Tuesday, August 30, 2022

A snippet from WHERE MAGIC RULES

Where Magic Rules is a fantasy novella about a modern day man who finds himself in a word of dragons and mages. Among the people he meets is a young woman who calls herself Phillip and dresses as a man. The ebook version is only 99¢.
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He held up a hand.  “Don’t get so hostile.  In my world, there are plenty of people who feel attracted to their own gender.  A few of them even feel they were born in the wrong body—the wrong sex.”

Her eyes lit with eagerness.  “Really?”

He nodded.  “Sure.  There are men who want to be women and women who want to be men.”  He waved a hand.  “With the right surgery, they can get it straightened out.  Sometimes they even fall in love, get married, and adopt some kids.”

She blinked.  “You mean that a woman could become a man and then marry another woman?”

“Sure. Why not?”  


She grimaced.  “I have no interest in women.”

The comment left Joe at a loss.  “Well, if you don’t want to truly be a man, then why do insist on acting like one?”

“I don’t know,” she said, despair in her voice.

“Maybe the dragon is right, and it’s the necklace?” Joe said.  “The Great Mage could help you take it off.”

“No!”  Despair had morphed into anger.  “Don’t you dare suggest that to him, or I’ll kill you!”

Joe stared at her in surprise.  “Sheesh!  You’re really something.”

Phillip looked abashed.  “I’m sorry, okay?” she said, enunciating the word carefully.

Joe was surprised into a laugh.  “Hey, that was pretty good.”

She smiled at him, and Joe thought she had never looked more appealing.  After they had cleaned up from their meal he watched the way the flickering firelight made her face look almost delicate.  After a while, he let his mind drift onto other thoughts as he stared into the fire.

 “What are you thinking?” Phillip said.

“I don’t think I should say,” Joe said.

“Why not?” she said, curious.  “Is it something bad?”

“I don’t think so.  You might not agree.”

“What is it?  Tell me!”

“Well,” Joe said, “I was remembering that blue gown the Great Mage had—the one he threatened to make you wear.”

“Why would you think about that?” she asked, amusement in her voice.

“I was wondering how you’d look in it.  I had decided you’d look pretty damn spectacular.”

She sat up.  “I don’t wear dresses.”

“I know.”

“You think because you saved my life a couple of times you can make me do things I don’t want to do?”

“No.”

“Because I won’t!  I won’t be a woman for you!”

Joe sat up beside her.  “I know that.  Unfortunately, I can’t stop thinking of you as a woman.  I’ve tried, but I can’t.”

“So what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Nothing.  It’s not your problem.  You don’t need to worry about it.”

She turned her back to him.  “I thought you were someone I could trust.”

The pain in her voice alarmed him.  “You can trust me.”

“No, you’re like Lord Marcellin’s soldiers.  All men are interested in is forcing women to rut with them.”

Having his feelings lumped in with the impersonal lust of nameless mercenaries made Joe mad as hell.  “Just because the men in Lord Marcellin’s guard have no respect for women doesn’t mean every man is that way.  I never a touched a woman unless she wanted me to touch her.  And people don’t rut, they make love—if they care about each other.”

Phillip spoke with her back to him, her voice muffled.  “So you’ve—you’ve made love to lots of women?”

“I wouldn’t say lots.”

“How many?” she asked, still with her back to him.

“I don’t know,” he said, mystified.  “Does it matter?”

“I was just—just wondering if there’s been anyone since you came to the Great Mage’s palace.”

Still confused, Joe hedged.  “Three years is a long time.”

“So there is someone?”

“What’s going on here?”  Joe knit his brows in a tight frown.  “I told you I can’t stop thinking of you as a woman, and you jumped on me for that. Somehow we’re now tallying up my sex life.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were jealous.  Why are you acting this way?”

Finally she turned around to face him.  “I’m not acting any differently.”

“Like crap.” Joe frowned.  Her eyes had welled up, and her face looked red and splotchy.  “You look as if you’re about to cry.”

“I never cry.”

“Maybe not, but you’re damn close to it now.”

She turned her head away, and Joe put one hand gently on her shoulder.  “What’s wrong, Phil?”

As soon as he touched her, he felt her body stiffen.  She gasped, and all at once she seemed to have difficulty in catching her breath.

