Rogue starship the benev.., p.1
Rogue Starship: The Benevolency Universe (Outworld Ranger Book 1), page 1
David Alastair Hayden
Also by David Alastair Hayden
Gav Gendin fidgeted as his insectoid cog, Octavian, lifted an ancient stasis capsule off the bed of Gav’s small transport skimmer. The robot’s powerful motivators strained as it loaded the heavy capsule onto an antigrav sled.
A sequence of lights flashed on a control panel mounted on the capsule, which still thrummed with power despite having spent millennia aboard a deserted ship drifting through hyperspace. Gav placed a hand on the warm capsule. He didn’t know the alien woman within, but he felt her presence and could almost see her strangely beautiful face despite the opaque walls of her diamondine cocoon.
His excitement over this rarest of discoveries was tempered with worry. Only a year ago he had launched a dangerous expedition into enemy territory to uncover an Ancient temple. He had found much less, and yet far more, than he’d bargained for. The temple had ended up being an Ancient outpost instead and nearly empty, save for a strange, ceramic amulet and a control chair that had allowed him to somehow pull a still functioning Ancient starship out of hyperspace.
There had been no way to tell where the ship would exit hyperspace and Gav had been searching for it ever since. How he’d been searching was what bothered him now.
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
Octavian paused and trilled a series of questioning beeps.
Distracted by the multitude of concerns careening through his mind, Gav stared numbly into the bulbous eyes on the cog’s angular face. None of this felt right. Gav touched the ceramic amulet etched with alien glyphs that hung around his neck.
The moment he had escaped the forbidden system where the Ancient outpost had been hidden, carrying this small relic with him, everything had changed. A vision had shown him that she was here, in this capsule, waiting for him. After that, a sequence of vivid dreams had led him to the crash site. And that just wasn’t natural.
Octavian prompted him with a quizzical, whirring chirp.
“Yes,” Gav said, returning to the present. “Load it onto the ship. Cargo Bay 1. Carefully. I don’t want to damage…her.”
The robot bobbed its head and beeped in understanding.
Dozens of joints clicking, Octavian pulled the sled up the boarding ramp onto Gav’s ship, the Outworld Ranger. His four feet rhythmically tinged all the way up into the sleekly curved starship, a Q34-C lightweight cruiser.
Armed for skirmishing, stocked for long journeys, and set up to ferry a few tons of cargo along with a small crew, the Outworld Ranger was the perfect ship for a smuggler or, in this case, an archaeologist with more equipment than caution.
Tal Tonis, Gav’s pilot for the last three years, glanced up at the sky for what seemed the hundredth time that day. Tal had the slender frame of a spacer and was the best pilot Gav had ever worked with.
“A bad feeling about what?” Tal asked.
“Everything?” Gav shrugged his broad shoulders. His was a frame born of generations of planet-bound humans. “All I know is something’s not right here.”
With a lithe hand, Tal clapped him on the arm. “Loosen up, Gav. All the risks you took back in that outpost have paid off. You’ve made the find of the century here.”
“Perhaps the greatest ever,” Gav said with reasonable assurance that it was.
He had found a living member of the Ancient race, along with a treasure trove of well-preserved artifacts the rest of the crew was still cataloguing back at the crash.
“But I’m not the only one who’s nervous,” Gav said. “What’s your deal? Afraid the sky’s going to fall?”
Tal laughed half-heartedly and gestured all around them. “It’s this swamp. It’s creepy, it’s damp, and it smells like ass.”
Gav didn’t mind the muck his boots scrunched in, the vine-wrapped trees with their drooping limbs, or the sulphuric scent hanging in the stagnant air. He didn’t even mind the sweltering heat or the mosquito-like insects buzzing about. In his twenty years as a renowned archaeologist, he’d been to far worse places.
Tal again glanced up at the purplish clouds stained by the system’s red-tinted sun. Frowning, Gav scratched through his graying beard. If Tal was so bothered by the swamp, why did he keep searching the sky?
A voice entered Gav’s mind via his auditory nerves.
“Sir, Mr. Tonis is showing elevated signs of stress but no illness. I recommend a thorough medical evaluation. Or a good bonk on his noggin.”
The voice came from the 9G-x chippy unit designated SLK-138 that insisted on being called Silky. And the data came from the lightweight, low-profile sensor array mounted on the shoulders of Gav’s battlesuit, right behind his neck. Chippies, the standard form of computer interfaces, plugged into the left temple via a socket wired into the brain’s neural system. The 4G units were the most common, with luddites clinging to their 1G’s and the poor burdened by 2G’s, but some occupations required more advanced units.
