Dead Man Walking – Ring of Lantash

“You know,” Caree said cheerfully as she slathered salve on Rake’s battered chest, “I never got to ask you. Where’d you get the money for the insurance policy?”

Rake grimaced, more from the coolness of the gel than from pain. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m not a fool, Rake,” she said lightly. “You’ve been involved in a lot of jobs in the outer worlds. Including several in the zero security zone, outside civilization. You’ve made a name for yourself as a great pilot and a man who can think on his feet. But none of those jobs have been a big score—nothing that would’ve taken the millions you would’ve needed for an insurance policy.”

“Oh, come on,” Rake complained. “Are you really telling me you’ve seen my finances? You’ve been looking into my books?”

“No,” Caree said with a shake of her head. “I don’t need to do that. I also know what kind of lifestyle you’ve lived. You’re burning cash like anyone living in the outer worlds. Not to mention the upgrades to your ship,” she added. Then she paused. “That reminds me—do you have another insurance policy?”

Rake shook his head. “No, I don’t. There was only enough cash for one.”

“So where’d the money come from?”

The pilot hesitated for long moments, the silence heavy as Caree finished smearing salve and began wrapping his wounds with bandages. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” she repeated skeptically.

“No. I was given a large lump of cash over a year ago, with express instructions to get a life insurance policy. I didn’t question it—just made a trip to Terra and went through the process. Then, three weeks ago, I got another payment with instructions to ensure my memory was up to date—enough cash to cover the update and the trip to Terra.”

“And you didn’t ask where this was coming from?”

“I did look into it, a year ago, when I got the first payment. The money came from an account on New Persia with a name that went nowhere. I had some friends look into that, and the money for that account came from Earth, and the transfer date was before the Great War.”

Caree grimaced. “So, no way to trace it.”

“No, there’s no way.”

“So, you think your mystery benefactor had something to do with your death?” Caree asked. “I mean, it’s like he knew you might not make it through…whatever you got yourself into.”

Rake nodded. “Good chance.”

“So, that begs the question—what were you involved with a year ago? Someone apparently was making an investment then to ensure you survived.”

“I’m not sure,” Rake confessed.

“Why not?” Caree asked.

Rake considered his options carefully. I really don’t remember, but that might be because of this body. Or maybe it’s because I really don’t remember. Until I can get my ship back, and get to all my ship logs, I really don’t know.

“Most of my memories from…before…are kind of fuzzy. According to the doc on Terra, it’s common after the wake up,” he lied. “He said it might take a few weeks for me to recall everything clearly.” In a few weeks, I’ll either be clear of this, or dead.

“So, what’s your plan?” the woman asked. “Besides get to your ship?”

The pilot slid off the bed, carefully pulling on a fresh shirt over his tender skin. “If I can find my ship, the navigation logs should tell me where I’ve been. Between that and my personal logs, I should be able to reconstruct what I’ve been doing, and hopefully pay off whatever crime boss is sending all these guys after me.”

“A crime boss?” Caree was skeptical. “Those were Lantash authority sloops that shot up our tail, not pirate ships.”

“A skiptracer working for the law wouldn’t risk shooting up an insurance facility,” Rake said firmly. “No, it has to be someone on the outer worlds—maybe even someone in the zero security zone.” He raised an eyebrow. “You want some help with your wounds?”

The dark-haired beauty offered a wink before smoothly doffing her shirt, offering Rake a smile. “Not the first time you’ve seen this, now, is it?”

Rake nearly swallowed his tongue as he picked up the can of salve. As methodically as he could manage, he carefully began rubbing in salve over her wounds. Like his own, they were small and many, tiny cuts that had covered her chest in a sheet of blood. With his off hand, he picked up a towel and carefully began to clean the blood from her skin as well.

“No, not the first time,” he finally managed to say.

Caree offered him a teasing grin. “Pay attention to your work,” she said lightly.

“Of course,” he said, reverting to biting his tongue.

“So,” she said after a few moments of silence, “what comes after you find your ship? You round up your crew and go after…whatever it is?”

“No crew,” Rake said.

“No crew?” she asked in surprise. “How do you man your ship?”

The man hesitated for a moment. How many secrets do I really want to give her? “She’s an advanced ship, designed for a minimal crew. The complement is supposed to be three, actually—a pilot, a weapons officer, and an engineer.”

“And you, of course, do all three.”

“I’m a man of many talents,” Rake boasted.

Caree leaned forward against his hands, still cleaning up her battered chest. “Yes, yes you are.”

He did his best to maintain composure, but she was very good at distracting him. “I do my best.”

“So,” the dark-haired woman said after a few moments of silence, “What’s the name of your ship?”

“Getting personal, are we?”

“Given our mutual lack of clothes, I’d say we’re already personal, aren’t we?” Caree winked.

“So do you really want to talk about my ship?” he asked dubiously.

“Isn’t that the way to sweet-talk you pilots?” she asked in return. “Talk about ships and engines and guns? I thought you’d like that kind of pillow-talk.”

“We’re not on a pillow,” Rake said dryly.

“Let’s fix that,” Caree grinned, taking his hand.




Almost eleven hours later, the intercom in Caree’s cabin beeped for attention. The dark-haired woman lazily rolled off Rake’s chest and stretched out to tap the button. “Go ahead.”

“Cap, we found the canyon,” Wings reported. “Just like Earthstepper described.”

“Put us in stationary orbit over the canyon and wait for us,” the captain ordered. “We’ll be there shortly.”

Wings was silent for a moment. Rake guessed he was processing the meaning of we. “Yes, cap.” The intercom beeped to signal the line closing.

“Guess that means we have to get up,” Rake grumbled.

“Are you complaining, sweetheart?” Caree asked with a wicked grin. “Didn’t get enough rest?”

“Plenty of time in bed, but not much rest,” he answered lazily. “I haven’t had much sleep since I woke up from the insurance facility.”

“Sleep when you’re dead,” she teased.

“Already did that once. Wasn’t restful.”

Caree smacked him playfully in the shoulder. “Quit your complaining and get dressed, dead man.”




It took twenty minutes of haggling over the short-range radio to secure permission to land—eight minutes of arguing over Rake’s out-of-date clearance code, and another twelve minutes to settle on berthing fees that, while still high, weren’t as outrageous as the initial offer. Caree had wanted to continue the negotiation, but the Starfall’s passive sensors had picked up faint sensor pings from one of the Lantash sloops—too weak to reveal the location of the ship, but plenty of warning that the authorities hadn’t given up their search.

The landing zone was concealed at the bottom of the canyon, with no external lights or signals to betray the location. Rake had to admit that, in spite of his professional distaste for riding in a ship he wasn’t flying, Wings was a pretty fair pilot. The big man slipped the freighter under the overhanging rock, putting plenty of cover between them and their pursuers.

It took another minute of careful maneuvering to mate the Starfall’s airlock with a docking tube extended from seemingly sheer stone wall.

As the airlock hissed open, wind blew over Rake, ruffling his too-long hair. His ears popped as the pressures equalized, and the artificial breeze died off.

The gun in his hand felt wrong. Not because Rake had any problem with carrying a handgun—especially into ratholes like the Lantash Six smuggler hole. He had, for that matter, carried a sidearm most of his adult life. No, the problem was that the pistol was all wrong. The weapon was too light, the barrel too long. The balance was entirely off, and he couldn’t feel the natural point of the weapon when he swung on a target.

“No boarders?” Caree asked when the airlock and connecting tube remained empty. “I thought they’d send a welcoming party.”