“Are you okay?” Joe asked in alarm.

“Oh yes!  It’s so different now!”

“What?”

“Don’t let go,” she said throwing her arms around him as she twisted to face him.  “Whatever happens, don’t let go of me!”

“I won’t.” Joe folded her into an embrace to offer comfort and was surprised when she lifted her face and kissed him. “Damn,” he said when the kiss ended.  “I never saw that coming.  What are you up to, Phil?”

She pulled his shirt open and ran one hand over his torso.  “Don’t let go of me, and everything will be fine.”

Stunned, Joe grabbed her hand.  “You want to make love?  Right here?”

“What’s wrong with right here?”

“Nothing,” Joe said, throwing his scruples to the winds.  “So long as you’re okay with this, right here is just fine.”

“You talk too much,” she said, and she pulled his head down to kiss him again.



Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Advice for anyone looking to make the jump to digital reading

The original now clunky-looking Kindle came out in 2007, and since then ebooks and ereaders have exploded. Technology and publishing have changed a lot since then, so here is my most up-to-date advice if you have never tried reading ebooks.

The basics:

All ereaders and ereaders apps offer similar functions like being able to change the font size and search through the text of the book. The early adopters of ebooks were mostly older women who read a lot but wanted an easy-t0-read format. 

Kindle 1
Original Kindle


However, there is a difference between a tablet and an ereader. An ereader is a single purpose device; it's made for reading. The e-paper or e-ink screen (two names for the same thing) is a very light gray with dark gray to black text. Color e-ink is currently not well developed as yet, although it is improving.  A tablet is multi-use, very much like a  really large smart phone, but without the ability to make phone calls. It has a backlit screen with the same kind of colors on a PC screen.

The advantages to reading on an ereader:

No screen glare, even in bright sunlight

Much less eyestrain. 

No distracting emails, texts, or other app notifications. In a way, the single use device is an advantage if you want to read without interruptions. 

The advantages to using a tablet as an ereader:

Because tablets are multiuse, you can run other apps like email, browsers, calculators, word processing, games, etc., without needing to pay for additional hardware.

In addition, you can use multiple ebook apps. all major ebook sellers offer free apps for Android and iOS. You might have to buy your ebooks in a browser and then upload it to the tablet as both Apple and Android don't allow apps to sell products unless they use their payment method (Apple Pay and Google Pay, respectively). 

New Kindle Oasis

Kindle, Apple, Google Books, and Kobo are the major players as far as ereaders and ereader apps. 

First steps:

I recommend if you already own or can borrow a tablet, that you use an app (Kindle, Apple, Nook, etc) to see if you like digital reading.  Try it out, and if you notice any eyestrain or glare issues, then look into getting a dedicated reader. Decide where you will most likely buy your ebooks. Note that Google does not, as yet, have its own ereader hardware. 

Also note that erearers and sometimes ereader apps offer  special functions  such as getting the definition of a word or translating foreign language text. The Kindle offers a function called X-Ray, which works only if the publisher has enabled it, that lets the reader see characters and places and other specifics of the book. You should check out what the ereader can do before you invest in hardware. 


Sunday, June 19, 2022

Looks what's featured on eBookDaily's Freebies page!

 It's the first book in the Haven duology, THE SIXTH DISCIPLINE!

I recently ran a promotion on this book, and it has done pretty well.




Check it out before it has gone from the site! And there are plenty of other books listed there, too. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Snippet from WHERE MAGIC RULES

 Where Magic Rules is a fantasy novella with a love story at its core. Joseph, a modern day man finds himself transported to a world of mages, magic, and dragons. During a battle, he saves the life of what appears to be a very young enemy soldier, only to discover he has saved a young woman who wears a distinctive and interesting charm. 

Here is a snippet from Chapter 2:

“Ah!”  The Great Mage moved closer to the bed and scrutinized her intently.

She returned his stare, not flinching even when he stepped closer.  “You don’t frighten me, old man.”

“Don’t I?”  Suddenly the mage lunged forward and grabbed her by the arm.

Phillip gave a strangled gasp but didn’t otherwise cry out.  It looked to Joe as if she wanted to pull away but couldn’t.  Joe could identify with that feeling.

