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.

AZ: A Space Story Chapter One Part 2

A Space Story Prologue
A Space Story Chapter One Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

AZ: A Space Story Chapter One Part 1

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

A Space Story Prologue: Lessons in (Ir)Responsibility

Chapter One: What’s Illegal, Anyway?

Three years later…

The courier’s office had lines but they didn’t go anywhere. They were products of restless bodies arranging themselves in a visible manner while they waited impatiently for their turn to be called. Chairs would have been nice, and indeed there had been some in previous years, but the Aventure Courier group found that when a spot of leisure was available to the publice, it was only a matter of time until transients filled it. Instead of dealing with the hassle of keeping the riff-raff out, it was decided that job acquisition would stay an in-an-out, business-focused arrangement involving people who actually needed to be there.
   Which did nothing to placate Caesar’s tired legs. He sighed and glanced around the crowded common room. Members of a half dozen races crossed their arms irritably, sighed loudly and shifted their weight from foot to occasionally clawed foot. Through a pair of glass doors, they could several large desks with ACG employees seated comfortably. That was where the jobs were selected and each time a courier stood up with a commission ticket in hand, the rest of them held their breath in anticipation.
   Vvvvttt.
   Whup-whup-whup-whup.
   A hatch above the doors popped open and a device emerged. It was oval in shape and constructed from polished chrome save for a single blue lens front and center and the four aero-polymer wings at the back that allowed it to flit around the common room. They looked up as one – as they had every time a seat freed up – and followed its flight path while it made its rounds.
   The drone stopped at Caesar’s place in the line. It dropped down at a controlled pace until it was even with his head and then turned so the lens could get a proper angle on his face. A red light blinked to light at the bottom.
   “State your name, ship classification and the name of your craft,” it buzzed.
   “Caesar Morelo Anada. C-ranked courier ship. Designated Sol Searcher.”
   “Captain Anada, please make your way to Center Twelve. Aventure Employment Agent Bazregga will see you.”
   “Thanks, robot thing.”
   Caesar nodded sheepishly to the others as he shuffled past them into the next room. They weren’t particularly quick in getting out of his way and he felt a twinge of guilt despite having waited just as long as most of them. Once he was past the glass doors, he turned his eyes away from his peers and toward the columns placed between each desk. Each column had a brass plate fixed to it displaying a number in progressive order. He made his way past eleven of them, but it wasn’t until he had reached his destination that he realized it wasn’t the first time he had met Agent Bazregga.
   He sighed.
   “Hello again,” he said, forcing a cheer he didn’t feel from his ribs and out through his teeth.
   “Sit down, Captain,” Bazregga said. She waved one clawed hand towards the seat in front of her desk. He plopped down into it and squirmed in an attempt to get comfortable. It never worked, and he continued believing the chairs were designed to be unpleasant so couriers would be encouraged to stay as briefly as possible.
   The agent was a Skir, with mottled purple skin denoting her gender. Her bunched face seemed small in comparison to the ridged cranial crest that stretched behind her. Four nasal holes shared a gap above her mouth and the skin around them flared when she exhaled sharply.
   So she wasn’t in a good mood. Great. This was going swimmingly already.
   “Pilot’s license and ship registration.”
   “Certainly.” Caesar fished from his back pocket a pair of data cards, the edges long worn down into smooth curves, and slid them across. Bazregga scanned them and squinted down at the information scrolling along her side of the desk. She grunted.
   “Any outstanding warrants for you or your crew?”
   “Uh, no.” He scratched behind his ear. She had an ability to make him nervous even though he had done nothing wrong. He suspected she knew this, too, by the way she continued to stare at him without blinking. Skir had eyelids. He knew they did.
   “Any no-fly orders for your ship?”
   “No, is there… does it say that there?” he asked. “When you scanned my cards? Because I swear, I can’t think of-”
   “It does not.”
