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Fortuna

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Fortuna

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Author: Kristyn Merbeth
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Series: The Nova Vita Protocol: Book 1

1. Fortuna

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Scorpia Kaiser has always stood in Corvus's shadow until the day her older brother abandons their family to participate in a profitless war. However, becoming the heir to her mother's smuggling operation is not an easy transition for the always rebellious, usually reckless, and occasionally drunk pilot of the Fortuna, an aging cargo ship and the only home Scorpia has ever known.

But when a deal turns deadly and Corvus returns from the war, Scorpia's plans to take over the family business are interrupted, and the Kaiser siblings are forced to make a choice: take responsibility for their family's involvement in a devastating massacre or lay low and hope it blows over.

Too bad Scorpia was never any good at staying out of a fight.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Fortuna

Scorpia

Fortuna's cockpit smells like sweat and whiskey, and loose screws rattle with every thump of music. I'm sprawled in the pilot's chair, legs stretched out and boots resting atop the control panel forming a half circle around me. A bottle of whiskey dangles from one of my hands; the other taps out the song's beat on the control wheel.

Normally, this is my favorite place to be: in my chair, behind the wheel, staring out at open space and its endless possibilities. I'm a daughter of the stars, after all. But I've been in the cockpit for nearly eight hours now, urging this ship as fast as she can go to make sure we unload our cargo on time, and my body is starting to ache from it. Scrappy little Fortuna is my home, the only one I've ever known, but she wasn't built for comfort. She was built to take a beating.

My shift at the wheel wasn't so bad for the first six hours, but once the others went to bed, I had to shut the door leading to the rest of the ship, and the cockpit soon grew cramped and hot. No way around it, though. I need the music to stay awake, and my family needs the quiet to sleep. Someone needs to be coherent enough to throw on a smile and lie their ass off to customs when we get there, and it's not gonna be me.

I yawn, pushing sweaty, dark hair out of my face. Envy stings me as I think of my younger siblings, snug in bed, but recedes as I remember they're actually strapped into the launch chairs in their respective rooms, with gooey mouth-guards shoved between their teeth and cottony plugs stuffed up their ears. I don't know how they manage to sleep with all that, but it's necessary in case of a rough descent, the likelihood of which is rising with every sip of whiskey I take. Fortuna's autopilot can land the ship on its own, but it tends to lurch and scrape and thud its way there, with little regard for the comfort of its occupants or whether or not they hurl up their dinner when they arrive. Some pilot finesse makes things run more smoothly.

Given that, I'd normally avoid too much hard liquor while at the wheel. But as soon as Gaia came into sight, anxiety blossomed in my gut. Now, the planet fills my view out the front panel and dread sloshes in my stomach. It's a beautiful place, I'll admit that. Vast stretches of water dotted with land masses, wispy clouds drifting across, like a damn painting or something. Historians say that after centuries of searching for humanity's new home, the original settlers wept with joy at the first glimpse of Gaia. I, on the other hand, always go straight for the bottle strapped to the bottom of my chair.

Beautiful Gaia. Rich in alien tech and bad memories. Ever since Corvus abandoned us to fight in his useless war, even the good ones from my childhood have turned bitter.

"Damn," I mutter, and take another sip. I've once again broken the rule I invented in the early hours of my boredom. Every time I think of my older brother, that's another drink. It's a tough rule when my memories of Gaia are so deeply entwined with memories of him.

I was seven when we left Gaia. It's been twenty years since we were grounded there. And after a brief stop on Deva, where Lyre was born, we spent another six years on Nibiru, while she and the twins were still too young to live on the ship. Those were better years, when we spent our days playing and fishing in the endless ocean and our nights sleeping in a pile on our single mattress. Yet even then I could never shake my anxiety that Momma wouldn't come back one day, and I'd be stranded again. I never felt safe like I did on Fortuna, never stopped waiting for someone to notice I didn't belong. The days on Gaia wouldn't loosen their hold on me.

