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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RIP Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher, probably best known as Princess Leia, passed away today after suffering a heart attack days ago at the age of 60. It’s interesting, our relationships with strangers, and how the death of someone you might never have met and who you certainly didn’t know personally can still move you. I found myself deeply, deeply saddened this morning. Hearing the news was literally the first thing that happened after waking up and checking my phone.

The talented and versatile actress, the immensely honest and hilarious writer, the troubled and iconic artist meant a lot to me. I distinctly remember my dad popping in the old VHS tapes of the original Star Wars trilogy when I was four or five. I remember the very room I was in when I was introduced to Princess Leia for the first time. I remember how she stood stalwart in the face of evil, how she still didn’t break after her home planet was destroyed because the Rebellion was more important than that, how she mocked her enemies and called out shaky convictions, shot stormtroopers, strangled the life out of a mob boss with the very chain she was attached to, and led her people with poise.

Princess Leia could very well have been a first crush for me, but she was so much more: she was the strongest introduction into sci-fi and fantasy – something that has shaped my entire focus on fiction writing and escape through reading throughout my whole life – and, more importantly, my first introduction to a strong woman protagonist (a role that Ellen Ripley, Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, and Ellie from “The Last of Us”, among others, would go on to expand for me over the years). She showed me that you could be a damsel occasionally in distress and still be a kick-ass warrior, a canny tactician and politician, a romantic, and hilariously sarcastic. When I was writing the Convergence trilogy and creating characters like Alanna Ebere and Delia Bloom, Carrie would pop into my mind often, and served as tremendous inspiration towards creating characters I hoped were half as nuanced as Leia.

Beyond that, she was a fantastic writer, punching up screenplays, poking fun at herself, and through interviews and autobiographies, being unflinchingly honest about her issues with mental illness and substance abuse. She affirmed my belief that it’s unproductive, disingenuous, and actively harmful to lie or shy away from your past or your problems. She continued to convince me to always be open and honest in my own writing, even when it concerns myself. Especially then.

She was in other films, of course, and has done so much more. I could spend all day writing about my favorite interviews and stories about Carrie Fisher. I could write an entirely separate long post about When Harry Met Sally, another one of my favorite films of all time, or her hilarious turn in 30 Rock, but I’ve already written a lot, and it still doesn’t seem to be enough.

For some, Star Wars doesn’t make sense to enjoy. It’s fantasy in space. It’s ridiculous, the writing isn’t always great, there are plot holes large enough to fly a Star Destroyer through, and it largely centers around the same troubled family.

For me, it was the first avenue to a type of escapism that would literally save my life several times over the years, and the first inkling of the kind of storytelling I’d want to try and build a career on. A huge chunk of that was because of the strongest member of the Skywalker family, the princess who told Grand Moff Tarkin to his face that she could recognize his foul stench, the broken hearted but never broken willed woman who mocked a stormtrooper’s height after watching her entire planet explode along with everyone she loved.

You were my first heroine, Carrie Fisher, and have become an immortal icon. You were very, very much to me. Rest in peace.

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.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Euphrates Destidante

This is the fourth and final character spotlight in preparation for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story, which should (hopefully) be finished and available for sale by the end of the year. The purpose of these excerpts and spotlights is just to give you a taste of the universe the story is set in, and the diverse little cast we have stirring up trouble. You can find the first three here, if you missed them:

Ark Carnahan
Caesar Anada
Grey Tolliver

Unlike the first three, Euphrates is not an inherently good man. He’s a liar, a manipulator and a criminal. He’s also very intelligent and immensely resourceful. He has used his life to build a network that protects and funds him, but he hasn’t come this far without the ability to improvise on the fly when necessary. Though he isn’t an outright antagonist, he certainly is in a much more sinister classification than our three bumbling courier friends.

Hope you enjoy.

*****

“That brings us to our spotlight item of the evening: an original Domingo Santano Flores painting, The Plight of Valerie’s Stars. Originally painted two hundred and two years ago in Flores’ hometown of Daraska on the planet Salix, this particular piece has been kept in miraculous condition despite the passing of time and travel through several Causeways. This is truly a magnificent piece that would be at home in any collection. Bidding will start at 250,000 chits.”

“Two-fifty,” a voice called out.

“Three hundred.”

“Three-fifty!”

