Excerpt for Star Nomad (Fallen Empire, Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Star Nomad

(Fallen Empire, Book 1)

by Lindsay Buroker

Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Buroker

Illustration © 2016 Tom Edwards



As an author, it’s super exciting to launch an all-new series. Regular readers may know me for my fantasy novels, but long before I found out about The Hobbit or Dungeons and Dragons, I watched Buck Rogers and the original Star Trek with my mom as a kid.

So far, I’m having a lot of fun writing this series, so I definitely hope you enjoy it. Before you jump in, let me thank Shelley Holloway, my editor, and Sarah Engelke, my steadfast beta reader who zipped through this in a week so I could make an ambitious publication date. I would also like to thank Tom Edwards for the great cover art.

Chapter 1

A dark shape scurried through the shadows ahead, disappearing under the belly of a rusted spaceship. Alisa Marchenko halted, tightening her grip on her old Etcher 50. Rustling sounds came from beneath the ship, along with a low growl. Alisa hoped it was just another of the big rodents she’d seen earlier. Those weren’t exactly friendly, but at least they didn’t endanger anything higher up than her calves—so long as she remained standing.

Mica, her fellow scavenger on this self-appointed mission, bumped into her back, jostling her. Alisa caught herself on the hull of the rusty derelict and grimaced when her palm smacked against something moist and sticky. She wiped it on her trousers, glad for the dim lighting in the cavern.

“Sorry,” Mica whispered, the shadows hiding her face, but not the fact that she carried a toolbox almost as big as she was. Alisa ought to have her leading the way—she could sling that box around with the authority of an assault rifle. “Can’t we risk a light?” Mica added. “We might trip over some unexploded ordnance down here and blow ourselves up.”

“I see your pessimism hasn’t faded in the years since we served together.”

“Pessimism is an admirable quality in an engineer. Pessimistic people check their work three times, because they’re sure something won’t be right. Optimistic people check once, trust in Solis-de to keep the ship safe, then blow everyone up.”

“I think you’re mistaking the word optimistic for inept.”

“They’ve got a similar ring to my ear.”

Alisa looked past Mica’s short, tousled hair and toward the mouth of the massive cavern. The skeletons of dozens of junked ships stood between them and the harsh red daylight of the desert outside. She was tempted to say yes to Mica’s suggestion of light, but the sounds of punches and grunts arose less than fifty meters away. A guttural male voice cursed in one of the Old Earth languages, and someone cried out in pain. A juicy and final thump followed, making Alisa think of a star melon splatting open after falling from a rooftop. Men laughed, their voices rough and cruel.

“No light,” Alisa whispered.

Mica shrugged, tools clinking faintly in her box. “You’re the captain.”

“Not unless this works, I’m not.”

“I thought you got promoted at the end of the war.”

“I did, but the war’s over,” Alisa said.

The war was over, and the Alliance had forgotten about her in the aftermath, leaving her in the hands of the dubious medical care available from the local facilities. Alisa had eventually recovered after spending a month in a dilapidated turn-of-the-century regeneration tank and two months learning to walk again, but she had little more than the clothes on her back. Worse, she was stranded on this dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her home—from her daughter.

Her fingers strayed toward a pocket with an envelope in it, one of her few possessions. It contained a letter from her sister-in-law Sylvia, a letter written by hand in a time when most communications were electronic, a letter that had taken weeks to find her in the hospital, a letter that explained that her husband had died in the final bombings of Perun Central. Only knowing that her eight-year-old daughter still lived and was staying with Sylvia on Perun had given Alisa the strength to endure the months of rehabilitation and the weeks of scrounging and planning to reach this place, to come up with a way to get back home.

Mica started to respond to her comment, but Alisa turned her back to end the conversation and continued picking her way through the junk piles. Talking was not wise, not down here.

More noises came from the wreckage all around them, including a chewing sound that Alisa found unnerving. A few more steps, and she heard something being dragged through the fine dust on the cavern floor, dust that drifted upward with her steps, teasing her nostrils, making her want to sneeze. She pinched her nose, having no delusions that the men hiding in here were anything but criminals, criminals who wouldn’t care that she had helped free them from the oppression and tyranny of the empire.

As they drew farther from the entrance, the smell of the junk cavern grew stronger, scents of rust and oil and burned wires, but also of butchered meat and carcasses left to the animal scavengers. Alisa was tempted to keep pinching her nostrils shut.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Mica whispered.

“I know where I left the ship six years ago.”

“That’s a no, right?”

“The engine was smoking by the time I made it in here. I doubt anyone fixed it up to move her.” Another clunk came from the darkness, and Alisa added, “Talk later.”

Soft growls and snarls came from the path ahead. Alisa made herself continue onward. The creatures making the noises did not sound large.

She caught herself reaching toward the side of her head, to tap on the earstar that had hung there like jewelry for so much of her life. Assuming the satellites were still in orbit on Dustor, she could have used it to call up a map of their surroundings, but she had lost it in the crash. Mica did not wear one, either—she’d said she sold hers for food. Apparently, computer and communications tech was easier for her to give up than her tools.

Alisa’s toe bumped into something on the narrow path. It did not feel like a rock or piece of debris. She started to step over it, not wanting to know the details.

A beam of light flashed up ahead, someone heading down the path toward them. Alisa stepped back and grabbed Mica’s shoulder, pushing her toward wreckage to the side of them.

“Hide,” she breathed.

The light was definitely coming in their direction.

Mica found something to crawl under. On the opposite side of the path, Alisa patted around a pile of dusty reels of cable of all different sizes, the mound rising well above her head. She squeezed between it and something large, poky, and metal. There wasn’t room to get more than a couple of feet off the path. She hoped that whoever had the light did not look around.

