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Star wars a fair trade, p.1
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       Star Wars - A Fair Trade, p.1

           Paul S. Kemp
 
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Star Wars - A Fair Trade


  Star Wars

  A Fair Trade

  by

  Paul S. Kemp

  The inside of Khedryn’s mouth tasted like he’d taken a long lick of one of Farpointe’s packed-dirt roads. A pounding headache felt like someone was twisting screws into his temple. He stepped gingerly into Seeker's cockpit and slid into his seat.

  “How do you feel?” Marr asked, plugging a complicated formula into Seeker’s navicomp. Even without the hangover, Khedryn couldn’t have followed the formula. The numbers on the screen swam and he swallowed down a bout of nausea.

  “Not as bad as I smell.” He took a tentative whiff of one armpit and winced, the nausea rearing anew. “Are these the same clothes I had on last night?”

  Marr, intent on his data, murmured something too unintelligible for Khedryn to decipher.

  He looked out of the cockpit. Seeker streaked into the black, away from Fhost’s gravity well. The swirl of stars through the window made Khedryn sick.

  “There’s caf in the galley,” Marr said. “Might help.”

  “Thanks. Later. So… remind me of last night again.”

  Marr tapped a final key and looked over to him, the wall of his tan forehead creased in a question. The top of his head stuck out of the ruff of his light hair like the peak of a cloud-swathed mountain. “You played sabacc, drank, and talked - the latter two more than you should. There were ears all over the cantina.”

  The disapproval in the Cerean’s tone irked Khedryn. He tried to think of a snappy retort, but the overindulgence in pulkay had left him too muzzy-headed to come up with anything. Instead, he sagged in his chair and acknowledged the reality.

  “I need to slow it down some. It’s affecting the work. But no harm done this time, right?”

  Marr had the good grace to say nothing.

  As Seeker cleared Fhost’s system, Khedryn attuned her scanners to the frequency of the subspace salvaging beacon they’d left on a derelict. The scanners picked up the sound almost immediately - a satisfying, regular chirp that announced the presence of credits floating free in the black. Hearing it salved Khedryn’s headache. A tractor beam malfunction had prevented them from towing the derelict back to Fhost when they’d first discovered it, and Khedryn had not wanted to risk reactivating the damaged derelict’s engines. But now Seeker was squared away and they could pull the salvage home.

  “There’s the beacon,” Marr said. Khedryn eyed the blip on the scanner’s screen. “No getting away from us this time, m’lady. Let’s go get her,” Khedryn said, and Marr activated the hyperdrive.

  The black of Fhost’s system gave way to the blue swirl of hyperspace, and Seeker burned its way deep into the Unknown Regions. Khedryn hurriedly darkened the cockpit’s window. The churn of the blue roiled his already shaky stomach.

  He stood, putting a hand on Marr’s shoulder to steady him. “Time for that caf, I think.”

  “I’ll mind the store.”

  By the time Khedyrn had swallowed down two stomach tabs and three cups of caf, he felt more or less himself again. Carrying a caf for Marr, he wound his way back to the cockpit. Seeing Khedryn, the Cerean took the caf with a nod of thanks, and checked the instruments while he sipped.

  “Good caf and good timing.” he said. “We’re about to come out of hyperspace.” Khedryn slid into his chair and disengaged the homing beacon. “Then let’s make some credits.”

  Marr adjusted the radiation shields, disengaged the hyperdrive, and the blue gave way to black. The system took shape before them - a distant pair of dim, red binaries, the chaotic swirl of a thin asteroid belt, and, closer, two orange and red gas giants swarming with moons.

  Marr input the coordinates for the derelict, Khedryn engaged the ion engines, and Seeker speared the system, swinging toward one of the large, barren moons orbiting the closer gas giant. Khedryn felt a brief rush of concern - that someone else had found the derelict, that Marr’s math had been off and its orbit had decayed faster than they thought - but as they came around to the far side of the moon, the dim, red light of the dying binaries glinted on the hull of the derelict. He smiled and exhaled.

  “Hello, beautiful.”

