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Chapter One

TA White

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The burned-out wreckage of the alien spaceship drifted in a halo of its own debris. Its end had been violent, full of fire and carnage as it entered its death throes. The scars of its final battle were visible in the gaping wounds dotted throughout its carcass.

At least half of its body was missing, bits of it floating in a mass around it. What little remained intact was riddled with scorch marks as it tumbled slowly through space, the story of its end visible to all who neared.

Kira's breath remained steady as she drifted closer to her target, the void of space a relentless presence all around her.

The dead ship was one of many in a debris field spanning thousands of miles. A relic from a battle fought over a dozen years ago, it was the perfect monetary opportunity for the very few brave or foolish enough to attempt salvaging it.

This particular ship was smack dab in the middle of the field. Kira hoped the increased risk meant great reward since most salvagers were smart enough to keep to the outskirts to avoid puncturing the outer hull of their ships.

"Stay alert, Kira. My calculations place the chances of a suit puncture at seventy-six point four three percent."

"We've been over this, Jin. The upgrades to my suit mean I can withstand anything smaller than my fist," Kira responded. It wasn't quite combat grade but it was better than anything her fellow salvagers might have. "The new radar we picked up will detect anything within ten meters."

Jin sniffed, the sound insulted. "That thing is at most ninety-seven percent accurate."

Kira ignored the grumbling. Her friend had fought the radar's purchase and had been grumpy about its presence ever since. Kira didn't care. The new radar would be a valuable tool, especially if they continued going after ships other salvagers were too afraid to attempt.

"The radar isn't going to replace you. It simply frees you up to concentrate on more important tasks," she told him in a soothing voice.

She flicked on the propulsion unit, grinning as the thrusters kicked online. She loved this feeling. The abrupt jolt that took her from drifting aimlessly to becoming the guide and navigator.

She easily dodged the bigger pieces of debris as she wound her way to the misshapen hulk waiting for her.

"I still think we should have gone after the ship the Sweet sisters told us about. This one has disaster written all over it," Jin groused.

"If we'd done that, we would have had to fight off those same sisters once we finished the salvage. You know they have a habit of stealing other people’s work," Kira explained again. "Besides, I'm pretty sure this is warrior class. An elite or superior at the least."

"That makes me feel a lot better," Jin said sarcastically. "It's not like they don't have a high mortality rate for salvagers."

"You’re doing a great job in boosting my confidence with this conversation." Kira's voice was dry.

"It's my job to notify you of the potential risk in any salvage operation."

Yes, and Jin was scrupulous about doing his job. Even when she preferred he didn't. Like now, while she was drifting through the void, only a few thin layers between it and her.

Kira maneuvered around another set of space junk. Looked like a bulkhead, probably one of the reasons the lower half of the ship was gone.

"I'm approaching the main body," Kira said, the banter of earlier falling away as her focus turned to the job.

"What do you see?"

"The control room looks intact. A few of the weapon chutes are visible."

The main bridge would have been in the upper middle part of the ship, behind several bulk heads. She'd been right. It was definitely a superior class.

During the height of the war, it would have sent the human fleet scurrying. Nearly indestructible, its defensive and offensive capabilities were among the best their enemy, the tsavitee, had. No doubt it had been responsible for sending more than one of the Consortium’s ships to an early grave along with any unfortunates among the crew.

This one would have been considered midsize—not quite a dreadnought. Though next to Kira’s form, it seemed massive.

She knew the specs for this ship, had studied them and others like it. It would have had a crew of about a hundred aboard when it was destroyed. A hundred of humanity's enemies eliminated in one of the bloodiest battles of a decade long war. 

Built from a dark metal, it nearly blended in with the black of space. Ominous and foreboding, the ship’s lines were full of sharp edges. If it had been intact, it would have bristled with weapons capable of tearing her small ship apart. Kira didn't know if the feelings she got from it were based in her own perceptions and history or because the ship was a graveyard for those who never made it out.

"Any of the cannons look salvageable?"

Kira magnified the ship in her viewer. It was difficult to tell since it continued to rotate along the same lines it would have when it died.

"No, they're torn to bits. There are pieces here and there, the rest of the parts are likely floating around me," she said.

