Captain Alisa Marchenko finally has a lead on finding her daughter, but her passengers want her to take them on their quest instead. Even though the Star Nomad is her ship, they have power she cannot fight, and she finds herself with no choice but to accept another detour.
But the ancient relic they seek has the ability to destroy worlds and is coveted by many. The path leading to it is riddled with competitors and littered with the dead, and even a cyborg and a Starseer may not be strong enough to fight the obstacles in the way.
Swept up in a fate she never chose, Alisa must find a way to survive against impossible odds, knowing that if her passengers succeed, they will change the course of history—maybe not for the better.
Each new book of the Fallen Empire series deepens and expands the relationships and personalities of the crew. The broad spectrum of characters puts one in mind of Firefly, with each member of the crew unique and thoroughly entertaining. I just knew that readers finishing the first three books in the series would be scrambling for the fourth, so I was happy to include it. – Joseph R. Lallo
"I have read the first four books in this series in 5 days, and I'm having to physically restrain myself from launching into the fifth book. I love the characters, the pace is fast, and I'm completely hooked."– Goodreads Review
"Brilliant storyline and such appealing characters, can't get enough of this."– Goodreads Review
"Everything felt perfectly balanced here. It's just the right combinations of heart-pounding action mixed with tender romance, and sassy, silly humor (I actually laughed out loud a few times) mixed with tense, genuine dialogue."– Goodreads Review
The medicine ball slammed into Alisa's chest with enough force that she nearly tumbled to the deck. Nobody would ever accuse her engineer of throwing like a girl. Alisa tossed the ball back, aiming to the side of Mica, so she would have to twist and work different muscles to catch it. Mica did so without so much as a grimace to suggest effort was required.
She tossed it back, flexing her bare arms and glancing toward the walkway above. Yumi sat up there with her legs dangling over the side as she read a book on her netdisc. Two chickens pranced around behind her, having escaped from the makeshift coop in the corner of the cargo hold. Again. Yumi cooed at them, paying more attention to the birds than Mica. Alisa almost made a joke about her engineer's unrequited love, but decided to rein it in since she hadn't had any luck finding love lately, either. Not that she was looking. Recently widowed women weren't supposed to look. It was a rule.
"Yumi, want to join us?" Mica called up, as the ball went back and forth.
"No, thank you," Yumi said. "My breathing exercises provide me with all the workout I require, with no sweating involved."
"Breathing exercises?" Mica arched a skeptical eyebrow.
"A combination of stretching and powerful, forceful breathing that increases your oxygen intake, which boosts circulation, strength, and metabolism. I could show you, if you like."
"Uh." Judging by Mica's wrinkled nose, she thought that sounded like a bunch of mumbo jumbo. It was a testament to her interest in Yumi that she didn't outright say so.
"Can't be any worse than the candlelit séance you let her lead you through a few weeks ago," Alisa said.
Mica frowned at her. "That was a meditation session."
"Oh? Did you call up any ghosts to chat with while you did it?"
Mica threw the ball hard enough that catching it almost knocked Alisa off her feet. It did pummel her in the chest with a solid thump.
"You're bruising my boobs," Alisa said, hiding a grimace as she positioned the ball to throw it back. Wasn't the idea to give her muscles a pummeling?
"Unless you and the cyborg have a date later," Mica said, "I don't see how it matters out here."
Alisa's cheeks warmed, and she looked toward the other side of the empty cargo hold where a barefooted and bare-chested Leonidas was sparring with a fully armored Tommy Beck. They appeared to be too busy to listen in on Alisa and Mica's conversation, but Leonidas had that enhanced cyborg hearing, so who knew?
Neither of them looked in her direction. Leonidas launched a flurry of palm strikes and kicks at Beck, who did his best to block them, but still ended up scrambling backward until his back was against the wall. With Beck in full armor and Leonidas barehanded punching, it had to be like striking solid metal, but no hint of pain ever crossed Leonidas's determined face. He'd explained once that most of his bones had been replaced with nearly indestructible synthetics, but even so, Alisa couldn't imagine punching armor felt good.
