Rogue Derelict is pulse-pounding side-story set in the universe of Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire Series. It had been republished with her permission.
In the chaos following the fall of the empire, Benita Castor wants nothing more than to live a nice quiet life. She thought she made all the right decisions. What could be safer than becoming an accountant? Where could she be more secure than the industrial fringe of the empire's most civilized planet? Yet somehow, she finds herself in the employ of a crime boss and is shipped off to audit a recent acquisition in a forgotten corner of the system.
Her new assignment is an old Kirian space station being developed by Nori Veshcha, an enterprising woman with big plans for the relic. Nori is overflowing with ambition, innovative ideas, and confidence—though her crew leaves something to be desired. Her chief technician, Blick Mathson, is a man more familiar with collecting debts than repairing ships. The only other crew member, her personal valet Lefty Hammermill, is a dim-witted but well-meaning grunt with secondhand cybernetics. Not much of a workforce to tackle the task of converting a centuries-old hunk of junk into a cutting-edge resort, but Nori is nothing if not determined.
At first, the assignment has the makings of an unpleasant but uneventful enterprise, even if Nori is somewhat overly cool, Blick is a bit overly warm, and Lefty is just overly Lefty. When a second relic of a bygone era makes an unscheduled arrival and its crew assumes Benita is their Kirian commander, she and the others realize the echoes of the past could have grave consequences for their future.
Can a mismatched skeleton crew on a malfunctioning space station rise to the challenge, or will a remnant of history remind the system that some threats aren't gone, they're simply forgotten?
I frequently collaborate with an author that should be very familiar to you if you've supported StoryBundle for very long—or if you've been buying quality books for a while, for that matter. Her name is Lindsay Buroker. We co-host a podcast and have worked together on promos and such. But we'd never actually collaborated on a novel. When Amazon approached her to open one of her series up as a Kindle World, she put out the call for contributors to the launch week, and I raised my hand. It was a fun little project that I couldn't push very hard, because Amazon and Lindsay both owned it. But since then Kindle Worlds has gone poof and Lindsay has graciously allowed all of the stories in her world to be re-published, so I'm finally able to share it wide. Enjoy! – Joseph R. Lallo
"I'm so happy that Mr. Lallo decided to write a story in the Fallen Empire World because I really enjoyed it! I've read all of his Big Sigma books and when I saw he had written a book in this world I grabbed it up. The characters are fun and the situation they get into is fast paced and requires lots of shooting, explosions and creative thinking to solve."– ck762 (Amazon Customer)
"Very entertaining I just loved the characters, hope you write a continuation of this book. Couldn't help but laugh at some of blicks actions, I would surely love to read more. I couldn't put this one down."– Gladys Parker (Amazon Customer)
"Loved it. Lots of humour, originality and action. Excellent dialogue in a style similar to Buroker with Lallo's setting a StarSeer Space Station seamlessly melding into the The Fallen Empire Universe. The characters were loveable, interesting and original including the whacky drones."– Vynette (Amazon Customer)
A hulking brick of a ship shuddered through the vastness of space. Some vessels were built for speed. They bristled with engines and navigation deflectors, occasionally even retaining the sleekness of crafts designed with aerodynamics in mind. Other ships were designed for battle, studded with enough blazers, shields, and launchers to intimidate a whole fleet of fighters into behaving themselves. Still others were designed to impress, capital ships gleaming with paint and built to showcase the skill of engineers, the vision of artists, and the wealth of nations.
Then there was this ship, which looked as though they had strapped thrusters on to a warehouse one at a time until it was able to leave the atmosphere. The designers hadn't felt compelled to include extravagances like windows or cushioned seats. This was a cargo hauler, designed to get its payload from point A to point B in relatively good condition. That some of this cargo was living, breathing, and had a degree in business management and accounting differentiated it from the rest only in that the better-educated cargo complained more.
