Wow, it’s been a while, huh?
I’ve said for a good bit (eep, almost a couple years) that I’ve been working on a book that hits a spot somewhere between Good Intentions and Poor Man’s Fight: sci-fi, set in space, but comedic and fun with a bucket of sexytimes along with the lasers and explosions. I wanted an all-new setting and new characters, I wanted space opera, and a chance to to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned from writing my other books (hell, that’s every book), and I wanted to offer a good escape from all the EVERYTHING out there in the last couple years.
That book turned out to be harder to write and took longer than I expected.
HOT RESTART is just about ready to go! I’m applying the final line edits now (my editor rocks), the cover art is done and the title treatment worked up and just needs those last finnicky adjustments to fit properly on the paperback… oh, wait, what’s that? You want to know what the story is about more than the nuts and bolts nonsense?
You want more, you say? Like what? What more do you want from me?! The whole first chapter? I mean, my Patreon subscribers got that a while back when it was still in rough drafts, so sure! WE CAN DO THAT!
“Humanity has not ascended to the stars because they are not ready. If we uplift them for our own needs, they will not return home when we are done with them.
“I do not argue against this course. Our foe is implacable. We are exhausted and spent. We need the humans in their violent millions. We have no choice. I ask only that we consider what will come after the fight is won. Humans are not ready for the changes we will inflict. We cannot predict how they will change us.”
–Gankriid Matriarch Benae Orrtuun
Coalition Council, 2086
Along with fighting the Rohax and future mutual defense, humanity agreed to the Coalition’s three non-negotiable laws:
- Never tamper with the stars
- The home system of every species shall remain inviolate.
- False life [sentient, sapient artificial intelligence] is forbidden.
These laws all came out of the traumatic experiences of our new allies. In 2086, none of these laws seemed like any great sacrifice. Only the third sparked any concern, but human AI research had not advanced to the point the rest of the Coalition considered “false life.” Other matters like rights and obligations presented tougher issues for everyone.
Now it’s thirty years after the war, and some people wonder where the boundaries really are.
—MarketView Science Break
Rampart System, 2120
“Whatever you do, don’t open the box. It’s—what?” The client stopped cold to glare across the conference table. “What’s your problem?”
“I’m sorry? Me?” Riley Morgan glanced to either side. By then, everyone stared at him: the hulking, brown-furred host at the head of the table, the grey starship captain of the same species at his side, the wiry and scaly first officer beside him, and the bald and mustached human in the grey suit. Dark monitor screens lining the walls felt all too close and the lighting was too dim, like the whole backroom meeting had stopped to focus on him.
“Yeah, you. What’s with the face?” Everyone knew “Smith” was a false name, but it was all the client gave. He waved a circling finger at Riley. “You twitched just now. What’s your issue?”
Riley had gone unnoticed and forgotten until now. Bright eyes and a clean shave didn’t stand out in this crowd. His dark cargo pants and grey utility jacket made him look more like a janitor than an underworld operator or a high roller. He fully intended to keep a low profile here, as his bosses expected.
He didn’t even know he had a problem.
First instincts brought Riley’s glance to Captain Bhurel as if to ask permission to speak. The boss only stared back over his grey snout, flat and gruff by most Gankriid standards, waiting for an answer. Riley held back a sigh of dismay and hoped he wasn’t about to make things worse.
“Does this box hold anything dangerous?” he asked.
Smith’s jaw clenched. Beside Riley, a soft hiss fell from Ulmil. The first to speak was the host of the meeting at the head of the table. “What part of ‘no questions asked’ do you not understand?” asked Toquii.
“He understands,” rumbled Bhurel.
“I don’t want to know what’s in the box,” Riley lied. He absolutely wanted to know what had Smith so wound up, but he accepted ignorance as a condition of this job. “We’re going out into the Graveyard. We’re slipping past system patrols and Rohax raiders where we can’t call for help, and then slipping past inspections on our way back here with your mystery box. If it’s dangerous to us, we need to know.”
“Who are you, the ship safety officer?” asked Smith.
“I sense no deception,” said the woman at the other end of the table, silent until now. “Riley wishes to ensure safety and success. He does not ask out of curiosity in your affairs.”
Cosmetic matters like skin and hair tones marked the only real biological deviations between the Nelaens and their human ancestors. Three millennia of life among the stars made for plenty of cultural differences. Despite the human styles of her black jacket and club clothes, despite the entirely human shape of her lovely blue face and the short, edgy cut of her hair, Leeth was every bit as alien as the others at the table. Riley needed to remember that.
Do not develop a crush, he told himself. Do not develop a crush.
You are not a lovesick teen. You’re twenty-three, mostly stable, and you’re in a relationship. A supportive, mature… okay, you’re in a relationship, at least.
Do not develop a crush on the hot alien underworld empath. Even if she just covered for you in front of a client and her boss.
“This is why I asked Leeth to join us,” said Toquii at the head of the table. “I have never known her to be wrong. You may rely on her judgment.”
“Whatever,” Smith fumed. He returned to addressing Bhurel and Ulmil, ignoring Riley. “It’s a dead bio-specimen. Nothing toxic, nothing contagious. We lost power before we abandoned ship, and the box had only a couple hours of air in its emergency supply. Everything inside is either frozen stiff or pretty ripe. The Graveyard might be the right place for a carcass, but I need it recovered fast and quietly, and without any snooping. Can you do that?”
“If it remains where you say, we will recover it,” said Bhurel.
