- Second book from Christopher ‘Jack’ Nilssen and Dark Acre!
- Continuing the Solarus Cycle, back-story for Project Zero Zero.
- All that interstellar trader Storz Vashny wanted was to get away from it all, but he finds that the life he left behind is harder to escape than he thinks.
- Science Fiction – Space Opera
- Approximately 50K words
- Published August 16, 2011.
- Click here for the first book in the Solarus Cycle!
Chapter I, as read by Jack:
The Solarus Cycle – Ambia – Chapter I PREVIEW
People didn’t get to their 40th birthdays as drug runners without being hard core, and Storz Vashny was one of the hardest.
As the sun dipped below Ambia’s water-bound horizon, Timlin’s Bar and Grill came alive with energy. The bar was perched on the shore of one of the many tiny islands off of the Western Coast, with its foundation anchored on the sandy beach and the back half floating out over the waves. The place was a favorite among the local underworld, and that night it played host to a celebration.
The guest of honor was none other than the the scarred and rock-hard granite chunk of a man known as Storz. He sat on an amber driftwood throne, a crude thing that Timlin had built a few days before and kept hidden in the storeroom until it was needed. It was regal enough for Storz, and he held it with the bemused bearing that his court demanded.
He was neither a tall nor handsome man, but his girth and temperament more than made up for that. He bore a ruddy face that was punctuated by a broken lump of a nose and a pair of black eyes that glittered like onyx beads. He dressed himself after the local fashion, in loose-fitting softcloth shirts of the old style, with short pants that came up above his knobby knees and revealed calves worthy of a Sargosan.
His current lover, a waif who called herself Flutterby, adorned one of those knees. On the other sat his drink of choice, a dark rum that Timlin had secured from one of his special contacts in the grey markets. All around him the members of his gang danced, drank, and made merry.
It would be the last good night that he ever had in the Solarus System.
Solarus. It was a stellar system on the dangling tip of the twelfth outer arm of the Holbein Spiral galaxy, but few of its residents knew it by that name. They called their place in the stars the Logan Belt, so named for the first astronomer to see the reflected light of distant galaxies and postulate the position of their own sun in the greater cosmos.
In true galactic terms, or at least those as defined by the Universal High Lord Zel’s Grand Archivists, Solarus was little more than a backwater system, barely deserving of a footnote in the Royal Universal Archives. Nine planets spun in the yellow light of its star, seven of those inhabited by a total of some eight billion souls. A visitor could fly the surface of one of those habitable worlds for weeks without encountering any sentient life, and then come upon huge sprawls of civilization with all its gleaming towers and self-determined modernity.
Ambia was the third planet from the Solaran sun, and was of the perfect size and disposition to produce a lush ecosystem and breathable atmosphere. The majority of the planet was tropical, mild, and had soft sandy beach within walking distance, making it the premiere resort destination for the system’s rich and famous.
It was also the source of one of the most potent narcotics in the Holbein Spiral, a pinkish powder derived from a plant that shared the planet’s name. Towards the Core of the galaxy the quality of the drugs increased, but in this quadrant of the universe there were none better than ambia. The substance had been discovered by an early expeditionary force several thousand years before Solarus had developed interplanetary travel. The primitive natives of the planet had used it for medicinal purposes, crafting salves and poultices from the broad, razor-edged leaves of the plant. The scientifics of the expedition had taken samples back to Evanthus, refined it, and ended up producing a drug that rivalled the ambrosia of the Universal Ruler’s court.
The locals may have been ignorant to the value of ambia, but Storz was not a local.
“I’m telling you, those jungles are gold mines.” Storz sat with his bare feet up on Kingston DeKaan’s desk, puffing on the water pipe that dominated the center of the trademaster’s office. A servant entered, bearing a plate of fruit and biscuits on a gleaming platter, but Kingston waved him off. His agitation was beginning to show, and Storz was aware of it. It was part of his bargaining tactics, as angry adversaries were more likely to make rash decisions and move faster to get the source of their irritation gone.
