Sneak Preview: Two’s Company, Chapter Three, and (Probable) Presale Dates

Below I will post chapter three of Two’s Company, my scifi space opera novel due to release in mid-December. If you missed the first two chapters, I will add links to those, also.

I am planning (as of now) to do a presale on the book in November, most likely from the middle of the month until it releases in mid-December. The presale will be available on Amazon, for you Kindle readers, and Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble for those with a Nook or other .epbub compatible e-readers. At this point, the presale will only be on the ebooks. They will also be discounted from the regular price, and will go up once the release date arrives in December. I will have firmer dates soon, so keep watching this space!

And, now- Chapter Three:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Two’s Company

by M.A. Kropp

Chapter Three

The next morning, Deuce headed for the food stalls near the worker’s quarters. One thing that hadn’t changed with all the advancements and interplanetary travel over the years was mankind’s fondness for a quick, easy-to-eat meal. She planned on grabbing something and heading for the hangar bay. With luck, Tom would have a job for her. She knew he was busy these days, with a big contract plus a few smaller jobs. There was usually something or someone that needed to be taken from point A to point B, and Deuce was the best at doing just that. They would also need to discuss what to do about the missing video. Deuce was pretty sure she’d not get as close as she had to any BannerCorp site now. If they’d sent a ship after her, they knew who she was.

And then there was the Sheila problem. She thought about that one while she waited for her food order. It was not like JJ to pull a stunt like transferring a whole new Personality into their system without telling her about it. And he seemed almost infatuated with this one, something she’d never heard of in a Personality before. Not that she was an expert on artificial intelligences. Well, it was done now. Maybe Tom could have Harmon look into it, find out where she came from. She took her breakfast wrap and large, sweet coffee from the fellow working the cart, and turned toward the docking area.

As she got closer to the work areas and hangar decks, the normal morning activity was far more intense than usual. People running and shouting orders, pilots streaming out of the ready room toward the hangar deck, and a lot of equipment being moved. Deuce walked more quickly toward the flight deck and stopped a short woman in one of HunterForm’s jumpsuits.

“What’s going on?”

“Breach in the dome at one of the construction sites. We’ve got people in trouble out there!”

The woman hurried off.

“Tom?” Deuce called after her. The woman turned her head without slowing her pace.

“Flight deck.”

Deuce called a thanks which she didn’t think was heard, dumped her breakfast and coffee into the nearest recycle chute, and ran out to the hangar.

She scanned the flight deck from the door, and located Tom near the center, standing at a portable computer console that had been rolled out to him. He was talking to three people at once and pointing to various ships and loads of equipment. Deuce trotted over to where he stood. The three workers ran off to do whatever he’d instructed.

“What’s going on? I heard something about a dome breach?”

Tom ran a hand through his hair. He looked tired, and the lines at the corners of his eyes were deeper than usual. He nodded, and his eyes closed then blinked open again.

“That big contract job,” he explained. “Our biggest so far. New luxe hotel, spa, casino, and conference center. We pulled the domes up last week, tested and retested. Everything was fine. Last night, a breach opened over one end of the complex, in a smaller dome, separate from the main parts, thank the stars. There were a half dozen of our employees in there, finishing up the details. They’re okay, but we had a couple civilians who’d come in to look at the area.” He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face.

“No suits?”

Tom shook his head. Deuce made a face. Idiots. Construction sites were dangerous by nature. They should have known better.

“Civilians.” She was sorry about the lost lives, but it was their own fault. “How bad is the breach?”

“It was a separate dome over what was going to be a garden with small private meeting rooms, so not a disaster to the whole complex. Until you count two dead and the injuries to my people.” His eyes gazed past Deuce, looking at nothing. “This is going to be trouble. The government will be all over this, especially with civilians dead. We’ll be lucky if we stay in business.”

“Hey, I know your operations. You tell everyone that until everything is final, you don’t wander around without suits. No one can expect your guys to handhold every civilian that comes into the dome. It’ll be messy, sure, but you’ll be okay.  Maybe you’ll just walk away with some fines or something.”

“I hope so. Not that I can afford big fines, but better than losing the company. And just pray we don’t lose the contract, if they clear us.”

Tom turned to talk to another man who had a comm tablet in his hand. Tom looked at whatever was on it, nodded, and the man ran over to one of the ships.

