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The Skull Game

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The Skull Game


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  author's note

  also by katina french

  The Skull Game

  The Belle Starr Chronicles

  Episode 2

  Katina French

  The Skull Game

  The Belle Starr Chronicles, Episode 2

  Electronic Edition

  Copyright © 2014 Katina French

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold, reproduced or transmitted by any means in any form or given away to other people without specific permission from the author and/or publisher. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author and artist.

  This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.

  ISBN 978-1-942166-05-4

  Electronic Edition 2014


  Of all the bars in all the planets in the galaxy, she had to walk into this one.

  Drevin eyed the scruffy pilot anxiously. There was no mistaking the short-cropped platinum hair topped by grungy brass mechanic goggles, the petite curvy frame stuffed into a dingy tank top under a battered grey coat, and cargo pants stuffed into work boots. It was definitely Shaen Morris, pilot of the Belle Starr.

  The only question was whether or not she'd recognize him, and whether she'd shoot him where he stood if that happened.

  When he'd gotten mixed up in that mess back on Mebarik, she'd been his first choice for a coyote pilot to get him off world. She'd turned him down flat; fearing the stolen credits he'd use to pay her would come back to bite her.

  His second choice, a pilot called Vahnu Vero, had tried to slip him off-world in a jump window Shaen had already claimed. Then Vero's even crazier brother Vishku had tried to shoot her out of the sky. Their plan had backfired. It ended up with Vahnu's craft, the Johnny Ringo backing off, and Vishku's Cole Younger taking damage. He'd only barely made it off-world ahead of the local authorities.

  Now they were somehow on the same world again. He couldn't help but notice the pistol sticking out from under her long grey coat as she sat down at the bar.

  Drevin signaled the barmaid quietly, paid his tab, and weaseled his way out the door. Dealing with coyote pilots, who were all crazy anyway, was a dangerous business. He'd take safer pursuits like armed robbery any day.


  She never thought she'd envy an orphan.

  Captain Shaen Morris sat in the Drunken Monkey, a broken down cantina on outskirts of Ghadrak, the capitol city of Magha III. Not that being the capitol city made it any less of a grime-coated wasteland than the rest of the planet. Magha was an industrial Class I world. Factories piled on top mines, burning the local equivalent of coal to produce metal and ceramics used on other worlds. The planet's atmosphere had been only marginally breathable when the Universal Human Council, or UHC, had found it. At the rate the factories were going, it was going to be a gas-mask-only planet in a couple generations.

  As she eyed her drink through the haze, she kept imagining the tropical planet of N'Bari IV, and the infant she'd left there a month ago. She'd left the baby in the care of an emancipated android.

  The freebot Whiskey Tango Juliett 57509 -- she'd unceremoniously dubbed it "Whiskey" -- had chartered passage off the cratered moon of Mebarik. It had discovered the child while doing a routine census and maintenance run. The baby boy was the only survivor of a homestead fire. Instead of reporting the baby to the UHC to be raised on an Asylum Ship, Whiskey decided to smuggle the kid off-world to raise, calling him Ward for some strange reason. The robot was risking more than its tenuous freedom. If the government found them, Whiskey was headed for the recycling plants on Gorram V.

  She still didn't understand it. Why would a bot risk death, or the closest thing for something that wasn't alive in the first place, to protect a human child? It didn't line up with how the universe worked. At least, not with what Shaen had seen of it.

  She looked up at Omma the bartender and ordered another Smoking Salandrian. It wasn't her favorite drink, but it was what Omma here at the Drunken Monkey recommended. She always drank whatever the bartender recommended, not trusting her own judgment. As a coyote pilot, Shaen's judgment left a lot to be desired. Progressive mental deterioration was both job requirement and occupational hazard.

  It hadn't bothered her before. It had been enough to own the Belle Starr and have the freedom to fly it. She'd always known that someday, she'd have a complete psychotic break. It was the way of the galaxy.

