Excerpt - Skyship Thrive
This is the blurb for Skyship Thrive, book 1 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures series.
An ex-cop who cannot die.
A moon full of settlers who cannot thrive.
Mahina's terraformers built a high-tech urban paradise. Then Earth flooded the colony with desperate refugees, cop Sass Collier among them.
The settlers who arrived with Sass died decades ago. Outside the citadel, their descendants die weak and young.
Sass fought a rebellion against the city once. She won concessions to give the settlers a chance at health. She paid with 20 years in prison.
Now she’s out, a reformed character. She assembles an oddball crew doing odd jobs. She intends to mind her own business – how to make a profit on the skyship Thrive.
But her fellow settlers are still failing.
While her business model careens toward circus acts, Sass dares to defy the city again.
Pick up Skyship Thrive because you love upbeat character-driven SF with fun technology. Suggested for fans of Firefly or Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper books.
Humanity spread to the stars not with a bang, but a whimper.
We gained control of gravity.
We settled the Moon, Mars, and Ganymede.
The star drive was discovered.
Explorers sought out new solar systems.
The best were colonized. Terraforming began.
But behind them, Earth was failing.
Time ran out.
None of humanity’s new homes were ready.
"Days" of the Mahina Week
New Captain Sassafras Collier brought her skyship Thrive to hover on station. Gearing up, and simpler tests, had gradually built up to this, her fledgling business cashing in nicely along the way.
The giant needle of an ozone generator spire impaled the full gas giant planet Pono hanging in the sky before her, bathing the moon below in the springlike green light of Glow.
Why this weekly ‘full moon’ stirred the human heart the same way their primordial Moon once did, Sass hadn’t a clue. But everyone’s blood got up on Glow, final day of the local ‘week.’ Over her years in law enforcement, she’d experienced the phenomenon first-hand, busting up fights and ferrying rowdy idiots to the emergency room.
Statistics concurred. Glow was the day to do something stupid.
“Do you hear a hiss?” she asked her first mate Abel.
“I don’t hear a hiss,” he replied, breathing deeply. He checked a telltale on the control panel. “Atmo is within tolerance. Bit low, but we’re at altitude.”
Sass sighed. “Abel, with a positive seal it shouldn’t matter that we’re at altitude. Just keep her on station. I’ll help Kassidy leap to her death.”
“I wish you wouldn’t put it that way. Are you sure we’re not –”
“We’re not liable,” Sass confirmed yet again. “Kassidy signed a release.” Sass squeezed the young man’s shoulder and left, re-sealing the bridge door behind her.
She paused on the catwalk above the hold to listen. She couldn’t pinpoint any hiss. But then, she was standing right next to the fan system. The machinery was blocked behind their client Kassidy’s beautifully inlaid wardrobe cabinet. So she wouldn’t be able to hear anything subtle.
“Are we ready?” she called down into the cargo hold. She hopped the slide down, lately simplified to a dogleg with a banked curve. Only then did she notice Jules lurking at the galley door above, Abel’s young bride. “Jules, you should be in your sealed cabin. This is the captain speaking.”
“But Eli gets to watch!”
“Eli is a scientist. Who will wear an oxygen mask when the situation warrants it.”
Eli sheepishly confirmed, “I’ll just go get that oxygen mask.”
“Yes, you will.” Sass called back to him upstairs, where he was also lurking by his room. “You’ll seal those cabins, too, as ordered.”
Sass turned to Kassidy, encased head to toe in something black, much like a neoprene wetsuit, though who knew what the urbs made the things from these days. Her tidy athletic build looked great in the skintight outfit, whatever it was made of. The younger woman was most disappointed that her gorgeous hair wouldn’t fly free for the cameras.
But the outdoor temperature was 10 below zero, as well as woefully low on oxygen, or any other gas. Kassidy would have risked it anyway. But Sass insisted she was training for a jump from 3,000 meters, nearly the top of Mahina’s modest atmosphere. Frostbite there would be nearly instantaneous.
Kassidy rolled her eyes while Sass went through her checklist yet again. She tested buckles and gauges, and Kassidy’s backup gravity generator with its remote dead man’s switch control.