“No reason to bother,” Rake said grimly. “Everyone inside will be armed, so if we run in guns blazing we’d be dead. They’ve probably got dozens of coilguns embedded in the rocks pointed right at the ship. If we do anything too stupid, they’ll cut the Starfall to shreds.”

“Ah. So why, exactly, are we walking into this place?” Caree asked warily.

“This is hardly the first smuggler hole you’ve walked into,” Rake commented. “Any place like this can’t depend on local security—they’re hardly going to call the Lantash authorities, are they? So they take precautions to ensure nothing too horrid happens.”

Caree glanced back at her crew, gathered behind them. “So, I’d guess we should leave the crew here.”

“That would be ideal. We don’t want to risk starting a fight.”

Caree waved off her crew. None of the four looked happy, but they retreated back into the Starfall as per their captain’s wishes. When they had all vanished, the dark-haired woman looked over at Rake. “After you.”

“Yep.” Rake walked through the airlock and into the connecting tube.

The air was a bit stale and smelled of grease and solvent, and he could hear a faint hiss of escaping air. Must be a leak somewhere, he thought uneasily. Hope the whole place isn’t like that. It sure wasn’t the last time I was here, but that had to be three years ago.

Wasn’t it? The fact that he couldn’t precisely remember bothered him. Is this body going downhill already? Or is it normal to not remember details like that? The uncertainty was nearly as bad as the memory loss in the first place.

“So, what do we do now?” Caree asked quietly.

“Looks like company is coming,” Rake nodded toward an approaching man in a dirty brown uniform, flanked by two armed guards.

The station’s staff made no pretense at friendliness. “Rake Earthstepper. Different ship than the last time through.”

“Not mine,” Rake said as he jerked his thumb toward Caree. “Hers.”

“Who’s paying the fees?”

“Rake volunteered,” Caree said casually.

He grunted a reluctant agreement. “From my account on file,” he said. “We also need to fuel the ship.”

“Fuel’s hard to come by,” the unarmed man said. “Expensive to get out here.”

“Five,” Rake said.

“Ha! Didn’t know you were a comedian, Earthstepper. Twelve.”

“For twelve I could buy a ship with a full take of fuel,” he said with a shake of his head. “Seven, no more.”

“Eight, and I send someone out to scrub the windows,” the staffer said dryly.

“Eight it is. How long?”

“It’ll be slow,” the station’s negotiator said. “The passives we have on the ring shows a couple of Lantash sloops headed this way. They haven’t found us yet, but we’ll have to run the lines manually. No heavy equipment when the authorities are that close. Two hours, maybe?”

“Less would be more,” Rake said.

“I’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, are you going to enjoy our local facilities?”

“Just the pub. Which way?”

The man pointed down one of the shafts hewn from the stone of the rings. “Surprised you even have to ask. And I have to ask, what happened to your ship?” the man asked. “I’ve never seen another like it, and it’d be a shame if some authorities got their hands on it.”

“Just on my way to retrieve her,” Rake said casually. “No one flies my ship but me, and no one will ever catch her, either.”

The negotiator and his two flunkies disappeared toward the docking ring and the Starfall, presumably to start the fueling process, while Rake led Caree down the stone hallway toward the pub. “You handled that well,” the captain commented. “You’ve been here a few times, haven’t you?”

Rake shrugged nonchalantly. “A couple times. It’s a good refueling hole, and not a lot of people know about it. The people that do know keep their mouths shut, which is why there’s a smuggler hole this close to a ‘civilized’ world.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Your crew will keep their mouths shut, won’t they?”

“I’m insulted,” Caree said, her tone sharp.

“Hey, secrecy keeps a lot of smugglers alive, including me. I don’t want one of my holes compromised.”

“You might have already compromised them by sending us here with those patrol boats chasing us,” she retorted.

“Doubtful,” he said dismissively. “They’ve kept their heads down plenty of times when the local authorities are orbiting overhead. Dozens of meters of solid rock is a good cover, as long as no one goes in or out with a sloop nearby. Now,” he added as they stepped out of the passageway and into a larger, dimly-lit cavern, “let’s just relax with a few drinks while they refuel the Starfall.

Like the passageways, the cavern had been carved from the solid stone of the rings. The ceilings were rather low—barely two and a half meters high—but the room itself was nearly sixty meters across, roughly circular. A handful of passageways led away from the pub, with dozens of small niches carved into the walls to provide privacy.

Lamps rose from the floor, a scant meter high, providing the sparse illumination. Power cables and cords were strung openly across from the floor, trip hazards that the pub’s proprietor didn’t seem to care about. Tables, sparsely occupied, were scattered through the open space, some near lamps and some shrouded in darkness. There seemed to be little pattern to the lights and the tables, and the lack of order bothered Rake just a bit.

He didn’t let his discomfort show, however, as he led Caree toward the center of the pub.

The pub’s owner and operator, a too-thin woman barely in her twenties but tougher than the stone walls of her business, was busy cleaning a sinkfull of plates, her back toward Rake and Caree. The bar cut a neat, illuminated circle in the middle of the pub, with a small cooking range and stove at the center of that.

“Rake Earthstepper,” she said gravely without turning her head. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Alo, Meg,” he said easily as he slid onto one of the stools ringing the bar. “How’s business?”

“Quiet. I like it that way.” She turned away from her dishes, eyeing Rake warily. “Your poison?”

“Couple of your local brew,” he ordered. “One for me, one for the captain.”

Meg raised both eyebrows as she produced a pair of dark bottles from under the bar. With practiced ease she twisted both tops off simultaneously and set them down before the spacers. “Didn’t know you would work for someone else.”

“Not my preference, but I do what I have to do.” He picked up the nearer brew and gestured for Caree to take the other. The captain gave him a dubious glance but took a drink, which was followed by a surprised look and a longer, slower drink.

Meg smiled at Caree. “Zero-gee brewing, Cap. Can’t make a brew that’ll touch mine if you’re stuck on a planet.”

The captain frowned. “But you have gravity here.”

“Artificial, just like your ship,” Meg explained. “And only in the habitable places. Storerooms are all packed tight with the grav shut off, unless there’s some reason for it.”

Rake took a swallow of the beer and smiled. “Nobody could brew like you, Meg, even if they could figure out your secrets.”

“Such a flatterer, Rake.” She raised a blonde eyebrow at him. “So, what are you doing working for someone else, and showing them this little hidey-hole?”

“On my way to Clarion to get my ship,” Rake clarified. “This is a short-term gig only.”

“I’d heard a rumor you got yourself killed on Clarion,” Meg said dubiously. “You have to make a run for it without your ship?”

“Something like that,” Rake smiled. “So what, exactly, have you heard?”

“Well, popular rumor was you took a job you shouldn’t have—a job from Boss Bruno. Whole thing went south, and you got killed by some of Bruno’s lackies on Clarion.” She laughed as she twisted the top off a brew for herself, taking a long, slow pull. “’Course, that all seems rather foolish with you standing here.”

“Mmmhmm,” Rake said noncommittally as he took another swallow of beer. Fear soured the taste, though. Oscar Bruno. What the hell was I thinking to take a job from him?

“What doesn’t make sense about the whole thing,” Meg continued, “is that there’s still a price on your head. I checked the ComNet when I heard you were trying to land here with your old code. See, you landed here a few weeks ago with that code and picked up a new one. Between that, you being reported dead, and a price still on your head, tells me you had an insurance policy.”

Rake set his beer down on the bar silently. He opened his mouth to respond, but found himself struggling for words when he saw a pistol in Meg’s hand, leveled straight at his forehead.

Dead Man Walking – Unfriendly Hails

The bridge of Caree’s ship was already crowded when Rake stepped up through the hatchway.

