Star Runners: Revelation Protocol

By L.E. Thomas

Young adult, Sci-Fi

Paperback, eBook

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406
9 mins

Prologue

"I'm going home."
The man sitting next to Josh Morris revealed yellowing teeth under a bushy mustache. He appeared to be in his mid-forties with weathered skin splintering into wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. His black eyes glazed over under heavy eyelids as he leaned back in the seat, preparing for a nap during the flight to Earth. His perfectly pressed navy blue suit showed no creases as he settled into the chair.
Josh smiled and shook his head. "Me, too. It's been a while."
“How long?”
“Little over a year.” He thought of what it would feel like to leave Base Prime and see the California sun. “Not sure what I’m going to do being back in the world.”
“Wear sunglasses.” The fellow passenger studied him. "If it’s only been a year, that’s nothing. You in the fleet?"
Josh nodded. "I'm a pilot, yes. You?"
"Transferring to the EIF.”
“EIF?”
The man grinned. “Earth Intelligence Force. Was in the CIA, but quit when I was recruited. I served on several forces throughout the Legion in recent years, from planets to The Fringe. I’ve even worked in the capital. Been a while since I was back home, too. Lot longer than a year. When this position came open, I jumped at the chance."
Josh shook his head. "I didn't realize the Legion recruited cops from Earth."
The man frowned. "Not just any cop on the beat, but yeah, they recruit who they can. Name's Mike Fischer."
He offered his hand. "Josh Morris."
"How long you been a pilot?"
"Just finished flight school, but I’ve been in space since the beginning of last summer."
"Flight school as tough as they say?"
Josh shrugged, thinking about his months on Tarton's Junction. The studying and flight training seemed more like two lifetimes. The endless days of seeing nothing but the nebula. What had started off fun and amazing had become a chore. He had only wanted to go to school. A free scholarship for playing Star Runners seemed like a great way to do that—even easier than playing on a football team like Dad wanted. The reality turned out to be more demanding and dangerous than he could have fathomed.
Josh sighed. "It isn’t easy."
The freighter Saber rocked as it prepped the curvature drive. The black space outside the viewport glowed, a bright mix of fire red and emerald green.
Fischer grumbled. "I guess nothing ever is. You going on leave?"
"That's the plan. Probably going to be my last time home for a while. I’ve been told I’ll get my assignment when my leave is up.”
“Been told that’s a big deal for you flyboys,” Fischer said, closing his eyes.
“They haven’t said much about it. Any guess where they’ll send me?”
Fischer sighed, his eyes remaining closed. “A Star Runner fresh out of flight school could be sent anywhere. I’ve heard stories of you boys being assigned to science vessels and studying the void along The Fringe, doing real exploration like the old days. But those days are long gone, I’m afraid.”
Josh frowned. “Why’s that?”
“Been a long time since the big boys went at it. Rumors have it it’s coming again.”
“I see.”
Josh thought of the so-called fragile peace between the Legion and the Zahl Empire, wondered if there were any truth to Fischer’s rumors. Rumors on Tarton’s Junction traveled with about as much weight as a feather in a hurricane. If he believed every rumor he heard on the station, Austin would be dating one of his flight instructors. Besides, Josh had learned little about the Zahl Empire during his studies. Other than a brief overview of the time the two forces went to war, the detailed Zahl history had been left out of any discussions.
Deciding to change the subject, Josh cleared his throat. “You get any break while you’re here?"
Fischer shook his head. "I wish. Been ordered home to join a task force."
Josh blinked. "Task force? On Earth?"
"That's all I know. It's probably training. Every now and then, command sends us to a backwater planet like Earth to tighten up our counter-espionage efforts. That's probably what this is."
Josh snorted, shaking his head. "I'm still learning about this new world."
Fischer grumbled as he stretched into his seat. "They want you to know your fighter inside and out. That's more important than the ins and outs of this world. Believe me, you don’t want to know about the politics of a territory as large as the Legion. Not to mention the constant crap going on between our politicians and the Zahl Empire.” He sighed. “Where are you from?"
