An epic debut set on the edges of space, where one botched job could mean death—or so much worse…
Wanderlust runs in Kivita Vondir’s blood. She dreamed of salvaging like her father when she was young, and now it’s her addiction, getting her through pit stops filled with cheap alcohol and cheaper companionship and distracting her from her broken heart.
Her latest contract to hunt down a fabled gemstone is exactly the kind of adventure she craves. But this job is more than meets the eye. For one thing, her duplicitous employer has hired rebel Sar Redryll—Kivita’s former lover—to stop her at any cost. For another, Kivita’s recovery of the relic unleashes in her powerful new abilities. Abilities that everyone in the Cetturo Arm—human, alien, and in-between—desperately wishes to control…
As she avoids a massive galactic manhunt, Kivita teams up with two unlikely allies: Sar and his enigmatic new partner. Only, as the gem’s mysteries are revealed and danger draws near, Kivita begins to wonder if her ex has truly changed, or if he’s just waiting for the right moment to betray her once again…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
C. S. E. Cooney launched her voice-acting career narrating short fiction for Podcastle, the world's first audio fantasy magazine. She is a performance poet, singer-songwriter, and fantasy author whose collection Bone Swans has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Locus Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
An Inside Job
Her oxygen canister was near empty. Numbness spread down her legs. Her footsteps slowed. Ancient vacuum frost floated in the zero-G, disturbed by her passage. Outside the viewport, three red supergiants throbbed with power. A frigid pulse stabbed her mind again and again. . . .
Kivita Vondir rubbed her forehead. Not even off the ship yet and those stupid dreams were still bothering her. Ever since salvaging near Xeh’s Crown, the dreams had plagued her. With a hand poised over the airlock button, she forced herself not to wobble. She’d just woken up—that’s all.
Every time she left cryostasis, though, the headaches worsened. The visions became more invasive: tall white exoskeletons. Unfamiliar star patterns. Horrified people trapped in green, gelatinous vats. Suffocating in that old Vim derelict. And that crazy, cold hammering in her skull.
She blinked away the visions and stumbled through Terredyn Narbas’s airlock. “Damned if I don’t need a better line of work.”
After a year in cryostasis, Haldon Prime’s yellow sun strained her eyes. Every nerve itched; every bodily movement was stiff and dull. Recalling the dreams made her head throb further. Maybe she should stay aboard. Rest awhile.
Biting her lip, she glanced back into Terredyn Narbas’s interior. Her quarters were lit in a cool gray sheen. Ascali claw graffiti, placards of beefy males and busty women, and glue pen chits covered the bulkheads. She’d clean it up one of these days.
Rhyer, her father, had fixed up the old trawler and named it after some ancient queen. She’d bent Inheritor laws in keeping it, since no one could inherit technology from a deceased relative. Usually it all went to the prophets, to aid their ultimate goal of escaping the Cetturo Arm. Whatever.
Her favorite placard hung beside the hammock. It showed Kivita, eight years old, with Rhyer. The blue, green, and pink gas giant of Tejuit Seven loomed behind them through a viewport. That trip was the fondest memory of her father.
At seventeen she’d buried him here on Haldon Prime. Mention of radiation leaks still churned her stomach.
Lips tight, she cinched lead-lined, radiation-resistant leather chaps around her thighs, then adjusted her leather vest and black bodyglove. Aldaakian polyboots protected her feet. A shortsword dangled from her belt, since firearms were prohibited in Inheritor spaceports.
“Be right back, girl.” Kivita patted Terredyn Narbas’s hull and stepped outside. A warm breeze stirred her jaw-length, red-blond hair. White clouds stretched over a shadow-blue sky. Sure, it was nice, but she wasn’t a tourist. After salvaging from a debris field in a neighboring system, all she wanted was hot food, jiir juice . . . and maybe sex.
Kivita scanned over Terredyn Narbas, ensuring that no panels had loosened during reentry. The two-hundred-foot-long trawler resembled a Susuron hammerhead fish, with a gray-red, atmosphere-rusted hull. Her father’s insignia, a sword with a flaring star, remained visible above the airlock.
The spaceport outside rumbled with activity. Some claimed it was the largest in the Cetturo Arm. Though Haldon Prime was her home world, Kivita seldom visited, except to trade salvage for much-needed supplies.
Terredyn Narbas was her true home. A womb she could sleep in, live in. Even hide in, when the universe threatened to freeze her heart.
She swallowed and forced down the flutters in her chest. No way would he be here.
“Remember—there’s jiir juice and sex out there.” Kivita inserted a data chit into the soot-caked terminal at the pad’s edge. The display showed the current date: Charter Year 11,409. A beep indicated her recovery memo had been accepted. Rolling her eyes, Kivita willed the metal door to slide open faster.
Outside, clay and stone walls separated each pad. Other oblong vessels dotted the spaceport. Salvagers from across Inheritor Space haggled with merchants, traded stories, or headed for brothels. A medical tent sold treatments for cryomaladies like stunted hair growth, perpetually chilled skin, loss of smell, or short-term memory loss. A dressed-stone bulwark segregated the spaceport from the local population. Kivita wished they’d just tear it down, but Inheritor prophets forbade commoners from socializing with outsiders.
Kivita remembered being a teenage farmhand before becoming a salvager, weeding crop rows, planting red-grain seeds until her father returned from a salvaging run. How long had it been since she’d smelled dirt on her hands instead of hydraulic oil? Sometimes she missed it.
Most of the time she missed Sar Redryll.
She’d been dreaming of him again, too. Black curly hair, green-speckled eyes. Had it really been two years? Six would have passed for him if he’d stayed on Gontalo. Whenever she dreamt of Sar, those unfamiliar stars also came to mind. Her head tingled, and she rubbed her temples. Damn headache.
Maybe she’d been in space too long. Alone and cold.
Scowling, Kivita left the pad. Spacers in worn fatigues sloshed through muddy thoroughfares hemmed in by metal-framed stalls. Bars and brothels dotted the area. A bald prophet in yellow robes handed out religious chits with a patronizing smile. Inheritor soldiers in red jumpsuits haunted every corner. A few looked at her, then whispered into their helmet mics.
She didn’t remember this many soldiers here the last time. Odd.
One merchant sold Ascali prostitutes for twenty pounds of Freen iron ore. Short brown fur covered their athletic bodies; a long, straight mane of hair spilled from their heads. They originated from Sygma, an arboreal world where the blue-leaved jiir trees grew.
The prickling in her cranium returned. Kivita sighed and walked away. This tingling better not dampen her day. There was little else to look forward to during these visits. No family, and most childhood acquaintances were dead or worked the fields. If they were lucky.
“Vondir? Now, what have you brought back this time?” a merchant asked from a nearby stall. He scratched his gray beard and smiled.
Kivita grinned. “Not enough to retire yet, Marsque. You’re looking well.” Actually, he’d aged a few more years since the last time she’d seen him. She almost hadn’t recognized him.
“Not near as well as you. You just dock, or have you been giving your business to some fancy Naxan vendor?” A hint of farmer drawl colored Marsque’s Meh Sattan, the common tongue of the Arm.
“Just docked, smoothie. How’ve you been? Anything big happen while I was gone?”
“Nothing but a few more restrictions on goods from Tannocci Space. More trouble from the Thedes, and . . .” A shadow crossed Marsque’s gaze; then he smiled again. “Ah, you know how it is here. More sermons, more rules. Got your data chit ready?”
She dug the chit from her vest pocket and handed it over. “That’s sixteen tons of scrap from Q’Daor. Should contain some lead-lined bulkheads, like those in the old feudal ships.”
“You hauled all that by yourself?” Marsque frowned. “You ever think about getting a partner to help out? Few salvagers go it alone anymore.”
