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Free Fiction: Crazy Canyon (a Dragon Blood short story)

| Posted in Free Fiction |

23

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m returning to my Dragon Blood world. There’s a new spinoff series coming soon (set three years after the events in the original series), and the first two books are almost ready to go. Just waiting for final cover art! There will also be another book coming late winter/early spring with the original core characters.

Those are the guys we’re visiting with this short story. “Crazy Canyon” stars Ridge and Therrik (with a few appearances by the dragon who believes he’s a god, Bhrava Saruth). It takes place after the events in Shattered Past, but you should be able to read it even if you’re not familiar with the series.

It is on the long side for a short story, so you may want to grab a latte or some wine and perhaps some chocolate before diving in…

Crazy Canyon

a Dragon Blood short story

by Lindsay Buroker

Copyright © 2017 Lindsay Buroker

 

“Potted plants?” General Ridgewalker Zirkander scratched his head. “You came to see me about potted plants?”

“Yes, sir.” The young man from the king’s castle—what was his title? Steward?—rolled out a blueprint of the courtyard. Or what the courtyard would look like after the construction finished. Thanks to dragons, demolitions, and a sorceress, the castle was still undergoing “renovations,” as the newspapers called them. “We want to ensure the landing pad for the king’s fliers meets the required specifications, but Lady Dilwandser—she’s overseeing furnishing and decor, since the queen passed away—thought the pad would look too bare.”

“It’s supposed to be bare. So fliers can land on it and so the king, his entourage, and their supplies can be loaded.”

“Lady Dilwandser wants to know if it’s safe to place foliage around the pad. At the corners here and here. And then perhaps a hedge along this side.”

“A hedge?”

“Yes, sir. Unlike the pots, it would be planted and immobile. We were worried about the heat from the thrusters wilting the plants. I brought you a sample of the shrub Lady Dilwandser suggested. It blooms in the spring, and the flowers are delicate.” The man produced a leafy twig, or maybe that was a vine, and a dried red flower. “What do you think?” Very serious, earnest eyes regarded Ridge.

“I think I never imagined meetings like this when I accepted this promotion.” Ridge glanced toward the window. All hint of daylight had disappeared outside, and he could no longer see the flier hangars perched on the bluff to the south of the harbor. To think, he’d believed he would make it home in time to join Sardelle for dinner. “General Ort didn’t mention horticulture when I took over his position.”

“Yes, sir. The foliage?”

“You’ve got Major Sanglor in charge of the king’s personal fliers, don’t you? What did he say?”

“He referred me to you.”

“I may have to rethink my policy of being a lenient commander and not issuing demerits to lower-ranking officers.”

The steward’s brow furrowed.

Ridge sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He had been at the citadel since before dawn. In meetings. His old squadron had been in the air all morning practicing maneuvers over the harbor. All he’d been able to do was gaze longingly out the window at them while he and the supply captain discussed lead time on ordering flier parts. Not to mention new casters for the rolling door in the hangar. Generals, apparently, had to be consulted on such important matters as casters. And hedges.

“Just plant and pot them outside of the pad,” he said. “It was designed based on the operational guidelines and schematics of the existing two-man fliers. I’ll be certain to let you know if the requirements change when the test models go into production.”

“Excellent, sir.” The man rolled up his schematics, tucked them under his arm, and headed for the door. “Shall I send in your next appointment?”

“There’s a next appointment?” Ridge glanced at the clock. At this rate, Sardelle would be sleeping by the time he got home.

“There’s a surly colonel who glowered at me when I said I had an appointment and pushed my way in first.”

“A surly colonel?” Ridge groaned inwardly. It couldn’t be him, could it? His unofficial but undeniable nemesis ought to have another six months, at least, left as the fort commander for the remote Magroth Crystal Mines.

Very surly.” The steward pursed his lips, shook his head, and walked out.

A second after he disappeared from sight, a large blunt-fingered hand thrust the door open. It was the kind of hand with the power to crack walnuts. Or skulls.

Colonel Vann Therrik strode inside, his customary glower in place. Even though the elite troops colonel had most recently been assigned to command a fort, a job that involved a lot of paperwork, Ridge had no doubt that Therrik and his overly muscled arms were still perfectly capable of killing people. He reminded himself that he outranked the man now and probably wasn’t in danger of being maimed, mutilated, or murdered. Even so, his natural inclination was to keep the desk between them.

“You’re not in my appointment book, Therrik,” Ridge said, swiveling in his chair so he could lean his arm on the backrest. He refused to appear intimidated by the colonel, even if he did prefer it when Sardelle and her sentient—and powerful—sword Jaxi were nearby when he confronted him. “Did you perhaps come by to suggest we go out for beers?”

“No.”

Ridge lifted his eyebrows, assuming Therrik would get right to the point. He did like points. The kinds on the ends of weapons, in particular.

Oddly, Therrik scowled, folded his arms over his chest, and glared… out the window. Ridge peeked in that direction, but all that was visible from the second-story office right now was the dark night sky.

“You didn’t come to tell me the king accepted your application to become his new captain of the guard, did you?” Ridge asked, news he’d heard from his cousin Lilah, an incredibly smart and educated woman who was, against all logic, reason, and the understanding of the gods, seeing Therrik. In a romantic sense. Ridge’s brain still hurt at the notion.

“No.” Therrik’s scowl deepened. “He said I was too valuable to the army. If that were true, he wouldn’t have stuck me at Magroth.”

“Unfortunate. I heard you were looking forward to being outside the military chain of command and thus able to frisk impertinent generals who visited the king.”

Therrik’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Lilah told you that?”

“Lilah told Sardelle, and Sardelle told me.” Ridge had been moderately horrified at the idea of Therrik frisking him, likely with a hand around his throat. The best part of being promoted to general had been getting to the point where he outranked the man. But the king’s guard was a unit outside of the military, and if they wanted to frisk suspicious visitors—and loyal pilots—they had that right. “They’ve become friends now, you know. If Lilah hadn’t been living so far up the coast, I would have introduced them earlier. They have a lot of common interests. The academic ones, not the sorcerous ones, I gather.” Ridge added the last since Therrik loathed everything related to magic.

Therrik grunted. Or maybe that was a growl. Some kind of vocal utterance that portrayed a belligerent lack of enthusiasm.

“The king is also concerned the Cofah will come sniffing around, or send their dragons sniffing around, for their emperor,” Therrik said. “He wants me around in a military capacity in case I’m needed to defend the city or go on incursions.”

Ridge suspected the king simply didn’t want to see Therrik’s scowling face in his castle halls every morning, but he decided not to share the thought.

“So you’re stationed locally again?” Ridge told himself it shouldn’t matter to him, since, as a general, it was unlikely he would be asked to ferry the elite troops around on missions anymore. He wouldn’t need to worry about being stuck flying Therrik and his sunny disposition—and his airsickness-prone stomach—anywhere.

“Back with my old intelligence unit.”

“Were they having trouble functioning without your keen contributions?” Every time Ridge saw Therrik, he resolved to stop goading the man. And every time, he failed. It was so hard to be a mature human being.

“I didn’t come here to pound your face into a wall, Zirkander. Don’t make me change my mind.”

The words, “Just don’t forget to call me sir while you do it,” popped into Ridge’s mind, but he managed to quash them before they came out. Score one point for maturity.

“What did bring you here?” he asked. “I can’t imagine you wanted my advice on shrubbery.”

Therrik took a deep breath, as if he were about to ask for something deeply embarrassing. Or maybe the mere act of having to ask for anything embarrassed him.

“Can you give me the address of Lilah’s mother in Portsnell?”

“Uh, what? Why?”

“I want to arrange for her to come to the capital to visit Lilah.”

“Arrange?” Ridge imagined a team of elite troops planning a mission to abscond with Aunt Dotty before the more rational part of his brain decided that was unlikely.

“Buy her a train ticket so she can come visit us for a couple of weeks.”

Us?” Ridge heard the alarmed squeak in his voice, but it was too late to do anything about it. He’d known his cousin and Therrik had bonded on their adventure at Magroth and that they’d had a… dalliance, but he hadn’t believed it would last. He certainly hadn’t expected them to become an us. They weren’t living together, were they?

“Yes, us. Could you act like a grown-up, Zirkander? Just give me—seven gods, you’re not going to hyperventilate, are you?”

Ridge had no idea what expression was on his face, but he drew back and did his best to straighten it. “Of course not.” Probably. “I just hadn’t realized that you and she… ah. Never mind. Why can’t Lilah give you her mother’s address for this?”

“Because I’m not asking her for it. This is supposed to be a surprise. She’s been talking about her mother being lonely, and I think she’s lonely. She transferred to the university here, but classes haven’t started for the year yet, so she hasn’t met her new colleagues. I thought she might like her mother to visit before summer is over.”

It took Ridge a moment to process Therrik’s words, to realize he wanted to do something nice. Ridge wouldn’t have guessed he had that in him, but he supposed women sometimes had the ability to bring out the best in men. Sardelle certainly did that for him. He wished she were here now for more reasons than one.

“The address?” Therrik asked.

“I don’t know it,” Ridge said.

Therrik’s eyes narrowed.

Ridge spread his hands. “I know where she lives, but I haven’t been up there for a few years, and I don’t remember the house number or postal code.”

Would he have given Therrik the address even if he had known it? He liked the thought of Lilah getting to spend time with her mother, but he loathed the idea that Therrik might be the one to give her that gift. Ridge didn’t think they were a good match, and he hoped Lilah realized that as soon as possible. If Therrik did her favors, then how would she realize what an ass he was?

It was possible that he wasn’t the ass to her that he was to Ridge, but it hurt Ridge’s brain to imagine having to accept that.

“You don’t have it written down?” Therrik stuck a fist on his hip. “What kind of man doesn’t send his family members Solstice Fest cards?”

“The kind whose house was blown up last spring. My address book was inside at the time.”

“Oh, hells.” Therrik dropped his hand. He frowned at the window again, as if some other solution might appear in the night out there.

Ridge’s mother might have the address, but the ride to her house was more than thirty miles round-trip. Besides, he didn’t want to foist Therrik and his dubious charms on her without an introduction. Or with an introduction. Even if it would be amusing to see Therrik attacked by her legion of ham-hungry cats.

An idea popped into Ridge’s mind, and he almost rejected it right away because it sounded like personal torture. Also, he didn’t want to help Therrik. Or do anything to contribute to him and Lilah being a lasting us.

But… he didn’t not want to help Lilah. She would enjoy having her mother come for a visit. And he imagined Aunt Dotty would enjoy visiting the capital and doing some of the historical tours with Lilah.

Ridge leaned his hands against his desk, thinking of the times he’d teased Lilah when they’d been kids. She had preferred reading books to playing with Ridge, her brothers, and their other cousins, which he’d found perplexing at the time. He hadn’t been the sharpest sword in the rack.

“Never mind, then,” Therrik said, turning for the door.

“Wait,” Ridge said, wincing but forcing his offer out nevertheless. “It only takes two hours to fly up there. My last appointment is at four tomorrow. I can take you up there, and you can introduce yourself and ask her in person if she would like to come down.”

The expression in Therrik’s eyes might have been horror or distaste or nascent motion sickness. Ridge expected him to reject the offer outright, and that would be fine by him. He’d made the gesture. Another point for maturity.

“Can’t you just draw me a map?” Therrik grumbled. “I’d rather take the five-hour train trip each way than climb into your back seat again.”

“It would be a crappy map. Like I said, I haven’t been up there for a while. I know I can find it in person, but…” Ridge shrugged. “You’re more than welcome to take the train. It’ll give you time to catch up on your reading. All those fascinating tomes about ancient weapons and killing people.”

“You don’t read about killing people, Zirkander. You just do it. It’s much more satisfying.”

Ridge suspected the man was fantasizing about killing him right now.

Shaking his head, Therrik turned for the door. Ridge scooted papers into a folder, cleaning up his desk so he could leave for the night.

But Therrik paused with his hand on the knob.

“Shit.”

“Something else it’s more satisfying to do than read about,” Ridge offered.

The look Therrik launched over his shoulder was scathing. And definitely conveyed a desire for murder, or at least mutilation.

“I don’t have any days off coming up for weeks,” Therrik said. “I took leave between Magroth and starting up again with my unit here, so I could move my belongings into an apartment big enough for sharing.”

“Unfortunate.” Not wanting to hear about the details of why the man needed to share his apartment, Ridge grabbed his jacket off his chair, turned off the lantern on his desk, and waved his guest toward the door. He was surprised Therrik hadn’t already left.

“So I don’t have time to take an all-day train trip.” Therrik’s tone turned anguished. “Zirkander, I want to do this for Lilah. Before the school year starts back up and she’s working all the time again. I…” The anguished tone turned into an anguished expression, as if he were wrestling with some terrible inner demon.

It slowly dawned on Ridge that Therrik was trying to make himself accept the offer. To ask for and accept a favor. From someone he would love to strangle.

Ridge leaned his hip against his desk and stuck a hand in his pocket, debating whether he wanted to stand there and wait for Therrik to ask, perhaps insisting he throw a please on the end. It would feel tremendously satisfying to have a small amount of power over him, if only for a few seconds. Since Therrik utterly ignored the fact that Ridge now outranked him, lording his generalness over him hadn’t been as fun as he’d hoped.

However, he wanted to get home to Sardelle before midnight. And then there was that maturity thing he was trying to work on.

“Meet me at the hangar after final formation,” Ridge said. “I can have you to Aunt Dotty’s house in time for dinner.”

“Fine,” Therrik said, stalking out of the office.

“You’re welcome,” Ridge called after him.

 

* * *

 

Ridge couldn’t help but smile as he left the tram car and walked across the bluff to the hangars. His butt hadn’t been in a cockpit for more than two weeks. Oh, piloting Therrik would be a test of patience, and he’d probably have to clean the back seat of vomit afterward, but still, it was a chance to fly. To watch the sun over the mountains as he soared northward, the sea breeze rushing past, whipping his scarf about. He missed swooping and diving like an eagle, though he supposed he would have to limit that, and barrel rolls would be out of the question, no matter how fun they were. Therrik got sick just flying straight.

A few young Wolf and Tiger squadron pilots leaving for the day saluted him and one blurted, “General Zirkander, sir. Will you be joining us for the practice maneuvers tomorrow?”

“I have to make sure the new instructors at the flight academy get settled in tomorrow, but I’ll try to come out and watch Wolf and Tiger for a while.”

“Watch, sir? Won’t you fly with us? I’ve heard about—I mean, I’ve never gotten to see.” He glanced at his comrade. “You’re a legend, sir!”

His buddy, Lieutenant Foam, elbowed him and gave Ridge an apologetic, “He’s new, sir.”

“Yes, I know. I approved his application into Tiger Squadron. If there’s time, I would love to fly with you boys.” Ridge patted the men on the shoulder before continuing on.

Seven gods, he would love to go up with them, but he doubted he would be able to slip away for long enough. This little jaunt up the coast would have to satisfy his flying itch, at least for now.

Their salutes and a “Yes, sir,” and “Good evening, sir,” trailed him as he headed for the hangar, but the respect ended after that.

As soon as he stepped inside, Therrik, already standing by Ridge’s flier, growled, “You’re late, Zirkander.” He did not acknowledge in any way that he was pleased Ridge was doing him this favor.

“The castle steward returned with more shrubbery samples. Don’t ever let them promote you to general, Therrik.”

“I won’t. I know I’d be crappy at it.”

Ridge blinked, startled by the honesty. Or self-effacement. Whatever that had been. “Commanding Magroth didn’t agree with you?”

“You know it didn’t.”

Yes, a few months earlier, when Ridge had flown up there to battle the dragon Morishtomaric, he’d arrived in the middle of a riot. The miner-prisoners the soldiers were stationed there to guard had been showing their displeasure at Therrik’s draconian command style. With sledgehammers and pickaxes.

“Well, now that you’re back here, maybe you’ll be sent on some nice covert missions where you can ruthlessly slay enemies.” Ridge didn’t know which enemies those would be, since Iskandia had a ceasefire with the Cofah Empire right now, but surely some inspired intelligence officer could find someone for Therrik to slay.

A hint of hope entered Therrik’s eyes, but then he shook his head. “Lilah tells me I shouldn’t feel wistful about such things.”

“Yeah.” Ridge pulled himself into his cockpit to hide his grimace. It made him uncomfortable to hear his cousin’s name—first name—on the rough colonel’s tongue. He trusted that Lilah, who was in her late thirties and had been married before, wouldn’t get involved with someone who didn’t treat her well, but he did catch himself worrying about Therrik’s explosive temper. If Ridge had his druthers, this wasn’t a relationship that would be happening. But Lilah had told him—firmly—that she didn’t care about his druthers.

Ridge double-checked to make sure the bag of apple pie taffy he’d purchased during his lunch break was safely in his jacket pocket. There was a woman in the capital that made all manner of flavors, and he recalled that Dotty enjoyed this one the best. He had no idea how well Therrik’s offer—or Therrik himself—would be received. If nothing else, the taffy could be a consolation prize.

The flier creaked as Therrik settled into the back seat.

Ridge glanced back at the big man. “You didn’t put on more muscle while you were in that frozen hole, did you?”

“What do you care?”

“I’m concerned the flier won’t get off the ground with our combined weight. Especially your half—two-thirds—of it.”

“I can’t help you with your feelings of scrawny inadequacy. Just fly this boat, Zirkander. I want to get there before the woman goes to bed.”

“Since you asked so nicely, I’ll be happy to take off.” Ridge shook his head, tugged his goggles on, and hit the ignition. The energy crystal that powered the craft flared to life, its soft yellow light illuminating the cockpit.

“No crazy flying on the way there.”

“You’re taking all the fun out of my escape from my office,” Ridge said, though he didn’t want to have to clean the back seat of the flier, so he hadn’t planned any aerial antics. Alas.

He nudged the flight stick, and good old W-63 rolled toward the open hangar door. The sun was setting outside, but he’d flown up and down the coast a thousand times and would have no trouble landing in Portsnell in the dark.

The two-seater had thrusters, so he could have simply rolled out of the hangar and lifted off, but all the early fliers he’d trained on had required getting up to speed until the wheels left the ground, and he enjoyed the feel of the wind against his face, whipping his scarf about. He accelerated down the runway toward the edge of the bluff that dropped off into the harbor.

As he was about to tilt the wings for liftoff, a huge gold figure flew up from below and alighted on the bluff right in front of them.

“Shit!” Therrik swore.

Though startled, Ridge continued his takeoff, veering slightly to the left to avoid the dragon.

Greetings, human worshippers! Bhrava Saruth spoke into his mind—into their minds?

Ridge glanced back as the flier soared over the dragon’s head. Therrik’s eyes bulged, and his hands gripped either side of his seat well. One lurched toward the pistol at his waist.

Ridge made a cutting motion, hoping to stop Therrik’s overtrained warrior instincts from shooting. It wasn’t as if bullets did anything against a dragon, but Bhrava Saruth was one of only two winged allies that Iskandia claimed. And the only one who was enthusiastic about helping the country.

