Yes, Virginia, There is a Satan Claws

Here’s a short novella (or long short story) that I wrote a while pack as a Christmas prequel to my upcoming urban fantasy series. Yes, the Father Chessman tales are still coming, but as I’m now able to write more than before, it’s time to let this series out the door. So, without further delay, here is my Christmas tale from the very heart of Hell.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Satan Claws


More than anything, I wanted to spend Christmas in Hell, far away from my mother. That’s not as far-fetched as you might think because in Pittsburgh, we have four easy-access gates into Hell. Mother, on the other hand, was tucked away behind one of the gates into the elfin city of Evanelle. Me, I lived appropriately enough halfway in between here in Pittsburgh.

I work at the Herald, and people call me Al. Well, folks at work do. To most everyone else, I’m Alice Koufax. Of course, Mother still calls me Alyssa, a nod to my elfin heritage on her side, but after the divorce, I took Dad’s side and went to live with him near the steel mills in the demon city of Karthai. I left the name “Alyssa” behind, along with my elfin formal robe and Mother’s tattered copy of Magic and You.

So normally, Mother’s invitation would be easy to dodge. The two of us hadn’t exchanged a civil word in a few years, so the invitations hadn’t even been coming for quite a while. This time was different, though. This year, Christmas Eve had lined up with Evanelle’s Winter Festival of the New Moon, and with the vagaries of human and elfin calendars, this wouldn’t happen again for another two hundred and thirty-nine years, well within her lifespan but not mine. Still, the real issue was my brother, Paul.

Paul took Mother’s side in the divorce, though less out of any love for her than because of the feud he started with Dad over some suitably trivial teenage act of rebellion. But he wasn’t just acting as Mother’s proxy here. No. He was engaged now and had to make everything perfect for his girl.

“Come on, Alice,” he pleaded on the phone. “It’ll be our first real Christmas together, and I want to make it special for Margie. You know, see the magical lights of a big Winter Festival, let Mom teach her how to make Grandma’s mist cups, all the family stuff that makes it important.”

“Family stuff, eh?” I glanced around my little office cubicle, but no one seemed to be prairie-dogging to listen in. “So I suppose I can bring Dad as my plus one?”

The phone was quiet for a moment. “I’m being serious, Alice. I want this to work. Drop Dad in, and all we’re going to get is a shouting match. That is not the family tradition I want to introduce Margie to.”

“Well, I won’t be one of the ones shouting, so that’s not my problem.”

He must have pulled the handset away on his end, but I could still hear him grumble out a few curses. “Look, at least think about it. You don’t have to stay long, and I’ll do what I can to keep Mom at bay.”

I snorted. “No, not on her turf. You know what I’m talking about.” He did. The last time I had visited Mother’s was for Paul’s college graduation party, and Mother had lined up six—yes, six!—potential suitors for me to meet, all from what she called “good families with a solid elfin bloodline.”

“I’ll ask Grandma Vanessa to come run interference for you.”

I knew that Vanessa would get a kick out of foiling any of Mother’s schemes, but it still wasn’t enough for me. “Nice try, but if you put the two of them together, you’ll get more shouting than if I bring Dad.” I paused long enough to let him think of a reply but not long enough to say it. “Look, it’s nice of you to ask, and I’m sure the Festival lights will be even more magical than ever, but I think you and Margie are going to have to do this one without me.”

“So that’s it? You’re going to go spend Christmas with Dad again?”

“Maybe. I have invitations from friends as well.”

“But you’ll be in Hell?”

“Yes. Besides, I’ve got a story to track down there.”

He snorted. “Oooh, a big story?”

“Big enough to stay away from Mother.” I hung up.

It wasn’t a lie. I did have a big story. Well, big for me. It might even make the front page … of the Lifestyle section. Yes, Al Koufax, intrepid reporter of such tales as the Tri-County Garden Expo and the Second Annual Amateur Ice Sculpture Competition. This story, though, was actually pretty crappy.

I was supposed to talk to some guy calling himself Satan Claws.

I met up with Nigel Davis downstairs. He’s the paper’s assistant photographer. Our chief photographer spends most of his time at a desk handling color balancing or something like that for the rest of us who were catching snapshots on our phones. Nigel is the only one we ever sent out specifically to get a photograph, and he was the lucky bastard who was being sent to Hell with me on Christmas Eve.

“Where are we meeting this guy?” he asked, patting down the pockets in his vest, presumably confirming the exact contents of each one with a simple touch.

“In Karthai,” I answered, heading toward the door. Karthai was the demon city connected to Pittsburgh. It was Hell, but high-rent Hell.

Nigel caught up with me and got his hand on the door before I did. “Where, exactly, in Karthai?”

“That’s where things get fuzzy.” I shifted to the next door over and pushed it open. “I’ll explain on the train.”

The Steel Plaza station was only four blocks from the Herald’s offices, but the words “Pittsburgh,” “mild,” and “winter” should never be used in the same sentence. I was hoping to grab a cab, but even at noon they were already getting scarce for the holiday. The wet drizzle told me it was still above freezing, but I pulled my jacket close and hurried along. Nigel had no trouble keeping up, and he seemed warm enough with just his vest. My elfin heritage did me no favors here, and having spent my teen years in Upper Karthai with Dad had only spoiled me for cold weather.

At least the lower-level station was warm, and an Orange Line train was waiting for us when we got there. I settled into a seat while Nigel took one across the aisle. A mix of other humans and demons were on the train, the latter either standing or sitting along the wing-friendly center bench.

“So, fuzzy?” he asked.

“Yeah, Big Jim got a tip about some guy in or near Karthai who was doing the full Santa thing.”

Nigel nodded. “What’s so special about that? I’ve seen dozens of them.”

That was true enough. Demons had strangely latched onto Christmas as the one human holiday to import. They were not all that big on Christianity. Why let all that forgiveness crap get in the way of a good blood feud, after all? But they loved the idea of big meals and an excuse for mass consumerism. Thus, Karthai had almost as many demons dolled up in red velvet and white fur trim as Pittsburgh had humans doing the same in shopping malls and department stores. They have to cut the jackets more like vests to accommodate the wings, but it’s eerie how natural it looks on them. “Yeah, but this one’s unique,” I said. “Apparently he’s doing the whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing, too.”

“Reindeer? In Hell?”

“Probably not reindeer, but maybe petheks.”

Nigel looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Petheks? You mean dragons?”

I laughed. Yes, petheks had claws and wings, and breathed fire, but they were not dragons. Reykjavík was the only city with a gate to the dragon realm. “No scales and not that smart. More like a scary Pegasus,” I told him.

He shook his head. “I’ve seen the pictures of them breathing fire. I’m not sure I want to get that close.”

I shrugged. I’d seen one once being trained as a war mount, but I’d never interacted with any. “So anyway, this guy is a little off the beaten path.”

“So, no address?”

“No, but Jim set me up with a couple of the more traditional Santas. They might know more, but they might not. If nothing else, we’ll settle for some pictures of them and call it a day.”

“Not that I want the extra work, but is that you trying to get home early, or is that Big Jim letting you off the hook?”

His tone was too casual for me to worry, and we both knew Big Jim would never let anyone off the hook, holiday or not. “He told me it might just be a rumor blown out of proportion, so if we don’t find him, we’re in the clear.”

That satisfied Nigel. This was an express train, so we only made one more stop before crossing through the Perdition Gate into Hell. On the train, the gate interface looks like a wall of fire sweeping through the cars. Whoever establishes a gate has some control over its appearance, and clearly that particular demon had liked fire. I hear that when the Denver trains pass into the frozen city of Auroralein, it looks like an oncoming avalanche. I’ve seen people flinch at the sight of the flames, but no one did on this train.

We got off at the Downtown Station, with Karthai’s stone buildings rising to three or four stories around us. Karthai Castle was even taller, but we were headed to the Paktoo Market downhill from there. It’s about as close to a shopping mall as you’ll find in Karthai. Since it doesn’t rain in Hell, there’s no need for a roof, and despite the heat, there is no air-conditioning. Demons have imported many technologies from Earth, but air-conditioning isn’t one of them.

Nigel spotted the local Santa before I did, but he had the height advantage. Santa and his helpers were set up on the far side next to a statue that was little more than a dozen steel tridents warped and welded into a distinctly hellish tree of barbed points. I think most of the year it commemorates some ancient war, but today it was decorated with balls and tinsel.

This particular Santa was an overweight kagnari, normally the kind of demon that is one giant wall of winged muscles, but this one seemed to have come by his belly honestly. His helpers were a pair of decidedly nonelfin pale succubi dressed in flirty green skirts and vests, revealing more than they concealed. Given the general lack of modesty in Hell, I was surprised they wore even that much, but I supposed this close to the train station, they were showing a modicum of respect for the visiting humans and their pious holiday.

Nigel started measuring the light and took a few test shots of his reference color card. The light in Karthai came from giant bowls of hellfire hanging from the cavern roof far above, and the yellowish hue didn’t make his job any easier. One of the succubi was taking a photo of a young tokkel on Santa’s lap: a lad so young his horns didn’t yet show even a hint of their eventual corkscrew shape. The other swiped the mother’s credit card through the reader, and within moments, the photo had shown up on her cell phone’s email.

Yes, credit cards and email, but no air-conditioning. I didn’t mind. I’d spent my teen years here, so I was used to it. My jacket was tied around my waist by the sleeves, but Nigel was starting to melt under his heavy vest and sweater.

The photographer succubus exchanged a few words with him, and he added an extra filter on his camera lens. By the time the line had dwindled, the introductions had already been made. Nigel got a couple of pictures of Santa on his own, one or two with him flanked by his helpers, and at least one that was far too risqué to grace the pages of the Herald.

“How about one with you, miss?” the Santa called to me.

I figured it was the easiest way to get in a few questions, so I hopped up on his lap. I adjusted my hair to show my Kalxi Axemen tattoo, but not the tips of my ever-so-slightly elfin ears. I’ve spent enough years down here to belong, but the ears never make a good first impression.

He ran a finger over the tattoo and gave a hearty laugh. “So this is not your first time on a demon’s lap?”

“Hardly,” I replied.

“Well, then, have you been naughty or nice this year?”

“Both!” Anyone growing up in Hell knows that’s the only proper answer.

He laughed again, and we both posed for Nigel. He circled around and got us from a couple of different angles. I trust him to compose a good shot, so I tried to look my best. I doubted the photo would be in the paper, but it would probably end up on the bulletin board in the break room at work.

“So, what do you want for Christmas this year?”

“Can I ask for anything?”

“Of course!”

Reporter mode on! “Well, I was hoping to meet another Santa, one with a sleigh and eight petheks. Have you heard of him?”

His laugh faltered, and he shifted a bit beneath me. “I think somebody has been putting a bit too much tarro moss in your eggnog.”

I shrugged. I had known it was a long shot, but it was worth asking. “You’re sure? I’ve heard rumors.”

He gave a snort. “More like exaggerations. I did hear about someone from the other side of Lower Karthai who flew in on a pethek last year. Not a respectable suit, no helpers, and definitely no sleigh.”

Still, it was something. “Thank you,” I said. “Have a very Merry Christmas.”

He nodded. “You, as well, young lass.” And with that, he boosted me off his lap, giving my ass a good squeeze in the process. After years in Hell, I’m used to that, but I have to say that this one was going on my bragging list. I’d been groped by Santa.

Nigel walked over, slipping his gear back into his pockets. “So, did you get what you needed for the story?”

I shook my head. “Not even close, but he told me enough to know that there is at least some truth to the rumor.”

He checked his watch. “What next?”

I sympathized with him. It was already past two in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and for that matter, we had an early print deadline today. Normally Lifestyle closed at seven with final layout locked down by eight. Today my article was due by four with the final layout being sent to the printer by five. Plus, Nigel had to get back into Pittsburgh, and the trains were due to switch to a holiday schedule at four in the afternoon.

“There’s another Santa I want to check out in Lower Karthai.”

“Another one on Big Jim’s list?”

“No,” I replied. This was one I had heard about during my high school days, and even if Big Jim had known about him, I was pretty sure that as hard-ass as he is, he was never going to send sweet little Alice to see Sexy Santa. “But it sounds like the Santa I’m looking for is well off the shopping mall circuit, and this next Santa is pretty far off it as well.”

He nodded, and we started walking. Travel for humans in Hell can be a little slow. Most of the locals can fly, so while there are a few vehicles on the streets, they are intended for heavy deliveries, not passenger traffic. The train could take us to the other side of the downtown district, but we needed to go in the opposite direction. It was eight blocks to the drop-off, and then, at least, the chairlifts would take us most of the remaining distance.

That’s when my phone rang. I had most of my family programmed in with custom ringtones, but when Mother called, it was always from Evanelle using a magical calling stone. By the time that got routed through Faeburgh where magic could be squeezed into a digital signal, there was no caller ID, but when my Faeburgh ringtone sounded, I knew it had to be her. Yes, Paul worked in Faeburgh, but he had already called me earlier from home, so this was Mother.

“Hello, Mother,” I answered. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Don’t play nice unless you mean it,” she replied. “Paul tells me you’re still as obstinate as ever.”

“Something I get from you, Mother.”

Yeah, our relationship is just peachy.

She mumbled something I couldn’t quite catch, but then I could hear her taking a deep breath. It’s weird what sometimes comes through these connections and what gets lost. “Your brother wants to welcome Margaret into the family properly, and that includes you. Will you please join us for the Winter Moon Festival tonight? I understand that the Elders have prepared quite an American theme in recognition of your Christmas Eve.”

Dammit. I hated it when she went all courteous on me. It was harder to blame her when she did that, and I knew very well that was precisely the reason she did it. “I’ll try, but I might not be able to.”

“Why not?”

“I’m working on a story.”

“On Christmas Eve? Come now, Alyssa, you usually put more effort into your excuses.”

“Yes, Mother, on Christmas Eve. It’s a story for the morning edition if I can get it in.”

“Well, where is it? Maybe Paul could come pick you up.”

“I’m in Karthai, about to head down into Lower Karthai.”

The line was quiet for a moment. “Karthai.”

“Yes, Mother. Karthai.”

“When I am doing everything I can to assemble the family in Evanelle to welcome its newest member, you choose that moment to go down into Karthai? That’s incredibly selfish, Alyssa, even for you.”

Ha! So much for her playing nice. “You’re assembling the family? I thought this was supposed to be Paul’s show.”

“That’s immaterial. I’m helping, and you, evidently, are not.”

We had reached the line for the chairlifts, and while there was a fifty-fifty chance I’d lose signal on the ride down, I wanted to end this call on my terms. “Well, you haranguing me on the phone isn’t helping me finish my article, either.”

“Oh, so now it’s my fault?”

I scowled. It’s always been her fault, but no, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of pushing that particular button. “Make of it what you will, Mother, but I have to go do my job now. If I miss you later, Joyous Festival and Merry Christmas.”

She started to reply, but I hung up before she got far.

Nigel looked at me. “You know, family is—”

“A private matter,” I replied, cutting him short. I saw that expression on his face, the same one Dad gives me when he’s honestly trying to help. “Sorry, Nigel. Mother and I … our Christmases will truly be merry only if we experience them separately.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s your choice.”

I was considering an equally passive-aggressive retort, but we reached the front of the line just then, and I decided that launching into an argument when confined to a chairlift was not a winning strategy.

The chairlifts are another import from Earth, but instead of carrying holiday skiers up the snowy slopes of a mountainside resort, they were carrying us poor wingless humans up and down the rocky slope that divided Upper and Lower Karthai. Demons, of course, simply flew it. It was a nice glide down, and a demon who couldn’t manage the upward rise shouldn’t trust himself to fly. There was another section further to our left where the slope was shallow enough to allow a few blocks of switchback streets so that it could be traversed by foot, but the chairlifts were much faster. This one, in fact, was much more direct than walking would have been, taking us to within a few blocks of our destination.

Nigel sat beside me in silence on the way down, taking a few pictures of Lower Karthai as we descended. “Personal panoramas?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m a tad acrophobic, but it doesn’t look so bad through a telephoto lens.”

Fair enough. If I’d ever had any fear of heights, flying through Hell in the arms of a demon friend cured me of it. Minutes later, the slope settled out, and the chair slowed at the terminal to let us off. From there, I led Nigel another two blocks downslope and one over.

The Santa I was looking for next wasn’t going to be found in a market. Back on Earth, he would have been in the back of some disreputable biker bar, but in Hell, all bars are disreputable—at least by Earth standards. No, here I was looking for something between a hook-up bar and a sex club. The flashing-neon barbed phallus over the door was exactly the sign I was looking for.

It’s not that demons have no subtlety. They just don’t waste it on sex.

The inside smelled of demon musk, and as someone who spent puberty surrounded by that smell, I was immediately drawn in. It didn’t hurt that the clientele were mouth-wateringly gorgeous and dressed—or more often undressed—to show it. There were demons of almost all types and genders here, from a MILFish kagnari with a pair of handcuffs dangling from her left horn to an incubus whose physique drew my eyes from his subtle horns down to his stylishly capped hooves and halfway back. Yes, Sexy Santa was there in the corner wearing the traditional cap and the not-at-all-traditional red velvet loincloth. Apart from some jewelry, that was all, but it was still more than his three helpers, a trio of coal-black succubi tricked out in green caps and nothing else.

Like I said, this wasn’t the kind of place Big Jim was going to send sweet little Alice. If only he knew. I glanced back to see Nigel frozen with his mouth hanging open. “Deep breaths, Nigel, and remember to blink.”

He nodded, glanced away for a moment, and then the professional mask returned. He’s a photographer, after all, so I figure this couldn’t be the first time he’d seen nudity like this. Well, maybe not quite like this. The MILF with the handcuffs was twirling them around her horn while one of Santa’s helpers was stroking Santa’s tail suggestively.

There was no photo setup for Sexy Santa, but a number of demons—both male and female— were taking turns sitting on his lap or having his helpers sit on theirs. And the sitting was verging on grinding at times. I made my way forward like I was ready to dive into the deep end, and as I entered the fray, Sexy Santa shooed a mottled-gray incubus off his lap.

I didn’t waste my time being coy. This was Sexy Santa after all, so I straddled his lap and wrapped my legs around the back of the chair. It wasn’t quite as sexy as it sounds since I was in jeans and his loincloth was closer to my tailbone than anything truly intimate, but more to the point, it put me face to face with him where I could have all his attention.

“Are you ready to be naughty and nice?” he asked.

“Maybe later,” I said. I mean seriously, he was smoking hot, and I was not at all opposed to coming back later for some Christmas festivities of my own.

He pulled me in close and rubbed his cheek against my breast. “Then what would you like?”

I breathed him in and stopped caring very much about Big Jim’s wild Santa chase, but then I remembered that Nigel was there. I pulled back and looked down to lose myself in his eyes for a long moment. Focus, focus, focus. “I … would like … to find the Santa that rode in on a pethek last year.”

He laughed, not with Santa’s ho-ho-ho, but with the uncontrolled guffaw of a braying ass. “Fires above! I heard about him!”

I blinked a few times to find my brain. “You did?”

“Yeah, a buddy of mine at work says he dropped a great big sack of candy on the roof of Karthai Castle, and the guards almost shot him down.”

