rss
twitter
  •  

Collaborating with Other Authors on a New Fantasy Project

| Posted in E-publishing |

6

Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of people ask me if I would like to collaborate on novels, and my response has always been (out loud), “Thanks, but I’m too busy right now” and (inside) “Why the heck would anyone want to do that?”

I’m aware, of course, that there are writers who collaborate on a regular basis and even have entire careers as duos, but I’ve never been interested before for a couple of reasons.

First, I am busy with my own projects – I have tons of ideas scribbled in my notes, and I usually have a schedule lined up a good year in advance. (For those who wonder, for 2017/early 2018 it’s six books in my soon-to-be-launched Sky Full of Stars series, Chains of Honor 3 and maybe 4, and four Ruby Lionsdrake space romance novels that I’ll be doing as part of a shared world project with another SFR author. I’m also hoping to fit new Rust & Relics and Dragon Blood novels in there somewhere!)

Second, I (arrogantly, I’m sure) believe I have a unique voice when it comes to writing, most notably with my humor and the way I write dialogue. I had people identify my “Ruby” books as mine (or at least note the similarity) months before I came out with the pen name. I’ve worried that my voice would be lost if I had to blend it to fit in with that of another author (or, in this case, authors) and that my regular readers would be unimpressed.

Third, most of the people who have approached me have been newer authors who haven’t yet built up a readership of their own. I’m not familiar with them and their work (they seriously just email out of the blue), and there’s no reason I would want to invest a lot of time in co-writing a project (not to mention splitting the earnings) with a stranger, especially when I’d be the one most likely bringing readers to the finished book.

As I write this, I’m standing in the airport, about to hop on a plane to Chicago where I will meet Joanna Penn, J Thorn, and Zach Bohannon. We’ll jump on an overnight train to New Orleans and plot out a novel (a dark fantasy adventure that will take place on a train, perhaps that very same train) before we arrive. We’ll spend the next five days in New Orleans, exploring the city and writing the rough draft of the novel before we leave (we’re each supposed to write 20,000 words of it).

Here’s a little more on the project itself.

So, what’s changed? Why am I collaborating on something?

Number #1 on my list is still true (I’m stopping in the middle of writing the third Sky Full of Stars novel to have this adventure), but the whole project isn’t going to take that long. As I said, we’re writing the novel in a week and planning to get it edited and out there shortly after.

Also, I know all of these folks. J Thorn and Zach have been on my Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, and I’ve been on Joanna’s Creative Penn podcast a couple of times. They’re also established authors with podcasts and fan bases of their own, so nobody will be pulling all the weight when it comes to marketing.

Next, we’ll each be writing a chunk of the novel from the points of views of characters we make up. I don’t have to worry about blending styles overly much. It’ll be a challenge to get the dialogue right for other people’s characters, who will appear in my character’s scenes, but I imagine we’ll chime in during the editing process, and people can say, “My character would probably say it more like this.”

Lastly, they teased me with the idea of a real life adventure to go along with the novel we’ll write. I’m going to be honest: this was the selling point. I’ve never been to New Orleans or done an overnight train trip, and it sounded fun.

How will it go with four different authors trying to put together a cohesive story? Will I be able to write a “dark fantasy” novel set on Earth (the closest I’ve come is my Rust & Relics series, a series that I have yet to finish…)? Will anyone actually buy the final product?

I don’t know yet, but you can follow along if you’re interested. I’ll be posting updates on Twitter and Facebook this week (and in the handful of weeks following as we assemble the final novel).

We don’t have super high expectations for the project (I think we’re all just hoping we’ll make enough to pay for the trip), but I’ll do a post in a couple of months to let you all know how it went. Maybe I’ll learn something and have tips for other authors thinking of doing collaborative projects. We’ll see!

Dragon Rider Chapter 3

| Posted in My Ebooks |

0

The Beginnings boxed set (with Dragon Rider in it) is now out, so you can grab the whole story at once, but if you’re still on the fence, here’s one more chapter. (Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 are already up.)

Beginnings at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Chapter 3

Taylina eased around the bend in the wide tunnel, expecting someone—or something—to speak into her mind again. Another roar sounded instead, one that jarred her to the core. Had it been directed at her, she would have fled in terror. She was tempted to flee in terror anyway.

But the tunnel opened up, and her curiosity—and her mission—would not let her turn away. A vast chamber bristling with columns, stalactites, and stalagmites stretched away from her. Only the center lay clear of rock formations, leaving enough space for a dragon. No, for two dragons.

One great, scaled golden dragon stood on his haunches, his wings spread wide and almost touching columns on either side of the chamber. His long sinewy tail slapped the stone floor behind him as he glared down at a second dragon. This one was also golden, but he was down on all four of his legs with his wings pressed tightly to his body. Magical, almost ethereal, golden tethers circled him in three places, light from them illuminating the chamber as they seemed to crackle with energy. They bound him, Taylina realized as she watched him trying to move his wings but finding resistance. His powerful rear leg muscles bunched, as if he would spring like a panther, but the magical tethers kept him from leaving the ground. The other dragon snarled at him, the chamber trembling faintly in response to the reverberations of his power.

“I think that’s Bergethor,” Raff whispered. He pointed to the dragon towering over the other, then gripped Taylina’s shoulder, as if to keep her from running out to speak to him.

She hadn’t intended to fling herself in the middle of whatever was going on. “Is that one of the Cofah dragons?” She pointed to the imprisoned one. They appeared about the same size, but the one bound by the magical ropes was definitely at a disadvantage.

“I have no idea.” Raff looked around the chamber. In addition to the natural stone features, there were rugs on the floor in the center, and here and there, wide, garishly colored green and purple ribbons swirled up the columns in oversized decorations. “I don’t see its rider, if so. Maybe he was eaten.” Raff glanced back the way they had come, probably wanting to flee before the dragons noticed they were there.

But they could not do that. Taylina had come for a reason, and as soon as these two finished with their business, she would proposition Bergethor. If this other one was not working for the Cofah, she would happily proposition him too.

Your treacherous ways are so odious that they’re the talk of the entire island chain, one of the dragons announced, his voice once again resonating inside Taylina’s mind. Bhrava Saruth? Wasn’t that what he had called himself? He’d also called himself a god… Big words for someone bound by magical ropes. Perhaps of all Iskandoth, he added, glaring up at Bergethor with angry green eyes. Free me from this prison, and I will not tell Lysidia Shay how cowardly and treacherous you are. Or about your fascination with female giraffes.

Lysidia is my mate, a deep voice responded.

You neglected her for ten years!

Her breeding cycle is only once every twelve. It wasn’t time to mate with her again. What were you doing sniffing around her hindquarters like—

I was keeping her company with my noble wit. That is all, you jealous cow-molester.

Taylina rubbed her head, now feeling the headache Raff had spoken of. Even though she was simply overhearing the dragons’ telepathic conversation, and none of their attention was focused on her, the raw power being flung with each word made her nerves ache.

“These are the beings you want to help us?” Raff muttered.

Bhrava Saruth’s green eyes shifted toward them, and Raff winced. They should have let the dragons finish before speaking. Taylina shifted uncomfortably under that gaze. Great power emanated from those piercing eyes, the irises slit similarly to a reptile’s eyes. They were wholly inhuman. Alien.

Even the humans have heard of your vile, treacherous ways, Bergethor the Betrayer, Bhrava Saruth announced. See? They couldn’t believe the trap you set for me, so they came to witness for themselves.

For the first time, Bergethor’s head swung toward the entrance to the chamber, his maw parted to reveal fences of long, pointy fangs, his yellow eyes even colder and more alien than the other dragon’s.

“Uh, that’s not why we’re here,” Taylina said, her voice sounding puny in the chamber.

Thieves! Bergethor roared in their minds.

This time, with the dragon’s attention—his ire—focused on them, Taylina fell to her knees. It was as if her muscles turned to mud and could no longer support her body. Almost as irritated as she was afraid, she again longed for the support of her staff.

“That’s also not why we’re here,” she said, trying to sound brave out of some notion that dragons might respond better to bravado than fear. It worked with the coyote pack that roamed the island. Besides—she eyed the tacky ribbons—what was there to steal?

Something that might have been a dragon chortle rang out in her mind. The human female thinks your decor is as ugly as I do, Bergethor. Perhaps if you had let Lysidia Shay visit outside of breeding years, she might have assisted you with appointing your cave in a manner worthy of a golden dragon.

Silence, mate-stealer, Bergethor cried, his head swinging back toward Bhrava Saruth, his long neck snapping like a whip. I will destroy you for your impudence.

Take these bonds off me, and fight me like a gold dragon, not a scheming silver or a puny bronze.

Bhrava Saruth’s head flew backward, as if he’d received an uppercut to the jaw. Bergethor had not moved, other than to narrow his eyes.

Coward! Bhrava Saruth cried mentally, then shrieked aloud, the same shriek that Taylina and Raff had heard on the way in.

With the dragons’ attention on each other, Taylina managed to pull herself to her feet. She looked down at the healing wand still gripped in her hand. The light emanating from the crystal on the top was feeble compared to the flickering illumination of those energy bindings around Bhrava Saruth. What could this tool—or any of their tools—do to dragons? Even if they could affect the great creatures, should she try? What good could it do? Did she have something that might free Bhrava Saruth? If so, would freeing him be wise? She had no idea who was in the right here. Surely, getting involved with dragon politics would only lead to her death.

Yes, Bhrava Saruth’s voice cried in her mind. Free me! I am a god. It is blasphemy for him to trick and torture me so. Pure blasphemy!

“Uhm.” Taylina looked at Raff, hoping he would have an idea of what they should do. Bergethor, however grumpy and accusatorial, was a resident of the island and the one who seemed more likely to help—surely, he couldn’t be happy about those Cofah dragons invading his homeland. He also didn’t, as far as she knew, think of himself as a deity. She wouldn’t be surprised if one of the seven gods struck Bhrava Saruth down for his blasphemy.

Free me, Bhrava Saruth said to her again, the words so compelling that she almost stepped into the chamber. But even if she wanted to free him, it wasn’t as if she could walk up with a pair of scissors and snip magical ropes.

Free me, and I will bless you, Bhrava Saruth tried again right before Bergethor did something to him, and his head snapped to the side. Blood trickled from one of his nostrils, and Taylina felt pity for him, even if he wasn’t the resident dragon here. A god must be magnanimous. I will bless you. Or grant you a favor!

“A favor?” Taylina whispered, turning again toward Raff. Had he heard Bhrava Saruth’s offer, or had those words been spoken only to her?

Though he was still wincing and appeared to be in even more pain than she was from the power being thrown about, he met her eyes.

“This is what we need,” she whispered to Raff. “Is there anything you can do? Or…” Taylina eyed the bag of tools, trying to remember exactly what she had stuffed in there. Was there anything that might affect those ropes? “Or maybe if we distract Bergethor, the ropes will go away?” she added, thinking of the way Raff’s globe of light had gone out when he’d been distracted.