  A military heavy-equipment transport had been converted for standard hauling and hung in a low, decaying orbit over the moon. Its appearance was that of a large beetle, and a closer inspection showed the ship was minus its two escape pods and was structurally undamaged except for one of its engines, which looked to have blown wide open. Khedryn and Marr had already examined the interior-cargo bay empty, a conspicuous absence of logs.

  A smuggler’s ship. A life support malfunction had forced the crew to evacuate and they’d never returned.

  “I think I could get her to fly, given enough time,” Marr said.

  “I don’t doubt it. But with no life support, we’d have to fly her in hardsuits. Easier just to pull her home.”

  “Any concerns about the crew?”

  “If they lived - a large if - this ship’ll be scrap and her electronics refurbished and gone before they ever find it - or us. You worried?”

  “Not at all,” said Marr.

  “Then get us into tractor range and let’s hitch her up.”

  Seeker devoured the kilometers, closing on the derelict. In moments, the ship filled their field of vision.

  “Big girl,” Khedryn said, eyeing the hauler’s hull.

  Marr nodded and maneuvered Seeker around for a tractor latch.

  Before he engaged the beam, though, a proximity alarm started to trill.

  “What’s that?” Marr said, leaning forward to eye the instruments.

  “A malfunction. Has to be. There’s…”

  “Another ship coming out of hyperspace,” Marr said.

  “What? Who?”

  Khedryn leaned forward to examine the scan signature of the unknown ship when an explosion rocked Seeker, nearly knocking him from his seat. Alarms screamed.

  “That’s cannon fire!” Marr said.

  Khedryn cursed. “Rear deflector at full.”

  “Fire in cargo bay two,” Marr announced, his hands moving rapidly over the instruments. “We’re leaking pressure out of bay one.”

  Khedryn grabbed the stick. “Seal it off. Going evasive.”

  A flashing light and the change in pitch of the alarm announced the loss of engine power. Khedryn cursed.

  “Get them back online, Marr. We’re floating dead. Who the hell is firing at us?”

  His shoulders bunched in anticipation of the next shot, but it didn’t come. Instead, a chime sounded.

  “They’re hailing us,” Marr said.

  Khedryn would have to buy time. “Put them through, but keep working on auxiliary power for the engines.”

  The hollow sound of an opening channel carried over the cockpit speakers. Khedryn winced when he heard the voice on the other end.

  “Khedryn Faal, always and ever in my way.”

  “Reegas,” Marr said.

  Khedryn’s fists curled into white balls. Reegas flew a highly modified YT-2400 freighter, armed to the teeth, and crewed by five thugs. He ran a criminal syndicate on Fhost. And hated Khedryn.

  “You’re wondering why I’m here.” Reegas said.

  “Because you’re a murderous thief, is my thinkin’,” Khedryn muttered, but did not transmit.

  “I’m taking that derelict,” Reegas continued.

  Khedryn’s fist slammed on the transmit button. “That’s ours…”

  Comm squelch cut him short.

  “And I’m taking Seeker, too. That engine shot was intentional. I could’ve just blown you out of space. Consider yourselves lucky. I’m coming over, Faal. You’ve got ten minutes to debark.”

  “Debark? Are you…”

>   Once more, the squeal of interference shut him up and resurrected his headache.

  “If you’re there when I board…,” Reegas said. “Well, there’s no telling what might happen then. My boys like shooting things, after all.”

  Khedryn felt the vein in his forehead pulsing. “Don’t they know I have a hangover?” he muttered.

  “I can’t have the engines up in ten minutes,” Marr said.

  Khedryn rubbed his temple. “How’d they even find us out here?”

  “You were chatty last night. They might have heard about the derelict and put a beacon on Seeker.”

  “Dammit, Marr. You’re supposed to get me clear before I talk too much.”

  “You always talk too much.”

  “Shut up, Marr.” He took a deep breath, his mind racing through options. “All right. Listen, no questions, just answers. I want Seeker's engines dead and beyond repair. Can you do that in five minutes?”

  Marr considered, then nodded.

  “Do it. And I need you to tune the deflector so they can’t scan Seeker for life signs.”