I grinned like an idiot. This was actually starting to sound real. “Do you know where he is?”

“The guy? No. But Choktan—that’s my bud—said he ran into him over the summer.”


“No idea, but Choktan could tell you.”

I looked around. “Is he here?”

“Nah, still at work waiting tables.” He reached up to his cap, and pulled a pen out of the seam by the fur. I started to reach for my little pad in my back pocket, but he took my hand in his and simply scrawled it out on my palm.

“Tarket Gich, 2274 Atep,” I read out loud. Tarket Gich translated loosely to “Savory Flesh,” but referring to food, not the savory flesh of the incubus beneath me. It had to be a restaurant, and Atep Street ran along the far edge of Lower Karthai, about twenty minutes’ walk from here. “Do you have his phone number?”

“Yeah, in my phone.”

“And your phone?”

He licked his lips and gave his hips a little thrust. “In my other pants.”

I thanked him and ran my hands down his chest and across his lap as I stood. Hey, if Santa can grope me, why can’t I grope Santa?

I found Nigel in the corner with one of Santa’s helpers draped across him in a way that I didn’t think his wife would approve of. It’s not that I know she’s a prude or anything, but when Nigel saw me grinning at him, he blushed redder than Santa’s cap and awkwardly extricated himself.

Outside, he straightened his collar and shook out his legs.

“So, what was it you were saying about family?” I asked.

“Family … um …”

“Isn’t here, so don’t sweat it.”

He nodded, sighed, and Nigel the professional was back. “What next?”

“This guy confirmed what the last Santa said. There really was a guy who rode in on a pethek last year and dropped candies on the castle.”


“And Santa’s friend might know where he is.” I held up my hand with the address.

He furrowed his brow. “Atep …”

I jerked my head back the way we had come. “Twenty minutes. Less if we hoof it.”

And off we went. I was in decent shoes for it, since I had known I’d be coming to Hell and its cobblestone streets today. I had chosen a pair of black Westwood knockoffs with rubber soles and enough of a heel to bring my diminutive height above the cubicle walls back at the office. Nigel was in even better shoes than I was, but he was also carrying an extra forty pounds, and only a fraction of that was camera equipment. Within three blocks, we had slowed to a brisk walk, with Nigel panting hard, but just as he was recovering enough to talk, my phone rang again.

This time it was Dad, a welcome voice for once. “Hey, Pops. What’s up?”

“Just checking in. Are you still planning to come down to Karthai tonight?”

“I’m already here, but I’m tracking down a story.”


“Don’t worry. I’ll have it wrapped up in time for dinner.”

“Then you are still planning on coming over?”

“Of course,” I replied. I still might sneak out after for a little revelry, but knowing Dad, he might, too.

“Ah,” he replied. That’s when I heard it in his voice. Something was up.

“What’s going on, Dad? Is there some reason I shouldn’t come over?” I knew Dad was dating around, but I didn’t think any one of them was serious enough for him to invite over for a holiday dinner.

“No, it’s … To be honest, your mother called.”

I pulled the phone away from my mouth and let out a stream of curses the likes of which even Dad would flinch at. Nigel stared at me and took three steps back. Finished with my tirade, I brought the phone back to my face, and in the calmest voice I could muster I asked, “And what, pray tell, did dearest Mother have to say?”

“Look, Ally, it’s not that I don’t want you to come over for Christmas. I’ve got a slab of kaltep roast in the crock pot, simmering away.” The mention of it alone made my mouth water. Kaltep roast makes lamb seem tough by comparison. “But it sounds like this is important to Paul, and—”

“Fuck Paul,” I said.

He went quiet, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the connection. “Ally, Paul and I haven’t been close since … well, we were never that close, and most of the blame is mine. We barely talk anymore, and if it’s important for him to have his sister there for his fiancée’s first family Christmas, then I don’t want to be the one to stand the way of that.”

“But Dad, I—”

“I know. I was looking forward to it, too, but how about we push it back to New Year’s. Not Eve, mind you, just the day. I’ll cook up some more kaltep, and we can watch the Rose Bowl.”

I sighed. “Yeah, sure. Whatever, Dad.”

“Now, Ally-cat, don’t sulk.”

I ground my teeth to hold back my reply before settling on “Look, Dad, I’m working on a story, so I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.” I hung up before he could reply.

Nigel glanced at me, but I glared back hard enough that he simply raised his hands in surrender. I gave him a nod and turned down the street again.

No matter what Dad said, this was not about him and Paul. This was Mother at her manipulative best. Guilt-ball off the Dad side and into the corner pocket for the win. Well, to the depths with her. I’d make sure Paul knew it wasn’t Dad’s fault, say that he had bowed out but that I’d gotten stuck on the story. I would still miss Dad’s cooking, but I had friends in Karthai that I could hook up with on short notice. Shit, I imagined I could even go hang with Sexy Santa and his friends if it came down to it.

But by the fires above, I was not going to give in to Mother.

We smelled the restaurant before we saw it. As there were no elements to keep out, like the market before, the restaurant was relatively open to the air, but there was a tasteful iron lattice surrounding it and beams forming something of a roof. It didn’t control the elements, but it did control the patrons, keeping the paying ones in until they’d paid and keeping some of the nonpaying scavengers out. Don’t get me wrong. Most demons are forthright and proper. It’s not them that the roof was keeping out. Rather, in this part of Karthai, we were near the Dathir Quarry, a nesting place for the impish marek . They are notorious scavengers and—let’s be honest—outright thieves. Without that roof, the place would’ve been an easy target for them to swarm en masse. With it, it never got a first glance, let alone a second.

It was too early for dinner, so we had no trouble getting a table. There was a broad menu, but clearly the special was spit-roasted kaltep. Unlike Dad’s in the crockpot, this one was turning slowly over an open flame in a section of the kitchen we could all see. If you’ve only eaten kaltep and never seen one, it has six legs, no wings, and is a little bigger than a hippo, so spit-roasting one is a spectacle. Pieces near the edges were cut off as the hours wore on, with the inner portions cooking slow at first and then faster as they were exposed directly to the heat. It’s about as anti-vegetarian as you can get, and the aroma extends for blocks.

All the walking had given me a little appetite, so I ordered a kaltep kebab with hot sauce. The hot sauce in Hell is neither Tex-Mex nor Cajun. It’s more like a curry sauce with a hint of Texas BBQ. I know that sounds impossible, but come try it sometime. Only four waiters were on duty for the afternoon crowd, so it was not a big deal to ask to see Choktan.

He was an incubus like his Sexy Santa friend but not quite as sexy, at least not in his uniform that looked as generic as those in any chain restaurant back Earth-side. “I see you’re already enjoying your kebabs. Can I refill your drink?”

Nigel nodded and pushed his glass forward, but I patted the seat next to me. “Actually, a friend of yours sent us to talk to you.” I held out my hand with the smudged ink still legible.

He pulled the chair out, sat on it backward, and flared out his wings behind him, granting us a hint of privacy from the scattered staff and diners. “Let me guess, it was Bhant.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Does he like to dress up as a sexy Santa Claus?”

He laughed. “No, that would be Taruk. Fun guy, but not the most reliable. I’m covering his shift because he bailed.”

“I see. Well, the truth of the matter is I’m looking for another Santa.”

“Like Taruk?”

I shook my head. “He said you knew about one who flew in on a pethek last year.”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I kind of do. I mean, I saw him doing it. More of a red-vested bomber than a Santa, though.”

“Do you know where he lives?”

“Somewhere out in Bhatari,” he said. Bhatari was a more agricultural cavern on the other side of the Dathir Quarry. The kaltep roasting beside us had probably been raised there. “But if you’re looking for a Santa, you’ve got the wrong demon.”


“Yeah, I ran into him at a concert feast a few months ago. Warrick Bint is his name, and he’s just a rancher. I’m pretty sure his candy bombing run on Karthai Castle was a one-time thing.”

“I don’t suppose you got his number?” I asked.


I thanked him, and Nigel tapped his empty glass again. After Choktan had refilled it and left, Nigel took a long draught. “More of a dead end than a lead,” he said.

A quick directory search for Warrick Bint yielded nothing, so I had to admit that he was right. “So yeah, no story.”

Nigel nodded slowly. “Or you could throw together a few column inches to go with the pictures we got back at the market. It’s not much, but it won’t leave Big Jim with a hole to fill in tomorrow’s Lifestyle section.”

He was right about that, but after everything with Mother, I wasn’t about to abandon my position in Hell to go back to the office to write it. I didn’t have my laptop with me, but I was able to bang out a few paragraphs on my phone while Nigel finished off his own kebabs and a bit of mine that I’d abandoned.

“There,” I said after hitting send, “you’ll have some text to go with your photos. If Big Jim asks, that’s all we were able to get.”

He drained his glass. “And you? If we hurry, we can still get the 4 p.m. train back into Pittsburgh.”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve made my decision, and Christmas alone in Hell is better than spending it with my mother. Believe me.”

He shrugged. “OK, it’s your decision.” Translation: you’re making a mistake, but I’m not going to rub your face in it. Maybe he was right. Deep down, I understood that, but a girl has to have her principles; if I gave in to Mother this time, she was going to be walking all over me for a year to come.

I waved goodbye to Nigel at the restaurant’s front gate and considered my options. I was sure if I simply showed up at Dad’s front door, he wasn’t going to send me away. In fact, he wouldn’t even mention the conflict. He would respect my decision. Of course, even with Choktan’s warning, going back to his friend Taruk and his Sexy Santa posse sounded a lot more fun than going stag to Dad’s. Or, I could hook up with one of my old high school demon friends and make a real night of it, Sexy Santa or not.

Or I could go to Bhatari and track down Warrick Bint. In retrospect, I can’t honestly say if my decision was more about tracking down the story or more about justifying my excuse for standing up to Mother. Either way, my course was set. I was on my way to track down Warrick Bint.

There were three ways across the Dathir Quarry and into Bhatari. First, I could simply fly across. Well, I could if I were a demon and had wings. Second, there was a freight line that ran through the tunnels between Karthai and Chapik with several stops along the way. It’s not exactly Amtrak, but I’ve hitched a ride in the engine-car more than once. Still, it wasn’t very predictable as a passenger transport. That left another set of chairlifts. I’d only ever ridden these particular ones once, and they’re not for the faint of heart. But the wingless can’t be picky, so that’s how I was going.

The actual lift terminal was about eight blocks away, but since I figured I’d already satisfied Big Jim’s request, I wasn’t worried about the deadline anymore. I took my time. I passed by a few shops and even checked out the window display for one selling kitchenware. They had a fancy nut juicer for some of the harder nuts that grow in Hell. Earth-side we think of nuts as dry, but down here, if you can crack them open, there’s a pulpy center to many of them with flavorful oils inside. This juicer was something of a cross between a pepper grinder and a miniature jackhammer. Dad would get a lot of mileage out of it, but at eighty-nine dollars it was too rich for my meager salary. Still, he had a birthday coming up in April. I might be able to find one used by then.

I wasn’t sure why I was dawdling so, but I suspect part of me was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would Mother go so far as to try to pull her mother into the argument as well? Would Paul use some embarrassing secret to blackmail me into going? He worked with fae, so he’d be able dredge up something. I was certain Dad would not try to push at me again, but still, as I walked the last block to the lift station, I kept waiting for my phone to ring. It never did.

Instead, Margaret was waiting for me at the lift station.

I tried to repress my frown, but I didn’t try very hard. “Funny running into you here,” I said.

She gave a weak smile. “That’s it? After everything Paul said, I was expecting more of a ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ kind of thing.”

I shook my head. “We don’t say ‘what the hell’ down here. But as long as you brought it up, Margaret, what in all the depths do you think you’re doing?”

She shrugged. “I wanted to spend some time with my future sister-in-law.”

“You’re not going to change my mind. I’m not going back to Evanelle for Festival.”

“I know.”

I checked my watch. It was just after four, and the trains were slipping to the once-an-hour holiday schedule until six when they would stop for the night. That was less an issue for demons, because they could always fly through the Abaddon Gate on the other side of Karthai and come out on the southeast side of town to fly to whatever part of Pittsburgh they wanted to. Not so much for us. “Look, Margaret, I appreciate the gesture, but if you want to get back to see Paul, you’d better start back for the Orange Line now.”

“Thanks, but I thought I’d stick with you and see about this story you’re after.”

I had no idea if Margaret was bluffing, but I had only the slightest bit of guilt in calling her on it. “All right. It’s over in Bhatari which means”—I nodded to the lift station behind her—“we need to go on that.”

She glanced behind her, nodded, and said, “Then let’s get going.”

Checked and raised. “All right.”

There was no line. This lift never gets much traffic anyway. A bench swung through, we got on, and with a jerk, it pulled us out over the quarry. I watched Margaret as the ground dropped away beneath us, but she looked down for only a few seconds before turning her eyes back up to the chair arm going up to the cable.

This lift was not nearly as nice or safe as the one Nigel and I had crossed on earlier. For starters, there was no safety bar to swing down in front of us. Second, there were no arm rests on the side, only the central bar to hang on to. And third, the bench was really just a pair of twelve-inch planks, one to sit on and one to lean back against. To top it off, it wasn’t a detachable chair, so that meant it was moving as slow as it was when it scooped us up.

Given how rare human traffic was out to Bhatari, this was considered a luxury upgrade from the original lift, which had been little more than a zip-line from the lip of the quarry down to the floor at the far side. Still, thanks to the constant digging along the floor of the quarry, the towers for the cables did not rise from below. Instead, they hung from the cavern roof, with the space below us dropping down into darkness. But Margaret appeared unfazed.

“So, how did you find me, anyway?” I asked her.

“I asked one of Paul’s friends at work.”

“Fae?” I asked.

She nodded. “Verity Wallace.”

“And he told you I’d be at the lifts?”

“Something like that. It’s never a straight answer with him, but he said that at four o’clock you would cross from Karthai to Bhatari in search of True Christmas.”

I snorted. “True Christmas? I hope you didn’t tag along based on that.”

“No,” she said. “But what is this story?”

“I suppose there’s no point in asking you not to tell Paul.”

“Not necessarily,” she replied. “Just because we’re getting married doesn’t mean I have to give up my aura of mystery.”

Part of me still suspected that she had been sent on Paul’s instructions, but I had to admit that her answer surprised me. “All right. It’s not True Christmas or anything like that. I’m tracking down a rumor that there’s some demon who is doing the Santa thing whole hog, complete with a sled and … well, not flying reindeer, but flying petheks.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Petheks? Wow, now that would be a sight to see.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, but it’s probably a fool’s errand.”

“You don’t think he exists?”

“I think the demon exists, but from what I’ve heard, it was one pethek, no sled, and no repeat performance.”

“Oh,” she said. “Still, it sounds like fun.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her. Fun? Yes, I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid, but it was always a career to me, never fun. “You’re really interested in this?”

She shrugged. “A little. Mostly I wanted to spend the time with you.”

“All right,” I replied. “It’s your dime.”

We passed a little while in silence before she asked the same question Nigel would have asked. “You have his address?”



I waited for her to ask me how I expected to find him, but she didn’t. The truth of it was I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it. I had simply been mad enough with everyone to push myself past the point of no return. I had a name, Warrick Bint; an occupation of rancher; and a cavern. Well, ranchers did business with … meat processors? Even if I could find the right slaughterhouse, that’s not how I wanted to spend my Christmas Eve. Equipment vendors? No, most of those would have been back in Karthai, or in Pittsburgh for that matter. Feed stores? That was worth looking at.

“I figure I can ask after him at the local feed store,” I said.

“Sounds like a plan,” she replied.

The fact that she accepted it so readily sucked my confidence right out of the plan. What kind of feed store was going to be open on Christmas Eve, let alone at four-thirty in the afternoon? But that’s what I’d said, so that’s what I was going to do.

The floor of the quarry rose up to meet us, and we stepped off the chairlift. I peeked in on the operator, and he was already celebrating, shall we say. There was an empty bottle next to him on the control board, but his glassy eyes spoke more of tarro moss than liquor alone. I had intended to ask him how late the lift would be running, but the sign on the door answered my question. “Lift stops at 6 p.m.” It was already 4:47.

“So, where is this feed store?” Margaret asked.

I was about to pull out my phone and Google it, but I saw my answer down the road. There were five or six buildings in sight, but only one was lit up, and it had drawn something of a crowd. “Down there,” I said. I didn’t know if it would actually be a feed store, but it was a crowd of locals that I was after, and that certainly looked like such a crowd.

It was about four blocks, which were no shorter for being mostly empty, but we walked it with purpose. “What kind of demon is this Mr. Bint?”

“A tokkel,” I replied, and made a spiraling motion on either side of my head. “With the ram horns.”

“Cool,” she replied.

“You know many demons?”

She shrugged. “A dozen or so, mostly tokkels.”

“Really?” I was surprised. They rarely get out into the public eye.

“Sure. I spend half my time underwriting loans, and the tokkels are some of the sharpest financial minds I’ve run into.”

“Even compared to the fae?” Some fae had legitimate precognition, so I always figured they ruled the financial world.

She shot me a grin. “There’s more to business than knowing the future.”

I was going to ask what, but I was genuinely confused. What was Margaret really doing here? She had to know the time, and she would have seen the same sign I did at the lift. Did she have some backup plan for getting back in time? And if so, what?

A roar of laughter stirred me from my thoughts. We were getting close to the source, and I could see that it was not a feed store. It was, instead, the demon equivalent of a drive-in theater. They had no cars, of course, but there were tables scattered around in front of a wall of those big flat screens, arrayed together edge-to-edge. I couldn’t make out the sound, but I’d been to one of these before. You pay to borrow a pair of headphones, and you watch from your table. Some of the nicer ones had waiters, but this one looked like it was more self-serve, with a cook working a fry-grill behind a short counter.

The movie itself looked like last year’s remake of A Christmas Story. If you didn’t see it, they made little Ralphie a nine-year-old kagnari whose great Christmas desire was for a Kalxi Axemen double-bladed blood-steel poleaxe with a gyroscope in the handle and a strap that lets you carry it over your back! Instead of risking an eye, the feared outcome was suitably demonic: “You’ll cut your wing off!”

I took a seat by the counter, while Margaret wandered over toward the tables. They were approaching the critical scene when little Ralphie was finally going to ask Santa himself for the poleaxe. The cook nodded to me, but he was flipping a series of sausages over the grill. I glanced at the menu, but I wasn’t all that hungry. Still, it would be polite to order at least an appetizer.

I waited a few minutes before he turned around, dipped a wing in my direction, and asked, “You hungry?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll take a fried dog.” Now, before you jump to conclusions about demon cuisine, it’s just their version of a corn dog. It’s made with a thicker and spicier sausage, and the breading is much more like the crunchy skin of fried chicken than the bland cornmeal of a traditional corn dog. It was more than I had room for in my stomach, but I thought Margaret might want a bite as well.

He had one already under the warming light, so he handed it over. I took a bite and was surprised at how good it was. No wonder he had such a crowd on Christmas Eve.

“So, you’re not one of my regulars. What brings you all the way out here?”

“I’m looking for a rancher by the name of Warrick Bint.”

