Whatever’s After

I was given a prompt to write about my perception of any kind of afterlife. This is probably a meandering mess of a thing, but I came up with this:

A golden city with jasper walls. Agates and sapphires, onyx and chrysolite, and whatever jacinth is.

I remember my first taste of Heaven, from under a down comforter in the middle of winter, snowflakes falling through my window with a backdrop sky so black it rang blue. I was young, borderline manic with an active mind, and so I had trouble sleeping. I’d rest my back against a cabinet set up at the head of my bed, one side of a sliding set of doors moved aside where rested a cassette player.

Classical music. That’s what helped me drift off at night. Elegant birds swimming through my mind to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Two lonesome lovers dancing in a dark, empty ballroom to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A yearlong journey of whimsy and growth through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The music played at my back, behind my head, through my ears, so gracefully behind the lids of my eyes.

Because of that,because I was such an imaginative child that I pulled things into my dreams, I often found myself also being affected by the books I read. Creepy crawlers terrifying me after the latest Goosebumps novel saw me to bedtime. Magic spells lighting up the sky like fireworks after tearing through whatever fantasy novel I ordered from the school book drive.

So yes, I remember my first taste of Heaven.

Twelve gates of pearl, and streets of gold so clear they may as well be glass. Eternal day that lights the paths of the pure.

My grandmother was a woman of God and wanted to bring me up on a path of righteousness, or – at the very least – general goodness. I was no stranger to prayer, though I struggled at keeping still with closed eyes while someone used their words to speak for me. I worked as a deacon in the church, collecting, counting and cataloging the weekly tithe. Most importantly (to me), I read the Bible nightly. No particular passages, but rather cover to cover (though I would regularly reread the stories that meant the most to me, or that I found particularly compelling). So I remember the winter night I first found myself in the book of Revelations, reading about this New Jerusalem, this city for the chosen loved of God while elsewhere burned a pit of fire. For the unrighteous. For the generally bad.

But in the city, there was no death, no sorrow.  No crying, nor any pain. I dreamed of these things, and this mountain city that was itself a divine temple. I dreamed of the crisp and clear air, and the laughter from within bejeweled walls.

But my fitful sleeping mind would take it further. I dreamed of walking to the cliffside, a dirt path laid out before me, surrounded on either side by snow that gave off no cold. I dreamed of looking down into a deep, green valley, one hand on a singular, twisting tree the rich brown of polished mahogany, capped with leaves of all different colors.

I dreamed that somewhere back behind one of those pearl gates, my always-absent parents were finally always-present and always-patient, waiting for me to return so that we could share just one meal together that didn’t end in yelling.

But I am not dead. And so that taste of Heaven, be it a true and wholesome thing, has yet to reach past the tip of my tongue.

And, undead, I have traveled through these years dipping my fingers into the afterlife whipped cream and licking celestial inevitability from them. I have sampled Sheol and its dead earth, feared the heat of Gehinnom. I have longed for the pleasures awaiting me after my second life and my second death, in olam haba. Or perhaps it would be a seat in the presence of Our Lord and alternatively a great nothingness should I not find the greatness necessary to fill my place beside Him.

In times of pain and anger, I’ve wondered if my struggles would qualify me for a seat in Valhalla should my eternal battle with depression finally trigger an aneurysm. I wondered how lonely the realm of Hel might be if not. Or perhaps it would be the realm of Hades, neglected and unfairly judged brother of Poseidon and Zeus. And after I take that journey across Styx, likely infuriating Charon with questions and observations, would Hades at least allow me the company of Persephone during the long winter months? Not for anything untoward. Just to talk for a while. Just to compare tastes in music. Would Handel be held favorably up to Amphion? Would Chopin be as admired as Orpheus?

These tastes of Heaven and Hell, of Eden and oblivion, of spectral realms and mead-filled halls, these tastes are exotic, they are ancient, they are unclear.

But I am not dead. And so these tastes leave my throat dry and my stomach uncertain of a meal.

Because maybe there is nothing. Maybe my good deeds and my mistakes and my pleasures and my sins will not be held accountable against a feather at the end of my life. Perhaps my heart is in no danger of being consumed by Ammit, forever damning me and barring my escape into the sun-lit fields of Aaru. Maybe my heart is destined only to be consumed by worms and I’m left leaving only memories for those still living behind me.

That would be a shame. That would be a shame, because it means I would have no chance to connect again with you. To see the way your right cheek dimples when you smile, and the way your eyes dart that same direction when you laugh. It would mean I never get to say sorry. It would mean I never get to tell you I love you every day until the very last star shudders one last flicker of light and the very last molecule stops its steady movement, freezing us in a picture we never got to take. One last still-frame before turning the lights off on the universe.

Or maybe we’ll resurrect. Resurrection is an option, too. And I feel I’d be a dung beetle, but maybe I’d turn into a caterpillar and you would be one too, and we could make a cocoon somewhere nice and safe and warm, melt ourselves down into a gooey pile of memories and love, reinvent ourselves as two beautiful butterflies and find each other again. Somewhere without nets. Somewhere without birds.

Maybe that will be our heaven, our Heaven, our Nevaeh (because after reading that Bible cover to cover, I read it back again): a cyclical chance to love and be loved again.

Because I can tell you one thing for sure: I don’t need to have died to know that life here without you is already Hell.

Read in Denver

There are crazy kinds of love. The lava-hot kind of love that steals breath and rubberizes knees. The kind that rushes in like a bullet train and turns common sense into metaphors (just like this). It’s the kind of love that can start at the sight of a sign in the middle of the sidewalk at nearly four in the morning.

