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“Hope Springs,” a Fallen Empire Short Story: Preview

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A few months ago, I was asked to contribute a short story to the fourth Beyond the Stars science fiction anthology, and I said sure. I had just finished the last novel in my Fallen Empire series, so I decided to use the opportunity to check in on the hero and heroine a little later. Even though they were supposed to be living happily ever after, or something like that, I figured they would still have an adventure or two along the way. In fact, a honeymoon seemed like a most excellent place for a new adventure. So that became the idea for the new story.

I tried to make the story so that new readers wouldn’t be confused, but if you’ve read the series, you’ll certainly know these characters and, I hope, enjoy visiting them again.

Here’s the little blurb:

After months of spaceship chases and terrifying battles, Leonidas and Alisa are finally relaxing on a moon full of hot springs, but trouble never fails to find these former soldiers, and they’re soon embroiled in a mystery and fighting for their lives once more.

If you’ve already picked up the anthology, thank you. If you’d like a preview of the story, read on…

Hope Springs

Steam wafted off the water and curled around Alisa Marchenko’s bare legs. Snow dusted the rocky hills above the hot springs, and the cold air pimpled her flesh. She pulled her robe tighter, tempted to jump into the closest pool, but it would be polite to wait for—

A six-and-a-half-foot tall, heavily muscled man strode out of the changing cabin, wearing nothing more than flip-flops, plaid swimming trunks, and a raised eyebrow. Leonidas Adler, former imperial Cyborg Corps colonel and new husband to Alisa, looked her up and down.

“There were robes in your changing room?” he asked, his eyebrow drifting higher.

“Yumi warned me about the nippy air, so I brought one with me.” Alisa grinned, admiring his physique—nothing fat or flabby on him, despite the gray hair sprinkled at his temples—and amused at seeing her fierce warrior in such innocuous clothing.

“Yumi did not warn me,” he said flatly. “All she said was that she knew some of the scientists who opened Hope Springs and that the tourism money funds their research.”

“She also said it would be a delightful spot for our honeymoon, since neither the Alliance nor the empire has ever had interest in it.” Because the moon was little more than a rock in space, filled with geothermal vents, geysers, and scalding pools. Fortunately, the hot springs in the tourist area were suitable for soaking. “You’re not cold, are you? Surely, some of those implants are designed to keep cyborgs from freezing to death on chilly moons.”

Alisa patted his forearm, though none of his implants or other upgrades were visible on the surface—he appeared completely human, and, as he was always quick to point out, he was human. He hadn’t received the cyborg surgery until he’d joined the imperial service.

“I am sufficiently hardy,” he said a trifle stiffly, but he laid a hand on hers as he surveyed the pools where other tourists already lounged, some in swimming suits, others not. A nude, hairy fellow climbed out of the water and strolled past them, not bothering to grab a towel. “I may be overdressed,” Leonidas added.

“You’re welcome to remedy that if you wish.” Alisa slipped an arm around his waist and waved her other toward the water. “This is going to be wonderful. Five days with no crew or motherly duties to worry about. We can soak in the pools in relaxed bliss.”

“Are you sure we’ll need five days just to sit in water?”

Blissfully sit in water that, the brochure promises, will leave us with a radiant inner glow. There are massages and aromatherapy sessions too.” Alisa led him toward flagstone steps descending into a steaming pool. “I thought you were ready to retire from activities such as being shot at, irradiated, and having our minds manipulated by rogue Starseers.”

“Yes, but this seems… sedate.”

“My honeymoon plans also include copious amounts of vigorous sex.”

“Ah?” Leonidas slid his arm around her waist, and his eyelids drooped. “In that case, do you think five days will be enough?”

“With Beck in charge and Abelardus piloting my freighter, their delivery could take longer than anticipated. We might—”

Shouts from the other end of the pool area interrupted her. A woman in a yellow biohazard suit, complete with boots and helmet, raced down a ramp and across the snow-edged flagstone deck. She slipped and flailed, but caught herself, throwing a worried look at something small in her gloved fist. She raced toward Alisa and Leonidas while frequently glancing over her shoulder. Shouts came from up the ramp and beyond the rocks framing the sunken hot springs.

Alisa stepped into the pool to get out of the way, but Leonidas faced the woman, as if he would stop her. If she had stolen something, that might be appropriate, but this was hardly their fight.

Two black-clad men leaped over a rock wall and landed at the bottom of the ramp. No, Alisa amended. Not men. Androids. They’d just dropped more than twenty feet without pausing.

Leonidas had not stepped into the woman’s path yet, perhaps undecided as to whether he should interfere, but she veered toward him.

“Cyborg?” she blurted.

Before Leonidas could answer, she slipped on the flagstones and tumbled into him. He caught her before she could fall. Alisa grimaced, worrying that the woman—and that suit Leonidas now held—were in need of a decontamination shower.

“Delay them,” the woman blurted, breathless. “Please. This will help your kind.”

Nude people yelped, scurrying out of the way as the androids sprinted along the deck. The woman released Leonidas and ran around him. She raced toward stairs near the changing cabin that led out to the parking lot.

As the androids ran after her, their featureless faces and silver eyes dispassionate, Leonidas sprang into their path.