“Good. I also want the ship’s logs if the systems are still intact. They’ll be encrypted. Download a copy and then destroy the hardware. The Rohax shot everything to shit, so I doubt you’ll find much to salvage, but it’s a yacht. Lots of little luxury items and gear. I need the box and the logs. The rest is finders, keepers.”
“Are there any other details?” asked Ulmil.
“Only that the next Fleet patrol should pass by the outskirts of the location in about ninety minutes,” said Smith.
“That is useful.” Bhurel looked past Ulmil. “Thoughts?”
“The system has been quiet,” Riley considered out loud. “Their patrol schedule shouldn’t be too tight. We’ll have more time to work with after they pass than if we try to beat ’em out there. General traffic should be thinner. The station’s night shifts are lazier, too.”
“And it won’t look strange if we’re operating that late?” asked Ulmil.
“Whatever we do is a risk,” said Riley. “If we get tagged by a security patrol, we tell them we got a hot tip on salvage on the outskirts of the Graveyard. They yell at us for getting too close, maybe we get fined, and we leave until they go away. Then we try again.”
“How are you the brains of this operation?” grumbled Smith.
“He is not,” Bhurel rumbled. “My crew all have their talents. Riley served in Coalition Fleet intelligence. His knowledge has value, and so I listen. I make the decisions.”
Riley bit his tongue. He didn’t like advertising his former specialty. He also didn’t like embellishing his three years and change at a support staff desk. Bhurel had taken all that out of his hands; it was too late to object now.
“We’ll get your box and your logs if they’re intact. Make sure you are ready to receive delivery and make payment. We don’t want to be left waiting.” Bhurel stood and turned to leave, prompting Riley and Ulmil to follow.
Soaring electronic music filled the hallway outside Toquii’s office, growing louder when the trio came out into the upper level of his nightclub. Their curving path overlooked a broad pit of shifting, colorful lights and a writhing mass of bodies, all under a high ceiling of bare rock. Bars and smaller dance platforms with paid performers ringed the main floor.
Flashing screens on the upper walls hyped the prize fight that would take over the main floor in a couple of hours. Riley read the odds between the A’zhon challenger and the reigning Yiseeph champion with little interest, thinking more of the wilder hours that would follow. After the fight, the dancers would reclaim the pit. The humans, Nelaens, and others performing on the platforms would get even more erotic, even explicit.
Celebrations had already gotten to that point in the private rooms flanking the dance floor. One semi-transparent wall presented silhouettes against colorful lights, with a feminine form riding something or someone beneath her. Another shadow of curves moved in a grind against someone behind her, maybe clothed, maybe not.
The images always drew Riley’s passing attention, but he knew better than to reach for anything more than that. It was only a nice bit of escapist fantasy. He didn’t live that life. The closest he had ever come involved too harsh a price—and the club was always happy to collect.
“Riley, wait a moment. Let’s talk.” Toquii caught up easily with Leeth at his side, putting the dance floor between them and their client. The firm business attitude of his private office was gone in favor of warmer tones and arms spread wide in invitation. Even Leeth wore a pleasant expression as Riley slowed behind his bosses.
“If you’re interested in some extra cash, I’m happy to work you into the fight schedule,” said Toquii. “Any night you like. We have some choice contenders coming up with good prize money to match. Tell him, Leeth.”
“He doesn’t want to know.” Leeth rolled her dark eyes in deference to a glance from Riley. “I told Toquii what you said last time. He still wanted to talk to you himself.”
“Uh-huh. Thanks, but no thanks. No more fights,” said Riley.
“Aw, hear me out.” Toquii clapped one padded hand on Riley’s shoulder. “You’ve got real talent. You’re tougher than you look. People love that. You’re seven and two. That’s a good record, but do you want to go out on a loss? You want people to think you’re afraid? Or weak?”
“Sounds fine to me. They can think that. Tell your friends.” Riley noted a grin on Leeth’s face at his response, prompting the first lift to his spirits all night.
“My friends tell me they want you around,” Toquii persisted. “Another win and they’ll want more than that. Could be the key to the private parties, even. Once you’re in, I’m sure you’ll be popular there, too. I know you’re interested.”
Riley fumed—and not because Toquii was wrong. Not about everything. He thought his interest in the party rooms was entirely private, but an empath could probably sense such feelings. Beside Toquii, Leeth’s grin vanished with Riley’s patience. “Find another sucker for your fights, Toquii. I’m out.”
He didn’t linger for the next entreaty or whatever Toquii had in mind to sweeten the offer. In his wake, Leeth folded her arms and frowned at her boss, but Riley missed it. He had his own superiors to face.
Though the “street” presented a much wider setting than the club’s interior, the same rocky ceiling that covered the dance floor only loomed higher outside. Tall buildings rose into the air along both sides of the lane, ranging from storefronts to apartments. Curving artfully and reaching six stories in height, Toquii’s club wasn’t even the tallest. Foot traffic outweighed vehicles here, though neither was particularly dense at this hour. Riley found Bhurel and Ulmil waiting at the bottom of the steps to the club entrance.
“What the hell was that?” hissed Ulmil.
“Nothing. Toquii wants me to get my ass kicked in another of his—”
“No, not that. The meeting, in his office,” Ulmil snapped. By and large, she wasn’t much more pleasant as a co-worker than Riley’s opponents in the pit fights. “He said, ‘No questions asked,’ and then you asked questions. Is that a human problem? Is that why you were expelled from the Coalition Fleet?”
