It was a fast descent to an early grave. In what seemed to be an appropriate location, too: a large scrapyard full of derelict ships and industrial equipment that had likely been picked clean long ago. What was left was too unstable to be safely, or profitably, salvaged.
Now there would be one more ship in this graveyard.
Krenn’s Talon smoldered and sparked as clouds raced by his field of view. All sorts of alarms were yelling at him as if he wasn’t already aware of the danger he was in. The Tevarin pirate tried to wrestle his ship into control but could do nothing to slow his fall.
With no better solution available to him, and as much as he didn’t want to abandon his cargo, he decided to abandon ship. As he ejected the pod, his console lit up with warnings. The cockpit of the Talon was supposed to separate from the rest of the vessel, but the damage to his ship had impacted the latches. They didn’t detach properly, but the cockpit tried to fire anyway. The force of the ejection ripped the latches out of place and sent his cockpit spinning wildly.
Krenn only caught glimpses of the rest of his ship hurtling deeper into the field of scrap as his cockpit crashed through piles of loose metal. Hitting the ground, he tumbled end over end before finally coming to a stop seated upside down.
The pirate caught his breath and ripped his helmet off, letting it fall to the ground. His skull stung as air touched the freshly bleeding wound upon his head.
His cockpit was in tatters, the canopy shattered, and the walls pierced in multiple places by loose scrap. Worst of all, a large piece of shrapnel was embedded in his left thigh, pinning him to his seat.
Krenn slowly gripped the shard of metal and wrenched it free. Immediately, blood began flowing from the wound, spilling down into his cockpit. He tossed the shard of metal aside and tried to detach his seat straps, but they refused to disengage. Frustrated, he reached behind his seat and pulled the bakor from its lodging.
The bakor was about the size of a hatchet, but instead of a single axe head the weapon had three edges: the standard axe head and then a small fluke jutting out opposite the main blade, as well as a short, sharpened spike extending from the top of the weapon between the two blades. It was uncommon, but the traditional Tevarin weapon was the pirate’s favorite tool.
Krenn cut the seat straps away and fell to the ceiling of his cockpit, wincing as his wounded leg screamed at him. He looked at the injury, still pulsing blood, and then cut his seat straps again, using the material to fashion a makeshift tourniquet which he tied around his leg to staunch the bleeding. Immediate death now held temporarily at bay, he pulled himself out of the shattered remains of his cockpit and into the dumping ground around him. For as many fights as he’d been in before, the pirate was sure he had never looked this bad. He sheathed his bakor in the holster at his waist.
The sound of a ship’s engines, distant but growing closer, sent Krenn’s adrenaline spiking. He ducked out of sight.
The bounty hunter was coming.
The hunter’s approach stirred a strong wind that carried through the junkyard, eliciting a chorus of groaning metal in response as the unstable ships throughout teetered, threatening to topple over. Krenn watched the Avenger pass over him and head towards a plume of smoke that was slowly rising into the sky.
His crashed ship.
Where, hopefully, his cargo remained. That cargo was the whole reason he had gotten into this mess. Infiltrating the security post hadn’t been any more difficult than usual, but after that everything had gone to hell. Not only had his exit been even bloodier than planned, but then Jorg Tala, that damn bounty hunter, had come out of nowhere, isolated Krenn from his crew, and sent him crashing down here.
Jorg had been systematically hunting down members of the Ashen Haunt for the last few months, but Krenn hadn’t thought he’d become this much of a problem. Based on the fanatical way Jorg was targeting his gang, he had no doubt the hunter was another xenophobe trying to relive Humanity’s glory days triumphing over an alien species.
The pirate watched as the bounty hunter’s ship descended out of view, landing near the smoke. The hunter would undoubtedly investigate his Talon’s crash site and Krenn was determined to not let that bastard get his hands on what he had worked so hard to steal.
In a way, Krenn figured he was lucky. Were their roles reversed, Krenn would’ve fired a missile at the wreck as soon as he had it in sight. That lack of decisiveness on the bounty hunter’s part was a distinctly Human quality.