Tal’s was a 6G+, a solid choice for a civilian pilot who could afford good equipment. But Gav’s 9G-x was an experimental unit loaned to him by the government after he had rescued it from the forbidden Krixis world where he’d discovered the body of its original bearer, and the Ancient outpost. Gav’s battlesuit, sensor array, weapons, and other advanced equipment had likewise belonged to the Empathic Services agent that had worked with Silky, until her death nearly a hundred and ninety years ago.
Gav focused his thoughts and responded silently through the neural interface system. “Monitor him closely.”
Gav walked over to a stack of supply boxes Octavian had unloaded from the ship. He began moving the boxes onto the bed of his open-topped, transport skimmer. The boxes contained equipment his team would need at the crash site.
“In fact, increase the sensor sweep from level two to level five and monitor everything.”
“Sir, other than Mr. Tonis’s elevated heart rate and some harmless beasties in the swamp, I’m not picking up anything unusual. Perhaps a level three scan instead? A level five will drain the sensor pack in less th
Gav silently called up the power readout in the heads-up display beamed directly into his retinas. Silky had a habit of exaggerating for his benefit—the result of an abnormally advanced AI module and extraordinarily quirky personality programming that altogether either made Silky fully sentient, or something close to it. The sensor pack was currently at seventy-three percent power. An hour of high-level scanning seemed about right.
“Just do as I asked.”
“Is this one of those gut sensations humans are afflicted with, sir? Like emotional dysentery?”
“Yep. You can switch to a level one scan when the power meter hits ten percent.”
“As you wish, sir. I am sure you know best.”
With a groan, Tal lifted a box and loaded it onto his skimmer. Being a spacer, he wasn’t a strong man, and this world had above average gravity for a habitable planet.
“You keep saying her when you talk about the capsule,” Tal said, “but couldn’t it be a he?”
“I suppose it could,” Gav lied, picking up a heavy box and wishing he had another cog. When Octavian was told to do something carefully, he took forever.
Tal nodded. “Hoping it’s a sexy one, eh?”
“Something like that.”
Gav hadn’t told anyone except Silky about the dreams or this strange link he had with the alien woman in the capsule. No one would have believed him. Until they had arrived and found the crashed ship only hours ago, he hadn’t fully believed it himself.
Tal loaded the final box onto the other skimmer. “How many more trips do you want to make today?”
So far, they had only made the one. As soon as Gav had found the capsule on the Ancient vessel, he had rushed it back to the Outworld Ranger. Tal had only followed him back so he could help pick up more supplies. Unlike the others, he wasn’t much use at the sites. He mostly ferried equipment, performed maintenance on the ship, and watched porn using his chippy.
“Just one more.” Gav wiped sweat from his brow. “We’ll be here recording and salvaging for at least three weeks, maybe a month. No need to hurry.”
After that, he’d spend years at home analyzing the capsule and his data, publishing studies, and becoming the most renowned archaeologist in the Benevolency. Perhaps the most famous ever, especially if the Ancient woman could be revived. He would sell the Outworld Ranger, settle down, and be a proper father for a change. His boy, Siv, deserved that.
“That sounds terribly exciting,” Tal replied numbly.
Tal hated archaeology but loved flying. If not for the privilege of operating a ship as fine as the Outworld Ranger and the opportunity to visit off the wall locations, Gav could never have afforded a pilot as good as Tal. It actually helped that they’d been attacked by pirates Tal’s first month on the ship.
Gav swung a leg over the skimmer’s seat and settled in. He would have thought the chance to study one of the Ancients’ exotic starships would have excited the spacer. But apparently Tal was only interested in ships he could fly.
Gav gripped the steering wheel on his single-seater skimmer and the control panel lit up. The small transport was hardly bigger than a skimmer bike and could only carry a small load of equipment. The stasis pod had barely fit in its cargo bed.
“All I want to do now is unload this equipment and record the ship’s layout before sunset. I have no desire to be out in this swamp at night.”
And he wanted to study the stasis capsule as soon as possible.
Tal climbed into the seat of the other small transport, and together they zoomed out into the swamp, weaving their way between purple-leafed trees and ochre vines with razor-sharp thorns. Behind them, the Outworld Ranger rested on one of the few patches of dry ground within leagues.
The Ancient ship had crashed into the vast swamp dominating most of this uncharted planet no more than two months ago. Most of it was submerged into a meter of fetid water. Though he’d been the one to find it, Gav wasn’t the only one searching for it. The government, with its vast resources, had been looking as well. But Gav had an advantage due to his expertise in studying the Ancients. That was why he had been given the advanced equipment he’d discovered and the services of Silky.
