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.

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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

Video

AZ: A Space Story Prologue

So I’ve shared some spotlights to introduce you to the characters, and a first-draft excerpt from a scene later in the book (links, for if you missed it: Ark Carnahan, Caesar Anada, Grey Tolliver, Euphrates Destidante, Things Don’t Go As Planned) to give you a taste of this universe. Here’s the official prologue:

*****

Prologue: Lessons in (Ir)Responsibility

“It’s quiet out here.”

            “Not with you yakking in my ear piece it’s not.”

            Ark grinned inside the cockpit of the DeVorian skimmer he had appropriated. To his left, he could make out the lights of his friend’s ship. It was the same make and model as his own, black instead of the blue he had chosen for himself. The crafts weren’t meant for deep space travel, but they were comfortable and reliable for transportation to and from Salix’s three nearby moons.

            Or joyrides. They were damn fine for a joyride, too.

            “Do you think they’ve noticed a couple ships are missing yet?”

            “If they have, we’ve probably got some time left to enjoy ourselves while they come up with a good story as to how they let a couple uni students jack their locked and guarded property. Then they’ll try to track us, but the locators are disabled. We should be fine.”

            Ark grinned, then blinked. “Why uni students, Grey?”

            “Because we’re uni students, moron.”

            “Yeah, but why would they know that? You said you disabled all the cameras.”

            “I did. I was just saying they would need to come up with a story to explain the missing ships. I picked uni students as an example.”

            “I can’t get busted for boosting skimmers, Grey. It would kill my future. You know how many politicians have records for GTS? None. Maybe one, there’s always at least one, but I don’t know who that would be. That just goes to show how much impact a person like that ends up leaving: none whatsoever. Their names are lost to the annals of time.”

            In the other ship, Grey pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I’d much rather fly with a spacecraft thief than a poli who won’t shut the hell up,” he muttered.

            “What was that?”

            “Nothing, Carnahan. The cameras were off. Now we’re coming up on the starting point. You ready, or you want to keep jabberjawing?”

            “You’re an ass,” Ark sang over the earpiece. “But yeah, I’m ready.”

            Grey watched as his friend’s ship dropped down and angled to the left. They had reached Gaster, a moon full of industrial rigs and labor jobs. It also had some stellar pubs full of cheap drinks and the kind of people with large personalities and short tempers. On any other night, they might have landed and seen which of them could drink the other under a filthy, splintered table first. This night, though, was meant for something different.

            Gaster was notorious for its roughneck nature, but it had one other distinguishing feature as well: a ring of minor asteroids. It was the only of Salix’s moons to have one and one of the few places that had been discovered to possess a field so dense. Transports to and from the surface would navigate above or below the jagged space rocks, avoiding them completely. Ark and Grey, on the other hand, found it a perfect place to race.

            The rules were simple: first person to fully circumnavigate the moon would win. Leaving the field on either side, above or below was an automatic forfeit, even if doing so was only to protect the skimmer and – by default – their life from smashing into pieces. It was dangerous. It wouldn’t be any fun if it weren’t.

            The speed at which they were traveling only allowed for brief respite in between each large body. They dipped and climbed, swerved and even stalled a couple times when their zealousness got perilously close to overwhelming reason. The orange and white hues of Gaster were in their periphery, looking much lovelier at a glance than the flat, dusty moon was inactuality.

            “Don’t waste my time with your sight-seeing,” Grey laughed. “This is supposed to be a competition.”

            “Up ahead!”

            Ark watched as Grey jerked his ship upward and dragged the bottom of his skimmer across the upper edges of an asteroid before barrel-rolling between two others. Ark banked to theright instead, into an opening, skirting the rock with his wingtip. He had time for a few deep breaths before the next obstacle came up; he flew under it and then swooped back up on the opposite side like a swallow.

            “Better start paying attention, buddy,” he said through the com. “You’re going to tear that thing apart and die in space.”

