The Ruins of Karzelek, Mandrake Company Book 4, Now Available: Excerpt and Preview

Posted by on December 23rd, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | 18 Comments

If you’re looking for some new science fiction romance to read over the holidays, then I’ve got something for you. The next Mandrake Company novel, The Ruins of Karzelek, is ready to go. It’s currently available at Amazon (and will be up in other stores later in 2015).

Blurb

SFR -- Ruins of KarzelekKalish has been a successful treasure hunter for years, relying on only herself to deal with deadly predators, impenetrable jungles, and diabolical booby traps. But with her father kidnapped, and a notorious pirate demanding an ancient alien artifact that may or may not exist, Kalish needs help.

She hires a mercenary company because she needs their combat experience and their piloting skills—the intelligence officer with the background in translating alien hieroglyphics could come in useful too. Sedgwick Thomlin is charming and handsome, when he isn’t busy sneezing at something from his long list of allergies. But she’s not sure if she can trust him or the mercenaries, not when the most valuable and coveted relic in the galaxy might turn out to be real.

The Ruins of Karzelek is a 95,000-word novel of space-based adventure and romance that can be read as a stand-alone. It is also part of the Mandrake Company series and brings back characters from the other books, such as Val, Gregor, Tick, and Striker.

Preview Chapter 1

Kalish Blackwell had never planned a heist before. As she studied the satellite images, Mercrusean tangleworms wriggled and writhed in her stomach, and she worried that she would throw up. Again. The ship’s compact floor-cleaning robot buzzed and whirled, dealing with the last mess.

“Some thief you are,” she muttered.

“Kalish?” came her mother’s voice from the freighter’s rear hatch.

“In the library.” Kalish took a deep breath and wiped her brow, not wanting her mother to see her nerves, not when she had been arguing and promising that they could make this work.

“Library?” Mom ducked to step through the hatch, her single blonde-gray braid swinging past her shoulder. “Your insistence in calling three books and a computer terminal a library is odd, don’t you think? Especially considering there’s a lavatory in the corner.” She smiled, though it was not a heartfelt gesture. The pistol, laser knife, and multitool belted at her waist spoke of her military past, as did the tattoos running up her lean forearms, but uncharacteristic uncertainty lurked in her blue eyes, eyes tight with worry, the creases at the corners deeper than usual.

“There are thirteen books,” Kalish said. “Fifteen if you include the atlases.” She kept herself from saying anything further, from bristling with her natural instinct to defend the ship. It might not be some finance lord’s yacht, but she owned it outright as of six months ago, and she was damned proud of that fact.

“No argument about the lav, though?”

“It folds into the bulkhead. You barely notice it. And I know you were glad it was there the other week when Tia had that stomach bug and was doing dreadful things in the main lav.”

“I suppose.” Mom frowned at the images of the mining camp displayed in the air above Kalish’s tablet. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

No. “It’s the only way to get Dad back. I thought we’d agreed to that.”

“I know. We did. I’m just worried about you. Those men in there—” Mom waved at the thick walls of the compound that were displayed in the three-dimensional map, all of them lined with antipersonnel and anti-spacecraft armament. “I’m sure it’s been months, if not years, since some of them saw a woman. If you’re captured…”

“It’s a mining camp, Mom. Not a prison.”

“What’s the difference out here?” Mom jerked her head toward the ceiling, or perhaps to the stars and the pinkish-red Rimfire Nebula stretching above Karzelek, the dust ball of a planet they were visiting. “If anything other than the supply ship visits them regularly, I would be shocked.”

“I know, and I understand your concern, but—” Kalish stopped herself from saying the miners would probably just shoot the intruders instead of worrying about rape. That wouldn’t comfort her mother. Instead, she finished with, “It’s not as if I’ll be going in alone.”

That was the wrong thing to say too. Mom’s lips twisted downward so far that they were in danger of falling off her face. “Oh, yes, you’ll have a band of musclebound mercenaries at your back. I’m so comforted.”

“I chose them carefully.” Sort of. Mandrake Company was one of the few outfits that had a reputation for snubbing finance lords, and they had been finishing up an assignment nearby. Finding quality people out here in the hairy armpit of the system wasn’t easy.

“Mercenaries are mercenaries. They work for money. If they get one sniff of what you’re after, they’ll turn on you faster than a jackal on wounded prey.”

“Have I mentioned how much your positivity warms my heart and buoys my soul, Mom?”

“Not recently.”

“There’s a reason for that.”

Mom smiled, however forced it appeared, then came forward to clasp her hand. Their skin contrasted, Mom’s ivory fingers around Kalish’s brown. “I know how much you’re worried about your father and want to save him. Trust me, I’m worried too, even if we haven’t talked that much of late. I just wish you’d given me a chance to work the numbers more, find another way.”

Kalish turned the handclasp into a hug, but couldn’t keep from objecting. “Another way to come up with a million aurums? I know you’re a finance specialist these days, Mom, but you can’t magic numbers like that into the company bank account.”

“A loan might have—”

“We don’t have that kind of collateral, and you said yourself, nobody’s going to finance treasure hunters, not even treasure hunters with a proven record for finding valuable loot. It’s going to cost us enough to hire these mercenaries.” Over two years’ profit, to be precise. In addition to finding the item Dad’s kidnapper wanted, Kalish hoped they might find some relics her family could sell so they might break even somehow.

