Stardust (novel) is an unfinished draft and is provided in preview for enjoyment, discussion, and review. Until it is published in print, it will remain free. Unlike lore articles immediately published as canon, the novel may change between now and print publication.
Content guidance: Stardust contains adult themes — "R" or "M" — gore, violence, profanity, sexual innuendo, and hate speech (fictional nationalism and transphobia)

By the time we’re ready to land half an hour later, Sibyl’s northern winds have begun to throw a fit. Any pilot knows how fast conditions can change with altitude. Mother Moon always emerges from syzygy with some nasty low and mid-level winds, as the polar cyclone gets all twisted from the sudden heating of first light. At a couple thousand meters up, it’s starting to get turbulent. Landing our ship in close proximity to the clipper, I assess, might be a chore.

Ultra-fast clipper-type vessels like our suspect don’t have articulating VTOL engines, much less the spare fuel capacity necessary for a gentle vertical landing in the most inhospitable regions of the Kingdom. They’re made for getting from point A to point B in record time. This Heron is no exception. When we hailed her, she had few options but to continue on to her destination. That was always going to be an airfield or a very flat and lengthy geological feature.

So I was relieved to watch the vessel touch down safely on one of The Pearl’s many planate icicles through the infrared camera just as the snow began blowing hard. Damage to the suspect vessel is generally frowned upon in your report to the Royal Constabulary. And those reports and other data determine our pay through some labyrinth mathematical formula negotiated with the Interdictors Guild. It matters not if we caused the damage. As ever, bureaucrats place the utmost value on metal, wire, cargo, and jet fuel and less than is befitting on people. Even the most enlightened and humane monarchy is guilty of that.

I keep Windsong in a holding pattern not far above the clipper’s landing site, allowing time for Tea and Fletcher to do their assessment. Mistral winds kick up fluffs of loose snow upon the Heron’s shiny silver hull in large enough patches that they obscure the heat glow on infrared. The way she’s landed upon the glacier, she doesn’t have any room to make a break for it, because the field is narrow and she’s facing a wall of ice one hundred meters down range. She’s resigned to whatever fate we bestow upon her.

“Well, upon a visual inspection, I don’t see anything abnormal down there, Ash,” Tea says. “It could be rigged to blow, of course. But at least that would be a quick death for us.”

“Always the optimist, Tea,” I respond.

“Only one thing for it,” Fletcher acknowledges. “Let’s get this inspection over with so we can all go home and get some R&R. We’ve all spent way too much time adrift in the heavens.”

I’m not sure how much I agree with the motivation. Fletcher is happily married to a really swell guy; the rather talented entrepreneur and electrical engineer who appropriated and reviewed the installation of our re-entry shielding personally. That sparks a thin cord of jealousy in me: to have someone who loves and understands you welcome you home after a few rayspans away at work. But despite any of his ulterior motives, I do agree with the directive.

“I’m bringing her in.”

Windsong is a heavy and powerful vessel for only three operators, and she cuts right through the crosswind as I bank her over and prepare her for hover mode. The Starling-class was originally envisioned as a heavy cargo runner that would replace more traditional super-heavy launch rockets, until someone figured out that their modular interior design and powerful articulating engines made them excellent for all sorts of tasks. My ship really is a Jill of all trades, master of none. She isn’t nimble, but she’s stable in flight, and switching over from a horizontal flight profile to VTOL in a tempered gale is really no issue. I’m able to get within two hundred meters of the Heron without too much of a struggle against the climes.

As soon as the landing anchors dig into the ice, Tea and Fletcher are unbuckling their harnesses and stretching their limbs. We’ve been in freefall for one hundred and fifty hours, and most of that time we’ve been glued to our monitors, flight gear donned, biological functions moderated, ready to act within seconds. We only shared one meal and respite together this outing, and I’d later learn we lost out on a profitable bogey to another interdictor in the process. That downtime at the helm cost us and assured there would be no more pleasantries on stakeout. Luckily for me, Tea and Fletcher are as dedicated to the job as I am, and didn’t complain one bit. Or maybe they just like the generous pay I offer and hold their tongues. But they’re sure happy to be back on solid ground. I don’t know how much I concur.

I check a few things before I unbuckle myself. The gauges are looking good for a short hop over to resupply our reactor and propellant at Lodestone on our way back to Tencair. Nominal battery, which is a little surprising considering how much electrical energy we pumped through the hull on descent, but I guess the alternators kept up. Our four engines are spinning down to idle just fine and the landing suspension is steady. Once satisfied, I reach to the overhead and switch the engines off. The two engine housings to either side of the ship bellow in cries of ever-lower frequency and volume.

Our impounded vessel sits nearly horizontal to the canopy. The Heron is prone, compliant, ready to be inspected. Snow haze blows around her frame and renders it more of a contour than a shape, and it hits me that this weather might pose a problem for us, and an opportunity for any malicious actors onboard. I’d have called for reinforcements earlier, but getting a police dispatch over here from Lodestone of all places will take well over an hour at any rate. I decide it’s a good idea to call it now, anyway.

“Lodestone air dispatch, this is interdiction vessel Windsong, RIC ID five-fourteen requesting reinforcement and probable resupply for a suspect vessel at specified coordinates, best speed.” I attach our location to the communique and send it off. They’ll be here whenever they feel like it.