  Marr looked as incredulous as his natural placidity allowed. “Anything else? Maybe chart a new…”

  “Once all that’s done, arm yourself and meet me at the hardsuit locker. Quick, now.”

  “What are we doing? What’s the plan?”

  “I don’t know yet. I’m just putting tools at our disposal.”

  He hit the transmit button on the comm. “We’ll be off, you kriffin’ thug. But don’t think I’ll forget this.”

  Reegas was laughing when he replied. “Nine and a half minutes, Faal.”

  While Marr worked, Khedryn hurried through Seeker’s corridors until he reached the equipment locker. He took a hatch cracker and cabled it to his hardsuit.

  “Where are you, Marr?” he asked over the comlink.

  “Coming now. Engines are ruined. No one is fixing them.”

  “Good.”

  Khedryn started squirming into his hard suit.

  Marr sprinted into sight, grabbed his own suit, and started pulling it on. They tested seals, the comm - all was five-by-five.

  “Let’s get to the pod,” Khedryn said.

  Marr grabbed his arm. “He’ll shoot the pod down, Khedryn.’

  “I know. That’s why we won’t be in it.”

  Marr released him. “If he scans it, he’ll know we’re not aboard.”

  “Exactly.”

  “Right? And then what?”

  Khedryn frowned. “Still working that out.”

  And then he winked his lazy eye at Marr.

  * * *

  Reegas and three of his crew stood at the hatch to the Starhawk shuttle attached to Blackstar. His men wore blasters, ablative vests, and habitual scowls.

  “Seeker's escape pod just launched,” announced Marden over Blackstar's comm.

  Reegas answered into his comlink. “Scan it for life-forms.”

  A pause, then, “None.”

  “Blow it out of space, just to be sure. They could have a screen on it. Can you scan Seeker?”

  “Deflectors prevent a clean scan.”

  Reegas eyed the hard faces of the men.

  “Faal may be stupid, but he doesn’t quit. They’ll be waiting for us.”

  Snickers from the men.

  “We kill them both and space the bodies,” Reegas said. He hated Faal, and wasn’t even sure why. Men of different polarities, he supposed. It happened sometimes. “I want the ship intact.”

  The men double-checked the charges on their blasters and boarded the Starhawk. Reegas took position in the shuttle’s small cockpit. Through the window, Seeker and the derelict floated against the body of the gas giant. Reegas could turn both of them into over a million credits. That Faal would die in the process was just a bonus.

  “Coming to see you, boys,” he muttered at Seeker.

  The shuttle separated from Blackstar and shot across the kilometers. While it flew, Blackstar's plasma cannons fired, long red lines that atomized Seeker’s escape pod.

  * * *

  Khedryn’s breath sounded like a bellows inside the hollow confines of the hardsuit’s helmet. He blinked away the spots left over from the escape pod’s explosion. He and Marr hugged the port side of Seeker, opposite her starboard docking ring. They watched the shuttle disengage from Blackstar and accelerate toward them.

  Khedryn glanced across space at the derelict and, more importantly, its engines. Marr said he could get them online.

  “They’ll blow their way in through the docking ring,” Marr said.

  “Yes. We wait until they get closer.”

  The two friends clung to the side of the ship they were about to lose, waiting as the shuttle approached. When it was close to Seeker, but at an angle oblique to Khedryn and Marr, the former tapped his ship farewell and said, “We go.”

  Both of them engaged the anti-grav propulsion systems in the hardsuits and shot out into space.

  * * *

  The shuttle bumped hard against Seeker, clamps seizing the docking ring, and Reegas’s men went to work. Two covered the door with blasters while the third affixed the shaped charges to the hatch.

  “Blow it,” Reegas said.

  The explosion blew the hatch from its mounts, filling the area with smoke and the acrid tang of thermite. Reegas’s men poured through the opening, blasters raised. To Reegas’s surprise, though, he heard no blaster fire. Weapon drawn, he followed his men onto Seeker.

  Nothing but an empty corridor.

  “This ship is not that big. Find them. You and you, with me. You two, that way. Sound off if you see or hear anything.”

  * * *

  Khedryn and Marr slammed into the side of the ship, both of them grunting at the impact. They maneuvered themselves crabwise over to an external airlock door.

