Nova Dancer – Chapter 3 Excerpt

Starr felt like he was tied up again.  He didn’t know what was holding him, but it was squeezing him to death.  He jerked awake and looked up to see Huppy’s bloated head leaning down over him.

“I brought you breakfast in bed, Starr.”

He thrust a bowl right under Starr’s nose.

“I got you cereal from the cafeteria and Viv said that it would be nice to give you breakfast in bed. Do you like it?”

Starr grabbed the bowl and struggled into a sitting position, his back against the bulkhead.

“It looks good. Thanks, Huppy.”

“You’re my best friend, Starr.  You and Viv.”

“I know.”

After he had finished his breakfast, Starr took his bowl into the galley, where he found Viv sitting at the table, one hand holding a cup of coffee and the other petting the Castorian who was curled up in her lap.

“Watch out,” he said, gruffly.  “You know Castorians are all perverts.”

“Who’s the racist now? I’m just giving her a scratch.”

“Her?”

“That’s right,” said Prinda, looking up.  “I’m a girl. And you have a lot of nerve, calling me a pervert after what I watched you do to that poor girl at The Pink Ubaxa.”

Viv opened her eyes wide and made an o with her mouth in a look of mock surprise.

“You watched huh? See?  Perverts.”

They left the planet with no problem and made the jump to hyperspace early, because of the relative emptiness of the system.  After that, it was four days of boredom.  The first day, Starr and Huppy swept the cargo bays while Viv repaired a leaking pipe in the head, but then they mostly just sat around.  On the second day out, Huppy taught Prinda checkers, which they then spent all afternoon playing.  Starr puttered around, trying to find things he could fix, and did manage to replace a few jumpers on some panels.  The third day, all of his attempts to keep busy failed, though Viv kept herself occupied reading.

“So, we arrive at Thim tomorrow?” asked Prinda, strolling into the galley on their fourth day out.

“That is the plan,” said Starr, without looking up from his coffee.

“Or we might have a misjump and pop out of hyperspace in the middle of a black hole,” said Viv, leaning back and allowing the Castorian to climb into her lap.  “I’ll bet it happens all the time.  Nobody ever hears about it because, you know… black hole.”

“Well, since we might be dead tomorrow, I want to treat your whole crew to a movie.”

“What’s a movie?” asked Viv, scratching her around the ears.

“It’s a video show that is projected on the wall, so that everyone can watch it.”

“How do you know everyone’s going to like it?” asked Starr.

“Oh, everyone will like it,” Prinda assured them.  “We’ll all sit at watch it and eat popcorn.”

“Popcorn?” wondered Viv.

“Yeah, I’ve had it before,” said Starr.  “It’s made of these fluffy little things.  The Rialtans love it.  I hope this little fur ball brought it with her.”

It turned out that Prinda had brought a metallic container of unpopped popcorn and a pocket-sized projector.  Starr and Huppy set up chairs, while Viv and the Castorian placed a blanket on the floor to lie upon while they watched the movie on the wall of cargo bay six.  Even Reed was there, sitting atop the basketball hoop high up on the wall.

The movie turned out to be a Karendian period piece, set three hundred years before, during the Sixth Interstellar War.  The main character was the wife of a soldier in the Karendian Navy.  She was busily engaged in an affair while he was away fighting the Providers.  Then, when he returned wounded, she selflessly devoted herself to his care. Starr didn’t much care for it.

“I think that was wonderful,” said Viv, climbing up from her spot on the blanket.

“I liked when the ships exploded,” said Huppy.

“Everyone does, except for the people in them at the time,” said Starr.

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Nova Dancer – Chapter 2 Excerpt

The city was called Promise, and it did look promising.  It was laid out in a spoke pattern, with public buildings in the center and residential and commercial districts spiraling out.  A system of simple but efficient hover busses ran from the terminal at the starport to the alien quarter.  Starr stepped off the bus into the bright sunshine, beneath a brilliant azure sky, and took a deep breath.  The air was clean here, though dry.  He spotted a local tavern on the corner and walked in.

Whatever he was expecting, this wasn’t a dark, dingy little dive.  Large windows and skylights made it almost as bright inside as out, even without artificial lighting.  There was no bar, but Starr sat down at a table and a robot waiter rolled up to take his order.

“Cannis Ale?” the freighter captain asked.