“I’m just worried that—”

“Kaaaaylish,” came Tia’s drawn-out call from somewhere near the front of the ship. They probably could have heard her from anywhere on the planet.

Mom stepped back, brushing the back of her hand over her eyes. Kalish’s stomach clenched anew at the realization of how worried her mother was. She had always been so tough, so… soldierly, even after retiring from the Galactic Conglomeration Fleet and switching careers. To see moisture in her eyes rattled Kalish.

“Your sister’s calling you.”

“Yes, I heard,” Kalish said dryly.

“You don’t always. When you’re engrossed in research.”

“Oh, I always hear her. I just don’t always respond.” Kalish walked to the corridor, ducking her head and stepping through the hatchway.

“Kaaaaylish,” Tia repeated, this time even more loudly.

“I heard you, I heard you. And those miners will too, if you yell any louder.” Her little sister was twenty now, but sometimes she seemed like the same twelve-year-old girl she had been when Kalish first left home.

“Just figured you’d want to know your mercenaries are here.”

More nerves squirmed through Kalish’s belly, but she managed a calm, “Thank you,” and turned for the exit hatch on the side of the ship, rather than the bridge.

She opened the locker in the bulkhead and pulled out her weapons belt, complete with laser knife and two laser pistols. She stuck one of the ship’s comm units to her collar and also eyed the rifles, thinking about taking one of them, too, but she had a suspicion one shouldn’t greet one’s potential employees with arms. Not with really big arms, anyway.

Kalish waved at the sensor by the exit, and a shish-clank sounded as the seal disengaged. The hatch rose upward, catching on something. It continued upward, but the grinding scrape made her wince.

Kalish tapped the button-sized comm, ostensibly to test it but mostly to complain. “You landed a little close to the boulders, don’t you think?”

“You said to make sure we’re as hidden as possible,” Tia said brightly.

“Hidden is good, but so is being able to take flight again. It’s tough to leave orbit with one of your hatches missing.”

“You’re so fussy, Kay. I’ll send a bot out to fix it. Now go meet those big boys. Maybe you’ll find one to replace Mingus, and you won’t be so grumpy all the time.”

Kalish snorted and stepped outside. As if this was the time to shop for boyfriends. Even if Dad hadn’t been in danger, she wouldn’t have been eager to jump into bed with any man after dealing with the betrayal of that slug-sucking ass Tom Mingus.

She climbed the boulder, glowering at the fresh scrape in the granite, courtesy of their hatch. The chill, dry air of the planet wrapped around her as soon as she escaped the ship’s environment, and she shivered even with her jacket and radiant-heat thermal unders. When she reached the top of the boulder, the wind struck her as well, harsh air that scraped across the rocks, blowing tumbleweeds and dust. The field of boulders stretched for miles in all directions, punctuated occasionally by spiky cactuses sprouting in protected alcoves. She glanced back at the ship to make sure the camouflage system she had paid handsomely for was in place. The Divining Rod’s usual color was a dull gray-green, but it matched the dusty brown of its surroundings now. From twenty feet away, Kalish had no trouble picking it out, but to a ship flying by overhead, it ought to blend in with the boulders. A sensor-dampening shield protected the hull as well, so from a distance, it should appear as nothing except boring ground to a ship’s computers.

She started across the top of the boulder, toward a small field a quarter of a mile away, the coordinates she had given the mercenaries. But the hatch opened again, and she paused. Mom walked out with a laser rifle cradled in her arms, her face grim.

“I’m your backup,” she said to Kalish’s look of inquiry.

“You think a bunch of musclebound men will be intimidated by one woman?”

“They’ll be intimidated by Carl,” Mom said, patting the rifle. “You talk to them. I’ll be out here, watching your back.”

Kalish smiled and nodded, knowing her mother was still a fine shot.

But in the meantime, she had better hurry. The mercenaries had not been paid yet, and standing out there in a boulder field might make them impatient. Kalish scrambled across the rocks, grunting as she banged her knees and scraped her hands on the uneven boulders. Now and then, her noises scared lizards basking in the meager sun, and they scuttled into holes and crevices. Some of them were poisonous, she had read, but it was the creatures under the planet’s surface that she needed to worry more about, assuming they got to that point in this mission.

“Hullo, pretty lady,” came a man’s drawling voice from off to her side.

Kalish jumped, nearly pitching off her boulder. She had been focused on the clearing ahead and hadn’t thought to watch for people earlier than that. Still, that didn’t keep her from spinning, her pistol leaping into her hand with speed that would impress an Old Earth gunslinger. The Fleet might have rejected her for having a couple more inches around the waist than their sleek, athletic female soldiers were supposed to have, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take care of herself.

“Easy, pretty lady,” the voice came again, and a big man ambled out from the shadows between two rocks, his hands held out, though he wore an unconcerned smirk. Fine mesh battle armor covered his torso, so her laser probably wouldn’t do anything anyway, unless she struck him in the face. The ugly, spiky hairdo wouldn’t protect him from having an eyeball burned out.

“You with Mandrake Company?” Kalish asked, not lowering her pistol. She doubted he was a miner—they wouldn’t have battle armor that expensive—but she found herself hoping he wasn’t one of her mercenaries, especially when his gaze slid down her body, lingering on her breasts. Maybe Mom had been right. Maybe this was a big mistake.

“Sergeant Striker, Chief of Boom,” he said, then bowed.

