STARFORGERS Chapter 1

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“Devon Ardel is a bit more driven than most Rangers I know. She once walked naked across the burning flats south of Driggs, just to track down her perps. I can’t say as if I was ever that bold or stupid. But ya gotta love that kind of grit in someone.”

- Hap Anders, Stellar Ranger, Company H, Ocherva

Excerpt from: Ocher Rangers, An Oral History, by Sten Neg

Chapter 1

 

Shoving the warm blaster barrel into the pirate’s gaping mouth, Devon snarled in his face. His gagging preventing him from answering her question. He struggled against her tight grip under the relentless sunlight that slowly sapped the life from both of them.

“Let him talk. He’s the only one left alive,” Hap said, scanning the carnage around them.

Devon pushed against the sweaty chest of the pirate with her left forearm. She twisted the blaster to the side so she could look the pirate in his good eye. “Where’s the Captain?”

The pirate choked on the metal barrel, his dry lips burned from the heat fins. Devon eased the blaster out just enough for the man to talk. His back was up against the hot, stone wall of the canyon. “He’s not dirt-side. He’s gone.”

Devon tilted her head and frowned. The blaster went back inside and halted against the back of his throat choking him again. A snarl escaped her lips.

Hap leaned in and pushed her sun burned face up against Devon’s. Her warm breath smelled of the bitter scent of ocha root. It caused a chill to run down Devon’s spine. “Don’t do it, girl. We aren’t murderers.”

Devon cast a pale eye in her friend’s direction. With a grunt of agreement, she slowly relented and pulled the blaster out of the pirate’s mouth, forced him to his knees and slapped cuffs on him.

Hap breathed a sigh of relief and holstered her own weapon. There were four dead pirates littering the ground, the aftermath of a fierce gunfight. The two surviving Rangers wore brown, weathered clothing that blended into the terrain. Hap wiped her nose on her arm and tilted her flat brimmed Ranger hat back on her head. Her dark eyes surveyed the dead. “I’ve never seen you this driven before. What’s the deal with this pirate captain?”

Devon pushed the captive towards the battered hull of his transport. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s get these bodies aboard and head back to Haven. I need a drink.”

Hap nodded as they began dragging the dead pirates back to the transport. The dry, reddish dirt of Ocherva clung to the pirate’s black space suits like fine powder. Snatching the reins of the honking, stamping lerra, Hap led them into the transport and tied them to a bulkhead. The hairy, four-legged riding animals were a common form of transport on the border world. Both Rangers had ridden for days to reach the hidden pirate canyon so they could take the pirates completely by surprise. The end result was deadly for the criminals.

Devon moved forward to the cockpit area of the transport. It was hotter inside than out under the relentless twin suns. She fired up the engines as Hap lowered the stern hatch. The back of the ship was a sauna and smelled of lerra dung and ripe human trash. Hap glanced at the cuffed pirate as she made her way to the cockpit.

“Hey, you can’t leave me back here with the dead and these stinking animals.”

“Shut your hole or I’ll let her plug it with a blaster again,” Hap said, securing the cockpit door closed.

* * *

Haven was a small town on the edge of a vast, unforgiving desert. From the air it could easily be mistaken for abandoned. A closer inspection would have revealed subtle signs of habitation; trails in the sand, the occasional pedestrian, living animals huddled in the shade of buildings.

The rusted hulk of the pirate transport set down near the Ranger holding cells just outside of town. Hap escorted the prisoner inside for processing while Devon headed to the one street town’s only tavern. Both suns were still climbing in the salmon sky, washing out the swirling clouds of the gas giant that Ocherva orbited.

Devon pushed the swinging doors aside and headed for the bar. It was too early in the day for drinking but she didn’t care. The gunfight had gotten her keyed up and forced unpleasant memories to resurface. Memories that she had spent years trying to forget. The kind of memories that only a hard drink could make one forget again.

“Just give me the bottle,” she said to the bartender.

He gave her a curious look before handing it over to her. “A bit early for the good stuff, eh Dev?”

She flashed him a harsh glare that told him to shut up and mind his own business. The look on his face showed that he got the implied message. Devon slid into a booth at the back of the tavern and started taking long sips from the brown bottle.

