SPACE COWBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE by Heather Long
Escape for the space adventure of your life and learn the rules along the way…
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Title: Space Cowboy Survival Guide
Author: Heather Long
Release Date: December 13, 2016
Genres: Action/Adventure, Science Fiction, Space Opera
Rule #42 – Don’t be a hero. Heroes do shit for free and get themselves killed. It’s a lose-lose proposition. From his leather Stetson to his long coat and choice of weapons, Shaw Sullivan is just a space cowboy who lives by his own code. A loner by choice, he accepted the contract to conduct a stellar census under duress…it was the only way to save his family’s ranch. Sullivan has four years to complete the mission, and he has zero intentions of letting anything get in his way least of all a desperate woman who wants to hire him to be a hero.
Rule #5 One good sob story deserves another.
They say every story starts somewhere. Shaw Sullivan’s could have begun when he was born. Wasn’t that when everyone’s story technically began? Or did his story start elsewhere? Does a person’s story begin with them or does it begin with their parents? If it begins with their parents does it begin with all of their forefathers? And if that’s the case, maybe all stories were rooted on Earth.
It didn’t really matter. For Shaw Sullivan, his story definitely started on Earth—the one place he wished he could return to, where his family’s ranch remained, and all of his life’s work awaited him. When mounting debt drove him to accept an indentured servitude offer, he’d left. The only hope for saving his family’s ranch rested on his shoulders. A ranch his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father going back more than 500 years survived from worked. It didn’t matter if humans were in the stars, and it didn’t matter that colony worlds enumerating into the hundreds existed. No, what mattered to Shaw Sullivan was his ranch. A ranch he only had four years to save.
Of course, as he studied the Earth Analog he currently stood on through a field glass, a part of him had to really wonder what was the point ? The place was a shithole. Farms barely eking out an existence stretched around the perimeter. Their main spaceport was an empty field next to a ramshackle building, which seemed cobbled together from the remnants of the landing pods the colonists had used when they first arrived. As far as he could tell, EA-114 had settled during the Corbin Space Rush. By that reckoning, the original settlers arrived sometime between 2045 and 2095, give or take. Since it was in 2225, these people had spent nearly 200 years building nothing.
Easing his Stetson back from his face, Shaw let the sun—or what passed for sunlight—warm his skin. The air seemed almost too clammy. Maybe he’d come at the wrong time of year to appreciate this so-called untouched beauty? Then again, maybe the land was exactly what he’d come to expect—the poor remnants of the poor settlers’ fatal mistake. They traveled to the stars to find a planet to call their own and established a colony without backup support or industry then had to survive literally on their crops or starve.
He pulled out a small recorder and began to make some notations on the census reports he needed to file. Each planet required notes on population density, on production values, on geography and natural resources, and, on their current governing structures. As far as he could tell, this planet didn’t have much worth an entry. His initial scans from space only showed a population numbering below 10,000—not a very high number in the immediate region, though the overall planetary population was closer to 40,000. The spaceport was their most populous area.
He glanced back at the ramshackle container pod office, or whatever they wanted to call it. It was the most modern of the structures he could see. Everything else had been constructed from local materials.
“Captain Sullivan, sir,” a male voice called out to him.
Shaw pivoted to face the man. It took a minute to place his name—as far as he could recall, the man had actually introduced himself when he had arrived to take Shaw’s order for fuel. That brought up another question for Shaw—where the hell did these people get their fuel?
“It was Winston, right?” Shaw walked toward him, sliding the recorder into the pocket of his duster.
The red, jowl-faced man nodded. “Yes sir. I was just checking the requisition for your fuel. Really sorry to say we only have maybe third of what you’re requesting.”
Unsurprised, Shaw nodded. Didn’t actually need the fuel, but putting in an order usually got him some results as far as on the local resources. He learned that on the last three planets he visited. He also made it a point not to tell them why he was there or what he was doing for a living. On the first planet, honesty damn near got him shot. Twice.
“Any other dealers? We can reach out to Eden.” The neighboring settlement might be located a few thousand klicks away, but at least EA-114 had other settlements.