And every time I see the planet, it all rushes back to the surface. Memories of Corvus's smile; of digging through trash for food; of playing tag with him in the narrow streets of Levian, the capital city; of huge alien statues staring down at me with their faceless visages.

Memories of Momma wearing hooded Gaian finery to blend in on the crowded street and saying, "It's just a game, Scorpia," as she showed me the best way to slip my hands into someone's pocket without them noticing. When she taught me my first con, dressing me up like a little lost Gaian child, she said, "It's like telling a joke, but you're the only one who knows the punchline." Guess Momma didn't anticipate that once I started, I wouldn't be able to stop thinking that way. Or maybe she didn't think I'd live long enough for it to matter. I probably wouldn't have, if Corvus hadn't been around to get me out of trouble. Corvus, who was never any good at lying, so he went to school while I learned to be a criminal.

"Damn." I sip again. Through the viewing panel, Gaia looms closer.

As I wipe my mouth, I glance over the expanse of screens and gauges and lights all around me, tracking the radar, fuel tank, and various systems. The numbers are blurry, but the lights are all the soothing red of Nova Vita, which means everything is running fine. Good enough for me. I take another swig, and choke on it as the ship shudders.

It's not a particularly menacing rumble, yet the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. I let my boots thud to the metal floor one after another, dragged by the ship's artificial gravity, and frown at the panels. Nothing on the radar. It could be some debris too small to pick up, a cough in the machinery... or a cloaked ship. It's rare for us to have company out here, when interplanetary trade and travel have all but ground to a halt due to the tense relations between planets. Rarer still near Gaia, whose border laws are tightest of all. But it could be those pirate bastards on the Red Baron hounding us again. If they picked up cloaking tech, we're in trouble. Not for the first time, I wish Fortuna was outfitted with weaponry for self-defense--but of course, weapons on ships are illegal, and we'd never be able to land anywhere in the system if we had them. With current laws, the planets are wary enough about ships without the added threat of weapons on them.

Indicators are all a solid red. There's not so much as a blip out of place. Still, my skin prickles. Fortuna is saying something. I slap the button to shut off the music, tilt my head to one side, and listen to the silence.

The next rumble shakes the whole craft.

The bridge goes dark. Every screen and every light disappears. My sharp intake of breath echoes in the darkness.

"Fortuna?" I ask, as if the ship will answer. I clutch tighter to the whiskey with one hand and the wheel with the other as my muddled brain tries to work out what else to do. I've dealt with my fair share of malfunctions, but I've never seen the ship go dark like this.

The lights blink back online. A relieved laugh bubbles out of me, but cuts off as I realize all of my screens are crackling with static.

I smack a few buttons, producing no effect, and turn from one end of the control panel to the other. My eyes find the system indicators on the far right. Life support and the engine are still lit red, signaling that they're online and functioning. But navigation is the shockingly unnatural green of system failure. Radar is green. Autopilot is green.

The ship has everything she needs to keep flying, but not what she needs to land.

"Aw, shit." Judging by the fact that we haven't been blasted or boarded yet, this isn't the Red Baron or any other outside interference. It's an internal malfunction. I flash back to my sister Lyre begging for new engine parts on Deva, and curse under my breath. Our little engineer is usually too cautious for her own good, but it seems she was right this time.

I take a final sip from my bottle, cap it, and tuck it between my boots. Once it's secure, I reach toward the neon-green emergency alarm button on the left side of the control panel. At the last moment, I stop short.

Hitting that button will send alarms screaming and green lights flaring through the ship, cutting through my family's earplugs and waking them from their strapped-in-for-landing slumber. My ever-scowling mother will be here in less than a minute, barking orders, taking control. And at the first sniff of whiskey in the cockpit, she'll relieve me from my duty and send me to bed.

Fortuna will stay in orbit until everything's at 100 percent and I've passed a BAC test... which means we'll miss the drop-off on Gaia and the side job I hoped to pull off beforehand.

And I'll be the family screwup. Again. One step further from ever amounting to more than that, or ever prying my future out of Momma's iron grip. One step further from Fortuna belonging to me. I can already hear her usual speech: "You're the oldest now. You can't keep doing this shit."

