She’s got a ramshackle spaceship, a misfit crew, and a big problem with its sexy newest member…
We’re thrilled to share chapters four and five from Constance Fay’s Calamity, a romantic enemies-to-lovers space adventure available now from Bramble. (If you missed the first three chapters, you can find them here!)
Temperance Reed, banished from the wealthy and dangerous Fifteen Families, just wants to keep her crew together after their feckless captain ran off with the intern. But she’s drowning in debt and revolutionary new engine technology is about to make her beloved ship obsolete.
Enter Arcadio Escajeda. Second child of the terrifying Escajeda Family, he’s the thorn in Temper’s side as they’re sent off on a scouting mission on the backwater desert planet of Herschel 2. They throw sparks every time they meet but Temper’s suspicions of his ulterior motives only serve to fuel the flames between them.
Despite volcanic eruptions, secret cultists, and deadly galactic fighters, the greatest threat on this mission may be to Temper’s heart.
Herschel Two isn’t special. From space, it’s about as unspecial as a habitable planet can be. Warm reddish soil on a scale from tawny to sienna, threaded with chalky gray-white. Thin high clouds that look more like the glass of my view ports is dirty than planetary atmospheric activity. The surface is pockmarked with craters but also pimpled with volcanos. It’s close to a weak reddish sun, but the surface is too rugged for traditional homesteaders to be on-planet. There are only a handful of places flat enough to put the Quest down safely. The one that Escajeda has insisted we focus on, in the supposedly phydium-rich region of the planet, is in the northern hemisphere, alongside the largest planetary volcano I’ve ever seen.
Scans identify it as a shield volcano. Less dramatic than some of the other kinds, but still dangerous if you happen to be nearby. It’s reading as mostly dormant, although if you delve a bit deeper, there’s activity. I plug in the coordinates, and we wait in the helm to watch the landing.
Micah whistles low and long next to me, arms crossed over his chest. “Never treated lava burns. This will be fun.”
“We get burned by lava from that thing, you’ll just be straining our ashes off the top,” I point out.
“It’s an impressive structure.” Caro’s thumbs are hooked in her pockets, and she carries a large pack on her back that contains a geo-mapping drone and will fold out to a platform, allowing the drone to dock and charge while we’re on the move.
The ship vibrates as we enter the atmosphere. That grinding sound that’s been coming and going returns and I’m worried that we’ll fall apart, but we make it through the zone where we’re a fireball on the outside without becoming a fireball on the inside, so it’s a problem for tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow I can afford the fix.
The current rock in my boot saunters into the helm to join the rest of the crew. He’s wearing more firepower than I’ve ever seen on one man, and he looks like he could single-handedly take on an army. I’m not ashamed to say that it works for me.
I have yet to find a physical aspect of him that doesn’t work for me. It’s just all the personality ones. Not when he’s dealing with anyone else—he’s actually nice to everyone else. He saves his dismissive condescension for me, in particular.
“You better watch out or a metal mite will make a snack out of you.” I can’t resist saying it. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t talk to him any more than I have to. He isn’t my friend. He isn’t even my crew, not really.
Itzel snickers softly behind me.
Caro whispers, “Sounds like you’re thinking of making a snack out of him.”
Her comment was too quiet for him to hear, surely. I give her the look. The “we’re supposed to be friends, how could you verbally betray me like that?” look. She grins back, completely unabashed.
Sure, I’d like to take a bite out of him. I’m not blind. Now that I’ve seen him handle a crisis with a steady calm, now that I’ve watched him play Naijong tower cards with Micah and lose with grace, now that I’ve watched him reach things from high places for Itzel, well, I’m slightly more tempted to follow through on that desire.
The thing that stops me is when I imagine the look on his face if I tried. He might be slumming it on my ship, but it’s for a priceless resource that could revolutionize space travel. It’s not for a tryst. And he’s made it clear that he thinks I’m a Family traitor. Which, technically I am. My ego’s already taken a few blows; I can’t handle a rejection right now. Or, even worse, a grudging acceptance that we both regret later.
Oh, and I’ve recently sworn off men. I suppose that stops me, too.
A weight is lifting from his shoulders the farther we go from the way station. He had three whole facial expressions the other day and he’s really relaxed into the crew. He even provided a supply of the spicy protein paste that’s nearly impossible to find on the market. Supply chain often breaks down on the way out to Landsdown. It’s about the last place that any distributor wants to go.
Any distributor who isn’t working for an Escajeda, that is. Sometimes I feel like I’ve missed something in my assessment of him. I want to get under his skin to see what’s really there, except what’s really there is probably more of that unbridled Family pomposity that took over my brother when he came of age. Any kindness I’ve seen is probably merely manipulation.
“I’m prepared for any eventuality. Unlike you, I don’t fly by the seat of my pants.”
