Excerpt Reveal: Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas
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Excerpt Reveal: Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas

Excerpt Reveal: Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas

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cascade failure by l m sagas

L. M. Sagas’ debut, Cascade Failure, is a high-octane, sci-fi adventure blending J. S. Dewes’ Divide series with Firefly. It features a fierce, messy, chaotic space family, vibrant worlds, and an exploration of the many ways to be—and not to be—human.

There are only three real powers in the Spiral: the corporate power of the Trust versus the Union’s labor’s leverage. Between them the Guild tries to keep everyone’s hands above the table. It ain’t easy.

Branded a Guild deserter, Jal “accidentally” lands a ride on a Guild ship. Helmed by an AI, with a ship’s engineer/medic who doesn’t see much of a difference between the two jobs, and a “don’t make me shoot you” XO, the Guild crew of the Ambit is a little . . . different.

They’re also in over their heads. Responding to a distress call from an abandoned planet, they find a mass grave, and a live programmer who knows how it happened. The Trust has plans. This isn’t the first dead planet, and it’s not going to be the last.

Unless the crew of the Ambit can stop it.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas, on sale 3/19/24


Chapter 1

Jal

Somewhere in Jal’s file was a note from an old crewmate that read, Jalsen Red will either be the reason you die, or the reason you live. Good fucking luck.

With a love letter like that on his record, he should’ve figured pretty quick that his Guild career was on the fast track to nowhere. Would’ve saved a lot of folks a lot of grief, but Jal just wasn’t made to be a thinker. Wasn’t in his DNA.

They’d seen to that.

Just as well. If he thought too much about what he was doing, he’d just as likely turn back the way he came; hop that rickety old shuttle back to the ass-end of the O-Cyg spiral, away from the hustle and bustle of the outpost. That was what a thinking sort of man would’ve done.

Jal ducked his head and kept walking, glancing around the hangar through a dirt-brown mess of shaggy hair that had gone too many days without a washing. Must’ve been a dozen ships there—rows of shiny hulls and top-of-the-line gear, idling on docks suspended fifty-some-odd decs above an airlock. He paused by the rail to look down as one of the doors lurched apart with the groan of well-used metal, coughing up another shuttle with the Trust’s big, embellished T stamped on each side, up top, and just about everywhere else they could stick it. Shit, probably would’ve stamped it inside the plumbing, if they thought anybody’d ever see it. It was all about the brand. The Trust was the centuries-old answer to what always seemed to Jal to be a pretty stupid question: What would happen if we let a bunch of big-money business types go out and settle space? No governments, no oversight, just carte-goddamn-blanche to claim and build and grow as they pleased. A handful of corporations spreading like fungus in the black, swallowing each other and anything smaller than them, until everything was smaller than them. As long as Jal’d been alive, they’d been the only game in town.

Newcomers, he thought. Only ships coming out of the center of the spiral ever looked that nice. The ones headed outward, deeper into the frontier circles, had taken a few more knocks in their time, carting prospectors and workers out to make their fortune in the next cluster of newly terraformed planets. He tipped his head in a half-assed salute and pushed off the rail. Best of luck to you. God willing, they’d find better luck out there than he had.

Back into the crowd. He’d have to get used to that again— all the people. Merchants and mechanics hawking their wares, pushing their carts down gangways barely wider than Jal’s arm span. Crews out stretching their legs before their next trip. It didn’t matter how much he tucked his shoulders and hugged the rails; he still got bumped into and jostled and mean-mugged for his trouble. Halogen lights burned above like hundreds of white dwarfs, stinging his eyes through the shaded lenses of his specs. So bright, and so busy, and so blaring, and if he let himself focus on all of it, get drawn into the sights and sounds and scents of being surrounded by so many strangers in a strange new place, he’d forget how to breathe.

But.

He’d come this far, gotten this close. Closer to the center of the spiral, closer to civilization, closer to home. He could keep going a little while longer, to hell with the rest. Head down, keep moving—he was good at that.

Down the gangway a few rows, he spotted a ship with its cargo bay door down, engines running. Contestant number one. Running engines meant they’d just gotten in, or they were just leaving, and judging by the couple of guys slow-walking their way back up the ramp, he leaned toward the latter. “You got need of an extra hand?” he said under his breath. He’d practiced it so many times on the shuttle ride in that he’d lost count, but hadn’t yet had occasion for an audience. Shuttle rides to the outpost were cheap—handful of caps would cover the fare, though a meal and legroom would cost you extra— but heading any farther inward was a pocket-emptying sort of enterprise, and Jal’s pockets had nothing but lint. Leave rich or stay poor: those were the options, out in the frontier. The last one just never seemed to make it into the ads.