“No,” Raff said. “It’s a tool, not something he’s projecting from his mind.”

He pointed toward the ground at Bhrava Saruth’s feet, a black disc just visible behind his haunches.

“Could you find a way to disable it if we could convince Bergethor to leave for a while?” Taylina whispered, remembering that Bhrava Saruth had read some of her thoughts. She did not want Bergethor doing the same and hoped he was less inclined to poke into her head.

“I… don’t know,” Raff said. “Dragons make things much differently from the way we humans do it.”

“You’re the tool expert. This is what you do.” She tried to sound encouraging rather than desperate. “I’m sure you can figure it out.”

“Not with a dragon standing on it.”

“I don’t think the one standing on it is the problem,” Taylina said.

You cannot do this to the god Bhrava Saruth, you toad-licking troglodyte! Stop before—ow! Blasphemy!

“Not the main problem,” Taylina amended.

Raff grunted dubiously.

“I’ll try to convince Bergethor to take a flight.” Taylina squared her shoulders and stepped into the chamber. “Bergethor? We came here to warn you about something. Can you spare a moment from your, ah—” She looked at Bhrava Saruth and groped for a word.

Blasphemy! he suggested in her mind, loudly enough to send a stab of pain through her skull.

“Your project,” Taylina finished.

When Bergethor’s head swung toward her, she locked her knees. She refused to fall down again if he communicated with her.

Do not trouble me with your grating barking, thieves, Bergethor spoke into her mind, his hard yellow eyes boring into her soul. If you are not gone from my home when I finish dealing with this fool, I will turn you to ash.

Taylina was beginning to warm to the idea of working with Bhrava Saruth, however delusional he was. Bergethor was every bit as unpleasant as the stories said.

“We’ve come all the way across the island to warn you about the invaders,” she said, projecting her voice into the chamber, trying to sound confident and calm. Bhrava Saruth looked at her. For the moment, he did not seem to be in pain. At least she had distracted Bergethor from his torture.

I do not need your kind warning me of anything, Bergethor replied. Do you think I don’t know about the Cofah and their dragons? That their force is here to complete the takeover and occupation of Iskandoth?

Raff sucked in a breath. The words must be echoing in his mind too. Hearing the confirmation of what she had suspected upset Taylina, but it did not change her mission. She must worry about freeing her people, her town. There was nothing she could do for the rest of the country.

“Aren’t you concerned that they’ll come for you?” Taylina asked, extending a hand toward the tunnel. “You are not a Cofah dragon.”

I am nobody’s dragon. Those fools who align themselves with human interests deserve to be dropped into volcanoes. Bergethor’s scaled head rose, his horns almost brushing the ceiling, and he stared at her, proud and defiant. Those dragons will not bother me, regardless. I have nothing to do with the ridiculous human war.

“That’s not what I heard,” Taylina said, trying to keep her mind blank so he would not read the lies in her thoughts. “I was close enough to hear the dragons and their riders speaking to their commanders. They know there is a dragon on this island, and they have orders to get rid of him, to get rid of you. That is why we came to warn you. Perhaps, if you left now, you could slip away under the cover of night. Or you might even strike a blow against them, surprise them by appearing in the darkness.” She said the last wistfully, doubting he would entertain such a notion, but it would be wonderful if he could lure at least one of those dragons away so she and Raff might have more of a chance of dealing with the others. Somehow. She glanced at Bhrava Saruth.

To her surprise, his head bobbed in something akin to a nod. Did he agree with her strategy here? Or was he promising that he would help with the Cofah if they found a way to free him?

Lies, Bergethor cried in her mind, and Taylina stumbled back. Intense energy battered her in addition to that word, and if not for Raff catching her, she would have fallen again. You think I cannot see the lies in your mind, puny human? Do I look like a hatchling? Or some pathetic bronze dragon that would fall for your weak attempt at trickery? Nobody tricks a dragon of my stature!

His wings spread wide again, and his great maw opened as smoke curled from his nostrils.

“Look out,” Raff ordered, grabbing Taylina around the waist and hoisting her into the air.

She dropped the healing wand as he sprinted away, locking her over his shoulder. She was tempted to struggle, or to tell him to let her go, but she feared she knew what was coming.

As Raff rounded the bend and sprinted for the exit, red light flared behind him. It preceded the flames that flooded the passage. Heat hammered at Taylina’s back, and the sound of crackling fire filled her ears. For the first time that night, true terror flooded her body. And she was helpless to do anything about it.

Fortunately, Raff kept running. Only when he reached the mouth of the cave did he pause, gripping the wall as his toes dangled over the edge. The dark surf roared far below, waves pounding against the cliff.

Taylina thought he might jump with her still clutched over his shoulder, but he looked over his shoulder. The flames were dying away. Thanks to the bend in the tunnel, the fire hadn’t quite reached them. She eyed the tunnel warily, wondering what they could do if Bergethor stomped out after them.

But a shriek came from inside the chamber. Bhrava Saruth being tortured again. Taylina did not know whether to be thankful or not that his crime, whatever it had truly been, had irked Bergethor more than the idea of humans lying to him.

“Now what?” Raff asked, setting her down gently.

Taylina slumped against the cave wall, the salty sea breeze tugging at her hair. “I don’t know.”

~

Thanks for checking out the Dragon Rider preview! Here are the links for the bundle again in case you want to read the rest:

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Dragon Rider: Chapter 2

| Posted in My Ebooks |

2

Here’s the second chapter of my soon-to-be-published Dragon Rider adventure. The first chapter is here if you missed it.

Chapter 2

Night fell, but the fires continued to burn in the groves and the town, lighting up the cloudy horizon with a reddish tint that made Taylina sick to her stomach. The bag full of tools had grown heavy, and she leaned on her staff as she picked her way along the goat trails in the center of the island. She could no longer hear the cries of people nor the clanging of the town bell, and she tried to tell herself that was simply because she had walked too far away. It didn’t mean that everything was destroyed and everyone was dead. It couldn’t.

She hadn’t seen any of the dragons since twilight, but she would not have lit a lantern, even if she’d had one. She worried about being spotted from the skies. Thinking of the way those soldiers had shot at people who were fleeing, people who had clearly been no threat, she couldn’t help but fear for her safety, so she moved as quietly as she could in the dark. She kept her ears open, too, hoping to hear the rustling of brush that might mean others of her people were around. After all, she’d seen them fleeing away from town. But perhaps they had stopped once they reached the wilderness, turning to watch what unfolded back in the harbor.

Taylina passed through the rocky contours of the center of the island. It was quiet there, only the roar of the ocean audible in the distance. Whenever the clouds parted and the moon shone through, she could make out the cliffs ahead of her, the rugged terrain marking the dragon’s half of the island.

“Taylina?” came a soft call from behind her.

She froze, leaning against a boulder to blend in with the night. But the voice was familiar.

“Raff?” she called quietly.

“Yes.” Pebbles crunched under his feet. “When I told you to hide, I didn’t mean for you to hide so far away.”

“I gave myself a mission.”

One she hated to delay. Even though she was relieved to hear her friend’s voice, and her aching body appreciated the rest stop, she did not want to linger. She had to convince Bergethor the Bleak to help before it was too late to matter, before there was nothing left to fight for.

Raff appeared in the shadows, picking his way toward her. He grunted softly as he walked, as if in pain.

“Are you all right?” she asked, remembering that he had gone off to try and stop those soldiers.

“I’ve had better days.”

It was too dark for her to see much, other than his dark body silhouetted against the reddish sky behind him, but he seemed to be holding his ribs.

“Do you need anything?” she asked, though she did not know what she could give. She hadn’t had time to grab food or water. Nothing.

“Nothing I can have right now,” he said with a sigh.

“What happened? Mind if we keep walking?” She pointed down the path.

“Why? I think we’re far enough from the invaders.” His tone turned even grimmer than it had been. “They’ve got the whole town to worry about. I doubt they’ll come looking for us.”

“What’s happening back there? Can you tell?” She touched her temple to indicate that he might “tell” with magic.

“They’re rounding everybody up—a lot of our people escaped and are hiding in the hills. I met up with your brother there, but he didn’t know where your parents and sister were—he’d been running errands when the attack came and hadn’t been able to get back to the woodworking shop. Do you want me to take you to them? It’s a good four miles back. Tay, what are you doing way up here? If I didn’t know your aura so well, I never would have found you.”

“Then I’m glad my aura is distinctive, because I think I’m going to need you.”

“Oh, that’s a given, but for what, in particular?”

“Only sorcerers and sorceresses get to become dragon riders, right?”

“Uh, right,” Raff said, his confusion evident in his tone, even if she couldn’t see his face. “As far as I know. Usually powerful sorcerers with soulblades—magical, sentient swords.”

“What about toolmakers?” Taylina asked.

“I might be given the honor of buffing a dragon’s claws.”

“Well, you’re going to do more than that.” She grabbed his arm. “We’re going to talk to Bergethor the Bleak.”

Raff had started to step toward her, but he faltered. “We’re what?”

“He’s the only one who can help.”

“Help what? Eat us so that we die quickly and aren’t captured by the Cofah?”

“We’re going to talk him into helping us.” Taylina started down the path toward the cliffs again, hoping to show that she would go whether Raff came with her or not. But she hoped he came with her. He knew so much more about magic, and probably about dragons too. Maybe this mission was suicidal, but to simply hide in the hills and wait for the Cofah to leave—or settle in—was not acceptable.

“How are you going to do that?” Raff asked. “Note: I said you and not we.”

“You’re leaving the lowly woodworker to confront the dragon alone?”

“You promised me you weren’t lowly.”

“I just told you not to call me that or I’d club you.” She shook her head, continuing on. This wasn’t the time for jokes. Not when most of her family was still missing, as far as she knew. Not when the world was in chaos.

“Taylina…” Raff grumbled but trailed after her, jogging to catch up. “Do you have a plan? What are you carrying anyway?”

“As many tools as I could gather, so the Cofah wouldn’t get them.”

“Here, let me carry the bag.”

Taylina almost told him that she could handle it, but in truth, toting them while leaning on her staff was wearying. Even though the salty, smoky night air was not hot, sweat dampened her brow and her back under the bag. She paused to give it to him.

“Thank you,” she said when he accepted it. “As to the plan, that’s part of it. I’m going to offer to trade him our tools.”

“What does a dragon need tools for? They don’t even have hands.”

“Well, he’s got a big cave in the cliffs, doesn’t he? I’m sure he likes collecting treasures to stick in it. Some of those wands we made are colorful and glow perkily.”

“Perky wands, just what a dragon needs. As far as treasures, I think you’ve been reading too many books. I bet his cave is full of bones, the bones of those he’s eaten.”

“If he’s not interested in the tools,” Taylina said, “I’ll point out that the Cofah are invading his island, just as much as they’re invading our island. Maybe he’ll be territorial and go out and attack them to drive them away. He’s lived here for centuries, the tales say.”

