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Excerpt from The Accidental Plague by Jeanne Adams

(Sample Chapter – Subject to Change; Sample chapter for The New Badge follows.)

 

 

Chapter One

Finally, a posting!

Ravi strode through the arrivals lobby, happy to be in station gravity again.  The trip had been fine, given that she’d stasis-slept through most of it.  She didn’t feel the lingering drag she sometimes had with shorter-hop space travel.  She stepped aside, out of the flow of disembarking passengers, scanning to see if there was a guide for her.

Elation caught her in a wave, as it had been doing since she’d gotten her assignment.

She was eager to get to it.  It didn’t matter that it was on Paradise Station––sarcastically called Outcast Station for its edge-of-Territory position on the space trade routes––Ravi was just happy to finally have a posting in her field.  It didn’t matter that the security and radiation arches were out of date, compared to the inner regions of traveled space, or that the station boasted only half the population of most other stations.

It only mattered that she was officially a BVax Scientist on her first posting.

Outcast meant hope to her.  The way people talked about the place, you’d think it was derelict, rather than a bright and shiny, if underpopulated, space station.  The fact that it was on the edge of nowhere, and filled with misfits, didn’t matter to Ravi.  Maybe, finally, she’d fit in.

Besides, the best finds for BVax scientists tended to be in remoter areas of space.  Most BVax-ers made one or two major finds in their careers, either in the area of cures or plagues.  The memorials for the plague-finders were nice, but you pretty much had to die to get one.  Ravi decided she’d rather have her bronze memorial at BVax HQ champion a cure rather than a killer space plague.  All she’d ever wanted was to help people.  She wanted to use her skills, honed to perfection by BVax, where they were most needed, finding cures for the diseases and contact plagues that continued to beset space-faring sentients.

“Scientist Trentham, BVax?”  The voice that hailed her was soft, but it carried over the ambient noise.

Ravi turned and looked up, then tilted her head back a bit more.  The being greeting her was a Tilden, and a male.  Tilden came from Terra’s allies, the 5-Star-Consortium.  Fivers and the Nine Planet Guild had been one of the first Others to contact Terra for an alliance after Brigitte Ramirez Banderleigh I solved the riddle of the Superium Space Plague.

Ravi touched her BVax shoulder insignia on her jacket with a rush of pride.  She was an official, posted, BVax scientist.  It was real, real, real.

Her counterpart also wore the same patch on his station uniform, the icons commemorating that first fledgling company, Banderleigh Vaccines, founded in terrifying need, and molded into BVax, one of the largest, most important and far-reaching companies in the galaxy.

Ravi nodded and said, “Trentham, I am, good Tildensir.  My journey master, are you?”

The male smiled, showing rows of serrated teeth and crinkling, narrow pupiled green eyes.  “Tildensir to you I am not,” he replied, but with humor in his tone.  “Know me as Cragrral.  I am also Scientist, BVax.”

Masking her surprise that she was being met by the top station scientist, Ravi gave the Tilden a half-bow of recognition.

“Outgoing BVax Representative, am I,” Cragrral said with evident pride.  “Bound for Himea Research Center in the Clunch sector.  A chance to work with Scientist BVax Maxim Degeurro, have I.”

Impressed, Ravi smiled and pressed her hands together in the Tilden celebrational gesture.  “I’m so pleased for you,” she said.  “Many luck coins must be in your jar, and may many more join them.”

It was Cragrral’s turn to look impressed.  “My thanks, Trentham.” Cragrral’s speech was more formal, in the Earth syntax this time.  “Are you rested or tired?”

“I’m rested.”

“Would you tour the station now or settle in and tour tomorrow?” he asked, obviously spacing the words carefully for correctness.

“If you’ll show me my quarters, I’ll change to my station suit and be glad of a tour.”

She hadn’t expected the courtesy of a tour from her BVax counterpart on-station.  Then again, she never expected courtesy anywhere in the galaxy.  She was from McKeon’s World, and most could guess her origins with a simple glance at the regular, bright blush of skin that circled her neck like a rosy tattoo, and from her thick, blood-red hair.  For nearly forty years, since ten plotters had blown up the IMEXTEX Galactic Headquarters on Earth, those from McKeon’s World had been the pariahs of the galaxy, at least the humanoid portion of it.

It didn’t matter that Ravi hadn’t been born at the time of the killings, the stigma held sway.  The fact that McKeon’s planetary government continued to champion the killing of five hundred men, women and children didn’t help.  Most McKeonites wanted it forgotten and buried so they could go about the galaxy without worrying for their lives.

This Tilden, however, didn’t seem the least concerned to be escorting a McKeonite.

“A complex place, is this Station, Paradise,” Cragrral said as he led the way through the wide station corridors with their soothing, muted colors.  Deck Six, where most of the official station-to-station vessels docked and were received, was a soft, faded cream above the midline and a dark blue shade below it.  “Color marks the decks,” he said, gesturing to the walls.  “Some can see the differences, others cannot.”

She nodded.  They rose three deck levels in an in-station personnel lift.  Cragrral was silent for the ride, but as they walked down the Deck Nine corridor, he tapped the edge of a cross corridor.  “Turn here, we do, at Spoke One, on the knife-hand––” he broke off, snapping his teeth.  “My apologies.  To the left.”

“Got it.”  She smiled, signaling no offense.  Cragrral seemed to be trying to amend his speech patterns to the human norm.  She wanted to tell him it didn’t matter to her, but she didn’t want to offend.