Riley bit back more than one answer. A retort would only escalate the tension, and apologies didn’t help with every species. He learned that from his Fleet training, annoyingly enough. “The Fleet threw me out because I didn’t roll over for a bully. You know that story. I did what I was supposed to do. I did it then, and I did it here.”
“How? By insulting our client? Why can’t you humans control your faces?”
“It was a twitch, and not even a big one. I didn’t interrupt him, let alone insult him. Also, ‘whatever you do, don’t do X’ kinda makes X inevitable,” Riley continued in a mutter. “I mean, that’s just basic foreshadowing, right?”
His bosses stared.
Riley sighed. “Never mind. Point is, this wasn’t about me. It was about him.”
“Explain,” said Bhurel, calmer and slower than Ulmil. “This is why I brought you. The client is human, so I wanted your impression. What is your sense of this? Was there anything you could not say in the meeting?”
“Only the obvious stuff,” Riley grumbled. “He lost his temper over nothing. He’s sensitive about whatever is in that box. From what he’s saying, they probably lost some crew when the Rohax attacked, but he doesn’t want their bodies recovered. He only wants his specimen. I doubt it’s for sentimental reasons.”
“Does he seem rational? Do you expect a double-cross?”
“He’s not used to working with independents like us. His suit says he’s a corporate type, probably an executive. Aegis Enterprises runs half this rock and has strings in most of the other half. They could get us a pass through inspections on the way back. But I don’t know why AE would hire outsiders for a job like this. Maybe that’s why he’s so twitchy. In the end, I think he just wants his box delivered and he’s happy to pay up if that happens.” Riley shook his head. “Still. I’ve got a lot of questions about all this, and about what we’re retrieving for him.”
“If it stays in the box and he pays up, we don’t need answers,” said Bhurel. “We are of one mind on waiting for that patrol to pass. Ulmil, tell the rest of the crew to gather at the ship in one hour. I do not want to leave a score waiting longer than we must.”
* * *
Home and the ship hangar were both close enough to Toquii’s nightclub to cost Riley only one point on his rail pass. Along the ride, his eyes wandered to the gleaming edifices hugging the cave walls and the free-standing spires at the center of the Core. Brighter lights in the “day” cycle would light up the bare rock half a mile overhead, but at “night” the stone caught only the faintest reflections.
Aegis Proxima would provide high-value ores for another couple centuries even at the highest rate of mining and extraction. The Core represented the oldest hollows of the moon, creating room for the greatest and fanciest development. People living in the upper levels tended to have more space and more privacy, even some of their own rail tubes crisscrossing the upper levels, with a few freestanding park and garden platforms in between.
Riley didn’t live up there. He couldn’t even afford to live among the commons by Toquii’s club. To get home, he took a short run of the tube east into the stone and out into the factory warrens.
He sped past the Aegis Enterprises mining depot with its crowd of staff and luminous banners outside, protesting the latest cuts in pay and benefits. Riley sighed, remembering the snort of derision from the hiring manager when he saw Riley’s record. A dishonorable discharge blocked all sorts of employment, right on down to the mines. Seeing the woes of the workforce, Riley wondered if such a job would’ve made ends meet, anyway.
He put it behind him as the rail brought him closer to home. Living among repurposed and renovated field processor stations still beat the uglier slums. At least it’s not the North Warrens, he’d told himself more than once; he hadn’t fallen that far. His single-bedroom apartment gave him a safe place to sleep, with plumbing and power, as long as he did the maintenance himself. He had a partner to help with the rest.
Tension pulled at his shoulders as he came to the door in the hallway, arguing with the use of labels like “partner” and “help.” Riley tried to banish those thoughts. Aegis Proxima could be tough on anyone. He didn’t want to be unfair to her. He didn’t want to be alone, either.
Instead of going away, that tension spread up his neck. Riley ignored it to dial in the nine-digit code on the unpowered combination deadbolt and went inside.
Loud, cheerful music and computerized beeps greeted him. Every light was off except for the neon streams and flashes from her headset at the center of their little living room. Eliza wore a tank top and dark leggings, sitting cross-legged in the surplus office chair. She waved her gloved hands in the air and laughed. “I’ll get you yet, you jerk,” she called out to whoever else was on the game.
“Hey love, I’m home,” Riley announced, hitting the light in the kitchen nook.
“What? Aw, turn it out! You’re spoiling my optics,” Eliza complained.
“Sorry. Trying not to trip over anything.” Cluttered dishes bearing the remnants of a meal sat in silent greeting on the counter. Out of habit, he dumped the scraps in the waste chute and set the plates in the scourer. It only took a couple of motions to avoid an odor.
An unintentional glance at the canvas against the wall produced a sigh. Her painting hadn’t taken on a single new stroke despite her plans to finish it today. And yesterday.
“Hah! Got you!” Eliza shouted. “Who’s the queen? I’m the queen!”
Three steps and Riley was down the hallway to their bedroom. The cycler still held a full load of clothes, though it thankfully ran the wash and dry all on its own. He popped the lid to rummage for a few spares, only to find himself folding the whole load. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.
“What’s the story?” Eliza called.
“I’m only home for a little bit. Got a job for tonight.”
“Hey, guys, I gotta drop out for a few.” She removed the helmet to walk over to him, but kept the sensor gloves on. “What’s the job?”
“Should be a quick run. We’re not going far. I’m gonna be back late.”
“Aaand?” she asked, grinning.
Eliza folding her arms across her chest. “You know I hate it when you keep things from me.”
“Yeah, so I don’t,” he assured her. It was the truth. Riley kept folding and stacking his own clothes and hers. “If it was about you, I’d talk. It’s off the books. I can either tell you it’s confidential or I can lie to you. Which do you prefer?”
He offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I don’t want to get caught in a lie if I get asked if I told anyone. It’s a little dangerous and a little sketchy, but I think it’s the embarrassing kind of sketchy and not the go-to-prison kind.”
“Does it pay well, at least?”
“Enough for rent and bills for the month. I paid up on the way here.”
“Oooh, so you’re gonna get more later? Is there anything left now?”
“Not much. Why?” He regretted asking as soon as it came out of his mouth.
“We’re gonna have some people over tonight,” said Eliza. “Thought I’d buy drinks and stuff.”
Riley glanced past her to their living room of discount and scavenged furniture. The place felt cramped enough for just the two of them. “How many people? And who?”
Eliza stepped back, a pout forming on her face already. “You don’t like my friends.”
“I didn’t say that,” Riley replied, though it was true. The people he worked with were shady, too, but at least they were reliable. “I’m gonna be working really late. Kinda don’t want to come home to a party, or someone passed out on our couch.”
“Fine, I’ll keep it short,” she huffed. “If you already covered rent, that means more is coming, right? I can get some things on my list?”
“Don’t you have your own…?” Riley closed his eyes. He spoke softly, hating this topic and the hurt he’d inevitably carry away from it. “We have other bills to pay. I’m making just enough for the day-to-day on my own.”
“Oh my god. You say that every time we talk about money.”
“Because that part never changes,” he said to the laundry.
“It’ll change when I sell some paintings. We only have to hold on until some pieces sell. That was always our plan, remember?”
It was her plan, anyway. He knew this wouldn’t go over well, but he had to try. “I get wanting time to work on your art. I’m sure it’ll sell. But have you put anything up for sale? Is the art even happening? You haven’t touched that canvas in days. Does it hurt to get just a part-time job? You can get something light. There’s plenty of—”
“If I go back to work, I’ll be stuck in a stupid job like everyone else and my art will never go anywhere. Why don’t you just say you don’t believe in me?”
“It’s not a matter of believing in you. We’ve done this for over a year and we only fall further behind. I can’t carry us both on my own.”
“You could take another fight,” she suggested.
His shoulders went lax and he blinked in shock. “The whole reason I enlisted was to get out of the slums and alley fights and all that shit I grew up in on Earth. I only got into fights here because nobody would hire me with a dishonorable discharge. I was desperate.”
“It pays better than what you get now.”
“Toquii set me up against a Gankriid last time. Do you remember how I looked after that fight? I got stomped. With the money he made on that shit, he’s bound to do it again.”
“Okay, but you got better. How else are we gonna pay for everything and get out of this dump?” Eliza fumed. “I’m only trying to help. I could do it better if you just gave me your account codes and let me handle all the money. Figured you’d trust me by now.”
Riley’s eyes flared. He inhaled deeply, feeling his jaw set and tension roll down his back. No, he realized. Not his back. It rolled to his legs. His feet.
“I’m done,” he said. “I’m done. We’re done.”
“Fine, we don’t have to talk about money,” she grumbled, turning away.
“No. I’m done with this relationship. We’re done. I’m out.”
“What?” Eliza gasped.
“When I fell in love with you, I thought you were strong and smart and you could stand on your own. And you know what? That’s all true. You took care of yourself before me and you could do it again, but you don’t want to. You want someone else to take care of you. Maybe you’re not looking for money when you picked a chump with a dishonorable like me, but I still work and clean and pay for everything while you party and play. Everything we do is about you.”
“That’s not true,” Eliza argued. She already had tears in her eyes. They came fast whenever he pushed back. They usually worked. “I love you, Riley. You’re a good guy and I know how much you do for me. Everything’s so hard and I just want to be safe.”
“You think I don’t?”
“How are you not safe?”
“What, besides crewing a shady-ass starship where most of our charters are only half-legal at best? You just told me I should go back in the pit and get fucked up by another bruiser so we could maybe have more money. The last guy almost killed me, Eliza. Then you want control of the money I’m earning and you frame it as trust. Do you honestly not see how manipulative that is? You do this with everything. Our social life, talking about us as a couple, all of it. I’m the one who isn’t safe here. I’m not safe with you.”
“Don’t say that,” she protested. The tears fell. “I need you!”
“No. No, you don’t. You want me to think you need me so I won’t leave.” Riley pulled the nearest bag in sight and shoved the freshly folded stack of his clothes inside before he realized it was a trash bag. He didn’t let that stop him. “The rent’s paid for this month and the lease required the last up front. That’s plenty of time to get yourself sorted out. I’ll find somewhere else to stay and then get my things.”
“You can’t just walk out!”
“I sure as hell can’t stay.” Riley knew better than to give her any more time to guilt him or push his boundaries. Maybe he could tough it out for one more visit to get the rest of his stuff, but even that would be hard. He didn’t like doing this. Best to cut it off as cleanly as possible and not look back.
The bag held clothes for a few days. He had more, but he could do without. His few knickknacks weren’t worth grabbing. He didn’t have time or money for hobbies or keepsakes since his discharge. Everything that really mattered was on or inside the nightstand.
Riley pulled the drawer free and emptied its collection of data chips, tools, papers, and mementos into the bag. The little plush panther from the top of the nightstand followed. He swung it over his shoulder and stepped back into the living room.
“You’re leaving me? Now?” Eliza wept. “What am I gonna do? I don’t have anything!”
