More stars for … star power? 🤔

Another one of my world famous emails! I bet you can’t wait. Get on the list here.

This week, it’s not about me – much

Last week, we met a mad scientist. This week:

  • We’re interviewing … well, we’ll get to that.
  • I forgot to give you your excerpt for Tyche’s Lost last week, so you get a really big one this week to make up for it.

(If you missed the first excerpt, you can find it here). Richard’s quick update:

Reading: I’m working my way through a bunch o’ new books. The latest is Kristoff’s Nevernight, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read in … well, since Red Sister. I’ll crank out a review for it soon enough, but if you want a dark fantasy, kinda like Harry Potter except this version of Hogwarts is a school for assasssins who worship the lady of blessed murder, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Writing: Boundless. Meriwether just drugged three Church Knights in an attempt to escape, and ran into a horde of Vhemin, and is now trussed like a hog. It’s not going well for him. I know I haven’t talked about the Vhemin – we’ll get there.

Listening: Rae introduced me to Dusty Trails, and that’s been on repeat more than it should be.

Remember: for the month of June, I’m bringing you a selection of five-star space operas for the bargain of … zero Earth dollars. Hello, five-star space opera bundle.

This week’s interview is with JJ Green, who’s got an accent like an extra on Game of Thrones. Stick around for the interview (remember, excerpt of Tyche’s Lost at the end!), or go directly to the page.

JJ Green

Inmate Name: Jenny Green

Last known locations: | Facebook | @Infinitebook1

Book in the promo: Generation (Shadows of the Void Book 1)

Q: The opening stanza of your blurb where Jas has “zero tolerance for fools” sounds like an excellent placard for speed dating, or maybe just life in general. Did you … inform Jas’s view on life experience with extreme Muppetry?

A: Yes, though Jas’s attitude is more based on her experiences before she begins work as a security officer on prospecting starships. Those experiences are covered in the prequel to the Shadows of the Void series, Starbound. Jas is a Martian who nearly missed the window for spending her adolescence on Earth so that her bone structure isn’t too weak to withstand Earth-grade gravity. She’s thoroughly bullied for being different, leaving her solitary and intolerant. As the events of the series progresses, her attitude and relationships with others change.

Q: You hail from London’s East End. Which Game of Thrones character sounds most like you, and which has an accent that’s just plain wrong? And while we’re here, do you think the Taiwanese (…where y’all live now) find your UK-accented Mandarin hilarious?

A: Gendry’s accent sounds closest to mine, though posher. I think the actor was going for a London-ish accent but couldn’t quite overcome his Received Pronunciation. So I suppose Gendry is also the character that’s the most wrong. I really don’t like my accent but it’s much better than it was. When I moved from London to Luton I was teased for my accent, and if you’ve ever heard a Luton accent you would know how hilarious that is. Here in Taiwan I’m sure my Mandarin sounds very strange because the Taiwanese are much more used to American accents.

Q: Of the stories you’ve written: favourite character, piece of technology, and villain?

A: My favourite character is whoever I’m writing at the moment (as I’m sure most authors say) but if I had to choose one, I think it would be Carina Lin of my Star Mage Saga. She lost her only family when she was about ten and grew up on the streets before ending up as a merc. She’s the most tragic, lonely character and yet she’s also the most loving and caring, despite all that she’s been through. Favourite piece of technology is the flitter in my Space Colony One series. It’s a simple a-grav vehicle, but how fantastic would it be if we really could invent something like that? For my favourite villain I would have to return to my Star Mage Saga. The best villains are those where you know why they’re so bad and nasty, and that definitely applies to Castiel Sherrerr. He’s grown up without any magical abilities in a family of mages, spoiled and doted upon by his monstrous father. I like villains that I can feel a tiny bit of sympathy for while also knowing I’m insane for feeling that way.

[Let me check out JJ’s book]

Tyche’s Lost

(Don’t forget to check out the opening here if you missed it).


Saveria woke to the gentle hum of the escape pod. Warm, yellow-white light draped the interior of the cabin. She lay on her acceleration couch, facing up. Her view of the outside world was limited to the aperture provided by the pod’s eight top windows. Half were behind her, but the other half showed green leaves, dappled with light.

It’s called daylight.

Her fingers found the clasps holding her in place. She freed them with a snap of fabric and clatter of metal. Her arm knocked against the acceleration couch beside her. Laying on the couch was a man. Lean, fit-looking, but he wasn’t familiar to her. Should she know him? They must have spoken to each other before getting in the escape pod.

Saveria rubbed her arms, the crinkle of her ship suit nudging aside the hush of the air cyclers for a moment. I don’t know who that is. I don’t know where I am.

Was she a prisoner? She didn’t have a weapon, but her hands weren’t bound. A passenger, perhaps? There must have been an accident. Starships rarely died in the night, but spacers knew how to get into a ship suit fast as thought.

Am I a spacer?

The cant of the escape pod meant she needed to walk up a small slope to get to the hatch. Saveria scrambled for it, hand on the release lever. Outside showed her a glen, with trees and sun. No one waited. She cranked the lever, the explosive bolts thunk-thunk-thunk-thunking before the hatch blew, spinning across the clearing.

