It's been years since Catherine Blackwood left the stodgy, repressive colony world of Avalon. Now the captain of the privateer vessel Andromeda, she is the master of her own destiny. But Catherine soon finds herself back on Avalon after receiving a plea for help from a most unlikely source: her estranged father, esteemed Avalon Council member Augustus Blackwood.
It seems Catherine's brother, the heir to the Blackwood aristocracy, has gone off in search of treasure on the failed, chaotic world of Zanzibar. But Cecil Blackwood's plans have gone very, very wrong, and he has been taken hostage and held for ransom by a fearsome local warlord. Augustus, knowing his daughter is the only one who can be trusted to return his son safely, swallows his pride and hires Catherine to bring her brother home.
Catherine takes the job—but it won't be easy. Just getting to Zanzibar proves treacherous. And once she arrives, things only get worse. If she is to save her brother, Catherine Blackwood must face down danger at every turn and uncover a mystery four million years in the making.
HER BROTHER'S KEEPER by Mike Kupari is the bundle's second book contributed by major publisher Baen Books, and publisher Toni Weisskopf chose it specifically because of Mike's ability to help spread the word. It's exciting that Baen Books would see the potential of storybundle.com and try out this innovative new way of distributing books. – Kevin J. Anderson
"After cowriting Dead Six and Swords of Exodus with Larry Correia, Kupari makes his solo debut with this space opera that is bound to attract fans of Mike Shepherd's Kris Longknife series or Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War books. An excellent choice for both teen and adult sf readers."– Library Journal
"[P]age-turning action . . . may be Kuperi's best book yet."– Galveston County Daily News
"A big, sweeping space adventure, with heroic characters you care about. Mike Kupari is an awesome storyteller."– Larry Correia
Aberdeen Province, Northern Hemisphere
A cold ocean wind buffeted the elegant ground car as it made its way up the hill. Catherine Blackwood sat in the plush back seat, brooding in contemplative silence. The car's quiet hydrogen engine offered little more than a hum in the background, nothing to interrupt her thoughts. She peered out of the window, to her palatial home at the top of the hill. Blackwood Manor, ancestral home of Clan Blackwood. Catherine's family had owned this estate for centuries.
It hasn't changed at all. An elegant mansion stood like a monolith at the crest of the hill, flanked by groves of genetically enhanced oak and evergreen trees. The trees swayed in the same icy winds that rushed in to greet Catherine as the car door opened. She stepped onto the polished cobblestone drive, shoved her hands into the pockets of her flight jacket, and headed for the door.
With such history looming over her, Catherine felt uneasy being there. As she approached the ornate front doors, she felt like an interloper sneaking into someplace she didn't belong. She's grown up in that house, but it had been fifteen years since she'd laid eyes on it. It was fall in the highlands of the Aberdeen Province, and snow swirled in the salty ocean wind. Winter would be upon the Blackwood Estate soon, and Catherine was glad she wouldn't be there to see it.
Avalon was a cool world, and Aberdeen Province was the northernmost inhabited province. The winters were long, dark, and brutally cold. The ocean would freeze over all the way to the horizon, and two meters of snow would fall at the higher elevations. Catherine had had her fill of such winters growing up; just thinking about them darkened her mood. The sooner she lifted off from this miserable rock the happier she'd be.
Her anxiety worsened as she was led into the house by a gracious and courteous servant. She knew the way, of course, but politely let the young housemaid guide her to the manor's library. The maid's high-heeled shoes clicked on a polished floor made of native hardwood as they entered the room. Shelves of actual paper-and-binding books lined the walls beneath a vaulted ceiling. Warm light flickered from a cozy fireplace against one wall. Blackwood Manor was equipped with every modern convenience, but was built with an eye for old-world, prespace aesthetics. Wooden floors and paper books were luxuries on a world that had no native trees when it was first colonized. Forests were seeded during the terraforming process, but even after eight centuries of development, having wood furnishings was considered a luxury on Avalon.
A conservatively dressed male servant, as unfamiliar to her as the maid, quietly entered the room. The housemaid bowed and excused herself. He addressed Catherine formally, his hands folded behind his back. "Lady Blackwood, your father will be in to see you momentarily. If I may be so bold, my lady, welcome home."
Lady Blackwood. Catherine's heart sunk. That had been her mother's title, before she died. Now, as the eldest and only daughter of Clan Blackwood, that title was hers. Her father had never remarried. Dismissing the sad memories, Catherine thanked the man, and he too departed with a bow. She felt a slight twist in her stomach; the anticipation was getting to her. Get a hold of yourself, she thought bitterly. It's only your father.