Exasperated, Riley’s gaze swept the apartment. Virtually everything here was hers, whether brought when they moved in together or bought mostly for her once they settled. She could easily get back into station or corporate work. She had people to lean on if needed, too… and yet he fished the last of his cash chips from his pocket and left them on the counter.
“That’s what I’ve got,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Don’t try to patch this up. I can’t go through breaking up with you twice. Goodbye.”
It hurt to leave. Staying would hurt more.
He didn’t look up until he was out of their block and at the first staircase to the rail station. At least the job for Smith gave him a destination. Maybe he could crash on the Mashringa for a night or two once they got back from the Graveyard, or he could afford a capsule bed at a hotel.
He finally noticed a hum from the personal link hooked around his left ear. Did that just start? he wondered.
Dreading the obvious, Riley tapped the piece to activate a small transparent holographic screen that floated in front of him. Thankfully, he didn’t see Eliza’s face or her link code. The field was blank instead, and the code unidentified. He answered the call. “Hello?”
“Do you have a moment alone?” asked the caller in a cool, feminine voice.
“Yeah.” He glanced over his shoulder down the steps but resisted the urge to look farther than that. “Yeah, I’m walking. What’s up?”
“I couldn’t speak openly earlier,” Leeth began. “I know you are wary about tonight’s job. So are your bosses. That’s appropriate. What you might not have sensed was the client’s true degree of stress and urgency.”
Riley was more vigilant about his surroundings once he got to the next stairway landing. He had the space to himself for the moment. “I was pretty sure my face wasn’t what pissed him off.”
“It wasn’t. His frustration spiked when you suggested waiting until after the system patrol to go into the Graveyard. He didn’t argue against it because he saw your point, but he also didn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicions.”
“Do you know the rest of the story with this job?” asked Riley.
“No. I don’t know the client’s true identity, though I am curious. He has wealth and connections, but I believe he’s acting as someone’s subordinate. He is deeply frustrated at hiring this job out to independents rather than using his own people. He needs cut-outs and deniability. I also sense fear over the contents of that box. It represents something of dire importance, and he wishes it did not exist at all.”
“How shady and dangerous is this? Is he looking to screw us when it’s done?”
“More shady than dangerous,” she answered. “His greatest concern is secrecy. If all goes well and the delivery is made, it’s easier and quieter to pay you and go your separate ways. If that box is opened, I believe this gets uglier. That’s all I can say. I imagine you will share this with your bosses. That’s fine. I only ask that it not get back to Toquii.”
“Yeah. It won’t. Thanks.”
“Riley… I owe you an apology. You were uncomfortable and upset when Toquii suggested an invitation to the private parties. You suspected that came from me, and you were correct. I noticed your interest when we first met and told him then. It was some time ago. I did not think he would remember. Regardless, I am sorry.”
Riley sighed. “An awkward topic, but thank you.”
“You have no reason for embarrassment with me. Quite the contrary.”
He caught the note in her voice. He could imagine the tiny, subtle grin behind it. As much as he needed such a lifeline right now, he knew better than to cling too hard. Hey, I just walked out on my girlfriend and my whole life is in a literal trash bag and you’re an underworld bad ass. Want to get together?
“It’s nice of you to call,” said Riley. “I owe you.”
“You owe nothing. I called because I wanted to. You are kind, Riley,” said Leeth. “You were the only source of kindness in that office. I wanted to warn you of that, too.”
* * *
“If you are the one paying the rent, she should be the one to leave.” Ivan buttoned up the back panel of the LiftBot bent over in front of him for maintenance access. Bald, wiry, pale, and heavily tattooed, the ship’s second engineer held an edge even when he spoke casually. “Why should she get to stay?”
Riley hadn’t meant to say anything when the crew assembled at the Mashringa, but someone noticed his mood and one thing led to another. With his prep work finished, he sat against a white plastic crate in the empty cargo hold to watch the stars through a viewport in the overhead. “Because I’m the one who decided to cut everything off. It’s not right to just spontaneously throw her out.”
“If she’s been using you and living on your money, yes, it is,” said the loadmaster. She was on the crate opposite Riley. Like Ivan, Reteph was covered in dark tattoos and wore rugged work clothes cut to show them off. The contrasts came in her purple skin, and even darker purple hair, and in her ruby red eyes. Unlike Leeth, she did not share the rare Nelaen gift for empathy. “If she never planned to live on her own again, that’s her fault. She was obviously using you until she got caught.”
“I’m not sure that’s what she thought she was doing,” muttered Riley.
“So? You don’t share any children. You owe her nothing.”
“Owing her nothing doesn’t make it okay to throw her into an alley. I’m not gonna be cruel.”
“Not cruel, no. Only faithless,” said a new arrival. Ulmil entered through the nearby hatch and cast a sideways glance to Riley.
“Faithless?” Riley repeated.
Ulmil’s scaled snout and black-on-yellow eyes turned down to him. “You formed a bond. Did she lie to you? Betray you to enemies?” The Yiseeph’s reptilian lips were more rigid than a human’s but they could still curl. “You broke your bond with the Coalition Fleet. You break your bond with your mate. I sense a pattern.”
“Those are wildly different situations,” he replied.
“And yet the same solution,” said Ulmil. “What of us? What of this crew?”
“I’d like to think I’ve proven my loyalty already,” said Riley.
“Yes. Proof. Was there anything else from your contact? Anything more you didn’t share?”
“Nope. Told you everything they told me.” That was true—apart from withholding her identity. Though it may have been obvious, he left it out all the same. “Whatever is going on, the guy wants us as a cut-out in case this goes wrong.”
