Chapter One: What’s Illegal, Anyway?
Three years later…
The courier’s office had lines but they didn’t go anywhere. They were products of restless bodies arranging themselves in a visible manner while they waited impatiently for their turn to be called. Chairs would have been nice, and indeed there had been some in previous years, but the Aventure Courier group found that when a spot of leisure was available to the publice, it was only a matter of time until transients filled it. Instead of dealing with the hassle of keeping the riff-raff out, it was decided that job acquisition would stay an in-an-out, business-focused arrangement involving people who actually needed to be there.
Which did nothing to placate Caesar’s tired legs. He sighed and glanced around the crowded common room. Members of a half dozen races crossed their arms irritably, sighed loudly and shifted their weight from foot to occasionally clawed foot. Through a pair of glass doors, they could several large desks with ACG employees seated comfortably. That was where the jobs were selected and each time a courier stood up with a commission ticket in hand, the rest of them held their breath in anticipation.
A hatch above the doors popped open and a device emerged. It was oval in shape and constructed from polished chrome save for a single blue lens front and center and the four aero-polymer wings at the back that allowed it to flit around the common room. They looked up as one – as they had every time a seat freed up – and followed its flight path while it made its rounds.
The drone stopped at Caesar’s place in the line. It dropped down at a controlled pace until it was even with his head and then turned so the lens could get a proper angle on his face. A red light blinked to light at the bottom.
“State your name, ship classification and the name of your craft,” it buzzed.
“Caesar Morelo Anada. C-ranked courier ship. Designated Sol Searcher.”
“Captain Anada, please make your way to Center Twelve. Aventure Employment Agent Bazregga will see you.”
“Thanks, robot thing.”
Caesar nodded sheepishly to the others as he shuffled past them into the next room. They weren’t particularly quick in getting out of his way and he felt a twinge of guilt despite having waited just as long as most of them. Once he was past the glass doors, he turned his eyes away from his peers and toward the columns placed between each desk. Each column had a brass plate fixed to it displaying a number in progressive order. He made his way past eleven of them, but it wasn’t until he had reached his destination that he realized it wasn’t the first time he had met Agent Bazregga.
“Hello again,” he said, forcing a cheer he didn’t feel from his ribs and out through his teeth.
“Sit down, Captain,” Bazregga said. She waved one clawed hand towards the seat in front of her desk. He plopped down into it and squirmed in an attempt to get comfortable. It never worked, and he continued believing the chairs were designed to be unpleasant so couriers would be encouraged to stay as briefly as possible.
The agent was a Skir, with mottled purple skin denoting her gender. Her bunched face seemed small in comparison to the ridged cranial crest that stretched behind her. Four nasal holes shared a gap above her mouth and the skin around them flared when she exhaled sharply.
So she wasn’t in a good mood. Great. This was going swimmingly already.
“Pilot’s license and ship registration.”
“Certainly.” Caesar fished from his back pocket a pair of data cards, the edges long worn down into smooth curves, and slid them across. Bazregga scanned them and squinted down at the information scrolling along her side of the desk. She grunted.
“Any outstanding warrants for you or your crew?”
“Uh, no.” He scratched behind his ear. She had an ability to make him nervous even though he had done nothing wrong. He suspected she knew this, too, by the way she continued to stare at him without blinking. Skir had eyelids. He knew they did.
“Any no-fly orders for your ship?”
“No, is there… does it say that there?” he asked. “When you scanned my cards? Because I swear, I can’t think of-”
“It does not.”
“Oh, good. Then…”
“But computers make mistakes.”
Caesar raised an eyebrow at that. “How often does that happen? My cards are current.”
“Often enough that I feel the need to ask, Captain.” Bazregga typed something into her system. “What is the current number of your crew?”
“Three permanent, including myself.”
“Do you pick up temporary crew often? Do you sublet jobs to freelancers?”
“I wouldn’t say often, no.”
“How regularly, then? And are you aware that when subletting jobs, you need to file it with an Aventure agent before pick-up is made so that arrangements can be made regarding occupational insurance and liability agreements?”