The pirate took stock of his situation: a pistol more than halfway through its last battery, a single grenade that managed not to blow up when he crashed, his bakor blade, and most importantly, that nasty gash in his leg. The tourniquet was slowing his blood loss, but he needed a more permanent solution. Adrenaline would keep the pain at bay for now, but he wouldn’t stand a chance if he bled out or lost circulation in his leg.
Krenn searched the scrap around him, then limped his way down the small dirty alleys that weaved between the forgotten ships until he found what he was looking for. A large freighter sat up ahead. It looked to be a more recent addition to the wreckages here, relatively speaking. The ship’s hull had already been ripped away, exposing a large set of pipes from its inner workings to the open air. Pipes that were slowly leaking green fluid.
Krenn entered the ship through the hole in the hull, followed the pipes to their natural point, and – jackpot – found a large coolant tank. He smirked, knowing exactly how proud Ragwheel would be when he heard this story. It was proof that Krenn actually listened to the old mechanic, even when he pretended not to.
Krenn took a deep breath and drew the bakor. He was about to make a lot of noise, but he needed to get this done. If Jorg heard him, then so be it. Krenn stabbed the bakor’s center spike into the tank. The metal shrieked in protest at the impact, but sadly remained intact. Krenn adjusted his grip and struck with greater strength. He was rewarded with a stream of green fluid pouring from the fresh hole. With no time to lose, Krenn steeled himself and pushed his leg forward into the path of the liquid.
It took every shred of willpower he had to force himself to remain where he stood, gritting through the pain until the caustic chemicals burned his wound, cauterizing it. Then he had to turn his leg and burn the other side, where the scrap had pierced through.
When the wound was sealed, Krenn yanked his leg from the chemical and buckled on the spot. The sickening metallic scent of his blood melded with the acrid sting of the coolant, making his head swim. Looking down at the ruined flesh of his leg, he wasn’t sure he’d ever walk the same, but at least he had stopped the bleeding.
Limping heavily, Krenn exited the freighter the same way he came and found the smoke trail of his ship, which he used as a guiding star as he continued deeper into the scrapyard. The collection of shattered ships grew messier the deeper he ventured. More and more the paths dead-ended into mounds of rusty metal. Unwilling to risk the noise he’d make clambering over the scrap, he blindly continued through whatever paths he could find, taking a circuitous route towards his ship. He kept his steps as light as he could with his injury, but despite his efforts, it proved impossible to be totally silent.
The proof? A bullet ripped through his shoulder.
The sudden impact dropped him behind a heavy sheet of metal. A burst of additional gunfire followed and impacted centimeters in front of his face against his impromptu cover. Clearly, Jorg had found him. The fact he had found him so quickly did at least give the pirate hope about one thing – maybe his cargo was still safe.
“Krenn,” the bounty hunter called out. He sounded far away. “Time to give it up. It’s over.”
Krenn pushed himself against the metal plate and put his hand on his shoulder. Thankfully, the bullet had pierced through completely and seemed to have avoided causing any major damage. As the chant says, do not let misfortune distract from your blessings.
He peeked out from behind his cover and caught a glimpse of Jorg, wearing a green set of heavy armor. He was perched atop the remains of a Carrack, using the vantage point to great effect. Even from this distance, Krenn could spot a laser pistol on the bounty hunter’s hip along with what he thought might be a knife, as well as the assault rifle to blame for his latest injury.
“Come on,” Krenn shouted, trying not to sound too winded. He glanced around for a good escape route. “You should know by now that I’m not really the ‘come quiet’ type.”
Krenn took off, careful to stay low and keep as much cover as he could between himself and the hunter. Maintaining a crouched stance proved even more difficult thanks to his mounting injuries.
“If you give up, I can get you medical attention,” Jorg replied from his perch. “I’d rather you not die if I can avoid it.”
“Doesn’t seem like you’re trying very hard!”