His gut was in a weaver’s knot as he came up on the ship, mouth gone dry and sour. “You got need of an extra hand?” he croaked out again, voice breaking in the middle. Yeah, fine, he was rusty. Hadn’t said much to another person in years that wasn’t yessir and no sir and fuck you, sir. Although ’scuse me was making its way back into his vocabulary with gusto. “You got need—”

A flash of gray paint above the wing of the ship stopped him in his tracks. Too abruptly, it turned out, because a slip of a woman in coveralls bounced off his back with a curse so colorful he might’ve laughed under different circumstances. Instead, he barely managed to rasp out one of those “’scuse me”s as she strode on past, light glinting off the fine polymer filaments woven into her dark braids. An augmented? You didn’t see a lot of Biomech out this far. He couldn’t have stopped and asked her anyway. She was too far down the gangway, for one; and for two, that weaver’s knot seemed to have lodged itself in his throat.

A flag. Just a stupid painted flag, gray against the hull’s sleek silver and emblazoned with a spiral of white stars, but Jal’s heart still stumbled over the next few beats. It was the banner for the Guild—two parts paramilitary, one part gig economy. Thousands of different crews in thousands of different ships taking thousands of different jobs from the Guild-sanctioned postings, all bound up together with a simple guiding principle: the neutral preservation of life. Felt like a lifetime since he’d worn that flag on his shoulder. He’d have happily gone another lifetime without seeing it again.

Shit. He cut left, angling away from the Guild ship and down the gangway. Had they seen him? He didn’t risk a glance back, cutting his way through the crowd as quick as he could without drawing attention.

“Refurbed cables!” barked a merchant from a cart piled high with coils of wire. Which, Jal had learned, was just a fancy way of saying stolen. Lifted from ships when nobody was looking, identifiers buffed off and cleaned up so nobody’d know them from the rest of the pile. “Half the price, just as nice!”

The woman he’d bumped into, the augmented in the coveralls, picked over the stacks of cables with a disinterested eye. Not really shopping, just killing time—waiting for somebody, maybe, and she didn’t even look at Jal as he slipped past.

Not you, either, he thought, passing a shiny-hulled shipping vessel with its cargo door dropped. No Guild flag in sight, but she was loaded to the gills, and a pair of merchants squabbled on the dock over who saw her first, so they must’ve seen some serious scratch from whoever that ship belonged to. Only folks out there with capital like that were with the Trust, and he’d just as soon avoid them, too.

He passed a few more like that, ducking between carts and crews with his hands in his pockets and his duffel on his shoulder, trying not to squint at the sting of the lights. His specs, like the rest of him, had seen better days: scratched lenses, thinning tint, and a strap hanging on by about four threads and a prayer. Not a lot of opportunities to fix them up, where he’d been.

“You got need of an extra hand?” he repeated to himself. It’d turned into a mantra, of sorts. A meditation. Keep your eyes on the next foothold, his mama used to tell him. The rest is just noise.

There was just so much of it, though. The noise. He used to love crowds—the snatches of conversations, the new faces. Windows into the lives of total strangers that made the universe feel big and small at the same time.

Now, though, the busyness of the hangar chafed at him. Made his head ache and his teeth grind, and as he passed the next shipping rig in the line, there was that fucking flag again. Half the crew stood outside it, staring straight at the walkway. No way they miss me. But if he stopped, doubled back, he could draw their attention, and he’d just be headed straight back to the other Guild ship. Do something. He was running out of time. Another dozen steps, and he’d be in front of them. Do something.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it. There. The noise faded, and for a blissful half second, all he heard was the soft pneumatic hiss of a dropping cargo bay door.

A smile kissed the corner of his chapped, chewed-raw lips. In a hangar full of sparkling newness, the old gyreskimmer perched in the next slip was like a glimpse back through time. They’d been decommissioned back when Jal was still picking up rocks on his home moon, but somehow, this one had dodged the scrap fields and made her way clear out to the pioneer rings. Bet you’ve got some stories to tell. And best of all, he reckoned none of them involved the Guild.

GS 31–770 Ambit was the only designation on the hull, painted and repainted above one wing. No flag, no shine, no slick-tongued merchants with the gleam of caps in their eyes. Not the prettiest thing to look at—the kind of classic that was only three rusted bolts away from scrap, with mismatched parts and a half-dozen layers of paint showing through nicks and scratches—but somebody’d taken care of her where it mattered. Sleek-cut lines like a phosphomoth midflight and engine thrumming so steady and smooth it could’ve been a lullaby. Old or not, that ship was likely as fit to glide through the black as any craft in that hangar.

