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Preview of Chapter 1 of New Hope Chronicles Book One: Dragon Flame
 


 

1. Boarding

 
Like a shimmering heat wave, the stars wavered as the invisible starship slipped stealthily through Earth’s solar system without detection.

“Take us to the far side of their moon and be quick about it,” the captain snapped, an edge to his voice. None dared question the order.

The ship sped silently to its hiding place.

The captain patted the hull and said quietly, “Well done, Princess.” The veins in his black organic suit throbbed with nervous anticipation, pulsing in rhythm with the veins threaded along the ship’s central core and branched across its ceiling.

His hyper-alert crew anxiously monitored the sensors for signs of detection.

The captain asked, “Is there any chatter about us on their com channels?”

“None, sir.”

“Excellent.” The captain picked up the shipwide com and announced, “We are entering the theater. Remember the plan. Covenstead craft, prepare for decoupling. We will signal you as soon as we reach the coordinates. Strike team, suit up and assemble at Airlock 3. Just a ‘friendly’ reminder, people: do not fail or there will be hell to pay.”

Releasing the com, the captain nodded to his second and said soberly, “Take us in.”

“Aye, Captain.” The crew scrutinized the sensors as they covertly maneuvered the ship into orbit around Earth.

The captain pressed the teardrop shaped suprasight gland beneath each of his eyes. His vision shimmered briefly as the ship’s hull dissolved from his view allowing him to see beyond the walls of his ship unobstructed. He gazed at the Earth below. “That is one pretty planet,” he said to himself. “Pity we have to mess it up.” As his vision returned to normal and the hull reappeared, he spoke into the com again. “We are entering Earth orbit and will approach the space station in two hours. Shadow Psychs, raise a rock-solid mental shield around us. I don’t want any chance of them detecting us—especially not our thoughts. We are running silent—now.”

··· ···

A ripple of distortion flashed across one of the monitors on the Earth space station, then disappeared. The security officers leaned forward studying the screen.

“A glitch in the system?” one of them asked.

“Must be. Everything appears normal now,” another replied.

“Check the other feeds to make sure it doesn’t show up anywhere else and then run a diagnostic.”

“Yes, sir.”

··· ···

The invisible ripple moved silently toward the station, slowing until it hung motionless in space near the end of a maintenance tube. A hatch opened and seven men slipped out of the starship, fired their thruster packs and shot toward the sealed hatch at the end of the tube.

One of them maneuvered forward, attached a small device to the locking mechanism and triggered it. The hatch swung open. He quickly slipped through it, shot a video of the empty airlock, then attached a video device to the security camera and set it to loop. “They’re blind,” he reported.

The others quickly followed him inside, sealed the door and pressurized the airlock. They slipped out of their spacesuits and smoothed the wrinkles from their black uniforms.

The first man typed furiously on a holographic keypad, then announced. “I’m in. I’ve got control of their security system. They won’t be able to see or track you in their halls. Just make sure you get back here before they figure out what’s going on and discover our entry point.”

The other six opened the interior door, walked quickly down the maintenance tube to the main hall and merged into the crowd of white-uniformed crew heading toward the far end of the station.

··· ···

Alin hurried through the bustling Earth space station, pausing to look nervously over his shoulder. His heart thudded. A black uniform! Or was it? He searched the sea of white uniforms. “I’m imagining things,” he muttered. Still, he couldn’t suppress the feeling someone was following him—someone he did not want to meet. He shuddered, trying to shake off the uneasiness and assured himself they could not possibly know where he was. He had covered his tracks well—left a false lead so obvious no one could miss it. He scanned the crowd again, chided himself for being ridiculous and continued down the hall.

After a few short minutes apprehension won the tug-of-war and he glanced over his shoulder once more. There it was again—a black uniform! He was sure this time—or was he? Maybe he’d only seen a black gear bag—but maybe not. The mass of white-clad recruits shuffled forward, slowly winding their way through the halls. “Faster,” he urged himself. He broke into a jog, darting between clusters of chatting initiates. “Sorry,” he said, as he bumped someone off balance. He grabbed the young woman’s arm to steady her.

