Kalish has been a successful treasure hunter for years, relying on only herself to deal with deadly predators, impenetrable jungles, and diabolical booby traps. But with her father kidnapped, and a notorious pirate demanding an ancient alien artifact that may or may not exist, Kalish needs help.
She hires a mercenary company because she needs their combat experience and their piloting skills—the intelligence officer with the background in translating alien hieroglyphics could come in useful too. Sedgwick Thomlin is charming and handsome, when he isn't busy sneezing at something from his long list of allergies. But she's not sure if she can trust him or the mercenaries, not when the most valuable and coveted relic in the galaxy might turn out to be real.
The Ruins of Karzelek is a 95,000-word novel of space-based adventure and romance that can be read as a stand-alone. It is also a part of the Mandrake Company series of novels.
I've worked with this author a number of times in a number of different places. When I began to curate this bundle, I immediately reached out to her to see if she had anything she felt would fit the bill. Her stories typically trend in the "sci-fi romance" direction—yes, it exists—but she suggested this as her least "bed bouncing" adventure. So if you like this story, be sure to check out the others for even more steam. – Joseph R. Lallo
Kalish Blackwell had never planned a heist before. As she studied the satellite images, Mercrusean tangleworms wriggled and writhed in her stomach, and she worried that she would throw up. Again. The ship's compact floor-cleaning robot buzzed and whirled, dealing with the last mess.
"Some thief you are," she muttered.
"Kalish?" came her mother's voice from the freighter's rear hatch.
"In the library." Kalish took a deep breath and wiped her brow, not wanting her mother to see her nerves, not when she had been arguing and promising that they could make this work.
"Library?" Mom ducked to step through the hatch, her single blonde-gray braid swinging past her shoulder. "Your insistence in calling three books and a computer terminal a library is odd, don't you think? Especially considering there's a lavatory in the corner." She smiled, though it was not a heartfelt gesture. The pistol, laser knife, and multitool belted at her waist spoke of her military past, as did the tattoos running up her lean forearms, but uncharacteristic uncertainty lurked in her blue eyes, eyes tight with worry, the creases at the corners deeper than usual.
"There are thirteen books," Kalish said. "Fifteen if you include the atlases." She kept herself from saying anything further, from bristling with her natural instinct to defend the ship. It might not be some finance lord's yacht, but she owned it outright as of six months ago, and she was damned proud of that fact.
"No argument about the lav, though?"
"It folds into the bulkhead. You barely notice it. And I know you were glad it was there the other week when Tia had that stomach bug and was doing dreadful things in the main lav."
"I suppose." Mom frowned at the images of the mining camp displayed in the air above Kalish's tablet. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
No. "It's the only way to get Dad back. I thought we'd agreed to that."
"I know. We did. I'm just worried about you. Those men in there—" Mom waved at the thick walls of the compound that were displayed in the three-dimensional map, all of them lined with antipersonnel and anti-spacecraft armament. "I'm sure it's been months, if not years, since some of them saw a woman. If you're captured..."
"It's a mining camp, Mom. Not a prison."
"What's the difference out here?" Mom jerked her head toward the ceiling, or perhaps to the stars and the pinkish-red Rimfire Nebula stretching above Karzelek, the dust ball of a planet they were visiting. "If anything other than the supply ship visits them regularly, I would be shocked."
"I know, and I understand your concern, but—" Kalish stopped herself from saying the miners would probably just shoot the intruders instead of worrying about rape. That wouldn't comfort her mother. Instead, she finished with, "It's not as if I'll be going in alone."
That was the wrong thing to say too. Mom's lips twisted downward so far that they were in danger of falling off her face. "Oh, yes, you'll have a band of musclebound mercenaries at your back. I'm so comforted."
"I chose them carefully." Sort of. Mandrake Company was one of the few outfits that had a reputation for snubbing finance lords, and they had been finishing up an assignment nearby. Finding quality people out here in the hairy armpit of the system wasn't easy.
"Mercenaries are mercenaries. They work for money. If they get one sniff of what you're after, they'll turn on you faster than a jackal on wounded prey."
