McCall Richter finds criminals, con men, and deadbeats better than anyone else in the empire.
She's proud of her success and that she owns her own spaceship, especially since she struggles to understand human motivations, can't tell when people are lying to her, and is horrible at recognizing faces. Being autistic in the empire is frowned upon—and there's a handy normalization surgery to correct it—but she's managed to prove her worth and avoid irking the tyrannical regime.
Except for one thing.
Two years ago, she liberated the android, Scipio, from an imperial research facility where he was treated worse than a slave. He's become her business partner and best friend, but if the empire finds out she has him, a "normalization" surgery will be the least of her worries.
When her ship is confiscated by a cyborg law enforcer needing to transport prisoners, McCall knows she and Scipio are in trouble. Worse, the enforcer's pilot is a former bounty hunter and business competitor she beat to the prize many times in the past.
Soon, he's snooping all over her ship and questioning her about her past.
And there's something strange about him. He knows far more about what she's thinking than any human should.
It'll only be a matter of time before he discovers her secret. And then what?
Lindsay published her first novel in 2010. In the intervening years, she's published 49 more, with readers waiting for each new release. Her award-winning focus on romance and adventure makes her one of the most popular new writers of the last ten years. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"I enjoyed this well paced science fiction novel with a well done slow burn romance. I liked the writing style of the author and this was a great read. McCall made for a great main character and her autism gave her an unique touch and felt realistically done."– Lola of LolasReviews.com
"A touch of danger. A few questionable choices that turn out for the best. A grudging respect that turns into something more. I LIKE."– Kelly of Reading the Paranormal
"A wonderful new bunch of characters to explore the war of the Alliance with the Empire, with a hunky Starseer, dog and stylish android accompanying our quirky superstar heroine."– Goodreads Review
"There's simply no way humanly possible for her to match my craving for [Buroker's] books. That's why a new novel, like Fractured Stars, is so very much welcome."– Goodreads Review
"I absolutely loved this story. I loved the humour, the adventure, the adversity and the ingenuity of both the author and her characters. The writing is first class, this story held my attention from start to finish, it was only arc commitments that meant I didn't read it in one go."– Goodreads Review
The closet in the captain's cabin of the Star Surfer held the requisite amount of clothing one would expect from a female occupant, but the variety was decidedly limited. Ten white brushed-cotton shirts hung on hangers, six pairs of soft blue-and-gray Rocket X exercise pants were tidily folded on a shelf, and four pairs of identical mesh ship shoes were lined up equidistant from each other on the deck. Bags of unopened shirts and pants in the same style and colors as those on display rested in cubbies, awaiting their turn in the rotation. A stack of three shoe boxes also waited.
McCall Richter, captain and owner of the Star Surfer, frowned at the boxes. "That's concerning, Junkyard."
The hundred-and-fifty-pound mutt sprawling on the deck of the cabin twitched a floppy ear.
"I'm down to three backup Hemingtons. With my rotten luck, they've already stopped production of the LX-7s and have thrown some new crap up in stores with an entirely different fit."
A twinge of panic ran through McCall's veins, and she dug her netdisc out of her pocket and thumbed the holodisplay to life over the palm-sized circular device. Her Hemingtons, the only ones she'd found that fit just right, were listed on the store's sys-net site. Only seven left in stock. Who knew if there would ever be more?
"We're too far from the core worlds to order instantly, but I'm putting this in now before it's too late. I should get all seven to be safe, right? Definitely."
As she tapped a finger in the air to press the holo button, Junkyard twitched his ear again.
McCall sighed and lowered the netdisc. "You're right. I came to put on my off-ship clothes, not shop."
She waved toward the set of garments tucked in the back of the closet, a smaller collection of identical clothing, sturdy long-sleeve shirts, trousers with numerous utility pockets, and broken-in waterproof hiking shoes suitable for the vagaries of ground travel.
"Though why I agreed to go to this meeting, I don't know. I don't need to network with people. I am people."
Junkyard lifted his head, ears perking as she grabbed the hiking shoes.
"All right, that sounded arrogant. I know. But seriously, all I ever get from these events is other people asking for favors. And it's not like I will ever want favors from them in return. Even if I did, yuck. You know I hate asking anyone for anything. Or relying on other people." McCall shuddered. Dealing with people at all was always so… fraught. And tiring. Why did she let herself get talked into these events?
Junkyard sprang to his feet and wagged his tail.
McCall looked at the shoes in her hand. "Sorry, boy. We're just landing for a meeting. I'll take you for a romp somewhere afterward, but I can't bring you to the conference center."