“Hey!” She glared at him. “Well, hello!” She smiled invitingly. “Who are you?”

He picked up her bags, shoved them into her arms and glanced back down the hall. “Sorry, gotta go,” he said and dashed off.

“What’s your rush?” she called.

He darted around the corner into the Terminal D reception area and nearly ran headlong into someone. “Sorry. Oh! Professor Malagandee! It’s good to see you, sir. I’m Alin Jarnau.” He stole a glimpse back down the hall. “I was in your history class at the Ambian Academy last year.”

The professor smiled and held out his hand. “I remember. So you’ve signed on with the New Hope.”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Most of the young people on the station are recruits reporting in or family seeing them off.” The professor scanned a list on his electronic tablet. “Ah, here’s your name. It will be good to have you on our crew.”

“Thank you, sir.” Alin edged toward the terminal. “I’m surprised someone as distinguished as yourself is serving on a human ship—especially the New Hope. Are there other Ambians on the crew?”

“Besides you and me, there are one hundred and twenty-eight of us signed on for this mission, which is remarkable considering the long list of distinguished applicants. All are fairly young—myself being the exception, of course.”

Alin stared anxiously back down the corridor, then at the crowd stalled ahead, before returning to the conversation.

The professor asked, “Do you have family or friends to bid farewell before boarding?”

A twinge of pain gripped Alin’s chest. His face grew hard. “I said my goodbyes on Fibbia.”

Armael motioned toward the crowded terminal, “Then come, my young friend, let me escort you to the ship and show you to your quarters.”

“That will be an honor, sir.”

They headed across the teeming reception area toward the check-in gate, weaving past scores of recruits. The terminal buzzed with excitement.

The professor eyed Alin’s t-shirt and cargo pants. “Did you pick up your uniforms at the supply depot on the surface?”

“No, sir, I was in a bit of a rush,” he admitted, feeling out of place in the midst of the ceremonial dress whites.

“Well, it’s too late now. But not to worry, we have a limited selection aboard. With a little luck you should be able to find something that fits.”

They stopped behind the cresting tide of recruits. Alin stared uneasily at the gate, shifting tensely.

“Boarding will begin in a few minutes,” the professor explained.

Alin glanced back once more and stiffened. Two men in black uniforms stood at the entrance to the reception area scanning the crowd. Within seconds one of the men zeroed-in on him and spoke into his wristband communicator. Instantly four more men in black appeared, positioning themselves beside the first two. Each tucked a hand under his jacket and began jostling through the crowd, their gazes locked on Alin.

“Friends of yours?” the professor asked.

“Definitely not,” Alin replied sourly. Then he said almost calmly, “I’m sorry Professor, I have to go. I need to get on the ship—now.” He spun around. “Excuse me … excuse me!” No one budged. He tried to elbow through the knot of recruits. “Knock it off,” someone grumbled. He glanced back—the men in black were closing in fast. He was trapped. His heart pounded furiously.

Professor Armael took his arm and suggested, “Perhaps this way will be faster.” He led Alin quickly to the side of the terminal and slid behind the security perimeter, flashed his ID to the guard and hurried past. “Quite crowded in there,” he said, leading him toward the first airlock.

The men in black snaked through the crowd, shoving people out of their way. Crewmen complained loudly. Guards threaded through the throng to intercept the intruders. One of the men in black drew his weapon and ordered, “Out of the way!” Someone muffled a scream. The crowd surged aside. A guard rushed up, blocking the men. He aimed his pulse gun and demanded, “Stop! Drop your weapons!” One of the men in black fired from the hip. The pulse hit dead on. The guard’s eyes bulged as he wheezed and dropped, convulsing on the floor. The intruders leaped over him, racing toward Alin and the professor. Sirens screamed throughout the station.

The professor yanked Alin through the first open hatch and into the airlock. Spinning on his heels, he jammed his thumb against the biometric sensor. The hatch closed agonizingly slowly as the feminine voice of the spacecab’s computer said, “Welcome, Professor Armael Malagandee.”

“Take us to the New Hope immediately,” the professor commanded. The hatch sealed, the clamps clunked heavily as they released their grip and the cab disengaged from the space station.

