Excerpt from Tales of the Acheron Book 1: Prodigal

Standard

Sandi worked the balky interface of the old shuttle expertly, hanging on for dear life and daring it to buck her off. The air was thick and hot and it buffeted the lander spitefully, as if some vengeful god knew why they were coming, but she only felt the vibration distantly, like it was happening to someone else.
Hold together, girl. She gave the controls a wispy caress with the slightest touch of her thoughts and the character of the turbulence changed in a way that no one else in the bird would have noticed, with the grain instead of against it. Just a little further…
“Jeez, Hollande, I thought you said you could fly this thing.”
The words, and the annoying, nasal whine that accompanied them, brought her out of the interface for a moment. She glanced beside her, careful to move just her eyes—she didn’t like the way the interface cables tugged at the sockets in her temples when she turned her head.
The round-faced, pudgy older man stuffed into the copilot’s seat glared at her with dour disapproval. His brown jacket was worn glossy in spots along the sleeves, where his tactical vest had polished it over years of use. The butt of the old but serviceable handgun sticking up from the shoulder holster on that vest reminded her who she was dealing with, and she stopped herself from snapping out the first response that had come to her lips.
“Captain, if you have anyone else with the jacks and the experience to land this brick with wings in this soup,” Sandrine Hollande said quietly, almost a murmur, “then they’re certainly welcome to try.”
Deruda grumbled under his breath, but didn’t respond. She wrestled down the grin that tried to fight its way onto her face. He was an asshole, but he was also her boss, and she needed this job.
She submerged again into the interface, absorbing the combination of the feeds from the exterior cameras, the lidar and radar and the instruments in a way that defied description to anyone who lacked the sockets. It wasn’t like having extra senses in that she didn’t actively perceive each bit of input; she just knew, the same way she knew where her own body was and where her next step would land. The shuttle, obsolete pile of junk though it might be, was her body, and guiding it down to the roughly-graded gravel landing field in the utter darkness of the storm-shrouded night was no different than surfing a Pacific wave on the California coast.
The jolt of the landing gear settling into their housings brought her back out of the interface and she began unstrapping her harness with rote motions while she powered back the acceleration couch. Deruda was still trying to pry his bulk out of his seat when she ducked out of the cockpit and through the short passage into the cargo hold. The “Captain” was as much of a fat piece of shit as the cargo bird and it seemed ludicrous to grant him the title, but it was due him as the master of a starship. The fact that the starship was a ragged, patched-together freighter a half a century old didn’t change that.
“Trucks are already out there, Ms. Hollande,” Frankie said, mashing the button to open the cargo doors.
“You can just call me Sandi,” she reminded him again, but the comment was lost in the grinding rattle of the ancient motors as the plastrons in the shuttle’s belly swung slowly open.
She shook her head. Frankie was an old-timer, his face lined and craggy and weathered from a life lived far enough away from the Commonwealth core systems that anti-aging treatments were unheard of. His manners were as old as his appearance, and she wondered how the hell he’d wound up working for La Sombra.
Then again, she thought ruefully, how the hell did I wind up working for them?
There was a flare of headlights that lit up the rainy darkness outside the cargo doors and the honk of a horn that signaled the crews outside were ready for the load. Frankie yanked downward on the lever set into the bulky metal gantry surrounding the cargo elevator and it began lowering with a shudder that vibrated through the shuttle’s hull and forced Sandi to catch her balance on the bulkhead.
“Damn it, Frankie!” Deruda stalked up behind the slender, long-limbed older man, his perpetual frown deepening. He’d stopped by the utility locker and was carrying a light carbine tucked under his arm and a spare pistol in the other hand. “I’ve told you a million times to wait until I make sure it’s our people before you drop the cargo!”
“Aye, Captain,” Frankie answered cheerfully. With an agility that was impressive for his age, the cargo-handler hopped out onto one of the plastic crates on the lowering freight elevator and grabbed a cable for support. “I’ll check on ‘em and if it’s not our crew, I’ll tell ‘em to go back home.”
Deruda looked like he wanted to yell at the man again, but Frankie’s Cheshire-cat grin disappeared along with the pallets of cargo and the Captain just growled deep in his throat.
“Come on, Hollande,” he snapped at Sandi, waving for her to follow as he headed for the ladder that had extended downward along with the belly doors.
“Come on where?” She wondered, following him. “Can’t they unload it by themselves?”
A cold, damp blast of rain-sodden wind hit her as she clambered down behind the rotund man, dropping to the ground with a crunch of her boots on the gravel. She fastened her flight jacket up the front, her fingers automatically tracing the blank spots where her rank and the Commonwealth Space Fleet patch used to be.
The crew of a half-dozen locals were already hand-loading the crates into the backs of the two cargo trucks they’d brought, alcohol-fueled antiques probably slapped together from spare parts. An armored car of some sort was parked facing the trucks and the interplay of the headlights threw ominous shadows against the light grey of the belly plastrons and hid the men’s faces from her view.
“We’re escorting this load into town,” Deruda answered her question, slipping a knit cap on over his unruly, red mane. “I need to have a talk with the local crew boss.”
“Why do I have to come?” Sandi objected, following him around to the passenger door of the armored car. He rounded on her with narrowed eyes.
“Because I said so,” he told her flatly. “And because there might be trouble.”
He shoved the pistol he’d taken out of the utility locker at her and she took it without thinking, automatically running through a safety check. It was loaded, a round chambered, safety on.
“You know I’m a pilot, right?” She asked him, gesturing at the pistol with her off-hand but keeping it pointed at the ground. “Not a Marine.”
“You’re whatever we need you to be,” he snapped. He jerked a thumb at the rear truck. “You’re riding back there.”
Sandi looked at the pistol, then at Deruda’s back as the man squeezed himself into the cab of the armored car, and very carefully did not point it at him. Though it made a nice fantasy… She hissed out a breath and headed back to the truck.

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