Craved: Chapter Two

 

Chapter Two: Geir

From where I watched in a corner of the paneled conference room, I could see all my brothers. At least, all that had survived.

An all-hands briefing should’ve had us crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, the ones out on missions remoting in whenever possible.

But this was it. We were all that was left, not even a full unit if you didn’t count the strangers that chance had added to our numbers.

Chatter filled the room. Everyone wanted to know the destination of the old spaceliner we’d been trapped on. Just because we sent it and the damned Hunters who had caught us into the sun instead, didn’t mean we’d forgiven anything.

“All right children, settle down. Let’s get started.”

I snorted. An old woman, tiny braids spilling out from a bright headscarf and stacks of silver bracelets running up her wrists plopped down at the head of the table. Granny Z looked more like a vagrant than the retired pirate queen that station rumor called her.

Instead of snarling at having his authority usurped, Ronan simply gave a half bow and sat next to her. Nadira, his mate, made for the chair beside him, but he pulled her into his lap.

I shook my head. Of all people, I never would’ve expected Ronan would soften up. But his lady had proven her worth time after time.

The other newcomers I still hadn’t decided about.

A small silver box in the middle of the table. Blue lights twinkled and my least favorite of our new Companions started right in.

Hi, everybody!

I winced. Void. I didn’t need any extra time to make up my mind about the AI Connor and his mind-bonded mate Eris had added to the mix. It was always so needlessly perky. Why couldn’t it just be an informational device?

We found the coordinates for the compound in the Pyrian Star’s files pretty quickly. The odd thing is, according to almost every database, satellite and commsystem I can get into, there’s nothing there. No planet, no sat imagery, nothing.

“What do you mean, nothing?” Davian drawled. “I thought you had access to damn near everything out in the Fringe and half of what’s at the Hub. Everybody’s got a sat network in orbit, should be plenty of images for you to spy on.”

Most places do, but not everywhere.” Nixie babbled on, as always taking the most roundabout route instead of just giving us the damn intel. “There’s a couple of reasons why they may not have satellite imagery accessible. Obviously, there might be nothing there – just a rendezvous.”

“Doesn’t seem likely,” Hakon interjected. “They called it ‘The Compound.’ I’d bet my toolset that’s an actual place.”

I don’t know what I’d do with a toolset, but I agree with you. I accessed the oldest Imperial survey for that sector I could find. There’s notes of a water world with a breathable atmosphere, a scattering of small islands on one hemisphere, and a larger landmass on the other. But nothing past that initial report. All further mention of the planet appears to have been scrubbed.”

She waited, lights blinking.

“That’s enough for me.” Xander stood, hard eyes sweeping the room. “We should go in, launch an assault before they even know we’ve escaped, make them pay for-.”

Ronan cut in. “No. We’ve lost too many of us to take stupid risks. We play it smart.”

I leaned back. I knew where this was going, but wondered how long it would take the others to catch up.

Killian, Mack his name was now I supposed, spoke up. “We can take a look in The Queen, bounce in and out before anyone gets a read on us.”

Granny slapped her hand on the table. “You’re awfully free to volunteer my ship, boy.” But she grinned, eyes flashing, and the stories of her pirate past got a lot more believable. “Just don’t get any scratches on her.”

“We could do a series of folded jumps.” Mack’s mate Zayda chimed in. “Plan the pattern carefully to cover the planet, get some intelligence, come back.”

I pushed away from the wall. “How big is that ship?”

Zayda shrugged. “Just a runner. She’ll avoid detection easily.”

“Will it take three?”

“Sure, if you’re willing to stay in the back until we get there. The bridge is mostly cockpit,” she clarified.

“I don’t remember you being selected for this mission,” Xander scowled.

“Because we’re not being stupid, remember?” I shrugged. “Unless somehow you’ve picked up more recon experience than me?”

He lunged, lips curled into a snarl, but caught himself short at Ronan’s sharp command.

“Both of you, settle down.”

Xander slammed back into his chair. Should have fought him anyway. He needed to vent, or he was going to blow. And we couldn’t lose another brother.

Ronan glared at us both. “You’re an asshole, Geir, but you’re right.” He ran a hand through his hair, angry with us, angry with the situation. “We’ve all had enough of waiting. Go see who it is we’re fighting against.”

