Cleon moon, p.1
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       Cleon Moon, p.1

           Lindsay Buroker
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Cleon Moon


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Epilogue

  Afterword

  Cleon Moon

  (Fallen Empire, Book 5)

  by Lindsay Buroker

  Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Buroker

  Illustration Copyright © 2016 Tom Edwards

  TomEdwardsDesign.com

  Acknowledgments

  Thank you to my editor, Shelley Holloway, and also to my beta readers, Cindy Wilkinson, Sarah Engelke, Rue Silver, and Walter Scrivens, who have been amazing about getting their feedback to me so quickly with this series. Also, thank you to my cover designer, Tom Edwards, who has been able to create those wonderful spaceships on a fast schedule. Lastly, thank you for reading these books and sharing the word about them. I hope you continue to enjoy them.

  Chapter 1

  Cleon Moon, a gray blob with swirling brown smudges, looked like a rejected marble fished out of a sludgy sewer. Captain Alisa Marchenko had been there before, and it was every bit as ugly as she remembered.

  “It’s magnificent,” Yumi said, flouncing into NavCom and clasping her hands in front of her chest with the enthusiasm of a toddler presented with an Asteroid Icy.

  “The moon or the planet?” Alisa asked, waving to the massive gas giant visible behind Cleon Moon. The planet Cleon orbited had interesting green and blue striations with a massive emerald eye in the center. Its magnificence was debatable, but Alisa could see someone calling the planet beautiful. The moon, on the other hand…

  “Cleon Moon, of course!” Yumi unfolded the seat at the sensor station and sat down behind Alisa. “The native fungal forests are amazing. There are tens of thousands of different species of fungi, many with edible and medicinal properties. Many are still a mystery, waiting to be studied.”

  “I imagine studying them is hard when you have to wear a breathing mask to go outside of the domes because the atmosphere is toxic.”

  “It’s not toxic; it just hasn’t been terraformed to desirable human conditions. But that’s the appeal. These fungal forests were growing here long before humans settled the system. They’re fabulous, Captain. If we have time, we could stop and harvest some meykonghi arelexius.”

  “Sounds fun.”

  “Meykonghi arelexius is the base component in Bliss, a recreational drug that relaxes muscles, reduces inhibitions, and increases the intensity of one’s orgasms.”

  “That can’t be legal,” Alisa said, certain the empire hadn’t approved of anyone having a good time.

  “I’m not sure if the Alliance has made a ruling on it yet,” Yumi said. “But it can be sold for a great deal on the black market.”

  “Were you truly a science teacher, Yumi?”

  Alisa adjusted the controls, taking them toward the southern hemisphere of the moon where the majority of the domes had been installed. The structures ranged from family-sized compounds of less than a square mile to city-sized domes covering hundreds of square miles and millions of residents. Some were owned by private citizens, others by corporations, and still others by the mafia. She hoped the White Dragon people did not have a presence on the moon, since, as far as she knew, they were still after Beck.

  “I was an excellent science teacher,” Yumi said, “and I miss teaching. Will your daughter need instruction when you find her? I can teach her mathematics and science if I continue traveling with you.” She smiled, as if that was an appealing notion.

  Given all the craziness and near-death experiences the Star Nomad had been through lately, that was hard to imagine.

  “So long as you keep the orgasmic mushroom lessons to a minimum. She’s only eight.” Alisa hoped to find Jelena before she had a birthday and she had to add a year, but she was struggling to maintain that optimism in the face of all the detours and delays. She prayed to Solis-de that her daughter was down on Cleon Moon—and that she could finally find her.

  “Of course, Captain. I love teaching people of all ages. I love research too. I can’t wait to get my hands on some fungal stalks.”

  “We need to find you a man, Yumi.”

  She blinked. “Pardon?”

  “Or a woman could be arranged. Whatever you prefer.” Alisa thought about mentioning that Mica might be interested, but she had enough jobs on this ship already without turning herself into a matchmaker. Besides, Leonidas was walking up the corridor with something in his hand, and he wouldn’t be interested in such discussions.

  “I have some quotes for you, Captain,” he said, holding up his netdisc. He thumbed a button, and the holodisplay appeared in the air.

  “Alisa,” she corrected him—now that he was officially in her employ, he had started calling her captain again. She appreciated his professionalism, but it had taken her weeks to get him to call her by first name instead of last. This felt so stiff and formal, especially considering they were now dating. In a manner of speaking.

  Leonidas ignored the correction and set the netdisc on the console beside her.

  “What kinds of quotes?” she asked. “Shakespeare? Thucydides? Churchill? Volk?”

  Leonidas acknowledged this attempt at humor with the barest twitch of an eyebrow.

  “I believe you’re thinking of quotations, Captain,” Yumi said.

  “Yes, I was pulling Leonidas’s leg. Which isn’t easy, let me tell you. It’s quite firmly attached.” Alisa thought about squeezing his thigh, but he was wearing his serious face and did not appear to be in the mood to appreciate humor—or squeezes. He had probably spent hours doing this research. The suns knew he was determined that they make the freighter more defendable now that he was her security chief.