The man sopped at his face with a handkerchief, trying to clean up the sweat. The humidity didn’t make it that hot, just uncomfortable. “They aren’t big allies, but I can call and see what they’ve got. Supplies have been pretty scarce these days. Fuel is coming in at a far more expensive price. So, be happy I’m willing to part with the fuel I have. It’s going to cost.”
Liars, shysters and con men. Every planet had them. Shaw nodded and went for an understanding expression—at least he hoped it came across as understanding. Part of him just wanted to punch the man in his jowly face and get the hell out of there. That, however, would not be getting his job done. Sure, Earth Prime might not know what he’d done, but he would. Shaw never welched on a deal.
“I’d be happy to pay it,” Shaw said. “I really do need the fuel. If you can check with the other towns, that would be great.”
Winston scowled. Okay, wrong answer. Apparently, Winston did not want to reach out to the other towns. “Well, I reckon if you’re prepared to pay that price for the third, I could see if I could scrape together the rest.”
Shock of shockers. Shaw gave the man a thin smile. “That would be great.”
His answer seemed to add another layer to Winston’s distress and rising temper. The man’s already flushed face, reddened further and his fists clenched, knuckles whitening. So, offering the man a small fortune for fuel just increased his anger. Interesting.
“It could take a while.” Winston practically spat the words out.
“I got all the time in the world.” Shaw spread his arms. “Think I’ll take a stroll, stretch my legs, look around.”
Winston’s face tightened and his nostrils flared. Yeah, he liked the idea someone walking around even less than he liked the idea of accepting so much money for fuel.
EA-114 just became a lot more interesting.
“That won’t be a problem, will it?” Shaw inquired, resting his hand on the butt of his pistol. Hell, if they wanted him to wander the stars to check out all these different worlds and see what they had to offer, he might as well be armed. Since they didn’t sell bullets anymore, at least not on home world, he’d gone for the closest thing he could find—Colt .45 pearl-handled laser pistol. It packed a hell of a punch.
Winston glanced from him to the weapon, then back again and shook his head. “Not at all.” The lie fell from his lips as easily as the rain from the sky in a Texas spring storm. Not only did he have to figure out what they were hiding, he had to watch his back.
He’d already set the security features on the Gilly. No one was getting on his ship. Whether he was dead or alive, the Gilly wouldn’t open for anyone that wasn’t him without with his code, his DNA, and a little something special that he provided after the security specialists had finished programming the ship for him.
“I’ll check back in with you later then, Winston.” Shaw raised his hand in half-salute. He set off at an angle that allowed him to keep his eye on the fuel dealer while also scanning his surroundings. The main section town stretched out and away from the spaceport. Mostly farms, as far as he could tell, however he had seen some shops, or at least what he thought were shops. It didn’t appear industrial, more retail.
If the community was that poor and fuel that expensive, what were they doing with retail shops?
Never hurt to stir up some trouble and figure out what their sob story was.
Shaw’s boots clicked with every step he took on the wooden boardwalks lining their tiny town. In some ways, it amused him, this attempt at 1800s Americana on a world so far from where they all originated. At the same time, the very familiarity of it all aggravated him. Not far from his MorningStar ranch, the tiny New Texas town of Quanto looked exactly the same, right down to the wooden boardwalks and classic storefronts.
As nostalgia wasn’t something he could afford, he continued strolling and inspecting his surroundings. The street was dirt, still churned to mud from an earlier rain. No real sign of pack or herd animals. The only vehicles present were back at the makeshift port.
Despite his earlier supposition about living crop to mouth, the planet had been settled long enough to develop at least some wealth. The first building, a mission of some kind—Paradise Interfaith Meditation—boasted a closed sign in the window and a locked door. The dress shop next door also appeared closed, as was the feed and supply shop.
Odd. All the shops on the lonely street appeared closed. Closed or abandoned? Even the churned mud had no footprints.
Shaw scratched his jaw, crossing the muddy road to the boardwalk on other side of the road, verifying his boots left prints. Sure enough, he did—and the solo boot heels amplified the lonely feeling of the not-so-abandoned town. One shop closed, maybe even two, didn’t seem a cause for suspicion. However, all of them closed? That was worth investigating. After making a full circuit of the town center, Shaw checked his datalink, verified his bearings based on the longitude and latitude, angle of the sun, and the planet’s current rotation pattern around the system’s star.
