Collected for the first time, these short works by BRYAN YOUNG take place across the far reaches of the galaxy. This cross section of works document what rebels, bounty hunters, smugglers, journalists, spacers, and colonists might find in the far reaches of space...
I love the cover on this one… it grabbed me when Bryan first suggested the book for the StoryBundle. And I loved the idea of rogues and scoundrels in space, being a Han Solo Fan since I was nine years old and watched the first Star Wars film in theaters seven times! – J. Scott Coatsworth
"Bryan Young is an imaginative writer who has a director's eye, a film historian's perspective, a critic's cynicism, and a genre fan's enthusiasm. It's an interesting mix and I look forward to seeing everything he writes."– Aaron Allston, New York Times Bestselling Author and author of more than a dozen Star Wars novels
"I've got two ships on my scope," Porter said, watching two massive blips barreling toward them on her view screen.
"Do you have an ID on them?" her co–pilot, Holden, asked, keeping their ship, the Concordia, smooth and level so they could make their jump across the galaxy to the next safe harbor.
Both pilot and co–pilot were dressed in royal purple pilot suits that hugged their curved forms. They would have easily been mistaken for one another except for two key differences: Holden's fire–red hair and pale skin were nothing like Porter's raven colored hair and sepia complexion.
"Negative." Porter slid her pilot's chair from one station to the next, looking at the transponder screen and hoping the ships weren't what she thought they were. "Wait… I'm getting something from the database."
"And?" There was fear in Holden's voice.
"The advance ships of the Black Fleet's armada." Porter's heart dropped like it had pulled an extra gee breaking orbit. "They've found us."
"Do you think they were tipped off?"
"Doesn't matter. All that matters is that they're following us now and not the decoy fleet. I know this isn't how it was supposed to be, but we don't have a choice. We have to get the prince out of here. Now. Before they catch us." Holden throttled the accelerator, slamming them back against the chairs with the weight of their increased speed.
"It's not enough." Porter slid her chair back to the radar station. The two blips maintained speed, bearing down on them. "Raise the shields. Double rear."
"On it." Holden flipped a pair of switches down, angling the shields back to protect them from the inevitable barrage.
"Why can't they just leave us alone?" Porter said, standing up from her swivel chair.
"You know why they won't."
A blast from the approaching vessels rocked the prince's ship, taking Porter's balance and spilling her onto the cockpit floor "Damn."
"I knew it wouldn't be long before the shooting started. I'll lock the course. You get the prince to the safe room, and I'll get us out of here."
Porter knew that Holden's piloting skills were the only hope they had of getting the prince away. She was the best the entire resistance had to offer, and that was why she and Porter had been chosen to whisk the prince away on their own while the rest of the fleet made a show of leaving. The hope was that the Black Fleet would assume the prince was with the larger contingent, heavily protected. They were supposed to pursue the larger delegation and simply not notice a single ship leaving orbit on the other side of the planet.
But things weren't looking good. Perhaps even the flying prowess of the great Bria Holden wouldn't be enough to save their cause this time.
With a pocket of tension rising inside her, Porter left the cockpit and came back to the galley where she found Prince Timothy lounging on the couch behind the table where they took their meals. Timothy was young, fifteen years old at the most, with a lanky frame and a clean, gaunt face. He seemed constantly quiet and his blue eyes the color of a blaster bolt were always still, but managed to see everything.
When he saw Porter, his eyes widened ever so slightly. "I take it they've found us, Captain Porter?"
"Aye, Your Highness. They have. And we need to get you somewhere safe."
Prince Timothy's bodyguard, Hawk, a thick stump of a man who'd served his entire life in the employ of the king in the palace, stood beside the prince, nodding his agreement. "Captain Porter is correct, my liege. We must get you to safety."
Another blast impacted the ship, rocking Porter off her feet and jolting the prince and his bodyguard to one side against the couch.
"What is the plan, then?" the prince asked.
"We'll think of something, Your Highness," Porter said, hoping that was true. There wasn't much to do but lull him into a false sense of security in the captain's quarters. They were in the center of the ship, and it could act as an escape pod if the rest of the ship was blasted to pieces, which seemed like more and more of a likely possibility. "You'll go to the captain's quarters, and Mr. Hawk and I will operate the belly guns. We'll get out of this yet, Highness. We have to."
