A hero’s flame

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Photo via Visual hunt

It was eerily quiet. The sirens had stopped some time ago, and the bombs no longer shook the bunker. Brava clung to her daughter as the toddler whimpered in the dark.

“Brava, hush that brat before she gets us captured,” someone hissed. Brava couldn’t tell who it was.

“Have you ever tried to quiet a frightened child this young?” Brava snapped back, her voice a mere whisper. “It’s nearly impossible.”

“She’s not loud enough for the sniffers to find us anyway,” someone else whispered. “Leave Kayin alone.”

Someone grumbled but no one spoke again. Kayin soon went limp, a sign she’d cried herself to sleep. Brava pulled her closer, resting her chin on the top of Kayin’s head. A few people shifted in the dark, easing the awkwardness and pain of the positions they’d held for the past 24 hours.

Finally, Brava heard a peculiar sound and then the snap of a match striking something. Two lamps flashed into light. People cried out softly as their eyes, accustomed to the dark, were burned by the dim light.

Durai, the old man who’d hustled the townies into the bunker, looked solemnly at the group. “I think we can all accept the fact that our homes have been destroyed.” He paused. “I also think the bombs have stopped because there is no one left to drop them.”

“What do you mean?” someone asked. It was still dark enough Brava couldn’t see the speaker.

“I recognized the sound of the final bomb. It was the same type that destroyed my homeworld when I was a young man,” Durai said. “It is what drove me to this land. Now I feel it too has been devastated.”

“What do we do now?” someone else asked. Brava recognized this person. It was Rin, a young man who’d made several passes at Brava in the past. She didn’t like him but had to admit he’d been a brave soldier until a mine took out his leg.

“We check the air scan and then, if it is as I fear, we work on turning this network of rooms and tunnels into our new home. We will be here – not for a few years – but for a few generations,” Durai said.

“So long?” This was Leilani, a young woman who was in the early months of an unexpected pregnancy. She’d gotten pregnant just before her husband left to fight the Kilkani. He’d been killed and she’d never gotten a chance to tell him.

“Only if the air is as I suspect,” Durai said.

Borivoj, another soldier who’d returned too injured to continue fighting, went to the device next to the door. He started swearing. “The air is one thousand parts calinaris radiation.”

“That would be lethal within three seconds if we opened the door even half an inch,” Rin said. He looked ill.

Durai sighed. “It is as I thought. Riya, Gili, bring your soft lights. We need to map out these tunnels and bunkers. Brava, lay Kayin on my pallet and start cataloging how much food we have. Laird, check the seed collection. See what’s food and what’s ornamental.”

Brava set her daughter down and got to work. She wiped tears from her cheeks. Dieter, Kayin’s father and the man Brava planned to marry though she wasn’t sure she loved him, was dead. With the kind of radiation in the air outside there was no way he could have survived. Kayin would be devastated to learn her beloved “dada” was gone for good.

She closed her eyes for a moment before diving into the sorting. She wouldn’t betray his memory by being weak. She would be strong for Dieter, be strong for Kayin. She would be a hero for those she loved and those she now stood beside. It was the least she could do for all of them.

Excerpt from the NEW Chapter 1 of Into the Flames

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I’ve been working on a major rewrite for Into the Flames because I wanted to try something different with it. Here’s a sneak peek at the newly rewritten chapter one. Enjoy!

Do you have everything?” Eire asked.

As far as I know, Dad. You’re the one who knows better about the core than me.” Fiera ran her fingers through her hair, making the spikes worse. “You supervised my packing so if I’m missing anything it’s because you forgot about it.”

True,” Eire said. He pulled her into a rough hug. “Call me as soon as you reach Bouarus, no matter what time it is. I’ll answer.”

It always felt odd hugging her parents. She was a few centimeters taller than them, standing at just over a meter and a half. She was also slender where the rest of her family was stocky. Her mother Alena called her a throwback to an earlier genetic ancestor.

It wasn’t only her height that she’d inherited. Her face was narrow and angular where theirs was round. Her nose was pointed where the rest of her siblings, other than her twin, had snub noses. Only the shape of her eyes, wide and almond shaped, matched theirs. Eire teased Alena often that Fiera and Phelix couldn’t be his because of their appearance. No one took that seriously of course. Alena and Eire were faithful to each other and everyone knew it.

Fiera drew several deep breaths, cementing in her mind the scent of her father’s clean linen shirt and the spiciness of the chemicals all the farmers used to keep the bugs off. “What if you’re asleep?” Fiera asked.

Then keep calling until someone wakes up and can get me.”

That’ll irritate mom.”

Yeah, well, she can just deal with it.”

Fiera snickered. “You know, the way you two act towards each other sometimes looks more like teenagers dating than adults who’ve been married for, what, over thirty years now?”

About that, yes.” Eire laughed, a deep hearty laugh that made everyone around them smile. “We were married six months before Keoni was born.”

I remember hearing the stories from Gma and Gpa,” Fiera said.

Yes, and they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen, your mom and me racing to the courthouse when we found out she was pregnant,” Eire said.

Fiera chuckled. “I still don’t know how you two have managed not to kill each other all these years, not to mention how many of us there are now.”

With love, respect, and a healthy sense of humor.” Eire smacked her lightly upside the head. “Get moving or you’ll miss the shuttle up. If you do, I’ll be really put out. What I’ve set up isn’t cheap.”

Fiera rolled her eyes. “So you keep telling me.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll call when I get there.”

Eire hugged her again, hauling her head down and pressing his lips to her cheek. “Remember: blend in.”

Into the Flames – Chapter 1

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As a bonus for my Kickstarter campaign (see the link at the end of the post), I’m offering the first chapter of Into the Flames for free.

Chapter 1

Fiera dropped her lavender duffel on the ground at her feet and inhaled the warm, fresh wind, feeling a pang. She wasn’t even aboard the ship that would take her from Sorus, her homeworld, and she already missed it. Why her dad picked her for this mission – she sighed. She knew the reasons, and even if she thought he was paranoid she knew she was the best one for it. Besides, she got an education out of it, though the location wasn’t one she’d have picked for herself.

A breeze teased her short, spiky hair and sent the tang of rocket fuel and metal to her. Her gaze skimmed the port. There was room for the three shuttles, but none for the huge passenger liner waiting for them at space station above. Beyond the fences, the fields lay green with ripening vegetables. She should be out there, doing her share of the weeding. This felt like a fool’s errand. She’d get into a fight and be blasted home by harvest.