            “Ah, it was just a little comet kissing.”

            “Do you not know what a comet is?”

            “I know I’m kicking your ass right now.”

            “I’m better on the straightaways.”

            Grey snorted. “Everyone’s better on a straightaway.”

            They came around to the dark side of the moon. Both of them flicked their hands out instinctively, toggling a few switches. The exterior lights of their ships lit up and their radar display moved to the right of their windshields. Asteroids appeared as blue blips that they zipped around, quiet again in their concentration.

            Ark slowly edged up on his friend, cutting closer corners than was probably wise in order to better his time. Grey responded by pushing his skimmer even faster. His eyes flicked to his speed meter and fuel control. Most pilots wouldn’t run a skimmer so hard, but he knew the crafts inside and out. They were capable of a lot, if you just gave them a little tough love.

            After several tense minutes, an alert popped up just below the radar, flashing in orange. They had come around the bend and were nearing their starting point. The lap was almost complete. The two friends caught a quick glimpse of each other and bared their teeth. No words were necessary. Both crafts accelerated. They missed the rocks by meters as they twisted and dipped. The difference in distance between them was minimal.

            Ark could see that he was slowly taking the lead. He grinned in triumph and swerved around an asteroid only to flinch and slam his hand down on the control that would reverse histhrusters, stalling him. Behind the obstacle was another, close enough that they had registered on the radar as a single blip. He had almost crashed into it at full speed.

            “Dammit!” he snapped as Grey cackled over the com.

            “Next drinks are on you, Carnahan!”

            “I almost had you. So close. So, so close.”

            “You’ll never have me, Ark, no matter how close you get. I’m too damn good. How are we doing on time?”

            Ark piloted his way out of the ring and looked at his watch. He had kept the time adjusted for Gamemon, the city on Salix they had departed from. They had clocked the trip and the race time accurately enough, but finding the skimmers and making off with them had taken longer than they had expected.

            “Not bad, actually. We’ll have four or five hours of sleep before class if we leave now.”

            “Did you factor in finding some place to drop these babies off without getting pinched?”

            “…ah…”

            “So we’re not actually doing that great, are we?”

            “Well…”

            Caesar Anada stopped mid-question as a snore ripped through the classroom. He forced himself not to betray the exasperation and embarrassment he felt, instead continuing to stareat the professor. A few titters broke out amongst his classmates. Behind him, a shock of white hair and two pink ears were the only parts of Ark’s head that weren’t buried in his arms. Grey was stretched out in his chair, arms crossed over his chest and head thrown back cringingly far. It was the latter who had released the nasal rumble.

            The professor was not nearly as amused as his students. “Mister Carnahan. Mister Tolliver,” he said sharply. The two men jerked awake, frantic expressions plastered on their faces. Caesar rolled his eyes. “Do you mind either paying attention to the lecture or leaving the class? My course room is not a rest stop and I’m not positive but I am pretty sure that whatever recycled mattress you have nestled in your undoubtedly disgusting dorm room is still more comfortable than the chairs you’re seated in. For the love of God, you only have two days left with me.”

            “Sorry, teach,” Ark muttered. Grey said nothing. He smacked his cheeks a couple times to wake up. The professor gestured for Caesar to continue.

            “I was just wondering,” the young man began, brushing some of the moppy blonde hair out of his face, “what the likelihood is of the Causeways either collapsing in on themselves or reverting back to black holes. Any spacecraft using them or traveling near them would be completely destroyed.”

            “That’s true. To be honest, there is a lot we don’t know about the Causeways, even in the hundreds of years we’ve had to study them. Their very nature seems to indicate that theywere created or at least reinforced by some kind of… I’m hesitant to say higher power. Another sentient race, anyway. Of all the species we’ve come across and had dealings with, none have taken responsibility for them so far. So there are plenty of questions yet to be answered.

            “We do know that most of them used to be black holes. We know that something changed with them that turned them into something more akin to wormholes. We know that several othersappeared at roughly the same time.”