   “Oh, good. Then…”
   “But computers make mistakes.”
   Caesar raised an eyebrow at that. “How often does that happen? My cards are current.”
   “Often enough that I feel the need to ask, Captain.” Bazregga typed something into her system. “What is the current number of your crew?”
   “Three permanent, including myself.”
   “Do you pick up temporary crew often? Do you sublet jobs to freelancers?”
   “I wouldn’t say often, no.”
   “How regularly, then? And are you aware that when subletting jobs, you need to file it with an Aventure agent before pick-up is made so that arrangements can be made regarding occupational insurance and liability agreements?”
   She gave him the stare again as she spoke and Caesar avoided eye contact. He focused instead on the edge of the desk closest to him and picked at the arm of the chair. “We don’t sublet jobs. As far as crew, I don’t know. We have a friend on board every now and then.”
   “But not a certified courier?”
   “No.”
   “Nor a freelancer?”
   “I don’t think I even know a freelancer on a first name basis. Grey or Ark might, but-”
   “So by not often you mean never,” Bazregga interrupted with a scowl. “So you could have just said three.”
   Caesar tried a smile. It had no effect. “I suppose I could have just said three. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
   “That would have sufficed.”
   “Got it.”
   “Captain Anada, do you have any idea how busy this agency is?” She gestured around the room to illustrate her point. “Were you blind in that waiting room? How did you manage to find your way to my desk? I wasn’t aware the columns called out their numbers as you passed by them and I’m terrified to inquire as to your capabilities as a pilot.”
   Caesar folded his hands in his lap and stared at them. It seemed the safest course of action.
   “Would you like to look at the job list and pick something now or would you like to continue wasting everyone’s time?”
   “I’d like to look at the jobs,” he said meekly. “May I see the list?”
   Bazregga showed off her pointed yellow teeth in a grin that took up half of her face. She pointed at him and he flinched involuntarily. “You should see the options on your side of the desk. Use the arrows to scroll. Select a job for more information on it and when you find one you like for your crew, select the Approve button and sign on the line. Keep in mind that everyone you were waiting with is also a courier waiting for a job and that delaying acceptance may result in that job being acquired by someone else.”
   Caesar knew the routine but he wasn’t risking anymore of the Skir’s ire by saying so. He leaned forward instead, taking in the list. Each job appeared initially as a single line with a pick-up location, the drop-off location, the total package weight and the payment offered for a successful delivery. His finger hovered over the Down arrow and tapped it when his eyes reached the bottom of the list. Three screens later, he rubbed at his eyes to make sure he was seeing clearly.
   “What is this? Half a million chits to deliver a parcel? I’ve never seen the same weight go for even half that.”
   “I don’t look at all the jobs, Captain. That’s your responsibility.”
   “Right. Forget I said anything.”
   “If only I could.”
   Caesar scowled – downwards so Bazregga couldn’t see it – and tapped the job. He skimmed over the details, trying to grasp the important information before some other crew could pull it out of his hands. It was a single item, meaning if the listed weight was right, it was probably a parcel or a small crate. Maybe some kind of antiquity, given the payment offered. Delivery was set for a private residence on Peloclade. That was only a single Causeway away, meaning the half-million payout would cover fuel enough for the trip several times over. Hell, it could even cover the repair costs for half a dozen problems that had been plaguing their ship.
   He hit the Approve button with enough force to hurt his thumb. It flashed green, an indicator that no other captain had taken the job while he was reading. The signature line popped up next and he drew his index finger along it in an approximation of his full name.
   A paper printed out on Bazregga’s end, a physical copy of his contract approval, and she handed it to him. She started speaking again, either congratulating him on finally making a decision or admonishing him for not already being on his way out of the building. He honestly thought it was a clever mix of both but wasn’t listening. He clutched the contract, already thinking about how he would break the good news to his friends.