The beam of light approached, angled down toward the ground from someone’s earstar. The footfalls of several people accompanied it.

Alisa squeezed more tightly into her spot, turning her head from the path, not wanting her eyes to reflect the light. A few male grumbles and curses reached her ears as the men navigated the route, bumping into things, kicking dented cans out of the way.

Before the group reached her, their light played across the thing she had bumped into on the path. A human body, that of a woman. The clothing was ripped, flesh torn away by some hungry animal, but the sightless eyes remained open, an expression of utter terror frozen in them.

Alisa closed her own eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to wonder if she, too, had been driven down here by desperation, searching for a way off this world.

The men with the light continued down the path without slowing. A faint tink came from the other side, and Alisa winced. She didn’t think Mica had been foolish enough to make noise—there was probably another rat poking around behind her—but the sound might cause someone to look in that direction.

The men stepped over the body without slowing. Alisa watched them out of her peripheral vision, noting the scarred, bearded faces, the greasy hair, the tattoos, and the weapons they carried, a mishmash of daggers, shotguns, BlazTeck energy particle weapons, and rifles collected from who knew where. One carried an e-cannon that looked like it had been torn off one of the ships and modified for hand use. Alisa reminded herself that she, too, was armed, with the Etcher she had traded for, but it carried bullets rather than battery packs, and if she fired it, everyone in the cavern would hear.

The greasy men continued down the path, and she allowed herself to relax an iota. She waited until the light had disappeared and the sounds of footfalls had faded before easing out of hiding. Her long braid of dark brown hair got caught on a protruding piece of scrap, and she resolved to have it cut as soon as she had money. Whenever that would be.

“Blessing of the Suns Trinity,” she whispered for the fallen woman’s soul, then stepped past the corpse. “Mica?”

“I’m here.” Her voice sounded subdued, perhaps because she, too, had seen the body.

The path opened up as they continued down it, hurrying in the opposite direction from the men. An old conveyer belt stretched across a cleared area, with the skeletal shape of a crane rising up from the shadows. Alisa’s heart sped up with anticipation. She remembered walking past this spot on her way out of the cavern years ago.

A gasp came from behind her, followed by the sound of something clunking to the ground.

Alisa whirled around, raising her gun. The darkness lay thick along the path, towers of junk stacked high to either side, and she couldn’t see much.

“Mica?” Alisa risked whispering. That had sounded like her gasp.

A flash came from the side, followed by the scent of burning tar. A homemade fire starter had been thrown to the ground, and flames leaped up, bright enough to reveal Mica—and the big man holding her with his hand around her neck. A wiry man stood at his side, his hand blazer pointed at Alisa. Mica’s toolbox lay on its side in the dust at her feet. She struggled briefly, then grew still as her captor’s grip tightened. An utterly pissed expression contorted the angular features of her face.

Alisa admired her lack of fear, but felt a twinge of disappointment that her comrade had let herself be captured so easily. As a pilot, Alisa had fast reflexes in the sky, but she doubted she could shoot both men before the one with the blazer shot her.

“Thought I heard something,” the big man holding her crooned. He was one of the ones who had walked past them, with so many scars on his bare arms and face that they must have been self-inflicted. Despite his height, his features were gaunt, with no fat under the stringy flesh of those arms. “Got some pretties to add to our collection. This one feels good. Be fun to cut on her a little.” He leered and shifted his grip so he could grope Mica’s breast. “Spider, get that one’s gun. Can’t be having some girl shooting at us while we’re working our art.”

Mica radiated fury, and she tried to bash her head back and hit her captor in the face, but he was too tall. She stomped on his foot, but he wore hard boots and didn’t seem to feel it.

The wiry man grinned, displaying a mouth of missing teeth, and bounced up and down. He did not speak but took a step forward, holding out his free hand as he kept his blazer pointed at Alisa’s chest. She kept her Etcher pointed at his chest, too, assessing him in the dancing firelight. His chest looked stockier than his narrow frame would have suggested. Was he wearing body armor under his clothes? On the chance that it might deflect bullets, she shifted her aim to his eye. He halted, squinting at her, and twitched his free hand toward his big comrade.

“Why don’t you release my engineer and let us go about our business?” Alisa asked, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “We fought for the Alliance. We’re not your enemies.” Or your playthings, she added silently, horrified at the idea. She doubted talking would do any good, but maybe it would buy her a moment to think of something better to do.

“Alliance doesn’t mean worm suck down here,” the big man said. “Empire, Alliance, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. None of them make it easier to find food around here. Spider, a girl’s not going to shoot you. Get her damned gun.”

Alisa didn’t want to shoot them, not when it would alert everyone in the cavern to their presence. She was also well aware that she wasn’t wearing body armor or anything else that would deflect attacks.

“Oh, she’ll shoot you,” Mica wheezed, not as daunted as one might expect by the hand around her throat. The big man had her arms pinned, but she eased her fingers toward her shirt pocket so she could reach it. “She likes shooting people. Mostly imperial asteroid kissers, but I bet she’ll make exceptions for greasy troglodytes whose only memories of bathtubs come from their ancestors who colonized this hole.”

Spider had started toward Alisa, but he paused at Mica’s words. More the part about Alisa’s willingness to shoot him, rather than that bathtub insult, she wagered.

“Enh, just blow her away, Spider,” the big man said. “Ain’t worth getting killed trying to steal a veruska’s stinger.”

The wiry man nodded firmly, his hand tightening on his trigger. Seeing the determination in his eyes, Alisa fired first, then flung herself to the side. She rolled under the conveyer belt as a crimson blazer bolt streaked through the air where her head had been. Spider shouted in pain, but Alisa knew she’d only struck a glancing blow, if that. She prayed the hulking man wouldn’t break Mica’s neck as she scrambled into the shadows, expecting Spider to fire again.