Leonidas lowered his arms and stepped back several paces, waving for Beck to come back to the center of their impromptu sparring arena. The very empty sparring arena. Since Alisa and her passengers had missions that consumed their focus, she hadn't taken the time to look for any freight to haul, so the hold held little more than the chicken coop. Unfortunately, a lack of freight meant she hadn't had the funds to fix up the Star Nomad with weapons or any of the other upgrades the seventy-year-old freighter desperately needed.
"You barely dented my armor that time, mech," Beck said, thumping a fist to his chest plate as he walked back into their arena. His voice sounded muffled through the faceplate of his helmet. He had dressed in his full kit for this sparring match.
"You know who gets to hammer out those dents, don't you?" Mica muttered to Alisa, throwing the medicine ball again.
"Beck trusts you to do that? You're not an armor smith."
"I have a big hammer. That's all it takes."
"A big hammer, huh? Does Yumi know? Maybe she'd be more interested."
Mica's eyes narrowed as she received the ball. "Watch yourself, Captain, or I'll bruise more than your boobs."
"Your lack of job offers is truly puzzling," Alisa said, referring to her engineer's desire to find more challenging and auspicious work than the old freighter offered.
This time, when the ball came hurtling at her chest, Alisa was ready and absorbed most of the impact. Still, she wouldn't have minded a set of combat armor for herself. Like weapons and parts for her ship, it was on her wish list.
Leonidas sighed as Beck danced around with his gauntleted fists up. "I'm not trying to dent your armor. With the speed and power that suit gives you, you ought to be fast enough to attack me, not just scurry out of the way." He wriggled his fingers in invitation. "Don't be intimidated. You're not when you're fighting other enemies. I've seen you in combat. You're adequate."
"Adequate?" Beck lowered his fists to his hips. "Is that the kind of effusive praise you gave your soldiers when you were a military commander?"
"Only if they deserved it. And didn't use words like effusive."
"I had no idea cyborgs frowned upon vocabulary words."
"We're dumb brutes that like to keep things simple."
Alisa snorted. Leonidas was anything but dumb.
He wriggled his fingers in invitation again.
This time, Beck complied, springing at Leonidas, the servos in his leg armor whirring. A normal man probably wouldn't have been able to dodge out of the way quickly enough to avoid him, but Leonidas seemed to blur whenever he moved. In the split second it took Beck to reach him, he'd dodged to the side and moved forward, so he could attack. Even as Beck landed and tried to spin to meet him, Leonidas struck hard enough to send him flying. Beck landed in a backward roll and came to his feet, but Leonidas was already atop him. The encounter ended with Beck lying on his back like a turtle, raising his hands in surrender.
Leonidas sighed again, backing away so Beck could rise. For the first time, he looked toward Alisa.
"I don't suppose you'd consider taking on another cyborg so I would have a sparring partner," he said.
"If you know any who would like to work for what I'm paying you, I would consider it," Alisa said.
"You're not paying me anything."
"That's because you haven't accepted my job offer." Alisa smiled and raised her eyebrows.
She still hoped that Leonidas would one day tell Alejandro to finish his orb quest on his own, and accept the position of security officer that she had offered him. True, it would be a lowly position for someone who had once been a colonel in command of a battalion of cyborgs, but with the way her ship had found trouble lately, it was sure to keep him busy.
"Maybe you could spar with the Starseer," Mica said. "I hear he has muscles under his robe."
Leonidas shifted his gaze up to the walkway, not toward Yumi but toward someone who had strode out of the corridor overlooking the cargo hold. Abelardus.
He gazed down, his angular face aloof, showing nothing of his thoughts—or whether he had heard Mica's comment. As far as Alisa had heard, Starseers were fully human, with a few quirky gene mutations, and did not have superior hearing, but since they could read minds, maybe Abelardus still knew what everyone had been talking about down here. His eyes locked onto Leonidas's and his lip curled slightly.
"That looks like a challenge acknowledged and accepted to me," Mica said.
"Uhm." Alisa did not think they should encourage "sparring" or anything else between Leonidas and Abelardus, both because cyborgs and Starseers had a history of bad blood and because Leonidas and Abelardus had gotten into a fight once before already. She hadn't seen it, but she had heard about it—and that some insults or derogatory comments abouther had started it. "Actually, I think the sparring arena should close for the day. Beck, what's on today's lunch menu? It's been nice having such good food. Makes it seem like we're on one of those fancy luxury star cruisers instead of on an old freighter."