Junkyard refused to believe her. He wagged vigorously at her—and the shoes. Off-ship shoes. He knew which ones were which.
"Listen, I'll ask Scipio to look for a place where we can set down afterward so you can run around. There won't be grass though. Sherran Moon is a red-rock hell where spiders big enough to eat you crawl out of all the crevices. We—"
A shudder coursed through the ship, and the deck trembled under McCall's socked feet. "What in all three suns' hells was that?"
Junkyard's tail drooped, and he eyed the closet, his favorite hiding place. One of the few where he fit.
"Captain," the detached male voice of her android business partner Scipio came over the communications system, "we are being pursued by an imperial law-enforcement vessel, model Imperial Charger, name Truncheon 4."
A shot of fear rushed through McCall's veins. She was a law-abiding imperial subject and ought to have no reason to worry about the enforcers, except for that one tiny incident…
"What do they want?" Cursing to herself, McCall jammed her shoes on without sitting down. She wobbled and almost pitched into the closet, her balance as reliable as always.
"Unknown. They have not opened communications with us, nor otherwise announced their intentions."
The ship shuddered again, and McCall almost pitched over again. "I think they're announcing their intentions now. Are they shooting at us? Are the shields up?"
"They are shooting extremely close to us, using what I believe are warning shots. I was uncertain if we should raise shields or take evasive maneuvers when being pursued by a law-enforcement vessel. Standard imperial law states that we should stop and prepare to be boarded."
"Uh huh. Raise the shields."
"Excellent, Captain. I am raising them in accordance with Comet Cruiser Defensive Protocol Number—"
"Good. I'll be right there."
McCall ran into the corridor with Junkyard trotting after her. A left turn, four steps, and she strode into Navigation and Communications.
Scipio sat in the pilot's seat and started to rise. She waved for him to stay and headed for the co-pilot's seat, though she stood behind it, leaning against the backrest instead of settling in. She fiddled with a bracelet she always wore on her left wrist, turning it around and around, barely conscious of the tinkle of the old brass charms.
A wrap-around holographic display provided almost a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the area around the ship, so she had no trouble spotting the white law-enforcement vessel pursuing them. Scorch marks marred the belly of the craft, as if it had been hammered by e-cannons, and missing hull plating revealed circuits and conduits that shouldn't have been exposed to space.
"They're damaged?" McCall asked.
"Yes, according to our sensors, the charger is heavily damaged."
"We didn't do it, right?" She couldn't imagine Scipio wantonly firing at law-enforcement vessels.
The Truncheon 4 fired again, a white e-cannon round blowing past just above the Star Surfer.
"Do they know that?" McCall asked. "Why are they shooting at us?"
McCall sat in the co-pilot's seat so she could reach the comm panel. Was it possible this was a mistake and the captain of the other ship believed the Star Surfer had been responsible for damaging his or her vessel?
"I am unable to interpret human motivations and emotions to gauge reasons for their actions with more than forty-four percent accuracy."
"Yeah, you and me both." As McCall reached for the controls, intending to open a channel to the other ship, a small alert popped into the air above the comm panel.
"They have opened communications," Scipio said, "and are requesting a response to their hail."
"I see that." McCall looked at him, debating whether to ask him to leave NavCom so he wouldn't be visible on the video display.
He wore an impeccable Kuan-and-Chien hand-tailored gray suit with a dashing blue cravat and an imperial puff cap with a band that matched the neckwear. Usually, she made him the face of her tiny business, but today, that might be a bad idea. With his pale skin, precisely trimmed brown hair, and silver eyes, there was no chance of someone not recognizing him as an android. That in itself wasn't odd, as all manner of personal assistant, combat specialist, and translation and computation androids proliferated the dozens of planets and moons, hundreds of space stations, and thousands of ships in the Tri-Sun system. The problem was that he hadn't been legally acquired.
"Do you want to wait in the back?" she asked.
"Should defensive maneuvers be required, I am a more able pilot than you, Captain," he said, though she had no doubt he knew why she'd asked.
"Most people are. I flunked my pilot's test three times. You know what I'm talking about, Scipio."
He pursed his lips in Thoughtful Expression Number Two, as McCall had dubbed it. She was awful at judging what people were thinking based on facial expressions, but the few dozen expressions Scipio had been programmed with were precise and identical each time. She'd learned them well over the last two years they had worked together.
