Junkyard Dog Collection - Charley Marsh - ebook
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GET the first three novellas of the Junkyard Dog series in one collection. JUNKYARD DOG Major Margarita King loves her job.  Loves the feel of deep space between the stars.  Loves her ship. Until the day someone she trusts sends her out to die. Book One of The Junkyard Dog series introduces ace pilot Margarita King with a smart and edgy tale of betrayal in space. KRAKEN BLUES Rita King needs rest and relaxation. Lots of it. She heads to Harmos. Old Earth blues and jazz clubs, fresh seafood, and best of all, Rose’s Bath House. When Rita finds Rose unconscious and bleeding Rose will say only one thing: ”They’re back.”  The next day Rose disappears. Join Margarita King as she faces a deep-seated fear to uncover the secret of the mysterious “they.” DEADLY CARGO Ex-Red Baron Margarita King heads to the colorful and peaceful planet Weegan for ship repairs. But the frightened Weegans warn her off. Refuse to let her land near their village. Margarita’s unerring nose for trouble won’t let her move on until she discovers the reason why. A gripping tale of high stakes on a distant planet in the galaxy, Deadly Cargo delivers another action adventure with space pilot Margarita King.

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Copyright © 2018 by CHARLEY MARSH

JUNKYARD DOG COLLECTION/BOOKS 1-3 is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations

embodied in critical articles and reviews.

For more information contact: timberdoodle@goacentek.net

All rights reserved.

Published 2018 in the United States of America by

Timberdoodle Press.

Cover art courtesy depositphoto.com

Publisher Logo by Peter Corbin

Ebook ISBN #978-1-945856-46-4

Print ISBN #978-1-945856-47-1

Contents

Junkyard Dog

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Kraken Blues

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Deadly Cargo

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Also by Charley Marsh

About the Author

Copyright © 2018 by CHARLEY MARSH

JUNKYARD DOG is a work of fiction. The characters,

incidents, and places are the product of the author’s

imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance

to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is

entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be used

or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written

permission except in the case of brief quotations

embodied in critical articles and reviews.

For more information contact: timberdoodle@goacentek.net

All rights reserved.

Published 2018 in the United States of America by

Timberdoodle Press.

Cover art courtesy Pixabay

Publisher Logo by Peter Corbin

Ebook ISBN #978-1-945856-17-4

Print ISBN #978-1-945856-16-7

1

The insistent and irritating buzz of an alarm pierced Red Baron Margarita King’s brain. Gad, she hated that sound. She flipped onto her back and slapped a flat button on the bunk’s back wall.

The buzzing alarm stopped. She heaved a sigh at the merciful quiet.

The extra long bunk, specially constructed of a dense foam that molded to her body and prevented bed sores during long flights, shifted its shape to accommodate her new position. She settled into it and took a few deep breaths.

Why was she awake? The sleep medicine she had taken after setting the ship’s course made her brain thick and fuzzy. Time-eze, a sleeping potion developed especially for the ultra long-distance pilots and travelers who passed through the time/space warp-field, could be precisely calibrated so that upon the specified wake time a person would be wide awake, no drowsiness.

Her muddy thoughts told Margarita that she had been awakened before her preset arrival time.

She took several more deep breaths and tried to clear her brain. Margarita hated taking the sleeping drug for exactly this reason—the difficulty in thinking clearly when under the influence; but science had proven that the bodies of pilots who slept during the little understood journey through the warp field went into a kind of stasis that suspended the aging process.

The early pioneers who had braved the effects of bending time and space had suffered greatly for it, often returning as dry, hollow husks. Space exploration had come to a standstill until the development of Time-eze.

Like everything in life, it was a trade-off. Would she prefer to be sharp, or grow old and possibly die while getting from point A to point B?

As she struggled to fully awaken, she gauged her surroundings. The ship’s interior was velvety dark and silent, the kind of silent that possessed weight and pressed in on a listener’s ears with an intensity that rivaled that of a loud explosion.

A quick check of her wrist unit confirmed that the ship had not yet arrived at its destination. So why the alarm?

Margarita reached down and touched another button on the side edge of her bunk, activating the low-level cabin lights. Twin strips of small red lights appeared on the cabin’s deck, running from the cargo bay at the rear to the nose cone nearly two hundred feet away.

The use of red-colored lights was a carryover from the meat hunters of Old Earth. Red light was invisible to many creatures while giving the hunters a way to see what they were doing in the dark.

The long, narrow cabin, modeled after the sailing vessels of Old Earth, sprang out of the darkness. The ship’s interior was sleek and neatly cobbled together on either side of the central aisle. No space, no matter how small or oddly-shaped, had been wasted.

