Pico’s Crush – Free Sample Chapter

This is a free sample of the first chapter of Pico’s Crush (Central Galactic Concordance • Book 3), by Carol Van Natta. Enjoy!


 

CHAPTER 1

* Planet: Nila Marbela * GDAT 3241.142 *

For paradise, it sure as hell rained a lot.

Jerzi hunched his shoulders forward and tried to keep the warm, torrential rain from drenching every square centimeter of his new corporate suit as he half ran toward the huge, rounded entrance to the lecture space in the Optimal Polytechnic Chemistry building. It was supposedly the tallest building of the four clustered on the anchored ovoid disc that made up this part of the famous floating campus, but he couldn’t see anything but gray shapes. The only available parking for his flitter had been on the east end of the floater, on top of the Materials Science building.

The wind drove the drumbeat of rain in waves of white noise. The remnants of the late-season typhoon hadn’t been expected to extend so far west, and he hadn’t brought rain gear. The permaturf walkway was so waterlogged, it felt like slogging through a shallow swamp. He was glad he’d fished his all-terrain boots out of his luggage, even if they didn’t go with the corporate look.

A quick glance at the building name above the oversized, half-round doorway confirmed he was finally in the right place. The doors irised open on his approach, and he hurried through them. He was immediately assaulted by a wave of sound even louder than the rain.

The student event was supposed to have been held outside in the central commons area, where everyone could enjoy the famous tropical ambiance that drew students like a magnet to the city of Tremplin and the O-Poly University. The unexpected rain had forced the school to move the exhibits and scientific demonstrations for visiting parents and sponsors into the lecture hall. It was a frenetic bazaar of human voices and whirling technology, of chaotic motion, and bright kaleidoscopes of clashing colors demanding attention. Display tables were jammed into haphazard clusters with no obvious order. Despite the heat and humidity, or because of it, he detected whiffs of smoke and chemicals, from sulfur to cloying citrus and everything in between. Easily several hundred people were squeezed into a space intended to hold maybe half that.

Somehow, despite the oppressive din, he heard his daughter Pico’s voice.

“Dad! Dad!” From the swell of humanity, a petite figure emerged and ran up the wide ramp toward him, waving. She was wearing a sleeveless, fitted white-and-red jumpsuit and matching boots, reminiscent of a combat mech-suit liner, and her midnight-blue hair with silver tips was in pigtails, but he’d know her energetic grace and wide smile anywhere. “You found us!”

He grinned and started to open his arms, then changed his mind and stepped back. “You’ll get wet. I’m soaked.”

She laughed and threw herself heedlessly into his embrace, squeezing tightly. “We’re all wet. The rain surprised everyone. That’s why they made us move everything in here.” She pulled away and grabbed his hand. “Come on, the solars are over here. Nice suit, by the way. Earrings, too.” Turning back to the pandemonium, she shouted, “Valenia! He’s here!” Several people turned to look. Her voice was surprisingly loud for someone who looked so dainty.

Pico led him into an alcove that had a bank of a dozen solardry units. He tapped the control panel, and the unit began evaporating away the moisture at an alarming rate. It was airfoil-loud and too warm, but it was efficient. He smoothed his hair so it would dry flat. Pico crowded close, using the edge of the field to dry the front of her. The industrial-strength solardries made sense, considering Nila Marbela was a watery planet and the sprawling O-Poly campuses were on natural islands and man-made floaters in the equatorial zone.

The dry cycle finished just as Pico’s roommate and best friend, Valenia Tamheurre, joined them. She was a head taller than Pico, and dressed like a fashion designer’s prototype tester, all rippling pastel pink ruffles and winking fairy lights, but Jerzi knew she had a good brain hiding under her poof of pomegranate red, waved hair. She was carrying a cheap, nova-bright orange umbrella, the kind tourists bought as souvenirs.

He greeted Valenia, then put his arm around Pico’s slender shoulders. “Did I miss your team’s presentation?” He knew she’d collaborated with several other students for their exhibit, but she’d been secretive about the details. He’d missed too many of the milestones in her life.

“Yeah,” Pico said, “but so did everyone else.” She sighed disgustedly. “Apparently, there’s a rule against launching rockets in the lecture hall.”

Jerzi tried to keep a straight face. “How shortsighted of them not to have designed the space for such harmless activities.”

