Carolyn Kestral and the crew of the Mary, as well as Coray Gheris and the crew of the Jovian Skies, get caught in a crossfire of rival planetary corporate entities, con men, assassins and killer robots, all centered around the House of Jacquarelle… and in the process, they discover a shocking secret about one of their own!
Preview: Chapter 1
Carolyn Kestral backpedalled until her butt struck the padded wall, forcing a grunt out of her. She was tired, so tired that the mere existence of something to lean against sorely tempted her to let her arms relax, straighten up and pull the kinks out of her back. But she was no fool: She knew that letting her guard down, for even a second, would cause her opponent to charge in and give her no quarter. So she kept her arms up, her bo staff at the ready, and kept her eyes locked on the man in the center of the room.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” her opponent said heavily—at least he was breathing hard, too—and half-stepped his way forward, his hands a blur as they rotated his bo before him like a propeller. “No resting yet, my dear Captain. Step to! En garde!”
He shifted his hands, and the whirling bo altered its angle of rotation and came down, directly for her head. Kestral parried quickly, her staff rising to meet his, and creating a resounding clack that echoed across the room as they came together. But the bo came down too close to her left hand, and the impact rattled her left arm painfully. She grunted again, and used her right arm to lever her opponent’s bo aside and down to her left, hoping to get a clean shot at him from the right. But as her bo came around, he pitched aside and rolled, leaving an empty space on the floor for her bo to impact.
But Kestral had expected that. She shifted her bo quickly to the left, tangling it into her opponent’s legs as he finished his roll and tried to stand. He cried out in alarm as he crashed back to the floor, and Kestral’s bo came down on his back.
“Ach!” he yelled out and arched backward painfully in response to the blow. He held the pose for a moment… then went limp, and allowed his head and limbs to thump back onto the floor. Kestral watched as he laid there, his back rising and falling with his labored breathing. After a moment, he tilted his head and looked at Kestral, his eyes barely visible behind the padded helmet that protected skin as black as empty space. “Obviously, I’ve used that move far too often. It is hereby struck from my sparring routine.”
“Probably a good idea… for you,” Kestral grinned, and dropped to a cross-legged position next to him on the floor. She removed her padded helmet, letting her long, brunette locks tumble out. It was a clear indication that the sparring match was over, so her opponent removed his helmet, allowing his snow-white hair to bounce out and half-obscure his ebony face again. Mark O’Bannon regarded Kestral through tousled hair, and used one hand to prop up his head on the mat. “For me,” Kestral continued, “I rather liked finally getting the drop on you.”
“I’ll say you did,” Mark agreed, his free hand reaching to rub the spot on his back where the staff had struck. “Man, those things don’t tickle.”
“You’re telling me!” Kestral laughed sardonically, knowing that she was usually the one receiving the punishment at the hands of Mark’s bo. Mark O’Bannon and Carolyn Kestral were both former Orion Guardsmen, and had had the same combat training during their service; but Mark was younger, stronger, and just plain faster than Kestral, and they had mutually agreed to spare no effort in their sparring matches. This was partly to ensure that they would keep their “fighting eye”… because, paradoxically, despite their having left the service and gone into commercial freight delivery, it seemed that their fighting skills still occasionally came in handy.
There was another reason for the no-holds-barred sparring, though by mutual agreement they never discussed it. Kestral knew Mark wanted to test her, to make her sweat and strain, to see if the physical effort might someday trigger the dormant virus in her system. In official Orion references, it was known as Xenovirus Raia HS Reagent B; in more colloquial references, it was known as the Venom virus. The Raians had deployed the virus during one of the last Orion-Raian wars, with devastating consequences: Approximately ninety-three percent of those who came in contact with the virus underwent a physical transformation, their bodies enlarging and distorting from floods of adrenalin and other chemical and hormonal imbalances; and their minds becoming dull and irrational, then flooded with the pain of the transformation; turning them into short-lived killing machines capable of wiping out scores of people at once before they burned themselves out… or were mercifully put down by their surviving crewmen. The physical reaction was reminiscent of a fictional character from old Earth, the Hulk… and the designation “Reagent B” was someone’s idea of a joke, the initial referencing the name of the scientist who succumbed to his own rage or stress and transformed into the creature against his will.
Kestral had been exposed to the virus, and was one of the rare people who had never triggered, but who also hadn’t had the entire remnant of the virus expunged from her system. The subsequent distrust of her condition by her fellow Guardsmen and commanders had effectively killed her military career.
Presently, their breathing subsided to normal levels, and Mark pushed himself up to a sitting position, facing Kestral. “You’re getting better,” he said matter-of-factly, using a hand to smooth his snow-white hair back from his dark forehead. Even in the good lighting of the bay, Mark’s Martian jet-black skin and features were barely visible. “I think your reflexes have sped up noticeably.”
“I think I’m just anticipating better,” Kestral replied, to which Mark nodded in concession. “But thank you for saying so.” She rubbed a sore spot on her arm, then glanced up at the small drone floating near the ceiling… the mobile sensory drone of the ship. “Mary: How do my physical stats look?”
Mary’s drone lowered itself incrementally from its vantage point at the top-center of the room. The glassy black oval was smooth and featureless on the outside, but tiny lights constantly played beneath its surface. “Physical readings are consistent with heavy workout, with no abnomalies or unusual readings detected.”
Kestral nodded, and looked to Mark, who smiled and addressed the drone: “Mary, end Kestral sparring lockdown.”
“Lockdown ended.” The change of the door locks from red to green were the only indication of an external change, but it meant that the two of them could now safely leave the room. Kestral smiled back, and stood up tiredly.
“If only we didn’t have so much time to practice! I should be getting some good sales practice in, too.”