“Joe!” the mage said.  “Take the stone in your right hand.  Pull it as far away from Phillip as you can without hurting her.”

Joe obeyed reluctantly.  He folded his right hand into a fist around the stone, then pulled the chain to its full length, which was not very far. 

The Great Mage took a step closer and shifted his grip to Phillip’s shoulders.  She gave a little sigh, a faint, breathy whisper, and closed her eyes.

The three of them stayed frozen for almost a full minute.  Joe was wondering if Phillip had fallen asleep when she opened her eyes and looked at him.

She seemed to Joe to be staring at him hungrily, as if he were something she wanted very badly.

“Now,” the Great Mage said, “let go of the stone, Joe, and step back a pace.”

Joe obeyed.  As soon as the stone again lay on her skin, Phillip’s angry glare returned.  She said nothing, however, until the Great Mage released her and stepped back.

“Keep that man away from me!”  She shouted at the mage, but she pointed at Joe.  “Keep him away, or I’ll kill him!”

Her fierceness stunned Joe.  She sounded sincere.

“You have a poor sense of gratitude,” the Great Mage said.  “Joe saved your life.”

Phillip grimaced and gave Joe a sulky scowl.  “Thank you.  Now go away.”

“Fine with me,” Joe said.  “May I leave now, sir?”

“Not just yet,” the Great Mage said.  “I’ve finally determined why you came to us, Joseph.”

Joe blinked in surprise.  “Sir?”

“I said when you accepted me as your overlord that I would keep you close until the day I found enlightenment about your purpose here.  Do you remember?”

For the past three years Joe had wondered if that day would ever arrive.  “Yes, sir.”

The Great Mage’s expression grew serene.  “Your purpose is to help Phillip find her true self.  You’ll have to start right away.”

Joe’s jaw dropped, and at the same time, Phillip blurted out an angry expletive.

“Now, now,” the Great Mage said.  “Such language isn’t appreciated here, Phillip.  You’ll have to learn to guard your tongue.”

Sister Gertruda fluttered near the bed like a moth near a candle.  “My lord, she must keep quiet!  The wound could reopen if she doesn’t.”

“Precisely,” the Great Mage said.  “I think a small sleeping draught is in order, sister.”

“A curse on you and all your progeny!” Phillip shouted.  “May they all sicken and die terrible deaths!”

“I have no progeny,” the Great Mage said, unperturbed.  “No child of my body, in any event.”

“Then may the worms eat you, as you lie cold and forgotten in the earth!”

“The worms eat everyone who dies,” the mage said.  “No one lives forever, and no one is remembered forever.  Your curse applies to everyone, sooner or later.”

“Then I shall make it sooner!” Phillip cried, lunging at the Great Mage.

Joe jumped to intercept her.  Holding her back without hurting her proved a difficult task.

Sister Gertruda entered the fray with a cup of sleeping draught, but it was only when the Great Mage took hold of Phillip’s arm that she became calm enough for Sister Gertruda to hold the cup to her mouth.

The wounded woman choked and swallowed, then dashed the cup to the floor.  “Take your bloody swill elsewhere, you pig of a woman!”

“How much did you manage to give her, sister?” the mage asked.

“Enough,” Sister Gertruda said with grim satisfaction.  “She’ll sleep soon.”

“Bastard!”  Phillip pulled free from Joe’s slackened grasp and sank down upon the bed.  “For all your high sounding phrases, you’re no better than a dark lord.”

Sister Gertruda gasped in indignation.  “Mind your tongue!”

Phillip looked as if she would like to retort, but instead, she merely lay down as if she were exhausted.

“The sleeping draught is working,” Sister Gertruda said, pleased.

“Yes,” the Great Mage said, as Phillip closed her eyes.  “As soon as she’s sound asleep, have her conveyed to Joe’s room.”

“My room?” Joe blurted out.  “Why?”

“Because you’re going to tend her while she heals,” the Great Mage said.  “You need to get to know each other better before you leave on your quest.”

“What quest?” Joe said, feeling as if the floor had rocked under his feet.

The Great Mage shrugged. “I haven’t decided yet.”


Buy this novella for only 99¢US Kindle storeSmashwordsiBooksNook (Barnes & Noble), Kobo (also available in every other Kindle store).