Valenia laughed. “That’s what Professor De Luna said, except I think she used the words ‘crazy stunts.’” She glanced at the huge, ornate clock on the wall. “I’ll be late if I don’t leave now, and the kid pawners will complain. It was nice to see you again, Mr. Adams.” Her precise diction and accent-free Standard English were a credit to her private education, because he knew her wealthy family’s primary language was Afro-French.

“I’ll be there at six,” said Pico. “I’ll bring your long coat if it’s still raining.”

“You’re the best friend ever,” said Valenia with a smile. She took a deep breath, powered the umbrella to full, then headed out through the door and into the rain. He hoped her umbrella lasted longer than his had.

He frowned as the doors irised closed. “Maybe I should go with her.”

Pico shook her head. “It’s daylight, and she’s just going to the other end of the floater. She’d have asked if she wanted company.”

She grabbed his hand again and started leading him down the ramp into the crowded hall. He was comforted by her easy affection. It had been a lonely nine months only seeing her on delayed holo.

“Kid pawners?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the sudden rising whine of a miniature toroidal engine, fortunately tethered.

She veered closer so he could hear her. “At the childcare where Valenia volunteers, some parents drop their kids off like they’re boats to be docked. She calls them ‘kid pawners’ because they’re always pawning their kids off on someone else.”

Jerzi hid a wince. Dhorya, Pico’s mother, had accused him of that more than once. His military service as a ground-pounder gunnin and civilian private security career had kept him away, leaving Pico and Dhorya alone to deal with her nasty Sankirna family for long periods. He and Dhorya had both been too young and so very naïve about what it would take to raise a child, even one as remarkable as Pico.

“Hey, P.A.!” A slender young man whose hair and skin were so pale, he was nearly albino waved his arms frantically. “We got the Decas-Yee reaction to work above three hundred K and in full G!” He pointed to a floating holo display. “We already won a POGS prize. Do come see!” His accent said he’d been raised on Albion Prime, or close to it. Few could outdo the exclusive planet for over-the-top pretentiousness.

Pico smiled but didn’t stop plowing forward through the crowds. “Can’t, Sully. Places to be, rockets to launch. I’ll see it later.”

“We could stop…” began Jerzi.

Pico shook her head and increased her pace. “No, or we’d be there the rest of the afternoon. Let’s find Professor De Luna, then see if she’ll let us escape this madhouse.”

Jerzi couldn’t agree more. Even though he had plenty of experience with crowds, he didn’t care for them. Give him a nice, high vantage point above the fray any day, like the almost invisible ledge high on the north wall. Probably a support for the room’s audiovisual functions, though he couldn’t see where to access it.

He had no idea how Pico, who took after her short, slender mother of Asian descent, could see where she was going, but she’d always had a superb sense of space. She’d never gotten lost, even when she was a child, barely able to walk. He was content to follow, using his larger physique to help part the crowds for her. He saw almost nothing of himself in his daughter’s appearance, but they thought very much alike. She was a lot smarter than he was, though, enough to get into a prestigious school on a scholarship. If it hadn’t been for the military, he’d have no advanced education at all.

As they rounded a table with a clump of chattering students gathered around it, he saw a flutter of a holo displaying a green and gold prize seal, like the one Sully had been bragging about. “What’s a POGS prize?”

The crowd thinned for a bit, and Jerzi consciously relaxed his shoulders. It was hard to remember he wasn’t there to provide personal security for a public figure. He was just on vacation, visiting his kid. Adult kid, he reminded himself.

“POGS stands for Parents, Obligates, Guardians, and Sponsors.” She gave him a cheeky grin and squeezed his hand. “Since you’re a ‘P,’ I’ll send you the ping ref so you can vote for my team’s excellent project.”

He started to tell her to send the code to her mother, too, but thought better of it. Pico didn’t like the reminder that Sankirna money was the only reason she could afford to share an apartment near campus and eat without needing a food service job. It didn’t thrill him, either.

“The POGS prize is mostly a popularity contest, and faculty votes get extra weight.” She pointed a thumb back over her shoulder. “Sully sounds rich, but he isn’t, he’s just brainy. His experiment partner’s family is name-on-a-building rich, and she’s brainy enough to let Sully do the work. Funnily enough, they win something every time her family makes an appearance.”

Jerzi detected a bit of defensiveness in her tone. “Scholarship students don’t win very often, I take it.” She shrugged a shoulder as if she didn’t care.

