So I’ve shared some spotlights to introduce you to the characters, and a first-draft excerpt from a scene later in the book (links, for if you missed it: Ark Carnahan, Caesar Anada, Grey Tolliver, Euphrates Destidante, Things Don’t Go As Planned) to give you a taste of this universe. Here’s the official prologue:
Prologue: Lessons in (Ir)Responsibility
“It’s quiet out here.”
“Not with you yakking in my ear piece it’s not.”
Ark grinned inside the cockpit of the DeVorian skimmer he had appropriated. To his left, he could make out the lights of his friend’s ship. It was the same make and model as his own, black instead of the blue he had chosen for himself. The crafts weren’t meant for deep space travel, but they were comfortable and reliable for transportation to and from Salix’s three nearby moons.
Or joyrides. They were damn fine for a joyride, too.
“Do you think they’ve noticed a couple ships are missing yet?”
“If they have, we’ve probably got some time left to enjoy ourselves while they come up with a good story as to how they let a couple uni students jack their locked and guarded property. Then they’ll try to track us, but the locators are disabled. We should be fine.”
Ark grinned, then blinked. “Why uni students, Grey?”
“Because we’re uni students, moron.”
“Yeah, but why would they know that? You said you disabled all the cameras.”
“I did. I was just saying they would need to come up with a story to explain the missing ships. I picked uni students as an example.”
“I can’t get busted for boosting skimmers, Grey. It would kill my future. You know how many politicians have records for GTS? None. Maybe one, there’s always at least one, but I don’t know who that would be. That just goes to show how much impact a person like that ends up leaving: none whatsoever. Their names are lost to the annals of time.”
In the other ship, Grey pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I’d much rather fly with a spacecraft thief than a poli who won’t shut the hell up,” he muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, Carnahan. The cameras were off. Now we’re coming up on the starting point. You ready, or you want to keep jabberjawing?”
“You’re an ass,” Ark sang over the earpiece. “But yeah, I’m ready.”
Grey watched as his friend’s ship dropped down and angled to the left. They had reached Gaster, a moon full of industrial rigs and labor jobs. It also had some stellar pubs full of cheap drinks and the kind of people with large personalities and short tempers. On any other night, they might have landed and seen which of them could drink the other under a filthy, splintered table first. This night, though, was meant for something different.
Gaster was notorious for its roughneck nature, but it had one other distinguishing feature as well: a ring of minor asteroids. It was the only of Salix’s moons to have one and one of the few places that had been discovered to possess a field so dense. Transports to and from the surface would navigate above or below the jagged space rocks, avoiding them completely. Ark and Grey, on the other hand, found it a perfect place to race.
The rules were simple: first person to fully circumnavigate the moon would win. Leaving the field on either side, above or below was an automatic forfeit, even if doing so was only to protect the skimmer and – by default – their life from smashing into pieces. It was dangerous. It wouldn’t be any fun if it weren’t.
The speed at which they were traveling only allowed for brief respite in between each large body. They dipped and climbed, swerved and even stalled a couple times when their zealousness got perilously close to overwhelming reason. The orange and white hues of Gaster were in their periphery, looking much lovelier at a glance than the flat, dusty moon was inactuality.
“Don’t waste my time with your sight-seeing,” Grey laughed. “This is supposed to be a competition.”
Ark watched as Grey jerked his ship upward and dragged the bottom of his skimmer across the upper edges of an asteroid before barrel-rolling between two others. Ark banked to theright instead, into an opening, skirting the rock with his wingtip. He had time for a few deep breaths before the next obstacle came up; he flew under it and then swooped back up on the opposite side like a swallow.
“Better start paying attention, buddy,” he said through the com. “You’re going to tear that thing apart and die in space.”
“Ah, it was just a little comet kissing.”
“Do you not know what a comet is?”
“I know I’m kicking your ass right now.”
“I’m better on the straightaways.”
Grey snorted. “Everyone’s better on a straightaway.”
They came around to the dark side of the moon. Both of them flicked their hands out instinctively, toggling a few switches. The exterior lights of their ships lit up and their radar display moved to the right of their windshields. Asteroids appeared as blue blips that they zipped around, quiet again in their concentration.
Ark slowly edged up on his friend, cutting closer corners than was probably wise in order to better his time. Grey responded by pushing his skimmer even faster. His eyes flicked to his speed meter and fuel control. Most pilots wouldn’t run a skimmer so hard, but he knew the crafts inside and out. They were capable of a lot, if you just gave them a little tough love.