The painting was indeed masterfully done, one of several acclaimed works of art from one more tortured creative soul in the universe. It hadn’t been depression that had plagued Domingo Flores, however, nor was it substance abuse Domingo had been a compulsive gambler and not a very good one. In his later years, he turned to his art with a desperate passion. As soon as he could finish a piece, he sold it in hopes of staying ahead of the debts he had accrued. It worked, up until the days that it didn’t.

Valerie’s Stars was completed near the start of Flores’ decline, when his concentration and affection for art still bled into the canvas. The image of a woman rising towards the stars in a personal craft, wonder in her eyes, while two drastically different lovers stared forlornly after her was striking. It really would look good on anyone’s wall.

“Five hundred thousand,” a man growled, frustrated. Dalton Hess, early fifties. Salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache that liked to store soup at the politician potlucks. He had been the first to bid on the item and now he was growing impatient, as if he had really thought no one else might want the painting.

Euphrates used his thumb to hook a loose strand of jet black hair behind his ear. “Eight hundred thousand,” he said.

His voice was a guillotine dropping on the crowd. Silence stretched out from him in every direction. Hess shifted in his seat to gape at him.

“Eight hundred thousand,” the auctioneer said. “Eight hundred, do I have eight-fifty? Eight-fifty, do I-“

“Here,” Hess croaked.

“Nine hundred,” Euphrates responded.

“One million chits!”

“One million and two.”

Silence again.

“One million, two hundred thousand. One million, two! Do I have one million and three? One million, three? We’ve got one million, two. Anyone? Anybody. Going once. Going twice.”

“Damn you, Destidante,” Hess snarled.

“Sold! For one million, two hundred thousand chits!”

The dinner following the auction was an immaculate affair. Two hundred tables were set up in a ballroom bigger than some houses. Servers carried trays of hors d’oeuvres worth four hundred chits apiece. Glasses were filled with exotic champagnes and brandies and were never allowed to be fully emptied.

Waiters delivered steaming platters topped with imported fruits and the choicest meats. Socialites and politicians picked at their dishes while gossiping and comparing fashions. Their disdain for each other was tucked away neatly behind a mask of politeness polished over years of forced interactions with each other.

Euphrates sipped at a glass of sparkling water while Gladys Epscot, the heiress to a chain of jewelry stores, regaled him with tales of her third husband. He nodded politely and listened, though he had nothing to contribute to her rambling. He felt no desire to escape; interacting with her was the safest discourse he could involve himself in while he waited.

Dalton Hess found him less than ten minutes later. Euphrates feigned surprise when the older man grabbed him by the elbow and he apologized to Mrs. Epscot for the interruption. When she waved him off and claimed she had taken up enough of his time, he expressed gratitude.

And as soon as she was out of earshot, the friendliness fled him and he fixed his gray eyes fully on Hess. “You’re wrinkling my suit.”

The older man released him and brushed at his own lapels nervously. “Sorry, sorry. I came to talk to you about the painting.”

“What painting? Oh, the Flores piece?”

“You know damn well I mean the Flores piece. I want it, Euphrates. It was the only item I came out here for. I’ll pay you back what you paid for it, plus thirty percent for the trouble. Just keep it safe until I can get together-“ He trailed off as Euphrates chuckled. “I’m not… I’m not joking, dammit. What’s the problem? Is thirty too low? I can offer as much as thirty-five percent, but you’re pushing me with that.”

“I’m not laughing at your offer, Dalton. It’s not that it isn’t enough. Quite the contrary. I simply found it amusing that you would offer me a thirty percent profit when I’ve already sold the thing for thirty percent of what I bought it for.”

Hess’ mouth dropped. “What? When the hell did you even find the time to sell it?”

“Oh, it was already sold. I had a private collector lined up, just waiting for me to procure it. I’ve never been much of a man for paintings, anyway. I much prefer sculptures. The margin for error in their creation is much smaller.”

“You threw away eight hundred thousand chits?” the older man asked, face crimson. “For what? Just to spite me?”

“Yes.” Euphrates’ expression grew deadly serious. He stepped in and Hess flinched despite himself. “To spite you.”

An unsettling quiet sat between them. The rich and bitter moved around them, oblivious or apathetic to the attention. A waiter hovered for a moment with the intention of refilling their glasses; he thought better of it and moved on.

“Why?” Hess asked. The word sounded scratchy.

“Walk with me, Dalton.”

Without waiting for a response, Euphrates began working his way through the crowd. His water glass found its way to a cluttered tabletop and his hands to his pockets. Neither man spoke until they had left the ballroom completely and entered an elaborately furnished smoking room. Euphrates closed the door and locked it.

