And now, just to do something different, here's the first chapter of Jaydium for you to enjoy. If you can't wait to find out what happens next, you can download the whole thing from Book View Cafe (And the files will play nicely with your Nook or Kindle, as well as other devices). If not, come on back next week for the next episode...
by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Dust, Kithri thought as she shoved her shoulder against the door of The Thirsty Miner Tavern. The pitted duraplast jerked open, sending a drift of gray-brown powder over her boots. My whole life is turning to dust.
Dust was everywhere on the single inhabited continent of the planet Stayman. It clung to the folds of Kithri=s dun-colored overalls and sprinkled her ragged brown curls. Sifting past the shutters or tracked in at the door, it invaded even the corners where shadows lay thick and stale.
The Thirsty Miner gathered its fair share of dust. Other bars catered to in-system traders, the few Federation agents who cared to rub shoulders with locals or the farmers who, when they came into town at all, kept stubbornly to themselves. But this bar, small and far from the center of Port Ludlow, attracted only its regular customers, jaydium miners all.
Look at them, Kithri thought, pausing as the door swung shut behind her. They=re already drinking up every credit they've made on this run.
Old Dowdell and his two tavern buddies, identical in their rumpled miners' overalls and grizzled faces, looked up from their usual places at the centermost table. Kithri turned her back on them and leaned her elbows on the bar. The barkeep set a mug of brew in front of her.
A few more years, and I'll be just like them.
This was not strictly true. Although Kithri had come to Stayman as a homesick adolescent, she would never be anything but an outsider. One day her clear gray eyes might dull under the faint film that never seemed to leave the other miners= eyes, and her youthful skin might dry up into a mass of crevices like theirs, but she could never change who she was--the daughter of a Federation scientist.
Kithri might not belong to Stayman, but Stayman had left its mark on her. The heavy fabric of her overalls could not hide the long curves of her thighs, or shoulders grown muscular from years of chipping jaydium. She rubbed her nose where it had once been broken and sipped the tepid brew, wishing for the hundredth time that morning there was somewhere else to go, something else to do. She could drag out her outdated astrophysics texts and pretend to study, but what would be the use?
I'm never going to get off this miserable planet! Not to University, not to anywhere!
"Dowdell," she muttered without turning around, "there's nothing you have to say that I want to hear, so stuff it."
"I hear Nash's looking for a whore on his in-system route. Fix you up good, you might do."
Kithri took her mug and stalked over to the farthest, darkest corner. Dowdell's raucous laugh followed her,
"...'course we'd all expect free samples..."
At the rate she was going, flying singlo, it would take years to save the rest of her passage off-planet. The Federation freighters came too infrequently and too much of her earnings dribbled away just to survive on this desolate hunk of rock. But if she could find someone else trained in duo--someone besides that dustbug Dowdell--all it would take would be one, maybe two good runs. She could even make another haul before the freighter took off tonight.
Kithri leaned against the grimy ash-brick wall and closed her eyes, trying to remember Albion's rivers and flowered fields, the clear blue sky, the billowing golden clouds. The images were fragmentary, a child's memories, luminous and blurred. Albion itself was now a radioactive cinder.
Lost in her daydreams, Kithri didn=t look up as the door swung open again and a man stood there, silhouetted against the glaring daylight. His off-worlder clothing--closefit pants, shirt and vest, laced boots--did little to mask the hard, lean contours of his body. Close behind him came a stunningly beautiful woman in a tailored medic=s uniform and a taller man, brassy-haired and smiling. Dowdell let out a long whistle and glanced towards the corner where Kithri sat, her eyes still closed.
The barkeep set three mugs of brew in front of the newcomers. "Hank," he nodded to the tall man. "Been a while."
In her corner, Kithri opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the three newcomers. Her expression hidden by the dense shadows, she got noiselessly to her feet.
The woman looked down at her mug and wrinkled her nose at the dingy, froth-covered liquid. "Is this all there is?"
"Avery, my love, you wouldn't want to try the alternatives," said Hank. "The water=s laced with metal salts and the rotgut=s only good for a three-day drunk."
The second man lifted his mug to his lips. His vest fell open and revealed a leather shoulder holster carrying a force whip, an exotic weapon for a planet where simple stunguns were the norm.
"It's better than aardwolf piss," he commented.
"Such language, Eril!" said the woman. He leaned toward her, laughing, a male version of her beauty--dark hair, faint epicanthic folds of the eyelids, golden skin. But while she was all silky curves, there was nothing effeminate about him. Instead, he was sleek and taut like a sand-leopard, the kind of predator that relished trouble.