Caree herself stood in the middle of the bridge. Rake glanced around, soaking in the details. She’s standing because she has no command seat, he noted with some surprise. Only seats available are the pilot’s chair and the navigation chair.

Both the aforementioned stations were occupied—the former by a dark-skinned man who looked like he came from a high gravity world, the latter by a pale girl with nearly-white hair that looked far too young to be voyaging into the space lanes. She can’t be more than fifteen years old, by Earth standards, he thought in dismay.

Two more crewman stood at the back of the bridge, a man and a woman with similar ice-blue eyes under dark hair. Brother and sister, Rake guessed. And, unless I’m completely wrong, that should be Caree’s entire crew.

“Captain Staka,” Rake said, keeping his voice even. No sense causing any trouble for her with the crew, he decided immediately. So keep it professional.

“It appears you have some friends, Rake,” she said lightly, but there was an undertone of tension in her voice. “Some more friends, I should say. They’ve been asking very politely if you’re on board.”

“And what have you been telling them?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“We haven’t officially replied to their query yet,” she said with a smile. “Until we figure out how to answer.”

“So who’s doing the asking?” Rake wanted to know.

The gorgeous captain reached up and pulled down two screens from the ceiling. She impatiently tapped the corner of one of the screens, until at last they yielded up images of two patrol craft. “These are your friends,” she commented. “They’re bearing the colors and identification codes for local militia.”

“What’s local?” Rake asked.

“What, did you forget your navigation charts?” Caree responded. “We’re in the Lantash system.”

“Lantash?” he repeated. “That’s hardly the first jump toward Clarion.”

“It’s the long way around,” the captain agreed, “but if you died on Clarion, and your policy was cashed in at one of the Terra facilities, skiptracers are probably going to be watching the usual routes. It’ll take more fuel, but it should have kept us from getting caught.”

“Except it didn’t.”

“Except it didn’t,” Caree agreed. “They must want you bad.”

“You think they already know I’m alive?” Rake asked.

“Maybe. From what I know of Slade, he was probably working solo, but it looks like they’re covering all the bases to try to grab you.”

“What are those patrol ships packing?” he changed the subject.

Caree tapped at the second screen. When it didn’t respond, she banged it with her fist in annoyance. After another moment, streaks of red began to light up on the diagnostic of the patrol boat.

Rake stepped forward to get a better look at the screen. The vessel was a sloop—hardly considered a capital ship by modern standards. At a hundred meters long, it packed two dozen small-caliber coilguns highlighted in red on the diagram, which would be plenty against any freighters or pirate ships plying the space lanes. A trio of powerful engines could propel it at decent acceleration, and a point drive allowed for intersystem travel. The whole vessel was vaguely wedge-shaped with smooth, flat surfaces, a typical design for a warship: it allowed for high-firepower, low-profile edges to point at an enemy.

“How much firepower does your ship have?” Rake asked quietly.

“The Starfall isn’t a warship,” Caree reprimanded him. “I can’t go to guns with two of those patrol boats—they’ll tear us to shreds.”

“How many gees can you pull?” was his next question.

“Running?” Caree raised an eyebrow at him, then looked at the diagrams. “They’ll take us to pieces before we can get out of range.”

“I have a hunch about that,” Rake said. “But we can outrun them?”

The captain nodded. “Yes, we can pull a lot more gees than they can.”

The navigator spoke up. “If we try to run, cap, we’re going to wind up stranded.”

Caree looked over at the white-haired girl. “Again?”

“We won’t have enough fuel for a jump if we run the engines for a long burn,” she explained. “There’s no way we could head back to Terra or continue on to Clarion without refueling.”

“So why didn’t you let me know we needed refueling?” the captain asked.

“Cap, we were going to refuel at one of the Terra stations,” the pilot interjected. “You told us it was going to be a simple pickup, and we’d have a few days in system.”

“Damn,” Caree muttered. “Damn, damn, damn. We’re caught because we’re out of gas.”

The navigator nodded. “We can outrun them, but wherever we choose to set down to refuel, we’ll light up their sensors like a candle.”

“Wait,” Rake interjected. “You just mean re-entry, right? That everyone will know we’re there from the fire?”

“Right. No need for fancy sensors or spaceport controls, just the physical signs we’ll be giving off,” she affirmed.

“Can you bring me up a system map?” Rake asked Caree.

The captain frowned but tapped the secondary screen’s corner again. Several irritated taps later, the image of the patrol sloop vanished to be replaced by a map of the star system. “Not to scale, of course.”

“Of course,” Rake murmured as he studied the display. At the center was, of course, the system’s sun. The two planets orbiting closest were both colonized and boasted first-class starport facilities, capable of accommodating ships even larger than the patrol sloops and refueling any starship short of a nuclear reactor. The third and fourth worlds were smaller, cold rocks incapable of hosting life. The fifth world was partly terraformed, but the process had been left incomplete by the Great War. The sixth planet was a ringed gas giant, while the seventh and last world was so small it was hardly considered a planet at all.

“This is perfect,” he murmured. “Lantash Six is the closest world.”

Caree frowned at him. “Lantash Six? It’s a gas giant. We can’t land there—the atmosphere is so dense it would crush us like a bug before we made it to the ground.”

“Which is why it’s perfect.” Rake glanced at the navigator. “Do we have enough fuel for an in-system jump?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need to land to refuel,” the girl replied. “There’s no orbital stations for us to try to get fuel.”

“You’re right about that,” Rake agreed. “Do we have the power to run now?”

Caree glanced over at the pilot. “Wings?”

The dark-skinned man—Wings, apparently—glanced over his own status screens before answering. “Yes,” he answered. “Our engines are warmed up and ready after the cold jump from Terra.”

“What’s your plan, Earthstepper?” the captain asked him.

Rake tapped the display. “Are you familiar with the rings of Lantash Six?”

“I’m guessing there’s something I don’t know about there?” she asked instead of answering.

The man nodded. “Something, yes.” He tapped the display. “Put in a direct course for Lantash Two, full burn. As soon as you have the point drive spooled up, we jump straight to Lantash Six, as close as you can manage. It’ll throw the patrol boats off.”

“That’ll just burn up more of our fuel,” the navigator protested.

“Trust me.” Rake offered a confident smile.

“This is crazy, cap,” the girl said, looking past the passenger.

Caree slowly began to smile. “Lay in the course,” she said. “And start the calculations.”

“Cap,” Wings protested, “when I light the engines, those patrol boats are going to light us up.”

“No, they won’t,” the dark-haired woman said. “They’re hunting our friend here. Judging by that skiptracer back on Terra, I’d guess they want him alive. They won’t risk blowing us up.”

“They don’t know he’s on board,” one of the siblings said from the back of the bridge. “We haven’t replied.”

“Is our course laid in?” Caree asked.

Both pilot and navigator nodded.

“Get ready to punch up a full burn,” the captain ordered. “And everyone strap in. You too, Rake.”

As Rake strapped into one of the jump seats lining the back wall, Caree dragged one of the screens to the back of the bridge with her. The display hung up at one point until she jerked it, freeing it again to slide aft until it hung in front of Rake’s chair. The captain strapped herself in beside the fugitive, then slid the screen over until both of them could see it.

“Caree?” he murmured.

She grinned at him. “Trust me.” She reached out and touched the display and, for once, it responded immediately. The system map vanished, replaced by the image of a man in a uniform. “This is Captain Staka aboard the Starfall,” she announced. “I have Rake Earthstepper on board.” She grinned. “Catch us if you can.”

The ship seemed to leap out from under Rake as the pilot bunched in the full burn. He didn’t have time to contemplate it, though, as the monitor smashed into his chest, thrown into him under the massive acceleration. The very chair he was sitting in vibrated with the rumble of the vessel’s mighty engines.