“No, thanks. How much, then?” Heat rose in Kivita’s cheeks. He made it sound as if she liked being alone out there.
Marsque tapped his glue pen on the counter. “Lead-lined bulkheads, huh? I’ll take your word for it. I’ve got Bellerion protein slabs, fresh Susuron water, and even some jiir liquor from Sygma.”
Merchants on Inheritor worlds traded in necessities or luxuries, never advanced tech. Only salvagers could barter for cryotech and energy dumps, because of their special status. An engine overhaul and a hull reseal would be nice, but she’d need at least a hundred tons of salvage to cover it.
“I’ve also got plush furniture from Haldon Six and handmade thermal blankets. New cosmetics, like the dark stuff they wear around their eyes on Soleno Four. Course, you’re still too pretty to be wearing that.” Marsque winked at her.
“Slow down, smoothie. What I need is some pseudoadrine, oxygen canisters, and new scrubbers for my air intakes on Terredyn Narbas. Oh, and a new mist ionizer.”
“I’ll even throw in a skinsuit from Susuron. I know you always liked that world, even when you were a wee thing.” Marsque jotted down the items in glue pen on Kivita’s computer chit. With the chit’s data linked to the spaceport’s computers, she wouldn’t be cleared to leave the spaceport until she paid for the transaction.
Kivita recalled walking these same merchant stalls with her father, staring agog at rare items from other worlds or listening to salvager tales of prehuman derelicts. The prophets considered such tales heretical.
“Don’t pay heed to those Inheritor prophets, Kiv,” her father had once said. “You’ll find something special out there someday. Just gotta keep looking for it.”
Back then, Marsque had been near her physical age now, twenty-one. Kivita had spent an additional twenty-three years altogether in cryosleep, traveling throughout the Cetturo Arm. She swallowed with a dry throat.
“Here you go.” Marsque handed her the chit.
Kivita grinned. “And here you go, smoothie.” She kissed his cheek.
Marsque blushed. “Go on—get out of here. I’ll have that order sent to your ship.”
“See you later.” Kivita didn’t tell her old friend how long she’d be gone. Years might pass, depending on the distance to her next contract. Marsque might be retired or even dead when she returned. Maybe she should’ve asked about his family or bought him a drink. More and more, her only social links were business transactions between light jumps.
Sar had warned her that the salvager’s life went nowhere. What did he know? Ever since childhood Kivita had yearned to see the stars, other worlds. Maybe even discover an antique feudal colony ship or an intact Vim starship.
She shoved the chit back into her vest pocket and stomped along the dingy aisles. Sar was wrong. The things and places she’d seen out there were worth the sacrifice. They had to be.
The next stall contained Inheritor paraphernalia: icons of yellow suns, dogma pamphlets, sandstone pendants, or red tunics with a small yellow star sewn on the shoulder. Only the prophets themselves could wear solid yellow, representing the Vim’s beneficial stars.
“Have you opened your eyes to the light of the Vim?” a young prophet asked. “Remember that your sins must be forgiven before you can join the Vim in the galactic Core. Remember that only the righteous may inherit their knowledge!”
Kivita hurried toward the nearest spacer bar. Religion was boring, the Vim were extinct, and she didn’t care about sins or the hereafter. Each cryosleep was already an afterlife between the stars. Freezing herself just to see what lay out there in the void.
Something would turn up, though, once she got a drink and got laid. Kivita had survived everything this universe had thrown at her. Strutting along, she smiled at a few handsome spacers passing by.
Two Inheritor soldiers stood guard outside the bar entrance. One examined her credentials chit and motioned her inside. Aromas of jiir alcohol, slosh wine, and cerulean-mollusk vapors filled her nose. Various pilots, salvagers, and mercenaries mingled around three wooden counters. Many drank alcohol from ceramic cups, while others sniffed mollusk vapors through breath masks. All were human, with no Ascali or renegade Aldaakians present.
Cracked tiles clinked under Kivita’s boots. Elbows, rumps, and all-too-eager hands brushed her while she navigated the crowd. A bubble troubadour performed in a dark corner in deep, warbling tones. The bubbles from his instrument floated through the air, reflecting the patrons back at her. Dim orange lamps lit everything in a nauseous glow.
She grinned. This was more like it.
“Wanna come to my ship?” a woman in a red skinsuit asked. A few scars and tattoos lined her curvy form.
Smirking, Kivita caressed the woman’s blond braid. “Maybe. I think . . .”
The pain in her temples returned. Head swimming, Kivita glimpsed three soldiers watching her from across the bar. One whispered into his helmet mic.
“What are you thinking—hmm?” The woman brushed her thigh against Kivita’s.
“I’m . . .” A shudder traveled up Kivita’s back; then she cleared her throat. “I’m just looking for a drink.”
The woman fingered Kivita’s tresses. “Has it been long?”
“No, I . . .” Kivita ran her hand down the woman’s neck, then drew back as the soldiers came closer. Her entire skull ached. “Um, maybe later.”
The woman gazed with disappointment; then she patted Kivita’s bottom. “Come find me, you change your mind.”
Other patrons stared at Kivita in lust, contempt, or jealousy. Two Sutaran bouncers, brawnier due to their high-G homeworld, watched her carefully. A salvager in a lubricant-stained jumpsuit tapped the seat beside him and licked his lips. Two women beckoned and offered her a filled glass, but Kivita nudged her way to the bar. Being one of the few salvagers to return from Xeh’s Crown must have gilded her reputation. Great.
On her right, a young spacer gasped vapors from an air mask. A bearded man with two braided Dirr women gazed at her on the left. The soldiers milled around right behind her. Kivita pretended to adjust her vest, then bought a glass of jiir juice from the bar.
Video screens along the back wall showed Inheritor-state-owned news briefs, current barter standards on Haldon Prime, and a prophet giving a sermon. None paid the screens much attention. Kivita avoided looking at the salvager’s dock roster. It didn’t matter if he were in the Haldon system.
The bartender finally brought her juice. As she sipped the sweet blue liquid, Kivita studied the other patrons. Salvagers like her, seeking physical release, emotional contact—meaningless relationships with all the warmth of a cold hull. And three Inheritor jerks who stared at her too much.
Her temples flared again. Damn it, this weird headache was pissing her off. Kivita gulped the juice and headed for the door.
The walk back to her landing pad took forever. Dodging prophets; avoiding other spacers. Evading two more soldiers mumbling into handheld mics. Each step sucked her boots deeper into the muddy street. Terredyn Narbas was a prison as much as it was an escape, but she needed it right now. After a little sleep she’d come back, find that woman, and have a good time.
Upon reaching her ship, Kivita took a deep breath as her hand brushed the airlock doors. The headache leveled off into a regular, tingling throb.
Strange stars shifted in her mind, same as they had since salvaging that datacore at Xeh’s Crown. After each dream, the stars became clearer, brighter. Kivita grunted and tried to think of something else.
The stars refused to disappear. They blinked in her mind, as if communicating with her.
“Kivita Vondir?” a male voice called.
She turned around. Four Inheritor soldiers dressed in red polyarmor approached the pad. Each carried a kinetic rifle.
“Yeah?” she replied, tense but flashing a smile. Perhaps they wanted to parade her before the farmers, like Inheritors often did. Salvagers had been folk heroes even in Kivita’s childhood.
The lead soldier didn’t smile back. “We will escort you to the Rector’s Compound. His Holiness has requested your presence for an audience.”
“Yeah? Then lead on.” She kept silent as the soldiers flanked her, but Kivita’s breathing quickened. The Rector was the Inheritors’ religious and political leader. Billions of people lived under his rule, and he had selected her for an audience?