The Ancient ship appeared ahead of them. The hull of the slender, elongated vessel bore many battle scars and had cracked open along one side upon impact with the planet. Gav could tell the ship had been badly damaged even before he’d helped it jump out of hyperspace. But the crash landing certainly hadn't helped.
The Ancients had died out nearly twelve thousand years ago. And only hull fragments from other Ancient ships had been discovered, in pieces no larger than a dining table. Most of the artifacts Gav studied were hand sized or smaller, and the vast majority of his research had focused on the eroded stone edifices they had left behind.
Based on engravings and sculpture fragments they knew the Ancients were anatomically similar to humans, but archaeologists had no bone fragments to work with. Apparently, for reasons one could only guess, Ancient remains disintegrated far faster than those of humans. So to find a living Ancient in a stasis pod was beyond incredible. And to find her along with a still functional ship… It was all something Gav had been dreaming about since he was thirteen. But it was a dream he’d never once thought could become reality.
Tal suddenly braked his skimmer.
Gav pulled up to the right of him. “Something wrong?”
Tal didn’t respond.
“Sir!” Silky shouted with alarm. “Three military-class starfighters just entered the atmosphere at assault speed.”
“Heading this way, sir.”
“Toward the Outworld Ranger or the—”
“Missiles launched, sir!”
Gav opened his comm to his two team members working on the Ancient ship. “Get out of there! Now!”
Gav looked up and cringed in horror as he saw a half-dozen flaring plasma missiles streaking down from the sky.
“I’m sorry,” Tal said softly beside him.
The missiles struck the Ancient ship. The other two members of his crew—Rina Boggs and Enic Pith—never had a chance. The explosion kicked fire and debris into the sky, and the concussion nearly knocked Gav off his speeder. Flaming shards of metal rained through the swamp, falling just short of Gav’s position.
Despite the apparent destruction of the vessel, the starfighters maintained their course, pelting the alien wreck with their railguns and plasma cannons. They only pulled up at the last second.
“Sir, imminent danger to your left!”
With a thought, Gav activated his force shield. A shimmering, three-foot-wide disc of energy expanded out from the emitter strapped to his left forearm. Gav hunkered down behind the force shield and watched in disbelief as Tal Tonis, a man he had thought his friend, aimed his heavy blaster pistol and fired.
The burst of plasma shots splatted and sizzled against Gav’s shield—another highly advanced military piece that had belonged to Eyana Ora, the late Empathic Services agent.
With his right hand, Gav drew his neural disruptor. Tal’s second burst knocked the force shield out, and one plasma bolt burned past Gav’s cheek, blistering his skin. Gav aimed and squeezed the trigger. A sparkling energy beam fired out of his disruptor pistol and struck Tal in the chest. As a halo of static crackled around him, Tal’s muscles tensed…then relaxed. He slumped off the skimmer and plopped into the murky water.
Revving the engines, Gav spun the skimmer around and opened the throttle. He had to get to the Outworld Ranger before the starfighters could destroy it.
He opened his comm. “Octavian, raise the shields!”
A binary warble responded affirmatively.
Tal Tonis… He couldn’t believe the man had betrayed him, and the rest of the team. Rina…Enic…those were good people back in that Ancient ship, people he cared for and respected. People Tal had always gotten along with. This just di
And now Tal… Gav frowned. He had been in such a hurry that he hadn’t checked the disruptor’s settings when returning fire.
“Silky, was the disruptor on stun or kill?”
“The bastard deserved the kill setting sir, but alas, it was on stun.”
“Then maintain level five scanning. Tal may recover sooner than we’d like.”
A tree loomed directly in his path. Gav braked, jerked the steering wheel hard right, leaned into the turn, then swung around the tree, leaning back the other way. He returned to full-speed and immediately had to dodge more indigenous plant life. At this speed he’d kill himself before the starfighters could take a shot at his ship.
“I need the fastest safe course back through the trees.”
“I do have some limitations, sir. I can’t work that fast, not while maintaining a level five scan to watch out for Tonis and tracking the starfighters. And without satellites I don’t have a precise map of the planet to—”
“Just retrace the previous route we took.”
Two triangles, one blue and the other yellow, appeared within his heads-up display. Gav bore left and lined them up as best as he could while zipping through the trees at top speed.
He had expected to see a fireball from the Outworld Ranger’s position by now. “Where are those fighters?”
by David Alastair Hayden have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes