Tag Archives: Serial fiction

#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run (part 2 of 3 Parts)

What has gone before: Part 1 of Valentine Run can be found by clicking on this link.


Ten hours later, Reina slowly woke up in her quarters, pondering how she’d gotten there. Finally, she gave up thinking about it and staggered the two steps to the hygiene unit. Covered in goose bumps, she stood under the lukewarm stream, lathering and rinsing as quickly as possible. Toweling herself dry, she hurried into a clean jumpsuit and fluffed her damp hair with her fingers, then brushed her teeth.

Quickly straightening her quarters, she exited. Image, Reina. Image is everything, she cautioned herself. Portraying herself as a vibrant, well-rested woman, she smiled and greeted everyone. Her manner proclaimed that today was just another day and nothing to worry about. The crew knew as well as she did who hadn’t come back, but they needed to know she was not worried about the situation, that she believed the captain had it under control.

She stopped in the mess hall, grabbing a nutri-bar and a cup of coffee, chatting with the staff there. Then she continued on to the science lab—a closet one meter by one meter on the same corridor as the captain’s ready room. Since the death of the science officer when they first entered Alzhaa space, the room had become her domain. Laying her palm on the key-pad, she entered, so preoccupied she didn’t even hear the door as it whisked shut behind her. The bank of holoscreens sprang up around her immediately, seemingly eager to serve.

Rotating the stool out from under the console, she began accessing her random notes, enjoying the sound of her antique-style keyboard rattling as she moved information from screen to screen. She loved her keyboard and its familiar clatter. It had been trendy to own one when she was in college, and she’d grown attached to hers. Keying on the holoboards just didn’t have the same feel.

Actually, like so many things in space, they had no feel to speak of. Having spent so much of her life in space, Reina Jacobs needed to feel things. The quest for feeling, the desire to truly experience things drove her, more than anything else.

She sat looking at the screens, seeing nothing, still thinking about the situation. Finally, she pulled her thoughts together, formulated her conclusions and recommendations, and uploaded the information to the captain, along with her final summation. She signed it “Professor R. Jacobs, Acting Science Officer.”

She did this instead of chasing Ladeaux’s very charming ass, much as she would have liked to, or hanging out, getting drunk, and talking girl stuff with Cora, whom she’d grown to love like a sister. Instead, she avoided them both in her off-hours except for meals. Ladeaux, damn his warm blue eyes and warmer lips, understood quite well. Cora didn’t, but she had never been in the military.

And her lack of military training was the crux of the current problem.

As long as they were flying, she and Ladeaux would not cross the line by allowing themselves to fall into an affair while they were working together. For pilots, it was an error that could be fatal.

The blurring of the line between friendship and professional behavior was the problem Reina now had regarding the captain. During the first part of the voyage, she’d been a bored passenger and was drawn into an instant friendship with the charismatic Captain Cora Laine. They drank together, played poker, worked out, and joked the way equals with a lot in common often do. They had become—God forbid—friends the way normal women did.

Unfortunately, they weren’t normal women and weren’t equals any longer. Cora was still the captain, but now Reina was a sled-jockey doubling as science officer and was under Cora’s command. If this miserable journey had gone as planned, Professor Reina Jacobs would have been long gone, safely in her new job with both feet on the ground. She never would have served as her best friend’s subordinate when she was so unfit to be anyone’s subordinate.

Cora was smart and savvy, but she had no combat experience and simply did not see the situation and the solution the way a battle hardened tactician did. She saw her pilots as people, not as the tools they were.

When the Alzhaa had finally whittled the able-bodied sled-jockeys down to twelve, five less than it took to fully man the Saracen’s gunsleds, Captain Laine had been forced to conscript her and two other crew members who were former pilots.

Reina’s gut-instincts in the cockpit were still as sharp as ever, and her prosthetic leg was as good as anyone’s natural leg, maybe even better. It was fortunate they were older sleds, much like the ones she’d spent so much time piloting while in the service, and she’d fallen back into the old routine easily.

Cursing the futility of her thoughts, she switched the screens to show the notes on her main research project. Immediately focusing on the problem, Reina began right where she’d left off two days earlier to go and shoot at the Alzhaa. That was how she preferred to spend her waking moments, writing the justifications and preparing her paper on bioengineering common human food crops to adapt to a terraformed environment.  If she ever arrived on Valentine, she intended to present it to the scientific community at large.

