Posted in Ebook News | Posted on 22-04-2017|
If you enjoyed my Fallen Empire stories (check out a sample of the first book here, if you’ve never tried them), I hope you’ll be excited about my new series. A Sky Full of Stars takes place ten years after the events in Fallen Empire, with the next generation (Jelena, Thor, and Erick Ostberg) coming to the forefront for adventures of their own.
You can grab the first two books now at Amazon or read on for a sample of the first couple of chapters:
The Rogue Prince: Chapter 1
A bleep came from the sensor panel, and Jelena Marchenko slid her sparkly purple stallion mug to the side. A holodisplay popped into the air, showing energy and life signatures in the target installation, and nerves fluttered in her stomach. Their destination wasn’t visible on the Snapper’s cameras yet, but it would be soon. They would land in one of the craters or canyons on the dark, pockmarked side of Alpha 17 Moon, and they would begin their infiltration.
“We there yet?” Erick Ostberg asked, shambling into Navigation and Communications in his socks and rumpled pajamas, his short blond hair sticking out in so many directions it looked like he had slept in a wind tunnel. He yawned, showing off all his teeth. Anyone who thought Starseers were mysterious and powerful warriors had never seen Erick in his asteroids-and-spaceships pajamas.
“We’ve arrived at our first destination,” Jelena said. “You might want to get dressed.”
“Right,” Erick mumbled, yawning again as he started to turn around. The sensor display caught his eye, though, and he paused, frowning. “That doesn’t look like the sprawling industrial city of Gizmoshi.”
Jelena took a deep breath, bracing herself to explain this side mission she had planned. At twenty-four, Erick was almost six years older than she, and even though she was the acting captain of their freighter, he had seniority in her family’s business, and as the engineer, he could find a way to stop this “mission” before it ever started. She had to be persuasive here. Even though she’d often talked Erick into adventures when they’d been kids on her parents’ freighter, ever since he returned from college, he’d been less likely to go along with her whims.
His brow furrowed. “Wait, did you say first destination?”
“That’s right.” Jelena glanced at the big view screen that stretched across the front of NavCom, making sure there weren’t any terrain features coming up that she would need to pilot them around. Alas, the bluish gray surface of the moon remained relatively flat, aside from all the craters left by asteroids, so there was no excuse not to look Erick in the eye . . . “I’ve decided that we’ll stop before reaching Gizmoshi. For another pickup.”
She’d wanted to drop off their cargo before this side trip, but it was the middle of the night for the city’s inhabitants, and nobody at the warehouse had answered the comm when she tried. And she dared not delay any longer than necessary, not when her parents and their freighter were only two moons away.
“You’ve decided?” Erick was frowning at the facility on the sensor display now, appearing much more awake. “Do your mom and Leonidas know about this decision?”
“Uh huh, and what cargo are we picking up?”
He eyed her suspiciously, his face crinkling the way it did when he was concentrating on using his mental powers, his telepathy most likely. Jelena could feel the pricking at her mind as he tried to read her thoughts, but she had also been training as a Starseer for the last ten years, and even if her specialties were communicating with and healing animals, she could keep people from poking around in her head.
“Animals,” she said.
Erick groaned and rolled his eyes, his usual reaction to her obsessions. “Animals you can pet and fondle before we drop them off? Where are they going? Gizmoshi?”
“I’m not sure yet, but somewhere farther away would be safer, I’m sure. In case their disreputable owners come after them.”
“Jelena, you’re not making any sense. Unpack your brain.”
Right. She was going to have to tell him everything if she wanted his help. Even though she was willing to do this alone, it would be easier with a partner-in-crime. No, not crime. She refused to think of this as anything other than noble and righteous.
“Through various sys-net groups I monitor,” she said, “I’ve become aware that Stellacor, Inc. is keeping all manner of lab animals caged up in their Alpha 17 facility. As if experimenting on them isn’t bad enough, the conditions are horrible. They violate the Tri-Sun Alliance regulations for using animals for science.” Her lips thinned in her usual irritation that the Alliance allowed experiments at all, but at least there were laws about humane treatment.
“The dark side of Alpha 17 isn’t in the Alliance, and the Gizmoshi side is only nominally so,” Erick said. “Most of Aldrin’s moons are a wild free-for-all.” He waved toward the rear of the ship, probably to indicate the green gas giant behind them.
“That’s not an excuse for people doing despicable things.”
“Half of the system is doing despicable things. It’s the half that’s resisting being swept up into Alliance control. They like that the regular laws aren’t enforced out here. They’d rather make their own regulations.”
“They can regulate however they like, so long as they’re not being cruel to animals.” Seeing his mulish expression, Jelena kept herself from launching into one of her rants. Erick was fond of animals, but not to the extent that she was, and lecturing him had never been the way to get his help. “I could use your engineering brain for this,” she said, waving to the co-pilot’s seat. “I’m sure the facility will have a security system of some sort, even though I can’t imagine that many people come way out here to bother them.”
According to the public record, the Stellacor corporation owned hundreds of square miles of the undeveloped side of Alpha 17, and aside from their laboratory complex, there weren’t any cities or even structures for as far as the eye—or the ship’s cameras—could see.
“You want me to help you commit a crime?” Erick asked.
“If the Alliance laws don’t extend out here, then it can’t be a crime.” She smiled sweetly.
“I’m sure the locals have some kind of law,” he muttered, the words turning to a groan at the end. “I just realized what all that pet food stacked in one of the cargo hold cabinets is for. I figured your parents had gotten it because they’d lined up some kind of legitimate animal transportation gig for our next trip.”
“No, I bought the feed with my allowance money. You can’t rescue animals and then not have munchies for them.”
Erick groaned again. “Your satellite slipped its orbit, Jelena.”
Despite his words, he slid into the seat beside her. Jelena started to feel triumphant—he was going to help her!—but he reached for the communications controls.
“What are you doing?” She grabbed his wrist before he could hit a button.
“Comming your parents.”
“Because you miss them and want to make sure nothing is going wrong in the Star Nomad’s engineering room while you’re gone?”
Erick gave her a flat look. “Because I’m sure you don’t have permission to do this, and I’m even more sure that they wouldn’t approve.”
“That’s part of being eighteen. If I did things my parents approved of, it would be weirder than the suns orbiting their planets.”
“You just talked them into getting a second ship to expand the family business and letting you run freight missions. Why do you want to jeopardize that? They’re going to know you’re not as mature and reliable as they thought.” Erick twisted his wrist and tried to pull it from her grip, but she squeezed harder.
He was taller and stronger than she, but she usually won when they sparred in the Nomad’s gym. Erick had always been more interested in refining his mental talents—not to mention tinkering with machines and working with her grandfather to create Starseer tools—than in learning to fight, whereas her stepfather, former Cyborg Corps commander Leonidas Adler, hadn’t given her the option of bowing out of training sessions. He’d been determined that she be capable of taking care of herself, and her mother had agreed, often joining in on the family sparring sessions.
“I can push that button with my mind, you know,” Erick said, and did so. The holodisplay flashed to life next to the sensor display. He blinked, and the contact information for the Star Nomad popped up.
“Erick,” Jelena growled, tightening her grip. When she’d been imagining the trouble she might face this night, it had involved dealing with the facility’s security, not with angry parents. That part, she’d assumed, would come later. If at all. They need not find out, if Erick didn’t tell them.
“This is for your own good,” he said. “I’m not going to let you sabotage yourself. You’ve been asking for a ship and to be allowed to do runs for two years. You wanted a chance to prove yourself capable of helping out with the family business. This is your chance. It’s ridiculous to seek out trouble the first opportunity you get.”
Jelena had told her parents she wanted to help with the business, and that wasn’t untrue, but even more, she wanted the freedom to be her own person and to do more than just run freight. She wanted to use her gifts to help those in need. And maybe, just maybe, she would be recognized for helping those in need and that would earn her a place in the Starseer community, a community that had ostracized her family because Grandpa’s brother had tried to take over the entire system ten years ago.
That wasn’t Grandpa’s fault, and it certainly wasn’t her fault. She wanted to be invited to get to know those with gene mutations such as she had, mutations that allowed humans to develop mental powers far beyond the norm. Mutations that made her different. She was glad she had Grandpa and Erick to talk to, but she longed to find others who understood what it was like to be a Starseer.
She released Erick’s wrist, and he faced the comm display, maybe thinking she had given up. She tapped a control and brought up another display, this one connected to the sys-net group she’d mentioned. An image of a dirty, bleeding dog with all its ribs showing popped up, the animal stuffed into a cage too small for turning around or standing up fully. It was one cage among many in rows and stacks, each with an abused animal inside. There were pigs and monkeys and cats, as well as dogs. Seeing the pictures again made tears come to her eyes, and she wanted to hide them away, but Erick needed to see them.
“A guard who used to work there posted these,” Jelena said. “He said it’d gotten really bad lately, since something big shook up the company a month ago, and that the animals are being almost completely neglected now. He wished he’d had the courage to do something before he quit.”
“Jelena,” Erick said with a pained sigh. This time, it didn’t sound like it was a sigh at her antics, but one of defeat. He cared about animals too. She knew it. He’d been the chicken wrangler on the Nomad for years.