Porter extended her arm, pointing the prince in the right direction. Hawk grabbed the prince at the shoulder and guided him to his feet, but another rocking impact jolted the entire ship. The lights flickered, and they could hear the hiss–bang of a secondary explosion, but they couldn't worry about that just yet. The lights came back on, and Porter kept her balance. She was glad to see that Hawk did as well, but the prince lost his, planting his face into the deck plates.
Porter grimaced. It was hard to see the prince, usually so stoic despite his youth, knocked about so clumsily.
The shaking floor was not an issue for Hawk, though, who laughed as he pulled the young man to his feet once more. "It's all right now, m'lord. Let's get you back to your feet and I'll remind you twice to be more careful."
Prince Timothy's face slackened as he dusted himself off. For the first time, Porter could see the fear welling in him. He hid it well. A lifetime of training can hide the facial ticks of fear, but eyes don't lie. As much as he was the last un–captured member of the Royal Family and the figurehead of the resistance against the renegades of the Black Fleet, he was still just a frightened little boy.
Through the terror, the prince found his footing and allowed Hawk to escort him toward the captain's quarters where he'd hide from the Black Fleet as long as he could.
"Captain Porter?" Holden's voice came in over the ship's public address system through a jolt of static.
"What is it, Holden?" Porter replied, not missing a step as she followed Hawk and the prince to the safe room. "We're moving his Highness to my quarters, and then we're getting in the belly gun ports."
"That's the problem. The belly guns aren't going to do us much good." Holden said.
"Why not?" Porter shouted, increasing her pace down the hallway.
For Porter, it seemed suddenly as all the pressure had left the cabin, and her heart was weightless, swimming in her chest and threatening to beat itself to death."How?"
"Lucky hit. That last blast took them out. I tried to maneuver, but the shot came up under the deflector and there was nothing I could do…"
Holden's voice cut out as Porter took a turn around the corner, leaving her at the entry to her reinforced escape–room.
The ship buckled once more under the pressure of a well–placed laser blast, sending Porter, Hawk, and the prince sprawling back and forth against the sides of the corridor. But Porter had no time to worry. She placed her hand on the scanner that enabled entry to her quarters and, thankfully, the door slid open without incident.
Her rounded cabin was decorated sparsely, kept immaculate knowing they might be forced to whisk away a most important cargo. The doorway was easily half a meter thick and solidly connected to the rest of the ship with internal docking clamps. It would survive most any blast and be able to get along on its own after the rest of the ship had been torn to shreds. Inside the cabin were provisions should they be called for and a control console for basic thrusters.
Porter hoped things wouldn't come to that.
If the prince were put in that position, it would all be over anyway. They'd be able to catch the escape cabin with ease, pry it open like a tin ration can, and they'd have their last hostage. The resistance would be over.
She couldn't let that happen. "Your Highness, if you'll step inside, I'll close you in. Mr. Hawk and I will take care of this rabble."
"How?" His voice wavered between incredulous and frightened. "I'm young, but I'm not deaf. I heard what your shipmate said. There are no guns left."
Hawk raised his clenched fist to his chest in an old fashioned salute. "My lord, there is more than one way to ride a brevel. Trust that we'll take care of this."
"How?" The prince stood at the doorway and placed his hands on his hips.
It was apparent he had no intentions of taking a step further until someone explained to him what would happen and how they would be keeping the ship safe.
"We have a few options, Your Highness." Porter bowed her head, straining to think of a single one.
"You see?" Hawk's barrel of a chest seemed to grow when he tilted back and smiled. "We have options, lord. Nothing to concern yourself over. We'll do our best, and we'll be out of this as quick as you can imagine."
Porter imagined that it would have been difficult to dislike the prince's retainer. Hawk seemed to have no fear, even in hopeless situations, and the fact that he was laughing and smiling as though the danger were a mere trifle certainly helped boost Porter's morale.
