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Fortuna’s cockpit smells like sweat and whiskey, and loose screws rattle with every thump of music. I’m sprawled in the pilot’s chair, legs stretched out and boots resting atop the control panel forming a half circle around me. A bottle of whiskey dangles from one of my hands; the other taps out the song’s beat on the control wheel.
Normally, this is my favorite place to be: in my chair, behind the wheel, staring out at open space and its endless possibilities. I’m a daughter of the stars, after all. But I’ve been in the cockpit for nearly eight hours now, urging this ship as fast as she can go to make sure we unload our cargo on time, and my body is starting to ache from it. Scrappy little Fortuna is my home, the only one I’ve ever known, but she wasn’t built for comfort. She was built to take a beating.
My shift at the wheel wasn’t so bad for the first six hours, but once the others went to bed, I had to shut the door leading to the rest of the ship, and the cockpit soon grew cramped and hot. No way around it, though. I need the music to stay awake, and my family needs the quiet to sleep. Someone needs to be coherent enough to throw on a smile and lie their ass off to customs when we get there, and it’s not gonna be me.
I yawn, pushing sweaty, dark hair out of my face. Envy stings me as I think of my younger siblings, snug in bed, but recedes as I remember they’re actually strapped into the launch chairs in their respective rooms, with gooey mouth-guards shoved between their teeth and cottony plugs stuffed up their ears. I don’t know how they manage to sleep with all that, but it’s necessary in case of a rough descent, the likelihood of which is rising with every sip of whiskey I take. Fortuna’s autopilot can land the ship on its own, but it tends to lurch and scrape and thud its way there, with little regard for the comfort of its occupants or whether or not they hurl up their dinner when they arrive. Some pilot finesse makes things run more smoothly.
Given that, I’d normally avoid too much hard liquor while at the wheel. But as soon as Gaia came into sight, anxiety blossomed in my gut. Now, the planet fills my view out the front panel and dread sloshes in my stomach. It’s a beautiful place, I’ll admit that. Vast stretches of water dotted with land masses, wispy clouds drifting across, like a damn painting or something. Historians say that after centuries of searching for humanity’s new home, the original settlers wept with joy at the first glimpse of Gaia. I, on the other hand, always go straight for the bottle strapped to the bottom of my chair.
Beautiful Gaia. Rich in alien tech and bad memories. Ever since Corvus abandoned us to fight in his useless war, even the good ones from my childhood have turned bitter.
“Damn,” I mutter, and take another sip. I’ve once again broken the rule I invented in the early hours of my boredom. Every time I think of my older brother, that’s another drink. It’s a tough rule when my memories of Gaia are so deeply entwined with memories of him.
I was seven when we left Gaia. It’s been twenty years since we were grounded there. And after a brief stop on Deva, where Lyre was born, we spent another six years on Nibiru, while she and the twins were still too young to live on the ship. Those were better years, when we spent our days playing and fishing in the endless ocean and our nights sleeping in a pile on our single mattress. Yet even then I could never shake my anxiety that Momma wouldn’t come back one day, and I’d be stranded again. I never felt safe like I did on Fortuna, never stopped waiting for someone to notice I didn’t belong. The days on Gaia wouldn’t loosen their hold on me.
And every time I see the planet, it all rushes back to the surface. Memories of Corvus’s smile; of digging through trash for food; of playing tag with him in the narrow streets of Levian, the capital city; of huge alien statues staring down at me with their faceless visages.
Memories of Momma wearing hooded Gaian finery to blend in on the crowded street and saying, “It’s just a game, Scorpia,” as she showed me the best way to slip my hands into someone’s pocket without them noticing. When she taught me my first con, dressing me up like a little lost Gaian child, she said, “It’s like telling a joke, but you’re the only one who knows the punchline.” Guess Momma didn’t anticipate that once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking that way. Or maybe she didn’t think I’d live long enough for it to matter. I probably wouldn’t have, if Corvus hadn’t been around to get me out of trouble. Corvus, who was never any good at lying, so he went to school while I learned to be a criminal.