He twitched a finger, and the comm display winked out.
She didn’t smile or clench a fist in triumph, not this time. Seeing the animals had stolen her capacity for buoyant feelings, at least for now. All she could feel was determination.
“You’ll help me?” she asked.
“In and out, no delays,” Erick said.
“That’s exactly what I have in mind. I want to be gone before they even know we’re there or who we are. Then we fly straight to Gizmoshi and deliver our cargo. We’ll be there by the time Xing’s warehouse opens in the morning, and then we’ll rendezvous with Mom and Dad after that. They don’t even need to know we took a side trip.”
Erick snorted. “Is being delusional part of being eighteen too?”
“If it is, it’s a good thing I have a college-educated, twenty-four-year-old along who is wise to the ways of the universe. And who can crack security systems and thwart any mechanical obstacle out there with a mere wave of his hand.”
“All right, all right, enough flattery. If you really want to show your appreciation, get me a pack of Striker Odyssey cards.”
Jelena thumped him on the shoulder. “Deal.”
Jelena rode her thrust bike through the wide airlock hatchway and onto the ledge where she had landed the Snapper. It was halfway down a cliff in a deep canyon that cut through the moon three miles from the facility. She didn’t know if approaching through the canyon and landing inside of it had kept her ship off the radar, but she hoped it had. If nothing else, it was the middle of the night local time, so maybe everybody inside would be sleeping.
Jelena shifted on her seat to make sure she had everything while she waited for the airlock to cycle again and for Erick to come out. He was bringing a stack of hoverboards and several inflatable escape pods that could house the animals on what she hoped would be a quick, short trip back to the ship.
She patted the holder built into the back of her thrust bike, making sure her Starseer staff was securely attached. Part tool and part weapon, the staff looked and felt like wood, but the enhanced material could deflect everything from chainsaws to lasers and blazer bolts. It always felt slightly warm in her hand, almost humming with its embedded energy, and it was tuned to her so that when she gripped it, the Kirian runes engraved in the side glowed a soft silver, the power syncing with her brain waves and helping enhance her focus.
“Spacesuit with twelve hours of oxygen in the tank?” She patted the tank on her back and the helmet fasteners, though the suit would have already alerted her if anything was amiss. “Check. Water and meat-flavored ration bars for the animals?” She patted the satchel magnetically sealed to her suit. She had pet treats in with the feed, but these were easier to carry and packed a lot of calories in small bites. “Check. Explosives . . .”
She didn’t open the satchel to check, but she could feel their outline. She’d taken them from Leonidas’s small armory on the Nomad, though she wasn’t sure yet if she would use them. Liberating animals she could justify as something noble. Willfully destroying private property . . . That would be taking this to another level. But didn’t she have to strike some blow against Stellacor? If she blew up the area where they’d been keeping the animals and left a message—a warning—that there would be repercussions if they did it again, wouldn’t that be more effective than simply taking the creatures? Maybe it would keep them from getting another batch of animals to torment.
“Explosives?” came Erick’s voice over the comm as the outer hatch opened. He flew out on his bike, the faceplate of his helmet turned toward her, a couple of built-in lights driving back the shadows on the ledge. “You’re bringing bombs?”
“Just little ones. For blowing little holes in walls. I’ve got fence cutters too. Just in case we need help getting into—or out of—the facility.”
He joined her, his bike floating a couple of feet off the ground, the hoverboards and pods also floating behind him, bobbing slightly as he stopped. “Help getting out of the facility, because the owners are chasing us all the way back to the ship?”
“You like being chased. You love a good race.”
“A race over a course against other thrust bikers. Not across a moon with angry people shooting at us and with three clunky escape pods trailing behind.” He jerked a gloved thumb over his shoulder. “Do you think we’ll need that many? Twenty people are supposed to be able to float around in space for days in one of these.”
“There are almost two hundred animals caged there, according to the guard’s report.”
“Two hundred?” Erick blinked and looked back toward the cargo hold, though the hatch had now shut, and they couldn’t see it. Jelena knew the contents well and that stacks and stacks of gray shipping containers rose to the high, arched ceiling, taking up two-thirds of the space. “Do you think there’s room for that many?”
It would be tight, which was why Jelena had wanted to drop off their legitimate cargo first, but she shrugged, smiled, and said, “I figured they could have your cabin.”
“We’ll work something out.”
“Jelena . . . how closely did you look at the blueprints you gave me?”
“I looked at them.” That’s when she had decided she could use Erick’s help.
“This isn’t exactly a low-tech facility.” He unzipped a pocket, pulled out his netdisc, and brought up a holodisplay showing the blueprints. “I think there may be a forcefield in addition to the wall around the compound.” He waved a finger through the display to point at things, highlighting them in blue as he did so. “Did you see this? And this, this, and this? Also, our sensors picked up drones flying around over everything.” Two dozen more highlights appeared, little dots moving above the facility.
“What’s your point?” Jelena asked, though she suspected she knew. Any thoughts she’d had of simply riding up and snipping some barbed wire to get in were being quashed.
“This place is secure. Very secure.”
“That’s why I invited you to come along.”
“Invited, right. I believe the word is manipulated.”
“I’m glad they had vocabulary classes at that fancy university you attended. Look, you’ve disabled ships’ shields from a distance before. What’s a little forcefield? Can’t you break their generator?”
Erick shifted on his bike, looking up and down the canyon and back at the Snapper, its bulky, green turtle-shaped outline almost invisible against the backdrop of the dark cliff behind it. Nobody would call the craft sleek, and it wouldn’t win any races, but she loved that it, if one used one’s imagination, looked like an animal. Erick had pointed out numerous other freighters in the price range her parents had been looking at, but after they’d helped the previous owner out of a jam, and the Snapper had become available, Jelena had fought hard for it. The ship had soul.
“Did you look up what the company does?” Erick asked quietly, apparently not thinking of the Snapper.
“Of course I did. They grow human organs from stem cells and sell them to medical facilities for transplants. There’s absolutely no reason they need to experiment on animals for that.”
“You’re not a scientist. You don’t know that. They could be working on some other things, too, other things to help people.”
“You’re not backing out on me, are you?”
He sighed. “No. If those pictures were true, then I don’t disagree with you on this, but if the company is doing something good for sick people, well, just don’t forget that, huh? Maybe their methods could be better, but if the ultimate outcome saves lives . . .”
“I’m sure they make a lot of money selling those organs, I doubt anyone here is altruistic. If they were good people, they wouldn’t treat the animals that way. And from what the guard said, they don’t treat their human workers that well either.”
He shook his head slowly, his expression bleak behind his faceplate.
Jelena tried not to feel affronted by his doubt, but she knew he wouldn’t be questioning her mother or Leonidas if they’d decided on this mission. More likely, he’d be asking if he could help blow things up. For someone who liked to create and fix things, his green eyes gleamed like wet emeralds in the sun when he got a chance to fire weapons or light explosives.
Trying to sound encouraging, she leaned over and gripped his shoulder. “Come on, Erick. We can do this. We’re Starseers. Practically superheroes.”
“Superheroes? Do you still wear that underwear with the ponies on it?”
“That’s none of your business. And they’re unicorns.”
“That reminds me,” she said, waving toward his torso, “are you wearing your pajamas under your spacesuit or did you change into something a little fiercer?” She imagined their foes throwing back their heads and laughing if they were caught and stripped of their suits for an interrogation.
“Fiercer? Like what? Should I have added a cape? And a sword?”
“A sword? Who carries around swords anymore?” She waved at his staff, similar to hers, in its holder behind him. “That’s the appropriate weapon for a Starseer.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She noticed he hadn’t denied having the pajamas on underneath his suit. Ah, well. They would just have to avoid being caught and interrogated.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes.” He patted a toolbox he’d attached to his bike.
“Good.” She started to urge her bike into movement, but paused. “Thanks for coming with me, Erick.”
He truly had no reason to go along with her whims, other than the fact that he worked for her parents. Since her mom was the captain of the Star Nomad and co-owner of the business, Erick was used to obeying her orders, but it wasn’t as if that power transferred down to Jelena. He’d been like a big brother to her ever since he’d first come aboard the ship to train with Grandpa, tolerating games far too young for him because she’d been the closest person to his age aboard, even if he would have preferred spending time with Uncle Tommy or Abelardus, the Starseer who’d lived with them for a time. But those two had moved on eventually, and Jelena and Erick had become closer after that.
She liked having a big brother, especially since he still played games and had a goofy streak, though she sometimes wondered what it would have been like if Thorian—once Prince Thorian—had stayed aboard the ship too. Only two years apart in age, they had become playmates and best friends after her biological father had died and during the time she had been separated from her mother. Unfortunately, after Grandpa’s crazy brother had been defeated, Thor had gone off with Dr. Dominguez and those secretive Starseers who wanted to use him to bring the empire back. In the beginning, her family had visited, and she’d kept in touch with Thor, but she hadn’t heard from him in the last four years, and she had no idea what he was doing these days.
“You’re welcome,” Erick said. “Don’t get us killed.”