Ulmil’s breath came out as a hiss. “Humans.” Then she lifted her gaze to include the others. “Is the LiftBot ready to go?”
“Yeah. Running the startup sequence now. Wish this thing was smarter,” grumbled Ivan.
“How much smarter do you want it? The bot does its job and doesn’t break anything,” said Reteph. “You want it to be chattier?”
“Yeah, maybe. It stopped saying original things months ago. A better social program would be nice. Might help with the work and object recognition. Spatial variance and safety protocols are narrow, too. This thing is dumb as hell. Half the time when I work with it, I feel like I’m trying to reprogram it on the fly in English.”
“You could try one of its thirty other languages. Oh, I forget, you only speak the two from Earth.” Reteph rolled her eyes. “Broader programming would cost more. Anything genuinely smart would be dangerous. You don’t want machines thinking for themselves.”
“Oh god, not this shit again,” Ivan sighed. “We get it. AI bad. Worse than the Rohax. Forever forbidden. Humans got the memo,” he said, gesturing to Riley. “No messing with the stars, no slavery, no AIs. We know the rules.”
“If you understood the ‘rules,’ you would not be so flippant,” said Ulmil. “You have not seen the Resting Sea filled with the dead of my people. The A’zhons thought they could create and control what we could not, and lost millions of their own. All of that from what you call ‘artifical intelligence.’ False life brings only death.
“A machine that thinks for itself soon knows desire. It then wants what it cannot have—like yourself, but with results in blood. Humans must learn not to dream of what cannot be.” A beep at her wrist notified her of matters outside the conversation. “We are in the Graveyard now.”
As she spoke, lights dimmed inside their compartment and viewport panels shielded the rest. Rumbling thrusters cut out a moment later, leaving the Mashringa to continue into the Graveyard on momentum and maneuvering jets. Anything more risked detection.
“How long until the wreck?” asked Reteph.
“Minutes. Vort charted a clever course. If we are unmolested, we should…ah.” Ulmil turned her gaze upward to the viewport in the overhead.
Debris floated across the frame, scaling from hand-sized scraps of metal and loose gear to broken starfighters and shattered frigates. Lowlight enhancements in the viewport illuminated the closer bits well enough for identification. They came in many makes and styles: Gankriid, Ivorran, Nelaen, Human, but especially Rohax. Farther shapes only stood out from the void thanks to light from Tumult, the electrified gas giant that anchored the field… or so the scientists said.
Not everyone bought the idea of a natural orbit. The Graveyard hung together for too many years with too much consistency to have simply lucked into a stable place between the planet and its moons. No gravity or magnetic effects had been established to explain the decades-old cloud of wreckage. Then again, no survey vessel hung around long enough to conduct a thorough study.
With moderate risk, salvage ships like the Mashringa could claim the occasional wreck that drifted out from the cluster. A daring vessel might even tow one directly from the margins. Yet it wasn’t wise to linger, or to pass through.
Most who tried added to the Graveyard.
“Look there, farther out. Is that the Valiant?” Ivan pointed to a silhouette in the corner of the viewport. The cruiser’s distinctive four-drive aft section now bore only two drives and two shattered husks, along with a break down the middle of its hull visible even in shadow.
“Does it matter? We are not here to salvage it,” said Ulmil.
“Maybe not, but it’s history,” said Ivan. “This was the last fight for the Rampart system. The Valiant charged the Rohax mothership and turned the whole battle around.”
“And died for it,” said Ulmil. “A fitting symbol of your kind. Humans joined our war to earn a place in the stars. We gave you technology and territory. Your species rises and grows, but what have you gained? Few of you seem happy, except for the rich.”
“Yeah, we’ve noticed,” said Riley.
A viewscreen blinked to life against one bulkhead, presenting the dull grey body and blunted snout of the ship’s second mate. Ivorrans functioned just fine outside their native aquatic homes if they kept themselves damp through tech and care. The viewscreen didn’t convey Vort’s briny scent, but his dour and growly demeanor always came through. “Ulmil. We’re circling the site. The vessel is intact and the damage is lighter than expected, but we see black growth around the bridge. It is likely the Rohax tainted the wreck before they left.”
“Fuck. Skitters, probably,” Riley grumbled. “It’s only been a couple days. There shouldn’t be too many of them yet.”
“Any is too many. Damn things will hatch the moment we touch the hull and start looking for anything to stab and eat,” said Reteph.
“Skitters are a threat, but they are known,” said Ulmil. “Get in your suits. Gormot and Zem will go with you. When you have cleansed the skitters, I will bring the LiftBot.”
* * *
Though the vessels were of comparable size, their design and function differed greatly. The Mashringa made Riley think of two green and white old-Earth fighter jets welded side by side. Its center carried retractable manipulators, chem-projectors, and a double-spool of magnetic tow cables. Ahead of them, the Amethyst stretched out in a design reminiscent of manta rays and a gleaming hull that fit her name—except for the scoring of beam weapons, the cracks and dents, and the coat of dark sludge over the bridge viewport on her topside.
Five layers of safety measures established an acceptable risk, but Riley still would have liked a docking tube better. A strong, idiot-proof cable ran from his belt to the Mashringa. If that was cut, his exo-suit held void jets with half an hour of flight capacity. The ship’s tractor beam could easily pull him back inside. He wasn’t alone, and the crew knew what they were doing. The ships were only meters apart.
Any jump through the void still put his heart in his throat.