The men in black slammed against the window overlooking the escaping cab and glared at Alin, beating their fists against the glass. One sneered, aimed his weapon at Alin’s chest and mouthed, “Dead.”

Alin trembled involuntarily.

In several long seconds the cab was underway.

The men in black raced from the terminal and disappeared around a corner. Guards pounded after them, weapons drawn, until they reached the hall intersection. They frantically searched the images on the security monitors, then gave up and began probing the teaming crowd for the illusive hostiles.

Alin watched the guards disappear into the crowd and sighed haltingly, forcing himself to release his death-grip on the arms of his seat.

“Whew!” The professor took a deep breath, then admitted, “I’m not as young as I used to be.” He drew in another breath and asked, “Anything you would like to discuss?”

Alin shook his head.

The professor watched him fidget. “If you should change your mind—”

“No! I mean, no thanks. I’m fine.”

The cab angled away from the long arm of Terminal D. Alin stared out the port window toward the receding station searching the surrounding blackness. Suddenly patrol ships burst free of their tethers and began circling the station in a search pattern.

“I confess I was looking for you,” the professor said. “Someone transmitted a message to me from Fibbia which was intended for you, but it’s so garbled I couldn’t make sense of it.” He handed the note to Alin. “Perhaps you will have more success.” He studied Alin’s face as he read the message.

Recognition flickered in Alin’s eyes. “B men combing. Befind yu. Don stop go far ship. Get ou tfast. Av.” Alin sighed haltingly again, then looked out the portal toward the ship and let out a long, low whistle.

Tethered to the far end of the terminal, the New Hope glistened like a jewel against the backdrop of space, a myriad of stars reflecting brilliantly in her gleaming hull. She wasn’t the largest ship he had seen, but she certainly was the most elegant. “That is one classy ship,” he breathed.

“That she is,” Armael said reverently. “We call her, ‘Lady Hope.’” He grinned and admitted, “And sometimes just, ‘The Lady.’ She’s Earth’s most advanced spaceship—a true starship. She’s only been out on a few training missions. This will be her first real voyage with a full complement of crew.”

“Sleek. I’ve never seen a spaceship shaped like a teardrop.”

“It’s never been done before. Earth’s scientists recently perfected the art of dimensional jumping. They discovered the teardrop is the most efficient shape for slipstreaming in and out of our dimension when folding space-time for faster-than-light travel. Of the handful of ships capable of jumping, the New Hope is by far the most advanced. And we have the most gifted resonator choir in the galaxy which enables us to do pinpoint jumping. No other ship can jump as precisely as the New Hope.”

Alin’s eyes gleamed with anticipation. “I consider myself fortunate to have been accepted by the humans, but I admit I’m puzzled by their methods of choosing crew. All things considered, I shouldn’t be here. There are a number of applicants more qualified than me.”

Armael laughed. “I doubt that, Mr. Jarnau. It’s not too often the most accomplished student of the Ambian Academy in a century seeks a crew position aboard an Earth vessel.”

Alin grinned, embarrassed. “So you know about that?”

Armael tapped his list. “I don’t miss much. I review the educational backgrounds of all Ambian applicants. Despite your, shall we say, ‘colorful’ history at the Academy, occasional disregard for protocol and unexplained absences, you could readily assume command of one of our premier Ambian ships deployed in the Oran system. But I understand your desire to be aboard the New Hope. After all, it’s not the humans that will make this voyage noteworthy—it’s the power behind them.”

Alin grimaced, then painted a smile across his cyan-rimmed face.

The professor continued, “To the uninformed, humans often appear erratic and impulsive, which is not totally undeserved.” He winked and added, “And among certain xenes they have a reputation for being backward and less intelligent. I’ve been a member of the New Hope crew for only a few Earth moons, but already I see that despite their occasionally questionable ways, there is a unique quality to their race—something I can’t quite put my finger on. They often approach situations seemingly recklessly and yet the matter is concluded in a manner far superior than if I had been at the helm. It’s quite puzzling.” He shook his head and chuckled, then added, “And that is no doubt the reason the Origin chose their race to launch this mission.”

The spherical cab navigated toward the top of the New Hope, orienting itself to the ship’s central pull of gravity.