You know, Auburn and Gabby’s kind of love.

Read in Denver is the story of small-town, increasingly introverted Auburn Parks, a moderately successful romance novelist who desperately wants to publish science-fiction. It’s the story of Gabriella Baker, an energetic but private artist strick through with wanderlust, searching for her place in the world by taking life day by day. This is the story of two hearts colliding, two minds exciting, that crazy kind of love.

And everything that goes with it.”

About a year ago, I got the idea for Read in Denver while writing an emotional farewell letter to someone I cared deeply about. Around ten months ago, unable to shake it, I set aside the science fiction novel I was working on and set about trying my hand at my first-ever long form love story. I wouldn’t call it a romance, though there are romantic details. It’s more simply just a story about art and love and messiness.

I’ve said to people before that this the most honest piece of fiction I’ve ever put to paper, and so it was difficult for me to push through and finish it. I invested a lot of real things that were said or done, overheard and felt, injecting a fictional narrative with what I hope comes across as authenticity.

I messed with narrative structure. I inserted a couple odd touches and made sure to play with callbacks and mirrors. I put together a soundtrack with and few suggestions but no real directions on how and when to listen to it.

In the end, I’m not sure what I got. Less a book, perhaps, and more an experience. Hopefully a good one.

You can find it for the Nook here: Read in Denver

You can find it for the Kindle here: Read in Denver
Or you can order paperback copies here: Read in Denver
If you decide to take a chance on the book, I genuinely hope you enjoy it. If you enjoy it, I hope you share it with your loved ones. Cheers.

Sun and Moon

​There was Sun and there was Moon. They were lovers, estranged because they had to be, because the universe had rules, and those rules placed a planet between them for all but a few days each year. This was how the universe was meant to be, with celestial bodies knowing their place.

But celestial bodies are bodies like any other, craving closeness and companionship.

For millions of years, Sun and Moon lived for those scant few hours. They spoke of comets kissing and the vastness of space and the glory of eternity. They told each other every time they could that everything felt less empty when they were face to face. Every once in a while, luck would lean in their favor and they would catch a glimpse of each other over the planet that divided them, but it wasn’t quite the same. It was never the same.

Their love was an old one, an ancient one. One that existed before paltry people came up with a vague idea of what love was, let alone a definition that could never live up to the actual thing. For millions of years, Moon loved with a breathlessness that matched his atmosphere. For millions of years, Sun loved with a heat that put her skin to shame.

At some point, they realized that they could be more than their collective existence. They could branch out from themselves – craft a body, an outlet – provided that their love and dedication was pure enough. It would be a risk. A gamble. So they hatched an idea together, as they watched the planet pass between them each day, hoping for a look at each other as Moon did his dedicated circuit around it.

And one night arose that the skies were clear and Moon was exposed fully to the planet. With great effort, a part of him pulled free and formed itself and slid down through the exosphere, the thermosphere, and each layer after, through the troposphere, until his feet touched  earth and he was able to look up to see the night sky from a brand new perspective. There were stars glittering out there, little pearls, pale glass, and none of them could ever measure up to his Sun. But he fell in love with the night all the same. He saw his body, the prison destined to circle the planet, and it glowed and he glowed with pride in seeing it.

And Sun. Sun rode the auroras. She lashed her whip around the shifting greens and purples and slipped down, around the magnetic curve of the world. She settled down and hooked her hand over her eyes as she watched the body she separated from hover in the sky, a constant, a promised heat, a light that flickered and flared with temper.

Sun and Moon had taken the hearts of themselves and infused them with soul and humanity. They left their bodies behind and allowed their love to create something grounded.

Yet.

Yet as accustomed as they were to vast space and the magnificence of the cosmos, they failed to take into consideration that – once they were reduced to a planetary level – the Earth could be a very big place. They did not know where they were, much less where the other was. They were no longer sentinels of the sky. They had become drops in an ocean.

Sun and Moon wandered the Earth aimlessly. They learned things. They loved things. The scent of flowers in bloom. The haunting notes floating from a street saxophonist. A little girl letting a stray kitten drink from her water bottle. A young man paying for the coffee of the elderly woman behind him in line. Sun and Moon learned. Sun and Moon loved.

Sun and Moon were so, so lost.

Sun took up the flute as a hobby, the piping sounds reminding her of the hours just before dawn, when dew still slept on leaves and the stags tread lightly through the forest. Moon took up writing, the obsidian sky beckoning his thoughts, begging them to become new constellations. They played and wrote with broken hearts. Millions of years barely spent together and yet the mere months apart upon taking Earthly form may as well have been forever.

Sun left the home she made for herself one day, left it for a beach, a foreign one, one where her body caressed the water line at night and she could watch herself paint deep colors across the evening wind as the day wound down. She walked across the sand, bare feet, grains between her toes.

That was when she saw him. Moon. Sitting there, just out of reach of the high tide, the waves lapping at his feet, promising to be cool, promising to be clean. Moon was writing poems, poems of love, of longing for the heart behind the body that left him at the end of each day. He had written many and saved them all, but he had been desperate to know where to send them, where to let Sun know he loved her.

Their eyes caught at dusk, across the beach, alone except for the waves, softly crashing, gently coaxing. Sun and Moon, face to face. Then body to body. Finally. Finally.

Celestial.

Infinite.

Eternal.

Read in Denver Disclaimer

​I’ve been working on a love story. Inevitable, I suppose, because I’m really good at falling into it. It’s also an eensy bit ridiculous, because once I fall, I never really know what to do. Since the book’s release is only a few weeks out, and since it has (so far) been met with a ton of support and enthusiasm, I thought you might at least like to know where my fourth novel came from.