A thud and a chuckle brought her back to the present. She turned to see her father, a small smile on his face, watching her. Eire Rezouac was a man in his seventies, yet looking at him you wouldn’t put him a day over thirty. It was only on closer examination that you saw the white in the dark red hair, the color of which Fiera had inherited. Her eyes though were the same turquoise as her mother’s.

“Do you have everything?” Eire asked.

“As far as I know, Dad. You’re the one who knows better about the core than me.” Fiera ran her fingers through her hair, making the spikes worse. “I still think Phelix would be better for this.”

“Phelix is clever, resourceful, and highly adaptable,” Eire said. “He’s also a little too naive. I need someone whose skepticism matches mine. Besides, he’s more mechanically inclined than you and a shipyard seemed the better place for him.” Eire pulled her into a rough hug. “Call me when you get to Bouarus. I’ve left word that they’re supposed to come get me if I’m teaching.”

It always felt odd hugging her parents. She was a few centimeters taller than them, standing at just over a meter and a half. She was also slender where the rest of her family was stocky. Her mother Alena called her a throwback to an earlier genetic ancestor.

It wasn’t only her height that she’d inherited. Her face was narrow and angular where theirs was round. Her nose was pointed where the rest of her siblings, other than her twin, had snub noses. Only the shape of her eyes, wide and almond shaped, matched theirs. Eire teased Alena often that Fiera and Phelix couldn’t be his because of their appearance. No one took that seriously of course. Alena and Eire were faithful to each other and everyone knew it.

Fiera drew several deep breaths, cementing in her mind the scent of her father’s clean linen shirt and the spiciness of the chemicals all the farmers used to keep the bugs off. “What if you’re asleep?” Fiera asked.

“Then keep calling until someone wakes up and can get me.”

“That’ll irritate mom.”

“Yeah, well, she can just deal with it.”

Fiera snickered. “You know, the way you two act towards each other sometimes looks more like teenagers dating than adults who’ve been married for, what, over thirty years now?”

“About that, yes.” Eire laughed, a deep hearty laugh that made everyone around them smile. “We were married six months before Keoni was born.”

“I remember hearing the stories from Gma and Gpa.”

“Yes, and they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen, your mom and me racing to the courthouse when we found out she was pregnant.”

Fiera chuckled. “I still don’t know how you two have managed not to kill each other all these years, not to mention how many of us there are now.”

“With love, respect, and a healthy sense of humor.” Eire smacked her lightly upside the head. “Get moving or you’ll miss the shuttle up. If you do, I’ll be really put out. What I’ve set up isn’t cheap.”

Fiera rolled her eyes. “So you keep telling me.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll call when I get there.”

Eire hugged her again, hauling her head down and pressing his lips to her cheek. “Remember: blend in.”

“Yeah, got it Dad. Blend in. Love you. Give mom a kiss for me and tell the squirts to behave themselves.” She picked up her duffel, activated the pedal on the grav-sled, and waved as she turned to follow the line to the shuttle. Her father waved back and turned to go. No sentimentality, now that the parting was complete. Her eyes blurred for a moment, but she blinked back the tears. It wasn’t forever, just a few years.

She was stopped at the gate to the landing pad. “Boarding pass please?” a young woman with jet black hair and a perky smile asked. She winked as Fiera dug in her bag. “How long do you think you’re going to last, Fury?”

Fiera gave a half shrug as she continued opening and closing the small compartments. The girl’s question was the downside to living in a small community. Everyone knew where she was going, even those who only had a passing acquaintance with her family. “As long as I can, Jasmina. Dad’s being all serious about this, which means he’s worried about something.”

“I would be too, sending my daughter off to the core.”

“It’s more than that.” Fiera gave a frustrated sigh as she shoved things out of the way, still looking for her boarding pass. “Slag it. Where did it go?”

“Did you put it in your pocket?” Jasmina asked.

Fiera checked her pockets. She found the pass for the liner on one side and the one for the shuttle on the other. “Here you go.” She handed the small chip to the other woman. Jasmina scanned it. There was a click and the gate swung open. “Thanks Jas.”

“My pleasure. Take care and try not to get blasted home. Your dad would be offended.”

Fiera snorted as she made her way towards the small shuttle. High above Sorus’ atmosphere was the passenger ship that would take her from the outer edge of the colonies deep into the central worlds. The liners were too massive to land on a planet’s surface so they relied on space stations and smaller shuttles to bring their passengers to them. The small interplanetary shuttle was her first stop on the long trip to Bouarus, the world at the heart of the known solar system.

Fiera was stopped once more before she could board the shuttle. This time it was so she could hand over her baggage so it could be safely stored. It would be transferred to her room on the liner. Her father hadn’t told her what her sleeping arrangements would be. He’d only told her that he was seeing to it that she could be comfortable as well as useful.

Fiera got onto the shuttle. She picked a seat near the middle and settled in. As she leaned back, she heard a little cough at her elbow. A well dressed woman whose clothes screamed central worlds was staring at her. Fiera caught a whiff of some exotic flower and spice.

“Excuse me, dear, but I think you’re in the wrong seat,” the woman said.

“There are no assigned seats on the shuttle. Besides, it’s wide open. If you don’t want to sit next to me, go pick somewhere else to sit.”

“I always sit in this seat, and you are in my way. Move.”

“No.”

The woman’s nostrils flared. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Fiera smirked. “A core worlder unacquainted with the idea of personal space?”

The woman puffed herself up. “I am Jaynie Mondadori.”

Fiera raised an eyebrow. “And that’s supposed to mean something?”

“Only an unlettered colonial wouldn’t know my name.” Jaynie crossed her arms across her chest. “Now, either you move willingly or I get one of the staff here to remove you from my seat.”

Fiera looked her in the eye. She reached back and secured the harness, effectively locking her in her seat. “Get fragged.”

Jaynie’s eyes narrowed. “Big mistake, colonial.” She stalked off towards the area where the employees were gathering. “That woman took my spot.”

All of the shuttle crew were from the Duyelia sector. They glanced at Fiera, who waved and smiled, and then back at Jaynie. “There’s no assigned seating. Sit somewhere else,” one of the men said.

Jaynie gaped at them for a moment before storming away. She headed for a seat on the other side of the aisle. She alternated between glaring at Fiera and whatever member of the crew passed by. They paid no attention to her any more than they did to the other passengers. A couple winked at Fiera as they went about their duties, but for the most part she was ignored as well.

The shuttle was barely half full when the klaxon sounded. Those not already strapped in quickly adjusted the harnesses and settled back in their seats. The intercom whistled and everyone looked up. “This is your pilot speaking. Liftoff in fifteen seconds.” Fiera silently mouthed the countdown numbers that appeared on the screen in front of them. As the readout hit zero, the engines roared and she was pressed back into her seat.