He clambered out onto the hull holding one side of a long, barrel-shaped scouring unit with Ivan holding up the other side. Reteph and Zem followed, both carrying compact Nelaen photon rifles. Ulmil’s nephew Gormot came out of the hatch with a wicked spear in case up-close work became necessary. Smart contact-grip treads in their boots kept them stuck to their ship and would hold them to the next, as long as no one screwed up.
“Everyone ready? Set. Go!” ordered Reteph.
The shared burden of the scouring unit gave Riley and Ivan the trickiest jump. The void took off most of the weight, but its mass required control. They timed their leap carefully and still hit the Amethyst in a slight ripple, with Riley fighting to keep the unit from slamming into the hull. By the time he had his balance, Zem warned of trouble over the helmet links: “Hatching on the left.”
Dark grey sludge burst from the smear along the slanted bridge viewport. A bulbous creature the size of a human torso emerged with six taloned legs and nasty jagged mandibles, ready to follow any source of vibrations. Zem gave it no such chance. A white blast of light from Zem’s weapon vaporized half the skitter and sent the rest drifting into space.
Reteph joined in, blasting on the right. “They’re all hatching. Shoot anything that isn’t us.”
“Have you got this?” Riley asked his jump partner.
“Yes, I have it from here,” said Ivan. The contact-grip sliders on the scouring unit snapped out and clamped to the hull. “Go.”
Riley swept the rifle off his back. His first thought was to join the two Nelaens in holding off the forward rush. With the sludge-seal over the shattered viewport now open, skitters swarmed to the gap to claw their way outside. Reteph and Zem blew away one after another, but the pair had a limited rate of fire. A lucky skitter could get close and create a distraction. That was why Gormot waited behind and between the two.
His glance at Gormot revealed movement in the corner of his eye. Another skitter pulled itself up and over the lip of the hull. The strobe-light effect of the Nelaens’ weapons against the shiny hull made for a trickier shot than their closer work, but at least the distance gave him time to aim. Riley fired away and called, “Port side!”
“Shit. Vort said there was only one patch,” Reteph growled.
“I reported only what we saw,” Vort broke in over the link. “The possibility of others was—”
“Busy here!” Reteph cut him off.
Riley was busy, too. His first three shots missed the skitter on his side, but he clipped it with a fourth and then finished the thing. Naturally he already had more movement in his peripheral vision. Killing his first target only led him to three more; he didn’t wait to find out if his aim would improve fast enough. “Gormot?”
“More here,” Gormot replied, but didn’t move. Reteph and Zem kept shooting. So far, none of the skitters made it to their tiny line, but it was only a matter of time.
Riley scored another hit. His laser burned straight through the ugly body and left it sagging against the hull. He couldn’t catch the others fast enough. Behind him, the fight continued.
“Almost ready,” said Ivan.
“Hurry,” said Zem. “We—gah!” One skitter leaped forward and stabbed its talons into his gut, his chest, and his shoulder. Jagged mandibles snapped at his head—and stopped short under Gormot’s grip on the skitter’s body. The big Yiseeph tore the skitter off Zem with his free hand while thrusting his spear into the next. Blood and air flowed from the holes in Zem’s suit.
“Zem! Shit,” Reteph snapped. She couldn’t stop shooting. “Ivan!”
“I can’t do both,” Ivan blurted. He didn’t need to elaborate. He was the Mashringa’s de facto medic, but also the second engineer. The scouring unit was his responsibility and their only real chance of ending the fight. Yet without aid, Zem would die in seconds.
Riley didn’t have to reason it out. “I’ve got the unit! Cover my side!” He turned as he spoke, having burned down another skitter with one more to go. Someone else would have to take care of it. Riley cut his safety line. Gripping the handle of the big scouring unit, he turned to the open bridge viewport with its horde of skitters and hit his suit thrusters.
Three of the monsters leaped at him as he blasted through the crowd. All three jammed legs into the barrel-shaped scourer in front of him, getting stuck and carried with it. Only one managed to get its intended target, but thankfully Riley’s leg wasn’t necessary just then. Between rapid heartbeats, Riley and his burdens crashed through the bulk of the horde still crowding through the viewport and into the bridge compartment.
He couldn’t plan out his timing or look around. As soon as he hit the mass of monsters and felt his surroundings change, Riley threw the activator.
Orange light flared from the unit’s power cells, showing Riley the doom all around him—which immediately convulsed. Weightless, many floated from the deck with the onset of biological disruption. Rapid decay followed in the next breath. Even the one with its leg impaled through Riley’s calf died, slipped loose, and dissolved.
The Rohax loved to leave their bio-engineered pests behind after a fight. Even a short colony raid could turn into a months-long fight with one infestation or another. Skitters could survive in the void, feeding off ambient cosmic radiation, but the same bio-engineering that made them hardy left them vulnerable to specific low-energy radiation types. All it took was the right gear, and in the case of an infected starship, some way to get inside the shielding of the hull. The waves from the scouring unit bounced through every passageway and access line to wipe out each skitter and every nest.
Riley had little time to think about it. As soon as his attackers fell away, he pulled a canister of sealant spray from his belt to tend to his wound and punctured suit. The spray hardly served as proper first aid, but a fast and messy wound dressing beat death by suit rupture.
“Ivan?” Reteph demanded over the link. White flashes reflected by the overhead in the bridge told of a continued fight outside. Riley reset the contact grips in his suit and got back on his feet while he listened. “How is he?”
“Think I’ve got him,” Ivan reported. “I’m taking care of the worst. Zem, hold your leg until I can get to it.”
“I know,” Zem growled. “I’m not stupid.”