“Are you one of those collections agents?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m from the Herald.” I fished out one of my precious business cards and slid it across the counter. “I heard he’s quite the Santa fan.”

The cook snorted. “You mean that stunt last year?”

I nodded. “Any chance of a repeat performance?”

He shrugged. “With Warrick, anything is possible.”

Another roar of laugher interrupted my thoughts, and I glanced back at the wall of screens. Little Ralphie was spiraling down away from Santa’s lofty perch, sped along by a hoof to his rump. Margaret saw me looking and wandered back.

“Any chance he’s in there?” I asked.

“Nah,” the cook replied. “I haven’t seen him in two or three days.”

“Does he live around here?”

“Sort of, but it’s a ways, down at the end of Petiko Road.”

I thanked him, took another bite of my fried dog and put a few bucks down on the table.

“Did you find him?” Margaret asked.

“I got an address.”

“How far?”

I took one last bite of the fried dog and handed it to her. I licked the juices off my fingers and pulled out my phone. Yes, Google Maps even works in Hell, but you have to turn off safe-search to get the street-level view sometimes. Petiko Road branched off the main street a few blocks from here, but then it was almost two miles to the far end. “A couple of miles,” I said.

She checked her watch. Aha! Now I knew for sure she was worried about the time. “Then let’s get moving,” she said.

I started us in the right direction, but she was setting the pace. “What’s your hurry?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? If he really is doing the full Santa thing, I want to see him before he takes off.”

So down Petiko Road we went. Margaret asked a few questions about the sights along the way. There was a herd of kaltep grazing on the purple ferns to our left. “Why do they have six legs when most things have only four?”

“No wings,” I said. “If you count them, pretty much everything has six appendages in Hell. These guys evolved from some serious diggers about half their size, but they started bulking up a few thousand generations back.”

“Did their ancestors dig out these caverns?”

I shook my head. “Not these, but some of the smaller ones, yes.”

“And the ferns? Are they good to eat?”

“Good for them, but not for us.”

We walked another few minutes in silence, but then I had to ask. “So, what are you normally doing on Christmas Eve?”

She shrugged. “Dad took off a long time back, so usually it’s been me, Mom, and my older sister. But she’s married now, and Mom went to spend Christmas with them in Denver. So I’m kind of on my own this year.”

“Except you have Paul,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, and your mom.” She gave a little snort. “And your grandmother Vanessa is a hoot.”

I had to smile. Yes, as much as I could not stand to be with Mother, her mother, Vanessa, was enough to keep me from completely writing off that side of the family. “She is at that. So, why aren’t you with them?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, really.”

I cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t?”

“I mean, I love Paul, and I’m looking forward to a lot of Christmases to come, but this is my last one, you know, to make my own.”

“But you’re here with me.”

She nodded. “I’ll admit, it’s less of an exciting adventure than I thought it might be, but I have some faith in Verity Wallace.”

“Your fae friend with the whole True Christmas thing.” The sarcasm showed in my voice more than I meant it to.

“Yes,” she said firmly. “Don’t you believe in it?”

“What? Christmas or Christ?”

“Whichever,” she replied. “Something good. Hope, joy, you know, good will towards men?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think about that kind of stuff.”


“Well, not when I’m on a deadline at any rate.”

She frowned at that, but she did not say anything in response.

I let the silence stretch a little longer, but it was getting awkward. “So,” I ventured, “have you and Paul set a date yet?”

I got a grin for that. “Yes, next summer, August seventeenth. I wanted June, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

“But Paul said he couldn’t get the vacation in either the first or third month of a financial quarter.”

I nodded. That sounded exactly like Paul. “And the church?”

She brightened even more at that, and we dove deep into talk about the wedding. I didn’t care all that much, to be honest, but it filled the time as we walked. Still, I figured I’d be asked to be a bridesmaid or something, and I wanted to get in an early vote against anything yellow. I’m pale enough that it ends up making me look like a zombie. Well, at least like a movie zombie. Thank the fires above that those aren’t real.

Anyway, the bridal topic carried us awhile, but we had settled back into silence by the time we came to a gate blocking the road. The script on the sign was demonic, but it read the equivalent of “Bint Family Ranch.”

“This is it,” I said. It had only a simple latch, so we went through and closed it behind us. The road continued, though it was more of a dirt driveway now. There was a house and a barn another quarter mile or so along, so we headed that way.

“Should we be worried about trespassing?” Margaret asked.

I shook my head. “When your neighbors fly overhead all the time, you don’t think that way.”

We came around to the front of the house, but I didn’t see anyone. The barn looked to be closed as well. Maybe this was a waste of time after all.

“Look,” Margaret whispered, pointing to the back of the barn.

I saw a wing jutting out from the far side. It pulled back once or twice. Whoever it belonged to was working on something. “Hark!” I called out. No, it’s not a Christmas thing; it’s actually a common greeting in the demon tongue. I might work for the Herald, but I’m no angel.

The wing fluttered a bit, and then a demon stepped out, a bulky tokkel in black leather pants but shirtless and with no merry red cap astride his heavily curled horns. He tilted one of those horns toward us before calling out, “What brings you?”

I headed his way. “I’m looking for Warrick Bint.”

“You don’t look like bankers. Who are you?”

“I’m Alice Koufax. I work for the Herald.”

“And your friend?”

I glanced back at Margaret. She had come all this way, after all. “This is Margaret, my sister, sort of.”

He rubbed his hands together. “So, Alice Koufax of the Herald and Margaret the sort-of sister, what do you want?”

“I heard a story that you pulled quite the Santa stunt last year.”

He shook his head. “No, I pulled no stunt.”

“No?” Had this really all been for nothing?

“No,” he said and turned back toward the barn. He walked another ten paces before he paused and looked back at us. “It was no stunt,” he said with a tooth-bared smile, and then boomed out in triumph, “It was a trial run!” He waved with one arm. “Come and see.”

My feet were tired from the long walk, but you can bet your Sexy Santa I ran the whole way to catch up with him as he rounded the corner of the barn, and what I saw took my breath away. Big Jim had been right after all.

No, it wasn’t a red sled being pulled by eight flying reindeer, but it was close enough. The sled was more of a dune buggy frame with big rubber wheels and no engine, and it was perhaps a bit more orange than red, but it was indeed hitched up to eight flying petheks. They were all on the ground at the moment, but from what I could tell of the rigging, one beast was harnessed at each corner, and then four more were harnessed together two by two further forward. They even had little silver sleigh bells hanging from the tack.

“What do you think?” His voice rumbled.

I struggled for the words, but Margaret beat me to it. “It’s fantastic,” she squealed. “It’s like something right out of a fairy tale, but it’s real!”

“Indeed it is!” Warrick replied. “I’ve taken it up for a few test flights out here, but now she’s ready for the city, don’t you think?”

Margaret giggled with glee and ran up to the sled, as it were, running her hands along the edge.

“And what do you think, Alice Koufax of the Herald?”

I realized I was still standing there with my mouth hanging open. It was real. A red coat hung from the side of the sled, cut like a narrow vest in back for a demon’s wings. There was even a red and white fur cap dangling on the frame. “I can’t believe it,” I said at last. “You really are Santa Claus.”

He snorted and let out a long belly laugh. “No, not Santa,” he said and raised one hand to the tip of his right horn. “More of a Satan, don’t you think? Satan Claws, perhaps?”

I nodded with a smile. Name or no name, he was really doing it. There was even a big bag in the back seat of the sled. “So, you’ve actually got presents back in there?”

He shrugged. “Or maybe a good supply of coal. Why do you ask? Have you come all this way to ask Satan Claws for a present?”

“I, um …”

“Have you been naughty or nice?”

I looked over at Margaret edging cautiously toward one of the petheks, smartly doing it on the harness side where she would be safe. She was loving every minute of it, but the truth of the matter was that she was only here because of me. She had meant it when she said she wanted to spend Christmas with me, and because of me, she was going to miss it with Paul.

I had not been nice. I had not even been naughty, not in the fun way all the Santas down here meant it. No, I had been selfish and, though I hated to admit it, spiteful. I hadn’t cared about anything but pushing back against Mother, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

It was past eight. The chairlift was no longer running, and for that matter, the trains would have stopped for the night on their holiday schedule. There was no way I could get Margaret back to Evanelle in time, and though I could barely believe it, that was exactly what I wanted to do.

Warrick took another step toward me but followed my gaze back to Margaret. “You did come to ask for a present, but not for yourself. Is that right?”

I turned back to him and nodded. “Yes, I … I think I did.”

He tilted his head back and forth, waving his horns first at Margaret and then me. “You …” A broad, tooth-bared smile crept over his face. “You want a ride, don’t you?”

I nodded. “It’s my fault, but she needs to get back to Evanelle, and I don’t think she’ll go without me.”

He chuckled a moment, frowned a bit, and then let out a giant roar of a laugh. Margaret pulled back from the pethek to look at us. “What is it?”

Warrick Bint looked back and forth between us. “I think you two just promoted yourselves to be Satan Claws’s little helpers. Climb aboard!”

“You mean it?” Margaret asked.

“Of course,” he replied. “I believe you two have a date of some kind in that cursed city of the elves.”

He hopped up with the help of a quick flap of his wings, and then reached out a hand to me. He pulled me up, and helped Margaret climb up after me. The seats were not terribly comfortable, but what would you expect in Satan’s sled?

He pointed out some leather-strap handholds and gathered up the reins. “This isn’t quite what I had planned,” he said. “But in some ways, it’s even better.”

He gave three short whistles, pulled the reins tight, and before I knew it, we were flying. The four corner petheks seemed to be bearing the weight of the sled as they flew slightly above us. Their reins ran through the frame of the sled and through some hitches and levers so that Warrick could direct them individually and in combinations. The four in front were giving us most of our velocity, and damn but we were picking up speed. We flew over the little movie cantina after another minute, and then we dove down into the quarry.

“I can’t fly us into Evanelle,” Warrick shouted back at us. I understood. After two cross-realm invasions, the elves of Evanelle had formidable defenses on their sides of the gates. “But I can fly us through Pittsburgh,” he continued. “I don’t know what we’ll look like on radar, but I think we’re going to get pretty close to one of the airports.”

I glanced at Margaret and caught her grinning ear to ear like a kid on Christmas morning. She was holding onto a strap with one hand and digging through the big bag with the other. “What about these?” she asked.

Warrick pulled the reins a little and pushed at the levers with his hooves. “I had planned to dump it all around Karthai Castle, just to show the guards that I was undeterred from last year, but you two should start tossing them out once we get over the city.” He laughed again. “Cities, by the fires above, cities! Satan Claws may not cover the whole world, but I’ll damned well cover the realms!”

We flashed up past the edge of the quarry and over Lower Karthai. Margaret grabbed one of the packages and threw it over the side. I saw it as the wind caught it, a tiny wrapped box hanging from a red and green paper parachute. I pulled one out myself and tossed it overboard. It fell away, but before I lost sight of it, it was settling into a gentle drop toward the buildings below.

I grabbed another and threw it over. Fires above, I really was being one of Satan’s little helpers. We pulled up again over the rocky slope that divides Upper and Lower Karthai, and Margaret and I picked up the pace, flinging gifts as far out as we could to spread them out across the city. I spotted Karthai Castle off to our left, but Warrick did not head for it. Instead, he took us farther up in the direction of the steel foundry and the Abaddon Gate on the far side of it.

“This,” he shouted over the wind, “should be interesting.”

He steered us down toward the gate and pulled the corner petheks in with the cranking of a gear. The Abaddon Gate did not have rail traffic because it came out on a hill in the middle of suburbia on the southeast side of Pittsburgh, so this was one of the few gates that demons could fly through. That did not, however, mean it was going to be simple.

I turned my head to look back at the right rear pethek as its wings flapped almost against my back, and before I knew it we were through. Hell’s heat and dull yellow light were immediately replaced by a Pittsburgh winter night, clear and cold.

I yanked my jacket up from my waist as fast as I could, but by the time I had my arms into my sleeves, my teeth were chattering. Margaret had been a little faster, and she was back to throwing presents over the edge, watching and laughing as they parachuted down into suburban Pittsburgh. I grabbed a few and tossed them as well. I paused when the houses disappeared beneath us, and I looked forward just as we flew past the control tower for Allegheny County Airport.

Yes, boys and girls, Satan Claws buzzed the tower.

With that as a waypoint, I knew where we were headed: downtown Pittsburgh. More houses appeared below us, and Margaret and I resumed throwing presents. First onto Brentwood, then Brookline and Beechview. I wasn’t quite calling out the names of Santa’s reindeer, but it felt like it.

Then one last turn to the north over Mount Washington, and we plunged down across the river to River Point Park, at the western tip of downtown Pittsburgh where the Ohio River is formed. Twice we circled as Warrick reined in his petheks and bled off speed. We landed with a bit of a bounce on the snow-covered remains of Fort Duquesne, right in front of the River Point Gate into Evanelle. It was just past nine, a little before eight bells by Evanelle’s time reckoning. We had made it in time.

Margaret squeezed between Warrick’s wings and hugged him from behind. “That was the best ride ever!”

After she had released him, he turned to me. “Is that what you wanted for Christmas, Alice Koufax of the Herald?”

I leaned forward and took hold of his hand. “It’s more,” I told him. I threw a glance at Margaret. “More than I ever would have thought to ask.”

He tilted one of his spiraling horns toward me and winked. “Then off with you,” he called out. “Off with you to Evanelle!”

We both climbed down and headed to the gate. Margaret was right at the threshold when Warrick called out, “You forgot something!”

I turned to see him standing with the depleted bag in one hand and a single present in the other. I took a step toward him, but he threw it to me instead. I thought it was going to go over my head, but the parachute deployed, dropping it into my hands. I knew it wasn’t officially Christmas yet, but I had to know. I tore at the wrapping paper and the tissue paper within to reveal something small and dark.

In the shimmering light of the gate behind me, I held it up and saw it for what it was: a lump of coal. But it was not just any lump of coal. It had been carved into the shape of a cradle with a baby inside. Yes, as more of the presents were recovered over the next several days, it became clear. He had been carving nativity scenes out of coal.

I placed it carefully back into the wrapping paper and tucked it into my pocket. I turned to thank him, but he had already taken off. That’s when I realized I had never taken any pictures, so I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. I knew it would take a miracle to get any kind of picture in this light, but I aimed it as best I could and clicked off several frames. And then I actually got that miraculous shot. While it was new moon over in Evanelle, it was a full moon in Pittsburgh, and I caught him just as he passed in front of it, with his sled and petheks silhouetted against the luminous disk.

Margaret was still waiting for me with one foot already through the shimmering surface of the gate. “So, I guess my fae friend was right. True Christmas after all.”

I nodded. “Indeed he was.”

“Shall we, sister?”

I reached out, took her hand, and crossed through into Evanelle. It took some running and crowd dodging, but we managed to meet up with Paul, Mother, and the rest of my scattered elfin cousins right as the eighth bell rang and the first magicworks lit up the sky. Mother knew enough to not say anything to me, merely giving me a hug instead. As for me, I wasn’t ready to forgive her or anything so radical as that, but I could keep the peace for a day if she could.

Of course, my phone had fried the minute I walked into Evanelle without putting it into a good shielding pouch, so I lost the pictures. The four FAA controllers in the Allegheny control tower knew better than to report seeing a flying Santa Claus of any variety, and the video feeds covering the Abaddon and River Point Gates were never captured to permanent storage because the Federal Gate Department had been upgrading the system over the holiday break. I tried to find Warrick Bint later on, but all those cryptic comments about collection agents and bankers proved prophetic. The First Steel Bank of Karthai foreclosed on his ranch in January. None of his neighbors knew what had become of him. According to the official records, Warrick Bint’s Christmas Eve flight never took place.

But I know, and so does my new sister-in-law. We were there, so don’t let the naysayers drag you down. Satan Claws is real, and I still have my Little Baby Jesus lump of coal to prove it.

Ships of My Fathers Sample

Here are the first three chapters of my new novel, Ships of My Fathers.

Ships of My Fathers

Dan Thompson

Chapter 1

“You know those times when everything works out exactly how you planned? Yeah, me neither.” — Malcolm Fletcher

Michael Fletcher lost both of his fathers before he ever found out there had been two of them. He was present for both deaths, but he could only remember the second one. Discovering what had happened to his first father was neither simple nor painless.

On the day he lost his second father, however, he and Malcolm were loading cargo into Sophie’s Grace. If they had been at a regular port, they would have been watching from the sidelines as the local cargo handlers did it, but the Shorthorn transfer station was far from a regular port. Instead, they were floating outside the ship, maneuvering the cargo through the vacuum of space.

“Skipper, down zero two, starboard one three,” came the call from Isaac. He was officially the ship’s first mate and was monitoring the bulky load’s zero-gee maneuver from within the cargo bay. Michael liked to think of himself as the first mate, but at seventeen, he was not yet old enough to qualify for the rating.

“Got it,” Malcolm replied, firing a few jets on the loader. “Down zero two, starboard one three.” Malcolm Fletcher was the captain and owner of Sophie’s Grace, but he often got his hands dirty on these runs. “If you want the job done right,” he had told Michael again and again, “don’t hire it out.”

Michael was floating about fifty meters aft watching his father drive the loader. He had already prepositioned the final array behind him with the backup loader, but he was at loose ends now while his father loaded this one. The work was trickier than usual, since these cargoes were loose pallets bundled together by cables instead of the standard ten-meter shipping containers.

This kind of load was not uncommon out beyond the borders of the Hudson Confederacy, and the Shorthorn transfer station was typical as well. It was less of an outpost than a collection of floating boxes in orbit around an empty moon. Someone had tried to terraform the moon a century before, reportedly drawn to the impressive view of the ringed gas giant above them, but the effort fell apart back in the 3350’s. Since then, the orbital staging area had become a useful transfer point for some of the less orthodox shippers working in the border region. They were not technically smuggling anything illegal. They were simply dodging a number of tariffs and port fees.

“Overshot starboard, Skipper, port zero four.”


Michael watched with a wry smile. Dad had ragged on him their last time through for his own sloppy handling of the loader. Today he had hit the mark straight on four times in a row while Dad had missed on two of them so far. “Careful, Skip,” he chided, “or you’re going to have to back it out.” He could rag back on him a little, but he always called him Skip or Skipper in front of the rest of the crew, never Dad. It was a casual little ship, but it was still a ship.

“Fat chance, boy,” Malcolm replied. “I’ve got this one.”

“Skipper, you’re still drifting starboard, and you’re getting out of alignment. Another half-meter and you’ll miss the rail guides.”

Michael used his suit jets to move off to starboard so he could get a better look himself, but as he did, he caught a glance of what his father could not see. The loader was not much more than an open-framed cage around the driver, with grapplers and thrusters all around, but it did keep the driver facing forward. One of those thrusters behind Malcolm was firing, a little cloud jetting out at random intervals. “I see your problem, Skip. Your port thruster is still firing.”

Malcolm twisted in the loader’s harness to see the thrusters arrayed behind him. “Dammit, I thought we got this fixed back on Taschin.”

“We did,” Michael protested. “They told me it was solid.”