“Damn.” I sip again. Through the viewing panel, Gaia looms closer.
As I wipe my mouth, I glance over the expanse of screens and gauges and lights all around me, tracking the radar, fuel tank, and various systems. The numbers are blurry, but the lights are all the soothing red of Nova Vita, which means everything is running fine. Good enough for me. I take another swig, and choke on it as the ship shudders.
It’s not a particularly menacing rumble, yet the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. I let my boots thud to the metal floor one after another, dragged by the ship’s artificial gravity, and frown at the panels. Nothing on the radar. It could be some debris too small to pick up, a cough in the machinery… or a cloaked ship. It’s rare for us to have company out here, when interplanetary trade and travel have all but ground to a halt due to the tense relations between planets. Rarer still near Gaia, whose border laws are tightest of all. But it could be those pirate bastards on the Red Baron hounding us again. If they picked up cloaking tech, we’re in trouble. Not for the first time, I wish Fortuna was outfitted with weaponry for self-defense—but of course, weapons on ships are illegal, and we’d never be able to land anywhere in the system if we had them. With current laws, the planets are wary enough about ships without the added threat of weapons on them.
Indicators are all a solid red. There’s not so much as a blip out of place. Still, my skin prickles. Fortuna is saying something. I slap the button to shut off the music, tilt my head to one side, and listen to the silence.
The next rumble shakes the whole craft.
The bridge goes dark. Every screen and every light disappears. My sharp intake of breath echoes in the darkness.
“Fortuna?” I ask, as if the ship will answer. I clutch tighter to the whiskey with one hand and the wheel with the other as my muddled brain tries to work out what else to do. I’ve dealt with my fair share of malfunctions, but I’ve never seen the ship go dark like this.
The lights blink back online. A relieved laugh bubbles out of me, but cuts off as I realize all of my screens are crackling with static.
I smack a few buttons, producing no effect, and turn from one end of the control panel to the other. My eyes find the system indicators on the far right. Life support and the engine are still lit red, signaling that they’re online and functioning. But navigation is the shockingly unnatural green of system failure. Radar is green. Autopilot is green.
The ship has everything she needs to keep flying, but not what she needs to land.
“Aw, shit.” Judging by the fact that we haven’t been blasted or boarded yet, this isn’t the Red Baron or any other outside interference. It’s an internal malfunction. I flash back to my sister Lyre begging for new engine parts on Deva, and curse under my breath. Our little engineer is usually too cautious for her own good, but it seems she was right this time.
I take a final sip from my bottle, cap it, and tuck it between my boots. Once it’s secure, I reach toward the neon-green emergency alarm button on the left side of the control panel. At the last moment, I stop short.
Hitting that button will send alarms screaming and green lights flaring through the ship, cutting through my family’s earplugs and waking them from their strapped-in-for-landing slumber. My ever-scowling mother will be here in less than a minute, barking orders, taking control. And at the first sniff of whiskey in the cockpit, she’ll relieve me from my duty and send me to bed.
Fortuna will stay in orbit until everything’s at 100 percent and I’ve passed a BAC test… which means we’ll miss the drop-off on Gaia and the side job I hoped to pull off beforehand.
And I’ll be the family screwup. Again. One step further from ever amounting to more than that, or ever prying my future out of Momma’s iron grip. One step further from Fortuna belonging to me. I can already hear her usual speech: “You’re the oldest now. You can’t keep doing this shit.”
Plus, this side job is important. There’s not much profit in it, but I can use all the credits I can get after I blew most of my last earnings on Deva. I can’t deny I’m looking forward to seeing the pretty face of my favorite client, too.
And, of course, I want to see Momma’s expression when I tell her I pulled off a job on my own. I know that she was grooming Corvus to be in charge one day—Corvus, who was always so obedient and ready to follow in her footsteps—but he’s been gone for three years now, fighting in the war on his home-planet. We all have to accept that he’s not coming back. Instead, Momma’s stuck with me.