            “Allowing us to travel to all kinds of places,” Grey broke in.

            “Yes,” the professor intoned. “Several previously unknown galaxies opened up to us. We’ve been exposed to incredible worlds, including some with inexplicable similarities, like the home worlds of the Dyr and the Ryxan.”

            “See? I’m paying attention.”

            “Everybody knows that part, Grey,” Caesar said. “Shut up.”

            “To answer your question, Mister Anada,” the professor continued, “we don’t know. All studies done show signs that they are stable and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The hows and whys of their existence elude us. Because of that, it is possible that they may indeed just shut off or revert themselves someday, which would – as you say – result in a tremendous loss of life. Now, we’ve developed enough colonies and relationships with other worlds that society would likely continue healthily in a great many galaxies. It would just come down to adapting and enduring.” He smiled sheepishly. “We have to simply hope it doesn’t ever happen, but if it does, we probably won’t know it’s happening untilit’s done. Sorry that my answer is more of a non-answer, but there it is.”

            “I thought you were paid to know this stuff,” Grey said.

            “Mister Tolliver, I’m this close to failing you on principle.”

            “I fixed your car!”

            “And I’m grateful, but you’ll see exactly how little that will net you in the long run.”

            “He’s saying you’re useless,” Ark chimed in.

            “I’ll show you useless, you little-“

            “Enough!” the professor roared.

            Caesar rested his elbows on his desk and sank his face into his open hands.

            Cynosure Academy was the jewel of Gamemon, its multiple stories and crystalline spires stretching out over the cityscape. Wide, flowing lawns stretched out around it, the grass glowing a deep teal. Concrete pathways criss-crossed through them, filled with students hurrying to and from class. Others laid out in the sun, soaking up the warmth, reading books and playing instruments.

            It was an inclusive school, designed to be open to men and women of all social and economic backgrounds. Once accepted, the students would choose from a variety of classes and teachers. The prices would vary depending on the quality of the class, but even the more affordable alternatives offered a decent enough education. The tricky part came after graduation, when employers would scan an applicant’s past transcripts and that person had to convince them they were still a better alternative than the guy who shelled out a few thousandcredits more for the professor with more letters behind his name.

            It was a busy campus in a busy city on a busy planet that had been largely populated by humans for the past couple years. There was a decent multi-species tourist turnover but itwas Salix’s moons that tended to be more diverse in their populations. Gamemon had always been designed as a stepping stone for the men and women of the human race in their efforts to move on to promising careers.

            It was this fact and the dream of working alongside the brilliant minds of the SciTech Industrial Lab Organization that preoccupied Caesar’s mind as he weaved through the crowds of gossiping academics. In two days, he would take the last exam he ever needed to take and then the world was wide open, rife with opportunity to make his mark in the world.

            “Caesar! Hey, man, wait up!”

            He winced, sighed and stopped. Against his better judgment, he turned and waited for his friend to catch up. People frowned at him as they moved past and he apologized for takingup space in the middle of the walkway. Moments later his friend reached him, breathing heavily.

            “Archimedes,” Caesar greeted curtly.

            “You left the class in a hurry.”

            “I’ve plenty of studying to do. Where’s Grey?”

            “Ah, he bugged off to catch some more shut-eye. We had kind of a late night.”

            “No kidding.”

            Ark grinned. “Yeah, we-“

            Caesar held up a hand, cutting him off. “Please don’t tell me. If and when the police come around to interrogate all of your known associates, I’d prefer not to have any knowledge that would implicate me in whatever the hell you two idiots get up to.”

            “You’re jealous.”

            “I’m really not.”

            “You are. You heard about fun once and you really want to try it, but you can’t. You will literally die if you have even a small amount of fun. The tiniest amount. You try to smile, whatever grotesque mockery of human emotion that might look like on your face, and you have a heart attack. Right there. Boom, dead.”