   Three feathered drakes circled lazily overhead, nipping playfully at each other’s tails. They had flown in roughly the same spot for almost an hour, seemingly in no hurry to move on either to find food or even a quieter placed to roost. Ark could relate. Since waking, he had sat in the co-pilot’s seat with his feet propped up on the control panel. The sun was a warm blanket over him as it filtered through the Sol Searcher’s windshield. He felt like a cat. A really good-looking cat.
   “I don’t know how you can watch those lizards. They creep me the hell out. I kind of want to go out and potshot them.”
   Ark turned as much as he could in his seat without compromising his comfort. Grey was making his way into the cockpit with a data screen in hand. He plopped his full weight into the pilot’s chair and let out a loud belch.
   “Firing a gun on a public landing station always goes well,” Ark said. “I say go for it. Also, good morning, Gray. So glad to see you up.”
   “Yeah?”
   “Yeah. I was worried I’d be able to enjoy a quiet morning to myself for once. Thank God you’re always around to snatch away a good thing.”
   “If you want quiet,” said Grey, scratching his belly, “go back to your room.”
   “I’m already settled in here. And it’s warm. And look at the view.”
   Grey made a face over his data screen. He pointed out the window. “What view? It’s a bunch of rusted buckets out there. I’m surprised the majority of them aren’t scrap metal and fire the first time they try to take off again. If half of those captains knew what kind of potential was purring under their asses, those could be fixed into actual ships. Then it wouldn’t be so depressing every time we came in for a job.” He shook his head. “It’s like landing in a graveyard.”
   Ark closed his eyes and rolled them under the lids. “What’ve you got on your screen there?”
   “The news.”
   “You don’t read the news.”
   “I do when it’s interesting,” Grey said. He keyed on the audio system and linked in his favorite playlist. The first song to crow out of the speakers was Worldwide Outlaws by the Datacasters. Grey considered it a classic; Ark figured it was the equivalent to trying to dice something with a meat tenderizer – a blunt, destructive disaster that left everyone disappointed and resulted in a goopy, disgusting mess.
   “And interesting to you is…”
   “The Gamma Men got a new bassist.”
   “Don’t care.”
   “Umm, new personality cores announced for personal service robots.”
   “Useless,” Ark said. “No, wait, that’s actually awesome. I can use that. I’m buying one.”
   “What the hell are you going to put a personality core in?”
   “I’m obviously going to have to buy a robot, too, Grey. Keep up. What else is in the news?”
   Grey glanced down. “Bandit activity on the moons around Dephros.”
   “That’s not even news,” Ark said, throwing his hands up. “There’s always bandit activity out there.”
   “Caesar would care.”
   “He’d fake it, maybe, if he weren’t out thanking God he isn’t here being forced to listen to what you call music.”
   Grey tossed his data screen onto the control panel and turned in his seat. “You know what, Carnahan? If you don’t like it, you can hop your ass off the ship. If you keep yapping about the things I like, though, I’ll drag you off myself and you can kiss your dumpy little hole of a room goodbye. I’ll convert it into another bathroom so something useful actually happens in there.”
   Ark stood, the frustration of having his tranquil morning interrupted turning into a full-blown anger. “I’d like to see you try, slog-hopper. Don’t forget that a third of the Searcher is mine. The creditors won’t, I can promise that.”
   “Ahem.”
   Both men turned to look at the entrance to the cockpit. Caesar stood there, a familiar paper in his hand. He leaned against the door frame looking unimpressed. The expressions on his friends’ faces quickly matched his own.
   “Did you just say ahem?” Grey asked.
   “I, uh, didn’t have to clear my throat for real. Don’t you want to know what I was doing?”
   “We can see you got a contract, Caesar,” Ark said. “You couldn’t even fake clearing your throat? We’re arguing. That was the weakest, most half-hearted…”
   Caesar scowled. “Well, you’ve knocked it off for now, right, so listen to me. The job I picked up for us is great. Maybe the best we’ve ever landed. Small weight, short distance, big pay-out.”
   “How big?” Ark asked.
   “Half a million chits to hop down to Akers’ storage, pick up what looks like a crate and take it to Peloclade.”
   Grey frowned. “Let me see that.” Caesar unfolded the contract and handed it over. Grey scanned it and looked up at the ceiling, calculating. “You’re sure the weight is listed right?”
   “I mean, we’ll know for sure when we pick I up, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.”
   “Peloclade isn’t too far,” Ark said. “That would leave us quite a bit left over. I could get a new bed.”
   “Forget your bed. We can finally get a permit to arm the Searcher and a pair of light cannons. I’m thinking under the front, mounted on a pair of cupolas to allow for a wider range of defensive coverage. I’ll have to wire controls up through the hull, but that’s the easiest part.”
   Caesar cleared his throat, this time for real. “I was thinking we could get the stabilizer fixed, seeing as how the one we have right now is unreliable at best.”
    Grey scowled. “We don’t need a reliable stabilizer when you’ve got a pair of crack pilots that can balance the ship out.”
   “If you find a couple, I’ll stop worrying about it, but until then I think it’s a valid concern and this job is the best opportunity we have to get it sorted without starving between jobs.”
   Grey sighed and kicked lightly at the pilot’s console. “I just really want-”
   “You want cannons,” Ark said. “We know. It’s because you’re a sociopath. Caesar, my morning’s already ruined. Let me take a shower, hope Grey doesn’t interrupt that, too, and we’ll go.”
   Caesar nodded and made room for his friend to pass by. He looked over at Grey and opened his mouth to offer some kind of commiseration to make up for shooting down his plans to add cannons; he clamped it shut again when the stocky man reached out and turned the music up further. Supernova Messiah by Daniel Baltennan pounded through the halls of the Sol Searcher. Somewhere near the bathroom, Archimedes swore loudly.

