A Graveyard in the Sky – A Warded Gunslinger Short Novel
I put down the drill, the tiny, high-speed engraving head gouging a slim, white line in my workbench. I didn’t mind. The black polymer top was already scarred with dozens of such lines. Instead, I ran my fingertip over the ward engraved in the thick slab of steel spaceship armor plate, feeling for any uneven parts.
I take my work seriously. It’s what keeps me alive.
You never know what will keep you alive, especially when you’ve got an unknown corvette on your tail. And when there’s a new one heading to cut you off, then you’d better run and hide.
Problem is, there’s not much to hide behind in space…
A Graveyard in the Sky is a short novel of guns and magic in a distant future, where dragons are real, warp-stone ships roam the galaxy, and sometimes, the only thing to hide behind is the corpse of your enemy. It’s got cowboys and privateers, found family, true companions, and magitech in a sprawling space opera.
A Graveyard in the Sky is the second standalone novel in the Warded Gunslinger series. If you like Firefly’s Mal Reynolds, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, you’ll love the Warded Gunslinger.
A Graveyard in the Sky - Chapter 1
I put down the drill, the tiny, high-speed engraving head gouging a slim white line in my workbench. I didn’t mind. The black polymer top was already scarred with dozens of such lines. I ran my fingertip over the curve engraved in the thick slab of steel spaceship armor plate, feeling for any rough edges.
I take my work seriously. It’s what keeps me alive.
The ward engraved in the armor plate felt solid, the edges sharp, the middle smooth. I relaxed my mind, sensing the flow of magic around me, then conjured a thread of force from the void through which the Bucket was traveling.
It came – a tingly, cold, brittle, scraping along my mind – and I fed it into the plate. The ward shimmered a faint blueish green, then faded into the gray of simple nano-layered steel as the thread dissipated.
The ward didn’t imbue. Didn’t shatter, either.
Good enough. I’d imbue it tomorrow, when I wasn’t so tired and my mind wasn’t so foggy.
I forced myself away from the table. I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to keep living and breathing. Having half the sector’s bounty hunters and Syndicate crime bosses after you, and the Federals as well, is quite the motivation.
Not that I didn’t deserve it. In my previous life, if I’d heard that some Jake Nobody was flying around in a half-derelict spaceship with a live void wyrm hatchling sleeping in a dog basket in the cabin, I’d have chased me, too.
The hatchling snuffled, as if he’d heard my thoughts. Which wasn’t impossible. Then again, nothing is impossible when you don’t know the rules. And as far as I could tell, aided by the admittedly poor encyclopedia in the Bucket’s memory banks, I was the first human to be the guardian of a wyrm hatchling.
What I’d figured out was that he slept for weeks on end, ate ridiculous amounts of protein, and liked to stick close to me. Which I liked, too. Warding was less lonely with the hatchling around. Even magic felt different, the threads of force I conjured from the void warmer. Or maybe that was the wishful thinking of an addled mind. Either way, he was fairly small, for a void wyrm – the size of a very large dog, a scaly, black lump curled up in the corner of my cabin.
The cabin also contained my bunk, my leisure station, my sonic shower, and my workbench. Which said pretty much everything one needed to know about the Bucket, the wisdom of my career choices, and what I thought of safety inspections.
Well, maybe not the last part. I’m big on gun safety. Especially when I’m on the receiving end.
The hatchling snuffled again – a deep, wet sound. This time, I sniffed, too. There was something strange in the air.
The Bucket usually smells like the freight hauler she is: polished steel, conducting polymers, ozone, and that weird, vibrating, slightly hot-and-greasy vibe the warpstone engines give off.
This was different. This smelled burnt.
I jumped from the bench, grabbing the fire extinguisher and slapping the door opener at the same time. There was a slight haze in the main corridor, muting the light from the dual strips in the ceiling. The air was all cloying and sticky, like pulverized sweets.
