Excerpt - Sentient Thrive

Sentient Thrive, book 9 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures.

Can Ben tame the monster AI?

Evacuating the planet Denali brings Ben Acosta to his knees. Thrive Spaceways is bankrupt. His marriage is on the rocks. And his homeworld Mahina is in chaos from the deluge of offworld refugees. Pushy arrogant refugees.

He’s disgraced. Fair enough — he blames himself.

But another 40,000 will die on Denali if he can’t turn this around.

Ben hatches a plan. The AI Loki is like a genie who grants wishes. A hostile, insane, ugly genie, with a track record for enslaving humans and building starships with asteroid-slicing guns.

If he can harness Loki, Spaceways can still save Denali.

Instead he’s trapped inside an airless rock with Remi. Can they survive?

Join the motley crew of Thrive for a space opera buddy story, lost in space!

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The crying baby was driving Ben Acosta nuts. The lead captain flew the final transport out of Waterfalls yet again, the one carrying a full thousand refugee souls. Hopeful Thrive — aka Sardine — was unbearable at this level of crowding. It took hours to load the ship, hours more to reach orbit, then jostle into correct formation for warp, and further hours to traverse the rings and land safely on Mahina. Then they began hours of unloading, for a full 20 hours in hell for the passengers.

So they filled only one transport per run to the brim, last out, first to land.

The transport could barely lift from Denali’s deep gravity well at this weight. In theory it could attain orbital velocity. But this was Ben’s sixth trip — no, was it the eighth? He was the only pilot in the fleet good enough to fly this load. And even he couldn’t achieve orbital velocity straight from liftoff. Too many damned storms to dodge, with a ship too loggy to answer to the helm.

Sweat dripped stinging into his eyes, as he begged Hopeful to veer faster. He approached the tropics again, girdled with hurricanes. He’d found just enough quiet air between two massive systems to slip between, if only the damned helm would respond.

That baby’s pitiful keening had every muscle in his neck seized up like steel.

And he’d fail the turn. Dammit! He’d catch the storm at the worst point, too, where its 50 kph speed of travel added to 250 kph winds to cost him 300 kph headway toward escaping atmo.

The passengers weren’t going to enjoy it, either.

“All hands, this is the captain. Buckle in immediately!” Because this is going to suck. His fleet used to have a gunner, a copilot to handle the comms for the pilot. But there was no other qualified pilot for this run, no backup. They all waited upstairs in misery for him to get up there with this last load, and warp them onward to Pono’s rings.

Hopeful hit the first outer bands of thunderheads, and he felt them fall. He buckled his own harness. How did I forget to do that? Worse, how did that falling sensation sneak past the inertial dampeners? Maxed out, dammit! He’d lost 2 km altitude in one fell swoop. And the true hurricane wall waited ahead of him like the gates to hell, towering far higher and meaner than a moment ago.

Air pressure’s higher, damn-damn-damn! His lost altitude would hurt. The wind speed might be the same, but with dense air, the dark grey inferno could punch harder. His fingers flew over his navigation calculator. But a new yo-yo sensation, jerks up and down, frustrated his dexterity. Does it —? No, it doesn’t matter, just get the hell out of here!

But that was easier said than done. He could turn and ride the air — no. At this speed and sluggish helm response, he’d need hundreds of klicks to turn the ship around. There was nothing for it except to ride the bucking bronco of these insane air currents, rapid-fire updrafts and downdrafts and side buffets. Forget the original course and just go through.

“Captain?” Tarana’s voice over his earpiece. The one-time leader of the Sylvan expedition now served as his administrative assistant, a gift from Ben’s concerned husband a couple round trips ago.
Because he thought I was losing it. Fair enough. I am losing it.

“Captain, these gyrations are very hard on the passengers. How much longer?”

“Hell if I know.”

“But Ben —”

He clicked her off. Was that blue sky ahead? No reprieve from the churning gray maelstrom showed on his instruments. But he could swear that was a spot of clear sky, just five degrees starboard. He could turn five degrees, couldn’t he? The shudder in the ship began to clack his teeth together like castanets.