It wasn't fear, so much. Catherine's father was a stern man, but he wasn't a monster. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, perhaps it was how long she'd been away. Being back in her ancestral home, so steeped in history as it was, made her feel small. She hadn't felt so unsure of herself in a long time. Once again, Catherine found herself wishing she was already on her way back to the spaceport, to leave Blackwood Manor and Avalon itself safely behind her.
The veteran spacer steeled herself as the door to her father's study quietly slid open. Catherine's last encounter with her father hadn't been pleasant, and she wasn't about to let him see her discomfort. He approved of neither her profession nor her lifestyle, and like the hot-tempered young woman who had stormed out all those years ago, she now quietly reveled in her rebelliousness. At the same time, she couldn't help but wonder why her father had asked her to come home. Tracking her down couldn't have been easy. It was this curiosity, she told herself, that had driven her to accept the invitation home.
Catherine squared her shoulders and folded her hands behind her back as her father entered the library. Even with the miracles of modern medicine, the years had taken their toll on him. His hair had gone completely gray and had thinned. He was far too practical a man to bother with silly cosmetic improvements like hair replacement.
"Father," Catherine said carefully.
Augustus Blackwood wasn't as imposing as Catherine remembered, but his eyes still burned with the fire of a man who never let anything stand in his way. He surprised his daughter by actually smiling. "My dear Catherine," he said, still speaking with the ancient, prespace Scottish accent that Avalon was known for. "My God, you look just like your mother now. My heart skipped a beat when I saw you. I'm so glad you came."
He didn't go so far as to embrace his estranged daughter, but Catherine was nonetheless taken aback by her father's candor. Commodore (retired) Councilman Augustus Blackwood was the most reserved man Catherine had ever known. He was the personification of a stereotypical Avalonian: stern, notoriously stubborn, proud to a fault, and so conservative as to be considered backward by those on other civilized worlds. Catherine had rarely seen this side of her father, and hardly at all after her mother died.
"I . . . it's good to see you too, Father," Catherine managed. "It has been a long time."
Her father nodded. "Indeed. Fifteen years now, is it?"
"Something like that. You, ah, look well."
Augustus chuckled sardonically. "I'm a few pounds heavier and a great deal balder than when I last saw you, but I get by. But you, my dear, you take my breath away. If only your mother could see you now!"
Catherine very much doubted her mother would approve of her drab spacer's flight suit. It's not how a proper lady from Clan Blackwood should be seen, after all. Catherine wondered if any of the traditional Avalonian garb she'd had when she left home would still fit.
"I don't know what Mother would think of me," Catherine admitted honestly. "She always wanted me to be happy, but she expected . . . she expected a different outcome."
The old man's demeanor subtly darkened. This was not a pleasant topic of discussion. "As did I," he said flatly. Seeing the anger in his daughter's eyes, Augustus raised a hand before an argument could begin. "That's in the past now. I didn't call you home across God-only-knows how far to argue with you about your chosen profession."
"God isn't the only one who knows how far I traveled to get here. I was in Concordiat space, dropping off some VIP passengers on New Peking. That's over seven hundred hours of travel time, quite a bit of my ship's stores consumed, and a lot of remass burned. This is not even accounting for the money lost by running a personal errand and not taking on a contract. Fortunately, I was still in the Outer Colonies."
Augustus was a stubborn old goat, but he was an entrepreneur who had made his fortune expanding the family business, the Blackwood and Associates Trading Company. Catherine could see a twinkle of pride in his eye at her no-nonsense business sense, even if her "business" was something as uncouth as privateering.
Before saying anything, Augustus walked over to the wet bar near the fireplace. It was an old-fashioned fixture, built by hand out of polished wood and stocked with the finest Avalonian and off-world liquors money could buy. He chose an ornate bottle of twenty-year-old brandy, placed two small glasses on the bar, and poured.
Offering one of the drinks to his daughter, Augustus appeared to ponder his in silence for a few seconds before speaking. He was obviously troubled.
"I know it was a great deal of trouble for you to get home. It was a great deal of trouble for me to find you. I've had every ship in our fleet under orders to locate you, as well as every courier I could hire. I had them scouring registered flight plans, trying to figure out where you had gotten off to. Believe me when I say that I wouldn't have tracked you down and asked you to come all this way if the situation weren't so dire. You will be reimbursed for your expenses. But . . . your family is in trouble, Catherine. We . . ." He paused, taking a contemplative sip of alcohol. "I need your help."
Catherine was concerned, but intrigued. Her father had a fleet of interstellar-capable ships at his disposal. What sort of help could he need from a privateer? Catherine's ship, the Andromeda, was a capable vessel, but it couldn't move goods or people like one of the Company's freighters. Moreover, she'd never, in her entire life, actually heard her father ask for help.
