Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Work on Chasing Redemption, Book 3 of the Dragon's Bidding Series is progressing, slowly but still progressing. I'm not the world's speediest writer. While it's under construction, I thought you might enjoy reading a deleted scene from A Hero for the Empire.
A reader once faulted me for letting my two main characters fall in love too quickly. Actually, Fitz spend a lot more time on Wolf's base--about 9000 words worth--in the original version. Hero was my first book and weighed in at a hefty 160k words. Friends who were wiser than I suggest that it needed to be cut a bit. Of the four deleted scenes that have languished in my computer for several years, one was a zero gravity handball game between the pair that is being recycled into another story. The one below appeared to me almost in its entirety while I drove through sugar cane country in South Florida.  

    The Crash Site
 A deleted scene from A Hero for the Empire
The suppression field dropped as the door flew open and Major Donkenny charged in, still in his sweat stained gym clothes.
“Damn it, Wolf, I’ve been trying to get you on your implant. We’ve got big problems. Two of our J/CO gunships are down over by Summerfield.”
Youngblood stood, grabbed his holster from the back of the chair and started to buckle it in place. “Do we know what happened?”
“The pilot radioed in to say his wingman was down and he was taking fire…”
Youngblood’s head snapped around. “Fire? From whom?”
“That’s just it. He said there was nothing up there with him. Even our scans show only the one ship. Then we lost contact with him. Whatever was out there had to be fully stealthed.”
Fitz’s stomach dropped. Lizzy. She’d left her ship parked on a ridge north of the base with orders to avoid all contact, both mercenary or civilian. Had something happened while she was out of contact to cause Lizzy to go off on her own and attack the gunships? If new orders had been tight beamed to her, overriding the communication’s blackout order, then the crap could have hit the impeller blade back home and she wouldn‘t know anything about it. Without her spike in place there was no way she could contact Lizzy and find out what was going on.
“I’ve rolled a crash team,” Donkenny said. “And a medevac flyer.”
Youngblood nodded, cinching the tie down straps on the holster tight against his leg. “Have them pull me out another gunship. I’m flying shotgun with them.”
He turned to Fitz, his blue eyes glittered with cold rage. “FitzWarren, if I bloody well find out you had anything to do with this—I promise you—I will send you back to your Triumvir in tiny chufting pieces.”
Refusing to wilt under that withering gaze, Fitz clinched her jaw and snarled, “Don’t be such an ass, Youngblood. I’ve been sitting here busting my butt to get you to cooperate with me. Why would I go out of my way to antagonize you? I’m not that stupid.”
Damn it, if he quirks that eyebrow at me, I swear I’ll slap it right off his face.
She studied his enraged features, thought she saw the instant reason forced anger back into its box and slammed the lid on it. “I can help,” she said. “I’ve worked crash teams before.”
“This is Gold Dragon business. We’ll take care of it.” He turned and walked away, rolling up his sleeves. Fitz followed him out of the conference room. 
“But I want to help,” she said, surprising herself, because at some time during the day, the Gold Dragons had turned from a faceless group of mercenaries to real living beings with histories and dreams of their own, beings she could care about. Particularly one.
In the outer office, Donnkenny, incongruous in his sweats, choreographed a scene of frenetic activity. He looked up from his pad when Youngblood approached. The easy camaraderie of earlier was gone, replaced by proper military procedure. “Colonel, they’ve got a gunship prepped for you at hangar 3.”
With a nod of acknowledgement, Youngblood spun and sprinted down the hall, Fitz effectively dismissed. The staff and even the guards were engrossed by the frenzied events playing out on their screens, leaving Fitz unnoticed. No doubt, they expected her to find her way back to her room unescorted and wait for the crisis to play itself out. Instead, she dashed after Youngblood. He hadn’t exactly said she couldn’t come with him.
He’d opted for the emergency exit over the lift and the door to the stairwell rapidly slide shut behind him. If she didn’t get to it before it closed, the palm lock wouldn’t recognize her and she be stuck on this side. Putting on a burst of speed, she stuck out her hand and caught the door just before it slammed shut, cursing as it smashed her fingers. She pushed through and took the steps three at a time, hearing his footsteps echoing up the vertical shaft. By the time they reached the ground floor, she had almost caught up with him and pounded out of the building on his heels. They struck off across the base.
Fitz’s lungs and cardiovascular system had been enhanced to handle the stresses of hyperkinetic movement. Even with her augmentations off line, she had the ability to run flat out for hours, making up the advantage his longer legs gave him. They dashed into an alley, hurdling over a stack of crates. The same alley, Fitz recalled, she’d crept down only this morning. 
Exiting it, they crossed a road, heading for a row of hangers. In front of one, Fitz could see a ground-tech unhitching a tow-bot from the front skids of an Akton Virmana MkIII. The Virmana was bigger than the J/CO, with a compartment behind the pilots large enough to carry an assault team and their gear. While Youngblood consulted with the crew chief, Fitz began her walk around. She knew the ground crew had already checked the ship for airworthiness, but she hated to trust her backside to any aircraft without at least a cursory preflight of her own.
She pulled the engine covers and stuffed them into the arms of the surprised ground-tech, then continued down the fuselage checked to make sure everything was tight and all the control surfaces moved freely. As she rounded the tail, she ran into Youngblood, mirroring her actions on the other side of the ship. Their eyes met for a second and she thought she saw a grudging approval in his gaze before he turned away.