After several tense minutes, an alert popped up just below the radar, flashing in orange. They had come around the bend and were nearing their starting point. The lap was almost complete. The two friends caught a quick glimpse of each other and bared their teeth. No words were necessary. Both crafts accelerated. They missed the rocks by meters as they twisted and dipped. The difference in distance between them was minimal.
Ark could see that he was slowly taking the lead. He grinned in triumph and swerved around an asteroid only to flinch and slam his hand down on the control that would reverse histhrusters, stalling him. Behind the obstacle was another, close enough that they had registered on the radar as a single blip. He had almost crashed into it at full speed.
“Dammit!” he snapped as Grey cackled over the com.
“Next drinks are on you, Carnahan!”
“I almost had you. So close. So, so close.”
“You’ll never have me, Ark, no matter how close you get. I’m too damn good. How are we doing on time?”
Ark piloted his way out of the ring and looked at his watch. He had kept the time adjusted for Gamemon, the city on Salix they had departed from. They had clocked the trip and the race time accurately enough, but finding the skimmers and making off with them had taken longer than they had expected.
“Not bad, actually. We’ll have four or five hours of sleep before class if we leave now.”
“Did you factor in finding some place to drop these babies off without getting pinched?”
“So we’re not actually doing that great, are we?”
Caesar Anada stopped mid-question as a snore ripped through the classroom. He forced himself not to betray the exasperation and embarrassment he felt, instead continuing to stareat the professor. A few titters broke out amongst his classmates. Behind him, a shock of white hair and two pink ears were the only parts of Ark’s head that weren’t buried in his arms. Grey was stretched out in his chair, arms crossed over his chest and head thrown back cringingly far. It was the latter who had released the nasal rumble.
The professor was not nearly as amused as his students. “Mister Carnahan. Mister Tolliver,” he said sharply. The two men jerked awake, frantic expressions plastered on their faces. Caesar rolled his eyes. “Do you mind either paying attention to the lecture or leaving the class? My course room is not a rest stop and I’m not positive but I am pretty sure that whatever recycled mattress you have nestled in your undoubtedly disgusting dorm room is still more comfortable than the chairs you’re seated in. For the love of God, you only have two days left with me.”
“Sorry, teach,” Ark muttered. Grey said nothing. He smacked his cheeks a couple times to wake up. The professor gestured for Caesar to continue.
“I was just wondering,” the young man began, brushing some of the moppy blonde hair out of his face, “what the likelihood is of the Causeways either collapsing in on themselves or reverting back to black holes. Any spacecraft using them or traveling near them would be completely destroyed.”
“That’s true. To be honest, there is a lot we don’t know about the Causeways, even in the hundreds of years we’ve had to study them. Their very nature seems to indicate that theywere created or at least reinforced by some kind of… I’m hesitant to say higher power. Another sentient race, anyway. Of all the species we’ve come across and had dealings with, none have taken responsibility for them so far. So there are plenty of questions yet to be answered.
“We do know that most of them used to be black holes. We know that something changed with them that turned them into something more akin to wormholes. We know that several othersappeared at roughly the same time.”
“Allowing us to travel to all kinds of places,” Grey broke in.
“Yes,” the professor intoned. “Several previously unknown galaxies opened up to us. We’ve been exposed to incredible worlds, including some with inexplicable similarities, like the home worlds of the Dyr and the Ryxan.”
“See? I’m paying attention.”
“Everybody knows that part, Grey,” Caesar said. “Shut up.”
“To answer your question, Mister Anada,” the professor continued, “we don’t know. All studies done show signs that they are stable and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The hows and whys of their existence elude us. Because of that, it is possible that they may indeed just shut off or revert themselves someday, which would – as you say – result in a tremendous loss of life. Now, we’ve developed enough colonies and relationships with other worlds that society would likely continue healthily in a great many galaxies. It would just come down to adapting and enduring.” He smiled sheepishly. “We have to simply hope it doesn’t ever happen, but if it does, we probably won’t know it’s happening untilit’s done. Sorry that my answer is more of a non-answer, but there it is.”
“I thought you were paid to know this stuff,” Grey said.
“Mister Tolliver, I’m this close to failing you on principle.”
“I fixed your car!”
“And I’m grateful, but you’ll see exactly how little that will net you in the long run.”
“He’s saying you’re useless,” Ark chimed in.
“I’ll show you useless, you little-“
“Enough!” the professor roared.