“I’m sending a full rescue team out there now, and I’ll go with the evaluation crew tomorrow. I don’t think that rescue is needed now, but just in case. And I want to be there when they figure out what went wrong. Hopefully before the Bureau guys come in.”

“Want me to come along? A small, quick ship like the Wild might come in handy if you need to move people or equipment quickly.”

“Thanks, Deuce. That would be great.” Deuce grinned at him.

“No problem,” she said. “Just let me know when you want to me to be there.”

Tom turned to take a tablet from a worker who came up behind Deuce. He and the other man were going over what was on it as Deuce left.

Deuce spent the rest of the day helping load the first ships heading out to the construction site. They were large transports carrying rescue equipment and personnel, as well as medical supplies to bolster what was already at the onsite med bay. It kept her busy, and that kept her mind occupied. Today was not her favorite day. It never was. Not that it should bother her, and as much as she tried to convince herself it didn’t, her father’s birthday always left her on edge and out of sorts. Having physical work to do helped.

When they were done, she went with a few of the other dock workers to a small restaurant for a quick dinner. She only picked at her food and had to ask people several times to repeat something said to her. After a bit, she excused herself, claiming to be tired. She thought about going to Joe’s for a drink, but he’d make some comment about today, and that was the last thing she needed. She decided to go home. She could just as easily drink there. She pulled out her comm unit and frowned. The record button was blinking. It shut off almost as soon as she touched the screen. When the unit activated, the arrow indicating an outgoing message was just flashing off. She tapped the screen.

“JJ?”

“Need something, boss?”

“What were you recording and sending just now?”

There was a pause. “Nothing. I was in standby, running some maintenance and updates. Why?”

“Something was recording and sending. I saw it.” She tapped the log menu, but there was no recent activity. “I don’t see it here now.”

“I have nothing, as well, Deuce. Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure of anything anymore, JJ. I’m on my way home. We got a job tomorrow.”

“We do?”

“Yeah, you heard about the breach at the construction site?”

“Sure, it’s all over the news channels. Is Tom in trouble?”

“We hope not. Won’t know until the Bureau gets involved. But we’re going to head out there tomorrow and see what we can do to help. Make sure the ship is ready when Tom needs us.”

“Roger that. I’ll be here.” JJ paused. “Are you going to be okay, Deuce?”

“Don’t even go there, JJ,” she snapped and shut the comm off, staring at the blank screen. That mystery message was worrisome. If she didn’t send it, and JJ wasn’t using her comm, who was? Whatever was going on, she didn’t like it one bit. She decided to have a system tech look at it in the morning. For now, she stowed the unit in a pocket and headed for home.

Deuce’s place at HunterForm headquarters was two rooms, plus an adjacent office. The main area was divided by a table height counter that separated the kitchenette from the living room. Deuce rarely used the kitchen for much more than brewing a pot of morning coffee. The cooking space looked almost brand new. A small open cabinet above the coffee maker had a few dishes and glassware. Next to the coffee maker sat a bottle of good Scotch, sold to her by Joe from his best stock. There was a comm tablet dock on the counter. Two stools sat on the living room side. The living room had two chairs separated by a low table. Other than a couple data chips lying on the table, the room was bare. Beyond the living room was a bedroom and bath. A door on one wall led to her office, a room she seldom used. Most of her business was done on the flight deck or Tom’s office.

She sat in one of the chairs in the living room. It was reasonably comfortable, but she couldn’t find a position that suited her. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, sat forward over the table, folded her legs beneath her, and started over. She sat staring at the wall for a long moment. She pulled out her comm unit and checked for messages. There was one from Tom asking if she could fly out to the job site early the next day. She tapped the comm open and connected to the Wild.

“Need something else, boss?”

JJ sounded far more awake than she was. But, then again, JJ really had no need to sleep.

“You see the schedule?”

“Yes,” JJ responded. “I also saw that people died in the accident.”

“Yeah, two civilians were in there with no suits. Tom’s got injured people, too. A few crews were heading out to evaluate the damage today. Tom is heading out tomorrow, and so are we. The Wild is small and fast. I figure we should find plenty to do.”

“I’m sure.”

“Make sure we’re ready to go.”

“We can be, but we do have some routine maintenance that should be done.”