Kalish snorted. She had thought only the Chinese mercenaries bowed—they had a reputation for being polite right up to the moment they shot a person. At least he was only a sergeant; maybe that meant someone higher ranking had come down too. Someone who could slap him on the head for his wandering eyes. Wishful thinking perhaps, but she said, “Take me to your leader, Sergeant Boom.”

“Sergeant Striker,” he corrected. “Chief of Boom. I’m your munitions expert. I can make your world explode.”

Before she could decide if she wanted to respond to the idiotic comment, a quiet voice sounded over the sergeant’s comm-patch. “Striker, you’re not harassing our employer, are you?”

It was a woman’s voice. Kalish’s hopes rose. Maybe there was someone who could and would slap Striker in the back of the head.

“‘Course not,” Striker drawled. “Just greeting her. Like Commander Thatcher said to do.”

“He said to locate her, not greet her. You are not the welcoming committee.”

“Well, she’s pretty.”

Kalish shook her head at this logic, or lack of it. She started across the rocks again, assuming the rest of the mercenaries were waiting in the clearing. Unfortunately, Striker hopped onto her boulder and matched her pace, smiling down at her.

“All the more reason for you not to be in charge of welcoming her,” the woman said, her voice dry. “Escort her to us, please.”

Kalish had already caught sight of the top of someone’s head. She ignored Striker’s proffered arm, climbing down the last boulder on her own. The woman and three other men waited in the clearing, all carrying rifles, all waiting calmly. They wore civilian clothes rather than any sort of uniform, with the tree design on the comm-patches on their shoulders the only thing that identified them as part of the same unit. The rifles, the battle armor, and the muscular, athletic builds of the men made them look like they could take care of themselves.

The woman wasn’t quite as lean, with an ample chest not unlike Kalish’s own, but she seemed comfortable in the situation and knew how to hold the rifle in her arms. She appeared to be in her early thirties. Two of the men looked older, though Kalish doubted any of them were over forty, but she hoped the woman was in charge.

It was one of the men who stepped forward to speak. “Greetings, Ms. Kalish Blackwell,” he said, his tone as formal as his words. “I am Commander Gregor Thatcher.” He was tall and lean, appearing slightly more academic than brawny, and he paused, tilting his head to regard her. It was almost as if he expected her to recognize his name. As if she kept abreast of mercenary officers.

“Hi,” Kalish said.

The woman elbowed Thatcher in the ribs.

“I am the senior officer here as well as the most skilled Mandrake Company pilot,” the commander continued. “I am a combat flight specialist with over ten thousand hours in the cockpit and more than a thousand kills on my record.”

“He’s real modest too,” the man in the back said, a broad, muscular fellow who was chewing on something. Gum? He offered a friendly wink.

Thatcher looked coolly at him. “Ms. Blackwell requested two pilots. I am merely informing her of my qualifications.”

“I’m the other pilot,” the woman said. “Val Calendula. Most of my kills on record involve dangerous dust bunnies creeping out from under the controls in my old freighter’s cockpit, but I’ve gotten pretty good at distracting enemies so Thatcher can swoop in and more effectively annihilate them.”

This time Thatcher frowned at her, though his gaze was significantly less cooler. “You do yourself a disservice by underselling your capabilities.”

“Maybe so, but I thought it would be a nice contrast to the overselling you did.”

Thatcher tilted his head again. “I merely stated the truth. My kills are a matter of public record.”

“Never mind.” Val pointed at the gum-chewer. “That’s Sergeant Tick, infantry soldier and tracking and sneaking specialist.”

Tick, chewing happily at his gum, touched two fingers to his brow in a semblance of a salute. “Ma’am.”

“You’ve met Sergeant Striker,” Val said, “who could be a gentleman and take a few steps to your side instead of breathing down your neck and staring at your chest.”

Striker frowned and took a small step to the side.

“And finally,” Val said, pointing to the last mercenary, a man who stood behind the group, either taking sensor readings with his tablet or playing a game, “this is—”

The man interrupted her with a sneeze.

“Lieutenant Sniffles Thomlin,” Tick said around a grin.

Thomlin lifted his eyes, glowered briefly at his comrade, then said, “I prefer Sedgwick, thank you.”

“I wouldn’t,” Striker muttered.

“He’s intelligence,” Val explained. “You asked for someone with security hacking experience. Well, Thomlin loves computers.”

“And they love him,” Striker said, snickering.

Another sneeze interrupted Thomlin’s attempt to turn his glower onto Striker. He glared balefully at a stunted cactus with a flower starting to bloom on its tip.

“Thomlin is allergic to plants,” Val said, “and, ah…” She looked at him, raising her brows.

“Dust, moss, mold, pollen, dogs, bees, perfume, gold, chromium, shellfish, sulfites, peanuts, mangos, and strawberries.” He scratched his head. “Did I say cats?”

“Oh, that was a given,” Tick said.

The list of weaknesses surprised Kalish, because Thomlin didn’t look at all frail. He appeared less rough-and-tough than the other mercenaries, because of his button-down shirt and pressed jacket and slacks, but he had broad, powerful shoulders, a tall frame, and a strong, angular face with a jaw sturdy enough to take a few punches. His bronze skin, gray-green eyes, and short, black hair suggested a mixed heritage, perhaps not unlike Kalish’s own.

Thomlin sneezed again, withdrew a precisely folded handkerchief square from an inside pocket and dabbed at his nose as he glared at the cactus.