   In person, a gathering of the Universal Council was overwhelming, especially to the uninitiated. Each of the seventeen dominant races sent at least one representative. The average was two or three while the Wanos sent the most, at five. Additionally, each representative had at least one advisor present to take notes, keep them on track and even speak for them on occasion, in their absence. After that came the time-keepers and record-makers. Adjudicators were necessary: impartial, elected members of one of the many less-influential races. They had their own seconds and thirds and small councils. There were also journalists and a small crowd of the general public. In the latter case, these spots were always filled on a first-come, first-serve basis and served as a form of transparency for the population of the connected galaxies who wanted to keep up to date on current affairs.
   All told, a Council meeting would consist of anywhere from three hundred to five hundred bodies. For that reason, they only met in person on a quarterly basis, defined by a year on Elagabalus. That was where the massive Council headquarters had been constructed: a densely populated planet that served as the hub for some of the most prosperous interspecies commercial interests.
   Elagabalus had sixteen months to its year. For each of the remaining twelve months, the Council would meet via a holoconference. Each race had their preferred location to broadcast from and each room was customized by that race to fit their preferences, though the presentation was largely the same. In the center of a large conference room, the three-dimensional image of the current speaker would be displayed alongside relevant reports, graphs or evidence they wanted to have showcased. A second screen would be laid out on a desk or personalized tablet; this would have a complete list of those present in the meeting. Whoever was speaking would have their name illuminated in blue. The next speaker queued would be yellow. After that, barring interruptions to discuss whatever topic was currently on the table, those queued would be listed in numerical order.
   Many preferred the digital congregations. They weren’t as loud or as hot – though the Council hall on Elagabalus allowed for plenty of open space, the sheer amount of people present often raised the temperature to an uncomfortable degree – and the listing system for waiting contributors was far more organized. The virtual meetings also cut down on travel costs and the room and board reservations that went with the trip. Though the meetings came often and the life of a Councilmember was a hectic one, the ability to conduct large portions of business from the comforts of home was a welcome perk.
   Rors Volcott, representative of the human race, was one of the few who felt more alive when he was in the same room as everyone he addressed. He felt energized when surrounded by his peers; he had joined the military instead of a theater troupe in his youth at the pressure of his mother, but he had expressed several times throughout the years that he thought he would have made for an exemplary thespian.
   Be that as it may, it was the military that had shaped him into the imposing figure that presented himself today. In his late fifties, he maintained the fortitude of a man two decades his junior, wrapped up in a tall, burly frame. His head and chin were shaved bald while thick, gray chops bristled out from his cheeks and connected via a well-oiled mustache. His eyes were the light blue of early winter frost and he gave voice to the calculated thoughts behind them in a deep baritone.
   He paced back and forth across his air-conditioned office. The rest of the Council would have him in full display where they sat. He had his own display separated into two images. The first was Graxus, the Ryxan representative he was currently debating; the second was a rotating cycle of several other members, selected by Volcott’s advisor so the representative could gauge their reactions as he spoke. Though Volcott’s words were technically directed towards Graxus, they were for the rest of the Council.
   From where he sat at the back of the office, Euphrates admired Volcott’s technique. They both knew the Ryxan was uncharacteristically patient for a member of the adum caste; when it was his turn to speak, he said his piece in full and waited for his opponent to do the same. He never interrupted and he never forgot the points and counterarguments he wanted to address, something few other representatives were able to do without the assistance of an advisor. Graxus’ brutish size and appearance belied his intellect. He wasn’t one to be underestimated and yet Volcott was less concerned with irritating the Ryxan and more concerned with winning the opinions of the other Council members.