And that was a good thing because Porter felt the situation was hopeless. With the belly guns gone, they had no personal defenses aboard the ship. They had exposure suits, so maybe they could get outside and start shooting at the Black Fleet's flagships with their blast pistols, but that would be the same as blasting them with harsh language.
But that was when an idea hit her. Her face must have lit up like a sensor board, because Hawk noticed. "You have an idea, Captain?"
"I do," she said. Equal amounts of hope and despair swirled inside her. The plan was as foolish as it was necessary.
"What are we to do, Captain Porter?" the prince asked, tilting his head sideways like a curious dog.
Taking a breath and about to reveal her plan, Porter was knocked against the bulkhead as the ship swayed roughly, the victim of another direct hit.
Holden shouted through the comm system. "Whatever you're going to do, do it fast. They're gaining on us, and we're about five minutes from coming into tractor range and, best case, six from a navigation solution."
Porter looked up to Hawk, locking eyes with him. "There are two Royal fighters stowed in the cargo bay."
Hawk nodded, understanding instantly how the rest of the plan would need to go down. But in his naiveté, the prince didn't quite follow.
"You have pilots and fighters? Why did you not launch them at the first sign of trouble?"
Hawk's voice was strong, but grim, never losing eye contact with Porter. "Young master, this ship is not equipped to scramble fighters, nor are there any pilots aboard, save us. Once the cargo bay is vacuum tight from the rest of the ship, Captain Porter and I will blast through the cargo bay doors and scramble through the torn remains of the ship. Then, we shall offer a defensive screen so that Commander Holden might whisk you away to safety."
"But what will happen to you?" Prince Timothy asked.
Hawk offered a half–smile that he clearly didn't mean. "That is immaterial as long as you're safe, my lord."
Porter turned her head to look upon the prince, horror stretched across the boy's face. The corners of his mouth turned into a frown and his eyes widened. "You can't, Hawk. They'll kill you."
Hawk shrugged. "As long as you're safe, my lord."
"No. I won't allow it. I order you to find another way."
The Royal bodyguard raised a hand and placed it on Prince Timothy's shoulder. "My lord, my task has been ordained to protect you at any cost, including my life. And if I must lay it down, I shall."
"But you can't!"
Porter wasn't sure how to intercede without making things worse. Hawk had been Timothy's protector from his earliest days, and he would not separate willingly from the man. He'd already lost his parents, and now they were asking him to lose the closest thing he had to an actual friend, father, and confidante.
It wasn't fair.
But the rogues of the Black Fleet had worked hard to ensure that nothing for the Royal Family would ever be fair again.
Hawk smiled. "One day, my lord, you'll understand why we did what we did…"
Timothy drew a breath, ready to speak, but didn't get a word out. Hawk pinched tightly around the base of Timothy's neck and pressed into the notch where the collar meets the shoulder until the prince crumpled to the floor with a thud.
"What did you do?" Porter asked, incredulous.
"Trust me. It's easier than arguing with him, and we haven't the time. Help me with him."
Hawk pointed to the prince's feet, and Porter reached down to gather them up. Together, they hefted him over to the bunk and left him there.
The prince's protector, loyal to the end, turned on their way out of the room to take a last look at his master before the door closed in front of him.
"He never would have understood," Hawk told her as they sprinted to the cargo bay access doors. There was a resigned sadness in Hawk's voice that offered Porter no reassurance.
"I'm sure you did what you had to."
"That is all I've ever done," he said.
As they reached the cargo hold, Porter looked up and shouted at the internal speakers of the ship as she opened the doors. "Holden!"
Holden responded quickly. "Captain?"
"We're scrambling the fighters. Air seal the cargo hold once the doors are closed."
"You're doing what?"
The substantial metal doors slid open, allowing Hawk and Porter to enter. "No time to argue."
"What?" Holden shouted through the comm, but Porter offered no response.
The fighters themselves were covered over in canvas tarps. When they were packed into the cargo bay there was no intention of them being used until they were unpacked properly and checked out by whatever technicians the resistance had to offer. But Porter and Hawk had no such luxury. The wings of the fighters were folded into their cruising position so they would be easier to transport, giving them the shape of slimline torpedoes. Once engaged, the wings would fold out on the sides like sharp fins, changing the overhead profile of the ship into something that more resembled a crescent moon at the back with the cylindrical engine and passenger compartment at the nose. They weren't well armed, nothing more than laser cannons on the underbelly, but they were nimble and easy to handle, which made them perfect for what they had to do.
