It’s the middle of summer, and as usual, our concrete jungle has turned into its oven-y self. (Our city’s version of Mr. Hyde.) Mostly, that means I get to do my favorite thing: be a hermit. When I lived in Oregon, the constant rain gave me the excuse to stay in. Here it’s the threat of bursting into flames.
I’m still typing away and working past some hiccups with my September release, but soon everything will be back in order and back on track.
And as a final fun fact: living where I do means that when the sun goes down and it gets cool enough, the church next door is mobbed with people loitering to train their Pokémon. It’s rather odd, stepping out onto the balcony and seeing the sidewalk to the west of the building covered in clumps of people. More power to you. It’s not like I can tell you to get off my lawn ;)
Hope the last month of your summer brings magic into your life!
DEATH OF EMPIRE
A while back (5 years ago) I started a book that was eventually referred to as my “murder baby” by Beta1. It became Oath Breaker, the book I’m releasing next month.
I don’t remember the exact impetus for the book, but I’ve always loved the idea of sentient spaceships, and I wanted something that was created on accident, rather than a purposefully independent AI or a “living” ship. So I considered how I would do that, and what it came down to for me was a lot about sacrifice and why we do the things we do as humans. It’s resulted in a spaceship with a selfish streak, and the willingness to do anything she needs to do to keep the one person she loves from coming to harm.
The real trick was in finding a way around the pure logic of a machine. That of course got me thinking about brains and the chemical processes of emotions. Which is how my ship wound up having her once and future captain’s DNA integrated into her systems. Organic processors with a familial tie to a single person…. Basically, I gave my ship a dad.
Read The First Chapter Now
Available August 22nd, 2016
A blue haze burned against the alien, cloud-dark sky, threatening rain. The illumination from the nearby zapfence obscured the stars and bathed the surrounding, lush vegetation in a sickly light.
In the rotting city a half a mile to the north, an archaic bell rang out the seventeen tones of midnight.
Crouched, Danielle Cholla pressed one hand into the mud, still warm from the planet’s harsh suns. Behind her, her crew made jokes about grand theft astro. A smile spread painfully across her sun-chapped lips and she swatted away a bloodfly that came too close. The humid equatorial peninsula was heaven for the vampiric insects.
It was only by providence of prior fumigation Dani and her crew weren’t covered in the damn things. Even saturated in the fumes of the repellent, a few daring ones dove for her subclavian vein.
“Midnight in the deserted rainforest.” Her younger engineer said, his voice a harsh whisper. “That might be my next painting.”
He was shushed by a half dozen hisses.
Tucking an errant strand of her brown hair behind her ear, Dani counted down the seconds as she swatted away another insect drawn by the perspiration beading on her skin.
Bloodfly bites would heal with a healthy application of hysta-blocker and she had plenty of that. The zapfence in front of her would fry her on contact. And she was about to lead her crew right through it.
Of course, if all went to plan, a hiccup in functional integrity would be on their side.
Another rivulet of sweat rolled down her back. She could ignore her discomfort for the payday waiting in the ill-lit junkyard on the other side of that humming barrier.
The ship, hidden behind years of debris on the opposite side of the security fence—that glaring wall of light, electricity and pain—sat in an improvised dock, a grotesque pile of dark steel.
A busted up relic from the Reject Wars, she was the most sought-after object in the Pääom-controlled systems.
Half-worn away, the three remaining letters of the ship’s designation were faded and chipped. They stood out like nuclear waste oozing from the desiccated rainforest floors of Mangrova.
Dani fought back the bile and anxiety rising in her throat yet again. She recognized the monstrosity of a ship without its name. Her first glimpse three days earlier had been like stumbling into an old friend—or in this case, an old friend’s girlfriend.
Oath Breaker, the ship and all she stood for, was a terrible and fearsome thing.
Staring up at her, Dani fought the shivers of excitement slithering down her spine alongside the sweat. An exorbitant taxi ride, an over-priced secure interplanetary call to her usual buyer, and Dani had the promise of a tidy profit. Now they just had to pull it off.
