Authors: Lindsay Buroker
Tags: #General Fiction
(Fallen Empire, Book 2)
by Lindsay Buroker
Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Buroker
Illustration © 2016 Tom Edwards
Thank you, good reader, for coming back for the next installment in the Fallen Empire series. I’m having fun writing these adventures, and I hope you’re having fun reading them. Before you jump into Book 2, please let me thank my editor, Shelley Holloway, for sticking with me in what’s turning out to be an ambitious release schedule. Also, thank you to Sarah Engelke for beta reading under a deadline and Tom Edwards for the cover design.
Alisa Marchenko, captain of the
, the only Nebula Rambler 880 in the galaxy that hadn’t been scrapped decades earlier, fiddled with the flight stick as the planet Perun grew larger on the view screen. Nothing had happened yet to justify the queasy feeling in her stomach, but anticipation was making her hands sweat.
This had been home once, the planet where she had gone to school and met her husband, but that had been before she had chosen to join the Alliance army, serving as a fighter pilot to help take down the empire. Perun was all the empire had left of the dozens of planets and moons it had once controlled. Odds were they wouldn’t be happy with her, knowing she had flown for the Alliance. But Alisa had no choice but to land on the planet. Somewhere down there, amid the vast oceans and the populous cities that sprawled across several continents, her daughter waited for her.
A clang sounded behind her, and a tall figure stooped and came through the hatch and into NavCom. Tommy Beck, her security officer, wore his white combat armor, the full body suit and magnetic boots, everything save for the helmet.
“Are you planning to take a walk?” Alisa asked, waving outward to indicate the exterior of the ship.
Beck turned, his nose to the window as he slid the hatch shut, and he didn’t notice her gesture. “Mind if I make some privacy for us, Captain?”
“I don’t know. You’re not really my type, Beck.”
From the way he turned his head and wrinkled his brow, he either didn’t get the joke or hadn’t ever considered her in a sexual manner. She decided not to find the notion of the latter depressing, especially since dating was the last thing on her mind. It had only been five months since she had woken from weeks in a medical regeneration tank to learn that her husband had been killed during an attack on Perun. They had been married for nearly ten years, and she hadn’t expected to ever have to think of dating again.
“Oh?” Beck said. “What’s your type?”
“My husband was a slender scholar rather than a big muscly man. He was smart, quick-witted, and always made me laugh. His jokes never had an edge. They were never designed to make a person hurt.” Her voice lowered, and her gaze shifted toward the dark side of the planet that they were approaching, the clumps of city lights growing visible. “Not like mine. He was a better person than I am.”
“Was? He’s gone?”
Alisa winced, reminded that she hadn’t shared the details of her past with anyone except Mica, neither mentioning Jonah’s death nor that her daughter was the reason she had come to Perun.
“Yes,” she murmured, her response barely audible.
“Sorry about that,” Beck said, “but I’m closing the door so that Lord Colonel Enhanced Ears doesn’t hear us.”
Alisa pushed away her memories. “Oh? Are we going to have a secret conversation about Leonidas?”
“Leonidas.” Beck grunted. “Right.”
He came forward and perched on the edge of the co-pilot’s seat, clunking the broad shoulders of his armor on equipment as he did so. He nearly clunked Alisa with one of his knees too. Combat armor was spaceworthy and meant to withstand a lot of damage in battle; it wasn’t meant for helping a man into tight spaces.
“Why are you wearing that now?” Alisa asked, ignoring the comment about Leonidas.
As she had found out about a week ago, his real name was Colonel Hieronymus Adler, but she preferred to think of him by his call sign. A call sign wasn’t a constant reminder that he had been the commander for the imperial Cyborg Corps. The enemy. A very feared enemy. Leonidas had saved her life back in the Trajean Asteroid Belt, and even if she sometimes still felt uneasy around him, she had offered him a permanent place on her crew as another security officer. Of course, he hadn’t accepted that job offer yet, and she did not know if he ever would.
“I’m not stepping foot on Perun without proper protection,” Beck said. “We’ll be lucky if they don’t shoot us as soon as we walk off the ship.”
“I wasn’t planning to announce that we were Alliance soldiers during the war.”
“The imperials will find out.”
Alisa had that fear, as well, but she hoped they might slip down there under the guise of merely being a freighter crew. Was that naive? She, Beck, and her engineer Mica Coppervein had all fought for the Alliance. If the imperials found out, would they arrest them? The
had been sitting in a junkyard during the war, so
wouldn’t rouse suspicions, but what if the imperials demanded IDs? Should she have looked into buying altered ones?
“We’ll do our best not to tell them,” Alisa said. “It’s not like they have the resources of an entire system at their disposal anymore. They probably don’t even have sys-net access anymore.”
A couple of satellites showed up on the sensors, but who knew if they were connected to the system-wide grid? Alisa certainly would have removed the imperials’ access if she had been in charge after the war.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Beck said glumly, rubbing the breastplate of his armor. “But I want to tell you what I’ve learned about
.” He put that emphasis on the pseudonym again as he laid a netdisc on the control console in front of him. “I looked him up.”
type?” Alisa asked.
It was a bad joke, and she wasn’t surprised when Beck gave her an incredulous look.
“Never mind,” she said.
“No, and I hope he’s not yours either.”