This deal I set up is the perfect chance to prove that’s not such a terrible thing. And once the ship falls to me, I’ll finally have a place in the universe that’s all my own. A home that nobody can kick me out of. I’ll get to make my own decisions, be in charge of my own life. I’ll keep my family together and make things better for all of us, like Corvus always promised he would before he abandoned us.
But if we don’t make it in time, this will just be one more disappointment on the list.
I sit back in my seat, running my tongue over my teeth. I’ll have to land the ship as planned. Even if it’s bumpy, and even if Momma smells the whiskey on me once we land, she can’t give me too much shit if I get us planet-side intact and on time.
It’s a damn nice thought… but it’s been a long time since I landed the ship without autopilot. And, lest the blurry vision and stink of whiskey in the cockpit aren’t enough to remind me, I’m drunk enough that I could get jail time for flying a simple hovercraft on most planets. There’s no law out here to punish me for operating a spacecraft under the influence, but down there the law of gravity waits, ready to deal swift and deadly judgment if I fuck this up.
“So don’t fuck it up,” I tell myself. I suck in a slow breath, blow it out through my nose, and hit the button to connect to Gaian air control. Static crackles through the speakers, followed by a booming robotic voice. I wince, hastily lowering the volume.
“You have reached Gaian customs. State your registration number and purpose. Do not enter Gaian airspace without confirmation or you will be destroyed.”
I know the automatic Gaian “greeting” by heart, and I also know it’s not bullshit. As a kid, I saw many unregistered ships shot out of the sky before they got close to landing. The locals would cheer like it was some grand fireworks show. I always felt bad for the poor souls. If they were entering Gaian airspace illegally, they had to be desperate. Using the opportunity to pick some Gaian pockets felt a little like justice.
“This is pilot Scorpia Kaiser of merchant vessel Fortuna,” I say into the mic, working hard to keep my words from slurring into one another. “Registration number…” I run a finger down a list etched on one of my side panels, and blink until the numbers come into focus. Of course, the Gaian registry is the longest number of them all. Damn Gaians and their regulations. “Two-dash-zero-two-one-eight-eight-dash-one-zero-three-six,” I say. “Registered to Captain Auriga Kaiser, Gaian citizen. We’re delivering freeze-dried produce from Deva.”
It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a lie, either. If customs agents peek into our cargo crates, they’ll find neat packages of fruits and vegetables dried and sealed for space travel. The good shit is well hidden. We’re professionals, after all.
“Checking registration,” the robotic voice says. There’s a pause, followed by a click. “Checking landing schedule.” Another pause, click. “Ship two-dash-zero-two-one-eight-eight-dash-one-zero-three-six, you are cleared for entry. Noncitizens are not permitted to travel beyond the landing zone. Entry elsewhere will be considered a hostile act. Welcome to Gaia.”
“Yeah, I’m feeling real welcome,” I mutter, severing the radio connection. But the recording has provided a good reminder of what’s at stake here. If I crash, we all die. If I land so much as an inch outside the legal landing zone, same shit. I roll my shoulders back and slip the safety belts across my chest, clicking them into place and yanking the straps tight. “Okay, Fortuna,” I say. “Hope you’re ready for this. It’s gonna be a rough landing.”
I fish in my pocket for the gooey lump of my mouth-guard, chomp down, and shove the control wheel forward.
Monitor the radar. Check the armory. Count the supplies. Three weeks in this outpost, and I’ve started every morning with the same routine. Three weeks in the middle of nowhere, with no orders other than to hold this position and keep an eye out for anything unusual. We haven’t had so much as a glimpse of the enemy. General Altair must have stationed us here for a reason, but my patience is wearing thin, both with the situation and my stir-crazy team. Our skills are put to waste as lookouts. Not a day has gone by without them reminding me of that fact and pestering me for news. I swear, these soldiers can be worse than my little siblings were.