“The BVax facility here is large, many workers are here.  Many hydroponics technicians,” he amended.  “Only we are Scientists.”  He gave the word a title’s emphasis.  “The charge of BVax we hold here.”

It was a reminder, though in this case a proud one, that BVax was what stood between expanding space exploration and death from plagues and first-contact germs.  BVax was the first line of defense when it came to the terrors of space-borne illnesses.

They passed two station personnel who happened to be human.  Both gave her an up-and-down look and, when the male saw her neck ring, he curled his lip before the two moved on.  Ravi’s insides quivered, but she kept her back straight and her head held high.  Nothing encouraged bullies more than to let them see their contempt upset you.

Cragrral gave her a curious glance, but said nothing.  “Here, the assigned BVax quarters are.”

He pressed his clawed hand onto an identiplate and the door slid silently open.  Cragrral bowed, motioning Ravi to precede him through the door.  It was one of the first times in her adult life that someone hadn’t shoved her to the back of the line.

Of course, there wasn’t much of a line to come to Outcast Station.

“Thank you.”

“BVax welcomes you to Paradise Station,” he said, moving to a bank of electronics.  “Here to be placing your hand, please.”  When she did, he keyed her into all the systems in the suite, making her an administrator.  “Into the computer we have now logged you.  Hydroponics and stores must be done separately.  The suite here, three rooms has, plus personal lab and office spaces.  Occupying one section, am I.  You the other.  Third was created in hopes this station would be pivotal.”

His wry smile was the first indication that Cragrral was aware that Outcast Station wasn’t the prime posting in the universe.  “Go, I will, within the month, and there will be one again,” he said, as if she needed reminding that she would be the sole BVax scientist for a whole station.

“Have you had much trouble in the time you’ve been here?”

“One standard contract term have I spent, with little to distress my work.  The usual Emergency Responses, coming on a regular basis, are, but nothing much else.”  He gestured to the unoccupied rooms.  “On some odd trade routes are we, which provides interest.  But most are routine.  With some agro planets we are working, the crops to improve,” he enthused.  “This mostly is the hydroponics division’s work, however.”

Cragrral made a broad gesture, indicating the two doors leading off the main living suite and its bland sitting area.  “Choose your room, to be staying.  Generous are our quarters,” he said, smiling a toothy smile.  “Then, change to station clothes as you wished, and then to hydroponics we will go to be logging you in.”

It didn’t take her long to get into one of her crisp, new, specifically-tailored BVax station uniforms.  When she reappeared, Cragrral tested the login to the suite’s protocols and securities by having her lock the doors as they left.  The BVax quarters, like the BVax storage areas he showed her next, needed strict security.  Their offices and personal labs held medicines and components for medicines that were highly prized on the black market.  She was officially logged in and Ravi and Cragrral locked the doors again, once she’d seen the setup in storage.

“A standard location for all things, there is, in every station,” Cragrral said, pointing to the quarters, lab, quarantine area, and storage highlighted on the map of the station he’d pulled up on his handheld station communicator, or statcomm.  “For BVax, every need is met, and all equipment in best condition, is.  Even in these outer places, where older equipment is for everything else, great care is taken for BVax.”

“Plague knows no class, category or status.  Plague knows only death.”

“BVax knows no class, category or status.  BVax saves lives.”  Cragrral’s smile was wide and toothy, and would have been frightening had she not known his personality a bit already.  “Know your BVax motto, you do.”

“I knew it from the first Xeno class I took.”

Cragrral beamed.  “Same, was I.  BVax all I wanted, as a youth was.  Now, that dream I have realized.”

It was Ravi’s turn to beam.  “Same, was I,” she echoed his phrasing.  He’d dropped into a less formal and friendlier Tilden pattern.  “And even out here, it’s BVax.”

Cragrral nodded.  “Well do here,” he confided, “Other places you will go.  Example am I.  Only one term here and I am moved to a better place.  Moved will you be too.”

Somehow she doubted that a McKeonite would have the same luck, no matter how smart or how successful, but hey, she could dream, right?

Cragrral hesitated, and she could tell he wanted to speak.  Her stomach dropped.  She should be used to it.  She was about to preempt his question and just say, Yes, I’m a McKeonite, when he rushed to say, “Trentham are you, who wrote thesis on biogenetics of Carpathian worm slime as burn and wound regenerating material?”

Surprise lit her from head to foot.  “Yes.  That was my doctoral thesis for xenogenetic medicine.”

He beamed.  “Read it, I did.  Wondered things.  Ask, may I?”

“Of course.”  They spent the next forty minutes sitting in the storage room discussing xenogenetics and wound treatment, and advances from several core worlds.  Cragrral was enthusiastic about her work and kept probing as to why she hadn’t continued the research.

“Promising thoughts there were, yes.  I intend to continue the research as soon as I can,” Ravi concluded, “but I didn’t have enough samples to commercialize it at that point.”  Students had to get outside funding for major studies, even while in school.  No one had wanted to fund a McKeonite.  Once placed, however, BVax scientists could continue their research on BVax time as well as the required research they had to do on the plants, animals and other materials from the planet where they were based.  All they had to do was split every commercial application or patent on a seventy-thirty basis with the company.  Ravi would have done it even if the split were the other way.

“Work toward that, will you now?”

She nodded.  “Yes.  I’ll have to share with BVax, of course.”

“Problem, is that?” Cragrral queried, his furry brow furrowed in question.  “Most find it useful, BVax backing to have.”

