Read Star Road Online

Authors: Matthew Costello,Rick Hautala

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Space Opera

Star Road (2 page)

BOOK: Star Road
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The barroom door opened, and Parker—his assistant who watched the tonnage, who really knew how much ore was being moved—came in.

 

He scanned the room for Hatch, caught his eye, and then hurried over.

 

Before he could speak, Hatch did.

 

“Parker. I’m off-duty. Whatever the hell it is—”

 

“We got a jam up on the ship, Mr. Hatch.” Parker’s eyes looked frantic. “Last ferry got engine trouble.”

 

“Shit,” Hatch said.

 

That would lead to a line of ferries burning fuel, waiting to get into the
Seropian’
s hold.

 

Eating time, screwing the day’s quota. Making me fucking lose money.

 

“Great. Terrific. What are they—”

 

“Captain Rioux has her team working on it. Shouldn’t be too long. But you said—”

 

“I know what I said. I want to know about any delays.”

 

Before Parker could reply, Hatch turned away and nodded at the bartender—a tilt of the head signaling he wanted another hit.

 

A quick pour from the bartender, and he tossed the rum down, letting it burn his tongue and throat.

 

“You did your duty. Now get back to it.”

 

It took Parker a few seconds to realize that he was being told to go.

 

And Hatch went back to what he thought would be his last drink of the day before crawling back to his private quarters to shower and sleep and dream about any damn place other than here.

 

~ * ~

 

Rioux paced the bridge of the
Seropian.

 

The dead ore ferry still blocked the entry way for the line of others waiting outside.

 

How long was this holdup going to be?

 

She had a good engineering team. They’d find the problem and get things moving again.

 

But it would take time.

 

She could imagine that down below, Hatch was not pleased at all.

 

Well, too bad,
she thought.

 

She looked at the bridge crew, all young ... raw, inexperienced. Most of them were only on their second or third tour. Still excited at being in deep space.

 

The reality of what this really was hadn’t sunk in yet.

 

The utter boredom.

 

She checked the time and decided her workday was over. The ore ship would be repaired. Eventually. Nothing much to do. Watching and pacing the bridge wasn’t going to make them work any faster.

 

But then, something held her there.

 

Maybe just the need for one last look before she left for the night.

 

The sounds of the bridge—the beeps and pings mixed with bursts of static from solar flares of the system’s star—all turned into meaningless background chatter. One monitor displayed the immobile ferry blocking the cargo bay while others showed the red planet below, the stars outside in strange constellations, and the distant, shimmering strand of the Star Road.

 

Other screens filled with endless streams of ship’s data. Heating, cooling, oxygen, and gravity levels.

 

All good. All okay.

 

Might as well turn in,
she thought.

 

Fahir, her communications officer, suddenly spoke up, breaking the silence.

 

“Captain. I’m picking up something.”

 

Rioux wheeled around to face him.

 

“Something,
Lieutenant?”

 

“Signal’s coming in. Can’t see how many yet. They’re masking their ID.”

 

“Masking?”

 

“I’m trying to raise them, but they’re not responding.”

 

Rioux turned to the navigation station. Miller, a woman half Rioux’s age, looked up, her inexperience reflected in her eyes.

 

“Miller, can you plot their course?”

 

The navigation officer nodded, already working on it.

 

“Got it, Captain,” she said. “They’re vectoring right toward us. Five vessels.”

 

Then Fahir turned to her and said the one word that crystallized everyone’s biggest fear these days.

 

“Runners?”

 

Can’t be,
Rioux thought.

 

Not this far in-system.

 

And not when their goddamn leader is on trial on Earth.

 

The Runners are finished. That’s what people say.

 

“Runners aren’t going to raid a mining operation,” Rioux said.

 

She tried to project calm even though she didn’t know what the hell was going on. With that ore ship crippled in the bay, they were an easy target.

 

“Nearest Road portal is ... how far?”

 

“Four AUs away, Captain,” Miller said.

 

Rioux shook her head. “Why the hell would anyone come this far in-system? They
can’t
be Runners.”

 

But that forced the question:
Then ... who are they?

 

One monitor tracked the five ships, coming in quickly, heading toward the
Seropian.
Until, close enough, the first images appeared on-screen.

 

Rioux moved closer to the monitor.

 

And saw: a gunship and four smaller raider escorts.

 

She thought:
Why all that goddamn firepower? Heading here?

 

And then—

 

They can only be Runners.

 

Rioux turned to face the crew on the bridge. From this point on, everyone would hear her voice, loud and clear. She hit a button on the security display, and the quiet of the bridge was shattered by the blaring of a Klaxon. Emergency lights flashed on scores of consoles.

 

Battle stations,” she said. “All hands to battle stations. Prepare for—”

 

She shook her head.

 

Battle stations?

 

Stalled in space with the open cargo hold, the ship was unable to take defensive maneuvers. All that was left was for the
Seropian
to take the first hit, while everyone waited to feel the shattering vibrations of that first blast.

~ * ~

 

2

 

 

THE RUNNERS

 

 

 

 

Like everyone else in the
bar, Hatch saw the brilliant flash of the explosions outside.

 

His first thought:
Something’s gone wrong in one of the mine shafts.

 

A goddamned explosion, another screwup that would set the timetable back days, if not weeks.

 

Miners scrambled to the windows of the bar and looked out. Several ran outside. Hatch saw them pointing to the sky, but he still could see nothing through the haze of red dust.