Alin took one more nervous glance back toward the space station. A dark void in the stars caught his eye, but he blinked and the stars reappeared. A hatch opened and the spacecab slipped smoothly inside a transportation tube. “Destination?” the computer asked.

“Take us to the Commons,” the professor instructed. He explained to Alin, “All recruits are to report to the Commons Area to receive berthing and duty assignments.”

Soon the cab slowed to a halt and the computer announced, “Welcome to the Commons.” The hatch opened and they exited into the large room deep inside the ship.

Armael turned to Alin and with a hearty pat on the back said, “Welcome aboard!”

Alin’s shoulders relaxed. “Thank you, sir. It’s good to be here.” He followed the professor to a notice board. “I hope I don’t regret this decision. What if I’m assigned to laundry duty or garbage recycling?”

Armael’s eyebrows rose. “What skills did you list on your application?”

“Not too many,” Alin admitted.

“You don’t want them to know your qualifications?”

“I knew the captain’s seat and first officer’s position weren’t available. I didn’t want them to think I was overqualified for the other positions.”

“But you are.”

Alin clarified, “I didn’t want to be rejected because of it.”

Armael nodded knowingly, then suggested, “Well, you could admit your qualifications—or resign.” He winked and grinned, “Or you could consider it an opportunity to practice ‘street English.’”

Alin shook his head. “I confess I never liked the English language. It’s too riddled with exceptions.”

“As I’m sure you were taught at the Academy, it happens to be the only language that all known xenotypes share in common.”

“I was hoping the Academy was wrong about that.”

Armael chuckled. “The most prestigious school in the Oran star system does not make mistakes—at least not that one. But you needn’t be concerned, your English is fine.”

They studied the display. “Ah, here’s your berthing assignment,” the professor said. “Unfortunately, the duty roster has not yet been posted.” He accessed a copy of the berthing map on his tablet. “Let’s find your quarters. Perhaps the roster will be posted by the time we return.”

He led Alin down a series of crowded hallways farther and farther from the core of the ship. Finally he paused at the entrance to an empty hall to review the map. “This must not be right,” he muttered. Puzzled, he studied the room numbers and looked at the map again. “Well, let’s check it out.” He started down the hall.

They walked past a handful of rooms with titles on the doors indicating housekeeping, maintenance storage and a few other storage rooms. At the far end of the hall, tucked into the corner against the rounded interior wall of the hull, they arrived at a narrow door without a number or title.

The professor double-checked the map and looked up apologetically. “This has to be it. Before you look inside, I must explain that the ship is overbooked with passengers for the first leg of our voyage. As a means of fostering good will, Captain Knight has graciously agreed to carry the Gorknovian ambassador and his entourage back to Gorknovia for the peace accord. Unfortunately, there are more of them than were anticipated and, since they are guests, the captain assigned a number of them to crew quarters. As a result, a fair number of our crew members are displaced and sharing berths with others in already-full rooms—only until we deliver the Gorknovians, of course. This unmarked room was intended for auxiliary housekeeping storage. Basically, it’s a closet. I hope it’s been cleared of its contents.”

Alin winced and stared at the door. “Do I have a roommate?”

“I don’t think so. There’s no other name listed. Normally crew are assigned to the inner areas of the ship for safety reasons. There must have been a glitch in the system that assigned you to this room. If you’d like, I can request a new berth for you.”

“I’ll check it out first,” Alin said. “I don’t want to cause a problem, especially when the ship is overbooked. Besides, I sent my confirmation late since I wasn’t sure I would be able to get away.” His face flushed. “I mean, to accept the appointment.” He slid the door open. The room was a narrow wedge, wider at the door end. It held a small utility sink in the front with shelves above and a cabinet below. A video monitor, still in the box, stood along the interior wall beside a small shelf unit. In the center of the room, against the curvature of the hull, stood a small sofa sleeper and a narrow work table. A shower stall containing several mops and a bucket stood at the rear beside a toilet.

“This isn’t so bad,” Alin said. “I admit I’ll enjoy not having a roommate, at least for a few days. I can see why it’s private quarters, though. This room couldn’t hold two people.”