"Marietta, Georgia."
"Never been there. I'm from St. Louis myself. Or I used to be. I got picked up at a Legion school in the suburbs. Legion’s a big place. I move around."
"I'll bet. Where all have you been?"
Fischer shrugged. “All around really.”
“I haven’t been to another planet, yet.”
“You will. They aren’t all that different really. Just people trying to make ends meet, trying to take care of their families, give their kids a decent shot at it. That’s true on the dark worlds and the true Legion planets.”
“You serve on mostly dark worlds?”
“Served on all kinds. The Fringe, now, that’s a different story.”
The Saber passed through the curvature drive. Josh's stomach dropped, but he had grown accustomed to the gravity swells occurring during a curve. He sighed and leaned back, waiting for the feeling to pass.
His parents would be excited to have him home. Dad had already bought tickets to the Braves game. Hot dogs and fireworks for Independence Day, like a dream. The transition staff had briefed him on the story he would provide his parents, created a plethora of doctored photographs and constructed schools for villages on islands in the South Pacific. Josh had even contracted a "fever" the last month, which was expected to explain why his skin was pale, and he had lost weight. The officers insisted the goal of the deception was to supply too much information to family members in order to maintain the illusion. Josh took his orders. If this was the price to visit home again, so be it.
Austin would have loved to come with him; too bad they couldn't have started flight school at the same time. Josh's performance in Rockshot had pushed him over the edge and earned enough points to graduate. Austin would be right behind him. Soon they would be on opposite sides of the galaxy, flying for the Legion. He might not see his friend for a long, long time. Try as he might, the thought of being away from everyone and everything he loved nagged at the back of his mind.
He would have to check with Kadyn, see if she would be home for summer as well. Perhaps he would finally find the time to tell her how he felt, use this one last trip home to throw it all out there and see if any part of her felt the same way.
He had written Kadyn regularly or as often as he could since he’d spent most of the past year on Tarton’s Junction. She seemed to be enjoying art school in Savannah, and rarely mentioned Austin at all. Maybe Josh had been wrong about her feelings this entire time? Who knows? But if he had the opportunity on this two-week trip home, he would have to see where it could lead.
The Saber altered its course. A stack of magazines slid off an empty seat across the aisle.
"Is that normal?" Fischer asked. “Never happened to be me before, but you’re the pilot. What was that?”
"Probably a course correction to maintain a position directly behind the moon while the shroud warms up," Josh offered. "Truthfully, I don't know."
He stared out his window, stared at the faint stars peppering the black.
The interior lights flickered, shifting to blood red.
"Attention, this is your captain speaking," the speakers crackled. "Two unidentified craft launched from the dark side of Earth's moon. They are inbound and have not responded to our hails."
Josh swallowed. Spacecraft on the dark side of the moon? That made no sense. The pilot had to be mistaken. The freighter banked harder than it had been designed to do, the space outside his window shooting past. Earth's moon moved across his view, filling his window with the black and gray of the surface. The incoming craft flickered in the starlight as they bore down on the Saber.
"Protocol says we must turn back,” the pilot continued. “We are prepping the drive. Please remain in your seats."
Josh leaned against the window, studying the incoming craft. Two smaller modified Trident fighters with wings bristling with weaponry. He clenched his teeth.
Tyral Pirates.
He squinted at the third larger vessel. Thick black tentacles extended from the base like a jellyfish.
"See anything?" Fischer asked, leaning over his shoulder.
Josh turned. "They plan to board us."
"Board us?" His dark eyes widened. "Who?"
Josh swallowed, his mouth dry as a sandbox. "Tyral Pirates."
“Pirates?” Fischer barked. “Here? How in the world did they manage this?”
“I don’t know.”
After leaning over Josh’s shoulder and staring out the window for a long moment, Fischer stood and produced a laser pistol from inside his black coat. He checked the charge. "You gotta sidearm?"
