When I stumbled into the back room of the shop, my head still aching from the night before, Gabe was already buried up to the waist inside an old engine pod. He shot me his usual cheeky grin when he emerged.
“Looks like a few crossed wires,” he said. “And some blighter’s stolen the fuel cell, of course. Shouldn’t be too hard to replace, though.” He paused to scrutinize me. “You look like crap, man.”
I sat down heavily on the chair in front of my workbench and grabbed for the first item in my stack of checked in items – a laser pistol, rusted almost beyond recognition. “It was a rough night,” I replied. “I wish I had known that some Wharfmistresses carry implants that neutralize alcohol before we started the drinking contest.”
I worked my sonic drill into the hairline crevices of the pistol’s slide, and managed to slough most of the rust off of the blowback dissipator. Gabe picked up a comm unit with a shattered screen, but tossed it aside in disgust after a minute’s examination. “Someone tried to use this thing in an ammonium atmosphere,” he commented. “Whole thing’s corroded. Can’t even be recycled for mats.”
Before moving on to the next item in his pile, he shifted his attention back to me. “Charlie, you gotta get over this breakup, man. You’ve been throwing yourself at the wall for the last couple of weeks. Sooner or later, you’re going to step out an airlock by accident.”
I shook my head fiercely, looking down at the firing chip of the pistol so he wouldn’t see me blinking furiously. “It’s not that easy, Gabe. She just up and left, after two years, barely even leaving a note. ‘I need to see the rest of the galaxy’ is the oldest line in the book.” I wrenched the chip out with a yank, snapping the bioplastic in my pliers. Still avoiding my coworker’s gaze, I rummaged through my drawers for a replacement.
Gabe blew steam through the tubes of a klang-distiller that appeared to still be in working condition. “Look, man, you weren’t going to spend the rest of your life with this girl, were you?”
After a moment, I was forced to shake my head in agreement. “No, Carla wasn’t the one for me. But still, you know how rare it is to run into another attractive human these days? Especially one who isn’t either implanted to the gills, or fishing for someone who owns his own ship?” I clicked the new firing chip into place and began polishing the trigger nodal connections.
For a moment, my companion in the back of the pawn shop was silent. The only noise was the soft whine of my auto-buffer as it removed grime from the smooth nodes. “It’s always hard,” he said at length. “But that’s what life is. And we’re a fairly busy port – lots of beings pass through, including humans. You’ll meet another one. In the meantime, maybe if you stop blowing all your credits at the cantina as soon as they’re in your account, you might someday be able to afford that ship of yours.”
I suppressed a sigh as I ratcheted in a new fuel cell. Gabe was annoying with his frank critiques, but he was also correct. His grin certainly didn’t help matters. I spun in my chair, leveling the laser pistol at him. The split second of wide-eyed shock was gratifying. I squeezed the trigger twice.
The two shots flew true, leaving two smoking marks in the door over his shoulder. I grinned back at him. “You might be right,” I said, as he let out the breath he had been holding. “And I’m glad you’re watching out for me. But I’m gonna have to get better on my own, in my own way.”
I tossed the repaired pistol on the slowly growing pile of refurnished devices to be taken out to the pawn shop floor. Fortunately, my headache was fading already.
Not every idea that I have makes it into any sort of written form. Many ideas are jotted down as brief thoughts or spurts, sometimes only a few words strung together or a title. Maybe I’ll return for these later, build them into full compositions. Maybe not. Here’s a few currently sitting in my notes:
“The Line for Heaven” – Everybody tells you about the angels, halos, and clouds. No one warns you about the bureaucracy.
“Under the Rainbow” – We always dream of going over the rainbow. What about under? What twisted, sullen worlds await?
“Tomb World” – The world is dying. Slowly but surely. Potentially within our lifetimes. We cannot stop it. What are the last actions of a stranded civilization on a dying world?
How long can a train be? Can they stretch for miles? What about hundreds of miles? Could a train never have an end, separating different cities for so long that they become completely distinct entities, with only the faintest recollection of each other?
Time is a dimension we move through. What if that dimension had life of its own? Only time travelers would ever lay eyes on them…
“Worldshatter” – I don’t know anything about this. It sure sounds cool though.
Inside old watches is an entire world of cogs, meshed together in intricate patterns. What if the whole world was like that, a constantly turning maze of metal?
“The first swordsman came forward, his blade flashing and spinning, showing off his fancy footwork. My face was blank, but I laughed inside my head. This man had clearly never tasted battle. I cut him down in two strokes. His partner’s face blanched, and he retreated a step before he regained control.”
Sometimes, you’re the hammer. Sometimes, you’re the nail. Sometimes, if your luck is especially bad, the nail hits back.
It all began when Johnny came into lab, hair mussed and glasses askew, claiming that he could quantify love. We should have left it at that, laughed it off. We definitely shouldn’t have built the tracking device.
