Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rat Pack, p2

Welcome back to Too Many Books to Count! In case you missed it, all month long we've been building a short story -- and today is the second part!

Click here to check out part one :) And come back on Friday for the cover reveal and release date for my next book, due out next year!

Rat Pack, part 2

© RAD Writing, 2015

I tried to keep my eyes on Neal, to figure out what was going on, but nothing in the room was still. My body knocked against one of the walls when the ship lurched again to the side, tools floating in open air along my new path. In the back of my mind I noted the sound of screeching hydraulics, the ramp closing, but I couldn’t see a thing beyond the blur of motion. Every time I closed my eyes I saw my husband’s face, the day I’d left him back on Earth. We’d both agreed that this was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. He’d let me come out here, for the mission of a lifetime, and as I felt the ship careen once again under the force of yet another tether and again found myself hurdling toward the wall, I doubted that I would ever look into those beautiful eyes ever again.
The next thing I knew, I was back in the helm on deck one of Apollo-Negata, my flightsuit removed and blood trickling down my forehead. I lay on my stomach, my wrists bound behind me and my ankles tied tight.
Silently, I lifted my head and turned toward the viewscreen. Two men I’d never before seen were sitting in the pilot and copilot seats, neither of them paying any attention to me. Their minds were focused on the ship, on flying us deeper into the Kuiper Belt.
Earth-Space had no knowledge of where the Hunters kept their base. That was the simple truth of the matter. We’d been looking for their base for years, thus far coming up empty. But if they were taking us deeper into the belt, then I had to assume their base was beyond it. Where else would they be taking us, now that we’d been captured? We were far from the first people the Hunters had kidnapped and attempted to force to join their ranks—but I would not be moved. I vowed it to myself, there and then. No matter what these people did to me, I would rather die than join them.
I turned the other way now, looking for any sign of Neal. He’d been acting strangely before we’d been tethered to the Hunters, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t in danger as well. I had no idea what was really going on here, and I was intent on giving my CO the benefit of the doubt. Neal was a good man. He always had been, and he always would be.
“Distress beacon activated,” Harry announced.
Immediately, I lay my head back down and closed my eyes, feigning unconsciousness.
Both Hunters left the helm and I rolled onto my side, wiggling my legs through my arms as I did so. I stood up and stared at the viewscreen as the ship came out of the Kuiper Belt and neared Planet X.
Earth-Space rarely came out of the solar system this way. We tended to avoid X and Y, the so-called useless rocks of our system. But right now, I wondered if there was another reason why we were always told to avoid X: the hub, the Hunter station we’d all supposedly been looking for. I stared long and hard as the Apollo-Negata flew automatically toward the station, nearing the docking ports. I gawked so long and hard, in fact, that I nearly missed the sound of Neal’s shout behind me.
Now brought back to reality, I searched for some way to right the situation. There must have been a way to get out of this. My hands shook, my mind spinning in a search for anything I’d learned in my training that might help me in this situation. But even protocol couldn’t save me from the fist that then wound itself in my hair.
“She’s awake,” the man said in my ear.
“Put her with the other one,” a second man replied.
By the roots of my hair, he dragged me out of the helm, through crew quarters, toward airlock three in the rear of the ship. The whole of my body shook violently, but I didn’t know what to do. Protocol mandated something in this situation, surely, but I had no idea what it might have been. In that moment, every speck of my training left my mind. I was nothing but a woman who’d been taken captive, randomly chosen by the Hunters. I wondered why they would even want someone like me, someone so feeble and afraid.
He opened the airlock doors only long enough to put me inside with Neal, who knelt beside the outer doors. He still wore his flightsuit, his arms and legs were free, but his nose looked badly broken.
I flinched when the doors closed behind me, and I dropped to my knees beside my CO. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, avoiding my gaze.
The whole of Apollo rattled quietly as we docked with the station, and my heart sank. There was no getting out of this now. I’d failed us. I hadn’t been able to do anything. As soon as I’d seen what had happened, that we were approaching the Hunters’ station, I’d lost my will to continue. Neal had put his trust in me, and I’d failed him. I’d failed both of us.
Neal remained silent but got to his feet, looking through the single window in the airlock doors, to the interior of the ship. Only two bulkhead doors now held us within his ship. All the Hunters would have to do was press a single button, and we would be sent out into the void of space. Our lives would cease, in that very moment. I didn’t doubt that they would go through with it, soon enough.
I stood beside my superior, doing my best to harness every ounce of bravery in my being. My eyes shifted through the window as more Hunters filed onto the ship through airlock two, the main docking center. Apollo was small enough that they could’ve put us inside the station if they’d wanted to—there must have been reason for them to leave us out here. Either way, I didn’t honestly think we would live long enough to find out.
One of the men caught my eye, a man I’d seen before. I recalled his face plastered on a billboard, his piercing eyes seeming to look into mine even through the ink on paper. Back then, back on Earth, he’d been a different man. He’d been in several of my classes in the Earth-Space academy, and he’d been aboard one of the cadet ships overtaken by Hunter forces. Since then, his name had appeared in more and more places. Terrorist, they called him.
They’d never released his name to the public, and I’d never known him well enough to find it out.
He approached the airlock, a look of defiance in his eyes. By that look alone, I was aware of his power over these people. He’d been promoted quickly through the ranks, if he was already in command of a task force like this. We would’ve graduated the same time, he and I, if he hadn’t been taken and turned.
The man reached out to the side of the door and I held my breath, expecting that any moment I would be thrust out into the void.
Instead, the doors slid open. He looked me straight in the eye, his power clearer now than it had ever been before. He was in control here. I had become the prisoner, the weak woman who’d lost her own mind and will the moment she’d woken up inside the helm, her hands and feet bound.
I opened my mouth to speak, and he turned his head away from us. “Find out what you can,” he said. “Then bring the woman to the commander.” He stepped away from the airlock, moving toward the exit. “Use whatever force you deem necessary. Kill the man, if you wish. Commander’s orders.”
Again my hands shook, my eyes gaping wide and turning to my commanding officer. What was I to expect, in this situation? Should I now lie down and allow myself to be beaten half to death, at the whim of a man who’d once been a part of my cadet class in Earth-Space?
“Neal?” I whispered.
He shook his head slowly, imperceptibly, and I took a slow deep breath to steel myself. This was going to happen. These men wouldn’t ignore their orders, not even for a woman. I couldn’t consider myself anything more than another mission to any of them. I had to assume that they hadn’t come to the Kuiper Belt for me. Neal would’ve been the better of us, the one they should’ve come for. He meant something, in Earth-Space. I was just another recruit, another rookie in the field, probably too early.
The next three hours were the slowest of my life so far. First I watched while my CO was stripped of his uniform, both of his kneecaps shot out from under him. They forced me to stand idly by while his blood pooled upon the metal grated baseboards of his own ship, long enough to make him too weak to stand. A medical officer saw to him long enough to keep him alive, and then they turned to me. My flightsuit had already been stripped from me, my sense of dignity gone in the hours since I’d been stolen from my life. I never allowed myself to scream, to cry out for help, or to ask them to stop. I only made a sound when I could not prevent it, when my lungs required it for the expulsion of air from the force of a blow.
In all my days, I had never seen so much blood. Both mine and Neal’s, mingled on the ground beneath me. I could only barely stand upon my feet, my knees shaken and bruised from countless falls, my face and chest bloodied beyond recognition. I felt the warmth of my own blood seeping from my wounds, getting into my eyes, pooling in my mouth. The metallic taste was the only thing that kept me lucid, prevented me from falling into dismay.
Life in Earth-Space wasn’t supposed to be like this. Coming out here was supposed to be my great adventure, the thing I’d been working toward my whole life. It wasn’t supposed to be the thing that killed me, the thing that proved I wasn’t cut out for life in the void. I’d been trained in combat, in flight, even in ship repair, but in that moment I believed nothing could prepare a person for the fact that their life was about to end. And when another metal rod was rammed into my abdomen, another bout of electricity sent coursing through my veins and knocking me back down onto my knees, I knew that I would not survive much more of this.
All the while, my eyes shifted whenever I found the chance, to the computer panels that surrounded me. Harry was there, the ship’s AI, watching all of this. Protocol mandated that he allow this to happen, that he do nothing that might go against the orders of his crew, and we could not order him to help us. Right then, I saw the absurdity of it all. In his humanoid eyes projected upon those screens, I saw his confusion, his desire to help us. But I had no idea how he might be able to do so. He needed an audio command from one of us, if he was ever going to succeed.
We were alone in this, Neal and I, and though I did my best to clear my mind and find a way, I saw no way out for either of us.
They asked us questions, things I didn’t know the answers to. I was only a lower level specialist, not privy to important information. The things I knew were the things anyone in Earth-Space could know, and I had a feeling that the Hunters had people hiding among our ranks as it was. They didn’t need to know the things I knew—we already had the same sources, the same intelligence.
The rod was removed, and I wept as I collapsed upon the ground. I didn’t bother to look up when footsteps approached through the airlock, from the station. There was only one person who would bother to come back here: the man who’d ordered this to happen.
“Report,” he said, the man who’d been in my classes, the man who’d seen my face countless times before today, the man who surely knew who I was and why I was here.
The others made no reply.
I turned my head to the side, to look into Harry’s eyes upon one of the out of the way panels, and my brows furrowed as I attempted to focus upon the words that had been written there. Harry shouldn’t have been able to do anything like that, to even attempt to communicate with me. It went against the mandate of his very creation, the coding within his own systems. This wasn’t possible.
And yet, there they were.
How long can you hold your breath?