Hank turned away from the bar, unaware of Kithr'=s silent approach. "Yes, my love, this lowly tavern was the scene of many a youthful adventure of mine. I remember the time this trader took the notion one of the miners'd hyped his stash. Now, I knew Grizz=d done no such thing--all the man knows is jaydium and getting drunk, in the reverse order. And besides, the trader's so stoned on bloodroot he can't even remember where he put his own head. He pulls out a knife as long as your forearm--" Hank gestured dramatically, "--screams like bloody hell and goes ramming for Grizz. Well, what was I to do, let an honest miner get his kidneys chopped? I vault over those three tables there and foot-sweep him. Bam! Down he goes! Then I break a chair over his head, wrestle the knife out of his hands, and--"
"You're nothing but a dustbug liar, Hank Austin!" Kithri slammed her mug down next to his. "In case you've forgotten, it wasn't a chair I smashed over the trader's head, it was a bench. All you did was stick your foot out and pick up the pieces afterwards."
"Kithri! By all the powers of luck and space, what are you still doing here?"
She winced. "It's great to see you, too. C'mon, if we scramble we can make one more duo haul on this run. There=s five, almost six hours until lift-off."
"Who is this...person?" asked the petite beauty, slipping her hand through Hank=s arm and narrowing her eyes.
Hank straightened up. "Avery my love, meet my old flying partner, Kithri Bloodyluck. Ask me sometime how she got that name. It makes the other story sound like an old ladies' tea party. Kithri, this is my wife."
"Your...wife." In her soaring excitement, Kithri had barely noticed the two strangers. She swallowed hard, her tanned face flushing to an ugly shade of copper. The dim light of the tavern masked it and her voice was steady enough. That was lucky, because she could feel the eyes of the other miners on her, searching her for any hint of weakness. They'd given up any pretense of lack of interest and were staring frankly. After Hank had signed on as a Federation pilot, she'd had her fill of speculation about their having been lovers--and who would take his place. The thought of another round of Dowdell=s jokes was enough to turn her stomach.
"I wanted to show Avery where I used to hang out before I enlisted," Hank said. "Now that the war's over--" He paused, his handsome brow furrowing. "You didn't think I came back here--just to run jaydium, did you? I'm not that crazy, and besides, there=s my bonus money."
Kithri picked up her mug. The brew tasted flat and bitter. "It's nice one of us doesn't have to work for a living."
"What about you? You're not still running jaydium, are you?"
"What else should I do on this dustball planet, open a beauty parlor," she jerked her chin toward Dowdell and his cronies, "for the likes of them?"
Hank spread his hands apologetically. "Hey, it's nothing personal."
"The whole thing's too damned personal, if you ask me." Kithri strode out of the bar, leaving the rest of her drink. Dowdell let out another long whistle as the second newcomer slapped his own mug down and hurried after her.
Too angry to think straight, Kithri hurried down the broad unpaved street that lead to the jetport. Why, why, why had she allowed herself to hope--even for the briefest moment--that Hank might have come back to help her, as he'd promised when he left? After flying duo together, she knew what he was--a self-centered, vainglorious bastard who happened to fly like a dust-devil. And who kept his promises only when it was convenient and profitable. There was no hope for her, and what=s more, there never had been. What a fool she was!
Against her will, tears spilled down her cheeks. She broke into a headlong run. Here at the edge of Port Ludlow there were only a few straggler buildings, ash-brick like The Thirsty Miner. Nobody would see her weakness. The locals were all in their favorite drinking places, getting sensibly plastered.
"Kithri!" came a shout behind her, a man's voice. "Kithri Bloodyluck!"
She slowed, turning her head, ready to keep going if it were Dowdell or one of his pals, unable to resist the temptation. It was the second man from the bar. Relieved and curious, she slowed to a walk. The next moment he caught up with her.
"Who the hell are you?" she asked.
"Eril, Eril Trionan. I'm Avery's brother."
Kithri scrubbed at her tears with the back of one dusty sleeve. Her eyes smarted in protest. "That scrub-pilot-turned-war-hero married your sister?"
"Hank's not so bad, as long as he thinks there=s something in it for him. And he's one hell of a good pilot--"
"Don=t apologize for him, he only came back to show off and laugh at the local brushies. He thinks he's so tough--well, I could fly circles around him in my sleep. Lucky, that's all he is. What d'you want?"
"I can fly duo."
For a long moment Kithri could do no more than stare at him. Her eyes rested on the tiny jagged scar on one cheek that saved his face from outright prettiness. His dark eyes measured her in return, and she wondered what he thought of her broad shoulders and slightly crooked nose, so different from his sister's daintiness. Finally her brain got itself back into gear. What did it matter what he thought of her? He was probably no different from Hank. She=d had enough of pretty fly-boys and their promises.
She forced her lips to move. "Ratshit."
"In space. Hank was my co-pilot," he answered, grinning. "Try me."