Instead, a boom erupted from nearby, the noise hammering at Alisa’s eardrums. One of the men yowled, the sound a mingle of frustration and agony.

Alisa couldn’t tell which one it had been. She rose to a crouch behind a support under the conveyer belt, using it for cover as she sought a target. Acrid blue smoke filled the air from whatever explosive had been detonated.

Spider rolled about on the ground, almost smothering the flames from the fire starter. He clutched his ear, blood streaming between his fingers, his mouth open as if he were screaming, but nothing came out. Alisa had landed a better shot than she’d thought.

Despite his pain, Spider hadn’t dropped his gun, and even as Alisa lined up her aim for another shot, he glimpsed her through smoky air. He fired wildly in her direction.

She ducked back and targeted him through the support legs. Though a blazer bolt slammed into the belt a few feet away, sending shards of the machinery flying, she forced herself to find the calm in the chaos, to take a careful second to ensure her aim was true. She fired once.

Her bullet slammed into Spider’s forehead, and his head flew back, striking the earth and sending a puff of dust into the air. His arm fell limp, landing in the flames. He didn’t move it, and the smell of burning clothing and flesh soon scented the air along with the acrid taint of the smoke. Alisa grimaced. The war had taught her to kill, but she would never find it anything but horrifying.

Mica and the big man had disappeared, only her toolbox remaining, along with a dark smudge in the dust next to it. Alisa hopped over the conveyer belt to investigate, aware of shouts coming from all parts of the cavern. Most were inarticulate, a few in languages she couldn’t understand, but an enthusiastic call of, “Fresh meat!” made her shudder.

She couldn’t stay around here, but she couldn’t leave Mica, either. She was cursing herself for not seeing which direction they had gone when she glimpsed the remains of a warped casing on the ground. She picked it up, sniffed it, and dropped it immediately, the pungent scent familiar. Her fingers tingled from the brief contact.

A shuffling came from piles of scrap, and Mica walked into view, rubbing her neck and grimacing. “Animal.”

“Was that a rust bang?” Alisa asked, remembering the explosives the ground troops had often led with when assaulting imperial ships and fortifications. The acidic smoke could corrode even state-of-the-art combat armor. It was not as deadly to skin, but she’d seen people horribly disfigured and even killed from close contact.

“Sort of a homemade version.”

“That you kept in your pocket?”

“I keep lots of useful things in my pockets.” Mica picked up her toolbox, and they moved away from the body and the still-burning fire starter. “Don’t you?”

“I have half a chocolate bar and three tindarks in mine.”

“How’d you get chocolate in this hole?”

“I traded the painkillers the hospital gave me before kicking me out.” The medicine was highly coveted out in the lawless streets of the backwater planet, and Alisa had gotten her Etcher and a multitool out of the deal too.

“You didn’t need the painkillers?” Mica asked.

“Not as much as I needed the chocolate.”

“You’re an odd woman.”

“Says the engineer who carries rust bangs in her pockets. How did you manage to use one of those on that big brute without being hurt yourself?” As they walked, Alisa waved at Mica’s rumpled overalls, as faded and stained as hers—it hadn’t been an easy five months for either of them. Those overalls weren’t any more damaged, however, than they had been when they’d headed into the cavern. “You appear remarkably un-corroded.”

“The rust bang was insulated.”


“It went off in his pants.”

“Ah. How did it get in there?”

“Must have fallen in.” Mica’s typically dour expression faded for a moment as she winked. “You rolling around in the dust and shooting people was a suitable distraction for it to do so.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Alisa managed a brief smile, amused that she had been worried her ally couldn’t take care of herself.

Lights flashed on the rocky ceiling far overhead, and the sounds of excited shouts grew closer. Shoes pounded in the dust nearby, reminding Alisa that they had made a lot of noise.

She turned her walk into a run, veering toward an aisle choked with piles of parts and some kind of vine that had no trouble growing in the dark. Though she worried that the half-starved brutes who called this place home would catch up with them, she felt more sure of her route now. The aisle had been a road the last time she’d been in here, with the place slightly more organized back then, and with fewer corpses along the way.

A gun fired behind them, and the sounds of a squabble broke out. Alisa hoped the scavengers would be satisfied that they could search—or eat—Spider’s corpse and wouldn’t look further, but she didn’t slow down. She couldn’t count on that, nor could she count on safety once she reached the Star Nomad. It had been inches from derelict status when she’d seen it last; the Suns Trinity only knew what condition it was in now. She was probably delusional to believe that Mica and her toolbox could fix it.

As they neared the back of the massive cavern, the shouts growing distant behind them, Alisa finally slowed down. Her lungs forced her to, even if her brain didn’t want to acknowledge the need. It was just as well. They ought to return to proceeding with caution.

“Is that it?” Mica whispered, pointing past Alisa’s shoulder.

They had reached another clearing, this one with a slender beam of daylight slashing down from a hole in the cavern ceiling. It provided just enough illumination to make out the hulls of four ships parked around the area. Grease and oil stains smeared the dusty ground in the open space, suggesting a fifth ship had rested there once. If one craft had flown out of here, Alisa hoped that meant another one could.

She stopped to stare at the familiar shape on the far side of the clearing, a tangle of emotions and memories washing over her. This ship had been responsible for her mother’s death, and six years hadn’t changed Alisa’s feeling of aversion toward it. Aversion and resentment. The clunky old freighter was even less impressive than she’d remembered.