  “I have seven different quotes for e-cannons, torpedo launchers, and ship-rated blazers, all of which can be installed on the Star Nomad with suitable time in dock.” Leonidas pointed at images of the various weapons in the holodisplay before swiping to a database that listed merchants and prices. “Three of the major domes have installation facilities that can work with us. Has Abelardus given you landing coordinates yet?”

  “Not yet,” Alisa said. “He said there’s a tiny Starseer enclave down there where we can start our search for Durant, but he’s waiting to hear back from them before directing us to land nearby.”

  Alisa had checked Abelardus's personal messages to make sure he was telling the truth. He had, indeed, tried to contact someone on the moon several times since they had flown into communications range a couple of days ago. He had also sent another message to his brother. Unfortunately, she hadn’t noticed any responses come in yet. Either he was even less popular among his people than he was on this ship… or there was a reason those people weren’t responding to him.

  Alisa hated the idea of finding more obstacles standing between her and her daughter. With every week that passed, she felt like more of a failure as a mother. If she discovered that something had happened to Jelena after she had been kidnapped, she doubted she would ever forgive herself.

  “If he tells us which is the nearest dome, I can make an appointment to get a more accurate quote,” Leonidas said. “We’ll need to consider methods of coming up with payment. I have imperial morats in my account on Perun, but I doubt anyone here will take them, even if the interplanetary banking grid is still up.


  “I doubt anyone in the system will take them,” Alisa said, before she could think wiser of reminding him of the empire’s demise. He did not consider her an enemy anymore, but that didn’t mean he liked to be reminded about the loss of his livelihood and all he held dear.

  All he said was, “Did you see the prices?” He zoomed in, perhaps not trusting her un-enhanced eyes to pick up the fine print.

  “Yes, are those the entire costs? Installation included? They seem reasonable.”

  “Those are the down payments.”

  “Oh.” Three suns, where would she get the money to pay for weapons? She could barely pay for food and water and fuel for the ship. They would be in a rough spot now if Commander Tomich had not left the Nomad with tools, parts, and raw materials for repairs.

  “They are reasonable prices though,” Leonidas said. “The weapons are slightly used.”

  “Slightly used? As in slightly ripped off the battered hull of a ship that made the mistake of flying too close to one of the merchant’s salvage ships?”

  “Possibly. Cleon Moon wasn’t a highly regulated body even when the empire held sway over the system.” Leonidas’s lips pressed together, but he refrained from once again pointing out that the system was a much rougher place these days, thanks to the Alliance’s inability to police more than the handful of planets they had claimed. “These are the final prices, not including labor,” he said, bringing another set of numbers to the forefront.

  Alisa stared bleakly at them. When she had been growing up on the Nomad, her mother had taught her to fly, but she’d handled all of the finances. In the Alliance, her superiors had worried about the repair and upgrade costs. Seeing such large numbers now boggled her mind.

  “So, Yumi,” Alisa said slowly, “how long would you need to do some harvesting, and how much could we make from selling orgasm mushrooms?”

  Leonidas blinked a few times and mouthed a, “What?”

  “I could do some research on current black market prices,” Yumi said, “though getting involved in the drug trade is dangerous.”

  “As opposed to everything else we do?”

  “Ah, good point. I’ll do the research.”

  “You’re considering producing illegal drugs?” Leonidas frowned at Alisa.

  “Unless Alejandro and Abelardus will let me sell that staff, which is apparently worth tens of millions of tindarks. Do you have any other suggestions as to how to earn massive amounts of money in a short time?”

  “This is a freighter. Perhaps there is a lucrative cargo that might be acquired on Cleon.”

  “Lucrative and cargo aren’t words that typically go together. If you want all that—” Alisa pointed at the catalog with all the weapons he wanted lovingly circled, “—we’re going to have to get creative.”

  He did not argue, but his frown did not lessen. As an imperial officer, he had enforced the empire’s laws, so she imagined the idea of participating in illegal activities bothered him more than it did her. Oh, she wasn’t enthused about the notion either, mostly because she could imagine it leading down roads that would get them into trouble—more trouble—with the various mafia organizations out there. She already felt like she was dancing on a tightrope.

  “I’ll look for a cargo,” she said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find something that pays above average.” Well above average.

  The proximity alarm beeped before Leonidas could reply.

  Alisa groaned, hoping that another ship just happened to be flying too close as it headed to the moon, nothing more. She did not expect to run into the Alliance out here, but she wouldn’t be surprised if her people still had a reward out for Leonidas’s capture. Just because Tomich had let him go to obtain a greater prize did not mean that his superior officers did not still want him. It was also possible that Tomich and the researchers back at Alcyone Station had since figured out that their prize was not so great after all.

  In addition to being in the Alliance’s sights, the White Dragon mafia had her ship on file and liked to chase it whenever they spotted it. Maybe part of this weapons upgrade could involve a clever disguise to make the Nomad look like another ship. Perhaps some fresh paint or a macramé appliqué attached to the hull would fool people’s sensors.

  “It’s a modified freighter,” Leonidas said, leaning over Yumi’s head to eye the sensor display. “Heading toward us.”

  “Modified, how?” Alisa asked.