Which did fuck-all to loosen his shoulders as he peeked through the open cargo door. No movement inside, at least none that he could make out, and eyes like his didn’t miss much. We really doing this? The duffel on his shoulder said yes, but the weight on his chest said on second thought, twenty-eight’s awful old for leaps of faith. He’d never been too keen on ship living, as a matter of principle and proportion—they didn’t tend to build deckheads with heights like his in mind—but he couldn’t even look inside of one lately without his intestines twisting themselves up like bootlaces.

Just didn’t seem like he had another choice.

Least this coffin’s got character, he thought, and with a sigh in his throat and a shudder threatening the top of his spine, Jal started up the ramp.

Tall son of a bitch that he was, squeezing into the close quarters of a ship had never been easy, but this one felt tighter than most. Low-slung wires dragged across the top of his head as he ducked into a cargo bay so short he could nearly flatten his palms against the ceiling, and barely wide enough for a rover and a couple weeks’ worth of supply crates. Not a long trip, then. Good. He hoped they were headed the right direction.

“’Scuse me,” he called as he moved deeper into the bay, fingers skimming along the top of the rover, but he didn’t get an answer. Didn’t seem likely the whole crew would disembark without locking their ship up nice and tight, especially in the frontier, but there had to be some reason the door had dropped. He didn’t hear anyone moving around inside, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Excuse me?”

A sudden, familiar hiss sounded behind him, and he turned in time to watch the hatch rise. Moved too quick for him to beat it, but just slow enough for Jal to think, Well, that can’t be good, before the last sliver of light from the hangar shrank from view.

There was a certain kind of finality in the click of the locks and the ear-popping pressure of a new atmo system kicking on, as if to say, You’re stuck now, boy.

“Out-fucking-standing.” He kicked the door, once, steel-toed boots against a metal much, much harder. She was built solid, that old ship, and for want of a code for that door panel, he figured he wasn’t getting out the way he came in.

The rest is just noise. His pulse pattered on the back of his tongue, sweat gathering under the layered collars of his ratty button-up and refurbed blue coat. He straightened his back and turned away from the hatch, eyes on an open doorway on the other side of the cargo bay. Either he’d find a way out, or he’d find whoever crewed the ship—whichever way, it’d serve him better than standing there, beating on a three-dec-deep hunk of metal and screaming himself blue.

Nice folks, nice folks, nice folks. A new mantra, fingers crossed at his sides because you never regretted the luck you didn’t need. Please be nice folks. They kept a homy ship, at least—much homier on the inside than the outside. He passed the makeshift gym tucked into the corner of the cargo bay, with a punching bag and weights all packed up nice and tight in case the gravity got shifty. A toolbox sat against the wall, wrenches nestled side by side with bags of dried fruits and wafers in case whoever was working got peckish, and Jal’s stomach gave an impatient snarl to remind him it’d been nearly a day since anything’d passed his lips but water. Colorful little hand-knit creatures watched him from the top of the box with seed bead eyes as he ducked through the doorway and into a narrow hall.

Somebody’d painted the walls. Not the plain old white or beige or gray the manufacturers usually slapped on the walls to hide the metal underneath—this was some kind of soft blue, or maybe lavender? He was shit with colors, and his specs didn’t help. Everything looked a little greener through the tint.

“Hello?” He peeked into an open door to his right. Sick bay was his guess, less from the bed and sparse setup of equipment, and more from the sharp stink of antiseptic. An alcove sat opposite the sick bay, with an open porthole and a ladder plunging down into the belly of the ship, but he didn’t hear anything coming from below, so he walked past. Between hanging planters and covered bulbs, loose string tapestries hung on the walls. He’d never seen anything quite like them, some woven together in patterns too abstract to guess and some streaked with phosphorous strands that glowed against the rest. The glowing ones reminded him of the augmented’s hair, pops of bright against the dark. He fought the urge to touch them, to wind them around his fingers, but nothing ever felt as soft as it looked.

Ahead, the hallway forked around one more room, and Jal knew before he even looked inside that it was the galley—a spartan kitchen setup on the near left wall, shelves stacked along the others. He probably could’ve spat from one doorway, cleared the four-top in the middle of the room, and hit the door on the other side. Small but lived-in; ship had a theme, and—fuck, were those apples on the shelf? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had fruit that didn’t come out of a sealed foil pack.

His mouth watered, and the low-grade headache he’d been ignoring gave a quick spike behind his eyes. Fasting was right up there with thinking on the list of things he wasn’t designed for, and it took every ounce of his self-control not to swipe himself some breakfast. Dinner? Hard to keep track of time with all the traveling. Hard to keep track of much of anything.