“Wouldn’t he have already done that? I’m positive he knows what’s happening. He probably knew those Cofah dragons were coming before they were anywhere near our island.”

“Are you going to stomp all over all of my plans?”

“Just the ones that are likely to lead to you—us—being eaten.”

“Better than being Cofah slaves for the rest of our lives.”

Raff grumbled something under his breath, but he continued to follow her. He uttered a prayer to the sea god when they crossed the Creviced Tiers, the official dividing line between the dragon’s half of the island and the humans’ half. Even though Taylina believed Bergethor would be too busy monitoring the invaders to pay attention to two humans crossing onto his side, she couldn’t help but glance up often. The moon came out as they climbed, and that left more of the sky visible.

“I’ve noticed the Cofah dragons haven’t come to this side,” Raff observed as they used the moonlight to guide them up the craggy terrain, higher and higher, toward the peak of the island—and the cave where Bergethor made his home. As a girl, when Taylina had gone out in fishing boats with her father and brother, she had seen it, the dark opening high in the cliffs that overlooked the Southern Shoals. She had only seen it from a great distance, as the town’s fishing and trading ships did not venture close to land on that side of the island, but she remembered it well, and how ominous it had appeared. She’d thought she had seen yellow eyes peering out from the darkness, though her father had told her it was her imagination.

“There’s nothing over here for them but trouble,” Taylina said. She feared there was nothing over here for her and Raff but trouble too. He was considerate enough not to mention it. “I appreciate you coming with me,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Nobody should have to face a dragon alone.”

“You’re a noble man.”

“Uh huh. Just to be clear, you will be the one in front when we face the dragon. Far in front.”

Taylina wiped her brow again, more from the exertion than from nervousness over walking into a dragon’s cave. Climbing up steep slopes and clambering over the rocks where there were no trails was taking its toll, and she had jammed her leg awkwardly so many times that her hips throbbed, even the perfectly normal one. She almost welcomed a confrontation with a dragon, if only to end this night.

They came around a natural rock tower, and sea air blasted at them, the strong southerly winds that always buffeted this end of the island. They had reached the far side.

Taylina squinted at the cliffs overlooking the water. They were far more sheer than she had realized. In the dark, she couldn’t see the cave entrance or even guess at its location. Nor could she imagine how they would climb along those steep cliffs. Even climbing them during the day would be difficult, especially for her.

“Don’t tell me we’ll be stuck waiting until dawn,” she said.

“I’ll risk a light,” Raff said, and unfurled a hand.

A glowing, silvery globe appeared in the air in front of Taylina, illuminating the rocks for ten feet in all directions. It also illuminated Raff’s face, and she sucked in a startled breath at the dried blood on his cheek and jaw, and the huge purple knot at his temple.

“I better not make it any brighter,” he said, “in case the other dragons are about, searching. I also sensed another warship to the south of the island, maybe watching to make sure our people don’t escape in ships.”

“Lovely of the Cofah to be so thorough.” Taylina waved at his face. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. The Cofah didn’t like my magic, as it turns out. They informed me in a physical manner.”

“They’re a rude people.”

“They are.”

Taylina nodded at the globe. “Can you send it along the cliffs so we can look for the cave?”

He hesitated. “The dragon may see it. Or sense it. It’s minuscule power compared to what he can make, but with nobody else making magic on this side of the island, it’ll stand out like a beacon.”

“Then he’ll come out of his cave to check it out. I fail to see the problem.” Taylina would be happy if the dragon came to them, so long as he didn’t incinerate them with gouts of fire before she could offer her deal.

“You’re a strange girl, Tay.”

“Says the only man in the village who waves his fingers and makes things glow.”

“I’d be more proud of the ability if people didn’t squint at me and mutter under their breath when I pass.” Raff flexed his fingers, and the silvery globe drifted away from them, traveling along the cliffs and shining its light into nooks and crevices. “They didn’t do that when I was apprenticed to Kraig the baker and had no idea I had dragon blood in my veins.”

“Nobody gives bakers squinty eyes. Everyone loves bread and sweets.” While leaning on her staff, Taylina watched the cliffs as the light traveled higher, wondering how she would climb up there if they spotted the cave. “And the fact that your bread always rose, your loaves never oozed over the side of the pan, and your dragon-horn cookies were always perfectly shaped should have alerted Kraig to your strangeness.”

“Oh, he knew I was strange. Just not in a magically gifted sense. I—oh.”

The light stopped moving, its glow now illuminating a large opening in the rock.

“That’s the spot,” Raff said.

“Maybe you can shine your light more brightly, so it’ll wake him up, and he’ll come out.”

He frowned at her. “I don’t think you read the right kinds of books as a girl. Don’t you know it’s never a good idea to wake dragons from a good sleep? Or at all. Ever. Let sleeping dragons lie.” He scraped his fingers through his lank hair. “Tay, this is not a good idea. I think we should go back. Once things have settled down, we can work to free our people if they’ve been captured.”

“Captured? Are we sure that’s all they’ll do? How many are already dead, Raff?”

“I…” He looked away. “I’m not sure. A lot of people were in pain. My senses told me that much. I didn’t want to—I was afraid to look too closely.”

“We have to do this.” Taylina imagined Raff astride Bergethor’s back, swooping in to attack the other dragons and drive the Cofah away from their shores. Maybe she would be allowed to ride along. She couldn’t do anything to help in a battle, but she would give a great deal right now not to have to walk all the way back across the island, with its rough terrain. “We have to,” she said again, more quietly.

As Raff sighed, Taylina leaned her staff against the rocks and braced herself to navigate the cliff. The cave entrance lay thirty or forty feet to her left and at least twenty feet up. She hated the idea of limping into a dragon’s den, of showing any weakness at all to Bergethor, but she couldn’t climb and carry it with her.

“I don’t suppose you can telepathically call to him and ask him to come out?” she asked.

“I’m not good at telepathy.”

That wasn’t quite an answer to her question, and she remembered him speaking into her mind before, but she supposed she couldn’t blame him for being afraid. Maybe she was being foolish and naive for not sharing that intense fear.

Determined, and not wanting to examine that fear too closely lest it dissuade her from her path, Taylina climbed out onto the rock face. Raff’s light floated closer to her again, illuminating the cliff so she could pick the least challenging route. She could put weight on her right leg, but not as much as her left, and it ached so much that she simply wanted to lie down in bed and go to sleep. Her bed in her little cottage out behind her parents’ house. In the past, she had lamented that she hadn’t found a husband and moved into a more proper home, but that cottage sounded like paradise right now. She wondered if it was still standing.

“Focus,” she whispered to herself, looking up to find the next handhold.

After finding a way to tie the bag of tools around his shoulders so he could use both hands, Raff followed her onto the cliff. After a few moments of climbing in silence, a high-pitched shriek came from above them.

Taylina’s hand slipped, and her heart tried to leap out of her throat. Raff’s light winked out, leaving her in darkness.

“What was that?” she whispered.

Raff groaned, pressing his forehead to the rock. “The dragon. Couldn’t you feel the psychic power in that cry?”

“Psychic power? It sounded like someone stepped on a cat. A big, loud cat.” She squinted toward the cave entrance, but she could see little without the light. She grew more aware of the roar of the surf below, of how deadly a fall would be from up here.

The shriek came again, then cut off abruptly.

“That’s not how I imagined a dragon’s roar,” Taylina said, her heart hammering in her chest and the hairs standing up on the back of her neck.

“I don’t think that was a roar. I can sense… someone—something—is in pain.”

“Bergethor?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could one of the Cofah dragons have come over here and confronted him for some reason?” Taylina asked. “Or even attacked him?”

Why would they bother if he was staying out of the invasion? It wasn’t as if Bergethor had proclaimed himself an ally to Iskandoth.

“I don’t know any more than you do,” Raff said, his voice tight and terse, as if he had a pounding headache. Maybe he did.

“Can you make the light come back?”

“You’re a tyrannical lowly woodworker.”

“And you’re too far away for me to club,” she said.

“How unfortunate.” Raff took a deep breath, one she could hear from several feet away, and the light reappeared.

As she continued her climb, a third shriek came, the power in it seeming to rattle her bones. Maybe Bergethor was having nightmares. Either way, he was certainly distracted by something. That might explain why he hadn’t noticed Raff’s light globe.

Taylina reached the cave opening, a vast hole wide enough for a dragon to fly through with his wings spread. She pulled herself up, her arms and hands having always been stronger than her legs. Even so, they were exhausted, the muscles trembling, and she collapsed in the entrance, only glancing inside to make sure nothing was preparing to leap out at her. The light’s influence did not extend far, and she couldn’t see more than a few meters into the cave, but she could make out a wide tunnel. Wide enough for a dragon to lurk in.

Raff pulled himself up beside her, and a sorrowful moan came from deep within the cave.

“It must be the Cofah,” Taylina reasoned. “Hurting him or purposely torturing him because…” She shrugged helplessly, still not certain why a Cofah dragon would be bothering Bergethor. Unless he had sent out some telepathic threats from within his cave?

Raff knelt with one hand braced against the rock wall, his eyes distant as he looked inside with his mind. The globe of light waned as he concentrated on something else.

“There are two dragons in there,” he said, a note of wonder in his voice.

Taylina pushed herself to her feet, using the wall for support since she did not have her staff. “Maybe if we can help Bergethor, he’ll be grateful and want to help us.”

“I don’t think gratitude is an emotion dragons experience toward humans. And how would we be of help against another dragon?”

“I did bring some of our better tools.” Taylina lifted the bag from his shoulder and poked into it. She remembered stuffing a healing wand in there. It had the power to seal wounds and knit flesh back together. If Bergethor was injured, perhaps it would help.

“That’s the Rod of Fecundity,” Raff observed as she pulled the wrong tool out. “I don’t know much about Bergethor’s problems, but I doubt he’s crying about his lack of fecundity.”

“You never know. I hear he doesn’t get out of this cave much.” Taylina stuck the rod back in and found the tool she wanted, an ebony wand with a white crystal that glowed softly, illuminating their surroundings.

“That sounds like a sociability problem rather than a fecundity issue.”

“Maybe we can discuss all of his problems with him.”

“Oh, I’ll relish that conversation.” Raff muttered something about not being a “dragon therapist” under his breath.

Taylina figured it would be a victory if they could get the grumpy Bergethor to speak with them at all. With the healing wand in hand, she headed into the tunnel and rehearsed possible ways to open a conversation. She leaned against the cool, damp stone as she advanced, wishing she’d found a way to carry her staff up here, and also wishing that the healing wand could fix her hip, but she had been born with the deformity. No healer had ever had a solution for her.

An indignant roar echoed from the depths ahead, wind stirring Taylina’s hair and raw power flowing across her body like a lightning bolt striking nearby. Raff gasped and hunched over, hands gripping his knees.

“Is that the same dragon?” Taylina asked. The roar had sounded nothing like those shrieks of pain.