"Do you think they're worth salvaging?" he asked.

"Not on this trip. I'll focus on the main body for now. We can mark the location and return for the rest."

"All right, I'm ready for you to begin your approach. Remember, these ships tend to have nasty defenses. Try not to trip them this time."

"I haven't forgotten."

"You say that, and yet you always seem to find trouble." His voice was tart. "I'm not coming to get you this time."

"Don't worry. I don't expect you to. Just make sure to keep the Wanderer out of danger," Kira said. Before he could respond, her voice turned businesslike. "Beginning my approach."

"Your trajectory is good. You should reach the ship in four minutes and ten seconds."

Kira maneuvered closer, her heart rate remaining steady despite the danger. She'd only made it three meters when her proximity alert went off, the screen in her mask flashing red. She hit her thrusters, shooting left. A silver shape sailed by her.

Guess that meant the ship's defenses were definitely intact. A grin took over her face.

When they finally cracked this nut, they were going to make a mint. Enough for a new food synthesizer capable of making food that tasted like food and not the chalky crap she was currently living off.

"What was that?" Jin asked.

"Nothing," she told him, her voice distracted.

The weapon chasing her through the wreckage looked like a long silvery ribbon. It moved as if it were organic, darting around pieces of metal with a lithe, sinuous glide as it followed Kira. It reminded her of Earth's eels. She'd never seen one in person but she'd seen pictures in books and in video.

This thing moved in much the same way, as if it was swimming through space. If it caught her, it would wrap around her before yanking her apart. That was if it didn't burn through her suit first.

"Is that a strigmor eel?" Jin's outrage was clear even over the comms.

Kira didn't bother denying it, too busy trying not to fly headfirst into any wreckage.

"How did you set off the ship's defenses?" he cried.

"Little busy here." Kira thrust down, the eel just missing her.

"Did you not cloak? I told you how important it was to cloak," he wailed.

"I cloaked," Kira said through gritted teeth. She veered to the ship. Maybe it wouldn't follow her inside.

"Don't go inside the ship. That's a horrible idea."

An instant later a second proximity alert went off, alerting Kira to another eel heading her way.

"Told you." Jin's voice was smug.

Kira ignored him, dipping down as she zigzagged recklessly through wreckage capable of cutting her to pieces if she ran into it.

She rounded a piece of particularly large metal, the first eel right on her tail, the second peeling off to try to trap her from the other side. She flicked her eyes up and to the left, blinking twice to trigger her defensive flares. Hundreds of tiny lights, each one a metal ball bearing no bigger than a marble, streaked out from her suit.

The first eel flew into them, the balls attaching to its skin in a big clump. Seconds later they burst, splitting the eel in half.

Kira shot away from the wreckage, just in time for the second eel to come up from underneath. She darted through the deadly obstacle course, the eel no more than a few lengths behind her.

Her new suit with its upgrades was a blessing now. It was its own miniature space craft, capable of the flexible maneuvering a ship would never have been able to replicate. She'd designed it to her specifications, sourced every piece of it. Now it was making all that time, effort, and money worthwhile.

The viewscreen expanded and contracted as she searched through the wreckage for the perfect spot to take out the other eel.

There. Two long pieces of wreckage floated together, connected by a thin beam. That was perfect.

Kira veered for it, hitting her turbos and increasing her speed. The eel fell back, slightly. Enough for her purposes.

She darted between the two sheets, brushing against one side and leaving several sticky charges on it before moving to the other side. The maneuver was performed in seconds.

She hit a hard reverse on her thrusters, gritting her teeth as the suit shuddered to a stop. She turned on her back and waited.

The eel didn't disappoint, sailing into the small space, its body slithering toward her as it spotted her.

She smiled at it. "Hello, beautiful."

She lifted her arm, lining up the shot as it prepared to dart after her. She fired, a blue light streaking toward the eel. It easily dodged, moving to the side as the light missed it.

Her smile widened. She kicked her thrusters online, using them to send her rocketing away from the eel, her eyes locked on it.

The light hit the sticky charges. A force punched Kira in the chest, then the metal around the eel imploded, warping around it and killing it.