She gave him the stare again as she spoke and Caesar avoided eye contact. He focused instead on the edge of the desk closest to him and picked at the arm of the chair. “We don’t sublet jobs. As far as crew, I don’t know. We have a friend on board every now and then.”
“But not a certified courier?”
“Nor a freelancer?”
“I don’t think I even know a freelancer on a first name basis. Grey or Ark might, but-”
“So by not often you mean never,” Bazregga interrupted with a scowl. “So you could have just said three.”
Caesar tried a smile. It had no effect. “I suppose I could have just said three. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“That would have sufficed.”
“Captain Anada, do you have any idea how busy this agency is?” She gestured around the room to illustrate her point. “Were you blind in that waiting room? How did you manage to find your way to my desk? I wasn’t aware the columns called out their numbers as you passed by them and I’m terrified to inquire as to your capabilities as a pilot.”
Caesar folded his hands in his lap and stared at them. It seemed the safest course of action.
“Would you like to look at the job list and pick something now or would you like to continue wasting everyone’s time?”
“I’d like to look at the jobs,” he said meekly. “May I see the list?”
Bazregga showed off her pointed yellow teeth in a grin that took up half of her face. She pointed at him and he flinched involuntarily. “You should see the options on your side of the desk. Use the arrows to scroll. Select a job for more information on it and when you find one you like for your crew, select the Approve button and sign on the line. Keep in mind that everyone you were waiting with is also a courier waiting for a job and that delaying acceptance may result in that job being acquired by someone else.”
Caesar knew the routine but he wasn’t risking anymore of the Skir’s ire by saying so. He leaned forward instead, taking in the list. Each job appeared initially as a single line with a pick-up location, the drop-off location, the total package weight and the payment offered for a successful delivery. His finger hovered over the Down arrow and tapped it when his eyes reached the bottom of the list. Three screens later, he rubbed at his eyes to make sure he was seeing clearly.
“What is this? Half a million chits to deliver a parcel? I’ve never seen the same weight go for even half that.”
“I don’t look at all the jobs, Captain. That’s your responsibility.”
“Right. Forget I said anything.”
“If only I could.”
Caesar scowled – downwards so Bazregga couldn’t see it – and tapped the job. He skimmed over the details, trying to grasp the important information before some other crew could pull it out of his hands. It was a single item, meaning if the listed weight was right, it was probably a parcel or a small crate. Maybe some kind of antiquity, given the payment offered. Delivery was set for a private residence on Peloclade. That was only a single Causeway away, meaning the half-million payout would cover fuel enough for the trip several times over. Hell, it could even cover the repair costs for half a dozen problems that had been plaguing their ship.
He hit the Approve button with enough force to hurt his thumb. It flashed green, an indicator that no other captain had taken the job while he was reading. The signature line popped up next and he drew his index finger along it in an approximation of his full name.
A paper printed out on Bazregga’s end, a physical copy of his contract approval, and she handed it to him. She started speaking again, either congratulating him on finally making a decision or admonishing him for not already being on his way out of the building. He honestly thought it was a clever mix of both but wasn’t listening. He clutched the contract, already thinking about how he would break the good news to his friends.
Three feathered drakes circled lazily overhead, nipping playfully at each other’s tails. They had flown in roughly the same spot for almost an hour, seemingly in no hurry to move on either to find food or even a quieter placed to roost. Ark could relate. Since waking, he had sat in the co-pilot’s seat with his feet propped up on the control panel. The sun was a warm blanket over him as it filtered through the Sol Searcher’s windshield. He felt like a cat. A really good-looking cat.
“I don’t know how you can watch those lizards. They creep me the hell out. I kind of want to go out and potshot them.”
Ark turned as much as he could in his seat without compromising his comfort. Grey was making his way into the cockpit with a data screen in hand. He plopped his full weight into the pilot’s chair and let out a loud belch.
“Firing a gun on a public landing station always goes well,” Ark said. “I say go for it. Also, good morning, Gray. So glad to see you up.”
“Yeah. I was worried I’d be able to enjoy a quiet morning to myself for once. Thank God you’re always around to snatch away a good thing.”