She ran to the front, starting to climb into the Virmana when a hand grabbed the back of her coveralls pulling her up short.
“Uh-uh,” Youngblood said. “I’ll pilot, you ride in the right seat.”
Ducking under the nose, she climbed into the copilot’s seat, starting to bring up the avionics suite. “I could sync in directly and get this down a lot faster if you’d let me use my spike.”
“There’s a cheat-sheet in the side pocket if you’ve forgotten how to do it manually,” he answered and Fitz figured that was a no.
Her fingers dancing deftly across the console, she brought all flight systems on line, one after the other flashing their readiness. “I’ve got a green board over here.”
Youngblood nodded his acknowledgment as he took the weapons systems hot, and then put them in stand-by. “Check you side.”
Fitz glanced behind her and saw the ground crew had retreated to a safe distance and shouted, “Clear.”
Finding his side clear, Youngblood hit the ignition and the Virmana’s engines spooled up with a howl and the airframe vibrated like an animal trying to twitch off a fly. Fitz noticed three people in hospital whites laden with gear running toward them waving to get their attention. She tapped Youngblood’s arm and pointed. At his nod, she hit the door switch and the trio climbed into the back, stowing their equipment. The sole woman in the group studied her keenly. She looked to be about a decade older than Fitz, with ginger hair going gray and a long face covered with freckles.
“Good afternoon, Doctor,” Youngblood said. “Things a bit slow at the hospital today?”
“Nah, just thought I’d get out and get a little fresh air.” She settled between the two med-techs, putting on a headset and fishing out her harness.
“Major Rauschtonkowski is my Chief Medical Officer,” he said to Fitz.
Fitz clasped the hand the woman offered and introduced herself, stumbling on the unfamiliar name.
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” the doctor said. “Just call me Doc Ski like everyone else does. If my patients had to say that entire name, they’d be dead before they got it all out.” She struggled into her restraints, snugging down her shoulder belts. “I’d tighten my harness if I were you. I’ve flown with him before.”
Fitz checked her belts and was trying to put on her helmet, when Youngblood fire-walled the throttles and the Virmana took off like it had been spit out of a mass driver. Her stomach plunged to just above her boot soles and she fought g-forces to raise the helmet to her head. 
The screams of the engines reverberated off the buildings as the gunship gained altitude, hurtling across the perimeter fence and out over the surrounding jungle. The canopy tossed like an angry green sea in their backwash. A flock of multicolored lizards with four wings exploded out of the trees, scattering in panic and Fitz was grateful for the gunship’s shields. One of those through the windscreen or an engine intake would put a quick and disastrous end to this expedition. 
With her helmet finally on, the engine noise receded into the background. Fitz patched into the frequency the crash teams were using to bring herself up to speed on the rescue.
The two ships had crashed about ten klicks apart. The southernmost one had exploded in the air and was little more than scattered, burning wreckage. The second one had come down relatively intact and there was a chance of survivors. She felt Youngblood swing the Virmana’s nose more to the northwest in response to that information.
In the distance, she could see the lowlands spread out in a tapestry of greens, broken only by two columns of greasy black smoke. Beneath them she glimpsed the silver glint of a river. The waters poured off the mountains and over the escarpment in a cloud of vapor that the afternoon sun spun into rainbows.
Crossing over the precipice, Youngblood pushed the gunship’s nose down and Fitz’s stomach—which had only recently migrated back to its accustomed location—climbed into her throat. They leveled out just above an expanse of bright green vegetation, quickly catching and passing the slower emergency flyers.
What Fitz has first thought was grass appeared to be over two meters tall. “What is this stuff?”
“Sugar cane,” Youngblood answered. “And at the price they get for real sugar these days you can bet that the Rainy who owns this field is already on the com to his attorney about how much he can sue us for over this little debacle.”
Reducing air speed, he put the gunship into a low tight circle over the crash site. “The external fire suppression systems knocked down most of the flames and the cabin looks pretty much intact.”
“Intact enough that someone may have survived.” Ski said. “I need to get down there right away.”
“There’s a clearing on the other side of that ditch.” Fitz pointed out the windscreen.
Landing next to a structure that looked to be a pumping station for the irrigation system, the med-techs jumped out and began unloading equipment. Reaching under his seat, Youngblood pulled out a leather scabbard, extracting a long wide bladed knife.
“Keep an eye out for marquarks.” At Fitz’s puzzled gaze, he elaborated, “It’s a poisonous lizard that lives in the cane fields.”
“The Rainies call it the ‘Oh, Shit Lizard’,” said the doctor. “Cause if it bites you, you’ll only have about enough time to say ‘Oh, Shit’ before the neurotoxin paralyzes your cardiopulmonary system and you’re dead.”
Wonderful, thought Fitz as she jumped out of the Virmana. Poisonous lizards. One more thing to add to my why I hate planets list.
Fitz clambered down the loose sand of the embankment. The muck at the bottom of the ditch was too wide to jump, so she waded in, the muddy water coming up over her knees and sloshing down into her boots, soaking her socks. As she started up the other side, Youngblood reached down a hand and pulled her up, then turned to help the doctor.
The sugar cane towered over her in an impenetrable wall of rustling green. Green. Rainbow was a veritable symphony of greens. Stinging, itching, humid greens. Fitz was growing to despise the color.