The damn silver box piped up. “I do have a selection of files on General Melchior, compiled before his disappearance. Would you like me to review them with you?

“No,” I ground out. “Send the information to a tablet, I’ll read it on the way.”

Killian had been a damn good pilot. Time to see what skills Mack remembered.

 

 

***

 

As I followed Mack and Zayda into the hanger I could see why Granny Z had been so proud of the ship.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Mack grinned while I took in the Queen’s sleek, deadly curves.

“She might be pretty on the outside,” Zayda answered, “but she’s amazing on the inside.”

Mack opened the hatch and stepped through, disappearing while I examined the antique. It’d be amazing if it ran. Anything else was a bonus.

My attention was still distracted when, with a short startled yelp, Zayda’s foot slipped from the step and she tumbled.

I dove, catching her before her head cracked into the permisteel deck.

Mack burst from the hatch, eyes wild. “Don’t touch her” he roared and leaped towards us.

I didn’t move. “Should I have let her fall?”

He froze mid-stride, shook his head, confusion warring with rage across his face.

Zayda patted my arm. “Thanks for the save. I’m going to call it luck and let that be the worst mistake we make today.” She bounced to her feet, more gracefully than I would’ve expected after her stumble.

Oblivious to the harm he could do her, she wrapped her arms around Mack’s waist. “Everything’s fine, darlin’.”

He crushed her to him, taking deep breaths, letting her scent, her touch pull him back from the edge.

Well. This was going to be an interesting trip.

“I’ll go ahead and show myself in. Got reading to catch up on anyway.”

Zayda had been right, other than the cockpit, the only space for a passenger was on the bunk.

I eyed the narrow shelf with disbelief. Maybe Zayda had slept back here, but there was no way Mack or any of my brothers would fit on that ledge.

Heading further back I found a slightly wider part of the corridor. Looked like it headed down to the engine, but that was fine.

I tossed my kit bag down, and as I got relatively comfortable, Mack and Zayda argued in the cockpit. “Apologize,” she hissed.

“Apologizing isn’t exactly something we do well,” Mack answered, the hint of laughter in his voice a good indication that he’d regained control. “He knows that.”

“I don’t care. He kept me from getting hurt. Even if you can’t remember everything, he’s your brother. You shouldn’t fight.”

“Fine.” He sighed. “Hey, Geir. Sorry about that.”

“Oh Void,” she sighed.

I chuckled. Apparently, Zayda had forgotten about our hearing abilities.

“No worries,” I called back. “Going to read the files the AI found on this Melchior guy. Dead by now, but maybe he had a kid or a disciple. Sounds boring, so wake me when we get there.” I ignored the rest of their conversation while I settled in and pulled up the info on the tablet.

 

***

 

Over a hundred years ago the empire had one of its many spasms, the Lormari Uprising. Not much of a civil war, and only interesting to me because that was when the Empire abandoned its furthest outposts, effectively creating the Fringe.

But now I knew something evil had come out of those battles, something that managed to reach across time, destroy my home and slaughter my family.

And somewhere in this collection of reports, I wanted to find the leverage to make them pay.

Reading through, it was obvious General Melchior had been a man who the troops loved and the politicians hated.

He’d served honorably enough, suppressing anti-Imperial interests during the uprising, but over time his communications back to Imperial Control became terse, flat out derisive.

 

These people are sheep. They have nothing that we need. It only shows weakness to refuse to cull them as an example.

 

Control was having a hard time keeping their war commander on a leash.

 

We should burn them all from the sky. Their ridiculous demands have only been emboldened by the weakness of the Emperor and his court. He is as much an enemy as these buffoons.

 

Huh. Last I checked that was full-on treason. Looked like they needed him and his divisions too much to reign in.

I flipped quickly through the remaining pages. There had been back-channeled chatter on ways to remove Melchior from power as the fighting ended and a fragile peace resumed. But then he disappeared.

His monitors knew he’d booked a trip on the Pyrian Star. They joked that the demanding general was really enjoying some of that decadent luxury in his old age.

Old age? Flipped back. The guy was already in his 90s when he led the takeover of the Star. Not bad for an old guy.

I went back to the document I’d been reading, flipped further, searching, but not finding anything useful.

Putting down the tablet, I ran my fingers over the textured handle of the knife sheathed down the side of my right thigh, thinking.

