Vaughn stood near the ramp of his ship on the docks of a bustling planet. He hunched his shoulders and growled, cursing the wait it took to refuel. There was no help for it, though. He glanced up, through the sky, aching to be in space and away from the press of air and the pull of gravity. With a long breath he inhaled the smoke and grease from a hundred ships under a sweltering sun.
The heat did nothing to deter the crowds. Amid the traffic of incoming flights, the docks hosted a market of trade and culture. Vendors hocked their exotic wares and sharp scents wafted through the thick air from their carts that lined the road. Species and life forms from across the galaxy mingled freely here and mix of languages and alien sounds echoed across the wharf. Peaceful Arkans from a nearby system, tall and robed in red cloaks, walked next to warmongering Thelomites with their faces painted for a distant battle.
Stepping back, Vaughn deftly avoided an Octian’s swinging tentacles as it lumbered past his ship. As he did, his boot squelched in the slime trail of a passing Anomorph. He cursed and then sighed, regretting his decision to wait outside. He moved to the shade of his craft, scuffing slimed boots in the dirt, and leaned back against the burning metal of the hull, face screwed into a scowl. The sun baked air was no cooler in the shade. A gritty dust coated everything, blown through the air by the wind of engines, and though he’d shoved up the sleeves of his loose-fitting shirt and tied his hair at the nape of his neck, his skin shone with a sheen of sandy sweat.
Docked on either side, starships loomed, casting shadows over the thronged lane. Across from where he stood, a transport’s cargo doors hung open, exposing the empty maw of it’s belly to be reloaded. To the left and on the far side of his ship a titan explorer readied to embark on a journey through unknown space. And on the other, the dark, dense craft of a mining outfit rested next to the sleek shuttle of some visiting official. His ship, dwarfed by these hulking giants, was a small long-range fighter, dull grey hull smattered with scars and scorch marks.
From his safer perch on the edge of the activity, Vaughn observed the mass of travelers and vagabonds. Crewmen of nearby ships haggled voyage prices with potential passengers as tourists from distant corners stumbled by with craned necks and crate-carrying workers threaded the gaps between the crowd. Throughout it all, criminals and ruffians plied their own trade, preying on unwary drifters and the locals alike. They struck shady deals in dark corners and smuggled unlicensed wares under the noses of the guards.
As he watched, a scruffy boy with hungry eyes and quick fingers drifted aimlessly towards his ship. A smattering of younger boys followed, spreading through the crowd in a subtle wave. Vaughn smiled to himself and looked away. He had no need to fear for his purse, meager though it was. His hands, calloused and scarred, rested near a ragged belt which hung low on his hips and his lean figure, steel edged and dark, matched the knives that flashed in the light. They would have to be desperate indeed to steal from him.
They didn’t need to, there were far better pickings in the packed market of the docks. While most snatched money from pockets and bags, the tallest boy snuck to the side of a merchant’s stall on the edge of the crowd. The owner, a fat man with sharp, beady eyes and a red face, had turned his back to barter pennies with a customer, leaving overpriced fruits and stale bread unattended. Before the urchin could snatch even a morsel of food, a pair of guards sauntered by, eyes fierce and hands on their guns. The boy whistled and across the docks, his scattered thieves dissolved into the corners and alleys. Vaughn stepped back around his ship to watch the uniformed men pass. He had more reason than pickpockets to steer clear of authority.
The guards strode by, oblivious to the shapes in the shadows. Vaughn relaxed, then, but out of the corner of his eye noticed a man standing on the far side of the dock. A man staring at him. Vaughn looked over, squinting through the sun.
Their eyes met across the crowd and a slow moment passed. Then, eyes fixed on him, the man started forward.
Waiting against his ship, Vaughn studied him as he pushed through the parting rabble. He could see no identifiable markings or visible weapons, and yet balanced steps and wiry straight bearing betrayed some form of training. His close-cropped hair stuck up in all directions and dark stubble partly concealed a jagged scar across his jaw, which disappeared into the collar of old-style pilot leathers.
Coming to a stop, he planted his feet and, clasping his hands behind his back, smiled, “The infamous Captain Vaughnegan.”