He was halfway through the galley when something darted out from the shelves. Dark and small—barely shin height—and so quick he couldn’t make out what it was as it streaked past his legs. Some kind of animal, maybe? Startled the shit out of him, whatever it was. He stumbled back and nearly knocked a potted plant off the middle of the table, peering off in the direction the blur had darted. Toward the bridge, he thought, if he hadn’t gotten turned around, but a dividing wall blocked the view from the galley. On his side of the wall, somebody’d put up a glass board, and what looked like years’ worth of paint pen marks had been scribbled, erased, and scribbled over again. Little notes like add nori to req list and fed bodie this morning, the asshole is lying, and in a different hand, NO SPARE PARTS IN THE GALLEY. He paused over the last line, angling his head. The straight, heavy lines looked vaguely familiar; he nearly read them in a different voice. Gruffer, to-the-point, like—

“Something I can help you with?”

Jal jumped again, like a flea on a hot plate. Twice in as many minutes. The fuck is up with this ship? People didn’t sneak up on Jal. People were noisy, even when they tried to be quiet— sometimes especially when they tried to be quiet. They also smelled. Good or bad, they always smelled, and he’d never in his life been in the room with another human being and not known it.

And yet.

A whole-ass person stood in the doorway of the galley, so close he could’ve reached out and touched them if he hadn’t been too busy backing into the glass panel. First time for everything. Wry was better than panicky, but his muscles had already tensed to bolt.

The stranger smiled pleasantly enough, standing in the doorway like they’d been there the whole time. Close-cropped hair and proud shoulders, round features shaped in a patient smile. Their clothes flowed like water over their skin, silken robes in fluorite shades of blues and greens and purples that somehow looked vibrant even through Jal’s specs. For a beat, all he could think about was the way their skin caught the lights, like a clear night’s sky dusted with stars, but even that wasn’t right. Didn’t do them justice. Theirs was the kind of beautiful that words didn’t quite grasp—not the kinds of words Jal knew, at least. His world hadn’t had much use for poetry. Or for pretty things.

For lack of anything better to say, he swallowed hard and asked, “You got need of an extra hand?” Do better. He’d practiced this. “I’m a good worker.” That part was true. “Don’t bring any trouble with me.” That part wasn’t. “All I need’s a meal a day and passage to your next stop, wherever it is.” Long as it was closer to the interior, it didn’t much matter to him.

The stranger arched an eyebrow, still smiling that inscrutable smile. “Who couldn’t use a bit more help every now and again?” Their voice, a clear middle tone as pleasant as their smile, somehow seemed to be coming from everywhere. Above him. Behind him. “But I think we could do better than a meal a day, Mister . . .” they trailed off, expectantly.

“Tegan,” he said. He’d practiced that, too. My name’s Tegan. Call me Tegan. Tegan, Tegan, Tegan.

The stranger’s nose gave the faintest wrinkle, but it disappeared so quickly Jal thought he might’ve imagined it. “Welcome aboard,” they said. “I’m Captain Eoan.” Oh-ahn, deliberately, like they didn’t expect people to get it right.

I know that name. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard it, but he swore he knew it. Why do I know that name? Something felt strange about that ship. Something was wrong.

Eoan extended a hand from the trim of their flowing robes, and Jal, too flustered to do anything else, reached out to shake it. Or try to, at least. His fingers passed straight through. Static pricked his palm, charged particles suspended where skin and bone should’ve been. No heat, no cold, just a current that stood the hairs on his arm on end.

Eoan’s dark eyes laughed. “Figure it out?” they asked, and once again, it sounded like they’d had this conversation a time or two.

It was another first for Jal, but though he never claimed to be the sharpest pick in the mine, he liked to think he wasn’t the dullest, either. “You’re AI.”

“Less of the A, if you don’t mind,” Eoan replied, still smiling. “You of all people ought to know that being engineered and being authentic aren’t mutually exclusive.”

A chill washed down the back of his neck, sinking between the blades of his shoulders like a cold rain. “Me of all people,” he echoed past the tightness in his throat. “All due respect, Captain, you don’t know me.”

“I suppose that’s true,” they said, thoughtfully, and damned if Jal couldn’t hear the but coming before their lips ever shaped the word. “But I know your name isn’t Tegan. And I know that you look very different from your enlistment photo. Gone a bit long in the hair, haven’t we, Ranger Jalsen?”

