“I don’t like being woken at this hour.”
Arnach Rielyr winced as the darker than normal Relarran glared at him over the communication console. “My apologies, sir.”
The scowl on crustacean visage was apparent despite its non-human features. “I’d pray to whatever gods you believe in you aren’t wasting my time… and my sleep. I was told this is a matter of some urgency.”
“Indeed,” Rielyr said, nonchalantly brushing aside the warning. Urgency hadn’t entered into the conversation with the aid who had first answered his call. In fact, it had been credits—a lot of them. Krrlar was a typical corrupt politician. That he was corrupt didn’t make him unique on Etajur, but the fact he was a known contact of Cline’s did.
“Well, get on with it, before I tire of this conversation and send security to have you detained.”
“It’s not my goal to anger you, Krrlar. The matter I’m contacting you about is the destruction of the Dawn Archer.”
“Ah yes, that bloody ship,” Krrlar said, his translator clearly conveying annoyance in his synthetic voice. “Nobody seems to want to let that matter rest. Let me make this clear: I have no interest in the Dawn Archer. It was a terrible tragedy, and my heart goes out to anyone affected by the tragedy, but aside from that, my office has no involvement in the investigation. Now, if you don’t mind…
“I’m not seeking information about the Dawn Archer,” Rielyr said.
“Then why do you bother me?”
“I believe we have a mutual acquaintance, a Human named Steven Cline.”
“We’ve met.” The Relarran’s antenna twitched.
“My sources say you’ve done far more than meet. You’ve conducted business on several occasions. It seems you’re one of the people here on the planet he goes to when he needs information that’s difficult to obtain,” from official government sources, he silently added.
“I’m afraid whatever business he and I have had in the past is nobody’s concern but ours.”
“Let me get to the point. I expect Cline to contact you soon about obtaining the Dawn Archer’s last flight plan. I’d be willing to compensate you handsomely to simply not provide him with that information.”
The Relarran glared at him. Rielyr wondered if this official could be trusted, even after credits had been exchanged. He was corrupt, which cast doubt on any transaction they might work out, but it would cost far fewer credits to simply prevent this information from falling into Cline’s hands than it would be to thwart him after they had gotten underway.
“I appreciate any administrative donation you wish to make, Mister…?”
“There are, of course, certain perks that correspond to the various levels you might wish to donate.”
“Bear in mind, as sensitive as this information is, I do represent other parties on Etajur,” Rielyr said. “They’ll be keeping a close eye on the Cline, to ensure that he doesn’t obtain the information he seeks.”
“I assure you, the credits of you and your investors will be well placed. My office doors will be closed to Cline on this matter.”
“I expect this to be a mutually beneficial arrangement then,” Rielyr said with a smile.
“I intend to return to slumber now. My assistant will help you make the appropriate contribution,” the Relarran concluded.
“I look forward to it,” Rielyr said.
The screen shifted briefly to a black screen with Relarran lettering that Rielyr couldn’t read. In a moment, Krrlar’s assistant would facilitate the transaction. Rielyr allowed himself a self-satisfied smile as he contemplated the now very likely prospect of discovering the Belkure homeworld without interference from Cline.
* * *
Susan Brasher stared at the door. The room was at the top of the hotel in the luxury suites area, which meant Cline was spending an obscene number of credits for the sake of unnecessary pampering. He’s always wasted money like this, she reflected.
What is it about him that brings me here? What the hell’s wrong with me? She really didn’t know. It wasn’t enough that they’d dated when she was a student at the university and he’d been her instructor—a relationship strictly forbidden by faculty policy. It wasn’t enough they’d resumed their affair years after he’d been drummed out of academia for what others considered a substantial breach of ethics. It wasn’t enough she knowingly and intentionally departed his life a second time after she’d felt he’d strayed too far into an ethical gray zone. It wasn’t enough every time they were in port at the same time, one of them had to seek out the other.
No, none of that was enough, because despite her intentions to stay clear of Steven Cline, here she was again, outside his door. On the other side of the door was a time machine that would take them back to where they’d been so many years ago, when he was a professor, she was a student, and their roles didn’t matter.
They’d been in love. She often reflected it wasn’t just love. She’d been in love before him, and since, and always when the time was right to cut ties with other men and move on, she’d been able to do it. It wasn’t always an easy thing, but after a varying degree of time she always left, and the others who had occupied a place in her life stopped mattering to her.
