Empire of Dust

Hellraiser

Jacey Bedford is a British writer, published by DAW in the USA. Empire of Dust, a Psi-Tech novel, came out in November 2014. Crossways, its sequel, follows in August 2015. Winterwood, a historical fantasy, is due in February 2016. There's a third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, in the pipeline, and also a sequel to Winterwood called Silverwolf.

Her short stories have been published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines, and some have been translated into an odd assortment of languages including Estonian, Galician and Polish. She's a great advocate of critique groups and is one of the organisers of the Milford SF Writers' Conference, an intensive peer-to-peer week of critique and discussion held every September in North Wales. (http://www.milfordSF.co.uk)

She lives in an old stone house in a tiny village on the edge of the Pennine Hills, south of Huddersfield, with her songwriter husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd (a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany). She used to have children, but now she has adults. She's been a librarian, a postmistress, a rag-doll maker and a folk singer with the vocal harmony trio, Artisan. Her claim to fame is that she once sang live on BBC Radio 4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

You can keep up with Jacey in several different ways:

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

I'm dead if I don't get out of here.

Cara Carlinni stared at the display on the public terminal. She gripped the edge of the console, feeling dizzy and sick. Too many cups of caff, not enough food.

Her fellow workers erupted from Devantec's packing plant, one or two trying the other terminals in the bay just off the main walkway, and discovering, as she had when she first took the dead-end job, that this was the only functioning link.

She'd scooted out ahead of the crowd to grab it.

Good that she had. At least she was forewarned. What the hell was an Alphacorp ship doing here if not looking for something, or someone? What were the odds that someone was her?

She'd been barely one jump ahead of them on El Arish, and on Shalla Colony she'd spotted wanted posters and moved on quickly, thankful that she'd ducked port immigration by hitching a flight with a smuggler.

She'd spoken to a man on Shalla who'd once been a low grade Psi-Mech for the Rowan Corporation, and who was now living off the grid, with a new identity furnished by an organisation that was definitely not the right side of legal. On his advice she'd come all the way out to Station Mirrimar-14  chasing rumours of a breakaway group of psi-techs, but she hadn't found them. If they were here they were well-hidden and well-shielded.

She swallowed bile and checked the screen again, focusing on the immediate problem--a light passenger transport--a ship design she recognised as an unmarked Alphacorp Scout. It threaded along the flight corridor towards the passenger terminal, past the heavy freighters lined up for docking in the space station's commercial bays.

"Hey, Carlinni, you coming to Sam's with the rest of us?" Jussaro, her packing line partner, broke his stride.

He was always friendly, but she kept her distance outside of working hours. A purple-skinned, genetically-engineered exotic from the Hollands System, he'd once been a high-grade Telepath until being busted for some misdemeanour he wouldn't admit to.

They'd killed his implant. He was alone and silent.

Permanently.

He was the thing she most dreaded becoming.

She'd stepped out of line, bigtime, but they hadn't caught her yet. If they did she'd be damn lucky to end up like Jussaro. More than likely they'd just fry her brain from the inside out and have done with it.

"Not tonight." She forced a smile and edged in front of the screen so he couldn't see what she was checking.

"Why not? Got a hot date?"

"Maybe."

"Ha!" His laugh was more like a bark. Then he frowned, the hooded ridges above his eyes drawing together in a serious case of mono-brow. "You in trouble Carlinni?" He stepped closer and lowered his voice. "You are!"

Your average decommissioned psi-tech went nuts, but Jussaro was a rare survivor. Had he managed to retain his underlying telepathy? If so that was a minor miracle in itself. Tonight he was entirely too quick on the uptake.

She curbed the need to switch on her implant. They could trace her as soon as she used it. Keep it powered down. She was so integrated with her tech that whatever natural talent she'd started out with had been subsumed. It might still be there, but she hoped she'd never have to find out the hard way.

"Quit my case, Jussaro. You're not my Dad."

"Maybe I should have been and then you wouldn't be in trouble in the first place."

"I told you, I'm not... I... Look, I can handle it. All right?"

"All right. All right. I get it. Keep my nose out." He stepped away, both hands up in a gesture of surrender.

