Excerpts for Planet Thieves


Chapter One

The prank Mason Stark pulled on his sister was doomed from the beginning. For starters, he wasn't supposed to be on the bridge. Cadets age thirteen and under were forbidden from any section of the ship deemed combat sensitive. Which pretty much left the crew quarters, cafeteria, gym, and certain hallways as the only places they could roam. Sometimes Mason's sister, Lieutenant Commander Susan Stark, would tour the engineering decks with him, but that was it.

The pranks were a new thing, born from pure boredom. The last one, on fellow cadet Tom Renner, who Mason thought needed to experience what Academy I called Humility in the Face of Glory, had ended badly. Mason's lip was almost healed, but Tom's left eye was still mottled bruise-yellow.

In Mason's defense, there wasn't much for eighteen cadets to do on a ship that was mostly closed to them. Sure, when no one was looking they raced each other down the corridors, or held mock battles, but that got old. And Mason was sick of the crew sneering at the cadets or telling them to knock it off. Mason already had years of training, but was forced to imitate cargo just to log his required spacetime for the summer quarter.

Another reason his prank was doomed: Mason hadn't known that Captain Renner would call a code yellow in the middle of the night, from her personal quarters. Her voice booming through the ship had made him drop the final bolt he'd removed from Susan's chair. The bright white light on the bridge had changed to a pulsing yellow. Under normal circumstances, the bridge was under the computer's control between 0300 and 0600 hours. Now it would be fully staffed in a matter of minutes, a full hour before it should be.

Which of course made Mason wonder what could rouse the captain, and the ship, in the middle of the night.

Nothing good, he knew.

The last reason his prank was doomed: Susan was usually the first person on the bridge each morning. She liked to set up her engineering console and drink her morning synth-coffee, all while looking through the great transparent dome that separated the bridge from cold, empty space.

She was supposed to fall out of her chair by herself. No one was supposed to be watching. Afterward, she would laugh, maybe put Mason in a headlock and rub her knuckles over his head until it burned.

Instead, the officers rushed onto the bridge with pillow-marked faces, and Mason dived behind the pilot console at the front left of the dome. The best place to hide, really the only place. Though now he was as far away from the two exits as possible.

"How close is the Tremist ship?" Captain Renner said. Her usually tame brown hair was frizzy. Her eyes were a little puffy from sleep, but they still appeared hard and calculating, all-seeing. "How much time?"

A few feet from Mason, Ensign Chung tapped the perimeter console a few times. Mason could only see his back and a sliver of the hologram in front of him. "Previous course was parallel to ours, but they've drifted three hundred kilometers closer, Captain. Now only forty thousand kilometers away. Recommend code red."

Crouched behind the desk-sized console, Mason broke out in a cold sweat, even though the bridge was a constant seventy-two degrees. Code reds only happened if a ship was expected to come in contact with the Tremist. Direct contact.

Of the Tremist, Mason knew one thing for certain, and two things not for certain.

The certain:

The Tremist were aliens bent on annihilating the human race.

The uncertain:

They had better technology and, depending on who you talked to, would probably win the war.

They were vampyres inside of human-shaped space suits that resembled armor worn by ancient knights of Earth. And they wanted to drink your blood. Since a fellow cadet named Mical said the Tremist were also shapeshifting werewolves, Mason doubted this was true.

Ensign Chung sucked in a breath. "They're putting on speed. Location thirty-five thousand klicks away, still closing. Captain?"

A good cadet would stand up, announce his presence, then walk himself to the brig and right into his holding cell. He didn't want to distract the crew, since it was very likely not everyone would survive the Tremist engagement--that was plain history. But fear held him behind the console. The vitals monitor built into his uniform vibrated against his forearm, a stupid reminder to keep his heart rate low. You're too nervous, the buzz told him helpfully. He clamped his palm on the mechanism to muffle it and hoped the crew didn't hear.

