Dazzling space battles, intergalactic politics, and rogue AI collide in Velocity Weapon, the first book in this epic space opera by award-winning author Megan O’Keefe.
CHAPTER 1: THE AFTERMATH OF THE BATTLE OF DRALEE
The first thing Sanda did after being resuscitated was vomit all over herself. The second thing she did was to vomit all over again. Her body shook, trembling with the remembered deceleration of her gunship breaking apart around her, stomach roiling as the preservation foam had encased her, shoved itself down her throat and nose and any other ready orifice. Her teeth jarred together, her fingers fumbled with temporary palsy against the foam stuck to her face.
Dios, she hoped the shaking was temporary. They told you this kind of thing happened in training, that the trembling would subside and the “explosive evacuation” cease. But it was a whole hell of a lot different to be shaking yourself senseless while emptying every drop of liquid from your body than to be looking at a cartoonish diagram with friendly letters claiming Mild Gastrointestinal Discomfort.
It wasn’t foam covering her. She scrubbed, mind numb from coldsleep, struggling to figure out what encased her. It was slimy and goopy and—oh no. Sanda cracked a hesitant eyelid and peeked at her fingers. Thick, clear jelly with a slight bluish tinge coated her hands. The stuff was cold, making her trembling worse, and with a sinking gut she realized what it was. She’d joked about the stuff, in training with her fellow gunshippers. Snail snot. Gelatinous splooge. But its real name was MedAssist Incubatory NutriBath, and you only got dunked in it if you needed intensive care with a capital I.
“Fuck,” she tried to say, but her throat rasped on unfamiliar air. How long had she been in here? Sanda opened both eyes, ignoring the cold gel running into them. She lay in a white enameled cocoon, the lid removed to reveal a matching white ceiling inset with true-white bulbs. The brightness made her blink.
The NutriBath was draining, and now that her chest was exposed to air, the shaking redoubled. Gritting her teeth against the spasms, she felt around the cocoon, searching for a handhold.
“Hey, medis,” she called, then hacked up a lump of gel. “Got a live one in here!”
No response. Assholes were probably waiting to see if she could get out under her own power. Could she? She didn’t remember being injured in the battle. But the medis didn’t stick you in a bath for a laugh. She gave up her search for handholds and fumbled trembling hands over her body, seeking scars. The baths were good, but they wouldn’t have left a gunnery sergeant like her in the tub long enough to fix cosmetic damage. The gunk was only slightly less expensive than training a new gunner.
Her face felt whole, chest and shoulders smaller than she remembered but otherwise unharmed. She tried to crane her neck to see down her body, but the unused muscles screamed in protest.
“Can I get some help over here?” she called out, voice firmer now she’d cleared it of the gel. Still no answer. Sucking down a few sharp breaths to steel herself against the ache, she groaned and lifted her torso up on her elbows until she sat straight, legs splayed out before her.
Most of her legs, anyway.
Sanda stared, trying to make her coldsleep-dragging brain catch up with what she saw. Her left leg was whole, if covered in disturbing wrinkles, but her right . . . That ended just above the place where her knee should have been. Tentatively, she reached down, brushed her shaking fingers over the thick lump of flesh at the end of her leg.
She remembered. A coil fired by an Icarion railgun had smashed through the pilot’s deck, slamming a nav panel straight into her legs. The evac pod chair she’d been strapped into had immediately deployed preserving foam—encasing her, and her smashed leg, for Ada Prime scoopers to pluck out of space after the chaos of the Battle of Dralee faded. She picked at her puckered skin, stunned. Remembered pain vibrated through her body and she clenched her jaw. Some of that cold she’d felt upon awakening must have been leftover shock from the injury, her body frozen in a moment of panic.
Any second now, she expected the pain of the incident to mount, to catch up with her and punish her for putting it off so long. It didn’t. The NutriBath had done a better job than she’d thought possible. Only mild tremors shook her.
“Hey,” she said, no longer caring that her voice cracked. She gripped either side of her open cocoon. “Can I get some fucking help?”
