My latest Starhawk tale based on my science fiction book series The Starhawk Chronicles
|In The Name Of The Father
A Starhawk Tale
Joseph J. Madden
The air in the tunnel was a suffocating mix of starship fuel, damp earth, and rot.
To K’Tran Pasker, it smelled of death.
“I don’t like this, Thom,” he said, his whisper seemed as loud as a shout in the cramped confines. As he spoke, he could see his breath in the cool, dank air. “This just feels wrong.”
“Every time we go into a place like this, it feels wrong to you,” Thom Forster replied. Even though he stood only a few steps away, all K’Tran could see was a dark silhouette. “I’m starting to think you’re paranoid.”
K’Tran could hear the grin in his partner’s voice, and it irked him. “And one of these days I’m gonna be right. You know I was against us taking this contract in the first place. This guy Thring gives me the creeps.”
“Thring is a creep,” Thom retorted, the previous humor in his voice gone, replaced with uncharacteristic venom. “Sonofabitch killed ten people when he hijacked that shuttle. Four of them were kids.”
Shontaia Thring was the most brutal pirate the galaxy had seen in years, and because of that brutality, many were afraid to post bounties on him for fear of retaliation. It had taken this last, extreme act of violence against innocents to spur the Galactic Confederation into taking action
“I’m not saying this guy doesn’t deserve to be taken down. Not at all,” K’Tran replied. He jumped as some critter further in the darkness ahead gave off a squeal. He was thankful that the darkness concealed the flush of embarrassment he felt rising in his face. “Believe me, I’d be thrilled to send this bastard on a one-way ticket straight to the gates of Hell. I just wish this was more on our terms.”
“We make our own terms. It’s why we do this,” Thom replied. He hefted his rifle and continued down the tunnel, ending the conversation. Shrugging off the feeling of dread, K’Tran followed, wondering how many other hunters had said that before. None who had gone after the pirate Shontaia Thring before had returned alive.
Knowing that using a pad-reader to follow tunnel schematics could be picked up by an energy scan, they had been forced to commit the route to memory. The tunnel, a natural formation from a lava tube, now converted to a ventilation shaft, ran for nearly two kilometers through the base of the long-dormant volcano, the caldera of which Thring had converted to a base. Now K’Tran was beginning to wonder if they had made a wrong turn, or if the plans were right to begin with. The path continued for so long with no sign of an end that even Thom was beginning to fidget. Rounding a curve, a faint light from further down made their navigation a little easier, and the distant hum of starship engines in standby mode could now be heard.
Thom paused, looking back over his shoulder and gave K’Tran a reaffirming nod. After years on the hunt together, and several more before that serving the Confederation in the war against the Harkonian Empire, the non-verbal signal was all the communication they needed. K’Tran gave his weapons a final look-over. Once the fun started, there would be no time to double-check. Assured that everything he needed was ready, he gave Thom the return signal, and they continued on.
The end of the tunnel drew near, and they could make out activity in the hangar beyond. It was too busy for them to attempt an entry now. They would have to wait until a shift change before heading inside the complex.
Thom halted abruptly, holding up a clenched fist. K’Tran paused in mid-stride. “What?” he dared whisper.
“I think I just stepped on a pressure switch,” Thom hissed. K’Tran held his breath, waiting for alarms, lasers, anything to confirm Thom’s suspicions, but only silence filled the next few seconds. After a full minute of waiting, with no seeming consequence, they began to relax. Thom took another step forward…
And jumped back just before being cut in half as a force-field materialized across the tunnel in front of him.
“We’re jigged,” Thom cursed, turning as he spoke. “Run!”
K’Tran turned, getting a whole five paces before another force-field sprang into existence on the opposite end of the tunnel.
No longer worried about detection, Thom activated the floodlamp mounted on the barrel of his rifle, searching for another avenue of escape, but the tunnel walls were solid rock. Embedded every half-meter in the rock, red flashing diodes winked to life. “Concussion charges,” Thom said.
