Absolute Zeroes Chapter Three

Prologue
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Chapter Three

Things (Metaphorically, Hopefully) Blow Up
   The Causeways. Rips in space that granted faster-than-light travel to galaxies that had – for millennia – gone undiscovered until the Unveiling. Nearly a thousand years previous, astronomers on Terra Prime and the surrounding colonies looked to the stars in bafflement as black holes around the universe either disappeared entirely or transformed into something… else. Something quite different. These new creations existed as shimmering portals of sorts that defied scientific laws and explanations.

   Panic had set in at first as the news was relayed to the general public. Alarmed, intensive studies followed when nothing else happened immediately. Scientists struggled to figure out what this new development meant in the cosmic sense. Was their galaxy doomed? Was death around the corner?

   And still nothing seemed to change.

   More experiments kicked off. Satellites were sent out to test the gravitational pull around the anomalies. They found no pull at all. More satellites were sent to test for elemental compositions. None of what they found registered on any comprehensible scale. Obviously the next step was to shoot things into it, so rockets with video and recording devices were sent into the tears. They passed through without trouble at first, but as streaks of light seemed to pass by at unfathomable, unceasing speeds, the cameras gradually broke down. The rockets were lost soon after.

   It took decades and billions of dollars to design a machine capable of withstanding the strange energies existing within the rifts. Further and further, the spacecrafts would push through. And then, one day, an unmanned shuttle dubbed Heritage 12 found itself in another galaxy.

   Another thriving, populated galaxy just as confused as Humankind’s own.

   Things moved quickly after that. The Dyr – a race of Humanoids (though they would resent this description) evolved from animals close to those on Terra Prime, and from a homeworld equally similar – were the first to make return contact, reverse-engineering the hardware that allowed travel through the breaches. War broke out soon after, then halted as more races began to arrive, and then war began again.

   For a hundred years, the universe was in conflict as members of several species, all alien to each other, struggled to gain dominance even as they failed to understand their evolving situation. It was unity through ignorance that finally slowed the bloodletting. Dialogue was opened. Resources were exchanged. Slowly, a Council was established.

   Once a relative peace and understanding was established, the richest in resources among them set out to make the Causeways safer to travel through. Massive floating arches were crafted and carefully placed on either side of every breach they could find, to help prevent hapless travelers across the cosmos from flying into one unprepared. Specific ships were fitted with the failsafe technology required to survive passing through. Each race devised their own name for it in an effort to take ownership: Humans called them gate guards; the Dyr called them latchkeys; the Murasai referred to them as sal harnak. The only holdouts were the Ilo Eronites, who were powerful but few in number and had little interest in petty power struggles or naming conventions.

   Soon the vastness of space found itself moderately congested by these black-turned-wormholes. Lines formed, waiting for the arches to flash a confirmation that it was okay to pass through. There had been no documented crashes in a Causeway yet. Nobody knew if it was possible, or what would happen should a collision occur. No one wanted to find out.

   Lines. Flashing green lights. Wait times.

   Behind the pilot’s controls of the Sol Searcher, with Archimedes snoring in the seat behind him, Grey Toliver flashed a rude gesture towards the massive freighter in front of him. “Least slagging favorite part of this slagging job,” he muttered.

   The lights on the arch flashed red, caring not at all about the plight of couriers.
*****
   “Now say ahhh…”

   The little girl on the table opened her mouth wide and followed the instructions loudly and to the letter. She giggled when the depressor hit her tongue, and then winced when it was taken away. Her hand shot up to her throat, rubbing it gently.

   Nimbus patted her young patient on the leg. “You did very well, Fiona. Thank you for being so brave. How does your throat feel? Does it still hurt to swallow?” The girl nodded. “Would you like a citrus drop?”

   Fiona brightened. “Yes! Yes, please!”

   Nimbus smiled and stood. Her bright blue latex gloves came off and tumbled through the air to the trash can. She thumbed a plastic-wrapped lozenge out of a jar on the edge of the sink and handed it to Fiona’s mother to unwrap.