  “Quick now,” Khedryn said, and handed Marr the hatch cracker.

  Marr affixed it and started working on the hatch’s security code. Numbers blazed across its surface, reflected in reverse on the face-plate of Marr’s helmet. The indicator light on the hatch’s control panel stayed red.

  Khedryn bit his lip with frustration. He glanced back at Seeker, wondering when Reegas would find the missing hardsuits and put two and two together.

  Marr’s intense stare drank in the cracker s failed formulae. He stopped the device s routine, pushed a few buttons, and started it down a different path.

  “Got something?” Khedryn asked. “Nothing certain. It ran the hexidecimals and got nothing, so it’s something else. I tweaked it to run a base eleven run. then a twelve, and so on. The problem is the spaces.”

  Khedryn had no idea what Marr was talking about. He looked through the hatch’s tiny window to the dark interior of the ship, then across the gulf of space to Seeker.

  “Marr, we’re running out of time.”

  “I know,” Marr said. “I’ll have it soon.”

  Khedryn stared at the unlit light of the hatch’s control panel and tried to will it green.

  * * *

  Reegas and his two men prowled Seeker’s narrow passageways, blasters leading. They encountered nothing, heard nothing. The ship felt like a tomb. When they reached the central axis and the ship’s locker, the lead man looked back and said,

  “Hardsuits are gone, Reegas.”

  And all at once it clicked for Reegas. Faal and Marr weren’t aboard. The escape pod had been a diversion to make Reegas think an ambush awaited him on Seeker.

  “They’re on the derelict! They’re going to try to fly it out of here!” He activated his comlink. “Marden, disable the engines on the derelict! Just the engines! Right now!”

  “Why?”

  “Just do it!”

  “Yes, sir.”

  * * *

  Marden locked Blackstar’s cannons onto the derelict’s engines, reduced the energy output of the beams, and fired. The engines exploded, rocking the entire ship out of its orbit. Pieces of metal pelted Blackstar and the blast wave made
it roll gently.

  The soft beep of an alarm drew his eye. The external airlock door facing the derelict was acting up. It had probably taken some debris from the explosion.

  “Blast it.”

  He hopped out of his chair and hurried to the rear of Blackstar.

  * * *

  Khedryn’s mouth went dry when he saw a light go on beyond the interior airlock seal.

  “Marr, someone is coming! Hurry!”

  “Got it,” Marr said, and the light on the external airlock turned green.

  Khedryn pulled himself inside the airlock while drawing his blaster. He slammed a gloved hand to close the outer door.

  “Come on,” he said as it closed. “Come on.”

  The moment he heard it seal, he threw the lever to open the inner door, which slid up with a hiss. He caught a flash of a movement from down the corridor, the discharge of a blaster bolt, and heard Marr’s shout of pain.

  He fired blind as fast as he could while throwing himself against the wall.

  “Marr!”

  The Cerean lay on his back on the deck, a smoking black furrow in the shoulder of his hardsuit. 02 leaked out with a soft hiss.

  “I’m all right,” Marr said, waving a hand.

  Khedryn nodded, relieved, and poked his head out. A body lay down in the corridor - a human, blaster hole burned in his chest.

  Khedryn had seen him before, in the cantinas on Fhost, but couldn’t remember his name.

  “Damn, damn, damn,” he said, unsealing his helmet.

  “What is it?” Marr asked, as he climbed to his feet.

  “Killed him.”

  Marr put a hand on Khedryn’s shoulder.

  Khedryn shook his head. “Come on. Stay sharp. There could be more of them.”

  He grabbed the comlink from the dead man and they hurried to the cockpit.

  A ship wide scan by Marr showed no one else aboard. The dead man’s comlink started to ping.

  “Verra,” Reegas called over the comlink. “Verra, report.”

  Verra. That had been the dead man’s name.

  “Verra’s dead, Reegas,” Khedryn said over the comlink. “And I’m sitting in your cockpit.”

  He would have paid ten thousand credits to have seen Reegas’s face when he said those words.

  A long pause, then, “We can deal, Faal,” Reegas said. “Don’t do anything rash.”

 
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