Tuesday, March 13, 2012

EXCERPT: Starchild

Starchild was my second published book at Dreams Unlimited. It moved to LTD after DU, then LTD went out of business. Then I bought an ad to publicize it at a magazine and the magazine promptly went out of business. I was beginning to think the book was a curse. Then it landed at Samhain, and they seem fairly solvent still, so hopefully that little string of weirdness has ended.

When billionaire financier Harrison Fairfax boards the EarthFed starship Starchild, Captain Trieka Cavendish knows he’ll bring trouble.  Earthlubbers always do.  But she has no idea “trouble” will come in the form of a vast government conspiracy that will turn her whole world upside down.

Harrison Fairfax has spent the past seven years trying to find out what happened to his wife, an investigative journalist.  But his wife’s disappearance is only the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath is bigger—and much, much worse. It’s a conspiracy reaching to the highest echelons of EarthFed.

Government strongmen, who are on to Fairfax’s meddling, drive him and Cavendish into the wilds of the colony planet Denahault, where they discover even more secrets—and a passion that may be the only thing that can save them.

From Chapter Three

The annoying buzz that was supposed to be a chime jarred Trieka out of a more restful sleep eight hours later. Bleary, she looked at the clock on the shelf by her berth: 0459. As she stared, eyes barely focused, it clicked over to 0500 and began to beep.

Whoever was outside her door activated the buzzer again.

The situation should have made sense, but in her semi-unconscious state, Trieka couldn’t fit the pieces together.

“Captain!” That was Jeff’s voice. “Breakfast.”

“I’m coming,” Trieka replied reflexively.

She swung out of the bed as she gradually remembered she’d set her alarm a half hour later than usual. She didn’t go on duty until 0600, and had figured the extra sleep would do her some good. Quickly, she shed her pajamas and stepped into her uniform. She folded the pajamas and laid them on the bed, shoved a hand through her hair to put the riotous curls into some semblance of order, then went to the door.

Jeff and Lieutenant Wu stood outside. Jeff, as always, was pressed and pleated within an inch of his life, his dark blond hair crisply combed, boots so shiny you could touch up your mascara in the reflection. Robin at least looked like she’d recently been asleep, her fine, dark hair entertaining a not-quite tamable cowlick.

“Rough night, Captain?” Robin asked.

“No rougher than usual on the first night out.”

“Weird dreams?”

“Very.” She had no desire to go into detail, especially with her crew, but Fairfax had continued to haunt her dreams, naked and otherwise. She didn’t make a habit of using sleep enhancers, though it was fairly common for crews on long voyages, but she was beginning to wonder if it might not be a bad idea.

Although crew and passengers had been scheduled to eat in shifts, the small mess was filled to capacity. Ensign Rico had held their table while Jeff and Robin went to fetch Trieka. Trieka helped herself to the food at the counter, then joined her crew.

“How did it go last night?” Trieka asked Rico.

Rico shrugged. “Smooth. No catastrophes.”

“That’s always a good sign. How about you, Jeff? How was Fairfax’s preboard? He give you any trouble?”

“No, not really. Asked a lot of questions.”

“Good. I think Admiral Derocher would appreciate it if we were nice to him. The government wants his money.”

“Is that why he’s here?” Robin looked as if she had just solved a particularly annoying puzzle.

“That’s right. So kiss his ass as much as possible.”

Robin grinned slyly. “May I take that literally?”

“Only with his permission.”

Jeff cocked an eyebrow at Robin. “Best be careful, Lieutenant. We don’t want any lawsuits.”

Robin shrugged it off. “Not likely. I just think he’s cute, that’s all. And being rich doesn’t hurt anything, either. What do you think, Captain?”

Trieka had her mouth full of toast, which was fortuitous since the question caught her off guard. She chewed and swallowed, trying not to think about the dreams.

“I think he’s skinny and he has a big nose.”

Jeff looked at Trieka in amazement. “I think that if I were talking about a woman like that, you’d write me up.”

“Oh, please—” Robin protested, but Trieka interrupted her.

“No, Jeff’s right. It’s highly inappropriate. Lieutenant, write yourself up for unbecoming conduct.”

“Write myself up?” Robin gaped, only half-serious.

“Well, it would save me the trouble.”

Jeff, on the other hand, had worked up a snit. “I’m offended you’re not taking this seriously.”

Trieka laid a conciliatory hand on Jeff’s arm. He’d been a good friend since academy days, so she hated to chastise him. In fact, she’d requested him as her second-in-command because he was smart and dependable and maybe a little cute. But his too-proper attitude didn’t fit in with her concept of a colony ship. She wanted things more relaxed. On the other hand, he’d probably make a great admiral someday.

“I wouldn’t write you up for talking about a passenger, Jeff. After all, I didn’t even reprimand you for what you said about me at the holiday party last winter.”

Jeff slid from self-righteous to uncomfortable. “I was drunk.”

“Even so, I think you were responsible for your own actions.”

“I apologized once, and I’ll apologize again.”

Trieka grinned. She’d gotten quite a bit of mileage out of that little indiscretion. “It’s all right. Though I have to say it’s the first time I’ve ever heard my breasts compared to any kind of fruit, much less—”

Jeff waved surrender. “All right, all right. Fairfax is cute and he has a big nose. Can we please change the subject?”

“Sure. How are the passengers settling in?”

Apparently the passengers were settling in fine. Trieka listened as Jeff related the mild fiasco of the boarding procedure, half her attention focused on her own thoughts.

She had a great deal to accomplish today, with only the usual twenty-four hours to work with. She arranged her schedule in her head, Jeff’s words sinking in just far enough for comprehension.

She wasn’t sure what made her look toward the door, but when she did, Fairfax walked through it. Inexplicably, Trieka’s heart sped up, then settled into a slow, very hard rhythm that left her breathless.
He was bleary-eyed and mussed, the dark red-brown hair standing up at his crown. From the pattern of the wrinkles in his shirt, she could tell it was silk. It looked like he’d slept in it. He collected his breakfast, then sat down at a table with a group of passengers, greeting them with a weary smile.

No, Trieka wouldn’t call him cute, though the long nose gave him a bit of a sad puppy look. Not cute, but definitely not ugly. Unable to stop the thought, she wondered how accurate her dreams had been once the clothes had started coming off.

“Captain?” Jeff said.

Trieka realized he’d asked her a question. Quickly, she cast back, trying to remember what it was. Funny how she could arrange her schedule and listen to Jeff at the same time, while Fairfax’s presence seemed to crowd everything else out of her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said to hide the hesitation while her mind filled in the gaps. “I was thinking.” She considered a moment. “There are a couple of empty passenger cabins. We had some last-minute pullouts. If these people really can’t stand each other, you could separate them.”

Jeff nodded decisively. “Good. That gives me some flexibility.”

Trieka returned an equally firm nod, hiding her amazement that she’d supplied a relevant answer. Jeff returned his attention to his meal, and a comfortable silence settled over the table.

Trieka’s coffee had gone cold, and she wrinkled her nose at the tepid, bitter taste. She enjoyed strong black coffee when it was hot—cold, it needed sugar. She reached across the table for a sugar packet, looking up as she did so.

Fairfax’s gaze riveted to hers from across the room. He smiled a little, and Trieka found herself staring at his mouth. His jaw was wider than his temple. His smile broadened, showing a flash of teeth. Automatically, Trieka smiled back, then, suddenly self-conscious, looked away.

A surreptitious glance a few moments later found him involved in his breakfast and the conversation of the woman sitting next to him. Resolutely, Trieka put him out of her mind and resumed planning her day.

* * *

Fairfax was exhausted. Even five cups of black coffee couldn’t keep his eyes open. He should have tried to exchange his early breakfast shift with someone else. It had occurred to him, but it had also occurred to him that Captain Cavendish would probably eat at the early shift. For whatever reason, it had seemed worth the loss of sleep to exchange that smile with her across the room and see her look away as if it had affected her.

But he was paying for it now. Finally, after drifting into semi-unconsciousness one too many times, he excused himself from the breakfast table and returned to his room.

The berth in the small cabin barely allowed him to stretch out to his full six foot one inch frame. He lay very still on his back for a time, trying to let his mind drift. Unfortunately, the drifting kept finding a target. He opened one eye to look at the computer pad sitting on the small desk. If he reached out, he could pick it up without even stretching…

No. He’d been up all night struggling with the encrypted files he’d snagged from Derocher’s logs. It wouldn’t do him any good to struggle more with them today. The little pad just didn’t have the processing power to break the encryption. He’d have to access the shipboard computers to take advantage of their power.

He needed to get into Cavendish’s logs as well. He had to know if she carried orders from Derocher—something other than the simple delivery of a few colonists to their destination. He had to know, and not just because it would add to the pile of evidence if she did. In fact, he hoped she didn’t.

Madison had taught him a lot about ship’s computers, too. Fairfax began to run the most common configurations through his head, theorizing where the weakest points might be in the system’s security. The theoretical networks became pictures—spinning, mesmerizing webs. He wasn’t certain when they caught him, but they did, and he fell into sleep.