            Caesar sighed again and shifted his weight impatiently. “Ark, what do you want?”

            “Let’s go grab a drink. Grey’s being an old lady and I’m bored.”

            “I have studying to do. As should you. Especially you. Nobody’s going to want to elect you to speak if you’re leaving here with middling test scores.”

            Ark laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Nobody gives a damn whether or not a poli scored high on his exit exams. It only matters if they can talk themselves out of having to prove it. Come on, man. One drink. Just one. We used to have the time of our lives, the three of us. Raising hell, having adventures.”

            “We were kids, Ark. At some point a man needs to grow up and find some direction for his life.”

            “There’s plenty of time for that when we graduate. We’ve got a few nights left to enjoy our youth. Then you get to go be a big science geek, I’ll be charming the pants off the rich and powerful and beautiful, Grey will… do whatever he does, probably poorly but the kid’s got heart. You’ll cry into your beakers because you miss us and you won’t even be able to live vicariously through us anymore. It’ll be you and your geeks sitting around, not having fun together.”

            Caesar scowled at his friend. Still, he had known the man a great many years and his words held truth. It was well known that graduation tended to result in the growing distance between friends as life pulled them along different paths. He glanced over Ark’s shoulder to the beautiful academy glinting in the afternoon sun. He pivoted and looked out in the direction of the area commonly known as Stagger Street, a road lined with pubs tailored towards younger crowds.

            “One drink,” he said. “You’re buying.”

            Ark grinned and wrapped his arm around Caesar’s shoulders. “One drink. Of course. What are friends for?”

            The atmosphere on Outer Springer wasn’t natural. The first settlers had touched down two hundred and thirty-seven years before on a mission from the planet it orbited – then called Springer, since renamed – and worked tirelessly to create a sustainable environment in which to build a society. Seven different races joined forces. It was due to their effort that, in a mere thirty-two years, they were able to erect a series of domed cities and an extensive rail system to connect them.

            It was a resource-rich, multi-species feat of engineering and coexistence that had rarely been seen before and never with such speedy results. The settlers became a community, the community a thriving town. Before long, the empty domes became bustling cities and further expansions were constructed as quickly as the materials could be shipped from Inner Springer. The only shadow on what they had achieved was that it took nearly seven decades before any kind of structured law enforcement tried to regulate the population.

            In that time several of the domes had developed reputations as anything-goes locales, safe havens for dealers, smugglers and murderers. Despite the initial acclaim and celebration that surrounded the moon’s colonization and despite the popularity and esteem of the planet it orbited, Outer Springer had come to be known as a backwater sort of place to visit.Sure, there were laws. There were even more general rules to follow and some semblances of an organization that enforced those rules, but that enforcement was questionable at best. To live there, it was almost guaranteed one was running from something. It took a certain type of person to even intentionally visit.

            Euphrates Destidante was not that type of person. He preferred refinement and intelligent discourse, not dealing with the type of people who holed up in shanties and played cardsin hopes they could win enough chits to buy whatever watered-down beer would get them the drunkest the fastest. He had people for that kind of work. Professional, dependable people who did prefer the underworld of the galaxies. They got done the things he was unable or unwilling to do himself.

            Even so, a distaste for getting one’s hands dirty did not mean one would not do so when pushed. To step out like this, to this place, took a special kind of offense. One that could not be ignored. He had thought about that offense the entire trip and though it didn’t show, it incensed him more with each passing hour.

            He found himself in Camoran, a city on the northern end of the moon. It was known as one of the more violent domes, rife with street fights and senseless killings. It was where the man he was looking for lived. When Euphrates sent six of his most trusted bodyguards, it was where they found that man. They contacted him once their target had been properly subdued and relocated; he caught the first private transport he could arrange away from the curious eyes of his peers.