"Have I mentioned how much your positivity warms my heart and buoys my soul, Mom?"
"There's a reason for that."
Mom smiled, however forced it appeared, then came forward to clasp her hand. Their skin contrasted, Mom's ivory fingers around Kalish's brown. "I know how much you're worried about your father and want to save him. Trust me, I'm worried too, even if we haven't talked that much of late. I just wish you'd given me a chance to work the numbers more, find another way."
Kalish turned the handclasp into a hug, but couldn't keep from objecting. "Another way to come up with a million aurums? I know you're a finance specialist these days, Mom, but you can't magic numbers like that into the company bank account."
"A loan might have—"
"We don't have that kind of collateral, and you said yourself, nobody's going to finance treasure hunters, not even treasure hunters with a proven record for finding valuable loot. It's going to cost us enough to hire these mercenaries." Over two years' profit, to be precise. In addition to finding the item Dad's kidnapper wanted, Kalish hoped they might find some relics her family could sell so they might break even somehow.
"I'm just worried that—"
"Kaaaaylish," came Tia's drawn-out call from somewhere near the front of the ship. They probably could have heard her from anywhere on the planet.
Mom stepped back, brushing the back of her hand over her eyes. Kalish's stomach clenched anew at the realization of how worried her mother was. She had always been so tough, so... soldierly, even after retiring from the Galactic Conglomeration Fleet and switching careers. To see moisture in her eyes rattled Kalish.
"Your sister's calling you."
"Yes, I heard," Kalish said dryly.
"You don't always. When you're engrossed in research."
"Oh, I always hear her. I just don't always respond." Kalish walked to the corridor, ducking her head and stepping through the hatchway.
"Kaaaaylish," Tia repeated, this time even more loudly.
"I heard you, I heard you. And those miners will too, if you yell any louder." Her little sister was twenty now, but sometimes she seemed like the same twelve-year-old girl she had been when Kalish first left home.
"Just figured you'd want to know your mercenaries are here."
More nerves squirmed through Kalish's belly, but she managed a calm, "Thank you," and turned for the exit hatch on the side of the ship, rather than the bridge.
She opened the locker in the bulkhead and pulled out her weapons belt, complete with laser knife and two laser pistols. She stuck one of the ship's comm units to her collar and also eyed the rifles, thinking about taking one of them, too, but she had a suspicion one shouldn't greet one's potential employees with arms. Not with really big arms, anyway.
Kalish waved at the sensor by the exit, and a shish-clank sounded as the seal disengaged. The hatch rose upward, catching on something. It continued upward, but the grinding scrape made her wince.
Kalish tapped the button-sized comm, ostensibly to test it but mostly to complain. "You landed a little close to the boulders, don't you think?"
"You said to make sure we're as hidden as possible," Tia said brightly.
"Hidden is good, but so is being able to take flight again. It's tough to leave orbit with one of your hatches missing."
"You're so fussy, Kay. I'll send a bot out to fix it. Now go meet those big boys. Maybe you'll find one to replace Mingus, and you won't be so grumpy all the time."
Kalish snorted and stepped outside. As if this was the time to shop for boyfriends. Even if Dad hadn't been in danger, she wouldn't have been eager to jump into bed with any man after dealing with the betrayal of that slug-sucking ass Tom Mingus.
She climbed the boulder, glowering at the fresh scrape in the granite, courtesy of their hatch. The chill, dry air of the planet wrapped around her as soon as she escaped the ship's environment, and she shivered even with her jacket and radiant-heat thermal unders. When she reached the top of the boulder, the wind struck her as well, harsh air that scraped across the rocks, blowing tumbleweeds and dust. The field of boulders stretched for miles in all directions, punctuated occasionally by spiky cactuses sprouting in protected alcoves. She glanced back at the ship to make sure the camouflage system she had paid handsomely for was in place. The Divining Rod's usual color was a dull gray-green, but it matched the dusty brown of its surroundings now. From twenty feet away, Kalish had no trouble picking it out, but to a ship flying by overhead, it ought to blend in with the boulders. A sensor-dampening shield protected the hull as well, so from a distance, it should appear as nothing except boring ground to a ship's computers.