First, as I said, this is a story about love but it isn’t a PG one. There is swearing and awkwardness and the occasional sex because love is messy and intimate and frustrating. If you can’t handle the word “fuck”, this book won’t be for you.

Secondly, I’ve said that this love story, this book I’ve never planned on writing, is probably the most honest piece of fiction I’ve ever written. The idea came after I met someone that I thought, given the right time, place or circumstances, had all the potential in the world to be The One. Maybe not. I’m crazy and get attached way too easily and too intensely, but for a while, things were easy in a way I didn’t know they could be and I felt ways about myself that I had long forgotten I could feel.

It didn’t last, of course. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, unless Timing and Distance want to swing by and have a word. She and I are still friends, but we’re distant now, texting each other every once in a while instead of calling each other twice a day.

I wrote a letter that was supposed to act as closure. I have a hard time processing emotions, especially negative ones, and I tend to try and cut things off completely when I think I’m going to hit a dark place. The letter was a positive one. It was all my thoughts and feelings about this woman, about how grateful I was to have met her, and how much she had given back to me. How I would always be around, and that if I ever wrote of her, it would always be fondly. It was a letter I wanted to surprise her with. Tucked into a book for her to find on the plane, with the envelope labeled so that she would wait to read it once she had reached her destination.

And I thought, “Read in Denver”? That would make for a fucking GREAT title, and my mind ran with it and sort of developed this largely unrelated fictional outline.

That woman and I spent one last night together. I don’t want to say it was passionless; we stayed prim and proper but we were both overflowing with emotion. There was red velvet wine. Green apple sake. I had tried to make it a romantic thing, this last meeting between us, or at least something that would be remembered. Something that counted.

I didn’t get to sneak that letter into a book. It was Christmas, her visit, and she had become full up with gifts and purchases. So I pulled that letter out and I read it to her in person. She slid over into my arms while I did, and she fell asleep with her head on my chest and a smile on her face.

We got separated in the night, and I got pretty drunk on what was left of the sake, and I sat and I thought and I hurt and I watched the rise and fall of her chest and I knew that I would never forget it once she had walked out of my front door for the last time. In the morning we shared one last, long embrace and one last, final kiss.

I set about to write a book. Not for her. Not about her. Absolutely because of her, because of the things I felt about her, the things she made me feel about myself, and the way she reminded me how much I wanted to write.

But I found as I was writing it that she wasn’t the only person to inspire the novel. There’s a woman I counted as a muse, who was my best friend for two years and, when I had a bipolar breakdown, who dropped me from her life 200% and hasn’t spoken to me since. But she inspired me more than anyone. She was my best friend. And she said one of the most devastating things anyone has ever said to me, and that I ABSOLUTELY had to find a way to include: “You’re in love with love; you’re not in love with me.”

There’s also an artist from the south, another muse, an astonishing painter I met on Twitter who – in correspondence since – just struck all the right chords and followed all the same roads when it came to how I view love and life and art. She is a huge influence on Gabriella’s character.

In the end, Read in Denver is fictional. The characters are fictional. The plot is fictional. But there are things that are said, and scenes that happen, and relationships that exist that were said, and did happen, and do exist. Just about every character in the book has a soul formed from the existence of a real person. All these things mean the world to me, and if I’m going to write a story about love, I think it needs to be born out of the varying loves that I feel and have felt.

Will that mixture work? Is the book going to be earnest and genuine or will it come off overeager, sappy and forced? I have no idea. Maybe I’m a shitty writer with lofty ideas.

But don’t think of this book as any measure of autobiographical (it couldn’t possibly be fucking further than that), and don’t try to guess which parts are born of reality and which are from my weird brain. Just take it, please, as the story it is, and know 100% of it is born from the heart.

Read in Denver will (hopefully, fingers crossed, knock on wood) be on sale for the Kindle and Nook on August 15, 2016.

The Bedroom Is a Powerful Place

A powerful place is the bedroom.

There is a space where your most valued possessions lie; the things you can’t forget in the morning and want to remember before shutting your eyes for the final time that day. It’s a place of comfort. A place where you can shed your clothes and any masks you may have used to brave the world through morning and afternoon.

The bedroom is where the rest of the world ends and you convalesce. Where you can get the silence you’ve wanted all day. Where you can scream at the walls and blast music that shakes the window looking out to the patch of yard you share with the neighbor you never talk to. Or it’s a place soft notes coax the tears that have been fighting their way out for hours, letting them free, finally, to find a home in the pillowcase softly caressing your cheek.

The bedroom was a place one could feel vulnerable or powerful or free. There was a release in a bedroom. There was an intimacy there.

He was all too familiar with intimacy, release, and soft caresses. He was all too familiar with bedrooms.

And vulnerability.

He traced the rim of the shot glass with his index finger and stared into the amber liquid within. It didn’t reflect as well as he, and he saw nothing in it but the worn wood of the bar beneath it. He was a man so familiar with cold that he had fallen in love with the fire for the way it danced in his chest and made him feel… something. Finally. When it wasnt women, it was whiskey. There hadn’t been a woman in a while.

But he thought of them, often, every one. He thought about how each person he had taken to bed had taught him something about himself he never would have discovered otherwise. Most of those things were good. Not all of them, but most.

Despite all odds, he recalled vividly the drunken nights of stumbling down stairs, one arm wrapped around a woman, their hands running over clothes, craving intimacy and too impatient to wait for the articles to be discarded. A careless hand pushes into a pocket, the apartment key is dropped, picked up, fumbled around the lock until it finds purchase. The door falls open and the lovers fall in and the door slams closed and the lovers bob and weave to the bedroom. Shirts are tossed, pants are kicked away. A sock or two might stay on and the next morning they would both thing too much about it and roll their eyes.