“Don’t follow me too closely,” said Youngblood. Sighting on the thin column of smoke rising over the vegetation, he plunged into the field hacking a path through the thick stalks with the machete.
Even with him clearing the way, the going was far from easy. Broken stalks fouled her legs and her feet slipped and slid in her water filled boots, threatening to twist her ankle at every step. Her world narrowed down to a green tunnel with the flash of Youngblood’s white shirt ahead of her and the stumbling curses of the three medicos behind. The leaves razored tiny cuts on her face that stung as sweat rolled out of her hair and down her cheeks. 
Fitz squawked as a flood of tiny pink balls of fluff poured over her boots. She tried to jump out of their way but her body responded sluggishly and her feet became entangled in the stubbly vegetation. She began to fall. A sinuous shape exploded out of the wall of green, hurtling toward her face. There was a momentary impression of a thickly muscled body beneath pebbled red, yellow and black skin. A rank stench of reptilian musk washed over her. The mouth opened impossibly wide and Fitz could see droplets of venom hanging from its fangs.
A glimmer of silver flashed at the bottom of her vision, rising in a metallic arc. The blade slashed through the marquark, severing the body cleanly and sending the pieces tumbling away. Youngblood reached a hand to her, pulling her to her feet.
“I told you to watch out for the marquarks.” He turned back to hacking at the cane before she had time to retort. She drew a shaky breath and stumbled in his wake.
They broke out into the furrow the gunship had plowed as it careened through the field. Clambering over piles of dirt and broken vegetation, she picked her way along the side of the gunship. Something in the twisted metal of the J/CO’s tail section caught her attention, but she filed it away in her mental investigate that later file and continued on to the door on the copilot’s side, peering through the window.
Beneath the instrument panel electronics arced and smoldered, filling the cockpit with smoke. Either the internal fire suppression system had failed to activate automatically, or it was manual and neither occupant had been able to hit the release. A stanchion had broken loose and impaled the pilot, killing him, but the woman in the right seat was not only alive but conscious, weakly trying to get her attention. Fitz hand signed keep still, hoping the woman understood. Girl, really. She looked to be barely out of her teens and the fear made her look even younger.
This one’s alive,” she yelled and slapped the release on the door. It popped open a few centimeters and stopped. Hooking her fingers under the edge, she pulled but it refused to budge, even when Youngblood added his strength to the effort.
“It’s jammed by the impact,” he said. “It’s going to take more than the two of us to get this open and the crash team’s still five minutes out. See it you can find something to use as a pry bar.”
Fitz put her hand on his arm, halting him. “You brought my spike, didn’t you?”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her face, but he nodded. 
“I can get her out before that flyer even gets here. I know you’re not sure you can trust me, but don’t let your stubbornness cost that kid her life. I want to help. Please.”
He reached into one of the clip cases on his shoulder harness and pulled out a slender object wrapped in a scrap of cloth. “Turn around.”
As he pushed her hair out of the way, his fingers on her neck sent a shiver through her body like an electric shock. He slipped the spike into its socket, giving it a quarter turn to snap it into place. Because she hadn’t been able to properly shut it down before he’d yanked it out, all her systems came back on in a crash of sensory overload that buckled her knees. A strong arm slipped around her waist, pulling her tight against his body. His other hand cradled her head, guiding it back to rest on his chest. With her audio enhancements she could hear the rapid pounding of his heart.
“Take deep breaths. It’ll pass in a few seconds.” His voice was soft, muttered into her hair.
Fitz began shutting down the unnecessary systems and the chaos inside her head subsided. “I’m okay,” she said and when he didn’t respond right away she added, “You can let go of me now.”
He released her so quickly she stumbled and his voice took on the snap of command. “Take these.” He shoved a pair of gloves into her hands and pushed her toward the gunship.
She hooked her gloved fingers under the edge of the door and pulled. When nothing happened, she exerted more pressure. Her enhancements were layered over her normal muscle strength, servos meshing with her body so seamlessly that she couldn’t tell when one ended and the other began. When she’d first been augmented, the hardest adjustment had been to moderate that power, so that she wasn’t always knocking holes in doors and crushing coffee cups.
The door began to peel up with a series of juddering screeches, then tore loose with a metallic protest, opening only a short distance before it hung up on a mound of dirt and debris. Fitz shoved, bulldozing the obstruction out of the way until the door swung free, slamming back against the side of the gunship. She dived through the opening, smashing her palm on the release for the fire system and cold foam drenched her and the cabin, knocking down the flames.
Checking the copilot, she found the girl had a weak pulse and possible internal injuries. The instrument panel had buckled, pinning her legs and probably breaking them. Youngblood pushed in beside Fitz, dagger in hand, slicing the seat belts and radio connections. 
“Can you free her legs?”
“Think so.” Fitz’s position was awkward, reaching across the girl’s lap, but she was able to lift the panel enough for him to slide her out and onto the back board the med-techs had brought up to the side of the aircraft. Carrying her to their staging area, the tech began checking her over, starting a line and putting in an airway. Doc Ski ran the wand of a portable scanner over her body, intoning a litany of injuries, punctuated by profanities.
“Both her chufting collar bones are broken, a couple of ribs. Ah, chuft, she’s got internal bleeding. Both legs are broken. Where’s that chufting medevac flyer?”