Oath Breaker looked like some creature fished from the depths of Ruma’s oil-polluted ocean, where lack of light resulted in evolution to the grotesque.
Today, she was the most beautiful thing Dani had ever seen.
“I still can’t believe we found her,” Dani’s pilot said over her shoulder.
The whole crew murmured words of agreement. Crouched and waiting for the proverbial curtain to drop, they’d grown restless.
They slavered for the credits waiting at the end of this job. Even split ten ways, it would set their finances in the black for months. They waited in an anxious almost-silence behind her. All of them but one; her mechanic, Quince, worked her magic out of sight.
Dani checked the time on her light-pen communicator. Quince never ran late.
As if summoned by the thought, the stout mechanic hurried back to the group, dropping beside her. On cue, a guard dressed in dark gray thermals rounded a bend. His flash lamp swept across the mounds of sellable refuse piled inside the zapfence perimeter.
“Lyz, what’s our status?” Danielle’s whisper came out too loud and her eyes darted back to the guard as the tech worked her way up to the front. He remained oblivious.
Her best friend, who insisted her name was pronounced “lies,” had never liked fading into the background.
A hiss from their pilot pulled her attention over her shoulder. The tech had stood to full height, and Mopeña dragged her back down to a crouch, hiding her from view with his massive frame. Lyz shoved at him and rolled her eyes.
Wearing a dark blue hoverball jersey, the enormous black man moved with the agility of a shadow. He was the best pilot Dani had ever run across.
Lyz tapped commands into her tablet, and shook her head at him. “I survived two decades without your protection. Bloodflies and a lazy guard are a walk in the park.”
Nodding to Quince and Dani both, she said, “I’m going to cut the grid as soon as he rounds the bend. If he’s got a piggyback patrol following after him, we’ll only have a minute forty-five. Five minutes if we’re lucky and he’s a solo.”
She wasn’t exactly what you’d call by-the-book, and her definition of stealth was… misguided. The olive green beret barely containing Lyz’s neon red locks was the only concession Lyz had made for their late night appropriation—Dani refused to call it theft.
Dani allowed Lyz leeway because they’d been through hell and back too many times to count. The rest of the crew kept quiet because Elyzabeth Riesz was a legend. Her name was spoken in back world tech bars like she was a saint or myth, sometimes both. The consensus always came to the same conclusion: she was a technological genius.
When Mopeña moved closer to her again, the petite woman looked up at him with a scowl. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
The tech was scrappy. Dani had never seen her lose a fight, but she also took comfort in the knowledge Mopeña was too protective of his lover to let Lyz get herself into trouble she couldn’t get right back out of.
Among the slick leaves, the crew shifted behind her, whispering nervously as they watched the guard slip behind a large pile of rusting sheet metal scraps.
“By the power of Tapanoch, I command you….” Lyz tapped the disarmament command into her tablet, looked up with a wry smile and mashed the control button. The fence grid in front of them burst like a bubble. “Open.”
Danielle didn’t have to give the command. Briefed on what they needed to do, her crew melted out of the tree line. They scrambled over the piles of junk, pulling themselves across five at a time. They slipped into the dark hills of scrap, heading for their prize.
The fence hummed back to life seconds after they were clear and the sizzling snap of bloodflies on the grid echoed back. Danielle caught a glimpse of Lyz’s smug grin as she dropped the tablet into her lime green field bag.
Pulling a modified code-hack from her own bag—a subtle brown—Danielle pushed through the others and snapped the device over Oath Breaker’s emergency hatch controls. Green lines flew across the screen, falling into place as the hack settled on the first numbers of the warship’s eight digit entry code.
The crew stood back, some watching their surroundings, alert for the potential second guard, some—namely her tech and pilot—were busy whispering among themselves. The hushed cadence of so many voices added a liturgical atmosphere, as if they were monks worshiping at the altar of the heist.
Danielle shook her head as the final digit fell into place, her eyes darting to Lyz and Mopeña. Those two could get romantic anywhere—junkyard apparently included.