“Is this because I spoke against your proposal?” Hess asked softly.

“I would never accuse you of being a stupid man. Misguided but never stupid. The thing is, Dalton, if your outbursts were sporadic or only on middling issues, they would mean nothing to me. Disagreement is politics. It’s life. But the constant undermining on your part, it’s beginning to build to a crescendo that can no longer be tolerated. You’re interfering with too many of my plans.”

Hess sneered. “So you piss away a painting you know I’ve sought after for years to insult me? Petty nonsense. You’ve gone from nuisance to enemy, Destidante. That’s a mistake you’ll rue.”

Euphrates smiled. “It was to spite you, sure. More than that, though, it was to make sure I got your attention. I knew you would come to me after the auction. It gave me a chance to warn you.”

“Warn me about what?”

“Warn you that I know where your money is going besides auction houses and consolations gifts for your better half.”

Hess said nothing.

“The off-planet vacations you claim are business trips. The escorts. The shocking amount of escorts, really, considering your age and history of heart problems. It’s impressive, really. I hope to be half as virile when I reach your milestone in life.”

“Euphrates-“

“I wasn’t able to confirm use of REM powder, but the rumors are there and a urine test would settle it one way or another. Even without it, the locations you’ve checked into are alone enough to paint a damning picture. You’re fond of painted pictures, right?”

“Please. My wife-“

“Dalton, I don’t give any more of a damn about your marriage than you do. That ship launched long ago but the poor woman is too kind to leave you. If your expense reports and extracurricular activities were to get out, though, you would feel it somewhere else. Somewhere more important to me.”

“My career,” Hess muttered.

“Ruined. And your supporters tarnished. Believe me when I sat it would be enough of an opportunity for me to stifle any damage control your allies might attempt.”

“…what do you want from me?”

Euphrates grinned. “Your help. Your support. Not always, of course. That wouldn’t make any sense. It would only be when I need it, when your disagreement would otherwise ruin a bigger picture. That’s what you’ve never understood: everything I do is just a piece of a larger puzzle. I don’t need you to get it. I just need you to support it when I call on you.”

Hess sank down into one of the room’s pillowed chairs. His head found its way into his hands.

“If I refuse?”

“If you refuse, Dalton, my friend, then that feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when I outbid you for The Plight of Valerie’s Stars is going to define whatever is left of your life once I’m through with it.”

*****

A week later, Euphrates stood in his office, staring out of his window at the skippers passing by and the low-orbiters coming and going. From thirty-seven stories above ground level, he could see much of the city stretched out before him. He could make out freeways full of cars and buses and ant-like pedestrians who opted for neither as they navigated towards their destinations. Millions of lives existing, he knew, and yet naught but one merited any of his attention.

The door opened behind him. In the windows’ reflection he could make out dark purple hair and caramel skin. Nimbus Madasta. The one person who stood by him, even when she didn’t understand. The one person who challenged him. The only one he could not shake. She was a rock. She was his rock.

He was utterly and hopelessly hers, her harms reminded him as they wrapped around his waist.

“Your present was delivered this morning,” she murmured against the nape of his neck. “Pristine condition. The original?”

“Of course. I would never insult you with a reproduction.”

“I hesitate to ask what it cost.”

“And I resolutely refuse to indulge your curiosity, though I will say this: that Domingo Santano Flores was a talented man but no renaissance artist certainly helped keep things from ballooning out of control.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing in here, staring off into space? Musing on the cultural impacts of centuries-dead artists?”

“Mm? No, of course not.” He placed his hands over hers, leaning back into the warmth of her body. “I was thinking of the future and our places in it.”

Nimbus said nothing. She didn’t need to; he could feel her muscles tighten as she drew herself closer to him. Euphrates continued to look through the window, amused at how much could transpire out there when his world was contained in that single room.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Grey Tolliver

This is the third of four character spotlights for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story. You can spot the first two here:

Ark Carnahan
Caesar Anada

Grey Tolliver is the third of the three childhood friends. He isn’t as book-smart as Caesar is, but he’s a borderline genius when it comes to engineering and weaponry. Obsessed with guns and vehicles from a young age, Grey has taken apart, improved and put back together just about everything for as long as he can remember. He doesn’t have the patience or social finesse that Archimedes does, and his short fuse often leads to a scrap, often one he starts himself, but he’s more than capable of holding his own. He argues with Ark constantly, but he’s got his friends’ backs when things actually get serious.