He clicked his comms back on. “Tarana! Shut that baby up!” He shut the comms off again without waiting for a response. The blue sky had disappeared, and he sobbed for its loss. Instead lightning forked out in every direction. He flipped the ESD shields up to max. Those attracted the damned bolts like a lightning rod. But as the only metal in the sky, that couldn’t be avoided anyway. At least the ESD would dissipate the —

Two bolts hit the ship in rapid succession, overlapping in time, starboard and port, and arced to meet above and below, briefly encasing him in a cage of forking actinic light. He felt that one, hair standing on end. His heart misfired a couple beats. Then his console painfully zapped his fingers.

NO! His instruments flashed bright and died. One of them was the ‘windshield’ display, now a cipher of blank graphite grey.

Ben blinked. Am I dead meat?

No, the instruments rebooted. They’d take a few minutes restarting. Do I hit the ocean before I can see it? He was pretty sure he was over ocean. Yes, there is only ocean at this latitude. Couple isthmus, um — whatever the damned plural of isthmus is. Isthmussi? Dammit, think, Ben!

But his brief electrocution had knocked his brain offline as well. The wind buffeting was side-to-side now, plus jarring smacks to the diagonal, wobbling his head all over the place. A pattern-breaking up-down clacked his teeth together again, this time with his tongue between them. Ow. He ducked his head to spit blood onto the lower half of his space helmet, then clamped it to the seat back. Not that being clamped to the seat made the ride any smoother when the whole ship was shaking. But at least it cut down on the whiplash to his neck.

It’s alive! His altimeter came back first. He’d lost another 5 klicks vertical. He pulled back on the stick, praying for the thrusters to obey. Up, up, please God up! Which direction didn’t matter worth a damn at this point. He’d need a bonus trip around the entire planet to make up for this one storm.

He might even meet the same cyclone again on his next lap around. Horrifying thought.

Another five seconds, and the helm answered. He began rising, still according to the instruments. Six long seconds later, the front display exploded into eye-searing bright confetti. He tried and failed to blink away the seared spots on his retinas. He finally accepted that half the bright spots were the screen’s fried pixels, not his rods and cones.

Rain, he decided, and belatedly realized his bronco ride was over. The helm responded smoothly, like congealed Monday axle grease. He couldn’t see anything through the grey clouds, but a ping off a Spaceways satellite positioned him. He was back in business. Minus half of his windscreen display set to dead white or black pixels. He could live with that.

He jumped half out of his skin when he noticed Tarana was sitting beside him in the copilot’s seat. When did she get here? He swallowed uneasily and returned his focus to his instruments. Up.

He couldn’t for the life of him remember how to do Up. Up in which direction? Where was he going?

Tarana rapped on his helmet, her face contorted as though she were screaming at him from inside her own. He clicked the comms back on.

“Ben? Answer me!”

“Sorry, comms were off,” he said absently. He had programs to reach orbit. What world was he on again? Water in the sky. Must be Denali. Or Sylvan… “What planet is this?”


“Tarana. Sylvan,” Ben replied.

“Ben, we are taking off from Waterfalls. On Denali,” Tarana said slowly, cautiously. “Ben?”

If only that baby would quit crying. Did he say that aloud?

Tarana hung on his shoulder now, gazing in concern at his face. “Ben, there is no crying baby.”

“There is, it’s screaming, it’s driving me nuts. It’s been crying forever.” When did the baby start crying? Takeoff. Waterfalls. Right, he was on Denali. Over Denali. Probably. No, Tarana said. He was taking off from Denali, if only he could remember how to do that. Surely he’d programmed a preset for that.

“Ben, there is no baby crying,” Tarana crooned to him. “Let’s take off your helmet, and take a nice little break. The ship will just…fly…right?” She busied herself trying to release the helmet, then switched to unclamping it from the headrest first. “Won’t the ship keep going straight and level?”