“You will keep up a running commentary at all times,” Sass rehashed with her. “If you go silent so much as half a second, I abort remotely. And you float down like a flower petal.”
“Yes, mom,” Kassidy agreed. “Just make sure the cameras stick with me.”
Sass smiled as Eli joined them, wearing goggles and oxygen mask. Sass was fairly sure Eli didn’t need the protection any more than she did. But appearances must be maintained for the youngsters, lest they learn bad habits. She pulled her own roomy vacuum suit over her clothes, but didn’t seal it yet, leaving the gloves and helmet racked.
“Eli, you stay here as my backup,” Sass told him. “I’m on the ramp with Kassidy.”
Eli gave an exaggerated nod. “On a clamped line.”
“Yes, dad,” Sass quipped, earning a grin from the wet-suited daredevil Kassidy. Sass was old enough to be Eli’s grandmother, Kassidy’s great-grandma. Hopefully the younger folk didn’t realize that. By Mahina standards, Sass appeared to be a remarkably well-preserved thirty. Looks were deceiving on all three of them.
Sass hauled on a lever to bring down the airlock wall in front of the cargo ramp, usually retracted in atmosphere. She accessed the ship address system through her headset. “Captain speaking. Now testing cargo airlock. All hands verify pressure secure.”
“Aye-aye, captain!” Jules returned eagerly over the intercom.
“Bridge secure,” her husband Abel confirmed.
“Jules, confirm location,” Sass prompted.
“In my cabin, where you sent me.”
“Jules, next time report ‘first mate cabin secure,’ like Abel did,” Sass instructed.
“Yes, ma’am. First mate cabin is secure. Galley secure.”
“Just like that,” Sass encouraged her. “Good job, Jules.”
“My cabins and the engine room secured before I joined you,” Eli reported at her elbow. “I didn’t check your cabin.”
Sass nodded. “I secured my cabin and the empties before takeoff. Abel sealed the engineering spaces.” She took a mental stroll through the floor plan. “Abel, did you catch the med bay?”
“Sorry, captain. Didn’t think of it.”
Sass nodded to Eli, who scurried across the cargo bay to see to it. They tended to forget about the med bay, down here off the hold near the dangerous stuff. Most of the living space was upstairs along the catwalk. The large hold itself couldn’t be compartmentalized for air, though they could evacuate the atmosphere to restore later. These old skyships hailed from a time before Mahina hosted a breathable atmosphere. The ship was designed for use on airless moons and asteroids, and the voids between.
This was their first real test of the pressure seals on her new used skyship, not just Kassidy’s ability to operate a grav generator to save her own skin. Sass was more confident of the latter.
“Med bay sealed,” Eli reported.
“All sealed spaces secure,” Sass acknowledged. “Evacuating air from cargo airlock now.” She pressed a button. A previously dead lamp blinked red over a lock the size of a barn door. Sass stepped to the side of the lock wall. She put her ear to the seal, waved her hand to feel for air currents, then repeated on the other side.
“Aren’t we on the wrong side of the lock?” Kassidy inquired, fists on hips.
“We are testing the lock before we put our soft squishy bodies in it,” Sass replied. “Do you hear a hiss?”
“I hear air pumps.”
After a few more seconds the blinking stopped, leaving the telltale steady red. Another red light glowed inside the airlock itself, as wide as the ramp but only a meter deep in this configuration, like the space between a door and storm door. Not that anyone needed a storm door on Mahina. The moon’s budding atmosphere didn’t support much weather. They took turns peering out through a window in the retractable wall.
“Airlock evacuated,” Sass reported. “First mate, pressure check.”
“Interior spaces no change, captain,” Abel reported. “Cargo lock at 70% to match exterior air pressure.”
Sass stepped to the control panel to the left. “Extending cargo ramp.” She returned to join the other two heads watching out the window for fun. “First mate, we need to wash this window.” Fingerprints and suspected nose smears impaired her glorious view. Her new old ship was just too much fun for words.
Abel chuckled. “I’ll make a note of that, captain.”
The ramp lowered beautifully to its horizontal position. With no ground to rest on, it formed a gangplank straight into the glowing orb of the gas giant planet Pono.
Abel prompted, “Captain, if you’re done admiring the view? All compartments unchanged on pressure.”