The homemade liqueur slid down her dry throat. It tasted divine. She took off her hat and set it on the wooden table. The metal Ranger badge on the hat reminded her of why she had joined. She took another drink and flipped the hat over. She was trying to forget it was the fourth anniversary of the marriage to her late husband. Staring at that badge only made her remember him and his untimely passing. The reason she had joined the Rangers was to look for his killer. Four years on this rock and she was no closer to finding the pirate captain responsible for his death than when she had joined.

Devon sat back and stared up at the wooden beams of the ceiling. She didn’t want to fall into another depressing remembrance of her husband like she did every year at this time. Booze. More booze. Then the silent tears. Then more booze. She shook her head. Not this year. This year, no tears. She glanced around the almost empty tavern. She had kept her marriage a secret on Ocherva. She didn’t even tell her best friend Hap about it. Devon took another drink and tried to focus her thoughts on her job.

The pirates they had gunned down this morning were not from around these parts. They were a small landing party from a starship that had come through the system earlier. Their transport markings indicated they were deep space pirates. The flaming skull on the side of this ship was a trademark of Captain Morgan Blud, a notorious pirate whose ships regularly harassed the shipping lanes this side of the Trade Triangle. It was Blud who had been responsible for her husband’s death and it was Blud whom she had vowed to find and kill.

Devon tipped the bottle again thinking of how she had been looking for him ever since coming to the barren moon of Ocherva. But pirates rarely came out this far. Ocherva was a worthless ball of red dirt that only miners and cattlemen occupied. The moon had a reputation for being a good place to go if you didn’t want to be found in the Federation. This attracted all kinds of criminals and reclusive types looking to get away from it all.

She took another long drought from the bottle and closed her eyes tight. Why would deep space pirates be hiding out on Ocherva? It just didn’t make sense. Her eyes popped open with a sudden thought. Silicate. She remembered the last time she had seen a pirate ship. It was trying to get a load of silicate rocks from some local bank robbers. They were not successful and at the time nobody could figure out why pirates would be after rocks. Especially silicate rock that was as common in the galaxy as the stars themselves.

She lifted the bottle again, noticing a thin, weather beaten android had entered the tavern and was scanning the tables for its owner. Grimacing, Devon watched the android teeter over to her, its servos whining in protest of the dust in their bushings.

“Miss Devon, you are wanted in Control. There is an unidentified incoming starship,” Thirty-seven said. Its voice was an evenly modulated reflection of a human male.

Devon looked at the android with heavy eyes. The liqueur had wasted no time in relaxing her to the point of being drunk. How long have I been sitting here? She put her hat back on and let the android help her out of the seat. Leaning on it for support, they both shuffled out of the tavern.

* * *

Ranger Control was the headquarters for the small contingent of Rangers stationed on Ocherva. It was constructed of metal instead of the clay bricks used by the other buildings in town. Inside was a dimly lit, low ceiling room with banks of communications and scanning gear at one end and a conference table and equipment lockers at the other end.

Aven, the young male Ranger sat behind a desk filled with a myriad of glowing screens.

Devon saw the upturned eyebrow at her entrance. Her android steered her to his chair and stopped. Devon let go of Thirty-seven and draped herself on the back of Aven’s chair. She knew she smelled of liquor and that her breath was probably toxic. “What’s going on?”

“Inbound ship, coming from deep space,” Aven punched a control and a glowing blip was magnified on the center screen. The contact was big, but beyond that no details could be identified.

“Nothing comes in from that direction. Except for comets,” Devon said. She put a hand to her forehead and rubbed, cursing herself for drinking so early in the day and while on duty. “Get Hap. She’s over at the holding cell. We’ll go up and check it out.”

Aven waved away the fumes of her breath and opened a drawer. He handed her a small metal case with pills in it. “Take one of these.”

She took the case and headed for the lockers on the far wall. Thirty-seven moved in close to help her but she batted him away. “Get lost Slim, I can handle this.”

The android stood by for a moment as she took several pills and swallowed them dry, then it left the building.

Devon started getting her flight gear out of her locker and then sat down dizzy. She put her head in her hands. The pain throbbed so intensely it made the room spin. What the hell was in that bottle? It usually takes a lot more than a few swigs to get me this plastered.

* * *

Hap came in and stopped at Aven’s comm desk, her attention on Devon. He looked up at her with a concerned expression on his narrow, sunken face.

“What happened out there this morning? She’s already been drinking pretty hard.”

“I see that. I don’t know. I was hoping she would tell me.”

