SNIPPET #1 from NOMAD'S GAMBLE
(An Oksana and Alisa adventure
from Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire Series)
by Brandon Barr
Chapter 1 - SHE’S A DAMN GOOD PILOT
Oksana noticed with growing unease that Rion’s forehead was beginning to sweat.
Discreetly, Oksana shifted her sideways gaze back to the forward window of her freighter ship, the Star Nomad. A medium-sized planet hovered like a massive crimson marble, filling the NavCom cabin’s window. There was always something ominous about an uncharted world. Oksana felt as if she were blind, at the mercy of the unfamiliar, but she needed the money. Ship repair projects were piling up, and she still had two months of debt to pay for last year’s repairs.
This was her third job beyond the boundary of charted space. Rion, her client, had offered her three times the average pay and had given her half up front. But why the hell the man wanted to be freighted out this far, he hadn’t said. And she hadn’t asked.
Something illegal, she guessed, but it wasn’t any of her business as long as he kept it to himself. But the sweat forming on his brow…that was her business. Spotting trouble in advance had saved her more than a time or two.
In such a remote area of space with a tight-lipped client paying big money, you couldn’t be too careful. Especially when they start perspiring like a used mop in the tropics of Kir. She’d dealt with surprises before—clients trying to stiff her, hijackers, pirates and a renegade Mawqua—but so far, she’d never had any trouble this far out in space.
And then there was her maternal concern. She had her nine-year-old daughter, Alisa, onboard.
“Mother,” said a small, but confident voice from behind, “the sensor display is picking up a power source reading. Just one spot on the whole half-side of the planet.”
Oksana turned to Rion.
“That’s where we’re headed, right?”
Rion nodded, his smooth white face mottled with color. “That’s it. Only inhabited place on the entire world.”
“What is that place?” pressed Oksana, hoping to squeeze something out. Anything.
He turned his head and stared at her a moment with intense eyes, then a fragile smile thinned his lips.
“I...suppose it won’t hurt to tell you. It’s a gem mining site. If you want, I can show you the operation…”
Show her the operation? His friendly gesture was as questionable as the feeble smile on his lips.
Oksana looked back to the planet. Something wasn’t right. He’d been cordial enough the first half of the trip, making vague conversation about his passion for terraforming and economics. But he hadn’t given Oksana anything to clue her in on where they were headed or why. Then three days ago, he’d adamantly tried to convince her into taking him to Primus 7 after the current job with the promise of more money.
No amount of money would be worth landing on that asteroid—not after the ruckus she’d raised there four years back that nearly got her killed.
When she’d put her foot down about going to Primus 7, he’d retreated to his quarters. From then on, he was nearly silent for the rest of the trip, only coming out of his quarters to pace the halls of the ship, face pale as death. Sometimes she caught him mumbling unintelligibly to himself when he didn’t know she was listening. And then an hour ago, once Alisa had informed him over the com that they were approaching their destination, he emerged from his hibernation with a few forced smiles and little to say. That is, until just now.
“Thanks for the offer to tour the mines,” said Oksana, “but once your cargo’s unloaded, I’ll take the second half of my pay and leave you to your business.”
The ship shuddered as it began its descent into the atmosphere.
Rion wiped his sleeve across his forehead.
“Nervous about something?” she asked casually.
Rion leaned back stiffly in the copilot chair. “It’s my first trip to the site. I have a lot riding on this operation. Money. Time. Not to mention the pressure of a few blood sucking investors breathing down my neck.”
“Is that what’s kept you holed up in your quarters the last three days?” asked Oksana.
After a moment’s pause he nodded. “I have a lot weighing on me. Not just the investors,” he glanced sideways at her. “It’s complicated.”
“Everything always is,” said Oksana.
The shudder that ran through the ship as it passed through the atmosphere slowed.
Oksana turned to Alisa. “Take the flight stick and bring us down. Rion and I will start prepping the cargo hold.”
Alisa sprang from her seat at the sensor station, a slanted smile twisting her lips.
“You’re not serious,” said Rion, a quick touch of anger in his tone. “She can’t land this thing.”
Alisa’s eyes darted to the man’s face like twin lasers. “I certainly can, sir,” she said with force. “Do I look young to you? I’ll be ten next month, I’ll have you know.”
Rion stared at the girl, confused at her words. Then he burst out laughing.
“She’s a damn good pilot,” said Oksana. “She’s been training since she was six. Landing since she was eight. Now let’s go get your crates prepped. We’ll be on the ground in no time. We unload, you pay me, then we’re gone.”
Rion’s eyes lingered on Alisa and he appeared to be sweating double-time now. “Fine. Just know some of the cargo is quite sensitive. A rough landing could damage—”
“I won’t damage your precious cargo, sir,” snapped Alisa.
“Don’t be rude now, dear,” said Oksana, resting her hand on Alisa’s shoulder. “Go on, Rion, I’ll meet you in the cargo hold after I have a word with my daughter.”
Rion nodded, apparently satisfied by Oksana’s response in his defense.
He strode out of the ship’s cabin.
“I don’t trust him,” said Oksana. “Same precautions as the client from Baku Moon.”
Her daughter nodded slowly, chin held high. “Lockdown, no compromise on entry, and I get to play your guardian angel,” sang Alisa with enthusiasm. “I got this, mother!”
Oksana nodded with a proud smile. Oksana pressed an unmarked wall panel and a gun sprang into her hands. She passed it to Alisa. “Anyone comes through that door. You know what to do.”
“Blow their face off.”
Oksana nodded. “That’s my girl.”
(That's the end of SNIPPET 1. I'll have a new snippet up next week for the 4/23 release of NOMAD'S GAMBLE)