Paperback: AmazonBarnes & Noble





Wednesday, June 1, 2022

A sucessful promotion

Alien Bonds is no longer free.   

The promotion lasted five days, from midnight PDT Friday, May 6 to midnight PDT Tuesday, May 10,  and I gave away 1,777 copies of the Kindle version over that time. I paid for a listing Book Gorilla on Saturday and in FreeBooksy on Sunday.


On May 10 it had dropped a bit but it had picked up a few ratings. 



As of today, this is the raninkig:


It also gained 12 ratings/reviews, including this one:

Reviewed in the United States on May 27, 2022
Even though the book seemed very long, it really wasn’t. It just dealt in a lot of the intricacies of every day living with an u familiar species on an unfamiliar planet, which we needed to see on order to appreciate the struggles that our characters were facing. I especially loved the finesse with which Jared’s ceremony was handled - no more words needed to be said and that whole scene was TIGHT!! Very good book. I would love to know more.
3 people found this helpful
There was a small uptick in sales of the two sequels, but surprisingly what went up noticeably was Kindle Unlimited reads of the whole trilogy. The algorithm for recommending books to KU readers must uses sales data.



Friday, May 6, 2022

ALIEN BONDS is free in the Kindle store for a few days!

The first book in my Wakanreo trilogy, Alien Bonds, is free starting today, May 6th and continuing until Tuesday, May 10.

This is a story of two very different people from two very different cultures, a sort of AVATAR combined with PRIDE & PREJUDICE. When those two people meet, their lives are changed in an instant. Industrial chemist Dina Bellaire has traveled all the way to the planet Wakanreo to advance her career. Her carefully planned life goes up in flames the second she meets Kuaron Du, a Wakanrean who makes his living singing ancient songs in a dead language. Both of them know they can’t go back to the way they were before they met. They just have to convince the rest of the universe that what happened to them is real.

An excerpt from the Kirkus review:

Buxton offers an SF story about interplanetary love triumphing, despite the odds.. . . readers will feel truly immersed in their religion, values, and technology of Wakanreo and appreciate the relevance of Buxton's depiction of a couple fighting for their relationship in a climate of intolerance in this thought-provoking work. A dense but often engrossing tale, grounded in a relatable love affair."  

Here's just a sampling of the Amazon reviews:

Reviewed in the United States on February 16, 2021

Excellent read forcing you to see things from more than one perspective. Challenges your thinking on tradition, obligation, love and destiny. Sometimes it's good to see things from another view!! heartwarming love story doesn't hurt either!!!

5.0 out of 5 starsBest book I've read all year!
Reviewed in the United States on November 30, 2020
I am very impressed with this story, not only because is very original (at least to me being fairly new to this genre) and because the love story is so intercepted by evolution, politics and the cultural differences of two humanoid and Alien species. A must read.

Reviewed in the United States on February 15, 2021

Amazing book to read. Couldn't put it down. Loved it. Five star book. Highly recommend it.

Reviewed in the United States on June 18, 2021
I don't like love triangles, but Buxton's handling of this one, her world building, the well-written story, the fantastic aliens, and intriguing characters earned Bonds 5 stars. I'm very fond of Jared, and I hope he returns to Wakanreo. I admit I loved the lack of doom and destruction in this character-driven story. I read it on KU but will buy it to reread.

If you want this book, get it now

Thursday, March 31, 2022

First lines

I happened to see a discussion by fantasy author Ellen Kushner (I think it was on her Facebook page but now I can't find it) comparing first lines of novels. The person she was quoting talked about how so many 19th century novels had memorable first lines than more recent novels, My favorite of those cited is Pride and Prejudice's opening: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a  good fortune must be in want of a wife." The discussion continued asking whether 20th Century novels also had memorable first lines. Some do, of course, but I don't think anyone ever bettered Jane Austen.

This got me thinking about the first lines in my own books. So I went back and looked them up. They vary considerably. My books are listed below, with the first line shown for each. I defined the first line as the first sentence, unless it's  single word and then it includes the sentence after that. See what you think of them! 