It’s things like that. He delivers the dig with a completely impassive face like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
“Thinking about the seat of my pants, Escajeda?” I say it before I properly think about it.
“Do you want me to be, Reed?” The corner of his mouth twitches up in a sharp smile.
Caro’s snickering has become all-out laughter. We’re going to have to talk about loyalty one of these days. Is it not too much to ask for one’s crew to have her back when some outsider implies that she wants to ride him like a hover bike?
If Ven was looking for a pretty moron who was utterly dependent on him, I have no doubt that an Escajeda possesses as many if not more complex issues with his own masculinity.
“Never going to happen, Escajeda,” I say, as though I’m some great prize.
I am to myself.
The ground’s coming up fast now, cracked red soil under a butterscotch sky. It seems too fast, but landings are always like this. The planet rushes at you until you feel like you’re about to throw up, and then suddenly, you’re briefly weightless again as the ship delicately touches the rock. The landing struts deploy with a solid thunk and we’re secure.
After running our usual tests, we open the hatch and venture out. The planet’s atmospheric composition has been stored in the public stream for probably about a century, but I trust our instruments more. The atmosphere is breathable. These days, even the average person has Pierce Family algae injected directly into their blood. The algae produce oxygen when they photosynthesize. It opened up habitation options to even planets with technically inhospitable atmospheres. The long slope of the volcano rises behind me, dominating the sky. Some of those thin clouds snag on it as they pass.
Directly before us, a canyon drops off; striations of umber, gold, and bloody-red line its broken sides. Something pale and fibrous grows around the edge, trailing down its walls. Maybe a plant. Could be a fungus, although they usually prefer more water than this place has. Hopefully not psychedelic because my heart can’t take another close call with Itzel. Two planets ago she sampled some sort of leaf and spent the entire mission stoned after one lick of its striated surface. She’s already got a specimen jar out and is taking a clipping. I gingerly walk over, placing my boots carefully. A planet this dry and this broken, the soil’s going to be uncertain.
There’s a metaphor there applying to me that I don’t want to approach head-on.
Escajeda has a blaster out and ready. A whir from behind me signals the drone lifting from Caro’s launchpad. It’ll map the canyons in more detail than we can get from a satellite. It will also land in open territory and take core samples. Phydium may or may not be present. If it’s deep enough, the drone won’t reach it, but a subterranean probe can be more effective than a surface or depth scan. Either way, we’ll still want to crosshatch the territory from above before we explore below.
Hover bikes would make this much easier, but they’re nightmares in sandy environments so, yet again, we’re on foot. Besides, the Escajeda wanted us to keep our presence quiet if anyone’s scanning the planet, and the energy signatures would attract attention.
“This is going to be hard to travel by foot.” Micah peers over the edge. This is the point where Ven would normally lay out his plan for the territory, shooting blind as usual. I swallow a throat full of emotion. He has plenty of faults, but he’ll always be the man who took a chance on a banished rich girl and who taught me everything I know about scouting.
Maybe not everything. I’ve learned that shooting blind is a great way to miss the target.
“I don’t want to risk the canyons until we get at least one day’s worth of terrain mapped.” It will show us if there are any paths down or if we have to repel in and climb out. Climbing out will be brutal.
“You don’t intend to physically investigate the area immediately?” Escajeda doesn’t bother to keep the judgment from his tone as he scans the canyon.
“Is there an urgency that I’m unaware of?” I snap one of the plant leaves and smell its blood. “Safety in exploration is the priority. The drone scans offer information about how we can explore at the least risk to the crew. Our lives may not be that important to you, but they are to me.”
“There is always urgency in Family business. When we made this deal, we didn’t assume you’d be sitting back and watching drone scans. We could have done that ourselves.” His jaw is hard and it’s very clear that—if this was his command—he’d be charging heedlessly into the canyons. Maybe security experts have that in common. “The Escajeda Family doesn’t sit around staring at their thumbs when they could be doing something useful.”
“You’re welcome to look at whatever appendage you’d like.” He is just… insufferable. Then again, I’m not used to captaining. Maybe I am being overly cautious. Maybe this is different from the normal practice. When in doubt, bluff harder. “You hired us for our expertise. This is what expertise looks like. You don’t like it, you’re free to venture out on your own.”
“This is how it’s done,” Micah interjects as we walk north along the edge of the canyon. “If you had a battle to fight, would you scope the territory first, or just run out into the field?”
It’s quiet. No Escajeda retort. No rushing water in the canyon or rustling plants. No scuttle or flutter of animals. Our boots crunch in the gravel with a dead hollow sound. I blink at Micah. He’s not the type to say anything he deems extraneous. I can’t decide if it’s heartwarming or insulting that he thought I needed support. Some of both, I suppose.