Later at dinner, Reina sat in a quiet corner of the mess with Ryo and Ladeaux, eating the rather unusual meal the mess staff had put together for them. Their chef, Ludmila Borisova, commonly known as Cookie, still had rations, but she was going to have to be creative if they were going to stretch until they made it to Valentine.

By silent agreement, they talked about everything but the Captain’s intransigence in regard to their current situation. Ladeaux and Reina, both experienced military officers, had tacitly made it clear they would not participate in any sort of discussion that would undermine the captain’s authority. It would do no good to stir up the rest of the crew because at the very least, the way it was now they were all pulling together.

Brandon Ladeaux was tall, his hair was still mostly dark, and he was somewhere near her age. He exuded the same confidence as Reina, that of a lifetime spent successfully cheating death. Ladeaux was the last of the complement of pilots who’d originally left Miranda.

Ryo was a recent addition to the team and was only on his third run as a sled-jock. “I don’t get why they won’t let us leave. We’re transporting cargo, that’s all.”

“How they think is a complete mystery to me.” Ladeaux grinned. “That’s the dilemma though. The Alzhaa don’t understand us at all and don’t want to. They don’t care what our problem is. They just want us to stay the hell away from their systems.”

Finally, Ryo nodded. Ladeaux took a few bites, and Reina said, “The trouble is, the Alzhaa are so alien even the other methane breathers find them impossible to communicate with.”

“It sucks anyway,” said Ryo, his relative youth and inexperience showing. “We’re an asteroid-barge, for God’s sake. It’s easy to see the Saracen is a small planet, not a war-bird. We’re packed to the gills with cargo, not heavy weapons. The Saracen has never even transported weapons between our own systems.”

“I suspect they’re making a point, and we’re being targeted simply to drive it home to both Miranda and Earth,” said Ladeaux. “They don’t want our sort here, and they don’t want us to ever forget it. This is the last shipment of assistance Valentine will ever get.”

Reina nodded her agreement, idly admiring Ladeaux’s rugged profile. The man exuded animal magnetism.

Glancing slyly at Reina, Ladeaux said, “How is it going with Flores, Ryo? You two seem to spend all your free time together.” His eyes twinkled at Ryo’s sudden flush.

The younger man looked down at his cup. “I keep having these random daydreams about settling down with her and starting a family, maybe even on Valentine.”

Ladeaux nodded. “I think you should.”

“I’m going to spring a proposal on her when we’re done with this mess,” Ryo admitted. “I don’t really have anyone back on Miranda anymore, and she doesn’t either. It’s only been five years for me, but it’s time I spent in space between Earth and Miranda. My niece just became a grandmother.”

“None of us has anyone after we’ve been at this job for long. We outlive our planet-bound families and friends by several generations. At least I certainly have.”  Reina pushed down a pang of grief for the loss of her friendship with the feisty captain. “I’m happy for you and Ramona. Relationships are hard to sustain when you’re never planetside.” She paused and then said, “If I may give you some advice: don’t let space separate you. Find a job planetside.”

“Yeah, that’s the trick though, isn’t it,” replied Ryo morosely. “My skills don’t really run to planetside occupations. I’m a good mech, and I’m learning how to be an adequate pilot, but I suspect the colonists have their choice of applicants.” He shrugged and added, “If I hadn’t been the only one left with a ticket to fly when they conscripted me, I wouldn’t even have this to put on my resume. I guess this farce has had one positive effect.” He laughed, but it was hollow. Ryo knew the only reason they had tapped him to be a sled-jockey was no one else was available.

“They’ll always need mechanics for the shuttles. I’ll help you find a job when we get there,” offered Ladeaux. “I’ll be staying on since I’m retiring after this run. I have a job lined up piloting shuttles from the moon base to planetside.” He looked out of the corner of his eye to see Reina’s reaction. “It’s my first planetside job in thirty-nine years.”

Reina had idly wondered if Ladeaux would retire and stay on Valentine after this trip was behind them, and he’d just made her day. Still, although her eyes betrayed her interest, she didn’t otherwise indicate anything she felt.