Kira continued her backward glide.

"The eels have been neutralized," she said.

"Good, now that you're done playing, maybe you can get to work. You have four hours of air left and it'll take you nearly that long to get close again," Jin said.

"Roger that," Kira said.

She flipped around so she was facing the ship again. This time she was more cautious in her approach, maneuvering so her path mirrored the space junk orbiting the wreck. It meant a less direct trajectory, but it was safer.

An hour later she finally floated into the hull of the ship through one of the holes on its exterior without setting off any other defenses.

"Jin, you there?" Kira asked once inside the ship.

No response came. It wasn't a surprise really. They'd been prepared for it, and given this ship's defense measures were still online, it was nearly a given. The tsavitee ships had some type of mechanism that disrupted communications. Even after all these years, Consortium scientists couldn't figure out how.

Either way, it meant Kira was on her own.

The inside of the ship was as dark and oppressive as the outside, a tomb that hadn't been disturbed since the day it was destroyed. Twelve years of silence and solitude, everything in the exact same state as the day it had stopped.

Kira's forehead wrinkled in disgust at the thought of what could be floating unseen next to her. It could be stray metal, the bodies of the crew, or one of the nasty little surprises the aliens liked to leave behind. One never knew, and Kira had encountered all of the above at one point or another.

Kira wasted no time, flicking on her suit's head lamps. She’d turned them off during her approach. The beams from her helmet and shoulders pierced the black. Despite being high powered, they did little but create thin slices of light in the oppressive blackness. Helpful but not nearly enough.

She unhooked one of the industrial glow lamps from its slot along her side, breaking it against the cold metal and giving it a shake before letting it go. It bobbed to the end of its string, the soft light illuminating the space in a way her suit lights could not.

She grimaced in distaste at the sight of the ship around her. It didn't matter how long she'd been doing this—a tsavitee ship always gave her the creeps and left her feeling like she was walking through maggots. Still, they helped keep her in business so she'd table her dislike until she was in her own bunk.

She fired her thrusters for a small burst, propelling herself slowly along the long corridor. In a human vessel, she would be in what was referred to as the lower aft section. It was a term originating from humanity's seafaring history and one they'd adapted once they began to move into space.

Kira couldn't be sure but if she had a guess, she'd say this part of the ship would have been used as quarters for the infantry landing parties. It'd probably also been home to the nasty little monsters and toys they created for the specific purpose of doing as much mayhem and destruction as possible.

For that reason, Kira moved carefully as she headed for the engine room, judging it as the best place to find something worth salvaging.

The government paid top dollar for intact engine parts. They’d been working on reverse engineering the tsavitee technology, which had given their enemy the advantage.

Even nine years after the end of the war, the government was still having trouble getting their hands on working engine parts.

For all that they were the scourge of humanity, the tsavitee had been smart. They'd had crew members ready to sabotage the engine and prevent anybody from recovering their technology once the rest of the ship members were dead.

This ship's destruction had been swift and unexpected. Kira's hope was its demise had taken the crew off guard.

She jerked as a shape floated out of the dark, distracting her from her thoughts. The body of a tsavitee rotated toward her, its face blank and locked in a look of horror, knowledge of its imminent death written there.

The tsavitee had many forms, depending on its position in their ranks. This one would have been infantry, humanoid in appearance with two legs and two arms, a head with eyes, nose, and mouth. That's where the similarities ended. 

This one was larger than any human by at least a foot, its form hulking and muscular with skin the color of graphite. She judged him as in the lower ranks given the visible tusks and the stunted horns curling up from its head.

The horns and fearsome appearance were how they came to be called demon by the human fleet. In a way, they did resemble the creatures of nightmares from old religious texts.

In their own language, tsavitee meant scourge. That's what they had been to humanity. A devouring horde appearing out of nowhere and decimating humanity with the most bloody and savage war in history.  

Like some plague born from the void, they had swept over more than one human colony, leaving nothing in their wake but charred remains.

The death toll had been in the millions. Any progress humanity had made in the centuries since they’d started space flight was wiped away in a few years.

