It's All Part of the Journey

an excerpt

Chapter One

"Captain, please tell me you know where we are going this time," came a plaintive voice.

"I do not appreciate your lack of faith in me, Lehan," Captain Terrance McHale replied wryly. He checked the readings of a nearby yellow and brown planet against the readings for the one they should be passing. The readings were mostly right...mostly.

"I'm just saying, Captain, actual coordinates for our destination would be nice," Lehan complained.

Terr scowled. "Just saying, really?" he asked incredulously. "Are you going to give me that?"

A rude noise came through the nearby speaker.

"I gave you the quadrant. I know the general direction to head. We're mostly on course and we can narrow things down when we get closer," Terr growled irritably.

The speaker gave a low grumble.

"Not like you could jump there anyways," Terr mumbled.

"What did you say?" Lehan's voice through the speaker held enough outrage that Terr knew he'd managed to stick his foot really far into his mouth with that one.

"Nothin', Lehan, just keep to this heading and don't run over anything," he said, making a quick exit.

"As if I've ever!" came the static-laden yell from behind him.

Terr passed one of the two mercenaries he employed in the passageway.

"Cap'n, where you headed?" Xyn'tith asked curiously.

Her greyish-toned skin and large solid black eyes gave her an alien appearance, but Terr knew her to be one hundred percent human.

"Mess hall," Terr said over his shoulder.

"Better wake Andrew," she called after him.

Terr scowled. "Why is it that the Captain needs permission to go somewhere on his own damn ship?" he grumbled.

"Maybe we all want to eat tomorrow is all I'm saying," Xyn replied.

Terr's scowl darkened. "I'm just saying," he mouthed to himself, but he didn't speak the words aloud.

It was his ship of course, purchased with his own hard-earned funds. He'd carefully reassembled it, from the wrecked lump it had been, crash landed after total computer failure. He'd repaired the ship one circuit and rivet at a time, calling on all the experience and expertise he had from growing up among the McHale traders. All of it done to make a home for Lehan, Andrew and himself. The rest of the crew he'd collected as well, gathering strays and lost souls, all in order to make a new family.

I don't think Lehan even knows what family means anymore. I know he doesn't remember begging me to adopt a lost child one day, just as Uncle Gethbert adopted him. Terr grit his teeth as his thoughts took a sour turn.

He'd adopted that lost child, picking up Andrew from the streets of Passle Chon. He'd found the boy back when he'd first fled from the Guild Company, before he'd even found a reasonable way to communicate with Lehan, stuck as he was in a defective computer brain. Before he'd found a ship to be their home and long before he'd had anything to reasonably offer a small and fragile child. But when he'd seen the scrawny ten-year-old begging on the corner, with wavy tousled hair just the same shade as Lehan's had been and bright green eyes to match his own, he'd been unable to pass by.

"He could be our child," he'd told the mass of wires and cables and shiny metal that housed what was left of his love.

Of course he'd approached the boy badly and it had taken the better part of a year before Andrew would trust him. Time that Terr had mostly spent trying to earn money or put the ship together rather than bonding with the boy.

In the end Drew had found his own place in the newly recreated ship. The mess hall had become his domain, much aided by Terr's lack of good taste.

Terr could cook of course. No McHale was allowed to reach adulthood without a sound set of basic survival skills and cooking was definitely one of those. But Terr had a truly shoddy sense of taste and his cooking was, in the best of terms, lacking. Since Andrew was a normal young boy, who enjoyed food, he soon learned cooking himself as a matter of taste bud survival and he quickly surpassed Terr's abilities in the kitchen.

By the time the rest of the crew had come aboard, Andrew had firmly ensconced himself as ship cook and the mess hall as his personal territory, a place the others respected if they wanted to get fed regularly.

Terr sighed and thought about sneaking past Andrew's room to reach the mess hall. He just wanted to grab some synth coffee and a snack, not start banging the boy's pots and pans around.

This job was giving him a headache. It was what his parents had called a "sour deal." When he calculated cost of fuel, supplies and payment for his crew, he'd just barely break even on it and that only if he was able to navigate the uncharted area and find the hidden base they were delivering to.

But their last stop on Toreth had left him spooked. Lehan had a major malfunction and almost immediately after, one of the new massive Spacer ships with a properly working computer brain and Pilot aboard had made the U-jump in. The power of the U-jump was terrifying to Terr. With it, Spacers could take their huge ships from any known point in space to any other known point almost instantly, meaning they could appear almost anywhere. While the Spacers themselves had no beef with Terr, he was afraid that through them the Guild might track them down and lay another trap in his path. If the massive tech company knew he was still alive and that it was he who had stolen Lehan from them, they wouldn't rest until they'd completely destroyed them both. The Guild Company's power and alliance with High Command was built on the backs of the computer brains and their ability to perform a U-jump. If the remaining rival corporations got ahold of Lehan or learned from Terr how the Guild had created those brains, no matter how vile and unethical the manner of their creation, they would copy it and steal the Guild's place.