The trip up took twenty minutes. Fiera watched out the window as they approached the space station. The scarred metal exterior was lit with hundreds of lights, giving Fiera a good view of the many ships docked there. Most were freighters collecting the cargo from planetside. Their bulky, inelegant design was hardly awe inspiring but they could hold ten tonnes.

Next to them the sleek luxury liner looked out of place. Its hull gleamed in the station lights, smooth and unmarred by any kind of scratch or ding. It was a kilometer long with a design meant to cut through space with little turbulence from the solar winds. An electromagnetic field created a thin skin around the ship, preventing debris from striking it.

From what she’d read in the brochure her father had given her, the ship could hold fifteen thousand guests along with the amenities you’d expect to find in a high class resort rather than on something carrying you through space. This wasn’t something Fiera had thought she’d ever be riding on. Then again, her plans hadn’t included ever leaving the Duyelia sector either.

The shuttle eased up next to the station. There was a muffled clunk as the docking clamps attached. “Docking complete. Please exit the shuttle in an orderly fashion.”

Fiera unfastened her harness and stood. She staggered a little and put her hand out to brace herself on an empty seat. The gravity was less than on Sorus and she felt off balance. She waited patiently for others to pass her, even letting Jaynie out before she moved into the aisles. She went down the ramp and joined the short queue, moving carefully so as not to run into anyone else.

The station was a vibrant hub of color and sound. People were moving between gates, some carrying baggage and others pushing pallets of cargo towards areas that Fiera couldn’t see. There was a sharp scent of oil and the tang of heated metal.

“Last call for Skyliner Lusitania. Please make your way to docking bay five.” The announcement was loud enough to cut across the din of multiple conversations and machinery.

Fiera looked around, trying to orient herself. A young man in the station security’s uniform came up to her. “Can I help you find something?” he asked.

“Docking bay five,” Fiera said. “I’ve got a ship to catch.”

“See the green line on the floor?” He pointed and Fiera nodded. “Follow that.”

“Thank you,” Fiera said. She moved quickly, staggering a little as her body reacted badly to the lower gravity. She crashed into the wall, scraping her arm against the bulkhead. She muttered swear words under her breath as she righted herself and continued on her way.

She reached the lock at the same time as several others who’d ridden up on the same shuttle. Luggage was being brought out and several people made beelines for it, opening their cases and shoving stuff around until they found the boarding passes for the liner. Fiera reached into her pocket and pulled hers out. The stewards and security personnel looked very irritated at those who had to scramble to find theirs.

She watched as Jaynie made it to the front of the line. “Boarding ID please,” the curvaceous blond in the liner’s uniform said.

Jaynie puffed up. “Don’t you know who I am?”

“Yes I do, Councilwoman Mondadori. But in order to log you on board properly we need your boarding pass. This allows us to make certain you are registered as reaching your destination,” the blond said, her dulcet tones matching the sweet smile on her face.

Jaynie flounced off. She pushed a few people out of the way and pulled open one of her bags. A few other people passed by the blond before Fiera got to her. “Do you get that a lot?” Fiera asked as she handed over her boarding pass, jerking her head towards Jaynie.

“People don’t always realize the safety factor involved in presenting the proper credentials,” the blond said. She smiled and looked over her shoulder. “Ruslan, she’s in first class, cabin twenty three.”

A tall, swarthy man who looked older than her father stepped forward. He was pulling a small hover cart with him. “Which ones are yours?” he asked. Fiera found her luggage. He loaded them onto the cart. “Right this way, ma’am.”

Ruslan led her into a lift. It looked to be made of glass and metal. She saw the inner structure of the ship as they crowded in with other passengers. Ruslan pressed the number two on the panel. Fiera saw that hers was the smallest number illuminated.

The door slid shut and the lift started moving. To Fiera’s surprise it didn’t move up or down. It went sideways. Once it reached a predetermined spot it started moving up. It stopped a few floors above and three people along with the stewards helping them got off.

“How dreadful it must be to have to stay in third class,” a woman said to her companion.

He nodded. “I’ve heard their rooms are cramped and they have nothing to do on the ship.”

“All of our passengers have equal access to most of our facilities,” one of the stewards said. “Our rooms are also among the largest in the fleet.” The other two fell silent.

Floor by floor more people got off until it was just Fiera, Ruslan, and one other couple and their steward. They reached the second floor and all of them got off. Fiera paused a moment to take in her surroundings. The corridor was covered in what looked to be real wood panels. The carpet was a deep blue plush and muffled the sound of their footsteps. Metal fixtures gleamed brightly and soft music played over unseen speakers.

“This way please,” Ruslan said, gesturing for her to follow him.

Ruslan took her to a door with the number twenty three secured to the wall beside it. The numbers themselves seemed to be made of gold filigree, and were polished to a mirror shine. Ruslan pulled out a card and slotted it into a machine on his belt. He punched something in and the machine beeped twice. Ruslan pulled the card out of the machine and inserted it into a discreet panel beside the door. It swung open.

Ruslan handed Fiera the card and walked into the room. She followed him in. He ran his hand across the sensor on the wall and the lights turned on. Fiera stopped and stared. “This is not what I expected.”

“Is something not to your liking?” He sounded anxious.

“No, no, everything’s fine. This was just a bit of a shock, that’s all.”

“Ah.” He maneuvered her baggage through another door and slipped it off his cart. “Would you like me to show you some of the amenities of the suite?”

“Yes please.”

He led her around the rooms, pointing out things she might enjoy. “Would you care for a tour of the other luxuries on the ship? You’ll be onboard for a long time and I’m sure you’ll need to entertain yourself outside your rooms.”

“I would love one,” Fiera said.

Ruslan spent the next half hour showing Fiera the luxuries she had access to on the ship. He led her back to her stateroom. “I trust everything is to your satisfaction?”

“It is, thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” he asked.

“That seems to be it.” He seemed to be waiting for something. She pulled out her credit chip. He handed her a reader and she scanned it in. She gave him a tip of fifty credits. Her father told her that the staff on the liner would expect to be paid for their services. The balance on her chip reflected that necessity. He smiled and left the room.

Fiera wandered around the suite, running her fingers across the elegant furniture. Everything felt real. She knew the core could do amazing things with replicators, but the wood in the furniture felt as if it came from trees and not a lab. The warm earth tones were soothing and did a lot to ease some of her uneasiness.

Fiera sat down on the couch and pulled up the entertainment menu on the holo. She found a movie she’d heard of but hadn’t seen because it never made it out to the colonies and turned it on.