“I didn’t get us killed during any of our years of childhood adventures, did I?”
“No, but I have scars.”
“Most people can’t get a scar from a pillow.”
“A pillow thrown by an android might as well be a rock.”
She grinned at him and drove her thrust bike toward the edge, tilting it upward as she flew off. The thruster power increased, the seat thrumming beneath her, and the nose rose toward the starry sky and the top of the canyon.
Erick zoomed past her, zigzagging like a drunk in a race.
“You think I’m going to be the one to get us killed?” she asked, worried he would lose the hoverboards and their loads. She imagined the inflatable pods pitching over the side and crashing to the canyon floor. Though it would be a slow crash, since the moon claimed only twenty percent of standard gravity.
“Just testing to make sure everything is attached securely.” He waved back at her and continued weaving and zigzagging until he reached the top of the canyon. All that being mature and adult when commenting on her plans must have been wearing at him.
He did wait for her at the top, and they flew across the pockmarked moon side by side. From above, the craters hadn’t appeared so large, but now as they rode around and over them, they made the bikes seem small, their riders miniscule.
Jelena tried not to feel insignificant underneath the millions of stars glittering in the black sky all around them. She also tried not to think about the lack of air outside, even though the text and graphs that ran down the sides of her helmet’s liquid Glastica display reminded her of it. Unlike with combat armor, these suits couldn’t stand up to anything like bullets or blazer fire. If they were punctured, she and Erick would be in trouble. Superheroes, she’d jokingly called them. Yes, they had some mental powers that most people didn’t, but they were just as vulnerable to death as any human being.
“We’re probably visible to their sensors,” Erick said as they flew closer, the black wall around the compound coming into view.
“Can you break them?”
He’d broken enemy ships’ systems from a distance before, often to help the Nomad escape pirates or competitors who weren’t above ruthless tactics. Running freight between planets and moons that were solidly under Alliance control was usually a safe proposition, but once one flew farther from the core worlds, the system grew much dicier. The pay for running freight out there could be impressive, too, and Mom and Leonidas weren’t too conservative to be tempted from time to time. After all, Grandpa was a powerful Starseer who could often convince enemies to leave them alone. And if that didn’t work, Leonidas would happily engage in combat with anyone who tried to board the Nomad. He might be fifty now, but he still had all his cyborg implants, and he could put fists through walls—or skulls.
“If I had a lot more time to study the facility, I probably could,” Erick said, his helmet swiveling toward her.
From her angle, Jelena couldn’t see his eyes through the faceplate, but she could imagine the reproof in his gaze. She should have given him the blueprint and told him about everything earlier, but she’d been worried that, with more time to think about it, he would grow certain that he needed to tell her parents. He’d almost told them, as it was.
“Maybe they’ll think we’re tourists.”
“Tourists cruising across their private property.”
“I didn’t say we were conscientious tourists. Let’s keep going and be prepared to improvise. If we have to, we can abort.” Temporarily, Jelena added silently. If they found out they were outmatched, she would take what they learned and come up with a more sophisticated plan. She admitted being a little daunted by all of the security measures Erick had found. She hadn’t expected a laboratory to be equipped like some medieval Earth fortress poised on a contested border.
“All right,” Erick said. “Your animals are being kept near the outside of the compound, aren’t they?”
Jelena nodded. “In a warehouse on the southwest corner.” She didn’t add, according to my source. She didn’t want to give Erick another reason to worry, but all of the information they had could be false. The Stellacor people could have even planted it, though she couldn’t imagine why they would want to lure animal crusaders down to their facility.
The walls seemed to loom taller and taller as they sailed closer on their bikes. Jelena wished there were some mountains or boulders to hide their approach. Even though the moon was dark, with the only lights clustered around the facility, she felt vulnerable and exposed. And—she frowned as something twanged at her senses—she felt something ahead of them.
“I thought so.” Erick slowed down his bike. “Forcefield.”
Jelena couldn’t see anything, but she could feel it. An invisible dome covering the compound.
Erick would have to handle it. She had no way of lowering a forcefield unless she knew where the button was and could find some animal inside that she could telepathically convince to push it. Technically, she could speak telepathically with people, too, but she found touching the minds of strangers extremely uncomfortable and usually reserved that intimacy for close friends and family. Besides, Grandpa had always emphasized that using one’s talents to manipulate people was ethically questionable, unless it was clear those people were enemies and dangerous.
Erick lowered his bike to the ground and planted his boots on either side of it. His helmet drooped toward his chest. “I’ll try to trace the power to its source and see if I can figure out where the on/off switch is.”
“Good. Thanks.” Jelena wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to do that.
She shifted in her seat while she waited, feeling useless. And even more vulnerable than before. Now that they were closer, she could sense with her mind the drones. They were zipping about on patrol routes, cameras recording footage around the compound. What would she do if guards were sent out to tell them to leave? Or to force them to leave?
She looked toward the southwest corner of the compound. From her position, she couldn’t see anything except the wall, but she concentrated on sensing life on the other side. She struggled to see inanimate objects with her mind, but she had no trouble detecting the bodies of living, breathing creatures, human and otherwise. They were close enough now that she could brush against the awareness of many animals, and she lifted her head like a hound catching the scent. She’d found the warehouse. The information hadn’t been false.
“They’re there,” she whispered, looking toward Erick.
“The animals. They’re where they’re supposed to be.” Jelena could tell that most of them were sleeping, but a few were awake, and she sensed their discomfort and how some of them were in pain. She blinked before tears could form—she wouldn’t be able to wipe them while she wore the helmet.
“Ah.” He sounded distracted. He was probably still tracing the forcefield to its source.
“All we have to do is get through the forcefield, over the wall, and break into that building.”
Jelena concentrated on that area again, trying to sense if there were any human guards in there with the animals. She brushed the mind of a dog and lingered because it started, sensing her distant touch. She shared soothing feelings with it, even as she grimaced because she could feel its discomfort in its cage.
Her cage, she corrected, getting more of a sense for the dog. Of the sores on her body, the hunger gnawing at her stomach, the bewilderment at being kept in this dark place, the fear of when she was taken out into the light, to other rooms in the facility, to places that would bring more pain—
“Jelena?” Erick touched her arm, and she flinched.
“Yes,” she said.
“Stay with me here. There are people awake in there, and I think someone might have noticed us.”
“It’s dark in the warehouse with the animals. I don’t think anyone is there with them.”
Yellow flashed in front of them, and they both jerked back. For a second, the outline of the forcefield was visible to the eye, the dome covering the entire facility, from the ground to above the two towers near the center of the compound.
“Did you cause that?” Jelena asked when darkness returned.
“No, I hadn’t touched anything yet. There’s not a simple on/off switch. It’s a software program. I could possibly destroy the generator and the forcefield altogether, but I don’t think we want to make enemies here—or alert them to our presence so soon.”
“Are you sure you didn’t trip something?” Jelena eyed the top of the wall facing toward them, imagining a parapet that people could walk along and shoot from.
“Positive. It could have just been—” His helmet tilted.
Not certain why he’d stopped, Jelena opened her mouth to ask, but she realized the sensation she’d felt earlier was gone.
“It’s down,” Erick said, turning his bike’s thrusters on again, the stack of hoverboards flowing after him.
Jelena nudged her bike forward, too, though wariness made her hesitant to roar forward at full speed. “It just went down? You didn’t do that?”
“It wasn’t me. It’s probably for them.” He pointed toward the stars.
It took Jelena a moment to spot lights against the starry sky, a ship approaching. For an alarmed moment, she thought her parents might have found out what she was up to and that the Nomad was coming to get them. But the facility wouldn’t have dropped their forcefield for some strange freighter.
“Late for a delivery or a pickup,” she mused, then gunned her thrusters when she realized Erick was rapidly pulling away from her. She didn’t want to miss her chance to get to the wall before the forcefield was turned back on.
“Maybe their crew didn’t feel like diverting for illicit activity,” Erick said without looking back. He seemed determined to get to the wall before that ship arrived.
“You were more polite and less sarcastic before you went away to school,” Jelena said, alternating between watching the approach of the ship and the terrain as she flew over it. “And I thought we discussed that we couldn’t possibly be doing something illicit in a place where there aren’t any laws.”
“I mostly remember discussing swords and capes. And ponies and unicorns.” He reached the wall and paused, looking up. Considering flying over? That would be simpler than cutting—or blowing—a hole.
“Because I’m a good friend, I’ll do you a favor and not tell any women you date that you can’t keep from thinking about my underwear.”
“Should I ever find someone to date me, I’m sure I’ll be grateful.”
“Didn’t you tell Leonidas you were meeting a girl in Gizmoshi after we dropped off the cargo? You specifically asked if we could spend the night there.”
“I am supposed to meet someone, but it’s not for a date. It’s a couple of crew mates from Striker Odyssey. We’re going to have a beer at a pub, link our netdiscs, and practice some maneuvers so we can kick the Elder Squadron’s butts the next time we’re in the combat arena.”
Jelena digested this as she caught up with him at the base of the wall. “You told my dad you have a date when you’re going to meet a bunch of gamers?”