You're right, that was mean. This isn't the ending. The ending will be revealed in the next edition of Mavguard Magazine, due out in April, 2016. 

Patience, grasshoppers. 


{Rani Divine}  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rat Pack, p1

The time has finally come, my friends. The short story we've been working on all month has been completed and sent off to Mavguard Magazine... and it's time for the reveal. 

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

And don't forget, Friday will be the big announcement/reveal for my next book, Cedwig: People in the Vines!

Rat Pack, Part 1 of 2

© RAD Writing, 2015

“Autopilot engaged,” the AI’s voice cut through Humphrey Bogart’s.
My eyes shifted across the helm of the ship toward my commanding officer, to my left. He’d brought me on this mission despite the fact that I had little to no experience in this area. Research was far from being my forte. I’d only been a part of the ISS7 crew for a year and a half, assigned to a short range ship under one of the highest ranking captains in the Earth-Space fleet. Both the Commonwealth back on Earth and Earth-Space itself claimed that they needed me out here, that they needed the best pilot to ever make it through training to assist in the mission of the seventh current International Space Station, orbiting Neptune. So here I was, despite my knowledge gaps and first-timer status. No sooner had I arrived on Seven than Neal, my CO, had adopted me under his wing. That was why I was really here. Captain Cornelius Madhran and I had hit it off from the very beginning, him the only captain in the fleet to refuse a promotion, and me the rookie on her first long-term mission.
“Come on,” Neal said as he turned off the music and got to his feet.
The two of us were alone aboard his ship, Apollo-Negata, carrying out a request for one of the scientists back on Seven. Our latest mission, as provided by Earth-Space, was to explore the Kuiper Belt. Most of our missions were contained to our own solar system, the planets nearby and the few just beyond the reach of our star, but until this point we’d mostly seen the belt as an obstacle to be avoided. Every time we’d had to pass through here, we’d either been melting the ice for long-term missions or blasting a path to the other side. One of our scientist’s aims was to change that, and so Neal and I had been here, aboard the Apollo, gathering samples from the ice. This was our third and final stop. Once we had one more round of samples from one more rock yet to be brought into the loading bay, we would head home.
Harry, the on-ship AI, had now taken over primary controls. All Neal and I needed to do was go to deck two and retrieve the rock.
I stood and left the helm, following a mere minute behind my CO. He’d already made it down to deck two, but protocol mandated I check his flightsuit and he check mine before we vent the atmosphere and open the hatch. Granted, neither of us had bothered to remove so much as our gloves since the last stop, but protocol still stood—unless, as I suspected, Neal was too peeved to go through with it. By the time I sealed off deck one and made my way down the stairwell into deck two, Neal had his hand on the button for the ramp.
From across the deck, I spotted the green light beside his helmet and nodded. Everything was in order, as far as I could see.
“Venting atmosphere,” he said as his hand tensed over the button.
Slowly, the ramp dropped open. Once the atmosphere was sufficiently emptied, it moved faster until it was fully open, enough for us to step outside and gather the final rock.
Today, we were space geologists. I almost smiled at the thought, before I remembered how annoying it had been to get the ship in this position without banging against any of the larger rocks in the belt. Most days our missions involved ferrying people to the other stations or scouting for intel against the Hunters, Earth-Space’s only enemy out here. Those were the missions I’d enjoyed the least. Despite the fact that I would’ve loved to beat the hell out of any Hunter in my path, this was still my first long-term mission. The rookie in me said it was better to hold off, at least for a while. I’d been through military training, I knew what to do in combat situations, but I wasn’t sure now was the time to put myself to the test.