Fitz couldn’t see anything over the towering green walls around them, but she could tell from the sound it was close.
“They’re almost here. Should be down in a couple of minutes. Is she going to make it all the way back to the base hospital?” Fitz asked.
“Don’t have to,” said the doctor, winding up the leads on the scanner, preparing to move out. “We’ve got a stasis box on board the flyer.”
The null-time field of the stasis cabinet would buy the girl all the time they needed to get to an operating room. A portable med scanner and a stasis box were particularly high tech—and expensive—equipment. Not what she’d expect to find in a mercenary unit, but then the GDs and their enigmatic leader had turned out to be not at all what she’d expected.
She followed Youngblood back to the crashed gunship, helping him extract the dead pilot. By the time they got him out and sealed into a body bag, the medevac flyer had landed and the doctor’s crew had loaded the injured woman aboard. They stowed their equipment and the flyer lifted off, its engines whipping the sugar cane into a frenzy and pelting them with shredded leaves and grit.
Fitz remembered the anomaly that had caught her attention earlier, so while Youngblood helped the crash crew extinguish the last of the sluggish fire in the sugar cane field, she went back to study the wreckage, hoping her initial split second assessment had been incorrect. It hadn’t.
She called her ship. Using a civilian frequency, she scrambled and disguised it to look like nothing more threatening that a farmer reprogramming a robo-harvester.
“What’s wrong, Commander?” answered the ship’s computer. “I thought we agreed on radio silence…”
Fitz overrode her. “Lizzy, where are you?”
“I’m…right were you left me,” she said, growing circumspect.
“You haven’t moved?”
“Of course not, Commander. Has something happened?”
“Two of the Gold Dragons’ gunships have been shot down and the preliminary evidence leads me to believe it was an Imperial ship. A stealthed Imperial ship.”
“And you think I did it?” For a computer generated voice, she managed to show a lot of indignation.
“Sorry, Lizzy, but I had to be sure. You weren’t by any chance scanning this area in the past hour or so, were you?”
“Of course not. You specifically ordered me not to, for fear the Gold Dragons would be able to detect it. Not that a bunch of jumped-up play soldiers would be able to spot my scans.”
Fitz was glad the ship couldn’t see her smile. “Would you please do a scan now? You would be able to pick up a stealthed ship, wouldn’t you?” While she waited for the ship’s answer, Fitz wondered if the living Elizabeth Angstrom had been so crotchety before she’d been imprinted on the computer.
“Beyond a welter of commercial traffic and a dozen or so heavy haulers taking quarrberries to market, I’m reading nothing. And, yes, I would be able to pick up the atmospheric anomaly of a cloaked ship. If it was out there. It’s no doubt left the area. I know I would’ve if it had been me.
“Nothing out there,” Fitz mused, rubbing her hands on her upper arms as if to soothe away the prickle of gooseflesh. She scanned the sky, in visual and infrared. In the fading afternoon sun, the sugar cane threw long, shifting shadows. A hundred shuttles could hide out there. Grounded and buttoned up, they would be almost impossible to detect.
“Does this compromise our mission, Commander?” Lizzy asked.
“For right now, I’m operating under the assumption that it doesn’t, but it looks like someone at DIS wants Youngblood dead. There’s already been one attempt and I suspect our mysterious ship was dropping off another assassin. Whether that has anything to do with us being here or not, I can’t be sure. But it’s certainly suspicious that all this is happening at the same time.”
“If Youngblood’s killed…”
“Yeah, I know. We’re pretty much screwed. Keep scanning and contact me it you find anything.”
“Should I place the Gold Dragons in the “friendly” column now?”
“Let’s just say “not hostile” for the time being. Fitz, out.”
She located Youngblood, whistled to get his attention and waved him over.
The recruiting poster perfection she’d admired earlier was gone, submerged under layers of grit and soot. The once pristine white shirt was torn and discolored with stains from blood and vegetation. His hair hung in a tangled mess.
“Did you see this?” She indicated the twisted wreckage at the tail of the aircraft.
“Yes, I noticed it when we first arrived.”
“It looks like it was made by a small air-to-air missile. A Sagaris or maybe an SDM-247.”
“That would be my assessment also,” he said, warily scratching his jaw.
“Anyone around here have that kind of armament?”
“Besides us? No. And I don’t think they shot each other down.”
“The armament coupled with the fact that it didn’t show up on your scans, means we’re dealing with an Imperial vessel, probably an assault shuttle. Since they aren’t hypercapable, it had to have been brought into the system by a larger vessel.”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her with a sidelong gaze. “And I do know there happens to be one of those on planet at the present time. FitzWarren, where is your ship?”
“You don’t think...” she began and then remembered her first thought had been that Lizzy might have gone rogue. “She’s where I left her, parked up on the plateau near your base, buttoned up to prevent detection and because of that, she wasn’t scanning at the time this attack took place, or we might already have some answers. She says the bogie appears to have hightailed it out of the area, but would give me a hail if it shows up again.” From his speculative look, Fitz realized she might have disclosed more about Lizzy’s capabilities that she had intended. She quickly redirected the conversation.
“The shuttle pilot must have thought the shooter had been compromised and the gunships had been sent after him, so he took them out. He might have returned to the main ship, but as far as the assassin’s concerned, the hit is still on and he’ll be coming after you. Maybe you can stop this one, but Tritico will only send another and another until he finally kills you. How many of your people are you going to let become collateral damage while all this is going on?”