“If you want quiet,” said Grey, scratching his belly, “go back to your room.”
“I’m already settled in here. And it’s warm. And look at the view.”
Grey made a face over his data screen. He pointed out the window. “What view? It’s a bunch of rusted buckets out there. I’m surprised the majority of them aren’t scrap metal and fire the first time they try to take off again. If half of those captains knew what kind of potential was purring under their asses, those could be fixed into actual ships. Then it wouldn’t be so depressing every time we came in for a job.” He shook his head. “It’s like landing in a graveyard.”
Ark closed his eyes and rolled them under the lids. “What’ve you got on your screen there?”
“You don’t read the news.”
“I do when it’s interesting,” Grey said. He keyed on the audio system and linked in his favorite playlist. The first song to crow out of the speakers was Worldwide Outlaws by the Datacasters. Grey considered it a classic; Ark figured it was the equivalent to trying to dice something with a meat tenderizer – a blunt, destructive disaster that left everyone disappointed and resulted in a goopy, disgusting mess.
“And interesting to you is…”
“The Gamma Men got a new bassist.”
“Umm, new personality cores announced for personal service robots.”
“Useless,” Ark said. “No, wait, that’s actually awesome. I can use that. I’m buying one.”
“What the hell are you going to put a personality core in?”
“I’m obviously going to have to buy a robot, too, Grey. Keep up. What else is in the news?”
Grey glanced down. “Bandit activity on the moons around Dephros.”
“That’s not even news,” Ark said, throwing his hands up. “There’s always bandit activity out there.”
“Caesar would care.”
“He’d fake it, maybe, if he weren’t out thanking God he isn’t here being forced to listen to what you call music.”
Grey tossed his data screen onto the control panel and turned in his seat. “You know what, Carnahan? If you don’t like it, you can hop your ass off the ship. If you keep yapping about the things I like, though, I’ll drag you off myself and you can kiss your dumpy little hole of a room goodbye. I’ll convert it into another bathroom so something useful actually happens in there.”
Ark stood, the frustration of having his tranquil morning interrupted turning into a full-blown anger. “I’d like to see you try, slog-hopper. Don’t forget that a third of the Searcher is mine. The creditors won’t, I can promise that.”
Both men turned to look at the entrance to the cockpit. Caesar stood there, a familiar paper in his hand. He leaned against the door frame looking unimpressed. The expressions on his friends’ faces quickly matched his own.
“Did you just say ahem?” Grey asked.
“I, uh, didn’t have to clear my throat for real. Don’t you want to know what I was doing?”
“We can see you got a contract, Caesar,” Ark said. “You couldn’t even fake clearing your throat? We’re arguing. That was the weakest, most half-hearted…”
Caesar scowled. “Well, you’ve knocked it off for now, right, so listen to me. The job I picked up for us is great. Maybe the best we’ve ever landed. Small weight, short distance, big pay-out.”
“How big?” Ark asked.
“Half a million chits to hop down to Akers’ storage, pick up what looks like a crate and take it to Peloclade.”
Grey frowned. “Let me see that.” Caesar unfolded the contract and handed it over. Grey scanned it and looked up at the ceiling, calculating. “You’re sure the weight is listed right?”
“I mean, we’ll know for sure when we pick I up, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.”
“Peloclade isn’t too far,” Ark said. “That would leave us quite a bit left over. I could get a new bed.”
“Forget your bed. We can finally get a permit to arm the Searcher and a pair of light cannons. I’m thinking under the front, mounted on a pair of cupolas to allow for a wider range of defensive coverage. I’ll have to wire controls up through the hull, but that’s the easiest part.”
Caesar cleared his throat, this time for real. “I was thinking we could get the stabilizer fixed, seeing as how the one we have right now is unreliable at best.”
Grey scowled. “We don’t need a reliable stabilizer when you’ve got a pair of crack pilots that can balance the ship out.”
“If you find a couple, I’ll stop worrying about it, but until then I think it’s a valid concern and this job is the best opportunity we have to get it sorted without starving between jobs.”
