Thrive Earth Rematch, Thrive Colony Corps Space Adventures Book 2.
Are the boat nations Earth’s last hope?
Stranded without her starship, Captain Sass Collier takes refuge in Earth’s criminal underworld. Her sole sponsor, Northern League agent Melkor, shelters them with family among the vibrant floating cities and cruise ship hulks of drowned Florida.
But lively hurricanes at sea postpone pursuit only briefly.
Because League ruler Voronin desires Sass’s pint-sized but powerful digital sentient, her robotic pet mink. The Russian controls his own weapon AI, a relic of dire wars.
And he offers rich bounties to tempt Melkor’s gangster relatives.
Yet Melkor believes in Sass. His dying world can be revived using Colony Corps tech. He connects her with renegade gene splicers striving to restore habitat.
Meanwhile her ride off-planet is stymied by sabotage on Mars.
Can Sass get the goods and escape Earth to the Corps? Or trapped between AIs and League factions, might one of her own companions betray her?
November 8, 2218
Drowned Florida at last — the shuttle set down on a hilltop of sunbaked grass. “St. Cloud. Get off fast,” the pilot growled at the travelers.
Sass Collier pursed her lips and wondered, not for the first time, if she trusted this guy. She didn’t know his name. The final leg of their trip from Japan aboard a continent-hopping skyship deposited them at a military outpost in what was once Georgia. From there, this shuttle brought them to…St. Cloud. Which featured no sign of habitation. The hill rolled off below into scrubby trees and mangroves. Open water and boats gleamed in the distance, under a glaring blue sky.
Once upon a time, a week ago, she would have given her best blaster to step outdoors under the azure skies of home again. Now she feared the pilot intended to abandon them to die on this unpromising hill. She hastily tugged on her breath mask.
The doors huffed open, letting in a blast of 85-degree steamy heat, and a yeasty stench of rot. Several insects hopped aboard. The copilot swore and jumped out of his seat to stomp them dead. “Hurry up!”
Sass rose, collecting her robotic mink Fidget, her bag of hand-held computers and data storage coins, and claiming the shuttle’s med kit. “Water? Food? No one’s here to meet us.” Across the aisle, her partner Clay Rocha helped Melkor up.
The boat folk of Okinawa did a number on their guide Melkor. We no like fish-face, was how their leader put it. The Northern League bastion of Pontiac branded their diplomat with a metallic brain case of computer and networking implants, and grafted on fish scales and enormous clownfish eyes. His mouth looked human enough, though his neck sported gills. The beatings in Okinawa broke one of his gelid eyes, deflated and bandaged as best Sass could manage.
“Not our problem,” growled the copilot, whose mods sported frog features.
“A gun,” Melkor asked weakly. “For the alligators.”
“So you can kill us and leave no witnesses?” the frog sneered.
“Remove the battery,” Clay suggested as a compromise. “Toss it out there. Then you’re safe until we collect it.” He stepped off into the grass. Knee-high to the shuttle floor, he reached up to help Melkor down.
“The ammo,” Melkor corrected weakly. He shuffled past the copilot, who made no move to help Clay with disembarking the injured.
Sass held out her free hand to the copilot. “Thank you so much for the lift. We appreciate your efforts on our behalf. Gun, please.”
“Do it,” the pilot decreed.
Sass never saw his face, only the back of upright grey furred ears, something along the lines of a German shepherd dog. The fact that the soldier could see behind his head was no surprise. Those League implants granted impressive abilities. Not that he had eyes in the back of his metal-plated skull, but he could observe all parts of his vehicle through cameras.
The grudging copilot cracked off the magazine and hurled it past Clay’s head, narrowly missing Melkor. Then he cleared the chamber and tossed a single cartridge into the grass as well. Only then did he hand Sass the unfamiliar pistol.
She smiled briefly, and stepped against the wall next to the door, so he couldn’t simply shove her out. “And our local associates are on their way? You’ve called and they confirmed?”
Frog-guy grabbed her shoulder. Hampered by belongings in both hands and a mink clamped in her arm, Sass lost the scuffle, but managed to jog to an upright landing in the grass. Melkor wasn’t as lucky, falling onto Clay when the copilot shoved him off. The soldier lobbed a supply backpack alongside them. The doors hissed shut.
With a whoosh of air and silent anti-gravity, the shuttle lifted and banked away. A roar of insects devoid of mechanical noise settled upon the bald hilltop.
Clay stood Melkor up on his own feet, considerate of the injured diplomat’s weakness. The moment he let go, Melkor elected to crumple to his knees, then his ass, then lay down and rolled to his side, bandaged eye up.