“Don’t get too cozy,” Armael cautioned with a grin. “The Gorknovian stop is first on the agenda.”

“If I’m lucky, maybe housekeeping will forget about their closet,” Alin grinned in return, tossing his bags on the sofa. He noticed a narrow door in the interior wall. “Where does this lead?”

“That is a side entrance to an auxiliary storage compartment. In essence, it’s a little bigger closet. I believe the Gorknovian dignitaries’ luggage is temporarily stored there. I can get the code key for you if you’d like to put some of your things inside.”

“That would be great,” Alin said, looking up and down the sliver of a room again. He paused on the mops and commented wryly, “If I’m assigned to housekeeping, my supplies will be handy. I honestly didn’t know anyone used mops on a spaceship.”

“Not too often, I think,” Armael said, chuckling. “Especially considering most spaceships have no gravity. Shall we return to the Commons to see if the duty roster is posted?”

As they drew near the Commons the professor paused at an open door to a room containing several Ambian children.

“What’s this?” Alin asked.

“This is the supplemental school for our Ambian children. There aren’t too many children aboard, but we do provide education for them. During voyages they will attend classes with the children of the other xenes, but we will also teach them our own cultural heritage and the specialized courses needed to excel in our society. I’m surprised to see the school in session before departure.”

Alin stared at the strikingly beautiful young Ambian teaching the class. A delicate ribbon of silvery-cyan, scale-patterned skin framed her bright face and neck and disappeared under the collar of her uniform, reappearing below its short sleeves and lacing down her arms to her wrists. And though he couldn’t see it beneath her clothing, he could well imagine the same delicate ribbon adorning the sides of her torso and traveling down the outside of each shapely leg. His gaze returned to her face. Her intense blue eyes sparkled as she taught the children. Her light blond silken hair flowed over her shoulders. Her frame was delicate, yet strong. She was perfect. He asked, “Who is she? Is she married?”

“She is Torienna Amalda from the city of Ambia. She is not married, although many are pursuing her. She is a highly qualified teacher. Would you like to listen for a few moments?”

“Yes!” Alin replied a little too eagerly. They slipped inside the classroom and stood near the door. Torienna nodded respectfully to Armael and smiled at Alin. His heart thumped and his face blushed blue. He would have hidden his telltale face in embarrassment, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“Class, this is the Honorable Historian and Ambian Parliamentary Captain Armael Malagandee. He has served as Lead Historian and Principal Adviser on the king’s Council of Elders. He has also taught at the prestigious Ambian Academy. It is a true honor to have him visit our classroom. Please welcome Historian Armael and … and his associate.” The class applauded politely.

Torienna’s eyes lingered on Alin. He was obviously Ambian. He had the typical Ambian banding, or the “ribbon” as some called it, bordering each side of his face, neck, torso and limbs. But he was one of the minority whose banding was a bright color, a highly desired characteristic among Ambians, instead of the typical skin-toned or gray banding. A ribbon of cyan-colored, scale-patterned skin bordered his strikingly handsome face. The rest was hidden beneath his clothing. And his eyes were green, which was highly unusual for an Ambian, most of whose eyes were some variation of hazel or brown.

Alin’s heart thumped again as he watched her study him. Don’t act like an idiot, he told himself.

Torienna turned her attention back to her class and continued her lesson. “The English language spread from Earth into the galaxy with the advance of early human space explorers. Eventually it assumed a life of its own as the interstellar language of diplomacy and commerce. Parallel to the spread of English was the spread of the idea of democracy. This began in America because America was the birthplace of the most successful form of democracy, a representative form where people elect delegates to select their leaders. But it only works when the people’s and their leaders’ will is the same as the Origin’s will.”

Alin stood transfixed, watching her fluid movements.

Torienna fidgeted under his unrelenting gaze, ran her fingers through her hair and returned to her lesson. Her eyes darkened and she spoke soberly. “When a democracy, or any form of government, is governed by those embracing self-will, it degenerates into a most ugly mess. History is replete with notorious examples of this and in the past many nations suffered at the hands of those whose interests were overshadowed by greed and pride.”