She clambered free, breathing air clean and sweet. She turned a slow circle, boots whispering through dew-wet grass. The escape pod had GRAVEDIGGER emblazoned on the side. It sat in a small circle of scorched earth where the braking thruster slowed their descent. The trees above were snapped, dropped branches scattered about it. The pod itself looked undamaged.

Saveria ran her fingers over the GRAVEDIGGER letters. I know this name, don’t I? Her head felt empty. Soft, like a sponge waiting for moisture. She ran a hand through her hair, pulling strands away. It lay, brown and straight, across the palm of her glove. It wasn’t pink.

She should be holding pink hair. Not brown. Saveria shouldn’t have hair at all. Her head was burnished gold metal. It wasn’t soft, pliable meat.

I don’t know who I am.

An insect buzzed past her head, startling her. Saveria followed it, uncertain. A bird chirped. She spied it through the trees, singing. It was olive green. Anthornis melanura without a doubt. Saveria held a hand out, but the bird flew away. She drifted after it. It sounded sweet, like tiny bells, and full of joy.

Another bird swooped low. She didn’t know what it was. It snatched an insect from the air. She almost couldn’t make out what happened. Saveria rubbed her eyes. Where they malfunctioning? The refresh rate felt low.

I don’t have a refresh rate.

A crack drew her attention. She spotted a young man watching her through the trees. He was as frozen as her. He was young, but his face was careworn. Scarring marked the line of his jaw. Bright green eyes watched her from a face darkened by days in the sun. He didn’t wear a ship suit like her. His jacket was brown leather. He carried a wooden club, but absently, like someone asked him to hang on to it for a spell.

The moment between them held. Did she know him? Was there another escape pod nearby? The man looked to his club, then back to her. He took a step closer. Saveria took a step back, then held herself firm. “Hello. I think my spaceship crashed.” Saveria felt like she should have a baseball cap, something to pull lower, to hide her face from what she’d done.

What did I do?

The man turned, hurrying off. Saveria watched him for a moment, then followed. “Wait! I could use your help. There’s a…” A what? Was her companion in the pod a friend or enemy? “Another passenger. Wait!” Her lips felt like weak rubber, slow at speaking. Saveria tried to match the man’s pace, but her legs lumbered beneath her. She stumbled, catching her balance against a tree. Her gloved fingers rasped against the bark.

Why is my hair not pink?

She pushed off from the tree, hurrying through the forest. It felt alive, an entire organism, not a collection of individual ones. Saveria thought she should be able to sense it, right on the inside. Not with sensors, but something … else. But she couldn’t hear anything aside from the crashing ahead as the man tried to get away. Saveria was sure she should be able to … touch it.

With my heart.

She slowed, pausing for breath. She was hot. Saveria peeled the front of the ship suit open. Underneath she wore a sheer bodysuit. GRAVEDIGGER was emblazoned above her left breast. She couldn’t very well take the ship suit off here. She had boots, but no shoes. She was alone in a forest.

Why am I wearing pirate colors?

The crunch of feet and hurried breathing made Saveria look up. The young man returned. She met his eyes. Not so alone after all. He held his club like he was terrified of her. “You’ve got to come with me.”

Saveria nodded. “I do. I have a,” she mentally groped for the right word, “friend who needs help.”

“No.” He shook his head. “You’re for the Altar.”

“The what?” He lunged at her, swinging his club like a bat. She ducked underneath it, grabbed the handle, and twisted. He spun through the air, wrist acting like a pivot, and crashed into the ground. Saveria held the club before her eyes while he scrambled back like a crab. It was crude, perhaps machined on a lathe rather than made in a fabricator. She held it out to him. “You dropped this.”

He got to his feet, the movement uncertain, like she was a scorpion waiting to strike. Saveria nodded, encouraging, and let him snatch the club. “How did you do that?” He rubbed his wrist.

Krav maga / kendo / karate / judo / jiu jitsu… Saveria sifted through until she worked out what she’d done. “Aikido.” Someone taught her aikido. He’d touched her inside and given her the gift of knowledge.

“Is that how you’ll kill the gods?” He tried for a sneer, but it wouldn’t stick.

She watched him for a few moments. “Do you know my name?”

He blinked, mouth slack, then shook his head. “I don’t know you at all.”

“Neither do I.” Saveria looked back the way she’d come. “I have to go.”

“Wait.” He stepped closer, stopping after a couple of paces. Not wanting to meet aikido again, or something else? “I’m Forrest Blake.”

She wanted to give him something, but her head was empty. Saveria ran a hand inside her ship suit. Her fingers found the slight rasp of the bodysuit’s lettering. “Call me Gravedigger.”

“That’s your name?”

Saveria frowned. Memories drifted, shapeless. “It’s what I am.”

A shout rose from where she’d come from. She spun, but Forrest’s hand on her arm stopped her. Saveria cycled through a hundred ways to break the brittle parts of his meat before she realized it was concern, not anger, in his eyes. “They’ll kill you.”

“You can’t kill someone who’s already dead.” Saveria shook herself free, running back through the forest. Leaves and branches slapped her as she ran. She made the small glen. It was as she’d left it, except for one tiny detail.