“Alone at last.” He cleared his throat to continue in a stronger voice. “Ammo. Alligators.”
“Right.” Sass set down everything but the pistol, and began to search for the magazine. Frog-dude had a good arm. She couldn’t spot where the black plastic landed among the tall grass. “Fidget, help me find ammo, OK? Fun game.”
The mink blinked at her. Melkor raised a puzzled head as well.
She sighed and waded into the grass in the right general direction, downhill toward the scrub. She still wore clothes she called pajamas, acquired on Okinawa. Loose boxy cotton short sleeves fluttered above shin-length drawstring pants, no shoes. She firmly ordered herself to ignore the stabs into her feet, and itching as the grass whipped her skin. She carried her pistol at her brow to shield her pale eyes from the brutal mid-day sun, looking for any sign of her ammo.
Only when she tripped over something did she glance down at her feet again. Ants! The burning sensation was not, in fact, her imagination. And the grass had added a few dribbles of blood from paper-cut slices as well. She hopped like a fool on one foot, then the other, wiping the damned fire ants off. Then she realized what she’d tripped over was the mounded loose dirt of their nest. A few hasty steps away, and she could finally clear the ants and keep them off.
“Do you need help, Sass?” Clay called out, making her feel like an idiot.
“No, I’m good!” A cockroach the size of her thumb crawled onto her big toe. She flipped it with the other toe, then crunched it under heel. “How bad do we need this ammo?”
The men didn’t answer. It was a rhetorical question.
She resumed walking, carefully watching her step, and stopping often to clear bugs from her legs, real and imagined. She’d wanted to see wildlife again. Well, this was it, animals and plants galore, placed here by no one except God and their parents. And she experienced it all up close and personal. Her bright white skin, spaceship pale, felt like it popped out fresh freckles to greet the burning sun. Or maybe those were sun hives. She congratulated herself on spotting some poison ivy before she stepped in it.
A sudden sneeze caused her to rethink the shining golden dust in the air. Pollen. She’d forgotten about pollen, and ants, and cockroaches and sunburns.
Scratch that — it rained for five solid years in Upstate before she left this world. She’d dwelled in the deep shade of a forest. Her first true sunburn may have been on the moon Mahina, under the Aloha sun.
Get a grip, Collier. You’re strolling across a lawn.
Clay called out, “We have water. O2 refills. Emergency blankets. Ration bars.” He was rifling through the survival backpack tossed out last.
Sass raised a thumbs-up in salute. This was good news. Looking the wrong way on uneven turf, she stumbled up a hummock, ant-free this time. From her added few inches of vantage, she spotted the magazine at last! Right over there by the branch.
She paused and blinked. Where did a branch that thick fall from? She was still above the scrub level. None of the thorny stuff ahead grew on branches as thick as her thigh.
And then it moved. It wasn’t a very big alligator, only a couple feet tip to tail.
She called back, “Melkor! Any trick to approaching an alligator?”
The diplomat struggled to a seated position. “Yeah. Don’t.”
“He’s by the bullets for the gun.” Her goal, the small ammo attachment to the pistol, lay only a few paces from the gator’s toothy snout.
Clay offered, “We found the cartridge.”
The captain scowled, irritated to lose her progress, only to wade through this grass again. But yeah, that was the right answer. Slightly the wiser, she took her bearings, then jogged back to the guys.
Clay handed her the single cartridge. “We could use a lean-to for shade. See anything good for poles?”
“Not yet.” Sass chambered the round the copilot so recently expelled. “Hard to do much without shoes.” She sat to examine the supply pack.
Her lover yanked it out of her hands and set it on his other side, out of harm’s way. “Need that. More than shoes.”
The mink shivered and rolled her belly to the sun. Fidget’s luxurious white fur dissolved out in the ocean, the replacement hairs grown in to a quarter inch now, and itchy.
Melkor dislodged his breath mask for a long drink from some bottled water, then resettled the mask. “Before you go. Need to talk alone.”
The four of them had been together nonstop for the past 30-odd hours en route from Japan. But American soldiers flanked them nonstop. Like this shuttle pilot, they could listen in on the fugitives for casual entertainment. They’d lacked privacy to speak ever since they were fished out of the Pacific a couple nights ago, half-drowned.
“Are we private now?” Sass asked softly. “Your implants?”
“My implants are not transmitting,” Melkor replied evenly. “You can tell that by the fact Pontiac’s goons aren’t bombing us where we sit.”