Haven duology
The Sixth Discipline: On the morning he was kidnapped, Ran-Del Jahanpur stepped out of his great-grandfather’s house and stretched to his full height.
No Safe Haven: Ran-Del watched his son press his face against the glass museum case. 

Tribes: The scorpipede crawling up Hob's foot tickled, which seemed odd for something so deadly.

The Nostalgia Gambit: The thief pushed the box across the table toward me. 

Shades of Empire, Alexander listened, but he heard no sound other than his own breathing.

King of Trees: Sharon York gripped the padded arms of her seat.

Saronna's Gift: A warm summer breeze caught Saronna’s veil and almost pulled it loose.

Turnabout: The first time Becca Sommers mentioned Spanish class to me it surprised me—partly because I didn’t know Becca took Spanish, but mostly because she had just that moment slid her hand under my tee shirt and raked my chest hair with her fingernails. 

Wakanreo Trilogy
Alien Bonds: Dina ran one hand down the smooth red fabric of her fanciest party dress.
Alien Vows, “Yulayan!” Her father’s voice coming from the com made Yulayan jump.
Alien Skies, Kamuhi Hailoaka fastened the last clasp on his sensor-enabled training coverall, pulled on his boots, and looked down at his sleeping wife.

Drifters, Jehan forced himself to breathe normally, trying to appear relaxed in front of the assembled membership of the Jeezer Killers.

Bag of Tricks, Osman’s balls!” Aveline muttered under her breath as Princess Inessa’s left heel dug painfully into Aveline’s right shoulder.

Hidden Magic, Richart let his sword fall from his grasp.

The Nameless World duology
The North Edge of Nowhere: Darius took the silver goblet from the tray and stared into its depths.
Oaths and Promises: Darius climbed the hill above the ruins and wished he had worn a heavier jacket.

Worlds Apart: Prax crouched beside the wagon wheel, trying to see through it without exposing himself to the outlaws’ line of fire.

Novella: Where Magic Rules: “Good morning, sir.”


And the winner is  . . 

I think for jumping the reader into the story, it's a tie between Bag of Tricks and Drifters. I would give the prize for setting the tone of the book to Turnabout. But for doing both those things at once, I think my first published book did it best: The Sixth Discipline

Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments! 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Immersive reading: My worlds and the world of Georgette Heyer



From as far back as I can remember, I have always been an avid reader. When I was in junior high school (I missed going to middle school by a few years) we moved into a house where I finally had not only my own bedroom but my own walk-in closet. I loved it partly because I could put a chair in the closet and sit there and read without interruption. Once, I was immersed in a book when my sister opened the closet door, intending to borrow a sweater. She stared at me open mouthed. When she told me what she wanted, I handed her the sweater and asked her to please close the door.
 
Surprisingly, considering that every book I have published to date is set either in a fantasy world, an alternate earth, or the far future, I love reading historical fiction, especially historical romance. I love being transported to the past, because in many ways, it's another world, with different customs, different speech patterns, and sometimes very different problems.

But unlike the far future, our past is a world we know something about. The best historical fiction is well researched. With the right amount of detail, historical fiction can make you feel that you're experiencing life in the past. To achieve this, characters shouldn't use modern idioms; and if they act in a way that we consider normal but wouldn't be tolerated in their actual time period, it needs to be clear they're not typical. One of the best writers I've ever encountered for immersing the reader into the past is Georgette Heyer. From the early 1920s to the late 1970s she wrote over 50 books-- mysteries, historical fiction and Regency romances. I have read pretty much every one.

I like some of her books more than others, of course, but in every book Heyer does a decent job of immersing the reader in that world. The ones I like best are those set in the "alien" world of Regency-era England, the second decade or so of the 19th century.


Society in that place and time was incredibly stratified. Not only wealth but social standing divided people into classes that did not mix socially. Women's lives were strictly circumscribed as to what was proper behavior. And men who aspired to call themselves gentlemen had an equally strict code, even if it was far less limiting of their activities. This gives Heyer's stories a setting that transports the reader from the everyday to the exotic.

I, too, want to transport my readers to a more exotic place and time. But unlike Heyer, I don't want to be limited to a specific place, or a specific set of rules of behavior that had actually existed as a setting for my stories.  Side note: I enjoy Heyer's stories more when they include purely fictional characters. I find the ones where she includes historical figures and actual events, like the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo to be less entertaining.