“Skipper,” Isaac called again, “you’re out of the lane now.”

“I know,” he replied, his voice tense over the radio. “I’m shutting it down. Isaac, can you get the lift arm in there to brace me?”

There was a hesitation. “Yeah, but it’s going to be close.”

Michael watched the cargo array continue drifting to starboard, rotating as it went. Inside, Isaac would be moving their internal lifter out to the end of the bay to stop the pallet array from crashing into the side of the bay doors. “Hurry, Isaac,” Michael called. “That thruster is still going.”

“I see it,” his father answered. “I’m trying to reach the shut-off valve.” Michael could see him straining against the harness, stretching out his left arm towards the loader’s frame and that sputtering thruster.

“I can get to it,” Michael called, already firing his suit jets to come up behind the loader’s frame.

“No, stay clear.”

“No, really Skip, I can come in clear of the thruster and still reach that valve.”

“Stay clear, son,” his father repeated. “That’s an order.”

Arguments with Dad took three forms. Arguments over chores earned him scut work. Arguments over his studies cost him access to the entertainment library. Then came arguments over orders. The one time he had disobeyed a direct order had cost him port liberty for eight months.

Michael adjusted his trajectory to swing up above the ship, well clear of Malcolm and the loader. “Aye, sir.”

“Gotcha!” Isaac cheered. The cargo lift arm grabbed onto the end of the pallet array.

“Good work, Isaac,” Malcolm replied, but the crisis was not over. The misfiring loader continued to push at one end of the pallet array, only adding to the momentum of the free end. With one end locked down, the bundle started to bend, crushing some of the individual crates on one side while pulling hard on the cables on the other side.

All but one of them held.

The one that snapped swung out from the left side, wrapped around the port side of the loader’s frame, and the final two meters of it whipped through the loader’s open frame and slashed against Malcolm’s leg.

“Oh, Christ fuck me!” he cried out.

“Dad!” Michael shouted into his microphone.

“What happened?” was all Isaac could say.

Orders or no orders, Michael started jetting in. He could see a mist of blood and air escaping from his father’s left leg. The end of the cable was still embedded into the suit. “He’s venting… Dad, you’re venting!”

“Ugh, yeah…” he replied, his voice ragged. “We’ve got to… I’m releasing harness.”

Michael jetted in from the right, well clear of the errant thruster, and he finally got a good look at Malcolm’s injury. “The cable’s still in your leg. Should I pull it out?”

“Gah… no. Not here. Get the cutter.”

Michael climbed around the loader’s frame to the toolbox. A small laser cutter was clipped on at the bottom. “Got it!”

“I’m coming out.” It was Isaac’s voice over the radio.

Michael climbed back through to the left side, still wary of the thruster, and started in on the cable.

“No,” Malcolm replied, panting. “You’ll never get through the cargo bay.” He paused, breathing hard as he cranked up his oxygen. “We’ll go in… dorsal.”

The cable was not very thick, no more than a centimeter, but it was strong. “Just a few more seconds, Dad.” He glanced back to his father, seeing him slowly disentangle himself from the loader’s harness.

The cable snapped free and swung back around to the outside of the loader again, missing Michael’s helmet by a hand’s width. He moved back to his father who was floating free within the loader’s frame.


Inside the helmet, Malcolm nodded silently.

“What’s going on out there?”

Michael grabbed at his father and kicked free of the loader’s frame. “I’ve got… the skipper. He’s venting and bleeding from his leg. We’re headed to the dorsal airlock. Open it for us and stand by the other side with the med pack.”


Michael jetted back above Sophie, careening side to side as his father’s weight threw off his center of gravity. “We’re almost there, Dad.”

“Too late,” he said.

“Keep your air up, Dad. You’re going to make it.”

“Fuck… not the air.”

The airlock was close ahead, gaping open, a two-meter-wide target. Michael pushed his feet out and hit the boot thrusters again, skewing them down into it. “We’re in!” he called out.


The door closed above them, first the iris and then the sliding hatch.

“Cycle it!”

“Bleeding out…”

“Dad, we’re in, just hang on.”

“I’m sorry, Michael.”

“Cycle the damn lock!”

“I am!” It was Henry Bartz, the systems engineer. “Valves wide open.”

Michael looked down at his father’s face once more, separated by their two visors. “Dad, hang on!”

“I always meant to tell you… I’m so sorry, son. Forgive me.”

“Cycle the God damned lock!”

But Malcolm was already gone.


Michael sat in the med bay next to his father’s body. The mad rush from the airlock had been a futile formality. By the time they cut the suit away from his leg, it was clear what had killed him. The cable’s tip had sliced into his hamstring, wrapped around the bone, and severed the deep femoral artery. Nothing short of a trauma surgeon could have saved him, even if they could have gotten him there in mere moments. But the Sophie’s Grace was an independent freighter, crewed by seven. The closest trauma surgeon was light years away.

Michael had cleaned the wound, but Isaac had insisted he leave the cable inside. There might be an autopsy at some point, so it was best to disturb as little as possible. The body remained uncovered, and Michael sat there, still staring at the wound, replaying the accident in his mind over and over.

He could have come in and turned off the thruster.

He should have, orders or not.

Port liberty be damned, he should have come in and turned off that thruster.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder. It was Isaac.

“We’re secure now. Henry and I got the rest of the load in, and we’re sealed up.”

Michael nodded.

“I’m sorry about your father. He was a good skipper.”

“I should have—”

“No,” Isaac cut him off. “No should haves. Not today. You’ll have years of them down the road, but not today.”

“What then?”

“Today we say goodbye to your father, and then we head back in to Taschin.”

Michael finally turned from the body to look at Isaac. “Taschin? We just left there. Nasar is the next stop.”

Isaac pulled his hand back and faced Michael squarely. “I’m afraid not, Michael. Taschin is the closest Confederate port, and we have to report your father’s death.”

Michael stood. “We’re going to put him in storage, right?”

“Yes. Henry has a cold bay waiting for us.”

“Then Dad can wait. He promised this cargo to someone on Nasar, and we’re going to follow the skipper’s orders.”

Isaac shook his head. “He’s not the skipper anymore, Michael.”

Michael set his jaw. “Ok, then I say so. My father made a promise.”

“It’s not up to you,” Isaac told him. “Look, you and the skipper ran a good ship, and between you and me, you made a good first officer, the best he could have hoped for. But on paper, you’re not the first officer.”

“That’s only because I’m too young to take the licensing exam.”

“I know, and I know you’re going to ace it next year, but seventeen is not eighteen, and I’m on the books as the first officer. You know that.”

Michael turned back to face the body again. “Yeah, I know.”

“And you know the regulations, too. We may work out here on the border, but we’re a Confederate flagged ship, and that means Confederate regs.”

Michael nodded. Dad had drilled him on the regulations every week.

“I know you want to do the right thing here, but if we don’t go back into Taschin, especially if something else were to happen between now and then, I’d lose my license, maybe even face charges.”

His shoulders sagged as he leaned in against the table. His father’s skin was pale and still. “You’re right, I know.”

“Then Taschin it is?” Isaac asked.

Michael nodded. “Taschin it is.”

“You got any family there? I know your mom’s been gone a while.”

“Since I was a baby,” he replied, only then taking it in. He was an orphan.

“Anyone else? Maybe back on Arvin?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, we’ll see when we get there.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder again. “Do you want me and Henry to take care of the body?”

He shook his head. “No, I’ll do it. He was my father, after all.”

Chapter 2

“Some goodbyes are really good riddance. It’s the others that are hard.” — Malcolm Fletcher

Michael sat next to Isaac as the Taschin port magistrate read over the files in his office. They had brought video of the accident from the rear cargo monitors, but he had not bothered to look at it. The rest of the crew was still back at the ship seeing to the offload of cargo and waiting to hand over the body to the authorities.

“Very regrettable,” the magistrate said. He was graying and peered down at his reader through half-rim spectacles. “Though I find no fault in any of the crew or officers, you might have a case to make against the loader repair company… Wall-to-Sky, oh, that’s here isn’t it? Ah yes…”

“So you find no irregularities, sir?” Isaac asked.

He looked up to face them again. “No, everything looks by the book. I admit I’ve never particularly cared for the use of these border transfer points, but this kind of accident could have happened in any orbital facility, and I don’t know if we’d have any better results. Barring any push back from the coroner, I’ll mark this closed tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, sir,” Isaac replied, “but there’s also the issue of the ship ownership.”

“Oh? Was Captain Fletcher also the owner?”

“Yes,” Michael spoke up. “Well, actually, he always said it belonged to the two of us, him and me.”

He looked back down at the file. “Ah, you must be the son, Michael.”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“I’m sorry about your father.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The magistrate paged through a few files and followed a link. “It looks as though you’re probably correct. Sophie’s Grace’s owner is listed as the Fletcher Trust, an owner-share cooperative with Malcolm Fletcher as the executive agent. You’d have to look up the bylaws and structure to see how the ownership flows in the event of his death, but that’s getting outside of my jurisdiction. My mandate is strictly to enforce the Confederacy’s shipping regulations, and this is getting more into property law. Do you have a local lawyer to look into this?”

Michael hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I mean Dad may have had one, but I don’t know who that would be.”

The magistrate took off his spectacles and looked back and forth between Isaac and Michael before focusing on the boy. “How old are you, Mr. Fletcher?”

“Why do you ask?”

He sighed. “It’s a matter of public record, I’m sure. Are you going to make me look it up?”

“No, sir. I’ll be eighteen next year.”

“Next year, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

He frowned. “Well, I’m sorry to say that the law does not care how old you are next year. It only matters how old you are now, and at seventeen you’re still not considered a legal adult. I gather from the fact that it’s the Fletcher Trust rather than the Fletcher joint property that your mother is no longer in the picture. Is that correct?”

Michael shook his head.

“I believe, sir,” Isaac offered, “that she died quite some time ago, before Captain Fletcher purchased the Sophie. He told me he named the ship after her.”

“Sophie, eh?”

“Sophia,” Michael corrected. “Sophia Grace Fletcher.” If they were going to talk about her that way, they could at least get her name right. “She died during the Caspian rebellion, killed in a pirate attack before I was one, and now I’ve lost my dad at seventeen.” He tried to fake a smile but failed. “So what, are you planning to lock me up in some orphanage for the next nine months?”

“It won’t be me, Michael,” the magistrate replied, “but I do feel I have to make a few calls on your behalf. I’m sure someone from the local child services or perhaps even the Captains’ Guild can appoint a lawyer for you. They won’t be able to take over your guardianship, but—”

“My guardianship?” Michael asked with a firm shake of his head. “No offense, sir, but I’m not some little kid who wandered into port. I’ve been on freighters my whole life, working as crew since I was a kid. I know how to take care of myself.”

The magistrate leaned back. “Look, Mr. Fletcher, I am sorry for your loss, and I’m sure you could go on to be a fine owner and captain yourself, but if you are as old a hand as you say you are, then you know the regulations as well as I do. You’re not going to captain that ship until you pass your exams, and the Guild will never offer them to someone your age.”

“I could hire a captain,” Michael insisted.

“Not on your own you can’t,” the magistrate replied. “You’re too young to enter into a legally binding contract, and no captain is going to hire on without it.”

Michael looked to Isaac for support, but Isaac merely shook his head. “He’s right, Michael.”

“It’s not so bad, boy,” the magistrate went on. “It’s only nine months. It’ll take a while to sort out the ownership transfer anyway. Take some time, grieve for your father, and figure out what you want to do with your life. From the sounds of it, you’ve been working since you got out of diapers. I think you’ve earned a little time off.”


Michael set his duffel down on the bed as Isaac rolled the trunk into the corner.

“That should do it,” Isaac said. “I’ve got my stuff in the other room.”


They had moved Sophie’s Grace into a long-term storage bay on the outskirts of the port. The Port Authority team had then sealed it with a double-keyed lock. No one was getting back in without Michael’s authorization, but he could not get back in either, not without an order from the Port Authority.

Packing had been hard, but he kept telling himself it was not forever. He brought the bulk of his civilian clothes along with a couple of uniforms, both functional and official. He copied all his files and most of the entertainment library from the ship’s computer but had left quite a few personal belongings behind. This was temporary, after all.

His father’s quarters had remained untouched with two exceptions. Michael had taken his father’s utility knife and an old portrait of his mother. Sophia was in a blue-gray ship uniform, curled up against a circular viewport. A nebula dominated the star field beyond her in the view, and she was looking out into the void with a hint of a playful smile on her face. Father had always told him that the picture was taken shortly after she found out she was pregnant with him. It was the only picture his father had kept of her.

On ship, the picture had been mounted to the wall. After all, everything on ship was glued down, screwed in, or locked into a groove. There was no easy way to do that in the hotel room, so he settled on putting it on top of the dresser, leaned against the wall. It threatened to slip a bit, so he braced the bottom of the frame with a rolled up towel. It was not the most picturesque arrangement, but it would do.

Isaac stuck his head back through the door. “I’m all set, and the rest of the crew is waiting for us down at the Lucky Black. You ready?”

“I guess, though I’ve never been to a wake before.”

“It’s easy enough. Drink until you can only remember the good, and then drink some more.”


The Lucky Black was better than the average spacer bar in that the bathrooms were as clean as most engine rooms, which as any engineer will tell you does not say much. It lay in the central crossroads section of the port, between the actual docks, the warehouses, and the administrative district. Even then, it was hard to find, tucked back off the main roads and behind the more touristy restaurants.

The rest of the crew was there, all four of them, but that was not so surprising. Where else would they be? What was surprising to Michael was how many familiar faces there were beyond the crew. Captain Wallace and most the crew of the Johnny Rose were there, already toasting to his father before he arrived.

Crews from seven other freighters trickled in over the next hour, though the captain of the Quincy Quack sent only his first officer and his regards. “It’s some snafu over livestock quarantine,” the officer had explained. “You know how it goes.”

Michael nodded knowingly but only guessed at the details. Dad had never transported livestock, but he still appreciated being told of the problem with candor. Everyone there was treating him like a fellow spacer, not like a kid who had just lost his father.

The drinks kept flowing as various crewmembers took turns buying a round. Michael did his best to pace himself, but he was getting fairly wobbly. Dad had started teaching him to drink two years before, telling him that if he was going to be a spacer, he had to learn to handle his liquor. He tried to keep up the routine he had learned, buffering each drink with a handful of whatever the local snack was, along with the occasional drink of water. It worked for a while, but before long he had fallen behind and started losing track of how many it had been.

At one point, he found himself leaning against the bar, listening to Isaac and Captain Wallace swap stories about his father’s love for local chili recipes, when a uniformed officer plopped down on the seat next to him. It was the uniform of the Confederate Navy, and the various tags identified him as Lt. Commander Montgomery Wheaton of the CFS Alvarez.

“Monty,” he said, extending his hand.

“Michael,” he replied, trying to take it, but then realized he had to switch his glass over to his left hand.

“Sorry to hear about your skipper. Your dad, right?”

Michael nodded. Monty was the first person to bring it up so far.

“Good man. Saved my ass once, back in the war.”

Michael shook his head. “Dad was never in the service.”

Monty nodded and downed his own shot. “Yeah, I know.”

“Then how…?”

Monty put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and gave it a good squeeze. “Don’t believe all the stories, boy. He was as solid as they come.”

“Stories?” Michael did not know what stories he was talking about, but he did know that the alcohol was making it hard to remember.

“But I guess I owe you one now, so if you ever need a favor, look me up.”

But the very next moment Isaac turned around and grabbed at Michael. “Hey, what was that um, that spice Skip picked up back on Ringway? You know, the blue one with the bubbles?”

Michael tried to switch gears but only managed to mumble, “No idea.”

When he turned back around, Monty was gone.

Hours later, people slipped out in twos and threes, always shaking his hand on the way out. The number of “if you ever need anything” offers piled up into one long blur of favors never to be collected. By midnight, it was down to just the Sophie crew. Isaac funneled them into a booth while Wendy Sheers and Liam Campbell brought over the final round.

They all gathered around and looked to him to make the last toast. It had been his father, but to them Malcolm Fletcher had been their captain, and Michael knew enough to know he had been a good one. “To Skipper,” he said and raised his glass. Several clinks later, he downed it in one gulp.

“So what now?” Wendy asked. She was their senior drive engineer and a damn good one. She had come on seven months earlier and had managed a portside refit without putting Sophie into an orbital dry dock.

Isaac gave Michael a moment but then answered for him. “Well, I think we’ve definitely got something of a wait on our hands.”

Michael shook his head. After seeing so many other spacers from other ships at the wake, he knew the score. “It’s a wait, but it’s probably too long for any of you to be beached. I haven’t talked to the lawyers yet, but the Sophie and I are stuck here for a while, maybe as long as nine months.”

Henry Bartz shrugged. “Nine months isn’t so bad. I bet you can upgrade the scrubbers while you’re here.” Henry had been the systems engineer for the last year and a half and had complained about the environmental systems the entire time. They were far too fragile for his taste.

“But for the rest of us, yeah, nine months is a long time,” Wendy replied.

James Nellis raised a finger. He was the steward and had only been on board for five months. “Well, I heard the Johnny Rose has room for a cook, and with all due respect to Skipper, I’m thinking about it.”

“You should take it,” Isaac said. “Captain Wallace runs a good ship.”

Captain Wallace indeed, Michael thought. Coming to his father’s wake and hiring off his crew members. But it was true. From everything his father had said, Wallace ran a good ship. “Yeah,” Michael heard himself saying. “The Johnny Rose is a fine berth. You should get it if you can.”

The nods around the circle came one by one, so Michael prompted them. “Anyone else? I know you’ve got to work, and there’s no point in hanging around playing nursemaid to me.”

Wendy spoke up. “Takasumi Lines has a posting for an engineer. I’d have to play catch-up with whatever ship they post me to, but it’s available today.”

“You’d go corporate?” Liam asked. He had been their prime shift navigator for two years and never had a kind word for the larger shipping lines. Malcolm had hinted at some bad blood between Liam and one of the larger shipping lines, but he had never given the details.

She shrugged. “Hey, they’re offering five-year contracts. Good money, too. You should check it out.”

“No thanks,” Liam replied. “Besides, with all my time logged past the border, I’ll have no trouble finding a berth from here.”

“Maybe for you,” Henry said, “but I think Wendy’s onto a good thing. Did you see anything for systems?”

She nodded. “Two of them, one general and one mechanical specialist.”

Isaac gave him a nudge in the ribs. “Sounds like that mechanic spot might be your ticket out of the sludge tanks.”

Henry nodded. “Yeah, it would.”

“What about you, Isaac?” Michael asked. Isaac had been there longer than any of the others, a full four years, but even that was a little short compared to other family ships he knew. Malcolm had been a good skipper, but he had also been a hard skipper.

The older man looked at him with a hint of sadness. “I don’t think I’m ready to ship off quite yet. I’m no nursemaid, but I figure I should keep my eye on Skipper’s boy at least a little longer.”

They wrapped it up with a heartfelt round of handshakes, though Wendy had given him a hug that lasted a lot longer than Michael was expecting. They said their goodbyes at the door, and Michael and Isaac staggered to an auto-pod for the ride back to their hotel.