Sass noted the argument wasn’t entirely convincing, since the guys who deposited them on this hilltop wore Pontiac uniform. She rubbed the mink’s belly, who wriggled in appreciation. “What do you think, Fidget? Anyone transmitting here?”
Fidget rolled back and forth in ecstasy, nose alternating sides in a playful No. Sass chuckled. Her robot comms device communicated great in the nonverbal range.
“First,” Melkor resumed. “My family. Um, you recall I left here when I was eight.”
“I’m not much like them. Not anymore.” He paused on private thoughts, worrying his water bottle with a thumb. “Don’t trust them. But they’ll pick us up. They’re blood.” His one good eye fell on her red-smeared calves, as though to underscore his meaning. He closed his transparent eyelid and dribbled water on the protuberant eye. The sunny heat posed a problem for his fish parts.
“They live here? In St. Cloud?” Clay asked.
Melkor shuddered. “No. Boat people. They don’t live on land if they can help it.” His regard fell on the mink again, and his mouth set in grim lines. “You do need to trust me, though.”
“We’ve trusted you inordinately,” Sass claimed. “We ran from Hakone with you. To meet these boat people you say are open to healing the planet.”
Melkor nodded slowly. “What is Fidget?” He met her gaze with his own remaining clownfish eye. “That mink hasn’t eaten or drank since I met you.”
...skipping ahead because I posted pictures of docks on my Facebook page...
“Right. You need shoes,” Primo Dos declared, as his father and uncle limped away behind the throng departing the catamaran. “Maybe a hat.”
He threaded through the teeming crowds like an eel, as they darted ahead of Melkor until side docks began to branch off near the towering breakwater. He waited impatiently at the second of these for Sass and Clay to catch up, then scampered down a ramp. These secondary docks rode lower to the waves, and rocked underfoot with traffic. Nothing protected them from open water in the broad gulf they’d traversed from what was once Orlando, except tertiary-level feeder docks crowded with boats. She found footing treacherous on the skimpier docks, like trying to walk upright along a tippy canoe, minus the convenient hand-grabs.
At first a nonsensical riot of colors, punctuated by singsong catcalls, Sass slowly made sense of what she was seeing. Their first neighborhood amounted to a boat parking lot. Hawkers at major intersections peddled O2 recharges, and ladles or bottle refills of drinking water. This livelihood seemed to attract the disabled. She spotted a grav lifter carting in a fresh tank to a water seller. That explained how all the handicapped got there with the bulky wares.
“Pooperie,” the kid noted, pointing to a shack. Sass originally thought he said potpourri, until she passed by and caught a ripe sniff. “Don’t get caught using the water. Though everyone pees off a dock sometime.”
Then the kid was off again, wall-ward. By now Sass could see that the breakwater offered tunnels through to the other side, with massive solid portcullises to seal them in rough weather. She hadn’t caught the view through one yet, though. Their guide seemed intent on shopping on the outside first. Sass could only approve. The hot docks underfoot featured slivers, patches of dubious slime, and metal knobs to stub her bare toes on.
Then suddenly the kid’s next turn deposited them into a shopping bazaar. The shops inhabited boats done up like a gypsy caravan, with a barge down the way offering bulky lumber and hardware. Primo Dos clambered over a bow and across a swinging bridge to a second bow, then down a ladder to a third layer boat sporting bright T-shirts and muumuus hung from lines run down from the central conning tower’s high antenna, like an open-air teepee devoted to tacky taste.
By the time Sass and Clay joined the kid, he’d already picked out sunglasses for both of them, oversized brown and heart-shaped for Sass, and a visor-band black for Clay. Sass was afraid they’d fight with her mask, but no, they were shaped to extend shade above the eyes without clattering on the breathing equipment. His perfect choice of FBI eye wear for Clay amused her.
“Pick a muumuu and a scarf to go with it,” the boy directed her, pointing to one of the clotheslines and a pile of gaudy folded cloths beneath it. He drew Clay with him to the other side of the boat into the men’s wear department.
The clothesline ran on a pulley system. Sass assumed this meant self-serve. But then a turbaned woman snapped a towel at her and regaled her with abuse in the Caribbean patois. Sass pointed to a bland shapeless dress she thought would complement her complexion.
“Ingliss?” the shop-matron demanded. “Why you ugly dress?” She hauled on the line and plucked off an eye-searing tent of pink flamingos and orange starfish on a sky-blue background. “This.”
“No, that!” Sass pointed to her choice, a tasteful linen-colored sheath with a smattering of hot orange around the hem.
The pushy sales rep herded her toward the hold. “Change. No show boobies on my deck! I Seven-Day! God people!”
Get it now!