Benita Castor was not a fan of travel in general. She'd grown up in Perun Central. In her youth she'd assumed the rest of the system was just as civilized and stable. The war had shaken things up enough to send her dashing for the shelter of the industrial outskirts of the planet. Her parents had reasoned it wouldn't be a target if things continued to degrade. It was then that she'd realized that not only was the system not civilized and stable in general, but not even all of Perun lived up to her standards of safety and calm. If she had her way, she'd be back in Central, doing the taxes of some fat, self-important relic of the old empire. Instead, she rode in the cramped passenger compartment of a filthy cargo hauler headed to the Dark Reaches, far from anything resembling a proper planet.
The one saving grace was that she was the only passenger on this particular flight. That meant the last five days had been spent in solitude punctuated by brief and unpleasant brushes with the surly crew at mealtimes. To her great relief, the mostly male crew didn't pay her any more mind than they did the crates of provisions that made up the rest of their shipping manifest. At a hair above five feet tall and sporting the soft physique that tended to go with desk jobs, she lacked the physicality to discourage any unwanted attention.
She twiddled her fingers through the display hovering above her netdisc, arranging rows and columns in a complex three-dimensional grid of blocks. The better she prepared, the more swiftly she could be through with this assignment and be back on her way.
The door to her quarters slid open, and a doughy and fragrant member of the crew stuck his head inside.
"Passenger 001," he said, glancing at something scribbled on his palm. "Bermuda Castle?"
She jumped, eyes wide at the unexpected visitor. "Um, Benita Castor, sir."
"What're you so jumpy about?"
Benita brushed some of her short black bangs from her face. "I'd expected any visitors to knock."
"… What for?"
"What if I'd been naked?"
He scratched his head. "What would you be sittin' around naked for?"
She blinked. "I suppose I…" She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but was there a reason you needed me?"
"Yeah. In case you didn't feel it, we're on the slowdown and approach now. Get your things and be ready. We're unloading in a few minutes, and the captain wants a quick turnaround."
"Oh, good," she said, dropping her netdisc into the top of her small carry-on bag, one of two she'd brought. "I suppose I misunderstood, but I thought for certain you said we were beginning our slowdown yesterday morning. I've been ready since then."
He shrugged. "Takes a while to slow something this big down." He turned to leave.
"Um, sir?" she said.
The crewman turned and stared blankly through her.
"I don't suppose you would be willing to carry my bag of things for me?"
He huffed, the first indication that his dull, disengaged attitude thus far had been as near as he was liable to get to customer service. The next stop would be surliness, and it would be a very short trip.
She nudged her larger bag forward, heavily loaded with clothes for ten days or so as well as some essentials. He wrapped a meaty mitt around it yanked it into the narrow hallway.
The pair trudged through the dank corridor for what seemed like several minutes before Benita got the courage together to speak again.
"I don't suppose there is anywhere on the ship where I can get an external view of our destination?"
He turned. Gone was the blank stare. Now she'd earned a hardened glare. Apparently his limit for questions and requests was precisely one.
"What do you care? It's just a space station."
Benita froze as though he'd brandished a hatchet. "I-I have to audit it, you see. And I'd just hoped I could get some sense of-of the scope of the job."
He glared at her for a moment longer, then turned without further comment. Benita was tempted to drop the issue there. If it were simply something to do with her own curiosity, she would have. But this was her business, and her dedication to doing a good job was one of the only aspects of her personality that could overpower her desire to avoid anything resembling confrontation.
"It's just that this is my first full audit I'll be performing for my supervisor. I don't want to fall short of his expectations."
"I couldn't give less of a damn about how good of a job you do for your boss."
"But Mr. Lundt has placed a great deal of confidence in me and it—"
He turned again. She braced herself for a gale-force glaring. Instead she saw something closer to a rodent staring down a hungry feline.
"Mr. Lundt… Brent Lundt? Are you on Brent Lundt's payroll?" he said.
"Yes, sir. He is my direct superior."
He turned and hustled to the nearest intercom panel and mashed the button with his palm. "Captain! Is this shipment for the Lundt family?" he said urgently.
"We don't talk about that sort of thing, Lewis."
"Yeah, but are we specifically not talking about this thing for this reason."
He turned from the intercom and looked sheepishly to the floor in front of Benita. "I'm very sorry, ma'am. I didn't know you were a member of the Lundt family, ma'am. Right this way to the loader's nest, ma'am. Excellent views there, ma'am."