   “It’s a little red back there. Her tonsils are a bit swollen, but I believe it look like a cold right now and not anything more serious. Keep her home from school for a couple more days, stick to cold medicines and cough drops for now. I’m going to prescribe some antibiotics just in case, but don’t pick them up unless she gets worse or she’s not better within a week.”

   “Thank you, Doctor Madasta. Truly. I cannot tell you how much happier we are with you than we were our last physician.”

   “I’m just happy you and Fiona have a place where you feel you can be comfortable. All I want is for her to get well quickly and for both of you to get back to having fun. Now, did you have any other questions or concerns for me before I set you two free?”

   Fiona’s mother shook her head. “I don’t think so, Doctor. If something comes up, I can call?”

   “Absolutely. Please do.” Nimbus smiled again and opened the door for the woman and her daughter. “Goodbye, Fiona!”

   “Guh-bah, Doggtor,” the girl managed around the cough drop.

   The doctor closed the door after them and then set about tidying up her exam room. The box of sterile gloves went back into a large white cabinet by the door. Rubbing alcohol, gauze, swabs, and a pack of tongue depressors went in with them. The thin paper pillowcases and sheets on the exam table went into the trash without a replacement; Fiona had been her last appointment for the day, so the table would be fine as-is until the next morning. Once she was finished, the lights were turned off and the door left unlocked for the cleaning crew.

   At first glance, Nimbus Madasta was the very essence of aristocracy. Even in doctor’s scrubs. Even without make-up or jewelry or any of the other glamorous trappings one would expect from the entitled. She just held that aura of refinement, that sense that she floated across the room, removed from the petty problems of the ‘common’ people.

   Until she smiled, anyway. Then it slid away, the gentleness running from the corners of her lips all the way up to her eyes igniting the same kind of warmth one would get by the hearth after coming in from a frosty night. Nimbus embodied compassion, as anyone who spent more than a minute with her would say. The very essence of humble gratitude, her station left at the door, never to be brought up or considered when dealing with the infirm. Her patients were her first concern. Her only concern.

   She was very popular at the hospital.

   Any good feelings she had there, however, did nothing to prepare her for the sight of Talys Wannigan leaning against the pillar just outside the hospital’s front doors. She was struck with the sudden uneasy assumption that he was there to see her. His face lit up at the sight of her, confirming her suspicion, though now she was at a loss for a reason why. Sure, she had met the man a few times, but it was always in passing at some sociopolitical event she had attended with Euphrates. Hardly any words had been shared between them, but she couldn’t forget the… slimy impression he had left behind.

   “Councilman,” she said cordially. “This is a surprise.”

   “I know, I know.” Talys pushed himself off the post wearing a smile that, much like his outfit, was much too large to look natural. “Truth be told, I wasn’t planning on coming here. Not specifically here, anyway. I go on walks when the stresses of the workplace become overwhelming, and my walk took me in this direction today. It wasn’t until the hospital sign came into view, though, that my mind got to working on a possible solution to my current woes. But my apologies: how have you been, Miss Madasta?”

   “Doctor Madasta, if you please,” she corrected. “I put in the years and racked up the debt. The least I could get in return is the honorific.”

   Talys gave a bow that didn’t necessarily look sarcastic but sure felt like it. “My apologies, Doctor.”

   “Think nothing of it. What brings you to my hospital, Councilman?”

   “Well, you see, I’ve been having some trouble reaching a colleague of mine. Euphrates. It’s become a bit, ah, I don’t want to say irksome. Inconvenient? Inconvenient. But then I recalled that my friend isn’t so much the lone wolf he pretends to be, and that the love of his life just so happened to work at the hospital I was passing by. Long story short, Doctor, I stopped by to see if you could help me get in touch with Euphrates.”

   Nimbus hooked a rebel strand of hair behind her ear and shifted her weight. “I’m afraid I don’t know where he is, Councilman. I wish I could be more helpful, but alas.”

   “He didn’t tell you where he was going? Perhaps I could meet him there.”

   “He did not.”

   “That doesn’t strike you as odd?”

   “Euphrates is not a pet that I would keep him on a leash. As you well know, he has a job that requires a tremendous amount of attention and energy. If he isn’t responding to your calls, it may very well be that he is simply out for a walk, overwhelmed by the stresses of the job.”