“I—” Raff pressed his palm to the side of his head. “It’s hard for me to tell. There’s so much power, I can barely sense my own body.” He squinted at her. “Isn’t this pounding in your head? Can’t you feel them?”

“Not as much as you. I feel some irritation, some power. That’s it.”

“For once, I wish I was mundane.”

“There are perks to being lowly,” Taylina said and continued forward.

A yellowish glow came from around a bend, flickering slightly, as a campfire might. She had a hard time imagining a dragon lighting a campfire.

Raff stumbled as he walked after her, also using the stone wall for support. Taylina wished she could do something for him, but doubted the healing wand would help with headaches created by the proximity to dragons.

I am the god, Bhrava Saruth, a powerful voice spoke into her mind, ringing inside of her skull. Taylina stumbled, almost dropping to her knees. I am—ow, you cow-molesting, limp-snouted—ow!

Taylina gaped at Raff. “Did you hear that?”

Both of his hands were pressed to his skull now, but he managed a pained nod. “Yes.”

“Was it a dragon?”

“I have no idea.”

~

I’ll post the next chapter in a few days, but if you’re interested, you can also pre-order Beginnings (which contains Dragon Rider) in the usual spots:

Dragon Rider: Chapter 1

| Posted in Ebook News, Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks |

7

My Beginnings boxed set, which bundles a new adventure (Dragon Rider) with four of my existing Book 1s, has been uploaded to the various stores, but won’t be live until the 28th. I thought I’d post the first couple of chapters on my site for anyone who’s been patiently waiting for some dragon action.

Dragon Rider is set approximately one thousand years before the events in the Dragon Blood series, when the Cofah first came to conquer what was then known as Iskandoth. In that era, the sight of a dragon in the sky was not uncommon.

Dragon Blood fans have met Bhrava Saruth, the dragon who thinks he’s a god. (Interview here.) It takes a couple of chapters before he appears in Dragon Rider, but once he’s there, I assure you (or perhaps he assures me), that he’s the star.

Chapter 1

Magic flared, making Taylina squint and look away from the glowing emerald at the end of the scepter. Heat radiated down the shaft, making it grow uncomfortably warm in her hands.

“If you make this explode, I’m going to club you over the head with the handle.” Taylina lowered her voice to a mutter. “What’s left of it.”

Raff, her lone colleague in the tool shop, grinned at her over the glowing gem, his shaggy blond hair dangling in his eyes. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a lowly woodworker to threaten a powerful sorcerer.”

“I’ve known you since you danced in the front yard, wearing your smallclothes like a headdress and proclaiming yourself a powerful clansman chief. I don’t feel you have the right to tell me what’s appropriate.”

“I’ve matured a lot since then.”

“Did I mention that, with the exception of the smallclothes hat, you were utterly naked?”

“I have no recollection of that event.”

“I’m sure your aunt Veyluis could fill you in on the forgotten details. She paddled you afterward, as I recall.”

Raff grimaced at her. “Your memory is good for a lowly woodworker.”

“Yes, it is. And if you call me lowly one more time, I’ll definitely club you.”

“Such violence. It’s no wonder the handsome bachelors in town haven’t come a-courting.”

She scowled at him and shifted her weight, aware of the dull ache in her hip that always came when she stood too long—aware, too, that her awkward gait and limp were the more likely reasons men didn’t come a-courting. It had certainly been the reason for much childhood teasing.

“Sorry,” Raff said, touching her arm. “It was a thoughtless joke.”

“That’s creepy, you know.”

He blinked and withdrew his hand. “My touch?”

“No, when you get all sensitive because you’re reading my mind empathetically. Or telepathically. Whatever it is you’re able to do now. You used to be obtuse.”

“Oh, I think I’m still that.”

“Maybe a little.”

They shared a grin. They’d known each other far too long for any slips of the tongue to seriously offend. Taylina was glad that he hadn’t changed much in the years he had been away on the mainland, studying to become a sorcerer and a toolmaker. Back when he’d first been accepted to that fancy mage academy, she remembered fearing that she would lose her best friend.

Disturbed by the heat, she shifted her grip farther down the scepter’s handle. She worried that an explosion was a real possibility. It wouldn’t be the first wooden handle she had painstakingly turned on her lathe, only to later watch it blow up when Raff tried to imbue it with magic.

“Raff, maybe we should—”

A distant boom interrupted her. The emerald lost its glow as Raff lost his concentration, turning toward the front window. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes grew round with horror.

“What is it?” Taylina asked, laying the scepter on a table.

From their spot in the back of the tool- and clutter-filled shop, she couldn’t see much outside, but Raff had powers that she did not.

He closed his mouth, shook his head grimly, and jogged toward the window. Taylina grabbed her staff and limped after him, skirting the big planing and cutting tools without trouble. She had spent almost as much time up here as she had in her family’s woodworking shop, and she could have navigated it even in the dark.

“It’s the Cofah,” Raff said, gripping the windowsill.

Dread curled through Taylina’s gut as she joined him to look out the window. Their island, way down in the southeast panhandle of Iskandoth, had thus far been ignored by their country’s would-be conquerors, but judging by the four huge imperial warships floating in the harbor, that had changed.

The tool shop was a half mile up the slope above town, so Taylina had no trouble seeing over the whitewashed buildings and flat rooftops to the protected harbor and the sea beyond. The cheeky Cofah had sailed right up to the docks. Her stomach clenched when she spotted several of their fishing ships wrecked, the masts broken, the craft tilted onto their sides. Flames leaped from the devastated hulls of more than one. Seven gods, how had she missed hearing the battle? Or had the Cofah caught everyone by surprise and done this with lightning speed?

“Look.” Raff pointed skyward with one hand and gripped her arm with his other.

Clouds grayed the sky, and twilight wasn’t far off, so it took her a moment to see what he was pointing to. But as the village bell tower started clamoring a warning, she saw it. No, she saw them.

Three dragons soared in the sky, human riders in black Cofah military uniforms astride their backs as if their mounts were horses instead of massive, scaled creatures with wings that stretched thirty feet or more. Reptilian tails streaked out behind them while long, sinewy necks snaked about, their lizard-like heads peering at the landscape below, sword-length fangs waiting to chomp into man or beast. Oh, Taylina couldn’t see those details well from her spot more than a mile away, but she had seen the dour man-eating dragon that claimed the back half of their island before. The great creatures were agile and strong, but also magical and nearly impossible for a human or even an army to defeat in battle. The idea that human beings, even if they were powerful sorcerers and sorceresses, had talked some dragons into working with them—and allowing themselves to be ridden—boggled her mind.

Another boom sounded, one that started a chain of many. Cannonballs soared from the warships and crashed into the docks and the buildings on the waterfront. The dragons, two golden and one silver, arrowed out of the sky, straight for town, and Taylina stepped back, fear flooding her body even though the creatures weren’t yet close to the tool shop. One breathed fire, doing little damage to the stone structures, but the others must have launched some magical attacks, for an invisible force greater than the fiercest hurricane seemed to strike the large two-story town hall near the docks. The entire building exploded into thousands of pieces of rubble.

Taylina stumbled back as screams made their way up the hill, mingling with the gongs from the bell. As loud as the booms of the cannons were, they could not drown out those cries.

“Mother, Father,” Taylina whispered, their faces leaping to the forefront of her mind. “Jessa and Morlin,” she added, naming her little sister and older brother. They were all down there now, most likely still at the woodworking shop. The woodworking shop right in the center of town. She hoped Jessa was with their parents. Her sister had been simple of mind and easily confused since enduring a childhood illness, and wouldn’t know what was going on. “I have to get them,” she whispered.

“Tay,” Raff said, not releasing his grip on her arm as she turned toward the door. “What can we do?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t stand here and watch our homes burn, and our families—” Taylina broke off, not wanting to contemplate what might happen to everyone. Would the Cofah keep attacking until the town was leveled? Or were they trying to take over without destroying everything? Would people be captured? Imprisoned? Killed?

Taylina jerked her arm out of Raff’s grip and limped for the door, ignoring the dull ache in her hip. She thrust it open, and the scent of smoke hit her like a slap to the face. The screams were louder outside, and she spotted people fleeing town, running up the brushy slope in the direction of the tool shop and beyond. Hiding in the hills might be the best way to avoid invaders, even if it meant the townsfolk had to leave their homes and everything they owned behind. Taylina couldn’t head in that direction, though, not until she found her family.

She started down the winding dirt road that led through the juniper and oleander, but paused when one of the dragons veered inland. It seemed to be coming straight at her. Before, she had only noticed one rider on each dragon’s back, but this one had picked up three more, men in soldiers’ uniforms.

“Get off the road,” Raff whispered, touching her arm.

She hadn’t realized he had been following her, but she was glad for his presence now. As someone trained to use magic, he would know more about dragons—and how to avoid them—than she did.

Using her staff to navigate the uneven terrain, Taylina stepped into the shadow of a stray olive tree that had grown up far from the cultivated groves in the flatter land above the town.

The dragon, its magnificent form visible even through the branches, soared in their direction. Even from a distance, its sheer size and the power of those wing beats inspired awe—and terror. Taylina’s knees weakened, and she felt herself a fool for contemplating running down into the town.

“It’s not after you, is it?” Taylina asked.

“I haven’t done anything to irk any dragons lately,” Raff said, hiding under the tree with her.

“But it might sense your power.”

“My power is insignificant compared to that of a dragon. It might be coming after you.” He gave her a worried frown. “The males are known to shape-shift and take human lovers.”

The dragon coasted low over Chay Jarffle’s house, the medicine woman’s small home perched along the same road that led to the tool shop. Its massive jaws opened, and fire blasted from its throat. Unlike most of the stone buildings in town, the house was made from wood, and it burst into flame as if it had been doused in alcohol first. A scream erupted.

“But I don’t think love is what’s on their minds now,” Raff added grimly.

Tears sprang to Taylina’s eyes, and she gripped the tree’s gnarled trunk. “Why are they doing this?” she whispered.

Again, she felt the urge to race down there and confront the intruders, to drive them away and protect her family and friends. But what could she do? Limp ferociously at them and beat them with her staff?

“I’m afraid this means Iskandoth lost the war,” Raff said. “I’m surprised there wasn’t word from the mainland, a warning, but we’re so far out of the way. Maybe nobody thought to warn us.”

“They should have. We’ve been the ones supplying the magical tools to help the army and the sorcerers over there.”

Raff sucked in a concerned breath, and Taylina looked at him.

“I wonder if— What if that’s why they’re here?” he asked. “Because of the tools. Maybe they want to keep us from supplying them to—” His eyes widened as he broke off.

The dragon had landed. In the center of the dirt road, less than a quarter mile down the hill, it lowered its body to the ground, and three of the four riders slid off. Fierce-looking, shaven-headed men with maces, bows, and swords, they immediately strode up the road. The dragon leaped into the air, banking back toward the town, or perhaps the harbor where longboats full of Cofah troops were being rowed toward the docks. In each one, a man or woman in sorcerer’s robes stood at the prow, some soulblade or magical staff at the ready.