The sex would be frantic and desperate, both eager to please and eager to feel something. Both primed to be vulnerable and be wanted in the midst of it. There were nights when it meant nothing but sharing a moment with someone who needed him as much as he needed them, and that was okay.

That was okay. And it was nice. And it was soft pecks in the morning and an agreement to get lunch soon and six months of sporadic texts and an occasional short, happy conversation when they ran into each other in a restaurant or a bar.

Comfort.
Companionship.
Release.
Acceptance.

Sometimes it worked better than others. There were always other things in play. The mind is distracted. The body doesn’t cooperate. Both participants had their distinct ways to communicate. Even when it meant nothing in the grander scheme, it was an intimate arrangement, an exposure of body and interest, a reveal of arousal and preferences. But it was temporary, an act of validation, an acknowledgement that one could be desired in this world, that one could cause pleasure or serve as an escape from worse things.

It doesn’t always work like that, does it?

He recalls a woman he had had his eye on for some years. A chance meeting. The first kiss. Rhythmic sex interrupted by a call into work and texts that promised repeats of a performance she “couldn’t stop thinking about”. But he had provided nothing special and there was no second encounter and she began dating someone a scant few weeks later. She was married now, years after, and happy.

He recalled a passionate affair. Neither of them could keep their hands off of each other the minute the door snapped shut. There was a desperate craving, a need to be wrapped around each other an irresistible urge to be as close as possible. They were flint and tinder and together created a wildfire.

That wasn’t how it started. It started in a quiet bedroom lit by a tiny lamp in the corner. It started with sitting next to each other and asking if each little touch was alright, assuring each other that nothing was crossing the line. Innocence was found among the guilty and it released a flood upon good judgment.

He remembered being on the phone with his brother when a t-shirt fell into his lap. He remembered looking up to see a naked back retreating to the bedroom. There wasn’t even a cheeky glance back. There didn’t need to be; that call had ended with a quickness.

He remembered an ex-lover that he had reconnected with while mourning the loss of his mother. They had a need for each other that transcended the physical, and they felt comfort in being weak with each other, and they took turns keeping their souls in, holding each other when the world threatened to break them down to ash.

That relationship hadn’t ended well, but it had ended with as much raw emotion as had breathed life into it.

There was a woman who was everything right and everything wrong for him all at once. When they clicked, the world was wide open. They loved each other and took every moment in every place to express it. The sex came easily, naturally, two parts to a whole. They knew what the other wanted and gave it and afterwards collapsed together contentedly.

And when they argued, they were brutal and scathing and cut to the core. They wept for each other, for the mislaid lines and frayed edges. They were perfect and terrible.

He remembered a woman he never expected to love. He remembered the first night together and the panic attack he had because he was so terrified to let her down, and how she patiently worked him through it. He remembered laying next to her, on their sides, looking at each other and forgetting there were lives outside of the sheets he had bought just to impress her. He remembered hours spent, naked, beside her, both reading, both touching enough to reassure reassure the other that they were still there.

He remembered desperately clinging to her because he knew she would slip away. And with a long, lingering kiss, she did. He found her hair on his pillow the next morning. He could trace his hands over the silhouette her body haunted his bed with. Of all of them, he thought he might miss her the most, for her patience, for her passion.

He traced that goddamn shot glass with his finger. He searched for answers in the liquor he knew would light his belly. He longed for connection and recalled fondly every one, every drunk, desperate, passionate, awkward, loving, awful, perfect one.

The bedroom is a powerful place.

AZ: A Space Story Chapter One Part 2

A Space Story Prologue
A Space Story Chapter One Part 1

Chapter One: What’s Illegal, Anyway? (Cont’d)