   Try as he might, Talys couldn’t quite keep from smirking at that. “You might be right. If that’s the case, maybe you could–”

   “Councilman, let me stop you right there. In the same way Euphrates would never deign to come into my exam room and diagnose one of my patients, I would and will never involve myself in his work. He is my lover. I am not his secretary.”

   A dry moment of silence stretched between them. The poli smiled slowly and gave a bow. This time, it was deeper and meant more as an acknowledgement of respect.

   “That has never been clearer to me than now. My apologies, Doctor Madasta. May the rest of your day be easy.”

   “And you, Councilman Wannigan.”

   Nimbus’ lips stretched tight in a smile born from practiced courtesy. She walked past the man with a grace that belied the tension in her body, keeping her eyes on her vehicle. Talys hadn’t threatened her, nor did she feel threatened, but there was something there all the same. Something off. A tickle at the back of her mind made her suddenly worry for Euphrates. Talys watching her as she drove away served only to make that feeling worse.
*****
   Archimedes’ mind was aching with focus as he tried to make sense of the battlefield in front of him. His opponent was a clever one. One wrong move would surely spell his quick destruction. Every decision needed to count. With the weight of that responsibility fully settled on his shoulders, he took one trembling hand and moved a black horseman three circles to the left.

   Caesar’s eyebrows lifted at the same time Archimedes’ fingers did. “That’s your move? Huh. Okay. If you want to change your mind, though, I’m willing to make a one-time exception to the rules.”

   “I know what you’re trying to do.”

   “Hey, if you’re sure, I don’t want to–”

   “You’re playing mind games. Mind games typically come into play when somebody’s feeling scared.”

   Caesar laughed. “Yeah, alright, Carnahan. What’s to be scared of? You’ve never beaten me. That’s not a mind game, it’s a fact.”

   And it was, despite hundreds of games spread over nearly two decades. Ever since Archimedes and Caesar had found an old dakarrat board at a yard sale in their neighborhood. It had come cheap as several pieces were missing. Grey helped them fashion replacements out of scrap metals but had little interest in the game itself. It became Archimedes’ and Caesar’s pastime, one they both grew savvy at, but though there had been a handful of occasions when he had come close, Ark really had never beaten his friend.

   “I feel good about this one.”

   “You say that at least once every game.”

   “And yet I notice you still haven’t made your move.”

   “I’m savoring the moment,” said Caesar, though his furrowed brow was telling a different story. He reached out and hovered his hand over a blue chaplain, but pulled back without making contact. The second time, he caught himself before his hand reached a piece but it still revealed his indecision. Maybe Archimedes had a shot after all.

   The intercom in Caesar’s room crackled to life. Grey’s voice piped through, moderately concerned. “Hey, I need you guys in the cockpit.”

   “We’re a little busy at the moment,” said Archimedes.

   “Busy your asses to the cockpit!”

   He shut the intercom off, leaving Archimedes and Caesar to stare at each other in silence. Caesar moved to put the dakarrat pieces away. Ark slapped his hand.

   “Don’t you dare. You’re not getting out of this that easy. If you still can’t figure out a move, though, maybe you can get some pointers from our esteemed pilot.”

   Caesar grumbled and pushed him out of his room.
   Grey glanced from the control board out into the space beyond the viewports of the Sol Searcher. The traffic that had congested the entry point to the Causeway had dissipated not long after the crafts all passed through the rift, with ships headed to different planets or moons. Some would continue on to another Causeway and another galaxy beyond. Others would go searching for new asteroids to mine or a spaceport to conduct business in. With so many different directions to go in, it served as a reminder that the universe was very, very vast. It wasn’t long before they found their ship alone again.

   Or maybe not. His eyes flicked back down to the blinking orange light to the left of his steering rig. He hadn’t noticed it going off until after the Searcher had passed through the Causeway and had no idea how long it had been active. That could be a problem.

   “What’s the big deal, Toliver? I had ol’ boy on the ropes.” Archimedes ducked into the cockpit. He peered through the viewport but turned to his friend when he saw nothing of interest. Caesar stood behind him, rolling his eyes.

   “The comm signal has been going off. For a while, I think.”

