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

| Posted in Ebook News |

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

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

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

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

The Rogue Prince: Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

“It’s not.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet.”

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

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

“Animals,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Comming your parents.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll help me?” she asked.

“In and out, no delays,” Erick said.

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

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

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

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

Jelena thumped him on the shoulder. “Deal.”

***

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

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

“Staff? Check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Funny.”

“We’ll work something out.”

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

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

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

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

“This place is secure. Very secure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He snorted.

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

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

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

“Glad to hear it.”

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

“Are you ready?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but I have scars.”

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

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

“Moonpuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you break them?”

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

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

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

“Maybe they’ll think we’re tourists.”

“Tourists cruising across their private property.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who? Guards?”

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

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

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

All.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Showoff.”

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

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

“One does have long hair.”

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

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

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

“The forcefield is back up,” she noticed.

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

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

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

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

“What?” Jelena asked.

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

“That’s disgusting.”

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

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

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

“Our warehouse is that way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did it see us?” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

“You sound like Leonidas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He snorted. “Probably not.”

Another clang came from the other building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like a morgue, Jelena realized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you tell him that.”

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

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

The men opened a third container.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m coming. I just—

An alarm blared, making her jump.

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Yes. They may know what we are.”

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

“Superheroes in unicorn underwear?” she suggested.

Erick didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jelena!” Erick barked over her helmet comm.

After the silence, the syllables boomed into her brain.

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

“Look out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s disappointing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Her,” Erick said.

“What?”

“That’s a woman.”

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

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

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

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

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

“With the speed of a turtle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

Jelena grimaced, fearing they were too late.

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

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

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

“Bring her on board,” Jelena said.

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

“Bring her anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

| Posted in Ebook News |

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

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

American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice

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

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

But who will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice?

A dark fantasy from four bestselling authors who just happened to be on the 8.05pm from Chicago one March evening…

Links: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AUS

Dragon Rider: Chapter 1

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

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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.

New Fallen Empire Story in the You Are Here Anthology

| Posted in Ebook News |

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For those of you following along with my Fallen Empire series, you probably already know I’ve done a few extra short stories with the characters.

“Starfall Station” is available in the free Star Rebels anthology (available on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble).

“Saranth Three” is available to newsletter subscribers.

And now a new story, “Remnants” is available in the You Are Here science fiction and fantasy anthology. (Amazon link, Kobo link, Smashwords link). This jumps back in time a couple years before Star Nomad and shows the adventure where Alisa and Mica first met. They got along great, right from the start! (That may be a lie.)

Here’s a preview of the short story:

Remnants

The cockpit smelled of urine.

Lieutenant Mica Coppervein wrinkled her nose and turned a suspicious squint on the ground-crew sergeant standing on the hangar deck beside the ladder. The middle-aged veteran gazed up at her, a challenging expression on his face. Was this a joke? Some attempt to foist an unpleasant task off on a green officer who didn’t know better?

“There’s a short circuit somewhere,” the sergeant said.

“Because the pilot wet himself?”

“It was the gunner. Tense battle, I heard. And a crazy pilot. As if there’s any other kind.”

Three suns, was that vomit down on the floor under the gunner’s seat? This task was getting more unpleasant by the minute.

“Look, Sergeant,” Mica said. “I’m an engineer, not an electrician. I—”

“Electrician said he didn’t know what the problem was and to get an engineer.”

More likely, the electrician took a sniff and decided it would be fun to foist this unpleasant repair duty off on an officer. The new officer who had only been here a week and kept wondering what insanity had prompted her to join the Alliance army. Just because she wanted to see the empire sucked into a black hole didn’t mean that anything she did could make that happen.

The sergeant waved at the scorched hull of the fleet runner, a converted imperial fighter that had been old long before the war started. “My crew can handle the rest of the repairs, but we don’t know what’s going on inside the cockpit.”

“Besides unauthorized excretions?” Mica eyed what might have been a puddle on the gunner’s seat. It was hard to tell in the poor lighting of the hangar. With the entire base hidden in an asteroid and operating on minimal power, the lighting was poor everywhere. Maybe it was for the best. This wasn’t the first suspicious stain she had come across since being transferred from her hastily completed officer’s training course. It was, however, the first one that was so… fresh.

Sparks and a surprised shout came from a craft near the big doors at the other end of the hangar. Mica sighed wistfully. The rest of her team was examining a mystery ship that had been salvaged earlier in the day. Made from a strange crystal-like material, the two-seater craft had been found floating near the asteroid and pulled into the hangar. She’d heard speculation that it was a centuries-old Starseer ship, but there had been an imperial pilot in it, a freshly dead imperial pilot. Mica would much rather be investigating it with the other engineers.

“You too good to get your hands dirty, Lieutenant?” the sergeant asked, still frowning at her.

