Experience Thoughtful, Feel-Good Science Fiction in "A Course Toward Hope"
Sci-Fi Short Story by Author Daniel P. Douglas
Like countless times before, Braemore took to the smoky skies in his camo quadpod with another load of food and meds, all of which awaited a warm welcome in the camps west of the big river.
He tapped his throttle pad with a gloved forefinger until it reached ninety-eight percent. Diving down to treetop level, he ran west a few seconds and banked south. The hard turn, not part of the original flight plan, pushed his body sideways into the stiff pads of the pilot’s seat.
Unable to afford his own high-performance sentry scrambler, the thrill-seeking Braemore settled for pushing his aging quad to the limits. That kept his adrenaline pumping and his hide safely intact. Wanted by more than a few threadbare government agencies, a half-dozen double-crossed pirates, and an untold number of bounty hunters, Braemore had managed to stay a step ahead of capture since joining the ragtag Continentals.
“Helluva turn, boss,” his co-pilot, Brionna, said into her headset. “I’m still securing the cargo.”
A bootstrapped twenty-three year old from a small village in the rain forest Lowlands, Brionna had worked for the swashbuckling Braemore almost a decade, starting just after the last Southern Pact surge, back when the skies were still blue.
Brionna smirked and exited the quadpod’s rattling cargo bay. “By the way, have you thought about trimming your beard lately?” She closed the hatch behind her and stepped onto the ladder leading up to the cockpit. “Ghastly bird’s nest.”
Braemore glanced at his reflection in the clear control panel cover. That’s when he noticed the sensor blips.
“Grab a seat, Brio. We’ve got company.”
A sleek, silver Southern Pact scrambler rolled up to the quadpod’s port side. Another one settled in just above.
“What are they doing here?” Brionna asked, disappointed. She settled into the co-pilot’s seat and strapped on her safety harness and goggles.
“A new offensive,” Braemore sighed. “They’ve got dropships and scramblers lined up from here to the coast trying to push west.”
Braemore smiled at his young co-pilot. As a teenaged refugee from Southern Pact chemical assaults on the Lowlands, Brionna escaped with her family, a friend named Henrietta, and a dozen of their neighbors when Braemore airlifted them all out of their village in the middle of an attack. Out of twenty people who had boarded his quad, only Brionna survived.
“Lordy.” Brionna squirmed and banged her hand on the armrest. “All the more reason to leave. Get us into orbit and I’ll hop the next star freighter.”
“Anywhere. Let’s face it, this planet is hopeless.”
Braemore hummed a few bars of his favorite battle hymn, one he learned forty years earlier as a cadet in the Oceanic Alliance, while Brionna burned holes into the control panel with her dismayed stare.
“Boss, you gotta learn to discuss changes to the flight plan with me before we launch,” Brionna said, spitting out words like hot bits of lava. “I thought we were headed west, you know, away from the enemy.”
Easing back on the throttle, Braemore said, “We’re smugglers. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s customer. Besides, there’s cargo aboard they want, and I’ve made a very good deal for it. Very good.”
Brionna lowered her goggles. She peered out the port window and gazed at the silver scrambler. “Looks like a new V-2000.” She pointed. “A two-seater packing the trans-lunar package. What a beast.”
“Uh-huh.” Braemore banked his quad into a right turn and activated a distress signal. “Copy that, Tango One,” he said, acknowledging a radio call from the portside sentry scrambler. “We have an onboard emergency and must land immediately.” He winked at Brionna.
Used to Braemore’s sly tactics, Brionna remained quiet and scouted the landscape for a landing zone. The charred remains of a once-thick forest of oaks and birch trees slid by below.
“No need for that, Brio.” Nodding toward a growing plume of yellow smoke in the distance, Braemore added, “There. There’s the agreed-upon landing zone.”
Making the approach, Braemore watched the scrambler above slip in ahead and execute a quick combat landing. Its retro engines kicked up ash and dust, some of which drifted across the quadpod’s windshield. Braemore revved then cut engines and toggled left, spinning the quad around and dropping into a soft, silent landing.
“Showoff,” Brionna said.
“I have a reputation to maintain.”
As the other scrambler, the V-2000, settled on the ground near them, Braemore and Brionna climbed out of the cockpit and exited the quadpod through a side hatch.
“So, what’s up your sleeve, boss?”
Towering over Brionna, Braemore looked down at her tired face. “You look as exhausted as I feel.”
“It’s this crazy job.” Brionna laughed.
Braemore hugged his co-pilot and stepped back, his boots kicking up gray dust and ash. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an interstellar identification card. “This is for you, Brionna.” He glanced at the card. “Or should I say, ‘Henrietta Belmonte’?”
Beneath a furrowed brow, tears ran from Brionna’s eyes down her brown cheeks. “That was my best friend’s name.” She rode the flood of memories, felt a rush of pain and anger.
“It was only a matter of time before these guys or worse caught up to me,” Braemore said in a deep, wavering voice. “I’ve had a good ride. You have your whole future ahead of you.”
“No,” Brionna wept. “I don’t….”
“You do.” Braemore wrapped his arm across Brionna’s shoulders and walked her toward the V-2000 scrambler. He looked back at his squat, boxy quadpod and shook his head. “Hard to believe that’s been your home the last ten years. Our home.”
A bright flash—a nuclear blast—in the distant western sky lit up the landing zone and the dead forest around them. As the light faded, Brionna and Braemore realized the war promised to rage on, still closer to the beginning than the end.
“This is why you have to go,” Braemore whispered. “I’m the cargo. I’ve traded myself and the quadpod to the Southern Pact for your freedom.”
“The back seat on that scrambler is reserved just for you.”
“Take your new identity, hop aboard that beast, and ride into orbit. Star freighters are standing by to—”
“No, not without you.”
“To take you anywhere you want to go. To take you to a new life. To a future you deserve. A future with hope.”
“Braemore, no!” Brionna squeezed her boss. In a ragged voice, she said, “Let’s just make a run for it. I can’t leave without you.”
But she did leave. A surly Southern Pact crew member escorted her away while she flailed and swore in her Lowland vernacular. Not at Braemore, but at the forces that had almost destroyed her world.
As the scrambler rose skyward, she watched her boss disappear behind ribbons of yellow smoke and strands of gray clouds.
To this day, perhaps due to wishful belief in Braemore’s sly tactics, Brionna swears she saw a quadpod rise from the clearing far below. It raced west just above the charred trees at full speed, setting a course toward hope, like countless times before.
Daniel P. Douglas is the pen name of identical twins Phillip and Paul Garver. They write science fiction and paranormal thriller books and screenplays, and have earned accolades from Foreword Reviews, BestThrillers, and Readers Favorite.