The Guild would do anything to stop that from happening. They know how vulnerable their position really is. High Command likes the advantage of U-jump gives them too much to quibble over ethics, or even care which company produces them. With the Spacer ships they can haul fleets into battle in a matter of hours while the rebels take months to arrange an attack.

Still for all the potential threats that Terr feared, the timing of the Spacer's arrival was probably coincidental. Toreth was not that far from a contested area of space and the ship could have stopped there for resupply or to let the crew take some planet time while the fleet they had been carrying was out on the front lines. But there was no doubt that being so close to the Spacer ship and knowing the threat they represented had shot his system through with dread. The Guild kept careful monitor over their Ship Brains and every Pilot who could perform the U-jump had a piece of Guild tech stuck in their head.

What if the Guild had programmed all those Ship Brains to search for Lehan or even if not, what if the Brain sensed him there and reported the anomaly? Terr couldn't take that risk.

He had grabbed the first job that seemed likely to take them far out of the Spacers' newly expanded reach and to hell with the consequences; of course now those consequences had come home to roost.

"I'm really not sure that was the correct planet," he muttered to himself.

"Captain?" the query was soft and gentle, but when he turned, Andrew's expression and body language as he stood in the doorway of the upper crew lounge held censure.

Terr just managed to avoid a guilty start. "Ah, Andrew, I was looking for you. I'm out of synth coffee in my quarters and I need some for this lousy headache," he started.

Andrew's lips thinned to a narrow line. "You've already had your share," the boy said coldly.

Terr winced. His beloved adopted child, who looked so much like Lehan, stared back at him with bright green eyes that matched his own and didn't budge an inch.

"But my share of the crew's synth coffee," Terr started.

Andrew raised an eyebrow.

"Just because I buy my own, doesn't mean that's my share! I buy that with my own funds, not ship money," Terr said.

Andrew was unmoved, giving a little shake of his head. The slender boy had grown, filling out much as Lehan had.

He'll be taller than me soon, he's what...fifteen or the like and still growing.

"Captain, I'll share some of mine with you," came a gruff voice from behind Andrew.

Andrew jerked out of the way, as the stout woman behind him gave him a poke in the ribs.

"Outta the way young'un," Cora said gruffly. "Let your elders through."

"You're not that old," Andrew said in a much softer voice.

Cora's eyes twinkled in her sharply boned face and one corner of her mouth tilted up. "I bought some synth coffee on Toreth," she said. "I just had the oddest feeling that I'd need it," she told him, turning to lead Terr back down the corridor to her room.

That odd feeling was the reason she was part of Terr's crew. Cora hadn't been particularly qualified for the job when she marched up to Terr's skiff one day and demanded he take her on, but she'd told him about a dream she'd had the night before, implying that he was going to need her.

Terr had been skeptical, but had accepted her on a temporary basis regardless, his own intuition nudging him that maybe she just needed a place to belong.

She worked hard, set her back to whatever needed doing, could pack crates tighter and safer than any hand Terr had ever seen and was even a fair hand at stitching crew back together. She was steady in a fight and always kept her head. But it was indeed her odd snatches of foreknowledge that had given her a permanent place on the crew. A "cat's sense" as his mother had called it. It was always vague and undefined, but so far hadn't been wrong even once.

He waited in the hall as she ducked into her own quarters, reappearing a short while later with a large package of synth coffee wafers and a big box of cookies. She handed them over without a word and met his eyes with her own pale grey ones.

"He does care you know. He doesn't want to show you. He's afraid to let you see it, but he does care," she told him softly, giving him a pat on the arm, before she headed back to the crew lounge.

He turned to watch as she strode away. Her long powerful strides at odds with her short and round shape. Her body seeming as ever an odd vessel for the force of her personality.

"Coffee," he said to himself, shaking off his reverie and turning to his quarters.

"So, are we ever going to hit this drop off point Captain?" asked Mike, the other mercenary.

Mike had only been with the crew for about four months and Terr still wasn't sure he was going to stay, but Xyn had vouched for him and the man had proven himself useful. He was a tall hulking man with broad shoulders and a craggy dark face. He definitely looked the part of a mercenary, but he was calm, phlegmatic and hadn't shown even a trace of bad temper. Mike hadn't quite ingratiated himself into their little family yet, but at the same time, he hadn't caused any discontent.

The wry comment was the closest he'd come to the normal banter the crew traded and Terr raised an eyebrow, but it was Gillet who answered.