The Nomad hadn’t been a beauty even in her heyday, and now dust dulled it further, coating every inch of the boxy hull while cobwebs draped the twin thrusters. Shadows hid the top and the front of the craft from her view, but she knew they would be equally neglected. She and Mica would have to assess the hull carefully, see if it was possible to make the craft spaceworthy again. Alisa ought to be able to advise her engineer on that. She certainly knew the Nomad well enough. Long before her mother’s death, Alisa had grown up on the ship, learning to fly and helping her mother run cargo from planet to moon to space station throughout the system. Under the empire’s rule, her mother had been forced to pay taxes and tolls at each port and had barely eked out enough of a profit to keep her ship in the sky and her daughter fed. But through sheer determination, she had kept Alisa fed. She had been a good mother—a good person—and emotion thickened Alisa’s throat as the years seemed to slip away, and she missed her anew. And she once again resented that the old ship had given out without warning, life support disappearing, her mother unable to—

“Captain?” Mica asked.

Alisa stirred, pushing aside the memories. “Yes. That’s it.”

She took a deep breath and walked through the dust toward the craft. She went slowly, looking left and right as she crossed near the light of the sunbeam. Just because they had left the other scavengers behind didn’t mean there couldn’t be more back here. The hatch was closed on the old freighter, the wide cargo-loading ramp folded away inside.

A bronze plaque had been bolted to the hull next to the hatch. It was too dusty to read, but she knew what it said: Property of Finnegan’s Scrap and Holding Company.

She had been there the day old Finnegan had affixed it, the day she sold the ship to him. Even if she had been grossly underpaid by the unscrupulous businessman, Alisa hadn’t been in the mood to argue back then, not with her mother’s death fresh in her mind. Still, she knew she couldn’t use that for justification of what she meant to do now. Steal it.

But Finnegan had died in the bombings of Dustor’s nearby capital—she’d researched that when formulating this plan—and nobody had come out to claim this junkyard in the year that had passed since then. People had likely been stealing from it for months, ever since the security guards had quit patrolling and the lowlifes had moved in.

As she neared the hatch, a growl came from under one of the other ships. As she turned to look, something furry with a spiky ridge along its back burst out of the shadows. A sand badger. Forty pounds of fangs, fur, and bad temperament. It sprinted straight at her, snarling.

Alisa whipped her Etcher toward it and was an instant from shooting when she remembered the need to be quiet. If she fired, the noise would only draw more scavengers, and she couldn’t simply run and hide now. They had to stay here long enough to fix the Nomad and get it flying.

Jerking the gun up, Alisa met the giant badger’s charge with a side kick instead of a bullet. She pivoted on her left foot, launching her right toward the thing’s bristly snout, glad the hospital had returned her sturdy boots to her upon release. The sole crunched into the badger’s face, halting its charge but not its ferocity. It twisted its neck, snapping at her leg as she retracted it. She launched a second kick without setting down her foot. This time, it saw the attack coming and scuttled to the side more quickly than something with such short legs should have been able to.

As she danced away from another charge, Alisa yanked her multitool off her belt, flicking it to extend the laser knife. Mica ran in behind the creature, an oversized wrench in hand. When Alisa kicked the badger in the snout again, Mica lunged in and clubbed it in the back. The blow probably didn’t do much harm, but it made the sand badger spin around, its spiked tail nearly whipping Alisa in the leg. The creature snarled and charged toward Mica, who scrambled back as she waved the wrench back and forth like a fencer’s foil.

Alisa sprang after the badger, slashing with the laser knife. It cut through the spiked tail, lopping it off and eliciting a squeal of pain from the animal.

She winced at the noise and darted in, hoping to finish it off, but the badger was done fighting. It scurried back into the shadows, leaving a trail of blood in the dust.

Alisa let it go, doubting she could have caught it anyway. As she stood, gun in one hand and multitool in the other, she tried to slow her breathing so she could listen and hear if anyone was coming. All that filled her ears was the sound of her own ragged breaths. She hadn’t recovered her stamina yet, and it annoyed her how long it took for her breathing to return to normal.

Mica returned her wrench to her toolbox and joined her. “Remember how skeptical I was when you told me that if I joined you, we’d find a ship that could take us back to civilization?”

“Yes.” Alisa flicked the multitool again, retracting the laser blade and sticking it back in her belt sheath.

“I wasn’t skeptical enough.” Mica curled a lip at the bloody stump of badger tail lying in the dust, then looked at the freighter and curled her lip even further. “A Nebula Rambler 880? They stopped making those fifty years ago.”

“That just means it’s a classic,” Alisa said, though she couldn’t help but remember how her mother had died and shudder. The ship had gone from feeling like home to a cemetery overnight for her.

But it was the only ship she was going to find that nobody else had a claim on and that might still be spaceworthy. Assuming they could fix it. And assuming it had enough juice left in the battery to open the hatch so they could get in. She wondered if it would still recognize her as an authorized entrant.

“Yeah?” Mica asked. “Does it have shag carpet?”

“Just in the rec room.”

Mica snorted.

Alisa reached for the sensor panel beside the hatch.

A shadow dropped from the sky.

She sprang back, jerking her gun toward the figure that landed beside her. A hand, an impossibly strong hand, clamped onto her wrist, squeezing until she gasped, her fingers loosening. Her gun was torn from her grip, and she was thrust backward before she could contemplate a kick or a punch.

The force of the thrust stole her balance, and she tumbled to the ground. Though she managed to turn the fall into a roll and come up in a crouch a few feet away, it didn’t matter. She’d lost her Etcher, and she was too far away to use the laser knife. Not that it would have mattered. Dread filled her as she recognized her opponent—and the fact that he was pointing her own gun at her.

Chapter 2

He was a cyborg.