My eyes shifted across the way to Neal as he ensured his tether was properly secured. He’d already lost the coin toss on our way here, making this his turn to go on a spacewalk. If he’d complained, I would’ve taken over for him. We both knew I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty for the job, and that I loved any sense of thrill I could find on a simple scientific expedition. The Kuiper Belt wasn’t exactly the most fantastical of places in the local cluster, but it was better than nothing. Besides, this mission had given me the opportunity to test out some new maneuvering ideas I’d had back in basic.
Once my own tether was in place, I walked across the open ramp to check that of my captain. I tugged on the clasp on his belt and looked up into his eyes, my brow furrowing at the look I saw. Cornelius and I had been friends since I’d begun my first tour away from Earth, but I never thought of him as more than a father figure. Now, he looked at me with fire, a look I was certain I’d never seen before—and certainly a look a father would never give his daughter.
“You’re all set,” I told him, audio confirmation that his tether was secure, for the benefit of the AI. Everything we did had to be clearly stated, so that every detail would be retained by the computer in case things went south. Out here, things could change in an instant. Space didn’t like having people in it, or maybe it was simply that people weren’t built to be in the void. Either way, this was the most dangerous way of life known to mankind. Of course, it had been the only one I was ever interested in pursuing.
I watched from the top of the ramp while Neal made his way down, trying to wipe the look in his eye from my memory. Our job here was to collect samples, nothing more. Besides, Neal was well aware that I had a husband back on Earth. All he needed to do here was find a rock approximately a meter in diameter and bring it aboard so we could collect the necessary samples. Still, my heart pounded and behind my blinking eyes I saw the fire in his gaze. Something had changed in the few minutes it’d taken us to get off the helm and prepare for the spacewalk.
Keeping my eyes on my captain as he demagnetized his boots and stepped out into open space of the Kuiper Belt, I reached up and turned off my comm. He wouldn’t be able to hear me, especially now that he was outside the ship.
My hand reached out to my right, to the computer panel beside the ramp controls, and I ordered the AI to send all communications data from the last six hours to my personal computer back on the base. Harry didn’t have the authority to so much as question my decision. The task would be completed as soon as he was able. That was the beauty of the AI’s: they had enough intelligence to know how to fly the ship through almost any situation, but they still had to follow our orders to the letter. I couldn’t imagine how anything like that was alive, the way many people on Earth claimed them to be, but they’d always held a special place in my heart. There were certain flying maneuvers that no human would ever be able to complete without help.
Once I’d finished, I turned my communicator back on. If Neal ran into anything out there, I needed to know. But I didn’t need him to know how concerned he’d made me. It wasn’t normal for him to look at anyone like that. As far as I knew, he was devout enough a catholic man to keep himself to himself.
“Tethering the rock,” his voice came chimed inside my helmet. “ETA, two minutes.”
“Copy,” I replied.