It was around midday on a weekday, based on their solar calendar. His stroll revealed more questions than answers.
At the Interfaith center, he paused to stare at the locked doors. It seemed almost universal for faith centers to be open to its congregants, and an interfaith one would have to be open nearly all the time to cater to so many different religions. So, why was it closed? Why were the doors locked?
Sparing a glance over his shoulder toward the port, Shaw debated going back the Gilly and using the ship’s scanners to take a deeper look, only that would be cheating.
Abandoning the boardwalk, he circled the end of the ‘block’ to take a wander beyond the main strip. Tenements bordered right up against the side of the town. What few people he’d seen moving while talking to Winston had vanished except for one small girl. She stared at him with a questioning expression on her face until her mother swept her inside swiftly then bolted the door. It was definitely bolted, he heard the slide lock snick closed. Lifting one arm, he sniffed himself. No, he didn’t stink. Whatever happened in the sleepy little shithole definitely did. Stripping off his Stetson, he ran his fingers through his hair while he tapped his hat against his thigh.
Playing dilettante wasn’t getting him anywhere. The task at hand was a census. The charge of documenting populations and resources on colony worlds had him traveling to this armpit of the galaxy. He didn’t want to tell the locals what he was up to, as they usually rebelled at the idea of anyone reporting on them back to Earth Prime, whether they had anything to hide or not. One thing hadn’t changed in centuries—government inspections and investigations were a universal cause for concern. He needed a good idea of how many people actually lived in this town. In the debate over whether to knock on the door hiding the mother and her child, his conscience got the better of him.
Harassing a mom, especially a scared one, went against the grain.
One hand on his holstered sidearm, Shaw continued his circuit around the tenements. He didn’t think he looked like someone out to get anyone. Then again, criminals didn’t always look like criminals. Whatever issues these people had to hide… better to find out now rather than later.
Thirty minutes of wandering left Shaw in a foul mood. The people here lived almost too poor, despite verdant fields beyond their little hellhole of a town. The populated area seemed only remarkable for the plethora of debris and human refuse alongside the occasional scrub garden with their pitifully sad vegetables straining toward the gray light of the sun above—a scar left on the face of an idyllic colony world.
Whoever ran things around here did a shit job. Having had enough, Shaw strode back toward the scant town center. Sure enough, all the buildings remain locked with their signs on closed, no lights showing inside. Checking his datalink again, he accessed the Gilly’s computer and initiated the scan.
Cheating be damned. His ship reported in short order with the population number he’d read from space and heat signatures fanning around him. After studying the readout on his watch, he returned to the Interfaith Center.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a hostile voice warned him when he raised his hand to knock on the door.
Pivoting, Shaw faced the newcomer. A tall, broad shouldered man, he had a handlebar mustache and a body odor that struck as soon as the breeze shifted. The only thing that prevented Shaw from noticing him to begin with was the fact that the wind had been in his favor. The change in the breeze’s direction damn near gagged Shaw with the stench.
“What’s the problem?” Shaw asked, dropping his gaze to the dull, flat edged tin star on the man’s chest. “Sheriff?”
“Marshal.” The man corrected him, and his chest puffed out as he did so. “Locked doors generally mean people don’t want company, son.”
“Fair enough,” Shaw acknowledged. “However, it’s an interfaith center, Sheriff.” Yes, he used the wrong title on purpose. When the man’s cheeks reddened and his eyes bulged as his nostrils flared, Shaw enjoyed the fact his targeted barb hitting its mark.
“You’re not from around here, son,” was the man’s only response.
“Very true, and obviously so.” Shaw kept his arms loose and didn’t approach the ‘marshal.’ The man was off, and he came armed with a sawed off double-barreled shotgun, one Shaw was willing to bet didn’t come loaded with bird pellets. Hunting laws at home outlawed the weapons—this far out, though? They could probably use bullets without any fear of reprisal. The marshal’s boots were filthy and mud spattered his jeans. The smell on him though—damn—Shaw had gotten a lungful of dead week-old corpses that didn’t smell this bad.