The hatch lock opened with a heavy thunk and Danielle motioned her crew to pile in. The engineers were first through the hatch, they disappeared like a pair ferrets in search of loose change.
Quince helped the cook inside and shot a disapproving look over her shoulder toward the pilot and tech.
Danielle barely spared them a glance as she and the comms operator hoisted their diminutive weapons specialist through the hatch. She winked at them and then disappeared into the shadows, leaving nothing but silence in her wake.
As she helped the rest in, hefting in their three crates of supplies, she inspected the hatch. No corrosion in spite of the planet’s humidity, no sign of prior forced entry. Oath Breaker looked brand new.
As Dani neared the end of her required headcount, she turned her attention to the make out session perched on one of Oath Breaker’s stabilizer feet.
“Hey, lovebirds, we’ve got a schedule. Your piggyback patrol isn’t here yet, but that’s no reason to dawdle.”
Lyz broke away from Mopeña. She held up her hands in mock surrender and a sly smile twisted her blueberry-tattooed lips before she tossed out a quick salute.
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Lyz said as she glanced at the antique watch on her wrist—rubber and hot pink. “I told you we’ve got—”
“Hold it right there.” The red pinpoint of a laser-sight blinked to life on Lyz’s back, made all the brighter by the shimmering fabric of her white halter top.
Lyz shoulder’s dropped as she turned to the gray-clad guard.
“You, mister fancy pants, are early,” she said, pushing her lip out in a child-like pout.
Danielle turned, hands out to the side. There was no need to provoke a man whose only required training was a one day safety class and three days a year at a gun range.
The man held his weapon in a quavering grasp, his eyes wide as saucers and his mouth screwed into a puckered frown.
“Are you really going to shoot two women?” Dani asked.
It was a new era, so she guessed his answer would be yes.
“On a planet this far from the central core, anybody can shoot anybody with impunity.”
Dani couldn’t argue, but there were still some men who got sick at the idea of it.
With Mopeña suspiciously gone… she might be able to talk her way out of this little jam.
“No.” The gun steadied as he turned it on her. “No more talking.”
That raised an eyebrow. He had no problem shooting her, Lyz on the other hand….
Studying him for a moment, she saw the neo-Asiatic features that were shadowed by his hat. Apparently it was easier to shoot a Latina girl than one who shared some aspect of his heritage.
He reached for the comm tab integrated into the side of his jaw.
Before the guard could say another word, a sickening crunch rang out as a pipe impacted with the back of his head. A wide smile cracked across Mopeña’s face, a white crescent in the darkness of the shadow in which he stood.
“Home run, fucker.” Mopeña said. The guard sagged to his knees and toppled onto the dusty heap of ground car hubcaps.
Taking the gun from his hand, the huge pilot tossed it away and jogged to Lyz.
“I could have handled him,” she said, arching a brow.
“Your hands were full. Between you, me, and Dani, we know that nobody threatens our Lyz-a and gets to walk away from it.” He picked her up off the ground, twirling her once, before he deposited her inside the ship and climbed in after. The grace of his movements reminded her the giant man had once been a ballet dancer, but that was before the galaxy had turned into a festering cesspool.
Danielle looked down at the incapacitated guard and shook her head as her uncle hopped back out of the ship and joined her.
“You should really keep a better hold on him,” José said stooping down to check the guard’s pulse.
Aside from the shared heritage the Pääom classified as “Latin-x”—brown eyes, black hair, brown skin—there wasn’t much in the way of a familial resemblance between them. Not anymore. José wore his scars on the outside, while she wore hers within. The last name Cholla had brought different tortures on both of them.
The jagged mark that slashed across his face and pulled one eye downward was something she would never get used to. It was another reminder of where they stood in the eyes of their benevolent government—convicts, traitors and thieves. Funny how they’d adapted to fit the labels they’d been given.
“You’re slipping again,” José said quietly from beside her. His warning glance reminded her the easiest way to let a panic attack in was to fall too far into her past.
“Thanks,” she said, stopping beside the guard and pulling apart his tool belt. There was nothing useful in it. His employers were too cheap.