She shrugged. "Look, Jussaro, If ever I need a dad I'll adopt you, okay?"

"It's a deal. Don't forget." He waved at her as he rejoined the flow of workers.

She returned her attention to the screen. The Scout had joined the docking tailback. That gave her a couple of hours at most.

The temptation to pop another tranq prickled her scalp while she waited for the passenger manifest to load into the system. It flashed, and she pulled up the information. Rosen, Forrest and Byrne, three names she didn't recognise, listed as businessmen. She checked the crew. The pilot was Robert Craike.

Shit!

Her heart began to race and her skin turned clammy. To hell with it! She popped a tranq anyway, and felt it buffer the hunger to connect with her implant.

Shit! Shit! Shit!

She fought down panic.

Avoiding Alphacorp's regular security was one thing, but Craike was a psi-tech Finder.

There had to be a way out. Think!

"You finished with that terminal or do you want to marry it?" A dumpy woman in a red station coverall had formed a queue.

"Finished. It's yours." Cara eased up on her death grip, blanked the screen, and turned towards the go-flow station. Her thoughts firing in several different directions at once.

Craike was the brawn to Ari van Blaiden's brain. Going up against him would be almost as bad as facing Ari himself. What were his orders? Would he be trying to kill her on-station, or would he be trying to take her back?

She had history with Craike--bad history. Torrence had called him a dangerous crazy, but that wasn't the half of it. He might well be crazy, but he certainly wasn't stupid. If Ari had sent Robert Craike she'd never get a fair trial.

Craike was bad news.

Had always been bad news.

She got his obsession with Ari. The emotions he thought he hid so carefully behind a tough scowl might fool most deadheads, but even though she barely scored on the empathy scale she could read Craike. Most times she wished she couldn't.

His jealousy had piled a personal grudge on top of everything else when she'd challenged him on Felcon.

When she closed her eyes she could still smell the hot sand -- taste the planet's salt-caked air -- feel its oven-intense heat through the sunblock on her face.

 

 

Her rebellion had killed five people as surely as if she'd put a bolt-gun to their heads herself, but she hadn't known, then, how far Craike would go.

The memory came back, vivid and painful. Torrence choking his life out, lungs all to hell.

Her fault!

Craike pulled the trigger, but if it hadn't been for her...

Don't go there.

Was it the memory of Felcon that made her blood pound in her ears, or the thought of what was to come? The last time she'd seen Craike was down the barrel of a bolt gun. Now he was here on-station.

As she waited in line for the go-flow behind an elderly man, her right hand closed involuntarily over the handpad on her left. If she wasn't careful, the small, flexible sheet of film held her life--and possibly her death--within its memory. Ari's files were as dangerous as a bomb on a short fuse. She'd had the opportunity and had grabbed them without thinking it through. If it had just been her, he might have let her slip away, but he'd never let her keep the files.

She rubbed her forehead to ease the headache and breathed away the faint feeling of dizziness. She'd rather not think about the files right now. She had them; she daren't use them. Part of her didn't even want to.

Ari was into all kinds of nastiness, but finding her own name on a red file had shocked her beyond measure. He'd personally scheduled her for Neural Readjustment. She was lucky she'd got out before they'd taken her mind to pieces.

The man in front of her hopped on to the last individual transfer raft. That left her no option but to climb into a transit pod with seven strangers. She eyed them up suspiciously, but they all had the pale skin of long-term space-station residents, and the jaded air of tired workers heading home.

As the pod carried them all towards the residential sector she took a deep breath and considered her options. Going up against Craike, one to one, was suicide. She'd have to run, abandon the search for renegade psi-techs like herself, and find a flight.

Any flight.

Destination? Away from here.

It should be possible. Security was patchy. Mirrimar-14 was big enough to have cracks that a desperate person could slip through, at least as far as the docks.

Space stations came in all shapes and sizes. Mirrimar-14, run by Eastin-Heigle serviced only three jump gates and was happy to embrace any traffic that could pay the docking fees. That meant there would be independent captains she might bribe.

Time to go to the transients' quarter and see if she could find someone who was ready to ship out, someone who might take an unlisted passenger in exchange for credits or--she gritted her teeth--sex.

 

(C) Jacey Bedford 2015

 

 

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