“The bounty for capturing you alive is higher than turning you in dead,” Jorg said. “But not by much. The Haunt doesn’t have many friends.”
Krenn ignored him, continuing to move until he found himself at an impasse. There were two routes available to him. One was over a hill of scrap but attempting to climb it in his current state was sure to draw Jorg’s attention. The other was through a clearing and would leave him an easy target.
Krenn carefully pulled a loose length of pipe from the scrap pile and peeked at Jorg. The hunter was looking down the sights of his rifle, searching for any sign of movement. As soon as Jorg’s head was turned away, Krenn tossed the pipe as far as he could.
The sound of metal hitting metal drew Jorg’s attention and Krenn used the momentary distraction to step out of hiding, draw his laser pistol, and unload the last of his battery at the Carrack Jorg was standing on.
The shots found their target and with no small amount of luck, the Carrack collapsed, the tower of a ship falling in on itself, consuming Jorg within it.
His battery empty, Krenn tossed his blaster aside and ran across the open space as fast as his injured leg allowed.
It wasn’t fast enough.
A cacophony of metal from behind him drew his gaze and Krenn turned to see Jorg pushing out of the remains of the fallen ship. He seemed to have lost his rifle in the fall but was otherwise unharmed, his armor only scuffed and scratched from the fall. Krenn cursed. He’d stand no chance against Jorg until that damn armor was dealt with.
Jorg drew his pistol and shot at Krenn, but the injured pirate managed to just make it to the other end of the clearing, breaking Jorg’s line of sight.
Krenn was sure that he’d never outpace the hunter in a straight chase, so he quickly dislodged the debris he ran past, creating an avalanche of trash behind him. Soon a jagged obstacle course of metal shards lay between them.
“You really think you can get away,” Jorg called out, more annoyed than anything. He charged ahead, vaulting over and under the debris. “You’re going down just like the rest of your pitiful gang,” Jorg taunted.
Spotting an opportunity ahead, Krenn slowed just enough to make sure Jorg saw him, “You think you’re so much better than us? Must be so easy for you, only seeing the ‘verse in black and white.”
Jorg raised his pistol to fire, but Krenn ducked around a corner again, just barely escaping him.
Jorg followed, gaining speed, and rounded the-
The old “grenade around the corner” trick. It wasn’t the first time Krenn had used the tactic and he hoped this wouldn’t be the last time either. As the chant goes, hunger can make even the most dangerous predator blind.
Unwilling to give Jorg even a moment to recover, Krenn drew his bakor and rushed into the dirt cloud kicked up by the grenade’s detonation. As the dust began to dissipate, Krenn saw the hunter already regaining his footing. The blast had done its job though. Jorg’s armor was now charred and heavily damaged.
The pirate swung his bakor at the hunter’s pistol first, knocking the weapon aside and followed by raking the axe towards Jorg’s head. Krenn’s aim was true, but the deadly blade didn’t quite penetrate Jorg’s helmet, though the force of the swing sent the hunter stumbling back.
Krenn immediately went for Jorg’s fallen pistol, turned it towards the hunter, but froze before he could finish squeezing the trigger. Where his axe had struck Jorg’s helmet, the visor had cracked, revealing the face beneath.
A Tevarin face.
“Not what you expected to see?” Jorg laughed, still held at gunpoint.
“You… why?” Krenn asked. “You could be hunting anybody else but you’re going after us? After your own kind?!” Krenn felt his blood boiling, anger surging within him like a tidal wave. “Working for the bastards who took everything from us?!”
“The Humans need to see that we’re worthy of respect.”
“And this is how? By having us hunt each other down?”
“You and your gang are holding our entire people back,” Jorg replied, with deadly conviction.
Krenn didn’t know what to say. How could a Tevarin believe this? After their people had endured so much, suffered so much, and here-
A flash of movement snapped Krenn back to the present. A thrown knife cut through the air, aimed at his throat. Krenn barely dodged it, the knife drawing blood as it grazed him. Then Jorg charged him.