Caesar rested his elbows on his desk and sank his face into his open hands.
Cynosure Academy was the jewel of Gamemon, its multiple stories and crystalline spires stretching out over the cityscape. Wide, flowing lawns stretched out around it, the grass glowing a deep teal. Concrete pathways criss-crossed through them, filled with students hurrying to and from class. Others laid out in the sun, soaking up the warmth, reading books and playing instruments.
It was an inclusive school, designed to be open to men and women of all social and economic backgrounds. Once accepted, the students would choose from a variety of classes and teachers. The prices would vary depending on the quality of the class, but even the more affordable alternatives offered a decent enough education. The tricky part came after graduation, when employers would scan an applicant’s past transcripts and that person had to convince them they were still a better alternative than the guy who shelled out a few thousandcredits more for the professor with more letters behind his name.
It was a busy campus in a busy city on a busy planet that had been largely populated by humans for the past couple years. There was a decent multi-species tourist turnover but itwas Salix’s moons that tended to be more diverse in their populations. Gamemon had always been designed as a stepping stone for the men and women of the human race in their efforts to move on to promising careers.
It was this fact and the dream of working alongside the brilliant minds of the SciTech Industrial Lab Organization that preoccupied Caesar’s mind as he weaved through the crowds of gossiping academics. In two days, he would take the last exam he ever needed to take and then the world was wide open, rife with opportunity to make his mark in the world.
“Caesar! Hey, man, wait up!”
He winced, sighed and stopped. Against his better judgment, he turned and waited for his friend to catch up. People frowned at him as they moved past and he apologized for takingup space in the middle of the walkway. Moments later his friend reached him, breathing heavily.
“Archimedes,” Caesar greeted curtly.
“You left the class in a hurry.”
“I’ve plenty of studying to do. Where’s Grey?”
“Ah, he bugged off to catch some more shut-eye. We had kind of a late night.”
Ark grinned. “Yeah, we-“
Caesar held up a hand, cutting him off. “Please don’t tell me. If and when the police come around to interrogate all of your known associates, I’d prefer not to have any knowledge that would implicate me in whatever the hell you two idiots get up to.”
“I’m really not.”
“You are. You heard about fun once and you really want to try it, but you can’t. You will literally die if you have even a small amount of fun. The tiniest amount. You try to smile, whatever grotesque mockery of human emotion that might look like on your face, and you have a heart attack. Right there. Boom, dead.”
Caesar sighed again and shifted his weight impatiently. “Ark, what do you want?”
“Let’s go grab a drink. Grey’s being an old lady and I’m bored.”
“I have studying to do. As should you. Especially you. Nobody’s going to want to elect you to speak if you’re leaving here with middling test scores.”
Ark laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Nobody gives a damn whether or not a poli scored high on his exit exams. It only matters if they can talk themselves out of having to prove it. Come on, man. One drink. Just one. We used to have the time of our lives, the three of us. Raising hell, having adventures.”
“We were kids, Ark. At some point a man needs to grow up and find some direction for his life.”
“There’s plenty of time for that when we graduate. We’ve got a few nights left to enjoy our youth. Then you get to go be a big science geek, I’ll be charming the pants off the rich and powerful and beautiful, Grey will… do whatever he does, probably poorly but the kid’s got heart. You’ll cry into your beakers because you miss us and you won’t even be able to live vicariously through us anymore. It’ll be you and your geeks sitting around, not having fun together.”
Caesar scowled at his friend. Still, he had known the man a great many years and his words held truth. It was well known that graduation tended to result in the growing distance between friends as life pulled them along different paths. He glanced over Ark’s shoulder to the beautiful academy glinting in the afternoon sun. He pivoted and looked out in the direction of the area commonly known as Stagger Street, a road lined with pubs tailored towards younger crowds.
“One drink,” he said. “You’re buying.”
Ark grinned and wrapped his arm around Caesar’s shoulders. “One drink. Of course. What are friends for?”
The atmosphere on Outer Springer wasn’t natural. The first settlers had touched down two hundred and thirty-seven years before on a mission from the planet it orbited – then called Springer, since renamed – and worked tirelessly to create a sustainable environment in which to build a society. Seven different races joined forces. It was due to their effort that, in a mere thirty-two years, they were able to erect a series of domed cities and an extensive rail system to connect them.