The soldiers led Kivita through reinforced doors. A metallic odor erased the stench of the spaceport’s streets. Kivita paused and stared.
Outside the stone wall surrounding the spaceport, wooden arches swept between towering glass polymer buildings. Quartz lanterns shimmered. Yellow Inheritor banners fluttered from engraved columns. All decor bore representations of bright suns and faceless deities: the Vim and their healthy, yellow stars of promise.
“Do not tarry,” the lead soldier said.
“Yeah, okay.” She tried to sound tough and nonchalant, but her heart thudded. Spacers rarely received permission to enter the city proper. Much less meet the Rector himself.
Kivita stilled her wonder and walked into Fifth Heaven, the capital. Just inside the doors stood twenty more soldiers, eyeing her with calm disdain. Behind them a wooden-rail barricade kept dozens of peasants at bay. Men, women, and children dressed in coarse clothing gaped at her. As a child, she, too, had gawked at famous salvagers entering the city gates. Dreaming of being a salvager like her father.
More admiring grins greeted her as they journeyed onto quiet, clean streets. Citizens wore cloth garments cut in classic Inheritor style: high necklines and obscuring brown cloaks, and long skirts for women. Beggars lined the stone wall outside the spaceport, while factory workers huddled near trolley platforms, awaiting a ride.
Nothing had changed. The scene could have been plucked from her childhood.
Beyond the city walls stood farmers’ sod hovels, surrounded by miles of cultivated fields. Whenever Rhyer had been away on a salvage contract, Kivita had resided in such housing. Gray-white exhaust plumes rose in the distance from factory smokestacks.
As they passed two beggar boys, the pair looked up at Kivita. She drew a protein slab from her pouch and handed it to them. Both grinned, their eyes wide. Small dirty fingers touched hers.
One soldier snatched the slab and pushed the boys away. Kivita forced down her anger and kept walking. Maybe that was one of the newer rules Marsque had mentioned. Poor kids. What else had changed?
The soldiers escorted her onto the trolley platform. Kivita stepped into the narrow, rail-driven vehicle. Cramped seats, silent passengers, and a loose handrail made the journey even worse.
For all Fifth Heaven’s beauty, its ambience of torpid stasis suffocated Kivita. Citizens gave soldier patrols a wide berth. Children stayed close to their parents on the sidewalks. Kivita hated the quiet. After a year in cryo, she wanted activity.
Her heart beat faster as they passed Judgment Square, where heretics were executed. Ahead, a domelike structure reflected the sun: the Rector’s Compound. Yellow banners large enough to cover her ship flapped in the wind. Thirty-foot sculptures of late prophets encircled the Compound.
The trolley slid to a stop. One of the soldiers prodded her. As she exited the vehicle, forty more soldiers surrounded her. Kivita tried to control her rapid breaths.
After climbing the Compound’s sandstone steps, the soldiers herded Kivita into a long, high-arched corridor. Yellow-hued windows allowed in brilliant golden sunlight. Statues on sandstone daises depicted Inheritor heroes. Prophets in yellow robes and shaved heads walked past. The scent of overcleaned ventilation ducts stung Kivita’s nose, made her eyes water. Her scalp tingled.
“Rector Dunaar Thev awaits you.” The lead soldier opened a large wooden door on the right. Inside, crimson and orange drapes hung from sandstone walls. A forty-foot statue of Arcuri, the first Rector, stood in idealized sandstone repose. A round skylight focused the sun on a granite dais. Dozens of minor prophets lined an aisle fashioned from pure quartz. Thirty Proselytes guarded the dais, their faces hidden by black veils.
Kivita tried to stand as tall as a queen. She’d faced worse things.
“All acknowledge the presence of His Holiness, Rector Dunaar Thev of the Inheritors!” a voice called out.
A man in sparkling yellow robes rose from a quartz throne carved in the shape of a four-rayed sun. The thick, cloying smell of Bellerion lotus clogged her nostrils.
“Thank you for answering my summons, Kivita Vondir. The Vim has blessed you with substantial finds, I hope?” The cultured voice seemed to emanate from the skylight, as if the Vim themselves spoke to her.
Kivita squinted. “Yes, Rector.”
“You are uncomfortable, my child. Allow me to remove my robes of office before we continue.”
An Ascali female ascended the dais and removed the glittering garment. Underneath, Dunaar wore the yellow robes of an Inheritor prophet, with a ruby quartz chest plate. His bald, jowly features and kind brown eyes belied the security around him.
“The Vim artifacts you recovered from Xeh’s Crown solidified your status as one of our greatest salvagers,” Dunaar said. “Why, the commoners whisper your name as much as they do Arcuri’s.”
Kivita glanced at the Proselytes, the Rector’s personal guard. What else had they been whispering? “Thank you, Rector.”
Dunaar rubbed his face with ring-studded fingers. “The Inheritor religion gives people hope, but they need a sign. There are no more habitable worlds within reach of current engine technology. Many of the Arm’s suns are rapidly aging, which no scientist can explain. All humans in the Cetturo Arm must escape to the galactic Core, where the Vim awaits us. I want you to help me usher in the sign they need.”
Scents of baked bread made her stomach growl in postcryostasis hunger. “I’m only a salvager, Rector.”
“A salvager the Vim has chosen.” Dunaar arched an eyebrow.
“I just collect the Vim’s junk floating in the outer systems.” As soon as she said the words, Kivita’s heart plummeted into her stomach. Sar had always claimed no filter existed between her brain and her mouth.
Her words brought murmurs and glares from everyone. Kivita stiffened and fought down labored breaths. Maybe she should have been more tactful, but an extinct race didn’t decide her fate. She alone controlled it.
Dunaar stepped down from the dais. “It is a salvager’s holy mission to return all finds to the Inheritors, as per the Charter. What hope will anyone have if we don’t control the flow of technology? The human factions—Tannocci, Naxan, Sutaran, and others—would fight wars again. Those blasphemous Aldaakians would conquer every habitable system in the Arm. Technology would be used to make us lazy, sinful. But you have just arrived, my child. Cryostasis often makes one hungry.”
A door on Kivita’s right opened. A female Ascali in translucent clothing entered, carrying a food tray. Steam rose from a bowl of stew. A platter of oiled bread rolls lay beside a rack of sugar-powdered sky celery. Even as her stomach growled again, Kivita shook her head.
“Forgive me, Rector. But how often is a salvager invited into your Compound and offered a meal?” She glanced at the waiting Ascali. The female was tall and muscular, with a mane of dark, silky hair and a body covered in short auburn fur. Russet-colored eyes studied Kivita from a lovely face.
Dunaar paced around Kivita. “Realizing your well-deserved reputation, I have selected you for a special salvage.”
“Go on.” Kivita stood still, though the food demanded her attention.
“Have you ever traveled to Vstrunn?”
Kivita blinked as all hunger sensations faded. Vstrunn was a small, high-G world covered in sharp crystal formations. Rumors claimed the Kith inhabited it. Their claws could shred polyarmor; their strength could snap a Sutaran like a twig. Those crazy tales of an ancient treasure buried on the planet had circulated well before Kivita’s birth.
“The Wraith Star system is twelve light years from here, Rector. I’ve got phased fusion energy dumps on Terredyn Narbas, but you’ll still have to wait eight years. Four there; four back.” Kivita crossed her arms.
“You will be well compensated.” Dunaar took a bread roll from the tray and ate it in small bites.
“That’s a long trip just for crystals or gems.” Kivita’s head tingled again.
“Previous salvagers discovered a Vim datacore on Vstrunn. I have learned the Aldaakians are interested in the planet. The datacore would be the only reason. Of course, only holy prophets can access the technology of the sainted ancients, so the Aldaakians cannot retrieve it.”