Caro puffs out a surprised gasp. Immediately, all of us have our weapons drawn and we’re arrayed in a circle with her at the center. I glance over my shoulder because I’m facing a long climb up the volcano and no one’s coming from that way. She’s tapping at the side of her interface glasses and squinting, so I’m pretty sure that whatever startled her, it isn’t here. I don’t holster my weapon. Just in case.
“Cenotes,” she says like that means something to me. Itzel gasps with glee so apparently it does mean something, and Caro isn’t having a stroke.
I glance out of the corner of my eye at Escajeda. He looks stoic as always so I can’t tell if he doesn’t know what it means either. I’m going to have to ask. “What or who is a cenote?”
“Essentially, it’s underground water. Usually in a sinkhole or a cave. They have a very small opening to the sky,” Itzel explains, fingers flying in the air over her datapad as she enters her shorthand notes. “They’re often fascinating ecosystems because they may have developed independently depending on if they formed from rain or groundwater. I’ve always wanted to explore a cenote planet.”
This place doesn’t look like it gets much rain, but anything is possible. This hemisphere is in winter, which could be arid.
“The landscape is littered with them, too deep in the canyons for our sensors to find.” Caro gazes through her glasses. “There must be an extensive underground water system.”
“That’ll fuck with mining,” I say to Escajeda, but he shrugs like it isn’t a concern. Maybe they’ve got safeguards, or maybe they just don’t care about the safety of their miners. The process is never all automated because the hard truth is that people are cheaper than machines.
“Only if there actually is—” Escajeda starts.
“People,” Micah interrupts. “Coming out of the canyon to the north.”
People are the worst. It’s always easier without people. This must be the cult/religious group.
“They’re all wearing matching clothes… creepy.” Itzel peers over my shoulder as I pass her, moving toward the front of the group. I wave Escajeda to take the rear in case this is a distraction.
“We’re all wearing matching clothes.” Caro gestures to our coveralls.
She’s not wrong, but she’s not right either. “Creepy” is a good word to describe these people. Their attire is indeed all matching in color, a sort of warm ivory tone with reddish splotches. That wouldn’t be so remarkable, since this planet doesn’t look like it offers much in the way of natural dyes. It’s not just the color, though. The cuts are antiquated. Like, before-any-of-them-were-born antiquated. Their pants are loose, with a sort of placket over the front at a diagonal. Shirts are high-necked and long-sleeved. There’s no tailoring or structure besides those collars. They don’t look comfortable. They also share a hairstyle, an almost crest-like snarl that’s as maintained as a topiary.
When Micah tries to step away, my hand on his arm arrests the movement. There’s one more thing they all share: banishment tattoos. It’s better that two of their own kind greet them. Micah’s tattoo is a little older than mine, not quite as bright, but it’s just as prominent. No one else on the crew is banished.
I do take the lead, though. Micah’s not known for his diplomacy, and he doesn’t possess a translator chip. As they approach, I take in more detail. They appear unarmed, although I can’t quite imagine such a thing. A mixture of races, ages, and genders, although the women are walking in the rear—which could be how it worked out today but could also be a cultural trait that I don’t love. They shouldn’t have that feeling of sameness about them, but they do. I realize they’re walking in step, like someone far away is conducting their movements. A chill skitters up my spine.
The one in front takes in our marks. Takes in the lack of marks on anyone else. He has the biggest hair and the biggest belly, which I take to mean that he’s the leader. The hat principle can apply to hair. He folds his hands in a way that should look peaceful but on him seems a touch aggressive. “Greetings and welcome to the Valley of the Children.”
Nope. I don’t like that at all. He’s speaking in Stupniketi, which is the primary language of the Chumak Family territory, but something about his cadence is off. Isolated groups do form linguistic quirks, but this feels more pretentious than that. Like he’s trying to give weight to his words or like he’s reading a text out loud. I haven’t spent much time with the Chumaks—they’re a minor Family in the Ten—but my translator chip recognizes the language. Recognizes it well enough to be confused with his delivery.
Also, generally speaking, any time a group of adults calls themselves “the Children,” you’ve got trouble at hand.
“Thank you for your generous welcome,” I reply in Standard. “To whom do I have the honor of speaking?”
A shorter member of the group scurries forward to stand just behind the leader. His hair isn’t nearly as impressive. He uses Standard to respond. “You have the honor of addressing the most supreme Rashahan.”
I don’t know if that’s a name or a title. I don’t suppose I need to know except to confirm what Itzel said. They’re creepy. A tally in the direction of cult versus religious order. Also, apparently the supreme Rashahan must be announced. I introduce myself but not the rest of the crew. Names have value and I don’t want them to be used against us.
“We would welcome you and your woman’s presence in our flock,” the supreme Rashahan addresses Micah. Supreme pain in my ass, more like. “However, we cannot take the unmarked.”
“She’s not my woman,” Micah protests.
“If anything, you’re her man,” Itzel helpfully points out, and then grins a gamine smile. “We’re all of us her people.”