“I didn’t want him to think I was . . . uhm. Well, you know he’s not impressed by games.”
“He’s not impressed by my horse obsession, either, but he still loves me.”
“You’re his stepdaughter. If he didn’t love you, your mom would kick him in the asteroids.”
“True, but I don’t think you have to lie to him about women.”
“It’s not any worse than lying to him about secret side missions.”
“I haven’t lied about anything.” Jelena pointed to the top of the wall. “Let’s try going over. Maybe their arriving ship will keep them distracted.”
“I wish that were true,” Erick said, looking past her toward the corner of the wall.
Two men with blazer rifles were running toward them, taking huge bounds in the moon’s low gravity. Startled because they weren’t wearing spacesuits, Jelena gaped at them, but then she realized that the bland, emotionless faces belonged to androids. Androids who, judging by the way they slung those rifles toward Jelena and Erick, had orders to kill them.
Jelena grabbed her staff from its holster as she parked and hopped off her thrust bike. She was tempted to use the vehicle as a shield, but didn’t want it damaged—they had to haul rescued dogs away with that bike, damn it. Besides, she didn’t have a Starseer staff for no reason.
She sprang away from the bike as the androids ran closer, grimacing when, thanks to the low gravity, it turned to far more of a spring than she’d intended. She was still in the air when one pointed his blazer rifle toward her chest.
Shield, she thought, a mental order for the staff. It didn’t need words, but using them helped her with her focus. She needed all the help she could get now, with adrenaline charging through her veins.
The android fired, and a crimson bolt streaked toward her.
“Careful, Jelena,” Erick barked, glancing at her and lifting a hand, as if to help.
As her boots touched down, the bolt bounced off the invisible barrier extending from either side of her staff. It was part mental construct and part a gift from the tool. The android fired again, bolts streaking toward her face. She kept her concentration, trying not to think about anything except keeping her shield up, but a quick thought darted through the back of her mind, that these androids were shooting to kill.
“Watch yourself,” Jelena said as the other android fired at Erick. She didn’t want him getting in trouble because he was worrying about her. “Your crew mates need your help to kick those virtual butts.”
The android shooting at her stopped, his expressionless face not giving any hint about whether he was alarmed that she could deflect his bolts or not. He simply raced toward her, then leaped for her.
Jelena threw herself to the side, rolling as she’d done thousands of times in practice with Leonidas. But this was different. The spacesuit and the light gravity made her awkward, and fear made her hurl herself farther than she intended. The android flew by her, which was good, but she didn’t have a chance to crack him on the back with her staff as she wished. It would take a lot of damage to down an android, and their opponents would never grow weary, not the way she and Erick would.
When Jelena jumped to her feet, the android had already landed, turned, and was leaping for her again. This time, she planted her feet, even though her instincts made her want to keep dodging, to avoid those lightning fast hands and the harm they could do. An android would be even stronger than Leonidas, and she had seen what he could do. She wished he were here now and regretted not trying to elicit her parents’ help in this.
Jelena jammed the butt of her staff into the ground and angled the tip outward. Airborne, the android could not halt its path, but he twisted in the air, trying to avoid striking the tip of her weapon. She shifted it to the side, keeping the butt on the ground to brace against his weight, but making sure it caught him.
A jolt ran up her arm as his side struck the tip of the staff, but silvery energy crackled in the air around the weapon. Her emotions—right now, her fear—powered it as much as her conscious thought. The energy flare was far greater than usual, and branches of lightning streaked out and around the android. Crashing into the staff might not have damaged him, but he stumbled back under this secondary assault. He tilted his head, as if with curiosity.
Jelena took advantage of what seemed like hesitation, or at least a pause for consideration. For the first time, she went on the offensive, gripping the staff in both hands and attacking. The android leaped back, avoiding a combination of swings and jabs. With his superior speed, he might have grabbed it out of the air, but he was eyeing it warily. She hoped the energy had done some damage to his system. Now, if she could just strike him again . . .
The wall rose behind the android, and she kept pressing, trying to back him up. He might have trouble maneuvering if he bumped against it.
But he must have realized the same thing. He raised his rifle, at first looking like he might try to shoot again, but instead, he gripped it in both hands. The next time she jabbed with the tip of her staff, instead of backing away, he stepped in and used the rifle to block her, trying to knock the weapon aside. But the touch once again elicited a surge of energy, the air crackling around the staff and the rifle, lightning branching up the android’s arms. Jelena channeled some of her own mental power into the staff, trying to enhance its effects.
The android stumbled back, dropping the rifle. She lunged after him, jabbing her staff into his chest.
Maybe some circuit of his had shorted out, because he seemed temporarily stunned. She connected solidly. More lightning leaped between them, and he stumbled back again, crashing against the wall, his arms spread.
She pressed the tip of the staff against his chest, again trying to enhance the energy flowing out of it. She wasn’t a toolmaker, the way Erick and her grandpa were, and she didn’t understand how the power worked, but after ten years of training, she had no trouble using it. She imagined the energy shorting out all the android’s circuitry and frying his neural network. She wasn’t rewarded with anything so satisfying as smoke coming out of his ears, but his silvery eyes grew dim, and he stopped moving.
Jelena stepped back, and the android tipped over with the grace of a coat rack toppling. Though she wasn’t positive he was permanently out of commission, she turned to check on Erick.
He stood by the bikes, the butt of his staff resting on the ground beside him as he watched. The torso of the android that had been attacking him lay under his boot. An arm rested a few feet away, cut circuits still sparking. She wasn’t sure where the head had gone. The pieces had been neatly severed, as if by some giant saw blade.
“You did that with your staff?” Jelena asked, wondering if she should feel betrayed that hers hadn’t come with such abilities, at least insofar as she knew.
Erick grinned behind his faceplate and held up a tool the length of his arm. “Plasmite torch. You’re not the only one who brought tools.”
“That’s why the ladies flock to me.” Erick jogged over to her android and fired up the tool, the orange blade flaring oddly in the missing atmosphere. He must not have trusted that her damage had permanently destroyed it because he severed the head.
Jelena turned away. Even though androids were machines, their resemblance to people made her uncomfortable. “Do they? I didn’t realize any of the crew mates meeting you at that pub were women.”
“One does have long hair.”
“Well, that’s almost the same thing, isn’t it?”
She looked toward the corner the androids had originally run around. What would she and Erick do if living, breathing guards were sent out? They couldn’t cut up real people.
The ship that had been approaching was no longer in sight. Had it landed? Somewhere inside? She stretched out her senses to check behind the wall. Yes, there it was in a courtyard out front, extending an airlock tube to a building.
“The forcefield is back up,” she noticed.
“I know,” Erick said, his tone turning grim as he strode back to his bike. “Let’s get your animals and hope nobody inside is keeping track of those androids. I’ll work on trying to figure out how to get the forcefield down while we work.”
Jelena slung a leg over her bike, fired up the thrusters again, and flew toward the top of the wall as she checked for life—guards—along it. She couldn’t navigate with her staff in her hands, so she wouldn’t be able to deflect weapons fire while riding, at least not without risking falling off.
There wasn’t anyone striding along the wall, but when she eased her bike above it, she came face-to-face with a giant artillery gun. With her heart trying to lurch into her throat, she steered around it. It was one of dozens of massive weapons along the wall, and her earlier thoughts of ancient fortresses guarding borders came to mind again. Why did a research facility need such defenses?
“I bet they don’t invite kids in on field trips,” Erick muttered, bringing his bike even with hers as he peered up and down the wall and into the compound.
“What?” Jelena asked.
“When I was seven, my school went on a field trip to a hospital. There was a research wing with all these dead fetuses and mutated organs in jars.”
“To a seven-year-old, it was magnificent. I got to touch a heart with two extra chambers.”
Jelena had been much more excited about touching horses at seven. That seemed far more normal. Her younger twin sisters had been the same way at that age. For the most part. Nika might not have been that horrified by a grotesque mutated organ.
“There are a couple of people going down that tunnel and into that building to meet the people from the ship,” Erick said quietly, waving toward the front half of the compound. All of the twenty or thirty buildings were connected via hard tunnels or flexible tubing.
“Our warehouse is that way.”
Jelena pointed in the opposite direction, hoping the arrival of the newcomers would distract the guards, and that they would forget that a couple of androids had wandered out to check on something and hadn’t returned. She also hoped nobody was looking up at the walls. All it would take was a glance for someone to notice them, especially with the bulky hoverboards trailing Erick’s bike. But as far as she could tell, nobody was outside the facility.
Erick turned his bike along the wall and headed in the indicated direction. He was careful not to touch anything, and Jelena followed his example. Who knew what alarms might light up if they bumped one of those guns?
They descended into the interior as soon as they could, slipping into an alley between the wall and a building, and Jelena felt slightly more at ease, even though there weren’t nearly as many shadows as she would have preferred. Harsh lights shone down from the walls and every building corner, stealing hiding spots.
A flash came from the front of the compound. It wasn’t the forcefield this time. Maybe something to do with the ship being unloaded? Jelena wondered what kind of cargo was coming in and imagined a fresh delivery of hapless animals, but she supposed the odds leaned toward something more prosaic, like food and water for the researchers. She thought of the explosives in her satchel, and couldn’t help but fantasize about destroying the supplies of the people who let those animals go hungry.