“Then why would they want it?” Kivita asked, trying to keep sarcasm from her voice. Few spacers believed the prophets could read the datacores. No doubt they used some old Vim computer to do it.
“They patrol the system to hamper us.”
“So I won’t be the first salvager you’ve sent, then.” Kivita took two rolls and a celery stalk from the tray. The warm bread melted in her mouth. Snapping the celery between her teeth released cool, sweet juices. The tingling in her head stopped.
“That is why we need your . . . skills. The Kith guard the fabled Juxj Star, a red gem. Since the Vim stored their data in stone and crystal, this gem must be the datacore. If you bring the Juxj Star back to me, I shall guarantee the payment of six fusion energy dumps, an upgrade of your ship’s systems, and as much food and water your ship will hold.” Dunaar licked oil from his fingers.
Kivita stopped chewing. A single energy dump could propel Terredyn Narbas for fifty light years. With six fresh ones, an improved nav system, and a cargo bay filled with foodstuffs, she could quit salvaging and just explore. Chart more of the Cetturo Arm, then retire on Susuron’s beaches later on. No more weird dreams.
“What about the Aldaakians?” Kivita asked. “If they couldn’t take the gem . . .”
“As I said, their race cannot access Vim vaults or datacores,” Dunaar said. “Besides, they probably searched for the Juxj Star with an entire assault team. You will be alone.”
Kivita wanted to say no. Vstrunn was a spacer’s graveyard, and Aldaakians always shot first then demanded answers later. With six new energy dumps, though, she could travel the space lanes for a long time. Long enough until she found something out there to fill the void inside herself.
“Maybe.” Kivita finished the sky celery and pretended to study a topaz wall mosaic.
“That is as good as a positive from a salvager.” Sweat beads appeared on Dunaar’s shaved head. “I will have the Juxj Star’s coordinates sent to your ship.”
Kivita’s body flushed with heat. “I said maybe, Rector.”
Two Proselytes stepped toward her, but Dunaar held up a hand. “Think of what you will see out there, my child. Think of the knowledge you will be bringing back to us.”
The strange stars from her dreams twinkled again in her mind, like beacons in her subconscious.
“I need a few hours before I go. I’ve got cargo on board Terredyn Narbas that’s already been sold.” Her words came out too quick, too eager.
“Of course. As a show of good faith, my soldiers will bring extra supplies to your ship. The Vim’s healthy yellow stars shall burn bright for us all, my child. With the Juxj Star, humanity might finally learn how to leave the Arm.”
Kivita took a deep breath and smiled. “Then we have a contract, Rector.”
Dunaar touched his forehead and swept the hand toward Kivita in a blessing gesture. “May the Vim light your path, Kivita Vondir, as yours will soon light it for all.”
After taking three more bread rolls, she brushed past Proselytes and prophets, who stared at her in edgy silence. As Kivita entered the corridor, sunlight from the windows shone on her. She took her time, enjoying the warm rays.
Eight cold years awaited her.
• • •
Dunaar waited while the Ascali servant draped the glittering robe back over him. Kivita had been easy to convince. No surprise. Salvagers cared only for profit, but few braved the Cetturo Arm’s star systems for Vim relics. The Inheritors needed to forge their own fate while commanding everyone else’s. The Vim had chosen him to do so.
“That is all, Zhara. You are dismissed.” A single sweat bead trickled down his cheek, but he refused to wipe it off before all these minor prophets.
The Ascali bowed and exited the chamber. Dunaar smiled at Zhara’s feral sexuality, though not out of lust. When it came to her, patience had gained him much so far. He turned to the gathered prophets. “My brothers, I must meditate on our coming journey. May the Vim bless you.”
As the Proselytes herded the others from the chamber, Dunaar pressed a button on the throne’s armrest. “Bring her in.”
A panel opened through the topaz wall mosaic, and two Proselytes entered with a thin, dark-haired woman. Though she possessed full lips and large green eyes, years of torture and malnutrition had left her skeletal and scarred.
“Bredine Ov,” Dunaar said. “You sensed Kivita’s abilities?”
Bredine looked up at him and shivered in her evergreen bodyglove. “Rector, Rector. Hmm? Kivita tingled. Yes, tingled.” Her broken Meh Sattan had an archaic lilt.
“Then she is a Savant after all.” Dunaar frowned. The bread rolls had been coated with ionized butter to prevent Kivita from sensing Bredine’s probing. Kivita had no idea of her talent, then.
Savants were humans who could decipher the information within a datacore. Knowledge stored in stone and crystal, accessed via electrical pulses from a human brain. Data gained from these holiest of objects had given the Inheritors power over the old human feudal worlds, but some populations still regarded starships as magic. The primitive fools needed guidance.
Dunaar knew the Vim would open all eyes in the end. The means mattered little.
“Rector? Rector? Kivita tingled.” Bredine’s gaze kept darting to the food tray.
Caressing the throne’s quartz armrest, Dunaar studied Bredine through narrowed eyes. Upon touching a datacore, a Savant could recite the stored information, but remembered little of it afterward. The Inheritors corralled all known Savants; such individuals, if loosed, constituted a threat to Inheritor power. The more people who could spread knowledge, the more chances it would be used for sin.
He’d continued the tradition of testing young adults throughout Inheritor Space. Savant ability, which remained undetectable in childhood, matured with age. Thus all Inheritor adults underwent brain-pulse analyzer scans. Few Savants escaped notice.
Except, until her last contract, Kivita Vondir.
“Has Arcuri’s Glory been readied for our journey?” Dunaar asked.
“The crew and soldiers are boarding now, Rector,” a Proselyte replied.
Dunaar had sent six separate teams to Vstrunn. Each had consisted of Inheritor soldiers, a trusted Proselyte, and a captive Savant. Each had met with failure, but Kivita’s salvager abilities might gain her the Juxj Star. Resulting action from Aldaakian patrols near Vstrunn would gain him the war he needed. Those pale-skinned infidels must be eliminated before humanity could leave the Cetturo Arm safely. He thought of all the poor, ignorant Inheritor children he would thus save. The next human generation was his charge, and he its savior.
“And Frevyx is still in this system?” Dunaar asked.
“Yes, Rector. That trawler’s beacon is still broadcasting from orbit,” the Proselyte said.
“Prepare the holo display. I think Sar Redryll will accept my proposition. Bring Zhara, and get the other Savants ready. Feed them a little. Here’s her meal.” Dunaar grimaced at Bredine and tossed the half-eaten roll to the floor. What a travesty that the Vim had selected trash like her to decipher their secrets.
Sar reclined in Frevyx’s pilot chair as the trawler orbited Haldon Prime. The pink, yellow, and turquoise emanations from the Sanctuary Nebula dusted the bridge in similar hues. If only everything could be so enchanting. His gray bodyglove bore mud stains from Fifth Heaven’s spaceport, and he still smelled those nasty mollusk vapors. Though he’d sold most of his salvage to the Inheritors, a few rare items remained for his allies. It gnawed at him to support a regime he despised, even if just for cover.
Cheseia entered the bridge and rubbed his shoulder. “Cease the pouting. It certainly mars your face.”
“Thanks.” Sar swiveled the chair around. Short brown fur covered Cheseia’s tall Ascali frame. Dark, silky tresses, held in place with a jiir headband, spilled over her shoulders. The blue glasslike leaves contrasted with her russet gaze.
“The Thede cell in this system wasn’t completely destroyed. It will assuredly rise again.” Cheseia touched his cheek and smiled.
“This might be easier if the kinetic pistols we’d stashed on Haldon Six hadn’t been found,” Sar said. “If the insurgency keeps getting beaten down in this system—”
A beep from the computer console interrupted him. He frowned at the text crossing the screen. “Looks like the Inheritors want to hire me again. You make contact with our agents planetside before we left?”