Two and a half hours later, Fiera turned off the holo. “Well, that’s time I won’t get back,” she muttered. She looked at the clock. According to the ship’s schedule, it was time for dinner. She was hungry since it had been a while since lunch. She got changed into one of her nicer outfits, a deep sapphire blouse with cut out shoulders and an empire waist. It was matched by a skirt that fell to her ankles the same shade as the top and a pair of sandals made of dyed leather.

The dining room was on the same floor as she was. It had a grand entrance with double doors flung wide open. She walked inside. There were several people already there. Each was dressed in elegant clothing that belied their central worlds origins. There were a few who were dressed as simply as Fiera was, showing they too were from the colonies.

She didn’t recognize any of the colonists but saw that they were congregating on one side of the room. The core worlders were gathering on the other. Fiera made her way over to the group from the Duyelia sector.

“Oh, I am so glad to see another colonist,” one of the women said as Fiera joined them. “The core worlders outnumber us fifty to one.”

“You’re exaggerating, Moyna,” one of the men said.

“I am not,” Moyna said. “Look at how many are on their side of the room compared to us. Not to mention there are more of them coming in.” She turned to Fiera. “I’m Moyna Zuiderduin.”

“Fiera Rezouac.”

“Eire’s daughter?” one of the other men asked. Fiera nodded. “I’m Klas Burgstaller.”

The others introduced themselves as well. “That’s a lovely outfit,” Moyna said. “It brings out your eyes.”

“Thanks. You look good in yours too.”

Fiera heard a familiar voice and turned to look. Jaynie was holding court with a dozen other core worlders hovering around her. “You would not believe the rudeness of the colonials on the shuttle,” she said. The woman was far from svelte, and the garish pink dress with its many sequins just served to make her look like some bizarre dumpling with sprinkles. Fiera nearly choked herself on her laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Vladislav, the first man to speak, asked. Fiera told them. There were a few soft snickers. “Don’t let her hear you saying that. She’s a member of the Assembly and can cause all sorts of problems for you.”

“I suppose that’s why she expected special treatment when we were getting on then,” Fiera said.

Klas snorted. “I saw a few of the core worlders try that when they got on at the same time I did too.”

“I didn’t think there were this many core worlders in the colonies,” Fiera said.

“Most of them were already on the ship,” Moyna said. “They’re here on a tour of the colonies. It’s a fairly popular vacation package apparently.”

“Some had actual business out here and were looking for a comfortable way to deal with it,” Shyamala, one of the other women, said. “I’m guessing that’s why the councilwoman was out here. I can’t see someone like her taking a vacation in the Duyelia sector.”

“There was this terribly rude red haired woman who wouldn’t get out of my seat,” Jaynie said. Fiera saw her sneer as she looked at the colonists. A look of confusion appeared on her face. “How are you here? This is for first class passengers only.”

“I am a first class passenger,” Fiera said.

“There is no way a colonial could have enough money for first class,” Jaynie said.

“Councilwoman, I’ll have to ask you not to insult our other passengers,” a tall, imposing man dressed in a smart uniform said. His buzzed hair was gray and the close cropped beard matched.

“And who are you?” Jaynie asked.

“Captain Owain McDougall. All guests are welcome aboard my ship, regardless of where they come from.” He smiled at the gathered passengers. “I’m glad to meet all of you who are just now joining us. Please enjoy the amenities of this ship and I hope you all have a pleasant journey.” He took a seat at a table near the front of the room.

That seemed to be the queue for everyone else to sit. Fiera sat with the other colonists. The waitstaff came around and placed food and drinks in front of them. “This soup is amazing,” Shyamala said. “I am constantly surprised by the ingenuity of their chefs.”

Fiera took a sip and almost spit it out. “Don’t be. This has replicator food in it.”

“How can you tell?” Vladislav asked.

“The chemical aftertaste.” Fiera took several swallows of her drink.

“This is a core world ship. You’re going to have to expect some replicated food,” Klas said.

“I didn’t think about that,” Fiera said. She finished her soup, suppressing her gag reflex. A short while later the next course was brought out.

“Is this one replicator food?” Vladislav asked.

Fiera tried everything on the plate. “No, just poorly seasoned. Their chef used too much salt and not enough of the other spices and herbs.”

“You know a lot about food,” Moyna said.

“My mom was a professional chef for a while before she had kids. She taught all of us a lot about food prep, meal planning, stuff like that. I also started cooking for her when she needed a break.”

“If you cooked everything from scratch, how did you get replicator food?” Shyamala asked.

“There are a few people on Sorus who either can’t or won’t learn how to cook properly so they have the feeds. One of them is a really good friend of my dad’s. Every time we’d get invited over to their house for a meal I’d spit out the food and refuse to eat because I could taste the fact it was replicated. The first few times I didn’t know that they had the feeds, or even what replicators were. I just knew the food tasted awful. Dad figured out why I was responding the way I was and the visits stopped. They started coming to our house for meals.”

“With how expensive this trip is, you’d think they would use all fresh ingredients,” Shyamala said.

“Even core worlders can’t afford everything,” Klas said.

“They’re cutting corners to ensure their profit margins,” Fiera said. “That’s typical core worlder tactics.”

“Klas, why don’t you tell Fiera about what you do for a living?” Moyna asked. “I think she’d be interested in it.”

“I own a shipyard,” Klas said. “What’s interesting about that?”

“What shipping line do you build for?” Fiera asked. Klas answered her and the rest of the meal was spent talking about ships and their component parts.

After dinner, Fiera joined the others in a game of cards, which went on until she was too tired to continue. She returned to her cabin and stripped out of her clothes. She hung them up and pulled on a sleep suit. She pulled back the blanket and laid down on the bed. She sank into the mattress, her head supported by the pillows. She stared out the window at the stars. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to do this for a living, sail among the stars. She snorted. She preferred solid ground under her feet and the scent of green and growing things. She closed her eyes and drifted off.

She woke up, feeling refreshed and ready to do something active. A quick glance at the clock told her that she had an hour until breakfast. She decided to wait until after she’d eaten to do anything. She went into the bathroom and took a quick shower. She pulled on a pair of black pants and an emerald green top. She sat down to watch a holo while she waited for breakfast.

Fiera joined the other colonists for breakfast. She noticed there were fewer people over on the core worlder’s side. “Is it my imagination, or are there some late risers?” she asked.

“There’s an open bar on the ship. Most of them stay up late drinking and talking about what they consider to be important matters. We’ll see them in here for lunch, if they’re awake by then,” Klas said.