“He has even more muscles than you do.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Beck grimaced.
He tapped the disc, and a holodisplay appeared above it with Leonidas’s head and shoulders floating in the center. He looked a couple of years younger than the forty or so that Alisa guessed him to be now. He wore a black imperial army officer’s uniform, and his hair was very short, very military. In the picture, his blue eyes were intense with determination, harder than they were in person. Or perhaps it was his attitude that had changed in the intervening years. He was still intense, still determined, but she had caught a wistful, almost morose expression on him from time to time.
“Colonel Hieronymus Adler,” Beck said, swiping a finger along the bottom of the image so that the name popped up, along with a paragraph of text underneath it. “Former commander of the 22
Infantry Battalion. Cyborg Corps.”
Alisa nodded. “I know this. I was there when Doctor Dominguez told us, remember?”
“Yes, but he didn’t mention this.” Beck enlarged the small text under Leonidas’s picture. “Wanted alive, two hundred thousand Alliance tindarks. This alert was issued by our government.”
Alisa’s mouth dangled open as she realized she was looking at a wanted poster. “There’s a reward for him?”
reward.” Beck glanced toward the hatch, perhaps reassuring himself that Leonidas was not standing there and looking in the window. “With that kind of money, I could pay off the White Dragon mafia. Get them off my back. I might even have another shot at starting a restaurant.”
Alisa rubbed the back of her neck, floored that someone was willing to pay that much for Leonidas, and bemused that her security officer thought that turning bounty hunter was a good way to fund his culinary ambitions.
“Does the Alliance even
that much money?” she wondered. “I know our government gets some of the taxes that once went to the empire, but only on the three planets and handful of stations we had the resources to secure. And during the war, we were poorer than a depleted asteroid after three centuries of mining. Remember the ships we had to fly? Some of them were practically museum pieces.”
Beck’s gaze flicked toward the ceiling, but he did not point out that the
could also be in a museum. Wise choice.
He pulled up some more text in the holodisplay. “It says here that they have the money. If you bring him in, no questions will be asked. They’re offering
coin for him.”
“How old is that poster?” Alisa peered closer to read the text. “Maybe it was something put out at the beginning of the war, when he was commanding the Cyborg Corps.”
Even as she spoke, she wondered if that made sense. Would someone pay that kind of money just to take an enemy officer out of the equation? Leonidas might have been good at his job, but surely the imperials would have replaced him with another officer if he had disappeared.
“Nope.” Beck prodded a line, enlarging the text. “The issue date is less than six months ago.”
He was right. This hadn’t come out until three days after the treaty had been signed and the war had officially ended.
“It doesn’t say what he did? Or why he’s wanted?”
“Nothing about it.” Beck shrugged. “We don’t know what he was looking for in that cybernetics lab, but it might have been something a lot more important than a few parts upgrades.”
Alisa leaned back in her seat. It was true that Leonidas had never explained what he sought there, only that he had wanted to talk to the head research scientist, a man they had found dead on the floor of his lab. Leonidas had collected some files from the computer before leaving, but he had never shared what they were about.
, Captain,” Beck said. “If you helped me, we could split it. You could buy a brand new ship with that, or at least put a real substantial down payment on one. A bigger one. One that would let you haul a lot more freight in a single run and make more money.”
As if money was what motivated Alisa. Oh, she wouldn’t mind having more of it, especially since her Perunese bank account had likely disappeared along with everything else after the war, but for now, all that mattered was getting Jelena back. Something that should
happen soon. It made her giddy to realize that by this time tomorrow, she should have landed and found her sister-in-law and her daughter.
Would Jelena like the cabin Alisa had made up for her? Remembering how much she had enjoyed
, Alisa had downloaded some stencils, printed them out, and painted the walls with characters from the cartoons. The family had chatted over the net as often as possible when Alisa had been away, and she thought she recalled Jelena still quoting the heroine in their most recent exchange, but that had been months and months ago, so she could not be sure. She worried that Jelena’s tastes might have changed and that she would be too mature for cartoon characters now.
Realizing Beck was gazing intently at her and waiting for a response, Alisa said, “How would we subdue a cyborg and transport him to an Alliance planet? He could kill either of us any time he wanted. Surely, you remember how your first time trying to shoot him went.”
Beck had the self-awareness to squirm in his armor and flush a deep red, which was noticeable even with his bronze skin. “I do remember that, Captain. That’s why I came up here to enlist your help.”
“You want him to bend my gun in half too?”
She wasn’t even wearing her Etcher, having left the holster in her cabin. Though she did not fully trust Leonidas or Dr. Alejandro Dominguez—someone else who had admitted to being loyal to the empire—she doubted either would charge into NavCom and strangle her while she piloted. One of the perks of being the only pilot on board was that people who wanted to see land again rarely threatened her.
“No, but you’re a schemer,” Beck said. “You could come up with something. Maybe we could drug his food and strap him down, lock him in his cabin until we got to Arkadius.”
Given the athletic feats that Alisa had seen Leonidas perform so far, she doubted a locked hatch or chains would keep him immobile for long. And the
, designed only to transport cargo and a handful of passengers, did not have a brig with forcefields. The old freighter did not even have weaponry—it had always been illegal on civilian ships when the empire had reigned.