“Not him.” Caro shoots a look in Escajeda’s direction. Itzel and Micah may have warmed up to him, but Caro—when she isn’t teasing me—still regards him with the same vaguely hostile suspicion she reserves for everyone who isn’t crew.
“We aren’t here for your flock.” I ignore the helpful interjections of my crew and demonstrate that prime diplomacy that makes me the last scout anyone wants to hire. “Herschel Two is unclaimed and we’re here to scout the territory.”
That sets off a little flutter among said flock.
“Have no fear.” My personal Stupniketi isn’t the best and I can’t quite capture the cadence he’s using, which means I sound stilted when I address them in what I assume is their own tongue. In this moment, it’s more important that the flock understand what I’m saying than that my crew does. It won’t let him twist my words to them, later. “There is more than enough planet to go around and, odds are, our client won’t be acquiring it anyway. We can all agree that the resources here don’t seem to be the sort to attract a Family.”
Something flashes through Rashahan’s eyes too quickly for me to place it, but I can guess what it is. We’re standing conveniently close to a canyon. He’s gauging whether this whole little problem goes away if we disappear. “If something unfortunate were to happen to us, of course, they’d just send another crew. One with more weapons and less-pleasant dispositions.”
“In that case, let me extend my hospitality and hope that you do not need it for long.” Rashahan’s tone has turned cool. No longer trying to impress new converts but playing the proud host to impress the old converts standing behind him. One of them has moved his hands behind his waist. I’d bet credits that he has a weapon stashed there.
I allow a smile that says we’re all on the same team here. We aren’t remotely on the same team, but he seems the sort to respond better to a woman armed with softness than with a blaster. “It is greatly appreciated, Rashahan. My ship isn’t a trade vessel, but we do have some items for trade if you or your flock has any need of hygienic and medical necessities. We also have a medic who can see to the needs of your… flock.”
That part is the truth. It’s convenient to carry trade items because traders are treated better than invaders. A flutter of excitement comes from the flock at the talk of trade. It’s hard for the banished to keep stocked with medical basics and the small cosmetic luxuries. My research indicated that two cultists appear on Landsdown every few months to stock up on basic supplies and send probes into the streams for new members. Landsdown has some services, but not many, so I’m sure there are basic luxuries they lack. Rashahan sends them a quelling glare and then returns his gaze to me. “The Children provide for themselves. Kaiaiesto provides for the Children.”
Well. Nothing I can say to that. Lots I can think to it. The first is wondering who or what the fuck Kaiaiesto is. “Is there anything we should be careful of? Regions prone to rockslides, venomous fauna, or toxic flora?”
He takes a while to respond. Probably deciding how much of his time to spend with this. Following that thought to the next. If we get injured, someone will come looking for us. That’s even more people disrupting his flock. When he answers, it’s like he’s mad at me for putting him in the position to help us. “There is a large subterranean river beneath the canyon. At places, the ground is fragile, like thin ice over a lake.”
It’s good information and makes sense with what we know about the underground pools. We bid our farewells to the Children and pass each other carefully.
“They’re going to be trouble,” Escajeda states the obvious. Then again, he kept his mouth shut during our interaction with the Children so he’s doing better than I expected.
“No shit.” Micah says it for me, deep voice indignant. “He’s keeping his people without medical supplies.”
“Maybe they’ve been recently resupplied, and they don’t need anything. Not everyone has a diabolical backstory.” Itzel frowns at us in disappointment. She’s often disappointed in our worldview.
“Itzel.” I float around the edge of our group, blaster still out and watching both the volcano and the canyon for movement. “We live in the same universe, right? The only one of us who doesn’t have a diabolical backstory is Caro. I imagine the creepy cult has some shadowy spots in their past. Or present.”
“What makes you think I have a diabolical backstory?” Escajeda asks. He’s still bringing up the rear, right where I put him. He’s a solid anchor. Which is not helping to create the distance that I need from him. Why is competence such a turn-on?
“You’re an Escajeda. You must have a diabolical backstory. I don’t think there is a person born to the Five who doesn’t have skeletons of one kind or another.”
“The Escajeda Family is a fine, upstanding member of the Five. Everything we do is in the public eye. We have no secrets.” Escajeda delivers that fantastic pile of bullshit with a straight face.
I’m ramping up to an explosion when I catch the quirk of his lips. A joke.
Maybe—just maybe—an Escajeda who can laugh at himself is worth investigating further. That twist of his mouth reveals a dimple so deep I want to run my finger over it. He catches me staring and makes a deep noise in his chest. His eyes turn speculative and then immediately frost over with his habitual disdain.
I look away. He’s from a Family. A Family. Which means: so far beyond my social status that it would be like flirting with a star. I shouldn’t need to remind myself.
“Of course, compared to the pure and pristine Reeds, who could measure up?” The lip quirk is gone but the glance he sends me is barbed.