“We’re just in a slow period,” Mark shrugged. “It’ll get better.”
“Probably,” Kestral nodded. “Still, I’ve lost more sales than I’ve made, lately. I better figure out where I’m going wrong with my pitches.” She glanced at Mark, who seemed to be looking at her sheepishly. “What?” she prodded insistently.
In response, Mark leveled a finger at her and said, “That. The way you talk and act… like you’re still running a military ship. I hate to tell you, Carolyn… but I think you’re too intimidating.”
“Me?” Kestral goggled at him at first… then her face became introspective. “You think?”
“I mean… not a lot,” Mark continued. “But enough, I think, to make some clients a bit… nervous. And maybe it doesn’t help that you’re… you know… you.”
“I know.” As much as she wished it weren’t so, a lot of civilians knew Carolyn Kestral’s past as well, and she had often found herself overtly assuring a client that nothing would happen to their goods… because she would not unexpectedly go berserk, kill her crew, and incidentally lose their precious cargo. “I thought showing strength and confidence was working.”
“Mostly,” Mark conceded. “But… well. Just try to keep in mind that you’re not trying to impress Guardsmen anymore.”
“Mark, I swear, if there was a name for ‘Guard-phobia,’ I’d make it into a sign and slap it right onto your a—”
A coded series of beeps sounded near the door. Kestral and Mark looked over to a small datapad Mark had left by the door, and with a mild groan, Mark stood up and walked over to the pad. He picked it up and examined his screen, then turned to Kestral. “Time to go… we’re twenty minutes to planetfall on Padre Martello.”
“We really should rethink our sparring schedule sometime. The last thing I need is to risk knocking out my pilot just before we hit atmosphere.”
“You think that’s a likelihood, do you?” Mark smiled, his teeth nearly gleaming inside an ebony mouth.
“Ass,” Kestral shot back amiably, and triggered the hatch.
“Well, it’s about time someone got here.” Sarander Fi, seated at the pilot’s console, said this even before turning around to see who had just entered the bridge behind him.
“Hey, I needed to shower after my workout,” Mark said as he stepped onto the bridge. “You wouldn’t have wanted me in here before then.”
“You’re right,” Sarander replied easily, standing up from the pilot’s station and making room for Mark to take over. In contrast to Mark’s compact frame, Sarander Fi was a head taller and noticeably broader, almost too tall to stand on the bridge without ducking his head. “Did you beat up on her again?”
“Actually,” Kestral said as she stepped through the bridge threshold, “I scored the final hit.” As Sarander turned to face her, she smiled mock-proudly and drew herself up to her full height… a pointless gesture against Sarander’s giant frame.
“Oh!” Sarander drawled, turning back to Mark. “So Carolyn’s beating up on you now, eh?”
“It happens,” Mark shrugged as he worked over the pilot’s console. Under his ministrations, the freighter Mary began to trim itself for atmospheric insertion, and the vibrations that were a constant tune aboard the ship seemed to lessen in volume and intensity somewhat. Sarander was a competent pilot, but Mark was a master, a former Guard pilot; and at his hands, the Mary could dance on a proverbial string. He turned to face Sarander. “Shouldn’t you be in engineering, boss?”
Sarander chuckled and said, “Don’t want to talk about your beating?”
Before Mark could reply, Kestral interrupted and asked, “Where’s Tirri?”
“In cargo, minding the fish,” Sarander replied.
“What’s to mind?” Mark asked over his shoulder. “They’re all in stasis. Hell, they’re all embryos.”
“I think that, after what happened on Kerrin,” Sarander volunteered, “she just wants to make sure nothing happens to the load.”
Mark took on a sour look. “We were robbed. We lose three quarters of our fee because their stasis containers malfunctioned and ruined one quarter of their cargo. But that wasn’t Tirri’s fault.”
“Nothing wrong with doing her job,” Kestral nodded finally, giving Sarander a significant look.
“Say no more,” Sarander said, taking the hint. “I’ll be in engineering.” With that, and one last grin at Mark, he left the bridge, his mere exit seeming to leave the room feeling noticeably larger.
“I have the beacon at dev site Charlie,” Mark announced. “All systems ready.”
“Okay,” Kestral said from her console behind Mark. “Take us in.”
Mary eased herself through the upper atmosphere, the counter-sonics acting to bring the scream of reentry down to a whisper. Mark allowed the ship’s avionics to glide them in, using thrusters only to keep her aligned, and allowing the twin drive engines a rest as they descended. And Kestral could tell from her vantage point that he wasn’t having trouble with the task. The Mary was almost too good to be hauling freight, all sleek lines outside and top-of-the-line engineering inside… worse-looking ships than her were often pressed into duty as space liners. But she was all-business, too, powerful and solid, and so far in her operating lifetime, had never let them down (assuming one didn’t count that time on Shura Dva… but that had been due to very unexpected external influences, and therefore not actually the freighter’s fault).
At last, a vague change in tone and a barely-perceptual change in apparent gravity alerted Kestral that they had finished atmospheric insertion, and Mark was bringing the Mary’s powerful drive engines online again. Kestral’s monitors confirmed that the ship’s hull was rapidly cooling from the re-entry, and that all systems were operating properly. She monitored their progress casually, as she was already busy accessing the Padre Martello commercial channels and looking for new freight runs she might pick up upon finishing with their present load.
Mark, with his characteristic professionalism and practiced ease, guided the Mary into her designated landing zone, shifted the main thrusters to vertical position, and lowered the freighter to the ground. Kestral’s only indication that they had landed was his announcement: “We’re down. Mary is going into parking mode.”
“Thank you,” Kestral replied. “Let’s go deliver some fish.”