He could feel shards of glass jabbing into his chest and guessed the screen had shattered under the impact. With an effort, he glanced over and saw Caree was similarly grimacing under the pressure. “I forgot,” she muttered with an effort. “This is exactly what happened last time.”

“Last time?” Rake managed. “You do this often?”

The freighter bucked, hard, but the crew was all firmly strapped in. “We’re taking fire!” the girl at navigation shouted.

“If they wanted us dead, our hull would already be full of holes,” Caree grimaced. “They’re making a show to try to get us to surrender.”

“Ready to jump at any time, cap,” Wings called.

“Don’t wait on account of me,” the woman answered.

There was another gut-wrenching jerk, and then Rake felt as though his bearings were again entirely stripped away. It wasn’t as bad, this time—he didn’t lose consciousness. Nausea swept over him, but he managed to keep from retching as the ship vanished from one location and appeared in another.

The roar of the engines fell away, and the ship quit shaking a few moments later. Out the viewport, Rake could see the massive, colorful swirl of Lantash Six nearby. It was further than he thought, of course—gas giants were huge, and appeared closer than they really were.

The rings of Lantash Six were a phenomena unmatched in the Expanse. Planetary rings were, by and large, colorful bits of space debris. They consisted of bits of dust and small rock and stray gases, and while solid-appearing from a distance, they were quite insubstantial while at close range. In some ways, they were as deceptive as clouds.

Except the rings of Lantash Six.

There was speculation among scientists that they had been formed of molten material ejected into orbit by a series of meteor strikes; others held that the rings were simply so ancient they had accumulated massive amounts of free-floating space debris. In either case, the rings of Lantash Six were utterly unique.

They were solid, unbroken, fused stone.

And they were barely five hundred meters away from the Starfall.

Wings yelped in surprise. “Plotted that one a bit tight, didn’t you?”

Rake was pressed back into his seat as Wings applied power from the engines. The Starfall’s nose came up, but thousands of tons of momentum kept pushing it toward disaster. The freighter shuddered as the pilot applied full thrust, the engines roaring in response. Painfully slowly, the vessel’s momentum changed, even as the vessel skimmed along the ring. Mountains thrust up like fingers, jagged from millennia without the eroding effects of wind or water. The freighter slowed as Wings applied counterthrust, using every technique he had to avoid disaster.

There was a tiny “ping”, barely audible over the scream of overdriven engines, and then the Starfall was gaining altitude, pulling away from the ring.

Rake blew out a sigh of relief. “That was too close.” Then he winced as pain stabbed through his chest again. “Ow.”

Caree grimaced as she pushed the broken monitor away from the two of them. “Next time, Joy, could you leave a little more margin for error?”

The girl at navigation—Joy, apparently—looked up with an abashed expression. “Sorry, cap. I plotted that a bit tight.”

Rake shook his head. “That was insane. I’ve never seen someone plot a jump that tight.”

“She’s just that good,” Caree said as she looked down at her bloodstained shirt. “She’s a lot smarter than her captain, too.” Her gaze lifted to lock with Rake’s. “Since this was your idea, where to now?”

“We’ll need a scan of the ring’s topography,” he instructed as he looked at his own blood-soaked shirt. So much for the clothes I left behind, he thought. “We’re looking for a canyon two kilometers long, with a single mountain capping either end.”

“I don’t have anything like that where we can see it,” Joy said.

“I didn’t expect us to be that lucky. We’ll have to orbit until you see it.”

“And what’s so important about this canyon?” Wings asked.

Rake’s smile was small and tight. “Back during the war, Lantash was controlled by Terra, but not all the locals liked it. The Earth loyalists set up a resistance base on the rings. Friendly forces coming through used it for refueling and repairs, and the Terrans knew it was there, but they never found it.”

“But you knew where it was,” Caree stated.

“Not until after,” Rake said with a shake of his head. “After the war, the loyalists there turned it into a smuggler hole. Now days it’s used for brokering deals and fueling ships that can’t, for whatever reason, deal with the local authorities.”

“Like us.” Caree smiled broadly. “How did I never know about this?”

“It’s not widely advertised,” Rake said. “Even on the worlds I frequent. The few people that know about it have plenty of reason to keep it quiet—after all, if word got back to the officials on Laranth One, or even Terra, they’d send in a couple of frigates to clean the place out.”

“So, when we find this canyon, what do we do?” Joy asked.

“I transmit the code clearance, we land, we pay exorbitant prices for fuel, and then we get the hell out,” Rake said grimly.

“Great plan,” Caree said. “I’ll make sure we charge the fuel to your account. Come on, let’s go down to the medical bay and get cleaned up. This could take a while.” She offered a small smile. “You and I have some things to talk about.”

Dead Man Walking – Unexpected Rescue

Rake tried to open his eyes, but light stabbed at him viciously. He immediately squeezed his eyelids shut again for a few moments before he tried again, this time more slowly. The light was vicious, but he persisted against the pain.

Did I die again? he wondered, then immediate dismissed the notion. No, if I had died again, I’d remember getting another insurance policy. Last thing I remember is that skiptracer, and a shootout, and the air venting into space. If I were dead, they’d have used my memories from before to bring me back, and I wouldn’t remember the shootout.

He congratulated himself on his reasoning. So, I’m okay. But where am I?

The light finally seemed to ease its attacks, and Rake slowly soaked in the details as they came into focus. The overhead lights hung from a metal ceiling, gently curving toward the floor. He was lying on a medical table of some sort, with a medical AI standing nearby in a powered-off state.  A single viewport looked out into the darkness of space, providing an unparalleled view of brilliant stars.

Cabinets lined the walls, all the workspaces clear of any loose items. Rake lifted his arms and found he was not bound—in fact, there was nothing keeping him on the medical bed. He did some more mental math. Okay, so everything’s neatly stored away and tidy as can be. Between that and the view of the stars, I must be on a ship. Given the firefight outside the insurance facility, it’s probably the ship that shot the place up. And given that I’m not bound, they’re probably not skiptracers, either.

So, someone rescued me.

Rake slowly sat up, giving himself time to adjust. Dizziness swept over him, but he persisted, refusing to relent. When he was fully sitting up, he slowly pulled himself around to let his legs dangle off the bed. Ever-so-slowly, he eased himself off, carefully transferring his weight to his feet, supporting himself with his arms to ensure he didn’t fall.

It wasn’t until he was standing with most of his weight on his legs that he realized he wasn’t feeling any pain from his wounded leg. He looked down in surprise and saw clean white medical wrapping securely in place around his entire calf, from knee to ankle. He experimentally shifted even more of his weight to his wounded leg and felt barely a twinge from it. Definitely not skiptracers, he decided. They wouldn’t have bothered patching me up unless it was a critical wound and they needed me alive for the reward.

As he straightened up, no longer leaning on the bed, he had another sudden revelation: he was dressed only in a thin medical gown. Rake glanced around, but saw no sign of his clothes. “Of course not,” he muttered. “With everything else packed away, they would have packed my clothes up, too. No loose objects on a ship.”

A whistle from the door brought Rake’s head up and around. Leaning against the frame, arms crossed, was a gorgeous dark-haired woman, hair cropped well above her shoulders and hanging loosely around her heart-shaped face. “I think I prefer to keep you like this.”

“Like this?” Rake repeated.

“Mostly naked,” the woman said with a wink.

“Uh, right,” Rake muttered, blushing before he could catch himself. “It seems you have me at a disadvantage,” he answered. “If we’re going to be on equal footing, maybe you should strip down, too.”

