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The Outback Stars

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The Outback Stars

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Author: Sandra McDonald
Publisher: Tor, 2007
Series: The Outback Stars: Book 1

1. The Outback Stars
2. The Stars Down Under
3. The Stars Blue Yonder

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(4 reads / 2 ratings)




Lieutenant Jodenny Scott is a hero. She has the medals and the scars to prove it.

She's cooling her heels on Kookaburra, recovering from injuries sustained during the fiery loss of her last ship, the Yangtze, and she's bored -- so bored, in fact, that she takes a berth on the next ship out. That's a mistake. The Aral Sea isn't anyone's idea of a get-well tour.

Jodenny's handed a division full of misfits, incompetents, and criminals. She's a squared-away officer. She thinks she can handle it all. She's wrong. Aral Sea isn't a happy ship. And it's about to get a lot unhappier.

As Aral Sea enters the Alcheringa -- the alien-constructed space warp that allows giant settler-ships to travel between worlds, away from all help or hope -- Jodenny comes face to face something powerful enough to dwarf even the unknown force that destroyed her last ship and left her with missing memories and bloody nightmares. Lieutenant Jodenny Scott is about to be introduced to love.

Author Sandra McDonald brings her personal knowledge of the military, and of the subtle interplay between men and women on deployment, to a stirring tale that mixes ancient Australian folklore with the colonization of the stars.


Chapter One

If 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, routing invoices that nobody at Fleet gave a damn about. Nearly dying on the Yangtze was one thing, but bureaucratic suffocation promised 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 paradise, 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. Beyond 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 eternally 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 conspiratorial 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 inappropriate words immediately, but Pau only grinned.

"Better get over there before everyone else smells blood in the water, Lieutenant."

She slipped out the back door, brazenly cut across the V.I.P. parking lot, and reached the commodore's suite thirty seconds later. The cold, quiet offices were carpeted in blue and curtained in gold. Models 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 saying. "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 commander, his face red, stormed past Jodenny and out of the suite. Jodenny 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. "Lieutenant 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 forgot 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 commodore came from authentic Aboriginal ancestry, and she'd decorated 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."


"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 something."

"Yes, ma'am."

Jodenny waited until she was outside before she pulled out her gib and pinged Fleet. Commander Taymore appeared on the screen wearing a distracted expression.

"Good morning, Lieutenant. How are things?"

"Fine, sir." Jodenny squared her shoulders, knowing that what she was about to do was highly irregular. "I was hoping the admiral was in."

Taymore scratched his chin. "He's stuck in a meeting. Something I can help you with?"

"It's about the Aral Sea, sir. I don't think it can wait."

"I heard they had a last-minute billet open. Did the commodore choose someone else?"

"Yes, sir. But I want it."

"I know what the admiral told you," Taymore said. "Promises made during the award of the MacBride Cross aren't taken lightly. But are you sure? The Aral Sea isn't a happy ship."

And I'm not a happy lieutenant, Jodenny thought, but it didn't matter. Unlike the Yangtze, the Aral Sea was intact and functional. Her bulkheads hadn't been ripped open to the stars. Her decks weren't stained with blood nor fused with flesh, and if any ghosts haunted her passageways at least they didn't whisper Jodenny's name.

"Yes, sir. I'm sure," Jodenny said.

"Then you'd better go pack, Lieutenant. The admiral will authorize your transfer."

If he waited only thirty more minutes, Terry Myell would miss the birdie and be officially AWOL. It wouldn't be the first detrimental entry on his service record but it would be the last, because if he started walking, he would keep going--up over the mountains, straight past Sydney Harbor, and all the way to the back of beyond. No more closed-in starships filled with filtered air and recycled gossip for him. He would live in a tent on the open range, cook over open fires, maybe even get a dog. A Labrador retriever. And it would all be perfect and peaceful until military police showed up to haul him away in handcuffs.

"Hey, Terry!" a woman called out happily. Myell turned, but the woman went into the arms of a businessman in a blue summer suit. He should have known. Although he'd once had friends on the Aral Sea, people who might be happy to see him, that had all changed since Fortune. No one but Team Space security would care if he disappeared over the hills.

Something flickered at the corner of his eye, and he focused on a small brown gecko that had crawled up onto the slat of his bench.

"What do you think?" Myell asked it. "Stay or go?"

The gecko didn't answer. A dozen Sydney United fans poured out of a van, boisterous after their weekend victory. A sullen group of Manchester South supporters watched them from across the median. Three do-wops with guitars slung over their backs strolled past a woman teleconferencing on her sunglasses. A young girl beside her played with a toy robot. The girl resembled Myell's niece, and he reminded himself that when the Aral Sea made it to Mary River he'd at least have some downtime with Colby and the family.

If he survived the trip to Mary River.

Maybe going AWOL wasn't such a bad idea after all.

"Hey, donger," a voice called out. "Forget where the ship is?"

Myell stood up. "Fuck you, too, Spallone."

