The Mavericks Together for the First Time
Keltie Sheffield waited in the airlock as the escape pod cleared the outer doors and the inner airlock doors opened. The escape pod was a circular ball of metal that looked painfully uncomfortable to travel in.
She wrinkled up her nose.
It smelled like space, too. Like burnt rubber and popcorn.
“Smells pretty bad, huh?” she asked.
She turned around. Eddie Puente was at a control panel, entering some commands. He ignored her.
Ever since they had been left alone, he didn’t acknowledge her. He seemed nice enough to start, and they even chatted for an hour. But it must have been something she said, because he stopped talking to her. Like a switch got flipped and she couldn’t figure out why.
He avoided eye contact and acted as if the pod hadn’t even entered the airlock.
The pod touched down on the ground with a clang.
Grayson piloted, and seeing him, she laughed. He was so tall his head was almost touching the ceiling. He was laughing, too.
Devika was frowning. But then again, Keltie had never seen her smile so that was nothing new.
There was someone else with them in the pod, but she couldn’t see who it was.
The pod doors opened, letting out a large whoosh of air.
And then Keltie heard it.
A crazed, revving-like sound.
Keltie ducked as a small black cloud darted over her head. A red eye glinted in the center of the cloud. Seeing it, her heart jumped, sweat beaded on her forehead, and she balled her fist.
“No,” she whispered. And then she yelled, “No!”
A Planet Eater. The alien race that started all of this, the race that killed her best friend before her eyes!
She ripped a crowbar off the wall and banged it as hard as she could.
The alien winced.
“Go away!” she shouted. “Go away!”
She banged the crowbar harder and the Planet Eater flew away, sputtering as if the sound were hurting it.
“Eddie, open the airlock!” she shouted.
Eddie watched with his mouth wide open.
“Eddie!” Keltie said.
The alien sputtered again.
“I’ll do it myself,” Keltie grumbled, running for the airlock controls. “You killed Claire. You’ll pay, I swear to God—”
She heard gunshots in her mind.
Then she was back on Kepler.
In her spacesuit.
People were screaming.
Her best friend, Claire, was running next to her.
Bullets were flying everywhere. Planet Eaters covered the sky like ink.
A hand on her shoulder pulled her from the flashback.
She kept swinging the crowbar, denting the pod.
“Keltie,” someone said.
“Keltie,” the voice said.
The alien retreated to the corner of the airlock, and it shrunk to half of its size.
Someone grabbed her crowbar.
She tightened her grip. But soon the crowbar was gone and it clanged against the floor.
Grayson had grabbed her.
“Keltie, it’s all right,” he said.
“What do you mean it’s all right?” she yelled. “Do you remember what they—”
“He’s not gonna hurt you,” Grayson said.
“He’s telling the truth,” Devika said. “It seems to be docile.”
Keltie shook her head at the alien. She pushed herself away from Grayson.
A petite Asian woman stood behind Devika. The encounter had scared her.
“Hi,” the woman said. “I’m Michiko. And that’s Clark.”
Clark swirled in the corner of the ceiling and hovered under a skylight, almost disappearing in the blackness of space outside.
Keltie backed out of the room. Took one last look at Grayson, Eddie, Devika and Michiko.
She thought she knew these people.
Now they were harboring evil aliens!
It was too much to take. She ran out of the room.
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A Traumatic Event Florian Macalestern’s Childhood
Florian dashed as far as he could, but he could not keep up with the man.
So he screamed at the top of his lungs.
“Thief!” he cried. “That man is a thief! Stop him! Stop him!”
The man looked back, scowling. His footsteps on the wooden dock were hard compared to Florian’s light steps.
“Stop!” Florian cried.
At the entrance to the dock, someone stuck out their foot.
The man tripped and landed face-first on the wood.
Florian’s heart leaped.
He caught up with the man and jumped on him, grabbing his mother’s purse.
“Let go!” Florian cried, pulling at the purse.
The strap ripped, scattering money, coins, and credit cards all over the ground.
“Big mistake, brat,” the man said, grabbing Florian by the throat.
But Florian kicked him in the groin and the man doubled over.
They wrestled, rolling across the dock.