She laughed, a wicked sound promising all sorts of delights. “Who said I want to be equal with you?” She finally relented with a brilliant smile. “Check the upper drawer under the bed.”

Rake bent over and pulled the drawer open, finding it empty. He looked up questioningly at the woman.

Her smile was just as wicked as before. “Oops, my mistake. One drawer lower.”

The man glanced down at himself and realized the gown had ridden up when he had bent over. He blushed again, then shrugged and pulled open the lower drawer.

He found his clothes neatly folded inside—the trousers, shirt, and jacket he’d worn in the insurance facility. Gratefully, he pulled the clothes out and started dressing, pulling on the pants before he shed the medical gown.

“You don’t need to do that,” she said lightly. “After all, it’s nothing I haven’t seen already.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rake said dryly as he pulled his shirt over his head. “Quite the voyeur, are you?”

“Fine way to talk to the woman who pulled your ass out of the fire,” she said, her light tone contrasting her words. “Next time a skiptracer has you, I’m just going to watch.”

Rake raised an eyebrow at her as he pulled his jacket on. “Wait, that was you shooting at Slade?”

The woman raised both eyebrows in return. “That skiptracer was Slade?!

“You didn’t know?” Rake asked in return.

“Honey, when I got your message to pick you up from the insurance facility, I had no idea you were in that kind of trouble.” She shook her head. “Damn, that was an enemy I could have happily never made.”

“Pick me up?” His head was spinning. “I’m out of it for a few weeks, and nothing makes sense.”

The woman offered him another dazzling smile. “You don’t even recognize me, do you Rake?”

The question set him aback. “I know you?”

She shook her head. “For shame, Rake. If your stored memories are that old, we’re never going to get you clear of this mess you’re in.”

Rake studied her for a moment, and then a moment longer before he finally recognized the crystal blue eyes nearly hidden behind the dark hair. “I’ll be damned,” he breathed. “Caree Staka.”

“Ah, you do remember me. I was prepared to be offended,” she said with a wink.

“How many years has it been since you and I pulled that job off New Recice?” Rake asked with a shake of his head. “We were both still wet-behind-the-ears kids!”

Caree grinned. “That didn’t stop us from doing some stupid things,” she said.

“It’s probably why we did stupid things,” Rake replied with a broad smile of his own.

“Aw, is that the only reason we…?”

“Hell, no,” he interrupted. “If that was the only reason, you think I would’ve called you when I’m in trouble?”

“Always the charmer, Rake. You haven’t changed a bit.”

You have,” he commented. When she raised an eyebrow, he said, “You’re all the more beautiful for it. Besides, the Caree I worked with off New Recice would never have walked into the middle of a shooting match.”

“I did no such thing,” she sniffed disdainfully. “I started that fight.”

“So, uh,” Rake said awkwardly, “if you have some idea what’s going on, I’d love to know. I kind of woke up from a tank and have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into.”

Caree grimaced. “I was hoping you took a flash of your memories before you died so that you would know.”

“Well, what do you know?” he asked. “How did you know where to find me, or even that I needed help?”

The dark-haired beauty blew out a sigh. “Of course, on to business.”


“No, it’s okay.” She shrugged, a liquid motion that drew Rake’s eyes. “I’ve just…missed you.” She held up a hand to forestall his reply. “Business first.”

“So, first question,” Rake said. “Where are we?”

“Edge of the Terra system,” was Caree’s answer. “We’re mostly powered down, passive sensors only, and our core is cool enough that we should be invisible against background noise unless someone’s running active scans. And if they are, we’ll pick them up with the passives.”

“And if we need to run, how long will it take you to be ready?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“We’ve already got an emergency jump plotted,” she said. “We’ve got enough power in the capacitors to hit the point drive, but we’ll have nothing left when we get there.”

“That’s a lot of juice in the caps,” Rake commented. “Bit past spec, isn’t it?”

She smiled. “Since when are you concerned with legality?”

Instead of answering, he changed the subject. “So how did you find me? And why were you out here in the first place?”

Caree paused for a moment before answering. “Just over three days ago, I got a transmission from you out at Clarion. You wouldn’t give me the details, but you said you were in a lot of trouble and didn’t think you’d survive. You told me you had a life insurance policy at one of the Terra insurance companies and you’d need me to pick you up in a few weeks if things went south.” She grimaced. “You told me you needed someone you could trust if you were going to slip the skiptracers chasing you, that you’d need to lay low for a while.”

“Given what we left of that insurance station, I’d say I was right,” Rake grumbled. “So I didn’t tell you anything more? Any hint at what kind of trouble I was in?”

She shook her head. “Not a word, other than to say how bad it was.”

“Well, at least one skip figured out I had a life insurance policy,” he said grimly. “Not only that, but he figured out where they’d be bringing me off ice. And where there’s one, there will be more.” Rake contemplated for a moment before asking, “So where are we headed?”

“I was hoping you would have an answer for that question. I came all the way to Terra to get you—we had no job that would’ve taken us this close to civilization,” she said, adding a slight mocking tone to the final word.

“Let me think on it a bit,” Rake said. “Actually, no need to think about it.” He took a deep breath. “Set a course for Clarion.”

Caree stared at him. “Um, wouldn’t that be where you were killed? Are you sure no one is going to still be looking for you there?”

The pilot shook his head. “I died a few days ago, and word officially made it onto the ComNet if my insurance policy was invoked. Anyone who was looking for me there will know I’m dead and gone.” He offered a cynical smile. “In fact, they’re probably combing Earth, Terra, and the rest of the Home Region, waiting for me to show up at an insurance company.”

The woman paled. “So it would probably be best to get us out of the Home Region,” she said.

Rake nodded. “So, Clarion.”

She frowned at him, but the expression didn’t detract a shred from her beauty, which Rake was trying very hard to ignore. “What are you hoping to find there?”

“Two things,” Rake answered. “First, maybe I can kick up something to tell me why skiptracers were hunting me down with intention to kill. And second, I want my ship back. I’d bet every credit I have left that my ship is parked somewhere in that system.”

“Pilots,” she murmured. “You’re all alike.”

He snorted. “What does that make you?”

Caree offered another dazzling smile. “I’m the captain, not the pilot.”

“Well, then, captain, you’d best give the orders to get us moving,” Rake said with a broad smile and a nod.

“Of course,” she said with just a bit of stiffness. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, once we have this boat under way.”

Rake watched her leave, admiring her backside the whole time. When she had disappeared from sight, he forced himself to sit down and think.

Okay, Rake, he told himself, start from what you know. First, you know you died sometime in the last few days. Your death was reported on the ComNet, and your life insurance policy brought this body off ice with your last memories restored. Sometime between that flash two weeks ago and the day you were killed, you got yourself into some kind of trouble—something deep. You were killed, most likely on Clarion, but that didn’t satisfy whoever was after you, since a skiptracer showed up here at Terra to try to grab you.

Not only that, but he did it inside an insurance facility. That realization worried him. Not only was this something bad enough to get you shot, but it was bad enough for a skiptracer to break all rules of decorum to make sure you didn’t make it out of the facility free. The credit payout on your head must be huge. Large enough to risk breaking dozens of laws to get.

Well, at least I know I’m not wanted by any of the Home Region governments. He smiled to himself. They would’ve had uniformed officers there to arrest me, not some skiptracer.

I must be in trouble on one of the Outlying Worlds, or with one of the kingpins.

Rake frowned. This business doesn’t lead to a lot of friends, but I must not have thought I could trust anyone if I called Caree to pick me up. We haven’t spoken in years, but she was always as good as her word.