The robot nodded and rolled away.

Starr looked around. There were about a half a dozen humans that might have been locals and an equal number who obviously weren’t.  A couple of them wore the pale green uniform of the Proxian Scout Service.  There were also a couple of Zibu and a single D’dtitu, which made sense, because both races were enough like humans that they could imbibe human drinks—even wear human clothes if they weren’t too picky about the fit.  He took a deep breath.  It was just nice to sit somewhere in the open air, without being enclosed in a tin can.

The robot returned with a tall glass of cold ale.  Starr handed him his PH card, which he was sure had a couple of hundred credits on it. The robot held it in front of its face to scan it, and then handed it back to the man.  Starr took a sip from his glass.  It was good.  It was real Cannis Ale, something he had hoped for but not really expected.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

The merchant captain looked around, expecting to see a local—a local human.  It wasn’t.  He had to look down to see a furry creature about three feet tall—a Castorian.  It sported a snout full of needle-sharp teeth in front and a broad, flat tail behind.  It was impossible to tell if it was male or female.  Their voices all sounded somewhat like human females when they spoke Intercosmo, and Starr didn’t know enough about Castorians to tell gender by sight.

“No, I’m not.  Are you?”

“No, not really.  Do you mind if I sit down?”

Starr waved toward the seat across from him, which the diminutive being took.

“Are you a crewman on a starship?” it asked.

“I’m the captain of the Nova Dancer, a free trader out of Zarius.”

“I thought you were Zarian, but I wasn’t sure.  You humans come in so many different flavors.”

Starr took a slow drink of his ale.  “So, what can I do for you…”

“My name is Prinda and I’m looking for passage to Gateway.”

“There must be a dozen liners at the starport.  I’m sure half of them are on the way to Gateway.”

“I’m afraid I can’t just walk into the starport.  I’m on the no-fly list.”

“If the authorities on Arminger are after you, why don’t they just arrest you?”

“They aren’t really after me, and in any case, I’ve done nothing wrong.  There are people here who don’t want to see me go to Gateway though, because of my patron.  His name is Pluul.”

“Pluul the Castorian?” mused Starr.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”

“I can pay you five thousand PH credits when I reach your ship and another twenty-five thousand when you deliver me to Pluul.”

“That’s a lot of money for a single passenger.  All right, but I have to make a stop at Thim.  That means we won’t get to Gateway for at least ten or twelve standard days.”

“That’s perfect. Nobody will be looking me going to Thim. Well, nobody would be looking for anyone going to Thim, I think.  I’ve got a room at a place on the edge of town called The Pink Ubaxa.  Come and get me there tomorrow evening at 10AR local time. Come alone.”

With that, the furry little creature stood up and scurried away.

Starr sat for a while sipping his ale, and then left the little pub and took a walk around.  It was a beautiful city.  He looked in a few store windows.  He walked through a little park.  Mostly he just enjoyed being outside.  Finally, he climbed back on a bus and returned to the starport. When he reached the berth, he found Viv and Huppy sitting on folding chairs on the tarmac beneath the Dancer.

“Hey, Boss!” called Viv, when she saw him.  “I’ve got some cargo lined up for Thim, and there’s a lot more to contract, if you would be so good as to tell me where we’re headed after that.”

“Gateway.”

“Sweet.  I can probably get us a full load.  You want me to get on that now?”

“No.  It’ll be there tomorrow.  Why don’t you take a trip into town—get some fresh air.”

“What?  Out in the open?  No, thank you.  Anyway, the air here is just fine.”

“Can I go talk to the people on that ship?” asked Huppy.

Starr looked at where he was pointing.  A freighter just a bit bigger than the Dancer was sitting as its crew loaded cargo. They were flat-faced little creatures with enormous eyes, covered with bluish grey fur, maybe a head taller than Prinda the Castorian.

“Hell, Huppy, I don’t even know what they are. Just because they’re cute and furry doesn’t mean they’re friendly.”

Nova Dancer – Chapter 1 Excerpt

Starr strode down the ramp that led from cargo bay three.  Seven pallets of freight, each a collection of blue plastic containers wrapped in clear plastic sheeting still sat on the gravel-covered ground.  Viv stood beside one of them, clipboard in hand.

“What do we have?” asked Starr.

“Seven pallets of ceramics, as if you could find anything else on this planet.”