“Not all the dinosaurs were lost in the asteroid’s cleansing flame. They had a hundred million years of evolution on their side. And some of them had learned to shift along the strings that made up quarks, leptons, gluons, and more, expanding across the stars.” We stared at the professor as he walked across the ship’s bridge, his arms raised in supplication.
The captain shrugged in his chair. “That’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose. Now, fetch me my laser rifle – I’m going planetside to bag me a T-rex.”
Hey man, can you spare a dollar or two? Look, I promise I won’t use it on test tubes. I’m done with science – I’m clean now, I swear.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Beard, stained lab coat, my sign’s written on graph paper, I still look like one of those science addicts. But not anymore. I’ve quit the habit.
It all started off so innocently – a little dabbling in the Scientific Method after church. Everyone was doing it, you know? Formulate a couple of hypotheses, maybe draw an inference or two, get a nice little buzz flowing. Just recreational, though. No one was using any equipment, not yet, although Tommy kept on claiming that he had a pipette hidden in his sock drawer.
Of course, just theorizing isn’t enough after a while. Gotta move on to experimenting. Sociology, at first – they call it one of the gateway sciences. Doesn’t need the accelerometers of physics or the petri dishes of biology. We still thought we weren’t addicted, back then. We kept telling ourselves that we could leave the field whenever we wanted.
Things just spiraled down from there. Sociology led to psychology, and pretty soon I had a whole biology lab going in my basement. One night I was building a compound microscope for 12 hours straight, babbling on about foci and apertures. Anyone can find plans, these days, if they know where to look on the sleazy parts of the internet.
I wasn’t alone in this, of course. Some of my fellow junkies would hit me up for collaborative projects every now and then. Eventually, I even had some grad students in my lab, slaving away on my projects for days on end, basically indentured servants slaving away for the promise of second or third author.
In contrast, I was living the high life back then. Data was rolling in, the lab was churning out plenty of results for me to throw around, and the authorities left me alone in exchange for a couple of forensic analyses a month.
Too soon, though, it all dried up. I couldn’t keep up the rate of breakthroughs and another biology lab started putting out better, newer theories, muscling in on my turf. My students left, the data streams stopped, and I had to resort to pimping out my equipment just to get mentioned in the journals. That was rock bottom.
But that’s all behind me now. I’ve sworn off science, man. I’m not even reading the news stories. Total cold turkey. But it’s hard, and at night sometimes I still get the rush, the urge to mix up some strains, to feel that rush of science again. But I know how dangerous knowledge is, now. I’m resisting. So come on, man, spare a buck.
Hey! Where are you going? Come back!
Terrence Gilliman, more commonly known as Terry, is one of Carter’s oldest friends.
Physical description: Terry is a very large man! Often described as a “bearded giant,” he is slightly over six feet in height, with a slight paunch, and proudly sports a full and bushy beard, dark brown and slightly wavy. His hair is thick on his head, cut but shaggy. He often sports a fedora, and occasionally secretly imagines himself as the digital version of Indiana Jones, although he’d never share that with anyone else.
Terry is best known for his incredible skill with computers. He is able to hack into just about any system on Earth, and shows a strong affinity for electronics in general, able to craft his own circuits and machines when necessary. He began life as an analyst for the government, but ended up growing disillusioned with the work he was doing and leaving for the private sector. He maintains ties with Carter, however, whom he met on a mission back when Carter was a field agent. They grew close over the years; Terry often refers to Carter by his first name, “Benny,” which Carter reluctantly tolerates. He greets him enthusiastically, often nearly crushing Carter in a bear hug.
One unfortunate result of Terry’s leaving the government was the manifestation of his paranoia. Although it is usually kept in check, he constantly fears that the government is keeping tabs on him, due to his previous work, and often insists on using code phrases or other methods to ensure that he isn’t being tracked. Carter, although accepting of many of Terry’s faults, is constantly frustrated by this concern and tends to brush off his worries.
Although cautious and withdrawn, Terry sees no problem in showing off slightly with his skills when it comes to his best friend. Much to his exasperation, Carter often finds himself being “spontaneously” upgraded at hotels and rental car agencies, due to hacks by Terry. Despite Carter’s protests that he is merely doing his job and has no need for the luxury, Terry insists that it’s the right thing to do as a friend, and Carter has learned to merely accept it and move on. This is merely another reflection of Terry’s slightly crackpot sense of humor, which also leads him to try to dispel tense situations with things like “I hope I don’t get shot for this!”.
Terry enjoys his sleep, and treats his home quarters like a hibernating bear. Carter has never visited Terry’s own house, but has heard stories of a massive computer the size of a room, and imagines that Terry lives in a dark abode like a cave, surrounded by blinking electronic lights and fridges of beef jerky and energy drinks.
