of his own. "Take your best shot."
The challenge was barely out of Thom's mouth when the other ship let loose a volley of laser fire. Thom rolled the Starhawk out of range as K'Tran returned fire. The Predator evaded, turning to come around on Starhawk's stern, cannons blazing.
"We're about evenly matched, but I'll bet good money that Predator's not a stock model," K'Tran called out.
"No argument there," Thom said, guiding the ship close along the edge of a piece of starship debris, as more laser fire tracked along their trajectory. "Fortunately, the 'hawk isn't fresh out of the showroom either. Why not give Lantros something to think about?"
"Be my pleasure." Thom could hear the grin in K'Tran's voice. "Let's see how that thing fares against those new cluster missiles we upgraded to."
The bridge resounded with a dull whump as K'Tran launched the warhead. As the missile approached the mid-way point between the two ships, it split into four smaller warheads which arced inward at the attacker. At the very last second, the Predator dodged, side-slipping out of the way and launching countermeasures. The cluster missiles locked-on to the decoy, detonating harmlessly away from their intended target.
"Whoever this guy is, he's damn good," Thom said, gripping the controls as Lantros scored several hits on their aft shields. Warning lights began to flash across the boards.
"This guy's got to be mistaken. He can't be this intent on capturing an infant," K'Tran said, continuing to trade pot shots with Lantros' ship.
"Definitely has to be connected to the accident," Thom said, "If he didn't cause it, then he's here to make sure there are no surviving witnesses."
"And that includes us," K'Tran's voice began to take on a note of concern as the ship trembled under another volley. He yelped in surprise as his scanners picked up an incoming missile. He fired wildly, detonating the projectile just before it struck the shields. The blast was still severe enough to send warning sirens blaring throughout the ship. "Thom, you've got to get this guy off of us."
"Yeah, what do you think I've been trying to do?" Thom retorted, checking his scans of the attacker. "Overconfident bastard has all his power to forward shields. Aft section is virtually unprotected. If I get us behind him, do you think you can take him out?"
"I know I can, but I don't think we're gonna get more than one shot, and it's going to be close."
"Oh, it'll be close alright," Thom replied, pulling the ship into a dive towards Drellis Major and one of the larger sections of hull that was beginning to skip along the gas giants' atmosphere. He diverted power from the aft shields — a risk, considering the fire they were taking from astern— evening them out across the hull. The Starhawk began to buck wildly as it too began to skirt the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere. Lantros continued to follow, firing relentlessly.
Heat flares began to flash across the viewport, obscuring Thom's view. Relying on instruments only, he brought the Starhawk beneath the wreckage; close enough to make out the seams between individual hull plates. Clearing the wreck, he pulled the ship up hard, looping back in the opposite direction. Between heat flares, Lantros' ship appeared, its back to them as it too began passing beneath the shattered hull.
Thom allowed himself a grin. "Right here you creep. K'Tran?"
His partner's only reply was the sound of more cluster missiles being launched, followed by a spray of cannon fire. Lantros' ship bucked under the assault as the missiles broke through the poorly shielded aft section, hull plates breaking free and vaporizing almost immediately as the ship struck atmosphere. Another burst from the Starhawk's cannons and two engine ports sheared away. The Predator cartwheeled out of control, striking the Star of Corrill wreckage before plunging into the depths of Drellis Major's atmosphere, trailing flaming debris behind it.
Thom let out a breath he had not realized he was holding, guiding the ship back into clear space. He set the long-range scanners running again, but found no more surprises coming at them. "I think we're in the clear."
K'Tran worked himself free of his restraints, and the two of them went to check on their passenger. Still secure in his makeshift crib, the young Warwick was still snoozing, unaware and unperturbed by the events of the last few moments.
Safely away from Drellis Major, the Starhawk made an uneventful jump into hyperspace. With their course laid in, and the Warwick still asleep, Thom and K'Tran ventured aft to the galley for some coffee. Leaning against the table, K'Tran looked to his partner. "So, any idea what we're going to do with our little troublemaker yet?"
"Hard to say, considering what we just went through. If our friend Lantros had any associates who were in on this whole fracas, I doubt he'd be too safe anywhere. It did cross my mind to bring him to a Confederation outpost and leave him with the local authorities there."
K'Tran frowned, contemplating his cup of coffee. "Anyone with the cheggs to destroy a passenger liner then attack a hunter ship just to eliminate an infant —the reasoning behind which is still making me scratch my head— would certainly not hesitate to try taking out a Confed orphanage. And even if Lantros was working alone, and the little guy is in the clear, he could end up bouncing around foster homes for years."
Thom paused, considering K'Tran's words, and a playful grin cutting across his boyish features. "Or, he could bounce around the Forster home for years."