The escape pod was empty.

The forest loam was churned as if by many feet. They’d blazed a path through the trees. She might catch them if she hurried. Saveria almost ran off, then held herself still. She returned to the escape pod, jimmying the emergency supplies cabinet. Inside was water, ration bars, a small blaster, and good Empire coin. The blaster’s battery was dead, but the food and water were good anywhere.

She let coins tinkle to the floor of the escape pod. She needed to know where she was, and who her companion was to her, and who she was. Saveria put a hand to her head. It felt lopsided, like it had metal inside, a tiny vault holding her memories close.

Stepping from the escape pod, she looked at the sky, breathed the air, then squared her shoulders. She touched her lips with curious fingers. Someone else touched her like that not long ago. “Where has my Hope gone?”

Aside from the tinkle of the bellbirds, the forest didn’t answer. She’d have to get her answers another way.

* * *

After a hundred meters running, Saveria slowed. Her breath rasped in her throat. She couldn’t remember anything earlier than waking in the escape pod, but her body felt weak. Like it hadn’t been used, forgotten like an old shirt in the bottom of her ship’s locker.

Running longer was out of the question. She opened a ration bar, chewing. The chewing action reminded her of—

Mandibles, tearing flesh. Sharp, stabbing limbs, piercing flesh. A chitinous saw, grinding against her skull.

She dropped the ration bar to the forest floor, backing away. Her hands shook. The flash she’d seen felt like prophecy, but she knew it was a memory. She’d been somewhere dark, with living things crawling beneath her skin. For all the forest was warm and light, she felt cold, goosebumps prickling her skin.

“Breathe. Just … breathe.” She didn’t know why she said it, or who she’d learned it from. It felt like a trick, something to calm the shaking of a soul too worn to take much more.

The ration bar waited on the ground. She picked it up, brushing dirt away. The crinkle of the wrapper under her fingertips felt familiar and comfortable, like a toy you’d sleep with if monsters threatened from the closet.

This was made by my people. We’ve crossed the stars. She visored her eyes with a hand. The sun had risen higher, blotting out any hint of space, but she knew it was there. The vast universe waited above. She looked at the ration bar. We crossed the stars until we met the enemy.

She took a bite, chewing slowly. She wanted the memory of the dark to return, so she could see who the enemy was. Nothing happened. The sun shone on, unconcerned. A gentle breeze stirred her not-pink hair, whispering at the back of her neck. Her heart calmed.

Where am I?

Another bellbird sang to her. She offered it a lopsided smile. “Viukde is a yellow subgiant, radius two point seven eight of Sol’s. The solar mass is one point three seven of Earth’s star. Temperature…” She closed her eyes. Remember. Remember this one thing. “Four thousand seven hundred Kelvin. It shines eight point three seven times as bright as Sol. Viukde Gamma is the only terrestrial planet, and the third in the system. It has one point one four Earth gravities.”

The bellbird cocked its head, blinked, and flew off. Everyone’s a critic. Saveria touched her cheek, then ran her fingers to her forehead. Someone else touched her that way with trembling fingers not long ago. Why couldn’t she remember?

Saveria knew 1.14G might be why her legs felt clumsier, but her heart said it was something else. Part of her had never used these legs before.

She finished her ration bar, then sipped water. It was warm and tasted like ship’s stores. She wanted it to be the clean cool of a running stream but didn’t know if she’d ever seen a river in her life.

Spacers don’t have streams.

She squared her shoulders, turning to follow the tracks once more. The route through the trees was easy to follow. It wasn’t a natural path; tools had been used to hack away the undergrowth. She fingered a broken branch. A machete? She found no dropped clues, no handy markers to show who she followed, or if they were friend or foe.

After an hour’s walk, she broke from the tree line into a field. Grass grew to her waist, small insects buzzing through the air. The sun felt hotter here. She tugged her arms free of the top half of her ship suit, tying the sleeves about her hips. Sweat marked her bodysuit, making it stick to her back. It should feel bad, but she felt alive. Glad to be using her body after weeks of torpor.

You’ve been asleep for three weeks.

Sleeping, or near enough. She wiped moisture from her brow, then set off through the field. Like the forest, the trail was easy enough to follow here, flattened grasses drawing a line south. She stopped, eying the sun. Is it south? Does Viukde rise in the east and set in the west on this world? Saveria allowed herself a wry smile. It didn’t matter. ‘South’ was good enough.

It’s close enough for government work.

Who said that? She couldn’t remember but knew she’d heard it from a friend.

Once through the field, her magboots crunched on gravel and packed dirt. Dust rose in her wake, drifting on warm air. The dirt looked like an amateur-hour road, rutted in places by what must be thin wheels. Saveria lost the trail here but saw a lazy wisp of smoke rising in the mid-morning light ahead. It was as good a marker as any to chart a course with.

The road wound through a cleft between two small hillocks. Saveria heard rustling from her right and craned her head to see. Above, a man stood framed by blue sky. She smiled. “Forrest Blake.”

“Gravedigger.” He nodded, sliding down the side of the slope. He stumbled to a halt in front of her. He carried a small bundle, which he offered to her. “Here.”