Florian pushed on the man’s face, feeling day-old stubble. The man pushed back and grabbed a clump of Florian’s hair.
Needles of pain spread across Florian’s scalp—the man was pulling his hair.
“Florian!” someone cried.
“Florian!” Greta cried again.
And then Florian felt someone on top of his back.
And then he saw a hand.
Slapping the man on the face.
“Leave him alone!” Greta cried.
The man let go of Florian’s hair.
Florian pulled away when—
Stars danced across his field of vision and he fell to the ground, clutching his chest.
He had been punched.
He tried to breathe but his stomach knotted up and his vision narrowed.
He saw his mother wrestling with the man, yelling at him.
Tatiana stood a few feet away, her hands over her mouth.
“Leave…her…alone,” Florian gasped.
His mother stopped.
The man stopped.
Smoke. Thick smoke. In the air.
His ears rang.
Florian tried to stand but he stumbled backward.
The world flipped up from underneath him and he was falling.
The dock sailed away from him, up, up, up into the sky.
And then he hit the sea, water flooded his lungs, and he sank down, down, down into the clear blue water.
He woke, and sprung up, gasping.
His lungs burned and he clutched his chest.
A man put his hands on Florian’s shoulder. His clothes were drenched and his hair was wet.
“Kid, you okay?” the man asked. “You almost drowned but I got you. You’re gonna be okay.”
Florian breathed in and sputtered. Wiping his eyes, he glanced down the dock.
Someone was crying.
Through a gathered crowd, he spotted Tatiana.
He could only see her legs, and bits of her dress.
“Tati,” Florian breathed. “Tati…”
She was crying. She was holding someone in her arms.
And then Florian saw her.
His mother, in Tatiana’s arms.
“No!” Florian cried.
He scrambled across the dock. His rescuer tried to stop him but Florian pushed him away.
Florian shoved two people aside and stopped at the sight of his mother.
Blood welled across Greta’s dress. Her eyes were distant and cold.
Tatiana looked up at Florian and shook her head, crying.
Florian balled his fists.
He looked around for the criminal.
But he was gone.
His legs were suddenly heavy.
He couldn’t move.
He sank to his knees and buried his face in his mother’s chest. He didn’t care about the warm blood on his face.
“Mama,” he said. “Mama, say something!”
But Greta did not respond.
Florian curled into a ball and screamed.
Orbital Decay is Florian’s descent into darkness. Click here to grab your copy. Or, grab the entire Galaxy Mavericks series in one click!
Michiko Sings Away Her Sorrows
Michiko Lins waited for her next assignment in the canteen of a transport carrier.
She glanced at a tablet on the table in front of her.
It had been a long hour, waiting for the assignment from headquarters that would change her life. Again. At least for the next few months. Crazy to think that her life was in the government’s hands.
She couldn’t take the waiting.
There were so many places the Galaxy Corps could send her.
Some of them made her nervous. Like the border planets near Argus. Or the colonies deep in the recesses of the galaxy, where no one would hear her communications for hours if something went wrong.
Yet she kept telling herself that she signed up for this.
She closed her eyes and listened to the ship’s quiet hum as it cruised through space. The canteen smelled like a global kitchen—on the various stoves, there were skillets with remnants of curry, rice, beans, and other foods the passengers had made for lunch just a little while ago. A plate of half-eaten pork dumplings and rice balls sat on her plate, next to the tablet, along with a cup of yerba mate tea.
Again her eyes went to the tablet.
She sighed, cradling the acoustic guitar on her lap.
She rolled her finger tips across the strings. Quietly, slowly, she began to play a gentle samba.
A samba for all the people she’d known. A samba for all the places she’d been. A samba for love, a samba for sadness, a samba for all those feelings in between. She held in her mind’s eye her mother, pale and beautiful in a kimono, her dad, tall and dark in a soccer jersey, the blue ocean shores of her home planet, Asiazil, the sunlight shining on the water, the dancing sands, the echoes of beach laughter among gentle waves, smiling faces, the dancing—so much dancing!—and drums and berimbaus and guitars and singing—men and women singing and crooning! In an instant she was back on Asiazil, sitting on a rock on a windswept shore, watching the sunset through a vermilion torii gate in the distance. She was singing, one leg crossed over the other, picking out chords randomly and seeing where the song went. Major chords and minor chords and jazz chords that only Asiazil could pull off. Her home planet’s name and essence was an idea born from a song lyric written hundreds of years ago, one she hoped the planet would always live up to.