   Akers’ Storage was the larger of two sanctioned courier pickup lots in Catalasca and one of only seven on Salix. It was a family owned business five generations deep and was run by a Human, old Gabber Akers, who had inherited it from his father some years before. It started as a handful of shacks with sliding metal doors and thick metal padlocks – you could bring your own, but the ones Akers’ sold were often more secure than the options at the nearby stores – and a couple of family friends that worked for cheap keeping an eye and a rifle on things. They were humble beginnings, but Atrus Akers had a knack for finding the right circles to spread a word. That, coupled with a reputation for honesty and reliability, helped the business expand.
   The units filled up quickly and Atrus invested carefully. As demand grew, prices inched up until more units could be built to accommodate customers. More units meant more clients meant more money. Pretty soon a wide variety of spaces were open to rent or store packages until they could be sent or delivered. Atrus Akers dropped Reliable Repository from the space above the door and replaced it with a garish blue neon display of his own name. It was his and he was proud.
   The business continued to grow, so the staff did as well. Akers’ began attracting a lot of attention the more clients and couriers dropped off valuable parcels. Fences were constructed around the lot. Wooden buildings were replaced with metal ones. The doors were replaced with thicker steel ones. For the larger units requiring the sliding variants, auto-lock mechanisms were put in to stop an unauthorized breach. Security camera kept an eye on the aisles separating the units. Password locks replaced padlocks with software installed to shut down any invasive programs and an alert would sound even when a wrong code had been entered too many times. Even the security had been increased once it was decided that Akers’ would be open all day and night.
   Now it was even older than a few of the courier companies that contracted out to it. Gabber didn’t rest on his laurels, though: he would eagerly snatch up a deal with any new prospects that cropped up. New clients was good business. Good business was good money. Everyone liked money.
   Caesar preferred Akers’ to the other courier stops on Salix. Location, for one reason – Catalasca was temperate and busy, a real city with a generally well-behaved populace – but also because the other local pickup lot, Skyline Imports and Exports, was cramped, rarely cleaned, and sat under an ancient bridge in a low-lit part of the city with a history of crime.
   The woman behind the desk had her hair tied back in a ponytail and looked up from her paperwork at them through squared-lens glasses. The little metal tag on her lapel read “Morgan”. The expression on her face read “mildly inconvenienced.”
   “May I help you?” she asked.
   “We’re couriers with ACG,” said Caesar. “We’re here to pick up a package for delivery.” He stepped up to the counter and slid his identification card across to the woman, along with their printed contract for the job.
   “Alright, thank you,” Morgan said under her breath, all routine. Her eyes slipped over the details on the paperwork. Her fingers were a blur across the keyboard as she pulled up Caesar’s profile. “You’re all good to go through, but I need to see their IDs as well, please.”
   Grey fished his card from his back pocket and handed it to the desk clerk. She glanced at the front and back, pulled up his file and nodded. Everyone turned to look at Archimedes. Ark was chewing the inside of his cheek as he checked his pockets one at a time. He set a collection of items on the counter: a handful of chits, one of the ignition keys to the Searcher, a VIP pass to a nightclub on Peloclade. Noticeably absent was his identification.
   “What the hell are you doing?” asked Grey.
   “I think I left my card back on the ship,” said Ark. He poked his fingers into his inside coat pocket. They came out with an expired transit pass. It was a year old.
   “We waited for you,” said Caesar, “so that you could get ready. How are you not ready?”
   “Must have slipped my mind. Could have been the terrible music beating me over the head that distracted me. I don’t know.”
   “I swear to God,” Grey growled.
   “Look,” said Ark, leaning over the counter. “I can give you my courier code. You can pull up my profile with that, right? Compare my mug shot to the mug standing in front of you.”
   Morgan shook her head. “I need your identification. I have to make sure it’s authentic and up to date. I need to make sure there aren’t any restrictions or revocations on it, too. It’s policy.”
   “We’ve been coming here for two years, Ark,” said Caesar. “You know you need your ID.”
   “After two years, I would have hoped we’d be more recognizable. What time do you get off? If you could just make an exception for me, I promise I’ll be right in and out. I would be incredibly grateful and more than happy to make it up to you with dinner or a show.”
   Morgan gave a thin smile. “I’m not interested. Even if I were, I wouldn’t be interested enough to risk my job.”
   “Am I not handsome enough?”
   “You aren’t woman enough.” She appraised him. “Although you’re close.”
   Grey snorted loudly. “She’s got you there, Carnahan.”
   “Just wait in the lobby, Ark,” said Caesar.
   Ark slumped into one of the chairs set against the wall. “I’ll just wait in the lobby. I guess.”
   “Yes, you will,” said the desk clerk. She gave a wide smile to the other two men and handed Caesar a slip of paper. “Your pickup is in unit P-312. I’ve written the code for the lock on the paper there. It’s good for twenty-four hours.”
   “Thanks, Morgan,” said Grey. “You’ve been a great help. Don’t let that guy talk to you anymore.”
   Caesar pushed through a door at the back of the lobby and walked out amongst the long aisles of storage units. Different colored letters marked the aisles for easier navigation. A handful of other couriers and customers passed them by and milled about in front of the units their contracts led them to.
   As they walked, Grey glanced up at the security cameras. He did it out of habit; he had broken enough laws in his life that paranoia kept a snug seat on his shoulder whenever he was in public. The cameras each had a tiny bulb just below the lens. None were illuminated and Grey figured they had their security systems set for live surveillance only. He chalked it up to trying to save power, but it still didn’t make much sense to him not to be recording all the time.
   “What do you think it is?” he asked, bringing his eyes back down to the path.
   “Come again?”
   “What do you think the package is?”
   Caesar pushed some of the moppy hair from his face and frowned. “Something valuable, obviously. Jewelry or antiques, I’m guessing.”
“Antiques fetch that much? Even something that small?”
   “Antiques and art, sure. Fibrelli eggs, for example. They’re about the size of your fist and fetch an easy ten million chits each. At least.”
   Grey whistled. “Good thing we’re honest.”
   “I’m honest. You and Ark are iffy. Besides, it pays more in the long run to keep our reputation as reliable deliverers. We can build a career off of that.”
   “There are career thieves, too. We just need a couple Fibberal eggs to give us some capital.”
   “Fibrelli, and you wouldn’t know how or where to sell one.” The scowl on Caesar’s face looked like it was chiseled there. Grey grinned and shrugged. It was too easy to get his friend riled up. How Caesar hadn’t snapped and tried to kill Ark or him yet was a mystery.
   They rounded a corner and almost ran into a trio of men, two Humans and a massive Bozav. Grey and Caesar stepped around either side of them and mumbled an apology. The Bozav grunted and shook out his silver mane, then continued out of sight with his companions.
   The couriers walked on, eyeing the numbers on the storage units as they counted upwards. P-312 was tucked between two spaces large enough to fit a speeder in; they missed it the first passing and had to backtrack to find it.
   Caesar pulled out the slip of paper Morgan had given him and glanced at the digits to make sure he remembered them correctly. His fingers tapped each of the eight numbers in sequence, the pad lighting up yellow as he touched it. Once the code was complete, the pad flashed green twice. There were a series of clicks as the metal door unlocked and then a whirring noise as it slid upward.
   A single light flickered to life, bright enough to illuminate the entire space. The unit was unimpressive, bare save for a table situated exactly in the center. A small red cooler with a number lock of its own sat on top.
   “Huh,” said Grey.
   There were a pair of loud clicks and Grey’s attention was torn from the package. He glanced up at the door, but it hadn’t begun to descend again. The lock pad’s status remained the same as well. He turned to glance back the way they had come and spotted the group they had nearly collided with. The two Humans led, handguns extended in their direction.
   “Company,” hissed Grey.
   Caesar glanced up, curious. His eyes widened when he saw the approaching gunmen. He crumpled the paper with the code on it and tossed it into the unit. His fingers dragged down the lock pad next, causing it to flare red with the incorrect entry. The door slammed close, sealing the cooler back inside.
   “What are they packing? Pulse guns? Lasers?”
   “No. Those ones shoot bullets. Stun rounds if you’re lucky.”
   They felt quiet as the three men cornered them. The Humans cast a glance either way, looking for security. With none in sight, the Bozav grabbed Caesar by the neck and lifted him off the ground. Grey stepped forward in protest but the man to his left put the barrel of his gun into Grey’s chest and pushed him back.
   “Open the unit,” said Lefty.
   “Piss off,” spat Grey in return.
   “Come on, guy,” said Righty. “Taghrin can pop your friend’s head right off.” The Bozav grinned, serrated fangs standing out. Caesar had both of his arms wrapped over the one holding him suspended, trying to take the pressure off of his airway.
   “The package isn’t yours,” said Lefty. “We’re not taking your stuff. It’s probably insured. You can tell whatever group you contract out of that you got stuck up. You’re in the clear.”
   “You would shoot us in the middle of Akers’?” asked Grey. “That’s gutsy.”
   “We don’t want to, but the payday’s worth it.”
   “Grey,” gasped Caesar. “Let them take it.”
   “Shut up, buddy,” Grey said lightly.
   “No, keep talking,” urged Righty. “Tell me what the lock code is.”
   “Caesar…”
   “The lock code is-”
   “In my jacket pocket,” interrupted Grey. He held his hands up in surrender. “Alright? You win. Don’t hurt my friend. I’m going to reach into my pocket and grab the damn code. Keep your guns on me if it makes you feel better.”
   “It does,” said Righty. “Hurry up.”
   Grey reached into his pocket and fumbled around. As he pulled his hand free, he dropped a silver sphere about the size of an orange. It bounced twice and then rolled to a stop between Lefty’s feet.
   “Ah, hell,” said Grey. “That’s what happens when you rush me. I panic.”
   “What is it, Dawson?” asked Righty.
   “It’s some kind of ball.”
   “It’s not exactly a ball, Dawson,” said Grey.
   “Then what is it?”
   “It’s a novelty wallet. The blue bottom on top, you push it, it opens up. I’ve got a couple hundred chits in there and a meal card to Lorcciano’s. Go ahead and take it while I look for the damn password. I’ll have the company reimburse me for damages or something.”
   He eyed Dawson in his periphery. The gunman’s curiosity got the better of him. He held the pistol steady in his right hand and switched the sphere to his left. His thumb found the inset button and depressed it.
   “Eyes and ears, Caesar,” said Grey. He didn’t quite shout it, but he put enough of an edge into the words that his friend immediately took note. Caesar removed his arms from the Bozav’s and clapped his hands over his ears. His eyes clenched shut. Grey did the same.
   A second and a half later, there was a booming noise loud enough that Grey could feel it in his chest. His eyelids lit up yellow, briefly, and he gasped at the intensity despite taking only a fraction of the glare. He must have forgotten to carry a one somewhere when he was calculating the output. Math had always been more Caesar’s thing.
   Grey opened his eyes and saw the Bozav, though stunned, still held Caesar aloft. He kicked the massive creature between the legs, hoping males of the species had similar anatomy to his own; the wheezing bellow that followed filled him with delight. Caesar dropped to the ground and rubbed at his eyes with his forearm.
   “I’m blind, Barrus,” Dawson croaked. He clutched at his face with both hands. His handgun and Grey’s sphere both lay at his feet.
   “What?” asked the man to the right. “What?” He waved his gun around and then lowered it, apparently considering the risk to his companions should he start firing wildly.
   “You lied to them,” Caesar choked out. His throat was a deep red.
   “We can talk about the merits of honesty later, pal.”
   “What was that thing? It was no wallet.”
   “Really? What tipped you off, the bang or the brightness?” Caesar opened his mouth to say something else. The words were choked off as Grey grabbed him by his arm and pulled him into a brisk jog. “It was just something I cooked up in my lab. Not exactly illegal, but not legal enough that we should wait around and try to explain ourselves.”
   They left the three muggers dazed behind them as the concerned shouts of Akers’ security rang through the air.