With every passing moment, the density of the room increased. Tension surrounded me, all coming from the look in my captain’s eyes and the timbre of his voice. Something was wrong, and for some reason he wasn’t telling me what it was. What’s more, he hadn’t bothered to stay aboard the ship. He’d gone out to collect samples, possibly knowing full well the added danger.
Our intelligence had told us no one would be this close to the Kuiper Belt while we were here, that this place was supposed to be as quiet as a grave. Hunters shouldn’t have been anywhere near—and they were the only thing I could guess that might give Neal pause. He’d been in space long enough to know they weren’t to be trifled with. Meeting them now would be only my third encounter, and during the last two I’d simply outran their best efforts. Apollo was good for that.
“Reel me in,” Neal ordered, his voice sending a chill down my spine. Whatever was going on, it was worse now than it had been when he’d left the ship.
“Sir?” I asked under my breath.
“Reel me in, Specialist,” he commanded. Either he was annoyed with me for taking a break on the job, or there was something he was hiding from me.
Forcing myself to keep my eyes open, I pulled on the end of the tether. The mechanism that was supposed to do this job broke on the first rock we’d brought aboard, so until we got it fixed, whoever was still on solid ground had to do the pulling.
The more I pulled, the more dread piled over me. Something was happening, something Neal had been too nervous to tell me.
“Harry,” I said, forgetting for the moment that my comm was still on. “Short range scanners.”
“Cannot comply,” he immediately replied.
“What?” My hands tensed around the tether cord.
“Unable to comply with specialist request,” he clarified, though I still felt as in the dark as ever.
“What’s going on?” Neal asked, the same resonance in his voice.
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “Something’s not right.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He was trying to hide it now, trying to mask his knowledge. “Some systems are bound to glitch this deep in the belt.”
I took a deep breath and tugged on the tether, hand over hand, until the rock and Captain came into view. Almost to my surprise, they were alone. It was only Neal and the rock, which was only barely larger than the man. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d expected to be there, but this wasn’t it. Something still wasn’t right; but, for now I was willing to stick to the task at hand.
Once Neal’s boots were magnetized to the ramp, the two of us dragged the rock all the way into the loading bay. We’d been through this twice before, and we didn’t bother to close the hatch while we worked. While Neal fastened the icy space fragment to the floor, I retrieved our gear from beside the stairs that led to deck one. Inside were all the tools we needed to drill into the ice and retrieve the scientist’s requested samples.
The sooner we finished, the sooner we could get out of here.
With the gear in my hands, I knelt beside the rock. “Ready?” I asked, glancing up toward my superior officer.
He looked back at me now with such intensity that I shifted my weight so that I squatted on my heels, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Neal had always been the sort of man who spoke and acted with fervor, but not like this. Not in way that almost proved something was wrong.
“What is it?” I asked as I set the gear on the floor. “What’s going on?” I whispered, my eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed.
Instantly, red lights flashed and the ship shook beneath us. Neal reached toward me and the mag seal on my boots came free. In the air of the void I floated across the room, my tether the only thing keeping me from leaving the ship entirely.
“Proximity alert,” Harry announced.
But it was more than that, wasn’t it? The rocks in the belt were stationary, for the most part. They weren’t what had hit us. In my training we’d been aboard a ship that was failing, learning tether protocol in the case of emergency.
Someone had just tethered to Apollo. 

To be continued Wednesday, right here on Too Many Books to Count. 


{Rani D}