"We're close though, aren't we?" Gil said. "Should only have another couple days and then we can start looking for it."

Gil was Terr's pilot; not for the ship itself, of course, since Lehan was in charge of that, but for the shuttle, skiff and fighter that Terr had aboard. Gil was the first crew member that Terr had hired and liked to joke that he'd been purchased part and parcel with the shuttle. It wasn't too far from the truth.

Gil had only just turned sixteen when Terr met him. He'd been a slight and androgynous boy, obviously troubled and isolated from his family.

He'd been using the junker shuttle as a temporary home and refused to leave it when Terr had purchased it and started repairs. Terr had made a deal with him, if Gil agreed to work for him for a year once he'd graduated the pilot program he was currently enrolled in, then he could continue to live in the shuttle rent free. Terr would even hook it up to power for him.

Gil had agreed and Terr had moved the shuttle onto the ship he was fixing and for the next five months he had let Gil live in it while Gil completed his training.

At the end of the day, it had been a solid investment for Terr. Gil graduated top of his class and had continued to work for Terr long after his first contracted year was up.

Now he'd grown taller than Terr, but he was still androgynous, his figure graceful and refined. His stubbornness remained unchanged and his loyalty sometimes frightened Terr.

"I believe so," Terr answered Gil cautiously.

"Oh, why doesn't that fill me with confidence?" Andrew snarked from the stovetop where he was preparing a new batch of pancakes for the crew.

"Drew, give your dad a break," Cora chided. "I mean, sure we've gotten lost the last three times we didn't have direct coordinates, but we only ran out of fuel that one time before finding our objective."

Terr winced at the accurate description. Not that he saw getting lost as something shameful. It was rather unavoidable when you wandered into uncharted areas of space. But running out of fuel had been a serious miscalculation on his part.

"Oh yes and that time we only went three days without fuel or hope of rescue," Xyn chimed in.

"Hey! I figured out how to convert resources and limp home," Terr reminded them. "We didn't need rescue."

"Uh huh," his crew chorused.

They all went back to eating pancakes, laughing and joking at the memory in between bites, but there were no further questions about their course or destination. Terr gave a tiny sigh of relief and Cora turned to him and winked.

"That planet only matches the one on file to thirty percent Captain. We're not on course," Lehan informed him in a patient tone.

Terr gave up, dropping his head to the console and covering his ears with both hands.

This wasn't like the other times they'd gotten lost. They were truly off in the ass end of nowhere. Even the extensive McHale clan database didn't have any maps of this area. He knew they could navigate their way back exactly as they had come, but the thought of doing so filled him with cold dread. The Spacers had been at Toreth and he didn't want to run into them again.

He lifted his head and set to running one more long range scan.

It's gotta be here somewhere!

"Captain... I found something," Lehan's voice was a little baffled.

"Found something? What?" Terr lifted himself out of the doze he was in with a shake of his head.

He examined the readings Lehan had put on the screen in front of him, then looked again at the schematics he'd been given of the hidden base they were supposed to find, then back at the readings.

"You found the base," he said slowly.

"It does appear to be the base," Lehan replied.

"But we were off course," Terr said.

"We did appear to be off course," Lehan confirmed.

"But the base is right there where it was supposed to be after all... so... we weren't off course?" now Terr understood why Lehan had been so baffled.

Lehan the man had possessed a gift for turning the unexpected into an adventure, but Lehan the computer brain had a much harder time when things didn't go as planned.

"The mapping was erroneous," Lehan said with disgust.

"I'm guessing so, yes." Giving his head another little shake to clear it, Terr kicked his brain into gear. "Gil, I need you and Cora to get the shuttle prepped and loaded," Terr hit the intercom keyed for Gil's quarters.

"We've found our base Captain?" Gil asked.

"We've found our base," Terr replied.

"On it Captain," Gil said, before clicking off.

Terr contacted Xyn and Mike next. "Mount up crew, we're on for business," he rattled off.

"Aye," came Xyn's lilting voice.

Mike just grunted, but Terr knew he'd be armed and ready by the time they took off.

"Is the Shadow up and running Lehan?" Terr asked.

"You think we'd need that with this lot?" Lehan asked doubtfully.

"I don't know this group and they didn't come highly recommended. I want full precautions," Terr directed.

"The schematics don't show there is much to that station. It's mostly a mining platform. Can't be more than five regular crew staying there. I think you are overreacting," Lehan's tone was incredulous.

"Lehan, perhaps you are forgetting that the maps we were given were erroneous. Why do you think that is? There is more to this station than meets the eye," Terr cautioned.

"Did Cora give any warnings?" Lehan asked in a more subdued tone.

"Not yet, but you know it doesn't always work for her." Terr's mouth twisted into a grimace.

"I'll use caution, Captain," Lehan said softly.