   The point in contention today was the tripling of the export price for an industrial oil unique to the Ryxan territories. The severity of the escalation itself would have been cause for annoyance but it would have been somewhat understandable if it had been spread among the other races equally. After all, when one is the sole provider of a resource, they have free reign of how to price it. Instead, however, the Ryxan had chosen to pin their exorbitant fees on the exportation to Humans alone.
   That’s not completely true, Euphrates thought, flicking through his reports. They had imposed the new prices on the Serobi as well, but as that race had never before expressed any interest in the oil, it was a pointless gesture serving only as the faintest argument that they weren’t specifically trying to target humans.
   The snub was seemingly unprovoked and Volcott was trying to rectify – or at least minimize – it before tensions between the races escalated into something more serious. He strode across the floor with his hands behind his back, casting the occasional piercing glance at whoever needed to be brought back into the discussion.
   “As has been demonstrated here today and over the past few months, we have been diligent, respectful and punctual in our business dealings with the Ryxan peoples through tens of thousands of corporations and through millions of trades and transactions. Indeed, it has been proven over the last two centuries that, though there have been varying personal and political tensions between us, our commercial collaborations have always risen above such squabbles. Those incidents were unrelated and should remain so instead of tainting the healthier aspects of our relationship. Instead it seems that other interests, perhaps even wounded feelings, are at the heart of the matter here. The result isn’t one of prudence. It’s an attack.
   “Or… it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe the prices were simply miscalculated. Perhaps we did something to unintentionally slight the noble Ryxan and reparations should be made. We, of course, would be more than happy to field a more thorough explanation from either Representative Graxus or Representative Tarbanna. Before that, however, we would like to present specific details on how the trade agreement as it currently stands has negatively affected the Human race’s corporate, commercial and industrial interests and investments.
   “This is normally where my esteemed colleague Representative Suvis would step forward to address the Council. Unfortunately, Representative Suvis has taken ill and is currently doing her best to rest and recover so that she can rejoin us at next month’s meeting. In her stead, she has trusted the relevant information that she personally compiled to her advisor, Councilmember Euphrates Destidante. If you would be so kind as to give him the floor now and direct your attention to him.”
   This was the moment Euphrates had been waiting patiently for. He had spoken in front of the Council before but it never grew less exciting for him. He reveled in having the attention of some of the universe’s most powerful individuals; he lived to have them cling to his every word.
   Euphrates ignored the other advisor as he stepped up to the center of the room. Volcott retook his seat and pressed a button on the inside of the left armrest. A podium rose from the floor directly in front of Euphrates and the advisor responded with a slight nod of gratitude before laying his notes out.
   He took a moment to still his heart and compose his thoughts. There was no need to rush. To be a member of the Council was to exercise control. If there was one thing he enjoyed above all else, it was exactly that.
   “Representatives and advisors of the Council, assembled keepers, adjudicators and witnesses, thank you for your attendance and attention. The task assigned to me is a sobering one, bringing to your attention the relevant statistics regarding our dealings with the Ryxan and the position they have put the Human race in, but it is an important one. Only through understanding the facts can we then attempt to find a satisfactory compromise that will restore stability and civil discourse between our peoples. Now, if you’ll direct your attention to the infographics I’m bringing up in your displays…”