   The concussive boom could be heard as far as the front office. Morgan started in her seat and alternated looking at the display monitor to turning to the door each time a courier passed through in a hurry to exit. Ark watched her from where he sat, more interested in her reaction than whatever had caused the commotion. He drummed his fingers on the seat of the chair next to him.
   “Will you stop that?” the desk clerk finally snapped at him.
   “That’s what bothers you?” Ark asked skeptically. “Not the loud, explosive noise?”
   “You’re not bothered by the explosive noise?”
   “I mean, this isn’t a place I would expect to hear something like that, but I don’t see any smoke and you haven’t jumped up to swear and scream about a fire. Nobody has run through here covered in blood or missing any limits. No tears, no news about bodies. I can wait until I know what’s going on a little more conclusively from the, I hope, relative safety of this lobby before I break my neck over it.”
   Morgan paused her panic to narrow her eyes at him. “Do you always talk so much?”
   Ark gave his most winning grin. “Pretty much. That’s why Grey told you not to let me speak to you anymore.”
   The woman huffed and turned away. Ark craned his neck to see what she was doing. On her screen, the software used to pull up authorized entrants to the storage units was minimized it. Replacing it was a large grid of video feeds. She selected one and enlarged it; Ark could make out a concentration of bodies engaged in some kind of scuffle.
   “What’s going on there, in that square?”
   “Mind your own business.”
   “Can you rewind it? We can see how the fight started.”
   “I’ve been trying and it hasn’t been – will you mind your own business?”
   Sighing loudly, the courier started to sink back into his chair. The door at the back of the lobby whipped open again and Grey and Caesar piled in. The former grabbed Ark by the arm and jerked him out of the chair.
   “We’re going.”
   “Hold on, what happened?”
   “Wouldn’t know,” said Caesar a little too quickly and unconvincingly.
   “Where’s the package?”
   “Caesar and I were feeling a little puckish,” said Grey. “We decided to get something to eat first and come back later. In case it was heavy or something.”
   Ark started to ask another question but something in Caesar’s eyes convinced him it would be better to wait. He let Grey push him through the front door and out onto the street. He cast one last glance back at the desk before the entrance closed and caught Morgan staring after him from behind it.