“‘The powers of nature are never in repose; her work never stands still,’” Kalish quoted, smiling slightly.

He blinked and stared at her, meeting her eyes for the first time. “Adam Sedgwick? I wouldn’t mind claiming the father of geology as a namesake, but I confess that my mother named me after a more recent Sedgwick, the biologist responsible for first cross-pollinating Earth peas with a similar species discovered in our system.”

Kalish stared back at him, shocked that he had recognized the quote. A mercenary was the last person she would have expected to have a grounding in the history of science.

“Uh, right,” Striker said. “So, you got something for us to blow up, lady?”

“Ms. Blackwell,” Commander Thatcher corrected. “And I believe we are to participate in a raid and information acquisition mission? Possibly leading to a more lucrative contract that will engage the whole company?”

He pointed toward the pale bluish-green sky, toward his ship presumably, though of course it would be in orbit and not visible from the ground. Kalish hoped so, anyway. She caught herself glancing up to make sure. The last thing she wanted was to let the miners know someone had come to visit, especially after she had so painstakingly had her sister fly in under the cover of night and a storm, thus to hide their approach. The sky, fortunately, was empty of spaceships.

“If we acquire the data I need, yes. A very lucrative contract.” Kalish managed not to grimace—barely. She had already had to make a substantial down payment and had placed the rest into an escrow account, so the mercenary captain knew she could pay.

“Excellent.” Striker patted a black pack on the ground, one bulging with lumpy shapes. “I’m ready to make the booms.”

“I had a stealth mission in mind,” Kalish said.

“No problem. I have quiet booms too.”

“Only the mind of Sergeant Striker could not consider that an oxymoron,” Thomlin murmured.

“Better keep your lips from flapping, Sniffles. A piece of pollen might fall on them.” Striker glared at Thomlin, who glared right back at him.

Kalish hoped her elite team of mercenaries—Mandrake Company’s page on the network had billed them thusly—wasn’t about to descend into fisticuffs in front of her.

“I acquired satellite imagery of the mining outpost from orbit,” Commander Thatcher said, ignoring the men glowering at each other behind his back. “If you have additional data, we should pool our resources and plan our mission.”

Kalish nodded, relieved that someone had business on the mind. “Just what I was thinking. I have the information right here.” She tapped at the folding tablet in her jacket pocket. “Shall we go to your camp?”

“Is it just you?” Val sounded surprised. “I thought you would have some men of your own to bring.”

“My men will stay to watch my ship and stage a rescue if intervention is needed.” No need to mention that her “men” were her mother and her sister.

“Your men?” Tick asked, glancing toward the rocks, then sharing a long look with Striker. Did they already know that there were only three people out here, all women?

“That the old lady up in the boulders, making like an eagle?” Striker asked.

A streak of crimson laser fire shrieked out of those boulders, blasting a head-sized rock near the sergeant. Fragments flew everywhere. He grunted, raising his arm, even if he didn’t appear particularly alarmed by the attack. Tick and Thatcher had shifted their rifles toward the rocks. Kalish winced, hoping Mom’s distaste of being called an “old lady” didn’t get her in trouble.

“That’s one of them,” Kalish said quickly. The mercenaries shouldn’t return fire if they knew the person was with her. “As she would be quick to tell you, she’s not an old lady. She’s in the prime of her life.”

“Her aim is certainly prime,” Tick said, chomping his gum and shoving Striker in the shoulder. “She could have pierced your ear there.”

“Whatever.”

Thatcher pointed toward the rocks lining the other end of the clearing. “Our landing spot is six hundred meters in that direction.”

“You brought two combat shuttles, right?” Kalish asked, though she didn’t miss Thomlin carefully and precisely refolding his handkerchief and slipping it into his pocket before he started after Thatcher. She might have only known the man for three minutes, but she could already imagine him walking away from one of Striker’s “booms” without so much as a wrinkle in his clothing, despite shrapnel and smoke flying everywhere behind him.

“Yes,” Val said, “and we’re happy to use them, but we saw you have a ship too. And presumably a pilot of your own? If it’s a stealth mission to steal some data, why do you need so many ships?”

“The ships are for Stage Two,” Kalish said. Though she found herself liking Val, she wasn’t even close to ready to divulge her true purpose here to a pack of mercenaries. Contract or not, she would be a fool to trust any of them.

She was already nervous about going alone with them to their ships. Val and Thatcher seemed professional enough, but she didn’t like the way Striker kept looking at her chest. The mercenaries might have Fleet-like ranks, but she doubted any code of honor—or risk of court martial and death—guided their actions. She would hope that as long as she was in the putative position of employer, they wouldn’t harass her in any way, but she resolved not to be caught alone with Sergeant Wandering Eyes there. She also worried about what would happen if they didn’t prove themselves capable of helping her with her mission and she decided not to extend the contract. Even though she had worked numerous stipulations in when speaking to the captain, she had a feeling the mercenaries wouldn’t appreciate diverting to this dust ball for nothing.

 

* * *

 

Sedgwick Thomlin forced himself to keep his eyes on the satellite images as he flipped through them for his small audience, describing the layout of the mining camp, the capabilities of the security system they would face, and the possible places it might be breached to gain undetected entrance. He most certainly did not look at their new boss, no matter how nicely her clothing hugged her hips and breasts, or how appealing he found her deep brown eyes and full lips. After all, he had barely noticed those attributes until she had surprised him with that quotation. He hadn’t met many treasure hunters, but he had expected someone more akin to an unschooled pirate rather than an educated woman.