Oh, he looked fully human, with icy blue eyes, a strong jaw in need of shaving, and black hair even more in need of cutting, but humans didn’t jump thirty feet from the top of a spaceship, land on their feet next to a person, and proceed to attack so quickly that an Alliance officer with combat training didn’t have time to react. If there had been any question about his enhanced capabilities, the dusty black imperial fleet uniform jacket that he wore would have eliminated them. The rank pins had been removed from the collar, but the front of it was covered with patches that denoted a deluge of training, everything from atmo-parachuting to weapons and demolitions expertise. There was also a round patch with a fist over a sword and a shield. The symbol for the Cyborg Corps.

Alisa had lost colleagues to the Cyborg Corps during the war, and like all Alliance soldiers, she had heard the rumors that they had been responsible for the assassinations of many of their top brass and several political leaders. This cyborg wasn’t young—he had a few gray hairs at his temples—so he had probably been a senior sergeant. He might even have led some of those assassination teams.

There was no warmth in the eyes that stared relentlessly into hers, and they were uncomfortably knowing, as if he could read her mind. Not likely—she had never heard of a cyborg with Starseer capabilities—but that didn’t make her feel any better.

“You’ll have to get him to turn around,” Mica said.

She stood several feet away, her toolbox still in hand. The cyborg hadn’t pointed a weapon at her. Yet.

“What?” Alisa asked, never taking her gaze from her enemy.

She didn’t know what she could do if he decided to shoot—his reflexes and aim would be a lot better than those of the wiry thug they had left burning—but she would face him, regardless, keep her chin high. Whatever skills and abilities he possessed, his side had lost the war. Her people, comprised only of full-blooded humans, had won.

“You know,” Mica said, “so I can club him in the back like I did the badger.”

“Ah,” Alisa said, watching the cyborg’s face, looking for some hint that he might appreciate their humor—or at least that he wasn’t contemplating killing them.

She rose slowly from her crouch, not liking the way he could look down at her. Unfortunately, he still looked down at her. She wasn’t a short woman, standing a couple of inches shy of six feet, but he still had six or eight inches on her. The breadth of his shoulders and solidness of his limbs made her sure he would have been an intimidating man even without the cyborg implants. The imperial fleet doctors had probably loved getting their hands on him.

He tracked her movement, his gaze flicking downward briefly, taking in her uniform jacket, she suspected, not checking out her boobs. He wasn’t the only one wearing signs of his last career. Though her worn trousers and shirt weren’t anything remarkable, she wore the same jacket she had worn throughout the war, a mottled blue and gray Alliance military jacket. She didn’t have as many patches as he did, but the one on her left breast proclaimed her a combat pilot. He might even now be wondering if she’d blown up some of his buddies. She wouldn’t be surprised if she had, but it would have been from the cockpit of her Striker-18, not from the ground.

“Go away,” the cyborg said, his voice as hard as his eyes.

Mica looked at her, her brows rising in surprise. She wore civilian clothes, and the cyborg had barely glanced at her, but she must have noticed him checking out Alisa’s uniform jacket. Maybe she’d expected him to shoot her.

Honestly, Alisa had expected it too. In the brief weeks she had been out of the hospital, she’d noticed that the end of the war hadn’t meant an end in hostilities, not here on a planet that housed both former Alliance and former imperial soldiers, many squabbling over what was no longer claimed or defendable by law.

“Go away?” Alisa asked, not because she hadn’t understood him but because she couldn’t go away. She had come for the ship he was standing in front of, and she wouldn’t leave without it. Would it be better to admit that and try to bargain with him, or to hide in the shadows and watch from a distance, hoping he would leave eventually? “We just got here. We’re interested in…”

She trailed off because the cyborg had turned away from her. He waved his hand at the sensor she had been angling toward earlier, and a hiss-clunk sounded as the hatch opened, and the ramp inside unfolded in three stages, the end coming to rest on the ground.

She didn’t know whether she was more indignant that he’d dismissed her as a non-threat by turning his back or because he’d somehow gained access to the ship. The latter wasn’t all that hard, but it did suggest computer knowledge she wouldn’t have expected from a ground soldier, cyborg or not. They were usually combat specialists and not much more.

He tossed her gun at her feet and stepped onto the ramp, clearly intending to go inside and shut the hatch on them.

“Wait,” Alisa blurted. She ran and picked up her gun and started toward the ramp. “We came to—”

She halted mid-sentence again, this time because he’d paused, turning back toward her, another weapon in hand. His weapon, this time. A single-barreled destroyer, a handgun that had the nickname “hand cannon” for a reason. It was the first thing in the cavern she had seen that wasn’t dusty and neglected, and it was pointing between her eyes.

“I said, go away,” the cyborg said, his tone and his narrowed eyes promising that he would shoot if she lifted her gun toward him or tried to follow him.

“I can’t,” Alisa said, though she probably should have opted for her earlier thought of hiding and simply waiting for him to leave. But it would take days for Mica to fix the ship, if not weeks, and if he was squatting here, they would have to deal with him one way or another. “We need this ship.” She waved to the Star Nomad, careful to use the hand that wasn’t holding the Etcher. That she kept pointed toward the ground.

“It’s mine,” he said.

“Technically, it’s Finnegan’s,” Alisa said, wondering if he knew anything about the junkyard or the history of the place.

“He’s not here. I am.”

“Look, we plan to fix it.” Alisa didn’t know how wise it was to share their plans, but she waved at Mica and her toolbox anyway. “I’ll happily trade you that lovely ship over there for this one. It’s bigger. I happen to know the living quarters are cramped on this freighter. All of the extra space went to the cargo hold. You’ll find that ship over there much more palatial. You’re a tall fellow, right? Surely a little more headroom would be desirable. My friend there could even fix it up for you, perhaps put in some sparkly lights and heated bunks. You can bring back the ladies and impress them with your fancy lodgings.”

She thought a little humor might draw the cyborg into a conversation—or at least a negotiation—but if anything, his eyes grew even harder at the talk of ladies and lodgings.