   It was late when Euphrates finally arrived home and he was mildly surprised to find several lights on. He closed the door gently, letting the lock arm itself, and took his jacket off. Instead of using one of the ivory hooks on the wall to hang it, he folded it over his right arm. He used his left hand to pull a small pistol from the back of his waistband and slipped it into his right. The coat concealed it nicely.
   Talys wouldn’t be so bold, he thought. Especially not so soon after showing his hand. He’s too cocky, too eager to play games, too ready to blackmail. He considered the other advisor for a moment. And too much of a coward. There were a great many other figures without the same hang-ups, however. It would take a tremendous amount of wealth, resources and intelligence to trace his extracurricular dealings back to him, but he hadn’t made it to this point in life by discounting trace possibilities.
   He put the toe of one shoe against the back of the other and quietly slipped it off. He repeated the gesture with the other and then stepped quietly through the rooms of his house, his socks masking his steps. The hallway light gave a soft glow over the empty corridor. To the right, the dining room was also partially lit. A single lamp – a golden post topped with glass petals surrounding a tear-shaped silver bulb – stood next to an expensive mulberry recliner. There was no one in the chair, nor did anyone appear to be waiting behind it. In fact, he couldn’t see anybody in the room at all.
   Euphrates’ brow furrowed. He continued down the hall and glanced into the next doorway, opening into a dining room on the left. That room was dark; the kitchen beyond it was not. If I were going to set a trap for someone, this is one way I would do. Use the lights as a distraction, and then…
   But if it was truly an ambush, it was a poor one so far. They would have had a better chance blindsiding him on the front porch. Now that the door was closed, they wouldn’t be able to come in from that direction. Not quickly, anyway. The locking mechanism was keyed to only two biometric scans and the materials it was made from could withstand a battering ram. Inside the home, there were no real hiding spots in the living room. None in the dining room.
   He took a deep breath and stepped past the hand-crafted chairs, past the avorwood table that had cost almost as much as his personal cruiser. His feet pressed into the carpet, prepared to pivot and run. The metal of his pistol was growing hot in his hand. A swallow caught in his throat as he moved into the kitchen.
   “There you are. Where have you been all night?”
   “Oh, for the love of-” Euphrates cut himself off and closed his eyes. He took two deep breaths and then forced himself to smile, hoping it looked convincing and didn’t betray any of the creeping panic he had felt moments before. “For the love of the job,” he said, switching tacks, “I found myself working long hours today. I had a Council meeting. Our people left upset, the Ryxan left upset, plenty of other members besides the primaries weren’t particularly pleased or left not knowing how to feel. I decided to work late in hopes I could find a way to make the next meeting end more favorably.”
   “It was that bad?”
   “It actually went better than I made it sound, but there’s always room for improvement. Talys Wannigan decided to meet me afterward. The man could find a way to suck the joy out of a wedding.”
   “You shouldn’t let him get to you.”
   “Some people have a gift. His is getting to people. It put me in a mood, the mood put me in my office. Believe me, though, if I knew you had come home early, I would have gladly pushed that paperwork nightmare off until tomorrow.”
   Nimbus Madasta smiled at him from the island in the kitchen. It dazzled him. It always did, those beautiful white teeth and the way her cheeks dimpled and the skin crinkled by her eyes. She had lilac bangs and the color deepened the further back it traveled in her hair until a rich waterfall of violet spilled down her back. It was a striking contrast to her tawny tone and made Euphrates’ heart beat a little bit faster each time he saw her. Coupled with the adrenaline he’d had pumping when he first got home, it nearly killed him.
   Probably. It felt like it.
   A bottle of McEvoy’s 32nd Parade sat on the island. She held a glass of the pink wine in hand. He nodded appreciatively. “Good choice.”
   “I was reading earlier and somewhere between the third and sixth overwrought sex scenes, I realized what I needed to fully appreciate them was an impaired sense of judgement.”
   “You picked a refined method for that.”
   Nimbus smiled again. “You really didn’t know I was back from the hot springs?”
   “I really did not.”
   “But you saw the lights.”
   “I saw the lights.”
   “Were you worried?”
   Euphrates laughed. He set his coat on the island, careful to wrap the handgun within it so that the metal didn’t clink off of the marble surface as he relinquished it. He took her in his arms and kissed her neck. The smell of apricots filled his nose. He couldn’t tell whether it came from a lotion or a conditioner but liked it all the same.
   “Never,” he murmured into her shoulder. “Worry is a foreign entity to me.”
   “It’s only irritation, dissatisfaction and determination that are familiar to you.” She kissed the top of his ear. He pulled his head up and matched her lips with his own. They stayed that way for a long moment, the stillness of the house drawing them further into each other. When Nimbus broke away, it was to smile wide and take a draw from her glass. “My, my. I missed that.”
   “Love,” said Euphrates.
   “I’m sorry?”
   “I also feel love for you. Sometimes it even relieves the irritation.”
   Nimbus swatted his arm lightly. “Only sometimes?”
   “Okay, most of the time. I guess.”
   “You guess. Come to bed with me and we’ll see if that guess finds itself on more solid ground.”
   “One glass and you’ve already achieved the proper amount of impaired judgment.”
   “That’s assuming this is my first glass or that you’re an overwrought sex scene.”
   Euphrates’ lips turned up faintly. This smile came naturally. He found the tension had fully left him; she really was good at relief. “There are just a couple things I need to do before calling it a night. I can meet you in bed or come get you when I’m done, if you’d like to keep reading.”
   Nimbus nodded. She set her glass down and ran her fingers through his hair. She was accustomed to his mannerism and how much importance he placed in his work. He had proven to her time and again, however, that if she pushed him, he would choose her. He always would.
   But she didn’t want to push him. Or perhaps she wanted to but never did. Euphrates was filled with gratitude. Gratitude and guilt.
   “Go,” she said softly. “I’ll be reading. Find me when you’re done.”
   “I’ll always find you.”
   “Do you want me to hang your coat?”
   Euphrates glanced at the bundle at the end of the island. He could picture the pistol slipping out and clattering to the floor. He shook his head slowly.
   “No. No, I’ll take care of it. I have some notes in my pockets.”
   He stepped away and grabbed the bottle of McEvoy’s. She hadn’t quite finished what she had poured, but he refilled the glass anyway. She took it and kissed his cheek. One hand trailed across his chest as she made her way around him and back towards the living room.
   Once she was out of sight he scooped his coat and weapon from the island and exited the kitchen in the other direction. He passed the short hall leading to his bedroom and continued on to the double doors that opened up to his home office. He kept it locked in the traditional way – a force of habit despite the extensive measures taken everywhere else in the house – and he had to get a key out to gain entry.
   Where his office at the Parliament building was arranged to appear clean and sleek – white walls, white tile, black furniture, crystal art pieces – his work space at home was built for comfort. The walls were devla wood, imported from one of the Wanos worlds, burnt red and naturally sound-proofed. The desk at work was a black frame with an IntuiGlass surface, the advanced systems he used wired through it with network mesh. His desk at home was a heavy thing, thick wood and wide angles. The computer atop it was designed by a number of technicians, independent of each other and with the kinds of materials one wouldn’t find in respectable stores. Put together, the device’s network was impenetrable, its investigative capabilities incomparable. He had back-up files and two other devices just like it, for security in case of emergencies, but this was the primary hub for his power brokering.
   Two low chairs were positioned in front of his desk, backs curved and armrests padded. He threw his coat over one of them and took his seat across from it, behind the desk. His own chair had been custom-built, designed to accommodate a slight curvature at the top of his spine and an extended tailbone unnoticeable to any but him and only when he sat.
   The gun found itself at the edge of his desk. He opened a drawer and removed a faceted bottle filled with a light blue liquor and a glass. Two fingers’ worth was poured into the latter; the former was returned to its confinement.
   He pressed the tip of index finger against the upper right side of his computer box. A red light scanned it from top to bottom and then a thin metal square unfolded itself from the top. Moments later, a digital screen flickered to life within the frame.
   As he had hoped, a glowing orange exclamation point bounced in the lower left corner of the screen, indicating unread messages. He tapped the air just above it and his display was replaced with a transparent gray background. Lines of light green characters flew across the screen. Several layers of encryption rendered them indecipherable. He waited patiently as his own programs translated the message, sipping his drink and rolling the blueberry alcohol over his tongue.
   The decryption didn’t take long. Euphrates set his glass down and leaned forward.