The message light was blinking when they got to the room, so Isaac hit it.

“Mr. Fletcher, this is Charles Hollings from Walters and Merrimack. The local court has appointed me as your representative for the dissolution of your father’s estate as well as the advocate for your minority status. I have set up a meeting for ten tomorrow morning at my office,” he said and rattled off the address. “Please be there.”

Isaac turned back to face Michael. “Well, that was quick.”

The room began to turn, and Michael stumbled towards the toilet to throw up. He did not make it in time.

Chapter 3

“It’s not so much that I lied. It’s more that I simply hadn’t gotten around to telling her the truth yet.” — Malcolm Fletcher

Michael sat in the reception lounge of Walters and Merrimack. It was high in one of the super towers downtown, well west of the port, but he could almost make out the control tower through the low morning haze. At the very least, he could see the occasional glint of a ship punching up through the fog, but he tried not to look too much. Even through the shaded glass of the office building, the glare of the sun made his head throb.

He had worn his dress uniform for the meeting. It was as close to a suit as he had, and he always thought he looked older in uniform than in his civvies. He knew his clothes were not going to fool the lawyer about his age, but he hoped it would at least impart some sense of maturity. Short of a Captain’s star, these non-military uniforms rarely showed any rank, but it did show him as a working member of the crew rather than some ship-schooled passenger.

Isaac had offered to come along, but Michael had insisted he go alone. “I’m hoping to convince this guy I don’t need much supervision,” he had said. “Showing up with a chaperone doesn’t exactly help.” Isaac had protested, but in the end he had stayed back at the hotel suite.

At five after ten, Charles Hollings emerged from the back offices. “Ah, Mr. Fletcher, come this way.” He wore a formal suit with the double-breasted vest that was becoming fashionable on colder worlds. It had the effect of making Hollings look broader than he actually was. Michael had tried one once, but its bagginess only accented how thin he was.

He followed Hollings into his office and sat opposite the desk while Hollings opened the files on his desk screen. “First of all,” he said, “let me offer my condolences for your loss. I never met Captain Fletcher, but from what I have read, he was a fine man.”

Michael sighed. He still was not used to hearing about his father in the past tense, but at least he had stifled the urge to correct people. “Thank you.”

“I see you came alone. Are you staying with anyone?”

He tried to sit a little straighter without making it look like he was puffing out his chest. “I asked my first officer to stay in port while we sort out the details on the ship ownership.” It was sort of true, but phrasing it that way made Michael sound far more like the responsible party.

“I see, well, we can get to the guardianship in a moment. The ship ownership should be fairly simple.” He swept his hands across the desk screen and the virtual papers shuffled around. “I see that Sophie’s Grace is held by the Fletcher Trust. I read through the formation and bylaw documents yesterday afternoon, and if we wait until next year, the transfer should be a straightforward matter. We could proceed now if you wish, but the complexity would still add significant delay.”

Michael tried to follow the language, but much of it turned to mush in his aching head. “What’s the delay?”

“Well, as I said, if we wait until your eighteenth birthday, the transfer is not much more than a simple filing with the port registry. The bylaws of the trust are clear that on the death of Malcolm Fletcher, Michael Fletcher becomes the executive trustee, and in that role, you can become the primary signatory for all the ship’s business. However, there is a clause for taking care of things if the death occurred before your majority, which it has. If you want the ship to continue to operate, you and I will have to select an executive trustee to act for you, but I don’t recommend it.”

“Why not?

“Well, it’s the short timeframe. For ship trusts, the executive trustee is typically someone with a captain’s license and a background in law. We would have to select one, convince him to hire on, and then there are a few hearings and a filing to be sent to the sector registry offices. When it’s all said and done, we’re probably looking at three to six months before you would be operational. But the question is for how long? While you could keep the hired captain on, his role of executive trustee would evaporate after a few short months. I think we’d be very challenged to find someone willing to take it on for such a limited duration.”

Michael thought it about for a moment. It would go much more smoothly if only Isaac could pass the Captain’s exam, but he always insisted he did not have the engineering skills to pass. In truth, he was more of a glorified navigator than a true first officer, but then navigation had always been a mathematical mystery to Michael. “I’m not so sure,” he said finally. “I do have a lot of friends in the shipping business. I might be able to convince one of them.”

“To give up their own vessel or posting to take yours on for a few months? I can’t speak to the quality of the friendship, but I would be truly surprised to hear of someone with the necessary background who would make that kind of decision.”

Michael shrugged it off. “Well, I may ask around, but for now let’s assume that I’ll be clear in nine months.”

“That may be the best attitude. Your luck may surprise me after all, but I wanted you to know what you were up against.”

“So Sophie will sit there collecting dust in that sealed dock in the meantime. Who pays for that?”

The lawyer sighed. “Well, regrettably the storage fees accrue against you and the trust, but they aren’t as much as you might think. I imagine Captain Fletcher’s accounts would be sufficient, but failing that, I understand there is a possible litigation against one Wall-to-Sky repair facility here on Taschin?”

Michael shook his head at the thought of the accident, watching that errant thruster again in his head. At a trial there would be the video, cross-examinations, and questions of why he had not gone into help his father. Help his father like he should have. Damn.

“You’d rather avoid the trial?”

Michael looked up. “How did you know?”

“It’s not uncommon. I’m not going to push it on you, and I imagine they would be eager to settle out of court. It wouldn’t be enough to retire on, certainly, but it would easily cover your living expenses for the upcoming year along with any port fees that accrue. I could start the process if you’d like.”

He nodded and looked out the window beyond Hollings. This one did not face the port, but north to the snow-capped mountains instead. It was not nearly as bright, so his head did not throb as much. “I guess the question is, what will I be doing for the next nine months?”

“Then let’s move on to the matter of your guardianship.”

Michael shook his head to clear it and focused on Hollings. “Yeah, I had a thought on that. I get along pretty well with my first officer, Isaac Rubin. He agreed to stick around for at least a while. I imagine I could hire him on to fulfill whatever guardian requirements there are for the next few months.”

Hollings shifted the virtual pages around again. “With due respect, Mr. Fletcher, I don’t think the court would be satisfied with that kind of arrangement. Traditionally the guardian holds authority over the child. He is not an employee of the child.”

Michael waved his hands to cut him short. “Semantics aside, he’s a good guy, and he’s looked out for me before at other ports.”

Hollings frowned briefly before masking it. “Certainly, the court is likely to look favorably upon his present assistance and will not press for foster placement, but I did perform a next-of-kin search, and without overriding factors, the living family takes precedence. In fact, I already took the liberty of sending notice to your uncle Hans, but with transit time and not knowing where he is on his own shipping route—”

“Wait, Uncle Hans? I don’t have any Uncle Hans.” He blinked twice and tried to focus on the virtual pages before Hollings. “For that matter, I don’t have any uncles. Mom was an only child, and Dad’s little sister died when she was my age.”

Hollings referred back to the pages on the desk screen. “Oh, sorry, I meant Hans Schneider, the older brother of your birth father Peter.”

“My what?”

“Your birth father,” he replied, still reading the pages, “Peter Frederick Schneider.”

“Birth father? What are you talking about? My father was Malcolm Fletcher.”

Hollings looked up and paused. “Oh, dear Lord, I am so sorry. I thought you knew.”

The room was threatening to spin. “Knew what?”

“Uh, perhaps we should take a moment. Can I get you something to drink?” He reached for the intercom. “Jenny, could you fetch Sarah for me?”

Michael leaned forward and grabbed hold of the edge of the desk. “Fuck the drink. You thought I knew what?”

Hollings licked his lips and swallowed. “I’m so sorry you have to find out this way, Michael, but you were adopted. Your parents, Sophia and Peter Schneider, died in 3381 on board the Kaiser’s Folly. Malcolm Fletcher filed for adoption two weeks later. I have the paperwork right here.”

Virtual pages fluttered across the desk screen towards Michael. He tried to read them, but his vision blurred. “No,” he said. “There must be some mistake. Mom and Dad were married. She died on our old ship, the Hammerhead.”

His memory of it was vivid, the day Dad showed him where it happened. It was the day after his seventh birthday when he had asked. They had gone back to the starboard cargo access, and Dad had pointed to the welds where the hull had blown out. “Fucking pirates,” he had told him. “Never forget that, Mikey, and never let them get away with it.”

He looked back up at Hollings. “The papers aren’t true. They can’t be.”

Hollings sat there a moment with his jaw hanging. “I’m, uh, look Michael, I wasn’t there. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what happened or who did what. I only have the records, and that’s all I have to work with.”

Michael staggered to his feet. “Well, the records are wrong, and anyone who tells you different… well, they’re lying. Malcolm Fletcher was my father, and Sophia Fletcher was his wife. You understand?”

“Perhaps another one of my associates could explain…”

“No, there’s no explanation. I know what I know,” he said, waving his hand across the virtual pages, “and all of this is bullshit.”

The door opened behind him. “Charles? Jenny said you needed me.”

Michael did not bother to look at her, keeping his gaze locked on Hollings instead. “Yeah, he needs help getting his facts straight.”

“Michael, I don’t know…”

Michael stood straight. “Yeah, you don’t know shit.” He stormed to the door, the startled Sarah stepping back and clenching a pad to her chest. He paused in the doorway and looked back at Hollings. “You ask around, and you’ll hear the truth. Call me when you get your records squared away, and we can talk about my real father, Malcolm Fletcher.”


Michael did not bother getting an autopod back to the port. He just ran. He ran for almost three kilometers before he even started to pay attention to his direction. He ran until he was winded, then he walked, and then as the confusion and anger built up, he ran some more. He arrived back at the hotel suite in mid-afternoon, hungry and dehydrated, but too exhausted to realize either.

“Michael!” Isaac called as soon as he came in. “Where have you been?”

“That bastard… bastard, ha, that’s rich. That stupid lawyer Hollings doesn’t even know who my parents are.” He walked around in a circle before collapsing onto the sofa. “We’ve gotta get that magistrate to pick someone else.”

Isaac pulled up a chair on the other side of the coffee table. “Yeah, he called me, said something about you being adopted.”

Michael waved a hand in dismissal. “Yeah, can you believe the guy? His paperwork is totally fucked.”

Isaac shrugged. “Well, I have to say, it makes a lot of sense.”

Michael paused and scrutinized Isaac for a moment. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, I’ve known for a while Malcolm wasn’t your dad. I mean, not biologically.”

Michael sat up again. “What the hell? Did Dad tell you something?”

“No, of course not. I didn’t think it was my place to ask either.”

“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about either, Isaac.”

Isaac stared at him a moment and looked away. “It was the eyes, Michael. That’s what tipped me off at first.” He looked back to face him. “Yours are as blue as the Lateran oceans, but Malcolm’s were brown so dark, almost black.”

Michael shook his head. “Dad always said I got Mom’s eyes, and that’s one of those recessive traits, so that doesn’t mean shit.”

“I know,” he replied, nodding. “But it got me to thinking, so I pulled up the med files and checked your blood types.”

Michael fidgeted. “So?”

“So what’s your blood type?”

“I’m type O.”

“Yeah, type O-positive. And Malcolm?”

Michael looked away, trying to remember. “He’s A… no, AB.”

“That’s right, AB-negative.”

“So, that’s another one of those recessive things. You’re still full of it.”

Isaac shook his head. “You’re right. It is one of those recessive things, but not like that. An AB parent can’t have an O child. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Michael started fidgeting in his seat, trying to escape further back through the sofa. “No, Isaac. You’ve got that wrong. It’s gotta be the other way. An O can’t have an AB, something like that.”

Isaac frowned. “I’m sorry, Michael. I wasn’t sure at the time, but I looked it up in the medical texts — even asked a doctor at my physical last spring.”

Michael got up and paced across the room to the kitchenette. He started the water running. He ran a wet hand across his face and through his short hair.

“Hey, the adoption is actually a good thing,” Isaac continued. “I never really thought about it that way before. I had always thought maybe your mom… well, you know.”

Michael turned off the water. “My mom what?”

“Sorry man, I know it’s not my business.”

“What?” Michael insisted.

“I’ve seen the picture, Michael. A fine looking woman like that? I figured maybe she’d had something on the side.”

“Fuck you, Isaac! That’s my mother you’re talking about, not one of Dad’s portside girls.”

Isaac put up his hands and backed up a step. “No, Michael, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it must not have been that, you know, with the adoption and all. I’m sure she was a good woman… a good mother.”

Michael headed back out the door. “Fuck you, Isaac, and fuck Hollings too. You’re both full of shit!”


Michael wanted to keep running, but he was exhausted. Instead, he wandered the port on foot, fuming and kicking at whatever loose debris he came across. He started getting sleepy around sunset. He knew he must be hungry since he had not had anything to eat since a light breakfast long ago, but he no longer cared.

He found himself in front of Sophie’s locked hanger bay. He tried to twist the locking clip, but it held fast. He sat down on the ground, leaned into the corner of the door frame, and fell asleep.

Around midnight he was woken by a security guard. She had stayed in her little pod and was shining a small spotlight at him. “Hey!” came the amplified voice. “You can’t sleep here. Move along.”

Michael nodded and got up. His legs were stiff, his stomach rumbling and his head pounding. The sun-baked pavement had long ago given up its warmth and had been sucking the heat back out of him. He buttoned up his uniform jacket, and gave a perfunctory salute towards the spotlight and started walking back towards the center of the port. The guard trailed him for a minute but eventually peeled off onto another cross street.

At night, this part of the port was virtually deserted. He could hear the shifting whine of an electric motor echoing off the hangar walls, but he saw no one. The truth was the security guard might have saved his life. Taschin was not the most dangerous port by far, but he would have been easy prey for any manner of portside predators.

He needed to eat, drink, and get some rest, but he refused to go back to the hotel suite, not after what Isaac had said. Fucking disrespectful.

A different hotel would be his best option, but if Isaac or Hollings had notified the authorities, then they could track him by his bank card. Michael fished out his wallet as he walked. A fifty and two tens. That was not going to last long. His stomach rumbled again. First he would eat. Then he would worry about the money.

The late night district was in full swing, but he steered clear of the nicer places. They would use up too much of his money, and they might look at him a little too closely, so he headed further back on some of the side streets. He thought about the Lucky Black but knew better. That would be one of the first places Isaac would have looked, so the bartender was no doubt keeping an eye out for him.

Then he remembered a late night with Dad and a little twenty-six-hour diner behind the Far Meridian. Only one booth was occupied, with two more people eating at the counter. The dinner crowd was long since gone and the bar-closing throngs would not descend for another two or three hours. More than anything, he wanted another shot at breakfast, so he sat at the counter and ordered a large platter of eggs and sausage. The local flavor was a spicy mix with a lot of cheese. When he finished, he found he was still hungry, so he ordered another. After that, he finished off with a couple of sides and got the bill: twenty-six.

He broke the fifty and looked at the meager leftovers in his wallet. “Do you have any bank access here?”

“Around the side,” the waitress told him, “next to the Meridian entrance.”

He wandered outside, his full belly urging him towards sleep, but he found the bank machine. Dad had kept accounts at all his regular ports, and Michael was used to drawing his portside allowance this way.

He waved his chit over the reader, pressed his thumb, and then traced out his pass code shape, an asymmetric five-pointed star with four of the outlying points connected by separate downward strokes. Dad had helped him design it. “Never use a pass code with only one finger trace,” he had always said. “Always add some touches.”

He requested six hundred. It was the maximum he could pull in a single day. That had been another thing from Dad. He had figured that six hundred should be enough to get him out of any emergency long enough for him to report back to the ship. Now with no ship to report back to, six hundred would not last him long. The machine spat out the bills, and Michael stuffed them into his wallet. He could always try for more in the morning.

“Mikey? Is that you?”

He turned to see three women coming out the door of the Far Meridian, music blaring after them as the door swung closed. They were all dressed stylishly, with the oldest in an off-the-shoulder blue dress that left little to the imagination. He blinked a few times before he recognized her. “Annie?”

“Oh my dear Mikey,” she said coming towards him with arms open. “I heard about Malcolm. I’m so sorry.”

She put her arms around him, and he leaned against her. There had been a time when he could lean into her belly, but now even in heels, she was not quite as tall as he was. “I… oh, Annie.”

She waved her friends off, and they made their own way down the alley. “Mikey, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there at the wake. I didn’t hear until this morning.”

He did what he could to bury his face in her shoulder, but all he got was a face full of her hair. “It’s ok. It was crew stuff, and I… oh God, Annie. Isaac said the most awful…”

She pulled back. “Hey, what’s wrong? I mean, you’re out awfully late. Where are you staying? Let me walk you back.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going back there. They said that Mom and Dad… even Isaac. They say Dad’s not my real father.”

She reached up and tussled his hair. “Oh that’s crazy talk. Let’s go get you back to your bed.”

“No, Annie. You know the truth, right? Dad said he’s known you forever.” Annie was Dad’s most regular portside girl. Michael had figured out a few years back that there was some kind of money involved, but Annie had always been there for them: trips to the park when Dad had business, shopping for new clothes, even something approaching family dinners. Dad had other girls in other ports, but Annie was the closest thing Michael had ever had to a surrogate mother.

She nodded. “Yeah, I’ve known Malcolm since before the war. I was about your age when I first met him.”

“Then you must remember him and Mom, you know, Sophia. They’re telling me I’m adopted, that Mom was married to some Schruber… Schneider guy. But you know different, right?”

“Oh, Mikey…” she replied, but the look in her eyes told him all he needed to know.

“No,” he pleaded, “don’t…”

“I see how much you’re hurting, Mikey. Do you really want the answer, or do you just want me to make it all better?”

He collapsed to his knees and buried his face in her belly once more. He had not yet cried over his father’s death, and now that he finally was, he did not even know who he was weeping for.

 – – – – – – – – – –

That’s it for now. If you’re hooked, look for the sales links here!

Lucky 7 Meme

I was tagged in a Lucky 7 meme by Jo Eberhardt, which challenged me and six others to post something from our current work in progress.

Specifically, the challenge states:

Go to the 7th or 77th page of your WIP.
Go to the 7th line of the page.
Copy the next 7 paragraphs (exactly as typed).
Tag 7 other authors and let them know they’re it.

I actually had to think about it a bit. Part of this is my reluctance to discuss work in progress, but it was also that I technically have three works in progress:

  • Ships of My Fathers, a space opera in the same universe as Beneath the Sky, is in the hands of beta readers.
  • Hell Bent, an urban fantasy “about a reporter who goes to hell”, is sitting in first draft form waiting for me to go the first pass revisions.
  • And finally, Debts of My Fathers, the sequel to Ships of My Fathers, is being written right now during June and July.

I thought about picking and choosing, but I figured that Debts of My Fathers was the most in progress of them all. I got the challenge when I was on page 62, so I put it off a few days until I passed page 77. (And just to show how much I was over-thinking this, I questioned whether to pick page 77 of the word document, or skip forward to page 78, since the cover sheet shouldn’t count.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got:

Foshey glanced around. “Is he here? Surely, he didn’t miss his son’s big night.”
“I’m afraid so,” Michael replied.
“Whatever was his excuse?”
“He died last year.”
“Oh, dear me… I just blundered right over that. I’m so sorry. I hope it wasn’t anything left over from the Caspians.”
“No, a simple accident, could have happened to anyone.”
Foshey took a step closer and sat on the seat next to Michael. “Still, I was in his debt, and now I suppose I’m in yours. What are you up to these days? Is there anything I can do to help?”