   “Who’s trying to hail us?” Caesar asked.

   “No idea.”

   “Have you tried directing the signal back? Hailing them instead?”

   “Yep. Nothing.” Grey scratched at his jaw. “The thing is, I don’t think they’re trying to communicate with us at all, whoever it is. They’re just using the signal to target us. It’s less alarming than say, a weapons targeting signal.”

   Archimedes looked thoughtful. “They’re locking on to the ship so they can follow us, then. Authorities?”

   “No,” Caesar said. “The authorities would hail us, stop us, and board us if they were really interested. But why would they be? We’re not breaking any laws. We took a job to deliver a package. We haven’t absconded with it or even opened it.”

   “Maybe they know something we don’t.”

   “That still doesn’t explain why they don’t just stop and board us.”

   “Caesar’s right,” said Grey. “Whoever it is, it isn’t the cops.”

   Archimedes frowned. He leaned in towards the passenger’s seat and craned his head, trying to get a glimpse of space behind the Searcher. It was a futile effort; the craft’s body extended out to either side to compensate for the narrow hallways and crew bedrooms that made up the interior. Normally the ship’s control board would have a video display running for the top-mounted camera, but the lens had broken months ago. It was yet another item on the not-inconsiderable list of pending ship repairs that were needed.

   “Do you have any thoughts on who it might be?” he asked.

   “Sure,” said Grey. “They could be rival couriers. Scavengers. One of your vengeful ex-girlfriends. But they’re probably something else.”

   “So what do we do?”

   “Well…” Grey pointed a finger at Caesar. “You keep shooting me down every time I suggest arming this bucket, so we aren’t going to be manning the guns. I guess we’re just going to have to haul our asses to Peloclade and hope our tail is content just to follow.”
*****
   As a child, Euphrates could never sleep while on the move, and certainly never while on a spacecraft. Growing up in poverty, the idea of stars just outside the metal walls he was pressed against excited him, and the unfamiliar jostling during take-offs and landings kept him skittish and more than a little nauseous. With car rides across the country, it was a little bit different; his impatience to reach his destination kept him energized and awake until his young body couldn’t take it anymore and finally succumbed to exhaustion.

   It took years for him to discover the usefulness of an in-transit nap. Not everything could be solved with a video call or a holo-meeting. His obligations both legal and otherwise had grown to encompass so many different things that he found himself traveling constantly. Catching a brief moment of shuteye gave respite to a mind that was constantly turning over, relentlessly searching for opportunities to exploit. By the time his foot hit pavement after a long drive or he descended an off-ramp, he was back to operating at full capacity.

   His return to Thorus after his meeting with Serrano was no different. The bounty hunter’s involvement effectively took the package off of his list of concerns until the time came that it was actually in his possession. He was able now to devote his full attention to the trade issues with the Ryxan.

   “Who is driving?” he asked the steward once the craft had landed. He pulled a cushioned ring from around his neck and tossed it onto the seat next to him. His briefcase was pulled from beneath his seat, the latches checked to make sure they were secure.

   “Rollo, sir.”

   “Good. Call ahead so he’s ready. Tell him I’ll be going to the CED.”

   The steward led the way to the door of the aircraft and pulled a lever next to the open portal. A thick box at the base of the entrance slid away from the craft and unfolded into a thin staircase leading down to the ground. Euphrates stepped out into a bright, cool day. A smattering of gray clouds in the distance hinted at the possibility of rain later in the afternoon.

   That would be fine. The planet could use some water, and he planned on being in an office for most of the day, anyway. The Center for Element Distribution was a notoriously droll place full of scientists who wanted little to do with politics, but Euphrates had demanded an emergency meeting. He needed to know what the absolute bare minimum amount of the Ryxan’s oil was necessary to prevent any serious problems for Human industry.

   All this for oil, he thought and scowled. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

   The left side of his chest vibrated. Left inside pocket. His personal comm unit, then. Rollo stood by the back seat of a long, dark blue car and held the door open. Euphrates waved at the driver with his left hand and retrieved the comm with his right.

   “This is Destidante.”

   “Hello, my love,” purred the voice from the other side. His body flushed with a sudden warmth. “Are you home?”

