“Aaron, Bates, are they alive?” No answer. “Aaron? Bates?” Silence. “Pup?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m here.”
“They’re all dead?” His voice was surprisingly calm.
“Yes. Now pack up and leave. You don’t have much time before the militia arrives. If you leave now you should make it. But if you try to take one captive with you, I’ll kill you.”
“No. I’ll kill you,” Brannigan said. “I’m not leavin’ ‘till I’ve hunted you down and ended you for what you’ve done. I saved your life, and you betrayed me. I can’t let that go.”
“Fuck that!” a third voice shouted over the radio. It was the pilot of the second Cutlass. “Militia are inbound. I’m takin’ my bird and splitting. Landing on the north side of town. Anyone not on board in three minutes gets left behind.”
“Traitors!” Brannigan bellowed. “Cowards! We’ve got a job to finish!”
“We need to go.” It was Grimes, trying to talk sense into his captain.
“I’m not leaving empty handed!”
“Yes you are,” I said. “Go, and don’t look back.” There was no answer. More gunfire sounded from the town below. I climbed into the rover and turned it back towards town. On the far side of town the Cutlass and the Caterpillar rose up and streaked into the sky. I had won. Now just to make Brannigan realize it.
The rover skidded to a halt at the edge of town. A strange scene was waiting for me. The civilians had come back in force, armed to the teeth. A dozen hard-faced men stood on the roofs of nearby buildings, and even more stood in the streets and alleyways. They stood with rifles, pistols, and shotguns pointing at the small group of mercenaries huddled in the street. Brannigan stood in the center, defiant and proud, along with Grimes and five others. The Vipers who were left wouldn’t have lasted a second against the force arrayed against them. But the mercenaries had hostages, a dozen townsfolk who had been unable to get away in time.
Captain Brannigan glared at me through the windshield of the rover. “You really want to save these people?” he shouted. “Get out and surrender, or they die.” He held up a grenade and pulled the pin. I slowly got out, keeping my revolver trained on him. “You shoot me,” he said, “I drop this and they die.”
It was a strange performance, the two of us facing each other surrounded by a crowd of townsfolk ready to kill. His helmet was off, his cold eyes glaring like pinpricks of ice. “It’s over, Brannigan,” I said. “Militia’s almost here, and most of your men are dead or run off. Only way you live is to let everyone go and leave.”
“Militia won’t fire on us as long as we have hostages,” Brannigan said. “We’re taking them. And you. Put down your gun and surrender.”
I looked over the crowd. If Brannigan got his hostages on board the Draconis, they’d be gone forever. He’d find a new slave trader to buy them. If he dropped the grenade, some would die. Three or four. The rest would live, even if severely injured. It was a risk, but the risk was worth it and the choice was obvious.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t yank the trigger, or you’ll pull the gun all manner of ways. Gently squeeze. Let it surprise you. Breathe in again, then breathe out and hold. Fire.
In all the movies, whenever someone shoots a grenade it explodes. But that’s not what actually happens. My bullet hit the grenade, tearing it to shreds before the compressed explosives inside could ignite. And Brannigan was left with useless shards of metal and a bloody mess for a hand. The shot broke the standoff, and the townsfolk opened fire on the mercenaries. Bullets quickly tore through armor and flesh as the last of the Vipers died.
Even wounded, Brannigan wouldn’t quit. Without hesitation he dove for me. I fired off another round, but he didn’t stop. He drew a knife with his good hand as he crashed into me.
I fell to the ground with him on top, my left arm screaming in pain once more as it intercepted the blade that was meant for my heart. He brought the knife down again, and the blade stabbed through my visor, stopping just short of ramming into my eye. I beat against his head, but to no avail. He came down for another blow, this one sure to cut through my neck. But he stopped, gave a violent shudder, and fell to the ground. I looked up to see a kid, the kid I had shot in the knee, smiling as he leaned against the rover for support, a MaxOx in his hand.
I struggled to my feet and pulled off my shattered helmet to look around. The fight was over. The remaining Vipers were dead, gunned down by the townsfolk. Blood obscured my left eye, my arm was ruined, and I was sure I was about to keel over dead. But I returned the kid’s smile.
Then I bent over and picked up my dropped revolver. Brannigan coughed as he lay on his back, bringing up blood. One last bullet in the gun. “You’re not a pup,” he choked out as I leaned over him. “You’re a wolf.”