“Don’t ever refer to my brother’s Family that way,” I growl, lust momentarily suppressed in a drowning mess of regret and loss. What I’m asking doesn’t even make sense. That’s the name of Frederick’s Family. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t remotely reflect what my parents would have wanted.
Which leads down another dangerous path. If I’m so sure that a name does not make a person, why am I certain that Arcadio is a copy of the Escajeda?
I wake up early for my watch. It’s oddly quiet on the ship. Most systems are powered down to save energy, so only the dry rattle of the air circulation softly vibrates the walls of the Quest. It’s almost soothing. If I didn’t have so many worries knocking around my head, I might be able to fall back to sleep.
But I do, so I don’t.
First and foremost is this contract with the Escajeda. Even with the need for secrecy, it doesn’t make sense that he’d hire us instead of handling it in-house. I can’t imagine another project more important for his personal scouting team to be working on than the most critical resource in charted territory. On the opposite but equally weird side, even with the importance of phydium, I don’t understand why he’d send someone as important as a son to oversee his investment when I’m sure he has scads of toadies who’d love the opportunity to ingratiate themselves. And why give us the extra pay? It’s the best deal I’ve ever received. There’s got to be a hook but I can’t see it. Which means it’s going to bite me in the ass when I least expect it.
Not that I had another option besides broken knees and a repossessed spaceship. So, even if a hook is coming, my knees are intact, my ship is not only still in my possession but has a functioning humidifier, and we have something to do. Finding natural stores of phydium is the sort of thing that gives a crew a reputation, and work begets more work.
This is an opportunity, no matter the Escajeda’s motivations.
I flip on the small light on the desk by my bunk and the room washes into view. My eyes are gritty, either because of the dry sandy air or the early hour. The humidifier keeps it habitable, not necessarily comfortable. I could only afford to buy Caro a temporary patch on the regulator, which buys us time on the old tech. None of us wants to push it too hard. The canteen on the desk still has a dribble of water left in it and I knock it back to clear my throat. No going back to sleep now. I might as well get up and take over watch. Let Escajeda get some extra rest.
I won’t imagine what he looks like while asleep, those shields down. Vulnerable. That full lower lip released of its constant tension. Probably warm as a furnace.
I pull on my boots, turn off the light, and head toward the helm, where we camp out for watch. Mumbling comes from Caro and Itzel’s door. Caro. Itzel punctuates the mumbles with a snuffling snore. I had to share a room with Caro on one scouting mission. Never again.
The red nighttime lights illuminate the latest makeshift mural on the walls. They didn’t start as murals. Despite having any number of tech devices upon which she can take notes, Caro has a habit of sketching diagrams, equations, or process flows on whatever piece of bulkhead is available when inspiration strikes. Sometimes she doesn’t use erasable markers because she’s so caught in the moment. Many of our walls have been permanently stained. She claims that it helps her to see things written large.
Over time, Itzel has added embellishments. Delicately sketched vines twist around the hastily drawn schematic of an engine that I pass. In the gym, a cybernetic eye—I’m not even sure why Caro drew that one—has been turned into a fish with long trailing fins. In the mess, some sort of monstrous cephalopod reaches tentacles from an air duct to wrap around an equation for slingshot trajectory.
A couple cycles ago, Micah went through them all and carefully changed the equations to be slightly wrong. We all bet how long it would take Caro to notice the old art had been altered. We barely had time to make the bets before she came in, waving one of her charcoal markers, yelling about how some priap had destroyed all her notes. She made Micah scrape away the offending edits with a razor blade until everything was correct again. Except small patches of bulkhead show razor marks and scuffs.
Each little scrape tells a story. Spaceship walls can be stark and cold. The Quest isn’t cold, despite the cheap blue-tinged lighting. It reflects the personality of those who call it home. Something an Escajeda probably couldn’t ever appreciate. The door to the helm is open, but when I enter the room, I find it empty. The seat is cold. Escajeda isn’t on watch.
I can’t believe I was just thinking tender thoughts about his lip. I spin to stomp out of the helm when he appears in the doorway, and I almost run into him. He doesn’t step back, so neither do I. It’s my ship. I’m not ceding ground. Apparently, he thinks that it’s his money, so he isn’t ceding ground, either. That means I get a fantastic close-up view of his sternum and he gets to admire the snarls at the top of my head. His coveralls are still perfectly black. Makes me want to spill something on him.
“Where were you?” There, that’s polite of me. It’s better than yelling at him for not being where he’s supposed to be. I’ve never in my life been so physically attracted to someone who drives me so bugfuck insane.
“Getting stir-crazy. I went out and did a lap of the ship. Checked for footprints. Is that against the rules? Should I have knocked on your bunk and asked permission?” He stretches in the doorway, reaching up with one arm to clasp the top of the frame. It’s an irritating way for him to invade my space even more without seeming like he’s doing anything.