“Right. Closing cargo ramp…. Sealed. Restoring atmo to cargo lock… Green light. Pressure check, Abel.”
“Only change is that the cargo lock is nominal. A touch on the low side.”
“Says 97%,” Abel replied. “I’d risk it. Maintenance request noted.”
Sass snorted appreciation of the first mate’s self-ticketing system. “Alright. Let’s do this. Kassidy and Captain proceeding into the airlock. Eli has lock-side controls.” She donned and sealed her own helmet and gloves. Cool canned air bathed her hairline, smelling metallic.
“Eli at lock controls,” the scientist said, looking doubtful of his etiquette.
Sass shot him a gauntleted thumb’s-up, and opened the door. Pushing down the door lever took more muscle than she would have liked. She asked Abel to note that for repair, too.
In a moment, she and Kassidy were in the skinny slice of lock space, door shut and sealed behind them. Her young client folded arms and tapped a foot as Sass clamped their lines to a bar on the door with D-rings. Sass raised an eyebrow at her and received a confident nod in reply.
Sass punched the airlock evacuate button on the interior side control panel. She grabbed the bar at the side. Kassidy clutched the bar on the door. A red light blinked on the panel, then went steady red as the lurid no-pressure lock light lit.
Sass nodded at Kassidy, who returned a thumbs-up. The captain pressed the cargo ramp button. It was breezy up here as the ramp extended again, her roomy suit flapping at her.
Sass wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Nothing stood between her and the enormous gas giant in the sky except the thinning air of Mahina’s atmosphere. It didn’t seem as though it should make much difference, but it did. The gas giant was clearer, brighter, seemingly just an arm’s reach away.
Sass shot Kassidy a thumb’s-up. Your show now.
“Damn, this is too cool,” Kassidy replied. “Sass, give me a couple minutes to deploy my cameras and talk to my fans… Broadcasting now. Hey, fans! This is Kassidy Yang, speaking to you from the tippy top of an ozone spire. I won’t tell you which one! Right ahead of me is the glory of full gas Pono on this brisk and glorious Glow. Aren’t you glad you subscribed to my livecast now, huh?”
She continued in that vein. Sass almost wished the cameras weren’t recording, so she could creep out the ramp to peek down. But they agreed Sass wouldn’t appear on screen today. She craned her neck to see what she could glimpse out the side. As usual, the horizon looked unnervingly close. From this height she should see 75 kilometers into the distance. Only a single dark green settlement intersected her sliver of view, lonely against the gas-lit grey stretches of unterraformed regolith – raw rock and moon dust.
Kassidy subtly waved her into her corner. Sass complied and lost her glimpse of the surface. But at this height, she saw a star, or maybe a moonlet, glimmering off to the right. She never saw stars from the ground during Glow. Too much light from the gas giant.
“Now I’m approaching the edge, fans. Oh, my, isn’t that a long way down! I see Newer York, Albany, and Hutchins. I’m waving at you! That fainter settlement off to the left used to be Petticreek. Wow, the air is clear!
“Gang, my heart is thudding a mile a minute! This is going to be great! OK, I’m unclamping my safety line – now! And ten. Nine. Eight. Can you stand it? Six. Five. I have backup safety measures. But nothing is sure but death and taxes! Three. Two. One. Jump!”
At Mahina-normal one-sixth gravity, Kassidy bounded up into the air in a graceful arc, reminding Sass of a diver off the high board in slow motion. The stunt woman flattened as she disappeared below the ramp, her trio of camera drones keeping pace.
Sass quickly hauled Kassidy’s safety line in. She punched the ramp retract button the moment the stunt woman vanished. Gauntleted finger poised over the next button, she stabbed it the instant the ramp sealed. The Thrive began maneuvering as soon as the ramp closed. Outside the ship’s interior grav field, Sass swayed and held on tight to the grab bar. She fidgeted with her D-ring, waiting for the pressure to restore in her now-claustrophobic air lock. She listened in on Kassidy’s steady patter. Come on! She wished she’d stayed inside to watch the show.
But she couldn’t regret coming out to offer Kassidy emotional support. The young nut job probably didn’t need it. But you never knew. Sass smiled to think she might have added some courage.