Grey sighed and kicked lightly at the pilot’s console. “I just really want-”
“You want cannons,” Ark said. “We know. It’s because you’re a sociopath. Caesar, my morning’s already ruined. Let me take a shower, hope Grey doesn’t interrupt that, too, and we’ll go.”
Caesar nodded and made room for his friend to pass by. He looked over at Grey and opened his mouth to offer some kind of commiseration to make up for shooting down his plans to add cannons; he clamped it shut again when the stocky man reached out and turned the music up further. Supernova Messiah by Daniel Baltennan pounded through the halls of the Sol Searcher. Somewhere near the bathroom, Archimedes swore loudly.
In person, a gathering of the Universal Council was overwhelming, especially to the uninitiated. Each of the seventeen dominant races sent at least one representative. The average was two or three while the Wanos sent the most, at five. Additionally, each representative had at least one advisor present to take notes, keep them on track and even speak for them on occasion, in their absence. After that came the time-keepers and record-makers. Adjudicators were necessary: impartial, elected members of one of the many less-influential races. They had their own seconds and thirds and small councils. There were also journalists and a small crowd of the general public. In the latter case, these spots were always filled on a first-come, first-serve basis and served as a form of transparency for the population of the connected galaxies who wanted to keep up to date on current affairs.
All told, a Council meeting would consist of anywhere from three hundred to five hundred bodies. For that reason, they only met in person on a quarterly basis, defined by a year on Elagabalus. That was where the massive Council headquarters had been constructed: a densely populated planet that served as the hub for some of the most prosperous interspecies commercial interests.
Elagabalus had sixteen months to its year. For each of the remaining twelve months, the Council would meet via a holoconference. Each race had their preferred location to broadcast from and each room was customized by that race to fit their preferences, though the presentation was largely the same. In the center of a large conference room, the three-dimensional image of the current speaker would be displayed alongside relevant reports, graphs or evidence they wanted to have showcased. A second screen would be laid out on a desk or personalized tablet; this would have a complete list of those present in the meeting. Whoever was speaking would have their name illuminated in blue. The next speaker queued would be yellow. After that, barring interruptions to discuss whatever topic was currently on the table, those queued would be listed in numerical order.
Many preferred the digital congregations. They weren’t as loud or as hot – though the Council hall on Elagabalus allowed for plenty of open space, the sheer amount of people present often raised the temperature to an uncomfortable degree – and the listing system for waiting contributors was far more organized. The virtual meetings also cut down on travel costs and the room and board reservations that went with the trip. Though the meetings came often and the life of a Councilmember was a hectic one, the ability to conduct large portions of business from the comforts of home was a welcome perk.
Rors Volcott, representative of the human race, was one of the few who felt more alive when he was in the same room as everyone he addressed. He felt energized when surrounded by his peers; he had joined the military instead of a theater troupe in his youth at the pressure of his mother, but he had expressed several times throughout the years that he thought he would have made for an exemplary thespian.
Be that as it may, it was the military that had shaped him into the imposing figure that presented himself today. In his late fifties, he maintained the fortitude of a man two decades his junior, wrapped up in a tall, burly frame. His head and chin were shaved bald while thick, gray chops bristled out from his cheeks and connected via a well-oiled mustache. His eyes were the light blue of early winter frost and he gave voice to the calculated thoughts behind them in a deep baritone.
He paced back and forth across his air-conditioned office. The rest of the Council would have him in full display where they sat. He had his own display separated into two images. The first was Graxus, the Ryxan representative he was currently debating; the second was a rotating cycle of several other members, selected by Volcott’s advisor so the representative could gauge their reactions as he spoke. Though Volcott’s words were technically directed towards Graxus, they were for the rest of the Council.
From where he sat at the back of the office, Euphrates admired Volcott’s technique. They both knew the Ryxan was uncharacteristically patient for a member of the adum caste; when it was his turn to speak, he said his piece in full and waited for his opponent to do the same. He never interrupted and he never forgot the points and counterarguments he wanted to address, something few other representatives were able to do without the assistance of an advisor. Graxus’ brutish size and appearance belied his intellect. He wasn’t one to be underestimated and yet Volcott was less concerned with irritating the Ryxan and more concerned with winning the opinions of the other Council members.