K'Tran looked skeptical. "You're not serious?"
"Why not?" Thom shrugged. "We could watch over him while I do some checking on my own. We'll probably have better luck tracking down his family with our Guild connections than the Confed services. And he'll be at less risk of discovery from the wrong people if I make some discreet inquiries instead of a full-blown investigation."
K'Tran gaped. "What about the investigation into what happened to the Star of Corrill? Surely someone's gonna know we were involved somehow."
"I doubt it. Except for Lantros, no one else knew we were in the area anyway. By the time a formal investigative team gets there from the Core there won't be much left of anything. If we keep quiet, no one will know we were there. It's not like the little guy could provide much witness for the investigation."
Thom paused, looking thoughtful. "Besides, it'll be fun having another baby around the house."
K'Tran stared at him, trying to decide if his friend had truly, finally, launched his brain out of an airlock. "You've already got one baby, or did you forget about Alyssa? Hell, Jesse's barely out of diapers! And how do you think Caitlin's going to like raising yet another kid while we go off on our hunts?"
Thom was unswayed by the argument. "Caitlin loves kids. She won't mind at all!" Topping off his coffee mug, he walked off towards the bridge to lay in the course for home.
K'Tran hung back, watching Thom walk off. He shook his head. "Something tells me that she will."
The Starhawk touched ground just long enough for Thom to bound down the ramp laden with several bundles before the ship lifted off once more, K'Tran guiding it back towards the spaceport in Novarra City. Smiling broadly, he approached the groundcar idling a few meters away as the driver climbed from the front seat.
Caitlin Forster regarded her husband with a mix of pleasure and annoyance. Using her solar glasses as a hairband, she pushed several wind-tossed blonde hairs out of her face, her brown eyes sizing Thom up with suspicion. "Why in the name of Kethlax's hide did you have me meet you all the way out here? I would have met you at the spaceport."
Thom set down all of his bundles, save for one. Opening his arms wide, he engulfed his wife in a bear hug. "Hello to you too," he whispered into her ear.
She returned the embrace, holding him tightly for a long, silent moment. Thom delighted in the scent of her hair, and the warmth of her body pressed to his; a sensation cut short as Caitlin pulled back. "You're not in some kind of trouble are you?"
Laughing, Thom made his way to the car, reaching in and taking hold of the two small arms extended through the window. With a heave, he extracted his young son from the backseat. As the blond moppet wrapped its arms and legs about him, he peered into the darkened interior at the infant sleeping comfortably in its travel-cradle. "Does Alyssa still have her cold?"
"No, she's fine" Caitlin replied, crossing her arms over her chest and fixing him with a glare that chilled the air around them. "Don't change the subject. Are you in trouble?"
"No, I'm not in any trouble," he said. "Have you been watching the news feeds? About the Star of Corrill?"
Caitlin canted her head to one side, her alabaster complexion going just a shade lighter. "You weren't involved in that, were you?"
"We were the first rescue ship on the scene. The only rescue ship actually, at least, until we left. Not like any other ships are going to find anything. The ship was a complete loss."
Young Jesse was nosing at the pack still over his one shoulder. He set the toddler down. Jesse continued trying to probe the sack, standing on Thom's feet to gain some extra height. Thom pushed him away playfully, which only caused the youngster to continue his investigation with more vigor.
Caitlin too was eyeing the pack, seeming to have just noticed it herself. "What do you have there? That's not from Star of Corrill is it? If you and K'Tran were pulling illegal salvage..."
"We were on a rescue mission. Looking for survivors." He paused, unsure of how to proceed. Oh, the hell with it. Shrugging, he added, "We found one."
Caitlin's jaw dropped. She eyed the bag with new suspicion. "And. . . you brought it home with you?"
"Not it, he, I think," Thom proceeded with more enthusiasm now, unslinging the pack from his shoulder, and cradling it across one arm while he used his free hand to undo the ties keeping the flap shut.
Caitlin cringed, taking a step back. "If this is some sort of sick joke. . ."
Sighing, Caitlin stepped forward once more, still cautious about peeking in the bag. As her eyes fixed on the little being inside, Thom could see her heart melt. The Warwick was awake, gazing up at her with its large, dark eyes, making cooing sounds.
Caitlin looked at her husband, the suspicion gone from her eyes as she reached into the duffel and pulled the little creature out. Its stubby paws latched onto her blonde hair as it embraced her, nuzzling its face in her neck. "It's adorable," she said. "You found him in the wreckage?"
"The only life sign we could find," Thom answered. "Found him in an escape pod, all alone."
"The poor thing," She gave a shriek of laughter as its nuzzling tickled her. "But I don't understand why you brought him here."