The pilot continued to sit with eyes closed as he continued to poke and prod at the few facts he knew, trying to wring out any more information, but they were as dry as stones. Even with the distraction of his own thoughts, and the deep-seated fear underlying them, he couldn’t miss the sensation of a point-to-point jump.

Rake didn’t understand exactly how point drives worked—for that matter, he doubted more people than a handful of astrophysicists in the entire Expanse truly understood it. The usual metaphor for the technology was enough to satisfy his need for knowledge.

Developed several centuries ago, point drives were the solution to the speed-of-light limit. Instead of hurling a craft at transluminal velocities—long discovered impossible—point drives bent space itself to allow immediate transition from one spot to the next. When Rake was a child, he had been taught the concept with a single sheet of paper. If a person lived on that paper, in two dimensions, he’d never experience the third dimension that was being bent. When the paper met, he might be able to pop from one half of the sheet to the other, without actually crossing the open paper between the two points.

Point drives had major drawbacks. Properly calculating a point-to-point jump was nearly impossible, because the calculations required knowing about every single mass object larger than a few specks of dust between a ship’s current position and its intended destination, as those objects affected how space “folded”. Because of the sheer complexity of it, all ships except exploration craft were limited to pre-existing transition points, and point drive exploration had been dead for nearly twenty years—the war between Earth and Terra had seen to that.

And there was always the effect point-to-point travel had on humans.

A quarter of humans weren’t affected at all, but for the rest of humanity, using the point drives was an uncomfortable experience.

Rake always likened the sensation to being ripped away, completely disoriented, and then dropped in a new place. As a pilot, he had a fairly keen sense of direction and could virtually always keep his bearings, but jumps left him dizzy for half a minute or so.

This jump was no better. In fact, it was much worse.

Rake woke up on the deck of the medical bay, staring up at the light overhead. An ache at the back of his head pounded in time with his heartbeat.

“Ow,” he muttered. “Well, that was ugly.”

“Rake?” a voice called on the medical bay’s intercom. “Rake, are you still there?”

He pulled himself to his feet, using both hands to keep himself steady. “I’m here, Caree.”

“I was hoping to hear that,” she said steadily. “We’re being hailed, and they’re looking for you.”

Dead Man Walking – Skiptracer

Rake gripped his pistol firmly, telling himself, No, I’m not terrified. Just because there’s someone out there apparently willing to break the rules to get at me doesn’t mean I’m a dead man.


“Come on, Earthstepper, I don’t have all day,” the filtered voice said.

“Who are you?” Rake demanded, checking his ammunition and charge on the weapon. Looks good. Keep him talking, and then jump out and nail him by surprise. He did his best to ignore the nagging voice telling him that he already knew his reflexes were subpar.

“Does it matter, Rake? You’re my payday, regardless of who I am.”

“Well, you broke all the rules by coming into an insurance facility with gun in hand and apparently willing to shoot anyone in your way,” Rake commented as he tried to recreate the room in his mind. If he’s near the entrance to this room, there’s no real cover there. This simulator’s on the opposite side of the room, and there’s good cover here. I should be able to get a clean shot at him. “That means you’re either new to the game or damned good.”

The filtered voice took on a dry tone. “My name is Slade.”

Rake swallowed hard. Great. One of the best skiptracers in the Expanse.

“I’ll admit, I thought I had you on Gallos,” Slade commented. “I could have sworn no one else was even close to you. But then you turn up dead, and I had to lay down a lot of credits to find out where I could catch up with you again. Of course, now you don’t have all the information that made you so valuable, but I’m sure we can find some way of getting that again.”

“I’m sure,” Rake repeated. “What information did I have, anyway?”

Slade’s chuckle was colder than deep space. “See, that’s the problem with your insurance policy. You got yourself killed, and you don’t even know what’s coming for—“

Rake didn’t bother listening to the rest, hurling himself from the simulator and twisting his gun hand toward the entrance. His finger was squeezing the trigger when he smashed into the floor.

No Slade.

“You’re not bad, kid,” an unfiltered male voice said as a cold barrel tapped his ear. “Now drop the weapon.”

Rake carefully laid the weapon down on the floor. “Look, I don’t know what you want from me, Skip, but we both know I don’t have it.”

“What I want is your head,” Slade said calmly. “Now stand up.”

Rake glared at the treacherous door. “You hijacked a soundbox for your voice, didn’t you? So I’d be looking the wrong direction.”

“Kid, you don’t get to be the best by using insurance policies,” Slade said smugly. “Now stand up, nice and slow, and we’ll both get out of here without your insurance company paying for another body.”

Rake swallowed hard. Great. Trapped in a faulty body and caught by a skiptracer. This day couldn’t get better. Slowly, he rose to his feet with both hands held away from his body. “I don’t suppose there’s any way you and I could discuss an alternative, is there?”

“Earthstepper, a skiptracer gets a reputation by bringing in his target,” the hunter said coolly. “Even if you had an extra couple million credits in your back pocket—which I somehow doubt—to take your money and let you go would be to ruin my own reputation.”

Rake tried to think, but everything had moved so fast since he woke up in the tank. “It doesn’t really have to be this way,” he said offhandedly. “I mean, it’s not like anyone would know.”

“I shot three of this company’s personnel on the way in, and I don’t doubt my face is plastered all over security cameras right now. So move.” He prodded the pilot again with his gun.

Rake spun, hand flashing out to knock the weapon away. Slade was caught off-guard by the sudden move and lost his grip on his carbine, allowing the two-handed gun to clatter away across the floor. Rake scooped up his pistol and sprinted straight for the exit, not bothering to turn back and fire at the skiptracer.

If he lives up to his reputation, that’s the last time I’ll ever take him by surprise, Rake thought as he sprinted hell-bent for freedom.

He had just broken the plane of the doorway when fire blossomed in his calf. He stumbled and went down hard, smashing head-first into the hallway wall, rebounding and landing in a heap on the floor.

Rake looked down and saw blood beginning to pool on the polished floor.

Slade walked up to him, the carbine leveled at the fallen Rake the entire time. He didn’t speak as he bent over to retrieve Rake’s pistol, attaching it to his own belt with a magnetic click. “Looks like my information was wrong,” he remarked. “Here I thought you’d be moving slower in that new body of yours, at least for a few days. Instead you damn near made a fool of me and got away.”

“I aim to please,” Rake mumbled, trying to cope with the ringing in his ears, the dizziness from running headfirst into a wall, and the throbbing in his calf. “You shot me in the back. Not very professional of you.”

“I shot you in the leg while you were fleeing,” Slade corrected him. “Very professional of me. Prevented your escape, and I can deliver you intact to Colonel Velles.”

Colonel Velles? Why does that name…? Oh, shit.

That’s not good.

“Great,” Rake said. “Very professional, then. Except now I can’t walk out of here.”

The bounty hunter looked him over, and for the first time Rake got a good close look at the infamous skiptracer.

If Slade had a last name, Rake had never heard it—and he looked like a man who didn’t care about such trivial things. His dark hair was gathered back in a ponytail, and he wore a dark leather duster over a heavy set of armor. His face was unmarked, revealing cold blue eyes, an over-large nose, and a plethora of scars.

Slade looked every bit the fearsome skiptracer his reputation made him out to be.

The armed man snorted in disgust. “Thought you were supposed to be tough, Earthstepper. One little bullet wound and you’re too injured to walk.” He reached under his duster and withdrew a small coil of rope. With practiced ease he formed a loop and pulled it over Rake’s uninjured leg. He pulled it tight, wrapped the other end of the rope around his left hand, and began dragging the pilot across the polished floor.

“You can’t really think,” Rake said from the floor as he slid along surprisingly easily, “that you’re going to drag me to wherever your ship is moored.”