   “Just landed, actually. What’s going on? Did you manage to get in a break from work?”

   “I got off early today. Which was nice, honestly. I love my patients, but sometimes I just need an afternoon to myself.” Nimbus took a deep breath as if she were about to add something else, then held it. She let it out a moment later, off to the side, away from the comm. Euphrates heard it anyway.

   “What’s wrong?” he asked. He slid into the back seat of the car and waved Rollo to the front, opting to close the door himself.

   “Nothing. Well, I was just thinking… I was hoping to expand the gardens this summer. I was given some new strains to plant as a gift from some of the ladies in the office.”

   Safely far away from her view, he raised a hand in bemusement. “What– yes, of course. You don’t need to ask me for things like that. It’s your home as well, Nimbus.”

   “Even so, I wanted to talk to you about it first. I think communication in a relationship is important, even for things like this.” She paused again. Euphrates half-expected her to ask what color flowers he would prefer she plant next. Instead, she said, “Talys Wannigan stopped by today.”

   Euphrates felt the world freeze around him. He blinked a few times, sure he had heard her wrong. She added nothing to convince him. “He stopped by. Stopped by the house?”

   “The hospital.”

   “He came by your work?” He heard his voice crack with incredulity and cringed. “What did he say to you?”

   “He wanted to know where you were and why you were ignoring his calls.”

   “That’s it?”

   “Yes.” Concern edged into Nimbus’ voice. “Is everything alright, Euphrates? Is something going on?”

   “No, nothing is going on. What did you tell him?”

   “I told him I didn’t know where you were, because I didn’t, although even if I did I hope you trust that I wouldn’t just tell somebody that.”

   “Of course I know, love. Of course I do. Look, I’m going to let you go. I’ll see you tonight at the house.”

   “Is everything alright?” she asked again. Euphrates bit the inside of his cheek.

   “Everything is fine. I love you.”

   “I love you, too.”

   Euphrates switched off the call and slid the comm unit back into his pocket before he could throw it against the window. His hands clenched and unclenched around the leather curvature of his seat. He took deep breaths. He counted to ten. He continued on to twenty.

   Once he felt enough control had returned to him, he called up front to Rollo. “We’re going to have to reschedule with the CED. Take me to Parliament instead. Another meeting his suddenly taken priority.”
*****
   The three co-captains of the Sol Searcher stared fixedly at a blue screen in the center of the control console. The screen displayed a graphic representation of their ship with a grid overlay indicating the separate shield panels. It also functioned as a proximity alert and an indicator for any nearby energy signatures. It was how they kept the Searcher from crashing into anything while their external camera was damaged.

   It was also how they knew that the ship pursuing them had grown uncomfortably close.

   “They’re really gunning it,” murmured Grey. “They’re pushing their ship harder than I would trust this hunk of junk to do.”

   “It’s a hunk of junk that you picked,” Archimedes pointed out.

   “And one that I love.” Grey shot back, “but I’m not going to pretend it’s something that it isn’t.”

   Caesar cleared his throat. “Is anyone else wondering if they’re going to tell-” The comm finally crackled with activity. “Never mind.”

   “Couriers,” said the voice over the comm, sounding like rocks in a tumbler. “Couriers, come in. Come in. Are you receiving this message?”

   Caesar sat down in the co-pilot’s seat so he could access the switch that allowed him an outgoing response. “We hear you loud and clear. This is Captain Anada of the Sol Searcher. Who am I addressing?”

   “You’re addressing the Captain of the Grim Pagoda. Glad to let you know ahead of time that we’re planning on slagging you all into oblivion. You boys got any last words?”

   Grey smirked and leaned in toward Archimedes. “I think I know who this is.” Louder, into the intercom, he said, “Taghrin, isn’t it? How are the gonads I kicked up into your belly, they still sore? Or what do you call them? What’s the Bozav word for balls?”

   Beside him, Caesar held his hands out in the universal sign for What the hell?

   Taghrin’s voice came back in, rougher even than before. “The only downside to blasting you into pieces is that I can’t personally pluck your eyes out while you’re still alive to hear me eat them.”