Plus, this side job is important. There's not much profit in it, but I can use all the credits I can get after I blew most of my last earnings on Deva. I can't deny I'm looking forward to seeing the pretty face of my favorite client, too.

And, of course, I want to see Momma's expression when I tell her I pulled off a job on my own. I know that she was grooming Corvus to be in charge one day--Corvus, who was always so obedient and ready to follow in her footsteps--but he's been gone for three years now, fighting in the war on his home-planet. We all have to accept that he's not coming back. Instead, Momma's stuck with me.

This deal I set up is the perfect chance to prove that's not such a terrible thing. And once the ship falls to me, I'll finally have a place in the universe that's all my own. A home that nobody can kick me out of. I'll get to make my own decisions, be in charge of my own life. I'll keep my family together and make things better for all of us, like Corvus always promised he would before he abandoned us.

But if we don't make it in time, this will just be one more disappointment on the list.

I sit back in my seat, running my tongue over my teeth. I'll have to land the ship as planned. Even if it's bumpy, and even if Momma smells the whiskey on me once we land, she can't give me too much shit if I get us planet-side intact and on time.

It's a damn nice thought... but it's been a long time since I landed the ship without autopilot. And, lest the blurry vision and stink of whiskey in the cockpit aren't enough to remind me, I'm drunk enough that I could get jail time for flying a simple hovercraft on most planets. There's no law out here to punish me for operating a spacecraft under the influence, but down there the law of gravity waits, ready to deal swift and deadly judgment if I fuck this up.

"So don't fuck it up," I tell myself. I suck in a slow breath, blow it out through my nose, and hit the button to connect to Gaian air control. Static crackles through the speakers, followed by a booming robotic voice. I wince, hastily lowering the volume.

"You have reached Gaian customs. State your registration number and purpose. Do not enter Gaian airspace without confirmation or you will be destroyed."

I know the automatic Gaian "greeting" by heart, and I also know it's not bullshit. As a kid, I saw many unregistered ships shot out of the sky before they got close to landing. The locals would cheer like it was some grand fireworks show. I always felt bad for the poor souls. If they were entering Gaian airspace illegally, they had to be desperate. Using the opportunity to pick some Gaian pockets felt a little like justice.

"This is pilot Scorpia Kaiser of merchant vessel Fortuna," I say into the mic, working hard to keep my words from slurring into one another. "Registration number..." I run a finger down a list etched on one of my side panels, and blink until the numbers come into focus. Of course, the Gaian registry is the longest number of them all. Damn Gaians and their regulations. "Two-dash-zero-two-one-eight-eight-dash-one-zero-three-six," I say. "Registered to Captain Auriga Kaiser, Gaian citizen. We're delivering freeze-dried produce from Deva."

It's not the whole truth, but it's not a lie, either. If customs agents peek into our cargo crates, they'll find neat packages of fruits and vegetables dried and sealed for space travel. The good shit is well hidden. We're professionals, after all.

"Checking registration," the robotic voice says. There's a pause, followed by a click. "Checking landing schedule." Another pause, click. "Ship two-dash-zero-two-one-eight-eight-dash-one-zero-three-six, you are cleared for entry. Noncitizens are not permitted to travel beyond the landing zone. Entry elsewhere will be considered a hostile act. Welcome to Gaia."

"Yeah, I'm feeling real welcome," I mutter, severing the radio connection. But the recording has provided a good reminder of what's at stake here. If I crash, we all die. If I land so much as an inch outside the legal landing zone, same shit. I roll my shoulders back and slip the safety belts across my chest, clicking them into place and yanking the straps tight. "Okay, Fortuna," I say. "Hope you're ready for this. It's gonna be a rough landing."

I fish in my pocket for the gooey lump of my mouth-guard, chomp down, and shove the control wheel forward.

Copyright © 2019 by Kristyn Merbeth


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Fortuna

- Ann Walker
  (3/23/2020)

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