"Father, what's going on?"
"Things have been going poorly for the business over the last few years. I've been lobbying my more protectionist compatriots on the Council to loosen some of our trade regulations and reduce tariffs, but the stubborn fools are worried about protecting in-system mining. I've tried to tell them that Avalon can't compete economically on domestic resource extraction alone, not when there's an entire galaxy full of unclaimed raw materials. The Miners' Guild may as well have a seat on the Council, though. Their hands are in enough bloody pockets."
Catherine had no love for Avalon's Byzantine politics. The skullduggery, the alliances, the rivalries, all of it seemed so petty to her. Before she could ask what any of this had to do with her, her father spoke again.
"Aberdeen has been hit hard by this recession. Many of our citizens have left for other provinces, or even emigrated off-world. The bloody Concordiat is stealing some of our best and brightest spacers! There are entire markets we could break into if the fools on the Council would only let us!"
Avalon was an old, long-established colony world, dating back to the waning days of the Second Federation. Some of its laws were archaic, including those regarding trade, and had been written centuries prior, with little amendment since. They reflected a much more dangerous, unstable time in inhabited space, when Avalon struggled for survival. The galactic map had changed, and so had the interstellar political and economic situation. Unfortunately, it seemed that the law hadn't changed with the times.
Catherine took a moment to sip her drink, choosing her words carefully. Her father was obviously deeply concerned, but he still had the notorious Blackwood temper. The last thing Catherine wanted was to have spent weeks in transit only to have an argument with him.
"I'm sorry to hear of your troubles, Father. What is it, exactly, that I can do for you?"
Augustus' eyes narrowed. "My troubles? Might I remind you that you are still Lady Blackwood of Clan Blackwood? Aberdeen is your home. Avalon is your home. Do you care nothing for your family name? Have you been in space so long that you've forgotten where you came from?"
As an experienced captain, Catherine knew the importance of being calm under pressure. Letting your temper get the better of you led to poor decisions which, in the unforgiving darkness of space, often had fatal consequences. Yet she struggled to maintain her reserve after her father's self-righteous comments. She, too, had the famous Blackwood temper, and had to resist the temptation to let him prod her into an outburst.
"No, I haven't forgotten," she said levelly. "How is Cecil, by the way? I seem to recall a conversation wherein you explained to me how he was the more suitable heir, being that he was fortunate enough to have been born with a penis and all."
Augustus' eye twitched involuntarily as Catherine named her younger brother. "Catherine, your brother—"
"And then," she interrupted. Her temper had gotten the best of her, she reflected. "I recall another conversation where it was made perfectly clear to me that a proper lady had no business in the Space Forces, despite graduating at the top of her class at the Academy. So yes, Father, I remember where I come from. I come from a narrow-minded, backward planet where a woman isn't good enough to do anything of note! Where I come from is the cultural laughingstock of civilized space!" That wasn't true, exactly. There were plenty of far-flung colonies that were known to be less enlightened than stodgy Avalon.
The room seemed to darken as Augustus' own famous temper rumbled. "Laughingstock? You impudent child! I was the laughingstock! My son and heir is a mercurial fool who couldn't manage a vending machine without cocking it up, and my daughter and eldest is a stubborn, self-righteous Sapphicwho cares more about chasing her own wild impulses as a bloody pirate than she does the good of her family and her people! No, my dear, it was I who was laughed at. Those damned arrogant fools on the Council have had a grand old time at the expense of my name, and have managed to all but marginalize the Seat of Aberdeen in the process!"
Catherine gave her father an icy stare. Her hands unconsciously balled into fists. Beyond her father's prejudices, beyond his chauvinist impulses, even beyond the fact that he had sabotaged her career in the Space Forces, Catherine was aghast at being referred to as a pirate.
"Is that what this is about, then?" she asked, quietly seething. Her own Scottish-Avalonian accent became more pronounced with her anger. "I scarcely hear from you in years, and now you call me across space to insult my ship? Are you quite finished, then? Because I'll admit that I didn't turn out how you wanted, but I am damned good at what I do. I didn't go from being a junior flight officer on board the Andromeda to owning and commanding her because of my family name! Nothing was handed to me! I bloody well earned everything I have, Father, including the respect of my crew. My services are in high demand, and my reputation is impeccable! If you want to know about pirates, I can tell you about the nine confirmed pirate kills my ship has. But that will have to wait, because my time is very valuable. So if you're quite finished berating me and taking out your frustration with Cecil on me, I'll be on my way back to the spaceport. Perhaps we can do this again in another fifteen years."