“Hardly,” Slade said. “My AI and my ship are already at the emergency docking collar at the hospital across the walkway. In a few minutes you’ll be locked away until I can get you to Velles.”

Rake considered his options. Well, I can try to fight him with a bad leg while my good leg is bound—not to mention I’m unarmed. Or I can let him drag me to his ship and try to escape from him there.

I don’t like either of these options.

The hallways of the insurance facility were empty as Slade stalked through them, dragging his prey behind like Rake was already dead. It struck Rake as odd, until he realized that the facility was likely watching the entire thing on camera and wasn’t going to risk its own personnel fighting an armed man.

I hate the Core worlds. Earth or Terra VI, they’re both alike. Well, they were before Earth cooked. Everyone’s too damned scared to do anything, Rake thought distastefully. That’s what happens when you have all the fanciest facilities and a life of ease. You forget how to fight when you need it. This skiptracer walked into your facility, shot up people, and is dragging one of your clients out by a leg, and you sit around and wait for the weathermen to get here.


The front door to the insurance facility hissed open, allowing Slade to walk out with his bound captor in his wake. He immediately turned hard to his left and didn’t miss a step, even when Rake bounced off the corner of the door.

“Ow,” the pilot complained. “Keep that up, and you won’t be bringing me back in working order.”

“Shut up,” Slade said.

With nothing else to say, Rake found himself complying, even as he tried to figure a way out of the trap he found himself caught in. Nothing brilliant came to mind.

The insurance facility and the hospital, separated by less than fifty meters of walkway, were both against the edge of the Terra VI orbital station, to better allow for emergency access. Two airlocks were available in the space, allowing for a pair of ships to be offloaded at the same time. Both locks were currently occupied, the vessels visible through the transparent alloy commonly installed in viewports on space-going vessels; the skiptracer was clearly making his way for the lock closer to the insurance facility.

If he gets me on his ship, I’m dead, Rake thought bleakly. Wow. What a wonderful investment the life insurance policy was this time. I would’ve been better off staying dead, I think.

They were ten meters away from the lock when Slade’s ship blew up.

The viewport took the blast without so much as a scratch—it was actually tougher than the cheaper materials used to build ship hulls—but the open airlock wasn’t so fortunate. As the docked ship was hurled out into open space, the lock failed to close. Wind, virtually unheard of aboard space stations, quickly rose to a howl as it rushed out the compromised portal.

Aboard a station this size, the chances of the airlock failure being fatal to the inhabitants was minimal—it would take many minutes to empty the atmosphere into space aboard such a large space. However, that was the concern furthest from either of their minds.

Slade swore, a curse Rake had never heard before. “Vultures!” he shouted. “Always some damned vultures around to steal from me!”

Chips of flooring began to fly up as bullets rattled around them. Slade took a pair of them without so much as a grunt—his armor deflected the projectiles—but scrambled to free his mask from his belt.

A figure in an assault suit stepped through the compromised airlock. Rake stared in disbelief. That takes guts, he thought blankly as the newcomer leveled his weapon and let another burst loose at Slade. To come in that fast, he had to be sitting just about on top of Slade’s ship when it blew up. Those assault suits can take a few bullets without venting into space, but shrapnel could have taken it to pieces.

Another trio of bullets smacked into the skiptracer. He swore again and dropped the rope around Rake’s uninjured right leg. Slade’s hands ducked under his duster and came out with a pair of pistols, firing nearly non-stop toward the attacker as he half-ran for the scarce cover of a parked magnetic transport car.

Rake decided this was the moment he was looking for and ran for his life.

Or he would have, had his leg not had a neat hole poked through it.

“Rake, come on!” the newcomer shouted, his voice as mechanically filtered as Slade’s had been in the testing room. “Come on, we have to get out of here!”

Try to get away from them both with an injured leg and take my chances getting caught by Slade again, or go with the person I don’t know. With his calf throbbing, there really was no choice. There’s no reward without risk.

He crawled as quickly as he could for the newcomer.

“Dammit, Rake, run!” the attacker shouted.

Deciding that some forward motion was better than none, Rake elected to continue crawling.

The angry whine of bullets over his head motivated him to do better, and a glance over his shoulder confirmed that Slade, rather than risk losing his prey, had chosen to shoot him, too. Doing his best to ignore the pain, Rake forced himself unsteadily to his feet and ran as best he could, his leg on fire every step of the way to the airlock.

Slade wasn’t going to let him go that easily, though.

The skiptracer was on the move again, this time with a different weapon in his right-hand—a highly illegal, very powerful, and very difficult-to-aim one-handed rocket pistol.

The newcomer apparently saw it, too. “Into the airlock,” he shouted frantically to Rake. “Now!”

Hobbled by his injury, Rake knew he wouldn’t make it—particularly when his leg gave out again and he crashed to the deck.

Slade leveled the weapon.

The newcomer dove to the ground.

And a new roar joined the rushing wind.

Metal shrapnel sprayed out at Rake. None of it was life-threatening; the pieces were small and tumbling, though several of them flayed skin open across his exposed arms as he cradled his own head.

The tortured scream of punctured, stressed metal and the ever-increasing roar of wind battled for supremacy for several seconds, before the metal surrendered the contest. Rake looked up, not understanding what had happened.

Holes as large as his fist had been punched through the station’s exterior. Rake’s eyes widened. That ship at the hospital airlock…was shooting at Slade? A starship, trying to shoot a person? The roar in his ears continued to grow in strength. And might have killed us all.

Then there were arms lifting him. Dizziness began to sweep over him. Hypoxia, he thought. The air’s moving past me too fast to get proper breaths.

As his consciousness faded, he managed one last thought: I didn’t have time to take out another policy.

Dead Man Walking – Awakening

Author’s note: I’ve changed the title to my current working title, which is far easier to remember.

New writing project. Inspiration hit me, and I was off and running. Long as I have the muse, I’m going to run with this one. Chapter 1 below.

The man startled awake, thrashing around as he tried to get his surroundings. Or rather, he would have started thrashing around, had his arms and legs not been both firmly bound.

The world around him was red-tinted. He blinked, trying to clear the haze from his vision, before he realized he was surrounded by fluid. The man almost panicked then, but oxygen continued to flow steadily through the mask strapped over his nose and mouth.

Where am I? What’s going on? He tried to think, to analyze the situation, but his brain seemed to be fogged over. He squinted and tried to peer through the liquid. I’m in a tank. Oh.

I’m in a tank.

He glanced up and saw the level of fluid already beginning to drop. His thoughts were still crawling along at a torpid pace, but the sights around him were beginning to coalesce into a picture he recognized. Oh, shit. I’m in a cloning tank. If I’m here, that means my life insurance policy was invoked, which means I’m dead somewhere.

As the sticky fluid dropped past eye level, he saw a man in a med coat standing outside the tank. He raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question. The man in the tank nodded in understanding. Yes, I’m under control. A moment later the restraints around his arms and legs snapped open, allowing him to begin moving. He reached up with unsteady hands and pulled the mask from his face, then let it dangle from the connecting tube running out of the cloning cylinder.

Mind is fuzzy because of the mind-flash, he thought. I’m…who am I? Rake. That’s my name. Rake.

The fluid finished draining out the bottom of the tube with a gurgle. He rolled his shoulders experimentally, feeling strength start to flow into his muscles. The tube itself began to shake, and a moment later it was lifted away into the ceiling, leaving him standing—well, leaning—against the platform where he had been strapped.

The man in the white lab coat approached him with an outstretched hand. “Mr. Earthstepper, I’m Doctor Valance.”