The last thing K’Tran remembered was feeling his knees go out from under him and he hit the ground. He heard the blast, felt something heavy fall on top of him, then all was black and silent.
How long K’Tran lay consciousness, he could not tell. The tunnel was still as black as it had been before the blast. His entire body ached and he found it hard to move his legs. At first, he feared rubble from the tunnel walls or ceiling had collapsed upon him or, worse, paralysis. When he pushed against the weight, he found it too soft for rock. An even worse realization came over him.
It was Thom, lying atop him.
It was coming back to him. Just before the charges had gone off, Thom had knocked him to the ground, shielding him from the worst of the blast with his body. The thought that his friend had sacrificed himself made him ill, and he struggled to sit up, rolling Thom as gently as possible onto his back. K’Tran checked his friend for any sign of life.
No pulse, no respiration, and the body cold to the touch. To look for any other sign would be a waste of his time. His friend was gone.
Alone in the darkness, K’Tran wept over the body of his longtime friend, uncaring if Thring or any of his goons came looking for them. The fact that they had lain in the tunnel for so long, undisturbed told K’Tran that Thring was overconfident that his explosives had done their job, or that he thought them so small a threat as to be not worth the effort.
Uncountable minutes passed before he found the strength to get to his feet. The force fields had kept the blast contained, and the tunnel to either side was free from any debris. Hefting his rifle, he risked venturing in the direction of the hangar once again.
There was no longer any need for stealth. Arriving at the mouth of the tunnel, K’Tran found it deserted. Any ships that had been berthed within had since launched, and the entire area was devoid of movement. Thring and his lackeys must have been in the last stages of evacuating this particular base before he and Thom had even arrived. Another hour or two later, and they might have missed them entirely.
And Thom might still be alive.
No longer having to worry about detection, he powered up his comm-band and signaled the ship. The voice of the ship’s EXC-series procurement drone came back at him almost immediately, echoing loudly through the cavernous, empty hangar bay. “Bokschh here.”
“It’s K’Tran,” he replied, then chided himself for saying it. The drone would know who it was. “You can bring the ship in. No need for subtelty.”
A short pause on the other end, then “I understand. I take it the mission was not a success?”
That’s an understatement. “The mission was a complete and total failure,” K’Tran sighed. “Thom’s dead.”
There was no emotion, no surprise or anger or sadness in the drone’s voice when it replied, and for the first time K’Tran could remember, he envied the drone for that. “Understood. Arrival in ten minutes.”
K’Tran closed down the channel, then set about looking for something with which to build a makeshift travois. Then he returned to that black, foul tube to retrieve the body of his friend.
The sun setting over the distant horizon gave the illusion that the rustling prairie grass was a sea of flame. Thom’s funeral procession was meandering away from the graveside as farm droids returned the freshly dug earth back into the two-meter square hole they had excavated only that morning.
K’Tran walked in silence, despite being surrounded by colleagues he had known for years. Fellow hunters, or some of those he and Thom had served with during the war, had acted as an honor guard, escorting Thom’s body on its final journey.
Thom’s family walked a few paces ahead. Alyssa, the youngest, walked hand-in-paw with Podo, the young warwick that Thom and his wife had taken in as a toddler years back. Beside them, Thom’s wife Caitlin walked solemnly with her arm around their oldest son Jesse. The young man had been the very definition of the word stoic since hearing of his father’s death. As they approached the house, and the tent set up outside to accommodate the guests for the funeral reception, the teen broke away from his mother and made a tentative approach to Guild Mistress Beaarazaan. The nearly two-meter tall Delphian put a hand on the boy's shoulder at his approach, looking down at him affectionately through wide, purple eyes. Jesse engaged the Guild leader animatedly, though K’Tran could not make out what was being said. As the decidedly one-sided conversation became more intense, the Guild Mistress kept her calm demeanor through it all.
“He’s asking her for any information she might have on Thring’s whereabouts,” Caitlin said, quietly appearing at K’Tran’s side. “He wants to go after him himself. It’s all he’s talked about since we got the news. It’s starting to scare his siblings, and me.”
