Parr drummed his fingers along the arm of the captain’s chair of his Fano-class cruiser, the Aurora. For the first time in years, he’d tried to reenter the gates of Bilena Epso Ach—tried and failed, and now he hovered alone in space like jettisoned cargo. He’d have to come up with another tactic in order to get back home.
Not that he particularly wanted to go back.
The Aurora’s comm link pulsed yellow, which seemed curious.
Parr squinted at the signal and ran a hand through his scruffy brown locks.
The guards at the gate hadn’t exactly been polite, but their communication had come to an end. They wouldn’t follow up with a warning signal just for loitering.
Parr pulled up his nav and leaned forward. The ship that hailed him was positioned in the opposite direction from the guard’s tower. Whoever wanted to talk had the Aurora locked in their sights. Parr absentmindedly twirled a tiny crimson gem linked to a golden chain around his finger while he searched his monitor for more information on the source of the hail.
Norfung Gortn. It was worse than he’d thought. The notorious bounty hunter had a reputation throughout the Twelve as a brute—recalcitrant, unfeeling, but more likely to bring in his quarry alive than dead, which wasn’t always as nice as it sounded.
Parr brought the nav full-screen like a windshield across the bow side of the cabin. The Dreadnet, a handsomely sleek spacecraft full of jagged angles, just like its pilot, faced down the Aurora with its weapons system hot. Both ships floated just outside the gate to Bilena Epso Ach, a two-planet system and the capital of the intergalactic kingdom known as the Twelve. A gate Parr desperately wanted to find himself on the other side of at that moment, and not just because he was in the sights of one of the most dangerous ships in the galaxy, piloted by its most famous recoverist.
Parr took a moment to collect himself and, after a forceful exhale, kicked a foot up on the dash and leaned back in his chair before activating the comm.
“You got Parr,” he said. “Go.”
“Glogs and borlongs!” Norfung said. “Of course I have you; it’s what I do.” His voice boomed through the bridge of the Aurora like an explosion at a sand and gravel outpost. The bounty hunter had tracked him down once again.
But how, Parr thought—and more important, why?
Parr perused the cabin of his ship as though the answer might be on one of its dingy walls. The blue, green, and orange lights of the ship’s panel blinked their familiar, comforting rhythm, while the oxygen unit whirred with a soothing hum.
“Norfung, buddy,” Parr said. “It’s been too long. What can I do for you?”
“I’m not your friend,” he replied. “Prepare to be boarded.”
“Boarded in open space? Not on a Fano-class, pal.” Parr leaned closer to his monitor as the Aurora’s computer scanned Norfung’s ship. “Yeah, says here you’re flying a Hawv-class. No way we’re docking out here, I don’t care what kind of makeshift adapter you think you have.”
Norfung grunted under his breath, and Parr could hear him fumbling with the controls of his ship. “Hold on, don’t go anywhere.” The comm link was muted.
Parr grinned and, with just the slightest of touches to the manual control, discreetly maneuvered the Aurora around to face the Dreadnet. He knew how difficult it was to focus a Hawv-class’s dual cannon configuration on a target at that range—especially if it was moving toward you.
His old flight instructors had compared it to how your eyes crossed whenever something got too close to the middle of your face. Another teacher had said “nose,” but Parr thought that was a bad example since not every creature had one, or at least one at the center of their face.
Parr eased the Aurora forward.
The comm link clicked. “Stop right there, Parr, I mean it.”
“Sorry, Norfung, I can’t help it.” Parr pounded his fist against the arm of his chair in mock frustration. “The stasis mount is on the fritz again.”
The warning lights in the cabin began to glow red. Norfung wasn’t buying it.
“Alright, alright, take it easy, Norf,” Parr said. “I’ll manually stabilize.” He grinned again and pulsed the ship sideways … just out of the twin cannons’ reach due to the close proximity.
“If you don’t stop that ship, I’ll blast you out of the sky!”