The point in contention today was the tripling of the export price for an industrial oil unique to the Ryxan territories. The severity of the escalation itself would have been cause for annoyance but it would have been somewhat understandable if it had been spread among the other races equally. After all, when one is the sole provider of a resource, they have free reign of how to price it. Instead, however, the Ryxan had chosen to pin their exorbitant fees on the exportation to Humans alone.
That’s not completely true, Euphrates thought, flicking through his reports. They had imposed the new prices on the Serobi as well, but as that race had never before expressed any interest in the oil, it was a pointless gesture serving only as the faintest argument that they weren’t specifically trying to target humans.
The snub was seemingly unprovoked and Volcott was trying to rectify – or at least minimize – it before tensions between the races escalated into something more serious. He strode across the floor with his hands behind his back, casting the occasional piercing glance at whoever needed to be brought back into the discussion.
“As has been demonstrated here today and over the past few months, we have been diligent, respectful and punctual in our business dealings with the Ryxan peoples through tens of thousands of corporations and through millions of trades and transactions. Indeed, it has been proven over the last two centuries that, though there have been varying personal and political tensions between us, our commercial collaborations have always risen above such squabbles. Those incidents were unrelated and should remain so instead of tainting the healthier aspects of our relationship. Instead it seems that other interests, perhaps even wounded feelings, are at the heart of the matter here. The result isn’t one of prudence. It’s an attack.
“Or… it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe the prices were simply miscalculated. Perhaps we did something to unintentionally slight the noble Ryxan and reparations should be made. We, of course, would be more than happy to field a more thorough explanation from either Representative Graxus or Representative Tarbanna. Before that, however, we would like to present specific details on how the trade agreement as it currently stands has negatively affected the Human race’s corporate, commercial and industrial interests and investments.
“This is normally where my esteemed colleague Representative Suvis would step forward to address the Council. Unfortunately, Representative Suvis has taken ill and is currently doing her best to rest and recover so that she can rejoin us at next month’s meeting. In her stead, she has trusted the relevant information that she personally compiled to her advisor, Councilmember Euphrates Destidante. If you would be so kind as to give him the floor now and direct your attention to him.”
This was the moment Euphrates had been waiting patiently for. He had spoken in front of the Council before but it never grew less exciting for him. He reveled in having the attention of some of the universe’s most powerful individuals; he lived to have them cling to his every word.
Euphrates ignored the other advisor as he stepped up to the center of the room. Volcott retook his seat and pressed a button on the inside of the left armrest. A podium rose from the floor directly in front of Euphrates and the advisor responded with a slight nod of gratitude before laying his notes out.
He took a moment to still his heart and compose his thoughts. There was no need to rush. To be a member of the Council was to exercise control. If there was one thing he enjoyed above all else, it was exactly that.
“Representatives and advisors of the Council, assembled keepers, adjudicators and witnesses, thank you for your attendance and attention. The task assigned to me is a sobering one, bringing to your attention the relevant statistics regarding our dealings with the Ryxan and the position they have put the Human race in, but it is an important one. Only through understanding the facts can we then attempt to find a satisfactory compromise that will restore stability and civil discourse between our peoples. Now, if you’ll direct your attention to the infographics I’m bringing up in your displays…”
Nothing was resolved by the meeting’s end, but these things seldom ever were. Not in a handful of hours on a single afternoon, no matter how many charts and numbers you threw at a wall. A stand-off of this magnitude was less a tea-time disagreement and more a war to be picked apart over a series of battles. It was up to him to prepare for the next engagement. He had under a month to do so.
The light in the hallways of Thorus’ Parliament of Universal Interest was significantly brighter than it had been in the conference room. Euphrates used the reports in his hand to shield his eyes as he weaved through the attendants filling the passageways. The day had been long enough; he didn’t need to add a headache to it.
“You’re in a damned hurry, Destidante.”
Too late. Euphrates sighed to himself.