“You make me sound like a contractor that builds brothels,” Mica muttered.

“You’re versatile. I’ve seen your work.”

The cyborg turned his back and started up the ramp again, but some new thought must have occurred to him because he paused and pinned Mica with his cool stare. “You’re a mechanic?”

“An engineer. I served in—”

Alisa made a shushing motion. The cyborg already knew what she was, but it would be better not to increase his ire by letting him know Mica had been an Alliance officer too. If he was unaware of that, maybe he would be open to working a deal with her, if not Alisa.

“She’s a mechanic and an engineer,” Alisa said. “She can fix anything. Got a creak in any of your mechanical parts? I bet she can even fix you.”

The cyborg’s eyes narrowed again.

“Your jokes aren’t helping as much as you seem to think they are,” Mica whispered to her. “I believe he’s going to shoot you.”

Alisa thought about mentioning how charming Mica’s pessimism was, but was afraid she was right. Instead of trying to be funny, Alisa met the cyborg’s eyes and decided to make a plea toward his humanity, if he had any.

“Please listen to me for a moment, Sergeant, is it?” she guessed. He definitely had the look of a no-nonsense veteran, and she hadn’t run into many officers among the Cyborg Corps—despite being willing to use cyborgs, the imperial fleet had always seemed to prefer fully human officers in leadership positions. When he didn’t respond to her guess, Alisa pressed on. “This ship used to belong to me. I know it from nose to tail, because I grew up on it. I brought Mica here to see if we can get it fixed up and into the air. As you might have noticed, rides off this planet are scarce right now.”

Alisa figured he had been stranded here after the war, too, left behind because of an injury or perhaps just left behind because there had been nobody left to look after—and pay—the soldiers in the imperial fleet.

“I know exactly what’s wrong with the ship,” Alisa said, pressing on when he once again did not respond, “and I believe fixing it is possible.” If nothing else had been done to it in the last six years. Seeing that the cyborg had access made her worry that others had found access and might have been inside, scavenging every last piece of the ship’s innards. “We want to fix it and take it off this planet. If you’re just making a home inside there, then I was serious in my offer. We’ll help you fix up another place to live, any ship here that you want.”

“To where?” he asked.

It took Alisa a moment to realize he was asking where they intended to go.

“Teravia,” she said, lying. There was no way she was giving him her flight plan.

Those already narrowed eyes closed to slits, and she was reminded that he was pointing his gun at her chest. She expected him to accuse her of lying, but instead, he asked, “You willing to stop in the Trajean Asteroid Belt on the way?”

“On the way? The T-Belt isn’t on the way to anything except the Dark Reaches.”

“You want to get on this ship, you’ll make it on the way. To Teravia,” he added, putting emphasis on the name. Yeah, he knew she was lying.

It didn’t matter if she was lying. The T-Belt wasn’t on the way to her real destination of Perun, either. Taking that diversion would add a minimum of ten days to her trip.

Alisa closed her eyes, seeing her daughter’s face in her mind. Even though it had already been well over a year since she’d been able to get home to see Jelena, she hated the idea of extending that absence any longer than necessary now that the war was over and her service to the Alliance was fulfilled. Especially now that she knew Jonah was gone and that their daughter was staying with an aunt whose inner-city artist’s loft wouldn’t be an ideal place for raising a child.

“Ah, Cap—Alisa,” Mica whispered. “Mind if I have a word with you?” She eyed the cyborg, then jerked her chin toward one of the other ships.

“Give us a moment to discuss our flight plans,” Alisa told the cyborg, then added a, “Please,” remembering that she’d decided to be reasonable with him. Reasonable people said please and thank you, even when dealing with the enemy.

The cyborg said nothing, merely leaned against one of the support posts that lowered the ramp from the side of the ship. He folded his arms, his destroyer still in one hand, his expression one of indifference. Alisa didn’t know if it was a mask or not. He had seemed vaguely interested when he’d learned Mica was an engineer, and it sounded like he wanted a ride. Interestingly, he wanted a ride somewhere specific and remote. Most other people just wanted to get the hells off this dustball.

“You don’t want to go asteroid hopping?” Alisa asked when she and Mica were out of earshot. She didn’t think her colleague would mind the delay since she didn’t have a pressing need to return to Perun the way Alisa did.

“With a cyborg? Are you spaced? What if he decides to shoot us once we get to wherever he wants to go? Or what if he gets an itch and rapes one of us? Both of us. Hells, we can’t outfight him. Did you see how fast he took your gun away?”

“I’m trying to forget, thank you.”

“If we were stuck on the ship with him, we’d have no place to escape. There’s nowhere to run, not like here.” Mica waved toward the shadows.

“On the ship, off the ship, if he didn’t want us to escape, nothing would keep him from running us down,” Alisa pointed out, aware of how fast cyborgs were on foot.

But, even though she made the argument, she had to concede to Mica’s point. There wouldn’t be anything to keep him from taking over once the ship was fixed and they were in the air. And what kind of loon wanted to go to the T-Belt, anyway? There was nothing out there except automated drilling stations and smuggler and pirate hideouts. Showing up there in a clunky freighter without a weapons system wouldn’t be wise. From what she’d heard, even heading to Perun would be a risk these days.

“He’s probably fantasizing about shooting you right now,” Mica whispered, glancing at the cyborg. He hadn’t changed position. He was looking out into the cavern rather than at them. “Whatever he was in the imperial fleet, I bet it wasn’t a homeless vagabond forced to squat in a junkyard full of cannibalistic maniacs. We were on the side that drove him to this. Don’t think he won’t resent us.”

Alisa couldn’t accuse Mica of being overly pessimistic this time. In all likelihood, she was right.