Before she could answer, the console’s holo display flickered. A figure in glittering robes appeared. Beautiful Ascali women in skimpy gowns and veils sat at the person’s feet. Sar rubbed his jaw to hide his grimace.
“May the Vim bless you, Sar Redryll,” Dunaar Thev’s hologram said. “Please forgive my intrusion, Sar Redryll, but since you operate under the Inheritor Charter, my message is warranted. I see you appreciate beauty around you, as well.”
Cheseia crossed her arms and stiffened. Guess she hated slavery as much as he did.
“What services do you require, Rector?” Sar kept his face neutral, though he gripped the chair’s armrests.
“I have received word that one of your rivals, Kivita Vondir, has taken an Aldaakian contract. Those albino meddlers have asked her to find the Juxj Star on Vstrunn. Records show that you have ventured to that planet. I ask you to do so again, my child.”
Kivita working for the Aldaakians sounded far-fetched; she’d always been an Inheritor salvager. Going after what most regarded as a spacer’s legend made the idea even stranger. Crazy girl was in over her head, as usual.
Dunaar’s robe made Sar squint. “You want me to find it first.”
“Of course, my child.”
“Frevyx isn’t armed.” He maintained eye contact with Dunaar and leaned back in the chair. Let the bastard beg.
“You will not be required to engage humanity’s shared enemies.”
Sar said nothing. Cheseia’s hurried breathing became audible.
Dunaar’s brow creased. “I realize the danger you will be facing, but the Aldaakians must not—”
“Ten polysuits, three energy dumps, and two gravity fluxers,” Sar said, though he needed none of the items. The Thedes did.
Dunaar’s hologram smiled. “I will add an extra energy dump, should you bring Vondir back, as well. I fear she must be tried for heresy, aiding the Vim’s enemies like this. So, you accept my offer?”
Sar nodded once. “You have a contract, Rector Thev. Setting coordinates for Wraith Star now.”
“May the Vim guide you, Sar Redryll. I shall await your return.” The holo display deactivated as Dunaar smiled wider. What an asshole.
A cold ball formed in Sar’s stomach. Anybody but Kivita. Her hurt, hazel stare still greeted him every time he entered cryostasis. There was no way she could survive Vstrunn. The fool girl had gotten into something larger than herself.
“You agreed quickly, Sar. Very quickly.” Cheseia gripped his shoulder. “But you certainly made the right choice.”
Sar gazed out Frevyx’s viewport. Kivita would resist his intrusion, maybe even fight. He’d spared Kivita the hard, secretive life he now led. In doing so, he’d cheated them both.
“Kiv probably has the same engines on that old trawler,” Sar said. “We’ll reach Vstrunn right after she does. Navon might get angry with us, going after the Juxj Star, but this is something the Thedes need to investigate. Dunaar’s been sending too many ships that way the past few years.”
He shut the viewport, which protected the eyes of passengers during light jumps. Sar had met more than one old spacer who’d gone blind from staring out an open viewport while making a jump. On the console screen, the planet’s coordinates glowed in purple-blue lettering. His last visit there had been a nightmare of high-gravity, sharp crystals, and the awful sense of being watched.
Cheseia whistled a low note and smoothed his hair. “Navon would definitely want us to investigate. What really troubles your heart?”
“Nothing. Been a while since I’ve been to Vstrunn—that’s all.” Sar selected the coordinates and rose. “Cryopods are waiting.” He stripped from his bodyglove.
Cheseia frowned. “This woman surely cannot endanger what I have built with you, Sar. All that the Thedes have worked relentlessly for, all we have shared—”
“I’m fine. My fling with her was two years ago. Out here, that might as well be an eternity.” Sar exited the bridge and walked down Frevyx’s central corridor. A galley, toilet room, storage lockers, and two airlocks waited on either side of him. Navy blue bulkheads enclosed him as memories drifted through his mind.
The taste of Kivita’s lips when they’d met in her airlock over Gontalo. Her mischievous hazel eyes. Those shocks of straight red-blond hair. Sar had told Kivita to do something else with her life rather than salvage. To do something different from what he’d done for so many years. He’d warned her he served a higher cause.
On the wall, Caitrynn’s placard drew his attention like a magnet to his heart. The gaze of his dead sister, killed during the Inheritor conquest of Freen, their homeworld. Her husband and children had been massacred along with her. The cold ball in Sar’s gut ground into icy hatred.
He’d abandoned Kivita to dedicate himself to the Thede cause: dispersing knowledge to the uneducated, and aiding insurgents against Inheritor aggression. That wasn’t enough anymore. Sar wanted a rebellion, a reckoning. Knowledge meant little if humanity remained a slave to those prophets.
Once, he’d gone after the Juxj Star, too, but for profit. If the Thedes could access the gem, the secrets they could learn . . . and the advantage it might give them against the Inheritors.
“You both definitely had the same eyes,” Cheseia murmured, looking at Caitrynn’s image.
He’d not informed Kivita of his mutation. Growing up in Freen’s toxic mines had left green speckles in his brown eyes, plus occasional lesions on his feet and hands. Any children fathered by him would share these abnormalities, maybe worse. Sar had told Kivita space radiation had sterilized him. The bottle of green spermicide pills in the medicine cabinet revealed his lie.
“Sar?” Cheseia fingered one of his black curls. He turned away and continued through the ship.
En route to the cryopods, Sar passed through his clean-swept quarters. A linen hammock hung over a heating vent. Pots bolted to the floor contained white and maroon hibiscus flowers. Sugar reeds from Bellerion rested in a square vat, and a jiir sapling grew from a spherical wall dish. More and more he took pieces from each world with him, to beautify the cold one he lived in.
He’d kept no reminders of her.
Sar entered the cryopod chamber and eased himself into one of three pods. Cheseia hesitated before his pod.
“You have mostly forgotten her?” Unblinking, she stripped naked.
Sar opened his mouth, but the words refused to come out. Cheseia had been his lover since her assignment to him as a field agent. A bond born of space travel, through a lifestyle of perpetual caution. Not love.
“You have especially forgotten her?” Cheseia whispered, removing her headband. Her raw physical beauty should turn him on. Instead it chilled him further, like he already lay in cryo.
“What?” His voice sounded harsher than he’d meant, and he held up a hand as she frowned. “Sorry. This isn’t easy for me.”
Cheseia leaned into his pod and kissed his lips. “Eventually it will be. You will definitely forget about her after this mission. Yes, thankfully so.” She stepped back, and the cryopod hatch closed.
Sar cursed himself as the familiar cryo chill flooded his extremities. Though Sar didn’t want to hurt Cheseia, he also didn’t want old feelings for Kivita swamping his emotions for the coming mission.
He needed that gem. Not her.
• • •
Dunaar’s soldiers waited while Kivita’s autoloader lifted the bonus food crates into her ship. Its six steel arms slid on a rail along the cargo hold’s ceiling. None of the soldiers spoke. Not that she wanted them to. One stared at her breasts too much, and another checked the magazine in his rifle too often.
Turning away, Kivita watched Haldon Prime’s sunset. Soon the sky would be filled with stars and far-off nebulae. As a child she’d tried pointing out the systems she planned to visit. No matter what happened to her, an undying wonder of the stars would always keep her young inside.
The autoloader creaked, its task complete. Without a word, the soldiers left.
“Yeah, same to you.” Kivita shut the doors and locked down Terredyn Narbas. She removed her clothing and shoved it all into a storage locker.
Damn it. Vstrunn would test her. Maybe even kill her. But she could never see enough new planets, even the cratered, desolate ones. Worse, each new discovery left her hungry for more. And she’d been starving for a long time.