Good evening, Bhrava Saruth, Ridge thought, trusting the telepathic dragon would read his mind.

You are leaving? Behind them, Bhrava Saruth sprang into the air and flapped his wings to trail after the flier. I just located you. You were not in your lair.

My office in the citadel?

The place where you command the legions of my potential worshippers.

Ridge wondered what General Ort and all the high-ranking officers who worked in the citadel would think if he changed the sign out front to The Lair. The General’s Lair. Alas, it sounded more like the name of a tavern in town.

“Zirkander,” Therrik growled, “that dragon is following us.”

“Yes, that’s Bhrava Saruth, our ally.”

“I know that.”

With Therrik’s head twisted to look back, Ridge barely heard him.

“It’s why I haven’t shot at it,” Therrik added.

“So, you’re just fondling your pistol for no reason?”

Therrik glowered at him. “There’s a reason.”

“We’re not going to discuss killing again, are we?”

“Just do something about that dragon. I don’t want it stalking us all the way up the coast. If I show up with a dragon at Lilah’s mother’s house… hells, what kind of impression would that be?”

“A memorable one, I’m certain.”

Therrik’s glower faded, and an expression Ridge wasn’t familiar with took over his face. Concern?

It boggled Ridge’s mind to imagine Therrik worried about making a good impression on… anyone. He was somewhat less of an ass around the king and superior officers who didn’t irk him the way Ridge did, but Ridge couldn’t imagine him having a vulnerable side under all that gruffness. Nor did he particularly want to imagine it.

I’ve come to discuss my temple, Bhrava Saruth announced, speeding up to fly beside them as they soared north, out of the city and along the coast.

“His what?” Therrik asked, and Ridge realized Bhrava Saruth was sharing his words with both of them.

Maybe he hoped that he would be more likely to get a temple if he talked to more people about it.

I have nineteen worshippers now, and I must have a place for them to come and receive my blessings and wisdom.

“It would be nice if that place didn’t continue to be my house,” Ridge said wistfully.

When he and Sardelle had chosen that quiet cottage on the dead-end lane outside of the city walls, he’d imagined it being private. Secluded. Definitely not a destination for mages in training or dragon devotees.

My high priestess has informed me that human money may be required in order to acquire land on which to build a suitable temple. As well as to hire construction crews for the building. Ridgewalker, finding human money would be a simple matter, but is this truly how temples for gods are built? Do not the worshippers simply come together and raise the structure themselves, thus to honor their divine lord?

A loud sigh, or maybe that was a moan, came from the back seat.

“You’re not getting airsick already, are you?” Ridge asked over his shoulder. “I’m flying as straight as I can.”

“For once, it’s not you that’s making me sick.”

Therrik frowned over at the dragon.

Bhrava Saruth gazed back, his leathery wings flapping, easily matching the flier’s pace. His golden scales gleamed beneath the light of the setting sun. He possessed deep green eyes full of power, and if one looked into them, one felt a pull to do everything the dragon wished, no matter how goofy.

“I think it might have happened like that in the old days, Bhrava Saruth,” Ridge said, speaking aloud so Therrik wouldn’t be confused—or miss any of the scintillating details. “But these days, you either have to have money or get the government to pay for it.”

The government? This is your human king, yes? He will pay for my temple?

“Uhm.”

Therrik snorted. “Why don’t you fly that past him, Zirkander? You know you’re one of Angulus’s favorites.”

Right. That hadn’t been true even before Ridge had, against his will, flown an enemy sorceress that wanted to kill the king right to the castle.

“Bhrava Saruth, I think you should discuss this with the king. Since you helped defend the city from Cofah dragons, I wager he likes you a lot more than he likes me.”

You will help me build my temple if your king pays for it, Ridgewalker? You were my first worshipper in this time, you know.

Worshipper?” Therrik growled, half question, half exclamation of disgust.

“Yes, I haven’t forgotten,” Ridge said. “I’ll find a way to help, and if you really need me too, I’ll talk to the king. I’m sure he’ll admit Iskandia owes you a few favors.”

This is glorious news. I’ve been missing my old temple, where the clansmen—and clanswomen—brought me such fine offerings. And I blessed them and made them hale and fecund.

“I have no doubt.”

I must hunt. Then I can muse upon how to recruit more worshippers to my imminent temple while savoring the succulent chops of a sheep.

Bhrava Saruth wheeled away from them, his body swaying and his tail swishing in something akin to a dance  as he flew off.

Ridge looked toward the coastline, shadows darkening the nooks and cliffs as the sun dipped lower over the mountains. A couple more miles, and they would fly past Crazy Canyon. If Colonel Surly weren’t in the back, Ridge would have swooped up the winding river and under the arches. Seven gods, he missed being in the air on a daily basis. He’d almost wished Angulus had demoted him after that castle-sorceress incident. Oh, to be a colonel again and leading one of the flier squadrons.

“Why can’t a dragon build its own temple?” Therrik glared after Bhrava Saruth, who’d turned into a golden speck in the darkening sky as he flew inland. “Or magic one into existence?”

“I imagine he could if he wanted to.” And if his ego allowed it. Ridge suspected the dragon believed one’s worshippers should handle such prosaic work as building a temple to their god. “But I don’t want to suggest it, only to have him plop a massive stone structure down atop the Grand Mason and Bell Hotel. Or any other buildings in the capital on the historic register. It’s bad enough some of them were demolished in the various attacks on the city this year.”

“Damn, Zirkander. You actually care about the city’s architecture?”

Ridge couldn’t tell if he was being mocked or if Therrik was genuinely curious. He suspected the former, but who knew? Therrik came out of the nobility. Maybe he had some notion of it being honorable to defend the country—and its architecture.

“Well, I care about the city,” Ridge said. “And the people in it. I’d hate to see an innocent baker squashed by a dragon temple falling out of the sky.”

Frowning ahead and to the right, Ridge didn’t hear Therrik’s response. The opening for Crazy Canyon had come into view, the striated rock walls rising more than a thousand feet from sea level. Something large, dark, and unfamiliar hulked in the water at the mouth of the river.

“Is that a ship?” he muttered.

“What?” Therrik yelled over the wind.

Ridge pointed and tilted the flier to offer a better view. They were flying closer to the top of the canyon walls than the sea and were about a mile out from land. But Ridge could tell that was a ship in the estuary, even though it lay deep in the shadows, and no lanterns burned on its deck or behind its portholes. Twilight’s approach made it difficult to tell, but he thought it was all black, and it reminded him disturbingly of some of the original Cofah ironclads.

His first thought was that it was some old derelict that had floated to Iskandian shores, but it couldn’t have floated up the river. Even though it was barely inland, it still would have had to go against the current to reach that spot. And for it to stay there, it had to be anchored.

“A Cofah Warstriker 87-C?” Therrik asked. “How in the hells did that get there? The last one was decommissioned more than twenty years ago.”

Ridge wasn’t surprised Therrik knew the exact model. Apparently, he was a student of military history, and some of his interests bisected with those of Professor Lilah, paleontologist and fan of time-traveling historical adventure novels. Ridge, however, liked to pretend they had nothing in common and would soon discover that.

“I’m going to take us closer for a better look.” They had already flown past the canyon, with the ship almost hidden from view again, so Ridge nudged the flight stick to bank.

Therrik’s hand clamped onto his shoulder.

“I promise not to do any loops or barrel rolls in the canyon,” Ridge said. “Unless there are also enemy fliers in there, and we have to fight for our lives.” Damn if his blood didn’t charge up at the thought of that.

Was it possible that ship was part of some nefarious Cofah mission? Just because it was an old warship didn’t mean it didn’t have weapons and couldn’t do damage. And this was the closest place to the capital one could feasibly dock without entering the harbor the city sprawled along.

What if the Cofah had deliberately chosen an old ironclad, believing Iskandia’s magic-wielding allies—specifically, Bhrava Saruth and Sardelle—wouldn’t sense the craft skulking about? The country had lighthouses and watchtowers all along its shores, but a ship running dark could conceivably make it to shore without being spotted. And the highway and train tracks crossed over Crazy Canyon nearly ten miles inland, where the terrain was less treacherous. Nobody would have seen this vessel from those bridges.

“Don’t fly straight in.” Therrik squeezed his shoulder. Hard. “If there are soldiers in that ship, they would see us coming and open fire. If it hasn’t been modified, it has six Trokker guns with explosive shells, not to mention whatever rifles and other hand weapons the crew has.”

“I don’t object to being fired at.”

I do. Because you’re incapable of dodging fire without twirling around like a damn ballerina in a tutu.”

“It’s hard for the enemy to target a flier in the middle of evasive maneuvers.” Ridge did not twirl.

He considered shaking off that hand and taking them into the canyon anyway—he was the higher-ranking officer here—but maybe it would be easier to investigate the craft if they snuck up on the crew. Assuming there was a crew. Sneaking was hard to do in a flier with the propeller noise audible even over the roar of the ocean.

“Take a circuitous route, and park this thing on the floor of the canyon a couple miles up river. If your tender pilot’s feet can’t handle a march, I’ll go in alone and scout, see if there’s a problem.”

“My tender feet don’t object to marches, but I’m a lot deadlier in the air than on the ground.” Ridge had his pistol and utility knife along, since they were part of the military uniform for anyone traveling out of the city, but the sidearm didn’t pack nearly the punch of his flier’s machine guns. And the knife… He mostly used that to cut cheese.

“You’re not going to sink an ironclad with machine guns,” Therrik said. “And if I kill the crew, there’s no need to sink the ship.”

“I thought Lilah spoke to you about not sounding so joyous about the prospect of killing people.”

“It’s different if they’re Cofah scum,” Therrik growled, releasing Ridge’s shoulder, as if the matter was settled.

Ridge sighed. He hadn’t finished his earlier banking maneuver and had flown them north along the coast while discussing the situation. If receiving orders from Therrik could be considered a “discussion.”

Not that he had to obey them. He swung them inland, so they could circle back while he debated the options. Sending Therrik in wasn’t a bad idea, whether to kill enemies or just to gather intel. Both were his job. But Ridge hated losing his offensive firepower. He was just another soldier when he was on the ground, and not one who specialized in making people dead.

Of course, if that was an abandoned derelict, it wouldn’t matter. But he knew it wasn’t. Logic—and his instincts—told him something fishy was going on down there.

Ridge tapped the communication crystal embedded in his flight stick. “This is General Zirkander. Who’s at the desk?”

“Corporal Hannigot, sir,” an enthusiastic young voice blurted. One of the new members of the ground crew. He sounded excited by this after-hours contact. Maybe he hadn’t expected twelve hours of sheer boredom when he’d been assigned to the night shift.

“There any officers left in the hangar?”

“No, sir. Just me.”

“All right. Get a report to…” Ridge snorted. Usually reports would go to him. Before he’d been promoted, they’d gone to General Ort, but Ort was the brigade commander now. Was this important enough to bug him about? “General Ort,” he decided—it was early enough that nobody would be in bed yet. “I’ve spotted an old Cofah ironclad anchored in the mouth of Crazy Canyon. Haven’t seen any sign of crew yet. No running lights. I’m going in to investigate. No request for backup at this time. I’ll report in within two hours.”

“Yes, sir. I’m writing it down.” The kid sounded even more excited.

“Good. Zirkander, out.”

Therrik slapped him on the back of the head.

Ridge scowled over his shoulder. “What was that for?”

“You didn’t mention me. You didn’t think that was important? I’m the one who’s going to investigate while you stay by your flier and pick lint out of your pocket.”

Ridge, somewhat annoyed that he was following—obeying—Therrik’s demands already, said, “Colonels don’t get to tell generals what to do with their pocket lint. I’m going in to take a look at that ship too.”

Therrik’s lip curled in distaste. “Can you even walk down a path without stepping on a twig?”

“In the dark? Probably not.”

The lip curled further. Maybe that was disgust rather than distaste.

Ridge turned forward and decided he no longer cared about flying straight and keeping Therrik from getting airsick. He swooped low and tilted left and right as he soared above and around the rocky terrain, heading toward Crazy Canyon.

Something between a groan and an aborted upchuck noise came from the back. At least being airsick would shut Therrik up, if only until they landed.

 

* * *

 

Bhrava Saruth? Ridge asked silently, though he doubted the dragon was monitoring his thoughts. Too bad. It would have been nice if he could have gotten some intel from a magical creature that could sense life forms for fifty miles in all directions.

But he didn’t receive an answer. Bhrava Saruth was probably still hunting. Or savoring sheep chops.

Ridge wished he had Sardelle along. He would have even settled for Jaxi. In addition to having magic of her own, the soulblade could have glowed softly, enough to illuminate the path he was following down the riverbank. Fortunately, the locals frequented the canyon often, leaving the trails wide and easy to follow. Also, the water flowed past nearby, and Ridge believed its noise would drown out the crunching of twigs, but who knew? Therrik had the ears of a starving hunting dog.

He had disappeared down the trail as soon as Ridge landed the flier on a rock ledge overlooking the water. Though large and hulking, Therrik could indeed sneak effectively. More than effectively. Large cottonwoods rose up from the riverbank, and he slipped through the shadows they provided like a ghost, rarely seen, never heard.

Ridge wondered if there was a point in trailing along. Had Therrik not been such a presumptuous ass, he probably would have decided that staying with the flier was a good idea. Especially since he’d lost fliers he’d parked in this canyon before. The group of witch-hating women who’d been responsible for the deed last time had dissolved, so he shouldn’t have to worry about them, but what of the Cofah? Or whoever had brought that ironclad up the river?

He decided to turn back the next time he saw Therrik and had the chance to let him know. Not that Therrik would waste time worrying about him if he disappeared. They were only about twenty-five miles north of the city, so it wasn’t as if he would be in major trouble if his pilot disappeared. Of course, if he still hoped to reach Dotty’s house tonight, he would need Ridge.

“Zirkander,” came Therrik’s rough whisper from the brush ahead and to the side of the trail. “Get up here.”

“I am working on that.” Ridge kept his voice low, presuming there was a reason for Therrik’s whisper. He thought they still had close to a mile before they reached the ship, but that didn’t mean other threats couldn’t lurk closer. “Though I was going to turn back. Do you need—”

“You to talk less on a stealth incursion? Yes.”

A hand snaked out of the brush, gripped Ridge’s arm, and pulled him off the trail.

Ridge’s irritation with the man threatened to go from a simmer to a boil.

“I heard two men talking up ahead,” Therrik whispered, “and went up to grab them and question them. But they were gone. Might have gone back up the trail to the ship, but it was more like they disappeared. Can you tell if there’s any magic being used?”

“No. If you don’t see a dragon, sorceress, or soulblade at my side, I’ve got no way to sense it any more than you do.”

“Hells, you’d think sleeping with all those things would rub something off on you.”

“I don’t sleep with the dragons.”

“Just the sorceress and the sword?” Therrik sounded amused. “What’s she need with you if there’s already a sword in bed?”

“You’re not this much of an ass to Lilah, are you?” Ridge thought about pointing out that Therrik was chatting a lot for someone worried about silence on a “stealth incursion.”

She doesn’t irritate me.”

“Was that a yes? Or a no?”

“She also finds it annoying that our culture deems the antics of a pilot who twirls and flies upside down more newsworthy than discoveries made by historians and scientists or contributions made by teachers and other kinds of soldiers.”

“Please tell me your mutual dislike of me isn’t what drew you two together.”

Ridge didn’t think his cousin truly disliked him, but they didn’t have any common interests, so they’d never had that much reason to get together as adults, at least until Lilah had moved down to the capital this summer, where she’d realized she did share interests with Sardelle. It hadn’t occurred to Ridge that his cousin might resent his fame. He hadn’t honestly considered that it might also be a reason for some of Therrik’s resentment. He’d believed that all stemmed from Ridge’s association, however inadvertently it had started, with magical beings, including Sardelle. Therrik made his hatred for magic—and those who could wield it—clear at every opportunity.

“It was a starting point,” Therrik said.

“Then it sounds like you two owe your joint happiness to me.”

Therrik glared at him. Ridge could tell, even in the dark. Ridge decided this wasn’t the time to share his revelations, nor did he think Therrik would care about them.

“Also,” Ridge said, “I shoot enemies while I twirl. That’s why it’s newsworthy. You got a write-up after slaying that sorceress, remember?”

“One paragraph buried in the middle of the paper. You were on the front page for twirling at a dragon.”

“Twirling and shooting.”

As he recalled, the soulblades Jaxi and Wreltad had helped a lot in that battle too, with fireballs and lightning strikes. He imagined that had made it memorable to any journalists hunkering in the city below and watching the sky. Not that Therrik would want to hear about that.

“Come on,” Therrik said, stepping out of the brush. “You’d be more likely to recognize magic than I. Damn, I wish I’d brought Kasandral.”

“You probably didn’t think you’d need a dragon-slaying and magic-hating sword to visit your girlfriend’s mother.”

“I should have,” Therrik said darkly. “I have in the past.”

Ridge didn’t know what to make of that statement. Judging by the uncharacteristic hunch to Therrik’s shoulders, he didn’t want to talk about whatever had prompted the comment.

Ridge looked back up the canyon in the direction he’d left his flier. Night had deepened, and he could no longer see it or the area where he’d landed it. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake in continuing after Therrik.

 

* * *

 

The hulking ironclad floated black and lifeless in the estuary, anchored out where the water was deep enough for its draw. Full darkness had fallen, and clouds had rolled in from the sea to blot out the stars, but Ridge could make out a rowboat that had been dragged onto the bank, as if to invite tourists to come visit the ironclad. Oh, he supposed the crew could have just left on their own mission, but he found it suspicious.

He and Therrik crouched, their backs against the canyon wall, as they studied the situation. Out on the ship, not a single light burned behind any of the portholes or on the deck, nor was there any sign of life.

After Therrik’s warning, Ridge had been keeping an eye out for anything that hinted of magic, but he had never heard the voices. Had he been with some young private, he might have thought his colleague had imagined them, or mistaken the rustling grasses for people talking, but Therrik was far too experienced for that.

“It certainly appears abandoned,” Ridge whispered.

“Someone anchored it there, and it couldn’t have been that long ago.”

“No,” Ridge agreed. “Tiger Squadron ran a patrol up the coast north of the city yesterday. They would have noticed this.”

The wind shifted, blowing in from the sea, and a faint clanking reached Ridge’s ears, like someone rattling a chain. Or perhaps dragging it across a metal deck.

“You hear that?” Therrik asked.

“Yes.”

A scrape punctuated the clanks. Definitely like something being dragged. Ridge imagined someone locked in a cell, walking around, ankles shackled and chained to an iron ball.

Someone is on board,” Therrik said.

“Or something.”

“Let’s take a look. Might be someone we can question.” Therrik cracked his knuckles. His idea of questioning, no doubt, involved brute force.

“I’ll stay here,” Ridge said.

“To catalog your pocket lint?”

“In case you get in trouble and need to be rescued.”

“You? Rescue me? Please.” Therrik headed for the boat. “If you’re afraid, just say so.”