She didn’t take the bundle of what looked like rags. “What’s that?”

“Clothes.” His eyes trailed down her bodysuit, then looked away as if startled by what he saw. “Dressed as you are, they’ll take you to Altar.”

“Isn’t that where you wanted to take me?” She put hands on her hips. “When you attacked me with a stick.”

He bowed his head, cheeks flushing in shame. “Aye, that’s the truth of it. Marla said we must, but…” He trailed off, like words were a precious resource and he had too few.

Saveria took the bundle of clothes. “Are you taking me to Altar? That doesn’t sound,” she groped for the right word, “fun.”

“The other godkiller with you is already at the village. He’ll be put on the Altar and made whole.” Forrest risked another look at her, eyes wandering up to her face. “Your face is … beautiful. I’ve never seen anything so perfect.”

She parsed that a couple of times. “You think because I’m pretty, I shouldn’t be laid on your Altar?”

“The Altar is for fixing flawed vessels.” He crossed his arms as if cold, despite the warmth of the day. “I think you’re already whole.” This last was said so quietly she wasn’t sure she heard right. Her hearing might be just another faulty system.

“You’re helping me?” At his nod, Saveria snorted. “You attacked me.”

“Marla said to.” He nodded to the clothes. “Please.”

Saveria shook the clothes free. Worn pants, perhaps a size too large. A leather jacket like Forrest’s, with a slightly different cut. The interior wasn’t smooth and clean like she was used to, the stitching rough as if a person made it, not a machine. Shoes tumbled free, simple moccasins that would be easier on her feet than magboots.

Saveria snapped open the clasps on her boots, pulling them free, then tugged her ship suit off. Forrest’s eyes almost popped out of his skull before he spun on his heel, taking great interest in the smoke rising in the middle distance. She caught another flush to his cheeks and wondered what that was about. She kept her bodysuit and socks on, pulling the rougher clothes over the top. They felt heavier than her ship suit, but more comfortable for traipsing about uneven ground and non-air-conditioned environments.

She ran fingers through her not-pink hair, pulling it back from her face. “I’m ready.”

Forrest turned to her, giving her a once-over, then a second and third once-over. “I’ll take you to our village. We’ll work something out. Stay with me. Don’t talk to anyone.” He headed off.

Saveria followed. The smoke in the distance resolved to a couple trails heading skyward. They rose from chimneys. Saveria knew such things were possible, but hadn’t seen or heard of anything like it for her entire life. She knew this like she knew water was wet. It was a fundamental truth that endured more than the day she’d been awake, or the three weeks she’d sleep-walked aboard…

Where have I been?

They walked into the village. The verge wasn’t clearly demarcated; buildings appeared as if sprouting from the earth singly, then in twos, and finally in clumps. The density increased until they walked among buildings. None were more than two stories tall. People watched them from doorways. Forrest put a hand on Saveria’s elbow, pulling her along. They walked down a small alley, around a corner, and shored up beside a low-slung building. He nodded to double doors. “In here.”

She put a hand on the wood, pushing the doors wide. Inside was a collection of wooden pens, some with livestock inside. She counted two horses and a cow. Saveria entered, looking at the roof. Light leaked in through small gaps and cracks, and dust hung in the air, making god rays.

Forrest waited at the door. “Stay out of sight. Stay here. You’ve got to remain hidden. Too many people saw you with me already.”

She turned to face him. “These are your people?”

He nodded. “I will say you’re a pilgrim, and that I sent you to further south.” He looked at his feet. “It’s a truth that will hold long enough.”

“Long enough for what?”

Forrest shook his head. Saveria didn’t know if he denied or question or had no good answer. He grabbed the doors, drawing them closed. She heard the rattle of wood on wood, and hurried to the doors, trying them. They shifted but wouldn’t open. Forrest barred them from the outside.

Saveria looked about what must be a barn. She was a prisoner of a man who’d attacked her with a club, in a place she didn’t know. She ran fingers under her borrowed jacket, feeling the lettering of her bodysuit.

At least she had a name. Gravedigger.


Chad didn’t wake in the arms of a beautiful woman. He didn’t open his eyes to the scent of fresh-baked bread and the delicious aroma of coffee. Chad’s eyes fluttered open because the pain in his skull demanded attention, like he had Ezeroc larvae in there and they wanted out.

He groaned.

His lips were parched, and he couldn’t move. He craned his neck. Straps crossed his body, tethering him to what felt like a bed of nails, but looked like a simple set of wooden boards. He tried for another groan, but it came out as a whimper. Resting his head for a spell, he risked a look around. The room was comfortable enough, if you were into wood decor. He could see a door off to his left. The room felt like five meters aside, which moved it from cozy bedroom to functional lounge. Maybe wherever ‘here’ was didn’t have a permanent gaol, and thus he was in someone’s rumpus.

Those fuckers would get a surprise when he found a blade.

His sword lay out of reach, leaning by the door. Resting on a small table next to it was his blaster. He risked reaching out with his mind to feel the weight of them, but he got nothing but another bolt of pain inside his skull. He panted, closing his eyes for a moment. When he found strength, he cracked ‘em open again, continuing his land survey of the room. There was a table in the direction of his boots, adorned with a few knick-knacks which he ignored, and a comm unit which he didn’t. The comm unit looked, as Kohl might say, proper fucked. The plastic housing was cracked, and the holo stage lay dark and empty.