And the time just passed her by like the ocean waves and the herds of clouds in the blue sky, and smells of the fragrant flowers and the intoxicating bento boxes with eel and crab and smoked Brazilian beef.
She sang of home. And for a moment she wished she was there, but then she realized that she could not go back.
Her fingers told her that the song was almost over.
She picked a final chord and arpeggiated it, letting the notes linger before she took her fingers off the strings.
She nodded in satisfaction, looking out the circular window at the stars blinking outside amidst hyperspace.
“That was some beautiful playing,” a voice said. A chubby twenty-something man leaned in the doorway to the canteen, arms folded. He had red hair and a shaggy beard, and he wore a gray t-shirt with blue G on the left side. His shirt was tucked into cargo pants—the Galaxy Corps uniform. She was so wrapped up in playing that she didn’t hear him enter.
“Hey, thanks,” Michiko said. “I’m not bothering you, am I? Because if I am—”
“Not at all,” the man said. “The opposite.”
“Where’d you learn to play guitar like that?” the man asked. “Good god. I didn’t even know music like that was possible.”
“I learned it back home,” Michiko said, putting her guitar into a black nylon case.
Michiko grabbed her tea cup—a smooth, shiny gourd with a metal spoon sticking out of a clump of green tea leaves—and she covered it with a napkin.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Just a taste from home,” she said. “It’s called chimarrão.”
The man walked to the table and extended his hand.
“Rudy Rundgren,” he said. “Nice to see another Galaxy Corps member here. I was starting to think I was all alone.”
“Michiko Lins,” she said. “Nice to meet you, too, Rudy.”
“So help me understand,” Rudy said, hesitating.
A question was coming. The kind she always got whenever someone met her for the first time. After all, she didn’t look like most people. Olive-skinned with slanted eyes, long curly black hair, and very short height. She looked like a little girl even though she was already out of college. Sometimes it was the looks; other times it was her slight accent that no one could ever place, a kind of lilting Portguese but not quite.
“My mom has Japanese blood and my dad has Brazilian blood,” she said.
“That was your question, wasn’t it?” Michiko asked.
Rudy rubbed his head. “Yeah, sorry if I offended. I figured with the guitar and the tea that you were from Asiazil, but I always hate to ask, you know?”
“No, I get it all the time,” she said, smiling. “I guess you could call me east by south.”
“You know, back on Earth. Long time ago. Japan was east. Brazil was south. It’s a song reference, like our entire planet. Too obscure, I guess.”
She laughed at her own joke.
“Well, whatever you want to call yourself,” Rudy said, “you can play guitar like that all day and night and you won’t hear a complaint from me.”
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Smoke Gets Booked for Life in Prison
Smoke stared ahead emotionlessly as the police booked him.
The Southwest Station was a large metal pod with a parking lot full of police cars. It looked like an afterthought in the middle of the rainforest.
The moon was shrouded with clouds, and a gentle rain fell from the navy sky.
The police car hauling him pulled to a stop at a side door and two policemen took him out, handling him roughly.
Smoke felt the rain in his hair and on his skin, and he wondered if this might be the last time he ever experienced rain.
This was, to his knowledge, the first time he had experienced rain since…
His head hurt. He couldn’t think. The doors slammed to the police station and his concentration jumped to the two men who were guiding him.
In a holding room with white walls, the police patted him down again and emptied his pockets. Two silver keys, loose change, and four silver bullets. They took his visor and stared in awe at his cybernetic implants.
They threw the items on a table in the corner of the room in a clatter of noise.
Glancing quickly at the contents, Smoke knew he was in trouble. Not that he wasn’t already going to jail. But bullets in his pocket…that was a bad place for them. Seemed like a good idea at the time when he stuffed them in there.
“What’s your name?” one of the policemen asked.