Given his propensity for electronics, computers, and hacking, it isn’t surprising that Terry has spent far too much time on the internet. While he stays away from memes, he has read many of the articles on Wikipedia, and has a near-encyclopedic memory for physics ideas, machinery, electronics, municipal systems, and most facets of engineering. He shares this knowledge readily, but occasionally forgets that others don’t have the same background, and is forced to explain acronyms and dense technical concepts.
When it comes down to friendships, Terry is loyal to Carter over just about anyone else. While he has saved the lives of many agents, Carter is the one who, in the past, stepped in personally to help keep Terry safe. This has earned him a spot as one of the few trustworthy people in Terry’s life. Terry is almost always willing to take Carter’s word for something, even if it debunks one of his paranoid theories. He is fiercely protective of his friend, willing to flout government rules if necessary, and tends to distrust anyone else who gets too close to “Benny”.
Gabriel entered the room warily, his hand on the sword at his side and his eyes flitting about behind the glittering mask. The room of elaborately costumed men and women, each hiding behind their own mask, appeared to be nothing more than yet another societal ball. Yet Gabriel knew that some of the most dangerous and powerful creatures of the world lurked behind those smiling visages.
The band, in the corner, was happily strumming along on a wandering, soothing melody. The music was peaceful, but Gabriel’s nerves remained taut. As a sanctioned Palace diplomat, he had been granted an invitation, but he was still unsure of whether his decision to attend was wise. He made his way through the crowd, the clinking of his armor muffled by the formal tabard.
Passing near one of the burdened refreshment tables, Gabriel spotted a woman leaning against the back corner of the ballroom who looked to be wrapped in a cloak of iridescent purple-tinged rainbows. He recognized her immediately, despite the mask of purple feathers around her eyes. He immediately made his way towards her.
“My queen,” Gabriel spoke to her quietly, sinking to one knee in front of the lady. The slightly tilted eyes behind the mask showed no sign of surprise, but the lady quickly gave him the signal to rise. He did so smoothly, with only the slightest clinking of his armor. “My sword is yours,” he said formally.
Lady Tiamat nodded to him in return. “Lord Gabriel,” she said stately. “It is always pleasant to see one of my followers.”
“It is rare to see you in your human form,” Gabriel returned, his lips quirking up into a smile. “Usually, you are much more . . . dominating.”
The dragon queen accepted the compliment wordlessly, but her eyes slid past him to a man on the far side of the room. “Do you see that man? The one with the red eyes?” she asked in an undertone.
Gabriel turned slightly so he could watch the man from his peripheral vision. The gentleman in question was exceedingly tall, with a slightly gaunt face the color of ash. His mask, stretching around his eyes, was painted in red hues that grew brighter towards the center, giving his eyes the appearance of a red glow. His mouth, visible below the mask, looked sour.
“I do not, my lady,” Gabriel replied. “He looks quite intimidating.”
Lady Tiamat smiled slightly. “More than you know, child. I have come here to try to stop him, but I must warn you that things are about to get quite interesting.”
For a moment, Gabriel felt a rush of nervousness run through him. When a thousand-year-old dragon queen, one of the world’s most powerful enchantresses, mentions danger, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Shaking off the fear, he flexed his legs slightly and loosened his sword in its sheath at his side. Ready, he kept one eye on his queen and waited.
“His name is Valtha,” said Lady Tiamat softly. “He is a vampire, and an ancient one. His mask is simply bragging. There are several very high profile targets here, which I’m certain he intends to turn tonight-“
There was no warning. “Everyone attack!” screamed Valtha, in a curiously melodic tenor, and chaos ensued. Vampires, their skin a dusky grey, burst from behind doors, around corners, and inside costumes with hisses. Their fangs were fully extended, and dirty talons sprouted from their fingers.
With the ease of years of training, Gabriel’s sword slid from its sheath, slicing one of the vampires in half. He spun around, blocking strikes and returning them in kind. Next to him, Tiamat threw fireballs from her palms, blasting attackers to ash before they had a chance to scream. The heat was intense.
Gabriel danced through the forms with his sword. The room was filled with the screams of the nobles, and the blitz of vampires continued as if there was no end, but he was fighting alongside his queen, fulfilling his duty as a Palace diplomat. He felt completely alive.
“Double or nothing.”
“If you won’t, I will!”
“There’s no way you can hit me from that distance.”
“Hold my beer.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not too far past the expiration date.”
“Hey, what’s this button do?”
“It’s cool, I saw this on TV.”
“It’s probably just cramps.”
“Psch. Helmets are for losers.”
“I’m so drunk right now!”
“I’m so high right now!”
“Funny, it looks like it’s coming right at me.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”
“You and what army?”
“I can reach that…”
“Nice dog, nice dog.”
“I can pass this guy.”
“I got this – they always cut the red wire.”