“We’re not in the sky, Norfung; we’re in space—”
“Don’t correct me.”
“Look,” Parr said. “What do you want to do here? You’re clearly after something. Why don’t we set down on the nearest inhabitable and talk this out?”
Norfung seemed to consider Parr’s suggestion for a moment. “Good. Open the gate, and we’ll go through to Walo Station.”
Walo Station, once a beacon of hope from the old world to the new, had become a different type of freestanding station over the years since the wall went up. Traders, pilots, and creatures with reputations just this side of respectable could do business at the free-floating outpost without going too far into the core of the system.
Unfortunately for Parr, his reputation was too far shy of the respectable mark for him to enter the gates without a verified and desirable commodity, and he didn’t have anything that the kingdom wanted at the moment.
“Sorry, Norf, can’t get in. Wish I could.” Parr sucked a breath in through his teeth. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a clearance, would you?”
Norfung grunted again and made what sounded to Parr like a dozen disconnected excuses under his breath. Parr was surprised to find that even the galaxy’s most feared bounty hunter couldn’t get access to the core cluster of the Twelve.
Wow, they’re really cracking down these days, Parr thought. Still, it was worth a shot.
“Welp,” Parr said, “why don’t we cruise the rifts until we find a spot worth landing in?”
He didn’t always use them, but the rifts were the quickest way of getting from one spot to another in the galaxy. Plenty were mapped out, even more were not—and he’d been warned by his instructors time and again to never take one that wasn’t mapped. Nothing worse than slipping blind and ending up on the inside of a black hole when all you really wanted was a couple of good games of blocca and a place to sleep for the night.
“Fine, have it your way,” Norfung said.
Parr smirked. “Alright, follow me,” he said before Norfung could object. “I know this system like the back of my hand.” He activated the ship’s boosters, checked a few instruments on the panel above him, and pushed the Aurora’s throttle forward.
The sprightly ship came to life and skimmed along the edge of the galactic shield Parr’s forefathers had put up generations ago to protect the core two-planet system and its eight moons. It was a beautiful sight to behold, even from a distance, and the grand, spherical shield seemed to emphasize the core’s majesty. Like the snow globes they sold for souvenirs at Versit Station.
Someday, this will all be mine.
He remembered, when he was much younger, beholding Palace City from the observation deck of the Tower Royal. Prince Parrtec, as he was known back then, was terrified at the thought of ruling such a vast empire. He didn’t care for the fame, the fortune, or the responsibility. He was happy in the small spaces, like in his room or below the control panel of a cruiser as he played with his toys on trips to the outer reaches. All he really wanted was anonymity, freedom.
“Glogs and borlongs,” Norfung said. “While we’re alive, Parr.”
Parr grinned as he pushed the Aurora forward a little faster and began to put some distance between himself and Norfung—but not too much. He couldn’t risk alerting the bounty hunter to the fact that he was trying to skip. The Aurora was fast, but not fast enough to outrun cannon fire, at least not at that range.
As they cleared the protective bubble of the two-planet system, Parr opened up the channel to scan the rifts and was hit with a flood of ads. Slip to Mecclee’s, hottest brool in the Sixteen Systems.
Sixteen Systems? Parr thought. I’ve been in the outer reaches too long. It used to be twelve. Malista must have made additional alliances and acquisitions. Parr knew his sister was thoughtful and strategic, but four additional planets in a couple of years? “Overachiever,” he said under his breath.
Try Moma Shando’s Delicious Food! another ad said.
Terrible copy, Parr thought. I can’t believe they spent good buldoons on that.
Parr checked his nav as well as the bow display and eased the Aurora just inside the gravitational pull of one of the smaller, uninhabitable planets outside the system’s shield. He did his best to look as though he were flying casual. However, he was employing an old trick he’d learned long ago when a cocky, up-and-coming pilot showed him how to use a planet’s gravity to help sling his ship further and faster without signaling any additional acceleration from its engines. There were always several different angles and approaches one could take, as well as several nav programs to use, but Parr always seemed to have a knack for finding just the right trajectory.