   “Hey, moron. You realize you can’t blow us up, right? If you do, the package goes up with us and you’re out of a payday. So how about you just keep on following us to Peloclade and we can let the authorities help us hammer out Right of Possession?”

   “Or we could just knock a hole in your hull and grab the package after you freeze to death.”

   Archimedes nodded to himself. “That would probably work.”

   “Shut up, Ark,” Grey and Caesar both snapped. The static of the intercom disappeared, indicating the bandit’s ship had ended the transmission. The blinking light went dead with it.

   “They’re all talk,” Grey said after a moment. Caesar shook his head.

   “You do recall that one of them has a rap sheet for murder, yes?”

   “Bah,” said Grey. “Killing someone planetside is one thing. Wrecking a ship and murdering the crew is different. There are audio logs and travel records involved. It would take some serious balls, and we’ve already established that I kicked-”

   The rest of his sentence was drowned out by an obnoxiously loud buzzing sound. Archimedes slapped at a button to shut the alarm off. The control panel was awash in red emergency lights, a secondary alert that took the captains’ hearts and dropped them into the pits of their stomachs.

   Weapons had just been locked on the Searcher.
*****
   Rollo pulled the car into the private lot beneath the Parliament building. Several spaces were open – most of the politicians gone for the day – and he found a spot to park near the elevator. Euphrates was out and moving before the vehicle was fully stopped. A woman held the elevator door open for him until he was able to get inside.

   He glanced over to give his thanks and realized he knew her. Carol Sharma. She was some kind of custody lawyer. Euphrates had purposefully made her acquaintance on the slim possibility he might one day need to know the best way to leverage someone’s children against them. Euphrates nodded at her and pressed the button for Talys’ floor.

   “Councilman Destidante,” she said, beaming. “I’m surprised to see you here so late in the day. How are you?”

   “To be honest, Carol, I am positively seething with rage.”

   “Oh, I… okay.”

   The rest of the elevator ride was quiet.

   Euphrates reached his destination first and stepped out without a word. He strode through the rows of desks and straggling workers with a singular focus. At the back end of the floor was Talys Wannigan’s office. A young woman with bleached-blonde hair sat just outside the door. She was setting the phone down when she caught sight of him. Her eyes widened.

   “Councilman Wannigan is busy right now,” she said, standing. “If you want, I can-”

   “Quiet, intern,” he responded, breezing past her. His hand gripped the doorknob and it twisted freely in his grip. It occurred to him in a fleeting thought that it would have looked absurd had a locked door stopped his righteous indignation in its tracks.

   “I’m not an intern, Councilman. I’m a full-time–”

   He closed the door behind him and turned the deadbolt, muffling her response. Talys Wannigan was standing over his desk, examining a handful of reports. He looked up at the sound of Euphrates’ entrance. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it.

   “Why, Councilman Destidante, it’s good to see you. I’ve been looking for you all day. It’s lucky you caught me before I left.”

   “It wouldn’t have mattered,” Euphrates snarled. “I would have found you. I always know where you are.”

   “Is that so?”

   “It’s so.” Euphrates rounded the desk and approached the other man. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. “You are audacious, Talys, to invade my lover’s work.”

   “It was hardly an invasion. I reached out to you multiple times and you didn’t respond. I feared for your well-being. I happened to be passing the hospital and I thought she might be able to ease my concerns.”

   Euphrates resisted the urge to grab the man by the neck. “There are some unspoken rules in what you and I do. They are important ones. Especially as regards to dragging unaffiliated family and friends into conflict. Whatever your problem is with me, it should stay focused on me.”

   Any sign of geniality left Talys’ face. “It doesn’t work like that, Destidante. Not with a snake like you. It’s important that you understand I see you exactly for what you are.”

   “Stay. Away. From Nimbus.”

   Talys leaned in until their noses were nearly touching. “Or what?”

   There was a thin metal rectangle in Euphrates’ right pocket. His finger traced the outline of it through the fabric of his pants. A small button on the side, when pressed, would release a sharp little blade from one end. Carbiron. It would cut through flesh like paper.

   It would be quick, he thought. A swift blow to the solar plexus to knock the wind out of him. Hit the carotid, twist the knife. That’s all it would take.

