A New Star Guardians Novel, Ariston, Is Available (preview chapters here!)

Posted by on October 21st, 2017 in Excerpts / Freebies, News | 1 Comment

Hello, science fiction romance fans!

I wasn’t sure if I would write another Star Guardians adventure right after finishing up the five-book series, but I had an idea for another one, and you know how these things go. Ariston is now available. Here are the blurb, the links, and the first couple of chapters for you to check out.

Pick up Ariston right now: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AUS

Blurb

It’s been two years since delegates from the Confederation visited our solar system, pointing out a wormhole that leads into the rest of the galaxy. Former Marine Michelle “Mick” Saunders was one of the first people from Earth to acquire a spaceship and venture out among the stars. Still haunted by the devastating event that prompted her to leave the military, she’s led a lonely life of late, and longs to find something greater out there. 

But for now, she has a spaceship to pay off, so her longings must be set aside. When an Earth corporation wants to send a team of researchers to a uninhabited planet full of ancient human ruins, she accepts the job of transporting them. Little does she know that someone else has a claim on the planet, and that there’s a reason it isn’t inhabited anymore. 

When Mick runs into a Star Guardian, one of the fierce warriors that enforce Confederation laws, she realizes she should have asked more questions before accepting the mission. A lot more questions. Even though the hunky Ariston is someone she would rather date than fight, he doesn’t look like one to be swayed from his duty by a flirty smile. Instead, he’s determined to arrest her. 

Ariston, a Star Guardian placed under cover on a salvage ship suspected of illegal activities, hasn’t known contentment since he lost his wife years ago. But he’s not looking for anyone new. Especially now. He has evidence to gather and a rogue crew to turn in. There’s no time for distractions, definitely not in the form of an Earth woman trespassing on a protected planet. 

But Mick, a fighter and a beauty, intrigues him. Despite his certainty that he shouldn’t get involved, he finds himself wanting to protect her from the dangers of the ruins, as well as the salvage crew plotting to capture her vessel. His mission would have been daunting even without extra complications, but now, he must choose between his duty and the woman rousing feelings within him for the first time in years.

And how about a nice long excerpt? This is longer than the other novels in the series, so I’ll put up the first few chapters here. Thanks for taking a look!

Ariston: Excerpt

Chapter 1

Michelle “Mick” Saunders wiped her hands on her jeans before returning them to the flight stick and thruster controls. A holographic navigation display directed her toward a ruins site on the largest of the drab, orange-brown continents below. The system’s huge sun burned in the distance, the rim of the fiery orange ball peeking over the edge of the planet.

The autopilot flashed an alert in a language Mick could barely read.

“No, I don’t want any help,” she grumbled at it. “We Earthlings like to do things ourselves.”

Another alert flashed. Supposedly, this ship didn’t have an artificial intelligence the way most of the newer ones did, but she was fairly certain the autopilot was calling her a moron. If she’d had a free hand, she would have given it the finger.

But was it possible the computer sensed her unease and had a reason to be concerned?

Mick had spent two hundred hours on a flight simulator before acquiring the Viper, a quad-winged hunter-class ship that had been state-of-the-art… fifty years ago. Since she’d acquired the ship, she’d done test runs with her sister Katie, a professional pilot training to join the space fleet. So, she wasn’t completely unexperienced. She’d brought the ship in for landings on three different planets so far. But those had all been very civilized, very high-tech planets with air traffic controllers to guide her down. Medical robots were always on stand-by at the space bases in case one screwed up a landing.

Here, there was nothing. Not a human being or even a sentient alien living on the surface, nor in the entire system.

“No reason to be worried,” Mick said.

The door at the rear of the two-person cockpit slid open with a whisper.

Mick leaned back in the pilot’s seat, putting on her most confident and unworried expression. She didn’t need a boatload of hysterical scientists back there.

“Is it all right if I come up here for the landing?” a woman’s cheerful voice asked. Since there was only one other woman on the ship, Mick knew it was Dev, short for Dr. Devyani Bakshi, without looking back. “This is so exciting. Landing on another planet in another star system. It’s like science fiction!”

Mick grunted and lifted a hand from the controls, intending to wave her back out the door and tell her to lock it on the way out. The last thing she needed was a witness in case she got nervous and freaked out during the landing.

But Dev, one of the only scientists who didn’t insist that Mick call her Doctor so-and-so, slid into the co-pilot’s seat too quickly. She fastened the harness, then leaned forward as much as it would allow, gazing avidly at the view screen that spread across the front of the cockpit.

Mick sighed and grabbed a couple of the chocolate-covered espresso beans she’d taken from her stash and lined up on the console. She had better finish them off so they didn’t go flying during the landing.

The brown planet grew closer and closer on the view screen. Dev looked like a kid at an IMAX movie, and in truth, she could have passed for a college student. She had a young face, wore a baggy sweatshirt, and had her black hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Mick figured she had to be at least thirty to have a Ph.D. and to have been a NASA research scientist contender, but maybe she was even older. Mick sucked at discerning ages of Indian and Asian people.

“Were you able to locate the ruins?” Dev asked.

“Yes.” Mick waved toward the navigation display. “Piece of cake. There’s nothing else down there on the planet. And I mean nothing. You people are nuts to think this looks like a good place to colonize.”

Dev grinned. “Hey, I’m just a scientist who was hired for the initial analysis, not someone looking to buy waterfront property down there.”

Right, the US corporation Umbra Inc. had hired Mick too. Convincing her to take a break from her new galactic bounty-hunting career to ferry scientists around. Not that Mick had objected. Having realized flying solo between the stars was much lonelier than expected, she’d jumped at the chance to have company.

It hadn’t hurt that the money Umbra offered had been ridiculously good. Even if it was in dollars, and two years after first contact, the financial pundits of the Dethocolean Confederation were still deciding how those should be rated on the galactic exchange. Mick would find a way to convert the money and use it to pay off her debt so she would own the Viper free and clear.

“Technically,” Dev went on, “there’s not nothing. The oceans are full of bacteria and algae and creatures not dissimilar to fish. There are small lizard-like creatures on land, and the surface is covered in fungi.”

“Fungi, you say? Well, that changes everything. I’ll arm wrestle you for that waterfront property.”

“There’ll be enough to go around.”

“Assuming people want to deal with a planet that’s haunted and makes people crazy,” Mick said, eyeing Dev for a reaction.

So far, her scientist passengers had scoffed mightily at the legends surrounding the planet, but Mick, who had been out in the galaxy for over a year now, knew that the human Confederation stretched across more than twenty planets and dozens of space stations in different star systems, all linked via a network of wormhole gates. She knew how advanced other humans were, and she figured there was a good reason nobody else had colonized this system. If she was honest with herself, the rumors were a part of the reason she was nervous about this landing.

“I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for that,” Dev said, not fazed. “And we’ll find it. We brought plenty of equipment.”

“Tell me about it,” Mick muttered.

The cargo bay and the four detainment cells in the back were stuffed with the scientists’ equipment, gear for running experiments and also setting up a lab and a self-contained shelter that could sustain them for three months.

An alarm beeped, and Mick turned her attention back to the controls and displays, looking first at the external temperature. Was the hull heating up too much as they crossed into the atmosphere? More than the shields could handle? Did she need to adjust the angle of their descent?

But the hull temperature was within the acceptable range. It was the sensor panel that was beeping at her.

As soon as she’d headed off on her first bounty-hunting gig, Mick had set the sensitivity level to high and to report on everything going on around the Viper, near and far. It drove her nuts in the more populated systems that were full of ship activity, but she wanted to know if anyone was sneaking up on her. She’d made enemies during her brief bounty-hunting career back on Earth, and she had no delusions about things being different in the rest of the galaxy. Sometimes, she missed being in the Marines more than she would admit.

“What is it?” Dev asked.

“Could be another ship.” Mick waved a hand over the sensor panel, bringing up another holographic display. It and the navigation display adjusted automatically so they didn’t overlap.

One of the two wormhole gates came into view, represented by tiny silver blips at the outer edge of the system. As she’d suspected, a white blip also showed up, a ship.