Huh.  She hadn’t thought about it for a while, but Ravi realized she would be submitting the patents as a working, posted BVax scientist, rather than a McKeonite scientist.  The anonymity would give her both access and camouflage.

Something unfurled within her.  A tiny seed of hope.

“I guess being BVax would help,” she finally responded, smiling.  “For the research.”

A chime sounded through the area, and a disembodied voice spoke.  “Deck Nine Mess is now open.”

Cragrral snapped his jaws open and shut several times.  “Good.  Eat we will, then hydroponics tour we will before evening rest.  Food here, it good, is.”

“Sounds like a plan.”  Ravi steeled herself for her first encounter with a larger population of station dwellers.  She would have preferred to get a meal sent to their quarters, but she walked proudly into the Mess.  She refused to let herself be drowned with worry before there was even a drop of rain, as her mother would have said.

Dinner was, however, predictably uncomfortable.  She and Cragrral got their meals and sat.  Others already at the table took one look at her neck and hair coloration, knew her for a McKeonite, and picked up their trays and moved away.  Cragrral was visibly shocked.

“Understand this, I do not.”  He gazed after the retreating station workers.

“I do,” she said, feeling despair crowd out hunger in her belly.  “I’m from McKeon’s World.”

Cragrral looked puzzled.  “Are you poisonous?  Do you bite or emit offensive odors?  I have not noted anything noxious about you.”

His true bafflement made her laugh, and her knotted stomach relaxed just a fraction.  “Forty galactic years ago, criminals from my planet committed a severe terrorist act on the human origin world.  It was long before I was born.  My parents were about twelve, I think.”  She cut her meat and took a bite.  That nearly distracted her from Cragrral’s reaction.  He was right.  The food was good.

“Hold another’s actions against you, they do?  Two generations later?”

“Yup.”

He said something guttural and, by its tone, expletive laden, in his own tongue.  The translator was programed not to repeat expletives directly, but it evidently had no corollary in Basic Trade Tongue.  Or, he’d deliberately murmured the words so as not to offend.

“Great gifts, many humans have,” he began, spacing the words out as if he were trying to phrase his thoughts carefully.  “And flaws.  Disconcerted this one is, by that attitude.”

Ravi managed a jerky shrug.  “I’m never welcome.”  She met his gaze.  “You’re the first welcoming being I’ve met virtually anywhere in my travels.  Thanks for that, by the way.”  She managed to smile at him.

He frowned ferociously.  It took all her willpower not to recoil.  When a Tilden frowned it looked like attack mode.  She knew that and forced herself to breathe normally, but her gut said “RUN!”

“Scientist you are,” he said, punctuating the statement with a thump on the table that made both their trays and cutlery jump.  When she didn’t say anything, he growled.  “Well?  You are?”

“Yes, I am.  A good one.”

“Settled then.  Matters not where you hatched.  BVax posting says you are better than good.  Science trumps origins.”

He thumped the table again, then shot a glare around the Mess.  He sought out those who’d moved from their table and showed his teeth.  “Scientist trumps birth,” he growled again, and his resonant voice carried throughout the room.

Embarrassment flooded through her but she’d learned that if you ducked your head and acted embarrassed, the bullies and carrionbirds circled in to feed.  So she held her head up, focused on Cragrral and continued to eat.

When most people in the room had stopped talking to look at the pair of them, he said it again.  “Scientist trumps planet, birth, age, size, shape.  Scientist BVax is your safety.  Never forget it.”

Several people nodded and most of the aliens in the Mess looked just as baffled at Cragrral’s words as Cragrral had at the negative treatment Ravi had experienced.  When Cragrral turned back to his food, the conversations around the Mess gradually resumed.

“Thank you, I guess,” Ravi finally said.  “Maybe they’ll stay healthy just so they don’t ever have to trust their lives to a McKeonite.”

“Stupidity.  BVax hires no bad scientists.  BVax reputation, it does, depend upon skill.”  He pointed his claw her way.  “Skilled are you?”

“Yes.”  People seldom believed her when she said she’d graduated with her first advanced degree in Xenobiology at fourteen.  Her second degree in galactic biochemistry and biogenetics had come a mere two years later.  School had been her haven, but even with seven advanced degrees, two at the highest doctoral level, the only jobs she’d been able to get before this posting were dishwashing, cleaning crime scenes and construction work.

If the powers-that-be on McKeon had just let the memory of the IMEXTREX bombing die, it wouldn’t be so bad.  Sure, there would still be those who remembered, but forty years later, who would care?  No, it was McKeon’s insistence that the bombers were heroes, and the constant celebrations and remembrances of the event, which drew the galaxy’s ire.

“Science, let us discuss,” Cragrral demanded.  “Calm, I must find.”

Ravi was surprised and warmed by his defense.  “Have you heard about the latest find on Valoo Seth?  It’s out by Station XcLatttretttrat.  They found a moss-like growth on one of the moons.  BVax Central thinks it might be a potential new vaccine base material.”  She’d brought all the latest updates from BVax Central with her.  She’d been devouring them in every spare moment since she’d gotten the posting.

Cragrral lit up.  “Heard of this, I have not.  Tell of the science!”

They spent the rest of the meal in discussion of proficiency of vaccine bases and rare disease vectors.  As they returned their trays and recycled their dinner packaging, they continued the discussion.  Ravi was so fired up to be discussing her favorite topics, she just said an absent “excuse me” when she bumped someone as they were about to exit the Mess.