Steven Cline had always been different. It had always bordered on obsession. She Remembered the first time she stayed after class, with no purpose other than to simply talk to him. She’d made some excuse about not understanding the reading about Seventh Century Sangor history, then shyly invited him on a date to discuss it at length over coffee. It was an invitation he’d accepted, perhaps not fully understanding her intentions. He’d been a new professor, after all—young, handsome, and the subject of much gossip and speculation outside of the classroom. She’d been the first girl she knew to successfully secure any amount of time alone with him.
She remembered their first meeting. Conversation quickly turned from academia to other topics. She delighted in the fact they shared a common interest in Lamagos theater. Their musical tastes aligned perfectly as well, which was to say they appreciated a diverse collection that could be classified as possessing a hard edge while maintaining a certain quirkiness most didn’t understand or enjoy.
By their third out-of-classroom rendezvous, it became clear they were no longer meeting under the premise that this was about class. It had been an actual date, complete with roasted fanshou meat, fruity Salinza wine, and decadent cherry topped chocolate cake. That night, they’d gone back to his apartment and made love for the first time. She spent many more nights there in the following months, at least until their relationship had been discovered. He was suspended from the university and she watched as the career of the man she loved was reduced to nothing.
Ultimately Cline had been forced to resign from his position as professor, and he’d been barred from any teaching position within the Imperium. Even after the fall of the Imperium, the penalty had stuck in most systems. It was a harsh punishment, but their love had been considered a breach of trust, and they’d felt he was unfit for a position where he would have authority over others.
Cline had gone on to take his expertise in archaeology and use it for treasure hunting–the most practical application imaginable for his area of study. After graduation, Brasher had joined Cline in his travels, resuming the relationship they’d cut short years before. It was then she realized that though Cline had been special to her, she had also been special to him. In her absence, he’d run through a string of women, from one-night stands to short-term flings. When they’d met up again, he immediately put them behind him so he could devote himself only to her. There had been times at port when other women he’d shared time with during their break had tried to reconnect, and he would casually brush them aside, making it clear his affections were only focused on her. On two occasions she recalled, she’d become suspicious of him, going so far as hacking into his private communications so she could be sure he wasn’t secretly seeing anyone else. Rather than finding anything incriminating to justify her behavior, the only messages she’d found was him talking about how happy he was and how he knew he was finally with the right woman.
And then she left him. It had been an agonizing decision and she knew probably had more to do with her own inflexibility than it did anything about his character. She hadn’t liked that he was forced to make deals with criminals, bribe government officials, and otherwise act like a scoundrel to do his job. The man she’d known at the university hadn’t been a scoundrel and a rogue, but the man he’d become definitely was.
A few years had passed since then. Every time they met up at a spaceport, which happened with uncanny regularity, she could see the longing in his eyes. It was something she couldn’t help but feel herself. Despite the fact that she’d hurt him, sent him spiraling into another long line of meaningless alcohol fueled encounters with other women, she could see the man he’d always been still existed, and still wanted her.
Of course she was captain of her own ship now, which made them competitors. The worst part of the entire situation, despite her lofty idealism, she herself didn’t follow the path of academia. While Cline had been hung by his peers after learning of their affair, they hadn’t forgotten her role in the ruin of one of their colleagues’ career. She’d gone on to achieve her master’s degree, and then rather than be accepted into a doctorate program, she’d been rejected by every university in the sector. Sure, she could have left this part of space, particularly after the fall of the Stellar Imperium, found another place where nobody knew her, and complete her studies, but there would be a price for doing so. Not only was it entirely possible her academic achievement wouldn’t follow her, but she would also have had to leave the region of space that was her home. If she left, so many light years away, there would be a very real possibility she might die without seeing anyone she cared about again. Though her academic career might advance, it wasn’t an acceptable tradeoff.
So now, she found herself in the same position as Cline, having to face the same elements of corruption for which she’d hung him, and been forced to make the same ethical compromises he did. As she stood there, part of her wanted to buzz his door so she could finally admit to him how wrong she’d been. A large part of her wanted to rush into his arms and stay there through the night, if not longer.
But she couldn’t.
They’d soon be competing again, chasing the same treasure, which would put them into direct competition. Lovers one day and enemies the next? Would one of them sacrifice the nanotech because of their relationship and allow it to fall into the hands of the other? He’d been willing to give up his career for her–what would she be willing to give up for him? Would it be the right thing to do?
Nevertheless, her hand hovered over the door buzzer. Could one night really be so wrong?