The speed of the ships might give them a chance at actually surviving the entire ordeal.
Hawk helped Porter unfurl the coverings on the first fighter, then the second. They were free of their wrappings in record time.
"Can I help you in, Captain?" he asked her.
But Porter shook her head, already clambering halfway up the fighter. "We're running out of time."
Hawk nodded and situated himself into his own cockpit just as soon as the ship lurched through the force of another blast. Porter counted at least half a dozen hits to her ship and knew it wouldn't be able to take any more, even with the shields doubled up to their rear quadrant.
Porter put on her headset and did a test of the comm system, while flipping on all the switches that would turn on the engines to the fighter. "Hawk, do you read me?"
"Loud and clear, Captain," he said.
"And what about you, Holden, can you hear me?"
"Aye, aye, Captain," she said.
"Has the situation changed?"
"Negative, Captain. We're still holding course, they're still gaining. We've got about a minute and a half before tractor lock is imminent."
Porter checked the details of her heads–up display and linked her system to Hawk's. "We have full pressurization in the fighters. Get ready for us to blow the hangar."
Holden didn't respond, but Porter could guess well enough her reaction. No doubt her face would contort angrily, and she'd let out a frustrated snarl. She could see the white swirls of air flying out of the now open vents, and the rest of the cargo jostled and floated around.
"From here to the ends of the galaxy, I uphold my sacred oath," he said, quoting from the mantra of his brotherhood.
"On the count of three, we'll both fire our cannons, straight ahead. It should blow the doors out and create a space wide enough for us to fly out."
Hawk growled a laugh. "They'll never see us coming. To victory!"
"One." Porter double–checked to make sure her cannons were armed.
"Two." She looked over to Hawk and wondered if they were throwing their lives away needlessly.
In tandem, Porter and Hawk pulled the triggers on their control sticks, sending dual pairs of azure bolts blasting across the cargo bay and right into the door and bulkhead. The doors didn't give on the first shot, so the two of them kept firing until there were gaping holes in the fuselage large enough for them to fly through.
All of the contents of the cargo turned into flotsam, heading toward the new exit from the ship and the space beyond.
"Here we go…" Porter shifted the thruster forward and rocketed out into space, breaking free from the ship she knew she would die to protect.
"I'm breaking right," Hawk said as he pulled his ship to a sharp right angle and extended his attack wings.
"I'll go left," Porter said, angling herself in that direction, knowing they needed to make themselves targets that wouldn't accidentally get the prince's ship destroyed by stray lasers.
Taking a look out at space for the first time, Porter gasped.
For the first time she saw the pursuing ships of the Black Fleet with her own two eyes. The ships were monstrous in size, and lumbering, but almost difficult to see. Their hulls were painted a deep black with flecks of lights and star patterns spread over them. If they weren't firing consistent volleys of their trademarked blacklight laser bolts, they would have easily blended into the space beyond.
"The fire is thick," Hawk said through the comm.
"We'll just have to do our best, Hawk. Holden, what do you have on sensors for the enemy flagships?"
"They're not slowing. I'm close to the navigation solution, but they're actually increasing speed. They must have over–burners on their thrusters. They're gaining on us."
"Understood," Porter said. "Hawk, we're going to have to go in hard and fast."
"On the attack?" There was a note of glee in his voice that Porter hadn't expected.
"On the attack."
"As it should be."
Attacking even one flagship–sized member of the Black Fleet with a pair of one–pilot fighters was suicide. But two? At least they weren't outnumbered from a certain perspective. Neither had time to do the math to understand that one flagship of the Black Fleet was easily equal to the might of at least a dozen Royal fighters.
The scope told her they were much further away than she thought, but the ships were so big that even at such a wide distance they seemed immense.
They were aggressively designed crafts, too. All of their communications arrays and forward facing guns protruded from the nose of the ship, as though it were a grouping of knives aimed forward, ready to murder any ship they rammed.