“There are approximately five hundred miners,” Sedge said from his position near the pilot’s chair, pointing at a personnel graph he had mixed into the installation and topography slides. It hovered in the air over the control console, enlarged so everyone could see. Ms. Blackwell and the rest of the Mandrake Company team sat in the shuttle’s troop seats. “This represents a large force that could potentially be armed and brought to bear, but they work around the clock, splitting Karzelek’s twenty-two-hour day with alternating shifts. At any given time, there are men in the surface base, off-duty and sleeping or on-duty and performing administrative and support duties, but most workers will be in the mines themselves, a mix of man-made tunnels and an extensive natural cavern system that’s rumored to extend hundreds, if not thousands, of miles beneath the surface of the planet.”

This time, he couldn’t resist looking at Kalish—Ms. Blackwell, he corrected, reminding himself for the fourth or fifth time that it wasn’t appropriate to think of their employer on a first-name basis unless invited to do so. He wanted to ask if “Stage Two” of the mission involved going into those caverns for some treasure or another and, if so, what treasure it might be.

Captain Mandrake had ordered Sedge to research Ms. Blackwell and her small outfit before accepting the mission, ostensibly so they would know if she could in fact pay for the hundred-man company’s services, but also so they might know what to expect. Was Mandrake Company jumping in with a thief or a respectable GalCon citizen? She didn’t have a criminal record, but the captain’s suspicion had been that she meant to rob the miners or the mines, stealing some of the gold, iridium, tripytariun, or other precious metals the installation was known for. Sedge, however, had researched the planet further and found several mentions of ancient alien relics being found in those caverns, and, based on the profile he had put together for Ms. Blackwell, he suspected that might be her interest. It was only when he had informed the captain thusly that Mandrake had grown more interested in accepting the assignment, perhaps because his girlfriend’s business dealt with remnants from the ancient civilization.

Ms. Blackwell returned his gaze but didn’t comment on his presentation.

“You have identified a way to circumvent their security system?” Commander Thatcher prompted.

Sedge flushed, hoping he hadn’t been looking at Ms. Blackwell for too long. “Yes, I believe so. According to the information Ms. Blackwell provided us with, their software is nearly a decade old. It’s likely they don’t expect to be bothered often this far out, but the sniffer I sent out did detect that it’s been kept up-to-date with the latest security patches. Rather than finding a leak in the system that would make it possible to erase all trace of our entry, I thought it would be more practical to install a virus that could bring the entire system down for a short time. My understanding from the captain’s briefings is that the files Ms. Blackwell wishes to scan are physical in nature, kept in a foreman’s office rather than on the computer system.”

“That’s what my research told me,” Ms. Blackwell said. “After being hacked from a distance by a competitor some fifteen years ago, Ferago Enterprises, the company that owns these mines, decided to rely upon physical copies. The files are kept in a safe in Ernest Saakashvili’s office.”

“Files for what?” Lieutenant Val Calendula asked from her seat next to Thatcher. “Are we allowed to know what we’re looking for?”

Ms. Blackwell hesitated.

Sedge had wanted to ask the very same question, so he hoped she answered. His curiosity nearly made him bounce on his toes. Stealing ore didn’t hold any interest for him, but like so many others, he found the mystery of the ancient aliens fascinating. They had moved to this system tens of thousands of years ago, long before the human colonists had come, terraforming the planets and making many of them habitable. But they had disappeared ten thousand years ago, leaving only ruins and fossils here and there to prove their existence.

“Maps,” Ms. Blackwell said. “They’re maps of the caverns, fifty years’ worth of the company’s cartography efforts. According to my source, the miners were never that inquisitive, and tended to stop exploring any time they found valuable ore, but they still have the most extensive maps of Karzelek’s caverns that exist.”

“And what are we hoping to find by using the maps?” Val asked.

Ms. Blackwell’s lips thinned. “That will be revealed as needed. If you’re hired for Step Two.”

Val didn’t quite roll her eyes, but she looked like she wanted to. “Got it,” was all she said.

Sedge could understand Ms. Blackwell’s desire to keep information to herself—mercenaries didn’t have the most savory reputations, and, despite whatever research she had done, she had no way to truly know that Mandrake Company was an honorable outfit. Still, he also wanted to ply her with questions. Maybe he could sit beside her on the flight to the mining camp and show her his enthusiasm for the long-gone aliens. During his linguistics training at the academy, he had taken an elective on the ancient culture’s hieroglyphic writing system. Perhaps she would realize he could be useful to her mission and confide in him.

“Won’t the miners get suspicious when this virus takes down their computer?” Sergeant Tick asked. He was sitting next to Striker, trading moves on some game that hovered in the air between them. Sedge was surprised he had been paying attention. No, that wasn’t exactly true. Tick had a few more brain cells between his ears than Striker.

“Very likely,” Sedge said. “But the virus is designed to make it appear that the system is simply acting buggy for some reason or another. They may believe a solar flare or some space radiation from the nebula is responsible.”

“A solar flare, this far out? You’d have to hug a heat lamp to get a suntan around here.”