Focusing on the present, she had to admit her uncle was right. As the ship’s medic, José had cleaned up more of Mopeña’s messes than Dani cared to count.
“He’s alive, for what it’s worth,” José said, standing and looking back at her with a tired frown. “That man needs boundaries.”
“You want to tell Mopeña he can’t protect Lyz, be my guest,” Dani snorted mirthlessly, and crouched down to take one of the guard’s arms. “I’ll keep my limbs intact. Besides, he’s only violent when she’s threatened… and with the state of the worlds today, that’s not a bad thing in my book. We both know he’s never gone so far as to actually kill someone.”
As José helped her move the guard away from the blast zone, Danielle risked another fleeting glance up the hull of the ship. She was so close… and yet the full atmosphere of the planet, and parsecs of unfriendly space stood between her and the payout that could put them all a gigantic leap toward retirement.
With the guard tucked away and José already disappeared inside, she couldn’t linger.
Blowing out a heavy breath—and the fickle hope that had filled her chest—she climbed inside and replaced the emotion with disgusting inhale of stale air. A shiver ran down her spine as an eerie prickle of déjà vu swept through her.
If her brother was still alive, he’d say the walls were painted in tragedy, the hatch hinges greased with sorrow. He’d been the creative soul of the family, Dani only had a poetic mind when it came to thinking of him.
She’d only known a few of the men and women who’d been lost with Oath Breaker in the war, but it was enough. Closing the hatch, she paused in the darkness forcing herself to stay present.
“It feels like I’m sealing us inside a crypt,” she said as she pulled out her coat and slid it on.
Lingering at the ladderway, José laughed. “It might have been a tomb for the abolitionists who set out with her fifteen years ago. It won’t be yours.”
He disappeared through the hatch and she listened as he climbed upward.
Her crew had studied the stolen schematics. Though the plans were nowhere near complete, they knew where they needed to be and they’d get there. She wouldn’t check on them. They’d see it as mothering and overbearing. Well, everyone but Stugg.
Rolling her eyes at the thought of her teenage engineer, she checked the seal again. His mood swings left her wondering whether she should buy him diapers and a pacifier, or a girly mag for his next birthday.
“If we live that long,” she muttered.
Stealing Oath Breaker would put a planet-sized bullseye on all their backs.
Passing the dormant lifts, she made her way to the hatch through which José had disappeared. The emergency ladderway was dimly lit from an open hatch far above. Her gaze traveled up the rungs into the darkness beyond that. Darkness was not her friend and it would be a long, lonely climb.
Wrestling her pen-light from the bag slung over her shoulder, she gripped it in her teeth and pulled herself up. She moved slowly, hand over hand, into the dark confines of the ship. It was a full ten decks from the lowest level to the bridge.
Each deck had a small platform, a ring around the ladderway that allowed a crewman to work the manual lock on the hatch for that deck, and—for the moment at least—provided Dani with a brief rest at deck five. The planet’s gravity was a hair above normal, otherwise the ten decks wouldn’t have been an issue. She looked over the manual lock and decided curiosity would have to wait. Why a ship at the height of technology for the time would rely on manual locks, she couldn’t guess.
When she got to deck one, she stowed her light in her coat pocket and shoved at the manual wheel lock. It moved effortlessly and the bars that secured it slid out of their bolt holes. Pushing through the opened hatch, the gentle clacking of fingers on a keyboard drifted through the corridor to her.
“Got everything up and ready for us, Lyz?” Dani asked as she stepped through the dim corridor following the band of emergency lighting toward the bridge. The deck plating was clear of debris as she turned to find her friend sitting at the main console, twirling a loose strand of her neon-red hair between her tattooed fingers as she studied a screen.
“There’s a leech on deck ten. A teensy one. It’s not like it’ll affect takeoff or anything, but it needs to be looked at nonetheless. I’m going to go hunt it down. I’ll report back when I find it.”
She paused at the hatch, hands on the jamb, and a bright smile on her face. “We did it Dani. You’ve been looking for her for so long and now we’re here!”