She started across the top of the boulder, toward a small field a quarter of a mile away, the coordinates she had given the mercenaries. But the hatch opened again, and she paused. Mom walked out with a laser rifle cradled in her arms, her face grim.
"I'm your backup," she said to Kalish's look of inquiry.
"You think a bunch of musclebound men will be intimidated by one woman?"
"They'll be intimidated by Carl," Mom said, patting the rifle. "You talk to them. I'll be out here, watching your back."
Kalish smiled and nodded, knowing her mother was still a fine shot.
But in the meantime, she had better hurry. The mercenaries had not been paid yet, and standing out there in a boulder field might make them impatient. Kalish scrambled across the rocks, grunting as she banged her knees and scraped her hands on the uneven boulders. Now and then, her noises scared lizards basking in the meager sun, and they scuttled into holes and crevices. Some of them were poisonous, she had read, but it was the creatures under the planet's surface that she needed to worry more about, assuming they got to that point in this mission.
"Hullo, pretty lady," came a man's drawling voice from off to her side.
Kalish jumped, nearly pitching off her boulder. She had been focused on the clearing ahead and hadn't thought to watch for people earlier than that. Still, that didn't keep her from spinning, her pistol leaping into her hand with speed that would impress an Old Earth gunslinger. The Fleet might have rejected her for having a couple more inches around the waist than their sleek, athletic female soldiers were supposed to have, but that didn't mean she couldn't take care of herself.
"Easy, pretty lady," the voice came again, and a big man ambled out from the shadows between two rocks, his hands held out, though he wore an unconcerned smirk. Fine mesh battle armor covered his torso, so her laser probably wouldn't do anything anyway, unless she struck him in the face. The ugly, spiky hairdo wouldn't protect him from having an eyeball burned out.
"You with Mandrake Company?" Kalish asked, not lowering her pistol. She doubted he was a miner—they wouldn't have battle armor that expensive—but she found herself hoping he wasn't one of her mercenaries, especially when his gaze slid down her body, lingering on her breasts. Maybe Mom had been right. Maybe this was a big mistake.
"Sergeant Striker, Chief of Boom," he said, then bowed.
Kalish snorted. She had thought only the Chinese mercenaries bowed—they had a reputation for being polite right up to the moment they shot a person. At least he was only a sergeant; maybe that meant someone higher ranking had come down too. Someone who could slap him on the head for his wandering eyes. Wishful thinking perhaps, but she said, "Take me to your leader, Sergeant Boom."
"Sergeant Striker," he corrected. "Chief of Boom. I'm your munitions expert. I can make your world explode."
Before she could decide if she wanted to respond to the idiotic comment, a quiet voice sounded over the sergeant's comm-patch. "Striker, you're not harassing our employer, are you?"
It was a woman's voice. Kalish's hopes rose. Maybe there was someone who could and would slap Striker in the back of the head.
"'Course not," Striker drawled. "Just greeting her. Like Commander Thatcher said to do."
"He said to locate her, not greet her. You are not the welcoming committee."
"Well, she's pretty."
Kalish shook her head at this logic, or lack of it. She started across the rocks again, assuming the rest of the mercenaries were waiting in the clearing. Unfortunately, Striker hopped onto her boulder and matched her pace, smiling down at her.
"All the more reason for you not to be in charge of welcoming her," the woman said, her voice dry. "Escort her to us, please."
Kalish had already caught sight of the top of someone's head. She ignored Striker's proffered arm, climbing down the last boulder on her own. The woman and three other men waited in the clearing, all carrying rifles, all waiting calmly. They wore civilian clothes rather than any sort of uniform, with the tree design on the comm-patches on their shoulders the only thing that identified them as part of the same unit. The rifles, the battle armor, and the muscular, athletic builds of the men made them look like they could take care of themselves.
The woman wasn't quite as lean, with an ample chest not unlike Kalish's own, but she seemed comfortable in the situation and knew how to hold the rifle in her arms. She appeared to be in her early thirties. Two of the men looked older, though Kalish doubted any of them were over forty, but she hoped the woman was in charge.