Back to my writing: In order to give myself total control, I create my own worlds, my own customs, sometimes my own species. But at the same time, in rereading Heyer's books and then rereading my own (which I do sometimes), I can see what a debt my stories owe to hers. 

In emulation of Heyer, I try to achieve that sense of immersion in a character's life, that makes the reader feel as if they were actually in that place and time. Like her: I give the major characters a family history and often have family members as characters; I stress familial and friendly relationships as well as romantic ones; I have my characters go through their daily activities, and in some cases, encounter humorous situations (as when a human man is invited for a family holiday on an alien world and discovers he'll be sharing a bed with the daughter of the house; Heyer's books may not have aliens, but they certainly have humor!); I describe clothes and customs with enough detail to give the reader a sense of what it's like to live in that place and time. And finally, I try not to have my heroes always be the same guy in a different hair cut.

In fact, I like to think that if Georgette Heyer had chosen to write her romances in a science fictional setting, we might well have attracted the same readers! And if you have never read anything by Georgette Heyer, you might want to check out her books. They're set in the past, but they are also timeless.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

ALIEN BONDS is free in the Kindle store for a few days!

The first book in my Wakanreo trilogy ALIEN BONDS, is free in the US and UK Kindle stores from today through this Thursday, February 17!

The story:
A story of two very different people from two very different cultures, a sort of AVATAR combined with PRIDE & PREJUDICE. In ALIEN BONDS, two lives are changed in an instant. Industrial chemist Dina Bellaire travels all the way to the planet Wakanreo to advance her career. Her carefully planned life goes up in flames the second she meets Kuaron Du, a Wakanrean who makes his living singing ancient songs in a dead language. Both of them know they can’t go back to the way they were before they met. They just have to convince the rest of the universe that what happened to them is real.

Kirkus Reviews: "Buxton offers an SF story about interplanetary love triumphing, despite the odds.. . . readers will feel truly immersed in their religion, values, and technology of Wakanreo and appreciate the relevance of Buxton's depiction of a couple fighting for their relationship in a climate of intolerance in this thought-provoking work. A dense but often engrossing tale, grounded in a relatable love affair."

Monday, January 24, 2022

Snippet from SHADES OF EMPIRE

Shades of Empire, a dark space opera/romance, is set in the far future and incorporates three separate love stories. It begins in the harem of Emperor Lothar du Plessis, absolute ruler of a planet known as Gaulle. In Chapter Two the action switches to the merchant starship Queen Bee, owned and captained by Madeline Palestrino.  

From Chapter Two: 

     Her first mate had a stoic expression when she told him she was leading the expedition herself. “Be careful, Maddy.”      
     She grinned, knowing that he wanted to go. “Aren’t I always?” 
     He snorted as he checked the fastening of her helmet clamps. “Sure, sure. Just like the time we went after the Emperor Lothar.” 
     She frowned at this mention of past adventures. “Take care of my ship, Niels,” she said as she stepped into the shuttle. 
     “I will.” He swung the bay door shut. 
     Madeline heard a thunk as the lock engaged. The four other members of the expedition, fully suited, waited for her on the shuttle. Madeline took a seat at the back and let the safety harness envelop her. A shuttle ride always made her feel claustrophobic. The confined space, defined by a center aisle with five seats on either side, seemed too small for the passengers, even now with only half the seats occupied.
     Also, the loss of the ship’s artificial gravity when the door locked invariably disconcerted her. Her magnetic boots held her feet to the deck, but the deck no longer felt like the floor when her arms floated at her sides. The trip took only a few minutes. She heard the soft whir of the docking port engaging and the abrupt whoosh as their harnesses retracted. 
     “Face plates closed,” Madeline said. Madeline waited until she heard four distinct clicks, and then pressed her own helmet control to close her face plate. She locked it with her chin control, and then stood up. 
     Magnetic boots clanged on the steel deck as the five of them started walking. The iris of the shuttle’s docking port opened smoothly, but instead of the inside of an airlock, Madeline saw the pitted surface of a docking hatch. “What the hell?” she said under her breath. She had been last in line, but now she pushed her way forward. “What’s wrong? Why didn’t the pod hatch open?” Her voice sounded breathy on the com, as if she were out of shape. 