The way those chains kept clinking was eerie, but Ridge wanted to stay behind for the same reason he questioned leaving the flier. This could all be a trap.

“Afraid? I’ve survived half a dozen crashes, flown into hundreds of battles, and stared into the eyes of enemies firing machine guns at me. Some derelict ship that barely floats doesn’t worry me.”

“If you say so, Zirkander.” Therrik picked up a couple of oars in the rowboat, but paused before stepping in, cocking his head to listen to something upriver.

The murmur of voices rose over the breeze, coming from the direction of the trail. It sounded like two men talking in loud whispers.

Therrik dropped the oars and sprinted past Ridge toward the noise. Ridge pulled out his pistol and followed more slowly. And warily. If there were only two men, Therrik could handle them without his help, but once again, his instincts twanged, and he worried they were being set up for something.

In the darkness, Ridge soon lost sight of Therrik. He walked to where he judged the voices had come from and squatted in the tall grass so he would be harder for someone to see. Then he listened, expecting to hear someone else rustling around nearby. At the least, he expected to hear Therrik, but the colonel must have shifted into stealth mode again.

Several minutes passed before a soft grumble came from behind him. “That you, Zirkander?”

Ridge stood, assuming the question meant Therrik hadn’t found the men. “Yes. And stop using my name, will you?”

If there were Cofah infiltrators out here, Ridge didn’t want them knowing who was wandering up and down the riverbank. The entire Cofah empire would celebrate his death, he had no doubt. Alas, there was little point in inviting Therrik to use his first name, as it was almost as well-known as his last. Why couldn’t his father have named him something ordinary?

“What should I call you? General Fool? I seem to remember you suggesting that once.”

Sir would be appropriate.”

“Far less appealing.” Therrik stepped back out on the trail. “I didn’t find anyone.”

“You can’t find any tracks?”

“In the dark? No.”

They should have brought a lantern, but Ridge hadn’t anticipated trouble on such a short flight, certainly not a stroll through a canyon on foot. Even if some mechanical failure had forced them to land, the flier’s power crystal would have provided enough light to see while doing repairs.

“I’m going out to the ship to question whoever is clanking chains out there,” Therrik growled and stomped back down the trail, making no move to be silent now. Maybe he hoped someone would leap out and challenge him.

But they made it back to the rowboat without seeing anyone. Therrik grabbed the oars again and shoved the boat into the water.

Ridge sighed and climbed in after him. Therrik’s inability to find the source of those voices made him suspect that magic might indeed be involved. He was fairly sure Therrik taught wilderness survival and tracking classes to the infantry boys. Nobody should have eluded him, not by mundane means.

Even though Ridge wasn’t an expert on magic, he knew more than Therrik. He might spot some being used on the ironclad.

“Are you feeling braver?” Therrik asked, shoving the boat off the bank and jumping in as it floated away. It rocked mightily before his bulk settled onto a seat. “Or were you afraid your throat would be slit if you stayed behind by yourself?”

“It’s true. My knees started shaking when I contemplated being away from your safe and protective presence.” Ridge grabbed an oar. The faster they checked out the ironclad and got back to the flier, the better.

“Usually, only women say things like that to me.”

“I’ll bet a hundred nucros Lilah has never said anything like that to you.”

“No, she can take care of herself.”

Ridge ignored the implication that he couldn’t and rowed. The clanking of chains drifted over the roar of the ocean again, and Therrik fell silent.

They reached the side of the ironclad and found a rope ladder dangling down to the surface. Therrik improvised a way to tie the rowboat to the end of it, then skimmed up the rungs without waiting to consult Ridge.

Ridge had come out in the hope of keeping Therrik from stepping on magical booby traps. Thus, he decided it would be immature of him to fantasize about that happening. And about Therrik being flung a hundred feet to land in one of those cottonwoods.

When Ridge reached the top of the ladder, he spotted Therrik disappearing into the wheelhouse on the upper deck in the bow of the vessel.

More soft clanks sounded, followed by the dragging noise. Ridge thought it came from below decks somewhere, not from the wheelhouse. Maybe Therrik was checking likely places to find crew members before looking for a way down.

Ridge walked toward midship where the dark opening of the ship’s cargo hold yawned open. There should have been double doors covering it, but they appeared to have been removed. He crouched at the edge and peered inside, but didn’t see or hear anything in the hold. But with the moon and stars behind the clouds, a platoon could have been crouching down there, and he wouldn’t have spotted them.

“Hold empty?” Therrik asked, jogging up to look in.

“I think so.”

“Nobody in navigation, and the clinks weren’t coming from the stairs leading down to crew quarters.” Therrik pointed aft. “The stairs to the boiler room and the brig will be back there.”

Since Therrik had named the specific model of the vessel, Ridge wasn’t surprised he knew the layout. They crossed the deck, and Therrik opened a rusty door that creaked when it moved. The clinking sounds grew louder, drifting up a stairwell from below. And had that been a faint moan? It was hard to tell over the omnipresent roar of the ocean.

Therrik headed straight down the steps. Ridge glanced toward the riverbank, thinking of those other voices and again feeling nervous about having left the flier behind. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come out here. Yes, he knew more about magic, but so what? What did he care if Therrik got himself blown up in some magical booby trap? Other than it might upset Lilah. He didn’t want to have to fly back to the city and explain to her that Therrik had died while with him.

Sighing again, Ridge followed him down the dark stairwell, feeling his way to the lower decks. The clinks grew louder as they descended and walked through a doorway, the heavy metal hatch standing open. Ridge had the sense of a cavernous space ahead of them. The boiler room? There were portholes on the starboard side of the hull, the blackness slightly less absolute beyond their glass.

Exploring down here without a lantern was ridiculous. Ridge wished he had thought to pry the communication crystal from his cockpit. When it was thumbed on, it provided a small amount of light.

Ridge stopped, listening to the clinks and dragging noises. They came from ahead and to the left. From one of the boilers? Or maybe the engine room was in that direction?

A soft thud came from ahead of him, from the same direction as the clinking. Ridge paused, his pistol in hand again.

“Crap,” Therrik said.

“Not literal, I hope.”

“I think I stepped on a—”

A squeal came from behind Ridge. He whirled, but too late to do anything. The heavy metal hatch clanged shut, and a thud followed, like a bar falling into place. It had an ominous finality to it.

“—trip wire,” Therrik growled. “And what the hells is that?”

His voice was muted, as if he had gone behind something. Maybe one of the boilers.

More concerned about the hatch than whatever Therrik saw, Ridge ran back to it. He groped in the darkness, finding the latch and tugging.

“We’re locked in,” Ridge said.

A clang rang out from Therrik’s direction.

“Are you fighting something?” Ridge turned, but he didn’t dare aim his pistol in the dark.

“I kicked a boiler.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m pissed, Zirkander.” Therrik stomped into view, a soft yellow light in his hand illuminating his snarling face. He opened his palm, revealing a familiar glowing gem. “Is this one of your communication crystals?”

“Yes.” Ridge stared at it, puzzled. He’d just been thinking of the one in his flier, but that had to be one from a different flier. What would it be doing here?

“That clanks were coming from it. Whoever is on the other end is making the noise. And probably listening to us, damn it. How do I turn it off?”

Ridge mouthed an, “Oh,” and came forward, realization sinking in. It had been a trap. Someone had been relying on their curiosity to draw them in. And was there also a communication crystal hidden in the grass somewhere on the riverbank? Maybe someone had put it in a pouch and thrown dirt over it so Therrik wouldn’t see the light. He’d only heard voices and not guessed someone a mile away—or potentially dozens of miles away—was transmitting them.

Ridge took the crystal and tapped his thumb on the long, flat side. It went dark, working exactly like the communication crystals in the fliers. Because it was one. He rolled it around in his hand and contemplated how it could have gotten here. It wasn’t as if the military sold them. Sardelle had been the one to make them several months ago, a few master controllers for the desks in the hangar offices around the country and one crystal for each flier in the various squadrons in the battalion. There weren’t many extras floating around.

“The blown-up fliers,” he said.

“What?” Therrik demanded.

“We lost a few fliers last spring when Angulus was kidnapped and you were in charge of the flier battalion. When my team got back from our mission in Cofahre, we landed in Crazy Canyon because we weren’t sure what was going on in the city. And those fanatical women working with the queen blew them up. Later, we came back to salvage the parts, but the power crystals had been stolen. And, now that I think about it, I don’t think the communication crystals were recovered, either.” Ridge was surprised that whoever had set up this ruse had figured out how to switch them to the backup channel so the base and all the other fliers in the area wouldn’t hear their transmissions. It wasn’t as if the crystals had instructions printed on them.

“Nice story, Zirkander. Now move so I can get us out of here. Someone’s probably stealing more of your magical flier crystals right now while we’re trapped.”

Therrik pushed past him and strode to the hatch.

“I knew I should have stayed back there,” Ridge said, closing a fist around the crystal. “Someone could be stealing the entire flier.”

Was that what all this had been? Some ruse to aid with theft?

Grunts and huffs of breath came from the hatch. Therrik using his big muscles to try to force it open.

Ridge doubted that would work. He ran toward one of the three portholes visible high on the hull, cursing when he banged against a crate or bin in the dark. His hand came down on the open top, on rocks inside. No, probably coal for the fire boxes. It felt damp, and he doubted it would burn. It had probably been there for years, if not decades.

As Ridge reached the first porthole, Therrik’s grunts stopped. He must have decided the hatch wouldn’t budge. The thuds of boots on the metal deck sounded as he searched for other exits.

The portholes all faced the side opposite of the rowboat and the bank where Ridge had landed the flier. Oh, well. He’d still go out that way if he could. Better than spending the night in a boiler room with Therrik.

Or more than the night. Who knew how long it would be until someone came looking for them? And how embarrassing would it be to have to be rescued by a couple of lieutenants from his own unit?

Ridge patted around the porthole, found the latch, and twisted it. He didn’t know if Therrik could wedge his body through the opening, but he thought he could. Assuming he could get it open. The handle unfastened, but the porthole cover wouldn’t open. A hardened lumpy substance covered the seam. He scraped at it with a nail, broke a tiny piece off, and brought it to his nose.

The resiny scent reminded him of pine pitch. Maybe it was pine pitch. With something added to harden it.

Ridge ran to the other portholes and found they’d been treated in a similar manner.

“The other two hatches are locked too,” Therrik said. “They’re solid iron, probably with bars across them on the other side.”

“There’s a bin of coal over there if you want to figure out a way to blow open a hatch.”

Therrik grunted. “Coal is flammable, not explosive. Unless you’re talking about coal dust. I could pulverize some coal, but we’d be more likely to blow ourselves up with dust floating in the air.”

“I bet Captain Kaika would be able to find something to blow up in here.”

“How about I blow up your head? Those portholes locked?”

“Yes.” Ridge returned to the coal bin, debating if he could make a portable fire somehow, then take it over to melt the pitch.

The sound of glass shattering made him jump a few feet. He whirled as Therrik smashed a crowbar—or an improvised crowbar—against one of the portholes.

“Huh,” Ridge said. “I always figured it would take a cannonball to break the glass in a porthole.”

“You’ve got me. It’s almost the same thing.” Therrik slammed the end of his bar into the glass, shattering it further. He knocked pieces out of the frame, sending shards tinkling to the deck.

“I suppose those hulking muscles have to be good for something.”

“I can’t decide if your constant contemplation of my muscles means you’re envious of me or attracted to me.” Therrik smashed more glass free and dropped his crowbar.

“Which would you find more alarming?”

“The latter.”

“So alarming that you would avoid me for the rest of your career?” Ridge probably shouldn’t have sounded hopeful as he said that. “Because I might be able to rustle up an attraction if that was the result.”

“I try to avoid you. Trust me.”

Therrik tugged his shirt off, laid it over the frame, and tried to tug himself up and through. His head fit, but his shoulders were too broad, no matter how much he convoluted himself. “Damn it.”

“Let me try. Pilots have to be lean and light, you know.”

“Scrawny is the word the elite troops use for you people.”

Therrik crouched, offering his cupped hands to give Ridge a boost. Only he would think nothing of helping a man and insulting him at the same time.

Ridge holstered his pistol, stepped in his grip, and pulled himself through the porthole. Tiny broken shards of glass still in the frame dug at him through his uniform, but he gritted his teeth. At least Therrik’s shirt kept most of the prongs from stabbing him in the butt when he paused to consider his options. Unfortunately, there was only one option. The railing for the deck was too high to reach, and there was nothing on the hull to climb.

“I hadn’t been planning to take a swim tonight,” Ridge lamented.

Therrik shoved him the rest of the way out.

Ridge tumbled into the icy water with a squawk of alarm.

“Therrik!” he sputtered as soon as his head broke the surface. “You can’t throw generals out the window.”

“Yeah, you can. It’s called defenestration. Now swim around, climb back up here, and let me out.”

Ridge’s next sputter involved a lot more cursing, but he did start swimming, more because he wanted to check on his flier than because he wanted to unlock Therrik. The bowels of an ironclad seemed like an excellent place for him to spend the night.

The current tugged at Ridge, threatening to sweep him out to sea. His uniform and boots weighed him down, making the swim even harder, especially when he paddled around the back end of the ironclad to swim toward the ladder on the far side. He thought he spotted a light upriver, on the side where he’d parked his flier. Was someone snooping around it even now? Whoever had set up this lovely trap?

Ridge was tempted to angle straight toward the bank, thinking he could come back once he had his flier—he could land it right on the deck—but he made himself head for the ladder. He doubted the bullets in his pistol would fire after being doused in the river, so he might need Therrik’s help if he had to beat enemies into submission.

He flew up the rungs, racing across the deck and down to the boiler room. From the outside, the bar blocking the hatch was easy to lift. As soon as he shoved it up, Therrik thrust the door open, almost smashing Ridge against the wall. He wore his shirt again, not noticeably bothered by whatever glass shards stuck out of the fabric. He probably liked a daily dose of discomfort.

“Good work,” Therrik said.

Ridge almost fell over. It wasn’t exactly a thank-you, but it was more than he’d expected to get.

Not sure how to answer it, Ridge only said, “I saw a light up the river.”

“Figures,” Therrik grunted and charged up the stairs.

Instead of angling toward the ladder and the rowboat, he ran straight across the deck, jumped to the railing, and sprang off into the night. He landed halfway to the bank, swimming before he hit the water.

“That man is a loon,” Ridge announced.

Unfortunately, he doubted the rowboat would be any faster, especially not with only him rowing. He ran for the railing and emulated Therrik’s move. He was already wet, so it hardly mattered if he went for another swim.

“Hurry up, Zirkander,” Therrik called back as soon as Ridge splashed down. “I saw the light too.”

Hoping it wasn’t already too late, Ridge swam as fast as he could, driven by the vision of standing in front of General Ort’s desk and scuffing his soggy boots on the carpet as he explained how he’d managed to lose a flier—and one of the valuable power crystals—only twenty-file miles from the city. Ridge was used to being chewed out by superior officers, albeit less so now that he was a general, but not for ineptitude.

Not surprisingly, Therrik reached the bank first, but Ridge was right behind him. When he could touch the bottom, the silt threatened to tug his boots off, but he gritted his teeth and plowed through it.

As Ridge reached solid ground, his breaths coming in exhausted pants, a voice spoke into his mind.

Greetings, mate of my high priestess!

I don’t have time to talk about temples right now, Bhrava Saruth, Ridge thought back.

Therrik had already taken off down the path. Ridge, his sodden uniform and flight jacket seeming to weigh twenty pounds as they clung to him, ran after him.

Did you know that strange men are examining your flying contraption? One is attempting to remove the light fixture.

The power crystal? Damn it. Are you there now? Can you stop them?

Of course I can stop them. I am the god, Bhrava Saruth!

Good. Please do so. Thank you!

Therrik outpaced Ridge, but Ridge knew from the startled exclamation of surprise when Therrik came upon the dragon. He just hoped the flier was still in one piece.

Vibrant yellow light grew visible through the leaves of the cottonwoods. Was all that from the power crystal? Those thieves hadn’t succeeded in yanking it out, had they?

“Zirkander,” came Therrik’s growl. “What is this?”

Panting, Ridge ran out of the trees and onto the bare rocky spot where he’d landed. His flier was still there—thank the seven gods—and Bhrava Saruth’s large scaled form dwarfed it. His wings were outstretched, his sword-like fangs bared, and for a moment, Ridge forgot this was the affable dragon that kept asking him for a temple.

Two men dangled in the air in front of Bhrava Saruth’s reptilian snout, the yellow light showing the terror on their faces. One was blubbering—pleading for his life. The other simply swore and thrashed about in the air, as if he could escape if he could just find the right invisible opponent to punch.

The light was coming from the flier, the power crystal in the cockpit, but it glowed much more strongly than usual.

“Are you doing that, Bhrava Saruth?” Ridge asked as soon as he caught his breath. He waved toward the cockpit. “Or is something wrong?”

He imagined it somehow overloading and exploding.

I have merely amplified its light so these inferior beings can see their folly.

“Were you two dunderheads attempting to steal a military flier?” Therrik demanded, glowering up at the men dangling in midair.

“No,” one blurted. “We were just looking!”

This human lies, Ridgewalker, Bhrava Saruth announced. They are highwaymen who have concocted a most nefarious plan to lure sailing ships and travelers to investigate the derelict vessel they found and tugged into the estuary. When innocent people are examining the ship, these thieves circle back and steal their ships or steam carriages. Or in this case, they planned to take a valuable component in your flying machine.

“Is he reading their minds?” Therrik asked Ridge. “Or was he watching?”

“Reading their minds, I think,” Ridge said, though he could imagine the dragon atop one of the canyon’s arches, snacking on sheep and watching everything play out below.

“I don’t know if I should find that less alarming… or not.”

“I don’t either.” Ridge rubbed his face.

How humbling to think that if not for Bhrava Saruth’s help, he might have lost his flier, or at least the crystal. All because he’d let Therrik get to him. He never should have left the flier. So much for increasing his maturity level.

What shall I do with these humans? Bhrava Saruth asked, causing the men dangling in the air to float out over the river. Since they attempted to steal from my high priestess’s mate, they are not worthy to worship me.

“Few are,” Ridge said.

True, but a god does not demand perfection. I would accept wayward thieves as worshippers if they had brought me the appropriate offerings.

“I can bring offerings,” one man blurted.

And hadn’t plotted against my high priestess’s mate.

The man’s shoulders slumped, inasmuch as they could while he hung ten feet in the air. His buddy looked over at Ridge and Therrik, as if to ask which one of them held the lofty designation of high priestess’s mate. Therrik promptly pointed at Ridge.

“Can you help us get them to Portsnell, Bhrava Saruth?” Ridge asked. “I have a feeling they may be part of a larger operation and also that they’re known criminals that the police would like to get their hands on. Masterminds, no doubt.”

Or so he would like to hope. Because it would be embarrassing if he and Therrik, military officers with more than forty years of experience between them, had been outsmarted by bumbling, neophyte thieves.

