Backworlds Book 2
Ebook ($1.99): Amazon / Amazon UK / Barnes & Noble / iTunes / Smashwords / Diesel / Kobo
Also Available at Blio (the link always breaks, so I’m just linking to their homepage)
Nothing sane travels the starway. Today it brings disaster.
In the far future, humanity settles the stars, bioengineering its descendents to survive in a harsh universe.
The interstellar portal opens, bringing in a ship that should no longer exist. A battleship spoiling for a fight, yet the war with Earth ended two generations ago. The vessel drops off a Water-breather, a type of Backworlder thought to be extinct. She claims one of Craze’s friends is a traitor who summoned the enemy to Pardeep Station. A betrayal worse than his father’s, if Craze lives to worry about it.
Meelo, Craze, and the Water-breather. Original artwork by Loretta Stephenson. I love this piece. It hangs right above my monitor on my wall of inspiration.
Copyright 2012 M. Pax, all rights reserved
Incoming! The message vibrated through the floor, a low coo penetrating deep into Craze’s subhearing. The drone of an engine grew louder until the floor shook, reducing him to a speck in the galaxy’s workings. A reminder that liked to crop up twice daily when he wasn’t hibernating.
He rolled onto his back. Orange lights joined the alert, blinking at a frenetic rate. They fringed the mishmash tavern and quit flickering when his foot kicked up at the switch on the wall. Through the plexiglass skylight he saw the telltale flash, a cough of cobalt disturbing the anemic blue sky. The brightness stung until moisture built up in his eyes and he sneezed. Ship!
He inhaled deep, canvassing the scents in the ventilation system, seeking something different. Something revealing today would be the day the portal finally brought fortune, the means of revenge, the goal he’d clung to since his pa kicked him off the Verkinn homeworld three years ago. Had it really been that long?
“Damned Bast.” He spat. “Someday I’ll know wealth big enough to make you choke.”
Craze’s shoulders shrugged, shaking off the dregs of a nine-day hibernation, and he cursed not being woken sooner. “Fo’wo’s be damned.” Nine days of not pouring a single drink wasn’t anybody’s definition of success and certainly not his. At this rate, Bast would die before Craze made the man woefully sorry. He groaned, wondering how destiny had landed him here … for the three thousandth time.
Pardeep Station had been fourth on Captain Talos’s list of possible homes. Hole of dust as it was, it hadn’t been as bad as Danysovia, Lleteboor, and Foradil. Six months of hopping around dung heaps and worse, searching, Craze had agreed with his shipmates —Talos, Lepsi, Rainly, and Dactyl — that they’d find no better. Especially once a Foradillan showed him images of the two worlds left on the list of possibilities. Indisputable proof there was much worse out there.
Yup, this dust ball was the best Craze and his friends could afford, once they got past the crusty, old caretaker — a war veteran still fighting the enemy in imaginary battles. When the old coot finally became convinced they weren’t Fo’wo spies, Craze negotiated homesteading fees for the lot of them.
Purchased with what they’d been paid by the Backworld Assembled Authorities to chase after some smugglers, Craze acquired space for his tavern, a permanent docking berth for their ship, the Sequi, a trading post for Talos, the position of dock facilitator and assistant for Rainly and Dactyl, and mining permits and a land transport for Lepsi to take up prospecting. Lepsi had hoped to find some pocket of value on Pardeep Station, something to set up an export business for himself and Talos. It never came about.
Craze built his bar at the base of the docking facility from scraps and unwanted materials, his friends helping him to get it together and make it presentable. In exchange, he assisted in setting up their new homes, although Craze couldn’t bring himself to call Pardeep and his tavern that. It settled more like a stepping stone in his heart. Someplace until something better came along. He’d been here two and a half years, and the moon hadn’t grown on him at all. In fact, he despised it more by the day.
To make it all worse, Lepsi disappeared a year ago. Never came back from one of his explorations. No trace of him had been found anywhere, not even his transport, coloring each day since with a sorrowful ache.
Mouth dryer than a dust pit, Craze ran his tongue around his gums, then stretched. He slipped on his boots and pushed himself off the mat laid out in the plexiglass foyer in front of his tavern door to prevent anyone from sneaking in without his knowing.
Tugging his suspenders up and his sleeves down, he readied for customers and the influx of chips, bright sheeny chips, which could transport him off this backworld’s Backworld to a better port with greater opportunity. Someplace with trees and potential, someplace that wasn’t the last stop for one hundred fifteen light years.