Josh nodded.
"Good," Fischer said. "Once we know their entry point, we need all the civies as far away from the access point as possible. They’ll probably try to rip open an emergency escape hatch or they could just blast through the hull."
Josh blinked several times, gripping the cool steel of his laser pistol. His breathing increased. "Yes, sir."
Fischer grabbed his shoulder. "Listen, keep your cool. We need to work together. I don’t know how this filth has managed to stage an attack on the dark side of Earth’s moon, but that doesn’t matter now. If that scum is truly coming on board, they are the worst of the lot, the lowest of the low. They’ll come for blood. They have no mercy, so show none. What's your rank?"
"Lieutenant."
"Right." Fischer turned to the rest of the passengers who spoke in hushed, harsh tones. "Alright listen up! These pirates are going to try and board us to steal this freighter. I want everybody with a weapon to come over here and meet Lieutenant Morris at the front of this cabin. The rest of you gather at the rear. The most likely place of entry will be close to the cockpit so they can take control of the ship."
Three pilots wearing the red uniforms of Excalibur Squadron came to the front of the cabin, while Fischer led the other passengers to the rear. The pilots nodded and checked their weapons, a grim look on their faces.
The freighter rumbled, laser fire thumping against the rear shields.
"Alright, this is real,” the tallest Excalibur pilot said, his face growing pale. “I had hoped the freighter pilot was a moron. I thought Earth was safe."
"So did I," Josh said. He glanced at the pilot who looked older than him, the skin around his eyes laced with lines like a road map. "You heading home?"
"I was."
Josh looked up as the freighter rocked.
"We're trying to open a curve," another pilot said.
"They'll follow us," Josh said. "I've seen this happen."
"So have I,” the Excalibur pilot said. “Too many times."
Light flashed from the windows. His stomach twisted, his vision skipping. The laser fire momentarily halted.
"Now it depends on where the curve opened, and we came out," the pilot said. "If we’re too far from the Junction, the alert fighters won't get here in time."
Laser fire blasted the Saber's shields. Josh leaned over his seat, peering out the window in search of the welcome sight of Tarton’s Junction. He saw nothing but space and the glowing edge of the nebula.
“We’re too far,” he said, barely above a whisper.
The walls of the freighter behind the cockpit burst, the white light blinding him. He heard screams all around him. The Excalibur pilots tumbled to the ground. Josh fell behind his seat. The vacuum of space howled for two seconds before an energy field from the Tyral boarding craft sealed off the opening.
The tallest Excalibur pilot cried out, tumbling behind the seat onto the ground next to Josh, a blackened burn sizzling his eye socket. Another Excalibur pilot returned fire. Two bolts struck his chest, sending him flying back across the seats. Laser fire blasted across the cabin, filling the air with blue light and the smell of burning electronics. Josh risked a glance over the seat, his heart pounding in his ears.
Six pirates wearing black and carrying massive rifles marched with purpose through a jagged hole in the hull as they rained fire across the cabin. Passengers fell, the laser fire mowing them down like grass. Four pirates faced toward him while the other two concentrated on the cockpit door. Laser fire blasted the seat. Josh took cover. He gripped the pistol hard. His palms sweat. The laser bolts ignited the seat’s fabric, a fire forming and crackling. The interior lights flickered and dimmed.
The surviving Excalibur pilot crawled toward him, his chest covered in a smoking patch of blackened flesh. Josh yanked him behind the seat.
"We-we cannot let them take the cockpit," the pilot said, his teeth chattering.
"You're in shock!" Josh yelled, firing into the aisle without looking. He glanced down at the man’s wound, never knowing a laser rifle could obliterate a person’s body in such a way.
"Th-that won't matter if they take the ship,” the pilot said, grabbing Josh’s arm with his good hand. “Nothing will! Stop them!"
Josh stuck his pistol over the top of the seat and fired. When he looked back to the wounded man, the pilot stared back with lifeless eyes. A frigid chill shot down his spine.
"Morris!"