Silence answered. Choking down a stream of expletives that would have gotten her court-martialed, Sanda scraped some of the gunk on her hands off on the edges of the cocoon’s walls and adjusted her grip. Screaming with the effort, she heaved herself to standing within the bath, balancing precariously on her single leg, arms trembling under her weight.
The medibay was empty.
“Seriously?” she asked the empty room.
The rest of the medibay was just as stark white as her cocoon and the ceiling, its walls pocked with panels blinking all sorts of readouts she didn’t understand the half of. Everything in the bay was stowed, the drawers latched shut, the gurneys folded down and strapped to the walls. It looked ready for storage, except for her cocoon sitting in the center of the room, dripping NutriBath and vomit all over the floor.
“Naked wet girl in here!” she yelled at the top of her sore voice. Echoes bounced around her, but no one answered. “For fuck’s sake.”
Not willing to spend god-knew-how-long marinating in a stew of her own body’s waste, Sanda clenched her jaw and attempted to swing her leg over the edge of the bath. She tipped over and flopped face-first to the ground instead.
She spat blood and picked up her spinning head. Still no response. Who was running this bucket, anyway? The medibay looked clean enough, but there wasn’t a single Ada Prime logo anywhere. She hadn’t realized she’d miss those stylized dual bodies with their orbital spin lines wrapped around them until this moment.
Calling upon half-remembered training from her boot camp days, Sanda army crawled her way across the floor to a long drawer. By the time she reached it, she was panting hard, but pure anger drove her forward. Whoever had come up with the bright idea to wake her without a medi on standby needed a good, solid slap upside the head. She may have been down to one leg, but Sanda was pretty certain she could make do with two fists.
She yanked the drawer open and hefted herself up high enough to see inside. No crutches, but she found an extending pole for an IV drip. That’d have to do. She levered herself upright and stood a moment, back pressed against the wall, getting her breath. The hard metal of the stand bit into her armpit, but she didn’t care. She was on her feet again. Or foot, at least. Time to go find a medi to chew out.
The caster wheels on the bottom of the pole squeaked as she made her way across the medibay. The door dilated with a satisfying swish, and even the stale recycled air of the empty corridor smelled fresh compared to the nutri-mess she’d been swimming in. She paused and considered going back to find a robe. Ah, to hell with it.
She shuffled out into the hall, picked a likely direction toward the pilot’s deck, and froze. The door swished shut beside her, revealing a logo she knew all too well: a single planet, fiery wings encircling it.
She was on an enemy ship. With one leg.
Sanda ducked back into the medibay and scurried to the panel-spotted wall, silently cursing each squeak of the IV stand’s wheels. She had to find a comms link, and fast.
Gel-covered fingers slipped on the touchscreen as she tried to navigate unfamiliar protocols. Panic constricted her throat, but she forced herself to breathe deep, to keep her cool. She captained a gunship. This was nothing.
Half expecting alarms to blare, she slapped the icon for the ship’s squawk box and hesitated. What in the hell was she supposed to broadcast? They hadn’t exactly covered codes for “help I’m naked and legless on an Icarion bucket” during training. She bit her lip and punched in her own call sign—1947—followed by 7500, the universal sign for a hijacking. If she were lucky, they’d get the hint: 1947 had been hijacked. Made sense, right?
She slapped send.
“Good morning, one-niner-four-seven. I’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” a male voice said from the walls all around her. She jumped and almost lost her balance.
“Who am I addressing?” She forced authority into her voice even though she felt like diving straight back into her cocoon.
“This is AI‑Class Cruiser Bravo-India-Six-One-Mike.”
AI‑Class? A smartship? Sanda suppressed a grin, knowing the ship could see her. Smartships were outside Ada Prime’s tech range, but she’d studied them inside and out during training. While they were brighter than humans across the board, they still had human follies. Could still be lied to. Charmed, even.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Cruiser. My name’s Sanda Greeve.”
“I am called The Light of Berossus,” the voice said.
