Authors: Lindsay Buroker
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General Fiction
(Fallen Empire, Book 1)
by Lindsay Buroker
Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Buroker
Illustration © 2016 Tom Edwards
As an author, it’s super exciting to launch an all-new series. Regular readers may know me for my fantasy novels, but long before I found out about
t or Dungeons and Dragons, I watched
and the original
with my mom as a kid.
So far, I’m having a lot of fun writing this series, so I definitely hope you enjoy it. Before you jump in, let me thank Shelley Holloway, my editor, and Sarah Engelke, my steadfast beta reader who zipped through this in a week so I could make an ambitious publication date. I would also like to thank Tom Edwards for the great cover art.
A dark shape scurried through the shadows ahead, disappearing under the belly of a rusted spaceship. Alisa Marchenko halted, tightening her grip on her old Etcher 50. Rustling sounds came from beneath the ship, along with a low growl. Alisa hoped it was just another of the big rodents she’d seen earlier. Those weren’t exactly friendly, but at least they didn’t endanger anything higher up than her calves—so long as she remained standing.
Mica, her fellow scavenger on this self-appointed mission, bumped into her back, jostling her. Alisa caught herself on the hull of the rusty derelict and grimaced when her palm smacked against something moist and sticky. She wiped it on her trousers, glad for the dim lighting in the cavern.
“Sorry,” Mica whispered, the shadows hiding her face, but not the fact that she carried a toolbox almost as big as she was. Alisa ought to have
leading the way—she could sling that box around with the authority of an assault rifle. “Can’t we risk a light?” Mica added. “We might trip over some unexploded ordnance down here and blow ourselves up.”
“I see your pessimism hasn’t faded in the years since we served together.”
“Pessimism is an admirable quality in an engineer. Pessimistic people check their work three times, because they’re sure something won’t be right. Optimistic people check once, trust in Solis-de to keep the ship safe, then blow everyone up.”
“I think you’re mistaking the word optimistic for inept.”
“They’ve got a similar ring to my ear.”
Alisa looked past Mica’s short, tousled hair and toward the mouth of the massive cavern. The skeletons of dozens of junked ships stood between them and the harsh red daylight of the desert outside. She was tempted to say yes to Mica’s suggestion of light, but the sounds of punches and grunts arose less than fifty meters away. A guttural male voice cursed in one of the Old Earth languages, and someone cried out in pain. A juicy and final thump followed, making Alisa think of a star melon splatting open after falling from a rooftop. Men laughed, their voices rough and cruel.
“No light,” Alisa whispered.
Mica shrugged, tools clinking faintly in her box. “You’re the captain.”
“Not unless this works, I’m not.”
“I thought you got promoted at the end of the war.”
“I did, but the war’s over,” Alisa said.
The war was over, and the Alliance had forgotten about her in the aftermath, leaving her in the hands of the dubious medical care available from the local facilities. Alisa had eventually recovered after spending a month in a dilapidated turn-of-the-century regeneration tank and two months learning to walk again, but she had little more than the clothes on her back. Worse, she was stranded on this dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her home—from her daughter.
Her fingers strayed toward a pocket with an envelope in it, one of her few possessions. It contained a letter from her sister-in-law Sylvia, a letter written by hand in a time when most communications were electronic, a letter that had taken weeks to find her in the hospital, a letter that explained that her husband had died in the final bombings of Perun Central. Only knowing that her eight-year-old daughter still lived and was staying with Sylvia on Perun had given Alisa the strength to endure the months of rehabilitation and the weeks of scrounging and planning to reach this place, to come up with a way to get back home.
Mica started to respond to her comment, but Alisa turned her back to end the conversation and continued picking her way through the junk piles. Talking was not wise, not down here.
More noises came from the wreckage all around them, including a chewing sound that Alisa found unnerving. A few more steps, and she heard something being dragged through the fine dust on the cavern floor, dust that drifted upward with her steps, teasing her nostrils, making her want to sneeze. She pinched her nose, having no delusions that the men hiding in here were anything but criminals, criminals who wouldn’t care that she had helped free them from the oppression and tyranny of the empire.
As they drew farther from the entrance, the smell of the junk cavern grew stronger, scents of rust and oil and burned wires, but also of butchered meat and carcasses left to the animal scavengers. Alisa was tempted to keep pinching her nostrils shut.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Mica whispered.
“I know where I left the ship six years ago.”
“That’s a no, right?”
“The engine was smoking by the time I made it in here. I doubt anyone fixed it up to move her.” Another clunk came from the darkness, and Alisa added, “Talk later.”
Soft growls and snarls came from the path ahead. Alisa made herself continue onward. The creatures making the noises did not sound large.
She caught herself reaching toward the side of her head, to tap on the earstar that had hung there like jewelry for so much of her life. Assuming the satellites were still in orbit on Dustor, she could have used it to call up a map of their surroundings, but she had lost it in the crash. Mica did not wear one, either—she’d said she sold hers for food. Apparently, computer and communications tech was easier for her to give up than her tools.
Alisa’s toe bumped into something on the narrow path. It did not feel like a rock or piece of debris. She started to step over it, not wanting to know the details.