     Mahler had been in the lead. He stepped back now and used one gloved finger to trace a thick metallic ridge, just visible where the lip of the docking port met the skin of the life pod. “Look at that, skipper!” 
     For a moment Madeline stared at the ridge without comprehension. It looked almost like scar tissue. Finally, she understood. “It’s welded shut!” 
     Mahler nodded. “It sure is.” 
     Clinking noises sounded behind her. Madeline realized her crew members were talking to each other by touching helmets to carry the sound, so that she couldn’t hear them. “Coms on full,” she ordered at once. “If you’ve got something to say, let’s hear it.” 
     After a brief silence her senior tech spoke up. “Why would anyone seal up a life pod like this, skipper? Unless there was something dangerous—” He didn’t finish the sentence, but three helmeted heads nodded in agreement. 
     Madeline frowned. 
     Before she could speak, Mahler pointed again. “Hey, isn’t that—” He stopped, and they all stared at the swirl of gold lines at the top of the hatch cover. 
     Madeline reached out her hand and traced the gold ridges that looped and whirled back upon themselves. “The Emperor’s personal seal.” She couldn’t feel any texture through her glove, except that the seal was solid, not holographic. 
     There was another silence. The crewman at the back of the line tried to shuffle his feet, and swayed back and forth as the magnets held his feet down. Lineaus was new to the crew of the Bee. He needed practice at this kind of exercise. 
     “So,” Madeline said, “Emperor Lothar doesn’t want us to open this life pod. Seems to me that that’s a damn good reason to cut it open right now.” 
     Someone sighed, and Madeline grinned. “No sense being stupid about it, though. Buchanan!” 
     Her senior tech started. “Yes, ma’am?” 
     Madeline patted the dull black surface of the hatch cover. “See if you can find out more about what’s behind this door before we cut it open.” 
     The line of men seemed to relax all at once. Madeline resisted the temptation to check the charge on the laser pistol attached to the leg of her suit. No sense making them more nervous. 
     Buchanan stepped up to the hatch and opened his tech kit. After a few minutes with a portable scanner pressed against the hatch, he shook his head inside his helmet. “I think there’s someone there. I get a life sign reading, but there’s no sound to speak of.” 
     “Just one person?” 
     He nodded, and then his eyes opened wide. “Wait!” 
     “What?” Madeline demanded. “What is it?” 
     “Voices! I hear voices. Someone screaming—a woman I think. And someone crying. No, wait, now it’s a man talking. Damn, I can’t hear well enough!” 
     Madeline made up her mind. “Okay, that’s enough. If Emperor Lothar has someone shut up in there, we need to get him—or her—out.” She stepped back as her crew moved to obey her. 
     There was no further suggestion that the life pod was too dangerous to breach. Instead, Mahler and Buchanan operated the cutting tool that was part of the shuttle’s emergency equipment, while Doc checked his medkit, and Lineaus watched the thin crack on one side of the hatch grow steadily longer. 
     Finally, the tool moved back to the top of the long irregular oval, almost completing the cut. 
     Madeline stepped forward and punched the center of the oval. The piece of titanium alloy clattered noisily in the thin air of the shuttle as it bounced off the airlock walls. Beyond the opening, Madeline saw only darkness. 
     She stepped up to the ragged hole and shone her helmet lamps into the life pod’s airlock. Empty. The lamps made cones of light that cut through the blackness, but they illuminated nothing but an uncluttered airlock. 
     Mahler peered around her. “Looks damn near new.” 
     Madeline agreed. She climbed through the threshold they had made and took a few tentative steps. “Wait there,” she said, when she saw the controls for the interior hatch. “Let me check this out.” This hatch looked perfectly normal. The dials appeared to be working. 
     “Check your helmets,” Madeline called out. “There’s not a whole lot of air in here.” She heard clinking noises as they all checked each others’ helmet clamps one more time. Madeline engaged the control for the hatch and whirled the pointer to the unlocked position. She took a deep breath and pulled open the hatch. 
     Darkness. Nothing but more darkness. Madeline leaned into the opening and let her helmet lamps flicker over either side of the corridor. The pod had been gutted, but not in any sort of emergency. The suspended animation bays were gone, but all the power leads and other connections had been neatly stubbed off. Whoever had refitted this pod had had time to do a thorough job. 