And the red wait light kept blinking. The damned lock wouldn’t open.
“Woot! This feels amazing!” Kassidy told her fans over the livecast.
From her falling vantage, the layout of the living towns in the distance was crystal clear. A tiny cluster of downtown buildings, then the farm fields spread, forested rims staggered outward like the scales of a spruce cone, or the petals of a zinnia blossom.
Any neighboring atmosphere spires were beyond the horizon. The vast expanses of barren moon regolith left plenty of room for expansion between settlements. Featureless from the ground, the dust and rocks showed a faint crater from this height, with concentric rings and radiating fracture lines. The atmo plant itself, tucked in a ravine beneath her, included a green belt and Pono reflecting off a deep reservoir, the largest outdoor water she’d ever seen on Mahina. A half dozen scales of tree-rimmed fields spread toward her feet, a large solo farm flanking the atmo factory.
The curve of the horizon showed clearly, with a light band between moon and sky, like the thickened base of a glass bottle.
All this Kassidy drank in quick as breathing. She needed to keep up the banter.
“I’m falling belly-down to increase wind resistance. That slows me down. But that atmo plant is getting bigger fast! Deploying parachute.” That gave her a strong jerk. The harness bit into her thighs and tightened across her chest, bobbing her upright to fall feet-first. The drone cameras briefly dipped below her, then adjusted to resume station-keeping with her slower speed.
“Grav generators control this fall, friends,” Kassidy continued. “The parachute is to help me steer. And a do-si-do left,” she yanked on one line, then another, “and a do-si-do right. Very cool! Rapidly approaching the force field. The atmo plant is off-limits. Let’s aim left toward that big farm, shall we? Those fields look softer than bare regolith.” She laughed and swerved.
“Guess I should have asked permission first, huh? Always easier to get forgiveness than permission. Watch that horizon get closer! Let’s slow down. Yes! Floating in at point one g now. Gives me time to sightsee up here! What a beautiful little world you are, Mahina, by the light of full Glow!
“Coming in for a landing. Yeah, it’s quick! And –” She hit the ground running a few steps through knee-high hay. “I’m down. Safe! Woot! I wanna do it again! Sass, Abel, you coming to pick me up?”
“Right behind you,” Abel replied.
Kassidy continued chatting with her fans as Abel landed the ship.
Sass sighed. She stripped out of her vacuum suit and dumped it in a corner of the shallow vestibule. Once the ship settled, she stabbed the cargo ramp button to let it down, and stabbed another button to retract the airlock gate. “Abel, note pressure seals need maintenance on the cargo lock.”
Abel laughed. “You were stuck in there?”
“Yup.” She racked her pressure suit as Kassidy signed off with her audience. Sass supposed it shouldn’t surprise her that the stunt woman chose to land in her old farm. Forb Turner’s farm now. His fields were the only soft landing next to this atmo plant. She just hadn’t thought about it.
She jogged down to offer the triumphant stunt woman a hug and congratulations, then gave her a hand taming the billowing parachute.
“Can we offer the farmer a tip? Forb Turner. I have his contact info. We don’t need to knock on the door.”
“Sure! Offer him five hundred,” Kassidy replied magnanimously. “Is he photogenic?”
“Not especially.” Five hundred credits? For falling into his hay field?
“And twenty-eight thousand for us,” Abel said over the comms. “That right, Kassidy?”
“Round up,” Kassidy replied with a grin. “Make it thirty thou. You’ve been awesome!”
Sass’s eyes widened. Their negotiated base pay was 10,000c for stunt day skyship rental, plus a modest cut of her audience take. The lady had generous fans. “Pleasure doing business with you! All hands, release from seals. That’s a wrap. Let’s fly. Any requests on where to park?”
“Par-ty, par-ty!” Kassidy replied. “Newer York looked good from the air. Drinks on me at the bar!”
Sass didn’t need to call Forb after all. By the time they got the parachute folded back into its pack, the man himself bounded into the field, his long slow strides bouncing him a meter into the air. He peered side to side, as though his eyes had trouble keeping a bead on the large skyship.
“He never wears gravity, does he?” Kassidy said sadly. That was clear from his too-tall and spindly build. “Must make you crazy, Sass.”