  Interstellar travel was possible only through the static transdimensional wormhole known as the Passage. Traversing the Passage awake almost always triggered immediate, violent mental instability. There were only two ways to move from star system to star system. Fly under sedation on government transport piloted by artificial intelligence navigational computers. Or trust a coyote pilot to fly your cargo or your unconscious carcass wherever you needed to go.

  For a small segment of the population who'd already had some kind of break with reality, it was possible to not only travel through the Passage awake, but pilot a ship through it. These were the coyote pilots. They were mostly emancipated adult orphans, refugees from the Asylum ships. People like Shaen.

  Among coyote pilots, some were crazier than others. Some were better pilots than others. Shaen was among the best, but she knew her number would be up sooner or later. The strain of travelling the Passage would break her. It had never bothered her because it was inevitable. Shaen's judgment may have been sketchy, but she knew better than to waste time worrying about something she couldn't beat.

  But that was before she met Whiskey.

  Shaen had transported androids before, even some that had attained artificial intelligence. But none of the others insisted on remaining active during the trip. She'd never carried a bot quite as talkative as Whiskey, either. She'd certainly never carried one smuggling an orphaned human to safety.

  Whiskey was a robotic humanitarian. It was rare enough to find people who looked out for each other. Whiskey had shaken her already unreliable sense of how the galaxy worked. All orphans ended up on the Asylum ships. It was inevitable.

  If a simple maintenance 'bot could subvert the inevitable, maybe Shaen could, too. Maybe she didn't have to end up a mindless shell, clawing her eyes out and dying in a Belle Starr that had become a floating tomb. She'd accepted that future. Imagining a different one wasn't a skill she had much practice using.

  But she finally thought she'd figured out a plan. It would require her to make some changes. Changes she didn't much like. Shaen didn't like people unless they were unconscious, secured in the cargo hold, and basically indistinguishable from a crate of turnips.

  If she was going to change her fate, though, Shaen was going to have to take on an apprentice.


  Risa Sellee scanned the crowded saloon one more time, making sure that no one was paying any particular attention to her. She eyed the woman at the bar, drinking the smoking concoction.

  Yep. Had to be a coyote pilot. Nobody else was crazy enough to drink Omma's crazy cocktail. She'd seen one cough a fireball into the face of a pilot when he'd let his cigar dip a little too close to the glass.

  A pistol peeked out of the woman's long open coat, threatening her not to be
stupid and go through with this crazy plan. For a moment, she thought she should listen to the pistol. The pistol was probably smart.

  But a pistol didn't have to eat. It didn't have to worry about living. It just spit out lead and death. Risa couldn't afford to follow its sage advice. Like any girl just out of the Asylum Ships, she had a limited number of options. Taking up the galaxy's oldest profession by going into Hostelry Service didn't appeal to her. No sane person would hire her for any other honest work. She didn't have a trade.

  That pretty much left theft and villainy.


  Shaen felt more than saw the scrawny girl slipping up behind her. Fear and hunger practically radiated off the kid. It was a sensation she'd known well back on the Asylum Ship Charity. You developed a sixth sense, a warning bell in your head when someone was headed your way to take what you had. It meant they were desperate enough for a fight, because fighting was severely punished on the Charity. She'd grown up on a space station that was a workhouse, orphanage and lunatic asylum rolled into one and thrown into the black endless night of space. You learned to take a lot of punishment or you died. Simple as that.

  The girl's hand slipped towards the small leather bag hanging from Shaen's belt. From the corner of her eye, she saw a piece of sharp metal concealed in her hand. Whether it was to cut the purse free, or to distract her with an injury so the thief could escape, Shaen couldn't tell. Probably both, assuming the girl could think that far ahead.