******

Grey tapped the rim of his glass impatiently with one finger. It was half full of a local blood-orange cider, his fourth of the evening. Each had gone down more smoothly than the last and yet the creeping warmth in his belly did little to improve his mood.

The bar stool next to him was empty. It shouldn’t have been. It hadn’t been, even, for the entirety of the evening. At varying points it had been filled by a vacant-eyed redhead who kept mispronouncing the fruity shots she was ordering from the Peran bartender, a one-eyed felon fresh off a prison stint for burning down an ice cream shop, and a Murasai drifter. Grey liked Murasai as a general rule; they tended to be sarcastic, heavy drinkers, not unlike himself. This one in particular was sullen and unhygienic.

He also hadn’t been Ark Carnahan, who should have been on the damn stool the whole night, like he said he would, drinking Durelli spirits with him, like he said he would. Grey swore and waved the bartender over.

“Cash me out, huh?” he ordered more than asked. He slid his chit card across the bar with his left hand and slammed the rest of his cider back with his right.

“Sure you don’t want another?” the Peran asked. His Trade was thickly accented. “Might take some of the sting out of getting stood up.”

“Just get me my tab, wise guy. I’ve wasted enough time in this dump.”

*****

The avenues outside were mostly empty, save for the few taking a smoke broke and the crowds moving into and out of the numerous clubs lining the way. Lights stretched out from the buildings on thin bands of metal, casting a pale blue haze on the street. Grey had read somewhere that the shade was supposed to be a natural soother, that those exposed to it would find themselves more relaxed. He wasn’t feeling it.

He fished a pack of Telia Filtereds from his pocket and tapped a single cigarette into his palm. They were the only brand he liked and he could only find them on Salix, so he tried to piece them out for as long as he could. His other hand searched his pockets in vain for a lighter.

“What the hell did I do with it?” he muttered around the butt of his smoke.

He stopped mid-walk to think back on the last time he had used it: right after the Sol Searcher had landed to refuel. He had stretched his legs and had half a cigarette. Only half… the other half, then, must have been back at the bar. That’s right. He had stepped out between his second and third drinks to finish that one, and he had lent his lighter to…

The arsonist. Well. That was an honest mistake. At least he knew where his lighter was.

Grey sighed and slid his cigarette back into the pack, the pack back into his pocket. He’d just have to wait until he got back to-

“Hey, mister! You know anything about skippers?”

The voice came from across the street, out of one of a pair of guys standing on either side of a beat-up silver landhopper. It looked like a piece of junk.

He hesitated, taking another couple steps along his way, but curiosity got the better of him. “What’s wrong with it?” he called back.

“Best I can tell is the propulsion is all messed up. I’m about another hour away from buying up a few wheels and turning this thing into a car, but I’m no mechanic. Figured we could get another pair of eyes on it before giving up completely.”

“Ah….zast,” Grey swore under his breath. He looked both ways and jogged across the street.

The two men looked normal enough. Tired, but in a better state of affairs than the craft they were struggling with. The one who had called out to him gave a lopsided grin. Grey returned it, barely.

“Pop the engine hatch,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it.”

“Sure thing.” The first man nodded to his friend, who reached inside the two-seat cockpit and flipped a switch. The top half of the narrow front end unlocked and opened a couple inches.

Grey pushed it the rest of the way open and leaned inside. “If it’s the propulsion that’s giving you issues, it could be that the fuel intake is loose or sprung a leak. If you’re lucky, it’s just the regulators that came loose. These older models will sometimes shut the whole thing down when that happens, but it’s an easy fix. If you’re not lucky-” He trailed off as something sharp pricked into the small of his back.

“I’m afraid you’re the unlucky one tonight, friend.”

It was the man who had called him over. Grey could see the waist of the other man through the opening in the hood; he was still standing next to the vehicle. Keeping watch, no doubt.

“That a knife?”

“Carbiron. Sharp as hell. Last truly expensive thing I purchased for myself, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, right?”

“I’ve heard the saying. I take it you want my chits?”

“Whatever loose ones you’ve got on you. Then you, my friend and I are going to take a walk down to the withdrawal station and pull out whatever’s left.”

“Alright,” Grey said. “Easy. You’ve got the knife, right, let me get my money.”

He reached slowly into his right pocket and felt around. Pack of cigarettes. Small sack of chits. Distinct lack of lighter. He found what he was looking for and clenched his fist around it.