"I will spar with you, mech," Abelardus said, ignoring Alisa as his eyes remained locked on Leonidas.
Alisa, remembering how many injuries the Starseers on Arkadius had inflicted on Leonidas without ever touching him, shifted uneasily. Their doctor, Alejandro, had spent hours in sickbay with him as soon as they had left the planet, and for the first few days of their journey, Leonidas had been scarce. It had only been in the last couple of days that he had returned to his exercises.
He had to have reservations, but he promptly said, "I accept," his gaze never wavering from the Starseer.
Abelardus lifted his hand, his fingers splayed back toward the corridor behind him. Before Alisa could do more than puzzle over why he was doing that, his black staff flew into sight. It landed in his hand with a smack.
"Anyone else find that creepy?" Mica asked.
"Yes." Alisa looked up at Yumi.
Yumi only sighed wistfully. She had the Starseer genes, but had never manifested any talents, something that disappointed her. It relieved Alisa. It had chilled her to learn that her daughter, thanks to her husband's blood, was developing Starseer abilities. Alisa still wanted to find Jelena and bring her back into her life—and make sure she knew her mother was alive and cared about her very much—but she was no longer certain as to what that life would look like. If Jelena truly could move objects with her mind now, she would need someone to help her develop her talents and teach her the control needed to manage such talent. Alisa imagined a child with the ability to hurl things with her mind being very dangerous if she was untrained. Could Jelena be happy growing up on a freighter with her mother, as Alisa once had? She rubbed her face, not having an answer for that. She only knew that she had to find Jelena before she could figure all of this out.
"Think I'll get out of the way," Beck said and rolled to his feet. He removed his helmet and walked over to join Mica and Alisa in the shadow of the stairs. "You want leftovers, Captain? Or something fresh?"
One of the chickens squawked. It might have been because of Beck's comment or because Abelardus was walking down the stairs, looking imposing in his black robe, his long braids of hair dangling to either side of his bronze face.
Leonidas eyed his staff as he approached, but he did not say anything about it. After all, he had allowed—or perhaps encouraged—Beck to wear his armor to even out the odds. Alisa did not know who would have the advantage in this matchup. Abelardus shouldn't be able to move any more quickly than a normal human being, but he might be able to use his mind powers to keep Leonidas from reaching him.
"Captain?" Beck prompted.
"Leftovers are fine," Alisa said. "Thanks."
Beck trotted up the stairs, either in a hurry to get to his barbecue or in a hurry to get out of the way.
"Should we go up there too?" Mica had stopped tossing the ball, perhaps because Alisa wasn't paying any attention to it anymore, and had it propped against her hip. "Are there likely to be bodies flying everywhere?"
She spoke lightly, but Alisa did not find the idea amusing.
Leonidas looked at her as Abelardus stopped to lean his staff on the railing at the bottom of the stairs while he removed his robe and tied his hair back. Leonidas gave her a single nod. Mica tossed the ball into a crate secured to the wall and trotted up to the walkway. Instead of following after Beck, she sat down beside Yumi where she would have a good view.
Abelardus wore fitted, blue snagor-hide trousers and a sleeveless vest under the robe, one that was tight over his chest, showing off his musculature. He wasn't as brawny as Leonidas, but he had a lean, defined form that would catch many women's eyes. He had a handsome face to go with it, though there was always an arrogant tilt to his chin that Alisa found off-putting. She also found it off-putting that he had used her and Leonidas to buy time for his people to escape an Alliance attack, not caring if they ended up in a brig or dead as a result.
"You're not going to hurl any smoke canisters at me, are you, mech?" Abelardus asked, picking up his staff again.
"Where would I be carrying smoke canisters?" Leonidas flicked a hand at his bare chest and feet. His loose gi trousers did not appear to have pockets.
"How should I know what you keep in your pants?"
"I trust you've seen an anatomy book at least once in your life."
Abelardus smirked and spun his staff as he approached the arena. "I've heard some cyborg anatomy is broken."
Alisa frowned, not understanding the joke—the insult. Leonidas glanced at her, but his expression was closed now, giving away little.