Two of the soldiers striding up the road carried empty canvas bags over their shoulders.

“They are coming for us,” Raff whispered.

“Us or the tools?”

“The tools most likely. Damn it, Tay, there are dozens of powerful artifacts in there that we’ve made. Since the supply ship was delayed, they’ve been stacking up and…”

Raff grimaced, perhaps thinking now of why the supply ship might have been delayed these last months. Was the capital, way over on the western side of Iskandoth, embroiled in fighting? Or had it already fallen?

“Come on.” He gripped her shoulder. “We have to get away from the road. This tree won’t hide us from their eyes when they’re right next to us.”

Taylina knew he was right, but for a moment, her legs wouldn’t move. Numbness had crept over her entire body.

The soldiers paused, lifting their bows toward the side of the road to their right. A handful of townspeople were running up the slope, no doubt trying to escape. The scrubby brush only partially hid them, and the soldiers were able to target them. Arrows flew, and screams—women’s screams—came from the slope.

Raff cursed. “I’m going to have to try something. I wish—no, it doesn’t matter now. I’m not a warrior, but I have to do what I can. Tay, get up the slope, up to the grove and beyond. Hide up there. If I can, I’ll find you later. And I’ll check on your parents.”

Taylina wanted to object to running and hiding, especially if he was going out to risk himself, but Raff did not give her time to argue. He slipped away from the olive tree, ducking into the brush alongside the road, soon disappearing as he worked his way down the hill.

Taylina took a step after him, but her heel came down on a rock, and she slipped, an awkward jolt running up her leg to her hip. Pain throbbed deep in the joint. Reminded again of what a pitiful warrior she would be—unlike Raff, she didn’t even have magic to call upon and use cleverly—she turned and pushed through the brush back toward the shop.

A startled shout came from somewhere behind her. She hoped it was Raff using his power to hurl those men all the way back into the ocean. Unfortunately, she knew that was unlikely, since he was, as he had said, a tool-making specialist and not an elemental mage, but maybe he could come up with something.

She started to walk past the tool shop, intending to continue up the hill toward the olive groves, but she hesitated, her gaze drawn to the front door Raff had left wide open. As if in invitation to the Cofah.

“No,” she whispered. “You’re not getting the tools we made.”

Taylina looked back down the road, but the terrain hid those three men from view. Hoping that meant she had a little time—or that Raff was buying time—she veered toward the door. She grabbed a few tools from the cabinet full of finished projects, but soon realized she couldn’t carry that many of them, not when she needed her staff to lean on. She only took small items and ones she believed extra valuable because of their traits, stuffing them into a bag much as the Cofah had planned to do. Others, she moved to a storage vault under the floor tiles in the back. A sorcerer would have no trouble sensing their power and finding them. She hoped none of those men had such talents.

She limped back toward the front door, but halted abruptly. She hadn’t closed it, and the road was visible with two of the three men walking straight toward her. There was no sign of Raff. She ducked into the shadows behind a worktable. Had the men seen her? She hoped not. There weren’t any shouts.

With her bag over her shoulder and her staff in hand, she darted around tools and half-started projects, angling for a side window, one that wasn’t visible from the front of the building. She opened it, smoky air flowing inside, and crawled out. She had barely landed on the ground when the thud of the front door hitting the wall sounded behind her.

A man spoke in the Cofah language, which she did not understand at all, but she could imagine the words: “Take everything that’s magical or worth anything.”

Clangs and crashes followed on the heels of the words.

Taylina crawled away on her hands and knees, tears pricking her eyes at the sounds of destruction in the shop where she had spent the last two years working, in the shop that her father had helped her build when it first became clear that they needed to assist in the war effort, to help Iskandoth stay free. It seemed that their assistance hadn’t been enough.

As she crested the top of the hill, the olive groves spreading out before her, her eyes had even more reason to tear up. A dragon and rider flew over the trees, raining fire down onto the branches, destroying everything. She paused beside a boulder, hiding from the sky and also looking back behind her. More of the town was burning or destroyed now, and those boats full of soldiers had reached the docks. Troops raced everywhere, attacking or capturing the people who hadn’t run, those who were fighting back. Who were trying to fight back.

Gray plumes of smoke came from a familiar spot halfway up the hill, the tool shop. The bastards had lit it on fire.

Dashing tears from her eyes, Taylina picked a careful path around the grove. Frustration boiled inside her. She hated that there was nothing for her to do but hide and run—and avoid the fire leaping from tree to tree, hazing the sky with smoke that seared her nostrils and made her cough. She wanted so badly to help, but what could one lame girl do against dragons with fire and magic, and professional soldiers with blades and bows?

“You’d need a dragon of your own to fight back,” she grumbled, again wiping tears from her smoke-beleaguered eyes. She froze halfway through the motion, an idea leaping to her mind, startling her with its intensity.

“The dragon,” she whispered, looking in the direction of the southern half of the island, the half that belonged to Bergethor the Bleak.

The dragon was old, grumpy, and prone to eating sheep, dogs, and even humans foolish enough to walk into his territory. Not that anyone from town strayed onto that side of the island. An old treaty a past chief had made with Bergethor kept him from coming to this side of the island, and the locals were careful to heed the boundaries. Bergethor wasn’t a dragon that anyone bothered—certainly, nobody had ever asked him to join forces with humans to fight off the Cofah Empire. Or if they had, they had never been heard from again.

But what choice did Taylina have? Only a dragon had the power to fight another dragon. Of course, Bergethor was only one dragon, and she had seen three, not to mention sorcerers, but he was supposed to be very old. Weren’t older dragons more powerful than the young? Maybe he could drive the Cofah away.

“Just have to figure out how to get him to help,” she muttered.

The task sounded daunting, if not impossible, but she turned toward the south half of the island. Bergethor was the only one with the power to help, and one way or another, she intended to talk him into it. Before it was too late.

~

Chapter 2, coming soon… 🙂

If you’d like to have a copy of the story, you can pre-order it (it releases on Feb 28th) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Cyborg Legacy Is Available + Preview Chapters

| Posted in Ebook News |

2

If you’ve read my interview with the cyborg Leonidas, or you’re subscribed to my scifi newsletter, then you probably already know that I have a new adventure out. In case neither of those things apply to you… guess what? I have a new book out!

Cyborg Legacy takes place in my Fallen Empire universe, about four years after the events of End Game. I designed it to work as a stand-alone, so if you haven’t read the others yet, but would like to try this one, it can be a starting point into my space adventures.

For now, Cyborg Legacy and my other scifi is exclusive with Amazon due to the various promo perks that Amazon offers and the fact that they’ve decided to turn the Fallen Empire universe into a “Kindle Worlds” (other authors will be able to write in my sandbox). But more on that in April when things will be ready to launch. For now, here’s the blurb and first couple of chapters of Cyborg Legacy.

~

Cyborg Legacy

Former Cyborg Corps soldier Jasim Antar was relieved to come out of the war alive and looked forward to switching to a less violent line of work. But nobody wants to hire a brawny cyborg to do anything that doesn’t involve brutalizing people on a daily basis. Stuck working as a debt collector alongside an eccentric pilot who enjoys knitting gifts for her grandkids when she isn’t blowing people up, Jasim longs to find a more peaceful existence.

But peace is elusive when you have a violent past. While on a routine mission, Jasim comes across the body of a soldier he served with during the war. He soon learns that someone is murdering former members of the Cyborg Corps, men who should be extremely difficult to kill. And he’s next on the list.

Jasim steels himself to reach out to the one person he’s certain can help, his old commander: Colonel Leonidas Adler. Adler is strong, smart, and deadly, good traits to have in an ally. Unfortunately, he remembers Jasim as a misfit rather than a model soldier, and convincing him to join forces may be even tougher than finding and facing the killer.

Chapter 1

A soft hiss-thunk sounded as Jasim Antar fastened his helmet, the final piece of his combat armor, and walked out of his cabin on the Interrogator. He headed for Navigation and Communications where his lone companion on the journey sat in the pilot’s seat. Knitting. Jasim grabbed a blazer rifle from the weapons locker on the way into NavCom.

When he entered, Maddy lowered her long needles and an amorphous purple and green blob that would, he had been informed, grow into a scarf to match the hat she had already knitted him. Her gray hair was swept back with a clip, and she wore a loose sweater of her own design, the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, the front featuring a cheerful orange bird perched on a twig. The weapons belt secured at her waist, a blazer pistol longer than her forearm hanging in the holster, contrasted oddly with the otherwise kindly grandmother visage.

“Ready for a tough one, big man?” Maddy asked.

Jasim snorted. Big man. Hardly. When he’d applied to join the Cyborg Corps, back when the empire had dominated the system and the imperial army had been a great entity with headquarters on every planet, he’d cracked his spine trying to stand tall enough to make the minimum six-foot height requirement. He was an inch too short, and he was fairly certain the recruiting doctor had only allowed him in because the war had been ramping up, and he’d had a quota to make. Few men had been crazy enough to sign up for the extensive surgeries and body alterations that came with being turned into an imperial cyborg.

“I’m ready,” Jasim said. He’d never thought he would miss the war and the killing—the sun gods knew he’d tried to get out of the unit more than once—but at least he’d had a purpose then. Now…

“I’ll do my flyby to make sure the ship is there,” Maddy said, turning toward the control panel. Her needles and project went into the yarn-filled knitting basket next to her seat.

“Don’t get too close to the compound. He’ll have enhanced hearing, just like me. I’d rather not warn him I’m coming by buzzing his living room window.”

“You needn’t tell me how to do my job, dear,” Maddy said, swooping low over the tents, metal buildings, and salvage yards that dominated this part of Temperance. Most parts of Temperance. Targos Moon had not been doing well since the empire fell, with the dozens of governments that had sprouted up too busy squabbling over resources to worry about their people, and Temperance was controlled by a mafia clan that wasn’t reputed to be any better. “I’ve been flying since before your mother was paddling your bare bottom.”

“My mother died before I was old enough to need paddling. I grew up on the streets of New Jerome with my older sisters.”

“Well, I’m sure paddling was involved. You have a naughty personality.”

Jasim arched his eyebrows. “I’m certain I’ve never done anything to suggest that to you.” Granted, he occasionally played a prank or two on those who deserved it, but even if Maddy had deserved pranks, he would be afraid to try anything on her, since she was his boss’s mother-in-law. Any woman who cheerfully allowed her daughter to marry a man known as The Pulverizer was not to be trifled with.

“I’ve read your record. Your last pilot complained about run-ins with something called a whoopee cushion.”

“Actually, it was a splat pad, and that was only one time. And he deserved it. He was smooching with a prostitute in NavCom when I was getting shot at and needed a pickup. I trust you won’t be unreliable like that.”