Chad wondered why he couldn’t use his gifts. His head hurt, but not like he’d knocked it in a crash. He figured that’s what happened, on account of still wearing a ship suit but not being surrounded by an escape pod. He thought about that for a long time.

Remember your entrance to Viukde System. They’d come in hot and strong, like a good cuppa joe. Asteroids impacted the Gravedigger. Best guess had ‘em as solar debris from a destroyed Viukde Delta. Were the rocks black? Everything in space looks black. But the Emperor’s sword was black metal, bonded to tech to be an effective protector against espers. It still let an esper wielder use their own gifts. Was that what the tech did — guided a path through?

He didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. Hope managed to make bracelets so humans needn’t fear the Ezeroc’s mind control. She didn’t have a stockpile of the black metal of the Emperor’s sword. He’d have to speak with her about the specifics, perhaps when he returned from his vacation. Let’s say there’s a system-wide ring of asteroid fuckery, suppressing your esper abilities.

It felt better than the alternative, which was he was done. A normal. Good with a smile, passable with a blade, but without his gifts, worthless to the throne. He thought about Karkoski for a second. No way she’d bolt a used-up has-been to her career.

The door opened, and a woman entered. She looked worn like an old broom, but her eyes were clear and bright, like a hawk’s. “You’re awake.”

“And you’re observant.” Chad nodded as best he could. “I seem to be tied down. Would you mind?”

She barked a laugh. “I don’t think so. We held Vigil. You’re for the Altar.”

Chad heard the capitalization of Vigil and Altar, like they were holy words. “How about breakfast instead?”

She snorted. “So, this is how you came to kill our gods. With wit and charm.” She closed the door behind her. “I should have expected it. The last came with fire. No reason godkillers should try the same trick twice.”

He tried for a smile. It felt sickly and unwashed on his face, on account of the pain in his skull. “I’m not here to kill gods. I’m on vacation.”

She sniffed. “I’ll admit, you don’t look like much of a godkiller.”

“And you don’t look like much of a sociopath, but here we are.” Chad tugged his restraints. “I’m Chad.”

“I don’t care.”

“No.” Chad tsk’d. “This is where you tell me your name. Be nice to know who’s planning my imminent demise.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Fair enough, Chad. I’m Marla. Folk here reckon me the chief of this village.”

“Makes sense. Sociopaths often rise to top management positions.” Chad shifted, his left butt cheek going numb. “That comm unit work?”

“Nothing much works. It’s how we like it. Simple life, with simple people.” She turned, fingering the pommel of his sword, then picked up his blaster. “This is the weapon of a godkiller.”

“It’s a hand-me-down blaster I won in a game of cards.” Chad wiggled his right hand. There was a tiny amount of give in his bindings that side. “I’m going to take a wild guess and assume you’re in some way allied with the Ezeroc.”

“The who?”

“Big insects. Can’t miss ‘em.” Chad coughed. “If I was laying odds, I’d say they sanded the Republic off this rock aways back, keeping a bunch of inbreeds as livestock.”

Marla drew the blaster, examined it, then pointed it at him. “What would happen if I shot you with this?”

“Not a lot, in the galactic sense.” Chad tried for a shrug, but the bindings didn’t make it easy. Hell, being nonchalant while tied to a slab was hard, but he did his best. “Shorter term, I’d say it’s a blessing. My head hurts. It’s a fresh hell, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

“You’re sick?” She took a step back.

Interesting. Not only are the Ezeroc farming people, but they’re not performing good animal husbandry. You expect basic veterinary care in an operation like this. “Not with something you can catch. Pushed myself too hard, is all. Paid the price.”

She grunted. “Won’t matter soon. You’re for the Altar.” Marla tossed Chad’s blaster to clatter on the little table, dropping the holster beside it. “Make peace in your own way. We’ll set off when it’s dark.” She slipped out the door, pulling it closed behind her.

“So that’s a ‘no’ on the coffee?” he called. No one answered him. Maybe they don’t have coffee here. That’s as good a reason to die as any.

* * *

The room grew hot as morning walked toward midday. Chad heard a tiny scrape from his right, away from the door. He hadn’t managed to get a hand free, but he worked with renewed vigor. If there was one thing the Ezeroc were good at, it was minting tiny roaches to crawl through small apertures to core out your brain.

Speaking of brains, his still hurt, but it was the only one he had. His right wrist felt slick, and he knew he’d chafed the skin to a bloody ruin. The pain gave him an alternative set of hurts to focus on aside from his head.

The scraping continued. It sounded like it was under the floor. Scraping turned to creaking, then with a chunk-pop, a floorboard clattered free. It was joined by another, then a third. A kid crawled through the gap. Leather jacket. Scarred face. Needy eyes. Chad disliked him immediately. He didn’t need more waifs and strays.

The kid stood. Might be twenty on a good day, late twenties on a bad. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, so Chad stepped into the silence. “Fuck off.”