She was about to abandon reason and pride and push the button when she heard footsteps down the hallway. The low clicking of the untranslated Relarran language informed her strangers were about to make an appearance, and she didn’t want to get caught standing outside his door late at night.
This was the time to make a decision. To push the buzzer and allow herself to get close to a man she’d once loved… would always love, despite their circumstances… or to put some distance between them and allow her mind to wrestle with this some other time when she felt more rational?
She hesitated for a moment, then withdrew her hand.
* * *
Steven Cline’s eyes flew open at the sound of the door buzzer.
Memory returned with consciousness, and he immediately realized his neck was stiff from sleeping on the couch. In the next room was the large and comfortable bed he’d paid extra for. Of course, he’d paid the extra anticipating company, and judging by the streams of sunlight breaking through his window, she’d decided not to make an appearance.
The door buzzed again.
Cline jumped to his feet, quickly wet his hands in the sink and ran them through his hair, ensuring his appearance was suitable, and ran to the door. As he opened the door, he said, “Susan, I…”
It wasn’t Susan Brasher on the other side of the door.
“Court,” Cline said.
His engineer, Courtney Gooden stood before him. This was unusual. Gooden typically didn’t talk with him privately at all. “Is everything alright with the ship?” he asked.
She stood there for a moment, not speaking. She looked lost in thought, as though she had something to say, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to say it. After a moment, she shook her head. “No, the ship’s fine.”
“Tell me you came all the way here just to tell me everything’s alright,” Cline said with a smile. Despite the fact she’d been aboard his ship over a year, he wasn’t particularly close with her. She was an excellent engineer, not to mention he found her physically attractive, but it always felt like she intentionally maintained a professional distance between them. It was something they didn’t discuss, and it almost felt as though some personality quirk caused her to be even more serious and businesslike with him than with the rest of the crew. His few attempts to socialize had resulted in her politely and quickly withdrawing from the situation. Carter insisted she was interested in Cline romantically, a notion he considered ludicrous, given the way she evaded him.
“Captain, I tried getting you on the comm, but you weren’t answering.”
“I was asleep,” he said.
“I assumed as much,” she said.
“What can I do for you?” he asked. He had to admit the question was almost obnoxiously blunt, but he was still groggy and he didn’t feel like trying to guess why she was so awkwardly at his door so early in the morning.
“I don’t want you to think I’ve been prying into your personal life, but you should know Susan Brasher’s ship departed early this morning.”
Cline cocked his head and gave Gooden a quizzical look. His initial instinct was to call her out for exactly what she said she wasn’t doing–prying. That said, Susan wasn’t just his ex-lover, she was also a competitor. If Carter was right about Gooden, she might have simply been monitoring Susan’s activities and using their current job as an excuse. On the other hand, it made perfect sense she really was following up on the ship’s interests. In either case, Brasher leaving suddenly wasn’t a good sign. “Thanks for letting me know,” he said neutrally.
“If she has the Dawn Archer’s flight plan, she could be a few hours ahead of us in the hunt for the Belkure’s homeworld,” Gooden said.
“Yes, but where would she have gotten that?” Cline asked. “Etajur has been pretty careful in keeping everything they might have about the accident a secret.”
“I couldn’t say, but I’d imagine you aren’t the only one on this planet with backdoor connections to government offices.”
“And I think it’s time I start using those connections,” Cline said. “Do me a favor and get Jensen over here. I don’t seem to have the time to wait for a good lead. We need the Dawn Archer’s flight plan.”
“I’ll get right on it,” Gooden said.
Half an hour later, Jensen stood with her back against the wall in Cline’s hotel room while he sat frustrated on a call that was going nowhere.
“But I’ve had plenty of dealings with Krrlar in the past. He’s never refused a call from me before!” Cline said angrily as he pounded his palm on the glass table where the comm console sat.
The assistant, a Relarran who somehow managed to look unimposing and disarming despite himself, stared back at him. “Krrlar is very busy at the moment. I’m sure your call is very important and he’d likely be happy to get back to you in one to three days.”
“I don’t have one to three days!” Cline erupted. “Look, maybe you need to be reminded that I’ve paid his ‘administrative donation’ enough times in the past. The least he could do is tell me himself if he has no intention of helping me out here. If he wants to see even a single credit more ‘donated’ to him in the future, I’d suggest that he do so.”
The assistant blinked and swallowed. “I may have just heard him down the hall. I’ll see if he’s available.”
“You do that!” Cline said. The screen went dark for a moment.
“Someone already got to him,” Jensen said from across the room. “That’s the only reason they’d be stonewalling you like this.”