Beside Thom, young Jesse was jumping up and down, trying to get a better look. He clawed at his father beckoning "Wanna see. Wanna see." Thom lifted his son into his arms.
"No one can know we found him. Not yet anyway," Thom explained as he maneuvered Jesse so the two youngsters would be face to face. They stared at each other for a long minute before Jesse began to giggle uncontrollably. His laughter caused the Warwick to respond with squeaks of his own. Soon the two were batting at each other playfully.
Caitlin had that look of suspicion again. "Why can we not let anyone know about him?"
Thom hesitated, lowering Jesse to the ground as his wife did the same with the Warwick. Soon the two were rolling in the grass, giggling in merriment as each sought to get the upper hand.
Assured that the two would not harm one another, he pulled Caitlin closer, whispering, though there was no one else around to hear. "Someone was looking for him. We were attacked by another ship, demanding we give up the fugitive we had taken on board. Still have no clue who he was working for. We ran a check after we got out of there but came up empty, but this guy was very insistent we hand the little guy over. And before you ask, no, it was not someone looking out for his best interests."
"But if this guy keeps looking for him. . ."
"He won't. That much is certain. But I'd be willing to bet that whoever sent him will be sending others. That's why all the cloak and dagger about arriving here. No one can know where he came from. K'Tran and I will do a search on our own, using our Guild contacts, but I don't want to go through Confederation authorities. He'd be too much at risk."
Another burst of laughter drew their attention back to the rolling mass of arms and legs in the grass. Both were already filthy from head to toe.
Sighing, shaking her head, Caitlin looked resigned. "Another mouth to feed. Three children under the age of three." She paused and smiled as the two continued their wrestling, before fixing Thom with a stern look. "I may kill you, you know."
Thom sat on the patio outside his home, mug of coffee in hand as he stared into the night sky. A million jumbled thoughts running through his mind as he mulled over the events of the last few days.
K'Tran had contacted him about an hour earlier, reporting that the little detour they had taken had gone unnoticed, or, at least, had not seemed suspicious enough for the port authorities to make any inquiry. So far as he knew, he, Caitlin, and K'Tran were the only ones who knew of the young Warwicks' existence. Given time, they should be able to concoct a good cover story about how he came to be with them. Provided we have enough time.
His musings were interrupted as Caitlin stepped onto the porch, her own cup of coffee clasped in both hands. "Everyone settled in?" Thom asked.
Caitlin settled into the seat next to him. "Alyssa was still a little unsettled, but Jesse and Podo knocked out almost immediately. Must have been all that wrestling."
Thom gave her an amused look. "Podo?"
"While you were bathing the boys I did some research on Warwick customs, dietary habits, that sort of thing. I found a listing of names and their meanings. Podo, in the Warwick tongue means little, fair-haired, valorous one."
Thom chuckled. "It fits."
"I thought you'd like it."
"So... does the fact that you've named him mean we're keeping him?"
Even in the dark, Caitlin looked to be blushing slightly. "Unless you've got a better idea? I can't see turning him over to the authorities, especially if you say the one who was looking for him was willing to kill you to get at him. I mean, really, how much of a threat to anyone could that little ball of fluff be?"
Thom took a sip of his coffee. "That's what I intend to find out. Between our Guild contacts and a few old friends in Confed Intel, we should be able to hunt something down."
His wife looked sullen. "Do we have to?"
"I didn't say we'd look too hard. I'm guessing that any family he might have had went down with the Star of Corrill. Still, we owe it to him to find out." He reached over, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. "You're taken with him, aren't you?"
"And you aren't?" She gave him a wry smile.
"Quite taken." He admitted. "And if Lantros does have an associate who comes looking for him?"
"They'll have to go through us first," Caitlin answered, giving his hand another squeeze.
A tiny cry drifted out through a nearby window, and Caitlin sighed. "I think Alyssa still has a touch of that cold. She sounded a little congested when I put her down to bed." She rose from her seat. "You coming?"
"Be there in a minute."
Smiling, she kissed him on top of the head. "Don't be too long."
Watching his wife as she disappeared inside the house, Thom finished his coffee, pondering their conversation. He knew Caitlin to be absolutely sincere about protecting Podo, as she would Jesse or Alyssa; to the death, if necessary. Once Caitlin got her mind wrapped around an idea, it could not be pried from her with all the might of a star fleet.
Rising, he regarded the stars once again, wondering if Lantros had any associates —he was relatively certain the Volkov had not been acting alone— and when they would come looking for Podo.
If and when that happens, Thom Forster thought, they'll find one hell of a fight waiting for them.
Thanks for reading!
My novels, The Starhawk Chronicles and The Starhawk Chronicles: Rest and Wreck-reation are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers
Visit my Amazon author page at https://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Madden/e/B00EO95A4O