The planet, Tan Seven, was completely uninhabited, except for a large and mostly automated facility, owned by an Argaelian corporation, which manufactured high quality ceramic parts for electronic systems.  There was a small domed village, where the few employees of the plant lived, and a starport.  The starport was little more than a flat place covered in gravel, and a prefab freight building where outbound ceramics waited merchant ships bored enough or lost enough to have stopped here.

“Are they going to Armiger?”

“No, they are going to Thim.”  She rubbed her cheek and inadvertently smeared grease across it.  “I got seven hundred a piece PH.”

Starr smiled.  Viv was almost as good at negotiating transport prices as he was himself.  That was the reason that he allowed her to check outbounds.

Viv had been a member of his crew for almost two standard years now.  She was a Zarian, like he was, and to Starr’s mind, way too pretty to be a crewman on a freighter.  She was however, perfectly suited to the job, reveling in the hard work and enjoying the strange sights that went along with it.

“At least we’ll be able to buy food,” said Starr.  “Let’s get them onboard.”

“Aye aye, Captain. Huppy’s bringing the grav-loader around.”

“Good.” Starr turned around and tramped back up the ramp to the ship.

As he made his way through the cargo hold and up the main corridor toward the forward section of the ship, Starr kept his eyes open as he always did for anything amiss.  The Nova Dancer was an old girl, having hauled mail and supplies to a mining colony somewhere and ore back to Zarius for more than twenty years before being sold off at auction.  Starr had purchased her for a bargain price with the money he had stashed away during his own twenty-year duty in the Zarian Interstellar Scout Service. He smiled.  He had been hauling around space just about as long as the Dancer had.

The control section was in the forward third of the ship and consisted of five compartments.  The flight deck was in the front center, while on either side and slightly behind was the automed and crew common area on the left, and the bunkroom and the head on the right.  Then suspended out on either side were the massive stardrive engines, each with a small engineering space reached through a narrow corridor.

Stepping through the door into the flight deck, Starr sat down in the pilot’s seat, the centermost of three spots.  He busied himself plotting a flight plan out of the system.  It was pretty complicated work and took him a while even with the computer.  He was so immersed in his work that when Viv sat down in the seat beside his right shoulder, it startled him.

“Ready,” she said simply.

“Already?”

She nodded.

“Start her up then,” he said as he climbed out of his seat.

“I already made sure everything was ready to go,” said Viv.

“I’m sure you did.” Starr was sure too, but he had never let his ship take off without personally checking for himself.  The engines started to come to life as he examined the systems monitor just behind the flight deck.  By the time he had made a visual check of all the hatches and the cargo bays and made sure that both Huppy and Reed were onboard, the entire ship was humming.  The old girl wanted to get back into the empty.

Starr stepped back into the flight deck and squeezed back into the pilot’s seat.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Viv’s cleavage, but he quickly pulled his eyes back to the front.  He hit the large red button with his clenched fist, releasing the grav-lock.  Then taking hold of the controls, he guided the ship as the engines lifted it from the ground.  Pulling the nose up toward the wispy clouds, he threw the throttle forward with his left hand and felt his body pressed back into his chair.

“I love this part,” said Viv.

“I know.”

There was an advantage to landing on an almost uninhabited planet.  You didn’t need to go through lengthy clearance procedures before landing or taking off.  You just threw it open and flew.  The clouds grew lighter and lighter and then just disappeared, as the sky grew darker and darker and then just became the black of space.  Starr punched in the flight plan and leaned back.

“Have you figured out where we are going after Thim?”  Viv asked.

As Starr swiveled his chair to look at her, their knees touched.  She had managed to increase the size of the grease smear on her cheek to reach her ear and her eyebrow, and now there was a large smear across the top of her right breast.  Starr stared at that perfectly formed though messy breast and its unsoiled twin for just a moment too long and when he looked up into her eyes, he saw a question there.  It was a question he didn’t want to have to answer.

“You have grease on you,” he said, pointing.  “Just there.”

“Damn,” she said, looking down.  “How do I do it?  If there is a spot of grease anywhere on the planet, it’s going to end up on me.”

“You’ve got some on your face too.”

“Well, that figures.”

“Did you have someplace in mind?” Starr asked, now that his indiscretion had been covered up.  “To go after Thim, I mean.”

Viv shrugged.  “Makes no diff to me.”