Alisa groaned, even though she’d known as soon as the woman appealed to him for help that he would give it. Honorable and noble. That was Leonidas. Whether he could win a battle against two androids while nearly naked or not. If he had been in his combat armor, she would have bet on him winning, but in flip-flops? As powerful as cyborgs were, androids were just as strong and had fewer weaknesses—no human flesh, no ability to feel pain.

“I’ll get your rifle,” Alisa yelled, racing up the stairs. She hated to leave Leonidas, but they hadn’t brought down any weapons. It was only due to his habitual preparedness that there was a blazer rifle in the rented air car.

Thumps and grunts sounded behind her, and she glanced back, wincing as Leonidas tumbled into the pool—or had he been thrown?—locked in a wrestler’s grip with one of the androids. The other android, with Leonidas out of the way, resumed his run toward the parking lot.

Alisa cursed. She charged up the steps, flip-flops slapping awkwardly, and raced past the admissions booth, where a teenager was sticking his head out and gaping after the woman in the suit. She had made it out into the lot, bypassing rows of tourist shuttles and private aircraft for a compact spaceship parked along a rock wall to the side. Its hatch opened, and Alisa thought the woman would make it, so she headed for her air car. But a shadow fell across her, and she leaped behind a shuttle.

Two distant suns gleamed in the grayish brown sky of Altar Moon, but both were blotted out for a moment as a black, hawk-shaped ship cruised low over the parking lot. Weapons bristled from its underbelly.

One of its e-cannon ports glowed blue, then fired with a thwump. Energy crackled in the air, and a blue bolt slammed into the parked spaceship. It exploded in flames and black smoke, debris hammering nearby craft. A piece of hull the size of Alisa’s head slammed into the shuttle she hid behind.

“What in all the suns’ fiery hells?” she grumbled, not daring to lift her head until the clangs and clacks died down.

When she stood, eyeing the sky warily, the attacking ship was already zipping toward the horizon. A smoking crater and a charred wreck remained where the other ship had been. At first, Alisa didn’t see any sign of the woman, but then spotted scraps of that yellow biohazard suit, along with—

She gulped. Was that an arm? Almost charred beyond recognition, it appeared to be all that remained of the woman.

The android that had been chasing her reached the wreckage. Ignoring her remains, he poked through the mess. He must have been aware of Alisa’s presence, but he did not acknowledge her.

Not certain she was safe, and worried about Leonidas, Alisa ran down the aisle to their air car. She opened the canopy and grabbed a stun gun and Leonidas’s blazer rifle.

She turned to head back to help him, but he was striding down the aisle toward her with something furry gripped in one hand. No, not furry. Hairy.

“Is that the android’s head?” Alisa asked, considering the water dripping from his prize.

“There’s a serial number in its scalp. We may be able to find out who it belonged to.”

“What about the other one?” Alisa nodded in the direction of the destroyed ship, though other craft blocked the view. Sirens wailed off to the south. Far too late, the local enforcers were arriving.

“I didn’t see him.”

“He’s over there.” Alisa waved for him to follow.

She weaved through the air cars and shuttles, hoping to approach without being heard. But when they reached the smoking crater, the android was gone. Wreckage lay strewn up and down the aisle, with a piece of the hull on the pavement a few meters from them. The name of the ship was visible despite its charred and warped edges. Klondike.

Alisa pointed at it, but Leonidas looked toward the wreck and the tattered pieces of that yellow suit. His jaw tightened.

Three ships appeared overhead, red and yellow emergency lights flashing as they descended toward the parking lot.

Leonidas drew Alisa back between two vehicles. “We may not want to stick around for questioning.”

“Why? We don’t know anything.” And Alisa wouldn’t mind getting some answers if the enforcers had them. “Or are you worried they’ll object to you taking that souvenir home?” She pointed at the android head.

“They may object to this as well.” He reached down the front of his swimming trunks.

“A cyborg penis?”

His eyes narrowed to slits, and Alisa expected him to point out that this was an inappropriate time for humor. All he did was withdraw a petri dish with a green smudge inside.

“The woman stuck this in my waistband when she crashed into me.” He turned the clear dish over in his hand. “It’s oddly warm.”

Shouts came from the wreck. The first enforcer ship had landed and was discharging people.

“Normally, I’d be jealous about another woman handling your waistband, but I’m more concerned that you might have smothered your nether regions with something toxic.”

“Presumably, the potential toxins are locked inside the dish.”

Alisa grunted dubiously.

“We can pick up Yumi, and she can take a look,” Leonidas said. Yumi had also come down to Altar Moon, but she was off doing research and visiting colleagues rather than enjoying the hot springs.

“We can, but maybe it would be wiser to hand that and that—” Alisa pointed to the dangling head, “—over to the enforcers. Whatever’s going on, it has nothing to do with us. Waistband fondling aside.”

Leonidas turned over the petri dish. “She implied it might be useful to cyborgs.”

The green smudge looked like some kind of algae, nothing more. But Leonidas wore a determined expression. Knowing him, he probably felt he had failed the woman, and some sense of justice motivated him now.

“I’m not going to get the honeymoon I imagined, am I?” Alisa asked.

“If we figure out what this was about quickly, there could still be time for vigorous sex.”

“What about the bliss we’re supposed to find in the hot springs?”

Leonidas grunted noncommittally and started toward their air car, careful to stay out of sight of the authorities. Alisa sighed and trailed after him. This honeymoon was not going at all as she’d imagined.

~

Please check out the anthology to read the rest (and there are lots of great stories by other authors in there too): Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns.

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