Package existence confirmed.
Package contracted for delivery confirmed.
Package delivery recipient confirmed.
Recipient working on behalf of 1.82.2 confirmed.
Package contents pending, confirmed high value, confirmed discretion specified.
Procession parameters requested.

   He read the message over several times, allowing each line to weigh on his mind and further fill out the puzzle. He had almost missed the rumor when it first fell into his web. Even later, when he went back and gave it a glance, he hadn’t thought it would reveal any tangible worth under scrutiny. So many similar gossip pieces fell apart once time and money was put into investigating them. This message indicated something different. It was filled with confirmations.
   Euphrates was intrigued now. Deeply so. He had to know what was in that package.
   He downed the rest of his liquor in a single gulp and set the glass aside. A casual wave of his left hand brought up a keyboard projection. His reply was curt, to the point. Details could wait for the morning. There was a woman waiting for him, after all.

AZ: A Space Story Chapter One Part 1

Character Spotlight: Ark Carnahan
Character Spotlight: Caesar Anada
Character Spotlight: Grey Tolliver
Character Spotlight: Euphrates Destidante

A Space Story Prologue: Lessons in (Ir)Responsibility

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.
   Vvvvttt.
   Whup-whup-whup-whup.
   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.
   He sighed.
   “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?”
   “No.”
   “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.”
   “Got it.”
   “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?”
   “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?”
   “The news.”
   “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.”
   “Don’t care.”
   “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.”
   “Ahem.”
   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.

A Space Story Chapter One Part 2