Norfung kept pace. “Nice try, Parr, but I’ve used the ol’ grav slip a time or two myself. Do it again, and I’ll turn your ship to dust.”
Parr’s hands began to sweat. He hadn’t expected to break away on the first sling, but he hadn’t anticipated that Norfung would be able to identify the maneuver so quickly and adjust on the fly. Most recoverists weren’t big on nuance, but apparently, Norfung was more than a one-dimensional gun for hire, and that made Parr nervous.
“Sorry, Norf, old habits,” Parr said. He made a point of smiling as he talked, even though Norfung couldn’t see him on the other side. It was a trick he’d picked up somewhere along the way in the outer reaches. Apparently, creatures heard a friendlier tone when you spoke that way. “This used to be part of my trade route.” Parr fidgeted with a few different switches and checked a few gauges. “I know there’s a rift around one of these planets that’s perfect for us. I just can’t remember which. Don’t worry. I’ll know it when I see it.” Parr let out one long exhale. “That sounded believable, right?” he said under his breath to his ship.
It didn’t answer back; it was a Fano-class, after all.
There was no way under the five suns that Parr would voluntarily meet up with Norfung. He’d be a goner if the bounty hunter ever caught up with him. Thankfully, he had the upper hand since he’d learned how to fly in this system. Parr had no intention of setting his ship down anywhere near Norfung or the Dreadnet, and if he played his cards right, he’d soon be out of the bounty hunter’s reach.
The Aurora was on target and just shy of the beginning of Parr’s favorite route for building speed. Good flying was more than just powerful thrusters and a fast ship. It was about using the surroundings to your advantage. It was a basic lesson his father had taught him years ago—or at least his father’s best pilot had taught him.
There were three planets and five moons between him and freedom. He’d use their gravity to pull and sling him to gain more speed than his thrusters could ever produce on their own. It was a tricky maneuver even for those familiar with the layout, and it would be practically impossible to pull off for even the most skilled pilot if they’d never done it before, especially at full speed.
Parr slung the Aurora around the first moon, and the cabin’s red emergency lights began to pulse.
The comm clicked, and Norfung growled, “What did I just say?”
“Take it easy,” Parr said. “The rift has got to be around here somewhere.”
“What was wrong with Moma Shando’s?”
“What was wrong with Moma Shando’s?” Parr asked. “Did you see that ad? Everything. Everything was wrong with it. Relax, I’ll find us a spot.”
Parr could hear Norfung grumble a series of curses on the other side of the comm, but the connection began to fuzz out as he eased the throttle forward and whipped around another little moon. “Come on, Aurrie,” Parr said, and tapped the console of his cruiser. “Now’s your time, girl.”
The emergency lights strobed faster, and the comm buzzed with a distorted message from the Dreadnet. Parr was still within range, but Norfung was going to have to follow his exact path now in order to have any hope of keeping up with him. Parr spun the crimson jewel around his finger one last time before he gripped the throttle and eased it forward.
Through the next grav slip, the Aurora once again proved her reputation as one of the fastest—if not the fastest—ships around. She poured on speed and started to put real distance between the two ships. The comm link blinked a dark orange.
“That’s not good,” Parr said under his breath. “Come on, you got this, girl.”
Parr frantically evaluated the rifts and scrolled through them almost as fast as Aurrie moved between moons.
Red warning lights pulsed through the cabin as the third sling almost put the Dreadnet out of range. The bridge’s klaxon joined the pulsing lights as Norfung fired on Parr.
Parr glanced at the monitor and was relieved to find that Norfung had launched a nonlethal burst meant to arrest movement rather than destroy. Parr deployed two projectiles behind him with the same tracking identifiers as the Aurora in the hope that they would distract whatever modules Norfung had fired.
It’s now or never, he thought. Parr hammered the throttle forward as they headed toward the last sling.