He wheeled on her, stepping in close to tower over her. It took all of Fitz’s will power not the retreat before the rage she saw glittering in his eyes.
“I’ve got three people dead and one in the hospital that Ski is fighting to keep alive. Damn it, FitzWarren I’ve known Annie Perez virtually her entire life, ever since she was so little she had to sit in her father’s lap to see out the windscreen. All she ever wanted to be was a Gold Dragon and fly gunships like her old man.”
“Perez? She’s your steward’s…”
“Daughter,” he finished her sentence. “And this is all because of your bloody meddling.”
“My meddling?”
“You and your bleeding Triumvir. I don’t give a flipping damn if all the factions in the empire blow each other in tiny chufting pieces, just leave me out of it.”
“Well, you’re in it now…”
He pointedly ignored her remark, looking away as one of the crash crew hailed him, gesturing toward two people who’d just stumbled out of the sugarcane.
The taller one wore a wide brimmed hat and utilitarian coveralls. His heavy boots and the machete hung from his belt identified him as a farmer. The second man appeared out of place and uncomfortable in a business suit.
Youngblood took a deep breath and held it, controlling his anger. “That would be the man who owns this field and, if I’m not mistaken, his attorney. That didn’t take long,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go unruffled some feathers.”
As he turned away, Fitz’s hand on his arm stopped him. “Youngblood, you watch your back.”
“I always do, FitzWarren.”
She drifted away from the flurry of activity around the wreckage and found a hillock of dirt and crushed vegetation. She started to sit, but stopped and looked around to make sure there were no marquarks lurking under it to leap up and bite her on the behind. Assured it was safe, she plopped down and put her head in her hands. Her hair was sticky with fire retardant foam and smelled like smoke. A tear trickled down the side of her nose, tickling. She wiped it angrily away. Spec Op agents don’t cry.
She could see the young woman’s eyes again, pleading with her to help. Annie Perez. Her name made it more personal. Fitz wondered it Devon Perez had ever baked one of those wonderful chocolate cakes for his daughter.
She’d known going into this debacle that people would die, some of them people she knew, she cared about. She might not survive it. Internecine conflicts were the nastiest sort of warfare. Friends and relatives forced to opposite sides by political beliefs or the just plain bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fitz thought that she’d accepted that, but this was different. The Gold Dragons had been totally innocent. It wasn’t their fight; they’d had nothing to gain from it. And yet three people had paid the ultimate price. And Youngblood was correct. It was her fault. She sniffed and brushed away another tear.
She looked up to watch the three men arguing in the gathering dusk. The farmer shouted, waving his arms about to indicate his fields, while the attorney frantically entered data on his pad. Youngblood stood ramrod straight, his arm folded across his chest, body language proclaiming his cool aloofness. Even dirty and ragged, the sight of him sparked a warm tingle deep inside her gut. Fitz cursed the perversity of a universe that allowed him to look that good nearing the end of his ninth decade, while she knew she’d never live to see forty five.
The ring of lights the crash crew had rigged around the wreckage flashed on, painfully blinding her for the instant it took her night vision to readjust. Blinking away after images, she watched the crew as they combed the field for parts and secured the gunship for transport back to the base. By sunup tomorrow there would be nothing beyond plowed up dirt and broken vegetation to attest to the death here. The J/Co would be stashed in a hanger, a postmortem would be performed—death by enemy missile—and the carcass would be picked as clean as a turkzard after Founder’s Day dinner in the mess hall. There would be nothing left but its alloy bones and those would be fed to the industrial reprocessors. The loss of two aircraft would be a blow to the GDs, but loss of three people in such a tight knit community would be devastating. 
She heard footsteps approaching and smelled sweat, mud, and just a hint of cedar. She turned to face Youngblood. “How’d that go?” She indicated the two men leaving the clearing.
“Nothing our attorneys can’t handle.” He scrubbed his face, managing only to smear more dirt on it. “All that bloody farmer screamed about was his field and not a word about the man who died here.” He reached down and picked up the machete he’d dropped earlier, wiped it on his pants leg. “Let’s head back to base.”
Trampled by repeated trips, the way out of the sugar cane was easier going this time, but her socks were soaked again as she slogged across the canal. Youngblood found a spigot on the side of the pumping station and they washed their hands and faces in water that stank of sulfur. He appeared to have escaped the sugar cane’s wrath, but the backs of her hands were crisscrossed with tiny cuts, proving to Fitz that planets hated her as much as she hated them.
They climbed into the cockpit of the Virmana and, as Youngblood resheathed the machete, Fitz noticed his hands shaking. Post adrenaline let down or fatigue? Or is he just showing his age?
He reached into a pocket and produced a ration bar, unwrapped it and began to nibble on it. Remembering his manners, he asked. “I’m sorry, would you care for a piece of this?”
She shook her head and stared out through the windscreen. Dozens of large white moths fluttered in the glow of a security light mounted on the side of the pumping shed. A winged shape flashed out of the darkness, snatched the largest of the unwary insects and disappeared back into the night.
 Fitz wondered if there wasn’t a metaphor for life in that act of predation. The scream of the Virmana’s engines jerked her out of her introspection.
Youngblood growled over the wailing din, “Let’s get the bloody hell out of here.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017