It doesn’t look like much, but those of you who have read Beneath the Sky will have already met Xavier Foshey (briefly in chapter 8) and might appreciate that this particular conversation could be… um… IMPORTANT. (You should thank me for not using the blink tag for emphasis.)

As for picking seven authors, I’m a little stuck. I can’t say I really know seven other authors well enough to tag this way. Or at the very least, I’m not sure I’m known by seven others well enough for them to be tagged by me. But here goes:

1. Allyson Whipple
2. Christine Rose
3. Steven Brust
4. Muffy Morrigan
5. Rhonda Eudaly

Ok, here’s where I start shooting for the moon…
6. Jim Butcher, because I want to see what Harry Dresden is doing now that he’s *SPOILER*
7. Jack McDevitt, because I want to see what Alex and Chase have gotten themselves into now, especially since we know that *SPOILER* may be returning to them soon.

I guess that’s it.

Beneath the Sky sample

Here are the first one and a half chapters of my new book, Beneath the Sky. I’ve cut it off at the same place that the Kindle’s free sample did, mostly for the unintentional cliffhanger it chose. Enjoy!

Beneath the Sky

Dan Thompson

Chapter 1

“They call us heretics for fulfilling God’s promise to manifest heaven here on the earthly plane. Have pity for them, my friends, for they are not among the Chosen of God and will not be welcome in His paradise.” – St. Mason’s epistle to Ganymede

Margaret Pritchard’s life was saved at 7:43 on a Tuesday morning, but she never knew it. Her savior was a navigation computer almost a light-year away, and its action was noted only in the automated logs. For Margaret and her world, it was everything.

At that moment, she was glancing up into the sky at Lake Harmony. It was four kilometers away, but she could see the core lights glinting off a boat’s wake as it made its way towards the docks on the spinward side of the lake. At this time of the morning, the lights were still patchy and dim, but they were starting to burn off a wispy layer of clouds that had formed towards the aft of her little world.

She turned her attention back to the path as she cut across the corner of the park towards the aft entrance to the school. A young boy was running towards it but stopped and fell into line behind her respectfully. She suppressed a smile over that. It was only her first year, but the teacher’s uniform had an impact.

After a quick climb to the third floor, she whisked into her classroom to find her class seated and waiting, all but one. Time would tell if little Ashton was out sick or merely late again. Turning to the board at the front, she wrote out the date in high script: March 28, 1049. Her students fidgeted behind her, but she had been taught to take care with such things. After embellishing the final mark, she turned her gaze on them. “Now, can anyone tell me what’s special about this date?”

A few hands went up, and she selected Belli. “It’s my brother’s birthday.”

The class burst into a sporadic fit of giggles before settling down.

“I’m sure it is, Belli,” Margaret replied, “but I didn’t mean special for you and your brother. I meant March 28 in general. Anyone?”

Three hands remained up. “All right, Sarah, what do you think is special about it?”

With a bragging smile, little Sarah pronounced, “It’s Turning Day!”

“Turn Over Day,” she corrected, “but yes, some people call it Turning Day, too. That was the day God’s Chariot reached the halfway point on our journey to New Providence.” She surveyed the class. At a range of seven to ten, they were a mixed lot, but it would be many years before she could have her pick of the students. “Does anyone remember what year Turn Over Day was?”

Only one hand remained. “Yes, Mary?”

“Eight hundred fifty-five, Miss Pritchard.” Mary came from a very proper family, and it showed. Teaching Mary would serve Margaret well within the local tier, but she also knew any help would be limited. The Pritchards and Ellises had maintained a quiet animosity since her grandfather’s time.

“That’s very good, Mary. Eight hundred fifty-five, almost two hundred years ago. Now, if you all did your reading last night, you should be able to tell me who the High Reverend was. Anyone?”

The review eventually led into a quiz, catching out four who had ignored the assignment, and then the day moved on into math and grammar. In the afternoon she focused on her specialty, teaching three different classes on environmental systems. Today it was recycling protocols for common metals. She finished off the day with her morning class again, and assigned that night’s history reading, the Captains of the ninth century. When they were older, of course, they would get to read of the two Great Mutinies and the three minor ones, but these little ones were still too young for that.

After that, it was a quick trip back downstairs, and she was almost out the spinward doors when Tier-son Joseph Mackenzie called after her. “Maggie! Wait up a moment.”

She stopped and waited patiently as her supervisor huffed through hall, trying to navigate his girth around children. She knew her place well enough to wait for him, but she wasn’t going to retrace her steps to meet this man, even if he was a tier-son. “What can I do for you, sir?”

Mackenzie slowed up as he approached, his rounded cheeks red with the exertion. “I wanted to remind your father about tonight’s tier meeting. He hasn’t said anything about the budget yet, has he?”

“Not to me, he hasn’t.” It was only a half-truth. It had been discussed openly with Aunt Jen at dinner the night before, so she knew very well that Father planned to argue strongly against Mackenzie and his plans for Charity Lake, but technically, the conversation had not been with Margaret. “But you had best try his link. I was going to be having a picnic with my Cal, so I wasn’t going to see Father until after the meeting anyway.”

“I did try it, but he’s locked out. I couldn’t even get through with an emergency page.”

Margaret took a step back. That was not like her father. “Is it actually an emergency?”

Mackenzie grimaced and shuffled his feet. “Well, not really an emergency, but it is important. I was just hoping you might be able to get through with your code.”

“Well, Father doesn’t like it when I interrupt him on duty, but if I can reach him, I will be sure to pass on your message.”

“Thank you, Maggie. You’re a good girl.”

She turned to head out the door, already deciding that she would only use her low priority page. In addition to being a Tier-son himself, Father was Third Navigator, a position of significant respect and responsibility within the crew, and if he was busy on duty, no little toady like Joseph Mackenzie was going to interrupt him.

Captain Akahele Kalas had been skimming a novel in her command chair when the little bridge of the Jinley turned from peaceful monotony to the chaos of multiple alarms.

“What the fuck was that?” She leaned forward over Semi’s navigation console. The chart was still updating, trying to make some sense of the data pouring in from the close encounter.

“Not sure,” he replied, “looked like some kind of rock, a big one.”

“At that speed?” She moved over to the other console and called up the data herself.

“All I’m saying is what it looks like on scan. Mix of metals, judging from the surface spectrum, and its magnetic field pegged the instruments. Not sure of the actual size… not enough mass for anything that wide. Might be hollow or something.”

“But nothing on the charts?” In sixteen years, she had never had a surprise like this.

“No, ma’am, nothing. This part of the channel is rated green-three, nothing above twenty microns.”

Akahele thought it over for a moment. She thought about calling down to Victor, but the tach-drive status was nominal, all greens barring that intermittent alignment glitch on the port sail generator. Whatever it had been, they had come away unscathed. “I just don’t see how something like that could be moving so fast.”

Torin Graylock stepped through the rear hatch and crowded into the bridge. “It might be a transient, something from outside the galaxy.”

Semi turned back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. The odds of something getting that far, let alone crossing our path—”

Torin held up his hands. “I’m merely stating the possibility.” He turned to Akahele. “It would be quite a find, Captain.”

Semi looked back at the plot. “Well, look, it’s already half a light-day behind us. If we’re going to break tach, we should do it soon while we still have a good chance of finding it again.”

Akahele shook her head. “No, we’ve got a time-bonus on this run, and I’m not going to fool around trying to match courses with this thing. I don’t even know if we’re rated for that kind of reentry.”

Torin started to object, but she waved him off.

“No. Just log it, Semi. We’ll report it when we get to Answay and let those survey guys check it out. That’s what they’re paid for.”

Semi dumped it all to the backup holo-core and returned his gaze to the boards. “Everything looks clear from here on, Captain.”

“Keep a sharp eye out anyway. We’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

The bridge of the Chariot was much more subdued. There were no alarms. The overhead lights were dim, and most of the ambient light came from the various displays arrayed around the crew. Nevertheless, Captain Ackerman was far more worried. He leaned over his officer’s shoulder and stared intently at the display. “Let me see it again.”

Lieutenant Commander William Pritchard dutifully played the recording again. The burst of color could not really be called an explosion as much as a streak, blue in one direction and red in the other, fading out into the near X-Ray and the radio at the extremes. “It’s the same as the others, but this is by far the best look we’ve ever had.” It was a remarkably good recording. He had been working with the sensor techs for the last two years to boost this kind of sensitivity in the extended spectrum.

“And it was right across our bow?”

“Close enough… seventy-three degrees, and probably not more than a million kilometers away.”

He looked back at Pritchard’s display, frozen at the brightest moment of the burst. “And when we passed by that point?”

Pritchard shook his head. “Nothing, sir.”

“Who else has seen this?”

“Conners in scan, Commander Soze, and myself.”

Ackerman nodded. “Well, what do you think?”

“If you’re asking for my analysis, I really don’t know, but I don’t like it. It worries me.”

Ackerman chuckled. “But we’ve been seeing these off and on for almost five hundred years. We’re still running at over forty percent the speed of light these days. Perhaps this is merely another unexpected relativistic effect.”

Pritchard pressed his lips, holding back his answer. “Perhaps.”

Ackerman scanned around the bridge. A few of his crew were making furtive glances in his direction, but Commander Soze was officer of the watch, and his pacing through the control aisles was a calming influence. Even so, he continued in a quieter voice. “Speak your mind, Bill.”

Pritchard also glanced about before continuing in a hushed tone. “I mean, yes, we’ve seen a few things that have led us to refine old Einstein, even trusty Jacobs, but there’s nothing in the theories for something like that.”

The captain shrugged. “There’s always room for new theories.”

Pritchard shook his head. “It’s not that. If it’s a relativistic effect, then I would expect them to be dropping off now that we’re slowing down. It’s not simply that our sensors are getting better. I think we’re seeing more because there are more, and they’re getting closer.”

Ackerman took a deep breath but kept his tone calm and quiet. “Are you suggesting this is some kind of a sign?”

“A sign from God or a sign of something else?”

He shrugged. “Your choice.”

Pritchard stiffened. “Well, that’s not really for me to say, Captain, but either way, I don’t particularly relish the idea of taking this to the reverends.”

“Neither do I,” the captain replied with a frown. “But I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”

Cal Johnson wrapped his left arm around Margaret as they lay in the mesh hammock. It was strung between two branches of an old oak tree. It was only a mild climb to the spot, but it was enough to tuck them out of easy sight, both from below and from any curious eyes on the ground curving above them. This was one of their favorite spots, a secluded niche in Ballard Park, fully three kilometers from their mutual parents’ neighborhood. It was good for talking as well as more amorous activities. Such unions were politely frowned upon, but there was little actual risk of shunning.

“So how did your mother take the news?” Margaret asked. “I know she’s been praying for this promotion.” Beyond mere praying, Margaret knew she had also been pushing on two of Cal’s uncles.

Cal smiled contently and pulled the blanket a little higher. “I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to tell you first, Mags.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “That’s very sweet, but why?”

“Because the promotion comes with a raise, and more to our future, a better housing allotment.”

“You mean…?”

He gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “Yes. I can get my own place now.”

“You have someplace in mind?”

He looked up and pointed through open patches in the leaves. “Right over there, in Wilson tier, just a block from the tram line. It’s not grand or anything, but it’s quaint.”

“Oh, I love that area,” she replied. “Grandma Noreen lived there when I was just a little girl.” She shifted to lie across him a little more. “Of course, I do like this little spot of ours.”

Cal shrugged. “Cousin Patrick told me about this place when I was only fifteen. It’s time for me to pass it on to someone else.”

“I don’t know, Cal, it’s one thing for us to meet in the park. There’s a tradition there, but for me to just come to your place… well, that’s not done.”

“That brings me back to the raise, Mags.” He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “It’s enough, with what you make at the school, we could get married.”

She gave him a playful kiss. “But we are getting married, silly. Or did you want to propose all over again?”

He replied with a short tickle. “No, once was enough. What I meant was that we could get married now, this year.”

She shifted, backing away. “You know I can’t do that, not until I’m twenty. Father says.”

“You wouldn’t be the first, you know. Just last month a girl in my tier got married at eighteen, and it’s not like we’re rushing into it.”

She sighed, remembering the last time she had had this particular argument with her father. He was a loving father, to be sure, but when angered he was a force to be reckoned with. She had learned long ago not to provoke him. Aunt Jen said he had once been far gentler, but it seemed that had died with her mother. “You know I can’t, Cal. Besides, it’s only eight months. We can wait.”

He set his jaw. “Maybe I should talk to him.”

Margaret giggled. “If you want, but let’s not forget what happened at last year’s Launch Festival.”

Cal could not help but smiling, and that spread into a broader relaxation. “I still say that wasn’t my fault, but all right. We can wait, at least a little while.”

Above them, the core lights were dimming into an evening sky of houses and parks. Margaret peeked out through the branches, looking towards Tier Wilson. Perhaps it was time to give up the park after all.

Captain Ackerman relaxed in the High Reverend’s office. It was comfortably suited, with fine woods and soft leathers — real leathers from some of the Chariot’s few herds, not the more common synthetics. He had sat here many times, and he scanned about looking for any changes but found only one since his visit the previous Friday. The small portrait of his daughter had been updated, her visage as a young woman finally replacing the lanky teen that had graced the wall for years.

The wait itself was not unexpected. This was not their regularly scheduled meeting, and Ackerman knew Hathaway’s schedule had been reasonably full today. Earlier captains might have seen the wait as part of a larger game, a subtle jab in the interplay between the crew and the reverends left over from the last Great Mutiny three centuries before. Captains officially deferred to the High Reverend in all matters, of course, though the High Reverends had usually been wise enough to avoid any decrees on the operations of the ship itself. It was an arrangement that had worked very well for Ackerman and Hathaway, but he knew that friction had been common between both of their predecessors.

Before long, however, Hathaway swept into his office, his swift movements in contrast to the age in his face. “So sorry to keep you, Jim. You know how Reverend Haggerty can be.”

Ackerman rose and clasped him by the forearm. “Indeed, but with far less patience than you show. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

Hathaway sat in the chair next to Ackerman, eschewing the formality of his desk. “For you, anytime,” he replied, “except, of course for—”

“Except for Thursday nights,” he finished for him. “Yes, I remember.”

Hathaway responded with an embarrassed grin before gathering up his thoughts with a long sigh. “So, you said it was important but not urgent.”

Ackerman nodded. “We had another sighting today.”

“That’s what… three this month?”

“Three confirmed. There were perhaps another dozen possibilities, but we don’t always get such a good look. This one was close, though, very close.”

“How close?”

Ackerman shrugged, knowing that Hathaway was weak in this area. “Close in astronomical terms, but if you’d been looking at it, you could have seen it with your naked eyes.”

“And you still think it’s something real, not just some trick of the light.”

“Yes, and I’m not the only one.”

“Who? Not that fool… Rickman, was it?”

“No, no. Rickman is gone, promoted into retirement I would say. No, this was my Nav-3, Bill Pritchard.”

Hathaway nodded. “Yes, I believe I met him once… seemed like a reasonable fellow.” He rose and strode to his bar. “Would you care for anything?”

Ackerman was a Roxa drinker, preferably the double-malt variation they made in Olsen tier. He knew the Reverend despised the taste, but he usually kept a small decanter on hand. “My usual, but just a thumb. I’m officially on duty until seven.” He accepted the glass while Hathaway poured himself a bourbon. “And yes, Pritchard is a good man, very level-headed.”

“Is he a family man?”

“He has a daughter, a teacher I think, though he’s a widower, some ten or fifteen years now.”

Hathaway returned to his seat and took a sip. “Something you two have in common.”

Ackerman nodded and sighed. “Of a sort. I recall that it was Glonic syndrome for her. You don’t see much of it anymore, but at least they had time to say goodbye.”

“True.” Hathaway did not press on that matter, and Ackerman was quietly thankful for it. “So tell me, what does Pritchard think of all this?”

He suspected very much what Pritchard had thought, but he owed it to the man not to put such words into his mouth. “He did not offer an explanation, but he cannot attribute it to the relativistic effects of our speed.”

Hathaway nodded. “But you do have an explanation, I take it?”

Ackerman took a sip. “Yes, High Reverend, one that borders on heresy.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Now this should be interesting. Go on, Jim. Taint my soul with your heresy. Between the two of us, I can use a little from time to time.”

“Thank you, High Reverend. These sightings, these flashes, they have grown more and more common the further out we have gone, the closer we get to New Providence.”

“Perhaps a sign of blessing,” suggested Hathaway.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps a sign of danger.” Ackerman took a deep breath before plunging ahead. “I know it is the official position of the church that Earth alone was blessed with life by God and that only Man was blessed with the mind to go forth unto the other worlds, but what if we’re wrong? What if there truly is some other life in the Universe, alien to us, but still capable of traveling the stars? Perhaps these flashes are signs of their ships passing, or maybe a flare to warn us off.”

Hathaway considered it for a long moment of silence. “As heresies go, it’s big, but there have been bigger. These flashes, you believe them to be artificial? Man-made, or rather alien-made?”

“Certainly artificial. While it is difficult to prove they are not natural, it is what I believe. I can only speculate at their source.”

“Are they something that we could produce ourselves?”

“Perhaps a small one, though even then not quite. There’s just too much energy in these things.”

Hathaway nodded. “I’ll have to take your word for it, friend, but I trust you in these matters.”

“Thank you, High Reverend.”

He sipped at his bourbon. “So tell me, have you shared this particular heresy with anyone?”

Ackerman chuckled and finished off his glass. “I rarely find the time in my schedule for spreading heresy, so no, I have not.”

“And do you feel the need to do so?”

He shook his head.

Hathaway drained the rest of his bourbon. “Then what would you have me do?”

“I hesitate to advise you on guiding our mutual flock.”

Hathaway smiled. “But you came here to do just that, so don’t stop.”

Ackerman nodded. “I may have been the first to reach this particular heresy, but if these sightings continue, particularly if they increase, I will not be the last.”

Hathaway replied with a quiet grunt. “From anyone else, Jim, that would sound unpleasantly like a threat.”

“I understand, High Reverend, but you know I don’t mean it that way. It is a warning, one I feel I must give, just as surely as you would warn me of a gap in the core fittings.”

Hathaway rose and stepped over to his desk. Certain times demanded a formality between the two of them. “Well said, Captain, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

Ackerman rose and stood before him. “My pleasure as always, High Reverend.”

“I would ask, though, that you do what you can to limit the discussion of such things amongst your crew.” He began fidgeting with some papers on his desk. “You know how it goes. Rumors are the only things that seem to outrun our ship.”

“I will do my best.”

“And this Pritchard fellow, I think I’d like to meet him again. Nothing formal, you understand, just something where I can take him aside for a moment. Please arrange it with my staff.”

“Certainly, High Reverend.”

“Thank you, Captain. You may go.”

Ackerman nodded once, and turned crisply on his heel to leave. He was lucky to have Hathaway, and he knew it. He could think of at least two High Reverends out of history who would have had him under arrest before he could reach the door.