“Is that unusual?” Dev asked.

“It’s probably just passing through the system and heading to the gate on the other side.” Mick pointed to where it would be, even though it was off the side of the display. “From what I’ve heard, nobody comes to this planet.”

“That’s why it’s a perfect candidate for colonization,” Dev said brightly. “It’s uninhabited by humans or sentient aliens, and it’s only two wormholes away from Earth.”

“Don’t forget the draw of the fungi.”

“I’m not,” Dev said, apparently missing Mick’s sarcasm. “Thanks to the bacteria, algae, and fungi, the atmosphere is oxygen-rich and perfect for humans. And it’s located in the Goldilocks Zone around its sun. It’s almost like Earth was five hundred million years ago. It’ll be so fascinating to study.”

Mick considered making another comment about the planet supposedly being haunted, but they were descending rapidly through the atmosphere now, and she needed to focus on that. She did spare a glance toward the sensor display, and jerked in surprise.

Not only was that other ship not heading toward the opposite gate, but a second one had come through behind it.

Mick shifted uneasily in her seat. It was too soon to tell, but both ships seemed to be heading for Mustikos, the same planet the Viper was about to land on.

A shudder coursed through the ship.

Mick’s heart lurched until she realized it was turbulence. They had descended far enough to be affected by the planet’s wind and air currents.

“I just hope the volcanic activity won’t be too much of a problem,” Dev continued, looking at the view screen instead of the sensors. “The brief scans we’ve done of the planet since entering the system—and thank you for allocating some of your ship’s resources for that—show that the mountain chain that’s rife with volcanos appears to be in a period of dormancy. We’re all well aware, however, that a mega volcanic eruption is the likely reason the original human colony didn’t make it. Dr. Lee should be able to use carbon dating to verify that once we reach the ruins. Our dating systems should work here since—”

“Dev,” Mick interrupted. “Save it for after we’ve landed, all right?”

And for someone who cared about carbon dating, Mick added silently.

“Oh, sorry.”

Mick forced her grip on the flight stick to loosen. Gripping it like a hand brake on a vehicle careening out of control down a hill wouldn’t do any good. She had to relax. It was just a little wind. Pilots on Earth dealt with wind all the time.

A fierce gust battered the side of the ship. The wings wobbled, fighting Mick’s efforts to steady them. And her efforts to relax herself.

Maybe she should have brought Katie along for this. Her sister liked flying in crazy conditions. Mick had teased her when they’d been young because Katie had chosen the Navy to enlist in while Mick had chosen the Marines, which she’d thought a much more challenging route to take, but Katie had spent her military career landing jets on aircraft carriers during all manner of insane weather conditions. That took guts. Mick couldn’t argue with that.

Dev managed to keep quiet for almost two whole minutes before frowning at the sensor display and saying, “Are you sure that ship—and is that a second one?—is going to the other gate?”

“No, I’m not.” Mick grimaced as she manipulated the stick, trying to go with the winds instead of fighting them.

“They look like they’re heading toward this planet.” Dev tugged on her ponytail. “I thought nobody came here.”

“Maybe another corporation is trying to beat yours to the punch.”

Dev threw her a startled look.

“I’m joking.” Mick wiped away a bead of sweat trickling down her temple. “If they came from Earth, they could have come through the other gate, the same way we did.”

“It seems unlikely someone from another planet decided to study this planet for potential colonization at the same time we did,” Dev mused as Mick struggled with the turbulence, wishing she’d chosen another angle to come in on rather than diving directly down from the atmosphere. “The Dethocoleans have had space flight for centuries, right?”

“That’s what I’ve heard.” Mick found it odd that she was the expert on the galaxy simply because she’d been out here for longer than most people from Earth.

Her sister, who had originally been kidnapped by slavers, had been among the first to learn that humans taken from Earth more than two thousand years earlier now lived and thrived on planets all over the Milky Way. Mick had only come out after hearing about the opportunities from Katie, who hadn’t stayed kidnapped for long.

“And they’re the only ones colonizing other planets, right?” Dev asked.

“I think so. They were the first to achieve space flight. A lot of the other human planets are still largely pre-agrarian.”

“It’s odd to think that humans taken from our world achieved space flight before we did.”

The ship jerked up violently. Mick would have been hurled from her seat if not for her harness. Then they plummeted.

“Shit,” she snarled, kicking more power to the thrusters, trying to get them out of this awful turbulence.

It wasn’t even stormy out, not visibly. The sky had a hazy orange hue that reminded her of wildfire season back in Arizona, but there were neither clouds nor smoke out there. All of this was due to invisible wind currents.

“There,” she muttered, settling them into a calmer descent again.

Dev gripped the console, her face impressively pale for someone with brown skin.

The cockpit door slid open again, the scent of freshly brewed coffee wafting in. Was that Safin with his espresso maker again? He seemed to think he was as much a barista as a meteorologist.

“Is there a problem up here?” Dr. Kwon Lee asked, sticking his head in.

Mick would have preferred Safin.

“Turbulence,” Mick said without looking back. “Sit down, buckle your belt, stow your tray table, and return your seat back to the upright position.”

“Ha ha.” Lee sounded about as amused as a comet melting on a close pass to the sun.

“We’re landing in five minutes,” Mick said, wishing she had a flight attendant to act as an intermediary—her cerebral passengers had been harassing her for the entire seven-day voyage, making her miss her periods of loneliness.

Another shudder jolted the ship.

“This is intolerable,” Lee grumbled.

“Sit your ass down, Lee,” Mick said, “and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to be up.”

Dr. Lee,” he said stiffly.

Mick slapped the door button on the console, and it slid shut in his face. She hit it again to activate the lock.

Dev snorted.

“I know you Ph.D. types are all technically doctors, but I really think that title should be reserved for someone who can remove my appendix.”

“Dr. Lee is a biological anthropologist as well as an archaeologist,” Dev said. “I believe, technically, he could remove your appendix.”

“Would I survive the operation?”

“Mm, likely not. He’s really more into dead people.”

“Shocking. Five thousand feet to go.” Mick wiped her brow again. The air had settled, and for that she was grateful. She needed to concentrate on finding a landing spot, and that was hard to do when they were being rattled around like ice in a martini shaker.

A boulder-strewn landscape stretched below them with the ocean a dozen miles to the left. The navigation display showed where the ruins were, but Mick couldn’t see them on the view screen yet. If this civilization had lived and died two thousand years ago, she imagined the site being relatively small and worn down.

She tilted the wings, veering a few degrees to the side, and the first proof that humans had been here came into sight. A pyramid with stair-stepped sides.

Mick cocked an eyebrow. It wasn’t as large as the Great Pyramid, which she’d been fortunate enough to see when deployed to the Middle East, but she wondered if the humans that had been seeded here had come from the region. Or maybe from Mexico. Hadn’t some of the Mesoamerican societies built pyramids with the staggered sides?

“Those ships are traveling faster than we did,” Dev observed, watching the sensor display as well as the view screen.

Considering how excited she had been about landing when she first sat down, Mick found it odd that she was so worried about two other ships in the system. Did she know something that Mick didn’t? Was it possible another corporation had sent some competition?

As far as Mick had been told, this mission had been okayed by the United States government, but Umbra was handling everything. The scientists on this mission were all people who had applied to join the NASA program at some point, and some of them had even gone through astronaut training, but none had been accepted. Apparently, they’d all jumped at the chance to go on a mission for Umbra. The world governments were getting expeditions together to explore the galaxy, but corporations could and were moving much faster.

“Should we hail them or whatever they do on Star Trek?” Dev asked.

“I didn’t know they had Star Trek in India.”

Dev smiled faintly, though she still looked worried. “Star Trek is everywhere. But even if it wasn’t, I’ve been in the US since I was sixteen, so I’ve had plenty of time to come across it. Star Trek: Enterprise with Scott Bakula was popular with the girls in my dorm at Oregon State.”

“Because it was good?” Mick couldn’t remember seeing any of the spinoff series.

“Because Scott Bakula was good, I believe.”

“Good or good-looking?”

“Yes.” Dev grinned.