After dinner, Reina did her usual stint in the flight simulator, practicing battle maneuvers. Ladeaux’s tests were complicated, realistic, and in some cases, harrowing. Following that, she showered, then lay on her bunk in her quarters, drinking the brew of the week and reading her mail. It was all from her new staff, detailing the arrangements they were making for her arrival.

As she clicked through her missives, she realized she was stopped only a month away from Valentine if they were to light up the drive, but years away if they had to idle along as they were doing. The Saracen was a cargo ship and not set up to be self-sufficient so the crew and passengers would starve long before they got there. Now they were down to three fighter pilots, there was the distinct possibility Reina would never have the opportunity to meet her new staff or put her antique book collection on those lovely shelves in her new study.

The tap on her door made her look up. “Enter.”

The door whisked open, and Cora entered. She dropped into the desk chair. “I know what you’re doing. You’re separating yourself from me so when you get yourself killed, I’ll still be pissed as hell at you.”

“You still don’t understand. This isn’t about you or me. This is about expedience and what is best for the Saracen. Fraternization is an unduly familiar personal relationship, and it interferes with getting things done in the most advantageous manner. I have to do it.” She clicked her mail off, set the notebook aside and sat up. “You have no combat experience. Your attempt to protect your marines is compromising your mission. Friendship has no place here, Captain, though you are the best friend I ever had. I just know what has to be done, and you refuse to accept it.” Reina’s words felt harsh as she said them. “Since you’re here, you may as well at least drink the last of this week’s vintage. I’ve already had more than enough.”

“I thought you’d like to know I’ve come to a decision.” Cora poured a short shot into the glass Reina handed her. “Per your recommendation to Ladeaux and his complete agreement with your assessment of the situation, I’m taking the Saracen in to Valentine system tomorrow, no matter what. I’ll either berth her in orbit there until I get enough fuel and supplies to take her home the long way, or we’ll find another way home. You and Ladeaux both assure me I can get her away clear if I run like hell now.”

Reina nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

Cora swirled her glass, watching the amber moonshine as it eddied. “It’s the only choice. I can’t take the Saracen back to Miranda system through Alzhaa space right now, which is what the plan was. The Saracen never had the ability to go around the Alzhaa if she’s carrying a full payload. But now, thanks to all the delays, if I were to turn back to Miranda, we wouldn’t have enough food to make it even half the way home. Hell, we may not have enough to make it to Valentine on full rations, even though we have only half the crew left. It’s eighteen hours to the safe zone on a dead run and another month to Valentine. But since I can’t go back, I must go forward.”

The captain stood and walked to the door and then turned back. “La Fontaine died an hour ago.” Cora chuckled bitterly. “Here we are on an asteroid stuffed to the rafters with the most modern medicines and medical technology our civilization has to offer, and we still can’t figure out how to keep a woman alive when her guts are shredded.” She sighed, a gesture of resignation. “Only three of you pilots are left. I hope you’ll be enough. Ladeaux is putting together the final plan as we speak.”

Reina nodded as a feeling of relief swept over her.

Cora continued. “We’ve been idling along as fast as we can since yesterday, building up speed preparatory to slingshot out of here. Since the Saracen’s drive signature is what seems to attract the Alzhaa, we can’t really go until the sleds are all in place to cover our ass. Once we have your birds up and flying, we’ll light up the drive and run like hell, and won’t stop for anything.

“Maintenance tells me the fuelcels are failing to hold a complete recharge. There’s little room for horsing around. If you want to actually get to Valentine Station, stick to the plan.”

“The fuelcel issue has me worried too,” Reina agreed. “I’ll do my best, I promise, but what’s the point of all the lives that have been lost over this if we can’t protect the Saracen from some suicidal Alzhaa whacko?” Reina’s gaze was stone cold sober. “I spent thirty-three years in the service. Every single day I knew what I was there for. It was my job, my duty, and my privilege to protect our people in situations like this. Trust me, Captain. I am prepared to do what it takes to get you  and your cargo to Valentine.”

Cora just nodded curtly, the door shutting behind her.


Valentine Run, Part Two, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved

Valentine Run is dedicated to my parents who loved nothing more than a good space opera, in memory of those hours we spent gathered around the flickering light of the TV, watching the original Star Trek.