Deuce snorted. “I think this constitutes an emergency and overrides routine maintenance. I’m pretty sure the Wild will hold together a few days longer.”

“I can cancel the maintenance for tomorrow and contact the tower with our flight time for the run out. We’ll be on time and on target. As always. But we will have to take care of that maintenance when we get back.”

“We’ll get it done, I promise. Why all the worry over some non-critical stuff?”

“No reason. I just thought tomorrow might be a good day for it, that’s all. And I was going to help Sheila try to find some work here.”

“If she’s as smart and amazing as you seem to think, I bet she can find her own job. I need you and the Wild for our job. Tomorrow.”

“Okay, fine, it’s not a problem. I just thought…”

Something in the tone of his last words caused Deuce to frown. “Something wrong, JJ?”

It took a moment for the Personality to answer. “No.” There was a pause. “Deuce?”

“Now what, JJ?”

“Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, it’s just… Knowing what today is, and how you get, I thought maybe tomorrow would be a good day to take it easy.”

“And just how do I “get”? It’s just another day. Nothing special. Go to sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow.”

“Okay, Deuce. But- you know, just be careful.”

Deuce snorted her reply and dropped the comm unit back on the table. She stared at the wall again. Finally, she got up and walked out of her quarters.

Deuce walked to the common area. She walked past Joe’s, only hesitating a fraction as she passed. Joe’s wasn’t what she wanted right now. Trouble was, she wasn’t sure what she did want.

She kept walking until she got to the end of the main common area. Out here were the cheap places, full of loud electronic music, people, and noise. That’s what she needed.

She walked along the row of dives and turned into one of the sleazier places on the compound. This place made Joe’s look like the Ritz, the big, fancy resort center back on Earth named after some ancient hotel. Not that Deuce had ever been to the Ritz. The general probably had, though. Some fancy party or some such. Like a birthday. Maybe he was even there tonight, cutting some god-awfully sweet piece of over-priced dessert with one respectful candle on it. Wouldn’t want to embarrass the hero by reminding him of his actual age. Deuce shook off the thoughts and looked around.  The place was dark and smelled of tobacco and liquor. Lights flashed and danced to the beat of some pounding electronic crap music. Waitresses in too much makeup and too little clothing wove their way among tables crowded with customers. Most of them were just as loud and obnoxious sounding as the music. It was busy for as late as it was. Deuce made her way to the bar and flagged down the bartender.

“Scotch. Make it a double.”

The bartender nodded and went to get her drink. He brought it back and set it on the bar in front of her. She picked up the glass, took a sip and grimaced. The whiskey was a sleazy as the place. She had perfectly good whiskey in her quarters, but she wasn’t in the mood to drink anywhere too quiet tonight. The noise interfered with thinking, and that suited Deuce just fine. She picked up her glass and took another sip.

“Hey, gorgeous.”

Lovely. There was one advantage to staying home. Deuce continued to lean against the bar and didn’t turn at the voice. “Not interested.”

“Hey, you haven’t even given me a chance. Come on. Just let me buy you one drink.”

“I said, not interested.” Her voice was low, almost a growl.

The guy standing next to her laughed. He must have spent too much time in space without a helmet. Could he not take a hint?

He could not. He put a hand on her arm and turned her to face him.

“Come on, honey, don’t be like that. I’m a nice guy. Just got paid, too, so I can afford that drink. What do you say?”

Deuce looked up at him. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, and he probably was a nice fellow. She just wasn’t in the mood for either not bad looking or nice. She smiled her sweetest smile.

“That’s better,” he said, his smile getting wider.

Deuce set her glass on the bar top and swung her fist straight into his not bad looking nose. From the blood that started gushing, she guessed that was going to mess up his not bad looking face for a couple days.

“What the…?” Not-Bad-Looking wiped his hand across his nose and stared at the blood. “Tough girl, huh? Well, if that’s the way you want to play.” He swung back at her.

“Hey! Cut that out!”

The bartender reached across the bar and grabbed Not-Bad-Looking by the arm. The guy just shook him off. The bartender started around the end of the bar, but the patrons between him and Not-Bad-Looking formed a semi-circle that blocked his way. He pulled out a comm link and started talking rapidly into it, his free arm gesturing at the ruckus, while he tried to push his way through the ring of spectators surrounding Deuce and Not-Bad-Looking.