“There’s the communications panel if you want to talk to those ships, though I suggest we mind our business and hope they mind theirs.”

Dev considered the comm panel, lifting her hand toward it, but then letting it hover.

“Did you say Oregon State?” Mick asked as she flew around the pyramid, looking for a promising spot to land amid boulders that littered the dusty earth like marbles spilled from a bag. “I thought all you NASA-aspiring science people went to MIT and schools like that.”

“My Ph.D. is in soil science. You have to go to a school with an agronomical track for that.”

Dev let her hand settle back onto her lap.

Mick thought she might not know how to use the comm station, but she’d given her passengers a tour of the ship when they’d first boarded back in Houston, and almost everything was labeled. She and Katie had gone over the entire ship, translating the technical manuals and outputs from Dethocolean—a language that had its origins in Ancient Greek—to English.

“Is there a lot of interesting soil in Oregon?” Mick saw a spot between the pyramid and the remains of the stone walls of a town, and she guided them down.

“Oh, it’s quite lovely. Did you know there’s a giant Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon’s Blue Mountains that covers more than twenty-three hundred acres and is estimated to be between twenty-four hundred and eight thousand years old?”

Amarillo-what?

“Nah, I didn’t see that mentioned in the tourism brochures when I visited,” Mick said.

“It’s all one organism, a single honey mushroom.”

Well, that explained Dev’s interest in coming to a fungus planet.

As Mick tried to settle them onto her chosen landing spot, an alarm beeped, informing her that a boulder on the edge of her potential pad was too large. Even with the landing struts extended, the belly of the ship would hit it.

She grumbled to herself, not sure why it mattered. So what if there was a two-degree tilt to the deck? She was just dropping these people off, helping them unload their gear, making sure they wouldn’t die here, and then leaving until it was time to pick them up.

But the alarm beeped insistently when she tried to ignore it, and a vibration went through the flight stick in warning.

“It’s as bad as those cars that bitch at you if your tires kiss the white line,” Mick muttered.

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.”

Someone knocked at the locked door.

“Sit down. We’re not on the ground yet,” Mick yelled over her shoulder. She tried moving the Viper, but the damn boulders were everywhere. “Hang on.”

She took the ship up a few feet, flipped open a panel to reveal the weapons controls, and targeted the most vexing boulder.

“What are you doing?” Dev asked.

Mick fired, blowing the rock into a thousand pieces. “Clearing the runway.”

Dev offered a lopsided smile. “You wouldn’t have been selected for one of NASA’s planetary protection officer openings.”

“Darn.”

Mick extended the landing struts and settled them firmly—and evenly—onto the ground. She slumped back in her seat, releasing a long, relieved breath. She hadn’t realized how tense she’d been.

Too bad she didn’t have anyone around who could massage her shoulders. It had been almost a year since she’d broken up with Dave, and he’d sucked at massages, anyway. Unfortunately, there weren’t any prospects among her passengers, either. Most of the scientists were on the white and nerdy side—even the non-white ones—and she preferred bulging biceps and six packs. Dr. Cecil Woodruff was the exception, being nicely muscled and not as geeky as the others, but Mick had caught Dev looking at him with puppy-dog eyes.

A beep came from the console.

“Now what?” Mick straightened in her seat.

The blips that represented those two ships flashed. She bared her teeth at them. They were in the atmosphere now, heading down to the planet. Maybe to this very continent.

Mick poked a finger at the closest blip, hoping the sensors could share more information, especially on whether it belonged to other humans or to one of the space-faring alien species in the galaxy.

“That’s a human ship,” she said, reading what popped up. “Out of Kukulcani.”

“That’s the planet that sent a lot of criminals into space and made the Dethocoleans regret inviting it into the Confederation, isn’t it?” Dev asked.

Mick looked at her. “You’ve done your homework, haven’t you?”

“Even people who graduate from schools other than MIT know how to open books.”

Mick snorted. She hadn’t meant to imply there was anything wrong with Oregon State. She hadn’t even graduated college, so who was she to judge?

“There are books on the Confederation and the humans of the galaxy?” Mick shifted her attention back to the display—the second ship was flying extremely close to the first ship now. That was surprising. Why would they crowd each other if they were coming in to land? As Mick could attest, the landings here were already challenging. “Two years ago, nobody on Earth knew they existed.”

“There are non-fiction and fiction bestsellers all over the charts now and a slew of wildly fanciful self-published e-books.”

“Huh. I—” Mick broke off, her mouth dangling open as the sensor display changed. “The second ship is firing at the first ship.”

“Where’s it from?”

“Our information on it says… Dethocoles.”

“Oh, is it a Star Guardian ship?” Dev asked. “I’ve heard about them. Maybe they’re nobly and valiantly pursuing criminals.”

“This says it’s a salvage ship.”

“Do salvage ships usually have weapons?”

“This one does. Big ones. And it’s a huge ship. Huge and armored.” Mick thought about how quickly both ships had flown to the planet after coming through the gate, and how quickly the second had overtaken the first. “And fast. I wouldn’t want to mess with it.”

She tapped the view screen controls, shifting the focus to the battle in the sky above. She had to zoom in, but the ships came into view.

The smaller craft, which looked like it could support a crew of six or eight, zigzagged and looped, trying desperately to avoid fire. But smoke already billowed from one of its thrusters on its port side.

The salvage ship pummeled it mercilessly, firing en-bolts as well as what appeared to be shell weapons out of rotating turrets on the top and bottom of the craft. As Mick watched, torpedoes sped away from the tubes on the front end of the large, rectangular craft.

“What kind of salvage ship has that many weapons?” she asked. “Space fleet dreadnoughts aren’t that well equipped.”

“Maybe it destroys ships and then salvages them,” Dev said.

“I’ll admit the galaxy has an Old West feel to it once you get out of the Confederation systems, but that can’t be legal.”

“Who would there be to enforce laws in systems with no inhabitants?”

“The Confederation has a pretty long reach.”

“Mm.”

Something about that noncommittal syllable made Mick look over at Dev.

For the first time, Mick wondered if Umbra had asked for permission from the Confederation to come out and explore Mustikos. Was that something that was required? She wasn’t sure. But just because there weren’t any inhabitants didn’t mean someone hadn’t already claimed the planet.

The torpedoes landed, catching the smaller ship square in the ass. A fiery explosion appeared far above. The ship’s evasive maneuvers ended abruptly, and it turned into the equivalent of a boulder falling out of the sky—a flaming boulder.

“Shit,” Mick said, glancing at the navigation display as a warning flashed on it. “It’s coming straight toward us.”

 

Chapter 2

Ariston of Dethocoles strode down the dark gray metal-and-rivets corridor of the Pleasant Journey, a hulking salvage ship out of Speka on his home world. The name was about as apropos as a four-hundred-pound snarling svenkar called Li’l Miss, but it was probably the reason neither the planetary police nor the Star Guardians had batted an eye at the fact that the ship had enough weapons to demolish a small moon.

Until now.

Before Ariston reached the bridge, two men turned around a corner at an intersection ahead of him. Drak and Makk, brothers and crewmates with the personalities of sledgehammers and the looks to match. Their dark eyes lit up when they saw Ariston, and they exchanged looks with each other, looks that promised trouble.

Ariston didn’t let his expression change, but inwardly, he sighed. He’d expected this since Captain Draco had promoted him to second-in-command of engineering.

“Whatcha doing, Ston?” Drak asked as he and his brother strolled forward, shaking out their arms for a fight.

The way Drak emphasized the name Ariston had given the captain when he signed on made him hesitate. These two mental giants couldn’t have figured out who he was, could they?

“Reporting to my duty station,” Ariston said, meeting their eyes fearlessly. “As you two should be doing.”

“Your duty station on the bridge? Kissing the captain’s ass?”

“Nah,” Makk said, “he must be sucking the captain’s cock. You don’t get paid a double-share for kisses.”

They shared smirks, but there was no humor in their eyes. Ariston could see them seething under their thuggish exteriors, resenting that he’d been on board six weeks and was making more than they were after however long they’d been part of the crew. Years, likely.