   The right side of his chest vibrated, pulling him out of the fantasy. Other thoughts rushed to mind: the secretary, Carol Sharma, surveillance cameras. It would be difficult to guide the Human race from a prison cell. His lip curled in disgust.

   “And here I thought you were at least smart enough to know that when you see a snake, the last thing you should do is step within striking distance.”

   Euphrates backed away, out of stabbing range. It was time to leave. If Jeth Serrano was calling him already, it had to be something important, and he gained nothing by prolonging this pissing match with Wannigan.

   “No foreplay and only ten seconds of action?” Talys called after him. “It’s a wonder Doctor Madasta stays with you at all.”

   The barb meant nothing and Euphrates let it fall behind him as such as he headed toward the elevator. The secretary tried to admonish him for barging past, but he simply barged past again. Once the doors of the lift were closed, he pulled the comm from his pocket and snarled into it.
*****
   “What?”

   Euphrates sounded pissed. Jeth glanced across the cockpit to his partner, but Crajax was focused on the action through the viewport.

   “There’s been a development.”

   “What kind of development?”

   “Well, it wasn’t hard tracking down the couriers. We’re through the Causeway and partway to Peloclade, but it looks like, ah, it looks like somebody else has it out for these guys. There’s an unidentified ship currently lighting them up.”

   There was a sharp inhalation of breath on the other end of the line. “I already told you what I wanted. Make sure that package isn’t destroyed. Reach me when it’s finished.”

   The call cut off abruptly. Jeth tucked his comm unit away and gripped the steering rig of his ship, the Mathra D’abai. Crajax pried himself away from the one-sided dogfight to look at his partner.

   “What did he say?”

   “He said proceed like normal.”

   Crajax smirked. “Whoever is flying that courier rig is a hell of a pilot.”

   “I do not care. We’ve still got to bail him out.”
*****
   “Now!” cried Archimedes.

   Grey jerked the controls to the right and a set of blaster bolts streaked past the Searcher. Archimedes was watching the display intently, waiting for signs of energy output spiking behind them. Grey was using his prompts to make evasive maneuvers. They were still alive, but they hadn’t been able to dodge everything, and their shield panels were on their last legs.

   “What’s that?” asked Caesar, pointing at the bottom of the screen. A larger blip had popped up where there was nothing before.

   “I think that’s another ship,” said Archimedes.

   “Is that good or bad?”

   “How the hell am I supposed to know? Left, Grey! Now!”

   Grey shifted the steering rig but he wasn’t quite fast enough. A bolt connected with the back end of the Searcher and a shudder rolled through the ship. The navigation system blinked out, replaced by a blank black screen. The image returned a few seconds later, this time flickering intermittently.

   Once the bandits had started firing, Grey knew it wasn’t likely that they would make Peloclade without a miraculous intervention. There were a few planets on the way, though, and he had picked up speed in their direction, hoping he could reach something before they were disabled or destroyed. He could see one of them coming up on their starboard side.

   Archimedes leaned closer to the control board. “Energy output on the screen… it looks like the newcomers are firing on our bad guys!”

   “That’s great,” muttered Grey. He glanced past Caesar, through the viewport. “But it doesn’t mean anything. What’s that?”

   “What?” asked Caesar, eyes wide. Behind them, the bandits banked their ship hard to one side right as the third party fired again. Two more crimson blasts passed them by completely and slammed directly into the Sol Searcher’s hull. Lights flashed across the control console. A low shriek sounded from the engine room.

   “Planet,” shouted Grey, dragging the word out. “What. Planet. Is. That?”

   “Uh. Um. Based on the duration of our trip and our relative location between the gate we came through and Peloclade, it’s probably one of two planets. Maybe.”

   “You sound confident,” said Archimedes, his voice tight. “Go on.”

   “It’s, um, either Taggrath. Primarily a Dyr-occupied planet.”

   “Oh, good. Because the Dyr love us so much. Or?”

   “Or Astrakoth. It isn’t occupied, so far as I know, save for maybe a science base or two.”

   “Even better,” growled Grey.

   “Why is that better?” asked Caesar.