Cover Art © Innovari | Dreamstime.com – Space Cruiser Spaceship Photo

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#fridayfiction: The Bolthole, part 1

The Coffee HouseEddie MacNess watched as the casket containing the body of his captain was lowered into the ground. Gertie Smith and Dame Bess had fixed Marien’s corpse up so well, you’d never know she’d taken a sword to the gut.

He fought the sense of foreboding that had been growing since the ambush two days before. Mad Marien McAllister had been the consummate mercenary and a good leader. With her as captain, he’d believed he’d stay a Wolf forever, but as Eddie looked around the large group gathered around the grave, he saw the same uncertainty reflected in the faces of fully half of his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

He could feel his son, seventeen-year-old Billy, standing just behind him and knew the lad was wondering the same things he was. Eddie and Billy stood at the rear of the crowd as they were well over six and a half feet tall, the two tallest men in the Wolves, or perhaps anywhere. Eddie was known among the mercenaries as Easy Eddie, because of his genial nature, while Billy hadn’t earned a merc’s nickname other than “the beanpole” yet. He was the image of Eddie at his age, and there was no man larger than Easy Eddie MacNess.

Despite being rail thin and having the cherubic face of a boy, Billy had been a merc since the day he turned fifteen and was legally old enough to sign a contract. Eddie was fiercely proud of him. His son had good instincts and thought like a mercenary. He was captain material, showing initiative even at his young age. But, thinking as a father, Eddie didn’t want his son working under a weak captain.

Marien had been crazier any woman he’d ever known, but she’d never let her spirited nature affect business. Unfortunately, even though her blade had slowed, Marien had insisted on going out on the occasional short, safe job, and that had been the death of her. The utter stupidity of it made Eddie feel ill, even though he knew it would likely be the end of him too.  It was a rare merc who stayed working long enough to collect a pension. Most left the road as soon as they made enough to start a business or a family, and the stubborn ones died in the saddle.

She’d made a will years before, as all mercs were encouraged to do, and Eddie had witnessed it. Her son, Bastard John McAllister, would inherit all her possessions and the right to lead the Wolves. Eddie couldn’t help regarding the heir to Marien’s empire from the corners of his eyes.

The Wolves had maintained a good reputation under her leadership. How things would change after the Bastard took over, Eddie didn’t know, and that was the source of his foreboding.

John reeked of ale, as usual. His mother had just died; that was true. But he always smelled of too much ale. Drunk or sober, Bastard John had a volatile temper, and it clouded his judgment. Weak captains lost good mercs to bad decisions.

During Eddie’s ruminations, the traveling friar had finished his sermon. Marien was neatly buried, and the tamped soil was sprinkled liberally with holy water to keep her soul safe from Old Grim. With the solemnity and prayers out of the way, the townspeople drifted over to the Powder Keg, followed by the Wolves.

As Eddie and Billy walked back to the inn, they saw that a crowd had gathered to pay their respects. The townsfolk now wandered about inside the public common room gossiping, or outside where a white-haired traveling bard in his colorful robes had set up in the muddy square playing his harp and telling a tale praising Marien’s bravery.

“Listen to his accent—he’s a long way from the Eynier Valley.” Billy kept his voice low. “He’s not just an entertainer. He’s one of the old, important ones. It seems a little coincidental that one so advanced in age would chance along just in time for the funeral. He’s here to see what’s going to happen with the will.”

Eddie agreed. “Likely so. Those Southern bards know more about what goes on here in the north than they admit. Nothing they do is accidental. Any change in who runs things draws their attention, even here in the North.”

Billy laughed. “Songs about the youthful indiscretions of Mad Marien and old, dead, King Hargis will be popping up all up and down the trade road.”

As they made their way through the crowd, townsfolk stopped them, praising Marien’s virtues and making free with the ale and food that the Wolves had pulled together for the wake in the large common room. Occasional snatches of muted conversations drifted to them, indicating how even the townspeople were worried about how things would change with her passing.

The townsfolk seemed pleased that Elma McClain had finally agreed to hang up her sword and marry the Bastard although, for the life of him, Eddie couldn’t understand why she would do such a thing. Still, she brewed good ale and would handle running the Powder Keg, which she had regularly done when Marien was on the road. It was a sure thing the Bastard didn’t know how to be an innkeeper, and the only thing he knew about ale was how to drink it.

