Keltan's Gambit is Available! (& a Second Sample for You!)
|Cover Art by Michael Lam 2015|
The sequel to Blood Siren is now available for Kindle and in print. The versions should be linked on Amazon by Friday, but in the meanwhile you can get either this way:
For Kindle eBook, click on this link.
For Print from Amazon, click on this link.
For Print from CreateSpace, click on this link.
And if you'd like a taste, you can go back a post and check out what's going on with Nero, and/or you can check out the first part of the prologue from Keltan's Gambit bellow.
Calemni System, ETMC Mining Colony #2A16
Meia licked her burning lips and felt the air suck the moisture right back out of them. Cold and dry was never her favorite climate, but with any luck the captain she was going to meet would be a professional, and she could get back to her ship before her lips cracked. They should be doing this deal earlier while the miners were still working, but this captain insisted on doing it now for reasons she couldn’t fathom. The street of the mining colony was just starting to fill with people, the majority were humans, but she did spy a couple of ‘quill-hawks among them. Soon the small mining colony would be swarming with exhausted, irritable miners looking for a drink and a good time.
The building across the street looked like a long box with two windows and a door built into lumpy-oatmeal walls. The only indication of what awaited patrons inside was the outline of a bottle stenciled onto the entrance at head level. That was strike-two against this captain—picking a bar at quitting time for a classified meeting.
She was familiar enough with pre-printed frontier buildings to know both the model and the manufacturer of the structure, but she willed herself not to let the knowledge hit her conscious brain. Traveling around the Spur with her father was a lifetime ago, and she didn’t really want to remember the happiest times of her life when they’d only weigh her down.
“Dammit.” She adjusted the silver-chains of her gun-rig so that the weapon rested below the broad curve of her hip.
“Lieutenant?” Ostrin said, padding up beside her on four feet. His species, the Delgrix, was sextapodal, and in addition to the quartet of legs projecting from the base of his torso he also had a pair of muscular arms bulging beneath his black uniform.
“It’s nothing, I’m just eager to get out of here.” She sighed, glancing up at the face below his sloping, conical head. His skin had a mottled, reddish-brown pattern, and one of his widely spaced eyes had darker skin around it than the other.
He frowned and the corners of his wide mouth distorted the short beard lining his jaw. “We could do this for you if you prefer.”
“We” included the DS-109 humanoid drone on her right functioning as an extension of her ship’s A.I., Iapetus. Over two-meters tall, the combat platform was covered in dull-gray bands of armor, and had a human-like head whose only feature was the network of green sensor-spots just visible beneath its translucent armored skull. A pair of miniature, high-energy laser cannons sat nestled in turrets on its shoulders like pauldrons, and seam lines in the bands of armor marked where more weapon-systems lay beneath.
“No offense to either of you but the file indicates this guy is pretty jittery, and I can’t say either one of you inspires feelings of security in nervous humans,” she said with a wink at the ‘109.
“I must concur with the Lieutenant,” Iapetus said through the drone’s vocalizer. “It is best if we proceed as planned.”
Ostrin’s thick nostrils flared as he snorted. “Fine, but if he twitches the wrong way, I’ll put him down.”
“Just let me handle it. That’s an order.” She headed for the bar.
“Acknowledged,” Iapetus responded.
Ostrin grunted, but didn’t follow when she crossed the street. The caramel-colored dust endemic to this moon crunched under her boot heels. She snarled in irritation when a dry wind kicked up and stung her face with the tiny grains. Two human men approaching the bar in oil-stained, ETMC overalls stopped to stare at her. Their eyes only took a millisecond to drop from her face to her chest. She knew she had the curves to draw the gazes of both males and females, but the idiots had to be willfully blind to the silver eagle clutching a five-pointed star on the slope of her left breast; they were staring right at it, after all. Both looked about to say something crude until the younger one spied the CG-90 “Growler” Heavy Gun in her rig. He turned pale, and found something else to be interested in faster than she could blink. It didn’t discourage the bearded one, though.
“Heya there, stranger. Want a drink?” The bearded one said with a twinkle in his blue eyes.
A red dot appeared on his temple.
“Nope,” she said in a loud voice, knowing Iapetus would hear her across the street. If she said nothing the ‘109’s HEL-cannons would have shown her what his brain looked like running out of his skull.
The dot disappeared.
“Aw, come on baby—“
“You deaf?” She put her hand on the butt of her ’90. She didn’t want to kill him, it wouldn’t go over well with the local authorities—or her captain for that matter. Solus usually frowned on anything that could cause him embarrassment. Still, she could probably justify it if the asshole made a move.
“Don’t be like that baby.” The man was grinning.