1.   Never forget that space will always try to kill you.

2.   The captain's always right, even when the captain's wrong.

3.   Spacer's tape can fix anything but a broken heart.

4.   Never go outside the ship alone. (See rule number one.)

5.   In zero gee, everything is twice as hard, takes three times as long, and is four times as dangerous. (See rule number one.) 

6.   The job isn't done until it's done and you're back inside having a beer.

7.   Work smarter, not harder, and don't forget rule number one.

8.   Twenty-four hours from bottle to throttle. (Each time we've seen these posted, this one has been heavily scratched through.

     This story takes place in the same universe as the Dragon's Bidding stories, but about forty years earlier. Because of the bug's unpleasant breeding habits, all female soldiers had been pulled off the front lines, resulting in a decimation of the male troops.  Now, two years after the end of the Bug War, the population is approximately three women to every man--many of whom are suffering from PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The story begins in a rundown, gerbat infested bar..... 

Love, like war, is easy to start but hard to end. Eric Colcheck’s war ended long over, but love hadn’t yet released its grappling hooks on his heart. Every time he closed his eyes, he could still see Katherine’s face, her eyes wide, a deep, rich brown and dead. He drained the shot glass, and the whiskey flowed down his throat like super-heated plasma. At least he could feel that if nothing else. He waved his empty glass at the barkeep for a refill, hoping there was enough left on his credit chip to pay for one more.

Technically, he wasn’t broke. His personal account was still flush with his separation bonus, and the quarterly medical stipend continued to flow in with mindless imperial efficiency, just as it always had in the two years since he’d left the Imperial Marines at the end of the Tzraka War. He’d just picked the wrong station to back-talk his captain and get kicked off his ship. The aptly named Dead End Station was so far back in the Hinterlands that they had no live banking connections with the Empire, no way to access his account. For the past two months he’d been living off the balance on his credit chip, and now that had about reached zero. The closest Imperial Bank terminal where he could recharge it was on Beckswold, over a hundred light years away. Might as well be on the other side of the galaxy.

No freighter captain with brains of a gerbat put in here, not unless he was paid to bring in a cargo to be transshipped to the Lander’s Federation. Of the handful that had docked, none were looking to hire an extra hand or even take him on as a paying passenger. Now with his financial resources so low, even that last option was closed to him. So he found himself waiting in this filthy bar feeling sorry for himself and spending the last of his money.

A salvage ship by the name of Yggsdrasil had put up a posting for a crewman with a Class-A pilot’s license on the shipper’s board that morning. He’d been careful to keep his license current—the only thing he had going for him—so he’d set up a meeting with her captain, Bru Thorsson. With a name like that he had to be a Fjordlander.

He accepted his fresh drink and took back his credit chip, wincing at the two digit balance when he palmed the display. Maybe it had the cost of a couple of meals left on it if he was careful. After that, if he couldn’t find a job moving cargo on the docks or cleaning up in one of the station’s dozens of bars, he would be eating out of recycle cans, but that was preferable to signing on with one of the mining outfits. Open space mining rated only one step above a trip out an airlock without a vac suit.

He hoped Captain Thorsson turned out to be as desperate as he was.

A tall woman in nondescript spacer’s coveralls strode into the bar, a large tri-color Kaphier cat trotting at her side. His gaze followed her as she stepped to the bar and spoke to the rat-faced woman behind the counter. The newcomer had that lean rangy look he’d always admired in women—hard muscled, small firm breasts and a killer ass. Like Katherine. He squeezed his eyes shut, retreated into his own darkness and sipped his drink.

“You Erik Colcheck?” The voice, a warm contralto, had the broad vowel accent of a Fjordlander.

He looked up and nodded. Of course, it was the woman. With a three to one ratio of women to men in the Empire since the war had decimated its male population, the majority of commercial spacers out here were women. She slid into the seat across the table from him and put down her cup of coffee. The liquid in the chipped mug appeared as black as hydraulic fluid, with an evil rainbow sheet floating on its surface. No one but a pilot would drink that shit. Few ship drivers out here cared, but she must be one of those few who lived by the ancient adage: Twenty-four hours from bottle to throttle.

“Bru Thorsson? I expected a man.” He was hoping it would be a man, or a non-human, or anything but a beautiful woman with dark chocolate colored eyes
“Yeah, and most people expect a Viking, too. My old man was a traditionalist and had a perverse sense of humor. It’s short for Brunhilda, but don’t even think about calling me Hilda. Call me captain and we’ll get along fine.” She took a drink of the coffee, her face screwed up, and she returned the cup to the tabletop pushing it aside.