Given that, this time alone would normally be a blessing. Titans have infuriatingly little regard for personal space or privacy, and over these three years I’ve learned to snatch moments of solitude when I can. That’s why I’ve gotten into the habit of waking up an hour before the rest of my team to fulfill duties like these, rather than passing the chores on to them.
But lately, my thoughts weigh heavily on me, and now I have nothing to distract me from them. My hands stay busy as I run through the morning routine, but my mind wanders, barely aware of the gray walls around me or the dim lights overhead or my breath fogging in the air. My cold fingers punch in the passcodes to enter each doorway without pausing to think about it. Everything is the same as every other morning, and it all fades into background noise. But this time I pause, running my fingers over the brand on the inside of my right wrist, those eight numbers and squiggly lines they marked on me when I entered the service. Now, my mandatory years are over. But no matter where I go, the war will always be a part of me. What if this is where I belong?
Perhaps this was Altair’s intent all along: to give me time to think. He knows I have a choice to make. Merely a few weeks ago, I thought it was already made. After we lost Uwe to a bomb on our last mission, with the image of the explosion waiting every time I closed my eyes, I sent a message to my family without a moment’s hesitation. All these years, I never thought anything could convince me to stay here and keep fighting in this awful war. I believed it was the desire to leave that kept me moving. It was memories of my family that gave me the resolve to do terrible things, anything necessary to survive. My only goal after enlisting was to live long enough to return to them, and protect my siblings like I always swore I would.
When it was just the two of us on Gaia, Scorpia was always the one to take care of me, to lie and steal and do all the things I couldn’t do. I was never any good at it, so instead Momma paid for some fake papers to get me into a Gaian school, calling it an investment in the family’s future.
Once we went to Nibiru, where Scorpia couldn’t shake her bad habits and found an even worse one in a bottle, I took that mantle upon myself. I looked after the little ones, tried to keep Scorpia from drowning in her vices, did my best to soothe Momma’s anger by being the perfect son she wanted me to be. Scorpia and I would huddle by Nibiru’s ocean, or later in the ship’s cargo bay, and whisper about our dreams for the future. We would talk about all of us having a say in the family business rather than being threatened into following orders. No more risky jobs, no more Primus technology, no more weapons. “When I’m in charge, we can be whoever we want to be,” I would always say.
But that was before. Before I became attached to this place and its people. Before I believed that I could do something good for this system rather than returning to my family to smuggle drugs and other contraband. Altair’s offer changed everything. I’ve climbed rapidly through the ranks here, guided by the general’s hand—and now, he wants more for me. He wants me to work directly under him, learn from him, take his place as a general one day. I wouldn’t be another pawn in this war… I would be one of the people running it, shaping a better future for my people. Just like I always dreamed of doing for my family, but on a much grander scale. Here, I could make a difference.
The door to the supply room bangs open and startles me from my thoughts. A stocky blond woman, our latest recruit after we lost Uwe, stands in the doorway. Her face flushes as she sees me. Three years on Titan, and it still shocks me how their skin is commonly pale enough to show emotion in a surge of startling color. The system has a wide range of skin tones, but this is the one planet where the majority of people are fair enough for my own tawny coloring to stand out.
I clear my throat and turn to face her, straightening my posture so that I stand—just barely—taller than her. My height is yet another reminder that I may be Titan by birth but not by blood. Elsewhere in the system I stand above the average, but not here.
“Sergeant Kaiser, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude. Everyone’s looking for you, and it’s—they sent me,” she says, the words coming out in a jumble. She’s still new enough to be nervous around me, and new enough that it takes me a few moments to remember her name. I would feel bad about it, but I’ve seen far too many new faces come and go.
“Ivennie,” I say, remembering. Ivennie Smirnova. “I’ve told you, Corvus is fine.”