He moved fast for a stocky man, faster than his mugger expected. Grey pivoted towards the man’s left side. The knife dug a shallow groove across his lower back – it was sharp – but failed to inflict any serious damage. Grey’s left elbow smacked into the other man’s right arm, knocking the blade away. Grey’s right fist, tucked inside a set of dark blue metal knuckles, crashed into the man’s cheek, collapsing the bone and sending him into a crumpled heap.

The second mugger came around the landhopper with a massive wrench in hand. Grey side-stepped a massive swipe of the tool and ducked another. The banded knuckles found their mark in his attacker’s side once, twice, and he could hear the ribs breaking. The wrench dropped to the ground and the man who had held it followed suit, landing on his knees.

“Pal, this is going to suck for you.” Grey bounced the mugger’s head off the side of the vehicle with his knee.

He stepped quickly away and surveyed the scene. Two prone would-be attackers, no witnesses that he could see, no cameras in plain view. He reached back and touched his wound. It stung, and his fingers came away red and sticky, but it didn’t feel serious. He had certainly been hurt worse.

The wrench went back into the cockpit. The knife went into his pocket. His hands went into theirs and came out with a bag full of chits and the keys to the landhopper.

Grey dragged both unconscious men behind the vehicle. Once he was sure they were both out of sight of the street, he keyed his com bracelet and waited impatiently for the call to connect. When Ark’s voice finally came through into his ear, it took his remaining patience not to raise his voice.

“Grey,” his friend said. He sounded breathless. “What’s up?”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Ah, zast. I was supposed to meet you for drinks. You remember that blonde from Bordega’s?”

“I do remember the blonde. Do you remember how to make a damn call to let me know you’re not showing up so I don’t waste my time in a dive bar by myself?”

“You say that like dive bars aren’t fun.” A pause. “Everything okay?”

“Uh…” Grey looked at the two men. The one he hit in the face was snoring, almost certainly with a concussion. The other one was groaning softly from the fetal position. “Yeah. More or less. Hey, you know anybody that can strip a skipper down for parts with a quickness?”

“Hold on,” Ark said. Grey could hear him moving around wherever he was.

“Do you remember this one’s name?”

His friend responded in a hushed tone. “J something. It starts with a J.”

“You’re terrible, Carnahan.”

“Jessica. Jerrika. It’s Jerrika. What’s this about stripping a skipper?”

“Do you know anyone who can do it quickly and get a good price for the parts. Actually, never mind the price. I’ll know if the price is good. Do you know anyone with a chop shop?”

“A legal one?”

“Did you just leave a girl’s bedroom so you could whisper-ask me if I wanted a legal solution? I’m going to pretend you knew what I meant and you go ahead and answer accordingly.”

“A chop shop on Beldus. I don’t know if I know… oh, yeah. You want me to send over the contact information?”

“I want you to get you to introduce him to me personally.”

“Grey-”

“And bring some bandages.”

“…what did you get yourself into?”

“You’d know if you had bothered to show up tonight. Are you coming or not?”

“…yeah, I’ll be out of here in five.”

“Take fifteen. I’ll move the thing and send you an address. Give Jessica my regards.”

“Jerrika.”

“Just testing you, buddy.”

Grey ended the call and stepped around the two muggers. The one with the busted ribs was just getting to his feet; Grey gave him a light tap in the side just to send him back down.

He moved around the landhopper and closed the engine hatch. The driver’s seat was more comfortable than it should have been, given the shape of the rest of the craft. Maybe he could fetch a few chits for those on their own, which was more than he’d planned for them. He made pains not to bleed on the cushions.

The ignition key slid in without protest. The propulsors worked fine. In fact, they hummed like they had come off a skipper ten years younger. Even better. The night wasn’t turning out too bad after all.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Caesar Anada

This is the second spotlight for the protagonists of Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story, intended to shed a little light on the personalities of each of our haphazard heroes. The first part focused on Ark Carnahan. Today, we’ve got Caesar Anada.

Caesar is basically the straight man of the group. Even-tempered and mostly serious, he’s the brains of the operation. He’s incredibly book-smart, multilingual, and business-oriented, if a tad social awkward. He takes life seriously because he is incredibly goal and career-driven, and oftentimes the only reason he doesn’t leave Ark (who he finds reckless) and Grey (who he finds temperamental) is the sense of familial bond that comes from childhood friendship.