“Didn’t you have a leech to remove? Or do you plan on letting it drain this old girl dry?” Dani asked in a sarcastic grouse.
Nodding, Lyz saluted. “The computer shows a random alpha numeric code. That makes me nervous. There’s no point in losing power to some long-dead meckie’s miss-wired stereo.”
She disappeared and then popped back into view, her blue lips pulled up in a wide smile. “Who knows, maybe I’ll find the lost treasure of the Abolitionists down there! Mopeña is going to be pissed I went without him.” She looked down the corridor wistfully.
Dani smiled back at her. “We both know he’ll get over it.”
She sat in the captain’s chair and stretched as she absently wondered which quarters she’d assign her crew. They’d be spoiled for choice.
Flicking through the control commands, she made sure Lyz had gone through everything. With all of it seemingly in order, she took a moment to survey the bridge.
It would have been impressive fifteen years ago. She could imagine it gleaming and new. “Hell, who am I kidding.” It was damn impressive now, even as a relic.
She allowed herself a quick smile. With the Pääom searching for every last vestige of the Abolitionist cause, every last technological memory… she was about to unearth the ship that should have won the war for the now all-but-imprisoned resistance. She was freaking amazing.
Pulling a hand down her face, she saw the flaw in her plans. “I’m freaking insane.”
Standing, she swept her hands above her head toward the dark ceiling. They didn’t come close to touching metal. No other ship she’d captained through the black could boast that. But then, no other ship had been built specifically for a mountain of a man. Oath Breaker’s previous captain was rumored to be seven feet tall.
Danielle knew that was a myth because she’d known the man. He’d been six foot eight, though no less formidable.
Shaking her head, she looked back to the panels. The past was dead and gone and thinking about it only dredged up new problems—even if they were problems she could medicate.
The fifteen-year-old computer hummed and flickered, searching through an incomplete database. There were large chunks of data missing from the ship’s outdated logs, almost as if someone had set a worm to clean up any traces of Oath Breaker’s early dealings.
That wouldn’t surprise her.
“Nothing about this ship would surprise me.”
A trill echoed from the speakers when the computer finished its search, and Dani verified that all of the crew’s quarters were on decks three, eight and nine. But even these plans were incomplete. She’d have to take a walk to accurately assess the layout. Even with a skeleton crew, there were concessions to consider. Clashing personalities made for bad neighbors.
The pen-comm in her pocket chirped three times and she pulled it out, pressing the button that allowed transmission. It crackled to life before she got a chance to acknowledge.
“Dani, you’ve got to come see this!” Lyz frenzied tone sent a spike of dread through her, but it only lasted a moment. It wasn’t her well-known “panic voice,” and worrying got them nowhere.
“What is it?”
“I— I don’t know that I believe my eyes enough to risk saying it aloud. Seriously. You have got to come down here.”
Letting out an annoyed sigh, Dani tucked the pen-comm away and followed the long line of strip lights that illuminated the path to the ladderway. Decks two through seven were deathly silent and dark as a tomb. The hatches had all been opened by Goo, Dani's weapons specialist, who had done a quick sweep to check for any intergalactic hobos living on board. But Dani knew there’d be no vagrants. Oath Breaker had been shuttered for long term parking. Anyone who had the skill to get in wouldn’t hang around. Like her, they’d be headed for the fastest takeoff possible.
She reached deck ten again and glared at the hatches she’d ignored before. These holds were reserved mainly for cargo and anything else that was rarely needed during flight—including some personal effects.
Panic tugged at the back of her mind. Personal effects could hold difficult memories.
She’d known the job would be difficult. Spending this much time around something so closely connected to her past…. she’d be lucky if she made it out whole. But who needed to be whole or sane when you were rich?
Lugging open the heavy hatch, she shined her light in. It was swallowed by a blue glow and her heart shuddered in her chest.
There was no dust. This part of Oath Breaker had been hermetically sealed.