"Set a code red," the captain said. The soft yellow light changed to a throbbing red. The transparent dome over the bridge stayed clear, but now angry red words and numbers began to scroll down the inside in all directions, the black of space as their background.

Mason pressed his face to the console. Lieutenant Hill was sitting there now, just a few feet of plastic and metal between them. Mason looked around the side with just his left eye. Susan was near the back of the dome, diagonal from him, at the console that linked the bridge to engineering.

Don't sit down, Mason thought. I'm sorry, I'm sorry!

Susan sat down in her chair. Which promptly slammed back and dumped her into a backward somersault. Her synth-coffee splashed everywhere, staining her uniform from shoulder to wrist.

All fifteen people on the bridge froze. Susan popped to her feet, blinking coffee from her eyes.

"Distance?" the captain demanded, forcing the crew's attention back to their screens.

"Now thirty thousand kilometers," Ensign Chung said. "They're getting closer, but taking their time."

Mason peeked from behind the console again. Somehow Susan knew his exact location and was already glaring at him from across the bridge. Her face was red, and not just from the strobing lights.

"Captain," she said, tugging her uniform taut around her waist. It was the same uniform they all wore, Mason included--simple black pants, tall black boots, and a long-sleeved shirt, also black. Thin and tight, but able to keep a soldier warm or cool depending on the weather. The symbol of Earth Space Command, a small blue ring inside a silver ring, always went over the heart. Susan's uniform also had two blue circles on the neck to mark her rank. Mason had none.

"Yes?" the captain replied.

She never took her eyes off Mason, and Mason never moved.

"Permission to remove my brother from the bridge and escort him to the brig." His prank had upset her, and worse, distracted her, at a moment when she would need all her wits. Some brother.

"Granted," Captain Renner said, not once setting her steel-hard gaze upon Mason. The other officers, though, were sneaking disgusted glances. Any amount of respect the cadets had hoped to acquire this trip, Mason had just thrown away. "But make it fast," the captain added.

Mason wasn't even scared about getting in trouble anymore. A code red kind of put things in perspective. Trying to stay calm, he reminded himself of the facts, because that's what a soldier did. Facts were calming, Instructor Bazell once told him. Logic is a salve to the infection of fear, she sometimes added. Whatever that meant. But it was worth a shot.

So, the facts:

The SS Egypt was the flagship of the fleet, the most important ship, even though it didn't carry an admiral. It was 745 meters long, almost half a mile, and shaped like a giant letter H. The left part of the H was a massive, continuous cylinder comprised of twenty levels where the crew lived and worked and went to jail if they embarrassed their sister in front of her fellow officers. The right side of the H--all 745 meters of it, a cylinder identical to the left side--held the engine they used to travel through normal space. The crossbar of the H connected the two cylinders, and right in the middle of the crossbar was the clear dome that covered the bridge. If you looked out the front of the dome, you could see the two cylinders of the Egypt jutting forward like twin gun barrels. Gun barrels the size of skyscrapers.

It was the SS Egypt, and she was ready for battle. The crew wasn't floating around in some weak civilian shuttle. If there was going to be a code red, this was the ship to be on.

Mason decided Instructor Bazell had no idea what she was talking about: the facts didn't make him feel any better. Probably because his sister had crossed the bridge and now stood in front of him.

Susan grabbed Mason's arm and dragged him out from behind the console. Every eye was on him until Captain Renner barked, "I want a shield test while the Tremist are out of range!"

Susan pulled Mason off the bridge and across a hallway, to a set of stairs that took them one level down. A sign on the wall pointed the way left to general crew, and right to engineering.

When Mason looked up, his sister's eyes were shiny with tears and coffee. "I'm sorry, Susan. I really didn't mean it."

"What did you mean?" she said in a calm way that was worse than yelling. Susan pulled him left, to general crew. The lights in the ceiling flickered red every few seconds, painting the walls in blood. Almost like the Egypt was showing the crew what would happen if they failed her.

"I thought you'd fall when no one was watching. I didn't know there'd be a code yellow."