“It does that,” Sass breathed. Sure was nice to have a new friend who understood. Kassidy’s popularity didn’t surprise her a bit.
Fortified, the captain turned to bellow a greeting to her old farm’s new owner. “Sorry, Forb. If I’d known, I would have warned you ahead of time! Got those soybeans in alright?”
The first wave of star drive explorers set out in 2072. The terraformers left Earth only 12 years later. They planned on 150 years before accepting colonists. They got 42.
– Quasar Shibuya, The Early Diaspora.
Two weeks before…
“A covered wagon?” Sassafras Collier murmured, shading her eyes to gaze at the far hill. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
A cloud of dust showed the farm’s new owners arriving at last, ten days late. Well, one and a half sun cycles. But one-seventh of a cycle was called a day here on the moon Mahina. Today was Dusk, the gas giant planet Pono looming at half-full beyond the closer ridge, the sun creeping down to the horizon to set in a few hours.
Pono never budged in the sky, from any given spot on Mahina. Gravity tidally locked planet and moon to face off against each other across the eons. Though the weather on Pono changed. Currently one of the purple storms was visible on the giant globe in the sky, nudging apart brown striations that girdled Pono’s yellow orb. Sass recalled that it was a single red spot on Jupiter, back in the Earth system. Pono and Mahina resembled Jupiter and its great moon Ganymede, or so they said.
Like Jupiter, no one could live on Pono.
She turned to the graves to say her final farewell. Five of them were sentenced to this farm. Sass was the only one left. She inherited it all, and looked the same as the day she got here. The others died young of old age.
“Thanks,” was all she said in the end. “Wish me luck.”
She’d bounded up the hill off-gravity, but left her grav generator turned on for a slow hike down to the farmhouse, gazing around one last time. Denny, one of the dead, had worked hard to plant the ridges to look ‘natural,’ varying the three landscape species available – aspen, spruce, and hay grass. He mostly failed, because three kinds of plant and no animals wasn’t varied enough. Sass managed better arranging the kitchen garden and the crop fields.
The farm was prettier than most. She especially liked the way the dark spruces loomed against the faint turquoise grid of the force field to the east during the dim twilight after sunset.
She’d be gone by then.
Now that the moment was upon her, freedom at last, anxiety took hold. She’d been hemmed in on this farm for twenty years. The two ridges, and the force field blocking the atmosphere spires to the east, had been the walls of her life. Agoraphobia set in.
That’s ridiculous, she thought, then thought better of it. Even paranoids have real enemies. It was an unmitigated disaster every time she’d come to the cusp, had to uproot herself, leave and start over. And if that scenario has played out for 100 subjective years, while everyone around her grew old and died, even the world she were born on, then…
Yeah. Her anxiety was not unfounded.
Tough. My prison sentence is over. I’m out of here.
The farm buyers, Forb and Chicago Turner, weren’t speed demons at driving that wagon. Sass had time to wander through the house once more alone, saying good-bye. The place was immaculate as it had never been in real life, an artifact of the Turners being so late. Sass even washed the sheets and made the beds for them yesterday. Fresh cut flowers graced several tables, their perfume wafting throughout the rambling one-story building. Sass left most of the furniture for the new owners.
She drifted through the rooms one last time, ostensibly checking for anything she’d left behind. But really she was letting go of her favorite bits. The master bedroom that had been hers since the last of the others died, rich in potted palmetto trees. The guest room her parole officer crashed in when he got too drunk to leave. The deluxe bath Sean had crafted so beautifully, walls tiled with native striated stone, polished to perfection.
They used to pile into the huge hot-tub together to celebrate sunset. Now it had been years since Sass did more than punch the auto-shower button, and be out of there clean and dry in under five minutes.
Earth years, of course. Even she hoped to be dead before the gas giant could complete a few astronomical years. She forgot how many Earth years it took Pono to orbit its sun. Mahina zipped around Pono once a week.
Sass nodded approval to the auto-doc med-bay. Decorating that closet had been one of her own improvements. Her bedmate of the time had been stuck in there for a week once in its raw extruded form, and demanded company. Now its walls were a nicely textured sage, with varied art, plenty of plants, and a sky-blue ceiling.