“You should ahead on back over the port. We don’t much like strangers around here.”
Not an unusual response to a stranger in someone’s territory. “Didn’t mean any harm, Sheriff.” He tugged on the string once more. The animosity combined with the marshal’s stench to roll over him in choking waves.
“I said I was a marshal, boy.” He swung the shotgun into a targeted position, aiming it directly at Shaw. “You’ll move along. Now.”
“That’s downright unfriendly for a sheriff, considering I am not your boy, and I’m spending my good, hard earned credits at your port.” Didn’t matter how far apart the colony worlds were, the first accords made credit chits universal currency and preferred for financing interstellar purchases.
“Your ship can earn us more for scrap, too.” Apparently, they were all done playing nice.
Worked for Shaw. The sheriff closed the distance between them and used the shotgun to gesture for him to backup. The problem with using a weapon to point meant it wasn’t always directed at the target. In fact, when the sheriff gave it a jerk again to motion him away, the barrel aimed at the sky. Shaw caught the barrel, and kept it pointed upward as he gave it a hard tug and withdrew his pistol in the same breath.
Startled, the wannabe lawman released his weapon then gulped when he saw the laser pistol barrel right between his eyes.
“I’d tell you what you were doing wrong, but I like to keep my interactions polite.” Not to mention more words required more breathing in the man’s too smelly presence. “So, let me be clear. This gun won’t make a bang so much as a sizzle as it fries through your skull and incinerates what brain matter you might be possessing. You catch my drift?”
With fumbling fingers, the man stripped off his abused star and tossed it on the ground. “Ain’t no job worth this,” the man sputtered. “I quit.”
“Well, I’m sure these townsfolk will be real interested to hear that you don’t want the job of protecting them no more. Not seeing it as their loss.” Shaw studied him. Sweat beaded along the man’s forehead and ran down his face in rivulets. His gaze kept darting to the interfaith center. Without removing his weapon from the man’s forehead, Shaw used his chin to gesture the man to walk. Circling with the man, he flipped the shotgun so it landed with his finger over the trigger and pointed at the door of the center just as it opened.
“Come on out and join us, Winston.”
It shouldn’t have surprised Shaw to learn that the seedy fuel dealer had something going on in the town considering the unkempt condition of both the so-called port and the town itself.
Winston stomped out onto the boardwalk. “You’re going to regret this.”
“I kind of already do,” Shaw replied and kept his tone even. His datalink vibrated three times. The scanners on his ship detected three more weapons. “And for that you have my apology.” He gave Marshal Stinky a shove, sending him right into Winston even as Shaw threw himself sideways.
The bullets kicked up the mud and sent it spattering. A meaty thunk, and a less than manly yowl warned him that the rapid fire projectiles found their mark in one or both of the two men. A woman’s scream, soon joined by another, filled the building behind him.
Rolling, Shaw brought his pistol up just as another bullet slammed into the boardwalk next to him, splintering the wood. Ignoring the sharp pain of a scrape across his cheek, he targeted where the gunfire came from and returned fire of his own.
The laser had no kick, but it did make a decent sized hole in the second story of the shop. A man let out a shout, then tumbled through the glass along with his weapon and hit the mud with a splat. Rising, Shaw checked his datalink as he caught sight of Winston trying to crawl away. A blast to his right leg, just above the knee had the man screaming and aborted his escape effort.
The last two weapons were coming in at speed from the opposite side of town. Spinning, Shaw had his pistol and shotgun ready even as the roar of a motor warned him of their approach. He gave them a split second but, at the sight of their weapons pointed at him, he opened fire on the bike itself. The fuel tank went up like a jetpack at launch and flung metal and men into a fiery ball. The rain of debris left a hell of a mess in the middle of the muddy row.
Another glance at his datalink screen showed no red signatures for weapons, only orange for people. The buildings around him were stocked with them, especially the interfaith center. Moseying down to where Winston left a bloody trail on the path, Shaw stepped on his wounded leg, making the man let out a whimpering cry.
“It would seem, Winston, that we’ve come to a parting of ways. The only question I have is do I finish the task or do I just ask the good people of this town?”