“I don’t see what choice we have,” Alisa said. “He doesn’t look like he’s moving.”

“We’ll take another ship then.”

What ship?” Alisa waved at the sea of dust, rust, and shadows surrounding them. “These are all derelicts in here—they probably didn’t fly when they were brought in, and they’ve surely been scavenged to the core and back since then. The Nomad is—was… The engine was still working and the hull was intact. I didn’t sell her because she was in poor condition.”

Mica sighed. “I know. You told me. But that was then. We don’t know what condition she’s in now.”

“She’s the most likely ship in here to ever fly again. Listen, I’d actually been thinking of taking on some passengers, anyway, if we can get her working. We need money for supplies, and people would line up for miles at a chance to get off this world and back to one of the core planets.”

“Oh, I know that, but how many of those people could actually pay? You may not have noticed, but Flint Face over there didn’t offer to drop any tindarks in your purse.”

“I know, but others might, and if we have paying passengers, we could use their money to hire a couple of security men, too. Some beefy brutes who could stand between him and us.” Alisa pointed her thumb toward the cyborg.

“You really think a rent-a-guard is going to be a match for an imperial cyborg?”

“Maybe not, but if we had a crew and passengers, he might be less likely to try something… untoward.”

Alisa couldn’t help but think of Mica’s earlier words of rape and killing. Was she being naive in contemplating this? Did they have any other choice? It wasn’t as if she had the money to buy a ship, even if there had been any available on Dustor. What little she had received from Finnegan all those years ago had gone toward the down payment on the apartment that she and Jonah had purchased, an apartment that had apparently been incinerated by bombs. The virtual financial system was a mess these days, with accounts no longer being accessible across the sys-net, so the three coins in her pocket were all she had to her name. Technically, she ought to still have some money in her bank account on Perun, but what remained of the empire had settled in there, and as an Alliance soldier, she wouldn’t be welcome. She had no idea how she was going to get in to find her daughter, but she had a week’s voyage to figure it out. Now, she would have a week and ten days.

“Untoward.” Mica curled her lip. “You know what’s worse than an optimistic engineer?”

“An optimistic captain?”


Alisa left Mica grumbling to her toolbox and approached the cyborg again. “You’ll be pleased to know that we’ve decided that we would be fools not to visit the magnificent wonders of the Trajean Asteroid Belt before heading to our final destination.”

She expected the cyborg to say, “Good,” or something of that ilk. Instead, he grunted and walked inside.

“Oh, yes. It’s going to be fun playing Carts and Chutes with him in the rec room during the evenings.”

Chapter 3

The cyborg never left the ship.

It had crossed Alisa’s mind that if he ever did, she and Mica could maroon him here, assuming they got the Star Nomad working. After all, she hadn’t given her word that she would take him, and it wasn’t as if he had done her any favors. Letting her onto a ship that she had as much right to be on as he did not qualify. But he never left.

He had claimed one of the small crew cabins for himself, and Alisa hadn’t presumed to open the hatch to peek inside. He didn’t speak to them unless asked a question, and it wasn’t guaranteed even then. After three days, Alisa still did not know his name, though she had asked once, figuring he would be less likely to shoot them later on if he came to know them. So far, he hadn’t shown any interest in knowing them.

Alisa assumed he had a box of ration bars or ready-meals in his cabin, because he never visited the mess hall, not that there was much reason to. To save power until they could get the main engine online and fueled up, Mica hadn’t turned on electricity to the non-essential parts of the ship, and there wasn’t any food in the refrigerator. All Alisa and Mica had were ration bars and pouches of dehydrated vegetable patties with the texture of sawdust. If they managed to fly the ship into town and find some paying passengers, they could buy better supplies for the trip.

“Captain?” Mica asked one afternoon when Alisa’s determination to clean all of the dust, cobwebs, and rat droppings out of the ship took her through engineering with a mop. Mica slid out from under a console, her short hair even more tousled than usual, though her worried expression was probably a result of more than hair woes.

“How’re we doing?” Alisa crouched beside her, a tendril of unease worming through her stomach.

Even though Mica had done a thorough analysis of the ship on the first day, Alisa kept expecting her engineer to stumble across something that would keep the Nomad grounded indefinitely. Finding parts for the craft hadn’t been easy even before the war, and if it turned out they needed something proprietary that couldn’t be made in the little machine shop in the back of the engineering room, well… the odds of finding it on Dustor were not good. Further, from what she had heard, mail-order was out of the question these days. She was lucky her sister-in-law’s letter had reached her.

“There are peculiarities,” Mica said, glancing toward the hatchway, as if she expected the cyborg to be lurking there.

He wasn’t. Alisa had stumbled across him doing pull-ups from a bar in the cargo hold that morning, but he was far scarcer than the rat droppings, and despite his interest in getting off-planet, he hadn’t shown any curiosity as far as the repairs went.

“Such as?” Alisa asked.

“A lot of equipment has already been repaired. It’s jury-rigged, so you can tell there was a problem, but the patches are efficient enough that they don’t need me to do anything, at least not until genuine replacement parts can be found.”

“My mother was good at making do. She was half engineer and half pilot, all self-taught. She had a real knack for keeping this boat in the air. Until the end.” Alisa grimaced.

Mica sat up and opened a panel. She pointed to a circuit board and a snarl of wires that had been tamed with wire ties. “Do you know if that’s her work?”

Alisa shrugged. She’d never had much passion or aptitude for fixing things, despite her mother’s attempts to teach her how to maintain the ship, so she didn’t even know what she was looking at. “She might have. The last four years that she flew freight, I was away in college. She was out here on her own, so I don’t know what she had to deal with.”

“But you said life support was definitely wrecked, right?”