“I suppose that depends on how handsome the prostitutes here are.” Maddy winked at him.

“Pilots,” he grumbled. It didn’t matter how many children or grandchildren they had. They were all half-crazy. If not all crazy. He wouldn’t be surprised if Maddy came from the word mad rather than being a shortening of her name, Madeline.

He got another wink before Maddy returned her focus to the control panel. A three-legged dog roaming a street threw back his head and barked at them as they flew overhead. The cloudy green sky was clear of other spaceships. Few people had a reason to visit the unincorporated part of Temperance. Jasim wagered most of the citizens wished they lived somewhere else. Where else, he didn’t know. Most former imperial citizens who hadn’t turned traitor and fought for the Alliance now had trouble getting citizenship on their pretty core planets.

“There she is,” Maddy said, nodding toward one of several holodisplays, this one showing the ship’s port camera feed.

The sleek black hull of a ten-man star yacht rested on a dirt lot surrounded by a brick and barbed-wire fence. Less than a year old, the gleaming spaceship stuck out outrageously in the impoverished neighborhood. Jasim was surprised the locals hadn’t broken it down into pieces to sell, but supposed the presence of the man living in the squat cinderblock structure attached to the yard might have intimidated them.

“What a beaut,” Maddy said, eyeing the yacht. “I looked at the specs earlier. She’s got real showers instead of saniboxes, and there are auto-massagers and saunas in the lavatories.”

“You don’t think The Pulverizer would put a sauna in the lav on this ship for you?” Jasim asked.

“Please, he’s a scrimper. Besides, where would it go in that tiny lav? The toilet would have to be inside the sauna for it to fit. And an auto-massager?” She sighed wistfully and looked at Jasim’s arms. “I’d ask you to put those meat slabs of yours to work in a useful manner, but I don’t want to have my bones crushed.”

“Meat slabs?”

“What do you call them?” She waved to his arms.

The armor hid the thick muscles at the moment, but Jasim supposed she’d seen him in a T-shirt often enough in the few weeks they had been working together to remember them well. He’d caught her investigating other parts of him, too, usually when she didn’t think he was looking. It probably wasn’t appropriate to think of his boss’s mother-in-law as lecherous.

“I call them arms,” Jasim said.

“How insufficient.” Maddy whistled cheerfully and adjusted their course. “I’ll get within a half-mile, and you’ll have to rappel out. There’s no place to land, and I wouldn’t want to in this neighborhood even if I could. Probably wouldn’t take the hoodlums thirty seconds before they descended on us and tried to tear off the panels for scrap.”

“Just open the hatch, and I’ll jump out.” Jasim waved at the altimeter to indicate that he could handle the thirty- or forty-foot drop.

“Ah, right. I forgot. You’re like an android.”

Jasim frowned but didn’t bother correcting her. He’d tried numerous times in the years since the war ended, but he hadn’t had much luck changing people’s assumptions about cyborgs. At least she didn’t call him “mech,” the derisive nickname many people had for cyborgs. Not that many used the term to their faces.

“Just fly over one of the streets,” Jasim said, turning toward the exterior hatch that opened up from the ship’s single corridor. “Preferably not one of those alleys full of dog piss and potholes.”

“I’ve been to Temperance before. I don’t think that’s dog piss.”

“Lovely.”

Jasim walked the three steps to the hatch—the Interrogator was a modern ship with a fast engine, good shields, and impressive weapons, but it was definitely not luxurious or large. As he waited for Maddy to find a spot, he silently ordered his helmet display to turn on. The neural net touching his scalp in several spots read the command and obeyed, and readings that ranged from sensor data about his surroundings, to the suit’s integrity, to his body’s vital statistics appeared along the sides of his faceplate. They did not interfere with his vision, and it was easy to look through them instead of focusing on them during a battle. Everything appeared normal, and his heartbeat thumped along at a perfectly normal rhythm despite his nervousness about the target he would confront on this particular mission.

He checked his rifle and the smaller blazer weapons that could pop out of the arms of his suit on command. He doubted thugs would leap out at him as soon as he landed—most people fled from men wearing the distinctive red combat armor of the Cyborg Corps—but when he was operating on his own like this, he couldn’t be too careful. Maddy might provide some aerial backup if he got in trouble, but that wasn’t her job. She was supposed to fly him to the deadbeats, tow the ships they collected if necessary, arrange to have them transported back to headquarters, and fly him to the next mission. That was it. She also, Jasim suspected, reported back to her son-in-law regularly and would let The Pulverizer know if Jasim absconded with any of the goods he was supposed to be retrieving.

A boom came from outside, and the ship tilted alarmingly.

The stabilizers in Jasim’s leg armor kept him upright without trouble, but the litany of un-grandmotherly curses that came from NavCom was alarming. He’d never heard her denigrate the size of the reproductive organs of all three sun gods before, not all at once.

“Problem?” Jasim asked.

“Some idiot with a grenade launcher is firing at us from a rooftop.” Even as she finished speaking, the Interrogator banked hard.

This time, Jasim braced himself by pressing his gauntleted hands against the bulkhead. In space, artificial gravity would usually keep the ship stable, but down here, it was more akin to being in an airplane. An airplane that was under fire.

As the ship rose and looped back the way it had come, Maddy said, “Hold back on opening the hatch. I had to raise the shields.”

As the deck shifted and tilted, Jasim made his way back to NavCom and looked at the view screen. He was in time to see a pack of men and women in baggy, mismatched clothing pointing weapons at them from the flat rooftop of a three-story tenement building. There was more than one grenade launcher among the group, along with everything from blazer rifles to shotguns to a longbow that someone looked to have made by hand. Its owner couldn’t have been more than twelve.

Maddy wore a determined expression as she arrowed the ship toward the rooftop.

“You’re not going to fire, are you?” Jasim gripped her shoulder, careful, as always, not to squeeze too hard. In addition to having the strength that his cyborg implants gave him, combat armor amplified the wearer’s power.

“Nobody fires at The Pulverizer’s ships without receiving retaliation,” Maddy said, speaking it like a mantra. Maybe it was underlined in the company rulebook somewhere.

“You’ll blow up that whole building.”

“It might improve the neighborhood.”

“There’ll be people in it. Women and children, maybe. Grandchildren,” he added, since she had mentioned having more than a dozen of those herself.

She kept flying, looking determined to blow up the entire building, if not the city block.

“Maddy,” he said quietly, giving her a slight warning squeeze, even though threatening her would not be good for his career. He did not want to wrest the controls from her, but he would if he had to.

She growled, but did not fire as they swooped low over the rooftop. The Interrogator received more fire from the group of thugs, bullets and blazer beams pinging off their shields. Those weapons wouldn’t do any damage. The grenades were another story. Maddy banked hard to avoid another one that was launched from the rooftop. It blew up to their starboard side amid a cloud of black smoke. The ship rocked, but the shields remained near full power.

“What kind of cyborg soldier are you?” Maddy asked, scowling at him as she swooped left and right to make a challenging target.

“A retired one,” Jasim said, though it seemed an odd word to use. After all, he was only twenty-seven. He’d only been in for three years before the war ended. “And not one who ever targeted civilians,” he added firmly.

“That’s not what the stories about the Cyborg Corps say.”

Jasim pressed his lips together. “I know what the stories say.”

“I wasn’t just spouting nonsense back there. We have a company policy that anyone who tries to damage one of our ships or one of our people gets handled—like a straw bale on a rifle range. Our logo is on the side of the ship where anyone can see it. We can’t let word get back of our weakness. The Pulverizer has a reputation.”

“I’m aware of it. Drop me on the roof, and I’ll deal with them.” Jasim felt like a thug when he said such things, but he couldn’t object too much to using force on people who shot at him. He just didn’t want to take out innocent people lounging on their couches and reading news holos on the first floor. Not everyone who lived in this neighborhood was a felon. He knew all too well what it was like to grow up in a place like this and have no way to escape it.

“I’ll have to lower shields for you to jump out,” Maddy said.

“I’ll be quick.” He released her shoulder with a pat and headed back to the hatch.

“I’ll have Earl send the repair bill to you.”

“Earl?”

“My son-in-law.”

“No wonder he goes by The Pulverizer.”

“No insulting the family, cyborg, or you might not get picked up again.”

“I’ll remember that.” Jasim returned to the hatch and touched the control panel on the bulkhead beside it, calling up the forward camera on the display. Between the shock absorbers in his armor and his mostly synthetic bones and joints, he could survive if he jumped and missed the rooftop, but seeing him splat against a brick wall wouldn’t drive fear into the hearts of their attackers. “Ready when you are.”

“Lowering shields,” Maddy said.

The people on the rooftop jumped and pointed, aiming their weapons eagerly. They probably couldn’t believe the ship was coming back so they would get another chance at it. Missing sauna or not, Jasim knew the Interrogator’s parts could bring in good money on the black market. Or maybe the farmers’ market—he doubted the authorities cared much about policing illegal salvage here, and it wouldn’t surprise him to see stolen fuel cells and tube couplers for sale in a kiosk next to tomatoes and asteroid fruit.

Jasim tapped the controls, and the hatch slid open. Maddy hadn’t slowed down for her approach, and wind buffeted his armor and tugged at the rifle slung across his torso on a strap.

He was about to jump out when Maddy shouted, “One’s firing,” and banked hard.

Jasim, already crouched to spring, had to adjust his aim. He jumped from the ship, leaping outward instead of simply dropping down. More wind railed at him but not enough to alter the descent of a two-hundred-pound man in full combat armor.

As he landed on the corner of the rooftop, he planned to charge straight toward the men and women and deal with them as rapidly as possible—his armor could deflect a lot of bullets and blazer bolts, but it wasn’t as impervious as the ship’s shields and would weaken eventually. But part of the old building gave way under his feet, and he had to react quickly to keep from plummeting through to the top floor. His charge turned into a roll away from the hole crumbling open underneath him, and crimson blazer bolts streaked past above him.

“Combat armor,” someone whispered, Jasim’s superior hearing catching the words from across the rooftop. “It’s worth a fortune.”

“Get him. Get him good!”

Jasim recovered from his ungainly landing, leaped to his feet, and raced toward the pack. Not everyone agreed with the speakers, and some of the smarter thugs were already scattering, eyes wide as they took in his red armor. Several, however, stood their ground, unleashing their rifles and pistols at him. There wasn’t any cover on the rooftop, except for an open trapdoor that didn’t look like it could take a windy day, much less weapons fire. Jasim didn’t bother dodging, but he kept an eye on the readout on his faceplate, reporting on hits and giving him armor integrity updates. He almost laughed when a crooked arrow bounced off his shoulder.

He crossed the roof in a second and leaped into the middle of his foes. Even without the combat armor, his enhancements gave him speed and strength that unaltered humans couldn’t match. He knocked two men off the roof and grabbed the grenade launcher from a third before the thugs registered what was going on and tried to run out of his reach. He gripped the grenade launcher in both hands, and metal squealed as the frame bent, then snapped. He threw the pieces to the ground and knocked more people from the rooftop, some flying twenty feet before they tumbled over the side and to the ground below.