Ridge expected Therrik to grunt or snort and point out that the men didn’t look like masterminds. But he only crossed his arms over his chest and glared. Maybe he also hoped they had been outsmarted by criminal geniuses.

I can transport them, Bhrava Saruth said, while we discuss how you will approach the king to ask for money for the construction of my temple.

“I guess I can’t object to that,” Ridge said.

I do look forward to having a meeting place where my worshippers can find me again.

“You ready to go, Therrik?”

“More than ready.”

 

* * *

 

WANTED: HIGHWAY ROBBERS

Ridge considered the sign by the light of a lamppost while adjusting his damp clothes, trying to make them less uncomfortable. The wanted posters were nailed to a bulletin board on the way in to town, alongside a map and interesting historical facts about Portsnell. The faces drawn in black ink on the posters looked very familiar.

“I do believe that’s you,” Ridge said to the man Therrik gripped.

Ridge was leading the other man on a rope that Bhrava Saruth had magically woven from the tall roadside grass. Ridge had landed his flier half a mile outside the town walls, promising the dragon they could manage the prisoners that had been riding on his back, magically forced to stay there without falling—or leaping—the rest of the way without assistance. Ridge hadn’t wanted Bhrava Saruth to fly close enough to be noticed by Portsnell’s inhabitants. People living in the capital had grown somewhat accustomed to seeing a gold dragon soaring overhead, but he had no idea what the locals here would think of it.

“Prove it,” the man said.

“I don’t have to. We’ll drop you off at the police office, which, if memory serves, is located right over there. They can prove it.”

The man’s mouth opened again, but Therrik shoved him, almost hard enough to knock him to his knees, and whatever insolence had been about to come out remained inside.

He and Ridge marched their prisoners to the police office, where a surprised young man on the night shift checked in the highway robbers and locked them in a cell for his superiors to question the next day.

“There’s a five hundred nucro reward for those two, General Zirkander,” the young officer informed them, recognizing Ridge without glancing at his nametag.

“That’s not necessary,” Therrik blurted before Ridge could open his mouth.

Ridge had intended to say something similar, however.

The officer looked at him curiously. “General?”

“There’s a regulation specifically forbidding military officers from being compensated for doing their duty,” Ridge said, patting the man on the shoulder. “If it’ll save you some paperwork, you needn’t even mention that we were the ones to bring in the thieves.”

“Got that right,” Therrik muttered and strode for the door, clearly not interested in receiving credit for their admittedly bumbling detainment of the criminals.

“If you say so, sirs.” The officer scratched his head, but turned the gesture into an upraised hand. “Wait, let me at least reward you with something I can’t enjoy while on duty.”

Ridge arched his eyebrows.

The officer drew a stoneware bottle out from under the counter. “It’s vodka infused with peaches. The captain’s brother runs the local distillery, so we get free spirits for our after-hours office parties. We had a get-together earlier this evening.”

Ridge accepted the bottle, swishing the liquid around. It was only about a fourth full, so he decided he could accept it as a gesture from one king’s officer to another without feeling it was compensation. “Thank you.”

“Least I could do for the man who keeps dragons, airship pirates, and Cofah invaders out of the sky.”

Ridge glanced toward the door, certain Therrik would have a snide comment if he heard him getting praised, but he’d disappeared outside. Good. Ridge offered the officer a lazy salute and strolled out after him.

Therrik waited on the stoop. “You convince him not to record anything?”

“I believe so.”

“Good. I’d rather there not be any record of our misadventure.” Therrik closed the door firmly behind them. “Or the fact that we would have been walking back if your guard dragon hadn’t been keeping an eye on the flier. I suppose you’ll have to file a report, especially since you called back to the fort.” From his tone, it was clear Therrik didn’t want Ridge to file that report.

Ridge snorted, amused by his discomfort. Oh, he thought their detour was embarrassing, too, but he wasn’t an elite troops soldier, so he didn’t have to worry about living up to a reputation as a deadly killer who wasn’t to be crossed. Not unless he was in the air.

“I’ll need to file a report, yes,” Ridge said, “but I don’t think there’s a need to mention anything other than that we found a derelict ship and apprehended a couple of thieves.”

“You don’t need to explain that your dragon helped?”

“There’s not a field on the form for dragons.”

Therrik stared at him. Ridge didn’t truly think he would object—not when he was the one who wanted to save face. But he didn’t expect what came next. Therrik threw back his head and laughed.

Ridge stepped away, more alarmed by the gesture than pleased by it. He’d never heard Therrik laugh, and he feared it was a sign of imminent insanity.

“Not a field for dragons,” Therrik said, when he stopped laughing. “Some clerk was shortsighted  in assembling those papers.”

“I’m fairly certain Form DDIA-1079 came from a different time.” Ridge doubted the report templates had been changed in a hundred years. Maybe longer. “A less dragon-filled time.”

“The good old days.”

“If not for a dragon, my flier would have been stolen, and we’d be walking back to the capital right now.”

“Don’t remind me.” Therrik pointed to the bottle. “What’s that?”

“Peach vodka, I’m told.”

“Peach? Who would put fruit in a vodka? That’s sissy.”

“Someone who owns a distillery and likes to play around.” Ridge unstoppered the bottle and sniffed. The aroma wasn’t strong, but he found it pleasant. Curious, he took a sip. “It’s actually good.”

“Sissy.”

Ridge didn’t ask for clarification about whether that referred to the drink or to him. He didn’t want to know. “Does that mean I can have it all?”

“Seven gods, no. You’re flying me back tonight. It’s bad enough riding with you when you’re sober.” Therrik snatched the bottle from him.

Ridge snorted. He hadn’t planned to pour it all down his gullet before climbing back into his flier.

Therrik sniffed it dubiously, then took a swig.

“Not bad, right?”

“It’s horrible.” Therrik took another swig.

“Obviously.”

“It’s still mostly alcohol. It’ll take the edge off.”

“The edge off spending the evening with me?”

“That too.” Therrik waved toward the street. “Which way to Dotty’s house?”

“Follow me.” As Ridge led the way, he realized Therrik must have been referring to meeting Lilah’s mother. Was he actually nervous about that? Worried he wouldn’t make a good impression?

Therrik grumbled something to himself, squeezed water out of the hem of his uniform jacket, and drank from the bottle again.

Ridge trusted he would only “take the edge off” and not drink enough to arrive on his Aunt Dotty’s doorstep smashed.

He wondered if Dotty would even be awake when they arrived. When they turned down a new street and walked under a clocktower, he was surprised that it hadn’t yet chimed eight. He could hardly believe their misadventure had only put them a little over an hour behind schedule.

“To answer your earlier question,” Therrik said as they walked along, wet and chafing, “I am not an ass to Lilah.”

Ridge glanced at Therrik, startled by the statement. Had he been thinking about that all night? Wanting to make sure to clear up any doubt? If so, Ridge was surprised Therrik cared enough about what he thought to bother. Maybe the alcohol was affecting him.

“Glad to hear it,” Ridge said.

Therrik sipped from the bottle—he’d shifted from swigs to sips, perhaps also wanting to ensure he didn’t arrive smashed.

“She makes me want to be a better man,” he said quietly.

“Is it working?” Ridge asked.

As soon as the words came out, he realized Therrik would consider them flippant. Why couldn’t he ever keep himself from goading the man?

Fortunately, the alcohol seemed to be mellowing Therrik, and he didn’t respond with his typical glare. If Ridge had known vodka had that effect on him, he would have tried to get the colonel drunk every time they’d met.

“I didn’t kill anybody tonight,” Therrik said.

“Clear progress.”

Therrik’s grunt sounded agreeable.

They walked in silence through the residential neighborhood, and Ridge wondered if he should change his mind about Therrik’s relationship with Lilah. At the least, he probably shouldn’t try to stand in the way of it.

As they turned down the tree-lined street that Dotty lived on, Ridge dug into his pocket. Glad taffy was largely waterproof, he held the bag out toward Therrik.

“What’s that?”

“Candy. I doubt offering Aunt Dotty alcohol will do anything to warm her up to you, but she adores taffy.”

“You’re saying I need to ply her with gifts to make her like me?”

“Hells, Therrik, you need to ply everyone with gifts if you want them to like you. You’ve got the charm of a scouring pad.”

Therrik’s eyes narrowed, but he took the bag of taffy and stuck it in his pocket. “You know people only like you because you twirl at dragons, right?”

“Because I twirl and shoot them.”

“Damn coddled pilots,” Therrik grumbled.

~

 

Hey, thanks for reading! If you want to get my next novel before it’s published in the bookstores, consider signing up for my brand new Patreon page. If you prefer getting my novels at stores, there’s also a $1 option that will help cover the editing costs for free short stories like this one. Eventually, I’ll bundle these bonus extras into ebooks that will need cover art, as well.

Not for you? No worries. Thanks again for reading!

 

What’s Coming Next and Where I’ve Been

| Posted in News |

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A reader emailed me and asked me if I was dead. I guess that’s a sign that it’s time to update the blog?

I make fairly regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, but the blog has sadly been neglected. The last six books I published were under my pen name (science fiction romances starting with Orion), and I don’t usually announce those releases here.

There were only supposed to be three novels in the pen name series, a tidy trilogy, but as typically happens to me, the original idea expanded, and now it’s been seven months since I’ve published anything as myself. (I know, in traditional publishing, a book a year is standard, but not here, where I like to make a living from my writing.)

The good news is that I’m back. And for those who have been missing my fantasy, I’ve got some more coming.

I’ve written the first three books in what was supposed to be a trilogy (see a theme here?) set in my Dragon Blood world. It’s a spinoff, called Heritage of Power, and focuses on some new characters, but Ridge and Sardelle have small roles, and Jaxi, Captain Kaika, and Blazer from the original series are also along for the ride. And Duck. Let us not forget the noble pilot Duck. In Book 3, he finds a way to crash his flier into the only watering hole in a desert.

I’ve also been sketching ideas for a wedding book focusing on the original Dragon Blood characters. I listened to the audiobooks that Podium Publishing put out of the original series earlier this fall, and that’s what inspired me and got me excited to return to that world.

As for existing series, I do want to make some progress on them in 2018. I finally got cover art for Chains of Honor 3, and that’s going to be the next of the older series to get a new installment. Maybe two, as I believe that one will be complete with four books.

I eventually want to do a couple more books in the Sky Full of Stars series too. That might be later in 2018, as I have tentative plans for something new next summer. I’m not sure yet whether it will be scifi or fantasy, as I have ideas in both genres calling to me.

Finally, for those kind souls who have asked for more Rust & Relics books, I haven’t forgotten about the series, and I plan to write a couple more novels to satisfactorily wrap things up, but those books never sold well for me and weren’t particularly well-received by fans of my other series. (Sky Full of Stars is in the same boat, to be honest.)

I absolutely don’t want to leave things hanging indefinitely, but I basically need something else to currently be selling well to take time to work on new installments in a series that doesn’t sell well.

I’m crossing my fingers that the new Dragon Blood books will do well, especially since what was supposed to just be a trilogy has expanded once again. Many thanks to all of you who have read them (and all the other books too). Your support has been awesome and amazing!

 

 

My New Series Launches with The Rogue Prince (Preview Chapters Here!)

| Posted in Ebook News |

12

If you enjoyed my Fallen Empire stories (check out a sample of the first book here, if you’ve never tried them), I hope you’ll be excited about my new series. A Sky Full of Stars takes place ten years after the events in Fallen Empire, with the next generation (Jelena, Thor, and Erick Ostberg) coming to the forefront for adventures of their own.

You can grab the first two books now at Amazon or read on for a sample of the first couple of chapters:

Book 1: The Rogue Prince — Amazon US | Amazon CA | Amazon UK | Amazon AUS

Book 2: Angle of Truth — Amazon US | Amazon CA | Amazon UK | Amazon AUS

The Rogue Prince: Chapter 1

A bleep came from the sensor panel, and Jelena Marchenko slid her sparkly purple stallion mug to the side. A holodisplay popped into the air, showing energy and life signatures in the target installation, and nerves fluttered in her stomach. Their destination wasn’t visible on the Snapper’s cameras yet, but it would be soon. They would land in one of the craters or canyons on the dark, pockmarked side of Alpha 17 Moon, and they would begin their infiltration.

“We there yet?” Erick Ostberg asked, shambling into Navigation and Communications in his socks and rumpled pajamas, his short blond hair sticking out in so many directions it looked like he had slept in a wind tunnel. He yawned, showing off all his teeth. Anyone who thought Starseers were mysterious and powerful warriors had never seen Erick in his asteroids-and-spaceships pajamas.

“We’ve arrived at our first destination,” Jelena said. “You might want to get dressed.”

“Right,” Erick mumbled, yawning again as he started to turn around. The sensor display caught his eye, though, and he paused, frowning. “That doesn’t look like the sprawling industrial city of Gizmoshi.”

“It’s not.”

Jelena took a deep breath, bracing herself to explain this side mission she had planned. At twenty-four, Erick was almost six years older than she, and even though she was the acting captain of their freighter, he had seniority in her family’s business, and as the engineer, he could find a way to stop this “mission” before it ever started. She had to be persuasive here. Even though she’d often talked Erick into adventures when they’d been kids on her parents’ freighter, ever since he returned from college, he’d been less likely to go along with her whims.

His brow furrowed. “Wait, did you say first destination?”

“That’s right.” Jelena glanced at the big view screen that stretched across the front of NavCom, making sure there weren’t any terrain features coming up that she would need to pilot them around. Alas, the bluish gray surface of the moon remained relatively flat, aside from all the craters left by asteroids, so there was no excuse not to look Erick in the eye . . . “I’ve decided that we’ll stop before reaching Gizmoshi. For another pickup.”

She’d wanted to drop off their cargo before this side trip, but it was the middle of the night for the city’s inhabitants, and nobody at the warehouse had answered the comm when she tried. And she dared not delay any longer than necessary, not when her parents and their freighter were only two moons away.

You’ve decided?” Erick was frowning at the facility on the sensor display now, appearing much more awake. “Do your mom and Leonidas know about this decision?”

“Not yet.”

“Uh huh, and what cargo are we picking up?”

He eyed her suspiciously, his face crinkling the way it did when he was concentrating on using his mental powers, his telepathy most likely. Jelena could feel the pricking at her mind as he tried to read her thoughts, but she had also been training as a Starseer for the last ten years, and even if her specialties were communicating with and healing animals, she could keep people from poking around in her head.

“Animals,” she said.

Erick groaned and rolled his eyes, his usual reaction to her obsessions. “Animals you can pet and fondle before we drop them off? Where are they going? Gizmoshi?”

“I’m not sure yet, but somewhere farther away would be safer, I’m sure. In case their disreputable owners come after them.”

“Jelena, you’re not making any sense. Unpack your brain.”

Right. She was going to have to tell him everything if she wanted his help. Even though she was willing to do this alone, it would be easier with a partner-in-crime. No, not crime. She refused to think of this as anything other than noble and righteous.

“Through various sys-net groups I monitor,” she said, “I’ve become aware that Stellacor, Inc. is keeping all manner of lab animals caged up in their Alpha 17 facility. As if experimenting on them isn’t bad enough, the conditions are horrible. They violate the Tri-Sun Alliance regulations for using animals for science.” Her lips thinned in her usual irritation that the Alliance allowed experiments at all, but at least there were laws about humane treatment.

“The dark side of Alpha 17 isn’t in the Alliance, and the Gizmoshi side is only nominally so,” Erick said. “Most of Aldrin’s moons are a wild free-for-all.” He waved toward the rear of the ship, probably to indicate the green gas giant behind them.

“That’s not an excuse for people doing despicable things.”

“Half of the system is doing despicable things. It’s the half that’s resisting being swept up into Alliance control. They like that the regular laws aren’t enforced out here. They’d rather make their own regulations.”

“They can regulate however they like, so long as they’re not being cruel to animals.” Seeing his mulish expression, Jelena kept herself from launching into one of her rants. Erick was fond of animals, but not to the extent that she was, and lecturing him had never been the way to get his help. “I could use your engineering brain for this,” she said, waving to the co-pilot’s seat. “I’m sure the facility will have a security system of some sort, even though I can’t imagine that many people come way out here to bother them.”

According to the public record, the Stellacor corporation owned hundreds of square miles of the undeveloped side of Alpha 17, and aside from their laboratory complex, there weren’t any cities or even structures for as far as the eye—or the ship’s cameras—could see.

“You want me to help you commit a crime?” Erick asked.

“If the Alliance laws don’t extend out here, then it can’t be a crime.” She smiled sweetly.

“I’m sure the locals have some kind of law,” he muttered, the words turning to a groan at the end. “I just realized what all that pet food stacked in one of the cargo hold cabinets is for. I figured your parents had gotten it because they’d lined up some kind of legitimate animal transportation gig for our next trip.”

“No, I bought the feed with my allowance money. You can’t rescue animals and then not have munchies for them.”

Erick groaned again. “Your satellite slipped its orbit, Jelena.”

Despite his words, he slid into the seat beside her. Jelena started to feel triumphant—he was going to help her!—but he reached for the communications controls.

“What are you doing?” She grabbed his wrist before he could hit a button.

“Comming your parents.”

“Because you miss them and want to make sure nothing is going wrong in the Star Nomad’s engineering room while you’re gone?”

Erick gave her a flat look. “Because I’m sure you don’t have permission to do this, and I’m even more sure that they wouldn’t approve.”

“That’s part of being eighteen. If I did things my parents approved of, it would be weirder than the suns orbiting their planets.”

“You just talked them into getting a second ship to expand the family business and letting you run freight missions. Why do you want to jeopardize that? They’re going to know you’re not as mature and reliable as they thought.” Erick twisted his wrist and tried to pull it from her grip, but she squeezed harder.

He was taller and stronger than she, but she usually won when they sparred in the Nomad’s gym. Erick had always been more interested in refining his mental talents—not to mention tinkering with machines and working with her grandfather to create Starseer tools—than in learning to fight, whereas her stepfather, former Cyborg Corps commander Leonidas Adler, hadn’t given her the option of bowing out of training sessions. He’d been determined that she be capable of taking care of herself, and her mother had agreed, often joining in on the family sparring sessions.

“I can push that button with my mind, you know,” Erick said, and did so. The holodisplay flashed to life next to the sensor display. He blinked, and the contact information for the Star Nomad popped up.

Erick,” Jelena growled, tightening her grip. When she’d been imagining the trouble she might face this night, it had involved dealing with the facility’s security, not with angry parents. That part, she’d assumed, would come later. If at all. They need not find out, if Erick didn’t tell them.

“This is for your own good,” he said. “I’m not going to let you sabotage yourself. You’ve been asking for a ship and to be allowed to do runs for two years. You wanted a chance to prove yourself capable of helping out with the family business. This is your chance. It’s ridiculous to seek out trouble the first opportunity you get.”

Jelena had told her parents she wanted to help with the business, and that wasn’t untrue, but even more, she wanted the freedom to be her own person and to do more than just run freight. She wanted to use her gifts to help those in need. And maybe, just maybe, she would be recognized for helping those in need and that would earn her a place in the Starseer community, a community that had ostracized her family because Grandpa’s brother had tried to take over the entire system ten years ago.