“McKeonite scum,” the man growled, rounding on her.  “We don’t tolerate your kind, ring-neck.”

Before she could formulate a response, Cragrral’s long arm shot out and grabbed the man’s collar.  He bent the man nearly in half, pressing his face into the BVax emblem on Ravi’s black cargo pants.

“SCIENTIST FIRST,” he bellowed, and everything in the Mess, once again, stopped.  Tilden were famous for their vocal abilities, and Cragrral’s echoing statement bounced back from the walls like he’d shouted it in a canyon.  “BVAX HAS NO PLANET OF ORIGIN.”

“True, and we trust that if BVax has vetted our station scientist, he, she or it, will be the best in their field and keep us healthy.”

The mellow voice was just as carrying, though not nearly as sonorous and loud.  The man who spoke was of middling height, but was broad and muscular.  So muscular that his biceps and chest strained the regulation-issue uniform he wore.  The Federated Colonies Chief Station Marshal placed his hand on Cragrral’s taut arm, and squeezed once before he turned to Ravi.

“Was this station citizen bothering you, ma’am?”

“Racial slurs, this statcit spouted,” Cragrral stated, calming somewhat in the face of law enforcement.  “Objectionable!  Discord it sows.  Unacceptable on station.  More egregious to so speak to Scientist, BVax, Trentham.”  Implied in his statement was that if BVax had passed her, and she had enough credentialing and skill to be a BVax scientist, she was above any corruption or contempt.

“Yes, he was rude.  I’d as soon let it pass.”  She cut a sharp glance at the marshal as her stomach churned with stress, threatening to bring up the dinner she’d just eaten.

The marshal thrust out a huge hand, and she forced herself not to recoil.  It took her two heartbeats to realize he meant to shake her hand in the Earth-style custom of greeting.  She gingerly placed her hand in his, praying he wouldn’t crush or damage it.  She also wondered when he was going to demand Cragrral let go of the mechtech still pressed against the rank patch on her trousers.

The marshal shook her hand with brisk welcome.  “Welcome to Paradise Station, BVax Scientist Trentham.  I’m Chief Station Marshal Braddon Carruthers.  Friends call me Brad.  Do you sing?”

The non sequiter shocked her speechless.

Cragrral chuckled, and the warm sound was incongruous in the tense standoff.  “Miss me, you will, Swordsman?”

“Damn straight.  Hard to get anyone to sing with me,” Carruthers replied without taking his eyes off Ravi.  “Or spar with me either.  So?  Do you?”

“Yes,” Ravi replied, still confused, still worrying about the mechtech.  “Mezzo soprano.”

A smile blossomed over Marshal Carruthers’s face.  “Couldn’t be better.  Cragrral,” he drawled, “you might want to let that guy breathe.”

“Ah.” Cragrral released the hapless bigot, and the man stumbled back, rubbing his throat.  Fury blurred his features to true hatred as he focused on the marshal.

“Pressing charges,” he gasped, gripping his abused throat.  “Assault.  Damn McK––”

Before he could articulate “McKeonite,” Cragrral’s hand shot out again.

The marshal blocked it, which impressed Ravi no end.  The marshal was far stronger than he looked if he could block a Tilden.

“Enough, Cragrral.”  Carruthers cocked his head toward the mechtech.  “Buddy, you’ve got a problem.  You’re a bigot and a trouble-maker.  That don’t work too well on stations anywhere in the galaxy.  I’m not partial to it on my station.”

Carruthers was right about that.  If a station employee got a rep for being bigoted, he or she could lose status, and that meant getting worse and worse postings.

Then again, Outcast Station was pretty much a last-chance kind of place, from what Ravi had been able to find out.

Carruthers crowded in on the man and tugged on his uniform, straightening out the name and rank tab on his chest.  “MechTech Rankin, report to your posting or quarters.  The maintenance supervisor will hear about your conduct.”

“My conduct?” the man blustered  “Mine?  What about his?”

The marshal grinned, and Ravi suppressed a shiver.  She wouldn’t want that look turned on her.  It wasn’t as vicious as the Tilden’s bared fangs, but it held plenty of malice.  She reminded herself that the sweet and gentle type seldom ended up in places like Outcast Station.

“Whose conduct?  Cragrral’s?  A respected doctor who happens to be our BVax Scientist?  Dr. Cragrral of BVax, would you like to lodge a complaint?  I do believe a complaint of bigotry from BVax would be taken very seriously.”  The marshal kept the man pinned to the wall with his gaze, and the mechtech’s eyes flitted from Brad to Cragrral with equal unease.

“You can’t do that,” he whined, finally.  “I know my rights.”

“Rights?”  Cragrral hissed the word.  “Rights you have not to be accosting any station personnel with slurs.  Against all policy, it is.”

Ravi touched Cragrral’s arm.  When the Tilden looked down at her, she gave a minute shake of her head.

“I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.”

Cragrral’s glare softened as he looked her way, then, with a seeming effort, he nodded just as minutely.  He turned back.

“So,” he began, and in a lightning fast move, his head shot forward and into the maintenance bigot’s face.  The move was so swift and menacing that the man shouted and cowered back against the corridor wall.  Standing where she was, Ravi could see that all Cragrral’s teeth were showing.  “A misunderstanding, yes.  Just so this humanoid realizes that BVax Scientist to be respected, is.  No higher calling than BVax.  Save even your bigoted life, one day.”