“Yes,” Alisa said, her voice tight. Life support had been what failed, what had resulted in her mother’s death. Another long-hauler had found the ship adrift and reported it to the authorities. Alisa’s mother had been found dead inside, the carbon dioxide levels off the chart. Angry and devastated, Alisa had almost left it out there, but it had been drifting close to Dustor, so she’d hitched a ride to claim it and had worn a spacesuit to fly it to the planet where she’d sold the old freighter to the highest bidder.

“I’ve run several tests. Nothing’s wrong with life support now.”

“You’re sure?”

“There are patches a-plenty. I can see that someone put a lot of work into fixing the system.”

This time, Alisa was the one to glance toward the empty hatchway. “Are you implying that our passenger did it?”

“It wasn’t the rats.”

Alisa rocked back onto her heels. “From what I’ve heard, most soldiers who go into the Cyborg Corps are taken in young, before they’ve earned degrees or had much time to learn a trade. And their superiors don’t really encourage them to educate themselves, not in intellectual subjects, anyway. I always had the feeling that the imperials were afraid of their own creations. Didn’t want them getting thoughts in their heads about turning on their superiors or taking over installations.”

“Maybe I’m not the first engineer he’s had up here, fixing things for him.”

“You’re fixing things for me, not for him. Don’t you forget who’s not paying you a single tindark for your work.”

Mica snorted. “Whatever gets me to a civilized planet. The employment prospects here are horrible.”

“The prospects for everything here are horrible.”

“That’s the truth. I just hope we don’t get off Dustor and find out that it’s the same everywhere.”

Alisa frowned. “Even if things aren’t as smoothly run as they might have been when the empire was in charge, humanity has its freedom now. That’s worth some inconveniences.”

Mica waved her hand in the air. Alisa wasn’t positive that was a sign of agreement.

“Just keep an eye on our brawny buddy,” Mica said. “If he wasn’t the one fixing things, I’d like to know what happened to the last engineer he had in here.”

Alisa’s gaze drifted back to the tidy wires. “Are you sure you want to know that?”

“Maybe not, but it would be good to know how many extra deadbolts I need to install on the hatch to my cabin.”

Alisa smiled, though she had no idea if deadbolts would stop a cyborg. She had been flying over a battlefield once and had seen one lift a tank off a comrade.

“Since the ship is apparently already half-fixed,” Alisa said, “does that mean that we can get out of this junk cave soon?”

“Should be ready by tomorrow.”

“Excellent. I’ll see if I can get enough reception to access the city-net and put out flyers for passengers.”

“Don’t forget about security guards. In case the deadbolts don’t work.”

“Pessimist,” Alisa said.

Mica snorted again. “Optimist.”

Chapter 4

The light of two of the system’s three suns beat down upon Alisa as she weaved through the city, back toward the crowded ship docks, her rented hoverboard hissing and sputtering. She led it along behind her like a dog on a leash. A drunken dog with a limp that liked to bump into passersby. People of white, brown, and mixed skin colors cursed her in an amalgam of Russian and Chinese that was the planet’s native language. Alisa apologized in Standard, lamenting that nobody seemed to notice or care about the Alliance jacket she wore. She’d helped free these people, damn it. A little respect would have been nice, drunken limping hoverboard or not.

At least the storeowner had been sympathetic to war veterans, and after looking at her military ID, he had been willing to give her the supplies on credit. She’d promised to pay him back as soon as their passengers signed on, which, she hoped, would be before the end of the day. If nobody showed up, she would have to find a way to hustle for some coins. She wondered how the cyborg would feel if she asked him to pay his way.

Alisa was relieved when she spotted the Nomad, the suns throwing rays onto its bronze and silver hull. The craft looked old in the harsh desert light, but reputable. It had never belonged in that junkyard with those derelicts, and even though she couldn’t help resent it, and even fear it, for how it had betrayed her mother, she admitted that the ship still deserved to be out here in the light of day.

The hatch stood open and the ramp down, inviting people in. People who could pay. Alisa hurried toward it, hoping numerous well-heeled passengers had signed aboard while she had been shopping for supplies. She supposed it would be foolish—or overly optimistic, as Mica would say—to hope that their cyborg guest had disembarked, changing his mind about riding into space with them.

As she neared the ship, a commotion broke out in front of one of the merchant tents set up along the open-air docks. A gun fired, and people scattered.

“Thief!” a woman cried and lunged out of the tent holding a blazer rifle in both hands, a faded yellow dress flapping around her legs as she ran.

People sprinted away from her. Alisa pulled out her own gun and jumped behind the hoverboard for cover while looking for the thief. A young man was racing down the promenade, zigzagging and gripping his injured arm. Alisa hesitated to shoot since she couldn’t tell if he had truly stolen anything and since she didn’t have a stun gun. The proprietor did not hesitate. She fired, heedless of the nearby people. Her aim was better than Alisa would have expected, and a bolt of energy slammed into the man’s back. He tumbled to the cracked cement walkway. The woman stalked toward him, her head held high, ignoring the people giving her alarmed looks. When she reached the man, she patted him down, pulled a gold chain out of his pocket, and stalked back to her tent.

Alisa kept expecting the sounds of sirens or at least for a couple of automated police patrollers to show up, both to see if the thief had survived and to take the woman into custody. Killing someone for stealing had never been legal.

Slowly, as the crowds returned to the promenade and as nobody came to do something about the thief, who was probably dead by now, it dawned on Alisa that imperial law wasn’t being enforced anymore. After all, the empire had fallen. She knew from watching the news holos while she had been recovering that there was a three-planet government that the Alliance had set up on the most industrious and resource-rich planets, but they were a long ways from here. Alisa had no idea what passed for the law out here now or even if the Alliance had influence here. Someone must have stepped in to fill the void of the missing imperial government, but she didn’t know who.

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