Rolling up the thickly woven filaments he used as a bed, he tucked it under the salvaged bar spliced together from discarded walls, doors, and the bodies of land vehicles topped by a counter poured from a resin he’d formed and sanded until it gleamed without blemish. Despite the discordance of the materials, a rich and mellow style had distilled and the tavern sparkled clean with everything in its place.
Behind the bar, he poked between the tapped kegs of mead and malt to find the means to contact the other residents of Pardeep Station, to make sure they’d seen the ship coming through the Lepper. Not many Backworlders – those bioengineered to take advantage of the scraggly planets the galaxy offered as less than ideal habitats – scrimped by here. Pardeep Station was rough and not fully formed, uninspiring and lacking in imagination, impersonating a stain.
Craze hit the summons to his neighbors, an icon on his tab – a thin flexible data device the size of a card. “Lepper opened. Ship headin’ in,” he yelled out to those who earned a living off travelers as much as he did.
His courtesy to his friends done, he shut off the connection and sauntered past five tables of different shapes coated in thick beige polymer. Returning to the plexiglass door in the vestibule, he waited on the approaching ship, wondering what kind of business to anticipate. What class of vessel would come out of the portal ripped into space by the Lepper System? How many people would be on board? A massive transport filled with the very rich kind of folks was what he dreamed of, knowing full well that was unlikely, as those kind rarely came to a place like Pardeep Station.
He shouldered into the door’s heavily scratched surface, which jerked open with a scraping noise after a shove and a kick. The air bit on the inside of Craze’s outspread nostrils, the sharp twang making him rub at the side of his nose.
The roar of approaching engines jostled the loose, gravelly soil, the granules jumping and skittering, sending up a dust storm of supergene proportion. His black eyes squinted through the commotion, making out a more densely packed column of dirt mingling with the ship’s wake, adding to the coming tempest.
The intensifying frenzy of dust sent a tremor of trepidation through him. Logic told him the darkening cloud was one of his fellow Pardeepans coming in to make a few sheeny chips off the tourists, yet his emotions ran rampant, sensing portent, perhaps for no other reason than it was more interesting to think so than not.
Craze filled the doorframe he leaned against with muscle and height. The splayed placement of his cheeks, eyes, flat nose, and prominent mouth allowed him to live comfortably on hot worlds rife with organics choking the air. His ability to hibernate let him survive in places with extreme seasons, seasonal being the key. The yearly changes on Pardeep went from cold to bitter. Craze made do though, like the other hardy souls who worked on this orbiting lump of arid rock.
His charcoal waves neatly rebraided themselves into a single plait, then lay still. The living hair gave him some popularity with females and saved him time grooming. Beyond that he’d never figured out what purpose that particular modification to his genes served. Catching insects maybe?
Pardeep’s dust-laden air tasted of chalk and tin, coating his tongue and thick lips. The incoming vessel swooped lower, gliding toward the docks rising twenty stories above his tavern. The bronze hued edifice glinted in the sunlight, otherwise the facility blended in with the soil. It was the only noticeable blip of civilization on Pardeep, and Craze would hardly call it that. Maybe if the incoming spacecraft brought more settlers he might.
The ship, as large as an interstellar-class freighter, cast a great shadow which darkened the landscape and his view of the world. Shaped like a dumbbell and colored in rust patches, the hull of the spacecraft clung to a brittle and aged patina, showing little promise of fulfilling his ambitions for prosperity, but there at the tail blazoned a crisp logo. Freshly repainted, a circle half blue and half green dominated the aft panels, rekindling a little hope for something more than the arrival of destitute derelicts. A vessel like that could hold up to a half thousand folks.
Craze’s pulse quickened. That was a lot of chips. Chips he desperately wanted to add to his coffers. “C’mon!” He pumped his fist at the sky, then forced himself to settle down. The incoming ship could easily hold a half thousand cobwebs and crumbs instead.
As the spacecraft approached, the squall of dust sped closer, rising ever higher, somersaulting and churning, turning darker and blacker, reaching up to devour the docks, the bar, and Craze whole. He backed inside the plexiglass vestibule and slammed the door, unable to peel his sight away from the storm roaring at him like a wall.
He gulped, cursing the Pardeepan twit creating the monsoon. “Nobody’ll be able to take more than three steps from the docks, dumbass.”
When his words consciously sank in, Craze’s lips parted with a smack. “Oh!” He didn’t want people wandering about, perhaps tempted into taking one of Pauder’s idiotic tours. Nope, he wanted them in his bar and staying put.
The entryway had the only windows in the tavern. As the swarm of dust raced toward him, he was glad of it. He braced himself for the onslaught and ground his teeth. Pebbles scoured the exterior of his place and sliced fresh scratches into the door. Then came a series of explosions, close and thunderous.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Craze closed his ears and ducked.