Half-breed human star navigator Jaqi, working the edges of human-settled space on contract to whoever will hire her, stumbles into possession of an artifact that the leader of the Rebellion wants desperately enough to send his personal guard after. An interstellar empire and the fate of the remnant of humanity hang in the balance.
Spencer Ellsworth has written a classic space opera, with space battles between giant bugs, sun-sized spiders, planets of cyborgs and a heroine with enough grit to bring down the galaxy's newest warlord.
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OKAY, SO I AM in a fighting pit. With a very big, very tattooed, and three-horned Zarra who is actually licking blood off his hands. Oh, it's alien blood, but still the stuff of life. Close enough to the stuff in my half-breed veins.
All because of tomatoes.
Let me back up. My name's Jaqi, and I'm some human, some Jorian. In space, among the wild worlds, that means good food is hard to find.
See, I've been on a cricket ship, flying dark nodes for the last year. The crickets' ship smells and is cramped and built for exoskeletons, not arms and legs, but they pay top dollar for my talents. No, the problem with being in the wild for months at a time is the food. It's not long before the fresh supplies are gone and you're rehydrating squares of protein. Peanut butter–flavored protein, chocolate-flavored protein, thurkuk-secretion-flavored protein (that one actually tastes more like peanut butter than the peanut butter–flavored one).
After a month, you want to puke every time you see a little brown cube. I even tried the captain's meal-loam. It's just not fair that a cricket's food stores better than a humanoid's. I threw it up, which is standard in space, but they laughed at me too, that weird cricket noise where the bristles on their backs scrape together, and then I had to put up with that for the rest of the year.
Screech, screech, scratch. Protein cube, protein cube.
So the minute we touched down in Real Live People Space, as opposed to the wild where we'd been doing shady deals for the last year, I went looking for Real Live People Food. Specifically tomatoes.
The best, of course, are the kind my mother used to give me in our tenant worker days. My parents brought home the ones that split along the top. The growers couldn't sell them so marred.
My mother would cut one and sprinkle salt on it, while she sang the field songs, tapping her hips against the kitchen counter. She'd give me the slice, and each time, it tasted like sunlight.
Today, I would settle for half-ripe orbital hothouse tomatoes with yeast flakes. And maybe a nice boy, who doesn't mind a one-day romance. Or a girl. Or someone don't fit either, long as they're looking for a time. I'm not picky.
Orbital Ecosphere 912 is a nice place, for a bug-crawling pen of the galaxy's swine. I'm not being high-headed — the locals call it Swiney Niney. All the environmental controls are stuck, so the place sits at a swampy 110 percent humidity. It smells like rotting food — actually, the air is so thick that it really tastes like rotting food. Swiney, slimy, grimy Niney.
I just finished my contract with the crickets, and I got about four hours to play before I need to track down real work. I'm going to make the most of it.
The signs flash at me when we debark, probably important. Yeah, I can't read. Who cares? My mother was teaching me, but she didn't know much either. She vanished when I was eight, and after that there was nothing to do but work, on any ship that would take me. I can read nav charts, them with the numbers and lines, but all those letters go fuzzy when they sit in a row. It would be nice to read, with all those hours in the wild, but I somehow manage not to go crazy.
One day I'll learn. When it's safe for me to come into mid-galaxy.
In Swiney Niney's main square, there's usually a bustling market. Full of food. Now ... just a few stalls, selling cloth that looks like it needs ironing, and maybe some stain-work. A food stall, but they're just selling high-grade protein. And not much else. Most of the market is missing.
I've had nightmares like this.
Folks hurry by, but they have their heads down, staring at their rapidly moving feet. There is a new stain — blood? — in the middle of the square. Everyone seems to be headed for high ground. A long time ago, this ecosphere was 10 percent trading post, 90 percent park, and now the park has turned into a trackless wilderness, good for hiding. And it seems like everyone's gone hiding.
The only guy at peace is the skull-faced, tattooed Necro priest, shaking his staff in the air and creaking, "Death!" Those guys only know one word. As long as they're shouting it, they're happy.
"Hey," I say to one of the scabs running by. "Hey, what's going on? Where's the food?" He darts away, even faster.
"Skrit," I yell at some kind of sentient bug I don't recognize. I hope the crickets' language — at least the human pidgin version of it, minus the screeching hairs on the back — will work. "Skrit secca nee?" It squeaks along on its way. Nothing.
"Looking for answers?"
The guy has come up behind me silently. He's a sight. I am in a tank top and shorts and wish I could go naked in the Swiney Niney heat, but he wears a black trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat over a beard. He manages to look at me from under that hat without letting me see his eyes.
Con man. Screaming con man.
"Salutes," I say. "Answers without a price tag."
He laughs. "I like you. Why en't you reading the screens?"
That's embarrassing. "Bad eyes," I say. Common enough excuse.
"The Resistance won. Irithessa has fallen."
That takes a minute.
There's a good reason why we were tenant farmers, see. My folks were both vat-grown, the most common cross — 70 percent human DNA, 30 percent Jorian — and both pronounced defective. They were supposed to go back in the vats, be boiled down for spares, but they escaped.