Captain Akahele Kalas fidgeted in her seat as the Survey administrator scanned over her report on the screen projected over his desk. At first, he seemed to be giving it only a cursory read, but he stopped partway through and rewound to the start, taking it in more slowly the second time. Eventually, he closed it and met her gaze.

“It’s a rock. I’ll grant you, it’s an interesting rock but still just a rock.”

Akahele had expected as much from the Survey branch, especially from a has-been like this Belikovsky. Nothing in the inner systems ever interested them much. It lacked the glory of charting new systems on the frontier. “Aren’t you going to investigate?”

He shrugged. “We might. I must confess that your first officer’s theory is intriguing, but right now we’re down to one survey ship in this sector. It’s tied up charting the asteroid belts around Lasko-Gamma for the next three months, and even when the Buscador finishes refit, she’s been committed to the colonization board for the first two months. By then your rock will have passed the Jasper shipping lane and will no longer be a pressing concern. Still, I’ll bring it up at the next scheduling session. We should be caught up on our backlog by next summer.”

Akahele sat back. “And in the meantime?”

“We’ll post an advisory. From the data here, a ten light-day deviation to coreward for the next three months should be more than enough to keep even the sloppiest navigators safe from harm.” He rose to see her to the door. “We thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

She walked outside into the cool air. They say that the Answay sky is always overcast, and today was no exception. The canopy of clouds extended down even further on winter mornings like this one, almost completely masking the towers that rose from the city’s center. Torin was waiting for her next to their rented pod, poking at the pebbles in a rock garden with his foot.

“Anything?” he asked.

She shook her head. “They’re posting an advisory.”

He pushed a stray stone back into place. “That’s it?”

She opened the pod’s hatch and climbed in. “They might send a survey ship next year.”

Torin joined her and punched up the destination code for their dock. The pod slid smoothly out into traffic and hooked onto the main transit line. “So, it’s just going to be sitting out there for a year.”

She nodded. “Not quite just sitting there, but I hear you.”

“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”

She chuckled and gave him a hard stare. “Yes, I am thinking about it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”

“I understand.”

She looked out the window as they followed the long curve through the spaceport. “After all, I’d need solid assurances from Semi that we can find it again, not to mention some kind of down-tach program from James to get us in at that speed.”

Torin nodded, trying hard to suppress his grin. “Absolutely.”

Akahele looked at him again. “Now why do I think you’ve already worked it out with both of them?”

Torin’s smile broke through. “Because you’re very perceptive, Captain.”



Chapter 2

“We have broken down contact into nine categories, created full taxonomies of hypothetical life forms, and crafted an encounter decision tree that fills volumes, and yet we are fundamentally unprepared for a true first contact situation. Why? Because quite simply, no one has ever had one.” – Vincent Caruthers, opening address to the Joint Conference on First Contact, 3375

Bill Pritchard waited in the foyer as calmly as he could manage, but he found himself pacing in fits across the marble tiles. This was the first time he had ever been to the High Reverend’s estate. In fact, he had only met him once before, back when he was promoted into one of the eight prime navigator slots. Now he had been invited to a private party, and he was late. Two officers of the Divine Mark stood silently just inside the front door in full dress uniform, their ceremonial sabers brightly polished.

Captain Ackerman stepped in from a side room. “Pritchard, good, there you are.”

“I’m sorry I’m late, sir, but—”

“Oh you’re not that late. These things always start late. We’re still circling over the hors d’oeuvres.”

“But sir—”


“We just had another sighting,” Pritchard paused to eye the Mark officers before lowering his voice. “Another close one.”

Ackerman motioned him back towards the door. “As close as that one last month?”

He nodded. “Just shy of a million kilos off our stern, but what really concerns me is that it’s different from the others. It was just blue. The red half wasn’t there.”

“What do you mean? Was it the angle?”

“No, sir, the angle was fine. It just wasn’t there.”

Ackerman chewed on it for a moment. “Look, don’t say anything about this over dinner. Later, perhaps, you and I can discuss this with the High Reverend.”

Dinner itself was a lavish affair with real steaks and a huge central dish of vat-shrimp with a rich cream sauce. Four of the Reverends were there with their wives, along with six tier-fathers. Pritchard was the only tier-son, and he knew it was a not so subtle breach of governmental etiquette for him to be here without his own tier-father. The High Reverend headed the table, of course, and he was joined by his wife and eldest son, Arthur. Pritchard and Ackerman were the only crew present, clearly set apart by their uniforms.

Despite the power assembled at the table, the evening grew more casual as the night wore on. By the dessert course, the jokes were raucous, and the liquor was flowing. Pritchard noted that the Captain was only sipping at the various toasts, his glass never dropping to the point of needing a refill. That alone was an ominous sign of the conversation to come.

Eventually, they moved out into the great hall and into several smaller groups. While the hall was ostensibly for dances or private performances, it was ideal for these informal talks. Typical of other ninth century architecture, small alcoves surrounded the perimeter, while three sets of French doors led to balconies overlooking the gardens.

Pritchard found himself pinned in one such alcove by Reverend Morris who was expressing his disapproval for the park policies in Pritchard’s tier. He disagreed with them as well, but he was still forced by loyalty to defend Tier-father Boland’s decisions, especially given his conspicuous absence. It was a delicate act, because he still hoped to someday reverse those same decisions. Pritchard was on the verge of saying just that when High Reverend Hathaway sauntered in, a half-empty wine glass in his hand.

“Oh, there you are, Tony. I believe your wife is looking for you.”

Morris nodded. “Thank you, High Reverend. It is probably getting on time for us to head home anyway. As always, I am humbled by your hospitality.”

Morris left, and Pritchard glanced around at the portraits in the alcove in a futile attempt to find a way out from under the High Reverend’s gaze.

“It’s Bill, isn’t it?”

“Yes, High Reverend. Lt. Commander Bill Pritchard, third navigator.”

“And tier-son, not to forget.”

“Yes, sir. I do what I can.”

“The other tier-fathers speak well of you.” He stepped back, beckoning him with his wine glass. “Come, we should talk, you and I.”

Pritchard followed him back out into the main hall and off towards one of the balconies. He glanced around the room and spotted Captain Ackerman standing near Reverend Lansbury and Tier-father Baker. The Captain nodded towards Bill and stepped away from the others.

Outside on the balcony, Hathaway settled himself into a seat by the railing while Pritchard stood stiffly by a bench opposite him. Before either could speak, Ackerman stepped through the doorway, closing it behind him. “I thought I might find you two out here,” he said.

Hathaway raised an eyebrow at Ackerman’s presence but made no obvious protest. “Yes, I was just getting to know this officer of yours, and since he is also a tier-son, I suppose he is also an officer of mine, so to speak. Are you here to chaperone, my dear Captain?”

Ackerman returned the smile. “I mean no interference, High Reverend, but the reason for my presence will soon become clear enough.”

Hathaway looked back and forth between them, Ackerman standing firmly by the door, Pritchard eschewing the bench beside him. Their stance made it clear. They considered themselves to be on duty. “Well, then, let’s get to it. Bill, I understand you were watching the sensors last month when we had that big flash, the close one.”

“Yes, High Reverend.”

“And what do you think of it?”

Pritchard looked over at his captain for support but found none. “It is difficult to say. Clearly, they are unexpected anomalies.”

Hathaway shook his head. “Even I know that, but I think you know more. Or at least, I think you suspect more. So, for the moment, try to forget that your captain is eavesdropping on our conversation, and try to forget that I am the High Reverend. What do you think they are?”

“Well, I… I think they are ships, High Reverend.”

Hathaway nodded. “It’s an interesting theory, though you are not the first to suggest it.”

Pritchard glanced at Ackerman who merely nodded.

Hathaway took another sip from his wine glass. “So, if they are ships, where are they from? We’re too far out from Earth for it to be them, not in such numbers.”

Pritchard’s eyes widened at the heresy the High Reverend was suggesting. “I confess that the notion of aliens did occur to me, but I also had another thought. If the ships were fast enough, they could be from Earth.”

Hathaway scoffed at it. “How much faster could they be? After all, your captain always told me that the really high speeds were impractical over anything less than intergalactic distances because of the relativistic mass and whatnot.”

Pritchard nodded. “Yes, but they could have found something new after we left. If they could find a new energy source, or a new reaction to push with, they might be able to get enough acceleration to approach light-speed even over distances as short as a few dozen light-years.”

“Other colony ships?”

“Not like our Chariot, I wouldn’t think. I would suspect smaller ships, just enough for a modest crew. At those speeds, they could do it in a single generation. Or for that matter, they might not even be manned. After all, our own automations have improved significantly since we launched. Earth could have achieved much more with its resources. It might be as benign as an automated terraforming wave.”

Hathaway considered it slowly. “I see you’ve put a fair amount of thought into it. How certain are you of it, that these flashes are ships?”

“It’s more of a gut feeling than anything, but we might be about to find out in light of…” he trailed off and looked to his captain.

Hathaway followed his gaze over to Ackerman. “What? Has something happened?”

“We’ve had another sighting, even closer, and different from all the others.”


“Just before dinner,” Ackerman replied. “Our Mr. Pritchard here was on duty when it happened.”

“And what makes this one so special? You say we’re about to find out… what?”

Ackerman nodded to Pritchard who answered for him. “Well, High Reverend, this flash was lopsided, and given how close it was, we know it wasn’t just a sensor glitch.”

Hathaway looked back to Ackerman. “And what does that mean?”

Ackerman allowed himself a little smile. “If these things are ships, then this one didn’t fly by. It stopped.”

Hathaway lurched to his feet, spilling the rest of his wine in the process. “You mean there’s a ship here now?”

“Nearby perhaps, a million kilos or so. I put in a call to Commander Soze, and he has all the scopes sweeping the area. Nothing so far, but I should really be getting back to the bridge myself.”

Hathaway was flushed. “Yes, Captain, I think you should.”

Ackerman turned to Pritchard. “I know you just came off your shift, but I’d like to see you back on the bridge as soon as you’re able.” He then gave a curt bow to the High Reverend and departed, leaving Pritchard under Hathaway’s quiet gaze.

“This ship,” Hathaway said, “did you know about it through this entire dinner?”

“No, High Reverend. I think I only put it together during dessert.”

Hathaway chuckled. “Blueberries stimulate your thinking?”

“I think it was the color,” he offered. “In truth, I’m still having a hard time believing it.”

Hathaway shrugged. “Well, it might turn out to be nothing after all.”

“Perhaps, High Reverend.”

“But you don’t think so, do you?”

“No, with respect, I do not.”

Hathaway stared at Pritchard a moment as if taking measure of the man. “I don’t want to demean your fellow officers, Bill, not at all, but you are not like the rest of the Captain’s men.”

Pritchard bowed his head slightly. “I’m not sure what you mean, High Reverend.”

“You must already sense it. You are a tier-son, after all, and from the sounds of it, you’ll be a tier-father soon enough. You see the larger picture beyond merely following Ackerman’s orders, and you have the good judgment to act on it.”

“That is kind of you to say.”

Hathaway shook his head. “Humility doesn’t suit you, Bill. Your captain needs men like you, but you can’t limit yourself to merely following one man’s orders, loyal though you are. Your real loyalty must be to the colony and its mission. You do understand that, don’t you?”

Pritchard nodded gravely. “Yes, High Reverend, I do understand.”

Hathaway stood and walked over to embrace Pritchard by the shoulders. “Then don’t deny me or your captain your good judgment. If you’re going to be a tier-father, or perhaps even a Reverend, it’s time you start thinking like one.”

“I will do my best.”

Hathaway released his grip. “Well then, my good Tier-son Pritchard, I send you back to my friend. I am sure you will serve him well.”

Pritchard nodded one last time and took his leave. He was growing more certain there was indeed a ship out there, and no matter who was on board, the implications for his world were staggering.

Margaret relaxed in her bench swing on the back porch of the Pritchard home. Father had built it for her mother long ago, before she died, but over the years it had become her place to sit and enjoy the view. They lived in tier Bennet, only three kilometers from the rear engineering sections, so she could see almost the entire length of the Chariot from there, the furthest bits fading into a haze around the core lights.

Her father sat on the steps leading down into the side garden. He had been going through the motions of polishing his shoes. It was an old habit of his, and one he usually did with vigor, though he had spent five minutes reworking the same shoe over and over. He paused and caught her staring at him. “What is it, Maggie?”

“I said Cal got his promotion. He’s no longer apprenticed to Mr. Welles.”

Bill Pritchard set down the left shoe and picked up the right. “That’s nice.”

Margaret let the silence stretch until her father’s brush had reached the toe. “He’s moving too. He found a sweet little apartment down in the Wilson tier.”

Her father’s brush continued on. “Well, I’m sure he’ll make the effort to come back and visit.”

She pressed her lips together and summoned her courage. “I think he wants me to visit him… well, more than just visit.”

The brush stopped, and he looked up and met his daughter’s eyes. His intensity startled her, but she did not look away. “Maggie, we’re not having this conversation now.”

“But Father, I am going to marry someday. I want it to be with your blessing.”

He sighed and set down the shoe and brush. “No, my little Magpie, it’s not that. Cal’s a fine boy—”

“A good man,” she corrected.

“Yes, a good man I suppose, but…” he looked out over their little garden and the sweep of the ground up into the sky. With a shrug, he turned back to her. “It’s just that I have another shift now, and it’s not a good time for such talk.”

She leaned forward in her seat, balancing precariously. “But you just had an extra half-shift last night.”

He looked back down at his shoes and wiped away the remaining polish with a cloth. “It’s just a busy time, you see. We’re upgrading some equipment, and you know I’ve got a new apprentice to oversee.”

Margaret leaned back. “That’s all right, then. It can wait, though I’ve got parent meetings tonight. Tomorrow?”

He looked up at her as she swayed gently on the bench and shook his head slowly. He set the shoes down and crossed over to her, taking her hands and smudging her pale skin with the black polish from his own. “Maggie, I want you to listen carefully.” She nodded. “If anything happens in the next few days, anything sudden, I want you to head for the closest shelter immediately. Don’t wait for the alarm. Don’t wait for instructions. Just go.”

She looked at him closely, seeing the fear she could only remember vaguely from her childhood. “What’s wrong, Father?”

He shook his head. “No, no questions this time. I just need you to promise me you’ll go to the shelter.”

She nodded. “I promise.”

The five of them had gathered in Jinley’s crew lounge. Akahele sat at the head of the table opposite Torin at the far end. Semi, James, and even old Victor were gathered around. According to association regulations, one of them should have been on the bridge, but this was not the first time they had ignored that rule. Floating above the table was a magnified view of a rough cylindrical asteroid, perhaps twenty-five kilometers in length. Its rotation was slow, but even in the real-time feed it was visible.

“So, Semi,” Akahele began, “tell us about our rock.”

At the far end, Torin could not completely suppress a smirk. “Our rock, yes, tell us about it.”

“For starters,” Semi said, “it’s not a rock, but I think we all know that now.” He was met by nods of assent around the table. “The fact that it’s decelerating was the first sure sign that something was up, but in this augmented view…” he paused to toggle a mode on the projector. It zoomed out and highlighted a broad cone extending for hundreds of kilometers out in front of the asteroid. “Here we can clearly see the magnetic field they are projecting. At this distance, we can’t make out their thrust jets, but this is clearly a Bussard ramjet, and the biggest I’ve ever heard about.”

“So, definitely a subluminal design?”

Semi nodded, and James chimed in. “I don’t think you could make a tach sail big enough to support that thing, at least not a stable one.”

“Can you tell where it’s from?”

Semi shrugged. “Well, there are no obvious markings on the surface. As for its course, you have to understand there’s a fair amount of stellar drift over the kind of time frames we’re talking about, and we don’t really know when it began its deceleration or how long it might have cruised just on its momentum.”

Victor gave a little harrumph. “You’re telling us all what you don’t know. How about what you do know, or at least, what you might know.”

Semi smiled. “Given its current vector and rate of deceleration, it would have passed through the vicinity of Sol within the last twelve hundred years.”

Akahele wanted to pin him down. “Passed through or launched from there?”

“Yeah, it could have been launched from there. Tannis Proxima is another possibility, about four thousand years ago.”

Clearly, no one thought much of that possibility. Both Tannis Proxima and Tannis Beta had been settled colonies for over a century with no signs of any previous civilization anywhere in the system.

Torin finally broke his silence. “Well, we should at least be able to tell where it’s going, right?”

Semi nodded. “Callista Prime. If they maintain their current deceleration, they’ll arrive in another six hundred and eighty years or so.”

Akahele thought it over. Callista was a loose binary system, with the Prime as a main-stage star holding twelve planets, including one very hospitable, and another too harsh for anything but environment suits but rich in heavy metals. Between its native resources and its central location in the Gemini basin, it was one of the wealthiest and most populous systems in the Confederacy. Even without the current economic realities, it would have made for an attractive colony.

No matter how she came at it, it was a messy situation. “Well, gentlemen, it looks like we have a ship of errant colonists here, and in another six hundred years or so, their grandkids or whoever are going to be pretty disappointed.” She glared across at Torin who remained silent. “Or, we could pop on over and say hello.”

Victor shook his head. “This is too much like a first contact situation. That’s what those survey guys are for.”

“Not that they’ve ever actually done it,” James pointed out.

“But they’re trained for it at least,” Victor responded. “We’re just guessing.”

“It’s not first contact if they’re human,” Semi argued.

“But we don’t know that,” from Victor.

Quiet settled over the room, and Akahele looked over to Torin. “You’ve been pretty quiet. What do you think?”

“I think if we don’t make a decision soon, we won’t be the ones making it. We’ve been closing with them for almost a day now. They probably know we’re here.”

Torin did not have to defend his argument. The computer made his point for him. “Warning,” its voice chimed, “sensors detect an object moving towards us.” The display interrupted to show a dim, boxy vessel thrusting towards them. “Estimate intercept in six hours.”

Akahele looked to the rest of the crew. “Torin, you take watch. James, I want you on the bridge. Semi and Victor, you’re off-shift for four hours. Sleep if you can.” They nodded their assent and left their captain and first officer alone.

Torin shrugged. “Sorry. I like to be right, but not that right.”

The next four hours passed slowly. Akahele stayed off the bridge, knowing that she would just be crowding in on Torin who had the watch. Instead, she stayed in her cabin, officially taking a rest period. She draped her uniform jacket over the back of her desk chair and stretched out on her bunk. As captain, she had one of the two full-size beds on the ship, though she took advantage of it far less often than she would have liked.

Sleep did not come. She had suspected as much, so she tried to meditate instead. She focused on her breathing, willing herself not to count down the time herself. In and out, slowly, just like the waves of the incoming tide. Even then, sleep did not come, but at least it kept her from pacing the floor, six steps to the door, six steps back. She had not done that since her days as a journeyman navigator on the Cappella.

Finally she gave in and brought up a computer display of the closing gap and recorded a long log entry. She laid out their history with this particular object, referencing the relevant log entries from the Ringway-Answay leg, but also fleshing it out with anything else she could remember. Some it was trivial details that only now seemed particularly relevant, but after a while she realized she was rambling. With thirty minutes before shift change, she closed it with, “So I don’t know if this is my last log entry, the first chapter of something huge, or merely something I’m going to look back on later and laugh. We’ll see in a few hours. Captain Akahele Kalas, commanding.”