Her original sky, anyway. Mahina’s sky rotated through a pageant of greens.
She drifted into the huge yellow kitchen. She poured a tall glass of tea, twirling an ice wand to form a frozen helix up the middle the way she liked it. She added the wand to her last-minute carton on the table. She stabbed a screen on a cabinet to check on the wagon’s progress, and carried her tea out to the veranda.
She settled on the hammock and propped her feet on the porch rail to wait. This spot provided the best view for sunset, with the half-full gas giant hanging to the right of the peak. She snapped one last picture. Damn them for being so late. Her anxiety was gone now. She was impatient for this horribly protracted parting to be over, for the next phase to begin.
“Welcome home!” she called out, rising. Unused facial muscles protested her false smile.
“God bless and good evening!” Forb Turner called back, as he brought the wagon to a halt before the house. His wife Chicago chimed in more timidly, “Blessed be!” There were no children.
“Good to meet you in person! Say, I was hoping to leave before the sun sets. I’d offer to help put away your livestock, but…”
“Oh, I’ll take care of that!” Chicago said. She leapt lightly out of the wagon.
Too lightly. She didn’t have her gravity on. By the look of her, barely any muscle at all, she wasn’t in the habit of wearing gravity. She busied herself unhitching the oxen first. The poor animals were spindly, too.
Don’t judge, Sass implored herself. She silently pointed to the left toward the stables.
Forb, the husband, paused to collect a computer before hopping to the veranda in two bounding steps. “Don’t forget the candles, dear! It’ll be dark soon!” he admonished the wife, then turned to Sass.
This particular brand of settler bowed instead of shaking hands. Sass tried her best to mimic the wasted man’s mannerism. “Everything is all set for you, Mr. Turner –”
“Forb, please,” he interrupted. “We’re Cyber-Mennonites. We use no titles.”
Good for you. That would explain the conspicuously plain grey clothes flapping from their emaciated forms. She flashed a quick polite smile, and led him to the office.
“I planted the rice for you last week. Couldn’t wait.” She showed him the field plan on the display screen that formed the desk surface. “That’s rice over here. Soy and wheat are coming along. Kitchen garden, of course.”
Forb cozied up to the desk, mouth open, caught between delight and stricken guilt. “I – Thank you! I never expected the fields would already be planted.”
“You can make your own plans between now and harvest. The soy is ready Dawn after next.” Ten days from now.
“Sassafras, I’m sorry, but I have no more money to offer you,” Forb stammered. “For the seed, the crops already in…”
“No problem,” Sass said. “It’s yours. All the planting records are on here.” She tapped the desktop. “Instructions. Taxes. Harvest pickup. How to contact me with questions.”
They bent their heads over the computer together to review the records. Forb was content to complete his inspection tour in virtual. The farm featured an extensive array of fixed eyes and drones. Since the cycle would be dark for his first days here, she made sure he knew how to inspect by infrared.
“There are lights on the livestock?” Forb asked in concern.
“I sold my animals,” Sass reminded him. “But there you go.” She touched a control that resumed the 24-hour diurnal setting for the livestock, regardless of what the moon’s sky was doing.
“Thank you,” he said, and promptly disabled it again.
Sass sighed. No wonder his livestock looked as dispirited as their owners. “Anything else? Or ready to –”
Chicago bounded into the office. “There’s a –!”
“There’s a what?” Forb inquired, frowning displeasure at his wife’s interruption.
“There’s a skyship in the barn,” she said, then gulped.
“My new home,” Sass agreed, with a creaky smile. “If you agree all is in order, Forb?” she asked hopefully. She brought up the final hand-off forms on the screen.
“More than!” Forb agreed. He hastily thumbed the final payment release. “I can’t thank you enough, Sass, for leaving the farm in such wonderful condition! Sure you can’t stay for dinner?”
Sass wondered what kind of big deal Cyber-Mennonites made of sunset dinner. “Nope. I’ll just get out of your way.”
She grabbed her last-minute carton from the kitchen, and set off to meet her future.
The Turners stood in the kitchen garden gaping as she backed the skyship Thrive out of the barn. She nodded and waved from the cockpit, and left her prison for the sky.