I jogged toward the mess, which was a room half the size of my captain’s cabin. It was painted a soothing pastel green. Or rather, it had been painted a soothing pastel green, at the start of this voyage.
I keyed the door open and lifted the fire extinguisher, letting loose a short fwoosh of foam through the widening gap.
“Crudmunching voidsucker!” Hao yelled from inside.
She was two heads taller than me, and broader in the shoulders to boot, having been born and raised on a high-gravity world. My mechanic, co-pilot, and crew, but definitely not cook. The soot streaks staining the no-longer-pale-green walls were ample evidence of that.
“Didn’t I tell you to leave the stove alone?” I said.
Hao grunted, wiping foam from her bushy eyebrows.
“Got tired of eating reheated cans of Jackson preserves,” she said.
“So you decided to burn down my ship.”
That got me a glare.
“Well, captain,” she said, with a navy emphasis on the cap in captain, “I can’t learn to cook unless I try. And you can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“No, but I can blame you,” I said. “You are to leave the kitchen to someone who doesn’t burn it down. You should have called me.”
Glare. Shrug. Annoyed quirking of one bushy eyebrow.
“Didn’t you have important work to do?” she said. “Like trying to make sure our rear won’t be shot off the moment we turn down the engines?”
I had to give her that. Warding those armor plates would keep us from getting killed. Letting Hao cook would only poison us, and possibly burn us. Priorities.
“That big bastard still on our tail?” I asked.
“A good half-parsec away,” Hao said. “We wouldn’t even see him if your sensors weren’t so crudmunching good.”
I noticed that she still said your about anything having to do with the Bucket. I had hoped she’d settle in, and start seeing herself as crew, and seeing the Bucket the way I did. Like home.
“Any idea what kind of ship that is?” I asked.
“Heat me up a can of Jackson’s finest vat beans,” I said. “I’m going to the cockpit.”
It was going to be another long day.
A Graveyard in the Sky - Chapter 2
The captain’s couch was deceptively comfortable, its cool embrace trying to lure me into sleep. I rejected it by force of will, tempered by a tad of pure panic. The seat countered by molding itself to me. It hadn’t done that before. Hao had been in here with her toolbox.
Out of habit, I cast a quick glance through the Bucket’s high-tempered quartz viewports. Space was still space, a big empty blackness with a few million tiny pinpricks of light, some of them moving slowly as we sped past at just shy of 300c.
The status lights shone green, with a few yellows, which for the Bucket was pure luxury. Even the ventilation system whooshing quietly, bathing me with dry, cold, joyously dust-free air. Having a mechanic on board had its advantages.
The pilot’s readout showed the local star cluster, which meant lots and lots of nothing, interspersed with the occasional star and its numerical designation. Plenty of planets, according to the ‘pedia, no habitation. Most stars were uninhabited. And in the middle of the readout, behind us, right at the edge of sensor range, was a big, green, blinking dot that was our tail.
We’d picked it up some days and light years from Jackson, when it’d turned in behind us on a shadowing course. That maneuver alone was enough to make my skin itch. You don’t follow random ships. Whoever it was, they knew who we were, and what we were carrying.
The sensor suite really shouldn’t have picked them up. But I’d warded it myself, spending weeks on balancing the wards, and spreading them out over the entire hull. Lots of extra-vehicular activity, until my sprayed-on shielding layer had burnt out and my radiation meter had told me in no uncertain beeps that I would end up with cancer if I didn’t get inside immediately.
I shouldn’t have listened. Maybe another twenty ward chains would have given me enough resolution to tell what that ship was.
Right now, all I knew was that it was big. If it was transmitting a transponder code, that would be lost in the light-wake. Being in front, you couldn’t receive radio signals, and the Bucket was too small to carry its own warded transmission tower.