Instrument panels, equipment and personal storage lockers, cooking and bathing closets: all fit together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle crafted from a non-organic material that mimicked the rich grain of cherrywood, a tree long since disappeared from man’s long-abandoned home planet.

Margarita had always considered her ship not only her home—much more home to her than the base housing back on Mars—but also an important work of art; a reminder of the artisans and their way of life on human’s original planet.

She turned her head and surveyed the long, narrow cabin. As one of the top scholars of Old Earth history, she had participated in the interior design of her ship, right down to the clever drawers and cubbyholes which held a myriad of small items that tended to get lost during long trips through the galaxy.

Her gaze stopped at the ship’s only window, a thick, cone-shaped shield that made up the nose of the vessel. The window showed nothing but blackness outside the ship.

Created from a substance that could be heated to a liquid state, poured into a mold, and then cooled to a clear, rock-like consistency called Kristal, the nose cone was nearly impervious to damage.

The cone looked fine—no cracks, no foreign substance blocking visibility.

So why the alarm?

Blackness. The meaning of the starless vista penetrated Margarita’s sleepy brain. She should be seeing the streaked light trails of stars as her ship passed through the Milky Way.

No streaked trails of light meant that her fast and nimble Viking-class ship, a ship no other pilot wanted to operate because it wasn’t all cold sleek steel inside, had taken itself out of warp drive.

Judging herself awake enough to move, Margarita stood with a grace that spoke of countless hours studying dance and martial arts. She groaned, stretched out the kinks, and rubbed her hands over her face and the dark cap of short, spiky hair that topped her tall frame.

Reaching into the narrow cabinet at the foot of her bunk, she pulled out one of her two flight suits and pulled it on.

The mud-brown body-hugging suit was knit from gossamer fine spider-silk threads that were stronger than steel and cost more than land on Old Earth. It weighed next to nothing, yet protected her body from the elements and any weapon short of a fusion bomb.

Margarita had set aside every spare penny for five years before she had saved enough to buy the special suit. Now she owned two.

A girl had to know where her priorities lay.

She sat on the edge of the bunk to pull on mid-calf boots made from a sharkskin-kevlar blend and padded forward to stand before the Kristal window.

From this vantage point she could see stars everywhere she looked. Slightly overhead lay Sirius, called the Dog Star by the ancient peoples of Earth.

The brightest star in Old Earth’s sky, it was also the brightest star that could be seen from Mars. From here it’s vibrant blue-white light clearly dominated the heavens.

Her current destination lay several light years below Sirius, in the star cluster tagged Messier 41, or the M41 star system. She had set out from the Mars base the previous day on a simple fact-finding mission: investigate the source of the odd radio signals that had been picked up during a routine scan emanating from somewhere within M41.

Margarita turned away from the window and walked back to the ship’s central command center. Unlike the ancient sailors who plied Old Earth’s oceans using charts and sextants as their guides, she had the advantage of sophisticated computer-assisted navigation tools.

She folded herself into the gel pilot-chair and pulled up the navigation console. Specially created for long hours at the helm, the pilot’s chair cupped her body like a warm hand. At six foot two, Margarita King found that no furniture made for the average-sized pilot was comfortable for her body during extended periods.

She frequently defied regulations and stood while piloting her ship. In her mind, the regulators were planet-bound busy bodies who had no clue what a long-distance pilot endured or needed, and therefor they had no business making the rules for those who did the actual flying.

She didn’t make a big deal of it, she simply flew her ship the way she thought was best.

Margarita knew that she should contact the Mars base and report her location and status, but the thought of calling her senior officer before she had identified the problem and solution didn’t sit well with her.

She made the decision to wait on the contact until she had more information.

Competition among the team of Specialized Pilots was fierce and frequently bitter, and the older, more experienced pilots were often sidelined because they didn’t keep up with the latest flight technology.

At thirty-one, Margarita held the distinction of being the youngest pilot to earn the rank of Major while being the oldest pilot currently flying a Viking-class ship. She kept her edge by keeping in top physical form, spending long hours in the newest training modules, and hitting the books to keep up with each graduating class of recruits eager to bump her name off the roster.

It made for a grueling schedule, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. Because of her experience and knowledge, she was often tapped to lead the more interesting and exciting missions.

That made for a lot of jealous co-workers.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” A brief grin lit Margarita’s face. She often amused and entertained herself with bad jokes while on solo missions. Apparently the Dog Star had tickled her funny bone.

Very few people ever saw her softer, silly side; she kept it well hidden behind a stony mask to ensure that others took her seriously. Through the years commanding officers and instructors had labeled her as “stoic,” “stiff,” and “aloof.” A few called her bitch.