After stripping to her two-piece underwear, she pulled a jump rope and dumbbells from a locker. If she didn’t exercise regularly, Kivita’s muscles would atrophy due to gravity fluctuations. Worse, she’d menstruated only once while on Gontalo, and feared she might be succumbing to a cryomalady.
Lifting the dumbbells, Kivita pumped her biceps, triceps, and deltoids with perfect form. Muscles clenched and relaxed, each repetition searing her body. After squatting until her quadriceps and calves burned, Kivita snatched the jump rope. Soon her forearms quivered as she twirled the rope and jumped from the balls of her feet.
Covered in sweat, she headed for the shower pod. With the new mist ionizer from Marsque, the device scrubbed her pores deeper, wasting less water.
Kivita put on fresh underwear and entered the bridge as night stole over Haldon Prime. Thousands of pinpoints still beckoned to her. Red and yellow effulgence radiated from the Vim Wall, a massive nebula bordering the Cetturo Arm. The blue sliver of Haldon Three and the brilliant orange crescent of Haldon Two lit up the darkness in plum shades.
Gripping the manuals, she initialized Terredyn Narbas’s engines. The nav computer offered guidance aids, but Kivita ignored them and lifted the craft from the landing pad. She preferred to control the ship as much as possible, holding fate in her own hands.
As the ship ascended through the atmosphere, the bridge’s flashing running lights reminded her of the dreams. The brief moment she’d touched a datacore from Xeh’s Crown had filled her mind with star coordinates. Glimpses of those odd creatures in stark white exoskeletons, or visions of spectacular nebula not existing inside the Cetturo Arm.
Once in orbit, Kivita keyed in the coordinates for the Wraith Star system. Twelve light years. She’d never traveled farther than six in one jump.
With space’s vacuum chill evaporating heat from the ship, Kivita hurried to her cryopod. Her steps lightened as Terredyn Narbas eased into zero-G for the journey. The ship vibrated slightly for a moment, then gave off a regular hum above its normal operating sounds.
She now traveled at three times the speed of light.
Sliding into the cryopod, Kivita wondered how many people she’d seen on Haldon Prime would still be alive when she returned. A salvager’s life amounted to spaceport flings and salvaging runs, then dreamlike epochs in cryostasis.
Again, Kivita was alone.
Jaw tight, she mashed the pod’s stasis button. The transparent cover hissed as it sealed. The usual cold sensations numbed her toes, fingers, and back. As the spreading cold eased her into wintry darkness, Kivita knew she’d find something out there to make it all worthwhile.
Inside the main chamber of Arcuri’s Glory, Dunaar studied a hologram of mutated children on Freen. Bloated foreheads; boil-covered flesh. Until Inheritor control had been established, abysmal mining conditions had contaminated generations of pitiful offspring. Scowling, he changed the image. Gaunt Tahe citizens lay on lice-ridden cots. The population had been near starvation when the Inheritors liberated their world.
“May the Vim grant me the means to show them mercy.” A coil tightened around Dunaar’s heart. Mercy often had to be brutal, since tenderness invited sloth and sin. Only the righteous could show them the way.
After Kivita played her role.
Dunaar turned away from more holos of people the Inheritors had saved from their own ignorance. The Thedes enlightened peasants, consequences be damned. One insurgent enclave on Tahe had constructed a fusion reactor without fully understanding its operation. Dunaar had been forced to cleanse the area. The irradiated victims would have infected the rest of the inhabitants.
Moisture rolled down his cheek. Dunaar wiped it away, wishing it were tears instead of perspiration. His sweating malady and thyroid disorder had been inflicted in his youth—exposure to a radioactive Thede bomb on Haldon Six. Years spent in Fifth Heaven’s Golden Seminary as a neophyte, then a prophet, had taught Dunaar that only the Vim could deliver harmony.
But now the Aldaakians threatened that stability, demanding the Inheritors hand over Vim technology so they might find the ancients. Dunaar would never let that happen.
Everything was pressing against him. Populations were growing, and all habitable planets with arable land had been developed. All the unexplored stars within reach were red-giant systems containing dead worlds, and, like he’d told Kivita, the stars were aging far too quickly. Xeh’s Crown, just seven light years away, had been predicted to supernova in twenty years. The Cetturo Arm held no future for humanity.
He had to find the Vim soon, before everything his people had striven and died for was gone.
Dunaar walked into the adjacent chamber. The adjoining hall’s sandstone tiles, quartz lamps, and topaz trim all signified the Vim’s yellow stars of promise. He smiled. So much weight aboard a ship indicated power: the power to generate enough force to lift such a craft from a planet, then send it across the cosmos. Power granted by the Vim, through the technology they’d left behind for the faithful.
In the next chamber, dim yellow lamps lit a circular area a hundred feet in circumference. A few dozen cryopods lined the walls. Each held the preserved body of a previous Rector. Dunaar paused before one pod in particular. Through its semitransparent hatch, a thin face stared back at him, the eyelids closed.
“Guide me, Arcuri. Your vision may yet save us all.” Dunaar touched his head and gesticulated. The sainted Arcuri had founded the Inheritors—the humans in the Cetturo Arm who would inherit what the Vim had left for them.
The ship’s intercom rattled a speaker in the corridor outside. “Rector, they have arrived.”
Dunaar entered the antechamber, where Zhara waited with his other female servants. Because of his Oath of Propagation, he enjoyed the company of the finest slave girls; his holy genes would flower on future worlds.
His children had possessed the same disorders he’d been cursed with. So far, three dozen monstrosities had been euthanized before seeing their first month. The clones, which he kept aboard, frozen from public view, hadn’t fared much better.
“You were fed well, my child?” Dunaar caressed Zhara’s furred cheek.
“Yes, Rector.” Her melodious voice stole the air from the room. So beautiful, even if she was little more than a beast. Though Ascali and human unions produced no issue, Dunaar needed Zhara in his collection. The payoff would be immense.
What he also needed were more Savants. Bredine had never produced a child. That willful tramp hampered the creation of children that might possess her talent. And every time, the half-witted bitch had to be beaten just to spread her legs.
Minutes later, Dunaar entered the bridge. Captain Ilurred Stiego snapped to attention. The pilot, navigator, and security officers straightened at their stations. The nav computer displayed holographic simulations of Arcuri’s Glory and another craft. The other loomed four times larger than Dunaar’s flagship. Through the viewport, the gray-green hull of a Sarrhdtuu vessel blotted out the stars.
“Docking is complete, Rector,” Stiego said. A tall, thin man, he wore red Inheritor naval livery. A holo monocle rested in his left eye.
“Inform our allies we are ready to board, Captain.” Dunaar exited the bridge and descended a short flight of steps onto the supply deck. Few had ever seen a Sarrhdtuu, let alone entered their ships. The Sarrhdtuu claimed no worlds or systems in the Arm; many believed they resided only aboard their starships.
Eight Proselytes armed with blades and kinetic pistols waited at the secondary airlock. After a few moments, the safety light switched from red to green, and the airlock slid open. The momentary churning in his stomach from gravity fluctuation passed.
Dunaar stepped into a dimly illuminated chamber. Moist, leathery coils sat in several piles. Knobs and curled protrusions stuck from the bulkheads. The mildewed stench typical of all Sarrhdtuu craft made Dunaar take shallow breaths.
Something clicked above them, and a boom lowered on fleshlike stalks. The mildew smell strengthened. A dais resting on coiled tentacles slithered into the chamber as the boom sprayed green jelly over it. Dunaar forced his face not to scrunch up as the mildew stench became so overpowering, his nostrils burned.