She rolled her eyes and took a step toward the door. He moved in towards her with one hand outstretched to grab her arm. Reflexes took over and she twisted out of the way, grabbed his wrist, and turned back while wrenching it as hard as she could with both hands. At 173 centimeters tall and weighing in just over seventy-kilos she wasn’t a small woman, but he was still almost twice her weight with ten centimeters on her height. The move wouldn’t have worked if she hadn’t caught him off guard, but she managed to throw him head-first into the printed fastcrete wall of the bar with an audible thunk. She felt his body jerk with the impact, dropped his wrist, and continued on her way into the darkened interior as he fell to the ground behind her. She heard his friend curse before the door slid shut.
Her optic implants adjusted to the dim light in less than a second. The bar was as simple as its exterior, with a counter at the far end, and a scattering of tables and chairs. A space to her left was empty save for a beat-up looking amplifier and an old drum kit. The lack of somarill network units on the instruments to channel the emotional content into the audience’s brains marked them as frontier-issue. Listening to music without feeling it was considered to be too low-tech in modern civilization.
A mix of male and female miners populated the stools by the bar counter. A few turned their heads to look at her and did double-takes as they noted the black Star Corps uniform before their eyes flickered down to the ’90 resting below her hip. They turned back to their drinks, and the conversations they were having when she entered resumed at a lower volume. The only person seated at a table was the man she came to see. He had his back to a wall like he was in some kind of American Western stream, and watched her head over with a pair of tired-looking, sea-green eyes. His brown hair was longer than his image in the dossier. The lower part of it just past his shoulders and the upper half was tied back in a tight tail that kept his boney face clear. He sported a pair of mutton chops growing from his hairline to his jaw, and a deep scar running from his right ear to his nostril. She gave him a hard stare before moving over to sit across from him. He put a well-muscled arm protruding from his green-scaled jacket around his drink when she did.
“Didn’t think I’d see one of those today,” he said in a rumbling voice that was deeper than she expected.
“One of what?” She folded her hands on the table.
“A star-eagle,” he said with a nod towards her pin. “I was expecting a ‘jumper.”
“You know the lingo,” she noted. Jumpers, short for Star-Jumpers, was the Star Corps nickname for the Armored Tactical Aerospace Commandos. ATAC was the corps division that leaped out of space ships in powered armor to do shock-and-awe style attacks on other space ships and planetary targets.
“Yup,” he said, raising the glass to his lips. “I also didn’t expect someone so easy on the eyes. Last time they sent a robot.”
“My DS-109’s outside if you prefer to deal with him.” She was intrigued. From his tone he seemed like he really wanted to come across as star-scorched, but it didn’t fit him quite right. His eyes were weary, but the corner of his mouth twitched upward when she sat down.
He took another drink, and it became more apparent that he was trying not to smile after he put the glass down. “You’re here already. There’s no sense in wasting time to have the ‘bot come lumbering in or anything.”
He shifted in his seat, taking on a more relaxed posture. “So, how is old Captain Solus doing? You did come here on his ‘wormer, right?”
“Yes, I did.” She nodded. “When did you retire from the ‘corps?”
“No ‘wellers I know use ‘jumper’ and ‘wormer’ to refer to ATAC and FTL ships. It’s also obvious you’ve kept up with the PT, and for retirees that usually means you were a ‘jumper yourself since we eagles tend to be a bit more inclined to actually relax once we leave the service. Also, you know who Captain Solus is.”
Dimples appeared at the corners of his mouth. The smile stayed there for a few seconds, then faded like a sun behind fast-moving clouds.
“Met him afterwards. Savorcha’s what did me in, truth be told. I was—well, I was done after that.” He sighed and finished his drink. “How long have you been in?”
“Four standard Confederate years, subjective time,” she said, not quite believing it. A tour finished already and a second begun.
He signaled the bartender with a raised finger and crooked it down towards her.
“No thanks, I’m on duty,” she said.
“Come on, really? It’s the least you can do to humor an old vet, right? Besides, gotta do something to make up for the bad haircut they make you wear.”
Her hand lifted off the table, heading for the military crew-cut she sported on her scalp, but she stopped it. “Long hair gets in the way in zero gravity.”
“But you miss it, don’t you?” He cocked an eyebrow up. “I know I did.”
She did too, but discussing hairstyles was not why she was here. She waited in silence, meeting his gaze until the bartender put a fresh drink in front of each of them.
“The glasses are clean, right?” The dim light made it hard to tell.
“The alcohol’s strong, so I wouldn’t worry about that. To the corps.” He dipped his glass towards her and took a deep draw, finishing half of it in one swallow.
“The corps,” she nodded and did the same, then added a little extra liquid before swallowing. It burned going in, but her glass was lighter than his after.
“Nice.” He grinned at her. “Sharp, well-formed, and you can drink, too.”
“I’m my father’s daughter, I guess.”
He cocked a smile she could feel make her skin tingle. “I’m Kae.”
“Meia, but that’s Lieutenant Ironstar to you.”