Cragrral pointed a clawed hand at the mechtech’s chest, and the man tried to get even farther away, despite the marshal’s restraining hand.  Cragrral poked him, with a final word, “Remember.”

When the Tilden shot back up to his full height, the marshal drawled, “I think you can go now,” as he waved a hand at the mechtech, shooing him away.

The man scuttled down the corridor, but not before he shot a last, hate-filled look at Ravi and Cragrral.

Great.  Just great.

The marshal shook his head as he watched the man’s retreat.  Brad then pulled out his statcomm.  “Here are my commcodes,” he said, tapping his statcomm to hers, where it rested in its case on her sleeve.  “Emergency code is Sigma91 on any station comm public or personal.  As BVax, you have quarantine and shutdown authority, so we’ll need to get you up on Command Level, which is Deck Fourteen/purple, by the way, and get you registered.”  He smiled at her.  “Welcome to Paradise.”

Emboldened, she said, “I’ve heard it called Outcast Station more than I’ve heard its real name.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because we’re a long way from anywhere, which does make us the outer rim of that outcast net.  May the Fisherman Bless us all,” he added, making the sign of the fish.

Ravi was surprised.  She’d never expected to find one of the Emmanuels on an outlying space station.  “I’m okay with Outcast,” Carruthers continued with another grin.  “It works for a lot of us.”

“Yes, work for us, it does,” Cragrral agreed, his demeanor returning to amused calm.  “Singing we must be, soon, yes, Brad?”

“Absolutely, Cragrral.”

“Then goodbye for now, I bid you.  To hydroponics we must be going.”

The marshal tipped an invisible hat, which seemed odd on the station, where no one wore hats, and bid them goodnight.

“Sing do you, truly?” Cragrral said, his tone a bit anxious as they continued on their way.  “Mezzo…”  He seemed unfamiliar with the term.

“A medium soprano.  Higher than a contralto, lower than a true soprano.  Highest note for me is here,” Ravi pitched her voice to an A, two above middle C.

“Ahhh.”  The Tilden smiled.  “Is good.  Is good.  Come.”  He gestured Ravi ahead of him once more, pressing his palm to the identiplate in the nondescript wall.  When the door opened, he entered a sequence of letters and numbers and gestured again.  “Hand, please to be presenting.”

Ravi pressed her hand and felt the scan and the prick of the DNA match.  Within seconds it beeped green.  “Now, access code you would use, please, to enter.”

She entered a number sequence she knew she’d remember as a code, and once again the scan beeped green.

“Excellent.  Yes.  Now enter the airlock, we do.  Scanned for microbes, we are.”  The lights strobed over them with a subtle green glow.  Cleared, they entered an observation chamber.

“Chrysanthemums,” Ravi said with a smile.  Beyond the plasglass were row upon row of trays with every color of Chrysanthemum Morifolium v. Celebration One.  The cheery faces and spicy scent of the specially hybridized flowers never failed to make Ravi smile.  The plant wasn’t much changed from its Earth origins.

The same couldn’t be said of some of the other plants.  The corners of the hydro-tank were veritable forests of modified bamboo––Chamaedorea Seifrizii v. PatelHowe––which towered over the racks and trays of Sythian ru-weed and paragrass arranged throughout the room.  A green, metallic drone harvested smaller stalks of bamboo, while another drone stripped dried or yellowed leaves from the topmost areas of the bamboo forest.

The standard bacca plants, Nicotiana v. RamaGreen, used throughout human space in the development of vaccines and stimulants, practically glowed with health in their multi-level rows.

Floor to ceiling growing structures with the mutated, variegated climber, Epipremnum aureum v. BetelgeuseOne, affectionately known as Beetlejuice Ivy, were being sprayed with a mist that hazed the air around them.  K-Zu847, the variant of one of Earth’s most invasive plants, kudzu, draped in lush mounds over various structures and shapes throughout the growing chamber.

In the center, a squat, broad k’urpurt tank swarmed with the spore-heavy, bulbous presence of this tank’s main air stabilizer, K’urpurt Genesis v. RogueOne.  That plant was one of mankind’s keys to distance space flight and colonization.  As an ogygenator, it had no equal.  It had been found on the derelict ship that entered Earth’s system, the one which had allowed Terrans to reverse engineer faster-than-light star drives.

Of course, that ship had originated Earth’s first space plague too.

“The hydro-engineers, responsible for all this, are.”  Cragrral broke into Ravi’s categorizing of the plants.  “We, however, have access to all, research to be doing at our desire.  Often too, plants are coming from agro worlds.  Some promising are, for medicines.”  He pointed at a mass of shiny, white-stalked plants with bean-like pods hanging in profusion from the top of the stalks like a maypole.  “These, found were, on Rhessau.  Curing some non-nerve based paralysis, it is.”

“Fascinating!” Ravi exclaimed as Cragrral explained the distillation of the pressed oil from the pods and its use as a curative.

While many of the plants were Earth-based, there were others that originated in the 9 Planet Guild system, and others from other allied regions or worlds.  There were Uhru plants aplenty around the edges of the room, probably for BVax use for experimentation on station.  The planet below them––also known as Paradise––held its own biodomes, which grew Uhru and other mediums for vaccine trial and production.

“Is there prepared testing medium in stores?”  Ravi realized they’d gotten so engrossed in the discussion of biomarkers and slimes before dinner that she’d forgotten to ask.

“Yes, large stores, there are.”  Cragrral smiled.  “Well prepared, this station is, for any contingency.”