Screams of pain came up from below, and he had no doubt there would be broken bones, if not worse. But he knew Maddy was right. They couldn’t let the company be a target, and a strong showing here might mean he would face less opposition as he walked toward the target’s house. Word traveled fast, especially in run-down neighborhoods like this.

He let the people who ran get away, even though he could have easily caught up with them. Only the fools who were determined to keep fighting sealed their fate. He knocked them across the rooftop or tossed them off the building with the others. When he’d first received his cyborg implants, he’d been delighted at his newfound strength, his ability to thwart all those people who had once bullied him, but years of war and killing and walking across the battlefields of the maimed and fallen had bled the satisfaction out of him. Now, there were far more regrets than delights. Still, he did his job, because it was the only one he had.

Soon, only one opponent remained on his feet. The boy with the homemade bow and arrows. Dirt smeared his grimy face and hands, but it did not hide the terror in his eyes or the shake to his hands.

As Jasim strode toward him, he expected the kid to drop his bow and run. But he held his ground.

“You keep coming, and I’ll shoot.”

His bravery surprised Jasim, and he admired it, even if it was only likely to get the kid killed around here. Jasim wished he could take him away from the neighborhood or impart some message to him, some advice to help him survive to adulthood and find a better future. After all, that was what Jasim had gone to school for after the war. Teaching children. Helping them. But how could he reconcile that with his current job, one that demanded he not allow slights against his boss—or his boss’s ship? If nothing else, he should offer a few tips on how to survive in an unfriendly world. That way, the boy might be wise enough to run the next time.

When he didn’t stop advancing, the kid was true to his threat and fired.

Jasim caught the arrow out in front of him, before the tip would have bounced off his chest piece. He gentled his grip so that he didn’t snap the wood. Finally, the boy seemed to get an inkling of what sort of foe he faced. He lowered his bow. Still, he didn’t run. He stared defiantly.

Jasim stopped in front of him. “I have a couple of suggestions for you.”

The boy blinked. Apparently, that wasn’t what he’d expected to hear.

“First off,” Jasim said, “I recommend that when someone in combat armor enters your neighborhood, you run. Far and fast. You can’t spend the money you think you could get from selling his armor if you’re dead, eh?”

The boy’s expression grew mulish.

“But if you can’t run, because you’re a part of one of the gangs and they’re putting pressure on you…” Jasim lifted his eyebrows, wondering if that was the case, or if the kid just wasn’t that smart. “You better have some rust bangs.”

The boy’s expression changed, his face wrinkling in confusion.

“They’re sort of like grenades,” Jasim said, “but when they explode, they spit out a kind of acid that can eat through spaceship hulls, combat armor, and just about anything with a metal component. It doesn’t feel too good on skin either.”

“Where…”

“You’d have to find a military surplus store to get some around here, I imagine, but I’ve heard of people making homemade versions out of local ingredients.”

“What kinds of ingredients?”

“Well, you’d have to study some chemistry to learn that. Can you read? Do you go to school?”

The boy hesitated. “I did. But my mom needs… stuff, and you can’t make money around here from what dumb things they tell you in school.”

“You sure? I figure it’d be useful around here to know how to make rust bangs. Smoke bombs too. Those aren’t that hard to make. A little chemistry…”

Now, a speculative expression grew on the boy’s face.

Jasim wondered if he was planting the seed that school could be useful or if he was just making the kid think about muggings and robberies his gang could commit with rust bangs and smoke bombs.

“Teachers usually have certain things they have to teach you,” Jasim said, “but if you show an interest in something else and ask for help with learning about it, they’ll be happy to give that help.”

Jasim’s comm beeped, reminding him that Maddy was waiting for him. He held out the arrow to the boy to return it. He accepted it distractedly, as if lost in thought. Maybe he was imagining himself hurling smoke bombs.

Jasim almost told the kid his own story, of how he’d survived a neighborhood just like this, if not one that was worse than this, until he had been old enough to enlist in the imperial army. But where was the happy ending? It had gotten him off the streets, and he’d finished his degree after the war, but only to learn that nobody would hire a cyborg to do anything that didn’t involve brutalizing people. Almost ten years after he’d escaped his childhood, he was a thug, working in the same kinds of places that he’d grown up in.

“Thanks,” the boy said, scampering away, his arrow in hand.

Jasim left, having no way to know if anything he had said would make a difference to the kid. He walked to the edge of the rooftop and leaped down to the street. The pained groans of those he’d thrown off the building drifted to his ears, making him wince.

Another comm beep sounded.

“Antar?” Maddy asked.

“Yes?”

“You’re less than a half a mile from the target’s house. I’m transmitting a map.”

“Understood.”

The map popped up on the side of his faceplate, showing his location and the target’s address.

“Be careful dealing with him,” Maddy said. “It’ll be a lot more challenging than those scrawny thugs.”

“I know,” Jasim said, turning up an alley in the direction the map indicated. “I remember him from the Corps.”

“Ah. I’d wondered if you might.”

Jasim said nothing else. He didn’t look forward to coming face-to-face with someone else in red combat armor. Sergeant Matt Adams, a man who’d referred to Jasim as “Shorty.” A man who would have the strength to kill him. Jasim hoped it wouldn’t come to that, that Adams would agree that he was a year behind on the payments for his yacht and accept that it had to go back to the dealership, but Jasim remembered Adams’s temper, remembered that he liked to fight and that he liked to kill. He doubted very much that this would be easy.

Chapter 2

Jasim could feel eyes upon him as he turned onto the final street, old pavement crumbling underneath his boots. Ratty curtains shifted in glassless windows, and shadows moved behind partially boarded-up doors. Though aware of the watchers, he faced forward, not overly worried about them. His target was another matter.

Sergeant Adams’s home loomed at the end of a pothole-filled cul-de-sac, looking more like a warehouse than a dwelling. Jasim supposed a house wouldn’t have come with a large enough yard to park one’s luxury yacht in.

His instincts told him to leap up to one of the high second-story windows, work a shutter lose, and slip in that way, completely avoiding the target if possible. Indeed, he spotted a window where the shutter already stood open. Invitingly. But The Pulverizer, despite his ominous reputation, employed a system of collecting delinquent loans and valuables that obeyed the local laws on planets and moons that had them. Jasim first had to knock on the target’s door, inform him that his loan was past due, and ask for the return of the spaceship. If the target did not prove amenable, then he could use force. Murders were unacceptable unless they happened as a result of self-dense. Apparently, The Pulverizer had lawyers who could make charges disappear if the claim of self-defense was debatable and someone was left to press charges. Jasim had not tested that. He had no wish to test it here, either, and he eyed that open window with longing.

Bracing himself, he knocked on the wooden double-doors, the metal rivets lining the frame as large as his fist. The walls on most of the buildings on the street were covered with graffiti. Adams’s place was old and dirty, but there were no signs of vandalism. Everyone in the neighborhood likely knew who and what lived here.

After waiting for a minute, Jasim knocked again. It crossed his mind to slip around back, leap the fence, and use his lock-thwarting repo kit to simply take the ship, but he’d already walked through the alley behind the compound and heard the faint hum of a forcefield. The brick and barbed wire were clearly for show, with more deadly security measures waiting unseen. It would be safer to walk through the house, out the back door, and into the yard.

But nobody answered the door to let him in—or oppose his wish to come in.

Jasim tried the latch, certain it would be locked. He had a kit that could neutralize technological as well as physical locks, and was halfway to reaching for it, but before he could pull it out, the latch gave way and the door creaked open.

“Huh.”

He waited for the telltale thud of footsteps from someone running toward him. All he heard was the buzz of flies. He sniffed before remembering that his helmet would filter out smells—along with any toxic substances that might be in the air. Still, as he walked into a cavernous warehouse-like room half-filled with stacks of crates, he began to suspect that he might not have to face Adams after all.

A metal door stood closed along the back wall—it should lead out to the yard—but Jasim turned toward a hallway off to the side, assuming it led to offices or maybe a living area.

The buzz of flies grew louder. Dim light filtered through the shuttered windows, but there were not any lamps on. There were not any lamps at all, or any sign that electricity was present in this part of the city. Adams must have a generator out back to power the forcefield.

Old wooden floorboards creaked under Jasim’s armored boots. Doors lined the hallway on both sides, some closed and others open. He passed a lavatory and an office, where a desk was piled high with what looked like bills, paper ones. He didn’t see a netdisc or any hint that the warehouse was hooked up to the sys-net. He opened two more doors, one to a kitchen area and one to an empty bedroom. The last door at the end of the hallway was open.

By now, he didn’t expect to encounter anyone. He was already feeling pleased, for The Pulverizer’s rules allowed him to take the yacht if it was present and the owner wasn’t, merely leaving a note that it had been repossessed by request of the title holder. When he walked into the back room, it was dark, and surprise jolted him when he almost stumbled over something on the floor. Flies flew up, one bouncing off his faceplate. Jasim barely noticed, his eyes focused now on the unmoving man sprawled before him.

Clad in nothing but his underwear, the man lay between the bunk and the door, bed sheets tangled in a heap near his feet. His gray eyes were frozen open in death, a pained grimace stamped on his face. Deep, bloody gashes had been cut all over his arms, legs, and chest. For a second, Jasim wondered if he had stumbled across some strange ritualistic murder—or sacrifice—to one of the obscure elder gods. But he didn’t have to look at the placement of those scars for long to realize what had happened. Someone had cut out the man’s—the cyborg’s—implants.

Though his stomach twisted, Jasim leaned down to push apart one of the gashes so he could be certain. Yes, a grayish implant responsible for strengthening a cyborg’s extensor digitorum muscle should have been in that spot, and it was gone.

Jasim leaned back, frowning. One of the man’s burly, heavily muscled arms stretched toward a corner of the room where a large, red metal box rested on the floor. An armor case, identical to the one that held Jasim’s armor when he wasn’t using it.

“Someone took your implants but not your armor?” Jasim muttered. Yes, the implants would be worth more, but the armor would be a lot easier to take and sell. Someone had to know exactly what he was doing to extract the implants without damaging them. Not to mention that someone had to be able to kill a cyborg, no easy feat, to gain access to them.

Jasim walked to the case and lifted the lid. The entire set of armor rested inside in pieces, neatly put away into the proper slots. Odd.

“Well, it doesn’t look like you’re going to object to me taking your ship back,” Jasim said quietly, looking down at the man’s face. Shaggy hair fell across the forehead, and a thick beard hid the mouth and jaw, but Jasim recognized him regardless. He hadn’t liked the man, but his squad had fought alongside Adams’s squad more than once. No question. This was Sergeant Matt Adams. His target.