Krenn stumbled back fighting to bring the pistol to bear, but Jorg slammed Krenn’s wrist against the hull, breaking the pirate’s grip on the pistol.
The weapon fell at their feet, but Krenn kicked the pistol with the heel of his foot before Jorg could reach for it, hearing it clang as it disappeared under a large pile of scrap.
With the inch of space he had gained, Krenn swung his axe down, but the hunter leapt away to avoid being cut by the blade. Krenn pressed forward, swinging the axe again and again.
Seconds stretched on and Krenn’s stamina began to give out as the fight continued. Any strength advantage Krenn might have had was quickly being sapped by his blood loss, and as much as the pirate hated to admit it, Jorg was clearly better trained. If Krenn was going to defeat the hunter, he needed to end things soon.
Krenn let loose a guttural roar and raised his bakor high, ready to smash down into the hunter. Jorg reached for the axe and Krenn grinned. The feint worked. He redirected the spike of the bakor into Jorg’s leg, stabbing it through a gap in the armor left by the grenade explosion.
Jorg fell where he stood, crumpling over the injured leg.
The pirate had the hunter at his mercy… and yet did nothing. For as much as Krenn hated Jorg for hunting down his pack, he was still Tevarin.
Jorg tried to push himself up, but his leg couldn’t hold his weight and he fell right back down.
Bakor pointed at Jorg, Krenn spoke. “I’ll give you a chance. But just one,” he began. “Don’t ever come after me again.”
Krenn turned away. He heard Jorg struggle after him and then collapse again, unable to pursue him.
Krenn tried to come to terms with his new understanding of Jorg when he finally reached the end of the smoke he had been following all this time.
There, he found what he was looking for: his Talon and, just beyond it, Jorg’s Avenger.
Krenn’s own ship was wrecked, already at home in the landfill of scrap metal, but at least it seemed his smuggling compartment hadn’t been compromised.
He used his bakor as a prybar, stabbed it into a gap between his ship’s engine plating, and began to push. It didn’t give immediately, but with enough force, the leverage did its trick. Krenn pried the plating away, revealing his ship’s engines. Sitting amidst all the inner workings was a hidden compartment. Inside there was a small, reinforced chest, only a little larger than his hand.
Krenn breathed a sigh of relief and carefully removed the chest from its position.
A pipe struck the back of his head and sent him, the cargo, and the bakor sprawling to the ground.
“I was wondering where you were trying to go,” Jorg said, “I thought you wanted my ship, but…”
Vision blurry, Krenn watched as Jorg bent down and picked up the small chest.
“This is what you got from the security outpost?” Jorg asked. “The reason so many people there had to die?”
Krenn groaned, vision still swimming. “They were in the way,” he said, voice uneven.
“That’s it?” asked Jorg. He tossed his pipe aside and retrieved Krenn’s fallen bakor. “Do you know what happens with every crime you pull?” Jorg waited for an answer. When none came, he continued. “You validate all the terrible ways they treat us. Reinforce their belief that we’re just problems that need solving.”
“And you blame us for that?” Krenn asked, incredulous, trying to speak through the pain. “They leave no room for us in their world. We have nothing to lose by fighting back.”
“We have our future,” said Jorg. “Our lives.”
“You call this a life?” Krenn asked. Frustration, anger, and sadness all raged within him. “All their systems – all their laws – they’re designed to keep us weak. And you know what happens if we do show the Humans any signs of strength? They call us criminals. Convince the universe we’re somehow a threat to be hunted when all we want to do is survive. Well fine. I welcome it. If they want me to be a criminal, I’ll be the best one I can be. I’ll show them exactly what our people are capable of.”
“What’s in here?” Jorg held the box up in between them. “What’s worth all that misery?”
“See for yourself. The code is 2610.”
Krenn watched Jorg’s expression carefully as the hunter entered the code and unlocked the box. If he recognized the number, he gave no sign of it. Jorg opened the lid and, immediately, his brows furrowed, clearly confused.