            Upon landing, he utilized a black market body scrambler to hide his appearance from any surveillance and sousveillance equipment he passed by. It did not take him long to reach his destination, a small storage shed behind a seedy nightclub called Twizzter. Four of his men stood guard outside. The other two flanked a burly man strapped to a chair.

            Euphrates closed the door behind him and pulled a second chair over until it sat a few feet across from his captive. He removed his coat, a finely tailored dark purple satin piece, and draped it over the back of his seat. One more moment was sent straightening his cuffs and then he sat. He draped one leg over the other, relaxed. Casual.

            The man strapped to the chair swelled with the evidence of regular calisthenics. There were twice as many cords around him as would have restrained a different man. He was no simple meathead, though. There was a glint behind his eyes that indicated the kind of shrewdness necessary to not only survive in Camoran but thrive. Dominate. Stake a claim as some kind of slum lord.

            The man brought to Euphrates’ mind a saying: pride goeth before destruction. He didn’t subscribe to that belief himself. He believed that pride boosted confidence. It drove a manto set goals, work hard and achieve. When a man was proud, properly proud, he wouldn’t allow what he had accomplished and acquired to break down or be torn away. A prideful man would keep an eye on his assets, his allies, his enemies, his resources, and he would make sure they were all still manageable.

            A properly prideful man would admit he had flaws and would do his best to defend those flaws against attacks. A man like that could be wounded; a prideful man is not an invulnerable one. No, but he can be resilient. Corrective.

            Euphrates was not a man who shied away from pride. To him, pride was a different animal than hubris. Looking at the man he had had bounded to this chair, he reminded himself thatit wasn’t pride a man should be wary of. It was arrogance.

            “You know who I am,” he said.

            “I’ve got an idea.”

            “I didn’t ask you a question. I stated a fact. You know who I am.”

            “Well, you’re a public figure.”

            “So I am. With private dealings.” Euphrates drummed his fingers along his kneecap. “You are also a man with private dealings. You know who I am, public figure, that’s to be expected. But I know who you are, too. You, who live in an area that I should only know by the reports I receive. Paper reports with numbers on them, not names. Papers that I then shredand then burn and the ashes of which I then scatter into the whims of the air passing by my office window.

            “I should not know your name. I shouldn’t know you even as a figure, a placeholder, an icon or anything similar. I should only know this moon and even then only in the context ofthe profits that it nets me and by any vague hiccups that need to be hiccupped out. And yet.”

            “And yet,” the other man sneered. “What do you want me to say, Destidante?”

            “Nothing. You’ve said enough. That’s why we’re here.”

            Euphrates glanced at one of his guards. The man gave a tight nod and exited the shed. A few minutes later he returned with a folder in his hand. Euphrates took it, opened it and flipped through the papers inside.

            “Colby Tzarkev, also known as Skel. Male, obviously. Somewhere between forty and forty-three years of age. You don’t know? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Not about a youth addicted to just about every drug he could get his hands on.” He glanced up at his prisoner. “How have you lived this long? You should have stumbled into a fatal overdose. In fact, you nearly did, hmm…. four times, it looks like.

            “One of the few things I don’t have here is how you managed to kick the habit. Couldn’t have been a family intervention: you don’t have any family left. Lucky for you, lucky for me. Whatever it was, you sobered up. Why spend money on drugs when you can make money by selling them? So you picked apart your competition in a methodical fashion. Infiltrating your ranks, ambushing them, brutalizing them. You sent messages. That I like. I can get behind that. Onwards and upwards you rose until you found yourself as one of the many little spiders playing in the outer threads of my web. It’s a cushy little place to sit, where you were. Profitable. But that wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

            Tzarkev said nothing.

            “Let me ask you a different question. Do you know what power is?”

            “Of course I do,” Tzarkev spat. I have power. Camoran is mine. It’s been mine for years. These people answer to me. They act in fear of me.”