On the far wall a long line of light pierced through the darkness. The silence and the pale light of the LEDs sent an ugly slithering through her stomach. Every raised hair on the back of her neck said something was wrong. The space was chilly, it echoed… and mechanical noises high above gave her the impression of the tomb José had so recently assured her the ship was not.
A shadow passed in front of the lights and a flash of red pulled Danielle’s gaze to Lyz. The tech’s row of three eyebrow rings glimmered in the faint rays of Dani’s light. “It’s over here,” she said, waving as though she were marshalling a plane on the tarmac.
Switching off her light, Dani moved across the deck with slow, measured steps. “What is it?”
“It’s… well, it’s freaking amazing, that’s what it is,” Lyz said before Danielle could see what she was pointing at.
Beside the maintenance and housing units for the ship’s bulkhead scrubbers, stood devices that shouldn’t have been around fifteen years ago. The row of eight-foot tall, metal containers were connected to the walls with a tangle of cords and tubes larger in circumference than Danielle’s arm. The long line of capsules sent a cold slice of fear through her.
Their cylindrical bodies were the same tinted steel as the rest of the ship, and their plazglass fronts were clouded over with frost: cryonic storage tubes.
Three glowed dimly, signaling they were operational. The rest were dark, vacant.
“Who do you think is in there?” Lyz’s voice was full of the wonder Dani had come to love from the tech. It felt out of place with the dread roiling through her.
Cold air rolled off the units, giving Danielle an excuse for the shiver that made her pull her jacket more tightly around her.
“Did you check to see if there are any logs?” she asked, turning back to Lyz to distract herself. “A cryo-system this old has to have its own brain if it was able to override a full system shutdown to keep whoever’s in there alive.”
“It does, but the information’s entirely encrypted. I could hack it, but it would take a while…” Lyz studied her but didn’t comment on whatever she saw in Dani’s face. Instead, she patted the computer console like it was a dog. “And there’s a chance this bad boy has a self-destruct sequence that would kill our guests if I messed with it.”
Dani doubted that, but she didn’t argue. She took a long look at the gangplank scaffolding that ran in front of the raised tubes before grabbing a hold of the handrail and shaking it. “I’m not sure this thing is stable.”
Lyz glanced from her to it. “Luckily, it’ll only be a short fall.”
She stepped up to one of the operational capsules, raising her hand to wipe away the frost. Pausing, her fingers hovering over the plazglass and she silently hoped she wouldn’t come face to face with the mummified corpse of whoever was shut inside.
Dani used her coat sleeve to wipe away the melting frost that clung to it. A mean looking woman Dani didn’t recognize stared back at her.
The only thing Dani knew was that the two, thin, white bars on her shoulder indicated she’d been a lieutenant for the Abolitionists. Dani didn’t want to be the one to tell her they’d lost.
The next tube held a man whose head was lolled to the side, as if he’d been improperly placed in the tube. His shoulder told Dani he was a lieutenant commander, three bars, the middle thinner than the others, and silver. They were both relics of a long-dead authority and she had no intention of letting them out to question her methods. She’d remove them before delivering the ship, but not until they were safely away from here.
“Anything special?” Lyz called from the console, making her flinch.
“Just some soldier popsicles in the first two.”
“Are they cute?”
“Your standards or mine?”
She glanced at both of the frosty soldiers. “I wouldn’t do either of them, but they’re cute enough. She looks mean, I think I like her.”
Lyz laughed and Dani swallowed her own nervous chuckle. Not even a moment’s joking could save her from the ugly fear welling toward her throat.
She scraped away a line of frost with her sleeve and stared in at the dark lips she’d uncovered. Her heart stopped and panic-fueled tears began to well in her eyes.
Suddenly unable to control her breathing, she hurriedly scraped away the icy layer. The man in stasis…. He was very much alive.
“I’m hallucinating.” That made more sense. “When you want something badly enough… the universe will trick you into thinking you’ve gotten it.”
But she wasn’t hallucinating.
His face, slack and unmoving in the harsh lights of the tube, sent her stomach into a quick succession of flips. The prickling of her skin had nothing to do with the temperature.