 

His mind raced, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.

 

He pushed his way past them and went outside.

 

A quick look at the mine operation. Miners had stopped and now stared up at the sky, waiting for more lights, more flashes.

 

Then, through the haze above, he could barely discern the massive cargo ship.

 

It appeared to be—shit!—
exploding.

 

And all around it... Were those fragments of the cargo ships or smaller vessels burning up on reentry?

 

His earpiece started to vibrate. He fished it from his pocket and stuck it into his ear.

 

“What is it?”

 

“S-something’s wrong with the cargo ship, sir.” It was Parker. “They’ve gone to—”

 

But another, even bigger flash cut off Parker’s words.

 

Unnecessary words, since Hatch could look up.

 

Even through the red haze, he could watch it all.

 

And think:
We are so fucked.

 

~ * ~

 

Rioux started firing off orders, following protocol for the endlessly drilled response to a major attack.

 

Everything moved with a surreal franticness.

 

She was still trying to believe this was really happening.

 

“Ready emergency evac stations. Power up the pulse cannons. All stations fire at will. Execute evasive maneuvers …”

 

Commands flew from her, and her officers shouted into microphones, hit buttons, looked at computer screens and data readouts.

 

In the panic, their faces masks of inexperience and fear.

 

The screens told the whole story. Those monitoring conditions outside the ship showed the Runners’ ships buzzing around like gnats, firing at the
Seropian
mercilessly. As they fired, a rapid series of explosions made the giant ship shudder and rock with a slow, lumbering roll.

 

Are we even firing back?
Rioux wondered.

 

Were any of those goddamned explosions from any of the
Seropian’s
pulse cannons? They were good weapons—powerful and accurate.

 

But against this onslaught?

 

With this inexperienced crew?

 

Then she had the next, unforgivable thought.

 

I have to surrender. Now. While most of our systems are still running. While we’re still mostly alive.

 

“Fahir. See if you can raise them.”

 

But Rioux knew that the ships outside had ignored all attempts at communication.

 

Why would they talk now?

 

They were minutes away from having the cargo ship dead in orbit.

 

Its ore ... theirs for the taking.

 

And down below? What would they do on the planet?

 

“Captain, they still won’t respond.”

 

“Keep trying.”

 

Another blast. The ship now bobbing in its low orbit like a cork in a raging river.

 

“Keep try—”

 

She never finished the sentence. The next blast didn’t echo from thousands of meters away from some distant part of the ship.

 

This blast targeted the bridge itself.

 

Walls of electronics and computers that girdled the main deck exploded inward. Rioux was in the center as shattered plastic and twisted pieces of metal flew around and into her, slicing deep into her skin.

 

For a few seconds, she was still able to remain standing in the chaos despite the battering.

 

But then a second blast hit the bridge, and although she didn’t see it, Rioux felt something ram right into her—a piece of metal, a structural section from the room, blown free and turned into a spear.

 

She had a moment’s awareness of being hit.

 

And then she dropped to her knees and pitched forward.

 

~ * ~

 

“Parker!” Hatch said into his radio mouthpiece. “Did you get the data pod sent out?”

 

“Yeah, but it—”

 

The radio went dead in Hatch’s ear.

 

At least the World Council would get the news and a few minutes of video of whatever the hell was happening.

 

A Runner’s raid.

 

Who would believe it without film?

 

They were supposedly over. Finished.

 

But they didn’t look too finished now.

 

Hopefully, the Runners wouldn’t intercept the message pod before it got to the Star Road. Once there, its mass was so small, it would travel much too fast on the road for anyone to intercept.

 

Hatch pulled out his revolver. Old school. Antiques. Real treasures.

 

The Runners above had peeled away from the cargo ship, which was now sending off a steady stream of fiery, soundless explosions. Flaming chunks of metal flared, a fireworks display as they entered the atmosphere.

 

Hatch didn’t want to think about how this attack was going to negate his chances of leaving soon.

 

Guess we’re all gonna be down here for a while longer.

 

Then it hit him.

 

What an absurd thought.

 

We’ll all be goddamned lucky to live much longer.

 

He looked at the miners, panicking, helpless as they realized what was happening in the sky above. Some scrambled for cover. Others stood out in the open.

 

As if it mattered...

 

Everyone knew how brutal Runners were. But why attack here?

 

And what would they do once they got here?

 

The miners had to be thinking about the possibilities of defending themselves and their chances of surviving an attack.

 

Some miners might hide deep in the winding corridors of the mines— especially if they were suited up in their mining rigs. There were caches of emergency rations placed throughout the mine system.

 

Maybe the Runners wouldn’t take the time to hunt them down.

 

The Runners might blow up the mine entrances, trapping them underground to die unless they could eventually dig their way out once the Runners left.

 

They wouldn’t stick around long.

 

Anyone on the surface would probably be lucky if the pirates took them as prisoners.

 

Force them to join the Runners.

 

But the most realistic possibility was that they’d all be killed.

 

The miners’ security force—a half-dozen men armed with pulse rifles— had their guns down, looking up and around.

 

Waiting.

 

They didn’t have to wait long.

 

~ * ~

 

The roar of Runner vehicles screaming over the rubble, surrounding the mine area, filled the night air.

 

Hatch watched the ATV bounce over the rocky terrain and fly over the pits in the ground with ease, their oversized composite tires handling the torturous terrain.

BOOK: Star Road
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