He batted her hands out of the way and unclamped his own helmet, lobbing it over his shoulder to the bridge floor. He tried to breathe deep, but found he was breathing too fast. His hands shook. Would the ship fly ‘straight and level’? What a ridiculous concept. He was in an atmosphere circling a rock ball. If he flew straight and level, he’d simply escape out of the gravity well on a tangent and keep going until the engines died and the sun pulled him…

What was I trying to do?

Tarana stuck his water straw into his mouth, jutting out from the body of the pressure suit. “Just take a sip, and a little rest break.”

Her voice was weird. Ah, it was coming out of helmet speakers over her ears instead of her mouth. That was confusing.

“Mayday, mayday,” Tarana said. Without transition, suddenly she sat in the pilot seat now, and Ben in the copilot seat, with his helmet back on. “Hopeful Thrive, calling Abel or Sass. Emergency, please respond!”

“Greer here, on Bold Thrive.”

“Sass on Thrive One. Tarana? Where’s Ben?”

“Ben is seated here beside me. But he’s not tracking. Mentally.”

“He’s not… Holy hell.” Abel Greer’s voice.

“We have no copilot,” Tarana continued, voice tinged with hysteria.

“I’m right here,” Ben said crankily. “What are we…?”

But now he was back in the pilot seat. And it was his husband, not Sass or Abel, coaching him softly. “— Should be seeing the flames die back now. Ben?”

Upset by the inexplicable time lapse in his memory, Ben gazed at the display screen. Why did it look so ratty? And what was…? Oh, flames. “Yeah. Flames. Dying back.”

“Listen, buddy, Tarana installed the program I sent. Rendezvous Gamma Ternary. Can you find that program on the nav computer for me?” Cope sounded tired, and concerned.

Ben keyed up the program he mentioned. “Got it.” He swallowed. Why did his mouth taste like blood? “You want me to run this?”

“Yeah, buddy, just run that program. Tell me when it’s live.”

Ben frowned. How did he —? Oh, yeah. With slow-motion precision, he pressed the go soft-key, and it…yeah. “It’s running.”

He panned the display. Rego hell. He was entering Denali orbit. The trip meter, started at takeoff, read over 13 hours. That couldn’t be right. A bad takeoff from Denali took seven hours, max. Do I even have enough fuel to…?

“Good job, baby,” Cope crooned. “Just relax now. Sit back and close your eyes. You’re coming in dangerously dry. You can’t afford any maneuvers. Do you understand, Ben?”

“No. I really don’t.” He enunciated slowly, with perfect clarity and conviction.

“That’s OK, honey. Just don’t override the nav computer. The fleet will match orbit with you, and warp you through to Pono. Then Sass will come and land Hopeful on Mahina for you.”

“Should I get him out of the pilot seat?” Tarana asked.

“No, leave him there just in case.” That was Sass’s voice. “Fantastic job, Cope.”

“I want to get over there now.” Cope. “No. I need to run the warp, don’t I.”

“Yeah, I’m on a transport.” Abel. Ben couldn’t puzzle out why he said that.

“You’ll do fine, Cope,” Sass purred. “Abel will talk you through. And I’ll take good care of Ben on the other side.”

Oh, yeah. Abel and Cope were the only ones besides Ben who could operate the warp gateway. And they flew all six transports back to Mahina this trip, plus the PO-3’s and tender, so Abel needed to fly a transport. And Ben’s engineer husband wasn’t much of a pilot.

His eyes popped open. “I need to get to Merchant and warp us.” His hands gripped his arm-rests in terror.

“No, I’ll do that for you, buddy,” Cope’s voice promised. “You just rest.”

The next thing Ben knew, Sass arrived to take his seat. The familiar comforting tiger-striped vastness of the gas giant Pono filled his viewscreen. And Tarana applied a hypodermic to his neck.

When he came to again, he lay in his bed at home in Schuyler, Cope gentling his hair.

He had no idea how Hopeful Thrive managed to escape Denali. He begged Cope to tell him how many he lost. A few always died, especially on that final transport full to bursting. He worried about that crying baby.

Cope refused to answer the question.

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