The cat sat in the chair next to her, its white paws rested on the table and its sapphire eyes studied him intently. He slammed down all the anti-telepath barriers he’d learned in basic training. Kaphier cats freaked him out. Telepaths, always rooting around in other people’s minds.

“You have experience in outside work?” Thorsson asked. A lock of dark chestnut hair escaped from under her billed spacer’s cap and curled against her cheek. She tucked it behind one ear with a casual flick of her fingers.

Outside work. Extravehicular activity. Zero gee, zero atmosphere. Before he could block them, images flooded his mind. Blackness sprinkled with the cold unwinking stars, the bulk of a hiveship hanging overhead, and motionless bodies drifting in clouds of frozen red droplets.

“Yeah, I’ve worked outside.” He took a gulp of whiskey and welcomed the pain pouring down his throat. He looked away from the dark eyes and found himself locking gazes with the cat. Its whiskers twitched. Privacy laws prohibited a Kaphier cat from reading a human without permission, but out here is was common practice for a ship’s captain to depend on one to vet prospective crew people. The cat’s blue eyes blinked, and it yawned. Thorsson nodded, apparently satisfied with her feline compatriot’s evaluation.

“Great, you’re hired. Give me your logbook.” She held out her hand. “I’ll get you registered with the Yggdrasil and we can get the hell off this Yig-forsaken station.”

Her nails were clean, polished and square cut, short like most pilots who didn’t want to risk catching the wrong button on a control panel by accident. Like Katherine’s had been. She probably had the same calluses on the pads of her fingertips from hours tapping at the controls of a ship too.

A shout cut through the bar’s chatter and laughter, followed by the brittle crash of breaking dishes and bottles. He jerked, the shot glass tumbling from his fingers and spraying liquor in the cat’s face. It squalled.

“Sorry. I don’t want your job.” He barely took the time to register the shock on Thorsson’s face before he grabbed his off-ship case from the chair beside him and bolted, pushing through the crowd to the exit, leaving behind his last chance to escape his personal purgatory.


“What the hell was that about, Lilly?” Bru Thorsson asked the cat as she watched Colcheck disappear out of the bar.

Bug-burned.” Pity colored the cat’s mind voice.

“That wreck was a veteran of the Tzraka War?”

“When you mentioned outside work I caught a glimpse of something, but he shut down on me pretty quick.”

“Psy-blocking? I thought the Empire only trained their elite troops to do that, not grunts.”

“Could be he just hates telepaths. I picked up on a lot of resentment about my being here. He was afraid I might be reading him.”

“That’s why I bring you along.” Bru started to take a drink of coffee but put the cup down with a grimace.

As a teenager, young and stupid, she’d wanted to sign up with the Imperial Fleet and fly dropships, even after she learned the life expectancy of the pilots was less than six months. Her father had refused to sign off on her enlistment, probably the only reason she was still alive. Instead, he apprenticed her to her uncle on the Yggs and when Lars Thorsson died she took over the captaincy herself.

“Damn, Lilly, we need him. He’s the only unassigned person on the station right now who has a Class A license. And I certainly don’t have the resources to woo someone away from another ship.”

The cat nibbled on a claw. “Actually, all you need is his log book.”

“Are you suggesting I roll him and steal it?”

“It’s been done.”

Bru shook her head. “That would strand him here and I wouldn’t wish this gerbat infested hole on anyone. Even Cam. Why’d Traffic Control on this dump have to be such sticklers? I can fly the Yggs by myself just fine. I don’t need a second crew member.”

Regulations stated that a Lister SA-17 needed a crew of two licensed pilots, minimum, but Bru had been operating the ancient salvage ship on her own for the last three months—ever since she and Cam ended. Cam Sebastian had been her partner, in business and in bed, for more than a standard year, but the best of things come to an end. Even the immense bulk of the Yggs had been uncomfortably small for two ex-lovers to share, particularly when one sulked in his cabin and refused to pull his own weight.

When they put in at Dead End Station, Cam cleaned out their jointly held ship’s operation account and bought a ride on an outbound freighter, leaving her stranded until she could find another crew member. For now, her personal account paid the docking fees, but they wouldn’t cover them for much longer. As soon as she blew through that money, the Dock Master could begin filing the forms to impound her ship—which was probably how the bitch supplemented her income. Her only other option would be to comm Fjordland and ask her father to front her the money, but that could take weeks to get here and those docking fees would be mounting every day. And asking her family for money felt like failure. Finances were stretched equally as thin at home, what with her brother’s medical bills. She’d do everything within her powers to avoid that, even if it meant kidnapping Colcheck.

“Can you follow him, Lilly?”

“He smelled like a distillery, and I don’t think he’s seen the inside of a shower for several weeks. I would think even a deficient human nose like yours would be able to track him. And he’s leaving a psychic trail of self-pity as wide as a small asteroid. So, yeah, no problem. We going to roll him?” The cat jumped down and headed for the door.

“No, but I am going to shanghai Mr. Colcheck.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Holidays past… and future.

     Growing up in southern Florida, I didn’t have a chance to experience a white Christmas. The closest I came were glittery winter scenes on holiday cards and scrapping ice off the windshield of the car on below freezing mornings. I’d hope for a cold snap to roll in and bring 40 degree weather so my Dad would light a fire in the fireplace while I opened my presents on Christmas morning.