He assumed a mock enforcer look as he leaned in and whispered, in his best heavily menacing Slavic accent, “Tell me who is in your way. Zajmę się tym.” He flexed his arm and shoulder muscles, as if he was the evil crew enforcer in a thriller.

Pico snorted with amusement. “I’m pretty sure the school has a rule against ‘taking care of it.’”

Jerzi crossed his arms, pushing out his triceps with his fists, then shrugged with elaborate carelessness. “Accidents happen.”

Pico put her small hands around his left biceps and kneaded, a throwback to when she was a child and fascinated by his well-developed upper arm muscles. “I miss you. I’m glad you could come.”

“Me, too.” They edged around a group of people standing in front of another student table. It felt like they were going in circles. “Are we there yet?”

She rolled her eyes. “Creaky, Dad.”

“Wait until you have children,” he said archly.

Pico grabbed his wrist and pulled him around more tables. He found himself cataloging the distance and paths to the nearest exits out of habit, and sternly told himself to stand down. He really needed to get a life outside of security work and time at the gym.

Finally, Pico stepped up to a table pushed up against a two-meter wide, square pillar.

Voilà!” She opened her arms at a wide diagonal, presenting the display, entitled “Domestic Launch.” The carefully arranged items looked like they’d been salvaged from the recycle bin, but he realized after a moment that was the whole point. Everything on the table was commonly found around the house, but combined correctly, made an effective propellant for the rocket, which was a simple sink hose caged with rigid screen mesh, with a flat-bottomed cone for a fuel chamber and a standard wirekey for ignition energy. The direction was controlled by adapter wings from a child’s rocket ship toy, and didn’t rely on anything with motors or anti-grav tech.

“It’s really clever. How did you come up with it?”

“The projects on the ‘recommended’ list were boring, but none of us could afford to buy the materials for something more fun. We kind of made this up as we went along.”

A pretty, dark-skinned woman approached Pico from the other side. “Ms. Adams, have you seen… oh, pardon the interruption.” She smiled at Jerzi. “I’m Professor Chandravarthi, in the Chemistry Department.” She pointed to the temporary nameplate pinned to the shoulder of her sleeveless, multicolored top that stopped at her flat midriff and gave a slight bow, then turned to Pico. “Do you know where Ravlenko’s and Bando’s teams ended up?”

Pico started to point, but was interrupted by what sounded like an overstressed teakettle and a flurry of conflicting orders. It sounded close.

“Kill the power!”

“Flood the chamber!”

“Duck!”

Jerzi stepped closer to Pico and put himself between her and the noise. The earsplitting, rising pitch whistle abruptly cut off. He waited for an explosion, but none came. A cloud of bluish smoke billowed out and dissipated. After a tense moment, everyone nearby seemed to relax.

Chandravarthi heaved a melodramatic sigh. “Mr. Ravlenko’s team, I presume.” She set off toward where the noise had come from, muttering darkly as she left. “Everything will be fine inside, they said. Mustn’t disappoint the POGS, they said.”

Pico poked his chest twice. “Hovering.”

“Sorry,” he said, backing up, but he wasn’t, really. Protecting her was in his DNA.

A frown crossed her face as she ducked away, but it quickly transformed into a smile. “Professor De Luna! Come meet my dad.”

Jerzi turned to see the famous professor of materials science who had inspired Pico to declare a study focus for her certificate. The woman was a little taller than mid-height, conservatively dressed in a long-sleeved, high-necked, dark jacket with half-tails, and her dark hair was scraped back away from her striking face. If she wore makeup on her light brown skin, it was subtle. She seemed familiar, somehow.

“Professor Andreina De Luna, this is my dad…”

“Commander Crush,” she said with a lopsided smile. “It’s a small galaxy.”

It was the use of his old unit nickname and her soft Spanish accent that finally sparked his memory. “Subcaptain Lightning. It certainly is.” Delight bloomed in him, and he grinned and held out a fist to her, thumb up. She bumped his knuckles twice with a fist of her own, once straight up and once turned sideways.

Pico looked back and forth at them, owl-eyed. “You know each other?”

Andra nodded. “Five years together as gunnin in the CGC Ground Division, Command’s Forward Intelligence Unit Zulu Six Echo.” She winked at him. “Your father was the best sniper we ever had.”