It was a resource-rich, multi-species feat of engineering and coexistence that had rarely been seen before and never with such speedy results. The settlers became a community, the community a thriving town. Before long, the empty domes became bustling cities and further expansions were constructed as quickly as the materials could be shipped from Inner Springer. The only shadow on what they had achieved was that it took nearly seven decades before any kind of structured law enforcement tried to regulate the population.
In that time several of the domes had developed reputations as anything-goes locales, safe havens for dealers, smugglers and murderers. Despite the initial acclaim and celebration that surrounded the moon’s colonization and despite the popularity and esteem of the planet it orbited, Outer Springer had come to be known as a backwater sort of place to visit.Sure, there were laws. There were even more general rules to follow and some semblances of an organization that enforced those rules, but that enforcement was questionable at best. To live there, it was almost guaranteed one was running from something. It took a certain type of person to even intentionally visit.
Euphrates Destidante was not that type of person. He preferred refinement and intelligent discourse, not dealing with the type of people who holed up in shanties and played cardsin hopes they could win enough chits to buy whatever watered-down beer would get them the drunkest the fastest. He had people for that kind of work. Professional, dependable people who did prefer the underworld of the galaxies. They got done the things he was unable or unwilling to do himself.
Even so, a distaste for getting one’s hands dirty did not mean one would not do so when pushed. To step out like this, to this place, took a special kind of offense. One that could not be ignored. He had thought about that offense the entire trip and though it didn’t show, it incensed him more with each passing hour.
He found himself in Camoran, a city on the northern end of the moon. It was known as one of the more violent domes, rife with street fights and senseless killings. It was where the man he was looking for lived. When Euphrates sent six of his most trusted bodyguards, it was where they found that man. They contacted him once their target had been properly subdued and relocated; he caught the first private transport he could arrange away from the curious eyes of his peers.
Upon landing, he utilized a black market body scrambler to hide his appearance from any surveillance and sousveillance equipment he passed by. It did not take him long to reach his destination, a small storage shed behind a seedy nightclub called Twizzter. Four of his men stood guard outside. The other two flanked a burly man strapped to a chair.
Euphrates closed the door behind him and pulled a second chair over until it sat a few feet across from his captive. He removed his coat, a finely tailored dark purple satin piece, and draped it over the back of his seat. One more moment was sent straightening his cuffs and then he sat. He draped one leg over the other, relaxed. Casual.
The man strapped to the chair swelled with the evidence of regular calisthenics. There were twice as many cords around him as would have restrained a different man. He was no simple meathead, though. There was a glint behind his eyes that indicated the kind of shrewdness necessary to not only survive in Camoran but thrive. Dominate. Stake a claim as some kind of slum lord.
The man brought to Euphrates’ mind a saying: pride goeth before destruction. He didn’t subscribe to that belief himself. He believed that pride boosted confidence. It drove a manto set goals, work hard and achieve. When a man was proud, properly proud, he wouldn’t allow what he had accomplished and acquired to break down or be torn away. A prideful man would keep an eye on his assets, his allies, his enemies, his resources, and he would make sure they were all still manageable.
A properly prideful man would admit he had flaws and would do his best to defend those flaws against attacks. A man like that could be wounded; a prideful man is not an invulnerable one. No, but he can be resilient. Corrective.
Euphrates was not a man who shied away from pride. To him, pride was a different animal than hubris. Looking at the man he had had bounded to this chair, he reminded himself thatit wasn’t pride a man should be wary of. It was arrogance.
“You know who I am,” he said.
“I’ve got an idea.”
“I didn’t ask you a question. I stated a fact. You know who I am.”
“Well, you’re a public figure.”
“So I am. With private dealings.” Euphrates drummed his fingers along his kneecap. “You are also a man with private dealings. You know who I am, public figure, that’s to be expected. But I know who you are, too. You, who live in an area that I should only know by the reports I receive. Paper reports with numbers on them, not names. Papers that I then shredand then burn and the ashes of which I then scatter into the whims of the air passing by my office window.
“I should not know your name. I shouldn’t know you even as a figure, a placeholder, an icon or anything similar. I should only know this moon and even then only in the context ofthe profits that it nets me and by any vague hiccups that need to be hiccupped out. And yet.”
“And yet,” the other man sneered. “What do you want me to say, Destidante?”
“Nothing. You’ve said enough. That’s why we’re here.”
Euphrates glanced at one of his guards. The man gave a tight nod and exited the shed. A few minutes later he returned with a folder in his hand. Euphrates took it, opened it and flipped through the papers inside.