That wasn’t Grandpa’s fault, and it certainly wasn’t her fault. She wanted to be invited to get to know those with gene mutations such as she had, mutations that allowed humans to develop mental powers far beyond the norm. Mutations that made her different. She was glad she had Grandpa and Erick to talk to, but she longed to find others who understood what it was like to be a Starseer.

She released Erick’s wrist, and he faced the comm display, maybe thinking she had given up. She tapped a control and brought up another display, this one connected to the sys-net group she’d mentioned. An image of a dirty, bleeding dog with all its ribs showing popped up, the animal stuffed into a cage too small for turning around or standing up fully. It was one cage among many in rows and stacks, each with an abused animal inside. There were pigs and monkeys and cats, as well as dogs. Seeing the pictures again made tears come to her eyes, and she wanted to hide them away, but Erick needed to see them.

“A guard who used to work there posted these,” Jelena said. “He said it’d gotten really bad lately, since something big shook up the company a month ago, and that the animals are being almost completely neglected now. He wished he’d had the courage to do something before he quit.”

“Jelena,” Erick said with a pained sigh. This time, it didn’t sound like it was a sigh at her antics, but one of defeat. He cared about animals too. She knew it. He’d been the chicken wrangler on the Nomad for years.

He twitched a finger, and the comm display winked out.

She didn’t smile or clench a fist in triumph, not this time. Seeing the animals had stolen her capacity for buoyant feelings, at least for now. All she could feel was determination.

“You’ll help me?” she asked.

“In and out, no delays,” Erick said.

“That’s exactly what I have in mind. I want to be gone before they even know we’re there or who we are. Then we fly straight to Gizmoshi and deliver our cargo. We’ll be there by the time Xing’s warehouse opens in the morning, and then we’ll rendezvous with Mom and Dad after that. They don’t even need to know we took a side trip.”

Erick snorted. “Is being delusional part of being eighteen too?”

“If it is, it’s a good thing I have a college-educated, twenty-four-year-old along who is wise to the ways of the universe. And who can crack security systems and thwart any mechanical obstacle out there with a mere wave of his hand.”

“All right, all right, enough flattery. If you really want to show your appreciation, get me a pack of Striker Odyssey cards.”

Jelena thumped him on the shoulder. “Deal.”

***

Jelena rode her thrust bike through the wide airlock hatchway and onto the ledge where she had landed the Snapper. It was halfway down a cliff in a deep canyon that cut through the moon three miles from the facility. She didn’t know if approaching through the canyon and landing inside of it had kept her ship off the radar, but she hoped it had. If nothing else, it was the middle of the night local time, so maybe everybody inside would be sleeping.

Jelena shifted on her seat to make sure she had everything while she waited for the airlock to cycle again and for Erick to come out. He was bringing a stack of hoverboards and several inflatable escape pods that could house the animals on what she hoped would be a quick, short trip back to the ship.

“Staff? Check.”

She patted the holder built into the back of her thrust bike, making sure her Starseer staff was securely attached. Part tool and part weapon, the staff looked and felt like wood, but the enhanced material could deflect everything from chainsaws to lasers and blazer bolts. It always felt slightly warm in her hand, almost humming with its embedded energy, and it was tuned to her so that when she gripped it, the Kirian runes engraved in the side glowed a soft silver, the power syncing with her brain waves and helping enhance her focus.

“Spacesuit with twelve hours of oxygen in the tank?” She patted the tank on her back and the helmet fasteners, though the suit would have already alerted her if anything was amiss. “Check. Water and meat-flavored ration bars for the animals?” She patted the satchel magnetically sealed to her suit. She had pet treats in with the feed, but these were easier to carry and packed a lot of calories in small bites. “Check. Explosives . . .”

She didn’t open the satchel to check, but she could feel their outline. She’d taken them from Leonidas’s small armory on the Nomad, though she wasn’t sure yet if she would use them. Liberating animals she could justify as something noble. Willfully destroying private property . . . That would be taking this to another level. But didn’t she have to strike some blow against Stellacor? If she blew up the area where they’d been keeping the animals and left a message—a warning—that there would be repercussions if they did it again, wouldn’t that be more effective than simply taking the creatures? Maybe it would keep them from getting another batch of animals to torment.

Explosives?” came Erick’s voice over the comm as the outer hatch opened. He flew out on his bike, the faceplate of his helmet turned toward her, a couple of built-in lights driving back the shadows on the ledge. “You’re bringing bombs?”

“Just little ones. For blowing little holes in walls. I’ve got fence cutters too. Just in case we need help getting into—or out of—the facility.”

He joined her, his bike floating a couple of feet off the ground, the hoverboards and pods also floating behind him, bobbing slightly as he stopped. “Help getting out of the facility, because the owners are chasing us all the way back to the ship?”

“You like being chased. You love a good race.”

“A race over a course against other thrust bikers. Not across a moon with angry people shooting at us and with three clunky escape pods trailing behind.” He jerked a gloved thumb over his shoulder. “Do you think we’ll need that many? Twenty people are supposed to be able to float around in space for days in one of these.”

“There are almost two hundred animals caged there, according to the guard’s report.”

“Two hundred?” Erick blinked and looked back toward the cargo hold, though the hatch had now shut, and they couldn’t see it. Jelena knew the contents well and that stacks and stacks of gray shipping containers rose to the high, arched ceiling, taking up two-thirds of the space. “Do you think there’s room for that many?”

It would be tight, which was why Jelena had wanted to drop off their legitimate cargo first, but she shrugged, smiled, and said, “I figured they could have your cabin.”

“Funny.”

“We’ll work something out.”

“Jelena . . . how closely did you look at the blueprints you gave me?”

“I looked at them.” That’s when she had decided she could use Erick’s help.

“This isn’t exactly a low-tech facility.” He unzipped a pocket, pulled out his netdisc, and brought up a holodisplay showing the blueprints. “I think there may be a forcefield in addition to the wall around the compound.” He waved a finger through the display to point at things, highlighting them in blue as he did so. “Did you see this? And this, this, and this? Also, our sensors picked up drones flying around over everything.” Two dozen more highlights appeared, little dots moving above the facility.

“What’s your point?” Jelena asked, though she suspected she knew. Any thoughts she’d had of simply riding up and snipping some barbed wire to get in were being quashed.

“This place is secure. Very secure.”

“That’s why I invited you to come along.”

“Invited, right. I believe the word is manipulated.”

“I’m glad they had vocabulary classes at that fancy university you attended. Look, you’ve disabled ships’ shields from a distance before. What’s a little forcefield? Can’t you break their generator?”

Erick shifted on his bike, looking up and down the canyon and back at the Snapper, its bulky, green turtle-shaped outline almost invisible against the backdrop of the dark cliff behind it. Nobody would call the craft sleek, and it wouldn’t win any races, but she loved that it, if one used one’s imagination, looked like an animal. Erick had pointed out numerous other freighters in the price range her parents had been looking at, but after they’d helped the previous owner out of a jam, and the Snapper had become available, Jelena had fought hard for it. The ship had soul.

“Did you look up what the company does?” Erick asked quietly, apparently not thinking of the Snapper.

“Of course I did. They grow human organs from stem cells and sell them to medical facilities for transplants. There’s absolutely no reason they need to experiment on animals for that.”

“You’re not a scientist. You don’t know that. They could be working on some other things, too, other things to help people.”

“You’re not backing out on me, are you?”

He sighed. “No. If those pictures were true, then I don’t disagree with you on this, but if the company is doing something good for sick people, well, just don’t forget that, huh? Maybe their methods could be better, but if the ultimate outcome saves lives . . .”

“I’m sure they make a lot of money selling those organs, I doubt anyone here is altruistic. If they were good people, they wouldn’t treat the animals that way. And from what the guard said, they don’t treat their human workers that well either.”

He shook his head slowly, his expression bleak behind his faceplate.

Jelena tried not to feel affronted by his doubt, but she knew he wouldn’t be questioning her mother or Leonidas if they’d decided on this mission. More likely, he’d be asking if he could help blow things up. For someone who liked to create and fix things, his green eyes gleamed like wet emeralds in the sun when he got a chance to fire weapons or light explosives.

Trying to sound encouraging, she leaned over and gripped his shoulder. “Come on, Erick. We can do this. We’re Starseers. Practically superheroes.”

“Superheroes? Do you still wear that underwear with the ponies on it?”

“That’s none of your business. And they’re unicorns.”

He snorted.

“That reminds me,” she said, waving toward his torso, “are you wearing your pajamas under your spacesuit or did you change into something a little fiercer?” She imagined their foes throwing back their heads and laughing if they were caught and stripped of their suits for an interrogation.

“Fiercer? Like what? Should I have added a cape? And a sword?”

“A sword? Who carries around swords anymore?” She waved at his staff, similar to hers, in its holder behind him. “That’s the appropriate weapon for a Starseer.”

“Glad to hear it.”

She noticed he hadn’t denied having the pajamas on underneath his suit. Ah, well. They would just have to avoid being caught and interrogated.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes.” He patted a toolbox he’d attached to his bike.

“Good.” She started to urge her bike into movement, but paused. “Thanks for coming with me, Erick.”

He truly had no reason to go along with her whims, other than the fact that he worked for her parents. Since her mom was the captain of the Star Nomad and co-owner of the business, Erick was used to obeying her orders, but it wasn’t as if that power transferred down to Jelena. He’d been like a big brother to her ever since he’d first come aboard the ship to train with Grandpa, tolerating games far too young for him because she’d been the closest person to his age aboard, even if he would have preferred spending time with Uncle Tommy or Abelardus, the Starseer who’d lived with them for a time. But those two had moved on eventually, and Jelena and Erick had become closer after that.

She liked having a big brother, especially since he still played games and had a goofy streak, though she sometimes wondered what it would have been like if Thorian—once Prince Thorian—had stayed aboard the ship too. Only two years apart in age, they had become playmates and best friends after her biological father had died and during the time she had been separated from her mother. Unfortunately, after Grandpa’s crazy brother had been defeated, Thor had gone off with Dr. Dominguez and those secretive Starseers who wanted to use him to bring the empire back. In the beginning, her family had visited, and she’d kept in touch with Thor, but she hadn’t heard from him in the last four years, and she had no idea what he was doing these days.

“You’re welcome,” Erick said. “Don’t get us killed.”

“I didn’t get us killed during any of our years of childhood adventures, did I?”

“No, but I have scars.”

“Most people can’t get a scar from a pillow.”

“A pillow thrown by an android might as well be a rock.”

“Moonpuff.”

She grinned at him and drove her thrust bike toward the edge, tilting it upward as she flew off. The thruster power increased, the seat thrumming beneath her, and the nose rose toward the starry sky and the top of the canyon.

Erick zoomed past her, zigzagging like a drunk in a race.

“You think I’m going to be the one to get us killed?” she asked, worried he would lose the hoverboards and their loads. She imagined the inflatable pods pitching over the side and crashing to the canyon floor. Though it would be a slow crash, since the moon claimed only twenty percent of standard gravity.

“Just testing to make sure everything is attached securely.” He waved back at her and continued weaving and zigzagging until he reached the top of the canyon. All that being mature and adult when commenting on her plans must have been wearing at him.

He did wait for her at the top, and they flew across the pockmarked moon side by side. From above, the craters hadn’t appeared so large, but now as they rode around and over them, they made the bikes seem small, their riders miniscule.

Jelena tried not to feel insignificant underneath the millions of stars glittering in the black sky all around them. She also tried not to think about the lack of air outside, even though the text and graphs that ran down the sides of her helmet’s liquid Glastica display reminded her of it. Unlike with combat armor, these suits couldn’t stand up to anything like bullets or blazer fire. If they were punctured, she and Erick would be in trouble. Superheroes, she’d jokingly called them. Yes, they had some mental powers that most people didn’t, but they were just as vulnerable to death as any human being.

“We’re probably visible to their sensors,” Erick said as they flew closer, the black wall around the compound coming into view.

“Can you break them?”

He’d broken enemy ships’ systems from a distance before, often to help the Nomad escape pirates or competitors who weren’t above ruthless tactics. Running freight between planets and moons that were solidly under Alliance control was usually a safe proposition, but once one flew farther from the core worlds, the system grew much dicier. The pay for running freight out there could be impressive, too, and Mom and Leonidas weren’t too conservative to be tempted from time to time. After all, Grandpa was a powerful Starseer who could often convince enemies to leave them alone. And if that didn’t work, Leonidas would happily engage in combat with anyone who tried to board the Nomad. He might be fifty now, but he still had all his cyborg implants, and he could put fists through walls—or skulls.

“If I had a lot more time to study the facility, I probably could,” Erick said, his helmet swiveling toward her.

From her angle, Jelena couldn’t see his eyes through the faceplate, but she could imagine the reproof in his gaze. She should have given him the blueprint and told him about everything earlier, but she’d been worried that, with more time to think about it, he would grow certain that he needed to tell her parents. He’d almost told them, as it was.

“Maybe they’ll think we’re tourists.”

“Tourists cruising across their private property.”

“I didn’t say we were conscientious tourists. Let’s keep going and be prepared to improvise. If we have to, we can abort.” Temporarily, Jelena added silently. If they found out they were outmatched, she would take what they learned and come up with a more sophisticated plan. She admitted being a little daunted by all of the security measures Erick had found. She hadn’t expected a laboratory to be equipped like some medieval Earth fortress poised on a contested border.

“All right,” Erick said. “Your animals are being kept near the outside of the compound, aren’t they?”

Jelena nodded. “In a warehouse on the southwest corner.” She didn’t add, according to my source. She didn’t want to give Erick another reason to worry, but all of the information they had could be false. The Stellacor people could have even planted it, though she couldn’t imagine why they would want to lure animal crusaders down to their facility.

The walls seemed to loom taller and taller as they sailed closer on their bikes. Jelena wished there were some mountains or boulders to hide their approach. Even though the moon was dark, with the only lights clustered around the facility, she felt vulnerable and exposed. And—she frowned as something twanged at her senses—she felt something ahead of them.

“I thought so.” Erick slowed down his bike. “Forcefield.”

Jelena couldn’t see anything, but she could feel it. An invisible dome covering the compound.

Erick would have to handle it. She had no way of lowering a forcefield unless she knew where the button was and could find some animal inside that she could telepathically convince to push it. Technically, she could speak telepathically with people, too, but she found touching the minds of strangers extremely uncomfortable and usually reserved that intimacy for close friends and family. Besides, Grandpa had always emphasized that using one’s talents to manipulate people was ethically questionable, unless it was clear those people were enemies and dangerous.

Erick lowered his bike to the ground and planted his boots on either side of it. His helmet drooped toward his chest. “I’ll try to trace the power to its source and see if I can figure out where the on/off switch is.”

“Good. Thanks.” Jelena wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to do that.

She shifted in her seat while she waited, feeling useless. And even more vulnerable than before. Now that they were closer, she could sense with her mind the drones. They were zipping about on patrol routes, cameras recording footage around the compound. What would she do if guards were sent out to tell them to leave? Or to force them to leave?

She looked toward the southwest corner of the compound. From her position, she couldn’t see anything except the wall, but she concentrated on sensing life on the other side. She struggled to see inanimate objects with her mind, but she had no trouble detecting the bodies of living, breathing creatures, human and otherwise. They were close enough now that she could brush against the awareness of many animals, and she lifted her head like a hound catching the scent. She’d found the warehouse. The information hadn’t been false.

“They’re there,” she whispered, looking toward Erick.

“Who? Guards?”

“The animals. They’re where they’re supposed to be.” Jelena could tell that most of them were sleeping, but a few were awake, and she sensed their discomfort and how some of them were in pain. She blinked before tears could form—she wouldn’t be able to wipe them while she wore the helmet.

“Ah.” He sounded distracted. He was probably still tracing the forcefield to its source.

“All we have to do is get through the forcefield, over the wall, and break into that building.”

All.”

Jelena concentrated on that area again, trying to sense if there were any human guards in there with the animals. She brushed the mind of a dog and lingered because it started, sensing her distant touch. She shared soothing feelings with it, even as she grimaced because she could feel its discomfort in its cage.

Her cage, she corrected, getting more of a sense for the dog. Of the sores on her body, the hunger gnawing at her stomach, the bewilderment at being kept in this dark place, the fear of when she was taken out into the light, to other rooms in the facility, to places that would bring more pain—

“Jelena?” Erick touched her arm, and she flinched.

“Yes,” she said.

“Stay with me here. There are people awake in there, and I think someone might have noticed us.”

“It’s dark in the warehouse with the animals. I don’t think anyone is there with them.”

Yellow flashed in front of them, and they both jerked back. For a second, the outline of the forcefield was visible to the eye, the dome covering the entire facility, from the ground to above the two towers near the center of the compound.

“Did you cause that?” Jelena asked when darkness returned.

“No, I hadn’t touched anything yet. There’s not a simple on/off switch. It’s a software program. I could possibly destroy the generator and the forcefield altogether, but I don’t think we want to make enemies here—or alert them to our presence so soon.”

“Are you sure you didn’t trip something?” Jelena eyed the top of the wall facing toward them, imagining a parapet that people could walk along and shoot from.

“Positive. It could have just been—” His helmet tilted.

Not certain why he’d stopped, Jelena opened her mouth to ask, but she realized the sensation she’d felt earlier was gone.

“It’s down,” Erick said, turning his bike’s thrusters on again, the stack of hoverboards flowing after him.

Jelena nudged her bike forward, too, though wariness made her hesitant to roar forward at full speed. “It just went down? You didn’t do that?”

“It wasn’t me. It’s probably for them.” He pointed toward the stars.

It took Jelena a moment to spot lights against the starry sky, a ship approaching. For an alarmed moment, she thought her parents might have found out what she was up to and that the Nomad was coming to get them. But the facility wouldn’t have dropped their forcefield for some strange freighter.

“Late for a delivery or a pickup,” she mused, then gunned her thrusters when she realized Erick was rapidly pulling away from her. She didn’t want to miss her chance to get to the wall before the forcefield was turned back on.

“Maybe their crew didn’t feel like diverting for illicit activity,” Erick said without looking back. He seemed determined to get to the wall before that ship arrived.

“You were more polite and less sarcastic before you went away to school,” Jelena said, alternating between watching the approach of the ship and the terrain as she flew over it. “And I thought we discussed that we couldn’t possibly be doing something illicit in a place where there aren’t any laws.”

“I mostly remember discussing swords and capes. And ponies and unicorns.” He reached the wall and paused, looking up. Considering flying over? That would be simpler than cutting—or blowing—a hole.

“Because I’m a good friend, I’ll do you a favor and not tell any women you date that you can’t keep from thinking about my underwear.”

“Should I ever find someone to date me, I’m sure I’ll be grateful.”

“Didn’t you tell Leonidas you were meeting a girl in Gizmoshi after we dropped off the cargo? You specifically asked if we could spend the night there.”