His sister was all Mason had, and if he played a trick on her it should be one they could both laugh at, not one at her expense. That's how he'd intended the Great Chair Collapse of 2800 to play out, anyway. Susan resembled their mother, and he their father; her hair and eyes were so dark they were almost black, while Mason's hair was sandy, and his eyes were a blue as bright as the Egypt's engine at full thrust.

"How could you know?" she said. "That was really mean, either way. You're lucky I like my coffee lukewarm."

Mason didn't think it was possible, but he felt even worse: here she was, wasting her time dragging Mason to the brig. She should've been on the bridge, mind focused on the incoming Tremist.

An alarm began blaring up and down the hallway, in time with the red lights.

The captain's voice broke over the shipwide com: "All personnel who aren't at their stations, find a place to buckle up."

Mason felt his sister tense through the grip she had on his arm.

Susan never showed fear, never got rattled. Mason didn't know what the alarm meant specifically, but if it gave Susan a physical reaction, he guessed his reaction should be to start crying.

"We have to stick together, you know?" Susan said over the noise. She led him to an elevator, which would drop them another two levels to the brig. "So I want you to think about what you did."

"Susie--" Mason began. He never called her that. Not ever.

Susan winked but didn't smile. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

Mason didn't say anything. In a few hours, Susan would forgive him with a smile, and maybe get him back in some way. Not because she wanted to, but because she knew evening the score would let Mason know there were no hard feelings.

The lights suddenly flashed quicker--a code red 2, which meant direct contact within thirty seconds. Mason's heart was thumping so hard it hurt. He wanted to be anywhere else, anywhere he could help. Punish me. Put me on a gun. His greatest fear was happening now: he was waiting to be blown into space, with no way to put his training to use.

"We have to hurry," she said. She released his arm and they broke into a jog. "You'll be safe in the brig."

"Safe?"

"It's a code red, dummy. This area is secure," his sister said matter-of-factly.

"We'll blast them out of the sky?" He said it almost like a question, like a little kid asking big sis for reassurance. Mason clenched his jaw against the shame--A1 last years weren't supposed to need comfort.

His sister smiled then, but it was the saddest one he ever saw. It made Mason feel cold all over, especially when she didn't immediately assure him they would win. They just kept running.

The brig was empty, like it usually was, because soldiers on a ship run by Captain Renner knew better than to break the rules. There was a small unoccupied desk for the jailer, and a long narrow aisle that had three cramped cells to the right and left. Susan jabbed a quick series of numbers into the keypad, and the first plastic door on the right slid into the ceiling. Mason started toward it, but Susan grabbed his arm and spun him around, face-to-face. She was only a few inches taller than him now that he was 5.5 feet.

"I didn't mean to make you feel bad," she said. That wasn't like her. She'd usually let him worry for at least a little bit.

"Is this really bad?" Mason held his breath. "You can tell me."

"Just listen. Stay here, and wait till someone gets you." She put both hands on his shoulders and squeezed a little too hard. "You'll be safe here."

"I don't want to be safe." Though he was afraid he really did want to be safe, that he was glad to dodge his first combat situation. "Susan, what's happening?"

Mason felt the ship accelerating, a deep hum that traveled from the floor and up his legs. He felt himself leaning right and braced his arm against the wall.

Susan kissed his forehead and shoved him into the cell before the plastic wall slid back into place. She gave him one final look before running out the door--the way she'd looked at him six years ago. They had been on a shuttle, and Mason was getting dropped off for his first day at Academy I. Susan was going a little farther, to start her fourth year at Academy II. She had been sixteen, and she looked at Mason like she would never see him again. Mason hadn't thought much about it then; he was too excited for the Academy. But now it left him chilly and anxious. His palms were sweaty.

There were no benches in the cell, so Mason stood.

That changed a few seconds later, when an explosion rocked the Egypt and shut off all the lights.

Copyright © 2013 by Dan Krokos



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