The jelly built up and morphed into a sleek humanoid torso, complete with a half-crescent head and two arms ending in coils. Four purple eyes opened and stared at Dunaar. Inside the transparent jelly body, organs pumped and liquids ran along thousands of veins. A puckered mouth hissed open.
“Prophet of Meh Sat. You have initiated our request?” The Sarrhdtuu’s voice contained a heavy lisp.
“Indeed I have, Zhhl. I hope your operations have gone well?” Sweat dribbled down his nose and past his lips.
Zhhl writhed back and forth across the floor. “What of the rebels of Meh Sat? Luccan’s progeny.”
Dunaar smoothed his yellow robes. “There is a slight change I must discuss with you concerning our plot.”
“Tell.” Zhhl ceased writhing and morphed into a wall. The coils crawled along the surface as the jelly body adopted a thinner, longer shape.
“I have dispatched a Savant to take the Juxj Star on Vstrunn, as you suggested.”
Zhhl hissed. “Kith, Prophet of Meh Sat.”
Dunaar’s pulse quickened. “True, but the one I hired is a salvager. She might evade the Kith; she survived an encounter with them near Xeh’s Crown. My plan will be reported to the Thedes by Sar Redryll. I have no doubt they will attempt to intercept my salvager as soon as she has the gem. Once revealed, I shall track and eradicate the Thede leadership.”
Zhhl’s information about Redryll’s Thede allegiance had come a year ago. Other sources had revealed his dalliance with Kivita, making him the perfect one to inadvertently reveal the location of his allies. The fool would no doubt usher her and the datacore to his Thede mongrels.
“Aldaakians.” Zhhl split itself into three smaller beings and walked on the ceiling.
“They still patrol the Wraith Star system. Vim willing, they will intercept my salvager. My ship will arrive and create an incident. I already have the appropriate news briefs prepared: an attack on Inheritor shipping to neighboring Tejuit. The Aldaakians will be blamed, and the Thedes will be implicated. I will declare all human worlds under Inheritor protection. That silly peace treaty the Tannocci worlds agreed to with the Aldaakians will be retracted.”
Dunaar knew Sarrhdtuu and Aldaakians lacked the human Savant ability, though simple devices could detect its presence. Even if Kivita or the gem entered their custody, neither alien species would know how to use them. The Vim had chosen humans, and no one else, to share in their glory.
Morphing into one form again, Zhhl dropped down before Dunaar. It now stood over twenty feet tall. “Aldaakians must be defeated. They betrayed the Vim. Vengeance, Prophet of Meh Sat.”
A sweat bead ran down Dunaar’s chin. “Yes, we will avenge the sainted ones. Everything has been set, as we’d originally planned. Do I still have your cooperation?”
“Ships will be prepared after new war is declared on Aldaakians. One prize for Sarrhdtuu aid.” Zhhl raised one coil.
“Yes?” Dunaar licked sweat from his lips, hoping Zhhl didn’t ask for more human slaves. In their last dealings, Dunaar had depopulated three Bellerion towns just to sate Zhhl’s demands.
“Require the salvager of the Xeh’s Crown datacore. The one with tendrils of flame on her head.”
Dunaar had to think for a moment. “You mean Kivita Vondir? She is the salvager I have sent to Vstrunn. The beacon you donated has been placed on her ship.”
Sliding onto the boom, Zhhl morphed back into piles of coils. “Yes, Prophet of Meh Sat.” The audience was over.
Dunaar hurried back to the airlock, trying to keep his expression neutral.
Why would Zhhl want a Savant, when no Sarrhdtuu had ever shown interest in a datacore?
Kivita snapped awake as something wet stung her tonsils and blistered her tongue. Lips numb, she tried to cough. A spasm wrenched her throat before she realized what was going on.
The cryopod’s tube had splashed pseudoadrine into her mouth. Before she could blink, her gums absorbed the synthetic adrenaline into her bloodstream. Kivita’s limbs jerked once; then energy blazed through her veins and ignited her muscles. Within seconds the sensations faded, leaving her cold but alert.
Beeps emitted from the cryopod’s life-monitor readout, and a green light flashed. Great; she had woken in good health. She smoothed back her hair with trembling fingers. No matter how many times she underwent this same resurrection, Kivita always hated it.
Grunting, she rose as the cryopod’s transparent cover opened. Terredyn Narbas hummed around her, dark and cold. Heating and life support had activated minutes before her awakening, but vacuum frost still covered the bulkheads. She shivered in her two-piece underwear.
“Damn.” Kivita grabbed her black bodyglove and slipped from the pod. Terredyn Narbas’s running lights and gravity activated fully. The cryopod closed with a sucking noise.
Kivita stretched, touched her toes, then did fifty jumping jacks. Burning sensations jolted her muscles again. Deep breaths cracked her chest. After a final stretch, she headed for the bridge. Blue-white lamps activated along the floor. Moments later she opened the bridge viewport.
Vstrunn dominated the vista as the trawler entered the planet’s orbit. Wraith Star, a white dwarf sun, lit up the planet’s crystallized surface in red, purple, and white twinkles. Gray cloud banks encircled the sphere. The planet was like the corpse of someone’s dream, left to rot in the void.
She couldn’t imagine a worse place to explore: more than twenty-thousand miles in diameter, with high-G and a seven-hour day—and nothing but hydrogen for an atmosphere.
Viewing the computer readout, Kivita snapped on her polyboots. No Aldaakian ships appeared on the scanner. Frowning, she studied Vstrunn’s scintillating surface once more. High-G, combined with the jagged surface, would make for a dangerous landing.
“Yeah. Let’s see what you got, you big lug of a planet.” After eating a protein slab, she donned an envirosuit, then girded on her kinetic pistol with a ten-round magazine.
“I’m going to leave you up here, okay, girl? Be right back.” She patted the bulkhead and stepped into the landing unit’s cramped bay. She slid into a small planetary capsule and sealed the hatch behind her. Two small seats waited with frost-caked buckles and ripped cushions. A tiny console beeped to life. She buckled herself in and triggered the tandem beacon. When she needed to return, the capsule would lift off and reunite with Terredyn Narbas.
Before pressing the release button, she thought of her mother. Rhyer had claimed Kivita looked just like her. Hazel eyes, golden red hair. She caught her reflection in the console screen and swallowed.
“Here goes.” As soon as she tapped the red button, Kivita’s stomach churned and she gritted her teeth. One instant she gazed upon the landing unit’s bulkhead; the next, Vstrunn rose below her in monstrous vastness.
Dark void filled reality on either side of the capsule. Terredyn Narbas grew smaller above her. The Wraith Star burned with a dying, impotent fury, casting everything in subdued tones. Vstrunn’s hydrogen bands seemed to reach up and grab the capsule.
The computer beeped again. Two minutes until landing; each second a mini eternity of crushing acceleration and gut-wrenching free fall.
Vstrunn’s outer atmosphere encircled the landing capsule. Yellow-gray mist obscured the viewport as turbulence shook the small craft. Kivita gripped the seat handles as vacuum frost came free and struck her suit. She squeezed her legs together, the sensation to urinate overwhelming. The protein slab she’d eaten jumped in her stomach, and Kivita bit her lip to keep from vomiting.
Stillness fell over the capsule. Cloud cover dissipated, revealing a landscape dotted with twisted spires, jagged plateaus, and mile-deep canyons. Kivita smiled despite her reentry travails. She’d never seen placards of Vstrunn; just heard rumors in spacer bars.
The white dwarf sun lit everything in ghostly repose. Violet, sapphire, and ruby quartz hues gleamed in sparkling glory. Coronas flared through thin crystal formations. Geodes the size of starships glittered with a thousand illuminated facets.
The sight took her breath. For a long moment, the capsule seemed to stop midair, as if to grant her a view from deepest fantasies dreamt worlds away.