Breakfast was a protein heavy meal, for which Fiera was grateful. “So what are everyone’s plans for today?” Shyamala asked.

“I’m going to let breakfast digest a bit and then go swimming,” Moyna said. “Then I’ll read for a bit next to the pool before lunch.”

“So your usual,” Klas said. Moyna laughed and nodded.

“Vladislav and I are going to go play a few games of chess. Anyone want to join us?” Klas asked. The others shook their heads. “What are you going to do Fiera?”

“Wait for my food to digest and then go check out the gym,” Fiera said.

“You’re probably going to run into a lot of core worlders there,” Klas said.

Fiera shrugged. “That’s true of wherever I go on this ship.”

She saw a flash of pink and turned to look. Jaynie was just stumbling in. She was dressed in a matching shirt and pants of the same garish pink color as her dress from the previous night. This time it didn’t have sequins, but was equally as eye burning with neon green stripes.

“Does that woman not have any style?” Moyna muttered.

“I don’t think she cares,” Shyamala said with a small giggle.

“She looks ridiculous,” Klas said.

Fiera finished eating. “I guess I’ll go find something to do while breakfast settles.”

“Why don’t you come watch us play?” Klas asked.

“Watching you two is about as riveting as watching paint dry,” Shyamala said with a laugh.

“We’re a little better than that,” Vladislav said, glowering at the other woman.

“Sure. It beats sitting alone in my room,” Fiera said. The others quickly finished and scattered to their separate pursuits.

Klas and Vladislav were skilled chess players and Fiera was anything but bored watching them. She waited through two games before standing up. “Are you leaving us?” Klas asked.

“Yeah. I’ve had too much sitting,” Fiera said.

“Enjoy your workout,” Vladislav said. Fiera waved and walked out.

Fiera went back to her room. She rummaged through her luggage and came out with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. She changed clothes and made her way to the gym.

There were a few people in there using the various machines. Fiera looked around. There was a corner set up with automated targets for hand to hand combat. She went over and fiddled around with the controls until she had it set at what she thought she wanted. She hit the “activate sequence” button and got down to work.

The setting she’d chosen was the one designated for those with an intermediate skill level. She made the first move and the battle with the machine was on. Twenty minutes in and Fiera hit the button that told the machine she was done. The servos wound down and the automaton went still. Fiera hit the reset button, as the instructions printed on the wall said to do, and wiped the sweat off her face. That had been one of the hardest workouts she’d done.

“Leave it to a colonial to favor something so crude as fighting,” a familiar voice sneered. Fiera turned towards the sound. It was Jaynie.

“Hey, this is a core worlder’s ship. If it’s here, someone from your sector must use it,” Fiera said.

Jaynie glared at her. “We prefer central worlds or our names.”

“We prefer colonists or our names as well. Since you don’t give us that courtesy most of the time, why shouldn’t we do the same to you?” Fiera hopped off the platform and started towards the door.

“Just as I thought, completely uncivilized,” Jaynie said. There were several snickers as the rest of those in the gym watched the two women.

Fiera raised an eyebrow. “So what are you here to do?”

“Run the track of course. That’s what any proper woman would do.”

“So glad I’m not what you’d consider proper then. Running is boring unless there’s something worthwhile at the end,” Fiera said. She ignored Jaynie’s sneering laughter and left the gym.

A fast shower later and she felt somewhat human again, though she still seethed. She was toweling off her hair when someone knocked on her door. She walked over and peered out into the hall. It was Moyna and a few of the others from the colonies.

She opened the door. “Fiera, we were wondering if you’d like to join us for a game? We were thinking one of the multiplayer strategy games.”

“That sounds like fun,” Fiera said. “Come on in. I just need a minute.”

The others walked into her stateroom. She ducked into the bathroom and tossed the wet towel into the appropriate bin. She ran her fingers through her cropped hair and called it good. She rejoined the other colonists. “Are you any good at strategy games?” Shyamala asked as they headed out the door.

“I’m okay at them. My brother Phelix is a whiz. I play him all the time. He beats me three out of five games. Even my dad has a hard time winning against him.”

The others led her to the gaming room. They settled into comfortable chairs. Moyna activated the unit and the multi-level board appeared. Everyone chose their tokens and the game began. Early on Fiera linked up with Moyna to work on defeating the others. She was knocked out of the game quickly by Shyamala, but in the second game she managed to edge out the others to win. The group continued playing, laughing and enjoying themselves until lunch.

Lunch was still more of an informal affair and the group split up afterwards for more personal entertainment. Fiera went swimming and then settled in to watch a holo in her cabin. Dinner was the same formal meal as it had been the night before. She sat with the other colonists, learning about where they were from, where they were going, and why they were going there.

Seven weeks passed before the ship made the change into the central worlds. There was a subtle shift that the colonists could feel. They reached Ismillon first.

Fiera watched as Moyna packed everything up. “We’ll miss you,” Fiera said.

“It’s been a pleasure getting to know you,” Moyna said. “I’m just glad I’m getting off here. I don’t think I could deal with the supercilious attitudes from the core worlders anymore.”

“You’re going to be living on a core world. You’re probably going to be getting that every day,” Shyamala said.

“My sister lives in an area that’s full of colonists. I shouldn’t have much trouble,” Moyna said.

“Well I envy you,” Fiera said. “I’ve got another ten weeks on this thing.”

“That’s right. You’re headed into Bouarus. What is it you’re studying again?” Moyna asked.

“Nanotech with an emphasis on its medical applications and Intergalactic Studies.”

“That’s going to take you a while, isn’t it?” Moyna asked.

“Yeah, seven years, unless I drop one of them. Or manage to not frag myself by taking a lot of classes.”

“Be careful in Sio, Fiera. It’s not safe, even for the core worlders.” Moyna piled her bags on top of her grav trunk. She activated the hover field and dragged the luggage out of the room.

“Stay safe here, Moyna. Good luck with your sister.”

“Thanks.” Moyna waved and joined the others disembarking. There were quite a few, though Moyna was the only colonist leaving the ship.

Fiera made her way back to her suite. She got in and flopped down on the couch. She ran roughened fingers over the soft rust colored fabric, feeling it catch on the ridges of her skin. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The recycled air on the ship was lightly perfumed with a floral scent. It gave her a low level headache.

Someone knocked on her door. She stood and opened it. Shyamala and Klas were outside. “We were wondering if you’d like to come join us in the lounge,” Shyamala said.

“I’m not interested in drinking and listening to someone belt out songs in a poor imitation of music,” Fiera said.