Mica lifted her chin. “I grew up on XR-318, one of the ugliest and grimiest mining asteroids in the system. We started digging out tunnels when we were six, as soon as we were old enough to toddle out of the crèche and be of some use. I’ve had dirt wedged so far up under my fingernails for so long that it bought throw rugs and set up furniture.” She had, however, avoided sticking her hands in pee puddles.

“Then this shouldn’t be a problem.” The sergeant waved at the cockpit and turned his back on her.

He grabbed his toolbox and yelled for two privates to come help him with the hull repairs. The younger men nudged each other, glanced at Mica, and snickered as they headed toward the tail of the craft. Once again, she suspected she had been set up.

Grumbling, Mica went off to search for a cleaning robot, though, given the Alliance’s limited resources, she would be lucky to find a mop and bucket. It occurred to her to order a private to wipe down—and thoroughly disinfect—the cockpit for her, but everyone in the hangar was busy working on the other battered ships. “Tense battle” was an understatement. From what those who’d fought to defend the asteroid had said, their armada had been decimated before driving off the imperial attack. Further, the empire now knew where the Alliance base was. An evacuation order would likely come within a day or two.

“How’re the repairs going, L.T.?” one of the privates asked a few minutes later as Mica crouched in the two-seater, finishing cleaning. He could barely hold in his snickers.

“There are bodily fluids everywhere except the pilot’s seat,” Mica said. “How do you think they’re going?”

“Stinkily?”

Stinkily? It was amazing these kids could read. Maybe they couldn’t. She didn’t recall that the Alliance recruiting fliers had listed a lot of requirements.

“Here, Private. Find a laundry basket for this.” Mica tossed a damp towel at him, resulting in a disgusted grunt as the kid reflexively caught it.

He dropped the towel and fled. With luck, he wouldn’t bother her again.

Finally ready to start work—that supposed short circuit had better be real—Mica leaned out of the cockpit to grab her toolbox off the top of the ladder. She paused. A woman was jogging in her direction. She wore a flight suit and a blue-and-gray jacket with a patch that identified her as a combat pilot. Mica curled her lip, wondering if this was the “crazy” person responsible for the damaged craft—and the mess.

Also wearing lieutenant’s tabs, the woman was not deterred by the lip curl. She kept coming and even grinned and waved to Mica.

“Amazing how often I get such looks from the ground crew,” she said, climbing the ladder.

“I’m an engineer.”

“Oh, I get even dirtier looks from them.” The grin grew broader.

Her name tag read MARCHENKO. An attractive woman of about thirty, she wore her reddish-brown hair pulled back in a braided bun and had a curvy figure that plenty of men would like to get their hands on. Some women, too, surely. Not that Mica wanted anything to do with a pilot who couldn’t be bothered to clean out her own cockpit. Besides, she preferred her women—and her men—on the fine-boned and elegant side.

“Don’t mind me,” Marchenko said, leaning into the cockpit. “I lost something.”

“Your bladder control?” Mica didn’t bother to scoot out of the way. The sooner she finished with this, the sooner she could join her team in examining the strange derelict.

“No, that was Sergeant Heathrow.” Marchenko frowned at the control panel, then lowered her head to look under the seat.

“He the one who puked too?”

“Yes,” Marchenko said, her voice muffled. “He promised me he had an iron stomach. Such a lie. He’s the third gunner I’ve gone through in two weeks. It’s amazing how many big, burly men get airsick at the least provocation.”

“I bet.”

“I would have cleaned up, or had him do it, but we got called for a debriefing right away and—oomph, is that it?”

Before Mica could ask what Marchenko was looking for, someone called, “Officer on deck,” from the back of the hangar. The cavernous space fell impressively silent.

Everyone was supposed to stop what they were doing and come to a perfect attention stance, but Marchenko kept rooting around under the seat.

Admiral Banerjee, the base commander, strode into view with his aide. He headed to the front of the hangar, toward the team inspecting the mystery ship. Mica thought about returning to work, but Banerjee only exchanged a few words with the engineering team leader, Captain Brandt, before moving on. Reminiscent of a tank, the stocky, barrel-chested admiral rolled past the shuttles and larger troop transports toward Mica’s corner of the hangar. Wonderful.

While Marchenko muttered to herself, her head still stuffed under the pilot’s seat, Mica climbed out the other side of the cockpit, ignoring the lack of a ladder. She landed and hustled around to the front of the battered craft where the sergeant and privates already stood at attention.

Mica thought about warning Marchenko, but hadn’t decided if she wanted to interact further with the person responsible for her odious duty. Also, Banerjee would likely hear any whispered asides. Nobody else was talking, and all work had stopped.

The admiral’s gaze raked across the ground crew, lingered on Mica, then lingered even longer as it drifted upward to where Marchenko was draped over the side of the cockpit with her butt in the air.