It was one of the men who stepped forward to speak. "Greetings, Ms. Kalish Blackwell," he said, his tone as formal as his words. "I am Commander Gregor Thatcher." He was tall and lean, appearing slightly more academic than brawny, and he paused, tilting his head to regard her. It was almost as if he expected her to recognize his name. As if she kept abreast of mercenary officers.
"Hi," Kalish said.
The woman elbowed Thatcher in the ribs.
"I am the senior officer here as well as the most skilled Mandrake Company pilot," the commander continued. "I am a combat flight specialist with over ten thousand hours in the cockpit and more than a thousand kills on my record."
"He's real modest too," the man in the back said, a broad, muscular fellow who was chewing on something. Gum? He offered a friendly wink.
Thatcher looked coolly at him. "Ms. Blackwell requested two pilots. I am merely informing her of my qualifications."
"I'm the other pilot," the woman said. "Val Calendula. Most of my kills on record involve dangerous dust bunnies creeping out from under the controls in my old freighter's cockpit, but I've gotten pretty good at distracting enemies so Thatcher can swoop in and more effectively annihilate them."
This time Thatcher frowned at her, though his gaze was significantly less cooler. "You do yourself a disservice by underselling your capabilities."
"Maybe so, but I thought it would be a nice contrast to the overselling you did."
Thatcher tilted his head again. "I merely stated the truth. My kills are a matter of public record."
"Never mind." Val pointed at the gum-chewer. "That's Sergeant Tick, infantry soldier and tracking and sneaking specialist."
Tick, chewing happily at his gum, touched two fingers to his brow in a semblance of a salute. "Ma'am."
"You've met Sergeant Striker," Val said, "who could be a gentleman and take a few steps to your side instead of breathing down your neck and staring at your chest."
Striker frowned and took a small step to the side.
"And finally," Val said, pointing to the last mercenary, a man who stood behind the group, either taking sensor readings with his tablet or playing a game, "this is—"
The man interrupted her with a sneeze.
"Lieutenant Sniffles Thomlin," Tick said around a grin.
Thomlin lifted his eyes, glowered briefly at his comrade, then said, "I prefer Sedgwick, thank you."
"I wouldn't," Striker muttered.
"He's intelligence," Val explained. "You asked for someone with security hacking experience. Well, Thomlin loves computers."
"And they love him," Striker said, snickering.
Another sneeze interrupted Thomlin's attempt to turn his glower onto Striker. He glared balefully at a stunted cactus with a flower starting to bloom on its tip.
"Thomlin is allergic to plants," Val said, "and, ah..." She looked at him, raising her brows.
"Dust, moss, mold, pollen, dogs, bees, perfume, gold, chromium, shellfish, sulfites, peanuts, mangos, and strawberries." He scratched his head. "Did I say cats?"
"Oh, that was a given," Tick said.
The list of weaknesses surprised Kalish, because Thomlin didn't look at all frail. He appeared less rough-and-tough than the other mercenaries, because of his button-down shirt and pressed jacket and slacks, but he had broad, powerful shoulders, a tall frame, and a strong, angular face with a jaw sturdy enough to take a few punches. His bronze skin, gray-green eyes, and short, black hair suggested a mixed heritage, perhaps not unlike Kalish's own.
Thomlin sneezed again, withdrew a precisely folded handkerchief square from an inside pocket and dabbed at his nose as he glared at the cactus.
"'The powers of nature are never in repose; her work never stands still,'" Kalish quoted, smiling slightly.
He blinked and stared at her, meeting her eyes for the first time. "Adam Sedgwick? I wouldn't mind claiming the father of geology as a namesake, but I confess that my mother named me after a more recent Sedgwick, the biologist responsible for first cross-pollinating Earth peas with a similar species discovered in our system."
Kalish stared back at him, shocked that he had recognized the quote. A mercenary was the last person she would have expected to have a grounding in the history of science.
"Uh, right," Striker said. "So, you got something for us to blow up, lady?"
"Ms. Blackwell," Commander Thatcher corrected. "And I believe we are to participate in a raid and information acquisition mission? Possibly leading to a more lucrative contract that will engage the whole company?"