Smoke did not respond.
“You’re going to have to cooperate,” the policeman said. “We’ve read your rights. You know what they are.”
Smoke ignored him, staring at the wall.
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked again.
“Do you understand what kind of trouble you’re in?”
The policeman gathered the contents and put them into a large white envelope. He handed Smoke a pen and told him to sign his name.
“You’re not going to tell us anything, are you?” the policeman asked.
“Are you waiting on a lawyer, then?”
Smoke shook his head.
“Don’t make this hard on yourself,” the officer said. “You’re going to get a fair trial despite what you’ve done. Talking’s not going to help or hurt you at this point.”
“Fine,” the policeman said. “We’ll get your picture and then you can talk to the mean guys.”
Smoke did not change his facial expression as they took his photo. The bright flash blinded him temporarily. As his eyes focused again, the policemen took him and ushered him toward the interrogation room.
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Smoke Wakes Up in a Strange Place
Smoke pushed a thick piece of sheet metal off his stomach.
Somewhere, something was burning. He tasted the fire in his mouth. Thick char.
He was lying on the ground. A concrete slab floor. His head pounded.
He was in an airplane hangar.
It was burning.
Half of the roof was gone, exposing trees and a blue sky filled with helicopters. Their whirring was so loud he couldn’t think.
He tried to step forward, but he tripped over a metal beam that lay on the ground.
He landed face-first.
The metal beam—it had been in the roof. And he had been on the roof just a few minutes ago. Before it collapsed. Before he was swallowed into metal and dust and debris.
His arm felt light. He groaned.
He was missing something.
He needed his rifle.
He peered through the rising dust, choking, looking for any sign of it.
It was gone.
He pulled himself up and pushed through the rubble. Outside, police sirens blared louder and louder.
He had to get out.
He tapped the visor that covered his eyes. It flashed orange, and zeroes and ones streamed across his vision before fading into nothing.
He brought his fingers up to the side of his head, just below the temple, where the visor ended. His cybernetic implant was still there, a glowing red half-orb that was smooth and warm to the touch. He pushed it in, and he felt a clicking inside his skull.
He felt the other side of his head, where the other implant should have been.
His fingers dipped into a hole filled with wires and circuits.
The other implant was gone.
Without it, he wouldn’t be able to use his programming. No heat maps or GPS.
He cursed, dropped to the floor, feeling around in the dust and metal.
A sharp edge of something tore the skin on his arm. He didn’t feel it, but looked down to see skin peeling away from circuit, steel, and bone.
The room was enveloped in smoke and heat. He had to get out.
Searching for the implant was useless.
He broke into a run, climbing over the rubble.
A spotlight swept over the hangar, and he dove under a rafter to avoid it.
The light moved up and down and across the hangar, across the rubble, across the fire, across the darkness.
It was looking for him.
He moved faster this time, like a shadow, running and climbing his way through the hangar.
A gust of wind blew. He saw a jagged opening leading outside to the tarmac.
He remembered now.
He had been perched on the roof.
He had been shooting.
At his target.
But she got away.
There was chaos. So much screaming.
And then it all went fuzzy.
He gripped his head as he ran for the opening.
Just a little further….
His boots cracked against glass and concrete.
The light outside grew brighter than the fire inside.
He broke out, into the balmy jungle air.
But then his eyes focused and he slid to a stop.
“Freeze!” a voice shouted.
Two dozen policemen surrounded him, their guns aimed at him.
All around, the spaceport tarmac was covered with commotion. A box-shaped spaceship lay overturned against the side of the hangar, on fire. A fire truck sprayed water on it. The flames jumped into the sky, coloring the trees orange and yellow.
The policemen did not look happy to see him.
He put his hands up.
Someone forced him to the ground and slapped handcuffs around his wrists.
A burly policewoman pulled him up.
“Whoever the hell you are, you’re under arrest for the murder of at least twenty people and disturbance of the peace.”
As the woman pulled him up and ushered him to the police car parked on the tarmac, Smoke’s head swam as he tried to figure out just what the hell had happened.
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Eddie Calls Home
The Puente Waste Management plant was a oval-shaped pod that could be seen high from the sky. It was a silver rosary in the sand, a glittering icon among the shifting dust.