  As the girl's hand slid closer, Shaen pushed her smoldering drink back, grabbing the girl's wrist with her other hand. She squeezed hard and pulled forward, jerking the kid off her feet. The kid dropped the shiv to the filthy floor of the cantina. She struggled, but Shaen had weight, experience, and strength built from hauling crates for years in her favor. She wasn't taking Shaen's money, and she wasn't getting away until Shaen was ready to let her go.

  Stringy brown hair covered a face contorted with fear and rage. Shaen pulled the girl's arm up and examined her wrist. A tattoo marked her as an emancipated orphan, or Eo. Couldn't have been much over sixteen, the youngest you could leave the ships.

  "Are you dumb or just desperate, girl?" Shaen growled. "You're lucky I didn't just shoot you. It's not like I couldn't smell you coming a mile off." It was true. Shaen was no stickler for hygiene herself, but the kid smelled like she hadn't bathed in a month.

  "Shaen, you know there's no fighting here. You disarmed her, now either let 'er go or take her to the sheriff." Omma's weathered face offered a bitter frown.

  "You don't wanna take me to the sheriff, lady. Ain't gonna be no reward. Ain't worth your time. You got me fair and square. Just let me go, and I promise I'll leave you alone. Hell, I'll leave this whole bar alone. Plenty of bars in Ghadrak."

  Shaen looked into the girl's muddy brown eyes. It was tough to see them through the rat's nest of hair. She saw fear there, but also a wily intelligence. The kid wasn't just blank-eyed crazy like a lot of Eos.

  She reached into her bag and plunked down the payment for her drink, never letting go of the squirming girl. The girl kicked and spat, still trying to claw Shaen's grip free with her free hand.

  "Outside, kid." She dragged the caterwauling young woman through the bar. The pair barely raised an eyebrow among the crowd. The patrons of the Drunken Monkey had seen it all. Nobody cared what one crazy woman planned to do with another.

  Once they were in the alley, Shaen grabbed the girl's other shoulder and shook her. "You listening to me kid? I'm not taking you to the sheriff."


  "First off, I hate the sheriff. Second, you're an awful thief. No point in arresting somebody who isn't even good enough to manage to steal anything."

  "I can steal stuff! You'd be surprised at what I could steal!" Shaen could tell she'd injured the kid's pride.

  "Fine, fine, I'm sure you're just having an off day. But at any rate, my third reason is that I might wanna offer you a job."

  That stunned the kid into silence. She even stopped kicking Shaen's shins for half a second.

  "You wanna what?"

  "I want to offer you a job. I'm a coyote pilot. You take a mind trip on your way out of the ships?" A mind trip was common parlance for the informal entry exam for coyote pilots. You agreed to travel awake and restrained through the Passage. All Eos were offered the chance. Some were crazy enough at that point to take it.The government paid your transport ticket. In exchange, you agreed to be euthanized for the good of the state if you came out the other end a gibbering lunatic.

  The girl shook her head, her eyes wide.

  "I'm looking for an apprentice. If you're willing to go awake and restrained through the Passage, I'll take you on. Assuming you don't want to claw anybody's eyes out of their sockets after."

  "And if I do want to claw somebody's eyes out?"

  "I can airlock you or send you back to the Ships. Your choice." That was the standard agreement, but some pilots didn't want to bother with transporting a violent psychotic to the nearest UHC depot. To be fair, most Eos preferred the airlock option.

  The girl appeared to be thinking it over. She bit her lip.

  "You sure you're not just gonna sell me to a slaver somewhere? Why'd you wanna take on an apprentice that just tried to steal from you?"

  "First of all, anybody who sells to slavers deserves what they get when they get caught. I ain't gonna say I've never transported anything illegal, but I don't work with slavers. Period. You know what happens to us, to coyote pilots, over time?"

  The girl nodded.