“Nonetheless, our meddling shouldn’t be immediately obvious. If they take precautionary measures, I believe it’s more likely they’ll move men to their ore or ingot holding facilities. We are in the fourth week since their last ore pickup, in a six week schedule, so they should have a significant amount of precious metals on hand.”

“So if we can’t get the maps, we can blow up a smelter and take some nice gold home?” Striker asked.

“That would be a felonious action,” Commander Thatcher said.

“As opposed to stealing someone’s maps?”

“The captain implied we would be scanning the maps, not stealing them.” Thatcher smiled slightly, bowed his head, and like a monk reciting a koan, added, “‘Information wants to be free.’”

Ms. Blackwell smirked. “Stewart Brand.”

“Indeed, yes,” Thatcher said.

“What?” Tick asked.

“That was often said back on Old Earth, when networks were first being established,” Ms. Blackwell said. “Naturally, I agree. At least when it comes to useful maps.”

Sedge smiled at Ms. Blackwell, then decided from Val’s frown that it might be an overly smitten-looking smile, and dropped it. He waved at the slides again. Time to wrap up the briefing. “We shall strive for stealth, but Striker is prepared if we need a distraction in order to escape with the files.”

Striker smiled and patted his bag of explosives.

Ms. Blackwell watched him dubiously. Sedge hoped that the mission would go smoothly and that they wouldn’t need to resort to tactics approved by the Chief of Boom.

“Very well,” Thatcher said. “We’ll take one shuttle, and I’ll fly us in. There’s a butte a mile out that we can land behind. The shuttle is sensor shielded, but that’s as close as I want to get, lest we risk visual detection from an alert watchman on the wall. Lieutenant Calendula will remain with the craft. Tick will go in with Ms. Blackwell and Thomlin, and Striker and I will monitor from the perimeter, preparing to distract if necessary.”

“I don’t get to go with the infiltration team?” Striker asked.

“Lieutenant Calendula has informed me that your tactless words and incessant leers—” Thatcher glanced at Val, as if to verify he was quoting her correctly, “—may be unappreciated by Ms. Blackwell. You will not accompany her anywhere during the mission.”

Striker slumped back in his seat, frowning back and forth from Thatcher to Calendula. “I liked it more before you had a woman, sir. You never used to know what was tactless.”

Val smiled and gave him a rude gesture. Thatcher swung into the pilot’s seat and fired up the engine.

“My leers aren’t incessant,” Striker grumbled to Tick, poking the air above the tablet to make a move. “They’re very… cessant.”

“Inactive or dormant?” Sedge asked, doubting Striker knew what the word meant.

“Friendly. And sexy. Women like them.”

Skeptical, Sedge looked at Ms. Blackwell for confirmation. But she had already strapped into her seat and pulled out a tablet of her own, opening the display in privacy mode so he couldn’t see what she was working on. Remembering his earlier thought of sitting beside her and telling her about his electives, Sedge took a step in that direction. But he hesitated. If she was engrossed in something private, she might not appreciate having him so close. There were numerous other places he could sit.

“Take a seat, Lieutenant Thomlin,” Thatcher said. “We’re taking off.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sedge decided to risk Ms. Blackwell’s ire and headed toward her, though he tried to walk casually, as if he was merely going to the first open seat and had nothing further on his mind. The last thing he wanted was to have Val accuse him of leering, incessantly, surreptitiously, or otherwise. He also had no wish to make Ms. Blackwell uncomfortable. Calm, casual, indifferent. That was him.

No sooner had he reached Ms. Blackwell than he sneezed mightily, one of those irritating surprise sneezes that startled a man. And those around him. She flinched and stared up at him.

“My apologies,” he murmured, dipping into his pocket for his handkerchief.

“Thomlin, you took your medication, didn’t you?” Thatcher asked.

Embarrassed heat warmed his cheeks. Ms. Blackwell was still looking at him, probably wondering why a thirty-year-old man had to be reminded to take an antihistamine like a distracted toddler. “Yes, it should kick in fully before we reach the installation. This planet is proving to be particularly taxing on my immune system.”

“How can that be?” Striker asked. “We haven’t seen more than three plants. And they were cactuses. Who’s allergic to cactus?”

“It’s the dust,” Sedge said stiffly.

“Can’t the doc give you a shot or something?”

“I react poorly to the most common drugs used for controlling the human histamine response.” Sedge decided not to mention the instances of anaphylactic shock. He had no wish to share his vulnerabilities with Striker. Or Ms. Blackwell. How had they gotten onto this horrible topic anyway?

He slid into the seat next to Ms. Blackwell, even though he was more inclined to flee to the rear and hide in the weapons locker at this point. She was still looking at him, but her expression was hardly one of sexual interest—he would have settled for any interest whatsoever. Rather, she had that look that so many of his peers often wore: wondering how someone with so many allergies could make it as a mercenary.

“I’m quite hale in most ways,” Sedge felt compelled to tell her. “It’s a hypersensitivity rather than a weakness, you understand. I haven’t had a cold or other bacterial invasion in years, and I’m in the top tenth percentile on the ship when it comes to the physical fitness tests.” He resisted the urge to take off his jacket and push up his shirt sleeve to flex his biceps—Striker did that move all the time, and it never worked on women. “My parents were explorers in their wilder youths, out in the jungles and rainforests of Mercruse and Amselite III. They sought unique specimens to breed with plants back in their greenhouses, and my mother was afflicted by a nasty parasite before she realized she was pregnant with me. They returned to civilization for treatment, but it was a stubborn parasite that took years to eradicate fully. In the meantime, I was born prematurely and with a compromised immune system. It made for an inconvenient childhood, but I grew out of most of it, and I’m quite normal now.” He wrinkled his nose, trying to fight off another sneeze. When would that damned pill kick in?