Deuce started to walk away, but Not-Bad-Looking grabbed her arm again. She twisted out of his grip, and he pulled his fist back for another punch. Deuce ducked under the swung fist and stepped out to the side. Not-Bad-Looking turned, also. He swung again. She ducked again. Deuce wasn’t tall, but she’d learned to fight from guys trained to do just that. They’d not only taught her basic close combat, but how to use her size to her advantage. She reached up and grabbed the arm that cut the air above her head, pulling down hard on the elbow joint. Not-Bad-Looking howled as the joint cracked. He stared at her, really angry now. He reached out and grabbed at her. She let him get a hold on her arm and start to pull her in. She turned in his grip so her back was to him and drove an elbow full force into his gut. She stepped back as he doubled over with an exhaled whoosh of air and kicked him hard on the side of the head. He collapsed in a heap on the dirty floor. She looked up at the bartender.

“Sorry about that.” She jerked a thumb at the still form on the floor. “Not-Bad-Looking there just got paid. He bought my drink.” She turned and walked out of the bar, passing three uniformed security personnel on her way.

This time, she didn’t hesitate at the entrance to Joe’s. It wasn’t the worst place to end up. The adrenaline was still pushing her, and she was too antsy to go home just yet. She was the only customer in the place now, and even the kitchen was dark when she sat at the bar.

“Heard he was too young to be daddy.” Joe appeared out of nowhere to set a glass of Scotch and an ice pack in front of Deuce. She looked down at the ice pack, and realized her left cheek hurt. She pulled her comm unit out and used the reflective black screen to try and get a look. Hard to tell on the dark surface. Joe ducked under the bar to rummage on a shelf and reappeared with a small hand mirror. She looked up at him.

“I got all sorts of useful stuff back here.”

Deuce took the mirror and looked at her face. There was a nice bruise just beginning to purple around her left eye and cheek. And her ribs hurt. A couple of Not-Bad-Looking’s punches must have gotten lucky.

“That’s gonna be a nice shiner for a few days,” Joe remarked.

Deuce made a face and plastered the ice on the cheek. And winced when she hit it just a bit too hard. She picked up the glass and drained it, then held it out to Joe.

“So, anyway, you know you do this every year,” Joe said, in a light, conversational tone as he refilled her drink. “Today. Pick some poor young guy out to enjoy his evening and beat the crap outta him. On daddy’s birthday. Now, why do you think that is?”

“What are you? My shrink?”

“Part of a good bartender’s job. So, about your daddy issues.”

“You know too much about me.”

“You spend too much time in here drinking.”

“Because you give me too many free drinks.” She took a drink from the newly filled glass in front of her. “And, by the way, I told him before I hit him I wasn’t interested.”

Joe shrugged. “You’re a good-looking girl. Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

“But I can blame him for not listening. I don’t care if I’m the goddess of pulchritude, if I say get lost, you get lost. You don’t press the point.”

“I’ll give you that. Still, you’re going to scare off all the young guys around if you keep this up.”

“Can’t exactly go around beating up frail old men, though, can I?” She held out the empty glass. “And how did you find out already?”

Joe laughed and refilled the glass. “Honey, news travels around a place like this. Wasn’t five minutes but some grunts were in here talking about the little girl that leveled a smackdown on one of their buddies. And then you show up, with that lovely shiner. Put that together with today’s occasion, and, well, I can add two and two.”

The smile faded from his face as he looked down at her. “Just be careful, Deuce. You’re good but one of these days, you’re going to get yourself really hurt. That temper of yours is not your friend. I don’t want to lose my best customer.”

Deuce gave a “Pffft” as he moved to the other end of the bar to take care of a newly arrived customer.

She stared down into the glass of whiskey. Joe was right. She did tend to go off on the first guy she saw on this day. You’d think by now, she’d have gotten over her “daddy issues,” as Joe so delightfully put it. She hadn’t seen or spoken to the general in years. She didn’t owe him anything, nor did she want anything from him. So, what was the deal? She frowned at the whiskey in the glass which was being very uncooperative and not providing any answers. She drained the last of it, and pressed the ice pack harder to her cheek, letting the pain block any more uncomfortable thoughts.

======================================================

Coming in December 2018: Two’s Company, a sci-fi novel in the space opera tradition. Artificial intelligence, corporate plots, spaceships, a heroine with an attitude. More details soon!

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