Tony Spallone gave him a smile that did nothing to improve his puffy features. Behind him, Joe Olsson paid off a cabdriver and shouldered his bag. Both men were Chiba's dogs, and Spallone, at least, was as much a bully and thief as his boss.

"Sure you don't want to head north and put all this shit behind you?" Spallone asked. "It's not like people are going to forget, Myell. Space is big but Team Space is fucking tiny."

Myell said, "Only two people know what really happened, and you're not one of them."

"But Wendy told us everything. So you'd better stay in your little dark corner and don't come out, you understand?"

Olsson started inside. "I'm not missing the birdie for this."

Spallone cuffed Myell on the side of the head and followed Olsson. Myell stood rooted to his spot with his fists clenched until a female lieutenant approached him. She had dark blue eyes, glossy brown hair pulled back into a regulation-style braid, and a pretty face marred by dark circles under her eyes. Her nametag read Scott and she wore the same supply insignia he did. For a moment he felt a faint sizzle of recognition, almost as if they were old friends unexpectedly reunited, but the feeling passed almost immediately.

Myell saluted. "Good morning, ma'am."

"Good morning, Sergeant. Do you know which gate is for the Aral Sea?"

"Number twelve, ma'am."

"Thank you." She scrutinized his uniform. "You need to polish your boots."

Myell glanced down at his scuffed heels. "Yes, ma'am."

Lieutenant Scott started inside. She wore her uniform quite well, and her slacks showed off her long legs and shapely rear. He might never be able to date a commissioned officer, but that didn't mean he couldn't appreciate her assets. After a moment she turned as if sensing his attention and asked, rather crisply, "Do you intend to miss the flight?"

So much for appreciation. Myell picked up his rucksack, resisted one last look at the mountains, and followed her inside.

Jodenny had hurried to her quarters, crammed her gear into a bag, and rented a P-train. She spent two hours reviewing data about the Aral Sea as the unit whisked her south and looked up only when the local triad of Father, Mother, and Child Spheres appeared near Point Elliot. The Spheres stood enormous and regal in the sunshine, ancient sentinels from another age. A busload of tourists posed for pictures, even though dozens of Spheres, always in the same grouping and same alignment, dotted every continent in the Seven Sisters. The orphanage in which Jodenny had grown up had been right across from the most popular triad on Fortune.

Traffic was heavy, and by the time she reached Sato Spaceport she only had a few minutes to spare. She asked directions from the first crewman she saw, a sergeant with an Aral Sea nametag and ten years' worth of patches on his uniform.

"Number twelve, ma'am," Sergeant Myell told her.

He had short brown hair and brown eyes to match. Handsome, with sturdy muscles in his forearms and a bit of sunburn in his cheeks. The outdoorsy type, probably, as much as any man could be when he spent most of his life on a starship. She pushed down a pull of attraction and told him he needed to polish his boots.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

Jodenny gave Myell a nod and started inside. He didn't follow. "Do you intend to miss the flight?" she asked, more sharply than she intended. Myell's only answer was to pick up his sack and follow her at a respectful distance.

Inside, Sato was an oasis of cool air and well-tended gardens that stretched along concourses filled with tourist shops. Gate twelve was crowded with friends and family who'd come to bid farewell to the crew already beyond the barriers. Given what had happened to the Yangtze, security was tighter than usual. Jodenny had to pass through two scanners to get to the manning desk, where a civilian security guard checked her retinal scans and said, "You're not on the access list, Lieutenant."

"I just got reassigned. Check again."

"Salter, Sbrizza, Seabaugh--no Scott."

The comm announced boarding for the Aral Sea's birdie. Myell, who'd already moved through his line, glanced back over his shoulder at her. Jodenny insisted, "Admiral Cartwright authorized the transfer himself."

The guard called a coworker over. The two of them conferred while the Aral Sea crew filed up a ramp. Had the admiral changed his mind, or something gone wrong with her records? Jodenny tried not to fidget.

"I need to get on that birdie," she said.

"Yes, ma'am," the second guard said. "Know you from someplace, don't I?"

Surely he'd seen the media reports. "Maybe. Can you check again?"

The first guard let out a triumphant noise. "Ha! Here you are, Lieutenant. Just came through. You'd better hurry."

She rushed into the nearly empty lounge and started for the ramp. After two steps her legs locked, her mouth went dry, and her heart began to pound out a staccato beat. Only three months had passed since the bombing. Ninety days of injury, recovery, sleepless nights, and continuous regret. Jem was dead. Dyanne was dead. Jodenny could have requested a planetside job and Team Space would have given it to her; she could have asked to terminate her contract and not even the admiral himself would have refused.

"Lieutenant?" Myell stood at her elbow with a crease between his eyes. She hadn't even noticed him hang back while others went ahead. He asked, "Something wrong?"

Last chance to turn around, she told herself. To be free. The Aral Sea is not a happy ship, Taymore had said. But her life wasn't about happiness. It hadn't been for a long time.

"No," she said. "Nothing's wrong. Let's go."

They walked up the ramp together.

Copyright © 2007 by Sandra McDonald


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