“Uhhh,” Striker said, “does anyone else feel like they just learned way more about their intelligence officer than they wanted to know?”

Tick made a vaguely disgusted face. “Yes.”

Ms. Blackwell’s face wasn’t quite so easy to read, but, curse his outstanding mastery of that intelligence officer training course on body language, she wasn’t intrigued or sympathetic. She merely appeared uncomfortable at this sharing of knowledge.

Sedge slumped back in the seat and reached for his harness. Maybe it wasn’t too late to hide in the weapons locker after all. He stared straight ahead, avoiding all eye contact until the ship took off, Striker and Tick returned to their game, and Ms. Blackwell lowered her chin to focus on her tablet again.

“Approximately forty-seven minutes until our landing spot,” Thatcher said after they had cleared the boulder field and were skimming the surface of the planet.

Darkness had fallen during his briefing, not that there was much to see out there. Sedge’s interest in the planet lay beneath the surface.

Reminded of his desire to find out more from Ms. Blackwell, he risked a glance at her. He thought she might be studying the plans of the base or be engrossed in some historical text, but she was poking at tiles with letters and parts of patterns shaded on them in gray and green. He recognized the game, having played it often with other linguistics students at the academy. He had even won a tournament there.

“Crucible?” he asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Blackwell said without looking up. She waved a finger through the air, pushing one of her tiles onto the top of the three-dimensional board, making four new words.

“Good move. Although, if you consider the Q there, the two new words you would make would gain you more points, and you’d also block your opponent’s access point to the top of the pyramid bonus.”

Ms. Blackwell’s expression wasn’t as grateful as he had hoped. She leveled a cool stare at him. “I don’t need help.”

“Pardon me.” Maybe he should be studying the base plans. He had a feeling he was on the verge of being categorized as persona non grata for her.

“If you think you’re so smart, why don’t you start your own game with me?”

Sedge straightened. Had she just invited him to play her? She had.

“I would be delighted to,” he said.

Only after he spoke did he catch Val looking back at him and shaking her head in some warning. Belatedly, it occurred to him that he might have accepted a challenge that could not be won. If he beat their new employer, she might be irked with him when they were trying to gain her favor and win a contract. If he lost to her, she might think him an idiot, not capable of the job she was contemplating hiring the mercenaries for.

He opened his mouth, about to rescind his acceptance, but she had already jabbed the “New Game” button and typed in Sedgwick. Well, at least she hadn’t entered Sniffles.

“‘Nothing reveals humanity so well as the games it plays,’” Ms. Blackwell said, a challenge in her eyes.

“David Hartley,” Sedge said.

“What kind of mercenary knows Old Earth scientists and philosophers?” she asked.

“The kind who spent a lot of time hiding from bullies in the library as a kid,” Striker said. “In fact, he does that on the Albatross too.”

Sedge ignored him and pointed at his name on the display next to his side of the board. “You can call me Sedge,” he said. He offered a hopeful smile. Maybe she would invite him to use her first name. Kalish, the game had automatically filled in, but he wouldn’t presume.

“You can call me Kalish,” she said, sticking out her hand.

He clasped it, excited that she was not only talking to him but had offered this challenge. He probably shouldn’t have noticed the pleasant feel of her warm, smooth hand in his. He definitely shouldn’t have noticed the way some of her tiny braids of hair had fallen forward, tracing the outline of her breast.

She added, “If you win,” and it broke the spell.

Sedge let his hand fall away. Up front, Val sighed and returned her focus to the view screen and the dark boulders drifting past below them. He ought to throw the game, let their employer win. What kind of employer wanted to be bested by one of the scruffy mercenaries she had hired? But there was a prize dangling above the board game now, one that tempted him more than honor or pride. Her first name. He decided to use it in his mind, even if he hadn’t yet earned the right to say it out loud.

Kalish took an early lead in their game, surprising him. It must be that her close presence, her shoulder barely an inch from his own, was distracting him. He noticed that she didn’t wear any perfume or scented shampoo, something he found quite appealing since his senses so often reacted poorly to artificial odors. Despite the lack of artifice, she did smell clean and… nice.

Realizing he was more than thirty points behind, Sedge centered his focus on the game. He took a few extra moments to study his options, then dropped a J onto the long side of the pile, forming a sun pattern and three new words. He kept his smile to himself, though the move made him proud.

Kalish glowered and said nothing. He was three points ahead now.

Perhaps it was just as well that there wasn’t time to complete the game before Thatcher guided the shuttle into a cave.

“We’ll finish this later,” Kalish said and snapped the tablet shut. Too bad it sounded more like some tedious chore that she had to return to rather than a game. He was enjoying himself.

“We may have a problem,” Thatcher announced.

“What is it?” Sedge unfastened his harness and jogged to the cockpit, kneeling between Val and Thatcher.

“There are detector robots flying in a grid all around the complex. They were either too small for the satellite to pick up, or they’re cloaked in sensor-blocking armor.” Thatcher scratched his jaw thoughtfully. He had already killed all power except for the auxiliary lights and a few displays on the panel as well as the view screen itself. Most likely in an attempt to reduce their power signature, so the shuttle wouldn’t be detected. “If so, this is far more advanced security technology than we were led to believe this compound had.” He looked back at Kalish.