Porter loved the feeling of the fighter's controls beneath her hands and feet. Piloting a larger ship like her own felt lumbering. It had some maneuverability, but it wasn't so quick to respond as though it felt like it was an extension of herself.
But the fighters were.
Spinning left and right, banking back and forth, Porter dodged each of the incoming laser blasts. And since the fire remained concentrated on her, she knew at least some part of her plan was working.
Glancing down to the spatial readout, she knew Hawk was close by and could see his blip of a ship jinking one way and the other to dodge the laser fire aimed at him.
"Holden," Porter asked. "Has the fire lightened up on your end?"
"They don't seem to be getting as many shots in if that's what you mean, but hull integrity is down but holding. Most of that was your fault, though." There was an edge of sarcasm to Holden's voice, but she could tell there was a sadness behind it, too. Porter's second–in–command was coping with the situation the only way she knew how.
Banter in life–threatening situations seemed normal for pilots.
"Unavoidable, Holden. You can bill me for it later."
"Bill you for it? It's your ship. I'm just going to make you do the repairs."
The thought of getting out of the situation long enough to do the repairs herself was a happy thought.
But it wasn't a very realistic one.
"Captain Porter?" Hawk said through the comm, interrupting her thoughts, but not her concentration on winnowing her way through the black bolts.
"Go ahead, Hawk."
"When the prince escapes, be assured that they'll sing songs of this day."
If even Hawk knew she needed some measure of reassuring, then her voice must have betrayed her somehow. She shook off the maudlin feelings and focused on the flying. "I'm sure you'll come up with one before all this is done. We're coming into laser cannon range, and we'll be able to do some damage if they don't pick us off before then."
"Aye," he said. "On your order."
Porter tried to widen the arcs she flew in, forcing the incoming volleys to spread out to try to hit her. Then, she waited for the tone in her ear that would tell her that they were in range and her lasers might hit their target.
"Almost there," she said to herself.
The closer they got to the ships of the Black Fleet, the easier it was to see them through their camouflaged paint schemes. And it was easier to see the gun batteries and laser cannon emplacements that made flying toward them such a suicidal proposition.
Porter was grateful that they were approaching head on, rather than from the broadside. During a normal fight, one where they were not giving such dogged chase to one small vessel, the ships of the Black Fleet would bank port or aft, exposing the side of the ship to the oncoming force. Granted, it made them larger targets, but it also increased the magnitude of their firing tenfold.
As grim a thought as it was, Porter wished they would use such a standard maneuver, as it meant they would have been breaking off the pursuit of the Concordia and the precious cargo aboard.
And while their refusal to maneuver increased the odds of survival for Porter and Hawk, it did nothing to help them complete their sole task.
Porter danced back and forth in her fighter, waiting for the lock tone. The occasional glance of a black light blast bouncing off her shields forced a wince here and a flinch there, but for the most part, she and Hawk had made it unscathed to that point.
And the tone sounded.
"We're in range. Fire at will," she said to Hawk as she pulled back on her trigger, letting loose a barrage of blue lasers that criss–crossed against the oncoming purple–black lasers.
Between the extreme distance and the small size of the laser cannons on the fighters, they did little but bounce off the protective bubble of shields on the enemy ship.
"They don't have much effect, Captain."
"Not yet they don't. But maybe if we can get in closer and inside their defensive perimeter we'll be more effective."
Hawk's only response was a deep and roaring laugh. "It will be my pleasure, Captain."
Using her shoulder, Porter wiped off the sweat collecting on her brow as best she could. Keeping her hands fastened to the controls so she could weave in and out of the ribbons of deadly lasers. She wondered what it must have looked like from outside the ship; if her moves seemed erratic or graceful to the gunner bent on blowing her out of the galaxy.
She hoped they seemed erratic. It was much more difficult to hit a target whose next move you couldn't predict. And she hoped that the gunner's view of her was constantly obscured by the flashes of blue bolts on the shields that she shot directly ahead of her.
"Not too long now," Hawk said.
Indeed, they were approaching at an alarming speed, and instead of large ships in the distance, the flag ships of the Black Fleet were colossal ships in the foreground.