They held out their hand, and his face—his enlistment photo— appeared above their palm. It was like looking at a stranger, or maybe at a ghost. At the base of the photo, around his shoulders, scrolled a bright orange banner.

d e s e r t e d

Jal’s mouth went dry, fingertips tingling as his blood started pumping to more useful places. Heart. Lungs. Legs. You’re wrong, he wanted to say. You’ve got me confused with somebody else. But he couldn’t find the words, or the air to speak them. They know. It was a trap. They saw me, and they opened the door, and they fucking know. Except knowing was only half the problem; it was how they could’ve known. Scanned his face or ran his prints, that part wasn’t too tricky. But to match them to his enlistment record? The only folks who had access to Guild records were—

No.

“Captain Eoan.” It sounded like someone else speaking, someone far away and muffled by the roar of blood in his ears. He had recognized that name, though it felt like a lifetime ago that he’d seen it on his transfer request form, right next to that damning red DENIED. “Guild Captain Eoan.”

“The one and only, as far as I’m aware.”

His lungs wouldn’t expand in his chest, heart beating against his ribs so hard it ached. Jal glanced down the hallway. Fewer doors meant fewer chances for Eoan to block him in; he could make a break for it. Run, he thought. Fucking run. Because the way he saw it, the only way out of the minefield he’d strolled into was his own two legs and a hell of a lot of distance. He’d deal with the door when he got there. Somehow.

“Please, don’t,” said Eoan, as if they knew.

Too late. He was already halfway down the hallway, banking off the corner where the hall curved around the mess. His boot treads were long gone, but the floor’s diamond texture kept his feet under him as he sped toward the cargo bay.

Eoan flickered into place a few decs down the hall from him. “Please, Ranger Jalsen. There’s really no reason—” That projection blinked out as Jal ran through it, and another one blinked into place by the sickroom door. “—to leave in such a rush. If we—” Past another one, and the next appeared in the doorway to the cargo bay, expression flat. “—could only take a moment to discuss, I’m sure we could get it all sorted—”

Jal had just hit the end of the hall when that telltale pneumatic hiss from the hatch echoed through the cargo bay. A blade of blue-white light appeared as the door opened, casting shapes across the crates. People-shaped blurs approached up the gangway, and Jal skidded to a halt by the rover with a sick lurch in his stomach.

“There you are,” Eoan said from all around him. He didn’t see their projection anymore, but he was too busy watching the door. The blurs became people again as his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and damned if it wasn’t the woman from the gangway again, with the grease-smudged coveralls and raven plaits. She wasn’t alone. Beside her stood a man, easily as tall as Jal but built much sturdier. Silver streaked his short hair and beard, though his forties were still a few years ahead of him, and his shoulders were the kind of wide that made you think they’d borne their share of burdens and then some.

Jal could tell the moment they saw him. The woman cocked her head with the most fuck you, fuck this, fuck’re you doing here look he’d ever seen, and the man—

CRACK!

The crate the man had been holding had dropped from his hands, old wood splintering on impact and contents scattering like confetti across the floor. Potatoes. Carrots. Every-color citrus, and produce Jal didn’t even recognize. A head of something leafy came rolling toward him, bouncing off the tip of his boot as the rest of the cargo bay stood still.

“You.” Jal knew that voice, hoarse as it was. Knew it like he’d known the handwriting on the wall, like he knew the green-brown eyes gone wide under furrowed brows, like he knew the calluses on the hands stretched out like they still had something to hold.

Huh, he thought, errantly, with a fist squeezing around his quick-beating heart. You got gray, old man.

Then he ran. Sprang forward, launching himself up the hood of the rover, vaulting across its roof, and sliding down off the back square between the two newcomers. It’s not him, whispered a desperate little voice from the depths of his head, struggling up from under a wave of run, run, run that threatened to drag it under. It can’t be him.

Out onto the too-bright gangway. Tears stung his eyes, white stars bursting across all those shiny hulls and strangers with someplace else to go.

“Stop!” That voice again. Damn that voice. It wasn’t supposed to be there. How the fuck could it be there? And on and on went those frantic little whispers in his head, not him, not him, not him. “Goddamn it, Jal!”

His name. Of all the stupid things that could’ve damned him, it was the sound of his own name in that grit-and-gunshot voice that did it. He stumbled on his next step—runners like him didn’t stumble, didn’t slow, didn’t stop, but he did. His outsoles caught on thin air a few decs down the gangway, that fist around his heart clamping down until he swore his pulse stopped dead. His name, punctuated by the crack of charged air, was Jal’s only warning.

The last thing Jal felt before the world dropped out from under him was a slug between his shoulders and the most terrible sense of déjà vu.

Copyright © 2024 from L. M. Sagas

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