“Do your jobs instead of whining in the corridors, and maybe you’ll get more of a share too,” Ariston said, flexing his shoulders as he approached them.

He knew from past experience that diplomacy would be wasted on them. Besides, he always struggled to keep his commander’s don’t-give-me-shit-you-lower-ranking-slug tone out of his voice. After all, he’d been a space fleet and then a Star Guardian engineering chief for a lot longer than he’d been working undercover.

His wife, who’d been even tougher than he, would have known how to deal with these idiots without resorting to blows. After more than four years, he still missed her. Her death had left a sucking black hole in his life.

“We do our jobs,” Drak said. “We just don’t suck dick while we do it.”

“And we can’t kiss ass as well as you because we haven’t made buddies with the first officer and can’t talk to him and the captain about the good old days in the fleet.”

Ariston would push by them if he could. Even though they stood shoulder to shoulder and made it clear they didn’t intend to let him pass, he might barrel through if they reacted slowly. At six feet tall, Ariston wasn’t a towering man, but he had broad, powerful shoulders and a muscled physique, despite being north of forty now. His job, his real job, demanded superior physical fitness.

Makk turned and reached for him as Ariston tried to push past. Though he had hoped to get by without a skirmish, Ariston was prepared.

He lashed out like a whip, catching Makk’s wrist in a lock. He twisted it under the man’s arm, spun him, and yanked it up behind his back.

Drak tried to stop him by throwing a punch, but Ariston ducked it while completing his maneuver, then shifted his weight and slammed a side kick into Drak’s solar plexus. The thug stumbled back to the bulkhead, eyes widening when he tried to gasp for air and his stunned lungs couldn’t grab any.

Knowing it wouldn’t take him long to recover, Ariston jammed Makk’s face into the opposite bulkhead hard enough to smash his nose. These thugs didn’t respond to threats. Only pain. He yanked up higher on Makk’s arm, and the man screamed, a mixture of sheer pain and a mangled curse toward Ariston and his ancestors.

As Ariston opened his mouth to ask if they were going to have more trouble, he saw Drak out of the corner of his eye, recovered enough to renew his attack. He sprang toward Ariston, fingers groping for his neck.

Without releasing Makk, Ariston slammed another kick into Drak, aiming lower this time.

Drak cried out, grabbing his groin and crumpling to the deck. He joined his brother in cursing Ariston’s ancestors.

Ariston grew aware of someone else stepping into the intersection a second before an irritated voice snapped, “Didn’t you idiots hear the comm? Get to your battle stations before I space all three of you.”

“Shit.” Drak leaped to his feet, still grabbing his groin, and scurried down the corridor in the opposite direction.

Ariston released Makk, and the man also bolted, shaking out his wrist as he ran.

Ariston turned toward the speaker, Captain Eryx. The white-haired man wore a perpetual scowl, and he had a tendency to flex and loosen the gloved fingers of his bionic arm. The men speculated about that arm, as to whether it appeared human or machine underneath his sleeve and glove, but apparently, nobody had ever seen it. Ariston had seen some of the seat backs and consoles the man had crushed with it when irked. As the ship’s new assistant engineer, he got tasked with fixing such things.

“You men can handle your problems however you see fit,” Eryx said, spearing Ariston with his steel-eyed gaze, “but not when we’re heading into battle.”

“You didn’t mention battles when you called us to our duty stations,” Ariston pointed out, not flinching from the gaze. His first instinct had been to utter a meek yes, sir, but he’d learned early on that Eryx didn’t care for what he called “spineless suck-ups.” He seemed to prefer people who spoke their minds—while obeying him.

“I don’t explain myself to the entire crew over the comm,” Eryx growled before spinning and stalking toward the bridge. “What’d you think we were doing in this gods’ forsaken system?”

“Salvaging a ship.”

Eryx smirked over his shoulder. “And so we are. Maybe two. This system was unexpectedly busy when we came out of the gate. You may get to buy yourself a new set of combat armor with your double share of this salvage gig, so you’re not walking around in that dented fleet suit you stole off who knows what dead soldier.”

Ariston walked after him without defending the piecemeal armor he’d shown up with, a set he’d assembled from his old gear, mixing and matching the parts to make it appear like the suit had been scrounged. None of the pieces were dented. What kind of engineer would let himself walk around in dented equipment?

Not important, he told his wandering mind, snorting at the indignation that had arisen. As if what Eryx thought mattered.

He was here to catch these people breaking the law, and he had a feeling he was about to get his chance. That was what he needed to be focused on.

As Ariston walked onto the bridge, the captain barked, “Status report.”

“They’re trying to evade us,” the helmsman said, “but we’re not having any trouble tagging them. They fired back, but our shields are still at one hundred percent. They’d do more damage spitting at us.” The man snickered.

Ariston rubbed his chest, thumbing on a camera integrated into one of his shirt’s fasteners. He took careful note of the helmsman, the captain, and the other bridge crewmen, then turned so it would record the view screen. It showed a passenger ship ahead of them, smoke coming from its thrusters as it spiraled down toward the desolate brown planet below.

“That a Kukulcani cruiser?” Ariston asked, though he wouldn’t be surprised if the captain berated him for speaking—and for standing in the middle of the bridge instead of at the engineering station.

“That’s a Kukulcani bastard ship full of relic thieves,” Eryx growled. “We’re catching them before they loot the ruins down there.”

“I wasn’t aware that Mustikos’s ruins had anything worth looting.”

“There’s a new rumor going around that scans from a science vessel mapping the system with upgraded equipment caught signs of ancient Wanderer tech down there. It figures that Kukulcani scum would be the first ones here to loot.” Eryx truly seemed indignant at the idea of thieving, even as he ordered his weapons officer to keep firing to destroy the unsuspecting ship.

Ariston’s jaw clenched as he recorded the event, though he wanted nothing more than to leap at the weapons officer and stop him. And to club Eryx in the gut on the way past.

This, he reminded himself, was exactly what he’d been waiting for. Rumors had said Eryx was destroying ships in backwater systems with no witnesses around, killing the crews, scrapping their vessels, and selling the parts on the black market. So far, Ariston had been on three completely legitimate salvage missions, funded by insurance companies wanting the remains of wrecked ships. He had begun to believe that the Pleasant Journey, no matter how heavily armed and how brutish its crew, was part of a legitimate business, despite what the rumors said. Now, as smoke wafted out of the ship ahead, Ariston had evidence to the contrary, the evidence he’d been sent out here to get.

“You have a problem with this?” Eryx asked softly, his eyes narrowing.

Lost in his pondering, Ariston hadn’t noticed the captain looking at him. He did his best to wipe his feelings off his face.

“No problem with taking down relic thieves,” Ariston said. “Just wasn’t expecting life on a salvage ship to be so exciting.”

“No? You look like a man who seeks out excitement.” Eryx waved at him, or maybe at his physique.

Actually, he was a man who’d been contemplating retirement. Forty-three was young for it, but space adventures had lost a lot of their appeal since Zya had died. He just had no idea what else he would do with himself.

“Not anymore,” he said quietly.

“Well, I need you to salvage that wreck as soon as we get it pulled into the bay. You can make it as unexciting as you want, but I want anything valuable beaten into shape.”

“What if there are survivors?”

“Shoot them.”

Ariston arched his eyebrows.

“They’re criminals,” Eryx said fiercely. “Thieves. They chose to live by this life, and they’ll accept the consequences and die by this life. I’ll come down there and do it myself if you don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Criminals should be tried in courts by judges. They’ll—”

“Give them a couple of licks with the lash and let them go back to their planet to be punished by their own government. Which will never happen. They’ll get away with it all and go back to thieving. And killing. Those people kill to cover their tracks. Don’t tell me they don’t.”

“As we’re doing to ensure nobody finds out that you’re destroying a ship so that you can salvage it?” Ariston shouldn’t pick a fight with the captain, especially when it might blow his cover. But it was hard to keep his mouth shut about ships being shot down and their crews murdered. No matter who they were.