“We can talk it over at supper.”

“Do you need me now?” she asked.  When he shook his head, she continued.  “I’m going to take a shower.”

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar Challenge – Chapter 10 Excerpt

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar ChallengeFeeling her stomach growl, the girl inventor looked up to see that it was almost 1:00 PM. She decided that rather than visit the cafeteria there in the R&D building, she would go on home. Chef Pierce could fix her something light that wouldn’t spoil her dinner that evening with Toby.

The weather was warm for late March, though it was a bit windier than one might have wished, flying fifty feet above the ground. Zipping down low, just over the tops of the saguaro cactuses and zooming back up and over the high red rocks, made Astrid smile. When a few strands of hair slipped from beneath her helmet and down onto her forehead, she broke into a laugh. She finally had hair long enough to get in the way!

Suddenly the gentle humming, which was a constant companion to anyone flying a hoverbike, went silent. The flying scooter dropped toward the ground like a brick, and Astrid went with it. She tried to steer toward a spot of soft sand, but the vehicle was completely unresponsive. There was no time to do anything else. Pushing herself away from the no longer flying scooter, she landed in the soft desert sand, just as the hoverbike crashed on a slightly firmer patch of gravel.

It was a minute before Astrid could suck any air back into her lungs. Though her entire left side hurt, there were no pains that stood out from the others. Carefully checking her legs and arms, and then feeling over the rest of her, Astrid decided that she hadn’t broken anything, at least not too badly. She sat slowly up and looked at her hoverbike. It was sitting about ten feet away. Though its frame was intact, the hoverdisks on the bottom were smashed to pieces.

Astrid tapped her Maxxim Carpé watch computer with her finger. Then she looked down at the device. The screen was shattered and there was a dent. Retrieving her phone from her pocket, she pressed the speed dial to her father.

“Hi, Astrid.”

“Hi, Dad. I’ve had a bit of a hoverbike crash. I’m alright, but I’m stuck out in the desert.”

Getting to her feet, the girl inventor looked at the landmarks all around her. Ahead of her, she could see the low rise of hills between her and Maxxim City. To both the north and south were large sandstone hills. She was north of the Saguaro Cactus Park and miles northeast of Pearl Lake. If she walked downhill, she would run into one of the many dry riverbeds in the area. They all flowed toward Pearl Lake, and between it and her was the monorail line.

“I think I can walk to the monorail from here,” she said. “It may take me an hour or so.”

“Astrid, stay where you are. How’s you’re phone battery?”

“It’s fine… um, seventy-four percent.”

“Good,” he said. “As long as it’s on, we can track you by GPS. Wait where you are.”

Astrid Maxxim and the Mystery of Dolphin Island – Chapter 3 Excerpt

Astrid brought the Maxxim Starcraft 170 down on the runway at LAX. The 170 was a sharp, if unusual looking aircraft. Designed by Astrid’s father, the 47-foot plane featured a long pointy fuselage with a small canard wing just behind the nose. The main wing was at the back of the aircraft, and carried twin turboprop engines, with the propellers facing rearward. These were known as push-props. The cabin, which could accommodate up to nine passengers, now seated only Penelope and Sabrina Scacchi and their carryon luggage. Astrid was, of course, up front, along co-pilot Don Herron.

Herron stayed with the plane, while the three young women disembarked and made their way into the LAX Private Terminal. Astrid was surprised to see her friend from France waiting just inside. Océane Feuillée was about an inch taller than Astrid and quite thin. Her pleasant face was framed in short black hair, cut in a cute little wedge. She reached out and embraced Astrid in a tight hug.

“Hello, Océane,” said Astrid. “I thought we would have to search for you.”

“You’re Miss Scacchi told me where to come.”

“And here she is. Océane, Sabrina Scacchi. Sabrina, Océane. And you remember my Aunt Penelope.”

“Oui.” The three women shook hands.

“So what is the big secret?” asked Astrid.

“Let’s find a quiet place, and I will tell you all about it.”

“I’ve reserved one of the private rooms here,” said Miss Scacchi. “It’s just down the hall.”

The small private room, enclosed in glass, was quiet and featured comfortable chairs. Astrid sat down next to Océane, and the other two sat across from them.

“So what’s going on?”