  “Extra shielding and several weapons platforms.” He sighed with longing. Maybe that matched the upgrade he wanted for the Nomad.

  The comm flashed, and Alisa glowered at it. These days, nothing good happened when strange ships approached and wanted to speak with her.

  “This is Captain Marchenko,” she said, “close personal friend of First Governor Ingvar Vestergaard and former lover to Alliance Fleet Admiral Denny Cameron. May I help you?”

  Leonidas arched his eyebrows.

  Alisa muted the comm. “I’m trying to sound too important to mess with.”

  “You sound promiscuous,” Yumi said.

  “Promiscuously important.”

  “It’s unfortunate, Captain,” a male voice drawled over the comm, “that none of your former lovers cared enough to outfit you with a more impressive ship.”

  Alisa unmuted the comm. “There’s nothing wrong with my ship. What do you want?”

  “To collect taxes, of course. You’re on course to land on Cleon Moon, are you not? And deliver freight? We’re here to make sure you pay the taxes due.”

  “They’re closing fast,” Yumi whispered. “Taking up a position right behind us.”

  Well within firing range, Alisa had no doubt.

  “I suppose you’re some kind of official government representative?” she asked, as she raised the Nomad’s shields.

  She poked at the sensors, checking for other ships within range. As she had suspected, there were no Alliance craft, nor did she see anything that might be considered a police craft. It was probably a free-for-all up here in orbit.

  “Naturally,” the man drawled. “We collect taxes on behalf of the Moonstar Mafia, controller of Sargon, the largest and most imposing of Cleon’s domes.”

  “We’re not going to Sargon,” Alisa said, though she had no idea if that was true yet or not.

  “Don’t worry. We’ll split the taxes equitably with the other domes.”

  “Sure you will,” she muttered.

  “You have two options, Captain. Electronically transfer the funds to us, or lower your shields, and we’ll send a team over to collect a portion of your freight.”

  Alisa muted the comm again. “I suppose they’ll be unimpressed when they learn that our cargo is ten chickens.” She looked at Leonidas. “Any ideas? I’m sure you and Beck can thwart their tax team, but Mica is still repairing the damage from the last time intruders forced their way onto the ship.”

  Leonidas eyed the gray curvature of the moon. “Are we close enough that you can make it down to land before the shields give out?”

  “Probably not if they have free rein to fire indiscriminately up my ass as we go down. Evasive maneuvers in a planet’s—or moon’s—atmosphere are always tricky, and there’s not going to be anything to hide behind until we’re all the way down. Maybe not even then. I don’t remember a lot of mountains on Cleon. Mostly swamps and giant fungal stalks that are a poor imitation of trees.”

  “The fungal stalks aren’t supposed to be trees,” Yumi said. “They’re fascinating and a delight to study.”

  “Hiding a ship behind one isn’t a delight. Unless it’s a very skinny ship.”

  An alarm flashed on the console, and the Nomad shivered.

  Yumi gripped the back of Alisa’s seat. “What was that?”

  “A warning shot,” Leonidas said and stood up. “Invite them to board.” His blue eyes narrowed, a familiar glint entering them. “I’ll suit up and be waiting for them.”

  “To show them the cargo and give them a tour?” Alisa
asked.

  “To show them my fists and my rifle.”

  He turned toward the hatchway, but Alisa reached out, touching his wrist. “Be careful, please. I know you’re tougher than ahridium, but I’m sure they’ll anticipate trouble.”

  “I would be disappointed if they didn’t come prepared.”

  Alisa expected him to give her a curt nod and walk out, all business as usual. He was the consummate professional when on shift, and she had to catch him during a quiet moment, early in the morning or late at night, to entice him to drink coffee, eat chocolate, and let her lean on him.

  But he stopped and clasped her hand. “May I order you to keep the hatch shut and stay in NavCom or would you find that overly stifling?”

  Distracted by the pleasing way his thumb was brushing across the backs of her knuckles, Alisa almost forgot to respond. “It does sound restrictive. And I am the captain here. Technically, you only get to order Beck around.”

  “Perhaps I can suborn your engineer and talk her into installing an exterior lock on that hatch, so we can force you to stay put.”

  “You can’t suborn Mica. We were in the Alliance together. She’s loyal.”

  “I saw her working on a new résumé this morning.”

  “Damn her fickle ways.”

  Leonidas let go of her hand, and Alisa resisted the urge to fling her arms around him for a goodbye hug. For one thing, Yumi was two feet away. For another, this was just some self-appointed tax collector they were dealing with. Not cyborgs, not androids, and not legions of soldiers in combat armor. It should be an easy battle for him.

  The comm flashed again as Leonidas walked out.

  Alisa swatted the button, not looking before answering. “We don’t have any electronic funds, so you’ll have to come aboard if you want your taxes.”

  “Is that an invitation for us to loot you?” a woman asked dryly.

  Alisa frowned at the comm, only then realizing that another ship had opened a channel. She turned toward the sensor display, wondering if she dared hope that this could be a rescuer. She would like to believe that a woman would be less likely to prey on innocent freighters, but that might be a foolish belief.

 

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