"No smoke grenades or other tricks," Abelardus said, lowering into a fighting crouch, his staff held in both hands before him. Despite his cocky swagger, Alisa thought he looked nervous, with a tense set to his shoulders. He had stopped several feet from Leonidas, leaving himself time to react—or throw a mental attack—before his adversary could strike.
"Fine," Leonidas said. "No trying to give me heart attacks or make my kidneys burst."
Abelardus scoffed, as if it hadn't crossed his mind, but Leonidas's specificness made Alisa suspect he had experienced those things at the hands of a Starseer. She remembered that old man in the library, the pleasure in his eyes as he had tried to hurl Leonidas through that hole in the wall and to the ice a hundred feet below.
"Ready?" Leonidas asked. He was simply standing, his arms loose and relaxed, but Alisa knew he could strike in an instant.
"Ready," Abelardus said.
Leonidas surged into motion, crossing the distance between them faster than an eye could blink. Abelardus had his staff out and started a swing, but it did not matter. It was like swatting at a wrecking ball.
Leonidas bowled into him, and Abelardus went flying. He soared several meters through the air before landing. If that had been Alisa, she would have crashed down butt-first, but Abelardus managed to turn the fall into a roll that put more distance between him and his opponent. He came up facing Leonidas, who gave him a second to recover, but then charged after him.
Abelardus flung his hand out before Leonidas reached him. This time, Leonidas flew backward, as if he'd been the one to encounter the wrecking ball. Even though Abelardus had not physically touched him, Leonidas was hurled across the cargo hold until he struck the bulkhead.
"Shit," Mica mumbled from the walkway above Alisa. "Beck's armor isn't the only thing I'll be hammering dents out of."
Leonidas slid down the wall and landed on his feet. The blow had to have hurt—it would have shattered a normal person's ribs, if not broken his back—but he merely strode back toward Abelardus, his blue eyes intense and determined. Abelardus dropped back into his ready crouch, his staff in his hands. He pointed the tip toward Leonidas, as if it were a rifle instead of a seven-foot-long stick.
The hairs on the back of Alisa's arms rose. She stepped closer to the stairs, as if they might protect her from whatever power Abelardus conjured.
Leonidas dove to the side, as if a bullet were coming out of that staff. Alisa did not see it release anything, but something invisible clipped him on the shoulder, turning his flight into a strange shimmy. Somehow, he got his legs curled under him and turned the dive into an opportunity to spring off the deck and toward Abelardus, who was bringing his staff to bear again. He was not quick enough, and Leonidas reached him first, bowling into him again.
This time, they went down in a tangle of limbs. The staff flew free like a rocket, skidding across the deck to clang off the base of the stairs near Alisa's feet.
She jumped, startled, but she did not take her gaze from the battle. Leonidas had hold of his prey now and was not letting go. They wrestled briefly, Abelardus crying out once in a mixture of fury and pain, before Leonidas came out on top. Abelardus bucked, his movements frantic rather than calculating, as he tried to throw off his foe. But Leonidas pinned him and reached for his throat. Abelardus ceased struggling, and his eyes grew fierce, full of concentration. Before those powerful cyborg fingers wrapped around Abelardus's throat, Leonidas's head jerked back. His eyes bulged and his face contorted in agony, the tendons in his thick neck standing out.
Despite his obvious pain, his fingers inched closer to Abelardus's throat. Then, in a quick burst of movement, they were around Abelardus's neck. Leonidas's expression grew even more pained, and he panted, some invisible force tormenting him. But a very real force tormented Abelardus. Those fingers tightened, cutting off his airway. He grabbed Leonidas's meaty forearms, fingers digging into that muscle, but he could not push them away.
Alisa stepped forward, though she did not know what she could do, only knowing that this had gone beyond a simple sparring match. The two men were locked in tableau, like a statue of ancient warriors grappling before their gods.
Alisa clapped her hands as she approached. "Lunchtime, boys. Who wants lunch?"
Neither man glanced in her direction. Abelardus wheezed as Leonidas's fingers tightened. Abruptly, the force holding Leonidas back, the force hurting him, seemed to vanish, as if Abelardus's concentration had slipped.
Leonidas took advantage. He dropped his head like a viper striking, smashing his skull into Abelardus's face. Abelardus's lower body twitched, and he kicked out in pain or frustration, or both. Leonidas was too far up, straddling his torso, for the kick to touch him. He spun Abelardus over, pinning him belly down, face mashed into the hard metal deck.