Or could be I’m reading too much into stiff muscles. My bunks are small and he’s a big guy. He probably doesn’t fit. Maybe I should have given him my old bunk. It’s unfair to make him share with Micah while there’s a whole unused bunk.
But I like having Micah keep an eye on him. Clearly, when no one does, he wanders off.
“Have you ever been on a ship that you didn’t own?” I step forward a fraction of an inch because that’s about as far as I can step forward without colliding with him. A collision feels like it would be disastrous. I already feel the heat emanating from his body and only supreme self-control keeps me from closing the distance. “You might be trained at actual security, but you certainly aren’t trained at being a security officer who reports to a captain. If you were, you’d know how to follow orders or how to come to me with security recommendations instead of demanding changes from our medic or our engineer.”
He starts to argue, and I raise my voice and speak over him. “And you’d know how to do all of that without getting resentful. If your father wanted you to scout a planet, he wouldn’t have needed to hire me and my crew.”
“It’s amazing how effective stomping your foot and demanding to be in charge is. I hear all the best captains do it.” His voice is mild and pleasant. His face is punchable. His chin is still shaped like a butt. Dark circles shadow his eyes and lines of tension bracket his mouth. Whatever he was doing, it wasn’t taking a nap.
It concerns me that he looks so bad, because he’s likely been trained from birth to hide his weaknesses. It concerns me more that he’s caught on to the fact that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing as a captain. It magnifies all my existing defensiveness.
My fingers twitch with my desire to strangle him. “The best captains get rid of bad crew, but your daddy’s money means I’m stuck with you.”
“Is there a second in your life when you don’t think about my father?”
“Is there a second in your life when you don’t?” He can’t pull that on me. I know how it is to be raised in a Family, to want to measure up to a legacy. There was a time when I wanted that more than anything else. Sometimes I still do. I curl my fists tighter to keep myself from jabbing a finger into his chest.
Something crosses his face too quickly for me to decipher it. Might be an emotion. Might be gas. Either way, he doesn’t say anything, so I press my advantage. “Your father is the client. All evidence to the contrary, we’re good at what we do. Maybe you are, too—it’s rare for a Family to have an incompetent in their ranks. I’m trying to work with you, as well as I’m able.”
“Constant insults are what ‘trying to work with me’ looks like? I don’t know how I ever thought you’d be able to work with a team. You couldn’t even work with your own Family. I know all about you, Temperance Reed, and you’re a calamity waiting to happen. It’s my job to mitigate the damage.” He leans down so we’re eye to eye. I glare into his near-black gaze, and he glares back into my own swampy green. There are little flecks of gold in that black. I wonder if they were detailed enough to engineer those in or if he just got lucky.
Clearly, if he really knows all about me, he’d know that I’m a calamity already happening.
“You don’t know a thing about my Family, and I said, ‘as well as I’m able.’ I’m surprised you even heard any insults—I thought the chorus of your own ego was so loud you couldn’t hear my voice. That’s certainly how it seems considering I said, ‘keep watch in the helm so if anyone from that creepy cult comes after us you can shoot them full of holes,’ and what you heard was, ‘take a walk and enjoy the night air.’ If you’ve never scouted a planet before, let me fill you in. We get ambushed all the time, which is why we have a watch in the first place. It’s not because I’m mean and don’t want you to get your precious sleep.”
His jaw clenches and I brace myself for another jibe, but it doesn’t come. It’s not because he has nothing to say. His lips are pressed together so hard it’s like he’s trying to choke on his own words. His breath feathers against my cheek. His perfectly straight nose is… I look again. It isn’t perfectly straight. How marvelous. At some point, Arcadio Escajeda broke his nose—or someone broke it for him—and it didn’t set right. I don’t know why they didn’t fix it properly, but I’m intrigued by the humanity of the imperfection. The hitch in the smooth slope transforms his patrician features into rugged masculinity.
I’m stricken with the sudden perverse impulse to lick his nose. Not because he’s particularly lickable (although he is), but just to see what he’d do. Probably scream and run back to his suite to take a shower. It would be one way to shut him up and get the last word. It would also be insanity. I dart my eyes away, horrified at myself. Perhaps I’m delirious. It’s the only explanation.
“As you can see, I’m up and ready for a fight, so I’ll take over your shift. Tomorrow night, I expect you to stay where you’re put.”
He opens his mouth like he has something to say. Closes it. Makes a noise that I would call a snarl if it came from an animal and stalks away. Good enough for me. I spend the rest of the night sitting in the helm with my boots up on the console and a cup of stim-water. By the time the sun rises behind the volcano and the rest of the crew joins me, my mood has not improved.
No one tried to kill us over the night, so it’s another tally in the “win” column.