     “See anything, skipper?” Buchanan’s voice sounded in her ear. “Anyone there?” 
     “Nothing much yet.” She took a few steps, her magnetic boots clanging on the metal deck every time she put her foot down. The empty bays made for a spooky atmosphere. Madeline checked each one, half expecting someone to jump out at her. No one did. 
     Where had the voices come from then? The only sounds she heard were her own metallic footfalls reverberating noisily. “There’s enough air to carry sound, anyway. No gravity, though. It looks okay so far. Come on and we’ll check it out.” 
     More clanging echoed as the crewmen all climbed through the jagged opening and walked through the airlock to join her in the pod. They advanced cautiously, Buchanan first. 
     Before he even reached Madeline, he stopped at the life support controls. “Hey, skipper, look at this.”
     Madeline stepped over to the console. “What is it?” 
     “There’s plenty of oh two aboard.” The senior tech sounded indignant. “Someone’s set the air feed to little more than a slow leak.” 
     Madeline lifted her brows. It seemed an odd thing to do. No one could live on that amount of oxygen, and what good was a slow leak over no air at all? “Really? Can you get us more air, then?” 
     He nodded and muttered something. His hands moved over the controls and in a few seconds a loud hiss told Madeline he had been successful. 
     It occurred to her that the sound wouldn’t have carried without air. “So what’s our status now?” she asked. “Do we still need our helmets?” 
     Behind the transparent polymer, Buchanan’s face twitched as he considered the question. “Give it a few more minutes. Let’s see what we find.” 
     Madeline nodded, and turned back to her exploration. Everyone had waited for her. She resumed the lead, and was only a few steps ahead when the corridor suddenly opened into the pod’s small bridge. A dark shape filled the space in the middle of the empty room where the navigation controls should have been. 
     Madeline advanced a few more steps and bent her head down so that her helmet lamps shone full on the shape. It was an acceleration couch, fitted out with some sort of life support system that swaddled its half-reclined occupant in nutrient gel. 
     “Is he alive?” Doc’s voice, breathy on the com, almost squeaked with tension. 
     The other crewmen seemed just as interested. The four of them crowded into the room, but clustered together into a tight clump near the entrance to the corridor. 
     The life pod’s only passenger was obviously male. Except for the life support mask that covered most of his face, he was as naked as the day he had been born, and just as helpless. Every limb and his head, too, had been immobilized by restraints. 
     Madeline walked slowly around him so that she could see him better. His eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell with regularity. The life support mask obscured the lines of his face, but through the transparent cover, Madeline could see that he looked exhausted. Deep shadows ringed his eyes, and the color had drained from his face. His skin was light enough that the mottled green and yellow bruises on his chest looked startling. A long, half-healed scrape ran up one side of his torso. 
     “Why would anyone leave someone like this?” she wondered out loud. 
     Doc stepped forward and bent over the stranger. “He looks drugged or something.” He glanced over his shoulder at Buchanan. “Can I open my helmet?” 
     The senior tech checked a control on his wrist and nodded. “Should be okay now.” 
     Doc unlocked his face plate and it flipped backwards over his head. 
     Madeline followed suit. She sniffed. The air in the pod felt dead, no matter what Buchanan said. It wasn’t so much the faint metallic odor, but rather the cold, dampness of it against her skin that repelled her. 
     None of the other three had followed Doc’s example. They all stood and watched from behind their face plates as their friend bent over the imprisoned stranger. Just as Doc reached out a hand to touch the man, an abrupt click made the Bee’s medic jump in surprise. 
     A motorized arm slid smoothly along on a track, then stopped after a few centimeters. It held a hypospray directly over the imprisoned man’s head. Another click sounded and the hypo moved downward, pressed against the man’s neck, and discharged with a faint hiss. 
     Just as the stranger groaned and opened his eyes, the cabin lights came on, illuminating the scene abruptly. The man stared at the crew of the Bee, blinking as if their presence confused him. He didn’t look at them for long, however. After a few seconds, his eyes moved to stare directly at the space in front of Madeline.