Cline nodded. “I don’t care if someone has. But he and I have shared drinks on more than one occasion, I’ve paid a small fortune in bribes, and the least he could do is tell me himself if he’s already gone for someone else’s offer.”
“Why doesn’t he just give whatever information he has to whoever pays him the most?” Gooden asked.
“Because he probably took a bribe to keep information out of my hands specifically,” Cline said.
“So?” Gooden asked.
“So, if he goes back on that, his reputation would be on the line. It’s not that hard to come up with leverage on a public official with as many skeletons in the closet as Krrlar.”
“So why push the issue?” Jensen asked.
“Because he owes me,” Cline said. “More than that, if he can’t help, maybe he can at least point me in the direction of another corrupt official who can.”
The comm console switched from the black waiting screen to the face of a larger, more imposing Relarran with whom Cline was already well acquainted. “Krrlar, so good to see you again.”
“Ah yes, Steven Cline. It’s been too long. I’ve missed our many conversations.”
“Enough with the pleasantries,” Cline said. Typically, if he weren’t in such a hurry, Cline and him would go on for minutes with pointless banter about various unimportant topics before getting to what information he actually wanted from the official. This time he suspected he wasn’t going to get anywhere, so there was little point wasting time. “I need some information and I’m willing to make a healthy contribution for it.”
Krrlar fixed Cline with a bored expression. “Let me guess, you want the final flight plan of the Dawn Archer.”
Cline nodded. “I’ve accepted a job to find the Belkure homeworld, along with any technology they left behind. There are no surviving records of their home planet’s whereabouts, so the only way to get started is to retrace the Dawn Archer’s steps.”
“You do realize that the Dawn Archer might have made several jumps after their initial one, don’t you? Just because you start going where they went doesn’t mean you’ll be able to follow a trail of breadcrumbs they left behind through the cosmos.”
“Right now, it’s the only lead I know of,” Cline said. “And this is something I’m actually kind of good at.”
Krrlar sighed. “Regrettably, I cannot provide you with that information…”
“Can’t, or won’t?” Cline demanded.
“You push the boundaries of our friendship, Steven Cline. Besides, it’s an irrelevant distinction, considering that the answer remains the same,” Krrlar said. To Cline, this was the same as admitting he’d taken a bribe to keep this information out of his hands. “Nobody outside of the Ministry of Star Travel is in possession of this information.”
Cline was about to fire off a retort when he caught that Krrlar had subtly and freely fed him a vital piece of information. Typically, when information was deemed crucial to the Etajur government, it would be held by one or more of the three Intelligence agencies. If the Ministry of Star Travel still had this information then the government hadn’t yet locked it down as he’d assumed they would have by now. They’d find it far easier to get into the Ministry of Star Travel than any of the high security intelligence facilities. “Nobody but the Ministry of Star Travel has this information?” Cline asked, making certain the official had spoken correctly.
“Yes. You would definitely have to go to their offices for that information. Of course, it would be difficult convincing their Executive Director to share that information, so I’d have to wish you the best of luck in your endeavor.”
“I appreciate your position in this, and I thank you for your time,” Cline said, suppressing a sudden burst of optimism.
“If I don’t see you before you leave port, we’ll have to catch up again sometime soon,” Krrlar said.
“Of course. Thank you for the information,” Cline said.
“It was the least I could do for such a good and trusted friend,” Krrlar said. “Good day. Oh, and one piece of advice. Don’t get yourself into any trouble that your patron can’t get you out of. I’ll be of no use if you find yourself in a cell for breaking the law.”
“Good day,” Cline said as the screen returned to the comm system menu.
Cline stood up and looked to his crewmates with a wry grin.
“Doesn’t sound like that was a complete waste of time,” Jensen said.
“You aren’t actually thinking of breaking in there, are you?” Gooden asked.
“We have to,” Cline said. “Unless we like being stuck at a dead end before we get started, we have no choice. And I’m going to need both of you.”
“I can’t wait,” Jensen said, drawing her energy pistol from its holster.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Gooden said.
Cline paused for a moment, then activated the comm again. A moment later, he connected to Carter.
“Irwin here,” said Carter as his face appeared on the monitor. Cline noticed dark circles under his friend’s eyes and wondered if the toll of his illness was weighing on him.
“Carter, I want you to get back to the ship. Keep a close eye on our location. We’re about to do something really stupid.”
- Pullman, Washington, also The Cobalt Kingdoms
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.