They didn't join the Resistance, like other crosses did; they kept their heads down, and I did too. But we sure hoped for the Resistance. Everyone loves the Resistance — human, cricket, cross, gasbag — everyone. I saw pictures of the leader, John Starfire. He's the greatest soulsword-swinger in the galaxy, and handsome. Gets my girl blood going. Everyone except the bluebloods wants an end to the war, to shortage of rations and restrictions on travel, not to mention all the Imperial crosses getting vat-cooked up just to die in the Dark Zone.
Not want to. They have.
The galaxy is free.
I can learn to read.
I can go to school. I can get married and have kids. I can buy alcohol!
The con man seems to be reading my stupefied face fairly well. "You're a cross?"
"No," I say, instantly on guard. "Pure human."
"That's too bad," he says. "Real evil shame, that. I could use a cross right now who wanted to make some money. You know, ever since Irithessa fell, the Imperial nodes en't worth a damn. Supplies backed up or gone, but I might know where some real matter is stowed away."
It must be the euphoria. Or the hunger. My instincts are telling me that this guy is as tricky as a bad node. I don't listen to them, fool me. "I might have some Jorian in me. For real matter."
"Hot meal," he says. "You just have to earn it." He turns and starts walking off, that trench coat swaying. Even that looks like a con. Or so I would think. Any other time.
"I'll do it," I say.
And that's how I get to the fighting pit.
Oh, first he has a couple big Rorgs take my knives and toss me into a cage. Not just any cage — they've decorated the place with a carpet of centipedes. Big centipedes. There's a billion varieties of centipede in the galaxy, and they all give me the shivers.
"What is this?" I ask, as I climb the sides of the cage.
"This is what you do to earn that hot meal," he sneers. "My name's Cade. You do right for me and I'll reward you."
"What are you —" I squirm, trying to keep both my legs hooked around the top of the cage. The nearest Rorg whacks my leg with a stick. "I'm going to kill you!"
"Let 'em bite you," Cade says. "Those centipedes are specially made for the pits. The venom will make you faster. Stronger."
"I'll rip off your —" I use every curse in human or cricket or trader's slang I know. He smiles a big, nasty smile from under that stupid hat, and closes the hatch, leaving me there in the dark with the centipedes, a squirming glistening mass below me.
Centipedes, aiya. All of them are straight from the Dark Zone, I swear. Even the sentient ones.
Of course, I get distracted from centipedes when the door to the side of me opens, and reveals a big pit dug into the roots of a half-dozen giant trees. A seven-foot Zarra, all tattoos and big horns, is fighting a smaller, scaly little Sska. It slinks around the edges of the pit and hisses at the Zarra, but he en't five suns within intimidated. He goes crazing and charges right into the burning saliva, getting welts on his skin, and catches the Sska by its shoulder and rips it in half. Just rips it in half, like he's cutting his meat.
That's when they shunt my cage into the pit, and tip it over. What was the top flies open, which means I crawl out just ahead of the centipedes.
The ground here's been mixed to mud. Blood mud, I reckon. The pit started as a pleasant natural hollow, sunk in the center of a ring of big old trees. The thick roots have grown into natural ringside seats for the scabs looking down on us. A cheap plasticized barrier runs around the rim of the pit, and all the swine of Swiney Niney are sitting above or on the top of the barrier.
The Zarra licks the Sska's blood off his hands and looks at me.
Cade yells old-fashioned style from his spot on one of the bigger tree branches.
"The talk of the hour! She is a real Jorian crossbreed, a killer, one of those who has conquered the galaxy, as of today, my friends! But can she conquer Zaragathora, Eater of Flesh?"
"Zaragathora?" I ask, looking at the Zarra. "Really?"
He snarls. A good snarl. Deep in the throat, rattling the lungs. This scab has practiced.
"I believe she can," he goes on.
Oh, by all Dark stars. He's got fighting Jorians on the brain. I don't have a soulsword, I en't never fought no dragons or thrown planets into the sun. What Jorian DNA lives in my cross body does exactly this: I can fly a ship. Specifically, I can enter faster-than-light, pure space, all on my lonesome, without a node-code. I'm a navigator.
Cade says, "She is a killer of the mind, and that is why we will make things a little more interesting. Creatures of worlds both wild and civilized, the NecroWasp!"
Opposite the Zarra, and just off my right side, a door opens in the side of the pit.
The thing coming out is just about the strangest cross I've ever seen. Insect head, working those mandibles. Big, pale, burly body, humanoid, with exoskeleton peeping through the skin. A mammoth stinger protruding from its belly. It smells like every dead thing in the universe got together and had a party.
You hear these things about fighting pits, but you don't think you'll go there. (Because you're sane, and you stay out of fighting pits! Unless you're too stupid to sense trouble.)
"Death!" I look up and see the Necro priest cheering on this thing. That explains it. Bits of dead things, crossed and brought back by Necros for joy. No doubt a favorite pet.