“Good.  That’s good.”  Standing amongst the plants, Ravi felt her muscles unclench, and let her body relax.  Somehow, despite the bigot and others like him, she would make Outcast Station work for her.  She would make her mark.

“The singing,” Cragrral said.  “We must talk of this.”

Before she could reply there was a pounding on the glass.  A hydrotech waved at them, frantically motioning them toward the hydro command center.

At the same moment, both of their statcomms went red and shrilled an alert.

“BVAX SENIOR SCIENCE PERSONNEL TO AIRLOCK 35, FIRST WAITING AREA, DECK SIX B.  LOCKDOWN PROCEDURE Q.”

Singing would have to wait.

~

Excerpt from The New Badge by Nancy Northcott

(Sample chapter subject to change)

 

 

Chapter One

Paradise Station, my ass. Seated in the one chair in his tiny cabin, Federated Colonies Deputy Marshal Hank Tremaine set his jaw as the arrival announcement droned on.  They should call the place what it really is, Outcast Station, where careers go to die.

Not his, though. Not if he could help it.

He would keep his nose clean—especially when it came crossing well-connected idiots—and survive this exile and the blot on his record that came with it. Then he could get a better posting, one closer to Earth and less…tainted.

A faint shudder through the ship’s structure signaled the docking array clamping on. The announcement ended.  The cabin lights blinked, the sign to get moving. Hank grabbed his duffel and joined the trickle of people heading for the exit portal.

There weren’t many of those.  Naturally, since most people didn’t want to settle in the armpit of nowhere. Outcast Station, encompassing the orbital station and the sparsely settled world below it, didn’t have a lot to offer anyone who wasn’t desperate. Or compelled.

Except for extreme sports enthusiasts and hikers his briefing packet claimed were drawn to either the steep volcanic mountains or the deep oceans and fjords filled with unique life forms. But the cost of interstellar travel meant only the seriously dedicated and seriously well-off could make the journey.

Still, there were enough passengers to create a logjam at the exit hatch. His khaki and brown uniform set him apart from the rest of the crowd, who all wore some combination of civilian pants, boots, jackets, and shirts.

After five minutes of mostly polite jostling, he followed a twenty-something guy with a big backpack through the hatch and into the station’s docking bay.

The station air had a tang to it, almost…piney.  Must be from the hydroponic garden that was part of the air-scrubbing system.

The docking bay doors were open, leading to a corridor painted in cream and blue that looked surprisingly fresh for a place so few people cared to visit. The corridor ended in a small lobby with the Federated Colonies seal, twenty-two stars encircling a stylized drawing of the Earth, on the wall.  With a handful of other people, Hank veered left, into the hallway marked “FC Employees.”  The one on the right was for immigrants, residents, and the smattering of tourists.

One by one, they walked through an archway at the end of the hall. As each person stepped in, flashing blue light signaled the emission of a decontaminating radiation burst calibrated to each individual’s species and the diseases each one might carry.

Beyond the archway lay the Customs Department processing station.  Aside from the bored-looking guard at a desk to one side, the room held only a dozen waist-high counter units of gray metal.  Between them were plastiglass gates. Each countertop held a foot-square monitor with a retinal scan lens embedded in the upper left corner, and each unit’s base had an ID-sized slot in the counter below a glass scan plate.

Hank slid the plastic card encoded with his ID and his orders into the nearest slot.  The machine whirred, hummed, and clicked.  Frowning, he glanced at the other people by the machines.  Everybody seemed to be getting that, so no cause for alarm.

A metallic voice came out of the speaker above the slot. “Welcome, Deputy Marshal Henry Davidson Tremaine.  Please place your right palm on the scanner in front of you and bring your left eye to the blue light.”

Hank complied.  A tiny needle pricked his right middle finger, drawing a bead of blood for DNA analysis.

More whirring, clicking, and humming ensued.  Geez.  Yeah, this was the ass end of nowhere, but it was also the nearest jump point to the Drachan Empire.  You’d think they’d have more up-to-date equipment.

“Identity verified,” the voice announced.  “Access authorization encoded. Proceed through the gate at your left.”

Step One down.  He now had clearance to go wherever he needed to on the station or the planet.  Marshals Service local authorizations would be added at HQ.

The barrier to his left slid aside, and the machine popped out his card. Hank tugged it free, grabbed his duffel, and strode through the barrier and the swinging door behind it.

The doorway opened onto a lobby about twenty feet square with a glass wall and doors fronting the station hub beyond.  Half a dozen people, some in rough pants, boots, and jackets and others in finer fabrics that screamed city, stood around the area.  They looked up when he entered. His gaze zeroed in on the petite, dark-haired woman in regulation marshal uniform, khaki slacks tucked into brown boots and a dark brown jacket worn over a tan shirt.  Her badge gleamed on the jacket’s left chest with a name bar under it.

“Tremaine?” she said as he walked up to her.  When he nodded, she stuck out her hand.  “Barnet.  You can call me Dree.  Welcome to Paradise Station.”

“I’m Hank. Thanks.”  He couldn’t keep a dry note out of his voice, and she grinned, brightening her medium brown complexion, as they shook hands.

“Yeah,” she said.  “We don’t really call it Paradise, but it’s the official name for the official greeting.  Is that all your stuff?”

“Couple of crates in the cargo hold.”

“Those’ll be shipped down to the barracks later, with the supplies.  Meanwhile,  I’ll take you dirtside so you can report in.”