            “That isn’t power. You have, sorry, had influence. You gave orders and people followed them. If they didn’t, you enforced those orders. You had a tenuous control bolstered by your reputation and don’t get me wrong, building what you have after coming from what you did, it’s impressive. That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about power. Real power.The kind that means a man a full Causeway and a galaxy away can compile a full dossier on some junkie thug beating his chest atop a filthy scrap pile on a filthy moon orbiting a –from what I can tell – perfectly mediocre planet. I know what your blood type is, Colby. Do you even know what your blood type is?”

            “…Delphi-2.”

            “Incredible. You actually managed to surprise me.”

            Tzarkev’s eyes flared. “If you want to kill me, just kill me. I built something great here. My name will last beyond my life. My legacy is in the blood and the stone of this dome. And your name? Your name will get out, too. It won’t look so good for you, though.”

            Euphrates uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “Colby, I want to tell you something. The shipments that are dealt out here? I don’t like them. I don’t use drugs. I don’t employ people who do and my employees don’t hire anyone who does either. If I could get around selling the stuff, I would, but there are certain business associates who insist on it. I acquiesce because it’s a deal-breaker for them and the resources and information I gain from keeping them as allies are far too valuable to force the issue. Additionally, they give me a cut of the profits. That never hurts. Being in business with them is lucrative in many ways and it allows me to build from those connections. It allows me to branch out far and wide, creating, as I said before, a web with myself at the center.

            “As with any web, there is a problem when something or someone snaps a thread. The disturbance creates a ripple. It threatens the integrity of the thing I’ve spent so much time weaving together. I can’t have that.

            “If you had simply stolen one shipment and sold it, you might have been able to get away with it. If not, you’d have simply been killed quietly and dumped in an alley. If you hadstolen a shipment in a clever way – and I mean really clever – you may have found yourself an official part of my resources. I like creative people. That would have been a good position to have. Too bad for you, you were clever in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong directions. You took too many shipments. You dug too far into where they were coming from and you hurt too many people putting the pieces together. You found my name. My mistake was having a weakness in my protection that you could exploit. I admit that. Your mistake was crowing about what you had learned, using my name as if it were some kind of trophy or bargaining chip.”

            “But I did crow and other people know now,” Tzarkev said. “There’s even a data tape. You take me out, my people will release it. Your career will be over. You’ll be disgraced andyou’ll get to see how tough you really are when you’re rotting the rest of your life in prison.”

            “There is no tape. You should have made one. That would have made things a little more interesting. Your people? They’re taken care of. They were touched first, before we even found you. That’s power versus influence, Colby. I don’t need to scour for hours and knock down doors to try and frantically stop some kind of leak. When I turn my attention to a problem, that problem ceases to be.  That’s what this meeting is about. That’s what I wanted to drive home to you: when I leave here, you will cease to be. Colby Tzarkev? Never heard of him. Skel? Is that some kind of drink? This legacy you think you’ve built is nothing but paper reports. Shredded, burned, the ashes spread on the wind.”

            Tzarkev opened his mouth to scream a retort but one of the two guards stuffed his mouth with a thick cloth. It had been soaked in kerosene for no other reason than to make the experience more insufferable. Euphrates stood and donned a pair of satin gloves that matched his jacket. His second bodyguard handed him a heavy pistol.

            Inside Twizzted, a man who had successfully evaded the law after embezzling thirty million chits from his employer decided to share the wealth by buying the entire club a round of drinks. The resulting cheer of approval drowned out the gunshot.

A Space Story Chapter One Part 1
A Space Story Chapter One Part 2

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Things Don’t Go As Planned

With the Convergence trilogy, I really wanted to create a world that felt really rough around the edges. There was violence in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Some characters were crass while others were hopeful. There was romance, but it came with strings and burdens and sometimes a bit of desperation. I didn’t want clear-cut good and bad guys. I wanted compromise and shades of gray, and from the responses I’ve received since the books have been released, it was apparently a good mix.