"Death!" the crowd roars with him.
The NecroWasp goes for the bigger target, Zaraga — let's just call him Z — and I run away from the whole business. I reach the plastic barrier and leap up, grab the top, and start to scramble over, but Cade draws a half shotgun and points it right at my head. "End it," he says.
Back into the pit.
The NecroWasp charges for Z, and Z looks a bit confused. Must be hard, realizing that he can't fight this thing with his usual head on, rip-its-arm-off method. He ducks away, darts toward me, and I dart away from both of them, duck and weave and duck and weave until I duck and weave myself right into the plastic barrier around the pit.
There are a lot of boos at our running, which makes old Z mad. He decides to charge the NecroWasp. It jabs that stinger out for him to skewer himself on. He changes his mind and dodges it, ducks again. The Wasp catches a claw in his skin, tears a gash along his head, and this time it's his own blood running into his face.
"Our cross is hanging back, folks. Should we try to persuade her?"
Cade actually fires! Shard-fire, from his shotgun. It plows up the ground at my feet, splatters mud on my face, sends red flames across the dirt. Trying to make me dance. I hold my ground. No promoter's going to shoot his prize.
Cade looks like he is trying to say something. It must be nasty, because it is stuck in his throat. And then it appears stuck in his brain, because his whole forehead is pulsing.
No, scratch that — someone has stuck him! A black blade jabs out of the front of his shirt, but that shirt stays dry as dust, and then the blade's gone. A flash of gray runs from him.
And then — well, then, I have to dodge the sun-sized mass of NecroWasp and Zarra dancing toward me. I run along the barrier, but one of those NecroWasp mandibles grabs me by the leg and slings me into the air, until I land in the mud. Something smacks me on the head — a rock or perhaps a Zarra foot.
I'm going to die, right as I got my freedom.
But no, my vision clears. I try to breathe and get a lungful of muddy water. I make my arms move, scrabble over the ground, force myself up, and I see Cade, lying dead in front of me where he's fallen into the pit.
I scramble to my feet and grab Cade's shotgun from his dead hand, coughing all the while. I turn around and shoot at the first one I see, which turns out to be the NecroWasp. The shard-fire blows off half its bug face. Doesn't stop it from coming for me. I shoot it ten more times in the face, until the charge goes. It takes a long time to fall over, and when it does, it hits the ground like a fifty-ton fighter wreck. The soupy mud shakes like it's going to suck me under.
The audience is running. Z takes a long, tattooed, and angry look at me, then Cade's body, and bellows the only words he's said so far. "Where is my money?" I en't got any thoughts to answer him. I'm busy looking at Cade. Eyes red, skin gone gray, and for all that big old stab wound, not a drop of blood. I'd bet lost Earth that his memories just outlived his body.
This man has enemies, but on this day of all days, why is a dumb human con being stabbed, secret-like, by a Jorian soulsword?
WINNING A WAR isn't the best feeling of my life, but it's up there.
My ears haven't stopped ringing, so I don't hear much of the speech. After planetfall, and after having a pyramid explode next to me, I doubt they'll ever stop ringing. The important thing is I see him — John Starfire, the Chosen One of the whole damn universe, standing in the doorway of the Imperial Senate, and he's shouting something, and I can even feel it, a wave through the universe itself.
I'm sweating and bleeding and every one of my muscles is as wrung and worn as old rope. The sweet planetside air of Irithessa tastes beautiful. Even the smoke tastes beautiful.
I raise my soulsword and cheer, too, as much as I can. The synth-fibers stretch in my reconstructed tongue, the wires in my reconstructed muscle strain, the wounds beneath the surface always evident.
Cheer for freedom and all that crazing shit. Cheer most of all for my friends, the unlucky bastards who didn't live to see today. I'm here, now, cheering in your place.
A thousand exhausted arms raise a thousand bloody soulswords into the smoky air of the City Imperial.
John Starfire takes his soulsword to his own arm, cutting a fine line across the skin. His blood runs down the channels of the sword and catches fire, a bright, white corona that gleams over the crowd, sends ripples of light up the black-and-white banner behind him. He lowers the sword and the crowd starts buzzing.
"Did you get that, sir?" Rashiya asks me, when I turn around. Her face is streaked with carbon, and the strip of circuit in her temple is flickering. The synthskin around it is half melted. Her synthskin is a remnant from the same battle that took my original tongue, a chunk of my leg, and a couple of my original fingers. We are damn lucky these are our only souvenirs.
"No," I slur. "Let me guess. Glorious victory. Go back to the lines."
"Not quite." She smiles, and she can't help herself — she touches my arm, her green eyes alive and shining. Her red hair is slick with sweat, and it makes her look damn good.
Yes, she's my subordinate and we shouldn't have become involved, but even vat-cooked crosses have got to keep warm. Hell, I don't need to explain myself. I'm a goddamn war hero. "Find a place to bunk. Looters will be shot. Food's fair game."
Excerpted from "Starfire: A Red Peace"
Copyright © 2017 Spencer Ellsworth.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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