Lt. Ben Pollard thinks he's traded the perils of the Belt for security as an Earth-based computer jockey for United Defence Command. Then he's forced to perform a mission of mercy - and lands on an isolated, intrigue-riddled space station. He's been named next-of-kin to a man he never wanted to even see again: Paul Dekker, a young pilot who attracts crises like dead flesh draws flies. The centerpiece of a top-secret war project, Dekker has just lost his entire crew in a mysterious freak accident and lost his mind to amnesia from an attempted suicide. Or attempted murder. Suddenly two more faces from Dekker and Pollard's past are shanghaied to Sol II: their occasional lovers, renegade pilots Meg Kady and Sal Aboujib. Together they had once smashed the criminal cover-ups of a mining cartel. Now, they're all caught in a shadowy, deadly maze of power-mongering rivalries between UDC and Fleet Strategic Operations, the Senate and Peace Lobby, and the corporate lords of both Earth and Mars.
Thus far, as I have been reading Cherryh’s Company Wars books, they have overlapped slightly (mentions of Pell and its inhabitants occur in pretty much every book, for example). But this is the first time that I would call a book a sequel. Hellburner seems to me very much to be a sequel to Heavy Time, as we follow the further association between Paul Dekker and Ben Pollard.
If you have ever felt manipulated at work, you will feel great sympathy for Paul & Ben. They are frenemies, both trying to find their way in the universe. Ben thinks that he has finally landed a cushy spot for himself on Earth, far from the wars ongoing in space. This is a big achievement for a boy who grew up in the asteroid belt and who had never seen the ocean! He really doesn’t understand Earthers (OMG, they think that they have the right to air and water, how misguided are they?) but to find a peaceful work environment, he is willing to try.
Paul Dekker is Ben’s mirror image, a kid who grew up on and around Sol and who escaped an uncertain and unpromising future in Earth orbit by going to the asteroid belt. In the process, he has made himself some powerful enemies and has undergone a lot of mental disturbance. Still, he has awesome piloting skills and he’s a valuable commodity if his enemies can be dealt with.
Ben had hoped to never, ever see Dekker again. He is on the cusp of getting his ideal job when he is called away as Dekker’s “next of kin,” when Dekker is experiencing mental problems again, having been left to die in a flight simulator. Ben considers simply beating Dek to death and returning to Earth.
Instead, they are rejoined by their partners in crime from Heavy Time, Meg Kady and Sal Aboujib, and they set out to conquer the new experimental ship, the Hellburner, that no one else has been able to run successfully. Can Dekker hang onto his sanity long enough to do this? Can Ben rein in his temper? Can Meg and Sal make the cut?
As a person struggling with a new computer system at work, one which no one seems to want to provide training for, I have great sympathy for this team.
Book number 299 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.