“I am supposed to meet someone, but it’s not for a date. It’s a couple of crew mates from Striker Odyssey. We’re going to have a beer at a pub, link our netdiscs, and practice some maneuvers so we can kick the Elder Squadron’s butts the next time we’re in the combat arena.”

Jelena digested this as she caught up with him at the base of the wall. “You told my dad you have a date when you’re going to meet a bunch of gamers?”

“I didn’t want him to think I was . . . uhm. Well, you know he’s not impressed by games.”

“He’s not impressed by my horse obsession, either, but he still loves me.”

“You’re his stepdaughter. If he didn’t love you, your mom would kick him in the asteroids.”

“True, but I don’t think you have to lie to him about women.”

“It’s not any worse than lying to him about secret side missions.”

“I haven’t lied about anything.” Jelena pointed to the top of the wall. “Let’s try going over. Maybe their arriving ship will keep them distracted.”

“I wish that were true,” Erick said, looking past her toward the corner of the wall.

Two men with blazer rifles were running toward them, taking huge bounds in the moon’s low gravity. Startled because they weren’t wearing spacesuits, Jelena gaped at them, but then she realized that the bland, emotionless faces belonged to androids. Androids who, judging by the way they slung those rifles toward Jelena and Erick, had orders to kill them.

Chapter 2

Jelena grabbed her staff from its holster as she parked and hopped off her thrust bike. She was tempted to use the vehicle as a shield, but didn’t want it damaged—they had to haul rescued dogs away with that bike, damn it. Besides, she didn’t have a Starseer staff for no reason.

She sprang away from the bike as the androids ran closer, grimacing when, thanks to the low gravity, it turned to far more of a spring than she’d intended. She was still in the air when one pointed his blazer rifle toward her chest.

Shield, she thought, a mental order for the staff. It didn’t need words, but using them helped her with her focus. She needed all the help she could get now, with adrenaline charging through her veins.

The android fired, and a crimson bolt streaked toward her.

“Careful, Jelena,” Erick barked, glancing at her and lifting a hand, as if to help.

As her boots touched down, the bolt bounced off the invisible barrier extending from either side of her staff. It was part mental construct and part a gift from the tool. The android fired again, bolts streaking toward her face. She kept her concentration, trying not to think about anything except keeping her shield up, but a quick thought darted through the back of her mind, that these androids were shooting to kill.

“Watch yourself,” Jelena said as the other android fired at Erick. She didn’t want him getting in trouble because he was worrying about her. “Your crew mates need your help to kick those virtual butts.”

The android shooting at her stopped, his expressionless face not giving any hint about whether he was alarmed that she could deflect his bolts or not. He simply raced toward her, then leaped for her.

Jelena threw herself to the side, rolling as she’d done thousands of times in practice with Leonidas. But this was different. The spacesuit and the light gravity made her awkward, and fear made her hurl herself farther than she intended. The android flew by her, which was good, but she didn’t have a chance to crack him on the back with her staff as she wished. It would take a lot of damage to down an android, and their opponents would never grow weary, not the way she and Erick would.

When Jelena jumped to her feet, the android had already landed, turned, and was leaping for her again. This time, she planted her feet, even though her instincts made her want to keep dodging, to avoid those lightning fast hands and the harm they could do. An android would be even stronger than Leonidas, and she had seen what he could do. She wished he were here now and regretted not trying to elicit her parents’ help in this.

Jelena jammed the butt of her staff into the ground and angled the tip outward. Airborne, the android could not halt its path, but he twisted in the air, trying to avoid striking the tip of her weapon. She shifted it to the side, keeping the butt on the ground to brace against his weight, but making sure it caught him.

A jolt ran up her arm as his side struck the tip of the staff, but silvery energy crackled in the air around the weapon. Her emotions—right now, her fear—powered it as much as her conscious thought. The energy flare was far greater than usual, and branches of lightning streaked out and around the android. Crashing into the staff might not have damaged him, but he stumbled back under this secondary assault. He tilted his head, as if with curiosity.

Jelena took advantage of what seemed like hesitation, or at least a pause for consideration. For the first time, she went on the offensive, gripping the staff in both hands and attacking. The android leaped back, avoiding a combination of swings and jabs. With his superior speed, he might have grabbed it out of the air, but he was eyeing it warily. She hoped the energy had done some damage to his system. Now, if she could just strike him again . . .

The wall rose behind the android, and she kept pressing, trying to back him up. He might have trouble maneuvering if he bumped against it.

But he must have realized the same thing. He raised his rifle, at first looking like he might try to shoot again, but instead, he gripped it in both hands. The next time she jabbed with the tip of her staff, instead of backing away, he stepped in and used the rifle to block her, trying to knock the weapon aside. But the touch once again elicited a surge of energy, the air crackling around the staff and the rifle, lightning branching up the android’s arms. Jelena channeled some of her own mental power into the staff, trying to enhance its effects.

The android stumbled back, dropping the rifle. She lunged after him, jabbing her staff into his chest.

Maybe some circuit of his had shorted out, because he seemed temporarily stunned. She connected solidly. More lightning leaped between them, and he stumbled back again, crashing against the wall, his arms spread.

She pressed the tip of the staff against his chest, again trying to enhance the energy flowing out of it. She wasn’t a toolmaker, the way Erick and her grandpa were, and she didn’t understand how the power worked, but after ten years of training, she had no trouble using it. She imagined the energy shorting out all the android’s circuitry and frying his neural network. She wasn’t rewarded with anything so satisfying as smoke coming out of his ears, but his silvery eyes grew dim, and he stopped moving.

Jelena stepped back, and the android tipped over with the grace of a coat rack toppling. Though she wasn’t positive he was permanently out of commission, she turned to check on Erick.

He stood by the bikes, the butt of his staff resting on the ground beside him as he watched. The torso of the android that had been attacking him lay under his boot. An arm rested a few feet away, cut circuits still sparking. She wasn’t sure where the head had gone. The pieces had been neatly severed, as if by some giant saw blade.

“You did that with your staff?” Jelena asked, wondering if she should feel betrayed that hers hadn’t come with such abilities, at least insofar as she knew.

Erick grinned behind his faceplate and held up a tool the length of his arm. “Plasmite torch. You’re not the only one who brought tools.”

“Showoff.”

“That’s why the ladies flock to me.” Erick jogged over to her android and fired up the tool, the orange blade flaring oddly in the missing atmosphere. He must not have trusted that her damage had permanently destroyed it because he severed the head.

Jelena turned away. Even though androids were machines, their resemblance to people made her uncomfortable. “Do they? I didn’t realize any of the crew mates meeting you at that pub were women.”

“One does have long hair.”

“Well, that’s almost the same thing, isn’t it?”

She looked toward the corner the androids had originally run around. What would she and Erick do if living, breathing guards were sent out? They couldn’t cut up real people.

The ship that had been approaching was no longer in sight. Had it landed? Somewhere inside? She stretched out her senses to check behind the wall. Yes, there it was in a courtyard out front, extending an airlock tube to a building.

“The forcefield is back up,” she noticed.

“I know,” Erick said, his tone turning grim as he strode back to his bike. “Let’s get your animals and hope nobody inside is keeping track of those androids. I’ll work on trying to figure out how to get the forcefield down while we work.”

Jelena slung a leg over her bike, fired up the thrusters again, and flew toward the top of the wall as she checked for life—guards—along it. She couldn’t navigate with her staff in her hands, so she wouldn’t be able to deflect weapons fire while riding, at least not without risking falling off.

There wasn’t anyone striding along the wall, but when she eased her bike above it, she came face-to-face with a giant artillery gun. With her heart trying to lurch into her throat, she steered around it. It was one of dozens of massive weapons along the wall, and her earlier thoughts of ancient fortresses guarding borders came to mind again. Why did a research facility need such defenses?

“I bet they don’t invite kids in on field trips,” Erick muttered, bringing his bike even with hers as he peered up and down the wall and into the compound.

“What?” Jelena asked.

“When I was seven, my school went on a field trip to a hospital. There was a research wing with all these dead fetuses and mutated organs in jars.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“To a seven-year-old, it was magnificent. I got to touch a heart with two extra chambers.”

Jelena had been much more excited about touching horses at seven. That seemed far more normal. Her younger twin sisters had been the same way at that age. For the most part. Nika might not have been that horrified by a grotesque mutated organ.

“There are a couple of people going down that tunnel and into that building to meet the people from the ship,” Erick said quietly, waving toward the front half of the compound. All of the twenty or thirty buildings were connected via hard tunnels or flexible tubing.

“Our warehouse is that way.”

Jelena pointed in the opposite direction, hoping the arrival of the newcomers would distract the guards, and that they would forget that a couple of androids had wandered out to check on something and hadn’t returned. She also hoped nobody was looking up at the walls. All it would take was a glance for someone to notice them, especially with the bulky hoverboards trailing Erick’s bike. But as far as she could tell, nobody was outside the facility.

Erick turned his bike along the wall and headed in the indicated direction. He was careful not to touch anything, and Jelena followed his example. Who knew what alarms might light up if they bumped one of those guns?

They descended into the interior as soon as they could, slipping into an alley between the wall and a building, and Jelena felt slightly more at ease, even though there weren’t nearly as many shadows as she would have preferred. Harsh lights shone down from the walls and every building corner, stealing hiding spots.

A flash came from the front of the compound. It wasn’t the forcefield this time. Maybe something to do with the ship being unloaded? Jelena wondered what kind of cargo was coming in and imagined a fresh delivery of hapless animals, but she supposed the odds leaned toward something more prosaic, like food and water for the researchers. She thought of the explosives in her satchel, and couldn’t help but fantasize about destroying the supplies of the people who let those animals go hungry.

“That’s it, right?” Erick said, stopping at the corner of a building and looking across to another one.

With drab gray walls and no windows, there was nothing to make it stand apart from the rest of the structures they had passed, but Jelena could sense the animals inside. “Yes.”

A tunnel led into the building, but she didn’t see a way in from the outside. Would they have to cut a hole in the wall? If so, all the air would escape, and some alarm would surely go off. Worse, the animals would be in danger. She couldn’t imagine getting the pods inflated and all of them inside before they ran out of air.

“Let’s go around to the back,” Jelena said, nudging her bike into the lead. “See if there’s a door.”

“Wait.” Erick gripped her arm and waved her back against the wall. His helmet tilted upward.

Jelena looked and, out of habit, listened, though she wouldn’t be able to hear anything in the nonexistent atmosphere. One of the drones flew overhead in a lazy circle, and she froze. She hadn’t seen them since they’d approached the wall, so she’d forgotten about them. Had they been put on pause while the ship approached?

It passed out of view without slowing down, continuing on some programmed route.

“Did it see us?” she whispered.

“No way to tell.” Erick released her arm.

Jelena kept an eye toward the sky as she drove out into the open, then along the wall of the animal building. She rounded a corner and her grip tightened on the handlebars when she spotted a back entrance. It looked more like a spaceship hatch than a door, and she hoped that meant there was an airlock that they could get inside without venting the building’s air.

“Cargo door,” Erick said, driving up to a control panel and examining it. He avoided stepping in front of a small hole that might have been a camera.

“Can your smart, computer-loving brain convince that panel to let us in?” Jelena asked.

“If not, my smart plasmite torch can.” He tapped the case where he’d secured the weapon.

“You sound like Leonidas.”

“Really? I’d assumed he would just punch his fist into the panel.”

“He would, but it would be a smart fist.”

Despite his threat to pull out the tool, Erick withdrew his netdisc instead. He brought up the holodisplay, tapped in a couple of commands, and held it up to the panel. “My decryption program is going to have a chat with it.”

“I didn’t know you’d taken hacking courses while you were away at school.” As far as she remembered, Erick had always been more fond of working with physical components rather than dithering with software.

“There were a few extracurricular activities. And I have a sys-net buddy who specializes in this sort of thing.”

A green light came on, and the hatch opened into an airlock chamber. Good. It was large enough to accommodate their thrust bikes. Even better.

As Jelena flew in, she glanced skyward one more time. There weren’t any drones hovering overhead, but she feared this had been too easy, aside from the androids. Could this be a trap? But who could have expected them? As Erick closed the hatch behind them and cycled the lock, she prayed to the three suns that their luck would hold, that drones weren’t delivering footage of their intrusion—or of them beating up the security androids.

It didn’t take any fancy software for Erick to open the interior door. There was indeed atmosphere inside, as the animal sounds that greeted her ears told her. The lights came on automatically, and whimpers, grunts, mews, and hoots followed.

Jelena didn’t even have to reach out with her senses to feel all the life around them as the dogs, pigs, cats, and monkeys awoke. But they awoke in pain and in fear, cringing back as far as they could in their cages. Jelena sent out waves of reassurance and shared images of grasslands and forests, places where they might run free and not need to fear experimentation. She had the sense that not all of them had ever seen grass or trees. Had they been born and bred in some lab? Solely for this fate? Even if that was so, they seemed to understand what she shared, some genetic memory recognizing the idea of freedom.

Despite her resolve not to cry, tears pricked her eyes at the helplessness and hopelessness that they all felt. And not all of them, she realized as she scanned the warehouse, were alive. Some animals had died in their cages and not yet been removed by whatever cold-hearted bastard tended this place, if this could be called tending. She didn’t see water dishes anywhere and sensed the animals’ thirst, as well as their hunger.

“All Earth-descended animals?” Erick asked, glancing at the cages that lined the wide aisle stretching before them as he pulled the inflatable pods off the hoverboards.

“I think so.” Jelena headed to the closest cages, hoping they weren’t bolted down so she could simply move them into the pods without worrying about finding keys for doors until later. “If the experiments are for the benefits of humans—” she sneered as she spoke, finding no justification for the way the animals had been treated, no matter who was to benefit, “—then they’d need to use animals that share a lot of our DNA. The creatures native to the system are weird, the ones that weren’t introduced by us and modified to survive here. Not that the mutants aren’t weird too.”

“Nothing wrong with being a mutant,” Erick said dryly, no doubt thinking of his own genes.

The colonists who had landed on Kir long ago had come from Earth, the same as the rest of the humans settling on the habitable planets and moons in the Tri Suns System, but those who had become the Kirians hadn’t realized from afar how much radiation their planet held. Their colony ships had only been made for the one-way trip, so the residents had been stuck on the planet for generations, until resources were gathered and an infrastructure built that could once again make spaceflight possible. In the meantime, the scientists among the colonists had tinkered with people’s genes, trying to change them so they could better survive on their harsh planet. Many had died. Those who had lived and had offspring had been able to tolerate the radiation, but the genetic tinkering had caused a few side effects.

A sore-covered dog with patchy fur whined hopefully at Jelena. In a surge of anger over the animal’s state, she waved at the cage lock, snapping it off with her mind. Telekinesis wasn’t her specialty, but she could do enough. Especially when properly motivated.

Even when the door swung open, the dog did not come out. She coaxed it with her mind, and finally it—she—limped out, barely able to stand. She pulled her into her arms, careful not to put pressure against her wounds, and soothed the shivering body. She glared down the aisle at other cages, snapping the locks on those too. Her throat tightened at the sight of several of the animals not even moving in response, barely alive.

It looked like the situation had grown even worse since the guard posted those pictures. Surely, Stellacor couldn’t be doing legitimate experiments on the animals when they were in so poor a condition.

“Uh,” Erick said, from where he was inflating two of the pods. “Might be better to leave them caged until we get them back to the ship.”

Jelena sighed. “I know. I’m just . . .”

“It’s horrible, I know,” Erick said with sympathy in his voice, and a hint of the indignation she felt as he glanced toward the animals. “We’ll get them all out.”

Not all of them. For some it was too late. But she couldn’t chastise herself for that. They would get the ones that they could. It was better than nothing.

She set down the dog, which stayed close, leaning against her leg. She pulled out a couple of her ration bars, tore them open, and fed the animals trundling out, but she dared not spend much time on that. Mostly, she left bits of bars on the floor to help entice out the ones she freed.

Then she went to detach cages from the wall, using the laser knife on her multitool to cut them away from their mountings. Erick had the first pod inflated, and she hurried to load their living cargo into it. The animals had been forced to defecate in their cages, and she was glad she couldn’t smell anything through her helmet. Washing them and cleaning the Snapper would be her fun project while Erick was off not meeting women. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain to her parents how their newly acquired freighter had come to smell like a sewer.

Erick inflated a third pod and worked alongside her, quickly moving cages while glancing often at the door that led to that tunnel and the rest of the facility. He lined up the hoverboards behind his bike, checking heights and deflating the pods slightly to be sure they would fit through the cargo doors in a chain. They were meant to be lifeboats in a spaceship emergency, not shipping containers.

A clang came from beyond the tunnel, and Jelena froze. Was someone coming?

Several monkeys hooted, and she winced at the noise. She used her power to soothe them, assuring them there was nothing worth chatting about right now. She hoped she wasn’t lying to them.

“There are people in the next building over,” Erick said, not pausing in his work. “I think they’re unloading the cargo from the ship.”

“Can you tell what it is?” Jelena asked, thinking again that more animals might have been brought in. If the cargo was being stored so close to this warehouse, wasn’t that possible?

“No.” Erick shook his head, but he was so busy working, she wasn’t sure if the no meant he couldn’t tell or didn’t have time to pause and use his mind to look. “I have figured out which building houses the forcefield generator. We need to make sure we have time to visit it on the way out.”

Jelena grunted as she hefted a monkey cage down. She’d forgotten about the forcefield. If they got all of these cages loaded but then couldn’t get back to the ship, this whole adventure would be for naught.

The first dog she had freed, along with several others, followed her as she carried the cage to the pod and Erick stacked it inside. She was glad that he, with his more mathematical mind, was doing the loading—he would get far more to fit than she would have.

“That’s the last animal that’s still alive,” she said, then reluctantly convinced the free ones to go into one of the few larger cages in the pod, one that only had a couple of scared puppies for occupants. She hated to lock them back up, even for a short time, but the ride back out might be bumpy, and if the cages toppled, she didn’t want any unprotected bodies in the middle.

The first one she’d freed paused to lean against her leg again, and she gave the dog a pat.

“Go on in there, girl. We’ll get you to a better home soon.”

“Just give me two minutes to make sure the pods are secure on the hoverboards, and I’ll have this train ready to go,” Erick said. “We’ll ride to the building with the generator. It would probably take me about ten minutes to overload something or figure out which circuit to cut. At this point, it may be easiest if you use your explosives to simply blow up the generator.” He gave her a significant look through his faceplate.

“How did you know I brought explosives large enough to blow up buildings?” She had specifically promised she’d brought small bombs.

“You’re not as convincing as you think.”

“I managed to get you here,” she pointed out.

“Because I was sleeping until you sprang this on me.”

“Well, you won’t do that again when I’m piloting.”

He snorted. “Probably not.”

Another clang came from the other building.

“I’m going to take a quick peek in there,” she said, since Erick was still working.

He frowned at her. “Use your mind, not your eyes. And don’t get caught.”

Jelena waved an acknowledgment and trotted toward the tunnel, surprised he hadn’t tried to dissuade her. But then, he had known her since she’d been eight.