Earth was among those hit. Humanity's home world reduced to a shadow of its former self. Since then, humans had reclaimed Earth but the cost had been great.

This debris field with its hundreds of dead ships had been the turning point. It should have been humanity's end, but instead, by some miracle, they'd salvaged a victory, stopping the tsavitee and destroying the backbone of their fleet. It was the turning point of the war.

There might have been battles after this one, but this was where historians would point to as the beginning of the end

Many believed the tsavitee were gone now, never to return to this region of space, but Kira had her doubts. While the tsavitee had been beaten, they had not been eliminated.

They were a deadly force, almost single minded in their purpose. Something like that wasn't going to give up. No, they would withdraw, analyze the data, and then return stronger than ever.

It was one of the reasons the scientists needed to understand as much as they could about tsavitee technology. Kira securing a decent payday as a result was a bonus.

Half an hour ticked by as she twisted her way through the corridors, many of which had collapsed into a floating obstacle course. Luckily, she was small and her suit was among the best, giving her an advantage other salvagers lacked.

She passed several more corpses on her way, careful not to disturb them. They might have been the enemy, but this was their tomb. It was best to leave the dead to their restful peace.

Large tears in the wall gave her glimpses of the wreckage floating outside.

When she finally found the engine room, it was in shambles. Her hopes the crew hadn't spared the engine were in vain. There would be no recovering a fully functional engine, the holy grail for any salvager.

All was not lost, however. The crew would have been in a rush, knowing death was imminent. They wouldn't have had time to do a thorough job.

That's where Kira came in. She was good at finding the spots they'd missed.

She pushed off the floor, floating up as she checked the fuel cells first. Just one of those in half decent condition would keep her solvent for months.

She worked through the room, her hopes falling further and further as she moved.

"Couldn't have made things easy for me, could you?" she asked the body of an engineer as she pulled it from where he’d been wedged in a small recessed part of the engine.

So far, she'd only found two cells semi intact. Not quite the score she'd been hoping for.

She gave the engineer a push, sending him floating in the opposite direction before moving into the tight spot.

"What's this?" she asked herself, staring at an intact compartment.

She got out her tools, careful as she took the compartment apart. Surprised pleasure suffused her as she revealed what was inside. A fully intact piece of their engine drive. Rare and valuable. She suspected there were three more just like it in the compartments to her left, each one just slightly bigger than her fist.

She studied the first with a frown. In its casing, it was stable, but removing it without the proper shielding would cause it to degrade. If it degraded past a certain point, it would cause a catastrophic failure resulting in an explosion.

Good thing Kira planned for everything.

She pulled a glass-like tube off the back of her suit, removing each piece of her find and dropping it into the tube before closing it and pressing the button on top. It lit with a soft blue glow.

The cylinder had been developed specifically for this purpose. It would keep the elements inside from destabilizing long enough for her to get it to her buyer.

Inside she danced a little victory dance. A score like this would keep her floating for a good year or more.

Next, she moved to the other end of the engine compartment, removing some of the electronics and stripping the wiring. The metal would fetch a nice price even if the original purpose was fried.

Each item she removed was stored in a bag at her side.

On this first, she was mainly doing reconnaissance, cataloging items of value and identifying the equipment she’d need to salvage it when she returned. Only small items or those considered too valuable to leave behind would be salvaged on this expedition. A find like this could take years to adequately strip.

When she judged the engine room sufficiently stripped of it’s the things she could carry in the small sack at her side, she headed for the command center in the foredeck. Buried in the most protected part of the ship, each command center looked and operated a little differently.

One thing remained the same—it was the military and strategic mind of the ship, home to valuable intel that could help if the tsavitee ever decided to return.

This command center was in the shape of a hexagon with no windows looking out on the exterior of the ship. On a human vessel, there would have been countless screens keeping track of conditions and data as circumstances changed. Not so for the tsavitee. Another mystery to go along with all the rest. No one knew exactly how they flew their ships or sent orders out to their troops.

Kira floated to a stop at the door, careful now that she was here. She wouldn't put it past them to set up traps for the unwary. She'd seen it before.

She peered inside, her head lamps illuminating the large room. Parts of the space shimmered, giving her a glimpse of a strange, silvery cloud of dust floating inside.