“Colby Tzarkev, also known as Skel. Male, obviously. Somewhere between forty and forty-three years of age. You don’t know? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Not about a youth addicted to just about every drug he could get his hands on.” He glanced up at his prisoner. “How have you lived this long? You should have stumbled into a fatal overdose. In fact, you nearly did, hmm…. four times, it looks like.
“One of the few things I don’t have here is how you managed to kick the habit. Couldn’t have been a family intervention: you don’t have any family left. Lucky for you, lucky for me. Whatever it was, you sobered up. Why spend money on drugs when you can make money by selling them? So you picked apart your competition in a methodical fashion. Infiltrating your ranks, ambushing them, brutalizing them. You sent messages. That I like. I can get behind that. Onwards and upwards you rose until you found yourself as one of the many little spiders playing in the outer threads of my web. It’s a cushy little place to sit, where you were. Profitable. But that wasn’t enough for you, was it?”
Tzarkev said nothing.
“Let me ask you a different question. Do you know what power is?”
“Of course I do,” Tzarkev spat. I have power. Camoran is mine. It’s been mine for years. These people answer to me. They act in fear of me.”
“That isn’t power. You have, sorry, had influence. You gave orders and people followed them. If they didn’t, you enforced those orders. You had a tenuous control bolstered by your reputation and don’t get me wrong, building what you have after coming from what you did, it’s impressive. That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about power. Real power.The kind that means a man a full Causeway and a galaxy away can compile a full dossier on some junkie thug beating his chest atop a filthy scrap pile on a filthy moon orbiting a –from what I can tell – perfectly mediocre planet. I know what your blood type is, Colby. Do you even know what your blood type is?”
“Incredible. You actually managed to surprise me.”
Tzarkev’s eyes flared. “If you want to kill me, just kill me. I built something great here. My name will last beyond my life. My legacy is in the blood and the stone of this dome. And your name? Your name will get out, too. It won’t look so good for you, though.”
Euphrates uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “Colby, I want to tell you something. The shipments that are dealt out here? I don’t like them. I don’t use drugs. I don’t employ people who do and my employees don’t hire anyone who does either. If I could get around selling the stuff, I would, but there are certain business associates who insist on it. I acquiesce because it’s a deal-breaker for them and the resources and information I gain from keeping them as allies are far too valuable to force the issue. Additionally, they give me a cut of the profits. That never hurts. Being in business with them is lucrative in many ways and it allows me to build from those connections. It allows me to branch out far and wide, creating, as I said before, a web with myself at the center.
“As with any web, there is a problem when something or someone snaps a thread. The disturbance creates a ripple. It threatens the integrity of the thing I’ve spent so much time weaving together. I can’t have that.
“If you had simply stolen one shipment and sold it, you might have been able to get away with it. If not, you’d have simply been killed quietly and dumped in an alley. If you hadstolen a shipment in a clever way – and I mean really clever – you may have found yourself an official part of my resources. I like creative people. That would have been a good position to have. Too bad for you, you were clever in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong directions. You took too many shipments. You dug too far into where they were coming from and you hurt too many people putting the pieces together. You found my name. My mistake was having a weakness in my protection that you could exploit. I admit that. Your mistake was crowing about what you had learned, using my name as if it were some kind of trophy or bargaining chip.”
“But I did crow and other people know now,” Tzarkev said. “There’s even a data tape. You take me out, my people will release it. Your career will be over. You’ll be disgraced andyou’ll get to see how tough you really are when you’re rotting the rest of your life in prison.”
“There is no tape. You should have made one. That would have made things a little more interesting. Your people? They’re taken care of. They were touched first, before we even found you. That’s power versus influence, Colby. I don’t need to scour for hours and knock down doors to try and frantically stop some kind of leak. When I turn my attention to a problem, that problem ceases to be. That’s what this meeting is about. That’s what I wanted to drive home to you: when I leave here, you will cease to be. Colby Tzarkev? Never heard of him. Skel? Is that some kind of drink? This legacy you think you’ve built is nothing but paper reports. Shredded, burned, the ashes spread on the wind.”
Tzarkev opened his mouth to scream a retort but one of the two guards stuffed his mouth with a thick cloth. It had been soaked in kerosene for no other reason than to make the experience more insufferable. Euphrates stood and donned a pair of satin gloves that matched his jacket. His second bodyguard handed him a heavy pistol.
Inside Twizzted, a man who had successfully evaded the law after embezzling thirty million chits from his employer decided to share the wealth by buying the entire club a round of drinks. The resulting cheer of approval drowned out the gunshot.