“A little profit to keep our outfit operating,” Eryx said. “That’s all. We only kill those who deserve to be killed. Most of the time, their ships have been stolen so many times that we couldn’t find the legal owner to send ’em back to anyway. You stick with us, and you’ll see, Ston. We’re fighting for justice, justice the government is too wishy washy to mete out on their own.”

“Sir?” the helmsman asked, an uncertain note to his voice. “They fell too fast, and the atmosphere has been tricky to navigate. I didn’t get a tow beam on them.”

“Meaning they’re going to crash?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I—”

Eryx interrupted him with a disgusted noise. “You’ll go on the away team to pick up the pieces. Damn it.” He pounded a fist against his thigh. “There won’t be much to salvage from a ship crashing from forty thousand feet.”

Ariston tamped down a smile, pleased the captain would lose out on some of the money he’d thought he would earn from this stunt. Also pleased that he’d recorded enough at this point to condemn Eryx in front of Confederation judges.

The challenging part would be getting Eryx to court to be tried. Ariston was all alone out here, and the Journey had a crew of over fifty.

“There is that second ship,” the helmsman said. “It didn’t crash. It landed down there. Next to some pyramid.”

“So, it’s fully intact?” the captain asked, his tone switching from irritation to contemplation.

“Yes, sir. I see life signs… crew of seven or eight, it looks like.”

Ariston shifted his weight, a stone of unease settling into his stomach. Would Eryx send his away team out there to kill the people in this other ship? To murder them as surely as he’d done with the first ship?

“More relic thieves?” Eryx stroked his white beard.

“It’s a ship of Dethocolean origins,” the helmsman said, peering over at a sensor reading.

Still recording, Ariston watched Eryx carefully.

“An old hunter ship,” the helmsman added. “Almost as fast as us and maybe more maneuverable—when they’re in the air. Those ships have a lot of hidden nooks inside. They’re favored by smugglers. Pirates and bounty hunters too.”

“All the more likely it’s another group of relic thieves,” Eryx said. “According to the Confederation, the ruins of Mustikos are off limits to all but sanctioned research teams. Which means these people are here illegally. Which means…” A wolfish smile stretched across Eryx’s face. “Nobody’s going to miss them. Prepare two shuttles to go down.”

“Isn’t this planet haunted?” The helmsman shared an uneasy glance with the weapons officer.

“Stories, nothing more. Even if they’re true, we’re not staying long enough for it to matter.” Eryx turned toward the weapons officer, a quiet, bloodthirsty man who was a lot more dangerous than the brothers Ariston had faced. “Get two teams together, Arrow. Ston, get your tools. You’re going. I want the wreck searched and anything valuable that survived the crash brought on board. And then I want that other ship brought into Bay Three. We’ll take it apart piece by piece and sell it.”

“Do we kill the survivors?” Arrow asked, his expression dispassionate, as if he were asking about the weather. “And the crew of the other ship?”

“Leave no witnesses,” Eryx said. “I’m not going to have some thieving criminals showing up on Dethocoles to whine about us to the archons, to tell them we didn’t follow proper protocols when arresting them. We’re not some uptight, cock-sucking Star Guardians.”

Ariston jerked, clenching a fist at the insult to his agency, just as Eryx turned toward him, his eyes narrowing again.

“You have any problem with that, assistant engineer?”

“Not if we’re sure they’re criminals.” Ariston forced his fist to unclench, even though he had many problems with the scenario unfolding. And he had no idea how he was going to stop it.

“They’re here, trespassing on ruins under government jurisdiction. That makes them criminals. They’ve condemned themselves with their actions.”

 

Chapter 3

“That ship crashed there,” Mick said, pointing to the sensor display for the benefit of the scientists that had crowded into her cockpit.

With boulders and ruins in the way, they couldn’t see the other vessel on the view screen, but the sensors showed everything around them for miles and miles, almost as accurately as if there had been a satellite in orbit taking pictures. It also showed two weak life signs among the wreckage. At least two people were alive over there. For now.

“Just under a mile away and on the other side of the ruins,” Mick said.

“Where’s the ship that did it?” the engineer Dr. Cecil Woodruff asked, his short red hair ruffled from his hand pushing through it frequently. “You said something huge shot them down, right?”

Dr. Lee grumbled something under his breath. It sounded like a complaint that he and the others had been locked out of the cockpit earlier and hadn’t seen the battle.

If Mick had her druthers, they’d still be locked out, but she wasn’t in command. She owned the ship—at least, her name was on the loan for the ship—so she was in charge of it, but Dr. Lee was the lead scientist in charge of the mission.

“About forty thousand feet over our heads.” Mick spread her fingers through the holographic display to zoom out and show the hulking salvage ship flying in slow circles far above. “I doubt they can land that behemoth anywhere nearby. The sensors showed two people—or two somethings—alive on the crashed ship. The ship that was shot down. We know nothing about them, but they probably need help. I have combat experience as well as armor and weapons, so I’m the logical one to check on them. If they attack, I can deal with it. If they need help, I can carry them back. That said, it might be a better idea to stay out of it completely and hope that big ship doesn’t notice us down here.”

“You have combat experience?” Dev whispered from the co-pilot’s seat, her eyes round. “I thought you fixed airplanes in the military.”

“I was deployed twice when I was in, and there were incidents.” Mick grimaced, not letting her mind drift back to the particular incident that had prompted her to get out instead of staying in for the career she’d always believed she was perfect for. “Even mechanics learn how to fight in the Marines.”

“If there are survivors, we have to help them,” Dr. Valentin Garcia said, the only scientist on the team that Mick didn’t mind calling Doctor, since he legitimately was one, a medical one.

He was a neurologist who’d studied the effects of space on the human brain, and who also had NASA training that included experience, however hypothetical, with treating people in zero gravity and strange conditions. Not that such was necessary on the Viper. From what Mick had seen, most Confederation spaceships had inertial dampeners and artificial gravity.

“What we have to do is stay out of these people’s war,” Lee said. “As soon as it’s safe to do so, we’ll go out, set up our camp, and mind our own business.”

His words drew frowns from Garcia and the other scientists. The barista/meteorologist, Sven Safin, and the geological survey guy, James Weiss, hadn’t fit into the cockpit, but they leaned in from the corridor. Mick felt extremely claustrophobic.

“We can’t leave people out there to die,” Garcia said.

“Is there any way to camouflage this ship?” Lee asked Mick, ignoring the doctor.

Mick shook her head. “I’m sure that other ship knows we’re here.”

She pointed skyward to make sure they knew she was talking about the big one. The threat.

“I agree with the doctor,” Woodruff said. “We need to check on the survivors and help them if possible. Maybe we can get them out of there before their enemies come down to investigate the wreck.”

“Didn’t you say the salvage ship was too big to land?” Dev asked.

“Yeah, but it’s also big enough to have shuttles or the equivalent of fighter jets inside the bays.”

“So, they could potentially send a limited number of people down,” Dr. Weiss said from the doorway. “But they haven’t launched a shuttle yet?”

“Not yet.” Mick doubted they would be lucky enough that the salvage ship would simply go away.

“I vote we check on the survivors,” Weiss said. “A couple of us, while the others make preparations to hide in the ruins if necessary. I’m sure that ship could obliterate ours easily from their position. There’s nothing hiding us down here.”

A lot of expressions turned grim at his words.

Mick felt indignant. If someone started firing at her ship, she would raise shields and take off at top speed. But she had to admit the Viper’s shields wouldn’t be a match for the salvage ship’s massive firepower, and she might not be able to escape.

“If the enemy ship launches shuttles, then we’ll get back here and hunker down,” Weiss said. “Prepare to defend ourselves.”

“You’re not in charge of the mission, Weiss,” Lee said.

“I’m sharing my opinions on what we should do. And casting a vote.”

“This isn’t a democracy.”

“Nor is it a dictatorship or even a military mission.”

“The CEO put me in charge.”

The only member of the party who hadn’t chimed in yet met Mick’s eyes, his expression sympathetic. Sven Safin studied atmospheric conditions on other planets and had been sent along to survey the weather patterns here. He had a master’s degree but not a Ph.D., which made him the only person on the ship that Mick wasn’t supposed to address as “Doctor.”