“That’s it, right?” Erick said, stopping at the corner of a building and looking across to another one.
With drab gray walls and no windows, there was nothing to make it stand apart from the rest of the structures they had passed, but Jelena could sense the animals inside. “Yes.”
A tunnel led into the building, but she didn’t see a way in from the outside. Would they have to cut a hole in the wall? If so, all the air would escape, and some alarm would surely go off. Worse, the animals would be in danger. She couldn’t imagine getting the pods inflated and all of them inside before they ran out of air.
“Let’s go around to the back,” Jelena said, nudging her bike into the lead. “See if there’s a door.”
“Wait.” Erick gripped her arm and waved her back against the wall. His helmet tilted upward.
Jelena looked and, out of habit, listened, though she wouldn’t be able to hear anything in the nonexistent atmosphere. One of the drones flew overhead in a lazy circle, and she froze. She hadn’t seen them since they’d approached the wall, so she’d forgotten about them. Had they been put on pause while the ship approached?
It passed out of view without slowing down, continuing on some programmed route.
“Did it see us?” she whispered.
“No way to tell.” Erick released her arm.
Jelena kept an eye toward the sky as she drove out into the open, then along the wall of the animal building. She rounded a corner and her grip tightened on the handlebars when she spotted a back entrance. It looked more like a spaceship hatch than a door, and she hoped that meant there was an airlock that they could get inside without venting the building’s air.
“Cargo door,” Erick said, driving up to a control panel and examining it. He avoided stepping in front of a small hole that might have been a camera.
“Can your smart, computer-loving brain convince that panel to let us in?” Jelena asked.
“If not, my smart plasmite torch can.” He tapped the case where he’d secured the weapon.
“You sound like Leonidas.”
“Really? I’d assumed he would just punch his fist into the panel.”
“He would, but it would be a smart fist.”
Despite his threat to pull out the tool, Erick withdrew his netdisc instead. He brought up the holodisplay, tapped in a couple of commands, and held it up to the panel. “My decryption program is going to have a chat with it.”
“I didn’t know you’d taken hacking courses while you were away at school.” As far as she remembered, Erick had always been more fond of working with physical components rather than dithering with software.
“There were a few extracurricular activities. And I have a sys-net buddy who specializes in this sort of thing.”
A green light came on, and the hatch opened into an airlock chamber. Good. It was large enough to accommodate their thrust bikes. Even better.
As Jelena flew in, she glanced skyward one more time. There weren’t any drones hovering overhead, but she feared this had been too easy, aside from the androids. Could this be a trap? But who could have expected them? As Erick closed the hatch behind them and cycled the lock, she prayed to the three suns that their luck would hold, that drones weren’t delivering footage of their intrusion—or of them beating up the security androids.
It didn’t take any fancy software for Erick to open the interior door. There was indeed atmosphere inside, as the animal sounds that greeted her ears told her. The lights came on automatically, and whimpers, grunts, mews, and hoots followed.
Jelena didn’t even have to reach out with her senses to feel all the life around them as the dogs, pigs, cats, and monkeys awoke. But they awoke in pain and in fear, cringing back as far as they could in their cages. Jelena sent out waves of reassurance and shared images of grasslands and forests, places where they might run free and not need to fear experimentation. She had the sense that not all of them had ever seen grass or trees. Had they been born and bred in some lab? Solely for this fate? Even if that was so, they seemed to understand what she shared, some genetic memory recognizing the idea of freedom.
Despite her resolve not to cry, tears pricked her eyes at the helplessness and hopelessness that they all felt. And not all of them, she realized as she scanned the warehouse, were alive. Some animals had died in their cages and not yet been removed by whatever cold-hearted bastard tended this place, if this could be called tending. She didn’t see water dishes anywhere and sensed the animals’ thirst, as well as their hunger.
“All Earth-descended animals?” Erick asked, glancing at the cages that lined the wide aisle stretching before them as he pulled the inflatable pods off the hoverboards.
“I think so.” Jelena headed to the closest cages, hoping they weren’t bolted down so she could simply move them into the pods without worrying about finding keys for doors until later. “If the experiments are for the benefits of humans—” she sneered as she spoke, finding no justification for the way the animals had been treated, no matter who was to benefit, “—then they’d need to use animals that share a lot of our DNA. The creatures native to the system are weird, the ones that weren’t introduced by us and modified to survive here. Not that the mutants aren’t weird too.”
“Nothing wrong with being a mutant,” Erick said dryly, no doubt thinking of his own genes.
The colonists who had landed on Kir long ago had come from Earth, the same as the rest of the humans settling on the habitable planets and moons in the Tri Suns System, but those who had become the Kirians hadn’t realized from afar how much radiation their planet held. Their colony ships had only been made for the one-way trip, so the residents had been stuck on the planet for generations, until resources were gathered and an infrastructure built that could once again make spaceflight possible. In the meantime, the scientists among the colonists had tinkered with people’s genes, trying to change them so they could better survive on their harsh planet. Many had died. Those who had lived and had offspring had been able to tolerate the radiation, but the genetic tinkering had caused a few side effects.
A sore-covered dog with patchy fur whined hopefully at Jelena. In a surge of anger over the animal’s state, she waved at the cage lock, snapping it off with her mind. Telekinesis wasn’t her specialty, but she could do enough. Especially when properly motivated.
Even when the door swung open, the dog did not come out. She coaxed it with her mind, and finally it—she—limped out, barely able to stand. She pulled her into her arms, careful not to put pressure against her wounds, and soothed the shivering body. She glared down the aisle at other cages, snapping the locks on those too. Her throat tightened at the sight of several of the animals not even moving in response, barely alive.
It looked like the situation had grown even worse since the guard posted those pictures. Surely, Stellacor couldn’t be doing legitimate experiments on the animals when they were in so poor a condition.
“Uh,” Erick said, from where he was inflating two of the pods. “Might be better to leave them caged until we get them back to the ship.”
Jelena sighed. “I know. I’m just . . .”
“It’s horrible, I know,” Erick said with sympathy in his voice, and a hint of the indignation she felt as he glanced toward the animals. “We’ll get them all out.”
Not all of them. For some it was too late. But she couldn’t chastise herself for that. They would get the ones that they could. It was better than nothing.
She set down the dog, which stayed close, leaning against her leg. She pulled out a couple of her ration bars, tore them open, and fed the animals trundling out, but she dared not spend much time on that. Mostly, she left bits of bars on the floor to help entice out the ones she freed.
Then she went to detach cages from the wall, using the laser knife on her multitool to cut them away from their mountings. Erick had the first pod inflated, and she hurried to load their living cargo into it. The animals had been forced to defecate in their cages, and she was glad she couldn’t smell anything through her helmet. Washing them and cleaning the Snapper would be her fun project while Erick was off not meeting women. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain to her parents how their newly acquired freighter had come to smell like a sewer.
Erick inflated a third pod and worked alongside her, quickly moving cages while glancing often at the door that led to that tunnel and the rest of the facility. He lined up the hoverboards behind his bike, checking heights and deflating the pods slightly to be sure they would fit through the cargo doors in a chain. They were meant to be lifeboats in a spaceship emergency, not shipping containers.
A clang came from beyond the tunnel, and Jelena froze. Was someone coming?
Several monkeys hooted, and she winced at the noise. She used her power to soothe them, assuring them there was nothing worth chatting about right now. She hoped she wasn’t lying to them.
“There are people in the next building over,” Erick said, not pausing in his work. “I think they’re unloading the cargo from the ship.”
“Can you tell what it is?” Jelena asked, thinking again that more animals might have been brought in. If the cargo was being stored so close to this warehouse, wasn’t that possible?
“No.” Erick shook his head, but he was so busy working, she wasn’t sure if the no meant he couldn’t tell or didn’t have time to pause and use his mind to look. “I have figured out which building houses the forcefield generator. We need to make sure we have time to visit it on the way out.”
Jelena grunted as she hefted a monkey cage down. She’d forgotten about the forcefield. If they got all of these cages loaded but then couldn’t get back to the ship, this whole adventure would be for naught.
The first dog she had freed, along with several others, followed her as she carried the cage to the pod and Erick stacked it inside. She was glad that he, with his more mathematical mind, was doing the loading—he would get far more to fit than she would have.
“That’s the last animal that’s still alive,” she said, then reluctantly convinced the free ones to go into one of the few larger cages in the pod, one that only had a couple of scared puppies for occupants. She hated to lock them back up, even for a short time, but the ride back out might be bumpy, and if the cages toppled, she didn’t want any unprotected bodies in the middle.
The first one she’d freed paused to lean against her leg again, and she gave the dog a pat.
“Go on in there, girl. We’ll get you to a better home soon.”
“Just give me two minutes to make sure the pods are secure on the hoverboards, and I’ll have this train ready to go,” Erick said. “We’ll ride to the building with the generator. It would probably take me about ten minutes to overload something or figure out which circuit to cut. At this point, it may be easiest if you use your explosives to simply blow up the generator.” He gave her a significant look through his faceplate.