With that done, she took a quick shower and dressed in a fresh uniform. Standing in front her mirror, she checked the part in her hair and hooked her collar again, straighter this time. She never liked the way Takasumi’s dull green went with her olive-brown skin, and she still thought the diagonal arrangement of buttons added five kilos to her appearance. Yet it was still her captain’s uniform, and she would not trade it for the world. At one minute to shift-change, she strolled down the hall to the bridge and stepped through the hatch as calmly as she could.

James sat idly at the navigation station, while Torin was half-buried in the sensor bay. Without looking back he greeted her. “I could set my watch by you, Captain.”

“Especially today. Status?”

He emerged from the electronics and sealed the panel behind him. “I presume you’ve been monitoring from your quarters.”

She nodded reluctantly.

“It still looks like two hours to rendezvous. Whatever is over there, it’s already decelerating to match course with us.”

She glanced at the panel behind him. “Any problems?”

“No, not at all.”

She turned to James, who immediately wilted under her glare. “We thought we would have heard something by now, you know, some kind of communications. Not a tach-burst, of course, but a comm laser or at least some kind of EM chatter.”


James shrugged. “Nothing. After a while we started wondering if we were having an equipment problem.”

She understood. Torin had been running a diagnostic suite on the signal processors. “I appreciate your diligence. Now, both of you take a break.”

James sauntered out without any objection, but Torin lingered. “I presume you’re not going to tell me to get some sleep.”

She shook her head, knowing that would be an impossible order. “Get a meal though. I want us all sharp when that thing gets here.”

She had the bridge to herself for a moment, and while she flirted with a nervous stomach, she also had confidence in herself and her crew. Semi wandered in five minutes later with a half-eaten Brunshwick wrap in his hand. “Sorry, I overslept.”

She eyed him incredulously as he sat at the navigation console. “You actually slept?”

“Sure, didn’t you?”

She suppressed a laugh. “No, you know… paperwork.”

He nodded and made a few adjustments to the display. “Who do you want to do the final maneuvering on this, us or them?”

She thought it over. This kind of ship-to-ship rendezvous was rare, at least amongst legitimate merchants, but when it did happen the standard procedure was for the smaller ship to yield control of its maneuvering thrusters to the larger ship’s computer. There were exceptions, of course, for emergency situations or when surrendering to boarders, but it was always predicated on the assumption that one ship would hold its vector while allowing the other to close in, preferably under mutual computer control. That was not going to happen this time.

“Let’s let them do the final closing. We’re still matching the deceleration of the main ship with a short thrust every few minutes. When this little one closes to twenty klicks, I want you to stop that and just let us drift. We can position the dorsal airlock towards them and see how close they want to get.”

Semi swiveled around in his chair. “And how close do you want to let them?”

She shrugged. “Say a hundred meters, but if you think for even a second that they’re going to collide, you back us off. Do not wait for an order. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am, very clear.”

“And once they close to within five klicks, I’ll have Victor warm up the tach drive, and you be ready to throw that too.”

“But Captain, at that range a ship that size might not survive the backwash.”

She nodded. “Better them than us.”

The next two hours passed even slower than the previous four, though there was a brief moment of excitement when she belatedly ordered everyone into their vacc suits and sealed all the compartments against the possibility of a hull breach. Torin was back on the bridge by then, and she was wishing she had eaten something before. She told her suit to add a slight nutrient mix to her water and sucked nervously on that.

At twenty kilometers they made their last corrective burn and reoriented with the dorsal lock towards the interloper and waited. The incoming ship seemed to hesitate for a moment, slowing down much more sharply, but then it continued on in, already assuming that they would no longer be matching the mother ship’s deceleration. It was dragging out even longer. Whatever was over there, they clearly did not want to spook Akahele or her crew, but if anything, the long process was having the opposite effect.

At twelve kilometers, Torin turned to Semi. “Say… if this thing didn’t come from Sol or Tannis, where was the next likely origin point?”

Semi shook his head, the shoulders of the vacc suit relaying most of the gesture. “There wasn’t one.”

“What do you mean, there wasn’t one?” Torin pressed.

“Well, not in this galaxy anyway.”

That got Akahele’s attention. She toggled the ship comm. “James, Victor, let’s get the tach drive on standby. I want it ready to engage if Semi asks for it.”

Torin looked back at her. “Sorry. I guess I should have asked that earlier.”

She just shrugged and waited.

At three kilometers, the other ship switched off its main thrusters and continued in on what appeared to be little more than attitude controls. At two hundred fifty meters, it finally came to a relative stop.

The silence on the bridge stretched to almost a minute before Torin broke it. “Well now what?”

“Still no kind of signal?”

Torin checked his displays again. “Nothing that we’re recognizing.”

She thought about it, staring at the dim image of the ship resting above her. It was edge on, but angled off to the side, its main thrusters paralleling her own. She punched up the high-resolution radar overlay, and then she saw it. “There it is,” she highlighted it on the main display with a hand motion.

Torin looked closely. “I see it.” The lines of the ship and the indentations made it clear. They had come to rest with their airlocks pointed at each other.

Akahele rose and headed for the hatch.

“Captain… where are you…?” Semi let the question trail off.

“They clearly intend a face to face meeting, so I’m heading up to the airlock to invite them over.”

Torin stood. “But, shouldn’t I? I mean, don’t you think you should stay on the bridge?”

She just chuckled for a moment. “Really, Torin, if you were Captain, would you stay here and send your first officer? Would you pass this up?”

He gave her both a grin and a sigh. “Not a chance, ma’am.”

What would have normally been a quick trip to the airlock was slowed by the need to key open several hatches and seal them behind her. By the time she had started the lock cycle, Torin was on the comm, “There’s some extra light over there. It looks like… yeah, their lock is opening.”


She hooked her boots under the toe holds on the deck and keyed the lock from her wristpad. The doors above her slid open and the center floor of the airlock rose up to lift her out of gravity and onto the level of the ship’s skin. Above her, she could see the other ship, and the window of light that must be the open dock. As soon as the lift locked into place, she hooked on her safety line and gently kicked herself free. There was a moment of disorientation before she could stabilize herself with the suit thrusters, but then she was essentially on her back, facing upwards to her visitors.

The light flickered and she thought she saw a hint of moment. She punched up the magnification on her visor and held her eyes steady. The form was at first gangly and misshapen until she realized that it was merely upside down. A gentle roll on her part fixed that, and she could see the form was clearly humanoid: two arms, two legs, and a reflective bubble for its head. “Are you guys seeing what I’m seeing?”

And that’s it for now. If you’re hooked, look for the sales links here!

The Tavern

No review today.  I’m behind on my reading.  So instead, I’m tossing out a bit of my fiction, a tale of a few adventurers finding something unexpected…

The Tavern

We’ve all heard the story of the cursed tavern where if you kill someone who works there, the curse forces you to take on their job. The tale’s twisted logic led to the eventuality of a powerful mage tending bar, a high priest in the kitchen, great champions mucking out the stable, and so on. Mostly, of course, this is just a story we tell to fill time on the road. Then one day my friends and I actually found this tavern, or so we thought.

The map called the town Sirdol. The signpost called it Albistor. As usual, we were hoping to not find out what the sheriff called it. The hellhole of Verig’s “abandoned” keep was two days behind us, and except for Willa’s limp we were all past our various scrapes. It was time to relax, rest up, maybe do a bit of shopping, but most of all, it was time to hit the tavern.

This one had a moose head out front, but the faded lettering said something about Gryphons. It had the usual mix: mostly locals, a few merchants, and a small party of our ilk, “adventurers”. Adventurers… yeah, more like armed scavengers, but some days it paid well, and this was one of those days. Willa, Regis, and I settled in at a back table while Farsil set up a tab for us at the bar. He came back with four mugs and a pitcher of ale.

I slammed down my first draught and only afterwards realized just how good it had been. Thinking quicker than I had back in the tombs, I finished off the pitcher to top off my mug. Willa and Regis were taking theirs more slowly, savoring it, but Farsil had barely touched his.

“Drink up, boy,” I told him. “This is the best I’ve had since we left Gallashot, maybe even better.”

He did take a sip. “Yes, it is good. It’s just that…” he trailed off, looking into his ale.

“What?” Willa prompted.

“Well, that bartender… don’t look-” we all did “- but he looks an awful lot like Jakob of Chaipax.”

“Jakob the Great?” Regis asked.

“Jakob, alchemist to Lord Anton?” Willa continued.

“Yes,” Farsil replied. “Jakob, creator of the only stable potion of fire breathing.”

I leaned left to take another look. “I thought he was supposed to have a beard.”

Farsil rolled his eyes. “Look at the mustache, Dep, and extrapolate, ok?”

I looked again, taking another gulp of my ale. “Maybe, but… could be a cousin.”

Farsil leaned forward, beckoning us closer with those conspiratorial eyes. “It’s not just that. There’s that big guy sitting by the door for starters.”

“He looked like a bouncer to me,” Willa offered.

Farsil raised an eyebrow. “With jewels in his sword hilt?”

“Yeah, I noticed that when we came in,” Regis replied. He shrugged. “Sorry, professional habit.”

“So?” I came back at them. “It’s just a rich bouncer. I’d be rich too if my boss was serving ale this good.” I lifted the empty pitcher and waved the barmaid over.

We paused while she came with a full pitcher and took our empty one away.

Willa refilled hers and took a sip. “You think he’s Sir Waston of the Wolf, don’t you?”

Farsil only smiled.

Regis gave a nod. “With that jewel pattern, it could be Falcon’s Claw in that sheath of his, and Waston was known to do favors for Lord Anton back when Jakob was still working for him.”

“Oh, for the love of magic, you’re not really telling me that two of the greatest legends this side of the Serpent Sea are working in a tavern.”

Farsil shrugged. “You know the tale as well as I do.”

I laughed. “But that’s a bullshit story, boy. Something we old-timers tell the new guy on the way back to town. I suppose next you’re going to tell me that Bishop Escallia is in the kitchen working on the stew or that the fucking barmaid is Light-fingered Lexy.”

Willa glared at me. “Not so loud, Dep. This is probably the worst place in the world to start a brawl.”

I slammed back the rest of my ale. “I’m putting a stop to this right now.” Carrying my empty mug, I swaggered over the bar.

The barkeep set down his washrag and came over. “What can I get for ya?”

“Another ale,” I replied. “This is surely the best ale I’ve had in over a year. Is it your own?”

He filled it from the barrel beneath the bar. “It is. I make all the drinks here.”

I took a sip, even smoother than from the pitcher. A man could lose himself in this stuff. “My friends over there say you look like Jakob the great fire walker or breather or some such.”

He gave a lopsided grin. “Yeah, I get that all the time. Less since I shaved the beard, but still.”

Another sip. “So you did have a beard before.” This close, I got a good look at his nose, the same crooked line as the statue in the capital.

“Yeah,” he replied, “back when I worked for Lord Anton.” He held out his hand. “But it’s just ‘Jakob’ now.”

My mug hit the floor slightly before my jaw. The ale spilled equally onto my boots as it did the floorboards, and the barmaid knelt down quickly to mop it up in her apron. Facing back to Jakob I took his hand slowly. “My, uh… it’s an honor, sir.” In the bottles behind him, I could make out movement from the bouncer by the door. Three ales earlier, I had left my broadsword under the table.

“No worries, pal,” he answered, getting me a fresh mug of ale. “Like I said, I get that all the time.”

The maid went to change to a new apron just as the bulk of the bouncer leaned down on the bar beside me. “Trouble, Jakob?”

“None at all, Waston,” he replied. “I was just chatting with uh…”

“Dep,” I replied promptly, offering my hand. “Dep of Gallashot.”

Waston took it – that’s right, you bastards, I shook hands with Sir Waston the Wolf – and he did his best not to crush my knuckles. “Gallashot… you know Crowley?”

“Of course. He taught me the broadsword. Best swordsman in the whole region.”

“Yep,” he replied, “I always knew Crowley would go far.” He sat and took a mug for himself. “So what brings you out this way?” he asked.

“I was just, well, my friends and I were exploring Verig’s old place, and well, we’re celebrating a bit, I guess.”

He chuckled. “Verig’s place, out past the marsh?”

I nodded.

“Well good, that’s one less thing on my to-do list.”

My eyes went wide. “Oh, sir, if I had known, sir, we would never presume-“

“Oh, don’t worry. I don’t get out much anymore these days.”

I looked back at my friends who were making a very poor attempt at not watching us. “You know, the other thing my friends said was that, well… there’s this story of a cursed tavern where…”

“Oh, I know that one,” Jakob jumped in. “If you kill someone there, you have to take their job.”

Waston smirked and sipped his ale.

“Just a story, eh?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Jakob replied. “It’s true all right, but that’s about two weeks’ ride northwest of here, out past Tipson’s Point.”


“They don’t get much business, of course, especially not after the cook was eaten by that zombie.”

Even I had to laugh at that. “A zombie for a cook? I can see why no one goes.”

Waston shrugged. “You never know. Maybe the ghouls would like it.”

“Look, Jakob, Waston, my pals there will never forgive me if I don’t ask… just what are you two doing here?”

Jakob looked me up and down. “Well, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just blowing off steam, you know, celebrating after a crawl through… man, I’m going to need some more sleep before I talk about that one.”

“And isn’t that great, the celebrating?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely,” I said. “Especially when the ale is this good.”

“Yeah,” Waston chimed in. “It’s probably the best part of the whole lifestyle, isn’t it?”

I thought about it. “Well, there’s the excitement, the travel…”

“Yeah, sleeping in the rain, saddle sores…”

“There’s the treasure,” I countered.

“There is that,” Waston replied.

“But it’s only good for spending,” Jakob pointed out. “And what better thing to spend it on than the celebration?”

“Or the comfortable bed,” Waston offered.

“Or the ale,” Jakob continued.

Waston drained his mug. “I almost forgot – the whoring!”

The barmaid returned to the bar with an empty pitcher. “You’d never forget the whoring, dear.”

Slowly it began to sink in. “Yeah, this really is the best part.”

Jakob stepped back and spread his arms. “So you see, when we could finally afford it, we retired. Now we get that best part every day.”

In the warm embrace of the ale, my dreams of castles and followers were all turning to drab routines of upkeep and training and kissing some Baron’s ass while trying to collect his taxes.

“So, Jakob,” the barmaid asked. “You got another convert?”

I nodded. “I think he does.”

“By the way,” she said to me, “It’s Lexy of the light touch, not Light-fingered Lexy.”

I turned and really looked at her for the first time. “Oh my, I… what I meant was…”

“Fear not, love, no offense taken. Besides,” she said, handing me a small piece of leather, “you tip well.” After she left with a fresh pitcher I realized what that leather was: my boot pouch, the stitching neatly cut away. I took another sip of my ale and laughed. It was worth it.

And then, boys and girls, I shit you not, Bishop Escallia himself came out of the kitchen with a great big pot of stew.

Flash Fiction Fun

I haven’t written much short fiction in several years, but recently some flash fiction challenges have caught my eye.  I decided to give one a try.  The full details of it are over at Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds, but the gist was to pick an alliterative title and play off the phrase “Double Dead”, the title of Wendig’s most recent novel.

And so I present:

Resurrection Reset

I woke to the familiar lights of the cloning chamber. Shit, I thought, how did I die this time? I pawed through the disorientation for my last memory. It was March, going in for my annual backup.

“Good morning, Mr. Wallace,” the voice said. She sounded young, but what did that mean anyway? My last body had only been forty-two, and I had treated the knees well this time.

“What happened?” I croaked. Those first few days were always a bitch of uncoordination. Talking is okay, but getting your balance back for those first few steps is nasty.

“You died. We have restored you from March 22, 2839.”

Well, of course I had died. If this had been a rejuvenation cloning, I would have remembered it. Plus, I usually didn’t bother with those until the body turned fifty or sixty. “What’s the date?”

“May 9, 2846.”

2846? That was seven years. Clone installation takes three months, maybe four if you go for the heavier body mods. Why would they have waited seven years? My resurrection policy was fully paid! “When did I die?”

“February 3 of this year.”

That didn’t make sense. I always did a regular backup the week of my birthday. My son still does monthlies and chides me for risking up to a year of lost memory, but I can’t imagine that I would have gone seven years without a backup. “Was this my most recent restore point?”

“No, Mr. Wallace, your most recent backup was in March of last year.”

“What the fuck?” This was going nowhere. “Get me out of this thing.”

The seal broke, and the coffin lid lifted up. A robot with a feminine face bent over me. There was no telling if she was really a robot or merely some punk all kitted up. I tried it once myself, but hydraulic strength is no substitute for skin. She reached in and lifted me up into a sitting position. I tightened my abs, but I still flopped side to side. She braced me with a padded metal hand.

“Why?” I asked.

“You left specific instructions to use the 2839 backup,” she said.

I looked at her, and she nodded. She had probably been human at one point. The AI mannerisms usually aren’t that good. “Instructions, huh? Suicide?”

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Wallace.”

It wasn’t my first suicide. The first one had been for kicks. I was on my ninth or tenth body, back in the 2400’s, and I did the whole Icarus leap off one of the Mercury flights. It’s laughable now, but if you were alive back then, I’m sure you know someone who did it.

My second suicide was only suspected. My flyer went down in clear weather near the Alps in 2612. I still think it was an accident or a faulty lift unit, but the review board found no evidence of it. I had not had any reason for it, but it was only a week after my annual backup. I’ve wondered if maybe I simply decided on a lark to kick off my next rejuvenation early, but the paperwork afterwards was enough to dissuade me from ever considering anything like that in the future.

And sure, I guess all of the rejuvenations are technically suicide, trading in one body for another, but that’s clinical, not suicidal. You wait for the body to finish cooking, do the final backup, drop into a coma until the next one checks out, and then slip away. It got to the point where you never even thought of it as a death. You looked forward to the fresh body, soft skin, and painless joints.

But this was something very different. I had apparently killed myself and deliberately wiped out the last seven years of my life. Why? What was I trying to forget? What had I been doing?

The basics would be easy enough to track down. There would be financial records if nothing else. Presumably I’d purged whatever diary I might have been keeping, or at least dropped it into a time-delayed archive. There might be news articles or perhaps some published papers. I might have kept in touch with some of my old exes, and they would have copies of our correspondence. But none of that was likely to point to the reason I would have done this.

I love a mystery, and I’m pretty sure I can figure it out eventually. But I also know that I love a mystery, and I doubt I’d have gone to all this trouble only to let myself undo it.

“Did I leave myself a message?” I asked.

The robot nodded and handed me a folded slip of paper. I opened it to see my own handwriting, a bit more ragged than I’m used to.

“I wish I’d never met her,” it read. “Now I don’t have to. Don’t bother tracking her down. She jumped too.”

I crumpled it up and threw it towards the trash. I missed, of course.

The next six weeks of rehab were going to be a pain in the ass, but after that I could start looking. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no glutton for punishment.

I just want to see if she was worth it.