“Yes, sir, Corvus, sir,” she says. Her face turns a deeper shade of red, which I didn’t think was possible. I suppress a sigh. It always takes recruits a while to accept that they’re part of a team now and don’t need to follow the same rigidity as during training. Our army has a strict hierarchy, and we’re always expected to show deference to superiors, but within a team, things are different. We’re encouraged to be close. Intimate, even.
So I lay a hand on Ivennie’s shoulder. The act still feels odd to me after all these years, too familiar given we’ve only known each other for a few weeks. But the new recruit leans into my hand despite her earlier anxiety, relief crossing her face. All of the Titans complain about being touch-starved after basic training.
“You don’t need to be so formal with me. Here, we’re”—the next words stick in my throat, as they always do, but I finish the phrase I learned from the general—“a family.”
She stares up at me with wide eyes. I can’t bring myself to force a smile, but I give her an encouraging nod. Family. That’s what we’re supposed to say, anyway. Altair taught me that physical touch is so deeply ingrained in Titan culture that they don’t bother trying to stamp it out in the military. He said it’s good for them to feel that closeness, when many of them have lost their blood relations to the war. But I suspect he knows the truth: that nobody would fight as long or as hard as we do without something to care about, even if that something is a lie.
I step past the still-blushing new recruit into the dim underground hallway. As much as I’ve tried to make myself believe it these last few years, and as much as I’ve grown to care about them, I’ve always known deep down that my team could never truly be family. I already have one waiting for me—a family bound together by blood.
Titans, who often grow up in large, blended families with multiple sets of parents to fill in any gaps left by the war, don’t place much value in blood. But I wasn’t raised as a Titan. I still remember the time I dared to ask about who my father was at dinner, and the taste of copper in my mouth after Momma hit me—one of the few times she raised a hand against me. My siblings were just as shocked as I was. “You have no fathers,” she told us in the silence, using that tone of hers that brooked no argument. “Forget about them. Forget your birth-planets, too. The blood you share is the only thing that matters. No one outside this room is ever going to accept any of you, so you need to look out for each other.”
I shake off the memory. The past has been haunting me far too often these days, and the distraction could get me killed out here.
“Take me to the others,” I tell Ivennie. She rushes to obey, leading me to the stairwell. This outpost was built to house a much larger unit than ours if necessary, and it takes a while to traverse the stairs. I can feel Ivennie’s eyes on me as we walk, practically hear the questions on her tongue.
We haven’t spent much time together, just the two of us, since she arrived. Moments of one-on-one time, like solitude, are rare here. Our team is expected to spend every moment together: eating, training, showering, sleeping. We’re expected to share everything. Privacy leads to secrets, secrets to jealousy, and jealousy is a disease of the soul, a common Titan saying goes. I try to respect Titan customs, I truly do, but some I can’t bring myself to follow. Just as Momma always told me, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never truly be a Titan.
Though I suspect I’ve been avoiding Ivennie for other reasons, as well. Knowing I may be leaving soon makes me loath to add another name to the list of people I care about here. Especially so with Uwe’s loss still so fresh. The rest of my team has been hesitant to welcome the rookie as well.
The shock of Uwe’s death lingers in all of us. Before that, it had been over three months since we lost someone. We had fallen into a rhythm, a strong team dynamic, and now everyone is struggling once again to figure out where they fit, trying to adjust themselves around the missing piece my off-worlder customs leave.
We shouldn’t have lost Uwe. It was a stupid, senseless death. I’ve replayed the day a thousand times over, running through all the ways I could’ve prevented it.
We were in Niivya, a border town freshly liberated from the enemy. Drunk on victory, newly armed with information Daniil had extracted from a captured Isolationist sergeant. The townspeople were eager to celebrate with us. Feeding us, filling our mugs when they were empty. Putting us at ease.
Everyone but me was very intoxicated when word arrived that a child had fallen into a sewer. I should have gone alone. But I couldn’t carry both a child and a light in the darkness of the sewers, and so someone needed to come with me. Since Uwe lost the hand of cards, it fell to him. He was drunk—staggering, singing drunk. He nearly fell on his face when we dropped down into the sewers to look for her.
