Helton Strom is just a guy between contracts when he runs afoul of both planetary officialdom and space pirates. He is left with nothing but the clothes on his back, and not even a citizenship to his name. Is the ancient, broken-down military surplus starship and the young lady living aboard it the key to a bright future, or will his repairs and new mercenary friends reawaken the demons lurking in the ship’s murky and lethal past?
BACK FROM THE DEAD is the first book in The Stars Came Back series. It is a space western, the story of regular folks just trying stay alive, seeking work to earn money for repairs to get to the next job, with no shortage of action and adventure along the way. It is military sci-fi, featuring a company of mercenaries, spaceship combat, mortar and rifle combat, spear-and-shield battle, and post-traumatic stress disorder. And it is a philosophical investigation, pondering everything from the lessons of Achilles to how one stops a bar fight with earplugs.
The space liner’s lounge is sparse and spare, dim with the faint, reddish light that indicates the night shift. A few round ports and several screens line the walls above solidly mounted furniture. Helton slouches at an angle, half-facing Art, an elderly businessman with a dazed expression on his face and a drink in his hand, looking absently out one of the larger viewing ports. His coat is in a heap on another chair, and his bag supports his feet. “By the time it was over, virtually all my assets were forfeited on the spot, I’d been stripped of citizenship, and searched by the Blue Gloves way more personally than I’d like. How?” He shakes his head slowly in disbelief. “How did we get here?”
“It could be worse,” the old man says quietly. “You are here, yes?”
Helton stares at him, incredulous. “Well, yeah, but–”
“Not in jail. Not in uniform.”
Comprehension dawns on Helton’s face. He takes a drink, then says, “But I don’t understand. Why?”
“They get a percentage of any fines or forfeitures they assess, as an ‘incentive’ to be attentive to the letter of the law. Likely you were put on a list some time ago, and this was just the easiest opportunity to make you go away. If they hadn’t gotten busy with that bomb on Level Eight, you might still be there.”
“Wha…? Bomb? Nobody said anything about a bomb.”
“The disturbance that called them away?”
“But that was some sort of transformer explosion in an electrical vault…”
Art looks as him with a slight shake of his head and a knowing, apologetic smile on his face. “Always buy a round trip ticket. Always have the appearance that you have good reason to come back, and no plans to do otherwise. Terrorist, separatists, false flag — makes no difference.”
“You are just now realizing what’s been going on these last months and years?”
Helton says, feebly, not even accepting his own excuse, “Been busy.”
“People have had to flee on a moment, packing light, for thousands of years. The warning signs of collapse are always the same. The debt. The scapegoats. The lies. The ‘temporary emergency measures.’ I cut it closer than I should have.” Art shrugs and takes a drink from his own glass. “My family is all safely away, and everything else shipped ahead for us by others.” A small, sympathetic smile crosses his wizened face. “It looks like you won’t be returning, either.”
Helton looks at him in disbelief, frowning, brows knit. Quietly, in shock, he says to himself, “Homeless.” He turns his gaze back to the port, staring blankly.
“You are lucky, though,” Art says.
“If this is lucky, I’d hate to see unlucky.”
“They picked you clean, but they let you leave.” He looks intensely at Helton. “Think. What do you have? Where are you going?”
He shrugs, waves to his coat and bag. “My sister’s.”
Helton shakes his head, still not sure what Art is asking. Art taps his temple, then his chest. Then waves to the room around them, at the glass in Helton’s hand. Slowly, forcing himself to think positively, Helton taps his temple. “I have … useful skills … and knowledge.” He touches his chest. “I’m heading for family … who will welcome me. Work. I’m not sucking vacuum or” he holds up his glass, “dying of thirst in a desert. Better off than Odysseus meeting Nausicaä.”
A big smile spreads across the old man’s face. “A man of education.”
“Not enough. Didn’t see this coming.”
“It will serve you well. Never forget your assets, just because you acquired some new liabilities. Have faith in yourself, and you’ll be okay. God works in mysterious ways.”
Helton looks at Art silently for a long moment. He drains his glass, unconvinced.