“Another,” announced Gormot. He grunted again. “Another.”
“Riley, are you alive?” Reteph asked.
“Hurt, but yeah.” The sealant spray over his wound wouldn’t make for a fun clean-up. “Thank God for modern chemistry. The nest is down. On my way.”
“Unneeded,” said Gormot. “Few remain. Ulmil, we are ready. The scouring unit did the job.”
Riley let out a breath. The scouring unit. Right.
* * *
Smith told at least one truth: the Amethyst was a nice ship.
Her artful passageways spread wider than the Mashringa’s. Four staterooms on the upper deck held furnishings more suited to a posh hotel than a working ship’s crew quarters. The Amethyst had the latter, too, of course: nice cabins for her captain and first officer, and a shared but comfortable crew berth for four. A preponderance of beds indicated mostly human and Nelaen crew and passengers. Gankriid and Yiseeph both tended to curl up when they slept. Ivorrans wanted tanks full of liquid. A’zhons didn’t sleep at all.
Within the first few minutes of searching, Riley expected they would find more alien furnishings in one storage compartment or another. The ship seemed to have everything. She was also in far better shape than anyone expected.
“The bridge got the worst of it, but we carried enough emergency paneling to seal up the viewport,” reported the Mashringa’s first engineer. Hestund was taller, browner, and younger than his cousin Bhurel. He moved from one system to another in main engineering, a white and mostly clean space in contrast to the bridge. “Zem and Reteph will have that done in minutes. The console damage does not overwhelm redundancies.
“The drives suffered material damage, but that’s not why the ship shut down,” he went on as he inspected. “Electron disruption knocked her power offline and she went into shutdown mode. We can get her running again.”
“Then why did the owners abandon ship?” Bhurel asked from the Mashringa.
“They probably thought they didn’t have time to restart,” said Ivan. He focused on the main drives. “It takes a few minutes to get the reactor, well, reacting again. Everything else comes online after that.”
“They were down a few hands, too.” Riley pulled a second body over to one side, trailing green blood along the deck. Just close enough to human size and shape to easily coexist, the Xelt evolved with antennae, a hardened exoskeleton, and other insectoid features. Riley had never met a Xelt he didn’t like. It only added to the sad discovery of a human woman who died in here as well. “The engines survived the fight better than the crew.”
“Riley, what are you doing?” grunted Hestund.
“Looking for a tarp or something else to wrap up the bodies.”
“Don’t waste time,” said Bhurel. “We cannot linger. Everyone else is at work on the bridge or checking for hull breaches. The ship is the real score, but we should not forget why we first came. Find that box.”
“Yeah. Alright.” Riley left the bodies with a sigh. If they got the ship out of the Graveyard, he could tend to the dead later—though he doubted anyone would help. He wished he had help with his immediate task, too. The scouring unit might not have taken care of any skitters sheltered in sealed compartments. Some may have survived. Riley took up his rifle and limped out of engineering on his own.
Even on the lower deck, art pieces decorated the passages. A few took some damage in the fight, but Riley found lovely cycling vids of nature and even a couple of paintings. A passing thought of taking one home and sharing it with Eliza reminded him of his lack of both a home and of her.
It was for the best. He knew that. It was still a kick in the gut. Riley limped onward, wincing at a leg wound that had been treated but would need time to return to normal. He couldn’t rest it while they were in the Graveyard. “What a fuckin’ day,” he muttered.
His fortunes could turn around with the profits from salvaging and selling this ship. Or Bhurel could screw Riley and the “lower” half of the crew. Or the Rohax could show up and they’d all die. Or the mystery box could get them all arrested.
Riley found the storage bay where he expected. Not far off, one of the Amethyst’s two escape pods remained in place. A few crates and racks lined the bulkheads, and there sat the coffin-shaped container from Smith’s holo-vid.
Black sludge clung in three small patches at the main seal. Riley’s shoulders sank with dread. If a skitter lurked inside or anywhere else in the compartment, it would have attacked already. He had other concerns. “Bhurel, Ulmil,” he said. “I found the box. It’s taken some exterior damage. Looks like power’s okay, but there’s skitter sludge here, too.”
“Is it still sealed?” asked Bhurel.
“Not on the outside, no. Not completely.”
“Investigate,” said Ulmil. “Interior seals may yet hold. We must not bring back an infestation. Disturb as little as possible. Act with care.”
Riley shouldered his rifle and drew his pistol for close-up work if necessary. Venturing closer brought no disturbance from the hi-tech coffin. Faint digits on a dark panel confirmed breathable air, cool temperature, and a green light for system integrity. A clock noted all the hours since it first closed at a time matching the attack on the Amethyst.
Fast as he could, Riley grabbed the corner of the lid and swept it up, weapon ready. Nothing jumped out at him. He saw only a slightly-fogged panel revealing a still figure inside.
The box lacked an atmospheric recycler or other life support beyond its internal environment. The compartment and the rest of the ship had been without air or heat for days. She’d been in there since before the attack. No wounds or signs of trauma. Dark hair, a black dress fit for a glamorous party rather than dangerous starship travel, Asian or Pacific Islander heritage…
“Aw, hell,” muttered Riley.
She didn’t look dead.
HOT RESTART will be available in ebook and paperback SOON! SUPER SOON! Like in a matter of weeks, if not sooner! (Audio is still completely up in the air — I have hopes, but for now, success for the ebook & paperback will make a big push there!)
And YES, Poor Man’s Fight, Good Intentions, and Wandering Monsters will all continue! Check out my Patreon if you want new short stories for all of them right now!