Aven pointed to the image of the incoming starship on his scanner. “We have a new bogie on the long range scanner. Devon’s going up to investigate. Whatever it is it’s big and now there’s something smaller heading our way behind it.”

There were two contacts on his screen now. Hap looked down at the screen and studied them for a moment. She wiped her dripping nose on her sleeve again and sniffed. A brown curl of hair fell in her face and she brushed it back.

“Thanks.  We’ll take care of it,” she said clapping Aven on the back.

Hap headed down the ramp to the locker area and stood by her friend. Devon had always been a hard drinker but she usually did it off duty. Whatever was causing her this much pain obviously needed attention. But right now they had a mission.

“Hey girl, you up for this or should I take someone else?”

Devon shook her bobbed hair. “I’m okay.”

Hap frowned. She was not so easily convinced. She opened her locker and pulled out her flight helmet and white scarf. In a few minutes she was ready to go and then proceeded to help Devon get her flight gear ready. As they double checked each other Hap notice the furled brow on Devon’s forehead begin to smooth out.

“Feeling better?” Hap asked.

“Hell no. When’s that ever stopped me?”

Hap nodded with a frown on her dirty face. You never realize how much people care about you do you?

“Hey, I got you to look after me right? What would I ever do without you, Hap?”

Hap shook her head and said, “Probably die a lonely old drunk.”

Devon wrinkled her brow again as if she knew it to be true and blew off the response with a toothy grin. Hap shook her head and started for the back door. Nope, you have no idea.

* * *

They climbed the metal ladder that led to the roof of the building where two silver winged Scramblers sat waiting for them. Steam from the liquid nitrogen fuel cells evaporated from the metal birds. The deck was bright with the reflected light from the suns glaring off the polished metal skin of the Scramblers.

The ground crew were huddled around Hap’s ship discussing something. They quit talking and two of them edged away when she walked up to the cockpit.

“What’s the matter boys?”

The crew chief was a burly man with arms so big it looked as if he could fling starfighters around by hand. Hap never argued with him for fear he would snap her in half. His face was serious like it usually was when he had bad news.

“Hap, you’ve got a coolant leak in the starboard thruster pod. It’s not enough to red line, but I don’t like it. Is there any way you can give us a few hours to replace it?”

Hap threw a leg over the cockpit wall and looked down at the gauges on her instrument panel. Everything looked fine to her. She glanced over at Devon who was strapping into her Scrambler.

“Listen Case, on any other day I’d let her go up by herself, but she’s coming off a bad buzz and probably doesn’t need to be alone up there. I have to fly.”

There were no other flyable ships available. One was a hangar queen and two more were out on patrol. Case chewed on his inner cheek for a moment and then nodded. He helped Hap strap in, cinching her belts tighter than usual. “If it starts to overheat, shut it down. The system is designed to vent on its own. Just keep the yanking and banking down to a minimum at lower altitudes. You should be fine in the black,” he said.

Hap nodded. “Thanks. See you in a few.”

The glass canopy slid forward and Case patted it with thick palms before stepping off the launching platform with the other crewmen.

“Control, this is Devil One. We’re ready,” Devon said over the comm line.

Aven’s voice cracked over the speaker in Hap’s helmet. “Barometer steady, winds are nonexistent. Cleared for launch.”

From her glass enclosed cockpit Devon gave a thumbs up sign before lifting off. Hap eased her lifter yokes back and the shiny metal fighter gently lurched upward. In a few minutes they were both rocketing out of the valley full throttle into the salmon colored sky.

Hap rode out the violent ascent with her head pressed firmly back into the seat. A red warning light blinked for her attention and then stayed on. It was the coolant low indicator. She watched it wearily, waiting for it to go out. But it refused to obey her wishes.

__________

Author Commentary:

This is one of the first scenes I wrote for this novel. If you have a 6×9 trade paperback of Starstrikers, you have a longer, unedited version of this chapter as a preview. Thankfully, that book is out of print.

The Rangers are all characters that I’ve written about extensively in short stories. You can read many of them in Tales From Ocherva, Volume One. I was already very familiar with them but the reader was not. So it was a challenge to write Devon in a way that introduced her to a new audience and didn’t break previously established canon. If you have read those early stories, this novel references them more than once. I love that kind of deep world building.

The bit about Hap’s broken fighter added tension to the scene and is a bit of foreshadow for what is coming.

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