“Let’s take a vote,” Garcia said. “Who wants to try to help the survivors?” He raised his hand.

Weiss raised his hand.

Lee folded his arms over his chest.

The others waffled, looking at the display and looking at each other. Mick wouldn’t be surprised if the poor people over there died while her committee of scientists tried to come to agreement.

Dev raised her hand, and Woodruff finally did too. Only Safin and Lee voted no.

“We’re checking on them then.” Garcia nodded firmly, his dark eyes challenging as he met Lee’s.

“Fine,” Lee said, “but send Saunders in her suit of armor. The rest of us will don our hazmat suits and prepare to go out if and when it’s needed.”

“Is our plucky captain supposed to carry two people back on her own?” Garcia asked dryly.

Mick probably could in the armor. It was an old suit that her sister had helped her acquire—somewhat illegally, since only law enforcement officers and space fleet soldiers were supposed to own the stuff. Katie’s boyfriend, a Star Guardian pilot named Zakota, had glanced at the suit when they’d brought it into her apartment on Dethocoles, then jerked his head away, firmly declaring that if he hadn’t gotten a good look at it, he couldn’t report to anyone that he knew about the acquisition. While trying it on and learning how to use the features, Mick must have walked past him ten times, but he’d always studied the ceiling so he could continue not getting a solid look at it. A good man.

“I’ll handle it,” Mick said. “I can carry one, and I’ve got a lifter I can take. You guys just prepare to do your science things. Dev, stay here by the comm and monitor the sensor display. Let me know if anything changes with that ship up there, such as if they decide to send anyone down.”

“I will go with you, Ms. Saunders,” Dr. Garcia said.

Ms. Saunders? Who the hell was that? Nobody called her that.

“Suit yourself, but stay out of the way. Am I right that none of you brought weapons?”

“I have a sturdy and pointy soil-sampling probe,” Dev offered.

“That’ll scare people in combat armor, I’m sure,” Mick said.

“Actually, I have a Glock G29,” Woodruff said. “Thought about bringing my hunting rifle, too, since I heard the planet had something like lizards, and I wasn’t sure how big or aggressive they were, but it wouldn’t fit in my pack.”

Though he looked to be straight out of Ireland with his red hair and freckles, Woodruff had a Texas drawl and was originally from some hick town a hundred miles from nowhere. Mick wasn’t surprised that he had a handgun.

“You brought firearms?” Lee demanded. “On a spaceship? Do you know what could happen if a gun went off while we were in space?”

“As the engineer on board, I have a few ideas about how physics work,” Woodruff said. “I assure you, it’s unloaded right now, and the ammo is in a separate box.”

“You weren’t authorized.”

“We weren’t going to the moon. From what the reports say, there are aliens that eat humans out in the galaxy, and you can’t necessarily even trust other humans.”

“Enough,” Mick said, raising her hands to silence them. “Get out of my cockpit so I can dress.” She nudged the armor case under a console with her toe. “I’m sure time is of the essence for those people over there.” She jerked her thumb toward the weak life signs in the wreck, and the two scientists had the grace to look ashamed.

“I’m putting on my suit,” Garcia said, striding out of the cockpit.

The others trailed after him, Dev and Woodruff at the end. Dev walked close behind him. Their engineer was wearing a tank top at the moment, showing off lean, lanky arms. He wasn’t hulking, but he had a nice swimmer’s build and musculature. Mick wasn’t sure that he had noticed Dev giving him those puppy-dog eyes. Maybe she should have brought something sexier than baggy sweatshirts.

Not that hookups were important in outer space.

“Woodruff,” Mick said, making him pause and look back.

“Get your gun out. You’ll be in charge of protecting the ship while I’m gone.”

“From varmints?”

“Varmints of all kinds, yes.” Mick looked skyward again, though of course she couldn’t see the salvage ship through the ceiling.

“You got it, Captain,” he said.

Mick decided she liked that label better than “miss.” She’d been a sergeant in the Marines, but she was technically a ship’s captain now, wasn’t she? Even if she usually only had a one-person crew—herself. And even if a bank on Dethocoles owned most of the ship. If she hadn’t learned of a game similar to poker that was popular throughout the galaxy, she wouldn’t have even had the money for the down payment. But this mission, she reminded herself, could change all that. She would earn enough to pay off that loan and own the ship outright, and then she could be independent and free. It wasn’t quite the same as being a part of a military unit and fighting for other people’s safety and human rights, but it was something.

“Just have to survive this,” she muttered to herself.

“Don’t forget about the ghosts,” Dev added, smiling at Woodruff.

“Ghosts?”

“The planet’s haunted, remember?”

“Oh, right. I saw that in the report. I’m not sure bullets work well on ghosts, but I’ll be ready for them.” He winked at her and continued down the corridor.

Dev smiled after him with stars in her eyes.

Mick glanced at the sensors. The salvage ship had descended about ten thousand feet. In preparation of launching shuttles?

If so, ghosts would be the least of her worries.

 

  • • • • •

 

Smoke wafted above the ruins, rising into a hazy orange sky that matched the system’s orange sun. Wind scraped across the tan earth, stirring dust. The outside temperature, reprogrammed from Dethocolean degrees to Fahrenheit, registered at fifty-three according to her suit’s instruments. Mick felt neither the cold nor wind nor the sun’s rays through her combat armor, which enclosed her body from helmet to boots.

Self-contained and suitable for space and other questionable environments, the armor was surprisingly comfortable, especially considering it was bulkier than the suits the bomb squad guys wore back home. The boots had a spring to them that could have propelled her well into the air if she wished. They could also increase her speed if she needed to run.

Mick forced herself to walk slowly as she navigated boulders, heading in the direction of the smoke. Dr. Garcia toddled behind her in a flaming yellow hazmat suit that could probably be seen from orbit. Five planets away. There was no way they would sneak up on anyone, so Mick hoped it wouldn’t be required.

She kept looking skyward, though the hulking salvage ship had still been circling the area at thirty thousand feet when they left the Viper. She had no idea what its crew was waiting for, but she imagined nukes descending to finish off the crashed ship—and any other ships within a hundred square miles.

“The lighting here is odd,” Dr. Garcia said over the comm.

Mick shrugged. “Not all suns are the same. My suit’s sensors say the air is fine though.”

In addition to temperature, other environmental stats flowed down the sides of the liquid-glass display of her faceplate, not interfering with her view but delivering an amazing amount of information, including her suit’s integrity. If she started getting shot at, that would be good to know.

“Air isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing a planet to colonize. It’s interesting that there’s so little flora. Fungal colonies here and there, but no trees, no bushes, no flowers. Nothing similar that occupies those ecological niches.”

“Must be something edible around for those lizards,” Mick said.

“It’s likely they thrive off the fungi.”

Something skittered through the ruins to her left, and she jerked her weapon, a Dethocolean bolt bow, in that direction before she stopped herself. Her sensors reported some of those lizards in the ruins, cold-blooded, rat-sized creatures that scurried among the broken walls and rocks. That must have been what she’d seen.

No need to fire at a little lizard.

The ruins themselves were in fairly good shape, stacked-rock walls rising up one or two stories. Some structures still had roofs, also made of rock, flat slabs that must have been creatively placed since there wasn’t timber or anything like it to use for beams or supports. Wide roads and narrow alleys were laid with something akin to cobblestones.

Mick chose to walk through the old settlement instead of skirting it, both because it was a more direct route and because the buildings offered cover. Just in case someone showed up and started shooting.

More movement to the side prompted her to swing her weapon down an alley. She halted herself again, certain it was another lizard. Between the orange sky and the wind and the ruins, the place had an eerie, desolate feel, and it had her more on edge than she wanted to admit. Or maybe it was that she’d witnessed one ship shooting down another not twenty minutes ago.

Her sensors didn’t show the lizard she thought she’d seen.

Frowning, Mick stopped for a longer look down the alley. Sand lay piled against walls, and crumbled rock scattered the old walkway, but nothing stirred.

“What is it?” Dr. Garcia asked.

Mick hadn’t taken a close look at the hazmat suits, other than helping the scientists hook into the same comm system that the Viper used, but she doubted it had any sensors for detecting life forms.