I wish I could say I found a way to save him. I wish I could have given a happy ending to his story. The story of the man who just wanted to protect his brother, then just wanted to avenge him, then just wanted to survive. But as I looked around at the burning ruins of the town, the injured civilians covered in dirt and blood, the fear and determination plain on their faces; as I thought of all I had done for him and what he had tried to turn me into, it was all too easy to pull the trigger.
At the edge of town the Draconis lifted off and headed for the sky. Two Gladii emerged from the clouds and chased it down. Soon it was a fiery streak falling into the forest. More engines sounded. The Banu vessel was coming to life, preparing to take off. One last thing to do. The townsfolk hurried out of the way as I got back into the rover and raced towards the landing pad.
The combat had not left the alien ship unscathed. I could see energy weapon scars and bullet impacts as I drove into the open cargo bay. Two Banu corpses riddled with bullets lay fallen by empty stasis pods ready for human cargo. But the fat, bald, slave auctioneer was nowhere to be seen. The bulkhead door was closed and locked tight. I guessed the slaver must have scrambled into the front of the ship when the fight had started again, locking his customers out to meet their fate. The Ursa’s turret made quick work of the door.
The slaver didn’t put up much of a fight when I found him cowering at the ship controls. He barely got halfway through his first plea for mercy before I slammed the butt of my pistol into his bald head. He was heavy, but I managed to drag him to the cargo hold and dump him in one of the waiting pods to deal with later before returning to the bridge.
The alien controls were strange, but the slaver had done the work of starting the ship and lifting off for me. I punched the engines and rocketed out of the atmosphere. Militia forces surrounded the area, but they were busy fighting the other two Viper ships. I watched with satisfaction as the Cobra vanished from the radar, replaced with a cloud of debris. The two Gladii broke off to pursue me. But I had a head start, powerful engines, and a practically empty cargo hold. I hit the jump point and was gone.
And just like that it was over. My sigh of relief turned to a moan of pain as adrenaline left and every part of me screamed in pain. Then I started laughing. I laughed so hard I couldn’t stop despite the pain it caused. The Vipers were behind me. Empty space ahead. I was free.
The computer said I was in the Ferron system. An inhabited planet wasn’t too far away, and the Covalex station that orbited it was bound to have medical facilities and someone willing to pay a few creds for whatever junk was on this ship. After that, I didn’t know what. But I had a ship, and I was free. I could go home. Not yet, though. There was still more to do. My mind filled with the images of a slave market and a little boy clinging to me in fear, and I knew it was It was far from over. But for now, I could lie back and sleep.
We sat on the hilltop, watching as the sun turned the western sky pink and gold. Hunting birds soared over the treetops and a gentle breeze blew through the long grass.
“I know I’m hard on you sometimes,” my father said. “And I know I shouldn’t let myself get angry. But I worry. That’s a parent’s job, to worry about their kids.”
“I know,” I said.
There was a long silence as the shadows lengthened and the sun slipped behind the hills. “Why’d you want to take that ship out anyway?” he asked at last. “I guess some would say stealing a ship for a joyride is to be expected of a teen. But you’re not like that, at least I didn’t think so.”
I really did want to make him understand, but I didn’t have the words. “I don’t know how to explain it,” I said as I lay back and gazed up at the few stars already making their appearance. I didn’t know how to make someone else understand what I felt gazing up at the sky. “This world is just so small,” I began. And once I had found a start, it was easier to go on. “This tiny little ball drifting through a tiny corner of the universe.
“It’s not something wrong with living here,” I said when I saw his frown. “It’s... it’s just that all planets are so small. Stars are so small. Everywhere man has ever been is so tiny compared to the absolute immensity of the universe. I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to go, to fly, to explore. We’re all so tiny, and there’s just so much. But no matter how much we see it will always be an infinitesimal speck.”
I stopped. I was just rambling. There was no way to convey the feeling of absolute wonder in words, the need to soar out into the vast expanse. “I guess I just wanted to feel free.” I looked over at my father, and was surprised to see the smile on his face. He was quietly laughing. “What?” I asked, frowning.
“I guess it was too much to hope you’d be any different than I was at your age,” he said. “I suppose I needed reminding what it was like. I understand. You want to go out and experience the universe. And perhaps I’m wrong for discouraging you. Just remember that freedom doesn’t mean getting to do whatever you want, or go wherever you want. Nobody has that freedom. Freedom means choosing to be the kind of person you want to be. Everyone has it, but not everyone takes advantage of it. And nobody can take that freedom away.”