“That looks like a volunteer,” Banerjee said, his deep voice resonating in the quiet hangar.

“Got it,” Alisa said, her own voice barely audible. She pulled out of the cockpit and jumped from the ladder, clenching a ring dangling from a chain necklace. She blinked in surprise when she found herself staring the admiral in the eye. “Oh. Hullo, sir.” She whipped her hand up for a salute, nearly taking the man’s eye out with the chain.

Mica rolled her eyes, starting to feel surprised that the fleet runner had made it back at all.

Definitely a volunteer,” the admiral growled, his eyes narrowing.

“For what, sir?” Marchenko asked brightly, seemingly oblivious to the man’s irritation.

“You see that mystery ship that got brought in last night?”

“Just heard about it, sir.” Marchenko peered toward the front of the hangar. The engineers peered back.

Mica tried to catch her captain’s eye, wondering what was going on, but like most people in the hangar, he was looking at Marchenko and Admiral Banerjee. Waiting to see if she got a dressing down?

“The engineers are making sure it’s fully functional. We need someone to take it out for a test flight.”

“It’s a Starseer ship, isn’t it, sir?” Marchenko asked. “An old one.”

“I wouldn’t care if pink monkeys brought it from Earth a thousand years ago. If it can fly, I’ll paint it with Alliance colors and add it to one of our squadrons. The Blessed Suns Trinity knows we’re short on spacecraft. We need every extra piece of equipment we can find.”

“Er,” Mica said, not realizing she had spoken until the admiral looked over at her.

“You have a problem—” his gaze dipped to her name tag, “—Coppervein?”

Mica had been introduced to the admiral when she and a handful of other graduates from the abbreviated officer “academy” had arrived, but she apparently hadn’t made enough of an impression for him to have remembered her name. Maybe that anonymity was a good thing, something she should strive to maintain.

She could imagine all sorts of problems resulting from adding a centuries-old ship to their squadrons, but all she said was, “No, sir.” One wasn’t supposed to er at admirals, after all. Nobody else had.

“Good,” Banerjee said. “Marchenko?”

“I can fly anything, sir. Does it have weapons? If you give me a new gunner, we can clean up any leftover imperials loitering around outside our asteroid base.”

Mica had no idea how long Marchenko had been here, but she seemed undaunted by the admiral’s rank—or the fact that he hadn’t stopped glowering at her.

“You’ll take an engineer,” Banerjee said. “Captain Brandt said his team found some quirks.”

Quirks? Mica didn’t like the sound of that.

Marchenko looked toward the cockpit of the fleet runner, then lifted her eyebrows in Mica’s direction. “I believe she’s an engineer, sir.”

Mica’s mouth dropped open. She had wanted to examine the ship, not fly somewhere in it. Especially not if it had quirks. What did that mean? That it would blow up as soon as it hit the vacuum of space?

“Take her then,” Banerjee said before Mica could come up with a convincing excuse as to why she couldn’t go. As if going out in a quirky ship wasn’t bad enough, Mica did not want to fly with someone who took it as a challenge to make her colleagues puke. “And be quick about it,” the admiral added. “We’re mustering out of here at 0800 hours in the morning.”

Banerjee walked away before Mica could come up with a tactful way to protest an admiral’s orders. She should have opted for an untactful way and consequences be damned.

Marchenko slapped her arm. “You’re welcome.”

“What?” Mica stared at her.

“I saw you ogling that ship. And cleaning this mess couldn’t be any fun.” Marchenko waved at the fleet runner, but turned the gesture into a head scratch. “I wonder why he picked me. Does he expect trouble out there? Did he deliberately choose one of his more talented pilots, just in case?”

“I think you were deliberately chosen because your ass volunteered you, Lieutenant Talent,” Mica grumbled.

“It is a fine one, isn’t it?” Marchenko patted her backside. “You can call me Alisa, by the way. I don’t insist on Marchenko. Or Lieutenant Talent.”

“This is going to be a long trip, isn’t it?” Mica asked, not offering her own first name.

“It better not be longer than—” Marchenko tapped the blue-beaded earstar draped over her helix, “—eighteen hours. Or we’ll find out if an old Starseer two-seater can fly to the nearest planet.”

Mica eyed the dilapidated mystery ship. “We’ll be lucky if it can clear the hangar.”

“Good thing I’m taking an engineer along, isn’t it?”

Mica grumbled again, not bothering to utter anything articulate this time.

“Don’t worry. It’ll be fun. An adventure.”

“You’ll probably get us killed.”

“Are you always this pessimistic?” Alisa asked. “Most people don’t say such things until after they’ve flown with me.”

Mica eyed the dirty towel slumped on the deck near the ladder, the one she had thrown at the private. “I find that hard to believe.”

~

Get the rest in the anthology (and check out lots of other authors’ stories too!), We Are Here.

 

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