He pointed toward the pale bluish-green sky, toward his ship presumably, though of course it would be in orbit and not visible from the ground. Kalish hoped so, anyway. She caught herself glancing up to make sure. The last thing she wanted was to let the miners know someone had come to visit, especially after she had so painstakingly had her sister fly in under the cover of night and a storm, thus to hide their approach. The sky, fortunately, was empty of spaceships.
"If we acquire the data I need, yes. A very lucrative contract." Kalish managed not to grimace—barely. She had already had to make a substantial down payment and had placed the rest into an escrow account, so the mercenary captain knew she could pay.
"Excellent." Striker patted a black pack on the ground, one bulging with lumpy shapes. "I'm ready to make the booms."
"I had a stealth mission in mind," Kalish said.
"No problem. I have quiet booms too."
"Only the mind of Sergeant Striker could not consider that an oxymoron," Thomlin murmured.
"Better keep your lips from flapping, Sniffles. A piece of pollen might fall on them." Striker glared at Thomlin, who glared right back at him.
Kalish hoped her elite team of mercenaries—Mandrake Company's page on the network had billed them thusly—wasn't about to descend into fisticuffs in front of her.
"I acquired satellite imagery of the mining outpost from orbit," Commander Thatcher said, ignoring the men glowering at each other behind his back. "If you have additional data, we should pool our resources and plan our mission."
Kalish nodded, relieved that someone had business on the mind. "Just what I was thinking. I have the information right here." She tapped at the folding tablet in her jacket pocket. "Shall we go to your camp?"
"Is it just you?" Val sounded surprised. "I thought you would have some men of your own to bring."
"My men will stay to watch my ship and stage a rescue if intervention is needed." No need to mention that her "men" were her mother and her sister.
"Your men?" Tick asked, glancing toward the rocks, then sharing a long look with Striker. Did they already know that there were only three people out here, all women?
"That the old lady up in the boulders, making like an eagle?" Striker asked.
A streak of crimson laser fire shrieked out of those boulders, blasting a head-sized rock near the sergeant. Fragments flew everywhere. He grunted, raising his arm, even if he didn't appear particularly alarmed by the attack. Tick and Thatcher had shifted their rifles toward the rocks. Kalish winced, hoping Mom's distaste of being called an "old lady" didn't get her in trouble.
"That's one of them," Kalish said quickly. The mercenaries shouldn't return fire if they knew the person was with her. "As she would be quick to tell you, she's not an old lady. She's in the prime of her life."
"Her aim is certainly prime," Tick said, chomping his gum and shoving Striker in the shoulder. "She could have pierced your ear there."
Thatcher pointed toward the rocks lining the other end of the clearing. "Our landing spot is six hundred meters in that direction."
"You brought two combat shuttles, right?" Kalish asked, though she didn't miss Thomlin carefully and precisely refolding his handkerchief and slipping it into his pocket before he started after Thatcher. She might have only known the man for three minutes, but she could already imagine him walking away from one of Striker's "booms" without so much as a wrinkle in his clothing, despite shrapnel and smoke flying everywhere behind him.
"Yes," Val said, "and we're happy to use them, but we saw you have a ship too. And presumably a pilot of your own? If it's a stealth mission to steal some data, why do you need so many ships?"
"The ships are for Stage Two," Kalish said. Though she found herself liking Val, she wasn't even close to ready to divulge her true purpose here to a pack of mercenaries. Contract or not, she would be a fool to trust any of them.
She was already nervous about going alone with them to their ships. Val and Thatcher seemed professional enough, but she didn't like the way Striker kept looking at her chest. The mercenaries might have Fleet-like ranks, but she doubted any code of honor—or risk of court martial and death—guided their actions. She would hope that as long as she was in the putative position of employer, they wouldn't harass her in any way, but she resolved not to be caught alone with Sergeant Wandering Eyes there. She also worried about what would happen if they didn't prove themselves capable of helping her with her mission and she decided not to extend the contract. Even though she had worked numerous stipulations in when speaking to the captain, she had a feeling the mercenaries wouldn't appreciate diverting to this dust ball for nothing.