This is a free sample of the first chapter of Jumper's Hope (Central Galactic Concordance Book 4), by Carol Van Natta. Enjoy!
* GDAT 3242.002 * Planet: Branimir *
It took Jess Orowitz a lot longer than it should have to realize the injured pilot he and his neighbor pulled from the flitter wreckage was a dead woman.
She groaned as they set her down as gently as they could on the glascrete surface of the public flitter port’s landing pad in front of an older, gaunt man who was slowly opening his large medic kit.
Jess’s farming neighbor, Bhalodia, the man who had called Jess to the scene, stood and moved back, rocking side to side on antsy feet. He’d dressed up in his only white tunic to come to town, and now it was ruined by a smear of bright red airfoil lubricant on his sleeve.
“She one lucky pilot.” His English was more pidgin than Standard, but he got by similarly in at least twenty other languages besides his native Thai. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder toward the hot, still-sparking remains. “Broke flitters usually tumble, not slide.”
Jess knew it had been the pilot’s skill that avoided the buildings when landing what was left of her ruined flitter, but he was too stunned to speak. Kerzanna Nevarr, the only woman he’d ever loved, the woman who’d been killed four years ago in a full-city riot on a distant planet, was alive. He stayed on his knees and had to remind himself to breathe.
Considering the Central Galactic Concordance had more than five hundred settled planets across the galaxy, hundreds of thousands of cities, and hundreds of billions of people, the chances of the two of them reconnecting again in a tiny town in farm country on a back-of-beyond planet were impossibly remote.
And yet here she was.
Her tangled dark blonde hair was much longer and curlier than he remembered, and partially covered the decorative Jumper tattoos on the side of her neck that led to the skulljack interface just behind her ear. Her nose looked straighter, and the thin scar that had bisected her right eyebrow was gone. He wondered if her eyes were still as blue as the summer sky. Cosmetics made it easy to change eye color on a whim, but Kerzanna had never paid much attention to fashion. Under the bloody, torn casual pants and loose jacket and top she wore, all shades of brown and cream, she was still tall and looked well muscled. Maybe she’d been one of the lucky Jumper veterans to escape the long-term side effects of the mech implants and enhancements.
“Pssst!” Bhalodia hissed quietly in Jess’s ear, startling him. “Told you. Pitt chemmed again.” Bhalodia tilted his head toward to the medic.
Pitt looked like he was performing a slow-motion dance interpretation of a medic assessing a patient, but unfortunately, it was real. Kwiksloe addicts thought their consciousness was expanding at half the speed of light, but it was just an illusion brought on by a depressed nervous system. It was why Bhalodia, who’d known Jess was still in town for a meeting, had pinged him to come to the crash site and prevent an unnecessary death because of Pitt’s impairment. Jess could be a medic when needed, though he paid a price for it.
Markalan Crossing’s town constable, Castro, walked around the corner of the main hangar building, then broke into a trot the moment she saw them. She was mostly good at her job, unless it had anything to do with her lover, Pitt. Bhalodia muttered disgustedly as he turned away from Jess and toward the flitter wreck. Bhalodia had served eighty-two years in the Central Galactic Concordance Military Ground and Air Divisions before retiring to his sprawling family farm on Branimir, and had zero tolerance for the situation with Castro and Pitt.
Castro’s habitual frown deepened as she took in the status of the flitter and the pilot, then became deeply pained as she realized Pitt’s condition. She gave Jess a warning look as she put her hand on Pitt’s shoulder and waited for him to notice and look at her. “Sweetie, I ordered a medevac. Maybe you should wait and let Orowitz and Bhalodia take her to the clinic.”
Jess struggled to stay still during the ten long seconds it took Pitt to process her words and respond. “I’m-m-m-m… g-o-o-o-d…” He gave her a slow, sunny smile that said she was his entire universe.
Castro visibly melted and smiled tenderly back, even though she undoubtedly knew the kwiksloe gave him tunnel focus. “All right, sweetie. I trust you.” She stepped back and glared at Jess, daring him to say one word. Her hand strayed as if by accident toward the needler on her quick-release belt. Something about her said she was microseconds away from unloading a full clip into anyone who interfered with Pitt.
Kerzanna needed immediate, competent assessment, and Pitt was useless. Jess sat back on his heels and dropped his gaze so Castro wouldn’t see any changes in his expression when he reached for the part of his mind that was Jess-the-medic and let it take over. The familiar sharp pain became a familiar dull headache as he let his professional gaze catalog Kerzanna’s injuries. He ignored the superficial cuts and contusions and focused on the probable head injury and possible cracked sternum. Her wheezy breathing suggested lung impairment, likely from smoke inhalation or possibly from an intruding broken rib or crash debris. Jess-the-medic’s hands twitched when Pitt carelessly thumbed her swollen cheekbone and drew a grunt from her. The idiot was wasting time with a manual assessment instead of using a scanner.
Jess-the-medic wished he was a minder healer, able to help Kerzanna with just his mental talent, or at least a telepath, so he could tell Pitt what to focus on first, but he was just an ordinary man. Or as ordinary as he could be after the Citizen Protection Service’s secret Kameleon Corps program left a few extra people in his head. He would diagnose his mind as fractured, except he was one of the fractures.