She stopped at the entrance, resting her gloved hand on the wall next to it. There was a window in the center of the door, and she could make out the outline of the tunnel that led to the next building and another door at the end. Faint illumination filtered through that window, but it didn’t look like many lights were on over there. Not like in the animal warehouse. She was glad nobody was near the tunnel, or they might have wondered at the lights at their end.

Taking Erick’s advice, she reached out with her mind. She sensed the vague dimensions of another large warehouse and two men in a far corner that contained counters and appliances. Refrigerators? Erick would know. Could it be some kind of station where the scientists did some of their experiments? The men were moving items into the area from a hoverboard. She didn’t sense any animals or anything else living besides them. There was no reason for her to linger. Still, curiosity plucked at her mind’s eye as she struggled to identify what the men were moving. Some kind of long crates, it seemed.

“Probably just food being unloaded,” she muttered to herself, though the emotion she sensed from the men made her believe that wasn’t the case. She couldn’t read their thoughts, but they seemed uneasy about something. About what? She tried to see the world through their eyes, as she’d done with the animals, but their minds made her uncomfortable, as touching the thoughts of strangers often did, and these people seemed particularly unpleasant.

This interior door had a simple knob on it, no fancy control panel. She tried it, and it turned. Unlocked.

Jelena glanced back at Erick. He was almost ready to go, but looking through the window would be easier than trying to use her mind to see everything that was going on.

“Just a quick peek,” she repeated softly and eased open the door.

She paused, fearing some alarm might go off, but nothing happened. Another clang came from the building, the men bumping one of their crates against something metal. No, that had been a hatch shutting. There was only one man in the warehouse now. The other had gone back for more cargo. There, even if the person spotted Jelena, which wouldn’t happen, she should be able to handle one man.

She padded down the tunnel and peered through the next door’s window. All she saw were floor-to-ceiling racks of boxes and equipment. She bit her lip, knowing she should go back. But it wasn’t as if she and Erick could escape without detection when they were going to blow up the forcefield generator building. If the man noticed her . . . the detection would just come a little earlier.

The doorknob turned again, and she eased out into the warehouse. She stepped carefully, aware that sound would travel in here.

She made it to the end of the aisle and poked her helmet around the corner. Finally, she could see that lab area she had sensed, and she spotted the man too. He was using a hand tractor to lift something out of the long, rectangular shipping container she’d sensed. It was one of several that they had stacked by the counters. She would only stay long enough to see what he was unloading and then go back to help Erick.

Something rose out of the container, enveloped and lifted by the power of the hand tractor. The lighting wasn’t very good, and the man blocked part of her view, but her breath caught when she spotted a shoe and someone’s leg. A stiff leg that did not move as it—and the rest of its body—was lifted. Jelena stared, her mind slow to accept what she was seeing. The worker walked the body—the corpse—over to an open door on the wall. Using the hand tractor, he slid the corpse into a long, refrigerated chamber.

It’s like a morgue, Jelena realized.

Were the corpses for more medical experiments? Had they been purchased legally, assuming there was such a thing, or was something shady going on in that warehouse?

The man closed the door and moved the crate somewhere outside of Jelena’s angle of view.

“You check the organs before you put him away?” someone asked, the second man.

He walked into Jelena’s view, and she almost scurried back, afraid he would see her. But wouldn’t movement be more likely to draw his eyes? Her side of the warehouse was dark, so they shouldn’t see her if she stayed still.

“He looked fine,” the man with the hand tractor said, using the unit to pull another shipping container over.

“You know Radnov wets himself if we take up storage units with corpses he can’t use later.”

“If he wants perfect corpses, then maybe he should get them from a medical supply facility instead of buying them from gangsters.”

“Yeah, you tell him that.”

The two men worked together to open the lid of another container. Belatedly, Jelena realized she could be recording the audio and the video with her forward helmet cam. To what end, she didn’t know, but she whispered a command to turn it on and record. Maybe if she could post what was going on here, both with the animals and these corpses, it would raise some awareness of the corporation and their questionable research practices. Maybe, with enough public outcry, the medical facilities buying organs from them would stop using them, and the corporation would have to change its practices.

Wishful thinking perhaps, but she recorded the men moving another corpse into a locker, this one belonging to a young woman who didn’t look any older than Jelena. She hadn’t seen much of the first corpse, but remembered that he had been young too. Awfully young to be dead. Gangsters, the man had said. Were they killing people for some bounty? A bounty put out and paid for by Stellacor?

The men opened a third container.

“This one has a blazer hole in her chest,” one man said. “Radnov’s going to be pissed that she got frozen and brought in.”

“It might have missed the heart. Just put her away, and let the scientists figure it out.”

“Doesn’t look like the prep was done well, either. The organs are probably blocks of frozen meat by now. Going to be impossible for them to sell.”

“Not our problem. We’re just the dock workers.”

Jelena would have scratched her head if her helmet hadn’t been in the way. Why would Stellacor be selling dead people’s organs when they could grow their own from stem cells? More demand than supply? Did growing them from scratch take a long time? Were they having people killed so they could get young, healthy organs to sell when their own labs couldn’t meet the demand?

Jelena? Erick’s soft voice sounded in her mind instead of over her comm.

Yes? She answered the same way, not wanting to speak aloud with the men over there. She kept recording.

Your new friends are waiting for you. He managed to sound dry even when speaking telepathically, and she was sure he knew exactly where she was.

I’m coming. I just—

An alarm blared, making her jump.

“What the—” one of the men blurted as they both spun, looking around.

Jelena jerked her head back, wincing. She couldn’t tell if they had seen her. She ran back toward the door, trying to keep her footfalls light, though the wailing of that alarm ought to drown them out.

“Hurry,” Erick said, over the comm this time. “That’s for us. The natives have realized we’re here.”

Chapter 3

Jelena sprinted through the tunnel to the animal warehouse, then whirled back toward the door. She yanked out her multitool and flicked on the laser cutter. She melted the unsophisticated lock on the knob, hoping that would delay pursuit, and raced over to join Erick. He was already on his thrust bike, the inner airlock hatch open. As soon as he saw her, he flew into the airlock.

The alarm wailed just as loudly in this building, and she could feel the animals’ fear. They were locked into three pods now, sealed inside to protect them from the lack of atmosphere outside. It was dark, and they were afraid. Jelena tried to soothe them as she flung herself astride her bike, nearly knocking her staff out of its holder. One of the pods and hoverboards was magnetically attached to the back of her bike. Two trailed after Erick’s.

“Sorry,” Jelena blurted. “But I had to see. They’re doing something—”

“Later,” Erick said curtly, tapping the panel. “We’ll have to go out one at a time. There’s not room in the lock for both bikes and their pods. Give me one of your bombs. I’ll try to blow the forcefield while the lock is cycling for you. Just push this to activate it.”

“Got it,” she said, hurrying to dig out one of the bombs, though she hated the idea of separating.

Erick and his two pods disappeared behind the hatch, and a thunk-kerthunk sounded as the airlock activated.

“It wasn’t your snooping,” Erick said from inside, his voice coming over her helmet comm.

“What?”

“They found the androids, and someone thought to look at the security footage. That’s when they sounded the alarm.”

“Footage of our fight?” Jelena asked, sensing Erick growing farther away. He was outside the building now, flying away.

“Yes. They may know what we are.”

What we are. Such a strange way to say it. As if they weren’t human.

“Superheroes in unicorn underwear?” she suggested.

Erick didn’t answer.

Jelena hit the button to open the inner hatch. It hadn’t taken long for the airlock to work. Maybe she could still catch up to him and help.

A bang and a thunderous clang sounded behind her. The door being thrown—or blown—open.

Cursing, she flew into the airlock. She couldn’t see much behind her with the hoverboard and pod attached to her bike, but she sensed four people racing through the warehouse. Armed people. The pod could withstand being hit with small pieces of space debris, but she had no idea if it could endure blazer fire.

Once inside the airlock, Jelena tapped the same buttons that Erick had. The hatch did not respond promptly, as if it had to think about whether it wanted to obey or not.

The sprinting men were already halfway to her. One lifted a rifle.

Jelena flung the image of an animal into his mind, a livid wolf with a mouth full of fangs, the creature leaping for his throat, angry at being part of some lab experiment. The man shrieked, dropped his weapon, and raised his hands to his throat. He whirled toward where he believed the attack was coming from. His colleagues crashed into him.

“What are you doing?” one blurted, tripping and flailing.

The hatch finally shut, and Jelena didn’t hear the response. She bounced on her bike seat, silently urging the airlock to hurry up and vent the atmosphere. She hit another button, trying to override it and open the outer hatch without waiting. The controls bleated a discontented noise at her. She growled. This hadn’t taken so long for Erick, had it?

A thud sounded behind her, and she leaned forward, eager to race out. But the outer hatch didn’t open. A squealing of metal came from the one behind her. She sensed the men right on the other side. Damn, had they overridden the controls?

Whimpers and plaintive howls came from within the pod. The walls muffled the sounds, but Jelena still heard them, and they tugged at her heart. She couldn’t let those brutal men recapture the animals.

The hatch was wrenched open an inch, light slashing into the dim airlock. She dug into her satchel, pulled out one of the bombs, and thumbed open the protective cover over the detonator. The hatch squealed and opened a couple more inches.

She slid off her bike and moved around the pod. Maneuvering in the chamber, which had seemed delightfully large before the pods had been inflated, was cramped and she could barely reach the hatch.

The butt of a rifle thumped against the hatch, visible through the slim opening.

“Throw your weapons out and put your hands up,” someone ordered.

Gladly. Jelena tapped in a fifteen-second delay and pressed the detonator. She turned the bomb sideways, thrust it through the gap, and tried to throw it into the warehouse, far enough away that the explosion wouldn’t threaten her or the animals. Unfortunately, it must have struck one of the men, because a thud sounded, followed by a clank as it fell to the floor right outside the hatch.

Men swore and fled away from it. Jelena hammered at the control panel, trying in vain to get that hatch to shut—and the outer one to open. But the guards must have jammed it in their attempt to override it.

Jelena grabbed her staff and closed her eyes to concentrate. Her first thought was to hurl the bomb deep into the warehouse, but that would leave her still needing to find a way out. With her staff’s help, she created a barrier similar to the one that had deflected the android’s blazer fire. She curved and stretched it, trying to turn it into something akin to the dome-shaped forcefield that protected the compound.

Jelena? Erick asked into her mind, surprising her and almost making her lose her concentration. Where are you? I was able to get the forcefield down.

Not now, she thought back, aware of the last second ticking away on the bomb.

An explosion roared and brilliant light flared inside the warehouse. Jelena squinted and gasped as something hammered into her shield. She threw all her concentration into maintaining the barrier, holding the staff out in front of her as if it alone could deny the power of the bomb. A whoosh of air sounded, and a draft tugged at her spacesuit. Abruptly, all sound halted. The light remained, burning red through her closed eyelids, but then it, too, disappeared. Pieces of the hatch—or was the entire building falling apart?—beat down on her shield.

The light finally lessened, and Jelena risked opening her eyes. The hatch was gone, as was the ceiling of the airlock and part of the ceiling of the warehouse too. She wasn’t sure where the men were. Had they made it back to the tunnel? Or were they stranded outside of the structure, exposed to the cold harshness of space? Maybe they’d died in the explosion.

That grim thought filled her with horror. This had been about rescuing animals, not killing people. She and Erick had joked about whether or not this was a crime, but surely killing people would be considered a crime anywhere in the system. By the three suns, she hoped they had gotten to safety.

The rear hatch was contorted, halfway ripped off its hinges. Jelena climbed back on her thrust bike and nudged it into motion, eyeing the pod as she flew out, making sure her barrier had indeed protected it and that it wasn’t damaged. It didn’t seem to be. She could sense the animals inside, terrified but still alive.

I promise your lives will be better soon, she whispered into their minds, even though they couldn’t understand words. You won’t have to fear anything anymore.

“Jelena!” Erick barked over her helmet comm.

After the silence, the syllables boomed into her brain.

“I’m right here.” She looked both ways, trying to locate him as she noted the carnage her explosive had caused. The entire back half of the warehouse had been destroyed. Wrecked cages lay everywhere, scattered among warped pieces of metal and plastic, some still falling slowly in the low gravity. “Where are—”

“Look out!”

His words came with an image, two compact spaceships zipping across the compound and toward her position. Though Jelena could not see them yet, she trusted Erick’s warning and gunned her thrust bike. She flew toward the back wall, lifting the handlebars to head over it.

As soon as she rose above the level of the buildings, she spotted the ships. They were flying straight toward her, and she groaned, knowing they would be far faster than her bike. She cleared the wall, but she would never make it back to the canyon before they caught up with her.

“I could use some help, Erick,” she said, turning toward the canyon. The pod, bumping and wobbling behind her, blocked her view of the ships, but she sensed them back there.

Erick came into view ahead of her, the other two pods trailing behind his bike. For some reason, he was staying still, looking back toward her instead of fleeing.

Jelena opened her mouth, intending to tell him to get going, to split up so their pursuers wouldn’t know who to chase, but he pointed behind her. She had to veer to the side to see around the pod and back to the ships. She was in time to witness one pitching to the side and crashing into the other one. They hadn’t been shielded, and she imagined she could hear the warping of metal, even if there was no sound out here. The crash took both of them to the ground.

“Did you cause that, Erick? If so, you’re my hero.” Jelena pointed her bike toward the canyon again.

“Does that mean you’re going to get me a cape?”

“I’m already buying you Striker Odyssey cards. Isn’t that enough?”

“Seems paltry for what we’ve been through tonight.” He turned his bike to match her speed as she caught up with him.

“I am on an allowance, you know. My funds are limited.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Tell me about it. Maybe we can tie a sheet around your neck, and it’ll be like a cape.”

Erick’s helmet twisted to the side, and he didn’t answer. Jelena followed his gaze and spotted someone in a spacesuit running after them. Arms pumping, the person carried a huge blazer rifle and an even huger second weapon. It looked like a grenade launcher. Jelena couldn’t believe how fast the figure’s legs churned, covering the ground with great bounds.

“That’s a person. I don’t want to hurt—” Erick waved back in the direction of the crash.

Maybe androids had been flying those ships, so he hadn’t hesitated to damage them. Jelena thought of the men in the warehouse, the ones she wasn’t sure had escaped the explosion.

“I understand,” she said. “I’m sure we can outrun him.”

Already, the dark slash of the canyon was visible ahead. Less than two miles, and they could descend to the ship.

“Her,” Erick said.

“What?”

“That’s a woman.”

Jelena glanced at the figure again, awestruck by its—her—speed. “You’re sure it’s not an android?” she asked, even though that wouldn’t have made sense. An android did not need to wear a spacesuit.

“I bet she’s a cyborg. Look at how she’s keeping up with us.” He looked down at his speedometer. “That’s amazing.”

“She’s falling behind,” Jelena said. “We’ll make it. As soon as we get in, we’ll take off. We can sort out the animals later.”

“There’s another ship taking off from the compound,” Erick said, his voice going grim again.

“We just have to make it inside. The Snapper is armored like an assault tank.”

“With the speed of a turtle.”

“A fast turtle. We’ll be fine.” Jelena hoped she was right.

“Zigzag,” Erick said. “The ship is coming up behind us. A human pilot.”

“You may have to crash it anyway. If we get caught, those people aren’t going to hesitate to kill us.” She remembered the way those androids had shot to kill as she obeyed Erick’s order and picked an erratic route across the pockmarked terrain.

“Of course not. We broke into their facility and stole something.” Erick sounded like he regretted going along with her now.

Jelena clenched her jaw. She might regret that this hadn’t gone better, but she couldn’t regret choosing to come. Those people deserved some kind of karmic revenge for working for this vile corporation, damn it.

A blast of white energy slammed into the ground scant meters behind them. Moon rocks hurtled up, pelting the back of the pod and flying over Jelena’s head. She’d already been zigzagging, but she made her route even more erratic and unpredictable.

She glanced back, spotting the ship right behind her—and the smoking crater that blast had left in the moon. It was as large as the natural ones caused by asteroid collisions. That had been an energy cannon. She had few delusions about creating a barrier that could withstand a direct hit from one of those.

In addition to the ship, the cyborg was still chasing them. But she had fallen back. Jelena might have laughed because she had to run around the massive crater the ship had made, but all of her humor had fled. The cyborg could still be a threat once they reached the canyon. On foot, she might catch them while they were loading their cargo. She could fight them, delay them while the ship came down and fired on the Snapper.

“We’ll go in different directions when we go into the canyon,” Jelena said. “You go straight to our ship and get your cargo in. I’ll try to lead them away and then catch up with you.”

Another e-cannon blast interrupted Erick’s reply. It slammed into the ground just in front of them, tearing away the edge of the canyon, and flinging rock into the air.

Erick went left, and Jelena veered right. If they had been riding on wheeled bikes, they both would have crashed into the new hole torn into the ground.

Without hesitating, Jelena flew over the rim and down, streaking along the wall, almost scraping the pod on the rocks. Reminded of her precious cargo, she gave herself more room.

The ship flew over the edge right behind her. She dove for the bottom of the canyon, whipping past cliffs and piles of rubble, searching for terrain she might use to slow her pursuer. The ship flew over her and fired down from above. She veered sharply, barely avoiding an energy blast that streaked past her. It slammed into a rubble pile at the bottom of the canyon, and the dust of pulverized rocks exploded into the air.

She flew into the cloud, using the camouflage it provided to turn around. Erick would only need a minute to get his cargo and himself into the hold, and then he would need her there to pilot. She couldn’t let herself get drawn too far away. She couldn’t let herself get killed, either.

Gunning the engine, calling for all the power the bike could muster, she sped along the bottom of the canyon, back in the direction of the Snapper. With some satisfaction, she glimpsed the pursuing ship still going the other way. Sadly, it soon realized it wasn’t following her anymore, and it did a loop, flying up, then upside-down, and finally twisting and diving back down into the canyon. The ship was slower than her bike, at least in maneuvering in the tight passage, and she’d gained time. She hoped it was enough.

Up ahead, she spotted the ledge where the Snapper rested. Erick stood outside, waving his staff as if he were a ground guide ready to help her park. She would have preferred he already be safe in the ship, but his bike and the two pods weren’t in sight, so he must have already gotten them inside.

Before Jelena reached the ledge, another e-cannon blast streaked through the air, missing her and the pod by less than a foot. She could feel the heat from it through her suit.

She glanced back in indignation that those people were firing upon their own lab animals. Didn’t they want them back? She reached out with her senses, trying to find the pilot. There were three people in the ship’s navigation compartment. There, that was the pilot. A woman flying with intent as her cohort prepared to fire again. The pilot was concentrating hard, knowing that flying through the canyon took precision. One mistake, and she could wreck their ship.

Jelena was almost to the Snapper, but knew she and Erick would be easy targets when they were out on that ledge. The ship was gaining ground now, and it would be able to fire on them easily.