“Fuck,” Chad winced at a new lance of pain in his skull, “off.”

“I’m here to rescue you.”

“No, you’re not.” Chad sniffed. “You’re here to get information from me.”

“I’m … how did you know?”

“I’m a spymaster. The spymaster, if we’re trading truth.” Chad stared at the ceiling. “Information’s kind of my thing.” Or it was, before you cocked everything up. “Oldest trick in the book. Break in, look like a friendly face, ply the prisoner for secrets, all using the kind of sob story a needy heart desires.” He put a little squeak into his voice. “‘Oh, Chad, you’re brave and strong. If only I knew where your ship was, I could take you there.’” He glared at the kid. “About right?”

“No.” The kid shook his head.

That surprised Chad, but he rallied. “Which part’s wrong?”

“Most of it.” The kid eyed the door like it was a fire hazard. “Do you know Gravedigger?”

“Course,” said Chad. “She’s my starship.”

“No, the other one.”

Chad ran that through his head a time or two more just to see if it made more sense on repeat. “There’s only one Gravedigger. Or was. Gone now, like all the other good things in life. We crashed on your shitpile planet.”


Chad squinted. “See, this is how it goes. Get me to loosen up, and I spill the beans. Won’t work, kid.”

The kid gave a growl of frustration. “She’s got honey-brown skin. Warm eyes. Face clear as the dawn on a spring morn. Stares at you like you’re the only thing in the world.”

“You describing a starship or a pinup model?”

“She said her name was Gravedigger.”

Fancy that. “I think you’ve been hit on the head.” Chad wriggled his shoulders. There was a little movement on the right side. “Let’s say I know a … person named Gravedigger. What’s the deal?”

“She’s for the Altar.”

“I hear that a lot around here.” Chad sighed. “You said you were here to rescue me.”

“I lied,” admitted the kid. “No way I can get you out. I barely managed to get in.”

“Is there a point to this conversation?”

The kid looked around, a curious mix of desperate and anxious. “She can’t go to Altar. She’s not broken.”

Chad laughed. It came from deep in his belly. The kid’s wide-eyed look made him laugh harder. “She’s the most broken thing there is.”

He took a step closer. “Don’t say that! How could you know?”

“Because I’m the one who broke her.” Chad settled. “Well, let’s call it a joint operation. It takes two to break the hardest metal.”

“How do I help her?”

“Aside from helping me first?” At the kid’s blink, Chad shook his head, then winced. “Stay out of her way. When she remembers who she really is, there’ll be a reckoning.” And I figured I’ve earned my part of that.

* * *

Chad had questions and found it difficult to answer any of them tied to a table.

First on his mental list, which he’d had time to re-order at least twenty times, was: what happened to the Ardent Fury? Her transponder was still live, a beacon that guided them in. The Gravedigger was headed in that general direction as she carved a trail of burning atmosphere toward the dirt. This question felt more important than the rest, because it offered a tantalizing hint at a future off this shitty rock.

Next up was the tricky question of: where are the Ezeroc? He’d seen ‘em coming down after the Gravedigger, but they didn’t crawl over this village in the ways he expected. He’d made this question number one on the list a few times but kept demoting it because he had a hunch on the answer. The best explanation his very sore head provided was, you’re in the cattle farm. If a rustler adds two cows to your herd, you don’t worry about it. It’s not like Ezeroc ranchers would rumble down here, checking his brands. An alternative answer was: the Gravedigger busted their hulls on the way down. It was something to hope for, but not plan on. That way lay madness.

A somewhat guilty third on the list was, where is Saveria? If he was a better man, he’d have put this at number one, but he wasn’t even close to good. He was good at being bad. Chad was an expert at keeping the dirty secrets of the throne. He didn’t make a lot of friends, which was one of the reasons he was lucky to be so handsome. Good looks took you a long distance on the drift.

Sidling next to this was, who’s the damn kid? He had the angsty look of youth everywhere. Dispossessed, and bound to get underfoot at a moment’s notice. He clearly had a thing for Saveria, but Chad had no idea why she named herself after their dead starship. The poor woman had died enough times already. Chad didn’t have the heart to tell the kid he didn’t stand a chance, on account of batting for the wrong team. Besides, letting out intel like that could torch a valuable ally.

Nearing the bottom was, what’s Marla’s game, what’s a Vigil, and where’s the Altar? These felt like questions that would answer themselves if Chad let the sands flow through the hourglass long enough.

Perhaps last on the list was, when will I get my gifts back? Chad felt like it deserved attention, due to its relative importance in keeping him alive, but the reality was he knew the answer. It was never, with a shadow of and that’s assuming hell’s already frozen over.

The wooden room he was in creaked as the sun moved overhead, the timbers shifting in the heat. The kid was long gone, the floorboards back in place. He’d no doubt be off trying to work out how to get Saveria’s comm codes, or whatever the youth called it these days. Codes would be a worthy pursuit if this mudball had a comm network. If the Ardent Fury’s comm systems worked, there might be a chance, but Chad wasn’t used to getting lucky. That was the Emperor’s whole shtick.