“I’ve been working with my friend Adeline Petit. She is a graduate student with my father, and she has been working on a special project for the past three years. So I decided to help. She is studying dolphins and their communication. It would be wonderful if you could create a device to translate their language to ours.”

“Of course that would be great,” said Penelope. “It’s not possible though.”

“Maybe it is,” said Astrid. “I’ve read about some work along that line that an engineer from Google was doing. It’s simply a matter of finding out what sounds are associated with what actions and objects.”

“You make that sound easy,” continued Penelope. “There could be millions of nouns and verbs to sort through.”

“Adeline has thousands of sounds recorded and identified,” said Océane. “She just needs the program and the computer. And it would have to be portable… and waterproof.”

“Is that all?” said Penelope.

“I think it can be done,” said Astrid. “What’s more, I want to do it. Where is she working? Hawaii?”

“No. She’s at a very small, uncharted island, in French Polynesia. It’s fifty miles east of Tahiti. She calls it Mokupuni Nai’a.”

“Dolphin Island,” translated Penelope.

“I didn’t know you spoke Tahitian,” Astrid remarked.

“I do, but that’s actually Hawaiian.”

“All right,” said Astrid. “I want to help, but why the hush hush? Why couldn’t you tell me all of this over the phone?”

“There’s more to it,” replied Océane. “Something is hurting the dolphins. There have been mass strandings every year for at least the last three years.”

“That’s horrible,” said Miss Scacchi.

“It is,” agreed Astrid. “But it happens all around the world. Why the secrecy?”

“We think it may be caused by the United States navy and their sonar. Adeline is afraid they will try to stop us from reporting it.”

“Well, I don’t think we really need to worry about nefarious Navy agents stalking us, but let’s agree to keep this all between us until we can figure out what’s really going on.”

“My flight leaves for Papeete Fa’a’ā in two hours,” said Océane.

“I need a while to get the necessary computer equipment together,” said Astrid. “Then I can fly the Starcraft out and meet you.”

“You can’t Astrid,” said Miss Scacchi. “Your mother said you must have an adult with you and I have to be back in Maxxim City by Monday.”

“I’ll go with Astrid,” said Penelope. “We’ll get you a first class ticket back home.”

“You don’t mind?” Astrid asked her aunt. “This may take weeks.”

“What? You need weeks to create a device to talk to another species? You must be slipping.”

Astrid laughed. “All right then. Let’s get Océane to her flight, get a ticket for Miss Scacchi…”

“Call me Sabrina please, Astrid.”

“Okay, but if my mother get’s mad, it’s your fault. A ticket for Sabrina. Then you and I, Aunt Penny, need to go to the computer store.”

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar Challenge – 99 cents for nook!

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar ChallengeAstrid Maxxim, brilliant teenage inventor returns. Astrid is looking forward to racing against a professional driving team to prove her electric racecar can take on the gas-guzzlers. Then without warning, she wakes up in the hospital with partial amnesia. What could have happened to her? Now everyone treats her like she’s brain-damaged! What if her IQ really did drop to 184? What a nightmare!

You can get Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar Challenge for nook for just 99 cents.

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar Challenge – Chapter 13 Excerpt

Astrid Maxxim and the Electric Racecar ChallengeAstrid spent the rest of the week close to home. Friday night, she had dinner with the Bundersmith family next door. Aunt Gerta baked a Schweinshaxe, a ham leg with a crunchy brown crust. It was moist and delicious on the inside. It was served with brown gravy and knödel, a type of boiled dumpling, that while delicious, Toby’s great-aunt seemed almost apologetic about serving.

“It’s not German, strictly speaking,” said Aunt Gerta, “but the boys like them.”

Both Toby and his father nodded.

“I’ve eaten your wonderful apple pies,” replied Astrid. “They may not be German, but they’re pretty fantastic.”

“Not tonight. We’re having Dampfnudel.”

Astrid turned her head to look at Toby.

“It’s like a cinnamon roll,” he said.

“There’s no cinnamon in it!” called Aunt Gerta over her shoulder, as she popped into the kitchen to bring out the dessert.

There might not have been any cinnamon, but it was quite like a sweet roll, filled with sugar and fruits, and topped with vanilla custard. As was usually the case when dining with the Bundersmiths, the girl inventor was very full when she returned home. Toby walked her to her front step and looked like he was going to bend over and kiss her, when Agent Toulson opened her front door.