She didn’t care what others called her as long as she got to fly.

Next to her, the navigation screen sprang to life with a soft beep. Running a long, tapered finger over it, Margarita located the ship and her destination. The screen calculated the travel distance remaining: two point five light years.

So why had her ship come out of warp drive? The Viking ships were meticulously maintained, with every system tested and retested before a trip and then again upon their return before they were released for use again.

Margarita pulled up the main command screen and instructed the ship to run a complete diagnostics test. Something had triggered the ship to fall out of warp speed, and until she pinpointed the problem she couldn’t risk re-engaging the warp drive engine. Which meant there was no way she’d be able to get back to Mars base until she found—and fixed—the problem.

Looking back toward the window she realized she could no longer see Sirius.

A moment later she felt a thud against the port side of her ship.

The first thud was quickly followed by a stuttering series of thuds and thunks above and below her.

The ship must have entered an asteroid field, or a debris field of some sort. Great, just what she needed. Margarita belted herself into the pilot’s chair as a hard hit made the ship shudder and yaw.

The thunks grew more rapid and serious, battering her ship from all sides. The noise swelled and grew beyond the level of human comfort.

Margarita grabbed the noise canceling earcups, slid them on, and flipped on communications.

“Mayday. Mayday. This is Major Margarita King of the Mars-based, Viking-class ship Pacifica. Possible malfunction in the warp drive engine. Ship caught in an asteroid field. Mayday. Mayday.” She calmly repeated the call twice more and activated the locator beacon.

Normally able to pilot itself through a heavy obstacle field with reflexes that far exceeded a human’s capacity, her ship seemed to be deliberately trying to crash it’s way through the field of asteroids, much like an Old Earth pinball would bounce between flippers, bumpers, and gobble holes.

Margarita watched with growing horror as a large chunk of ice and rock headed toward the nosecone of her ship. She deactivated the auto pilot, grabbed the manual steering stick, and jerked hard to the left.

If she was going to die she wanted the controls to be in her own hands.

The asteroid slid past the window. A moment later she felt it impact the tail of the ship, sending it into a slow spin.

She gripped the joystick with both hands and forced herself to steer into the spin, an action that went contrary to her every instinct, until she slowly regained control of the spiraling ship.

As her vessel came out of the spin, a large, unavoidable object filled the window. She pulled back hard on the joystick and increased power to the engine.

Crash landing on an asteroid was not an option in her personal set of flight rules.

The ship shuddered and gained speed. The nose lifted, lifted some more, but not quite enough to completely avoid the asteroid. The belly of the ship bounced and scraped along its rough, pocked surface, and then she was free.

Margarita took advantage of the brief respite and switched the nav screen to outside view. Her heart skipped a couple beats when she saw the number of asteroids filling the space around the ship.

She sent a quick burst to the reverse thrusters to slow the ship, then steered between two long, black rocks before returning her attention to the screen. She desperately needed to find a place to set the ship down so she could diagnose and fix the warp drive.

She swept a finger up the screen to see what was behind her ship. A pocked surface filled the screen.

Assuming it was the large asteroid she had avoided moments before, Margarita minimized the image. She was about to change screens when an image caught her attention.

The object was too regularly shaped, too round, to be an asteroid. A small spark of hope glimmered inside her chest. She swung the ship around to face the object.

Definitely a planet. A planet surrounded by a field of debris. It would be a risky place to land, but what choice did she have? Without the warp drive she didn’t have the power to go any distance.

Margarita clenched her teeth and increased engine speed again. Using both hands on the joystick, she began to wend her way through the asteroid field toward the planet.

She couldn’t avoid them all. She cringed inwardly as her ship took a beating, knowing that the dents and dings affected the bullet-shaped ship’s ability to move smoothly through an atmosphere, she prayed that nothing critical was being crushed.

After several hours that felt like decades, Margarita guided her ship past the last asteroid and aimed for the planet. Her hands had long since cramped on the joystick but she didn’t dare release it, afraid that she wouldn’t be able to force her muscles to grab it again.

Twenty minutes later she spied a flat valley set between two mountain ridges. She flew over the area looking for signs of life but saw nothing to alarm her so began her descent.

If her ship was a pinball, she had just hit the drain.

Margarita slammed her open palm down on the engine power button as the planet’s surface rose and filled the window. The Pacifica shuddered once and died.

Game over.

2

The snap and pop of cooling metal filled the ship’s interior as it settled onto the valley floor. Eventually only the sound of her harsh, raspy breath competed with the heavy silence.

Margarita stared blankly at the dark landscape outside the window and forced slower breaths through her long, narrow nose.

Long, deep inhale.

Long, slow exhale.