“It’s not that bad,” Shyamala said. “At least the one tonight isn’t. She’s actually got a sense of rhythm and pitch.”

“I’ll pass,” Fiera said.

“Then what are you going to do?” Klas asked.

“Probably work out again and call it early,” Fiera said. “My usual.”

“You’re wasting your time onboard. You’re supposed to be enjoying a vacation from your real life until you don’t have a choice but to take it up again,” Shyamala said.

“I’m going to be stuck on Bouarus for the next seven years, unless something happens. Don’t you think that’s enough of a change?” Fiera asked.

“Yes, but you’re going there to work,” Klas said. “This is supposed to be for pleasure.”

Fiera sighed. “Okay, okay. I’ll come with you.”

The other two grinned. “We’ll wait for you to change,” Shyamala said. Fiera closed the door and changed into one of her better casual outfits. She joined the other two and they made their way to the lounge.

The next ten weeks passed with the number of colonists growing fewer and the number of those from the central worlds increasing. Fiera expected to be harassed for being from the colonies, but aside from some snide comments from Jaynie, she was left alone. The stewards and other staff were attentive and respectful, and the captain even invited her to dine with him at one point to discuss some of his business points in the colonies. It was a far cry from what she’d expected when she boarded.

She was finishing her breakfast when the intercom whistled. “We are in orbit around Bouarus. Everyone debarking must be at the shuttle bays in ten minutes,” Captain McDougall said.

Fiera grabbed her gear and headed out of her cabin. It took her a few minutes to find the shuttle bays. There were so many people waiting for the shuttles. She got in line and waited.

“What do you think you’re doing? This line is for people needing to go to Bouarus.” Jaynie was dressed in another garishly colored outfit and all but drowned in a floral scent that burned Fiera’s nose.

“If I’m in line, what does that tell you?” Fiera asked.

“That you’re an idiot.”

“If I’m an idiot, how did I get into the University?”

“You didn’t get in. No unlettered colonial would ever be able to pass the entrance exams,” Jaynie said. “Besides, there’s no way they’d enroll you when there are dozens of more deserving young people fighting to get in.”

“Well, it’s been proven that those of us in the colonies are more intelligent than you core worlders. How else would you explain the disparity between my intellect and the process of those from the central worlds with even a modicum of education not being allowed entrance to one of the most influential universities?”

Jaynie looked blankly at her. “What did you just say?”

“If you can’t work it out for yourself, you’re not as intelligent as you seem to think you are,” Fiera said. The line shifted and Fiera moved forward, ignoring Jaynie’s spluttering.

Her ticket was checked and the steward let her onto the shuttle. She settled into one of the seats and waited for everyone else to get into place. A short while later, she heard the familiar chime. “Good afternoon passengers. We will be landing in Sio in approximately forty five minutes. Please be patient as we must wait our turn in line to disengage from the liner,” the pilot said.

A short while later, the shuttle lifted up and eased itself out of the docking bay. Fiera watched out the window, getting her first look at her new home. She was both disgusted and awed by what she saw as they made their descent to the landing pad. It was late afternoon and the suns blazed down through the clouds.

Sio, the main city on Bouarus, was a sprawling mega metropolis. It took up half the smallest continent, spanning just over 2400 kilometers. Fiera saw minuscule spots of green dotted in certain areas of the city. The skyline was dominated by towering buildings. The man-made structures spiraled into the sky and were high enough that they had to weave its way through them.

The shuttle landed. As soon as the signal was given, everyone released their harnesses and got up. The gravity was even less than on the liner. Fiera waited for the crowd of eager central world citizens to exit before getting up and heading out herself. She stumbled more than once as her body tried to accommodate this new environment.

Fiera went to the luggage claim area and snagged her bags. She almost lost her hold on her trunk as the lighter gravity threw her off balance again. She steadied herself and walked towards the doors. As she passed security, she noticed Jaynie speaking to one of the staff. A Port Authority security officer came up to Fiera. “Excuse me, miss, but if you came in from that shuttle you have to go through decontamination before you’re allowed to enter the city.”

“Why is that?” Fiera asked.

“It’s not known what kind of viruses or bacteria come in from the colonies,” the man said. “You have to go through decon to protect the residents. Can you imagine what would happen if a disease from one of the colony worlds broke out in the city?”

“Absolutely nothing, since your medicos would just whip up a cure within the first few days of the illness hitting the streets,” Fiera said.

“Your things will have to go through their own decon. If any of them are found to be contaminated, they will be destroyed and you will be responsible for replacing them,” the agent continued, guiding Fiera towards a series of booths.

“Isn’t that something the Port Authority should pay for?” Fiera asked.

“It’s a risk you take visiting the colony worlds,” the agent said. One of the others took her bags from her. She was shoved towards a booth. “Step inside and hold still. The process will only take a few minutes.”

Fiera did as she was told. As soon as she got in, the booth closed and locked behind her. Glowing rings repeatedly ran up and down her body until she was tingling as if she’d been out in the light of the twin suns with no time in the shade. The door unlocked and Fiera was able to step out.

The agent handed her a small bag. “Where are my things?” Fiera asked.

“Your credit chip and your pad are in there,” the agent said. “The rest of your belongings were full of hazardous biological material.”

Fiera noticed Jaynie was watching the situation with a smirk on her face. “There was nothing wrong with my clothes and personal effects. You destroyed them because she said I was from the colonies,” Fiera said, eyes narrowed.

“Be glad we left what you’re wearing. You’re free to go now. There are shops in town where you may purchase new things. If you’re going to stay in the central worlds, you should learn to accommodate our way of life,” the agent said. He pushed her away and turned to the next person.

Fiera let out a string of curses under her breath as she stalked out of the terminal and into the city. She hailed an auto cab and climbed in. A computerized voice asked her what her destination was. Fiera pulled up the notes on her pad and typed in the address her father had given her. The cab lifted off the ground and eased itself into traffic before heading deeper into the city.

Setting Into the Flames Into the Sky

Just an ordinary businessman

book-store-page-bookstore

Photo via Visualhunt.com

“He’s been locked in that room for days,” my wife said to someone. I continued pushing pins into the wall, faster and faster. I had to finish before she opened the door. I had to get done. “I can’t even get him to speak to me. The only reason I know he’s alive is he’s come out from time to time after we’ve all gone to bed to eat.”

It’s true. There were times where I was too weak to go on with my task, so I’d slip into the kitchen and grab something quickly before I was seen. I pricked my finger on one of the pins. I ignored the moment of pain. How many times had that happened in the past…how long had I been in here? I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Only my purpose mattered.