He followed her into the hub, where a round garden of stubby trees and bushes in the center softened the blue-and-cream surroundings.  Glass-fronted shops, restaurants, and bars lined the circular space.  Their neon signs, in a variety of bright colors, added a cheerful note despite the clashing shades.

People of various ethnic groups walked through the area along with a couple of tawny-furred, feline Ringels, and tall, thin, cream-furred Tildens, another cat-like species.  The empty-handed ones walked fast, obviously with someplace to be, and the ones with baggage strolled along, rubbernecking.

Skirting pedestrians, a pair of four-foot, reptilian Pertards in station coveralls drove a wheeled cart out of a service corridor and up to door marked “Delivery” next to a bar.

There were no scorpioid Drachans walking on four of their eight limbs, though.  The chance to learn something about that reclusive species was one of the few pluses to this assignment.

“I understand you get a lot of sports enthusiasts here,” he said. “Any tourists?”

“Not many just to see the sights. Not much to see that would be worth the cost of getting here. Mostly we get scientists studying something here or in transit to Dracha and students on fellowships. And, as you said, the sports enthusiasts—hang-gliders, hikers, and tournament-level fishermen looking to land something exotic.”

Hank nodded.  The volcanic mountains on the planet below, also called Paradise Station, hadn’t been worn down like the older ranges on Earth, so the terrain was steep, rocky, and inhospitable. “No one faint of heart would consider this a playground.”

“Nope. Our landscape’s a magnet to those who like to test both their skills and their nerve.  With development centered on the plateaus or the coastline and around the fjords that slash through the mountain ranges, and most of that limited to the temperate zone around the equator, we have plenty of backcountry, or outback, as we call it, to explore.”

Dree led him around a corner to a plain door.  A swipe of her ID opened it, and they walked down a utilitarian, off-white hallway. They entered a service elevator with plain, gunmetal doors and went down ten levels. 

When they exited, Dree led the way into another docking bay. A bar-shaped light above the airlock hatch read “Airlock engaged.”  On either side of the sign, round lights glowed red, indicating that the airlock leading to the ship was secured.

“This is the marshals service’s dedicated docking bay,” his guide informed him. She swiped her card in the reader beside it. “It’s near the detention area, and our on-station office controls access.  We can use the others, of course, but we have to get clearance through the station manager’s office.”

“My packet said we still have to get launch and docking clearance from Traffic Control.”

“Right.” She flashed him an appraising look.  “So you read the packet.  Not everyone does.”

Hank shrugged.  “Forewarned, and all that.”

The twin lights over the door turned green. Tapping the control panel, Dree said, “Yeah.  Not everyone gets that, though.”

Especially here, he’d bet. The people who usually landed here were sloppy or defeated, mostly past giving a fuck. Dree seemed to be on her game, though. So what was she doing here?

The door slid aside, revealing a plain, gray airlock. Hank followed his companion through it and into a battered, twelve-seat runabout that had been current in the more accessible systems 15 years earlier. 

“Stow your gear in any overhead,” she said, dropping into one of the two pilot seats.  “You know how to fly one of these?”

“Yeah, but nothing bigger.”  Hank shoved his duffel into the nearest compartment and took the seat beside her.

“Most of us don’t,” she answered absently, her gaze on the instrument panel and the switches she was flipping. 

Hank tracked her sequence.  She was proceeding in the right order, checking each gauge before she activated the next system, so he relaxed in his seat.

As he strapped in, she threw him a grin.  “Yes, you can trust me with your life.”

“What can I say?  You caught me.” At least she didn’t seem pissed about it.

Dree studied him for a moment. “On Outcast Station, a little paranoia is a good thing.”

Before he could ask what that meant, she turned back to her board.  “Ready?”

“Sure.”  As much as he’d ever be.  Maybe she didn’t want to say too much—paranoia being a good thing and all—to somebody she didn’t know whether she could trust.

Dree got launch clearance and and a heading, but Hank only half heard her.  Her warning echoed in his brain. This assignment just kept getting better and better.

#

At the spaceport dirtside, they traded the shuttle for a battered, four-seater hovercar with the Federated Marshals Service logo on its hood. The glass windshield was dusty and marked by a couple of small nicks. “Believe it or not,” Dree said, “this is one of the nicer cars.”

“If you say so.”

An old-style chain link fence reinforced by an energy barrier surrounded the base.  She headed for a gate with a sentry hut beside it, and the guard waved them through.  Ahead sprawled the town of Micah’s Junction, all weathered, one-story or two-story, adobe-like buildings, dingy brown or dingy gray except for the occasional one with a green or yellow or blue façade, all of them faded.

At least the steep, volcanic mountains that encircled the town on three sides were a crazy-quilt of various green shades from trees bearing summer foliage. On the fourth side would be the ocean, but he couldn’t see it from here.

“Office is at the end of this street,” Dree said. “Learning your way around won’t be hard. Every new badge gets two days to settle in.  By the second evening, you’ll—”

A tall, dark-skinned man and a lanky, pale woman, both in spacers’ coveralls, ran from a doorway ahead on the left and looked wildly around.  Their gazes locked on the marshals’ hovercar, and they hurried forward, waving. Behind them, a man flew backwards from the doorway into the street.  Another man dived out and landed on top of him.

Dree pulled over, killed the engine, and hit her red flashers. The sounds of shouting and crashes came from the doorway.

“Shit,” she muttered, jumping out of the car. Hank leaped out his side.