We were broadcasting a standard freight code. The Bucket of Dice, a low-mass hauler registered at Numenor Prime. The code was legal, and had all the proper crypto-keys. Wouldn’t do me a crud of good if we let anyone get too close in the darkness of the interstellar void, though. Even honest captains could be tempted by no law and an easy catch. What skippers living on the fringes of impolite society would do, I didn’t want to imagine. Breathing cold void was never high on my to-do list.
“Anything?” Hao asked, climbing into the co-pilot’s couch. She folded her legs beneath the dashboard, carefully cramming her head into the space between the couch and the ceiling. There was already a spot of dried blood there. She hadn’t been so careful the first time.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s big and it’s fast. As long as they stay back, we can keep going as we do now. If they increase speed, we push the engines and run. With luck, we outrun them.”
“Can’t you magic the ward or something?” Hao asked. Most of her knowledge of magical theory came from adventure and fantasy vids. It was about as true as the ‘pedia’s knowledge of the hatchling.
“I could,” I said. “If we had six months of uninterrupted time on a pleasant planet, a large supply of spare sensor plates, and maybe ten kilograms of platinum.”
“We could get that,” Hao said.
“And the six months?”
“You’re the captain, sir,” she said with a smirk. “Logistics is your responsibility.”
“Remind me to dock your pay,” I said.
“Remind me to remind you to pay me,” she countered.
The sensor ward beeped. I froze.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Hao said. “I thought you had everything on silent.”
“I do,” I said, pulling up the controls. “Something touched the wards at extreme range.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “Maybe it was a glitch.”
Turned out, it wasn’t.
A Graveyard in the Sky - Chapter 3
Another ship headed toward us, from high front-portside. Slower than the big blip chasing us, and smaller, but coming in at an oblique angle.
Too perfect to be a coincidence, coming in almost head-on. Unless we changed our heading, it would reach us in about a day.
One ship in front, one ship in back, nothing else anywhere near. Things like this didn’t happen. That big ship following us had to have a transmission tower, had to be in contact with someone that could send a ship on an intercept course.
They weren’t taking any risks. They wanted to box us in. But they were still far off. We could study them, and figure out their capabilities, then turn to an angle calculated to minimize their engine and position advantage, and run.
“Why aren’t we turning?” Hao said. There was a bead of sweat on her temple. My own hair was spiked with wetness. The ventilation system in the cockpit had given out again. The readouts were steaming up.
So much for having a mechanic on board.
“Because they don’t know we can see them,” I said. “A regular scan wouldn’t discover them for hours. That means we’ll be able to study them a lot closer than they’d expect. Might give us an advantage later.”
“Later, as in when they start shooting at us?” Hao said, a barb of stress in her voice. I’d never asked her why she’d been discharged from the Federal Navy. Being gun-shy would do it.
“Later, as in when we start running,” I said. “We might spot a cargo fleet, or an armed refueling station not in the Bucket’s ‘pedia that we can head for. Anything that can give us some cover. We’re still powering on only two warpstones. They don’t expect us to have much more.”
“I don’t expect us to have much more,” Hao said. “We haven’t calibrated the Rexards, and I wouldn’t trust that remaining trash-heap engine you keep calling an original part.”
Which was true. The Rexards were new to the Bucket, the engines scavenged from an old frigate and much more powerful than anything the Bucket had ever possessed. In theory, with our low mass and a five-warpstone engine setup, we should be able to outrun anything in this sector, including a Fed navy fast picket. In practice, the Rexards had sat unused for ten years in a cave. Still, they were better than flying on nothing but warpdust and the occasional fragment of cracked warpstone that had powered my old engines. But I had serious doubts about whether the Rexards’ mounts would hold under stress.
I had no intention of trying. Having your engines rip away from your ship is not conducive to long-term survival.
“Do me a favor and grab a bottle of tea from the fridge?” I said.
“I just got here,” Hao objected.
“And I’m the captain,” I countered. “Also, the only one who can trim our magic sensor array.”
Her mouth twisted like she’d swallowed a pound of ascerbic acid, but she unfolded from the couch.