It was a testament to the years he had spent training for the political arena that he didn’t flinch when Talys Wannigan stepped up next to him. Volcott’s advisor was a thin man with wispy brown hair that he kept parted down the middle. His suits always seemed to hang a bit loose from his slight frame, leaving him looking inept and ill-prepared. Euphrates knew it was a calculated move that left other politicians overlooking and underestimating him. That was a mistake; Talys was frightfully intelligent and he had a nasty habit of always being in the last place you wanted him to be.
Like right next to him.
“I thought you handled yourself well in there. Better than your first couple times. I’m sure most people left feeling you had actually accomplished something, that your reports were accurate, and they’ll leave it at that. What do you think? How many will actually take a good look at your reports?”
“Our reports,” Euphrates said. “We’re on the same side, Talys. Human solidarity and all that.”
“The same side. Sure, sure. How much of that information did you come up with on your own and how much did Magga hand down to you? Is she even sick or was she trying to drown you in the deep end?”
Euphrates stopped in the middle of the hall and turned to the other advisor. He waited until attendants had passed by on either side and left them alone for a few moments. “What do you want, Talys?” he asked in a low tone. “Why are you nipping at my heels?” He folded the reports in his hands and slid them into his inside breast pocket.
“Professional competitive interest. I want to know what you said that convinced Magga to let you speak for her on this issue. Why didn’t she just hand everything over to Rors and let him handle it?”
“I’m Magga’s advisor, Talys. She didn’t select me because we’re friends. In fact, I’m sure she detests me. She chose me because she knows I’m capable and because she knows she can trust me no matter how little she actually likes me. I’m sure that’s why she allows me to speak in her absences and why Rors never steps aside to allow you.”
If the words struck a nerve, Talys’ grin refused to acknowledge it. “Perhaps, Destidante. Perhaps. Trust is a valuable, powerful thing. It’s probably good, then, that Magga is too sick to realize at least some of the reports you offered up were doctored.”
Euphrates’ eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Talys nodded to a pair of passing women and waited until they were out of earshot. He stepped in closer and lowered his voice. “Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just went up and read off whatever she put together for you before she suddenly and conveniently got too sick to attend the one meeting a month she’s actually expected to be present for. Terrible timing. Really quite sad.”
“I resent your implication that her illness was either falsified or manufactured. I resent your accusation that the reports I presented were anything less than genuine as well.”
“And I’m sure that most people will give them a casual glance and believe them to be so. There would be several layers of peeling needed before something seemed amiss. You’re a thorough man.”
Euphrates straightened slowly, his expression growing black, cold. “Talys, the situation we find ourselves in, as a race, has the potential to leave us in a crippled, vulnerable position as soon as ten years from now if a more favorable resolution isn’t found. It’s something that transcends petty rivalries or peacocking or whatever kind of angle you’re trying to get your tiny hands on. The Ryxan understand that and will be looking for any cracks they might widen, any flaws they might exploit. You know that, which means you know that I have a limited amount of time to prepare Magga, Rors, you and myself for whatever arguments and accusations come from the Ryxan at the next meeting. I did accomplish something in there today, Wannigan. I bought us time. Be careful not to spoil what goods we have gained.”
Talys’ grin widened and he nodded enthusiastically. “Quite right, quite right. When you put it that way, I suppose I see your point. I hope you’ve seen mine too: it’s important that us Humans are all on the same page. That we know where we stand. That we know where the secrets are and what might be exposed if someone were thought to be acting against the good of us all. Or if someone were to step on the wrong toes.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” Euphrates hissed.
“Perfect. Again, well done in there. Masterful performance. I do so admire your work.”
Talys winked and turned back towards the conference room. Euphrates watched him go, the other man’s words echoing in his ears. It took him a minute to realize his hands were balled into fists by his sides. He forced them into his pockets and stretched his neck. It did little to clear his head. Talys was dangerous. He had known that, but the meeting served as a suitable reminder.
He nodded once to himself and filed that note away to be reviewed later, away from the men and women stepping awkwardly around him. With stiff legs, he started home.