“How did you know I brought explosives large enough to blow up buildings?” She had specifically promised she’d brought small bombs.
“You’re not as convincing as you think.”
“I managed to get you here,” she pointed out.
“Because I was sleeping until you sprang this on me.”
“Well, you won’t do that again when I’m piloting.”
He snorted. “Probably not.”
Another clang came from the other building.
“I’m going to take a quick peek in there,” she said, since Erick was still working.
He frowned at her. “Use your mind, not your eyes. And don’t get caught.”
Jelena waved an acknowledgment and trotted toward the tunnel, surprised he hadn’t tried to dissuade her. But then, he had known her since she’d been eight.
She stopped at the entrance, resting her gloved hand on the wall next to it. There was a window in the center of the door, and she could make out the outline of the tunnel that led to the next building and another door at the end. Faint illumination filtered through that window, but it didn’t look like many lights were on over there. Not like in the animal warehouse. She was glad nobody was near the tunnel, or they might have wondered at the lights at their end.
Taking Erick’s advice, she reached out with her mind. She sensed the vague dimensions of another large warehouse and two men in a far corner that contained counters and appliances. Refrigerators? Erick would know. Could it be some kind of station where the scientists did some of their experiments? The men were moving items into the area from a hoverboard. She didn’t sense any animals or anything else living besides them. There was no reason for her to linger. Still, curiosity plucked at her mind’s eye as she struggled to identify what the men were moving. Some kind of long crates, it seemed.
“Probably just food being unloaded,” she muttered to herself, though the emotion she sensed from the men made her believe that wasn’t the case. She couldn’t read their thoughts, but they seemed uneasy about something. About what? She tried to see the world through their eyes, as she’d done with the animals, but their minds made her uncomfortable, as touching the thoughts of strangers often did, and these people seemed particularly unpleasant.
This interior door had a simple knob on it, no fancy control panel. She tried it, and it turned. Unlocked.
Jelena glanced back at Erick. He was almost ready to go, but looking through the window would be easier than trying to use her mind to see everything that was going on.
“Just a quick peek,” she repeated softly and eased open the door.
She paused, fearing some alarm might go off, but nothing happened. Another clang came from the building, the men bumping one of their crates against something metal. No, that had been a hatch shutting. There was only one man in the warehouse now. The other had gone back for more cargo. There, even if the person spotted Jelena, which wouldn’t happen, she should be able to handle one man.
She padded down the tunnel and peered through the next door’s window. All she saw were floor-to-ceiling racks of boxes and equipment. She bit her lip, knowing she should go back. But it wasn’t as if she and Erick could escape without detection when they were going to blow up the forcefield generator building. If the man noticed her . . . the detection would just come a little earlier.
The doorknob turned again, and she eased out into the warehouse. She stepped carefully, aware that sound would travel in here.
She made it to the end of the aisle and poked her helmet around the corner. Finally, she could see that lab area she had sensed, and she spotted the man too. He was using a hand tractor to lift something out of the long, rectangular shipping container she’d sensed. It was one of several that they had stacked by the counters. She would only stay long enough to see what he was unloading and then go back to help Erick.
Something rose out of the container, enveloped and lifted by the power of the hand tractor. The lighting wasn’t very good, and the man blocked part of her view, but her breath caught when she spotted a shoe and someone’s leg. A stiff leg that did not move as it—and the rest of its body—was lifted. Jelena stared, her mind slow to accept what she was seeing. The worker walked the body—the corpse—over to an open door on the wall. Using the hand tractor, he slid the corpse into a long, refrigerated chamber.
It’s like a morgue, Jelena realized.
Were the corpses for more medical experiments? Had they been purchased legally, assuming there was such a thing, or was something shady going on in that warehouse?
The man closed the door and moved the crate somewhere outside of Jelena’s angle of view.
“You check the organs before you put him away?” someone asked, the second man.
He walked into Jelena’s view, and she almost scurried back, afraid he would see her. But wouldn’t movement be more likely to draw his eyes? Her side of the warehouse was dark, so they shouldn’t see her if she stayed still.
“He looked fine,” the man with the hand tractor said, using the unit to pull another shipping container over.
“You know Radnov wets himself if we take up storage units with corpses he can’t use later.”
“If he wants perfect corpses, then maybe he should get them from a medical supply facility instead of buying them from gangsters.”
“Yeah, you tell him that.”
The two men worked together to open the lid of another container. Belatedly, Jelena realized she could be recording the audio and the video with her forward helmet cam. To what end, she didn’t know, but she whispered a command to turn it on and record. Maybe if she could post what was going on here, both with the animals and these corpses, it would raise some awareness of the corporation and their questionable research practices. Maybe, with enough public outcry, the medical facilities buying organs from them would stop using them, and the corporation would have to change its practices.
Wishful thinking perhaps, but she recorded the men moving another corpse into a locker, this one belonging to a young woman who didn’t look any older than Jelena. She hadn’t seen much of the first corpse, but remembered that he had been young too. Awfully young to be dead. Gangsters, the man had said. Were they killing people for some bounty? A bounty put out and paid for by Stellacor?
The men opened a third container.
“This one has a blazer hole in her chest,” one man said. “Radnov’s going to be pissed that she got frozen and brought in.”
“It might have missed the heart. Just put her away, and let the scientists figure it out.”
“Doesn’t look like the prep was done well, either. The organs are probably blocks of frozen meat by now. Going to be impossible for them to sell.”
“Not our problem. We’re just the dock workers.”
Jelena would have scratched her head if her helmet hadn’t been in the way. Why would Stellacor be selling dead people’s organs when they could grow their own from stem cells? More demand than supply? Did growing them from scratch take a long time? Were they having people killed so they could get young, healthy organs to sell when their own labs couldn’t meet the demand?
Jelena? Erick’s soft voice sounded in her mind instead of over her comm.
Yes? She answered the same way, not wanting to speak aloud with the men over there. She kept recording.
Your new friends are waiting for you. He managed to sound dry even when speaking telepathically, and she was sure he knew exactly where she was.
I’m coming. I just—
An alarm blared, making her jump.
“What the—” one of the men blurted as they both spun, looking around.
Jelena jerked her head back, wincing. She couldn’t tell if they had seen her. She ran back toward the door, trying to keep her footfalls light, though the wailing of that alarm ought to drown them out.
“Hurry,” Erick said, over the comm this time. “That’s for us. The natives have realized we’re here.”
Jelena sprinted through the tunnel to the animal warehouse, then whirled back toward the door. She yanked out her multitool and flicked on the laser cutter. She melted the unsophisticated lock on the knob, hoping that would delay pursuit, and raced over to join Erick. He was already on his thrust bike, the inner airlock hatch open. As soon as he saw her, he flew into the airlock.
The alarm wailed just as loudly in this building, and she could feel the animals’ fear. They were locked into three pods now, sealed inside to protect them from the lack of atmosphere outside. It was dark, and they were afraid. Jelena tried to soothe them as she flung herself astride her bike, nearly knocking her staff out of its holder. One of the pods and hoverboards was magnetically attached to the back of her bike. Two trailed after Erick’s.
“Sorry,” Jelena blurted. “But I had to see. They’re doing something—”
“Later,” Erick said curtly, tapping the panel. “We’ll have to go out one at a time. There’s not room in the lock for both bikes and their pods. Give me one of your bombs. I’ll try to blow the forcefield while the lock is cycling for you. Just push this to activate it.”
“Got it,” she said, hurrying to dig out one of the bombs, though she hated the idea of separating.
Erick and his two pods disappeared behind the hatch, and a thunk-kerthunk sounded as the airlock activated.
“It wasn’t your snooping,” Erick said from inside, his voice coming over her helmet comm.
“They found the androids, and someone thought to look at the security footage. That’s when they sounded the alarm.”
“Footage of our fight?” Jelena asked, sensing Erick growing farther away. He was outside the building now, flying away.
“Yes. They may know what we are.”
What we are. Such a strange way to say it. As if they weren’t human.
“Superheroes in unicorn underwear?” she suggested.
Erick didn’t answer.
Jelena hit the button to open the inner hatch. It hadn’t taken long for the airlock to work. Maybe she could still catch up to him and help.
A bang and a thunderous clang sounded behind her. The door being thrown—or blown—open.
Cursing, she flew into the airlock. She couldn’t see much behind her with the hoverboard and pod attached to her bike, but she sensed four people racing through the warehouse. Armed people. The pod could withstand being hit with small pieces of space debris, but she had no idea if it could endure blazer fire.
Once inside the airlock, Jelena tapped the same buttons that Erick had. The hatch did not respond promptly, as if it had to think about whether it wanted to obey or not.
The sprinting men were already halfway to her. One lifted a rifle.
Jelena flung the image of an animal into his mind, a livid wolf with a mouth full of fangs, the creature leaping for his throat, angry at being part of some lab experiment. The man shrieked, dropped his weapon, and raised his hands to his throat. He whirled toward where he believed the attack was coming from. His colleagues crashed into him.
“What are you doing?” one blurted, tripping and flailing.