She repeated the breaths until the edge of panic receded and her brain kicked into gear again. The rapid beat of her heart, amplified by the ship’s utter stillness, filled her ears and pounded out a single message: Alive. Alive. Alive.

She was still alive.

Sudden tears welled in her eyes and she dashed them away with quick, angry movements. The tears were a byproduct of the adrenalin that had coursed through her body, same as the bitter bile in the back of her throat. Not a sign of weakness.

Margarita King didn’t cry—didn’t allow herself to cry—over anything. She sat, unmoving, until she felt her confidence begin to seep back, and with it a cold anger.

The Pacifica, the best, most carefully maintained ship in the fleet—because she oversaw the maintenance—had malfunctioned and forced her to execute an emergency landing on an unexplored planet.

She requested her location from the ship’s computer and was told that she had landed on a piece of rock named only by a letter and a number: Planet B4629.

“This mission has gone to the dogs.” Her husky voice sounded rough and alien in the silent cabin, but the Old Earth phrase seemed right on the money. This was her first mission to the M41 star system, and so far it was a dismal failure.

Margarita turned her thoughts away from the unscheduled landing and took stock of her situation.

If she conserved, the small ship could support her for up to two years, so other than getting smashed by an incoming asteroid, her survival was not an immediate concern.

And while she tolerated other humans, she had learned to prefer her own company over that of her fellow man. The threat of loneliness-induced insanity would not be an issue.

She had met a few pilots who had found themselves marooned for long periods—one as long as fifteen years—good pilots who had not been able to hack the solitude. When found, they had clung to their rescuers and refused to be left alone, or even to sleep in a single person cabin.

Margarita pressed her full lips into a thin line. She was used to spending most of her time alone. Her unusual size and scary-smart intellect frightened off potential friends or suitors. Even in a crowd there was an invisible bubble that insulated and separated her from others. Loneliness had been her lifelong companion.

There had been a time, when she was first recruited for the pilot program, that she thought she might make a friend or two, but the back-biting, competitive environment of the program soon disabused her of that hope.

She still believed that those in command had missed an opportunity in the way they handled the pilots. Instead of nurturing friendship and mutual support among the elite fliers—a sense that your teammates had your back—Central Command encouraged competition and sabotage.

Instead of a crew that worked together, and was stronger for it, the Specialized Pilots team was a group of individuals who worked only for themselves.

Margarita released the seat harness and lowered the navigation screen. She flexed and stretched her cramped fingers, rolled her head on her shoulders, and stood.

She folded in half so her short, spiky hair swept the cabin floor, grabbed her left foot in her left hand, and swept up, lifting her foot past her ear until it nearly touched the cabin ceiling. Touching her forehead to knee, she held the pose for several breaths, then repeated the pose for the right side.

Stretches done, she tapped the cabin light control until the red changed to a low-level, warm white. The dim lights threw her long, lean shadow across the galley walls as she began to pace the central aisle in the slow, measured steps that helped her think.

With her head bent and hands clasped behind her back, she mentally reviewed the catastrophe that had forced her onto this planet.

Something had gone terribly wrong with her ship’s navigation system. And it shouldn’t have. The Second-in-Command had signed off on the ship’s pre-flight check himself.

Only now did Margarita think to question the way the other pilots had looked at her as she stepped forward and volunteered for this mission—sly, sideways glances with knowing eyes that should have alerted her that all was not quite what it seemed.

What she had considered usual behavior in her jealous fellow fliers had meant something different this time. She should have realized, when she was the only volunteer, that something wasn’t right.

“I’ll be damned. Those bastards threw me to the dogs.”

Margarita stopped pacing and stared blindly out the window. Anger rose in her chest until it burned her throat.

What if she couldn’t fix her ship? What if the bastards had sabotaged it so there was no way she could ever return to the Mars base?

She beat down the rising panic with a firm hand. Nobody knew the workings of her ship better than she did. She would go through it inch by inch until she found the problem, and then she would fix it.

Simple.

Movement out of the corner of her eye snapped her attention to the unknown planet. While no one had reported signs of life yet in the M41 star system, most of it had yet to be explored.

And there were those strange radio signals, the reason she was here in the first place. Unless the report of signals was a sham, a reason to get her out here.

A good pilot remained on edge at all times—constantly prepared to deal with anything that cropped up. It was a brutal, fatiguing way to live, but those who didn’t practice that philosophy usually paid with short lives.

Margarita stood without moving and scanned the area with her eyes only, like a hunter waiting for his prey to approach. Nothing moved.

An hour passed before she decided that she had either seen nothing, or whatever it was had gone. She walked to the Redi-Meal and programmed a cup of hot herbal tea.