Her face brightened. “But eventually an Origin-centered form of representative democracy encompassed Earth, and from there it expanded throughout this section of the Milky Way galaxy. Does this mean democracy is the Origin’s preferred form of government? Of course not! The Origin works through many successful governments and kingdoms.”

Alin continued to stare at Torienna, captivated by her sparkling eyes. A light turquoise hue colored her face. Was she blushing, too? She turned away and continued the lesson. He watched her delicate lips move. He wondered if they felt as soft as they looked. His face tinged brilliant blue. He crossed his arms and covered part of his face with one of his hands in an attempt to hide the evidence of his thoughts.

“Now, class, for the next 15 minutes, please prepare a short essay about what this lesson means to you. Be creative! I expect you to use those brilliant Ambian minds.”

She walked over to Armael. “Welcome to my classroom, Professor. We began classes early to keep the children occupied while their parents settle into their new positions.”

“Ah, that is wise,” Armael nodded.

Torienna turned toward Alin and held out her hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Alin took it and stared at her, mesmerized.

Armael said, “Torienna, this is Alin Jarnau. He is a new crew member.”

Torienna smiled politely. “Welcome aboard, Alin.” Though she didn’t let on, her heart skipped a few beats as he took her hand. “What position are you serving in?”

“Uh … um …”

Armael interjected, “We were just on our way to find out. Would you like to accompany us?”

Torienna shook her head. “Sorry, I need to stay here. Some of our young ones get a little too rambunctious if left to themselves for even a few minutes.”

Armael nodded understandingly. “We’ll be on our way then,” he said, pulling Alin by the arm toward the door.

Looking back, Alin stuttered, “Will—will I see you … around?”

“I’m sure our paths will cross.” Torienna smiled sweetly, trying not to seem too eager.

Armael and Alin slipped out of the classroom and continued down the hall.

“What did you think?” Armael asked.

“Beautiful,” Alin sighed.

“I mean about the lesson,” Armael chuckled.

“Oh. It was … good.”

“You didn’t hear it, did you?”

“Not really. No.”

“Torienna has that affect on a lot of young men.” Armael’s face reflected concern, “May I ask you something personal, Alin?”

“Certainly.”

“If you don’t believe in this mission, how can you support it?”

“I was hoping you hadn’t caught that.”

“I don’t miss much.” Armael smiled.

Alin grimaced. “I should have expected that of the most accomplished student of the Ambian Academy of the past five hundred years.” He shrugged, “It’s a job. I’ll do my job and I’ll do it well.”

The professor was not diverted “What led you to apply for a position aboard the New Hope?”

Alin dropped his head and considered his answer. It would be true, even if it was only part of the truth. He grinned and looked up out of the corner of his eye. “Adventure. With the latest peace accord in the Oran system, space expeditions in our part of the galaxy have become boringly routine. I want to do more than sit in a captain’s seat on a sightseeing tour of the Oran system. I want to travel beyond it to the far reaches of the universe. Adventure.” He spread his arms wide. “That’s what this is all about.”

Armael replied quietly, “Aboard this ship, I have no doubt you will find adventure, my young friend—more than you can possibly imagine.”

They walked silently for a few moments. Armael’s face brightened as they approached the notice board. “Ah, here’s the duty roster. … Oh dear.”

“It’s okay,” Alin grinned sheepishly. “I can cook a little and I do enjoy it. That’s one of the skills I listed on my application.” He shrugged. “I mean, how hard can it be?”

The professor stared at him, puzzled. “It’s odd that the New Hope leadership rejected over 2,000 highly qualified applicants from around the galaxy, yet you were accepted while listing only a few skills.”

“Maybe the others didn’t like to cook,” Alin suggested.

“Perhaps.” Armael chuckled, put his arm across Alin’s shoulders and said cheerily, “Shall we explore the kitchen?”

Alin nodded, “And the supply center. I need to pick up a uniform and a chef’s hat.” He grinned sheepishly and admitted, “And a cookbook.”

Armael laughed and decreed, “Well then, let the adventure begin!”
 

— End of Chapter 1 —
 

Copyright © 2013-2014 by Pat Harris. All rights reserved worldwide.