Jerzi felt himself redden, as if he was suddenly twelve years old. He ducked his head to hide it. “Thanks.”

He looked at her more closely, trying to reconcile the brash, volatile, very unconventional officer he’d known in the military with the sedate, contained woman in front of him. She was the picture of a dedicated academic, though her straight pants didn’t quite hide her muscular legs, and he suspected her shoes were more practical than they looked.

She’d apparently been thinking along the same lines. “You sure clean up good, Adams. Nice suit. Must have given the designer fits with all those extra muscles.” She winked at Pico, who smirked back.

He had no idea why women were interested in what he wore, but no way in hell was he getting into a discussion about clothes. “Materials science, huh? That’s what they’re calling boom-down these days?”

Andra’s eyebrow twitched. “Claro que sí. Of course. Sounds more dignified in the college brochure.”

“What’s boom-down?” asked Pico.

“Munitions. Explosions,” said Jerzi.

“Just a flyby to see your daughter, Commander?”

“Visit and a short vacation. It’d be longer if it wasn’t seven transit days from–”

“And who do we have here?” The resonant voice came from behind him. He turned to see a tall, very sharply dressed man with a wide, professional smile that almost reached his brilliant green eyes. He looked to be in his late fifties, though if he followed regular health maintenance protocols and good body-shop work, he could be twice that age. His face was too thin to be called handsome, but his tanned skin was as perfect as his full head of wavy blond hair, tasteful ear jewelry, and skin art in geometric ovals.

The man caressed the gold, glowing nametag on his chest pocket. “Master Benedar Vestering, Department Leader for Materials Science.” His naturally rich voice rang with pride bordering on condescension.

“Adams.” He tilted his head toward Pico and gave her a quick smile. “Peregrine Adams is my daughter.”

Vestering’s smile faltered as he stared at Jerzi. “You’re not, eh, that is, you don’t look like a Sankirna.” There was a hint of accusation in the tone.

Jerzi felt his face freeze. “No. Were you expecting one?” Surely Pico would have told him, but maybe she didn’t know about it.

“Oh, no,” said Vestering, brushing invisible lint off his tunic hem. “I just happened to see a tuition transfer this morning for a Peregrine Adams from a Sankirna account. It’s an unusual name.” He looked down at Pico as if seeing her for the first time.

Jerzi felt Pico’s hand slip into the crook of his elbow, causing him to automatically fold his arm to support her. “Chodźmy, tato. Coś jest śmierdzący tutaj.

She was rarely that overtly insulting, so she apparently knew Vestering didn’t understand Polish. While it was true that something was stinking, Jerzi didn’t want to encourage her rudeness.

Vestering’s professional smile returned. “Such an expressive language, Russian.”

Jerzi patted Pico’s hand and smiled indulgently. “Yes,” he said, “it certainly is.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Andra cover her mouth and turn her head away to cough. He remembered she’d always been good with languages.

Vestering might not speak Polish or Russian, but he appeared to suspect they weren’t being respectful, even if he couldn’t pinpoint the specific offense. His disgruntled gaze landed on Andra. “I don’t care how popular your Practical Applications class is, it’s not rigorous educational practice.” He waved an arm toward the improvised rocket display. “Encouraging this kind of childish nonsense isn’t preparing your students for anything but a career in a shady jack crew.”

Jerzi wondered if Vestering thought there were aboveboard jack crews that engaged in punching and hauling cargo from space stations and interstellar freighters.

Pico let go of Jerzi’s arm to step closer to Andra, then gave Vestering her best wide-eyed, innocent look. “Really? Will they have a booth on recruiting day? I’m told they pay very well.”

A couple of nearby students tittered. They looked away fast when Vestering shot them a glare.

He frowned at Pico, clearly not sure if she was needling him or if she was really that naïve. Her petite frame and doll-like features often caused people to underestimate her. He opened his mouth, then closed it as he glanced at Jerzi, finally recognizing he’d either look like an idiot or a bully if he engaged. He turned to Andra. “I’ll be at the presenters’ station, if anyone important is looking for me.”

He straightened his nameplate and brushed his tunic flat, then smiled and waded into the crowd.

Andra sighed and put her hand on Pico’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t have baited him. Now that he knows who you are, he could make your life difficult in a hundred little ways.”

Jerzi wanted to chime in and agree with Andra, but held his tongue. Pico was adult enough to make her own decisions, and only experience would teach her how to pick her battles. A lecture from him wouldn’t change anything. Besides, he wasn’t exactly innocent.