She plopped down on the edge of her recessed bunk and inhaled the soft, flowery scent of her favorite jasmine-based tea. Sipping the hot liquid slowly, she allowed the fragrance and warmth to sooth and relax her.

As her body relaxed she realized just how exhausted she was. First she needed sleep, then she would address the ship’s diagnostics.

She finished the tea, and because she hated clutter, cleaned and stowed the cup, then crawled into the narrow bunk. It formed a warm cocoon around her body, and she drifted into sleep running diagnostic protocols through her mind.

3

She dreamed of meteorites flying past the ship. One hit the side with a soft thud. A part of her brain knew that it was only a dream, knew that she had safely landed her ship, but the dream felt real. She stirred restlessly in the bed.

Another meteorite hit the ship. Thud. Suddenly a flurry of soft, heavy sounds beat upon the ship from all sides.

Margarita’s eyes flew open. The sounds continued. She turned off the cabin lights, cursing herself for leaving them on when she went to bed. Careless. Carelessness could get her killed. The lighted ship must have attracted a local life form.

With the lights off, the cabin was plunged into a darkness so absolute that Margarita felt the heavy weight of it pushing against her body. It filled the ship, pressing on her from all sides. For a moment, she could barely expand her chest to grab a breath.

The thudding on the sides of the ship still surrounded her and sounded so close that Margarita wondered if they came from inside her own head.

She opened her mouth to clear the sudden pressure in her ears. The thudding suddenly stopped. The heavy silence partnered with the darkness into a living, pulsing entity that tried to invade her body and brought an edge of panic to her breath.

She rolled out of the bunk in one fluid motion and felt her way forward, hand outstretched to guide her along the cabin wall. She moved one slow step at a time, until she stood before the window.

Margarita strained her eyes to make out something—anything—that was lighter than the ebony black landscape that filled her vision. After a few moments she picked out a star, and then another.

She softened her gaze, a trick she had learned to expand her field of vision, and waited.

A change in the atmosphere, a subtle charge of energy, alerted her to another’s presence. A tendril of fear crept up her spine and she forced it back. She would be safe as long as she remained inside the ship. Whatever was out there couldn’t get in.

A foreign thought entered her mind and somehow she knew that her visitor wanted her to step outside. Her fear grew stronger and she stomped it down firmly.

Fear was a far greater enemy than whatever waited outside. Fear possessed no form or substance, yet wielded a great deal of power—but only if she gave it that power.

We mean you no harm.

Margarita jerked and stepped back from the window. The thought did not belong to her, she felt sure of it. It had been projected into her mind by another intellect.

We need your help.

“They need my help,” she whispered. The request for help felt compelling, irresistible. She was needed. No one had ever needed her like this before.

She fought the urge to respond. “Hold fast, Margarita. It’s a trick. A ploy to get you to open your ship to them.”

We mean you no harm. We need your help.

“No. I’m not listening.”

She took another step back, groped for the gel chair, and sank heavily into it. It molded around her body, its familiarity comforting.

“Who are you?”

We mean you no harm. We need your help.

Margarita felt for the emergency lights switch with trembling fingers and flipped them back on. The familiar shapes of the ship’s interior sprang out of the darkness.

We need your help.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Ashamed of her loss of control, she forced her voice to a whisper and repeated the question.

“What do you want?”

Cub. Cub needs help.

Margarita stared ahead at the window and realized that the inky black had lightened to a muddy gray. Dark shadows, low to the ground, moved across the front of the ship. She flipped the emergency lights off in order to better see outside.

Cub needs help.

“I can’t help you. I’m not sure if I can even help myself.” She didn’t know if the creatures understood her words or not. She waited. What would they do next?

The shadows stopped moving. A group of voices raised in a mournful dirge, an eerie song that rose and dipped and sent cold, violent shivers down her back and made the hairs on her neck and arms stand erect.

Help Cub…please.

Margarita watched the shadow-creatures back away from the window and disappear. She remained in the gel chair until her limbs stopped trembling and her heart rate slowed to normal.

It wasn’t until she stood that she realized not all of the creatures had gone. A small silver-gray lump lay on the ground next to the window. Margarita pressed her face against the smooth, cold pane and inspected the lump.

A shiver passed through it as she watched. She swore she heard a whimper of pain.

“Well, doggone it. I wonder if that’s Cub.” Apparently the shadow-creatures had left one of their own, whatever Cub was, with her. They had begged her to help.

They had even said “please.”

She would never forget their voices raised in grief. They had cared about the one they left behind.

“Crap.” Margarita walked to the storage locker next to the door and pulled out her enviro-suit. She pulled it on quickly, then returned to the console and flipped on the outside sensors.