Vaughn's stomach roiled at the sound of the name. The sound of his name, he reminded himself. He masked his thoughts with an impassive stare and crossed his arms as casually as he could, “Who?”
The man only tilted his head and smiled a mocking smile.
Smug, Vaughn thought, but is he grasping or does he really know something? He stayed silent. Waiting.
The pause stretched as the man looked at him, considered him. His smile faded. There was a strange gleam to his eye, an emotion Vaughn couldn’t quite place. It made him nervous, that gleam.
Before he could decide how to react, a worker hailed from across the docks and waved his ship to the air. Finally. Vaughn raised his hand in thanks and sighed in quiet relief. Turning back to the man, he nodded once in a curt goodbye. Whatever he was after, it was best avoided.
The stranger stepped back and a smile curled his lips as his eyes narrowed.
He could feel the man's stare as he climbed aboard his ship.
Vaughn gazed unseeing into the expanse of space. He sat in his chair on the deck of his drifting ship, one hand on the throttle for no reason at all. Worn metal panels lined the edges of the cramped flight deck and a soft orange glow shown from lights on the walls. Mind in the past, his fingers picked at the frayed edges of the leather armrest.
Outside the double paneled glass his ship faced a blanket of black, pinpricked with a million suns. The stars he watched were familiar, but cold and miles away. To the left of his ship and just out of sight a string of pockmarked rocks encircled a barren group of planets. This collection of gas giants orbited a single dying star. A solar system devoid of measurable life.
Though the encounter on the docks lay far behind him and through miles of empty space, it consumed his thoughts. He didn’t know quite how to react to the man with the strange look and the pointed questions. And to what end? What had they accomplished besides thoroughly unsettling him?
The scanner beeped, interrupting his thoughts. He glanced at the screen, startled to see the approach of another ship.
Another beep, this time an incoming message. He furrowed his brows and flipped the speakers on. A scratchy voice filled the ship, “This is Captain Lev, of The Fleet…” Vaughn’s breath caught and his heart pounded in his chest as the message continued, “…you are wanted for crimes of piracy and murder. Surrender your ship and prepare to be boarded.”
The transmission cut off with a click. Vaughn closed his eyes in slow resignation. He sat, hunched, for a long moment.
No one escaped the reach of the Fleet if they decided to track you down. They were the arm of justice across the known worlds, glorified bounty hunters with a god complex, in his opinion, but undoubtedly skilled. He knew why they wanted him, knew he deserved it. He’d been running for so long, it was almost a relief to be confronted. And yet his mind whirled, conscience warring with his desire to escape. Did he even have a right to try?
He had no time. The ship hailed him again, poised off his left flank. His hand hovered over the controls and panic churned in his gut.
Vaughn clenched his fist. With a grimace he opened his eyes and hit the throttle forward, hurtling his ship into space.
On screen but out of sight the other vessel gave chase. He knew he could never outrun the more advanced Fleet ship, so, he adjusted course, swinging around and shooting directly into the asteroid belt. It was his only chance.
He immediately swerved to avoid the first rock, then flipped sideways to squeeze between two more. A myriad of stones, too many to keep track of, flashed by his ship. He barreled through motes of swirling dust and dodged rocks as large as cruiser ships. Jerking up on the controls, he winced at a series of impacts to the hull of his craft. With a dry mouth and pounding heart he readjusted his grip on the sweaty handle.
Focused on flying, he lost track of the pursuing craft, until his ship jolted to the side as a blast hit the left wing. He cursed. Swinging his ship sharply to the right, he barely avoided the next shot. He growled in frustration, he just wanted to be left alone, was that too much to ask?
The following blast impacted with a drifting asteroid the size of his ship. A chunk exploded, whipping shards of rock in every directed. He swerved out of the way, too late, and his ship shuddered with multiple impacts. He lost control briefly, then overcorrected and scrapped his wing across the jagged edge of another spinning rock.
He pulled away, his engines stuttered and he broke through the asteroid belt, ship spiraling out of control. As he spun, he scanned the swirling stars, trying to track the other ship. He didn’t see it. He reached over the controls to restart the engine. It clicked once and fell silent.
