The Outback Stars
Author:Sandra McDonald
    PROLOGUE



    D

    espite the protective suit shielding her from flames, Lieu-tenant Jodenny Scott expected to die very soon. The prospect should have alarmed her, but on some dim, exhausted level, she sup-posed it was only fair. So many of her shipmates were already dead or dying, cut down by unexpected violence in the middle of what should have been routine operations. Why should she be any differ-ent? She fought her way through the fire, her damaged lungs labor-ing, her gloved hands groping for the control panel that would put an end to this inferno.



    “Lieutenant,” said the voice over her commset. “Report!”



    She would have been angry—how did they expect her to talk when she could barely even breathe! —but all her energy was focused on her mission. If somehow she survived this disaster, she would direct her fury toward the people who had caused it. The murderers who’d killed her friends and coworkers. Very briefly she thought of the man she loved, and how she had last seen him: burned, bleeding, unable to even hear her final farewell.



    Jodenny’s hands closed on what she hoped was the control panel. She bent forward so that her visor was flush against the metal, but ash and smoke made it impossible to see. In her mind’s eye she imag-ined the panel: the sensors, the indicator lights, the override. Her gloves were too bulky to feel fine details. She pulled one off, ignoring the noisy alarm in her helmet that indicated a suit breach. She touched searing hot metal and recoiled with a cry. But then her fin-gers brushed against the lever she needed, and she wrapped her burn-ing, blistered hand around its handle.



    Here goes everything, she thought, and pulled with all her strength.



    A new alarm started to screech. With violent speed, smoke and debris and corpses and anything that wasn’t lashed down, including Jodenny herself, rushed toward the vacuum outside the ship. She felt herself lifted and carried toward the stars, her lungs collapsing, her suit unable to protect her. But she had done it. She had saved her ship. This time…



    * * * *





    CHAPTER


    ONE





    I

    f Jodenny spent one more day on the planet Kookaburra she might try to kill herself again. Not funny, she told herself, and not true, but morbid humor was her only defense against the prospect of spending the next eight hours stuck in a cubicle, rout-ing invoices that nobody at Fleet gave a damn about. Nearly dying on the Yangtze was one thing, but bureaucratic suffocation prom-ised to be no less fatal. First thing Thursday morning she headed to the Assignments building, but as she drew near she saw that Matt Lu had beaten her to it.



    “Forget it.” Lu shaded his eyes against the sun. “No requisitions came in and the Survey Wing didn’t post any new jobs.”



    “What about the Aral Sea?” Jodenny asked. The freighter, with its complement of five thousand crew and colonists, had been in orbit for a week.



    “Leaves today for the Alcheringa. Trapped for another day in para-dise, that’s us.”



    He gave her a jaunty salute and headed off toward the mess hall, circling a miniature sculpture of Wondjina Spheres as he went. With the cadets on holiday, Alice Training Base’s peaceful air was broken only by the hum of robots cutting the grass on the soccer fields. Be-yond the main gate, a lush eucalyptus forest stretched all the way to the pink sandstone of the MacBride Mountains. Earth must have looked like that once, back before the Debasement, but Jodenny had no time for beautiful landscapes and instead went inside the cool, ink-scented lobby of the building behind her.



    Before Jodenny could ask, the ruddy-faced sergeant on duty said,

    “No, Lieutenant Scott. Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I remember you’d be eter-nally grateful if I called you the moment anything came in. So would Lieutenant Lu, Lieutenant Armstrong, Lieutenant Bell—”



    “Quit your blabbering, sailor.” Chief Pau came to the counter with an armful of files. “Take these down to Processing and shove them up their asses, why don’t you? Goddamned paperwork.”



    As soon as they were alone, Pau leaned over and gave her a con-spiratorial wink. “Thirty minutes ago the Aral Sea sent out a priority call for a supply officer. The requisition is in the commodore’s queue.”



    “Chief, I love you,” Jodenny blurted out. She regretted the inap-propriate words immediately, but Pau only grinned.



    “Better get over there before everyone else smells blood in the wa-ter, Lieutenant.”



    She slipped out the back door, brazenly cut across the VI.P. park-ing lot, and reached the commodore’s suite thirty seconds later. The cold, quiet offices were carpeted in blue and curtained in gold. Mod-els of starships and a massive Team Space pennant provided the proper military decoration. Campos’s aide, busy on a link, held up a hand to forestall her from barging in on the commodore. From behind closed doors, Jodenny could hear an angry voice.



    “Do you really think I’d throw everything away?” a man was say-ing.

    “Fifteen years in, pension on the horizon, and I’m going to take up with an able tech half my age? I’d be an idiot!”



    Campos’s reply was too low for Jodenny to distinguish any words. A moment later the door was wrenched open and a lieutenant com-mander, his face red, stormed past Jodenny and out of the suite. Jo-denny kept her gaze averted. She waited a respectful moment and then knocked on Campos’s door.



    “Good morning, ma’am,” Jodenny said.



    Campos was standing behind her desk, her expression grim.

    “Lieu-tenant Scott. What brings you here?”



    “I came to talk to you about that requisition. On the Aral Sea?”



    “News travels fast.”



    “Consider me packed.”



    “Come in and sit down, Lieutenant.”



    Jodenny resisted the urge to rub her right thigh. Most days she for-got entirely about the new bone there, but every now and then too much exertion would set it throbbing. She sat in a straight-backed chair and focused on a pink gymea lily on Campos’s desk. The com-modore came from authentic Aboriginal ancestry, and she’d deco-rated her office with art, sculpture, and weavings from Old Australia.



    “I don’t think you’re ready to go back into space,” Campos said.



    “I passed my physical—”



    “With a moderate duty recommendation for six months. I don’t think that means jumping into the middle of a deployment.”



    Jodenny lifted her chin. “I’m cleared for reassignment, ma’am, and there’s nothing for me to do here.”



    “There are dozens of other officers waiting for jobs to open up, and five of them are supply types like yourself.”



    “But I’m the best one for the job. You know my record, ma’am.”



    “I do.” Campos gazed at her squarely. “I know what you did on the Yangtze and I know what you did afterward.”



    Jodenny didn’t flinch. The scars on her wrists had been hidden so well by plastic surgery that even she couldn’t see them anymore. “I’ve earned this.”



    “Maybe. But I’ve decided to send Lieutenant Lu instead.”



    “Commodore—”



    “I just pinged him,” Campos said. “He’s going to have to hustle to get on the Aral Sea’s last birdie at noon. Don’t worry, Lieutenant. The Alaska’s due to arrive in a few months. Maybe they’ll have some-thing.”


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