     I know, I can hear all you who live in New England, the Upper Midwest and Canada laughing. “Wimp,” you’re saying. After you’ve spent a few summers in the balmy southland, you have trouble adjusting to what little cold we get—it interferes with the water skiing and sunbathing. As the locals like to say, “Your blood thins out.” Winter visitors stand out because they are the ones in shorts and flip-flops, while the locals use the cold weather as an excuse to wear their boots and wrap Doctor Who scarves around their necks.

     I really didn’t experience a white Christmas until I was in my mid-twenties. Uncle Sam sent my husband and me on an expense paid two year vacation to southern Germany (also know as serving in the army). He was posted at a small post in Herzogenaurach, near Nuremberg. We’d always heard about the wonderful Christkindlesmarkt  (Christmas Market) held in Nuremberg, so off we went with a group of friends on a snowy December evening.

     It was a magical night, with the square full of lights and merriment and the old Frauenkirche Church overlooking it all. The stalls were filled with delicate handmade glass ornaments; the air held the scent of bratwurst, gingerbread and gluhwein. And of course, snow. It was so cold, the only way I could keep my hands warm was to wrap them around a cup of gluhwein—hot spiced wine. The only problem was I kept emptying the cup, to keep my insides warm. Needless to say, we were all happy and a little tipsy by the time we left.

I purchased a box of iridescent glass ornaments, protecting them all evening long from the pushing and shoving of the crowd. When we returned to the states, I proudly put them on my Christmas tree, only to have the cats, Frodo and Meriadoc, ride the tree to the ground and break most of them.  Such is the life of a Crazy Cat Lady.

Click on picture to get the receipt.
If you’d like to make some gluhwein for your holidays this year, click on the picture for the receipt. If you don’t partake of the spirits, the drink can be make with apple cider.

Holidays future-Founder’s Days

     The majority of the action in my new book, Cypher: The Dragon’s Bidding Book Two, takes place during the ten day period of the planet Scyr’s major holiday, Founder’s Days, sort of a combination of Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, all rolled into one. It celebrates the anniversary of the arrival of the original colony ship from the First World (as they call Earth). The first-in colonists divided the planet’s 400 day year into ten months with four weeks of ten days each, setting aside a full week for a huge celebration that ended on the final day of the year. During the holidays there are parties, concerts and formal balls that the new emperor  plans to attend, but her Security Chief, Kimber FitzWarren knows that this is the perfect time for the assassin she’s hunting  to strike. For Fitz, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The assassin is her lover, Wolf, who’s body and mind have been co-opted by the computer generated personality of a killer. In this scene Fitz realized what she's up against with the help of her aide Lt. Pike and Jumper, an intelligent, telepathic cat. He's the book's comic relief and the quintessential side kick. I like to think of him as a cross between Chewbacca and Garfield.

The lieutenant nodded, his head bobbing like some child’s toy. “With the augie project shut down, your partner may have only been a target of opportunity, but what if Tritico wanted to subvert him specifically?”
A mind with no compunction, no morals, hijacking a body with all of Wolf’s considerable talents for mayhem? Ice settled in Fitz’s stomach. “Tritico tried to kill Ransahov once before and failed. Now he needs an assassin who can get through all the Imperial Security measures—get past me—and take her and the entire government down.”
“Is even he that good?” Pike said.
Jumper surged to his feet, fur standing up along his spine. “With those upgrades? You bet  he is. You’ll never see him coming. He’ll rip through this security like it was wet  paper. No offence, Boss Lady. Then he’ll blow away every one of those wimpy Praetorian Guardsmen in their pretty white armor. The only thing you’ll see of him will be his smile just before he puts a slug between your eyes…” His ears flatten against his skull. “We are so screwed.”
Had Tritico forced Wolf to become a pawn in a competition much like the strategy games the two had played as cadets at the Academy? A contest acted out not in a virtual reality world, but across the sweep of an empire. Not with icons on a screen, but with real ships and weapons and living, thinking beings forced to function as game pieces. Had he picked Wolf solely for his skills, or because he knew that if there was one shred of the man she loved inside that stolen body, one glimmer of his soul, Tritico could inflict untold pain on him as he made him watch himself slaughter his friends and loved ones? Slaughter her?
Fitz started to rise, but froze as Pike’s face went ashen.
“The Founder’s Day celebrations.” Fear strangled his voice. “There’ll be thousands…”
Fitz took up the litany. “Tens of thousands, from all over the Empire, even the Midworlds. Ari will have concerts to attend, speeches to deliver, at least one warship christening. Not to mention that big gala at Star Henge.”
Her young aide found his voice. “Which will be attended by the Emperor and the civilian Triumvir, along with every high ranking military official—Fleet or Marines. Every assemblyman or councilperson. Every businessperson in the Empire, hell in the whole Human Sector; anyone who wants to snag a lucrative imperial contract. If your assassin is as good as the cat thinks he is, he can effectively behead Ransahov’s entire government at any one of these events.”

From the 15th until Christmas Cypher will be available at a special holiday price of only $1.99. Enjoy and don't forget to leave a review. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Joyous Kwanzaa.

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