Augustus Blackwood was red faced, and looked ready to explode. His daughter ignored his anger and turned to leave. "Catherine, wait," he said, before she left the library. She paused, turned slightly, and looked at him over her shoulder.
"Please," he continued, seemingly deflated. "Forgive an old man his pride. I didn't have you come all this way just to start an argument. I really do need your help, child. Surely you wouldn't see your family ruined just to spite me."
Catherine turned to face her father once again, and took a deep breath. "It hurt, Father. Not so much that you didn't name me as your heir. I understand how that would've been fought by the others on the Council. But when I decided to pursue my military career? Despite all the biases against me, despite everything, I made it. When I was assigned to the Fleet it was the proudest day of my life. I . . . thought you would have been proud of me. Clan Blackwood has such a history of military service. I was honoring the family."
The cheery fire snapped and popped as Augustus poured himself another, larger drink. He took a long sip from his glass before speaking again. "I was proud, Catherine. I wished so badly that your mother could have been alive to see it. I didn't want to end your career that way."
Before Catherine could complete her midshipman cruise on a Space Forces ship, the Avalonian High Council rescinded a ruling that allowed women to serve on board combat vessels. That ruling had been a desperate wartime expedient dating back over a hundred years, to the Second Interstellar War, but it had never been reversed.
Much to her own surprise, Catherine struggled to maintain composure. "Then why?"
"I was pressured by the Council. I wasn't the only seat holder with an unmarried daughter, you know. There was concern that you would start some sort of revolution. At the time, the Women's Legal Reform Coalition was pushing the Council to change the laws of primogeniture." For centuries, women could not legally inherit titles or lands under Avalonian law. After the war, the laws were changed so that a first-born daughter could inherit if there were no suitable male heirs, since so many had died in the Maggot onslaught. "The Reformers wanted equal inheritance rights for sons and daughters."
"How dreadful," Catherine commented dryly.
"Yes, well, at the time, the Reformers were quite popular with the commoners. Once the press caught wind of you graduating at the top of your Academy class, you were on your way to becoming a folk hero."
Augustus chuckled. "Indeed. You were too busy with your training and your studies to pay any attention to the media, but my people were being bombarded with requests for interviews with you. I . . . well, I'm afraid I suddenly found myself under a great deal of scrutiny from the Council, and a great deal of pressure. They were worried about the precedent you were setting."
"I was hardly the first Avalonian woman to serve on a military vessel."
"Indeed you weren't, but you were the only female officer in living memory serving not in the Women's Auxiliary but in the actual armed forces. The old fools on the Council, including this old fool, allowed too many activists and lobbyists to whisper into our ears. They told us of the social unrest that would inevitably occur if this sort of thing was allowed to continue. They warned us that first, women would be serving on combat ships, then daughters would be inheriting Council seats, and after that, a movement to institute elections would begin. Avalon, they said, would fall to the same social unrest that has plagued so many other colonies, and it would all start with you."
Catherine raised an eyebrow. "Elections? I was hardly intent on starting some ill-conceived democracy movement. I've studied history, I know where that sort of thing leads. I was never a political crusader."
Augustus took another sip. "I know, my dear, but I was under such pressure. The other Council Families were plotting alliances behind my back, threatening to marginalize me, to undermine the authority of the Blackwood name."
"Since when does Augustus Blackwood bow to such pressure?" Catherine asked.
Her father winced as if the words had physically wounded him. "I . . . I was wrong, Catherine. I was wrong to let those bloody dinosaurs sway me. I was compromising, I told myself, just like a responsible councilman should. All my so-called compromise did was embolden the vultures the next time they wanted something from me. It caused me no end of grief." Augustus looked contemplatively into the brandy in his glass. "And cost me a daughter. Forgive me, child. Forgive me my shortsighted pride."
Catherine's practiced command presence was the only thing that kept the tears back. This was the first time she'd heard her father apologize for anything since her mother had died. She took another sip of her own drink to keep her composure.
"Yes, well . . . what's done is done, I suppose. I like to think that I did well enough for myself regardless. At any rate we've gotten rather off topic, haven't we? What is it I can do for you, Father?"
Augustus' demeanor darkened again. "It's Cecil."
A pang of concern went through Catherine's chest. She wasn't close to her brother anymore, but he had been all she'd had after their mother died and their father became withdrawn and distant. "What's wrong?"
"He's been off-world for two years, and now he's being held for ransom. I need you to go find him, get him back, and bring him home."
"Ransom? Where is he?"
"As far as I know," Augustus said, "he is on Zanzibar."
Catherine closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between her finger and thumb. Zanzibar. A lawless, strife-torn, failed colony world near the raggedy edge of inhabited space. "What in God's name is Cecil doing there?"