Of course he was. Damned Icarions never stuck to simple call signs. They always had to posh things up by naming their ships after ancient scientists. She nodded, trying to keep an easy smile on while she glanced sideways at the door. Could the ship’s crew hear her? They hadn’t heard her yelling earlier, but they might notice their ship talking to someone new.
“That’s quite the mouthful for friendly conversation.”
“Bero is an acceptable alternative.”
“You got it, Bero. Say, could you do me a favor? How many souls on board at the present?”
Her grip tightened on the IV stand, and she looked around for any other item she could use as a weapon. This was a smartship. Surely they wouldn’t allow the crew handblasters for fear of poking holes in their pretty ship. All she needed was a bottleneck, a place to hunker down and wait until Ada Prime caught her squawk and figured out what was up.
“One soul on board,” Bero said.
“What? That can’t be right.”
“There is one soul on board.” The ship sounded amused with her exasperation at first listen, but there was something in the ship’s voice that nagged at her. Something . . . tight. Could AI ships even slip like that? It seemed to her that something with that big of a brain would only use the tone it absolutely wanted to.
“In the medibay, yes, but the rest of the ship? How many?”
She licked her lips, heart hammering in her ears. She turned back to the control panel she’d sent the squawk from and pulled up the ship’s nav system. She couldn’t make changes from the bay unless she had override commands, but . . . The whole thing was on autopilot. If she really was the only one on board . . . Maybe she could convince the ship to return her to Ada Prime. Handing a smartship over to her superiors would win her accolades enough to last a lifetime. Could even win her a fresh new leg.
“Bero, bring up a map of the local system, please. Light up any ports in range.”
A pause. “Bero?”
“Are you sure, Sergeant Greeve?”
Unease threaded through her. “Call me Sanda, and yes, light her up for me.”
The icons for the control systems wiped away, replaced with a 3‑D model of the nearby system. She blinked, wondering if she still had goop in her eyes. Couldn’t be right. There they were, a glowing dot in the endless black, the asteroid belt that stood between Ada Prime and Icarion clear as starlight. Judging by the coordinates displayed above the ship’s avatar, she should be able to see Ada Prime. They were near the battlefield of Dralee, and although there was a whole lot of space between the celestial bodies, Dralee was the closest in the system to Ada. That’s why she’d been patrolling it.
“Bero, is your display damaged?”\
She swallowed. Icarion couldn’t have . . . wouldn’t have. They wanted the dwarf planet. Needed access to Ada Prime’s Casimir Gate.
“Bero. Where is Ada Prime in this simulation?” She pinched the screen, zooming out. The system’s star, Cronus, spun off in the distance, brilliant and yellow-white. Icarion had vanished, too.
“Icarion initiated the Fibon Protocol after the Battle of Dralee. The results were larger than expected.”
The display changed, drawing back. Icarion and Ada Prime reappeared, their orbits aligning one of the two times out of the year they passed each other. Somewhere between them, among the asteroid belt, a black wave began, reaching outward, consuming space in all directions. Asteroids vanished. Icarion vanished. Ada Prime vanished.
She dropped her head against the display. Let the goop run down from her hair, the cold glass against her skin scarcely registering. Numbness suffused her. No wonder Bero was empty. He must have been ported outside the destruction. He was a smartship. He wouldn’t have needed human input to figure out what had happened.
“How long?” she asked, mind racing despite the slowness of coldsleep. Shock had grabbed her by the shoulders and shaken her fully awake. Grief she could dwell on later, now she had a problem to work. Maybe there were others, like her, on the edge of the wreckage. Other evac pods drifting through the black. Outposts in the belt.
There’d been ports, hideouts. They’d starve without supplies from either Ada Prime or Icarion, but that’d take a whole lot of time. With a smartship, she could scoop them up. Get them all to one of the other nearby habitable systems before the ship’s drive gave out. And if she were very lucky . . . Hope dared to swell in her chest. Her brother and fathers were resourceful people. Surely her dad Graham would have had some advance warning. That man always had his ear to the ground, his nose deep in rumor networks. If anyone could ride out that attack, it was them.
“It has been two hundred thirty years since the Battle of Dralee.”