Absolute Zeroes isn’t that. It’s supposed to be more light-hearted, more adventurous, a bit more action-packed. The protagonists are very obviously good guys. They’re assholes sometimes, but they love each other and they do their best to do the right thing. So here’s a first-day excerpt that hopefully shows how the guys try to keep their spirits up even in dire situations. Oh, and if you missed the character spotlights, you can find them here:

Ark Carnahan

Caesar Anada

Grey Tolliver

Euphrates Destidante

*****

Two more crimson blasts streaked across the ship’s hull and a low shriek sounded near the engine room. Lights flashed along the circuitboard, signaling nothing good. Grey glanced across the cockpit, past Caesar, to the planet on their starboard side.

“What planet is that?” he asked.

“What?” Caesar asked, eyes wide.

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

Caesar glanced out the viewport and then looked at the display monitor between them. Most of the information on the screen had been replaced by flashing red EMERGENCY messages.

“Uh, based on our relative location between the gate we came through and Peloclade, that could be probably one of two planets. Maybe.”

“You sound confident,” Ark said, standing over his shoulder. “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,” Grey growled.

“Why is that better?” Caesar asked.

“I was kidding. Both are bad. We’re about to go down hard. Who knows what’s down there?”

No sooner did the words leave his lips did the Sol Searcher turn into an unstoppable dive away from the ship pursuing them and towards the planet’s surface. Flames licked up the front of their craft as they broke the atmosphere, and groans coursed through the Searcher’s body.

“Zast! Move, Caesar,” Archimedes said frantically, pushing into the co-pilot’s seat. “Move, move! Strap into a passenger’s chair!”

As Caesar staggered out of the cabin and towards the quarters reserved for extra crew, Grey continued to wrestle with the steering rig.

“I’ve got maybe half the control we need,” he said through gritted teeth.

“To do what?” Ark asked. He strapped himself in and began flipping the switches needed to access emergency power.

“To pull up. We can’t even her out for crap.”

A jagged crack stretched across the main viewport. The cockpit began to heat up and a shrill whistling caused both men to wince.

“Some warning you were bringing us in to land would have been nice,” Ark snarled. “There’s a split in the windshield.”

“I can see that there’s a split in the windshield,” Grey snapped back. “It’s right in front of my face. Toggle the Peregrine drive.”

“Come again?”

“Stagger the Peregrine, Ark! 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 near-planet during a dive, that’s a bloody mad plan, Grey.”

“Look, the Searcher might be our ship, but she’s my baby. I know her better than anybody, and I’m telling you: we either try this and maybe die or don’t try it, crash into the planet going six hundred kilotecs and definitely die.”

Archimedes let out a mouth full of air with a whoosh. “To hell with it. If this doesn’t work, I’m kicking your ass in the next life.”

Grey just grinned.

Ark reached across the control console and let his hand hover over the switch that controlled the Sol Searcher’s speed drive. Not for the first time, he marveled that something with enough power to propel a spacecraft through the cosmos at a vastly accelerated rate was regulated by something as mundane as a little metal lever. He glanced over at his friend and 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, making it look like a twisted trident. Below them, the world flashed by in streaks of color. The Searcher began to level out, but it continued its speedy drop.

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

“I can’t, man,” Grey said. “This is good as it gets. I’m aiming at that clearing up ahead.”

“What clearing?”

“The one. There!”

He flapped a hand on the display screen resting between them. It had automatically recalibrated itself to show the cleanest flight path, surrounding terrain and nearest plausible landing options…of which there were none.

“That’s not a cle- 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 display monitor. He reached over and pressed a red button. The button lit up, indicating he had a clear transmission to the passenger’s quarters.

“Caesar, you hooked in back there?” he asked into the intercom speaker.

“Yeah,” came a 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 controls 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 amidst the foliage like an apocalypse. The sounds 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.

Ark’s shoulder belt tore at the buckle. He jerked forward, slammed his forehead into the corner of the control console and knew nothing but a blackness deeper than space.