As the ship descended, Eddie spotted rows upon rows of squares lined up outside the plant.
Bales of them.
The rows were longer than when he left.
He smiled. Alma and the girls must have been hard at work. Alma could drive a front-end loader with a speed and accuracy that rivaled any man, and his cousin Josefina could fly in a forklift.
He counted the rows and did quick mental math.
Macalestern would buy the cardboard—they always needed recycled supplies for things like office projects and cubicles.
Recycled glass was precious and sold for good money. They had a separate plant that processed the glass. Off in the distance, he spotted mountains of glittering glass.
Paper wasn’t the family’s favorite—no one read books anymore—but they developed a steady stream of income selling to schools and manufacturers.
There was probably several million in gross sales down there right about now. After profits…maybe another fifth of a percentage point toward the mortgage after everyone was paid and Macalestern took its cut.
The family had several satellite recycling plants—six on Refugio and three more strategically placed around the galaxy. Along with garbage runs, which planetary governments paid annually for, recycling classes and education, eco-tourism to the planet, and waste management consulting, the Puente family took a loan that many claimed to be predatory, and they turned it into one of the most entrepreneurial success stories in the history of humankind.
“It’s the only way to pay,” his grandfather once joked, “One dime at a time.”
No one expected Benito Puente to get into the garbage business. But he filled a desperate need, and, well, someone had to do it.
But the family was not rich by any means. All their money went toward the mortgage. A single shared purpose. Financial freedom.
Eddie remembered the days on Traverse II, under the Zachary Empire, when having money was just a dream, and they worked you until your body was raw.
He liked Refugio much better even though he still worked until he was raw. At least he had his humanity.
As he neared the plant, he opened up the radio and called home.
His abuela, Antonia, answered in her usual decrepit but fiery voice.
“Mama Tonia, it’s me,” Eddie said. “Que pasó?”
“Oh, it’s you, mijo? Thank the Lord. I saw the news about the Argus invasion. Los cerdos are going to kill us all.”
“Nah, they’re just a bunch of pigs,” he said.
“They have guns, mijo,” Mama Tonia said. Eddie could tell that she was frowning. “Just yesterday, Angel was flying near Provenance and he saw one.”
“Angel?” Eddie asked. “Who’s that?”
“You remember Angel,” Mama Tonia said, annoyed. “Your cousin. On your grandfather’s side. He was at your sixth grade birthday party that one time, remember? His mother used to come see us on Traverse II.”
“Oh. I don’t remember.”
“Yes, you do. Anyway, he was on his way home from work and an Argus ship shot at him. His mother called me crying. Can you believe that? What a way to go—turned into bacon by bacon itself. It’s not right. It’s not right, and I’ve told your father he needs to man up and march into GALPOL and tell them to get their act together. It’s just not right.”
“No,” Eddie said, sighing. “It’s not right, Mama Tonia.”
He wasn’t going to shut his grandmother down. She was just concerned for his well-being. Fiesty as it was, it was coming from a good place.
“Are you hungry, mijo?” Mama Tonia asked after a moment of silence.
“Very hungry. Alma there?”
“She’s chasing your child around. I told her to discipline that boy more. The way he runs around this house, you’d think he had no parents.”
“Okay, okay. And Papá?”
“Reading the news,” Mama Tonia said.
“Mama Tonia, how are you feeling?” Eddie asked softly. “Good?”
“No one in this house pays attention to me. I’m going to fall down someday and they’re all going to miss me when I’m gone. Who else is going to cook them tortillas and carnitas, eh? And your abuelo, he…oh, never mind. ”
Her voice brightened.
“Now that you’re home…”
“What’s wrong with abuelo?” Eddie asked.
“Está bien,” Mama Tonia said.
Eddie sighed. His abuelo must not have been doing well. Each day was a struggle or a success.
“Come home and eat,” Mama Tonia said. “And did you bring home the fifteen quadrillion dollars like I asked you to?”
Eddie laughed. If he did that, the mortgage would be paid in full.
“Not yet,” Eddie said. “But I’m working on it.”
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