“Okay, Meia—“ He squinted. “Any relation to Sanevar Ironstar?”
“Dad.” She braced herself for the hero-worship that usually came after someone knew whose daughter she was.
“Holy shit,” he blinked. “Wow, I didn’t realize I was meeting with spacer royalty.”
“Don’t think of it that way,” she waved her hand in the air.
“Too late.” He shrugged and smiled in a way she found charming.
He seemed like he would be fun to swap stories with if they had more time, and Meia found herself thinking about other things she could do with him that didn’t lie within the mission parameters.
“Got any plans after the war’s done?” he asked.
“I’d rather get to talking about why we’re here.” The faster they got through business, the faster she could get to seeing if he would be game for tossing a bunk before she had to head back to the ship.
“Aw, come on. This is the last question, I promise.” Kae smiled in a way that put goosebumps on her skin.
“Last question, then we talk about what we need to talk about.” She let him see a faint smile on her face.
“Promise.” He nodded.
“Once the war ends the Confederation will probably open the borders again. I’m going to start an exploration and cartography company.”
“Like your dad had?” His eyes brightened.
“The happiest times of my life were spent beside him in front of a helm.” Some of her excitement faded as unpleasant memories of how that ended threatened to surface. “Now, no more bullshit. You’ve got cargo we need. Where is it?”
He leaned forward, putting both elbows on the table. His expression soured. “Do you know what’s in those canisters?”
“Above my pay grade.”
“If you did, you’d wish I’d lost ‘em on the way over.” Kae’s voice dropped down to just above a whisper.
She frowned. “I shouldn’t care, and neither should you. We’ve got a job to do.”
He regarded her for a moment. “One thing about being retired, as I am, is that I get to give a fuck about what I’m doing, and who I’m doing it for. I know you don’t have that luxury, but—“
“Are you refusing to do the job?” She frowned. It’d be a shame if she had to go to plan “B.”
“No, it’s not that.” He sighed, looking tired again—so much so that she felt a hint of worry deep in her gut. “You seem like a nice person, and I think it’s gonna hit you hard once you find out what this shit is.”
“My only job here is to pick it up and bring it back,” she said. “Looking at what’s in those canisters isn’t in the description.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” He finished his drink and his finger was up in the air before the glass hit the table.
She frowned, opened her mouth, and then closed it without speaking. She knew she shouldn’t ask. Among the many things her father passed on to her was insatiable curiosity, and knowing what was troubling him so deeply would probably lead her to actually open one of the canisters to check it for herself. Captain Solus was very specific with his orders, and when he said to go somewhere and pick up something he meant exactly that and only that. She’d put herself and maybe her crew in a spot of trouble if she exceeded those orders, but she could tell from the feeling brewing deep inside her gut that it was already too late.
She finished her drink and her equilibrium faltered as the glass left her lips. It was good, strong, frontier brew of the kind she remembered from the time when everything the border worlds had to offer was still new. Those were bolder days, when she was still young enough to be reckless and not care. She knew the moment she started thinking on them that she was going to ask him the questions she shouldn’t.
“If this stuff is so nasty, why did you take the job?”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it?” Kae waited for his next drink to arrive and downed half of it before continuing. “I wasn’t given much of a choice, and in the beginning I didn’t realize what was going on. That was before I saw—“ he stuttered to a stop, ending up with his eyes pointed straight down at the bottom of his glass.
Even more intrigued now than before, she wished they were in the same system as a Star Corps base. The dossier she had listed his name, ship’s registry, and some details, but no personal information or history. She knew he was ex-Star Corps from their earlier discussion, but had nothing else with which to guess what the deal was with this cargo and his reaction to it.
“What do you mean?” she asked after several moments of silence.
“I’m sorry I mentioned it. The stuff you want is in a warehouse nearby. Let me message you the location. Just a word of warning; if they’re going to test it here, don’t be well-side when they do.”
“Is it a weapon of some kind?” A message request popped up in her implant’s UI. She accepted it, and a set of local GPS coordinates appeared in the upper right part of her vision.
“Yeah, it is.” He finished his drink.
“Look, Captain Faen, I don’t know what’s going on, but I think you’ve convinced me. I want to know what this crap is before I load it on my ship.” She could feel an unsettled look appearing on her face as she spoke.
He stared at her for a long moment, his eyes glassy from the drinks. “I’ll tell you what this crap is, Lieutenant. I’ll even do one better than that. Meet me at the warehouse in an hour.”
That would put her off Solus’ schedule, but at this point she wasn’t sure that was a bad thing. “Make it thirty minutes.”
“I’ve got to find some nanodetox first—“
She held up her hand, reached into a compartment on her belt, and produced a small cylinder of instant sober for him.
“Okay, make it thirty minutes then.” He nodded and grabbed the injector off the table.