"I do indeed understand my need to avoid the notice of law-enforcement officers, Captain, but may I remind you that I am one of five thousand identical androids that were made in the NB-75 line? It is unlikely I would be identified as stolen property unless someone boarded and did a close scan to learn my serial number."
"You weren't stolen; you were liberated."
"Or rescued, as I often think of it." Scipio offered her Pleased Smile Number One. "I shall stay in my seat in order to assist you. I do not believe it is necessary, but you may wish to use the narrow camera angle so they will not see me in the feed."
An irritated bleep came from the comm panel. A second attempt to hail them.
Not wanting to get in a real fight with that ship, even if it was damaged, McCall took a deep breath and answered the hail. She thought about keeping it to audio only, as she did when interacting with clients—if her preferred method of communicating via text wasn't an option—but she didn't want the officer to suspect her of hiding anything. The suns knew she couldn't lie her way out of a maze with a single corridor, so she would prefer not to have to make the attempt.
"This is Captain McCall Richter of the Star Surfer." She kept herself from demanding to know why they were firing on her ship, since politeness was always safest when dealing with imperial law enforcers. The government ought to adore her for all the criminals she'd helped them find over the years, but she had been paid for her services, and they would be quick to point that out.
"Sheriff Axton, Border Law Enforcement," came a gruff grumble through the comm. Interestingly, a video display didn't come up along with the voice. "My ship is damaged. I require yours. I am transporting prisoners to Frost Moon 3."
McCall stared at the comm panel, hoping she had misunderstood the man. She was less than an hour from Sherran Moon and her meeting, and he wanted her to travel five days across the system to a moon around another planet? Or did he even want her along? He wasn't proposing some trade where she handed over her ship while he marooned her on his damaged one, was he? How could she get out of this?
She looked over at Scipio. He might be able to stay out of the vid pickup for a comm call, but how would he avoid being noticed on a five-day voyage—potentially five days both ways—with however many strangers aboard?
"My ship isn't properly equipped to handle prisoner transport, Sheriff," McCall said.
"You have a brig."
"I have one cell next to the refrigerated storage in the back, and there's an environmental glitch I never bothered fixing. The temperature in the cell is equal to that in the lettuce bin next door."
"That will suffice." His gruff voice changed slightly, and he spoke the next sentence with relish. "Felons are supposed to suffer for their crimes."
She could tell she was dealing with a real imperial hero here.
"You will slow your ship and prepare for boarding," Axton said. "Then step aside while I take command for the duration of my mission."
"We're only an hour from Sherran Moon," McCall said, taking one last stab at evading this fate, though it seemed inevitable. "Surely, you can abscond with a ship there that would be more suited to your mission."
"Your ship is fast, and it's here. We're not absconding with it. We're borrowing it for imperial business, and we are fully within our right to do so. Prepare for boarding."
Before McCall could say anything else, the channel went dead.
"The Star Surfer is a fast vessel," Scipio said, "refrigeration issues notwithstanding. It's understandable that he would prefer it. Also, based on the scans I did, I read dangerously high temperatures in their reactor coils, and the ventilation duct for their environmental control unit has been melted shut."
"Meaning they might not be able to make it to Sherran Moon?"
"We could outrun them, couldn't we?" McCall tapped her chin thoughtfully as she wondered what the consequences would be for doing so. A fine? She could afford to pay a fine. A mark on her record? That wouldn't be ideal, but if it ensured Scipio wouldn't be discovered and taken back to the factory where she'd found him…
"I advise you do not risk your livelihood or your freedom by fleeing, Captain. The empire can be draconian with its punishment. You are currently considered useful to them, and you have a great deal of freedom, compared to the typical subject. Do not risk changing that status. I will simply power down for the duration of the trip and remain in storage."
McCall winced at the idea of Scipio boxed up in his closet for days. Even though he was an android, and she rationally understood that such wouldn't truly be a punishment for him, she hated the idea. He and Junkyard were her best friends. It didn't matter that they weren't human. She wanted good lives for them.
"Before you do that, look up the Truncheon 4 and Sheriff Axton, will you? Let's make sure everything they said was true and that these aren't criminals impersonating them to get to my ship."
"I have already done so, Captain, and the ship's pilot, a Deputy Arjun Deshmukh, transmitted their identification codes. They appear to be legitimate officers."
McCall sighed, wishing they hadn't been.
"They are closing to boarding distance," Scipio said. "They may lock a grab beam onto us shortly. Do you wish me to increase speed and evade them?"
McCall inhaled and exhaled slowly. "No."
She hoped she wasn't making a mistake.