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A note from Darrin Drader

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Susan Brasher brushed a stray lock of dark brown hair out of her eyes as she set down another heavy crate with a grunt. Don’t I have a crew to do this kind of work? She wondered. Oh right, I let them go play in the spaceport. Only Brann, the albino Inar mercenary, remained behind to help. Six months of combing through ruins on various worlds throughout Sangor space and the crew was obviously restless, but she’d returned with no short age of trinkets to offer the various buyers.

Truthfully, she knew that only a few pieces would be of interest to most museums. While she could always sell most items on their historical significance, the truth was that what museums wanted were objects that had the appearance of significance and would attract visitors. Items such as pottery, eating utensils, pieces of technology, and even coins might have been used by long-forgotten societies, but that didn’t make them interesting to look at, they didn’t attract crowds, nor did they earn her a great deal of money. Large pieces of artwork, sculptures, and flashy oddities were what mostly interested them and earned her the most money. The display of gold on anything never hurt.

When the museums weren’t interested in an item she’d recovered, her next step would be to offer them to a university. Universities paid far less than museums since items they collected were usually photographed, catalogued, and then stored until such time as a professor of archaeology or history took note of them and pulled them out for study, or instruction. She knew from her time in academia that there were far more items that were supposedly of historical importance filed away in warehouses than would ever get studied. She often wondered how many ‘significant discoveries’ had been made simply because the right professors had gotten bored and taken a walk through university vaults.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the items that patrons would hire her and her crew to go out and find. These might be valuable art objects, lost technology, or other historical oddities that have been lost to the ages. Such items might have been painted or designed by famous artists, and owning such a piece would be a mark of prestige. They might also be pieces of advanced technology that could be of interest to the various militaries of the sector. Curiously enough, the latter were the jobs that paid the highest, though they also tended to be the most dangerous—dead societies tended to leave behind all manner of dangers for others to blunder into.

Sadly, her most recent expedition had mainly resulted in the sorts of artifacts of the variety universities would buy and forget. Nevertheless, it should fetch her enough to allow her to continue doing the thing she loved most—the field work of archaeology.

Brasher hoisted three more crates into the pile, wiped the sweat from her brow, then stood back to appreciate the five full pallets she’d loaded. “That’s it for now,” she commented.

Brann grunted. “I suppose that means you’re leaving the ship,” he said gruffly, fixing her with his intense pink irises of his eyes. The Inar were wolflike, but there was something especially feral about this mercenary. She took comfort from the fact that he was her ally, because she’d be afraid to stand in his way. Actually, she knew she’d be afraid to stand up to most Inar. Having a mild fear of dogs didn’t make it easy interacting with them.

“You guessed right,” she replied. “Why don’t you do the same?”

“Too many old acquaintances about I’d rather avoid,” Brann said.

Brasher had done a background check on the mercenary, and he wasn’t a fugitive. Whatever trouble he’d gotten himself into in the past, it hadn’t left any kind of official record. “At every starport?” she asked.

Brann grunted in reply.

“Have it your way,” she said. “The dock workers should be here in four hours. If I haven’t come back by then, be sure to let them in so they can offload our cargo.”

“Would you like me to do the crew’s laundry while I’m at it?”

Brasher chuckled. Brann had an attitude, and she quietly suspected that there was no heart of gold beneath his harsh exterior. He was in it for the money, and the chance to get rough with anyone who barked at him the wrong way. He only ever seemed to be in a good mood after the times when he’d had to fend off people who didn’t like them snooping around their worlds.

“Feel free!” she said with a mischievous smile as she strolled past the pallets, down the cargo ramp, and into the warm and humid evening air of the Etajur spaceport.

Spacecraft of all kinds and sizes surrounded her ship, the Jhillak. Despite the differences in ship size, each had exactly ten meters between their outermost edges and the ship next to it. From above, it looked like a patchwork of varying craft, coming together to form a metallic quilt. Of course these were what was known as the cheap seats, meaning that they were exposed to the elements and not protected by the small and exclusively priced docking structure. On this world, the weather tended to be both mild and pleasant, so there was little danger leaving the ships exposed to the elements—not to mention, she couldn’t get enough of the puffy white clouds against the lavender sky. She wouldn’t mind skipping the interior of the starport and visiting the beach instead. The idea of lounging in the warm water and black sand sounded inviting. Perhaps she’d have time to enjoy it before committing to the next six months of cramped climate controlled living aboard her starship.