Pico looked briefly mutinous, then sighed loudly. “Point taken.”

Jerzi wished he could take credit for her mature behavior, but she’d always been a good kid, even at her most rebellious. He was grateful she respected Andra enough to learn from her.

“I was hoping to find the rest of your team,” said Andra. “I’d like to reschedule the launch next week.”

Pico looked around and shrugged.

A young woman with shaded, sea-green hair and pearlescent blue skin appeared from around the pillar. “Hey, Pico, did you hear when Ravlenko’s phase gate failed?” She slowed to a more sedate pace when she saw Andra. “Heyo, Professor D.” Her tight sarong dress and elevated sandals were glowing. She looked like she was in costume as an alien sea creature, complete with what may have been gill slits on her neck and upper chest and actual webbing between her fingers. He’d heard about the “native” body mods that were all the rage on Nila Marbela, designed to make people look as if they’d evolved locally, instead of settling on it like every other terraformed planet in the Concordance. She was the first he’d seen up close.

Andra nodded. “Ms. Grien.”

Grien leaned in toward Pico, as if speaking confidentially, but didn’t lower her voice. “Their mix chamber nearly launched itself through the east wall. Bet he’s sorry he didn’t get you to check his calcs this morning. Now that whole area stinks, like they all ate at the Death Court.”

Pico shook her head. “Anyone could have checked his calcs.”

Grien snorted. “Yeah, but it would have taken them two days with a math AI to do it.”

Pico frowned and dropped her gaze.

“‘Death Court’?” asked Jerzi, nudging Pico’s shoulder with his arm.

“Food court.” She pointed vaguely toward the west. “Replicators, pouches, junk food, failed experiments from the Chem lab.”

Andra smiled. “So, Jerzi, what are you doing with yourself these days?”

Jerzi smiled back. “I’m in the Personal Security Division of La Plata Security and Investigations, in Etonver on Rekoria.”

He didn’t expect her to recognize the company. A lot of larger security firms had their headquarters in Etonver because of its anything-goes policies for buying and carrying weapons, and its hundreds of martial arts studios that made it an attractive home base for mercenary companies.

“He’s the assistant director,” said Pico. He was warmed by her pride, but he wished she hadn’t mentioned it. Providing bodyguards and security drivers for celebrities and visiting dignitaries wasn’t nearly as impressive as the title implied.

Recognition dawned on Andra’s face. “La Plata. Isn’t that where Dom DeBayaud went after he got out? Is he still there, too? And is he still cohabbed with that crazy woman?”

Jerzi shook his head. “No, he died in an accident about four years ago.” It had been much more complicated than that, and had nearly cost Jerzi and his friends Luka Foxe and Mairwen Morganthur their lives, but “accident” was the official public version the lawyers agreed to.

“Dad just got promoted,” added Pico.

Jerzi tilted his head toward her and smiled. “My publicist.”

Grien, who had been fussing with something under the table, stood and put her arm around Pico’s shoulders. She turned wheedling eyes on Andra. “Can we start packing up? Since we can’t launch or anything?” Pico followed Grien’s lead and did her best to look pitiful, but her mouth quavered as she fought off a smile.

Andra shook her head regretfully. “That will be up to Department Leader Vestering.”

Jerzi gave Andra a questioning look, but she shook her head minutely, meaning she didn’t want to discuss it then. Funny how with some people, unspoken connections were never lost, just paused. He’d missed that.

Grien made a disappointed whimper and sat on the edge of the table. She took off one of her sandals and stretched her blue toes, which were webbed like her fingers.

A sudden, sharp percussion of an explosion echoed in the lecture hall, accompanied by a vibration through the springy silcrete floor. A second, deeper explosion followed, shaking the floor and walls, accompanied by the sounds of things falling off tables.

Grien scrambled up from the skittering table, bouncing one-legged as she tried to put on her sandal. “What the hell?”

Jerzi got a whiff of acrid smoke and looked around, then up. Smoke was pouring from the high ceiling vents on the western wall.

Fire-suppression spray triggered, covering everything in a fine, powdery mist, but the smoke kept coming. A stuttering alarm began to sound.

“Fire!” someone yelled. Panic spread, and the crowd started to move. It was going to get ugly, fast.

 

 

 ~ ~ ~

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