“How long?” Rake asked hoarsely.

“It’s been two weeks since you last re-flashed your memory,” the doctor said, requiring no further clarification. “We received the end-of-life signal this morning and began the wake-up process. We’ll need to run you through the mental and physical tests to ensure the memory flash is holding. After all,” Doctor Valance added with a smile, “I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy if your insurance policy wasn’t fulfilled to the letter of the contract.”

“Of course.” Rake tried to swallow and struggled to find enough saliva. “Do I get to shower first?”

The doctor nodded. “The shower is right over there,” he indicated, “and the change of clothes you left is in the locker.”

“Great, thanks,” the cloned man managed to rasp.

“Disorientation is common following the memory flash process,” the doctor said. “I’ll give you a few minutes to get your bearings before we begin the quality assurance process.”

Rake stumbled his way to the shower and, as the water began pouring over him, realized for the first time he was completely naked. As he tried to wash the sticky red nutrient fluid from his body, he found his hair was longer than he preferred, and the stubble of a beard roughened his cheeks. What do you expect, that they’re giving you regular shaves and haircuts? he chided himself. When I get out of here, I’ll need to find a razor.

He steadfastly ignored the most important question, the query that kept nagging at him as his mind steadily cleared. How did I get here? What mess did I get myself into?

The steaming hot shower was a luxury he hadn’t had in quite a while—water was scarce and jealously hoarded aboard starships, and he seldom set foot planet side for long. While he wouldn’t normally spend much time bathing, the hot water seemed to help his mind clear. And, after all, I paid a lot of money for this insurance policy. I might as well make sure I get every pence worth.

When he at last shut the water off, Rake felt nearly normal again. It wasn’t the first time he had been forced to use an insurance policy—in fact, this was the third time—but the man never felt overly comfortable with it. Probably because the first time was in a backwater facility run by pirates after they had tortured me to death, and wanted a second shot at it, he decided.

The change of clothes he left was standard fare—dark trousers, soft mid-calf leather boots, a light shirt, and a dark brown leather jacket. Concealed within the jacket was the handgun he kept as a backup: heavy enough to be easy to shoot without being too heavy to aim, and completely illegal inside the cloning facility. He looked it over and decided not to push his luck, slipping it back into concealment in the jacket’s lining rather than attaching it to his hip.

Harder to get at, but if I want to renew my policy here, I’d rather they don’t throw me out for breaking the rules.

It was one of the few universally-accepted rules at life insurance facilities across the Colonies—no weapons inside. When life insurance was first implemented, it had been an early liability problem. Growing clones and flashing memories, not to mention the necessary storage for both, were delicate and expensive processes. A freshly-decanted clone getting shot as it stepped out of its tube raised serious liability questions: was the company responsible for another clone, or had it done due diligence? Rather than debate the issue in court, life insurance companies as a whole had declared their facilities weapons-free, even on backwater worlds where concepts like “murder” were legally murky.

Carrying the pistol in his jacket lining made it harder to draw in an emergency, so Rake made a mental note to ensure the weapon was at-hand before he stepped out of the facility. Once I’m on the street, all bets are off.

Fully dressed and far more comfortable now that he was armed, he stepped out of the bathing facility and walked back toward where Doctor Valance was hunched over a display, no doubt with Rake’s personal records and the information for his physical and mental tests.

“As you should be well aware, Mr. Earthstepper,” the doctor said without looking up, “we take quality assurance very seriously. Should this body fail to meet the necessary standards, we will need to eliminate it and grow you a new body from scratch. It will, of course, delay your departure by approximately a month, but it’s a necessary precaution.”

Rake tried to suppress his shudder. So, if I fail, they kill me and start again. He resisted the urge to flee the facility. Then again, dead and alive again would be better than trapped in a defective body. And the general quality of life insurance has gone way, way up in the last ten years.

“If you’ll step over here, Mr. Earthstepper, we’ll begin,” the doctor said with a gesture. “We’ll start with reflexes, followed by a memory test, and finish with a stress test to ensure all bodily functions are working as expected.”

The man reluctantly stepped over to the simulation pod for his reflexes test. With an uneasy sigh, he slipped into the seat and reached out to grasp the flight yoke for the simulator and waited for the screens to light up. The pod slid shut around him, consuming him in darkness for long moments before the displays began to cast light.

Quality assurance was a simple process for life insurance. Three tests were run on the cloned body—memory, reflex, and stress. Each time a policy-holder updated his stored memories—or “memory flashes”—the tests were run on the holder’s body at that time to ensure the comparison results were current. To pass quality assurance, he had to pass each of the tests with 98% of his “baseline” from the most recent flashing. Anything less, and his current body would be eliminated and a new one would be grown for the next attempt.

Rake had no particular desire to die again—plenty of motivation to put his best effort into the test.

The simulator flared to life, and he was at the controls of a starship navigating the junk fields in orbit around Earth. It was a classic reflexes simulation, designed to ensure a pilot’s reflexes were up to the task of quickly responding to changing flight conditions. This is old hat after earning my wings the first time, and then training as a Terran pilot during the Great War, he told himself.

The simulated ship was a small, one-man craft designed for tight and quick maneuvers. Rake remembered, very briefly, his last run in the simulation—nearly nine minutes of precision maneuvers before he had been clipped by a centuries-old satellite that ripped a wing off the ship and sent it spiraling into atmosphere.

This time, as he plunged into the debris field, he didn’t feel his usual ease at the controls of a ship. Sweat began to bead on his forehead and run down into his eyes as he struggled to keep the little ship from crashing. He wove in and out of wrecked starships, shattered orbital bases, old satellites, and unidentifiable junk. Instead of relaxing, as he normally found the simulation, he found himself growing more and more distressed.

And then, as he ducked around a battered freighter, he saw it coming toward him like a missile: an old airlock door, three-inch alloy designed to take a military-grade explosive. He tried to shove the yoke forward and dive out of the way, but his muscles seemed to fight him. The little ship’s nose pushed down, but far too slowly—the door ripped across the top of the vessel, splitting it open as neatly as a knife slicing flesh.

The simulation screens immediately went black, leaving only his time on the screen: four minutes, four seconds.


The canopy hissed open, and Rake swallowed hard before forcing himself to look up at Doctor Valance. The man’s expression was grim. “I’m sorry, Mr. Earthstepper.”

“Give me another shot at the sim,” Rake said immediately. “It was bad luck, and I got blindsided. Let me have another run.”

“Mr. Earthstepper, we monitor more than just your flight time,” the doctor said gently. “Your reflex time to object within line-of-sight and your reaction time to it indicate you were responding at approximately 96% of baseline.”

“Give me another chance,” Rake demanded through gritted teeth.

“I apologize, Mr. Earthstepper,” the doctor said as he leveled a small, handheld device at Rake—a neurostunner, useful only at ranges of a half-meter or less. “We’ll have to revisit our records and see what went wrong with the first attempt. I assure you we will get the next body right, or you’ll receive fifty percent of your insurance fee back.”

Rake reached into his jacket, fumbling for his gun. I don’t want to die! he thought irrationally, knowing full well the company wouldn’t just leave him dead. I’ll deal with this body!

The doctor froze as a quiet “crack” split the air. Rake tried to draw back, knowing there was no avoiding the neurostunner.

Then the man in the white coat collapsed.

Rake stared wide-eyed at the body of the doctor as he finally withdrew his sidearm from his jacket lining. What? What happened to…?

“Nice and easy, Earthstepper,” a mechanically-filtered voice said coldly. “Just step out of the simulator so we can have a nice talk. Try anything stupid and, well, I doubt you’ve got another insurance policy ready to go.”