And yet his ship was picking up speed. He glanced out and cursed again. He’d come out of the belt too close to the largest moon of the farthest planet. With no power, his ship had been caught in it’s pull of gravity. The moon rose up, expanding until it was all he could see. He was heading for the surface and didn’t know if he could stop. A wash of clouds surrounded the ship as it plummeted through the atmosphere. The systems screamed warnings and he struggled to gain control of the dive.
He broke free of the clouds and pale sawtooth peaks loomed below him, jutting from the rising surface.
Vaughn braced for impact.
The ship jerked as it scraped the ground, throwing him from the seat. His head smashed into the grate of the floor and everything went black.
Vaughn opened his eyes to the deck of an unfamiliar ship. He shifted his head to look around, then stopped, wincing at the sudden pain. The ship. The crash. His thoughts felt sluggish.
His shoulders ached and his head throbbed, but he forced himself to focus.
He lay, propped against the hull, legs sprawled out in front of him, with his hands twisted behind his back and latched to the ground. He checked his belt for knives. Gone. He shifted his cuffed hands to the small of his back. All of them.
He moved his eyes across the deck, squinting in white light that shone from cold metal walls. In front of him, over gleaming metal panels glared the crossed insignia of the Fleet. He stared at the image, rigid and defiant. Even now, he wouldn’t give up. Set into the wall to the right he saw a door, sealed. His way out, if he could manage it. His injuries were minor, he could only hope his ship was in similar condition.
He looked to the front of the deck. Above a twin set of pilot seats, thick panes of glass revealed a barren expanse of white crags under stars, partially blocked by the silhouette of a man. Facing away, he leaned over the flight controls. A glowing image hung beside him, profiling the edge of his face in green light. It projected from the ship’s computer, a pixilated imitation of a human figure.
The man’s irritated voice drifted across the deck, “Maybe if we try re-routing the power…”
His ship must have taken damage as well, Vaughn thought, pleased.
The image flashed, “Captain, I’m not sure if that’s the best idea, the charge in the…”
“It’s fine.” He waved off the computer’s cautioning words and jerked a bundle of wires from a damaged panel. Electricity snapped out of the exposed circuits and he leapt back with a curse. His features caught the light and Vaughn sucked in a sharp breath. The man from the docks. This certainly explains his behavior, Vaughn thought with a wry smile, but why hadn’t he ended it there? Taken him in? He had the authority. Vaughn shook his head, it didn’t matter. With luck, he’d never have to find out.
Keeping his breaths even and low, Vaughn flexed his arms, testing the strength of the binding. He shifted his legs and braced against the floor. Head lowered, he jerked his wrists down in one quick snap. The cuffs clanged and sent vibrations shooting up his arm, but the metal held.
The noise from across the deck stopped. Vaughn winced and looked up to the man, who’d turned at the sounds of his struggle. He looked the same as when they’d met on the docks, precise and controlled, though now his hand hung, almost pointedly, near a gun at his side and his rank glistened from a badge on his chest. The gleam in his eye held a triumphant edge.
A long moment passed before he spoke, “I was starting to think I’d done more damage than intended.” He crossed the room, “Let’s get the formalities over with, I am Captain Lev of the Fleet, and you, the former Captain Vaughnegan of —”
“It's Vaughn.” He said through gritted teeth.
Lev inclined his head in mocking acknowledgement and continued, “…are under arrest. You will be tried for your crimes by the Council of Five.”
“What crime is this specifically?” He asked with a bitter edge. “There are so many to choose from.”
Lev strode closer, boots thumping on the metal panels, and crouched in front of him. The scar on his jaw shone white, “Does it matter? You will pay for all of them.”
Vaughn held his gaze.
“That is…” Lev glanced behind him with a dry smile, “…if I ever get this heap of metal in the air.” He stood and turning on his heel, walked back to the control panel with even steps and a clenched fist.
Vaughn sagged against his chains, more shaken than he’d like to admit. He shook his head and closed his eyes and tried to focus his thoughts.
An instant later, the hull screamed and the ship jolted sideways, throwing Vaughn against the metal siding. Across the deck, Lev fell to his knees, one hand braced on the ground. He cursed and leapt to his feet, “What the hell was that?”