She walked up to stand behind Val’s seat, her frown dark as she stared at the instruments. Thatcher pointed at a couple of dashes of white on his sensor panel. One was floating along, paralleling the distant wall of the complex, but another was drifting toward the butte the shuttle was hiding in.

“Do you have any way to scramble their systems, Thomlin?” Thatcher asked.

Sedge already had his tablet out, tying it into the shuttle’s sensors to get a reading on what they were dealing with. The flying robot was even more modern than Thatcher had implied, a unit not widely on the shelves yet. Sedge had read about them only recently making appearances at security demonstrations.

“Not a Mig 3500,” he said. “Not on a minute’s notice. Maybe if I had a couple of days.”

He called upon the network, trying to download information, but they were weeks out from the core of the system, and communications were about as speedy as sending messages by carrier pigeon.

“We don’t have days.” Val leaned forward, squinting into the gloom in front of the cave the shuttle had backed into. “That dot is coming our way.”

“Have to blow it up before it reports back,” Striker said.

Sedge frowned. “That would be as telling as simply letting it report. Is it too late to abort? Slip away before it identifies us?”

Kalish’s fingers dug into the back of Val’s chair. “We’re not aborting. Blow it up. They won’t know for sure what happened. It could have smashed against a boulder and knocked itself out.”

Sedge bit his tongue to keep from saying how unlikely it was that even an older model of detector would make that mistake.

The hatch seal hissed, and Striker and Tick jogged out into the dark cave with their rifles and explosives before Sedge could offer up a better solution.

“That’s disturbing,” Tick’s voice came over the comm. The beams of the two men’s flashlights grew visible on the shuttle’s view screen. They crossed to focus on something lumpy on the ground.

“I’ll say.” Striker made a disgusted sound.

“What is it?” Thatcher asked.

“Animal scat, sir,” Tick said. “A big pile. Definitely from a predator. Looks like this planet has some more substantial critters than those little lizards we saw today.”

“Noted. Focus on the drone, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

“There it is.” Val pointed.

A dark disk floated in the night air at the mouth of the cave, a few red dots blinking along its rim. A second later, two crimson beams shot out from beside the shuttle. The disk jerked in the air, spinning away. An impressive amount of shielding kept it from exploding outright. Striker and Tick charged after it, still firing, focusing their beams on it. It sped out of the cave, but just before it escaped sight, it blew up in a ball of fiery orange that lit up the boulders and dust. Blackened shrapnel flew away. Then the flames died out, leaving nothing but the night sky.

“There’s no way that would have happened if it had simply run into a cliff,” Sedge said.

Kalish frowned at him again, and he wished he hadn’t made the observation.

“No,” Thatcher agreed, standing. “We’re dealing with more modern defenses than we were led to believe. Ms. Blackwell, do you wish us to go in anyway?”

“Yes.”

~

If you’re digging the story so far, you can pick up the ebook from Amazon (it will be available in more stores later in 2015).

18 responses to “The Ruins of Karzelek, Mandrake Company Book 4, Now Available: Excerpt and Preview”

  1. Lycia Hall says:

    Love chapter 1. Can’t wait to read the rest of the story. Tried to get the book on Amazon, but wasn’t successful. Is it not ready for purchase yet?

  2. mary says:

    Bummer the link’s not working for me either, hopefully by Christmas :). Just curious is this Amazon US? From your author info can’t tell if you’re from the US or not and maybe that’s why it’s not available yet.

    Anyway loved the first 3 books, just found you over the weekend and devoured the books. Book 2 my fav, I love characters that are brilliant but socially awkward.

    Look forward to book 4….and 5, 6 7… (a teaser on the next Mandrake character would be awesome)

    • Ruby says:

      Hi Mary,

      It should be working soon, but it looks like more typos than usual slipped through this time, so I’m going to try to get a revised copy up by this weekend. Thanks for checking out the series–I’m glad you’ve been enjoying them. I’ll be jumping back to Ankari and Viktor in Book 5, kind of a sequel to Book 1, even though it takes place after Book 4. 🙂

  3. Shannon f says:

    Just devoured all four books this weekend! Loving the series! Can’t wait to see who else you have planned

  4. Brenda says:

    i have read the first 3 books. I love them! I can’t wait to read book 4. Please keep them coming.

  5. Brenda says:

    I love this series. I read the first 3 and I can’t wait to read book 4. Please keep them coming. Your writing is excellent!

  6. Karen says:

    I just found the 1st book this weekend free on Amazon. I loved it!!! I went back and bought the next 3 books. I just finished book# 2 and I loved the brilliant but socially inept Gregor. I really liked that your books had a wonderful mix of actual plot and character relationship development before they actually got more physical!! lol
    I am glad you plan to continue the series with more books!!

  7. Lycia Hall says:

    Totally agree, Carla. Striker would be a real challenge for any woman. Would love to read that story!

  8. Jane A says:

    I just found you and am devouring your books! I have had a long love affair with SciFi Romance, but good ones are far and few between. Thanks for helping fill the void so very well. Onward now to The Ruins of Karzelek!

    • Ruby says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Jane. I’m glad you’re enjoying the stories so far. Thanks for picking them up! 🙂

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