Kivita grunted as the capsule’s braking thrusters fired. A thick parachute deployed from the module above her. She braced herself.
The capsule jerked. Her helmet slammed against the seat. Frost crystals slid across her faceplate, but she blinked away the pain. Kivita started to cough, then choked as the capsule slammed into the surface. Her restraints squeezed the breath from her lungs as she jostled about. Crystal shrapnel smacked the viewport. Red warning lights flashed on the console.
“Shit,” she breathed.
As Kivita unbuckled herself, each inhalation grew harder. Sweat crept down her brow by the time she rose and studied the console. It felt like giant hands were trying to press her down into the floor. She’d forgotten just how much high-G hampered her movements and strained her muscles.
The console beeped new messages across its screen. One thruster had been crushed, and the port-side bulkhead was cracked, but not breached. Kivita glanced out the viewport. The parachute lay in tatters on sharp stalagmite-like terrain forty yards away.
“Great. But we’re otherwise okay, you piece of—”
A steam jet blew against her right arm. She jerked back. Within moments, the steam’s moisture crackled into ice. The newly formed crystals clattered onto the capsule floor. Kivita fought the rising lump in her chest and studied the readout again. As long as the structure held and the crushed thruster didn’t rupture, she could still take off.
Her canisters held nine hours of air.
Kivita took three deep breaths and turned on her wrist compass. The speaker inside her helmet beeped once. The tiny compass screen displayed a flashing arrow, indicating the direction of the trajectory given by Dunaar. The location of the Juxj Star.
“C’mon, five miles?” Under high-G, the distance would be grueling. She also wasn’t sure what time of day she’d landed; she guessed four hours of light remained. After that, Vstrunn would really turn cold.
Kivita exited the capsule and stepped onto minuscule ruby shards, scorched black from her landing. She gazed around, getting her bearings.
Sapphire canyon walls rose at least one hundred feet above her, and a slope led into a large black crevice fifty feet on her right. Her landing had been fortunate. Hell, more than fortunate. Shivering, she tried not to guess the fissure’s depth. As she walked from the capsule, her knees wobbled and her lungs compressed. Her heart thumped as if she’d been running.
“Six energy dumps,” she whispered, then stepped onto a mesa covered in fine purple crystals. They crunched under her boots like glassware baubles.
Ahead, the landscape glittered and twinkled. Huge transparent crystal clusters filled the valley below the mesa. Hundreds of thin, brittle stalks rose dozens of feet into the air, and tiny flakes of frozen hydrogen dusted the landscape.
For an instant, the visions she’d seen since Xeh’s Crown flooded her mind. Galactic arms filled with yellow, blue, and orange stars, rather than the dying red giants dominating the Cetturo Arm.
Kivita shook her head. This high-G must be playing tricks on her.
The compass beeped and the arrow flashed toward the crystalline grove below. Kivita took another deep breath and trudged on. She’d trained in high-G before, but as she climbed down the mesa wall, her muscles burned with exhaustion. Sweat ran in rivulets down her face. Her faceplate’s defroster worked extra just to keep it from fogging over.
Soon she traveled through the grove she’d spotted from above. Her footsteps popped and cracked over crystals. Kivita avoided rubbing against the larger ones with her suit. One puncture, and she’d become a permanent resident. Twice she paused to catch her breath.
Something caught the sunlight behind a ruby geode formation. Kivita paused, then stiffened.
Two hundred feet away sat a squat Inheritor shuttle. Panels had been ripped off the outer hull, and three forms in envirosuits lay a short distance from the craft. Hydrogen frost had covered the faceplates.
A chill entered Kivita’s chest. Her legs trembled as she staggered toward a skinny quartz formation.
“Six . . . energy . . . dumps . . .”
The impulse to steady herself against a crystal spire nagged her. Her lungs burned, working harder. Aeons passed as she crept through the grove, then into a massive arched tunnel, its ceiling forty feet above her. Luminescent sapphires glowed with mysterious inner fire.
Pausing, she recalled some of her father’s tips. Don’t fight nature; work with it. Kivita stopped resisting the high-G so much and relaxed. Her breathing leveled off as she developed a walking and inhalation rhythm. There—she could do it. Dunaar hadn’t hired just any spacer; he’d hired Kivita Vondir, and she could . . .
The compass indicated two miles to go. Damn.
She entered a second arched tunnel. The glow of ruby and violet geodes reflected off a familiar polished surface lying at her feet: Inheritor polyarmor. A cuirass, greaves, one boot. A kinetic rifle lay snapped in two, its magazine gutted. Dark crimson stains covered the surrounding crystals, and tufts of flesh lay in scattered piles.
Kivita’s breaths came slow and painful as she drew her pistol. The shots could pierce polyarmor, but with only ten rounds, she’d have to make them count.
The compass beeped and the arrow stopped blinking. Kivita halted and swallowed.
Outside the tunnel, a tall square tower of sapphire and violet gems soared three hundred feet above her. A huge quartz stone with ruby veins rested atop it, catching the faint sunlight in pink motes. Other angular formations dotted the surrounding area, but she couldn’t tell if they were built from the crystals or had been overgrown. Kivita wondered if any other buildings existed on Vstrunn, and who might have built them.
Who could have built anything on this planet?
The tower’s presence defied her disbelief.
She scanned the area. Kith were hulking, seven-foot-tall creatures and rather ugly. Surely she’d spot one easily across this gorgeous landscape. Nothing disturbed Vstrunn’s stillness. Gripping the pistol, Kivita walked on.
The tower doorway loomed before her like the mouth of some legendary monster. She entered with cautious steps. Even if she found the Juxj Star right now, it would be night once she reached the landing capsule.
The tower’s interior gleamed with luminescent crystal blocks cut in exact fittings. Kivita switched her wrist compass to indicate the distance from her capsule; she’d flee as soon as she found the gem. Once she stepped from a foyerlike room into a grand chamber, thoughts of leaving faded.
The crystal walls pulsed with inner light, reaching up to the ruby quartz three hundred feet above her head. Her limbs shook; her head tingled. No steps, no lifts along the sides. The walls were as slick as glass, reflecting a thousand versions of herself from angular fractures. The crystalline structures mesmerized Kivita into a state of bliss, as if she already dreamt in her cryopod.
In the center of the floor stood a three-foot, amethystine altar. A round red gem the size of a child’s fist hung suspended over it. Nothing visible held up the gem.
Kivita stilled. Three armored Aldaakian bodies lay around the altar. Through the narrow faceplates, the albino faces looked asleep. They might have been dead for a day or a decade. Part of her wanted to touch them, while another wanted to look away. Strange how heat created life as well as destroyed it, while cold drained life while preserving it.
The tingling in her brain increased. Shit, not another headache. Something tickled her throat, and Kivita’s breaths quaked in her lungs.
Reflected in one Aldaakian faceplate at her feet was a tall, hulking form.
Five Kith had entered the crystal tower. They stepped easily around the altar, their metallic gray flesh mirroring the pulsing geode lights. Triangular black eyes examined her, and serrated black claws protruded from their hands.
“Damn it.” Her mouth went dry.
The Kith swept toward her, claws raised. The high-G rooted her in place while not affecting them.
Kivita’s sight flashed with images of a spiral galactic arm filled with blue stars. Hands numb, she dropped the pistol. It clattered on the crystal floor. She closed her eyes and suppressed a whimper.
No. It would not end like this.
Spreading her arms, Kivita waited. No way she’d die in fear. With slow breaths, she calmed her nerves. In her mind, the vision of the spiral arm solidified. The name of an unknown star came to her lips.
Excerpted from "Inherit the Stars"
Copyright © 2015 Tony Peak.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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