Razor ash. Damn.

The captain of this ship had been smarter than she'd given him credit for. He'd read the signs of where the battle was heading and then deployed defensive measures to secure the information housed in this room.

Razor ash wasn't anything to fuck with. It was diamond hard, capable of cutting through damn near anything, including her suit.

If even a few specks attached to her, she would decompress within seconds. The suit might be able to repair minor tears, but once the ash got inside, it would eat away at the lining and destroy any electronic circuits. To say nothing of what it would do to her flesh.

It wasn't a pleasant way to go.

The captain and his officers were still buckled into their seats, their clothes ragged and their flesh pock marked from the razor ash.

Kira hovered in the corridor as she considered her options.

The ash didn't have the same tracking system as the eel. It was meant to stand sentry, forever sweeping through the room on the lookout for intruders. Otherwise, it would have locked onto her already. As long as she didn't disturb it, she should be safe enough.

A smarter person would have turned around and left. The haul at her side was plenty.

She pushed off the wall behind her, plotting a course through the room to maximize the chances of avoiding the ash. Lucky for her it had settled against the far-left side before snaking along the ceiling above, leaving an open path from the hall to the captain’s chair.

Kira wanted whatever the captain had deemed important enough to set the ash as a permanent watchdog.

She slowly floated through the room, careful not to use her thrusters. The energy signature their use would throw out would have the ash locking onto her within seconds.

She arrowed toward the consul in front of the captain, judging it as the most likely to contain useful information.

She checked the ash's progress. It was stationary, but that could change at any moment.

Satisfied she was safe for the moment, Kira stripped the metal housing from the console, exposing its innards. The information stored in the chips inside was protected by several layers of metal sheeting. It would take time to reach the bits she wanted.

She was half way through when the ash rippled, sliding through the room as it drifted into a new pattern.

Kira worked faster as the ash drifted closer.

Almost there. Almost there.

Kira pried the metal loose, using a pair of force grips to wrench it free, much like a can opener would, the unique alien metal folding back under the force and exposing the circuitry inside.

A sheet of razor ash moved in front of the door, cutting off her escape. She grunted as she reached in and started pulling pieces free, storing each one as the leading edge of the ash slid closer and closer.

Looked like it planned to settle right where she was.

It was only inches from her helmet when she pushed off the floor, sliding to the left and away from the first edge of the ash. The move took her deeper into the room.

The ash settled into its new pattern, completely shrouding the doorway.

Kira huffed at the sight. She was well and truly trapped.

She flicked her eyes to the right, bringing up her stats. One hour and sixteen minutes of air left. Under normal circumstances, it should have been plenty to get her to the Wanderer.

Waiting the ash out would be her preference. Maybe it adopted a new pattern every hour.

Kira sighed. Her luck had never been the best. If she was wrong, she would have wasted valuable time when she could have been escaping. If she died from asphyxiation, Jin would probably follow her into the next world just to laugh at her.

Time for a new plan.

She pressed a button on her suit and swiveled to face one of the far walls. From what she'd seen on the way in, this wall was unlikely to be a bulk head. It'd be thinner than the outer walls and would make a perfect spot for a new door.

She unhooked one of the tools, flicking a button. The laser torch ignited, a blue white light flared out, blinding against the black as she set it against the metal.

The razor ash rippled, sensing the disturbance in the small space. A tentacle reached out from the mass as it snaked toward Kira.

Kira kept one eye on the approaching mass as she burned through the wall, counting down the seconds as death flooded toward her.

She finished cutting a small door out of the metal, sinking a savage kick against it. The sheet popped out, the edges still glowing red hot from the torch.

Kira didn’t waste any time, pushing off the as she flicked her thrusters on maximum.

This was going to be close.

The ash missed her by millimeters as she rocketed down the hallway, searching for the quickest way out. She needed out of this ship five minutes ago.

Up ahead, a dark cloud swarmed out of a doorway, eating through one of the dead crew as it raced toward Kira.

She arrowed down a corridor to her left, cursing her luck. She'd hoped to have more of a head start. It had found its way out of the room a lot easier than it should have.