 “Are you hurt?” she asked the people who’d flagged them down.

The pair shook their heads, and the man said, “There’s a big fight.  Gonna need more’n the two of you.”

That was kind of obvious, but the duo were trying to help.

Racing toward the sidewalk brawlers, Dree called back to Hank, “You’re not read in.  Stay here.”

When she was going to wade into the fight? Judging by the noise, it was a serious brawl.

Standing back galled him, but she was right.  Until the chief deputy marshal logged Hank’s orders, thus “reading him in” to the post, and authorized charging his weapons, he had no official standing here.

He couldn’t help following her, though.  Sounded like they needed a riot squad inside.

Dree snatched something off her belt. A flick of her wrist extended the stubby cylinder two feet, and Hank relaxed marginally, recognizing it.  She tapped the shockstick against the thigh of the guy on top.  He yelped, clutched his thigh, and rolled clear.

“Freeze,” Dree snapped. “Both of you.”

Hank knelt and helped her restrain the men’s hands, linking them together back to back. “I got this,” he told her with a nod at the doorway. “Go.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and ran into the loud bar. A moment later, the shrill blast of a whistle sounded inside.

A whistle? Wha—Oh, right.  Some of the species that passed through here couldn’t tolerate the mild-to-humans jolt of a shockstick.

Peering inside, he couldn’t see her. Had she called backup? If not, all she had was him.

Hank scowled.  Official or not, he could at least watch her back. He pulled his personal comm unit out of his jacket pocket and snapped a photo of the two men on the ground.  “Stay here, or this goes to your bosses and we add charges of fleeing the scene.”

He stepped into the bar.  A few feet inside, Dree exchanged blows with a four-foot, rotund humanoid that was clearly stronger than it looked.

The room was littered with overturned chairs and tables, and spilled food and drinks glazed the floor. Five people were down, not moving. They’d be lucky if no one trampled them.

A heavyset woman staggered backward into him.  When he reached to steady her, she swung a haymaker at him.

Hank ducked, caught her swinging arm, and used her momentum to spin her face-first into the wall.  “Marshals service,” he shouted in her ear, kicking her feet apart.  “Freeze.”

“Bastard,” she muttered.  He restrained her hands, patted her down, and ordered, “Sit here and don’t move. Except to dodge bodies.”

The crack of breaking wood came from his right.  He swung toward it. A burly, blue-skinned humanoid grabbed the leg of a smashed chair, straightened, and zeroed in on Dree. Engaged with her opponent, she had her back to the new threat.

“Fuck it,” Hank muttered.  Snatching the shockstick off his belt and snapping it out, he lunged forward. Even with no charge, it could serve as a baton.  He grabbed Chair Leg Guy by his upraised arm and whacked the baton against the back of his knee.  The leg crumpled. Turning as he fell, the guy shot a punch toward Hank’s stomach. Hank parried it to the outside and kneed the guy in his ample gut.

The man collapsed but started to push himself up.

Hank dropped a knee onto his back and grabbed his arms.  The guy bucked but couldn’t throw him off, so he was enough like a Terran for standard restraint methods to work. For good measure, Hank cuffed the guy’s ankles as well as his wrists.

“Thanks,” Dree said.  “But—”

“Watch it.” Hank pulled her aside as a pair of brawlers staggered toward her. If backup was coming, they were taking their sweet time about it. “Let’s get this settled.”

“But you shouldn’t be here.” She spoke loudly, and he heard her despite the thuds of flesh on flesh and falling bodies and the sharp cracks of breaking furniture.

He shrugged.  “I’m in it now anyway.  Pick a pair, and let’s get this done.”

Procedure dictated that two marshals breaking up a brawl work together to take down the combatants one pair or clump at a time. Doing so, Hank and Dree had a dozen pairs of combatants restrained and down in a few minutes.

A group near the bar, though, were still at it.

Over there, somebody yelped. A scowling brunette stood behind the wooden counter with an empty pitcher in each hand.  The small group in front of her were wet.  Exchanging a glance, Hank and Dree hurried around debris, spills and bodies on the floor to help her.

“You don’t bust up my place,” the woman announced. Her clear voice carried over the muttering around the room. She set the right-hand pitcher down behind the bar.  When her hand rose again, it held a machete, and the look in her eye said she wouldn’t hesitate to use it.

Damn, but she had guts.

Sputtering, the wet brawlers glared at her.  One big guy stepped forward.

“Stand down,” Dree called, her voice don’t-push-it hard.

The guy hesitated, and the two marshals took stances in front of the bar, confronting the indignant, wet group.  Five of them, all human except for one tall, blue-skinned humanoid.

“Stand down,” Hank and Dree ordered together.

From the doorway came the shrill blasts of numerous whistles. Marshals in brown, batons deployed, flooded into the room. Everyone turned to look, and groaned curses came from various people still on their feet.

“Cavalry’s here.”  Hank grinned at Dree.

She shook her head. “I appreciate the backup, Hank.  I’m grateful not to have my head bashed in, but you shouldn’t have done it.”

“I’m glad I was here to have your back.” Diving in before he was authorized was an infraction, yeah, but a minor one when it was done to save a comrade under attack.

“No. You don’t understand.”  Her eyes grim, she touched his arm briefly.  “I mean you really should not have done that.”

The flood of marshals into the room and the routine of dealing with prisoners stopped him from asking her what she meant. What the hell was wrong with backing up an outnumbered comrade?