Remaining close to the floor, Josh glanced down the aisle. Fischer crawled toward him, his pistol drawn.
"Are you all that's left?" he asked, sweat dripping off his nose.
Josh nodded.
"Pirates have also boarded in the rear." Fischer snapped his fingers. "Are you with me, Lieutenant?"
"I am." Josh closed his eyes and shook his head. "What do we do?"
With his free hand, Fischer pulled from his jacket pocket a small disk the size of a hockey puck. Laser fire shot over their heads, the chaotic sounds of the battle surrounding them. A shower of sparks fell.
"This is a flashbang!” Fischer yelled. “Throw it down there and distract them. We’ll try to take them out before they recover. Got it?"
Josh gripped his pistol hard, his knuckles turning white. "Do it."
Fischer pulled his arm back and hurled the flashbang down the aisle. He held three fingers in front Josh's face, two, one.
The cabin pulsed with a hot white light. Screams from the pirates joined those of the passengers.
"Now!"
Fischer stood up and fired, his pistol burning blue like a pilot light. Josh rose and added his pistol fire to the mix. The four pirates remained in a rough line at the head of the cabin, their hands over their eyes. The two pirates on the right dropped to the ground as Fischer's fire drilled into them. Josh hesitated and then dropped one of the other pirates with a lucky shot to the face, sending sparks flying as the man crumbled.
The final pirate swung around, his rifle spitting a wave of bolts into the seats, walls and ceiling. The remaining seats caught fire. A white gas shot down from the ceiling, the fires activating the fire repression systems. The walls blackened. Fischer yelled as a bolt sizzled into his left arm, sending his gun onto the floor. Josh dropped to one knee as a bolt zipped over his head. He took aim, squeezed the trigger, and dropped his target.
He exhaled and turned to Fischer. "What now?"
Fischer glanced at the red gash splitting the fabric of his coat; the laser burn eating away at his skin. He slapped a fresh charge into his pistol. "Grab their weapons. Watch the rear."
"But there's still two in the cockpit!"
"I'll get in there!” Fischer yelled, his eyes wide. “Cover me!"
Josh ran among the bodies in the forward cabin behind the cockpit, taking care not to allow his gaze to linger on the carnage littering the floor. He grabbed a pirate rifle and knelt down in the aisle. His heart raced as he gasped for breath, trying to steady the weapon. He imagined the pirates rushing toward him through the white gas and black smoke. He tried to envision dropping each of them with one shot as he maintained his cool. Austin would tell him to stay frosty, but flying in the cockpit of a Trident was different than shooting a man in front of him.
Or would the pirates try to move quietly?
The Saber had to be closing on Tarton's Junction. Where were the alert fighters? How much longer until they arrived? He thought of Austin watching him leave from the mess hall and hoped his friend wasn't there anymore.
Stop it, he told himself. Stay frosty.
"Hurry up, Fischer!"
"I'm trying to bypass the lock so - wait!"
The laser rifle sliced through the inferno. Josh spun around, his finger resting on the rifle's trigger. Fischer fell to the ground, hands clutching at his stomach as two pirates emerged from the cockpit. Josh aimed and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happen.
He squeezed again and again, but no fire burst from the weapon. The pirate’s rifle would not work. He couldn’t verify if it were out of charges or broken. Standing in the aisle, he hurled the weapon at the pirates and yanked his pistol from its holster.
His world flashed with light, pain searing at his back. His muscles burned as if they ignited in gasoline. He tumbled to the aisle floor, his body refusing to respond to his commands. His muscles twitched. His head smashed into the base of a seat, fire raging around him.
"Wicked little toy, isn't it?" the pirate asked as he stood over Josh. “You can’t fire another man’s weapon.”
The pirates roared with laughter. Josh stared at the pirate who had spoken, the man’s face concealed by black fabric. He saw one bloodshot, watery eye, the other covered with a metal patch.
"Your muscles are incapacitated,” the pirate said. “You are our prisoner. You will regain control of your body if we decide to let you live. For now, it's lights out."
Before Josh could speak, the butt of the rifle smashed into his face.
The world went dark.



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