QSFer Isabelle Adler has a new MM sci fi book out: Ashore.
You can only put the past away for so long.
This had never been truer for the crew of Matt’s ship, the Lady Lisa. Even as their engine suffers a critical malfunction and Matt scrambles to fund the costly repairs, Val, the ship’s reticent engineer, unexpectedly comes face-to-face with a deadly ghost from his past. Now it’s up to Matt, Ryce, and Tony to rescue him, even if it means breaking the law and striking an uneasy bargain with a local black-market kingpin—but what if this time their best efforts simply aren’t good enough?
And it might be that Val isn’t the only crew member Matt risks losing when his budding relationship with Ryce unexpectedly runs aground. With their love and commitment put to the test, Matt and Ryce must rally to save their friend and to keep their ship afloat, but in a race so desperate there might not be any real winners.
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“That’s it,” Matt said. “It’s over.”
The three of them stood around the gutted engine of the Lady Lisa. Well, Matt stood, while Val and Ryce crouched beside it amid piles of discarded parts, wires, and pieces of electronics. Both of them were covered in smudges of grease and looking up at Matt with expressions bordering on horror, as if unable to accept the pronouncement of judgment. It would have been quite comical, really, except there was nothing remotely funny about the situation.
Usually, it was Matt who was unwilling to acknowledge a problem he wasn’t prepared to deal with, but after watching his engineer and pilot tinker with the thing for hours with absolutely nothing to show for it, even he had to grudgingly admit it was a lost cause. If two geniuses put together couldn’t fix the damn engine, then it was beyond fixing.
“We need a new power converter,” Val said tiredly and wiped his face, smearing the grease even further. “There’s not much we can do without it.”
“We’re afraid the fission chamber would explode if we try to bypass it,” Ryce said apologetically, as if it was his fault the engine worked the way it did. Or didn’t, as the case was.
“Yeah, don’t try that,” Matt said. The last thing he needed was his ship exploding, taking all the crew and half the landing dock with it.
And he definitely didn’t need his ship breaking down. Luckily, the engine decided to give out while they were still safely docked at the Freeport 73 station, and not in the middle of a run. Otherwise, they’d have been stranded in space, drifting with the rest of the human-made junk that orbited Elysium until somebody deigned to answer their distress call.
“Okay,” Matt said, turning his mind back to the problem at hand, searching for some sort of a quick solution. They’d have to cancel the job Matt had contracted yesterday (geological survey equipment delivery to one of the moons of Elysium-4), and every day they spent docked at the station meant more fees. They couldn’t afford to tarry without any immediate sources of income.
“Can you get a new power converter?” he asked Val.
“Yes,” Val said, getting up. Looming at six feet five inches and built of solid muscle, some would call Valeriy Sokolov intimidating. The buzz cut and the perpetually grim expression did nothing to soften his appearance. He was also one of the smartest people Matt had ever known, and with Ryce in the same room, that was saying a lot.
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming,” Matt said.
“A brand new converter would set us back fifteen grand,” Val said. “I might be able to find a used one for about five thousand creds, but there’s no telling how long it’ll hold. Could be just a waste of money.”
Matt had had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it, and his hunch proved to be correct. Unfortunately, they always did.
“Shit.” He stared at the discarded parts as if they could somehow magically transform into Federal credits. He wasn’t prepared for it being quite so large a sum. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“I’ll clean up in here.” Val’s tone clearly suggested he wanted everybody else to leave the engine room.
“Come on.” Ryce got up and took Matt by the arm, steering him toward the exit and into the narrow corridor.
Ryce’s touch was comforting, and Matt instinctively leaned into it. He still couldn’t quite believe they were together. As in a real relationship. Ryce was way out of Matt’s league—a brilliant mind, a former Fleet combat pilot, a war hero. Not to mention hot as hell, and scrupulous to a fault—an admirable trait, but one which, at times, made their lives somewhat difficult.
As the captain of the small cargo ship Lady Lisa, Matt Spears was a runner, an independent contractor living off odd jobs hauling goods between the various planets and outposts in the Elysium system. While Matt was not averse to bending the rules regarding the legality of his cargo or passengers every now and then, Ryce was firmly against illicit smuggling in any shape or form. Had it been any other person, Matt would have told him to bugger off, or at least keep quiet about the nature of his contracts, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie or argue with Ryce on points of honor.