The day drifted toward late afternoon, then early evening. The door opened again, Marla once again leading the charge. With her came two enormous men, sizable enough to make Chad wonder if they’d manage to clone October Kohl. Thinking about Kohl almost made him weep with nostalgia, because he could use a friendly murderer about now. Chad offered a nod to Marla. “Evenin’.”

“You’re chipper for a man going to his doom.” She waved the thugs forward. Chad checked out the detailing. One was bald, head shiny with oil or sweat, but he sported a beard a man could take pride in, his bare chest both furry and packed with muscle. A truncheon hung from his belt and had the look of a device that saw frequent use. The leather handle was worn, the wood pitted and stained. Chad had to admit: the guy represented Team Ginger better than most.

His companion had a shock of unruly black hair, no beard, and shoulders wide enough for two normal humans. He had the common decency to wear a shirt but hadn’t been polite enough to leave his weapons at home. The wooden handle of a club poked over his shoulder, and a supplementary billy dangled from his hip.

They moved to either side of Chad. Baldy leaned close. “We gonna have a problem?”

“That depends if you need advice on a good barber. I’m not from around here.” Chad glanced at Mop Top. “Maybe you can help. If I wanted a good shave—”

He choked as Baldy’s meaty hand found his throat. The giant squeezed for emphasis. “I ask again, are we going to have an issue?” Chad shook his head as best he could. Baldy let him go. “Good.” He nodded to Mop Top. They unbound Chad from the table, helped him upright, and set him on his feet.

Chad fell to the ground. His legs were asleep, and the slightly higher than normal gravity didn’t help. He held a hand up. “I’m good. I just need a moment.”

Baldy grabbed his raised hand, hauling him upright. “I thought we weren’t going to have a problem.”

“In fairness, I’ve been strapped to a table all day. I’m not feeling my best.” Chad tried for a smile and found no takers. He held his other hand out. “After you.”

Marla snorted, grabbed Chad’s weapons, and led the way outside. Chad followed, propelled by Mop Top’s hand between his shoulders. He staggered outside, squinting at the wan light provided by the setting sun. The building he’d come from was a wooden building with no distinguishing features other than a badly-finished porch. He found himself in an open area that had aspirations on being a town square. A raised platform that didn’t look compliant with any building code you’d care to mention stood in the center. Around the square stood a collection of statues, unmistakably Ezeroc in various poses of fighting, stabbing, and killing. A shadowing of humanity, peppered like badly trimmed stubble, held a loose circle at the perimeter. Chad expected haunted eyes and malnourished faces, but most looked happy and healthy. Expectant, even.

Next to the platform sat a rickety cart, with a pair of oxen at the head. Chad turned a slow circle, letting out a whistle. “This is new.”

Marla, already half-way to the cart, turned back to him. “Come on. We’re wasting time.”

Chad held up a hand. Mop Top gave him another shove, causing him to stumble. Chad gave the man a glare, which Mop Top returned tenfold. He sighed. “Hold up, sport.” He turned to Marla. “I’m not arguing any particular part. I guess I’d like to know which specific gallows you have in mind.” Chad jerked a thumb at a nearby statue. “Gods?”

She nodded, holding up his blaster. “Godkiller.”

Chad wobbled his hand back and forth in a maybe gesture. “Eh. It’s a good enough piece in a jam, but…” He glanced at the Ezeroc statue again. It was remarkably lifelike. He did another slow circle, backing away from the menace presented by Mop Top and Baldy. He pointed at the billy at Mop Top’s hip. “Non-lethal weapons. You want me to go to them,” he jabbed a finger at the statues, “alive.”

Marla nodded. “You’re broken. You need to go to Altar.”

“You also have non-lethal weapons because your gods don’t like threats.” He took a step toward Baldy. “What do you weigh? One forty kilos without your shirt? You must be on the protein.” Quick as you please, he lifted Baldy’s truncheon with nimble fingers, sidestepping the expected lunge. He tapped the big man on the rump with the truncheon as he passed.

The thug stumbled, righted himself, and spun, hands outreached. Chad waggled the truncheon. “Now, now. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.” Mop Top made a play behind him. He ducked under the man’s swing with his bat, smashing the truncheon into his shins. The giant tumbled with a howl. Chad straightened, facing Marla. “Hey.”

She tipped her head in acknowledgement. “You know there’s no escape. This planet’s landlocked, Chad.” She spread her hands, shrugged, and offered him a knowing look that said, there should be no lies between us. “There’s only the Altar.” Baldy and Mop Top righted themselves, taking a few steps back to stand between Chad and Marla.

He gave the truncheon a lazy twirl. “I’ll figure something out.”

She nodded, like they were still swapping truths. “Perhaps I can find something to motivate you.” She put her fingers to her lips, blowing a shrill whistle. A commotion started at the edge of the square, the townsfolk parting. Two more giants came forth, carrying a struggling youth between them. It was the kid.

Chad laughed. “I feel we need to have us an honest conversation. That asshole,” he stabbed his truncheon toward the kid, “is working for you. If you figure on using him for an extortion trick, you’ve got the wrong ammunition in the gun. Simple as that.” He raised an eyebrow in Marla’s direction. She waited him out. “See, where I’ve come from, I’ve done worse things than torture kids. I keep the secrets of the Empire, but worse, I stop those who’d speak against the throne.”