But Elma should know better than to tie herself to the Bastard. She knew what he was like, better than anyone, seeing as how she had a seven-year-old daughter by him.

The Wolves had gathered in their private parlor, where they had nearly finished the last of the formalities required by the Mercenary Code. All that was left was the reading of Marien’s will and getting John’s signature on a few documents.

Because of Marien’s relationship with the late King Hargis and her position as the leader of the Wolves, the man who was to take care of the legalities was old Eustace De Portiers, the Lord Dogwalker. He was known familiarly as Old Squash and was the man who served as the king’s secretary. He and his knights had arrived from Castleton just as the Wolves were closing up Marien’s grave, bringing Lady Marien McAllister’s will, along with several other documents transferring Marien’s authority to act as a magistrate for Somber Flats to her son and legal heir.

Eddie watched as the Bastard signed all the paperwork with his customary flair:

Bastard John's signature, transparency, kunstler script copy

That was only right—after all, he was the king’s illegitimate half-uncle, and proud of it. Old Squash had brought a letter of condolence from young King Henri to his uncle, of which the boy king’s mother, and currently regent, was likely unaware.

Eddie was in a quandary. The Bastard was now officially the captain of the Wolves, and that meant dealing with his erratic behavior and bastardly disposition.

“At least Elma can cook.” Chicken Mickey spoke from near Eddie’s elbow. Mick had taken her death hard and was already well into the ale barrel, something Eddie had rarely seen. “God knows that will be a positive change.” Smaller than most women, the bandy-legged old man had been the provisioner for the Wolves since the day Marien had received the patent to form her mercenary company as a gift from old King Hargis.

The Bastard would never be the kind of leader his mother had been, but he was a sharp negotiator and understood how the mercenary business worked. With Dave Watts, his cousin, acting as his lieutenant and smoothing things over, the Wolves should do well enough under his leadership.

The trouble was, John had an uncanny knack for making friends with highwaymen and ne’er-do-wells. There was no telling who he would hire—and Eddie didn’t want to deal with that as well as his drunken misbehavior. At last, he came to the conclusion he should have come to long ago.

He could leave and start a company of his own. He’d inherited an old house when his mother passed on, so he could operate out of there. It was nothing much, just a rambling lodge built forty years before by his grandfather who had held a high office under a long-dead king, a place for an avid fisherman to escape the stress of Castleton and royal commitments.

Eddie had grown up there. The family fortunes had faltered, and his distinctly un-noble, hardworking father had managed to turn it into a self-supporting farm despite the wood-wraiths and firesprites that infested the deep woods.

The house was a good two hours ride from the nearest village, a quarry town called Dervy. In its favor, the lodge was situated on the big bend of the River Limpwater halfway between Somber Flats and the capital city, Castleton. It was only a five-hour ride north from the Powder Keg, so Eddie had made the journey every two or three weeks, whenever he had a few days free, to see his parents, and after their deaths, to check on his home.

Another thing the house had going for it–if he wanted to start a business there, the muddy track listed on maps as the King’s Highway went right past it. The main trade road south from the capital city of Castleton, the rutted trail ran the length of the country all the way down to the southern port of Ludwellyn. Long caravans of merchants and their heavily laden wagons would be passing his gate regularly, two or three times a month.

He could tap into that business if he gave it a bit of thought. Times were hard all over. Highwaymen and beasts borne of majik waited at every blind corner and narrow place along the trade road, hoping for easy pickings. That meant there was more than enough guard-work for everyone. And lately, the stonemasons of Dervy had been complaining that no one was ever available to guard them when they needed to travel, putting them in considerable danger.

He was hesitant, only because he wasn’t sure if anyone other than his son would want to go with him. He didn’t even know if Gertie Smith, the lady merc he was in love with would leave with him. He hoped she might, but Gertie had a mind of her own.

He’d found her working at her father’s smithy in Bekenberg. When he collected his armor and paid the master smith for it, Gertie had walked away from her father’s forge, taking up her sword and leaving Bekenberg with him. Then she convinced Eddie to take his son off his aging mother’s hands.