They were there.
"Careful not to impact with their shields, Hawk. We're moving fast enough that we'll explode on contact."
"Your sensors will warn you when you're too close."
Porter was impressed that Hawk had lasted as long as he had. By no means did she have any desire to see him killed, but one did not think of piloting prowess when one thought of a retainer of the Royal Family. Their reputation lies in the honorable application of brute force rather than the dexterity required to pilot a starship.
But war makes for odd combinations.
Survival and escape, doubly so.
"As we get closer," she told him, "I'll break right, and you break left. We'll cross between their arc of fire and switch targets. My guess is that their shields are set to double front, and if we can get past the midship, then we'll have a chance of doing some damage."
"You think like a retainer, Captain."
Maybe they had more in common than she would have thought.
"Concordia?" Porter said.
"Copy, Captain?" Holden replied.
"Estimated time to nav lock?"
"I need another minute. Maybe less."
"Aye, aye, Holden. You heard her, Hawk. The plan is a go. Cross on my mark, and aim for the midship. Fire at will."
"I swear it," Hawk shouted, echoing a line from one of his many oaths.
Feinting her ship in a slight bank to the left, Porter readied herself for her dash between the ships. She was close enough finally to see the individual antennae, radar dishes, and gun emplacements jutting out of the front of the enemy ship, and it unnerved her. The closer she was, the easier a target she made.
But she hoped to fix all that.
She smashed down on the pedal on her right foot and jerked her control stick in that direction as well, pulling back on it to rise up and cross.
"It's working," Hawk shouted through the comm.
A smile spread across Porter's face. It was working. She opened fire on the ship, even though the lasers were still useless against the front half of it. But in the joy of her minor victory, getting closer to the pursuing ships, she lost track of the gunner who'd been tracking her.
A wall of black and purple energy spread across her shields. She'd been hit on the port side so hard that her trajectory altered.
She went into a spin, dizzying her.
"My shields are gone."
"Get out of there," Hawk told her. "I can handle this."
Another blast smashed into her, intensifying the circular turning. "Keep going Hawk. I'll get this under control and meet you."
Hawk gave no reply that she could hear, and she worried that her comm system had gone offline.
Adrenaline bolted through her system, and worries of her mortality took over. She didn't want to die, but if she had to she was grateful it would be in the service of her prince and the resistance.
But with the onslaught of tense energy coursing through her veins, a wave of instinct came with it, helping her level out of her spin. Her legs at the pedals and hands at the controls did everything they could to counteract the damage she'd taken and keep her limping forward toward the target.
Ahead of her, she could see Hawk making a strafing run against the top of the ship she'd been sailing toward. His lasers reflected off the shields, but then he crossed the middle of the ship, and his blasts impacted the hull of the raider.
They must have been scrambling to deal with the situation. Gunners would be deployed to the rest of the ship, and they'd even out the shields momentarily, but hopefully he'd at least done some damage.
And now it was her turn. She tried accelerating, but her thrusters sputtered, and she could hear the whine of damage vibrating through the cockpit.
Maybe she could ram them.
Maybe that would help the cause.
As long as the second ship hadn't redirected its shields or scrambled for battle stations, she'd have a real shot of doing damage to it. The bridge was located on the top rear, perhaps that would be a likely target to aim for.
Porter gritted her teeth and set a course for it. Maybe killing the captain of the enemy ship would bring her the comfort she wanted.
But she hadn't realized what would be comforting to her. Not until the most comforting words she could imagine came in through the comm she had feared had been destroyed:
"Captain, we have a nav lock." Holden said.
Unfortunately the Concordia remained in the distance, floating in real–space. Porter could see it there, even on her cracked sensor screen.
"What are you waiting for then? Jump!" Porter yelled.
"Get back to the Concordia, this a recall order."
"We're not coming back. Now get out of here."
"That's an order!"
"Aye, aye, Captain," Holden said, no longer able to contain the emotion in her voice.
And without another word or sound, Holden gave up her fight, and the Concordia winked out of the sector, disappearing both from sight and sensor.
Prince Timothy was safe for now.
And that was all they could ask for.