The medic kit probably contained inhib in its pharma supplies, but even if Castro would let Jess administer an emergency dose to Pitt, it’d take fifteen or twenty minutes for him to gain even minimal coherence. Kerzanna’s pallor suggested shock, and despite what Jess-the-man thought, it was obvious to Jess-the-medic from the subtle degradation of muscle mass and the mechanical stiffness of her joints that Kerzanna suffered from Stage 3 of Pelker Thomré Vadembo Syndrome, colloquially known as waster’s disease. On average, Jumpers with eighteen years of service and six years into retirement were in Stage 4, so she was better off than most. Jumpers were supposed to only get treatment at CPS clinics, but all competent medics knew the basics, despite the CPS declaring it to be classified data and blocking commercial publication of any information on it.
Pitt had apparently noticed the shock, because he pulled out the standard oxy-stim jet from his kit and pressed the activator. Jess-the-man clasped his hands together to stop his medic self from touching Pitt and getting a chest full of needles from Castro. “Don’t give her that. It could kill her.”
Jess-the-medic’s authoritative tone got Pitt’s attention. His hand stopped centimeters away from her unprotected neck, puzzlement slowly blooming in his expression. Jess gave him a hard look. “She’s an ex-Jumper. Probably has PTVS.” Because Castro was still standing there instead of examining the downed flitter like she should have been, he added, “Waster’s. The adrenal compound in the oxy-stim could stun her nervous system, make her forget how to breathe.”
Castro narrowed her eyes. “How do you know?” She stabbed a pointing finger at Kerzanna. “Do you know her?”
Jess-the-medic tilted his chin toward Kerzanna’s head. “Jumper tattoos, old style. Hair is too long for regulation. She wasn’t jacked in when we pulled her out of the flitter, so she’s decommed. Retired.” His professional history, if Castro cared to check, showed he’d been in the Citizen Protection Service as a base quartermaster and emergency responder for thirty years. In most cases, it accounted for any unusual knowledge he had, including medical protocol for a member of the CPS’s elite division of special forces. His personal history was none of Castro’s business.
Castro’s left wrist gauntlet lit up, and she subvocalized a response. “Medevac capsule’s here.” She turned to the north and cupped her hand over her eyes to shade them from the noonday sun. “We’re lucky to get it. A mine accident has most of them tied up.”
While they’d been talking, Pitt’s face had slowly become a study in despair, perhaps because he’d recognized the serious mistake he’d been about to make. He looked slowly at Castro, his lip trembling and his eyes brimming with unshed tears, then at the jet in his hand. With an unexpected burst of speed, he plunged it down onto his thigh and gave himself a full dose.
“Merde!” growled Jess, too late.
“Billy!” yelled Castro. Jess-the-medic grabbed the jet as Castro dove to catch Pitt as he toppled sideways. He was already starting to twitch. Without treatment, it would soon escalate to a full-blown, lethal seizure. Oxy-stim was even worse for kwiksloe addicts than it was for Jumpers with waster’s. Jess-the-medic dropped the jet and leaned across Kerzanna’s legs to paw through the disorganized medic kit, looking for a stim counter-agent.
The automated medevac capsule descended to the landing pad. Bhalodia stalked toward it, silently sneering at Castro as she cried, cradling Pitt’s head and shoulders in her lap. “Billy, baby, what were you thinking?”
Jess found a sedative jet and adjusted it for a child’s dose, enough to blunt the stim. Too much, and Pitt would crash. He punched the jet into Pitt’s thigh, next to the first injection site.
“What was that?” growled Castro, trying to pull Pitt’s shuddering form away.
“Dormo. Sleep med.” Jess-the-medic glanced at his original patient, the woman who had Jess-the-man tied in knots. Thanks to Pitt’s idiocy, she was now the lower priority patient for emergency transport to the regional medical center, but she still needed treatment. He rose to his feet and helped Bhalodia guide the capsule as close as they could get behind Pitt.
“Castro,” said Jess-the-medic, squatting down in front of her again. “Pitt needs to go to the medical center. Now.”
Castro shook her head stubbornly. “No. He’ll be good after some inhib.”
Jess-the-medic shook his head and started to speak, but Bhalodia beat him to it. “Okay, okay, good. You do like always. He die, we get new medic. Not chem addict. ” Bhalodia walked to the far side of where Kerzanna lay and lifted her outstretched arm to cross it over her, in preparation for lifting her, then gave Castro a sly look. “I bet we get new constable, too.”
Once the medical center confirmed the kwiksloe, which was illegal on Branimir, Pitt’s career as a medic would be over. If she didn’t let him go for treatment, he’d die, and her career in enforcement would definitely be over. Castro’s star lane choices were rocky, but she’d made her own star chart.
She glared at Bhalodia with all the hate and resentment she should have been directing at her addicted lover, but she relaxed her arms to let go of Pitt.