Marla nodded. “Speaking false against your lord’s a sin, I’ll admit.”

“I’m not much concerned with the truth of it. They stand against me and mine, I’ve got no sympathy.” Chad glanced at the youth, who was doing a decent job of struggling, but to little avail. “Where do you get such large men?”

The village chief settled Chad’s sword in the back of the cart, then pointed the blaster at him. “Convince you with this?”

“You don’t want me dead.”

“I don’t mind if you’re hurt most of the way there.” She gave a lopsided shrug, then pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

Chad grinned. “Biolocks. Karkoski’s idea. Seemed a devilishly tricky thing to implement, but I figure it’s working out.”

Marla tossed the weapon to the dirt. “Who is Gravedigger?”

That gave Chad pause. “Starship, of no particular import.”

She shook her head, pointing at the kid without looking. “Forrest knows a woman using that name. He knows where she is and what she looks like.”

Chad squinted. “That’s how it is, is it?”

Marla nodded. “That’s how it is.”

Chad rolled his shoulders, widened his stance, and raised the truncheon. “Come get some.” Marla looked shocked for about two seconds, which was how long it took for Chad to cock his arm back, throwing the truncheon between Baldy and Mop Top. It hit her in the forehead, at which point she dropped to the dirt beside his blaster.

Chad knew people. He knew the color of their thoughts, the weight of their regard, and how they worked at an almost atomic level. The kid, Forrest, might know where Saveria was, and what she looked like, but he wouldn’t give up his One True Love™ without a fight. Which meant Marla was an esper, and if she wasn’t, someone nearby was. Taking her out before she could issue commands was priority one.

Baldy and Mop Top roared in unison and charged. The two holding the kid moved to help, at which point the kid got an arm free, swung about, and kicked one of his tormentors in the groin before tear-assing away. The one who’d been kicked in the groin looked like he wanted to give chase but couldn’t find the will to live. Chad sympathized, because no way a brutal strike like that went unanswered.

After that he had no more time to consider Forrest or his future fate, because Baldy got to him. Chad ducked a swing, stabbing two fingers into his opponent’s eyes. Baldy howled, which distracted Chad enough for him to take an eye-watering gut punch from Mop Top. The asshole put hip into it and everything. The blow lifted Chad off his feet, pushed all the air out of him, and dropped him to the dirt.

Mop Top curled his fingers into Chad’s hair, hauling him up. Chad took a leaf from Forrest’s tree, swinging a booted foot into Mop Top’s groin. The man froze, eyes wide, because Chad kicked him hard enough to rupture his descendant’s testicles.

Breathe. Just … breathe. Chad staggered around Mop Top, making for his fallen blaster. He made it close enough to taste before a massive weight struck him from the side. He tumbled to the ground in some surprise. The kid’s remaining assailant reached him with an epic-level tackle. Chad hit the ground, sliding for a spell. The few spoonfuls of air he’d managed to suck in went right back out.

His attacker straddled Chad in what he thought was a power position, laying into Chad with fists. Chad, no stranger to ground fighting, brought his legs around in closed guard, protecting his head with his hands, then grabbed the asshole’s collar in what his jiu jitsu sensei would have called a textbook collar choke. Chad pushed his elbow toward the sky, knocking his opponent unconscious in no time flat.

Chad wriggled free in time to see Baldy standing between Chad and his blaster, holding Chad’s sword. Worse, Baldy was close, already extending the rapier in a crude but admittedly effective thrust. Chad squirreled left, but not quite fast enough. The blade found a home in the meat of his side. Chad hollered, chopped Baldy in the throat with a less-textbook shutō knife-hand strike. Baldy staggered, tugging the blade free as he went, causing Chad to scream.

He stumbled, leaking red in wet splatters on the thirsty dirt. He fell, and in a stroke of luck, landed by his blaster. Chad snarled, raising his weapon. He pulled the trigger, turning Baldy into burning pieces of man as blue-white plasma fzzzt-cracked. Lurching to his feet, Chad wobbled around until he faced Mop Top, who held his groin for all the good it’d do. He was framed by Chad’s makeshift jail.

The big man tried for anger but held nothing but fear. “I’ll see you in hell.”

“Tell them who sent you.” Chad shot him too, spraying the badly-made porch with burning meat. As an afterthought, he shot the choked-out man on the ground, blasting pieces of body and clods of dirt to trail smoke through the air.

He clutched his hand to his side. A lot of red came through his fingers. Find a bandage, or find Saveria? There was only one option. Chad fetched his sword, belting his scabbard on, and holstering his blaster. It hurt, but that was life. If you wanted to keep on living, you had to learn not to mind the pain.

He stumbled in the direction Forrest ran, holding a hand to his leaking side. If he’d been in better shape, he might have wondered where Marla got to.

I’ve got the store page up (finally!) for Tyche’s Lost, so if you’re loving what you’re reading you can grab it here – it’s out next week, yo.

That’s it this week. Next week, we’ll meet someone married to a mad scientist. How bad can this get? Go kick some more ass until then.


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