As she’d done in the warehouse, Jelena thrust an image into the woman’s mind, one of a ferocious lion springing to attack her. Claws slashed toward her throat, and a huge fanged maw snapped for her face. Jelena could feel the woman’s surprise and fear, sensed the way she jerked to the side in her seat, her hands falling away from the controls for a few seconds.

Jelena had reached the ledge, and she hoped her distraction was enough. Even if all that happened was that the pursuing ship ended up flying past without firing, that would help.

As she sailed straight for the open cargo hatch, she saw Erick still standing outside of the Snapper, his helmet tilted toward the ship. Was he, too, trying to affect the pilot? Or, knowing him, some mechanical part of the ship?

Something dropped down in front of Jelena before she reached the hatch, and she jerked back, veering at the last second. It was someone in a spacesuit—the cyborg. She’d jumped all the way down from the ledge above, landing on her feet.

Instead of springing after Jelena, she leaped the other way and slammed into Erick.

Growling, Jelena hurried to get the bike and the pod into the airlock, reversing the thrusters at the last moment so she wouldn’t crash into the interior hatch. She bounced off it anyway, the jolt almost pitching her off the bike. She half leaped, half fell off it, grabbing her staff as she landed. She squeezed past the pod and ran out to help Erick.

The cyborg flew past the hatch as Jelena stepped out. Erick was in a crouch, his staff held out with one hand, but he gripped his side with the other, and she could feel his pain. Had he been punched? Shot? The cyborg tumbled toward the ledge and would have gone over, but somehow, she twisted in the air and caught the edge as she fell.

Jelena ran over, not sure whether she meant to knock the woman the rest of the way off or just make sure she couldn’t get up. It was more than a hundred feet to the bottom. She had no idea if that would be a killing fall in this kind of gravity, but they couldn’t let the woman keep attacking them or board the Snapper, not when their pursuer—

Jelena jerked her gaze up, abruptly remembering the other ship. Had her mental attack caused the pilot to divert?

No. She stumbled back from the ledge. The ship was coming straight toward them, as if it meant to kamikaze crash into the Snapper. But it was coming in too low. It slammed into the ledge, right below the cyborg dangling from her fingertips.

The ground quaked, and Jelena wobbled, feeling like she was riding a wave. She envisioned the entire ledge collapsing, taking her, Erick, and the Snapper down into the canyon with it. She started to spin toward the ship, wanting to hurry in and pilot them away, but somehow, the cyborg had managed to hang on. She pulled herself up, one knee finding the top of the crumbling ledge as rocks fell away to either side of her.

Jelena ran toward her, raising her staff. She hated the idea of attacking someone trying to get her feet under her, but the cyborg had hurt Erick, and Jelena had no doubt she would kill both of them if she could. She rammed the tip of her staff toward the chest of the spacesuit.

Even off-balance, the cyborg snapped a hand out, catching the staff in her gloved palm. As hard as Jelena had thrust, the other woman barely moved. If it had been a normal staff, the cyborg might have ripped it from her hands, flung it over the side, and leaped at Jelena, but the Starseer weapon crackled with energy at the contact. Lightning raced up the cyborg’s arm, and her helmet jerked back. Unlike the androids, she could feel pain. Jelena couldn’t hear her scream, but she saw her foe’s contorted features—her agony—through her faceplate.

While the cyborg stood there, her body locked in pain, the rest of the ledge crumbled. She disappeared from sight, and Jelena almost tumbled into the canyon, too, as rocks shifted beneath her feet.

She threw herself into an awkward backward roll, angling toward the hatch. Erick grabbed her with one hand, helping her to her feet. As they raced into the airlock, the image of that cyborg—that woman—screaming behind her faceplate filled Jelena’s mind. Other people might have died, but she hadn’t seen their faces, their pain.

The lock cycled, and Erick pushed her bike and the pod into the hold where his already waited. With air and atmosphere inside the ship, she could hear the alarmed cries of the animals again. She needed to tend to them, and she needed to get the Snapper out of here before Stellacor sent more pursuers, but she struggled to move her feet, to get that woman’s face out of her mind.

“Jelena.” Erick grabbed her arm and pulled her toward NavCom. “Time to fly. I’ll unload everything. Try to get us out of here through the canyon. If there’s any chance that they haven’t identified our ship yet . . . well, it would be good to keep it that way.”

“Yes,” she said, his words sinking in. “I will. I am, but Erick? Can you take your bike and go out and check on that woman while I get us ready?”

“What? The cyborg?” He gaped at her, still gripping his side with one hand.

“Yes, and if that ship is down there, and there are people alive there, too . . . we should help them. At least drop them off where they can get medical help. We didn’t—this wasn’t supposed to go like this.” She swallowed, shaking her head, willing him to understand.

He groaned, but turned back toward his bike. “Fine, but get up there and get the engine powered up. And then save me if I get myself in trouble doing this.”

“I will.”

“I mean it,” he said, slinging his leg over his bike and flying into the airlock again. “I want major saving. Guns, blazer fire, explosions.”

“Definitely.” She managed a quick smile and raced across the crowded cargo hold deck toward NavCom.

The deck quaked, the rest of the ledge threatening to crumble under them, and she lost that smile. She banged her shoulder on the hatchway as she jumped into NavCom. She slid into the pilot’s seat, made sure Erick had gotten out and wasn’t near the thrusters, then powered everything up. He was flying over the ledge and down into the canyon to investigate.

As Jelena lifted off, she checked the sensors, expecting to see the wrecked ship lying down in the canyon under tons of rock. But it hadn’t been completely destroyed. It was flying out of the canyon a mile away, only one of its thrusters working. She thought it might turn back toward them for another attack, but it limped away, toward the facility.

Jelena flew away from the ledge, hovering in the canyon while she waited for Erick. Rocks continued to crumble away from what remained of their landing spot, bouncing down to the boulder-littered floor. She shifted the Snapper’s cameras and spotted Erick on his bike and also the cyborg woman. She lay on the ground, a boulder pinning her legs. She wasn’t moving.

Jelena grimaced, fearing they were too late.

“She’d try to kill us if she was alive and we brought her on board,” she muttered, trying to tell herself that it was for the best if the cyborg was dead or if they left her there, but she didn’t truly want someone’s death on her hands. On her conscience.

Erick flew low over the woman and stopped his bike beside her. Jelena hadn’t removed her helmet yet, and his voice crackled over its comm.

“I think she’s alive, but her faceplate is broken. If she’s losing oxygen, she’ll die in minutes if we leave her here.”

“Bring her on board,” Jelena said.

“She’s not going to be grateful like your animals and lick your hand and let you rub her ears.”

“Bring her anyway.”

Erick grumbled under his breath and used his staff to lever the boulder off the cyborg. In regular gravity, he would have struggled, but the big rock tumbled away. He hefted the woman onto the back of his bike.

“I really think I deserve more than a sheet-cape for all my efforts,” he said.

“You’re probably right. I’ll throw in a blanket too.”

Jelena checked the sensors again as he flew his bike toward the Snapper. The damaged ship had landed and didn’t look like it could fly back to bother them, but she wouldn’t be surprised if the facility sent another round of pursuers out.

“I’m in,” Erick said as soon as the outer hatch shut. “Let’s get out of here before repercussions catch up with us.”

“Gladly,” Jelena said, and took the Snapper through the canyon, as Erick had suggested. She, too, doubted there was any way the Stellacor facility hadn’t identified them yet, but maybe they would get lucky, and those repercussions he spoke of would never find them.

She removed her helmet and pushed a hand through her sweaty hair, fearing that was highly unlikely.

~

Grab the full novel at Amazon: Amazon US | Amazon CA | Amazon UK | Amazon AUS

My Dark Fantasy Collaboration Project Now Available: American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice

| Posted in Ebook News |

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Last month, I wrote about how I was hopping onto an overnight train heading to New Orleans with three other authors, J.F. Penn, J. Thorn, and Zach Bohannon. We spent a week together, working on a collaborative story set on that very train. That story, a dark fantasy adventure set in J’s American Demon Hunters world, is now available on Amazon (it will release on all the other stores in October).

If you enjoy dark, fast-paced fantasy stories with lots of demons, please check it out:

American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice

A relic thief.
An ex-military Mom.
A grief-stricken father willing to do anything to save his son.
An American Demon Hunter.
All aboard the 8.05pm from Chicago to New Orleans for 19 hours that will change their lives.

When the relic of an ancient blood cult is used to summon the dead and open a portal to the beyond, demons escape onto the train. As the body count rises, each must fight to save their own lives and those of the people they love. New friendships are forged in the battles and love blossoms in the carnage.

But who will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice?

A dark fantasy from four bestselling authors who just happened to be on the 8.05pm from Chicago one March evening…

Links: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AUS

“Hope Springs,” a Fallen Empire Short Story: Preview

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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A few months ago, I was asked to contribute a short story to the fourth Beyond the Stars science fiction anthology, and I said sure. I had just finished the last novel in my Fallen Empire series, so I decided to use the opportunity to check in on the hero and heroine a little later. Even though they were supposed to be living happily ever after, or something like that, I figured they would still have an adventure or two along the way. In fact, a honeymoon seemed like a most excellent place for a new adventure. So that became the idea for the new story.

I tried to make the story so that new readers wouldn’t be confused, but if you’ve read the series, you’ll certainly know these characters and, I hope, enjoy visiting them again.

Here’s the little blurb:

After months of spaceship chases and terrifying battles, Leonidas and Alisa are finally relaxing on a moon full of hot springs, but trouble never fails to find these former soldiers, and they’re soon embroiled in a mystery and fighting for their lives once more.

If you’ve already picked up the anthology, thank you. If you’d like a preview of the story, read on…

Hope Springs

Steam wafted off the water and curled around Alisa Marchenko’s bare legs. Snow dusted the rocky hills above the hot springs, and the cold air pimpled her flesh. She pulled her robe tighter, tempted to jump into the closest pool, but it would be polite to wait for—

A six-and-a-half-foot tall, heavily muscled man strode out of the changing cabin, wearing nothing more than flip-flops, plaid swimming trunks, and a raised eyebrow. Leonidas Adler, former imperial Cyborg Corps colonel and new husband to Alisa, looked her up and down.

“There were robes in your changing room?” he asked, his eyebrow drifting higher.

“Yumi warned me about the nippy air, so I brought one with me.” Alisa grinned, admiring his physique—nothing fat or flabby on him, despite the gray hair sprinkled at his temples—and amused at seeing her fierce warrior in such innocuous clothing.

“Yumi did not warn me,” he said flatly. “All she said was that she knew some of the scientists who opened Hope Springs and that the tourism money funds their research.”

“She also said it would be a delightful spot for our honeymoon, since neither the Alliance nor the empire has ever had interest in it.” Because the moon was little more than a rock in space, filled with geothermal vents, geysers, and scalding pools. Fortunately, the hot springs in the tourist area were suitable for soaking. “You’re not cold, are you? Surely, some of those implants are designed to keep cyborgs from freezing to death on chilly moons.”

Alisa patted his forearm, though none of his implants or other upgrades were visible on the surface—he appeared completely human, and, as he was always quick to point out, he was human. He hadn’t received the cyborg surgery until he’d joined the imperial service.

“I am sufficiently hardy,” he said a trifle stiffly, but he laid a hand on hers as he surveyed the pools where other tourists already lounged, some in swimming suits, others not. A nude, hairy fellow climbed out of the water and strolled past them, not bothering to grab a towel. “I may be overdressed,” Leonidas added.

“You’re welcome to remedy that if you wish.” Alisa slipped an arm around his waist and waved her other toward the water. “This is going to be wonderful. Five days with no crew or motherly duties to worry about. We can soak in the pools in relaxed bliss.”

“Are you sure we’ll need five days just to sit in water?”

Blissfully sit in water that, the brochure promises, will leave us with a radiant inner glow. There are massages and aromatherapy sessions too.” Alisa led him toward flagstone steps descending into a steaming pool. “I thought you were ready to retire from activities such as being shot at, irradiated, and having our minds manipulated by rogue Starseers.”

“Yes, but this seems… sedate.”

“My honeymoon plans also include copious amounts of vigorous sex.”

“Ah?” Leonidas slid his arm around her waist, and his eyelids drooped. “In that case, do you think five days will be enough?”

“With Beck in charge and Abelardus piloting my freighter, their delivery could take longer than anticipated. We might—”

Shouts from the other end of the pool area interrupted her. A woman in a yellow biohazard suit, complete with boots and helmet, raced down a ramp and across the snow-edged flagstone deck. She slipped and flailed, but caught herself, throwing a worried look at something small in her gloved fist. She raced toward Alisa and Leonidas while frequently glancing over her shoulder. Shouts came from up the ramp and beyond the rocks framing the sunken hot springs.

Alisa stepped into the pool to get out of the way, but Leonidas faced the woman, as if he would stop her. If she had stolen something, that might be appropriate, but this was hardly their fight.

Two black-clad men leaped over a rock wall and landed at the bottom of the ramp. No, Alisa amended. Not men. Androids. They’d just dropped more than twenty feet without pausing.

Leonidas had not stepped into the woman’s path yet, perhaps undecided as to whether he should interfere, but she veered toward him.

“Cyborg?” she blurted.

Before Leonidas could answer, she slipped on the flagstones and tumbled into him. He caught her before she could fall. Alisa grimaced, worrying that the woman—and that suit Leonidas now held—were in need of a decontamination shower.

“Delay them,” the woman blurted, breathless. “Please. This will help your kind.”

Nude people yelped, scurrying out of the way as the androids sprinted along the deck. The woman released Leonidas and ran around him. She raced toward stairs near the changing cabin that led out to the parking lot.

As the androids ran after her, their featureless faces and silver eyes dispassionate, Leonidas sprang into their path.

Alisa groaned, even though she’d known as soon as the woman appealed to him for help that he would give it. Honorable and noble. That was Leonidas. Whether he could win a battle against two androids while nearly naked or not. If he had been in his combat armor, she would have bet on him winning, but in flip-flops? As powerful as cyborgs were, androids were just as strong and had fewer weaknesses—no human flesh, no ability to feel pain.

“I’ll get your rifle,” Alisa yelled, racing up the stairs. She hated to leave Leonidas, but they hadn’t brought down any weapons. It was only due to his habitual preparedness that there was a blazer rifle in the rented air car.

Thumps and grunts sounded behind her, and she glanced back, wincing as Leonidas tumbled into the pool—or had he been thrown?—locked in a wrestler’s grip with one of the androids. The other android, with Leonidas out of the way, resumed his run toward the parking lot.

Alisa cursed. She charged up the steps, flip-flops slapping awkwardly, and raced past the admissions booth, where a teenager was sticking his head out and gaping after the woman in the suit. She had made it out into the lot, bypassing rows of tourist shuttles and private aircraft for a compact spaceship parked along a rock wall to the side. Its hatch opened, and Alisa thought the woman would make it, so she headed for her air car. But a shadow fell across her, and she leaped behind a shuttle.

Two distant suns gleamed in the grayish brown sky of Altar Moon, but both were blotted out for a moment as a black, hawk-shaped ship cruised low over the parking lot. Weapons bristled from its underbelly.

One of its e-cannon ports glowed blue, then fired with a thwump. Energy crackled in the air, and a blue bolt slammed into the parked spaceship. It exploded in flames and black smoke, debris hammering nearby craft. A piece of hull the size of Alisa’s head slammed into the shuttle she hid behind.

“What in all the suns’ fiery hells?” she grumbled, not daring to lift her head until the clangs and clacks died down.

When she stood, eyeing the sky warily, the attacking ship was already zipping toward the horizon. A smoking crater and a charred wreck remained where the other ship had been. At first, Alisa didn’t see any sign of the woman, but then spotted scraps of that yellow biohazard suit, along with—

She gulped. Was that an arm? Almost charred beyond recognition, it appeared to be all that remained of the woman.

The android that had been chasing her reached the wreckage. Ignoring her remains, he poked through the mess. He must have been aware of Alisa’s presence, but he did not acknowledge her.

Not certain she was safe, and worried about Leonidas, Alisa ran down the aisle to their air car. She opened the canopy and grabbed a stun gun and Leonidas’s blazer rifle.

She turned to head back to help him, but he was striding down the aisle toward her with something furry gripped in one hand. No, not furry. Hairy.

“Is that the android’s head?” Alisa asked, considering the water dripping from his prize.

“There’s a serial number in its scalp. We may be able to find out who it belonged to.”

“What about the other one?” Alisa nodded in the direction of the destroyed ship, though other craft blocked the view. Sirens wailed off to the south. Far too late, the local enforcers were arriving.

“I didn’t see him.”

“He’s over there.” Alisa waved for him to follow.

She weaved through the air cars and shuttles, hoping to approach without being heard. But when they reached the smoking crater, the android was gone. Wreckage lay strewn up and down the aisle, with a piece of the hull on the pavement a few meters from them. The name of the ship was visible despite its charred and warped edges. Klondike.

Alisa pointed at it, but Leonidas looked toward the wreck and the tattered pieces of that yellow suit. His jaw tightened.

Three ships appeared overhead, red and yellow emergency lights flashing as they descended toward the parking lot.

Leonidas drew Alisa back between two vehicles. “We may not want to stick around for questioning.”

“Why? We don’t know anything.” And Alisa wouldn’t mind getting some answers if the enforcers had them. “Or are you worried they’ll object to you taking that souvenir home?” She pointed at the android head.

“They may object to this as well.” He reached down the front of his swimming trunks.

“A cyborg penis?”

His eyes narrowed to slits, and Alisa expected him to point out that this was an inappropriate time for humor. All he did was withdraw a petri dish with a green smudge inside.

“The woman stuck this in my waistband when she crashed into me.” He turned the clear dish over in his hand. “It’s oddly warm.”

Shouts came from the wreck. The first enforcer ship had landed and was discharging people.

“Normally, I’d be jealous about another woman handling your waistband, but I’m more concerned that you might have smothered your nether regions with something toxic.”

“Presumably, the potential toxins are locked inside the dish.”

Alisa grunted dubiously.

“We can pick up Yumi, and she can take a look,” Leonidas said. Yumi had also come down to Altar Moon, but she was off doing research and visiting colleagues rather than enjoying the hot springs.

“We can, but maybe it would be wiser to hand that and that—” Alisa pointed to the dangling head, “—over to the enforcers. Whatever’s going on, it has nothing to do with us. Waistband fondling aside.”

Leonidas turned over the petri dish. “She implied it might be useful to cyborgs.”

The green smudge looked like some kind of algae, nothing more. But Leonidas wore a determined expression. Knowing him, he probably felt he had failed the woman, and some sense of justice motivated him now.

“I’m not going to get the honeymoon I imagined, am I?” Alisa asked.

“If we figure out what this was about quickly, there could still be time for vigorous sex.”

“What about the bliss we’re supposed to find in the hot springs?”

Leonidas grunted noncommittally and started toward their air car, careful to stay out of sight of the authorities. Alisa sighed and trailed after him. This honeymoon was not going at all as she’d imagined.

~

Please check out the anthology to read the rest (and there are lots of great stories by other authors in there too): Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns.

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