“So you have said, young ser.” Kingston made no effort to hide the disdain in his voice, his eyes flicking from the dusty bottoms of Storz’s feet to the door. Storz wondered if the trademaster would call for the guard, but decided to push his luck a little further. He took a greedy suck of the pipe and blew a fat cloud of pink smoke across the desk. The trademaster bore the insult with impressive patience.
Storz swung his feet down and dropped the pipe-stem to the floor. “Look, Kingston. I’m not asking for much. What’s fifty to a house like yours? Does my record not speak for itself?” He flicked the back of an open viewscreen with a thick finger. He knew that the trademaster would have every last bit of information on him streaming into his office.
Every bit that was public, he thought with a grin.
Kingston straightened the monitor and screwed his crystal monocle tightly into place. He sniffed and sighed, and in that moment Storz knew that he’d won. Dealing with trademasters was simple. All a person had to do was make it clear that they’d get their hands dirty with the distasteful elements of a contract, the actual portions of work that men like Kingston could never understand, because they’d never spent a moment of their entire privileged lives doing any of it. Storz Vashny was a man known for getting dirty with work right up to his elbows, and that was a quality that trumped the methods by which he got things done.
“Your techniques leave a lot to be desired, Trader Vashny,” Kingston said, but the trader knew that it was all ceremony from that point forward. He bore the litany with grace and kept a hint of expectant hopefulness on his face, just the kind of look that men like Kingston thought meant that they’d somehow succeeded, when in fact it was Storz that had held the better cards all along.
“Though our house has been known to deal with privateers in the past, this trade you speak of, this dealing with the ambia, it is a competitive business best left to the most discreet and professional of our traders.”
Storz nodded, waiting for the man to finish listening to the sound of his self-important voice and get to the conclusion of the deal.
“Unfortunately for us, and our competitors as well, the luxury of time is not one that we have. I fear this current political situation with our neighbors in Tambr is on the verge of explosion into conflict.” Storz wanted to howl laughter into the trademaster’s face. War would be the best possible thing to happen to them, and if anything their current economic downturn had more to do with the lack of people shedding each other’s blood than anything else. But he held his tongue, savoring the mellow rush of the smoke that was still drifting through the air.
“Very well. A single contract will be drawn up, the specifications you can work out with my secretary based on your current capacity,” Kingston tapped his viewscreen, “which I gather is rather substantial.”
The smaller man jumped to his feet and thrust his palm out. “Thank you, trademaster. This is a decision you’ll not live to regret.” The grin on Storz’s face unsettled Kingston to no end, and his parting words would ring in his ears for weeks to come.
A month later Storz had ordered his freighter out of the orbital dock at Evanthus and plotted a course to Solarus, his twenty-thousand unit hold empty except for the usual rations, munitions, and a tall, lanky-haired, dangerous-looking stranger who’d claimed to be in need of a vacation.
“Storzy, baby. Let’s go for a swim.” Flutterby danced her fingers around Storz’s ear and leaned forward to add her tongue to the performance, shaking him from his reverie. For a moment he entertained the thought of a luxurious moonlit dip, then shook his head and took another sip of his drink.
“Not now, girl. Why don’t you go ask one of the other men? I know you’ve been eyeing young Callei ever since we took him on.” He pointed with his tumbler at the dark-skinned Silvahn that sat at one of the tables, playing what looked like a hand of Hobbe’s Bounty. The boy noticed his boss indicating him and smiled, his eyes lingering over-long on the woman atop Storz’s knee. It didn’t bother Storz, as he was not a possessive man when it came to flesh or affairs of the heart. Territory and power were another matter, and it was best not to challenge him on either count.
“Oh, you’re no fun at all,” she pouted, punching him across one of his wide shoulders before leaping down and prancing across the floor to the card game. It was in giving her the freedom she desired that he kept her the closest, he thought. Whether or not this was the truth was something he could only guess at, but the fact that he woke up most mornings with her next to him seemed to confirm his theory.