K’Tran put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer. She melted into the embrace, so much so that K’Tran was almost all that was keeping her on her feet. “I’ll talk to him. He’s got to realize that there isn’t a being in the galaxy that would let him go after Thring, especially at his age.”
“The truly scary thing is, I know if he did go off looking, Podo would follow him, no questions asked.”
The conversation between Jesse and Beaarazaan looked to be coming to an end. Jesse’s face showed the storm of emotions he was fighting back as the guild mistress shook her head gently and put her hand on his shoulder again before moving off toward the tent. Jesse’s face was a mask of pure anger now as he turned and stomped off around the side of the house and out of sight.
“Looks like there’s no better time for that talk,” K’Tran said, tracking the boy’s path. He gave Caitlin a reassuring smile. “I’ve got this. You see to your guests.”
Caitlin hugged her friend, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek before walking away. K’Tran watched her go for a moment before turning in the direction Jesse had gone. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, knowing this was going to be one of the most difficult conversations he ever had. There had been no communication between him and Thom’s oldest since he had arrived on Kassandra Two days earlier. K’Tran had no way of knowing just how the youth would react.
Jesse was where K’Tran had expected to find him, down by the pond at the bottom of a slope several meters away from the backside of the house. Most of the shoreline was overgrown with cattails and an indigenous form of flora called Green-eyed Lily. Jesse stood in a cleared section of shore, angrily skipping stones across the surface.
K’Tran took another breath before speaking. “Hey, kid.”
Jesse turned so suddenly, a small stone held in his hand, and for a moment, K’Tran was afraid the boy would lob it in his direction. After recognition set in, the boy’s eyes dropped, and he turned back to the pond. “Hey,” he responded quietly, hauling back and flinging the stone out across the water. The projectile struck the surface and skipped a half-dozen times before sinking about three-quarters of the way to the opposite shore.
Deducing that it was safe to approach, K’Tran walked slowly over, coming parallel to the boy, but still keeping a respectful distance. “Look, Jesse,” he started. “I know I should have talked to you earlier, but I thought maybe you needed the time to…”
“I’m not mad at you,” Jesse interrupted, without looking away from the pond. He skipped another stone. “I don’t blame you. You were both taking the risk. Both of you could have been killed. And I’m not mad that Dad did what he did to save you. You would have done the same.”
He paused, picking up yet another rock and hurling it as hard as he could. The effort caused the projectile to arch wildly and plummet into the water. They stood in silence, watching the ripples spread from the epicenter as the sounds of tree frogs and other nocturnal critters began filling the silence between them.
“I want Thring,” Jesse finally said into the growing darkness. “I want to look into his eyes and let him know who I am before I kill him.”
“Jesse…” K’Tran began, but no other words would come to him. He understood all too well the feelings that were roiling through the boy’s mind.
“I talked to Baeaarazann. I told her I needed to know anything the guild has on Thring,” Jesse said. “She politely refused.”
“Are you surprised? You’re barely sixteen. You’re not a hunter, and even if you were, she wouldn’t put you on a hunt like this because you’re too deep into it. Conflict of interest.”
“Who the hell wouldn’t have a conflict of interest in something like this. Thring and his people have killed, what? Dozens? Maybe hundreds over the years? And these scum just walk away clean every time?”
“Jesse, he’s not getting away clean,” K’Tran said. “But with dealings like this, there are…nuances. You’ve got to let these things take their course. Thring will be brought to justice.”
Jesse sighed, bending to grab yet another rock. He contemplated it briefly before letting it fall back to the ground again in frustration. “Justice is a decidedly fluid term, doncha think?” he said, the barest hint of a wry smile finally creasing his lips. “I mean, what’s just to one man may be totally unjust to another.”
“And what would be just to you?”
“I want to kill Thring. Twice.”
Jesse nodded. “I want to kill Thring, then make a deal with the devil to bring him back to life, so I can kill him again.”