“Nothing.” Mick turned back to her path.

She lengthened her stride, hoping Garcia could keep up. She wanted to reach the ship quickly.

“There are animals of some kind in here, right?” Garcia asked a minute later, his hood swiveling from side to side as he peered into the ruins.

“Yeah, I’ve only caught glimpses of movement so far, but my sensors show them to be the lizard-like creatures we were told about. Nothing unexpected.” Mick didn’t mention the movement she’d caught that hadn’t matched up to anything on the sensor display. She figured the suit wasn’t perfect with its detection. Or maybe the creature moved extremely quickly. “There.”

They had reached the far side of the ruins, and she pointed over a crumbling half wall that surrounded the settlement in fits and starts. Beyond it, heavy gray smoke rose from the remains of a ship about the size of hers. Someone had tried valiantly to keep the nose up as it came down, but it was clear the craft would never fly again. The front half had skidded a mile or more, leaving the back half in pieces sprawled across the tan earth. A boulder the size of a house had ended its skid, or the ship might have continued into the ruins themselves.

“It’s hard to believe anyone is alive in that,” Garcia said, stepping up to her side. He took another step, heading toward the wreckage, but their comm came on first.

“Mick?” came Dev’s voice. “Two small ships just launched from the big ship.”

Garcia cursed.

“Come on,” Mick said, jogging for the wreck. “It’ll take them a few minutes to land.”

She was halfway to the crash when she realized, thanks to the rear camera in her helmet, Garcia wasn’t following her. He’d turned toward the pyramid towering over the settlement on the north side, a large portion of it visible now that they were out from among the ruins. Its walls stair-stepped up toward a stone hut at the top, and Garcia was staring at it.

“Doctor? This is your mission. What are you doing?”

“I saw someone.” His yellow hood did not turn away from the pyramid.

“Someone? Doc, the only someones are in the wreck and need your help.” Mick couldn’t see the shuttles yet, since the hazy sky limited visibility, but she could hear the roar of engines far above. They didn’t have time for dawdling.

“No, I saw a person in the shadows at the top. They—someone—must already be out here.”

Mick double-checked her sensor display. The suit’s scanners weren’t as powerful as the Viper’s, but she had a range of a good mile, maybe two. The pyramid lay well within that range. She detected more of the lizard-like life forms, but nothing larger.

“Nothing there, Doc.” Mick jogged toward the shuttle.

“Maybe the stone is blocking your scans. If that’s similar to a Mayan ziggurat, it could have a hollowed out inside.”

“It does, and my scans are working just fine. I see a nice lizard colony living in there.”

An eerie moan reached Mick’s ears as she closed on the wreckage, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. It reminded her of background sounds played at a haunted house, but she realized it had to be someone moaning with pain.

The door on the side of the fuselage was warped and half buried in sand, so she walked to the rear, the part torn wide open. Inside, equipment, bent metal, and seats were torn up and scattered everywhere. Holes in the ceiling let rays of orange light inside.

“Hello?” Mick called, looking for movement among the wreckage.

Whoever’s ship this was, they wouldn’t speak English, but translation chips seemed ubiquitous in the galaxy, at least among humans. She had one embedded in her ear canal. Some other species didn’t care if they understood anyone else or not, but she’d already identified this ship as from a human planet. Thanks to the women who’d been kidnapped from Earth two years earlier, English had already been entered into the Confederation languages database.

Another moan drifted back from the cockpit.

“Garcia, someone needs you.” Mick called before crawling into the destroyed fuselage.

“Coming.”

She peeked out a porthole and spotted the doctor striding her way, though he kept glancing toward the pyramid.

“Take your time,” Mick muttered, climbing over a row of seats.

She checked her sensors again, close range this time, and halted with a start. They weren’t registering signs of life from within the wreck anymore. Was she too late?

Another moan drifted back from the cockpit.

“What the hell?” she whispered, her hand tightening on the frame of her bolt bow.

The weapon was slung across her torso on a strap so she didn’t have to hold it, but she decided to keep it in hand as she advanced.

“Dev?” she said. “Give me an update on those shuttles.”

“They’re getting close. Are you on your way back?”

“No.” Mick hurried to climb over another set of destroyed seats, her neck hair up again. She imagined those shuttles taking aim right now, about to fire.

But what was the point of shooting at a ship that was already wrecked? Unless they wanted to utterly destroy all signs of life within it…

Mick came down on the tilted deck and almost stepped on a man.

“Shit,” she whispered, jerking her foot back.

The man’s legs had been torn off. He was extremely dead.

With her own leg still dangling in the air, Mick looked around. Three women also lay dead in the area. They looked like they had been trying to get to the hatch—a couple of them wore what might have been parachutes. The hatch must not have opened for them.

Another moan came from farther up, from the cockpit.

An intense feeling of déjà vu washed over her: a hot desert, tan sand, the scorching sun yellow instead of orange. Bodies and wreckage everywhere. A baby crying in the distance.

Mick gripped a beam, struggling to push away the memory. Whoever was left alive in here needed her.

Swallowing, she maneuvered past the dead bodies, careful not to step on anyone. Her sensors still did not show life in here, making her question whether they were fully calibrated. Was it possible Garcia had seen someone at the pyramid? Where was Garcia, anyway?

She glanced toward the opening behind her, but didn’t see his yellow suit. Her sensors showed him standing outside. Was he waiting for her to declare it safe?

“I hear someone moaning, Doctor,” she said, squeezing into a short corridor lined by smoking computer equipment. Pieces had fallen free, littering the deck.

A dented door marked the cockpit. She tried buttons on a panel, but with no power left in the ship, the door did not open. She bent her knees, leaned her shoulder against it, and shoved.

Normally, her shoulders weren’t burly enough to force open doors, but the armor enhanced her movements, and she heard the servos working in her leg pieces as she pushed. Metal groaned, then warped. The door gave way, though it did not open fully. It caught against something.

Mick peered around it. One pilot was belted into a seat, a beam thrust all the way through his chest and into the seat back. He must have died instantly, or damn near. A second person lay on the deck by the door, his leg twisted awkwardly and blood plastering his face. His eyes were open—frozen open in death.

She looked around, but there was nobody else in there, nobody else alive on the ship, according to her sensors.

“Then who was groaning?” she whispered.

Had the man on the deck just died? And one of the people out in the main cabin too? Maybe two people had been alive when she’d started over here, but they’d died before she and Garcia reached the ship.

“The shuttles are landing,” Dev blurted, her voice squeaky with alarm. “One’s almost on top of us.”

Cursing, Mick backed away. This had been a fool’s errand to start with, and now she was stuck out in the open a mile from her ship. She could sprint back quickly in her armor, but Garcia wouldn’t be fast. He was lucky to do more than waddle in that hazmat suit.

“Stay there and hold tight,” Mick ordered as she jumped back over the seats and rubble. “Keep the shields up. Garcia and I will hide in the ruins and make it back to you as soon as we can.”

Mick reached the opening but stopped to peer out before leaving cover. A good thing. One of the shuttles roared past overhead and landed thirty meters away.

She spotted Garcia as she backed into the shadows and pointed her bolt bow toward the shuttle, a blue craft with a wedge-shaped nose. Garcia had chosen to run back toward the ruins instead of into the wreck with her. Probably not a bad idea. She had to run a couple hundred meters to reach that half wall. Was there time?

A hatch opened on the side of the shuttle the instant the landing skis touched down onto the dust. Six men leaped out, some wearing mismatched combat armor and others wearing clothing. They all carried weapons, bolt bows and other energy weapons Mick couldn’t name.

They spotted Garcia in his yellow suit. He’d almost reached the ruins, and Mick thought he might make it, but the men didn’t hesitate. Two of them lifted their weapons, aiming for his back.

Mick might have remained unnoticed in the wreck, but she reacted instantly, aiming at the two men. She fired rapidly, trying to hit both of them before they shot Garcia.

At the least, she hoped to distract them. Ideally, she would draw their fire. In her armor, she could take a few hits, but that hazmat suit would be worthless against weapons.