"Really, if it is any trouble—"
"No trouble, ma'am!" he said, hurrying along.
They found their way to a crew elevator. Despite having been en route for several days, this was the first she'd seen of the elevator. Until now she had been under the impression the only way to get around the huge ship was via perilous ladders and staircases.
"I really don't mean to cause any trouble. I'm new to Mr. Lundt's organization, and while he's made it clear I'm not to discuss his business—"
"I don't want to hear his business, ma'am," Crewman Lewis blurted.
"I know, but I didn't intend to…" She took a flustered breath. "I occasionally forget the weight his name carries in idle conversation."
"I wouldn't know anything about that, ma'am. Just a legitimate businessman and let's leave it at that. Please."
A short, uncomfortably silent ride on the elevator brought them to the loader's nest. It was a capsule-shaped room with curved windows wrapping from wall to ceiling along one side. Benita could see rails extending along the length of the ship, and a short but sturdy gantry extending out the front. The vast star-speckled darkness of space filled the view. Evidently the system's three stars were behind them, so the view was unmarred by glare. Benita briefly wished she'd spent more time studying astronomy.
"By the Suns Trinity…" she murmured, stepping up to the window. "Do you happen to know where Perun is out there?"
The recently cowed crewman glanced at her and visibly fought the urge to revert to his short-tempered default. He hiked a thumb over his shoulder.
"Perun's back there. Along with pretty much the whole rest of the system. We're at the very fringe of the fringe. The Reaches don't get much darker. You wanted to see the station, right?"
He set her bag down and stepped up to the seat in the middle of the capsule. Rather than sitting down, he leaned over and tapped a few of the buttons. The door sealed behind them, then the whole capsule rose slightly, nearly knocking Benita to the ground. She steadied herself against a wall in time for it to pivot, revealing their destination ahead of the ship.
The dim light of the distant suns danced across the twinkling surface of a space station quite unlike the—admittedly very few—others she'd seen. Other stations tended toward utility. The smaller ones were little more than boxy structures drifting in space, and the larger ones were scaffolds and frameworks extending out into fragile snowflake-like formations. This one was quite solid and enclosed. It extended lengthwise like a lumpy tube hanging in the void, curved walls swelling here and there with larger cross-sections and twinkling with windows and marker lights. Without anything nearby, it was difficult to get a firm grip on its scale, but it just continued to grow as they approached. By the time their path shifted to come alongside one of the narrow ends of the station, it looked as if someone had taken one of the larger cities on Perun and wrapped it into a straw several miles long. The core of the station was effectively hollow, divided into six wedge-shaped tunnels running in one side and out the other. Their ship approached one of these tunnels, and would fit easily inside.
"It's… huge…" Benita said.
"Yeah. Huge is about all it is," Lewis said. "This ship's got a bigger sensor signature than that thing. Goes to show how little of it is operational. No wonder no one noticed it out here. May as well be a stray asteroid."
"I hope I have enough time to audit it adequately." She checked her pockets for her netdisc before remembering she'd dropped it into the bag. "They said I would only be out here for one or two crew rotations. You wouldn't happen to know how long a crew rotation is, would you? In the industrial sector, field assignments are usually no more than two weeks."
"Never worked on a place big enough to have more than one crew," Lewis said. "That sort of thing would be up to the supervisor."
The ship slipped into one of the open wedges. Her view of space vanished. Now there was nothing but the rushing blur of cables, wires, pipes, lights, and panels. The ship was still slowing, and at this rate it wouldn't pull to a stop until it had nearly emerged out of the far end of the station.
"We have a quick turnaround, ma'am, so if you don't mind, I'd like to get you to the airlock," Lewis said.
"A quick turnaround?" Benita said, quickly gripping a rail on the wall as Lewis abruptly retracted and repositioned the capsule. "But unless I've been misinformed, you have several hundred tons of cargo to deliver. Water, nonperishable provisions, assorted sundries. How quickly could you possibly unload?"
They stepped into the elevator.
"A place this big, we can line up three cargo ports at a time. Plus, they've got these weird drones. We'll be in and out."