   Nothing was resolved by the meeting’s end, but these things seldom ever were. Not in a handful of hours on a single afternoon, no matter how many charts and numbers you threw at a wall. A stand-off of this magnitude was less a tea-time disagreement and more a war to be picked apart over a series of battles. It was up to him to prepare for the next engagement. He had under a month to do so.
   The light in the hallways of Thorus’ Parliament of Universal Interest was significantly brighter than it had been in the conference room. Euphrates used the reports in his hand to shield his eyes as he weaved through the attendants filling the passageways. The day had been long enough; he didn’t need to add a headache to it.
   “You’re in a damned hurry, Destidante.”
   Too late. Euphrates sighed to himself.
   It was a testament to the years he had spent training for the political arena that he didn’t flinch when Talys Wannigan stepped up next to him. Volcott’s advisor was a thin man with wispy brown hair that he kept parted down the middle. His suits always seemed to hang a bit loose from his slight frame, leaving him looking inept and ill-prepared. Euphrates knew it was a calculated move that left other politicians overlooking and underestimating him. That was a mistake; Talys was frightfully intelligent and he had a nasty habit of always being in the last place you wanted him to be.
   Like right next to him.
   “I thought you handled yourself well in there. Better than your first couple times. I’m sure most people left feeling you had actually accomplished something, that your reports were accurate, and they’ll leave it at that. What do you think? How many will actually take a good look at your reports?”
   “Our reports,” Euphrates said. “We’re on the same side, Talys. Human solidarity and all that.”
   “The same side. Sure, sure. How much of that information did you come up with on your own and how much did Magga hand down to you? Is she even sick or was she trying to drown you in the deep end?”
   Euphrates stopped in the middle of the hall and turned to the other advisor. He waited until attendants had passed by on either side and left them alone for a few moments. “What do you want, Talys?” he asked in a low tone. “Why are you nipping at my heels?” He folded the reports in his hands and slid them into his inside breast pocket.
   “Professional competitive interest. I want to know what you said that convinced Magga to let you speak for her on this issue. Why didn’t she just hand everything over to Rors and let him handle it?”
   “I’m Magga’s advisor, Talys. She didn’t select me because we’re friends. In fact, I’m sure she detests me. She chose me because she knows I’m capable and because she knows she can trust me no matter how little she actually likes me. I’m sure that’s why she allows me to speak in her absences and why Rors never steps aside to allow you.”
   If the words struck a nerve, Talys’ grin refused to acknowledge it. “Perhaps, Destidante. Perhaps. Trust is a valuable, powerful thing. It’s probably good, then, that Magga is too sick to realize at least some of the reports you offered up were doctored.”
   Euphrates’ eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
   Talys nodded to a pair of passing women and waited until they were out of earshot. He stepped in closer and lowered his voice. “Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just went up and read off whatever she put together for you before she suddenly and conveniently got too sick to attend the one meeting a month she’s actually expected to be present for. Terrible timing. Really quite sad.”
   “I resent your implication that her illness was either falsified or manufactured. I resent your accusation that the reports I presented were anything less than genuine as well.”
   “And I’m sure that most people will give them a casual glance and believe them to be so. There would be several layers of peeling needed before something seemed amiss. You’re a thorough man.”
   Euphrates straightened slowly, his expression growing black, cold. “Talys, the situation we find ourselves in, as a race, has the potential to leave us in a crippled, vulnerable position as soon as ten years from now if a more favorable resolution isn’t found. It’s something that transcends petty rivalries or peacocking or whatever kind of angle you’re trying to get your tiny hands on. The Ryxan understand that and will be looking for any cracks they might widen, any flaws they might exploit. You know that, which means you know that I have a limited amount of time to prepare Magga, Rors, you and myself for whatever arguments and accusations come from the Ryxan at the next meeting. I did accomplish something in there today, Wannigan. I bought us time. Be careful not to spoil what goods we have gained.”
   Talys’ grin widened and he nodded enthusiastically. “Quite right, quite right. When you put it that way, I suppose I see your point. I hope you’ve seen mine too: it’s important that us Humans are all on the same page. That we know where we stand. That we know where the secrets are and what might be exposed if someone were thought to be acting against the good of us all. Or if someone were to step on the wrong toes.”
   “I hear you loud and clear,” Euphrates hissed.
   “Perfect. Again, well done in there. Masterful performance. I do so admire your work.”
   Talys winked and turned back towards the conference room. Euphrates watched him go, the other man’s words echoing in his ears. It took him a minute to realize his hands were balled into fists by his sides. He forced them into his pockets and stretched his neck. It did little to clear his head. Talys was dangerous. He had known that, but the meeting served as a suitable reminder.
   He nodded once to himself and filed that note away to be reviewed later, away from the men and women stepping awkwardly around him. With stiff legs, he started home.

A Space Story Chapter One Part 2

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.