“Aye, sir,” she said, attempting a salute. Her hand smacked into the ceiling. “Voidmunching crud,” she cursed.
“Get me a sandwich, too,” I said. “It’s going to be a long night.”
Then I pushed Hao from my awareness and focused on the sensor array.
I needed to figure out who those two ships were, and how to get away from them. I needed to know if we could run, or if we’d have to fight.
A fight would be very one-sided. The Bucket didn’t have any guns, except for the two portable plasma cannons in a hidden compartment beneath the main hallway. They’d be as effective as throwing rocks at void wyrms.
But I could tune my sensor net, use it to actively explore the reflections those ships cast into the void…
Using my mind to touch the void. It made throwing a rock at a void wyrm look smart. Which I’d done, once. The rock had bounced, the wyrm had not. Goes to show how smart I am.
The Bucket’s sensor array consisted of strands of braided wards all over her hull. I had the advantage of knowing them perfectly, having warded the Bucket myself, which was more than most sensor techs did.
Hopefully, it would keep my mind from freezing over. I’d seen what happened to mages who played too closely with the void. The lucky ones ended up mindless and drooling in a permanent vegetative state. The unlucky ones only got halfway there.
I pushed that thought into a small room, closed the door, keyed it permanently shut, and told myself that everything was going to be fine. Then I focused on my wards, and began.
Tuning wards is like pouring water. You can do it fast and sloshy, or slow and steady. I chose slow and steady, conjuring slim threads of force from the void.
They came, thin icicles in my mind. I let them slip around my awareness, weaving them into braids, caressing the wards with them. Slowly, the reflections of the approaching ship started to build.
Large, but not heavy. Slim, a sprinter.
Mere impressions, nothing concrete. Feelings, mediated by the ever-present threads of force that crisscross infinity in their cold majesty. I directed the wards, up-tuned and down-tuned them, amplified the emissions from the approaching ship, cancelling out the distractions of our own.
Hot engines, hot life. A feeling of confinement, enclosure, likely something powerful, driven by wards or stones. I focused on that thread, teasing it out from the multitude of others.
It got easier as I probed, aided by skill, time, and the ship coming closer. The impression grew. A flow of potential power, stopped by a wall, an enclosure of counter-power around it. A weapon, likely. Magical. A flame cannon or void cutter.
I needed to know which. Flame cannons were short-range weapons, horrible against stationary targets, but not much danger to us. A void cutter could kill you from a fraction of a light-year away. Far beyond the range of conventional munitions, if you could aim it, and keep it from burning out your mage’s mind.
The wards were numerous, but not well designed. There were cracks. Maybe an up-gunned ship, some fringe warder kludging together the enclosure from stacks of interlocking wards. I probed the cracks, tapping, pushing, inserting the slimmest threads of void-borne force I could.
My mind started going stale with the void’s cold, my attention flagging, going to stupid, irrelevant memories. The hatchling’s lightning-ozone smell. The way Hao had kept fighting in the tunnels beneath Jackson, half her calf blown away and bleeding. I tried ignoring them, kept pushing at the enclosure.
There – a hole in the wardnet a fraction wider than the others. I let go of all threads but that one, focusing on it.
It was like threading a needle a kilometer away, using a wet noodle. But I was the greatest wet-noodle wrangler the Academy on Shaya had ever produced. I snapped my wards just so, sending a minute wave of force along the void threads. Toward the approaching ship.
The noodle whipped tight. My wards pushed it forward, through the crack.
The thread of force flared, crackling all the way back to the Bucket, hitting my wards with waves of lightning, sending jagged white edges into my mind.
I gagged, my throat constricting, chocking off air to contain sudden nausea. My sensor array flared and burned, wards shattering all along its length. The approaching ships disappeared from the readout in green flares and accompanied by the fumes of burned polymer insulation. Something had overloaded in the Bucket’s wardframe.
“Hao!” I gargled through the open door to the cockpit. Then I sank down into my couch and let darkness claim me.