An authoritarian military commander, who’d ranted about the need to bring about a new order. And then disappeared.

The attack on the Star showed he’d begun to put his plans into play. With the Hunters tied to him and still active, someone was still pulling the strings.

He should have started taking over smaller worlds, built his own domain until it was strong enough to rival a weakened Empire, and then attack the Hub. He should have been a name feared throughout the Fringe.

But none of the Pack had ever heard of him. Granny Z with all her contacts barely remembered him. Zayda, an intelligence officer, only knew the name as a relic of the past.

And no matter how I read the documents they weren’t giving me any more answers.

Disgusted with the lack of intel, I tossed the tablet down and went forward.

There might not have been space to sit, but I could stand in the corridor and lean, see out the viewport, get a notion of where we were going.

The stars tunneled around us as we made the first jump. “I thought the whole reason to use this ship was that fancy fold drive back there. Why are you bothering with a jump?”

Mack shifted to the side in a futile attempt to make more room. “I don’t know who else knows about the fold drive, but it would be nice if it was just the Pack’s little secret. Figure it doesn’t hurt to only use it when no one else is around”

I nodded. Made sense.

“That engine can go from point A to Point B without spending any time in jump space?” If it was true, that’d get rid of a lot of the boring parts of my job. “How did Granny end up with it, anyway?”

Zayda laughed. “I’ve been afraid to ask. I just assumed she and her husband stole it.”

She pulled out a chip, passed it to Mack. “Nixie worked out a recon pattern based on the survey’s report of the planet’s size. We’ll jump to the edge of the system, get our bearings, then jump closer and circle.”

Mack double checked the info on the screen. “If it’s clear, we’ll jump the pattern. If not, we’ll bounce back to a holding spot and come up with another plan.”

“All right, we’re set up.”

Mack tilted his head towards Zayda.

“Let’s go see what’s waiting for us,” she answered.

The coordinates may have been for a planet, but we weren’t stupid enough to try to jump into the middle of the moving solar system without getting eyes on it first. Just because there were no satellites that Nixie could access didn’t mean there wasn’t a defense system.

We came out of jump space at the edge of a small system. Five planets, only the fourth habitable.

“There’s an array of long-range scanners around the target. Still want to give it a try?” Zayda asked.

“Pretty sure that’s what we came out here for.” I grinned. “See if you can make it hard for them to figure out what we are.”

Mack started folding, back and forth through the system, not giving their scanners more than two seconds to spot us. Dancing across the orbital plane we got closer to our target. In the flickers on the screen, I could see the planet getting bigger and with every blink, the gray-green churning sea became clearer.

“Definitely satellites, thicker than I would’ve expected.” Zayda looked up from her screens. “Whatever they’ve got there, they’re interested in keeping it hidden.”

“So, let’s find it,” I said.

Now that we had the planet’s position and orbital speed we could run Nixie’s pattern. In moments we’d bounced back to the safety of jump space to review what we’d picked up.

“Is that what I think it is?” I drew my finger over the golden dome filling the screen.

Zayda nodded. “I didn’t know you could build an energy shield that large.”

The largest island on the planet had a chunk cut out of it. The golden shimmering dome of a shield covered the entire southwest quarter, and out into the sea. Nothing would get in or out without lowering it. And there was no way to see what it was hiding.

I rubbed my chin. “How close can you get to that water?”

Mack shrugged. “We’re not built for atmospheric flight, but for just a bounce in and out, we could probably do sixty meters.”

“Then drop me at the edge of the shield. I’d be surprised if it went under the water.”

Zayda snorted. “You mean, the surprise of a shield that big wasn’t enough?”

“No other choice,” I bit out. “No other way in, and that’s why we’re here.”

“And how are you planning to get out?”

I shrugged. “Usually I figure something out when I get there.” I ran my hands through my hair in frustration. “Look, I don’t have any data. I can’t make a plan other than ‘go get more data’. That’s my job, and I’m damn good at it.”

She leaned back in her chair. “It’s a sucky plan. It doesn’t even count as a plan, really. I don’t like it.” She reached over to grip Mack’s hand. “But we want answers, too. Someone has to pay.”

Mack nodded. “If the AI can’t find anything, there’s nothing to find. The only way we’re going to get answers is if he goes. He can handle himself.”