"Do you yield?" Leonidas demanded, his mouth close to his opponent's ear, his knee grinding into Abelardus's spine.
Abelardus roared, trying to lift his head. Blood streamed from one nostril. Fury stamped his face, but he didn't seem to be able to launch another mental attack from that position. Maybe he was in too much pain to concentrate.
"Do you yield?" Leonidas repeated.
Abelardus clenched his jaw stubbornly, and Alisa worried that he would not say the words—and that Leonidas would not let him go until he did. His face was almost as contorted as Abelardus's, not in pain now, but he almost looked as if he were lost in some other world, that he was locked in mortal combat in his mind rather than simply exercising in her cargo hold.
"Leonidas, Abelardus," she said, stopping beside them and hoping she wasn't being a fool and risking herself by standing so close. "What are your votes for lunch? Leftovers, or shall we have Beck make something fresh?"
For a few seconds, neither man moved, and she thought they would continue to ignore her. Then Leonidas blinked a few times, as if waking from a dream—or a nightmare. He did not let go of Abelardus, but his gaze shifted toward her. He seemed confused, as if he didn't recognize her.
"Let's end it, eh?" she said quietly, holding her hands out beside her in a nonthreatening manner.
Finally, he focused fully on her, and recognition returned to his eyes. He looked down at Abelardus, the braids having fallen from their tie and lying tangled about his head. Blood spattered the deck under his face.
Leonidas released him and stepped away. Abelardus slowly pushed himself into a sitting position, as if the fight had gone out of him, but fury still burned in his eyes when he looked up.
Leonidas opened his mouth, and Alisa thought he would apologize—his expression was slightly chagrined, as if he knew he had taken things too far. Before he could speak, Abelardus's fingers twitched. Once again, an invisible force slammed into Leonidas, the edge of it brushing Alisa. It was like a tornado hitting her, and she stumbled back, barely keeping her feet. Her back struck the stair railing as Leonidas flew across the cargo hold, slamming into another wall.
Abelardus stood up, not sparing a glance for Alisa, and lifted his hand to summon his staff. It flew into his grip. He glowered across the hold at Leonidas. Alisa clenched her fists, irritated by the attack and irritated that she'd almost been knocked on her ass by it. Hells, all she had asked was what he wanted for lunch.
Once again, Leonidas walked away from what must have felt like a ton of bricks being dropped onto his back. He could have charged across the hold, and they could have done it all again, but he only took a few steps before stopping, his eyes locked with Abelardus's.
"Are we done?" he asked.
"Until next time," Abelardus said, his voice cold. He ignored the blood dribbling down his lips and from his chin.
Leonidas inclined his head, as if in respect to a worthy opponent, though Alisa could not tell if the gesture was sincere. "I will look forward to it."
"I bet you will. Asshole." Abelardus grabbed his robe and stalked up the stairs.
Yumi and Mica watched him warily, but he headed back toward the common areas and crew cabins.
"Are you all right?" Leonidas asked Alisa, joining her at the base of the stairs. Had he seen her stumble away as he'd flown across the hold?
"Am I all right?" she asked. "You're the one who hit the wall. Twice. You're going to have bruises. If not hernias. Do you want me to walk you to sickbay?"
He snorted, his back straight and his chin high. "That's hardly necessary. He fought fairly."
"If you say so. You cyborgs aren't very good at making friends." Alisa regretted the words as soon as they came out. Abelardus had been the bigger ass in that encounter, at least in her eyes.
"It's not a good idea to make friends with people you might have to kill one day," Leonidas said.
"Oh? Are you planning a disagreeable end for our Starseer passenger?"
"It's just a general comment."
His eyes grew distant, almost haunted, as he gazed toward a wall, and Alisa was tempted to ask if he'd had to do that before, kill someone he considered a friend. She decided she did not want to know, especially since she had started to consider him a friend, and she'd hoped he considered her one too.
A couple of alert beeps came from the ship's speakers.
"So much for lunch," Alisa said, swinging onto the stairs.
"Is that trouble?" Leonidas asked.
"Considering how my luck has been lately? Probably so."