Over seven months ago, Ryce had been involved in one man’s covert scheme that had led to him and Matt crossing paths—but which had also cost Ryce everything. A brilliant Fleet officer with a promising career, he had been discharged under questionable circumstances and cast adrift with no remaining family to fall back on and no home to call his own.
Still, a man of Ryce’s capabilities could’ve easily found himself a job with one of the larger transport companies in the private sector, or pursued an academic career, as his late adoptive parents had always wanted. But instead, he’d chosen to cast his lot with Matt and his crew—a position that held no prospects other than bare survival and presented no challenge for his superior skills.
And now, even this paltry job was at jeopardy. The problem was, with business having been slow lately, Matt didn’t have enough money to buy a new power converter. And without a running engine, they were effectively grounded and couldn’t take on jobs that would earn them the money needed for repairs. It was a vicious circle, and right now, Matt could see no way out of it.
“I don’t know what to do,” Matt confessed once they reached the bridge and he plopped down in the copilot seat. The huge canopy window screen was shut off, a black backdrop for the silence. Outside was the bustle of a busy dock, but here, they were shielded against the noise and nonstop activity of the station.
“We’ll think of something,” Ryce said. “You always find a solution, and there’s still no cause for panic.”
He sat beside him in the pilot’s chair. When Ryce first joined the crew, after his final decommission from the military three weeks ago, they did the awkward dance around the precedence of piloting the ship, taking turns and being painstakingly polite with each other. But Matt quickly gave up on that. Ryce was an ace pilot. It was only logical to let the man do what he did best—not that piloting a small hauler around a sparsely populated solar system took much effort. This arrangement left Matt with not all that much to do around the ship, other than taking care of the business side of things and making sure everything was running smoothly. Which, at present, proved rather difficult.
Matt ran a hand through his unruly auburn hair. Ryce was right; stressing about it wasn’t helpful. He’d just have to calm down and consider the situation rationally.
“I might be able to scrape up about three or four thousand,” he said, crunching the numbers in his head. “There is a bit left in my account from our Ghorra job, and I could sell the new heater core Val bought last week. We could do with the old one a little while longer.”
“It’s not much, but it’s something,” Ryce said.
“Yes, but we’d still be at least ten grand short. And with the docking fees adding up…”
“Can someone loan you the money?” Ryce asked carefully.
For Matt, this had always been a touchy subject. He came from a very wealthy, very respectable family. His father was no other than the renowned Fleet Admiral Thomas Cummings, while his older sister Nora was a Major and commanded her own ship. Seven months ago, she’d been the one to pull him (indeed, all of them) out of hot water after Matt had become an unwitting accessory to high treason and multiple counts of Federal offenses. But his relationship with his family had been strained for years, their difficulties further enhanced by Matt’s continued refusal to keep in touch. After the death of his mother, there was no closing that gap. Despite Nora coming to his rescue, their renewed bond was still too tenuous, and Matt didn’t want to have to run to his sister every time he got into trouble. Perhaps this stance was childish, but he didn’t need his family being more disappointed with him than they already were.
The only other solution was borrowing money from some of his shadier business acquaintances. No proper bank would give him a loan, but people on the gray market would happily supply him with cash—at a killer interest, of course. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved with a loan shark, the way his luck had been going lately.
“We’ll see,” he said finally. The money had to come from somewhere, that much was certain. “Let’s keep this option as a last resort, for now.”
“I should go help Val patch things up in there,” Ryce said, getting up. He hesitated a fraction of a second before planting a kiss on Matt’s forehead.
Matt grinned and reached to wipe a tiny spot of grease off Ryce’s cheek.
“Sorry. I’m getting dirt all over you,” Ryce said, returning his smile.
Seeing Ryce smile at him never failed to make Matt’s heart beat faster. They were both still learning to navigate the sometimes-tricky path of their fledgling relationship, having spent more than six months apart with little contact during Ryce’s prolonged inquiry, but these little moments of quiet affection made the long wait worth it.
“I don’t mind. You can get me as dirty as you want.”
Ryce snickered, a tinge of blush creeping up his cheeks, and left the bridge. When the sliding door closed behind him, Matt sighed and swiveled in his chair. His faint reflection in the darkened window turned with him.
He wished he could see the stars in live view now. Seeing them so close always made him feel as though all these new worlds were within his reach, as though anything was possible if he only tried hard enough. Sometimes it was true, sometimes it wasn’t. All he knew was that if he didn’t fix this problem somehow, and soon, there would be no more chasing stars for him.
For the first time in months, Matt found himself badly needing a drink.
A voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.