He drained his drink and stood, making his way over to the bar. Timlin was polishing a glass with a black piece of cloth and keeping his eye on his patrons. Tonight the barman could rest easy, as turning his place over to Storz’s gang meant that there would be no incidents, unlike most evenings where he’d have to bounce more than a few homicidal gangsters or pirates.
Timlin was Sargosan, thick-skinned and swarthy with red irises that glimmered in the low light of the bar. He noticed Storz approaching and flicked out his forked tongue, tasting the man’s air. There was always a hint of something completely foreign about the shorter man, something he never tasted on any of his other patrons. There was the Solaran sun, the Ambian sand and wind, the rum from Shianzhan, and something else. Something exotic and weird. He grunted a hello and spun the glass on a sharp fingernail before depositing it under the bar.
Storz clapped his empty tumbler onto the pitted wooden bar top and tapped the rim, indicating that a refill was in order. Timlin grunted again.
“We’re out, that was the last ‘til next month. Hope you enjoyed it,” the barkeep said, the guttural tone of his voice like rocks grinding together under the incoming surf.
“Give me some water then, maybe it’s time I sobered up for a bit,” Storz replied. They both laughed and Timlin handed him a plastic bottle.
“Happy birthday, old man.”
Looking down at the bottle in his hand, Storz’s face broke into a wide grin. A sealed carafe of Evanthian water, a rare item but also unsettling.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“You know how that works, Vashny. Traders never reveal their choicest suppliers.” The alien artifact was disquieting, and Storz stared hard at the barkeep. The purple tongue flicked idly, and Storz wondered how much the Sargosan knew.
“Now that’s not entirely the truth, my scaly-skinned friend. Traders never reveal their choicest suppliers unless the price is right.” The two men roared in laughter, turning heads across the bar.
Timlin was still laughing when his neck exploded into a violet burst of gore, whipping his head wildly to the side on a tangled mess of cartilage and raw flesh. Several bottles behind the bar shattered, their liquid contents igniting into bright multicolored flames that blinded Storz with their sudden light.
Someone screamed, bringing Storz fully present to what was happening. He saw tiny blue targeting dots dancing across the bar, and his stomach dropped. His mouth went dry and the flesh crept tight over his scalp with the realization of what was happening.
“They’ve found me,” he whispered, remembering himself and then wondering why he was still alive. As if in answer, heavy fists of explosive slugs slammed into the flimsy wood all around him, filling the air with scorching splinters and smoke. He dropped to his knees, coming down hard and sending a wracking wave of sobering pain through him. He inhaled the acrid air in a whooping lungful and then tried to cough it back out.
Pandemonium reigned in the bar as his gang tried to scatter and were cut down by murderous bursts of gunfire. Storz squinted through the heavy air and saw bright flashes lighting up the edge of the jungle that met the beach.
Again wondering why he wasn’t dead, he started crawling backwards on his hands and knees, shock deadening the pain of the shards of glass that pierced his palms and shins. He remembered Flutterby and scanned the carnage for her, but there was too much smoke, too much blood, too much screaming. He had to get out of there.
He rounded the corner of the rapidly disintegrating bar, putting the open-air building between himself and the waves of death flying out from the jungle. Ahead of him there was only the warm and boundless Ambian ocean. He rose up on his haunches and steeled himself for the sprint. He counted, waited for the current burst of gunfire to subside, then leaped forward, his powerful legs pumping like bloodied pistons. To his left a line of slugs stitched its way up the floorboards, as though leading him to the sea, like the shooter was letting him know that he could take him any time, so feel free to run. There was more sport in it.
A few more strides and he dove off of the floating patio and was embraced by the warm water. He kicked and stroked, pulling himself to safety, arm over arm. A few more rounds plowed into the water around him and then there was only the sound of his pounding heart and a ridiculous concern that the birthday meal he had eaten would give him a cramp.
“Happy birthday old man,” laughed Timlin. Then his neck exploded again, and again, and again. And Storz swam for his life.