The hatch finally shut, and Jelena didn’t hear the response. She bounced on her bike seat, silently urging the airlock to hurry up and vent the atmosphere. She hit another button, trying to override it and open the outer hatch without waiting. The controls bleated a discontented noise at her. She growled. This hadn’t taken so long for Erick, had it?
A thud sounded behind her, and she leaned forward, eager to race out. But the outer hatch didn’t open. A squealing of metal came from the one behind her. She sensed the men right on the other side. Damn, had they overridden the controls?
Whimpers and plaintive howls came from within the pod. The walls muffled the sounds, but Jelena still heard them, and they tugged at her heart. She couldn’t let those brutal men recapture the animals.
The hatch was wrenched open an inch, light slashing into the dim airlock. She dug into her satchel, pulled out one of the bombs, and thumbed open the protective cover over the detonator. The hatch squealed and opened a couple more inches.
She slid off her bike and moved around the pod. Maneuvering in the chamber, which had seemed delightfully large before the pods had been inflated, was cramped and she could barely reach the hatch.
The butt of a rifle thumped against the hatch, visible through the slim opening.
“Throw your weapons out and put your hands up,” someone ordered.
Gladly. Jelena tapped in a fifteen-second delay and pressed the detonator. She turned the bomb sideways, thrust it through the gap, and tried to throw it into the warehouse, far enough away that the explosion wouldn’t threaten her or the animals. Unfortunately, it must have struck one of the men, because a thud sounded, followed by a clank as it fell to the floor right outside the hatch.
Men swore and fled away from it. Jelena hammered at the control panel, trying in vain to get that hatch to shut—and the outer one to open. But the guards must have jammed it in their attempt to override it.
Jelena grabbed her staff and closed her eyes to concentrate. Her first thought was to hurl the bomb deep into the warehouse, but that would leave her still needing to find a way out. With her staff’s help, she created a barrier similar to the one that had deflected the android’s blazer fire. She curved and stretched it, trying to turn it into something akin to the dome-shaped forcefield that protected the compound.
Jelena? Erick asked into her mind, surprising her and almost making her lose her concentration. Where are you? I was able to get the forcefield down.
Not now, she thought back, aware of the last second ticking away on the bomb.
An explosion roared and brilliant light flared inside the warehouse. Jelena squinted and gasped as something hammered into her shield. She threw all her concentration into maintaining the barrier, holding the staff out in front of her as if it alone could deny the power of the bomb. A whoosh of air sounded, and a draft tugged at her spacesuit. Abruptly, all sound halted. The light remained, burning red through her closed eyelids, but then it, too, disappeared. Pieces of the hatch—or was the entire building falling apart?—beat down on her shield.
The light finally lessened, and Jelena risked opening her eyes. The hatch was gone, as was the ceiling of the airlock and part of the ceiling of the warehouse too. She wasn’t sure where the men were. Had they made it back to the tunnel? Or were they stranded outside of the structure, exposed to the cold harshness of space? Maybe they’d died in the explosion.
That grim thought filled her with horror. This had been about rescuing animals, not killing people. She and Erick had joked about whether or not this was a crime, but surely killing people would be considered a crime anywhere in the system. By the three suns, she hoped they had gotten to safety.
The rear hatch was contorted, halfway ripped off its hinges. Jelena climbed back on her thrust bike and nudged it into motion, eyeing the pod as she flew out, making sure her barrier had indeed protected it and that it wasn’t damaged. It didn’t seem to be. She could sense the animals inside, terrified but still alive.
I promise your lives will be better soon, she whispered into their minds, even though they couldn’t understand words. You won’t have to fear anything anymore.
“Jelena!” Erick barked over her helmet comm.
After the silence, the syllables boomed into her brain.
“I’m right here.” She looked both ways, trying to locate him as she noted the carnage her explosive had caused. The entire back half of the warehouse had been destroyed. Wrecked cages lay everywhere, scattered among warped pieces of metal and plastic, some still falling slowly in the low gravity. “Where are—”
His words came with an image, two compact spaceships zipping across the compound and toward her position. Though Jelena could not see them yet, she trusted Erick’s warning and gunned her thrust bike. She flew toward the back wall, lifting the handlebars to head over it.
As soon as she rose above the level of the buildings, she spotted the ships. They were flying straight toward her, and she groaned, knowing they would be far faster than her bike. She cleared the wall, but she would never make it back to the canyon before they caught up with her.
“I could use some help, Erick,” she said, turning toward the canyon. The pod, bumping and wobbling behind her, blocked her view of the ships, but she sensed them back there.
Erick came into view ahead of her, the other two pods trailing behind his bike. For some reason, he was staying still, looking back toward her instead of fleeing.
Jelena opened her mouth, intending to tell him to get going, to split up so their pursuers wouldn’t know who to chase, but he pointed behind her. She had to veer to the side to see around the pod and back to the ships. She was in time to witness one pitching to the side and crashing into the other one. They hadn’t been shielded, and she imagined she could hear the warping of metal, even if there was no sound out here. The crash took both of them to the ground.
“Did you cause that, Erick? If so, you’re my hero.” Jelena pointed her bike toward the canyon again.
“Does that mean you’re going to get me a cape?”
“I’m already buying you Striker Odyssey cards. Isn’t that enough?”
“Seems paltry for what we’ve been through tonight.” He turned his bike to match her speed as she caught up with him.
“I am on an allowance, you know. My funds are limited.”
“Tell me about it. Maybe we can tie a sheet around your neck, and it’ll be like a cape.”
Erick’s helmet twisted to the side, and he didn’t answer. Jelena followed his gaze and spotted someone in a spacesuit running after them. Arms pumping, the person carried a huge blazer rifle and an even huger second weapon. It looked like a grenade launcher. Jelena couldn’t believe how fast the figure’s legs churned, covering the ground with great bounds.
“That’s a person. I don’t want to hurt—” Erick waved back in the direction of the crash.
Maybe androids had been flying those ships, so he hadn’t hesitated to damage them. Jelena thought of the men in the warehouse, the ones she wasn’t sure had escaped the explosion.
“I understand,” she said. “I’m sure we can outrun him.”
Already, the dark slash of the canyon was visible ahead. Less than two miles, and they could descend to the ship.
“Her,” Erick said.
“That’s a woman.”
Jelena glanced at the figure again, awestruck by its—her—speed. “You’re sure it’s not an android?” she asked, even though that wouldn’t have made sense. An android did not need to wear a spacesuit.
“I bet she’s a cyborg. Look at how she’s keeping up with us.” He looked down at his speedometer. “That’s amazing.”
“She’s falling behind,” Jelena said. “We’ll make it. As soon as we get in, we’ll take off. We can sort out the animals later.”
“There’s another ship taking off from the compound,” Erick said, his voice going grim again.
“We just have to make it inside. The Snapper is armored like an assault tank.”
“With the speed of a turtle.”
“A fast turtle. We’ll be fine.” Jelena hoped she was right.
“Zigzag,” Erick said. “The ship is coming up behind us. A human pilot.”
“You may have to crash it anyway. If we get caught, those people aren’t going to hesitate to kill us.” She remembered the way those androids had shot to kill as she obeyed Erick’s order and picked an erratic route across the pockmarked terrain.
“Of course not. We broke into their facility and stole something.” Erick sounded like he regretted going along with her now.
Jelena clenched her jaw. She might regret that this hadn’t gone better, but she couldn’t regret choosing to come. Those people deserved some kind of karmic revenge for working for this vile corporation, damn it.
A blast of white energy slammed into the ground scant meters behind them. Moon rocks hurtled up, pelting the back of the pod and flying over Jelena’s head. She’d already been zigzagging, but she made her route even more erratic and unpredictable.
She glanced back, spotting the ship right behind her—and the smoking crater that blast had left in the moon. It was as large as the natural ones caused by asteroid collisions. That had been an energy cannon. She had few delusions about creating a barrier that could withstand a direct hit from one of those.
In addition to the ship, the cyborg was still chasing them. But she had fallen back. Jelena might have laughed because she had to run around the massive crater the ship had made, but all of her humor had fled. The cyborg could still be a threat once they reached the canyon. On foot, she might catch them while they were loading their cargo. She could fight them, delay them while the ship came down and fired on the Snapper.
“We’ll go in different directions when we go into the canyon,” Jelena said. “You go straight to our ship and get your cargo in. I’ll try to lead them away and then catch up with you.”
Another e-cannon blast interrupted Erick’s reply. It slammed into the ground just in front of them, tearing away the edge of the canyon, and flinging rock into the air.
Erick went left, and Jelena veered right. If they had been riding on wheeled bikes, they both would have crashed into the new hole torn into the ground.
Without hesitating, Jelena flew over the rim and down, streaking along the wall, almost scraping the pod on the rocks. Reminded of her precious cargo, she gave herself more room.
The ship flew over the edge right behind her. She dove for the bottom of the canyon, whipping past cliffs and piles of rubble, searching for terrain she might use to slow her pursuer. The ship flew over her and fired down from above. She veered sharply, barely avoiding an energy blast that streaked past her. It slammed into a rubble pile at the bottom of the canyon, and the dust of pulverized rocks exploded into the air.