K’*Tran was not quite sure how to respond to that statement. The idea of it was so absurd as to elicit laughter, but the boy had proven himself so damned resourceful over the years that K’Tran could almost believe he could somehow pull it off. “That’s a tall order, Jess.”
“You’re gonna help me, right?” the boy asked, looking up at his old friend imploringly. “You’ll help me find Thring? The two of us, plus Bokschh…we can handle the ‘hawk. We’ll find Thring, and…”
K’Tran held up a hand to keep the boy from going any further. “I’m done, Jess. I’m out. Retiring. I told your mom the other night. Without your dad, this job just wouldn’t be any fun.”
“That’s why we would be doing it! For Dad! He would want his murder avenged.”
K’Tran just shook his head. He could see where the boy was coming from, but did not know if he could ever accurately explain it. “Jesse, Thom was never the vengeful type and you know it. And what happened wasn’t murder. It was an occupational hazard. We knew the risks when we got into this business. It wasn’t personal, though it might seem like it. Thring knew someone was coming for him, but not who. If Thring wanted to make it personal, he would have made it more fun for himself.”
Even as he spoke, he could see his words were failing to make a dent in the boy’s armor. He knew the look too well. Both Thom and Caitlin affected the same look when their minds were made up. The jaw was set. The cool blue eyes looked to grow downright icy. K’Tran would have a better chance of getting a reaction by standing atop the Starhawk’s hull and telling it to fly on its own.
“Your dad wanted more for you kids,” he said finally. “The last thing he would want is for you to throw your lives away chasing down a ghost, which is what Thring is. He pops up for a while, does some damage, then disappears for years at a time. No one knows where or when he’ll make another appearance, and my instincts tell me that after this, he’s gone to ground for a while.”
“So it’s over,” Jesse said, finally meeting K’Tran’s gaze. His eyes were moist with held-back tears.
“Far from it,” K’Tran replied, just as a cacophony of voices roared out from the other side of the house, followed by a chorus of laughter. “You hear that? All those men and women came to honor your father. All our brothers and sisters in the Guild will keep hunting for Thring. They all loved your dad. Thring’s days are numbered.”
“I thought you were all rivals?”
K’Tran smiled. “We’re fighting friends. There’s a world of difference.” He put a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Come on. We should go join them. Your mom’s gonna want you there, and I want to get to the food before Bellsch and Grim eat everything they can get their paws on. I’m hungry.”
Still gripping his shoulder, K’Tran lead Jesse back to where everyone had gathered. Voices became more distinct as they drew near. One particularly gruff voice said, “A toast! To Thom! The second-best bounty hunter in the galaxy!”
“So what would that make you, Drang? Fifth or sixth?” Another voice shouted to a peal of laughter.
Someone began singing an old Trevarran drinking song. Others joined in, mostly off-key, and many singing the wrong words, but the spirit was there.
“You see?” K’Tran said as they drew nearer the crowd. “Your dad’s legacy. He won’t be forgotten, and mark my words, he will be avenged.”
Jesse nodded, giving his friend a small, appreciative smile, and moved off to stand between his mother and sister, putting an arm around each as they watched the revelers. Podo stood before them, swaying in time to the melody.
K’Tran moved through the crowd, receiving condolences for the loss of his good friend, and vows to help hunt Thring down, just as he had told Jesse they would.
The celebration of Thom’s life lasted well into the night, even after most of his family had retired to the house. Only Jesse had remained behind, keeping mostly to himself and the look on his face told K’Tran that he was by no means finished on the subject of vengeance. Far from it.
It may not be in the immediate future, but Jesse was going to go after Thring. That much was certain. The boy was far too strong-willed to let one simple talk dissuade him from the notion. Either Thring would be dead, or Jesse would.
And it was now K’Tran’s job to make sure it wasn’t the latter.
Thanks for reading! My novels, The Starhawk Chronicles and The Starhawk Chronicles: Rest and Wreck-reation are available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0841YCBJN