He reached inside the box. “What is this?” Jorg asked, holding up the data stick that had been kept secured in the small, shielded chest.
“Lives,” said Krenn.
“I don’t understand…” Jorg said.
“They’re fresh starts. Clean identifications used to smuggle Tevarin off-world,” Krenn clarified. “From places they wouldn’t be allowed to travel for whatever bullshit reasons the local governments used to mark them as criminals.”
As the silence settled between them, Krenn saw a crack in Jorg’s expression. He pressed his advantage. “All this time, you’ve been hunting me and the others in the Haunt, but we haven’t been stealing for ourselves. We’ve been stealing for this.”
“Where do you take them?” Jorg finally asked.
“To Branaugh,” Krenn said.
The pirate saw the realization on the hunter’s face. “Outside the Empire.”
Krenn just smiled. “The Empire knows what we’re doing. I may hate them, but they aren’t stupid. Why do you think our bounties are so high? They can’t stand to see Tevarin help each other.”
“There are other ways,” Jorg replied, voice more unsteady than it had been. “You don’t have to murder to save others.”
“We do the only thing we can. If some Humans have to die to save my people, then so be it.”
“That’s not-“ Jorg started. “Those aren’t soldiers on the stations you attack. They’re innocent people. You’re not fighting a war.”
“Of course I am.”
The thunder of ship engines pierced the atmosphere as Krenn’s crew exited quantum over the scrapyard. They had finally tracked him down.
Jorg’s surprise at their entry gave Krenn just the opportunity he needed. He charged at Jorg and threw all his weight into the hunter, taking advantage of every pound he had over the smaller Tevarin.
He pushed and pushed until… Jorg took a sharp breath.
Krenn stopped and saw that Jorg’s chest was shaking. His breathing pained. A metal rod was sticking out through his chest, slick with blood.
Krenn stepped back from the bounty hunter. His hoarse breaths rose and fell. Still clutching the bakor, he looked down at the wound, the shock clearly holding the pain at bay for the time being.
“Well,” he managed in a ragged whisper. “Definitely not worth the extra credits.”
Krenn watched him for a few moments. The hatred that had driven him to this point was surprisingly softened.
“The Humans,” Krenn started. “Why do you care about them so much?”
For a moment, Krenn wasn’t sure Jorg would answer. Then, the hunter closed his eyes, grimacing in pain. “They’re not all the same…”
Krenn searched Jorg’s expression for something that wasn’t there. “That’s not what I asked. Why do you care?”
The pause was longer this time. Jorg’s breathing slower. “When I was young… I was alone,” he said. “A Human took me in. Showed me another way. They could be allies. If you didn’t treat them all like enemies…”
Jorg’s words spun in Krenn’s mind. The sheer conviction with which Jorg spoke troubled him.
“…You had your imprint scanned recently?” he asked.
Jorg nodded. It was a slight movement. To Krenn, it seemed all he could manage.
“Then…” Krenn said. “Maybe you can tell me about it when we meet again.”
The words took time to land, but when they did Krenn registered the surprise on Jorg’s face. “Fine. Next time…” Jorg said, weak, his eyes closing.
Krenn nodded and stayed there, watching as Jorg Tala died.
Krenn retrieved his bakor and gave the hunter one last look. He knew Jorg would be back. One of the benefits of the lawful life was an easier time regenerating. Well, easier in that you wouldn’t be arrested right when you woke up. The headaches were the same no matter what. Krenn caught himself hoping Jorg’s regeneration was painless and stopped midthought, surprised by his own sentimentality.
In the distance he saw his crew flying low over the scrapyard. Likely looking for any sign of him or his ship. He wasn’t looking forward to all the flack he’d catch for his current state but… He looked at Jorg’s Avenger.
He could at least avoid the worst of the grief by returning with a new ship.
Jorg would be angry when he’d learn it was gone, but Krenn told himself that even though the hunter wasn’t a convert yet, it was never too soon to make a small donation to the cause.