He shot me a significant look. “You know Ronan won’t wait forever.”

“Yeah. Tell him this is going to be complicated. Don’t send the cavalry for a few weeks.” That’d be the best I’d get. If I wasn’t back by then, well, I wasn’t coming back. “If we’re done talking about this, bounce back. I’ve got an idea of where I want to be dropped.”

A few more peeks and I was ready.

“Let’s do this thing.” Three more jumps, each slightly lower until we hit an altitude that was survivable.

Any higher, hitting the ocean would be like landing on permisteel. With our modifications, I’d make it, but wouldn’t be in great shape for swimming, much less any action. So lower we went.

At the last jump, Mack slapped the button to open the hatch and I stepped out, legs straight below me, one hand covering the bottom of my face to keep my airway clear when I hit.

Six seconds doesn’t take long. The Queen waited above me, but I didn’t dare look up, didn’t risk altering my angle to try to keep my entry into the water as clean as possible.

Entering the water jarred every bone in my body, the icy temperature ripping the last breath from my lungs.

I fought my way to the surface, gave myself a moment to breathe, before waving twice at the Queen hovering high above. They blinked out, and I started swimming for the golden dome.

As soon as I had my breath back I dove back under water. Unlikely that any sats had caught my leap, and we hadn’t spotted any drone patrols, but no point in taking unnecessary risks.

Despite the choppy waves of the surface, only a few strokes beneath the surface the water was still, quiet.

No marine life came to investigate the strange intruder into their world. I surfaced for another breath and dove again. Maybe everything local lived in deeper waters. Or maybe the planet hadn’t developed any life of its own.

Either way, it wasn’t my concern, just something to let my brain chew on until I had information we could use.

Two more breaths and I was at the edge of the dome. I dove deep, and as I’d guessed the field faded out only a few meters under the water’s surface. I flipped under it, the energy enough to tingle my spine but nothing more.

Slowly I let my head break the surface, filled my lungs and then sank back so that only my eyes were above the waves.

Sheer white cliffs wrapped around the island, curving from the left, topped with green undulating hills. A cluster of roofs was visible, but my low angle meant the cliffs blocked most of the view. Gliding forward, a shallow beach of dark sand slowly emerged from the shadow of the cliffs to the right.

Carefully I made for the beach, scanning the land for any movement, ready to duck back under the concealing waves.

I’d wait in the shadow of the cliff until night, then scale the far one and —

Needles shot through my leg as something wrapped around it, dragging me under the water. I jackknifed away but there was no escape from the powerful grip.

Writhing tentacles, each edged with rows of razor-sharp spines, filled the dark water that had been so clear moments before. Another tentacle wound around my right arm, dragging me deeper into the abyss.

Struggling, I managed to flip just enough to see what was waiting below, and almost wished I hadn’t. In the midst of the inmost circle of waving extensions a giant, clacking beak snapped, eager to take a chunk out of me.

There had to be a soft spot on these damn things. I twisted, reaching across until the tips of my fingers brushed against the butt of the knife. Almost…. With a final contortion, I ripped it from the sheath, hacking and slashing at the meaty bonds, until more by sense than sight I found the strips of tender flesh between the protective spines.

Convulsing, the tentacle around my arm tightened until, with a spasm, it withdrew, only to have three more come barreling towards me through the murky water.

Air wasn’t a problem, not yet.

My blade spun to ward them off, and in the seconds of the creature’s hesitation, I sawed at the limb still binding my leg.

Another tentacle snaked around my chest, squeezing tight.

As I felt my lungs collapse under the pressure I realized I’d bet wrong. Breathing would be a problem sooner than I thought.

***

Craved is now live on Amazon!

 

4 Responses to Craved: Chapter Two

  • Lupita Narkevicius says:

    The characters draw you in and you want more!

  • Di says:

    Loved it. You continue to build the plot…what’s out there in the water world

  • Andrea Brooke says:

    The stiry moves on and just makes you want more. What’s with the tension, have a good old brawl and get it out of your system. So longing for the full book.

  • Anne Luree Tal says:

    I already pre ordered the book. I am really enjoying the series. In addition I am quite taken by Captain Taryn and the gate jumpers. I hope that you are planning to continue That series as well. Thank you ! Anne Luree

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