   “I was kidding. Both are bad. We’ve got to go down there, though. We’re too vulnerable in space.” There was a loud cracking noise and the Searcher shuddered hard.

   “Stabilizer’s out,” warned Archimedes.

   “Yep.” Grey turned the ship away from their pursuers. They broke the atmosphere moments later. Flames licked up the front of the craft and it felt like every part of the ship was shaking independently.

   “Zast! Move, Caesar!” Archimedes yanked his friend up from the co-pilot’s seat and strapped himself into place. “Get in the back! Buckle in quickly!”

   As Caesar staggered out of the cockpit and towards the extra crew quarters, Grey continued to wrestle with the steering rig. “I was going to bring us down so we could do better evasive maneuvering, but I’ve only got about half of the control we need.”

   “To do what?” asked Archimedes. He flipped a series of switches, rerouting emergency power to the flight controls. Grey laughed humorlessly.

   “To pull us back up. I’m thinking it’s not an option anymore.”

   “Great.” A jagged crack stretched across the main viewport. The cockpit began to heat up and a shrill whistling caused both men to wince. “There’s a split in the windshield!”

   “I can see that” Grey snapped back. “It’s right in front of my face.” His eyes lit up with a sudden idea. “Toggle the Peregrine drive.”

   Archimedes stared at him. “Come again?”

   “Stagger the Peregrine! One second intervals. The start-stop might let me balance us out.”

   “It might also blow the whole engine! Or rip us in half! Triggering a speed drive during a dive – a speed drive, mind you, that is not a Peregrine, but a patchwork monster you made that has never had that kind of duress – that’s a mad plan, Grey.”

   “Look, the Searcher might be our ship, but she’s my baby, right down to the drive. I know her better than anybody, and I’m telling you: we either try this and maybe die, or we don’t try it, crash into the planet nose-first, and definitely die.”

   Archimedes let out a mouthful of air with a curse. “We’re going to feel mighty stupid if we told Caesar what great pilots we are just to blow ourselves up.”

   Grey grinned.

   Trying not to think about the many, many things that could go wrong, Archimedes reached one unsteady hand across the control console and let it hover over the switch that activated the Sol Searcher’s speed drive. It was a marvel that something with enough power to propel a spacecraft across the cosmos at high speeds was regulated by a simple metal lever. Giving in to reckless abandon, he began to toggle it back and forth.

   The ship began to undergo a series of jolts, jerking the two pilots back and forth in their seats. Grey yanked the controls back, struggling for some semblance of control even as two more cracks in the viewport split off from the original. Below them, the world flashed by in streaks of color. The Searcher began to level out but continued to descend without slowing.

   “Grey,” Archimedes said worriedly. He kept the Peregrine off and gripped the co-pilot’s controls.

   “This is as good as it gets, man. I’m aiming at that clearing up ahead.”

   “What clearing?”

   “The one! There!” Grey flapped his hand at the display screen. A chart had recalibrated automatically to show the clearest flight path, the surrounding terrain, and the nearest plausible landing options… of which there were none.

   “That’s not a clear– there are trees down there!”

   “Do you see a better alternative, Ark? Because I am open to options!”

   Archimedes’ eyes flicked from his controls to the viewport to the monitor. He reached over and pressed the ship’s comm button. It lit up immediately. At least that wasn’t out of order.

   “Caesar, you hooked in back there?” he asked.

   “Yeah,” came the tinny response. “What’s the situation?”

   “We’re going down. Prepare for a crash landing.”

   “Oh, god.”

   “Whichever one you pray to, pal.”

   Archimedes flipped the button back to its inactive position and focused on the matter at hand. He and Grey gave a single nod to each other and then strained to steer their ship towards the clearest patch of forest available to them.

   They plunged into the foliage like an apocalypse. The sound of trunks snapping around the wings of the Sol Searcher was near-deafening. Greenery rustled against and stained the viewport. The spacecraft moaned in distress and then slammed into the ground with calamitous purpose.

   Archimedes’ shoulder belt tore at the buckle, launching him forward. His forehead slammed into the corner of the control console. There was a brief moment where he could hear the sounds of scared and angry wildlife, and then he knew only a blackness deeper than space.

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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.