But, duty called, so instead of seeking out a transport for the beach, she followed the main path between the ships toward the Crystal Star, a tall building that served as a hotel and recreational facility. Several restaurants, lounges, sports facilities, and other activity centers were within, and typically filled with individuals looking to unwind after their long journeys.

Brasher looked forward to a nice cup of coffee and a quiet table where she could catch up on the latest news. Since the fall of the Imperium, things had grown worse. The R’Tillek, the lizardlike race of aliens that brought the old government to its knees, seemed to have merely paused its war when the Imperium fell; they did not halt it. They still moved against the worlds belonging to the various former member races. Now that they were able to get close to those worlds, their mission was one of extermination, not conquest. The three core worlds of the Imperium had been infected with a bioweapon so deadly that those worlds were quickly reduced to zero population, and quarantined. Since then, the R’Tillek had attacked worlds belonging to the other races, with much the same results. Without Imperium protection, individual systems were typically too weak to repel them on their own, which left them open to attack. Why they hadn’t wiped out every world by now was a mystery. Perhaps the bioweapon took time to manufacture—or perhaps there were other reasons that were only known to the R’Tillek.

Aside from the fact that their major enemy was trying to slowly wipe them all out, the former member worlds weren’t faring much better. Relations between worlds were strained. Although alliances between worlds rose and fell like the tides, the major races of the Imperium failed to stand united. Countless petty wars had broken out, in the last five years, most of which were quickly resolved as the worlds prepared for the next conflict. Resources were tight as trade was disrupted, and the rule of interstellar law was all but a memory. Still, most institutions still stood, civilian ships still went about their business, and the space lanes were mostly safe, save for the pirates who were a little freer now than they had been to prey on the space lanes. With all the chaos, Brasher hoped the various world governments would get their acts together and mount some sort of effective defense against the R’Tillek, rather than continually fighting amongst each other—ultimately, their survival depended on it.

Brasher tried not to think about that but instead turned her focus toward her own business there at the spaceport. There would be time to meet with Ghuurkek, her patron, before her departure. In fact, she needed to have such a meeting to secure funding for the next year. It was never a meeting she particularly looked forward to, but it was necessary if she wanted to keep her ship and crew together, not to mention continue her career.

As she passed a bulky, rectangular, ship that was covered in rust patches, she arrived at a main thoroughfare where hover vehicles zipped back and forth, ferrying passengers to and from their destinations. She watched a few vehicles zoom by, none of which appeared particularly inviting. A short time later she spotted one with Passenger Transport written on the side, and a green sign mounted to the top that was lit up and read, Seating Available. She waved her hands in the air and it began to slow as it approached.

The vehicle slid to a stop, a ramp descended to the pavement, and a shiny silver humanoid shaped robot driver called out to her in a low-pitched, electronic, voice, “Where to?” it asked.

“The Crystal Star,” she replied.

“That’s on my route. Be seated and you will arrive in approximately five minutes.”

“Thanks,” Brasher said, climbing in and moving to the nearest vacant seat. The interior of the vehicle was bright, if utilitarian. All of the solid surfaces, such as the spaces between the windows, were plain and unblemished white, while the fixtures and floor were polished steel. Two thirds of the beige cushioned seats were filled, mostly with the hulking, four-armed, hard-shelled aquatic Relarrans, who were forced to wear environmental suits in open air environments. This was their world, and they maintained this spaceport primarily for trade. There were also a few humans, as well as a black haired, blue skinned Lamagos.

On Etajur, all spacefaring races were expected to mix freely, regardless of species. While such high-minded integration was common, it was not always the rule on some worlds. Some worlds enforced Lamagos species separation, particularly those belonging to the lesser races, which were often suspicious of offworlders, and outsiders were closely monitored. Brasher often found herself on such worlds in her line of work, but this wasn’t one of them. She would remain as polite as possible to her Relarran hosts.

A few minutes later, the transport arrived at the Crystal Star. Brasher left her seat, thanked the robot, which she doubted had the capacity to truly appreciate the gesture, and proceeded to the tall building’s revolving double doors.

From the outside, the Crystal Star was inviting. Cylindrical in shape, the exterior loomed at dizzying heights overhead. The exterior appeared to be made of a polished dark colored metal, and windows were interspersed along its surface at regular intervals. A spire that emitted a blue-white light stood at the top, drawing attention to it over the other enormous buildings in the city’s impressive skyline. The walls were a pleasant marble-brown pattern, the ceiling was white, and line from the door to the front desk was covered in a bright, clean, maroon carpet. Light music played in the background, just a couple decibels louder than the murmur of myriad of conversations taking place around her. Every major alien race, and some of the minor ones were currently present, forming small social clusters. Next to the desk, a long, wide corridor led to a central area about twenty feet in diameter, where two lifts in clear tubes rose and fell, carrying visitors to the Crystal Star’s various levels.