“You say he’s been acting strange for a while now?” a deep gravelly voice answered her. I didn’t recognize it so I moved on. “Explain that, please.”

“He went to this antiquities auction and purchased several items,” my wife said. “It’s part of his job. Or it was, until he got fired for stealing three books from what he’d gotten for his client. My husband isn’t a thief. He told me someone else made him take those books. I believed him. This was about two weeks ago. Ten days ago he started rambling about his ‘mission’, locked himself in the spare bedroom, and hasn’t emerged since. I think he has those books in there with him.”

“I see. Thank you, ma’am,” the gravelly voice replied.”Okay boys, we’ve probably got a class two field up over the door, so bring the splitter. Then we’ll need a plasma torch and the coolant gel.”

I scowled. A splitter would disrupt the frequency of my force field and a plasma torch would cut through the door with little effort. I glanced down at what I held in my hands. I was almost done. If I hurried, I’d finish just as they broke in. I pushed onward.

I heard the crackle of electricity as the generator shorted out. Then I felt the heat as the door was destroyed by the plasma torch. I pinned the last page up just as the metal hit the floor with a clunk. I turned to see a security officer in full riot gear smear coolant gel on the opening before stepping through.

“Clear,” he shouted. “No visible sign of weapons.”

“Of course I don’t have any weapons,” I said calmly. “I don’t believe in them.”

Another man, this one dressed in a more streamlined set of armor, entered the room. “Mr. Ross, I’m Captain Daniels of the Old District New York security office.” It was the gravelly voice.

“Pleased to meet you, Captain Daniels,” I said with a pleasant smile.

“Your aberrant behavior requires us to take you in for psychiatric evaluation,” Captain Daniels said.

“Certainly,” I said. “May I wash my hands first? I’m afraid I’m covered in dust and ink.”

“Mr. Ross, what have you been doing in here?” Captain Daniels asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” I said, shrugging. “The voices finally stopped without telling me why it was so important the pages go up in this particular order. I’m sure I’ve gone mad, but at least my mind is quiet now.”

“You two,” Captain Daniels barked, gesturing to the first officer through and a second who’d joined him. “Escort Mr. Ross to the bathroom so he can wash up. Then take him to the transport.” He unlocked and opened the door. “Mrs. Ross, your husband is non-combative at this time, but I suggest you and your children still stand back.”

I heard her muffled sob. I felt nothing. She’d been an adequate spouse, nothing special, but very good at executing her duties. Well, all but one. My children were spoiled, overindulged little monsters thanks to her, and no matter how much I tried to discipline them she would countermand everything I tried to do. All of them needed to be punished.

I glanced at the wall. Thin bands of red light were starting to show between the pages. I let them lead me out of the room. I washed quickly and then got in the van when I was taken to it. I stayed very docile, not wanting to draw attention to anything. As the door started to slide shut, I heard the first of the screams. I started laughing as the security officers ran inside. I let myself out of the van and started walking down the street. No one paid any attention to me. I was, after all, just an ordinary businessman.

A bridge to nowhere

bridges-tree-trees-forested

Photo via Visualhunt

Coralie and Sera were tired, but exhilarated. They were nearing the midway point of the forty kilometer trek they’d started the previous day. Their guide smiled at them as she led them to the edge of the cliff. “Here is what you seek,” she said, gesturing.

Both women gazed out in awe. The chasm opened in front of them, spanning sixteen kilometers across and nearly fifty kilometers deep. It was the largest natural wonder on a planet full of beautiful places such as the one they now bore witness to.

A waterfall plunged from a hidden river down the opposite side of the canyon in four different streams, sending mist all through the area. The light of the sun reflected off of the water, creating a mass of rainbows. A light breeze swirled the mist, causing the rainbows to flicker and dance.

As Coralie and Sera drank in the sight, Sera turned slightly and noticed something incongruous. “What is that?” she asked, gesturing to a narrow gray band that stretched between the two sides of the canyon.

“A bridge to nowhere,” the guide said tersely. There was a tremor in her voice and Coralie noticed the fear reflected in the way her feathers were slicked down and the wings pressed tightly against her back. “We dare not approach it.”

“What do you mean a bridge to nowhere?” Sera asked. “It obviously goes to the other side. I want to see what’s over there.” She turned to Coralie. “Come on. Let’s go check it out.”

“I don’t know,” Coralie said. “Xochtil is really frightened. I think we should listen to her.”

The Avia nodded. “Listen to your friend. Much darkness will come of your venturing there.”

Sera’s chin jutted out and her lips compressed. “We came here to see everything this site had to offer. I’m not turning back until I see what’s over the bridge.”

“Sera,” Coralie began, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

Sera shook hit off. “Stay here with Xochtil if you want. I’m going.” The burly blond started towards the bridge. Xochtil and Coralie followed after her.

It took nearly an hour to reach it. Sera frowned as she took in the level of disrepair. “I really don’t think this is a good idea, Sera. The bridge doesn’t look that safe,” Coralie said.

“You’re just scared because you buy into the superstitious nonsense the Avia feed to us,” Sera said. “I’m crossing.” Sera started across. The strange substance creaked under her feet but held firm. She reached the other side. Turning around, she waved to her friend and their guide. “See? The bridge is perfectly safe. Come join me.”

“You have crossed. Now return,” Xochtil said. “Do not enter the forest. It leads to nowhere.”

Sera turned her back to the two on the other side of the canyon. The sun was heating things up. The forest was shaded and looked very cool. Sera walked in, ignoring the calls from her friend and their guide. The shadows grew darker the farther in she went. Soon she could barely see anything. She decided to go back to the bridge.

She turned around but the darkness was just as thick behind her. She frowned. She should have been able to see the light from the edge of the forest. She started back in what she thought was the direction she came from. Nothing changed.

It was then that she noticed she was walking in silence. There were no sounds whatsoever. No animals, no trees, and she couldn’t even hear her own footsteps. She tried snapping her fingers. The motions were there but the noise wasn’t. She couldn’t even feel her fingers as they struck against each other. Fear gripped her.

She thought back to the legends of the Avia. Then she remembered. “Nowhere” to the Avia was the Void, an endless dimension of total sensory deprivation that no one had ever escaped from. She shuddered and started running. She had to get back to the bridge, to the sun, to Coralie and Xochtil. She had to get back to her life. Heaviness entered her limbs and she slowed to a walk and then stopped. Something sapped her energy and she sank to what she thought was the ground. The dark, soundless, touchless void entered her soul and she lost herself in its madness.

Even books will last

row-of-ancient-books

Photo via Visual hunt

Sora pushed the plaster and wood out of the way. “This place is ancient,” she said.