“Go to hell, you bastard.”
“I hope you don’t kiss your momma with that mouth.” After grinding his foot into the wound once more for good measure, Shaw leaned over and knocked on the door. “It’s all clear folks. Y’all can come out now.”
A woman appeared in the open doorway, her dirty face bruised and tear streaked, but a fiery anger simmered in her brown eyes. “Who are you?”
Hoping she wasn’t on the side of the men he’d just dealt with, Shaw nodded to her as politely as he could manage while still carrying a weapon in each hand. “Shaw Sullivan, ma’am. Hope I haven’t done more harm than good, but these men didn’t appear to have your town’s honest interests at heart.”
The woman looked from him to the downed wannabe lawman who’d taken a bullet to the heart and dropped dead where he’d fallen then to Winston, who lay in a moaning heap. Pulling the door open wider, she stepped outside and glanced at the dead man across the street, then to the still burning wreckage of the bike with what was left of its pair of extremely dead riders.
Miss Brown Eyes gave Shaw another look and he backed away a pace respectfully, but he didn’t lower the weapons. The town had already had five very unpleasant surprises. He didn’t fancy meeting another unarmed.
She walked over to where Winston lay muttering pitifully, and lifted her skirt lightly as though taking care not to get any blood on it before she delivered a swift kick to the man’s head.
“He’s right,” she called in a strong voice. “We’re safe! Y’all come on out! We have our town back.”
Shaw nodded to himself, satisfied with the result until the people spilled out in a chattering flow and surrounded him. Miss Brown Eyes rushed over to him and threw her arms around him.
Oh, hell no.
Other Books by Heather Long:
THE JUDAS CONTACT
Doctor Ilsa Blaine
Abilities: Designs programmable bioware, enhanced understanding of brain chemistry
Mission: Research, analyze and troubleshoot the team’s active microchips
On the cutting edge of neuroscience, Ilsa is developing microchips that can be inserted into the brain and deliver information. The applications are endless, but her current goal is just to get dogs to return to their owners should they ‘become lost.’ When her college roommate turns up asking for lunch, she’s hardly prepared for the chaos that ensues or the revelation her chip changed the world and the lives of five heroes from the future. And now they need her help…
Codename: The Viper
Abilities: toxins, poisons and assassination, he can kill with a touch
Mission: Protect Ilsa Blaine
One of five desperate men sent back in time to save the future, Garrett volunteers to be the doctor’s guinea pig as she studies their neuro-chips. It’s not his first time being a lab rat. In close quarters, the unthinkable happens, an attraction that could kill Ilsa. Drawn together by science, and on the fast track to destiny, Ilsa must prove to Garrett he isn’t toxic to everything and save his team from their chips before they can end them…
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. An alliance with Halo has given their leader a taste of hope. For these five lonely soldiers, the single emotion may prove their most dangerous threat.
Wealthy, titled, and very privileged, Lady Katherine Hardwicke successfully eluded some of the best thieves in the world in a quest to obtain the Fortunate Buddha. Her time is running out and her enemies are closing in, and one deliciously enigmatic man seems determined to get in her way. Will he save her or end her quest forever?
Jarod Parker wears many faces and lies for a living, but when the same thief steals the Buddha out from beneath his agents not once but twice, this handler returns to the field. His target? The last woman anyone would suspect of being the thief. But is he really after the Buddha or has this brilliant woman stolen his heart?
Their sensuous game of cat and mouse turns deadly when a third player turns up the heat, but can these two liars come clean with each other or will they lose it all?
National bestselling author, Heather Long, likes long walks in the park, science fiction, superheroes, Marines, and men who aren’t douche bags. Her books are filled with heroes and heroines tangled in romance as hot as Texas summertime. From paranormal historical westerns to contemporary military romance, Heather might switch genres, but one thing is true in all of her stories—her characters drive the books. When she’s not wrangling her menagerie of animals, she devotes her time to family and friends she considers family. She believes if you like your heroes so real you could lick the grit off their chest, and your heroines so likable, you’re sure you’ve been friends with women just like them, you’ll enjoy her worlds as much as she does.