When we found the child, she wasn’t injured at all. Instead, she was clutching an explosive device in her hands. When Uwe raised the light, she ran at us.
I had a gun. I should have used it. But she was a child, and in her face I saw Scorpia, Lyre, Andromeda. I froze. Drunk though he was, Uwe still reacted before I did, and his first thought was to shield me from the worst of the blast. He tackled me to the ground with his armored body on top of mine. My only injury was a gash on my cheek where my face hit the concrete floor. There wasn’t enough left of Uwe for a proper funeral. When I emerged from that tunnel, covered in the remains of both my teammate and a little girl, I was ready to leave Titan, despite the love that I’ve gained for both the planet and its people. I sent the message to my family the next day, when I was still so sure, before Altair made his offer and the doubt set in.
But Ivennie doesn’t know any of that, and none of it is her fault. She’s a quick learner with exceptionally high potential, perhaps even for leadership, according to Altair’s recommendation. I should be doing a better job of teaching her how a team operates. If there’s one thing I can do for the others before I leave them behind, I should at least give them the ability to rely on each other.
I clear my throat and lower my hand as I realize I’m touching the scar on my cheek. It would have been an easy thing for Titan doctors to fix, but I asked to keep it as a reminder. My eyes shift to Ivennie, who immediately glances away as if she hadn’t been staring.
“You can ask, if you want,” I tell her. “I’ll answer any questions you have. I know you must have heard plenty of rumors.” A sergeant who was raised off-world is no small thing on Titan. I know the things they say about me, both good and bad.
No doubt Ivennie would have asked the others about me already, if they weren’t as reluctant to accept her as I am. She hesitates for barely a moment before she gives in to curiosity.
“Is it true you’re an off-worlder?”
“No. I’m a Titan. I was born here.” The response is automatic. Confusion creases her forehead, and after a moment, I relent. “But, yes, I’ve spent most of my life off-world, though I’ve always been Titan at heart. I returned when duty called me.” A mouthful of lies. When I was growing up, Momma always reminded me that blood came first. The last thing she said to me was “You’re a Kaiser, not a Titan. Don’t forget that.” But the truth would not serve me well here.
“So before coming here, you lived… where?”
“I lived on a ship. But I grew up mostly on Gaia, then a few years on Nibiru.”
“Ah. Gaia.” Some of her confusion clears up. “So that’s why you’re”—she fumbles for a word—“abstinent?”
They always ask about that.
“I’m not. It’s just different for me.”
- "Kristyn Merbeth has created a desperate, gritty world in her newest book Fortuna, an epic space opera about the lengths a family will go to survive not only each other, but a world out to kill them . . . . Merbeth is a voice to watch in space opera!"—K. B. Wagers, author of There Before the Chaos
- "The narrative is powered by a cast of deeply developed characters. Scorpia, in particular, is impressively multidimensional . . . . The nonstop action and varying levels of tension make this an unarguable page-turner."—Kirkus
- "Merbeth's multiple narrators and plotlines converge beautifully into a suspenseful tale of family. The characters are distinct and grounded, and each interaction is filled with purpose and emotion that brings all of them, regardless of differences, into the fray together. SF fans who have been waiting for a crime family spin on space opera will find nothing but joy in this whirlwind story."—Publishers Weekly
- "High energy, high stakes, and lots of high notes."—Library Journal
- "Merbeth's world building is fascinating-five human-settled planets, each distinct and littered with alien technology-but her multifaceted characters and their troubled relationships give this action-packed family drama its heart. A good readalike for Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books, John Scalzi's Collapsing Empire (2017), and for those who want a grittier version of Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series."—Booklist
- "This is an engaging start to a series that blends crime family drama with the sort of character-focused sci-fi that made Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series an award-winning favorite."—B&N Reads
- "It's everything you could ask for in a space opera."—The Arcanist
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 560 pages