All Jasim’s job required of him was to reclaim the yacht, and he could have headed into the yard and done that without looking around further, but he couldn’t help wondering what had killed the man. It was more than idle curiosity. Seeing one of his fellow cyborgs dead made him uneasy. He found himself looking around for threats, for something that might endanger him too. Even when they were clad in nothing but underwear, cyborgs weren’t easy to kill, and it was a foregone conclusion that Adams had been dead before the implants had been removed.

Jasim knelt to look at the body more closely. The pectoral gashes were long, but hadn’t gone through to bone and organs. Blood smeared Adams’s body and stained the floor, but there weren’t any bullet or blazer wounds, or any deep punctures.

Adams might have had a heart attack, but the man was only about thirty, so that seemed unlikely. Even though all the tinkering the imperial doctors had done to create their cyborgs had resulted in some metabolic oddities and a shortened lifespan—something the recruiting fliers hadn’t mentioned—they rarely dropped dead from heart attacks, at least not in their thirties. Few lived to old age, but as far as Jasim knew, that was because they were picked for dangerous jobs and met violent ends long before they were old enough to retire from service. The man who’d been the Cyborg Corps commander when Jasim had served, Colonel Adler, had been one of the oldest in the unit at nearly forty. Jasim wondered what had happened to him after the war. He would be closer to forty-five now. Was he still alive somewhere? What work had he found after the fall of the empire? Something more glamorous than repossessing people’s belongings?

Jasim rolled the body over, looking for deadly wounds on the other side. Adams wasn’t stiff, and it looked like rigor mortis had come and gone, so this must have happened a few days ago. He was surprised nobody in the neighborhood had been in to loot Adams’s belongings, especially with that window open and the front door unlocked.

Jasim didn’t see sign of broken bones or any suggestion that there had been a fight. He magnified his faceplate to examine Adams’s neck, ignoring the cuts on the sides. Was it possible someone had strangled him? It was hard to imagine someone even getting his hands around the thickly muscled neck. Even someone in combat armor would be hard-pressed to fight off the defenses of a cyborg long enough to actually finish strangling him. Could he have been attacked by a fellow cyborg? Maybe he’d rubbed more than the titleholder of that yacht the wrong way with his inability to stay current on his payments.

“What’s this?” Jasim murmured, leaning closer and touching the front of Adams’s neck.

There was a tiny puncture in the skin near a tendon. It almost could have passed for a pore, but the hole went deeper than that. If Jasim hadn’t magnified his faceplate and looked specifically at Adams’s neck, he never would have noticed it.

He leaned back on his heels. “Did someone poison you in bed, Sergeant?”

Once again, Jasim peered about the room, as if what or who had done the deed might be lurking nearby, but only flies buzzed around. Whoever had done this had come and gone. A stealthy assassin, or maybe even a drone that had been sent in with cutting tools. That might explain why the implants had been taken but not the armor. A drone would simply have orders to perform one duty, not loot a place for all its valuables. Usually, a cyborg would hear the soft buzz of something flying and wake up, but an empty bottle of vodka rested on the table by the bed. Adams might have been sleeping more deeply than usual.

Jasim sighed. If he were on a more civilized world, he could call the police, someone who could perform an autopsy, and he could find out what poison had killed Adams. But there weren’t police here. Just mafia thugs who enforced what passed for the law. And who anywhere would care that a former imperial cyborg had been killed? The Corps had been feared far and wide from its earliest inception, both by enemies and by loyal imperial subjects. They’d ruthlessly patrolled the empire, enforcing peace with violence, as they had been designed to do.

Jasim stood up. The word would get out soon enough, and the locals would swarm the place, taking Adams’s armor and anything else of value.

“An ignoble end, my friend,” he murmured.

He snorted softly. Friend? Surely Adams hadn’t been that. Jasim had avoided the man whenever possible. But somehow, death erased distaste, reminding him more of how they had been alike than how they had been different.

Jasim tapped the armor case in the corner, activating the hover ability. He didn’t like the idea of the locals fighting over it to sell it, so he would take it, along with the ship. The yacht had to go back to the dealership, but he would look up Adams, see if he had any living family, and return it to them if he did. Times were hard for most people now. Let his relatives sell the armor if they wanted.

Technically, the armor belonged to the empire, but after the final battle, there had been no supply sergeant left in headquarters to turn it in to—there had been no headquarters at all. As far as Jasim knew, all the cyborgs who had survived had kept their armor.

As he headed back through the warehouse, the armor case hissing softly as it floated behind him, Jasim commed the Interrogator. Chances were, what had killed Adams would remain a mystery, even if he tried to investigate it, but he knew someone who could find Adams’s family more easily than he could—assuming she didn’t charge a fortune.

“Everything all right?” Maddy asked.

“Yes… and no. Will you get in touch with Arlen McCall for me?”

“The weird skip tracer whose dog is more likely to answer the comm than she is?”

“That’s her. Just send a message, ask her if she can look up our target and find out if Adams has any family and if so, where they are.”

“You killed him?” Maddy asked, no hint of reproof in her voice.

“No. Someone else did. Three days ago would be my guess.”

“And they didn’t take his yacht?”

“I don’t think they took anything,” Jasim said, glancing at the crates in the warehouse.

“Give me a couple minutes.”

Jasim tapped the button to unlock the back door, and it opened without any security requirements. Apparently, if one got past the cyborg, exploring the rest of the compound was easy. He found the button to lower the forcefield protecting the ship and walked to the sleek yacht resting in the dust. There wasn’t so much as a dent. Aside from missing payments, Adams looked to have taken care of his baby. Maybe he had enjoyed the auto-massager.

As he approached, Jasim hoped it would be as easy to get into—it wasn’t uncommon for people to booby trap their ships when they knew the repo men were coming. If they couldn’t have it, they didn’t want anyone else to have it either.

But he boarded it without trouble. The hatch opened welcomingly for him, and the AI called him “sir” when he walked up the ramp. Already familiar with the layout and operations, he headed for the yacht’s version of NavCom. He sat down and fired up the craft. His piloting skills were limited, and he wouldn’t want to deal with the gravitational anomalies out in space between the system’s three suns, but The Pulverizer had sent him to a quick training course, and he could get most vessels through local air and to the transport stations where they would be loaded with other freight and returned to their originators.

“Antar?” Maddy asked over his helmet comm. “You have your netdisc with you?”

“No, but my armor can hook up to the sys-net if there are local satellites that don’t charge by the second.”

“No promises about that, but your buddy is just over at Bronos Moon, so there wasn’t much lag. Looks like she got your message immediately. Or the dog did. I’m not sure. But a text message came back through. I’ll forward it to you right away.”

“Right away?” Jasim asked. “Is there something alarming in it?”

“Only if you’re a cyborg.”

“Well, thank the sun gods there aren’t any of those around here.”

Maddy snorted. “You’re an odd boy, big man, but I’m still going to finish knitting your scarf.”

“The gods are shining triply upon me today,” Jasim said, while holding back a grimace. The hat she had made him, a gift she had given him after their first mission together, made his head itch. And other body parts too. Wool. Horrible stuff. He hoped whichever colonist had thought it would be a good idea to freeze sheep embryos and bring them on the voyage from Old Earth had fallen into a volcano and died as soon as he stepped out of his ship.

“Clearly,” Maddy said. “Meet you at the transport station?”

“Yes.” Jasim tapped the thruster controls and lifted the yacht into the air, hoping no more locals with grenade launchers would take pot shots at him.

His helmet beeped softly, and a message started to display on his faceplate. It paused after only a line. A polite flashing warning told him that he needed to pay to see the rest of it, and would he like to authorize charges?

“Authorize,” he grumbled, wondering if the effort—and expense—to find Adams’s family was worth it.

Yes, he decided. It was bad enough he was leaving the body behind, so they wouldn’t be able to hold a proper funeral. But CargoExpress forbade the shipping of corpses, as he’d learned on another occasion, and he doubted The Pulverizer would authorize Maddy to take him on a two-week trip to deliver a body. Knowing the boss, he would have another assignment ready for Jasim before he had this yacht secured and ready to ship.

After informing him that funds were being withdrawn from his account, the message displayed.

Sergeant Matt Aaron Adams, it read, originally from Zeta Colony on Sherran Moon. Surviving family, grandmother Jessica Adams, Zeta Colony. Possibly more pertinent information? Fourth former Cyborg Corps soldier killed in the last month.

Jasim blinked. “What?”

Of course, he did not receive an answer from the recorded message. But if McCall was on or orbiting Bronos Moon, he could get one soon if he sent the question to her. The message continued for a few more lines.

Others deceased: Mahir Abadi, Stefan Albrecht, José Luis Alvarado. I’ve attached a file with the reports. Most are just one-line obituaries. All of the cyborgs died of mysterious causes and in their sleep, and their implants were removed, presumably after the fact. Only Alvarado’s death was investigated. He worked for Senator Bondarenko on Perun. An unidentified substance was found in his bloodstream, believed to be a poison or venom. You better watch out. You’re an A too.

~McCall

“I’m an A too?” Jasim asked, puzzling over that before it dawned on him. His surname. Antar. All of the dead cyborgs’ surnames started with the letter A. “What in the suns’ fiery hells?”

Was someone going down the Cyborg Corps duty roster? And if so, why? If they were being targeted so their implants could be sold on the black market, what did the order of deaths matter? Wouldn’t it be easier for the murderer to simply pick the closest cyborgs available?

A hollow chill went through him, and he was glad no thugs on rooftops fired at the yacht, because he was barely paying attention to his route. He had pulled a lot of guard shifts with Alvarado. They were next to each other on the roster. Did that mean he was the next target?

Jasim rubbed his face, not sure if he should flee to the far border worlds, go about his normal job while taking precautions, or try to find out who was behind this. The latter appealed to his sense of nobility, but where would he even start? McCall could perhaps help him with research, but who knew how much she would charge? He was surprised she hadn’t mentioned a fee already. The Pulverizer always paid her invoices when they needed her to find people who had gone off the grid with their stolen belongings.

A bump behind his seat made Jasim jump. For a second, he thought someone had stowed away, but it was just Adams’s armor case, still hovering where he’d left it after boarding. Seeing the cyborg armor jarred a new thought into his mind. An unsettling one.

Earlier, he had been wondering where his old battalion commander, Colonel Adler, had gone after the war. He was an A. Had he already been targeted? Already been killed? It could have happened somewhere remote and not been reported to the news organizations yet.

Jasim hadn’t known the man well—in fact, he was somewhat terrified of him, both because of his reputation and because he’d made a bad impression on the colonel early during his enlistment—but maybe he would know what to do about all this. At the least, he should be warned that someone might be after him. If they hadn’t already gotten him.

Trying to set aside that grim thought, Jasim recorded a message to send to McCall.

“Thanks for the help, McCall. Let me know how much I owe you for the information. And I have one more request. Can you find out where Colonel Hieronymus Adler is currently located?”

~

Thanks for checking out the preview! Please grab a copy of Cyborg Legacy to read the rest of the adventure.

Contact";