That meant it was programmed to search and destroy once triggered.

Lucky her.

Kira spotted a ragged hole in the hull and shot toward it, the ash only feet away as it chased her through the ship.

She turned her thrusters on high, pushing for more speed. She needed every bit if she didn’t want to die an ugly death in the next few seconds.

Kira darted through the hole, barely clearing it on either side. She was already broadcasting before she was even out. The message was set on a loop, just in case the tsavitee ship was still playing havoc with her comms.  

“Jin, get the ship ready. I’m coming in hot.”

*

"What do you mean its broken?" Kira stared down at the ship's engine.

"Someone decided to haul tail for the ship dragging two eels and a crap ton of razor ash. You're lucky the damage was this minor," Jin snapped. "If I wasn't the amazing pilot I am, the ship and you would have been toast."

"If you were so amazing, the ship would never have been touched," Kira muttered to herself, prodding the offending part.

"What was that?" Jin's voice turned sharp.

"Nothing." 

"That's what I thought you said. Nothing." Jin's voice trailed off as he turned away from her.

"Can't you fix it with one of the 3D printers we have on board?" Kira asked.

That's why she had paid an arm and a leg for one after all—to make the necessary repairs when they were in the deep of space.

"No. Someone decided not to pay the tax on the last batch of material so I don't have enough to fabricate what I need."

Kira looked away. She was that someone. In her defense, the tax had been increased nearly fifty percent this last time. It was robbery, pure and simple. They got away with it because most ships waited until the last minute to order the raw materials they needed for the printer. The station was one of the few in several million miles that looked the other way on some of the salvagers less legal business endeavors.

Kira rubbed her forehead, trying to sooth away the headache beginning to sink its claws into her.

"Even if we did have the material, it wouldn't matter. That part is highly technical. It's impossible to replicate. I can fabricate a workaround but it has a limited shelf life. Once it goes, we'll barely have sublight speed."

Which for a ship out on the edge of nowhere could be a death sentence.

Kira's headache had just got worse.

She let out a frustrated sigh. "Alright, let's route to Omega Station. We can get the part we need there."

"Can't," Jin said, his voice slightly tinny and flat.

"Why not?"

"Because the part we need is at O'Riley Station."

Kira stiffened, turning to look at her friend. Jin hovered several feet above the deck, his spherical body no bigger than her head. His shell was an out of date military grade drone coupled with all the advances she could get her hands on. Although his parts might be metal and hardware, his mind was pure organic sentient, with all the pitfalls that might bring.

"You can't tell me Omega doesn't have what we need."

Jin was the cool voice of logic and reason in almost any situation. But every now and then, he developed vexing opinions. When he did, things tended to go very badly for Kira.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what he was up to. She refrained. If she was wrong, the question would offend him and she'd have to live with a grumpy drone for the next few days—one with control of the ship's internal sensors including temperature and hot water.

"I've already checked the catalogs we downloaded during our last stop. They were out and weren’t due to be replenished for several months. We'd be stuck in port while we wait for the next shipment of spare parts," he told her, a soft whir sounding as he turned to face her, a small lens observing her.

Kira knew he'd done it for her benefit, turning his “eye” on her so she'd know he was serious. She'd upgraded pretty much every part of him herself. There were over a hundred small cameras installed on his exterior to help him “see” and analyze the world. The lens was a joke between the two of them taken from an old Earth show he'd since adopted into his personal habits. 

"We'd be okay short term, but eventually it would fuck up the entire engine. You don't want to be out a few hundred million miles from the nearest station trying to replace it, would you?"

It was a rhetorical question. As the person who handled their money, he knew exactly how much they had in their accounts and it was nowhere near enough to outfit an entirely new engine.

She growled in frustration. "This had better not be you meddling in my life again. You know how much I hate that place."

He started for the door. "Maybe you should be more careful in your flight maneuvers then."

She threw a wrench.

The wrench froze three inches from him. There was a slight whomp as he tossed the wrench toward her.

"At least this way we'll get top dollar for the wreckage you salvaged instead of having to go through a middle man," he said, his voice trailing behind him as he left the room.

Somehow, his silver lining didn't make Kira feel any better.