There were no life forms around the ship other than the single form out front. The shadow-creatures had truly gone.

Margarita stepped into the airlock and opened the outer hatch. She stopped in the opening and inspected the terrain surrounding the ship.

Black mountains hemmed in the valley and prevented her from seeing beyond their peaks. The flat valley floor stretched around the ship, gray-brown in the soft twilight of morning.

There was no place for anyone or anything to hide. No place for an ambush. No sounds or signs of life.

Feeling reasonably safe, she scurried around to the front of the ship and stopped beside the small lump. It looked like an odd-shaped ball covered with short strands of gray wire.

An amber eye, glazed with pain, opened and stared at her, then rolled back and closed.

She felt the sensation of sharp pain again.

Margarita didn’t hesitate. She crouched down, scooped her hands underneath the creature, and gently lifted it to her chest. The lump was surprisingly heavy for its size and she heaved a sigh of relief when she reached the airlock with her burden.

She left the creature in the airlock while she removed her enviro-suit and grabbed her bio-scanner. A quick check of the small body showed that it was alive, but steadily leaking energy.

“I know a smart woman would let sleeping dogs lie, but I suspect you won’t ever wake up if I don’t do something quick. The problem is, what? What’s wrong with you, little one?”

Somehow, she knew that this was a baby, or a very young toddler. A cub. The shadow-creature’s use of the word made sense now.

She pulled on a pair of gloves, hesitated, and then ran her hands gently over the body, feeling for obvious breaks or lesions. The wiry hair flattened under her hands, soft and sleek and smooth.

Leg.

The thought popped into her brain and she responded without questioning its origin. She discovered four legs attached to the gray lump and slowly straightened them away from the body.

One of the legs—she had no idea if it was a front or back leg—felt loose and wobbly, different from the other three.

“Is this the problem, little guy? A broken leg? You wouldn’t be able to travel with a bum leg. They had no choice but to leave you behind. Poor cub.”

Margarita waited for the cub to project its thoughts again but heard nothing. She carefully probed the leg and found the broken spot right below where she would expect a knee joint to be.

“Okay, Cub, I think I found it. Hang on while I fix you up.” Margarita took what she needed from her medical kit and gently set the leg with a splint and cast.

She stood back to admire her handiwork. A sense of relief and gratitude rushed into her and she knew that the baby shadow-creature was still alive and aware of what she was doing to it.

4

“Well, lookee here, Darwin. I wonder who put this into my nav system?” Margarita released the miniature toothed clamps that connected a tiny circuitry board to the navigation system and stared at it with an expression of angry distaste.

Over the last eight days she had methodically dismantled each piece of the ship’s computer, navigation, and propulsion systems to find the source of the malfunction.

It was the kind of work Margarita excelled at—taking problems and dissecting them with single-minded purpose until solutions could be found.

“This is not a piece of original hardware. Nor is it one of my modifications. Somebody sabotaged my ship. And at least a couple of my fellow pilots knew about it. Bastards. Look at that!”

She held up the evidence for the young shadow-creature watching her from his perch in a drawer above her head to see.

Her wounded guest no longer looked like a lump of tangled silver-gray wire. The shadow-creature cub reminded Margarita of an evolutionary experiment gone wrong, so she had named him Darwin.

Darwin possessed a thick, chunky dog’s body with the triangular shaped face and ears of an Old Earth large cat—a tiger, or a lion perhaps—with sleek, wiry fur. Darwin had warm amber eyes and two tails—one long and feline, the other short and curled.

He ate everything Margarita offered him and possessed a puppy’s curiosity. With his splinted leg, he was able to follow her about the ship and poke his cat-nose into everything she did, until she lifted him into the drawer that sat several feet up off the deck in exasperation.

Despite his odd appearance, she wouldn’t change a thing about her new shipmate. Darwin had quickly wormed his way into Margarita’s heart. For the first time in her lonely life she had a companion.

“I wonder which of those dirty dog pilots was stupid enough to risk destroying a perfectly good ship just to get rid of me?” Margarita tossed the sabotage circuitboard onto the deck and stomped on it.

Dirty dog. Darwin repeated.

“You got that right, Darwin. What do you say we put this baby back together and get out of here?”

Now that she’d found the problem, it wouldn’t take long for Margarita to get her ship’s nav system up and running properly. While she worked, she thought about the kind of work environment that urged men to sacrifice a co-worker. And for what?

The acquisition of prestige. A higher rank. Concepts that held no real value in the great scheme of life. Was that the type of organization she wanted to dedicate the remainder of her pilot years to?

The more Margarita thought about the sabotage to her ship the angrier she became. By the time she put her last tool away she had reached a decision.