The window stretched fifty feet in either direction and another sixty high. It seemed absurd to him; even in a spaceport, nobody really needed windows that large. When the ships arriving and departing were as massive as they were, it was impossible to miss them. Case in point: the IRSC Gallivant, staring him in the face mockingly. Could a spaceship mock? This one mocked.

Caesar sighed. He should be on that science cruiser. It was sporting a brand new, cutting-edge fuel distribution and recycling system developed from his graduation thesis. On the distributing end, newer shortcuts were devised that allowed the same levels of productivity to be achieved throughout the craft without burning through all of the fuel. Instead, two parts to every ten were portioned out to be recycled and reused later. The only downside was that the process required so much alternative energy to work properly that the battery required to power it could only be found in large science cruisers or military ships.

Even so, the invention could theoretically cut down on traveling times from one location to the next, allow for smaller fuel loads (the benefits of which ranged from cost efficiency to reduced weight to the ability to transport more storage or passengers), or provide for a larger emergency store.

Theoretically, it could also malfunction and blow the whole boat up, but smarter minds had parsed through his proposal and turned it into something truly functional. Caesar assumed the risk was minimal at most. Yet did he get invited to the Hervatyne Science Colegium? Not even on an internship. Was he offered a ride on the Gallivant for the first journey using the system he designed? Nope.

No, his spot went to some rich admiral’s son. That guy’s thesis? Something to do with the mating habits of Direxian raptor cats when exposed to different temperatures. It was truly miraculous what a trust fund could do for a man.

As the science cruiser turned away, so did Caesar, with a snort of disgust. He made his way towards the nearest food court with what he hoped was only the faintest air of dejection. A myriad of different smells floated through the crowd to take residence in his nostrils and his stomach rumbled his approval.

“Was that you?”

“Huh?”

The question caught him off guard and he turned to find an attractive woman staring at him, one eyebrow cocked in amusement. She held a tray loaded with food. The sight of it made Caesar’s stomach growl again.

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “I haven’t eaten in a while. Not that I can’t, you know, afford to eat. I’ve just been distracted. Building… stuff.”

“Uh-huh. Sounds like you’re smuggling some kind of animal in there. You should eat something.”

“Yeah, I was planning…. what are you, what did you get?” Smooth, he thought.

“They had some Toltarun melons, but I’m finding them bland. The Orbian water fowl isn’t too bad.”

“The melons need salt.”

The woman crinkled her nose. “Excuse me?”

“I know it sounds weird, but Toltarun melons need salt. It doesn’t matter what kind. Plain works fine, but if you like one of those flavored salts, or a sea salt, or whatever… it draws the flavor out of the melon. It’s a reaction between the, you know what, never mind. Just add some salt. The water fowl looks good, but the trick is to add some citrus while you’re steaming it. The best I’ve found is a Catalascan orange blend. You can find it in most markets for cheap. Really adds a whole new dimension to the dish.”

She looked him over, a new expression on her face. He wasn’t sure what it was; women didn’t typically look at him like that.

“You’re a chef, then?” she asked.

“I cook for fun. I keep the guys happy, it keeps the ship happy.”

“Ah,” she said. “The guys. Too bad.” She smiled and lifted the tray in his direction. “Thanks for the tips, Mister. I’ll give the salt a try.”

“Wait, I didn’t mean-”

But she was already going. She tossed one look back over her shoulder as she walked away. He raised his hand in a feeble farewell.

“No,” he said under his breath. “Wait. Come back. Caesar, what the hell is wrong with you?”

Beeeep. Beeeep.

He glanced down at the communicator band he had wrapped around his wrist. The small, rectangular display was alight with green letters informing him Grey Tolliver was requesting a video call.

“No,” he said. He pressed the button that directed the call to his ear piece. “What do you want?”

“Wha- where’s the video? You don’t want to see our smiling faces?”

“No.”

“Where are you?”

“Watching my dreams literally disappear.”

“That sounds terrible. Look, enough about that. Ark and I were talking and we were thinking maybe you could cook dinner for us. It’s been a while, and-”

“It’s been three days.”

“Caesarrrrr.” He could hear Archimedes whining in the background. “Three daaaaays.”

The food court beckoned to him. It was subpar and probably cost more than he should pay and he didn’t have the ingredients at hand to make it a worthwhile me, but it was filling, and it was there.

“Caesarrrrrr.”

“Tell Ark to shut up and I’ll be there in an hour.”

He ended the call before Grey could respond and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was shaping up to be one of those days. Maybe a car would hit him on his way back to the Sol Searcher and he wouldn’t have to cook anything. One could hope.