The canyons are a claustrophobic mess. It appears that, in the years the river wore away at the rock before it disappeared below the ground, it took a hard turn such that the canyon curves inward in a “C” shape with a precarious overhang shading the land below. No wonder satellites didn’t detect human habitation. We make our way down in a portion of the canyon where the overhang has crumbled and dropped. It creates three sides of deteriorated canyon walls and one mouth that leads into the canyon. The drone mapped the path, but it didn’t highlight how many patches of uncertain ground there are on the winding route from surface to floor of the canyon.
I nearly eat dirt about five times and only the fact that everyone else is stumbling around like drunks on ice makes me feel better about my lack of grace. My old fencing instructor must be spinning in his retirement.
When I finally hit the bottom, narrow and covered with more low off-white plants, I believe I’m past the danger zone. It’s that kind of cocky thinking that leads to a fall, and I do—arms flailing and skidding the last few steps before I wind up on my ass. I sit on the ground for a breath, wondering if I can pretend that I did it on purpose.
The blast that explodes the rock wall where my head would have been if I was standing vindicates my clumsiness. Shards of dirt rain on my hair as I skitter on my side, scraping the hells out of my forearm as I unholster my own blaster and take cover behind a craggy boulder. Another five shots land around me, setting up puffs of dust and drilling holes in the stone. Caro lets out a noise like “eep” and ducks behind another boulder. Itzel joins her in silence, blaster already in hand. I’m glad Itzel is with her because Caro can’t hit the broad side of a spaceship on the shooting range.
There are only two boulders nearby that offer cover, so Micah takes theirs, firing around the edge of the ruddy rock. That leaves three people crammed behind one medium-sized boulder and only me behind the large one. Escajeda looks like he’s considering being shot but eventually slips across the open space at the bottom of the canyon and joins me. Usually, he’s a pain in my ass, but just at this moment, he’s graceful as a predator and all those weapons strapped to him look good.
“We’re penned in here,” Escajeda growls.
No shit. That’s how three sides of canyon wall work. There’s no available retreat the way we came. We’ll be blindingly vulnerable picking our way up the canyon wall. “The only way out is through.”
Which could basically be my non-Family motto.
“Who?” It’s all I manage to get out before another volley of blaster fire hits the canyon walls around us. Escajeda hisses and ducks back, colliding with me. I grab a handful of his armored vest to keep from ricocheting away and out of cover. Something warm trickles over my knuckles and I feel around his arm until he jerks it away. “How bad?”
“A graze. Stop sticking your fingers in it.” He returns fire but we’re shooting blind, trapped behind this rock. “I caught a glimpse. Doesn’t look like the Children. Not wearing the stupid little outfits, at least.”
I drop to the ground, in a push-up position, and peer up the canyon past his shins. A party of seven, wearing militaristic outfits and face shields. There’s another large boulder diagonally across from us and it leads to a fall of rocks that offer shelter and a much better angle. I pop back to my feet before they think to look down.
With a whistle, I snag Micah and Itzel’s attention—Caro has chosen this moment to mess with her datapad—and hold up seven fingers. Micah nods and gestures up the wall, clearly asking if we should retreat. Escajeda shakes his head. It’s the response I was going to give, and he is the head of security, so I let his direction slide.
I make little finger guns at Micah, indicating that he should provide covering fire. Because this is a very complicated code, he stares blankly at me a moment before complying. I sprint from my rock to the one across the canyon. A hot flash slices along the top of my shoulder but I make it to the other side without any real damage. Luckily, my armored vest took some of the hit.
We all wore vests instead of full armor. It’s ridiculous to wear full armor while scouting a planet that is reported as uninhabited except for a weird little cult. You can’t move properly in armor—at least not if you have armor like I do. Plus, it’s a desert planet. Armor is hot and dehydration is real.
Right now, it seems like it might have been a good idea to risk a little dehydration and wear the full armor.
Escajeda curses and a moment later he collides with me behind the rock. If I’d known he was following me, I would have made room, but he makes it well enough by crashing into my already bleeding back and smooshing me against the boulder. We really need to work out a rhythm as a crew.
“Am I, or am I not the head of security?” he growls in my ear, pressing me against the hard stone and gazing around the edge. It feels like he’s smothering me with that hard body. His arms are braced on either side of my head, a wealth of muscle that would be fascinating at any time when I don’t need to handle a literal firefight.
It takes a moment to realize that he believes that he’s protecting me. He probably doesn’t even trust me to hold a blaster correctly. I wriggle away, careful to stay behind the boulder. “Fine, dazzle me with your strategic competence.”
He fires three shots and I hear a thump from the direction of the seven shooters. I take advantage of the moment to scope them out again. The armor has the look of the Nakatomi Family. Families are vain. They like a cohesive look. Nakatomis are known for warfare, so if someone’s wearing top-of-the-line body armor, odds are high that they’re a Nakatomi. If it has a dragon on the collar, like these do, odds are even higher.