She booted up the ship’s computer and instructed it to erase the name Pacifica from the sides of her ship, then turned to her shipmate.

“We need a new name, Darwin. A name that lets everyone know that we’re tough and not to be messed with.”

She thought for several minutes, then a grin lit up her face and she chuckled.

“I’ve got it. This is so apropos!” Before Darwin could ask, Margarita answered him. She had quickly learned that her little shadow-creature possessed an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

“Apropo means it’s perfect. From now on, Darwin, you and I are the commander and crew of the Junkyard Dog.”

She typed the new name into the computer with a flourish. The name change made Margarita feel ridiculously happy and light. Freer than she had felt since joining the Specialized Pilot program—in charge of her life once again.

She picked up Darwin and strapped him into his drawer.

“All right, my little friend. What do you say you and I satisfy my curiosity and go check out those radio signals?”

Sometimes the pinball went down the drain and that was that.

And sometimes you had enough points to earn an extra ball and begin a new game.

5

Margarita brought the ship out of warp drive and looked at the nearby planet on her nav screen. She had stopped well out of range of anyone watching from its surface, but she still felt a tingle of uneasiness.

“There’s the source of the radio waves, Darwin. Now what?” Landing without scoping out the situation would be downright foolish—a good way to get killed or have her ship commandeered by pirates.

She hadn’t survived this long by acting foolish.

Margarita placed the ship in orbit while she tasked the ship’s main computer with scanning the surface for either life forms or a radio beacon. She fed Darwin, played with him for a bit, and made herself a cup of jasmine tea while she waited.

Standing in the clear nosecone she looked out at the large planet beneath them. Earth-sized, the planet looked like a billion other chunks of uninhabited rock. No distinguishing mountain ranges, several large depressions from meteorite hits, no sign of water or ice. Just a pockmarked, steely gray rock.

Behind her the computer beeped: task finished. Margarita turned away from the window and checked the results. No sign of life. Radio beacon pinpointed with coordinates.

A transmitter left behind by an explorer?

She breathed easier knowing there was nothing to fear on the planet’s surface. Might as well check out the beacon, she decided, see if she recognized the maker, and if not, take down the information to add to the Mars Base database.

She felt a small twinge of regret, quickly followed by anger. Her emotions put Darwin on alert. His sleek coat began to bristle, the individual hairs standing on end.

“It’s nothing, buddy.” Margarita smoothed down his wiry fur. “I forgot for a minute that I’m no longer a member of the Special Pilots force. We’ll just gather the information for our own use. Prepare for landing.”

She gave herself a mental kick in the pants. It would take a while for her to remember her new status. Despite being a loner, she had been a happy team member and a good, solid team player her entire career.

But once her co-workers tried to kill her there was no point in believing she was one of the team.

She strapped herself into the pilot’s chair and nudged the ship out of orbit, locking in the radio beacon’s coordinates and placing the ship into a slow descent to the planet’s surface.

The surface details grew clearer and larger in the nosecone. The area around the beacon was a mass of jumbled rocks with no sign of a transmitter.

Margarita frowned. The radio waves had to be powerful to be picked up by the Mars base. She had expected to see a transmitter—a large transmitter—right below her.

But she saw nothing.

She took the ship out of autopilot. Taking the joystick into her hands, she brought the ship lower. She skimmed just above the surface, over the rocks. The rocks ended and she sailed over a smooth plain.

There was nothing. An alarm went off inside Margarita’s head. What if the radio beacon was a lure? What if—

A narrow black gap appeared in the smooth plain. Too late, Margarita jerked the joystick toward her, trying to pull the ship up and away.

The gap quickly widened and the ship dipped toward it.

Margarita fought for control of her ship, but whatever had a grip on it was powerful, too powerful for her to resist. Within minutes the ship had been dragged beneath the planet’s surface and the gap closed overhead.

“Well, snakes and liars. I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” Furious with herself, she also felt a tiny bit afraid. She had no clue what she was dealing with here, but something told her that it didn’t bode well for her future.

A voice boomed inside her ship. “Junkyard Dog. Please open your hatch. The atmosphere inside the hangar will support you. We mean you no harm.”

“Yeah, right. If that’s true, why’d you trap my ship?” Margarita ignored the command. She released herself from the pilot’s chair, shut off the ship’s interior lights, and walked to the nosecone to get a look at her prison.

The first thing that struck her was the sheer size of the underground hangar. It stretched in all directions, fading into dark shadows that could be walls, or could be unlit areas. It was too dark to tell.

She could see a variety of ships, dark and still, in the shadows.

Immense ships, cargo ships, she realized, were lined up in short, neat rows in the center of the hangar. Light beams shone down on two ships that were being loaded with some type of rock falling from massive, moving conveyor belts.