  "I don't want to end up some mindless drooling idiot someday. I take on an apprentice now, I can save up a stake. Maybe retire, sell you the ship someday. A ship all by itself is worthless without someone able to fly it. But if you get through the mind trip with your brain more or less in working order, and I show you how to fly it, we could get an investor. He'll buy the ship off me, and let you earn back the investment over time. You're pretty young. Assuming you don't gnaw off your own tongue the first trip, you could have five, maybe ten good years flying. It's a decent life, kid. A damn sight better than what you already knew on the Ships. Unless you think your plan to become a master thief is still a better idea?"

  The girl stared at her with a mix of wonder and suspicion. Shaen knew the kid didn't have any better options, but getting that idea through to a squirrely half-crazed teenager was tough.

  "Can I think about it?" The girl's voice sounded speculative.

  "I'm leaving tomorrow morning. Got a jump window at 0900 hours to hit. You show up at the hangar here in town, docking bay Upsilon, if you're interested."

  The girl nodded. Shaen let go of her wrist, her other hand covering her purse in case the kid was actually a much better thief than she seemed. The kid rubbed her wrist and turned away.

  "Hey kid, what's your name? In case you show up tomorrow, I need to give it to the hangar guard so he'll let you pass."

  "Risa," the girl called over her shoulder. "My name's Risa Sellee."

  And then she ran like the devil was chasing her.


  Three streets over, in a beat-up boarding house, Risa mounted the stairs two at a time. She couldn't believe her luck. It had worked! Perfectly. She hadn't even had to bring up the apprenticeship. She'd had a whole speech ready, just waiting to spill big fat crocodile tears. She was supposed to beg Morris for the chance to fly with her. Instead, Morris had brought it up like it was her own idea.

  She barreled through the door into the room rented by the Vero brothers. Vahnu looked up from the card game they were playing.

  "So how'd it go? You get her to agree to it?"

  "Damn right I did. You picked the right woman for the job, boys. I told you." She pushed her hair back from her face, grinning wickedly at the two men.

  "And she didn't suspect anything?" Vishku glared at her with dull grey eyes, the cigar clamped in his teeth dropping ash in his wiry red beard.

  "Not a thing. I think she's feelin'
her age, fellas. Didn't seem nearly as tough as you said she'd be."

  "When you leavin'?" Vahnu frowned, like something was still bothering him about the plan. But the plan was perfect. This was the only part that left anything up to chance, and it had worked out even better than expected. Maybe that was what was bothering him. Things rarely worked out as well as he'd planned. Working out better was a first.

  "She's got a jump tomorrow morning. She's gonna restrain me at first. I told her I hadn't taken a mind trip yet. Need to give her a few flights to get used to me, let down her guard."

  Vishku pounded a fist on the table. "We've waited long enough, just getting your sorry arse on the same planet as her!" His wild grey eyes flashed outrage and madness. Vahnu was not sure his brother had too many good flights left in his battered brainpan.

  "Look, old man! I came with you both in good faith, thinking you were offering a regular apprenticeship. I can't say I was thrilled at the idea in the first place, but I'm willing to go along with it if it means I get my own ship sooner. I could leave here, get cleaned up, find another apprenticeship where I'm not gonna have to risk life and limb, alright? I want a chance to look around that ship of hers, figure out if she's got any internal defenses, that's all. You can wait for me to earn her trust and check out her ship, or you can find a new partner!" The girl's hand were planted firmly on her hips.

  Vahnu stood, walked over to her, patted her on the shoulder. "Now, don't go gettin' all flustered, Risa. We're real happy with your work so far. Vishku's just agitated, is all. He ain't got much patience. He wanted to just waltz into some bar and shoot her."

  "Damn right I did! Nobody drops me out of the sky, brother. Nobody."

  "Well she did, and for all we know, she could drop you in a gunfight, too. Don't pretend you haven't considered it. Not to mention neither of us wants to end up in jail for murder. This way is better. We talked it through. Risa here, she gets a ship. Our customer gets what she needs. We get our revenge, and a nice fat payment to boot. Enough to retire if we want. And best of all? Shaen Morris loses everything."

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