When you’re in a firefight in the bottom of a narrow canyon, the Nakatomis are the last Family you want facing you. Which leads to the next question: Why the hells are the Nakatomis on Herschel Two?
Escajeda fires two more shots and ducks down. No shots coming from Micah and Itzel’s rock. Probably a bad angle.
“I’m going to stay here, be a big target, and shoot a lot. You’re going to sneak along that rockfall until you’re behind them.” Escajeda nudges me toward the rockfall with a broad hand on my lower back. It’s a decent plan. I’m feeling vaguely positive about our teamwork until he continues, “Maybe manage not to fall on your ass too many times. I can only be so loud.”
I consider sticking my finger in his blaster wound. It would probably be unprofessional. Might be worth it anyway.
Showing exceptional emotional maturity, I allow him the last word and clamber along the fallen rocks, keeping as low as possible. My own blaster wound stings as I move. I scramble over a particularly large boulder and then hug close to the canyon wall as I worm my way between it and another large pile of fallen rocks. It’s precarious but I’m trying as hard as I can not to fall and prove Escajeda right.
He stays true to his word and makes a lot of noise. He fires into the rock above the Nakatomis, causing debris to rain down, then shoots at them while they’re distracted. Despite myself, I’m impressed with the strategy and the aim. I’m nearly level with them when I run out of rockfall. It’s not ideal. I can’t even blame Escajeda for sending me into a risky position because it really did look like the rockfall stretched farther from our previous angle. Either I take the surprise and fire upon them from here, or I run out and try to get cover behind them before they know what’s going on. I have many skills—some skills—but stealth isn’t one of them.
I wait until they’re busy firing upon Escajeda and distract one with multiple shots to the upper body and drop another with a shot to the knee. Then I’m flattened to a rock that they’re trying to shoot to dust. I frantically look to either side, palms sweating. There’s no obvious escape. My hair sticks to my cheek in sweaty strands and dust catches at my throat. Escajeda has moved halfway up the rockslide while I distracted them and fires from the new location. He only draws the fire of half and the rest keep me pinned down.
I’m running low on clever ideas. We’re down from seven to four but two each is plenty to keep us pinned. Micah and Itzel don’t have a good angle. The last time someone surrendered to a Nakatomi, their empty ship floated to Prism Way Station completely open to space with a warning note spelled out in void-frozen blood in the helm.
The crunching sound of gravel under boots tells me that someone is approaching the boulder that shelters me. I spin to my back and hold my blaster level at the space where they’ll appear to ambush me. Instead, someone grabs the collar of my armor and yanks me backward along the rough ground. I glance up for a split second before I focus back on the rocks. Escajeda. He’s been grazed at least one more time in the arm he was hit in before. He looks mad.
I’m sure I look mad, too. Being shot at does that to a person. At least, I hope I look mad. That’s better than looking scared shitless. “Any more great ideas?”
Escajeda yanks me to my feet, steadying my balance with one arm around my waist as we duck behind a slightly larger boulder. He glances up like he’s thinking and suddenly, from the sky, comes the answer to our prayers. Caro’s drone drops hard on one of the Nakatomis. It spins around them, blades flying, crashing into helmets and armored shoulders, before they start firing on it. We both pop up with our blasters to take advantage of the distraction and they start to withdraw.
Micah’s moved to the boulder where Escajeda and I initially took shelter, and he joins us in firing upon them. As they retreat, the Nakatomi crew continues to fire, and they tear a large hunk of earth from the canyon wall above us.
Escajeda lunges at me, shoving me to the ground and covering me with his body as the huge stone crashes to the center of the canyon floor. The ground ripples like a wave with the impact. His arm curls around my head, blocking my line of vision. He grunts out a breath as debris rains down around us and I try to get a better angle to see if the Nakatomis are going to shoot us where we lie.
“Stop squirming,” he mutters, breath hot against my ear. His voice sounds pained, and suddenly I have a new concern. Maybe he was hurt. While trying to protect me. Which is some special insane Family nobility that has no place in scouting.
I twist up to confirm he’s not crushed, patting my hands around his shoulders and back. Dust and armored fabric and hard planes of muscle. A little blood but nothing to indicate a mortal wound. Escajeda gazes down at me and, for a moment, we just breathe, eyes locked. It’s the most I’ve ever liked him.
Probably because he isn’t talking.
It’s a very brief moment. He rolls off, and a cracking sound comes from the ground under the crashed boulder. The earth beneath us groans. I can feel my eyes go wide as my fingers curl in the dirt. The ground quivers like the ripples on a lake.
“Get back!” I scream at the rest of the crew.
The floor of the canyon gives way, opening in a dark chasm. I reach out to catch Escajeda but it’s too late. He’s already fallen and I’m tumbling behind him.
Excerpted from Calamity, copyright © 2023 by Constance Fay.