Gertie had been better than good to Billy, raising him until he came of age as if he was her son, despite the closeness of their ages. But she had refused to marry Eddie, and wouldn’t give up the sword for him. In Eddie’s mind, this meant if he struck out on his own, she might not leave the Wolves .

“Eddie MacNess?” The Lord Dogwalker’s quavering voice got his attention. “If you’re witnessing, I need your signature here and here on these and then you can all get on with enjoying the wake.” Feeling guilty for even thinking about leaving, Eddie did as requested, putting his signature as witness to all the paperwork, as did Dirty Dave Watts and Cob John McNally. Once the Bastard and Old Squash had finished all the required signings and witnessings, the elderly knight began rolling his copies into his case, preparing to leave.

Eddie looked up, seeing Walter Besom, known as Iron-fist, gesturing with slight jerks of his head toward the door. Once outside, Walter drew him off even further. His slightly more pronounced Lanque accent indicated he also had been drinking more heavily than usual. “I ain’t signing on with the Bastard. I have my boy, Willie, to think about. Who knows what sort of degenerates the Bastard will sign on here? But I don’t want to drag my son all the way down to Bekenberg to the Ravens or up in the mountains to Wister and the Badgers. We need to do something on our own, maybe out of Galwye. You should be leading us.”

A wave of relief swept through him, and the stress seemed to leave Eddie’s shoulders. “I’ve been thinking that way too. But how about we do this out of my dad’s old place? It’s plenty big enough to hold a small company if we set it up the way the Badgers did their lodge up in Wister.”

Walter’s face broke into a smile, and he clasped Eddie’s shoulder. “I like that. We’ll get our customers from Dervy, and a fair amount from Castleton, so we won’t cut into the Bastard’s business at all. But you’d better grab the Lord Dogwalker while he’s here, and have him get the paperwork started.”

Gertie Smith stepped out of the shadows, stopping in front of them. “I’m going with you. Cob John can handle all the smithing that needs to be done here in Somber Flats. I’m not giving up the sword for you, but I go wherever you do. As long you don’t tie me down.”

“You know I’d never do that.” Eddie’s arms went around her, and he felt dizzy with relief. Gertie was the best part of his life, outside of his son, but he couldn’t have forced her to come with him. “I’ve enough saved to buy you a small anvil. I can set you up with a little forge behind the house so you can pound hot metal all you want.”

“I’d like that. Someday I’ll leave the road and take up my hammer for real, but not yet.” She kissed him soundly.

The three walked back toward the front door. Walter said, “The Bastard’s offering contracts all next week, now that the funeral is over and the paperwork is done. It might get a bit difficult when we don’t sign on with him.”

“He’ll get over it,” Gertie said. “He’ll whine, but he’ll be fine once he sees how he can benefit from it.”

Eddie cornered Old Squash just as he and his knights were mounting up to head back to Castleton. When Eddie explained that he wanted to break away and form his own mercenary company, the old man nodded. “That’s a good idea. The area around Dervy needs a band of mercenaries, and it would give my lads and me a dry spot to sleep when we’re on missions like this one. We’ll have to camp out tonight, which, at my age, I don’t enjoy.”

He sighed heavily, the weight of his myriad duties clearly written on his somber features. “The road through there is so dangerous that even highwaymen avoid it. If you clean out the nuisance-beasts, I’ll make sure you get your patent from the queen regent. She’s not that fond of the Wolves, what with the Bastard being a royal bastard and all, so she’ll agree with no argument.”

Eddie agreed, on one condition. “We don’t have bespelled shields, so we can’t fight firedrakes or dragons. Those sorts of beasts are for your lads to take care of. But we’ll eliminate anything else.”

“I haven’t heard of anything like that along there. It’s too rural, with no livestock to attract the big beasts, so it’s mostly the usual. You know, wood-wraiths, bears, wildcats, or the occasional nest of firesprites suddenly popping up in the middle of the trail, delaying the caravans.” Old Squash shrugged. “The merchants don’t like that, so the queen regent’s guards get sent out looking for things of that nature. But the road is long, and they can’t be everywhere.”

They shook hands, and the Lord Dogwalker and his men departed.

To be continued

Part 2 will post on Friday, July 29, 2016


“The Bolthole, in two parts” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

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