She flew into the cloud, using the camouflage it provided to turn around. Erick would only need a minute to get his cargo and himself into the hold, and then he would need her there to pilot. She couldn’t let herself get drawn too far away. She couldn’t let herself get killed, either.
Gunning the engine, calling for all the power the bike could muster, she sped along the bottom of the canyon, back in the direction of the Snapper. With some satisfaction, she glimpsed the pursuing ship still going the other way. Sadly, it soon realized it wasn’t following her anymore, and it did a loop, flying up, then upside-down, and finally twisting and diving back down into the canyon. The ship was slower than her bike, at least in maneuvering in the tight passage, and she’d gained time. She hoped it was enough.
Up ahead, she spotted the ledge where the Snapper rested. Erick stood outside, waving his staff as if he were a ground guide ready to help her park. She would have preferred he already be safe in the ship, but his bike and the two pods weren’t in sight, so he must have already gotten them inside.
Before Jelena reached the ledge, another e-cannon blast streaked through the air, missing her and the pod by less than a foot. She could feel the heat from it through her suit.
She glanced back in indignation that those people were firing upon their own lab animals. Didn’t they want them back? She reached out with her senses, trying to find the pilot. There were three people in the ship’s navigation compartment. There, that was the pilot. A woman flying with intent as her cohort prepared to fire again. The pilot was concentrating hard, knowing that flying through the canyon took precision. One mistake, and she could wreck their ship.
Jelena was almost to the Snapper, but knew she and Erick would be easy targets when they were out on that ledge. The ship was gaining ground now, and it would be able to fire on them easily.
As she’d done in the warehouse, Jelena thrust an image into the woman’s mind, one of a ferocious lion springing to attack her. Claws slashed toward her throat, and a huge fanged maw snapped for her face. Jelena could feel the woman’s surprise and fear, sensed the way she jerked to the side in her seat, her hands falling away from the controls for a few seconds.
Jelena had reached the ledge, and she hoped her distraction was enough. Even if all that happened was that the pursuing ship ended up flying past without firing, that would help.
As she sailed straight for the open cargo hatch, she saw Erick still standing outside of the Snapper, his helmet tilted toward the ship. Was he, too, trying to affect the pilot? Or, knowing him, some mechanical part of the ship?
Something dropped down in front of Jelena before she reached the hatch, and she jerked back, veering at the last second. It was someone in a spacesuit—the cyborg. She’d jumped all the way down from the ledge above, landing on her feet.
Instead of springing after Jelena, she leaped the other way and slammed into Erick.
Growling, Jelena hurried to get the bike and the pod into the airlock, reversing the thrusters at the last moment so she wouldn’t crash into the interior hatch. She bounced off it anyway, the jolt almost pitching her off the bike. She half leaped, half fell off it, grabbing her staff as she landed. She squeezed past the pod and ran out to help Erick.
The cyborg flew past the hatch as Jelena stepped out. Erick was in a crouch, his staff held out with one hand, but he gripped his side with the other, and she could feel his pain. Had he been punched? Shot? The cyborg tumbled toward the ledge and would have gone over, but somehow, she twisted in the air and caught the edge as she fell.
Jelena ran over, not sure whether she meant to knock the woman the rest of the way off or just make sure she couldn’t get up. It was more than a hundred feet to the bottom. She had no idea if that would be a killing fall in this kind of gravity, but they couldn’t let the woman keep attacking them or board the Snapper, not when their pursuer—
Jelena jerked her gaze up, abruptly remembering the other ship. Had her mental attack caused the pilot to divert?
No. She stumbled back from the ledge. The ship was coming straight toward them, as if it meant to kamikaze crash into the Snapper. But it was coming in too low. It slammed into the ledge, right below the cyborg dangling from her fingertips.
The ground quaked, and Jelena wobbled, feeling like she was riding a wave. She envisioned the entire ledge collapsing, taking her, Erick, and the Snapper down into the canyon with it. She started to spin toward the ship, wanting to hurry in and pilot them away, but somehow, the cyborg had managed to hang on. She pulled herself up, one knee finding the top of the crumbling ledge as rocks fell away to either side of her.
Jelena ran toward her, raising her staff. She hated the idea of attacking someone trying to get her feet under her, but the cyborg had hurt Erick, and Jelena had no doubt she would kill both of them if she could. She rammed the tip of her staff toward the chest of the spacesuit.
Even off-balance, the cyborg snapped a hand out, catching the staff in her gloved palm. As hard as Jelena had thrust, the other woman barely moved. If it had been a normal staff, the cyborg might have ripped it from her hands, flung it over the side, and leaped at Jelena, but the Starseer weapon crackled with energy at the contact. Lightning raced up the cyborg’s arm, and her helmet jerked back. Unlike the androids, she could feel pain. Jelena couldn’t hear her scream, but she saw her foe’s contorted features—her agony—through her faceplate.
While the cyborg stood there, her body locked in pain, the rest of the ledge crumbled. She disappeared from sight, and Jelena almost tumbled into the canyon, too, as rocks shifted beneath her feet.
She threw herself into an awkward backward roll, angling toward the hatch. Erick grabbed her with one hand, helping her to her feet. As they raced into the airlock, the image of that cyborg—that woman—screaming behind her faceplate filled Jelena’s mind. Other people might have died, but she hadn’t seen their faces, their pain.
The lock cycled, and Erick pushed her bike and the pod into the hold where his already waited. With air and atmosphere inside the ship, she could hear the alarmed cries of the animals again. She needed to tend to them, and she needed to get the Snapper out of here before Stellacor sent more pursuers, but she struggled to move her feet, to get that woman’s face out of her mind.
“Jelena.” Erick grabbed her arm and pulled her toward NavCom. “Time to fly. I’ll unload everything. Try to get us out of here through the canyon. If there’s any chance that they haven’t identified our ship yet . . . well, it would be good to keep it that way.”
“Yes,” she said, his words sinking in. “I will. I am, but Erick? Can you take your bike and go out and check on that woman while I get us ready?”
“What? The cyborg?” He gaped at her, still gripping his side with one hand.
“Yes, and if that ship is down there, and there are people alive there, too . . . we should help them. At least drop them off where they can get medical help. We didn’t—this wasn’t supposed to go like this.” She swallowed, shaking her head, willing him to understand.
He groaned, but turned back toward his bike. “Fine, but get up there and get the engine powered up. And then save me if I get myself in trouble doing this.”
“I mean it,” he said, slinging his leg over his bike and flying into the airlock again. “I want major saving. Guns, blazer fire, explosions.”
“Definitely.” She managed a quick smile and raced across the crowded cargo hold deck toward NavCom.
The deck quaked, the rest of the ledge threatening to crumble under them, and she lost that smile. She banged her shoulder on the hatchway as she jumped into NavCom. She slid into the pilot’s seat, made sure Erick had gotten out and wasn’t near the thrusters, then powered everything up. He was flying over the ledge and down into the canyon to investigate.
As Jelena lifted off, she checked the sensors, expecting to see the wrecked ship lying down in the canyon under tons of rock. But it hadn’t been completely destroyed. It was flying out of the canyon a mile away, only one of its thrusters working. She thought it might turn back toward them for another attack, but it limped away, toward the facility.
Jelena flew away from the ledge, hovering in the canyon while she waited for Erick. Rocks continued to crumble away from what remained of their landing spot, bouncing down to the boulder-littered floor. She shifted the Snapper’s cameras and spotted Erick on his bike and also the cyborg woman. She lay on the ground, a boulder pinning her legs. She wasn’t moving.
Jelena grimaced, fearing they were too late.
“She’d try to kill us if she was alive and we brought her on board,” she muttered, trying to tell herself that it was for the best if the cyborg was dead or if they left her there, but she didn’t truly want someone’s death on her hands. On her conscience.
Erick flew low over the woman and stopped his bike beside her. Jelena hadn’t removed her helmet yet, and his voice crackled over its comm.
“I think she’s alive, but her faceplate is broken. If she’s losing oxygen, she’ll die in minutes if we leave her here.”
“Bring her on board,” Jelena said.
“She’s not going to be grateful like your animals and lick your hand and let you rub her ears.”
“Bring her anyway.”
Erick grumbled under his breath and used his staff to lever the boulder off the cyborg. In regular gravity, he would have struggled, but the big rock tumbled away. He hefted the woman onto the back of his bike.
“I really think I deserve more than a sheet-cape for all my efforts,” he said.
“You’re probably right. I’ll throw in a blanket too.”
Jelena checked the sensors again as he flew his bike toward the Snapper. The damaged ship had landed and didn’t look like it could fly back to bother them, but she wouldn’t be surprised if the facility sent another round of pursuers out.
“I’m in,” Erick said as soon as the outer hatch shut. “Let’s get out of here before repercussions catch up with us.”
“Gladly,” Jelena said, and took the Snapper through the canyon, as Erick had suggested. She, too, doubted there was any way the Stellacor facility hadn’t identified them yet, but maybe they would get lucky, and those repercussions he spoke of would never find them.
She removed her helmet and pushed a hand through her sweaty hair, fearing that was highly unlikely.