Unfortunately, she was too slow. The orange en-bolts from her bow slammed into the men, but not before their weapons hit Garcia, taking him fully in the back. He sprawled forward, his hood flying off as he tumbled through the dust, a giant hole charred in his suit.

Mick fired again, crouching behind the torn fuselage for cover. She’d need a hell of a lot more than that and her armor to survive a battle with six men. The two she’d shot at had been two of the ones in armor, and they weren’t injured in the least. They spun toward her and unleashed a barrage of en-bolts.

She sprayed her fire, hoping to get lucky. She caught one of the unarmed men in the shoulder, and he flew to his back.

But the other men unloaded on her, forcing her to back up. Red, green, and white energy bolts from different styles of weapons slammed into the fuselage, blowing holes in it. Some of the bolts slipped through and struck her armor. They might look like harmless beams from a laser light show, but they struck her like cannonballs. Even with the armor, the thuds knocked her back, and she almost lost her footing.

How had she let herself get into this situation?

As the men ran toward her, firing all the way, Mick knew she was doomed. She sprang backward over some of the seats and debris, hoping to buy herself time.

An idea flashed into her mind as she crouched behind cover, firing over the top of a bank of crumpled seats. Maybe if she got them inside, she could force that side hatch open, run out, and blow up the fuselage behind her. Except that she didn’t have any explosives, and she hadn’t passed anything that appeared flammable. The engine and fuel tanks were strewn across the desert.

She glimpsed one more man in armor jumping out of the shuttle.

“Great, reinforcements,” she muttered, firing madly, trying to keep her foes from getting inside.

One of them pulled something off a hook on a utility belt. A grenade?

Mick fired at it, hoping to blow it up before he threw it. But someone else’s fire hit his hand first.

She blinked as the man yelped and dropped the grenade. Had one of them accidentally hit one of their own men? Several of them glanced back toward the newcomer. Like the others, this one also wore patchy mismatched armor. He fired again. At his colleagues.

That couldn’t be a mistake.

Mick, hardly able to believe her luck, kept laying down fire, hoping to find a breach in someone’s armor. The unarmored men had hung back, but that made them easy targets for the crazy bastard shooting at his own people.

The men who had been approaching the fuselage darted to the side so they wouldn’t be in her sights as they returned the new person’s fire. He dodged some of their attacks with impressive speed, the armor—or maybe his own talents—making him almost acrobatic as he jumped, spun, and even somersaulted in the air to avoid bolts streaking toward him. All the while, he returned fire.

The unarmored men dropped, leaving only three others in armor.

For a moment, the men simply stood in the desert and shot at each other, en-bolts bouncing off chest and shoulder plating. From Mick’s position, she could only have targeted the newcomer, but she wasn’t about to shoot at him, not when he was doing a lovely job of messing with her enemies.

Maybe this was her chance to get out of there.

She sprang back again, toward the hatch this time. The dead people’s eyes seemed to watch her as she passed over them. Accusing eyes condemning her for being too late to help.

It still chilled her that she’d heard those moans only seconds before finding them all dead.

As weapons continued to fire outside, Mick rammed her shoulder against the hatch. It took three tries, but she knocked it open, metal squealing and sand falling inside as it gave.

She winced, certain all those men had heard the noise, and also certain they would come to their senses any second and join forces to get her.

She jumped out the hatch, saddened that the people inside hadn’t had someone with an armored shoulder to force it open so they could escape. She only took two steps before an explosion ripped through the air.

Even her armor couldn’t protect her fully as the shockwave hit her. She flew away from the wreck, helpless to do anything but flail.

Her first thought was that someone had managed to throw a grenade at her after all. But as she tumbled back to the hard earth, she spotted flames off to the side. The enemy shuttle. The entire back end had blown off, and fire roared from the interior, flames shooting out the open hatch.

Mick jumped to her feet. Though she wasn’t sure if the men were still fighting each other, she risked racing across the open ground toward the ruins. She wouldn’t get a better chance.

As she moved away from the wreck, they came into view on her rear helmet cam. The newcomer—his patchwork of gray and white armor was a little different from the other men’s sets, so she could identify him—had closed to melee distance with them.

He punched a man in the faceplate, gauntleted knuckles striking like a battering ram. His foe reeled back as two other men grabbed at him, trying to take him down. But he jumped, kicking to either side as he kept his grip on the one he’d struck. Each boot caught an enemy in the helmet. It looked like something out of a Bruce Lee movie.

As the lone man landed, he caught his first foe by the crotch and an arm and hurled him twenty meters to land in the burning shuttle, crashing through the remains of the roof. Even Bruce Lee would have struggled to do that.

The two kicked men jumped to their feet and renewed their attack, just as Mick reached Garcia.

He lay facedown in the dirt and hadn’t moved since he’d been shot. Her sensors told her he was dead, but she bent down to roll him over and check. In part because she didn’t trust her equipment anymore—maybe something on the planet was disrupting it—and in part because she didn’t want to believe it was true.

Garcia’s brown eyes, frozen open in death, still held the fear he’d felt in those last seconds. Mick swallowed, blinking away tears that she couldn’t afford to shed now. Even though she’d only been hired to ferry the scientists to this planet, as the pilot of the ship and the one person with experience in the galaxy, she felt responsible for them. Also, of all the people they could lose, to lose the doctor had to be the worst. It certainly seemed cosmically unfair. He wasn’t a fighter. He had come out here wanting to help people.

Another boom sounded behind her, reminding Mick that this wasn’t the time for mourning. She raced into the ruins, putting several buildings behind her before slowing down. Her heart slammed against her ribcage as if she’d run a marathon instead of a two-hundred-meter race. She pressed a hand against a stone wall to catch her breath.

Should she run straight back to the Viper? Or hide out here in the ruins?

Her suit would register as little more than a cold hunk of rock to most ships’ sensors, so she might be better in here. But she couldn’t abandon the Viper to a second shuttle of those thugs. Who were they, anyway? What kind of assholes jumped out and started killing people without a word of warning? Or explanation.

“Dev?” Mick asked quietly, activating her comm.

She spotted movement out of the corner of her eye and whirled, bolt bow aiming in that direction. She expected to see some of those men racing toward her. But the cobblestone road was empty and still. Her sensors showed nothing around, but they would also struggle to detect someone in combat armor. The stuff was built to deflect scans.

“Better keep moving,” she whispered, then added, “Dev?”

The other woman hadn’t responded. Nobody had. The channel was open.

Mick picked up her pace, doing her best to find a path through the ruins that didn’t take her down any wide alleys or streets. If that second shuttle flew overhead, she didn’t want the pilot spotting her, not easily.

“Dev or anyone there,” Mick whispered. “I’d really like an update.”

What if the second shuttle had already dealt with the Viper? Destroyed it and everybody on board?

The thought jarred her so badly that she tripped, nearly planting her faceplate on an ancient cobblestone.

Belatedly, she realized she could check. She whispered an order to the suit’s sensors, telling it to extend its range and check for ships, not just life.

The Viper was still there, thank God. But the enemy shuttle hovered over it. Damn it. What if people from the shuttle had already deployed, forced the Viper’s shields down, and captured all the scientists? Or worse?

Mick increased her pace again. The only way to end all these disturbing thoughts would be to confirm that they hadn’t happened.

A clatter came from her left, like rocks knocked from a pile. Once again, she whirled with her weapon in hand. Once again, she saw nothing.

Mick had never believed in ghosts or hauntings, but she was beginning to think her team had been naive to brush off the legends about this place.

She kept running. Another quarter mile, and she would be out of the ruins on the far side. The Viper would be in sight, and she would figure out what was going on.

She glimpsed movement to her right.

“Damn it,” she snarled, spinning in that direction and almost firing even though she knew she wouldn’t see anything.

Except she did see something. Someone.

The man in gray-and-white patchwork armor. And he was pointing a bolt bow at her chest.

~

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One response to “A New Star Guardians Novel, Ariston, Is Available (preview chapters here!)”

  1. AA says:

    Was going to gush, but realized I should just type all that gushing on the Amazon page. Going there now.

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