A beam of light flashed up ahead, someone heading down the path toward them. Alisa stepped back and grabbed Mica’s shoulder, pushing her toward wreckage to the side of them.
“Hide,” she breathed.
The light was definitely coming in their direction.
Mica found something to crawl under. On the opposite side of the path, Alisa patted around a pile of dusty reels of cable of all different sizes, the mound rising well above her head. She squeezed between it and something large, poky, and metal. There wasn’t room to get more than a couple of feet off the path. She hoped that whoever had the light did not look around.
The beam of light approached, angled down toward the ground from someone’s earstar. The footfalls of several people accompanied it.
Alisa squeezed more tightly into her spot, turning her head from the path, not wanting her eyes to reflect the light. A few male grumbles and curses reached her ears as the men navigated the route, bumping into things, kicking dented cans out of the way.
Before the group reached her, their light played across the thing she had bumped into on the path. A human body, that of a woman. The clothing was ripped, flesh torn away by some hungry animal, but the sightless eyes remained open, an expression of utter terror frozen in them.
Alisa closed her own eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to wonder if she, too, had been driven down here by desperation, searching for a way off this world.
The men with the light continued down the path without slowing. A faint
came from the other side, and Alisa winced. She didn’t think Mica had been foolish enough to make noise—there was probably another rat poking around behind her—but the sound might cause someone to look in that direction.
The men stepped over the body without slowing. Alisa watched them out of her peripheral vision, noting the scarred, bearded faces, the greasy hair, the tattoos, and the weapons they carried, a mishmash of daggers, shotguns, BlazTeck energy particle weapons, and rifles collected from who knew where. One carried an e-cannon that looked like it had been torn off one of the ships and modified for hand use. Alisa reminded herself that she, too, was armed, with the Etcher she had traded for, but it carried bullets rather than battery packs, and if she fired it, everyone in the cavern would hear.
The greasy men continued down the path, and she allowed herself to relax an iota. She waited until the light had disappeared and the sounds of footfalls had faded before easing out of hiding. Her long braid of dark brown hair got caught on a protruding piece of scrap, and she resolved to have it cut as soon as she had money. Whenever that would be.
“Blessing of the Suns Trinity,” she whispered for the fallen woman’s soul, then stepped past the corpse. “Mica?”
“I’m here.” Her voice sounded subdued, perhaps because she, too, had seen the body.
The path opened up as they continued down it, hurrying in the opposite direction from the men. An old conveyer belt stretched across a cleared area, with the skeletal shape of a crane rising up from the shadows. Alisa’s heart sped up with anticipation. She remembered walking past this spot on her way out of the cavern years ago.
A gasp came from behind her, followed by the sound of something clunking to the ground.
Alisa whirled around, raising her gun. The darkness lay thick along the path, towers of junk stacked high to either side, and she couldn’t see much.
“Mica?” Alisa risked whispering. That had sounded like her gasp.
A flash came from the side, followed by the scent of burning tar. A homemade fire starter had been thrown to the ground, and flames leaped up, bright enough to reveal Mica—and the big man holding her with his hand around her neck. A wiry man stood at his side, his hand blazer pointed at Alisa. Mica’s toolbox lay on its side in the dust at her feet. She struggled briefly, then grew still as her captor’s grip tightened. An utterly pissed expression contorted the angular features of her face.
Alisa admired her lack of fear, but felt a twinge of disappointment that her comrade had let herself be captured so easily. As a pilot, Alisa had fast reflexes in the sky, but she doubted she could shoot both men before the one with the blazer shot her.
“Thought I heard something,” the big man holding her crooned. He was one of the ones who had walked past them, with so many scars on his bare arms and face that they must have been self-inflicted. Despite his height, his features were gaunt, with no fat under the stringy flesh of those arms. “Got some pretties to add to our collection. This one feels good. Be fun to cut on her a little.” He leered and shifted his grip so he could grope Mica’s breast. “Spider, get that one’s gun. Can’t be having some girl shooting at us while we’re working our art.”
Mica radiated fury, and she tried to bash her head back and hit her captor in the face, but he was too tall. She stomped on his foot, but he wore hard boots and didn’t seem to feel it.
The wiry man grinned, displaying a mouth of missing teeth, and bounced up and down. He did not speak but took a step forward, holding out his free hand as he kept his blazer pointed at Alisa’s chest. She kept her Etcher pointed at his chest, too, assessing him in the dancing firelight. His chest looked stockier than his narrow frame would have suggested. Was he wearing body armor under his clothes? On the chance that it might deflect bullets, she shifted her aim to his eye. He halted, squinting at her, and twitched his free hand toward his big comrade.
“Why don’t you release my engineer and let us go about our business?” Alisa asked, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “We fought for the Alliance. We’re not your enemies.” Or your playthings, she added silently, horrified at the idea. She doubted talking would do any good, but maybe it would buy her a moment to think of something better to do.
“Alliance doesn’t mean worm suck down here,” the big man said. “Empire, Alliance, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. None of them make it easier to find food around here. Spider, a girl’s not going to shoot you. Get her damned gun.”