Stepping into an open lift car, she looked at the panel displaying the various features and locations within the facility. She didn’t need to look to know where she was going. She was quite familiar with this place. “Destination please?” asked a pleasant electronic female voice.

“Floor six,” she said. The lift door closed while Brasher fished inside her light jacket and brought out a data pad. She turned it on and connected to the facility’s internal network. It connected a few seconds later and the latest local news stories began scrolling past. There was something about a Relarran politician whose corruption shocked the public, a starship that dropped out of FTL utterly annihilated, and a local human woman who had gone missing and was presumed dead.

She flipped the tablet off as the doors opened and she left the hallway to find a nice café she often frequented. Little more than a hole in the wall filled with tables, she stopped at a panel near the entrance, and requested a cappuccino. A digital readout informed her that she was being charged two and a half credits, then a small door slid to the side, revealing a steaming hot drink, which she took. She moved to a table near the back of the café and withdrew her data pad.

She pulled up her personal messages and was immediately disappointed when she failed to notice anything from her patron. She closed that, pulled up the news, and took a sip of the hot beverage. She’d ordered cappuccino from numerous identical machines from a variety of worlds, but there was something a little tastier about the drink produced here. Perhaps it was the local coffee beans they used, or perhaps they’d programmed the machine with just a little extra ingredient that wasn’t used elsewhere. Whatever it was, this was typically her first stop when arriving at port. Her second stop would be to check into her hotel and begin preparing for the meeting with Ghuurkek.

She pulled up the news story about the ship that had arrived annihilated from deep space, but didn’t make it very far into the story when she heard a familiar voice behind her.

“Doctor Brasher, mind if I join you?”

She looked over her shoulder to see a clean-cut man with brown hair, blue pants, and a brown leather jacket. “Steven Cline, I had no idea you were in port.” Conflicting emotions immediately put the plight of the unlucky ship out of mind. Once her professor, later her lover, and then her captain, she was never sure exactly how she should feel when she bumped into him, and it seemed to happen quite often, even though they were both in the same line of work and were out in space for months at a time.

“It’s luck we ran into each other,” he said. “I almost ended up stranded at our last site.” He lowered himself onto the chair opposite her and took a sip of his own drink.

“Problems with the Aisling?”

He shook his head. “Problems with my astrogator.”

“It wouldn’t be such a problem if you’d learn how to do it yourself,” she commented.

“I don’t trust myself,” he said with a smile. She briefly wondered if he was talking about astrogation, or spending a few moments with her. If the latter, she wasn’t so sure she trusted herself either. Cline had been drummed out of teaching after the rest of the faculty had discovered their relationship. There were rules against faculty dating students, and their relationship hadn’t entirely been Cline’s idea. She remembered pursuing him for over a month before he’d finally relented. After she’d finished up her doctorate in archaeology, she had served as astrogator aboard his ship, at which time they’d resumed their relationship. Unfortunately, she found that certain rogue-like qualities had surfaced in him since leaving academia, leaving her doubting his professionalism. Eventually, she decided to leave him and seek out a ship of her own… one that she found when she met the Relarran, Ghuurkek.

“Is Irwin alright?” she asked.

A brief pained expression crossed Cline’s face. “For the time being,” he replied. There was clearly something he wasn’t telling her; not that it was any of her business. She’d briefly met Carter since he filled her open position aboard Cline’s ship, but she didn’t really know him, and she couldn’t make any sort of claim to his friendship.

“So, how have you been?” She asked.

“Same as always,” he said. “I’ve been wandering off the beaten path a bit lately, trying to see what’s out there on some uncharted worlds.”

“So the universities still aren’t buying from you?” She asked.

Cline flashed a roguish smile. “Not when they know I’m the seller. But I get around that… and some of them still deal with me unofficially.”

“I be that takes a chunk out of your profits.”

“Exactly!” he said with a chuckle.

“You know you could go to Lamagos space. Nobody knows you there. You could make a clean start. It might be easier.”

“Easier for who?” he asked, his face again serious. She immediately regretted her words, knowing he’d assume she just wanted him to go off someplace where she was unlikely to run into him like this.

“For you,” she said with a slight smile. “You have a reputation around here. I don’t think it would follow you if you left the sector.”

“Well, I like it here,” he said.