"You want to go on a jaydium run...with me?" Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"What else is there to do here? Get drunk? Listen to Hank tell bar-room lies I could make up better myself? The one thing Stayman has to offer is jaydium, and that's halfway across the continent." His words, although spoken firmly enough, didn't have the right ring to them. A bored tourist he wasn't, but that was his business.
What does that matter? whispered through her mind. It's one more run, the best chance you'll get. You wouldn't have to promise him anything, just let him fly with you...
"I'd be crazy to do it," she said, but not as forcefully as before.
"You'd be crazy not to," Eril answered good-naturedly. He gestured back towards the tavern. "Hank's not running jaydium any more. Not now, not ever again. He said the only other miner here who was trained in duo was some old sourbug named Dowdell and that you'd kicked him halfway to Hyades when he got so horny he wouldn't take no for an answer."
"Hank said that, did he?"
The mental backlash of emerging from duo affected people differently, the most common reaction being a brief but intense erotic rush. Kithri had never experienced it herself, but she'd had her fill of its consequences. For all his faults, Hank had enough sense to back off and look for easier pickings elsewhere.
"What else did Hank tell you about me?" she asked.
"That you were damned good."
Kithri bit her lip, considering. The angry flush had drained from her face, leaving her cheeks a light, even tan against the rich brown of her curls. She studied Eril speculatively. "You ever chipped jaydium before?"
"I'm willing to learn."
"It=' no picnic, I can tell you. The work's rough and dirty and the flight across the Cerrano can kill you. Why would you want to risk it?"
"You want the truth?" Eril stopped grinning. "All right--it's the money. Hank told me what you made on a duo run, with the jaydium still intact. If he's too love-addled to take it, I will."
Kithri nodded, relaxing. Greed was something she could understand. "You might change your mind once you see Brushwacker. But it won't hurt to take a look."
The Port Ludlow jetport was definitely third-class. The only landing space worth anything was currently dominated by a single, heavily-guarded Federation shuttle, used for ferrying hauls of jaydium ore to the orbiting freighter, where it was sealed in hard vacuum to prevent further deterioration. A few battered in-system traders sat beyond it, looking like poor country cousins. Miners' scrubjets lined the paved runways at the edge of the field. Further south and west, patches of muted green marked the beginning of Stayman's insular agricultural community. The patches centered on prewar tapwells, for Stayman's water resources lay deep within the bedrock aquifers.
Kithri ran one hand over Brushwacker's blunt nose and sent the thin layer of dust up in little billows. Like her, it was different, set apart. Its metalloceramic skin wore only a dull patina from years of abrasion by the ever-present dust. The other miners painted and repainted theirs with bright, outlandish designs--flames and snakes with gaping mouths, jagged lightning, women with wings. Each one tried to outshine the others.
The stubby, wide wings that gave Brushwacker its unusual maneuverability were set in specialized mountings that permitted minute changes in angle. The engines, too, were capable of rotating to vary the direction of thrust. The narrow body of the scrubjet acted as a secondary airfoil and within its curved contours, space was at a premium. Since the death of Kithri's father, no one but she had sat in the pilot=s seat. Hank--and Dowdell for that one ill-fated flight--had always taken second place.
She slid the door open and stepped back for Eril to take a look. He poked his head in and said, "Looks like there's enough room to take a deep breath, but skies help you if you get the urge to scratch your pitouchee."
Kithri raised one eyebrow, not quite ingenuous enough to ask what a pitouchee was. "Still game?"
"Compared to the new needle scouts, this is positively spacious."
"In you go, then. You run the co-pilot=s check, and if you get it right, you're on."
Eril climbed into the second pilot=s seat and pulled the harness straps around him. He took a few moments to study the panels, then began his inspection. Kithri watched him, liking the way he moved in the cramped space, sensing where the 'jet=s walls were without having to bang his elbows into them, liking the meticulousness with which he double-checked everything. But he'd had an unforgiving teacher--in space, carelessness was invariably fatal.
He looked up as she folded herself into the seat before him, her shoulders between his knees. She didn't touch him as she checked his work again. "All right, you pass," she said, closed the door, and thumbed the engines into life.
"What's the drill?"
"Manual in the 'port and out past the hills. That'll take us to the Cerrano Plain, a good three thousand miles across. Then into the Manitous themselves."
"How deep into them?"
"Depends on where the jaydium is. Could be as much as ten miles. You ever flown a tunnel?"
Kithri nudged Brushwacker from its berth and along the runway leading east toward the hills. The tiny ship moved smoothly under her hands, as if it were a living thing that knew her touch.
"No, but I've heard they're as predictable as a trader's promise. A system of natural tunnels that run all through the mountain range."
Kithri laughed. "That's not half of it. There's no jaydium worth having on the surface, so you have to follow the tunnels deep into the mountain. They twist worse than a dish of noodles‑‑one wrong turn and you'll end up plastered against the wall."
"You're not the noodle type," he said. "And neither am I.