“I told you,” Kapi said, heaving the large chunks of brick and mortar to the side.

“How did you find it?” Sora asked, slipping in through the gap.

“I was looking for fossils,” Kapi said. She adjusted her face mask and turned up her oxygen. “You’re going to want to kick up your O2. This place is kind of dusty.”

Sora did as her sister suggested. She pulled out her small hand light and activated it. Bright light flooded the room. An old table and chairs, made fragile by extreme age, sat in the middle of the room. “What is that?” Sora asked, pointing to a strange device made of metal. It had handles on the front and was divided into two pieces.

“Let me check,” Kapi said. Her eyes flickered from side to side as she accessed the compendium of ancient devices. “It’s a refrigerator and a freezer. They stored cold foods in it.”

“Interesting,” Sora said.

Kapi pointed. “That’s a stove. They cooked on it. The door below it is an oven. They made bread and cakes and cookies in that. That’s a sink. Those are cupboards. This must be a kitchen.”

They moved on. Kapi identified each room they entered, pointing out the different bits of furniture and appliances. They reached a room that was empty except for a set of shelves with strange looking objects on them. “What are those?” Sora asked.

Kapi frowned. “I’m not sure.”

They got closer and pulled one off the shelf. It was very brittle. The outside was made of some kind of a kind of composite material with ancient writing on it. It covered something and the girls carefully lifted it. Inside were sheets of something filled with pictures and more of the ancient writing.

“This is odd,” Sora said.

Kapi scanned it. “A book. This is a book.” She was excited. “It’s how they shared information and stories in the old days. Do you know how much collectors would pay for these things?”

“We need to get them out of here without the Antiquities Office learning about it,” Sora said.

Kapi pulled out the preservation bags. “That’s why I came prepared.” They loaded the fragile books into the bags and headed out. Sora smiled. The books would pay for the girls to finally get out of the slums and into their own apartment, maybe even put them in jobs where they could afford the rent on it. It would be nice to have a good life again instead of being a pariah after their father’s less than popular opinions on how nuclear war created the issues they faced.

A little drivel for science fiction fans

I’ve been doing a lot of heavy, serious posts lately. I needed a break so thought I’d share this little piece of fiction I wrote a while back for a contest. I didn’t even get an honorable mention, but I like it. It’s also my birthday so I’m not really here today.21773060701_75cbf7deff_o

The footsteps were getting closer. Aushka clutched the blaster tight in one hand. The other was pressed to the hole in her leg. Drops of blood spattered over the walkway showed where she’d been. Her breath came in short bursts.

“Aushka, where are you?” The sing-song voice froze the blood in her veins. “I know you’re here.”

“Trill, she’s been hit. Don’t you think that’s enough?” Beck wasn’t as bloodthirsty as his sister.

“She stole from me,” Trill said, her dulcet tones taking on a note of ice.

“You got the board back, you shot her, and you’ve ruined her reputation on the station,” Beck said. “She’s going to have to go planetside. That’s a death sentence right there. Why do you need to be the one to do it?”

“No one steals from me and comes out of it alive,” Trill said.

“Trill, let it go,” Beck said.

“If you don’t like it, go back to the habitat sector,” Trill said. “I’ll take care of her.”

Aushka heard Beck sigh but there was no sound of him leaving. Aushka peered out through the grate covering the access to the life support units. Trill and Beck stood to one side with Trill’s current toy standing to one side. He looked a little sick. He wasn’t going to last long. Not with Trill’s pastimes.

“She’s probably down the life support shaft,” Trill said. “Beck, you go look.”

“Go look yourself,” Beck said.

“Kal?” Trill looked over at him. “Never mind. You’re useless at times like this.” She stalked over to the grate. Aushka pushed herself back farther. She aimed her blaster at the opening.

“Trill Hiver, stop right there.” Trill froze. Aushka let out a slow, deep breath.

“Come to rescue your precious little girl?” Trill asked. She turned away from the grate and went back towards her brother, hips swaying with each step.

A blaster bolt stopped her before she got very far. “I said stop.” Aushka trembled at her father’s voice. Garrett Leo was not a man to cross. Aushka couldn’t see him but from the expressions on Beck and Kal’s faces it was obvious he wasn’t alone.

“What do you want?” Trill asked. There was no sweetness to her tone now. There was more of a growl to her voice.

“Two things,” Garrett said. “My daughter – alive, of course – and that board you stole from my son.”

“I didn’t steal anything from your son. Your daughter stole from me,” Trill said.

“That board still has our family mark on it. You never cut it off. Now, either I get what I want or I start shooting. Either way I win.” There was the sound of blasters powering up.

“Trill, give him what he wants,” Beck said. “I can’t afford you dying.”

“I don’t have his daughter,” Trill said. “The board is back with Neal.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” Garrett said. “I already spoke with Neal. He said you had it with you, and that you were tracking Aushka.”

“Well your daughter is in hiding,” Trill said. Aushka saw her pull something out of a pouch at her side. “Your board is here.”

“Set it down,” Garrett said. “Then go over there with that genetic waste heap you’ve attached to you. Beck, join them.”

Trill set the tiny thing on the ground. She sauntered over to where the two men were standing. “There. It’s on the ground. Good luck getting it without killing me.”

“Aushka, it’s safe now,” Garrett said, raising his voice a little. “We’ve got them covered. Come out.”

Aushka pushed the grate off and crawled out. Blood seeped out from behind her fingers but she managed to stay on her feet. “Sorry dad,” she said.

“I should have sent your brothers, not you. You weren’t ready for this,” Garrett said. “Get the board and come over here.”

“Okay.” Aushka limped over and picked up the tiny board. It was half the size of her hand. As she walked towards her father, she heard something behind her. She turned her head in time to see Trill pull her blaster. The impact of the energy bolt spun Aushka around. She collapsed. Her eyes dimmed. She was given the chance to see Trill’s body twitch and jerk as it fell not far from her. The last bit of light faded and she released her final breath.

Her eyes opened. She was cold. “Aushka, I’m sorry.” Garrett helped her sit up. “I knew she couldn’t be trusted.”

“How many does this make, Garrett?” Her mother looked angry. “How many more are we going to have before you stop?”

“This is only her fourth life,” Garrett said. “The implants are good for six. I’ll be sending her brothers out for a while, until I’m sure she’s back on her feet.”

Aushka turned her head to the side. On the reflective metal panel just to her right, she caught glimpse of her image. Her face was distorted but she could make out a shock of red hair and a metal band running around her head and down to her jaw. “I’m okay, mom. I’m always okay.”