Jess-the-medic told Bhalodia to make sure the capsule stayed grounded, then scooped up Pitt’s quivering body and climbed to his feet. Fortunately, Jess was a big man, taller even than some Jumpers, and Pitt was short and thin. With Bhalodia’s help, he got Pitt into the capsule, entered what little data he knew about the patient, and sent it on its way. Medevac capsules had extensive built-in diagnostic and treatment capabilities, plus real-time communication with the medical center, so Pitt would probably live.
Jess-the-medic returned to kneel beside Kerzanna. He opened the medic kit wider to root around through the haphazardly arranged contents until he found the scanner. He directed it toward her chest and the suspected lung injury. Thankfully, although the scanner showed a cracked sternum, her ribs were only bruised and her spine was normal. Her residual Jumper reinforcements, plus the cybernetic right ilium and femur of her hip and thigh, had probably saved her from worse damage. The concussion was another matter. “We’re going to need the autodoc in Pitt’s office.”
Castro stood and brushed the tan prairie dust off the back of her dark uniform pants. “I can’t let you in without Pitt there. Just because you had first-responder training doesn’t mean—”
Jess rose to his feet and invaded her personal space. “Yes, you can.” He didn’t like using his two-hundred-centimeter height to intimidate people, but Castro was endangering Kerzanna. He let his eyes reveal a bit of Jess-the-bomber, the man who’d laugh while his enemies died in a fire, as he stared at her unblinkingly. The pain in his head doubled, and he let her see that, too.
Castro stumbled back two steps before she caught herself. The fear in her expression gave way to stubborn challenge, and her hand drifted toward her needler, but she nodded once. “I’ll escort you.”
Jess-the-medic turned and squatted onto his heels to close the medic kit. He looked around for Bhalodia and smiled when he saw his neighbor bringing an antigrav loading cart from the flitter port lobby. Not the most dignified of gurneys, but Kerzanna weighed too much for even Jess to carry her very far. She was slender and fit for her size, but she was only about ten centimeters shorter than he was, and she had biometal-reinforced bones.
As gently as he could, he lifted her onto the cart, which dipped alarmingly until they got her weight centered. From the smell, the cart has last been used to haul fresh compost. He slung the medic kit’s strap across his shoulder and pushed the cart’s handle to get it moving toward the walkway. Pitt’s medical clinic was close, and staying outside would be faster than going through the port building. Markalan Crossing was small enough that most everything was only a block or two away.
Bhalodia started forward, then hesitated. “I get bag. Meet you soon.” He turned and walked toward the port office.
Jess didn’t have time to wonder what Bhalodia was up to. Gravcarts were finicky and hard to control over irregular surfaces like old outdoor walkways, so he concentrated on keeping it level. Kerzanna was lucky to have stayed unconscious for so long, because she’d obviously taken a beating when trying to keep the flitter on course for a survivable landing, and the rough cart ride wouldn’t be easy on her.
Castro let him into the town medical clinic’s treatment area and helped him lift Kerzanna up and into the autodoc that took up most of one wall. The room’s garish gold-accented purple color scheme was courtesy of a previous medic with absolute zero design sense. Jess-the-medic arranged Kerzanna’s arms and legs so the unit could treat her more easily, glad it was long enough to fit her comfortably. When the town’s old autodoc had finally come due for replacement, the farming families in a fifty-kilometer radius had contributed extra funds to get a modern, upgraded model. It was their best defense against Pitt’s incompetence. Jess quickly entered the patient history he remembered and his suspicion about the Stage 3 of waster’s, then sealed the lid and started the treatment cycle.
Jess-the-medic turned to look at Castro, expecting questions. His head was pounding, but he couldn’t leave until Castro did. Jess-the-man wouldn’t know what to say.
Castro entered a sequence on her right wrist gauntlet as she subvocalized into the earwire she wore along her jawline, then gave Jess a hard, resentful look. “How much longer?”
Jess-the-bomber stabbed his way into Jess’s brain. Don’t give her a professional opinion! Jess covered the sharp pain by turning to look at the autodoc’s readout. “It says nine minutes for the initial report. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.”
Castro bit her lip and rocked back on her heels, her eyes darting between the autodoc, him, and the front door.
“Someone should be here when she wakes up,” said Jess-the-bomber, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Any news on Pitt?”
His words had the desired effect on Castro. “No. I need to be… I can’t stay.”
Jess-the-bomber shrugged, as if he didn’t care one way or the other. “I can, at least until you get another medevac here.” He tilted his head toward the sealed autodoc. “She’s not going anywhere.”
Castro frowned, clearly torn. At last, she turned and took a step toward the door, then turned back and glared at him. “If anything is missing, I’ll be targeting you first.” Her attitude said she’d be targeting him, regardless, if only because he’d called out Pitt’s negligence.
Jess-the-bomber shrugged again. “You know where the farm is.” The clinic had nothing of interest to him.
Castro hesitated a moment longer, then strode out the door.
Jess-the-man made Jess-the-bomber and Jess-the-medic retreat, leaving him with a splitting headache and stiff shoulders, a room full of painkillers that didn’t work for him, and a deluge of powerful memories all centered around the woman in the autodoc. A wave of icy nausea chilled him.
He staggered outside into the sunlight and leaned against the side of the clinic, dragging in deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air.
~ ~ ~