Hangar. Ships hauling rocks. Not just rocks, she amended, she’d bet a month’s wages that those ships were loading ore.

A chill raised goosebumps on Margarita’s skin. She had heard stories of the mining companies who operated with little or no regard for human life. They took a page from the ancient history of a seafaring country called England on Old Earth and kidnapped their workers from captured ships.

There was an old word for it. She searched her memory until it came to her.

Conscription–to force someone to enlist. She had stumbled onto a mining community and was now their prisoner.

According to the stories she had heard, the only way out was death. Hundreds of ships from all over the known universe disappeared every year.

“Junkyard Dog. I repeat, open your hatch or we will be forced to cut open your ship and extract your crew.”

Margarita narrowed her eyes. Giving up her ship did not sit well with her, but having it destroyed sat worse. As long as she remained alive and her ship was whole there was a chance for escape.

She stalled for several minutes, wondering how long they’d give her before they made good on their threat.

The answer was—not long. Barely five minutes had passed before a large robotic arm clamped onto the Junkyard Dog. Five minutes in which Margarita tried desperately to come up with an escape plan—and failed. These people were serious.

“I’m coming! Don’t ruin my ship.”

Margarita slid a small throwing knife into her boot. She strapped on a neutralizer, knowing that it would be taken from her. Her hope was that whoever “they” were, they would take her obvious weapon and not find the knife.

“Come on, Darwin. Let’s go see what kind of trouble we found for ourselves.”

Two armed guards met her outside the ship. They placed a hood over her head and led her through a series of twists and turns.

Fifteen minutes later someone ripped off the hood and left her facing an enormous man across a desk that would have been large enough to tango upon if it hadn’t been covered with platters of food.

The room, like the desk, was sumptuous. Thick, sink-to-your-ankles indigo blue carpeting covered the floor. Heavy tapestries worked in jewel tones covered all the walls. The room was a study of over-the-top luxury.

The man reminded her of an Old Earth bobblehead figure; his large, square-jawed, bald head nodded back and forth as though it was too heavy for him to hold steady on his too long, skinny neck.

Margarita barely managed to suppress a smirk.

His eyes, flat, black, and cold, were another matter. There was nothing funny about them. They focused steadily on Margarita despite the constant motion of the man’s head.

It was the eyes more than anything else that told her she was in serious trouble.

She watched, fascinated, as the man stabbed a thick sausage and shoveled half of it into his mouth. His eyes never left her face as grease ran down his jutting chin, dripped off, and joined several other stains on his heavy brown robes.

The hunger she had felt when she first saw the platters of food fled.

“Name.”

“What?” Margarita pulled her gaze away from the man’s working jaws. Bobblehead’s voice was surprisingly high and thin for a man of his size. She had expected it to boom.

“Name.”

Obviously a man of few words.

“Margarita King.” Two could play this game. She knew the training manuals backward and forward—give as little information as possible while learning as much as she could in return.

“Death or mine?”

“What!?” She took a step back.

The man reached for a tall, red button on his desk and slapped at it with his free hand. His other hand held a large bun filled with something creamy. The goo squirted out the sides of his mouth as he took a too-large bite.

Stomach roiling, Margarita was thankful when the office door opened behind her and a tall skinny man, clad in a pale blue robe, entered and stood beside the desk. She shifted her gaze to the newcomer and tried to block out the disgusting eating machine.

Bobblehead waved a free hand wordlessly at Margarita.

The second man turned to her, his hands clasped in front of him at his waist, and inspected her.

Margarita gazed steadily back. Unlike Bobblehead, this man’s eyes were a soft, liquid brown. Sympathetic puppy dog eyes. For a brief second she thought he might be an ally, but he quickly squashed that hope.

“Oh, the mine, absolutely. Look at her. She’s a fine specimen, tall and strong. She’ll make a tough, sturdy worker.”

It was as Margarita feared. Her ship had been hijacked and she was about to be put to work down in some godforsaken mine or else put to death. Some choice.

“We respect your right to have a choice.” Beanstalk looked hopefully at Margarita.

Margarita glared. “You have no right to keep me or my ship here against my will. I demand to be released immediately.” She kept her expression fierce, hoping the men wouldn’t see that she was worried.

Beanstalk merely shrugged. “Your ship will be sold next month along with the others we have…gathered, shall I say? Company policy. If you choose to work for us you will be given comfortable quarters and well fed. If you choose death we’ll make it quick and painless. Your choice.”

He seemed to notice Darwin for the first time. “What’s with the animal?”

Margarita knew that if the men had no use for Darwin they would take him from her and probably kill him.