“Is that why you don’t have any Relarrans on your crew?” Brasher asked. She knew Cline preferred working alongside Humans, but the lack of diversity aboard her ship was a point she liked to bring up from time to time. It amused her how an educated man who professed to be on the side of tolerance and equality had very little use for the other spacefaring races.

“Try being the only Human kid on a playground full of Relarrans.”

“Well, at least you aren’t trying to trivialize their sentience or value, like some worlds do. Tell me, what are you doing here, Steven?”

“Well, I brought back some things to sell…”

“No, I mean here, right now, at this café…”

“It was our favorite café. I wanted a drink, saw you sitting there…”

“It was my favorite café before it was our favorite café,” Brasher interrupted. “You know this is the first place I come when I get into port. How many times did you check the place today? Every hour? Every fifteen minutes?”

“Every five… not that it matters,” Cline said. “The truth is, I’ve missed you since you left.”

“It’s been two years. You should move on,” she said. She silently admitted to herself that she wasn’t entirely certain she’d moved on yet herself. She’d briefly dated a couple of people, but nothing had lasted long. They just hadn’t felt right. They weren’t Cline. It was too bad he’d become such a scoundrel.

“Who said I haven’t?” he asked, a smile returning to his face. “I’ve spent time with enough women since you split.”

Brasher shrugged, trying to keep away an unwanted wave of jealousy. “How long will you be in port?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Looks like I need to find a backup astrogator,” Cline said. Obviously the situation with Carter was worse than he’d alluded to.

“I’d offer my services, but my ship kind of needs me,” she said.

“Know anyone?’ he asked.

“Plenty, but I’m not sure I know any who’d be willing to put up with you as captain.”

“Oh, that’s just not fair,” he said. “I don’t snore that loud.”

Brasher chuckled, remembering the many times she’d been woken from a sound sleep by him. “Actually, you do. You’re quite loud, and you drool. When was the last time you washed your pillow case?”

Cline raised his index finger. “That’s not your business anymore!”

“No, but I bet you want to,” she said with a grin.

“There’s a lot of things I want to tell you, but this isn’t the time or place.”

“And what would be?”

“My room, tonight. I’ll have a full bottle of wine to share, not the half-drunk ones I used to offer up when we were together. It’ll be a good time.”

Her immediate reaction was to deny his offer out of hand. The last thing she needed in her life was him. On the other hand, he wasn’t the only one who’d been missing the other. “I’ll consider it,” she said.

“I can sweeten the deal. If you’re still around in the morning, I’ll show you what’s in my cargo hold. It’s a little something I picked up from a planetary fragment…”

“You’re very presumptuous,” she said.

Cline rose to his feet, took a drink of his coffee, and smiled. “Always. See you tonight.”

“Don’t count on it,” she said as he walked off.

Brasher looked down at her data pad. A notification had just popped up indicating that she’d received a new message. She opened her messages and saw a note from her patron, Ghuurkek. She hurriedly opened it.

 

Susan Brasher,

I’m pleased to see that you’ve arrived safely in port. I have a matter of some importance I’d like to discuss with you. As luck has it, I have a potentially lucrative job I’d like to discuss with you. Time is of the essence, and please bring Arnach Rielyr with you.

- Ghuurkek

 

Brasher smiled. This was what she’d been waiting for. In fact, it appeared better than what she’d expected. She briefly considered calling Cline back to share in the news. Then she thought better and suppressed a contented smile as she took a sip of her coffee.

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About the author

Darrin Drader

Bio: I was born and raised in the sleepy college town of Pullman Washington. It was here where I first began writing, learned to play Dungeons and Dragons, and imagined the life I want to live. Since graduating from WSU, I have worked on Dungeons and Dragons, video games, and more roleplaying game products than I can even recall right now.

Fiction has always been one of my passions. As a high schooler, I wrote constantly, and my Junior year on the first day of English class, I told my English teacher that I planned to be a writer. I've spent the rest of my life making good on that declaration.

My preferred form of fantasy is heroic swords and sorcery. I had an early flirtation with dark fantasy, but found it not really my cup of tea. As a reader, I want to follow likeable characters who are trying to make their worlds better by battling corruption and the various other dark powers that be. I used to be an avid reader of Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, though because those lines of fiction are barely supported, I don't get enough of it. As a writer, that's the kind of material I want to release into the world.

It wasn't that long ago that sites like this didn't exist, and there was no way for authors who weren't traditionally published to find readers. I just learned of this place, and I'm excited to dive in, release some fiction, and see what's happening.

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