After switching the computers off, I swivel the pilot seat around into the receiving position. Gently as I can, I pull the catheter out of the bioport under my collarbone. It has been the very thing keeping me healthy, but also tethered to my voidcraft. I cringe and clench my teeth with the unnatural tug of metal and plastic against flesh and skin underneath. I make doubly sure not to strike it against my bones. There’s no pain potentially worse than foreign objects digging around in flesh, so even as I pull out the catheter I debate being careful versus ripping it out in a swift stroke. I exhale a sigh of relief as it’s removed, and I dispose of it in the biohazard box we all have by our sides.

I unbuckle my harness and attempt to stand. Fletcher is there to catch my arm as I inevitably stumble. He’s loaded up on expedition gear, his favored kinetic rifle slung over his back. I look up and catch Tea’s raised eyebrow through her visor, but I know she understands. No amount of training or wretched intravenous concoction can prepare you for ambulating after most of a gyre in zero-g.

“Easy there, skip,” he says patiently. “Take five if you need it. We aren’t in any rush.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Fletch. I’m fine.”

Not entirely true. My knees are quaking. I’m fighting it harder than I’m letting on.

“The captain of the Heron has indicated by flash that he’s ready and willing to receive us,” Tea relays. “First time I’ve ever seen such an archaic communication method used. They must have severe radio trouble. If that’s all it is, it should be straightforward.”

Tea just wants to put my mind at ease. We all know the dangers of the job, but cooperative suspects aren’t much better. The vast majority of the time a cooperative interdiction like this ends in a warning, or at worst a summons, a fine, and a few choice curse outs from the captain. Sometimes it’s a slur directed at me specifically. Those exchanges are just the best.

Restraining my gag reflex as I stand up straight, I look my two crewmates in the eyes. Tea even offers me a slight little smile hidden behind her mask. The crinkles in her visage around those hazel eyes give it away. She’s a bitch, but a good friend. I can’t help but smile back.

“Okay,” I cough out, “let’s get this done and go home.”

Stepping off of Windsong’s gangway, I hear the crunch of ice and snow beneath my boot, and I appreciate the vitality of sound once again. Not only does it create a pleasurable tingling sensation in the base of my skull, but the rustling of complex ice grains remind me how essential sound is in awareness, memory, and recollection. I justify this profession of mine over and over again in my head, and I always come back to the treks I would take through the coniferous forests of the equatorial zone. That is, the few protected parts not settled by people. I picture myself among such semi-natural beauty now, twigs crunching beneath my toes, even though the scenery in front of me is wildly different, and the temperature here is eighty degrees below freezing. Pleasantly warm for the poles.

I’m no wilderness ranger or bleeding-heart patriot, just a girl in love with her homeworld. A contradiction to be sure, given our petty politics, but aren’t we all fashioned out of strange and tangled contradictions?

Snowblasted air attenuates the amber light of our home sun Astrild in every direction, so we tread towards the clipper carefully. Our visibility is nearly adequate, but Fletcher was right to bring along the infrared scopes. It could be useful in our search. I take point this time, attempting to correct my posture as we walk. The flight suit can keep me warm and modestly comfortable, on its own, in any conceivable environment, for a few hours. But it’s not a true second skin. Nor is it an exoskeleton. Alternating the movement of my legs between ankle-deep compacted snow and ice as smooth as glass is a frustrating challenge. My knees are still quivering and I must get them under my command. I find the simple body language projected by standing tall helps a lot when encountering the suspect.

Though I’ve taken point, Tea is right next to me, trudging through the frigid mess. I sent Fletch around back to the clipper’s loading ramp. It’s not down yet; something the ship’s captain will be hearing my complaints about shortly. I have my hand hovering over my holster in case.

Herons are beautifully crafted silver-lined vessels that shimmer with specular dances under any light. They are sleek and small vessels but as we get closer that description gets more and more relative. Looking up at her long, slender neck, drawing my eyes from her cockpit to her grand delta wings at the rear, the majesty of her titanium alloy frame makes me feel insignificant. I don’t get that feeling standing next to Windsong, because, well, she’s mine. Plus, despite being a bit larger, she was a fraction of the cost. My cutter is no-frills and utilitarian. The owner of this clipper has some serious bank. There’s no better way to get around the world in two hours flat.

Tea and I step into the shadow of the vessel. Instead of a gangway, she has a fancy embarking platform. It has been lowered and illuminated for us. It’s a chokepoint. We could emerge from the elevator with several gun barrels pointed at us. But we’re just going to have to accept it. That’s the job. With giant icicles in the way and no fuel, these guys aren’t going anywhere.

Grabbing a handhold, I lift myself up onto the personnel cradle, giving my misbehaving knee one last stern warning to knock it off. Tea follows, and I reset my posture the best I can, resting my hands at my hips. She secures her submachine gun in patrol position and looks back the way we came, into the bittersweet starrise.

“Beautiful day to die, hey, Ash?” Tea muses morbidly. I always wondered what growing up with an unperturbed circadian rhythm was like.

“It is what it is,” I respond, punching the elevator’s recall button with my fist. At any rate, there’s not supposed to be any life out this way. That’s why we’re here.

A couple last items as we ascend the glitzy neon tube. Suit comms to external. Standoff sensor packs and multitools on standby. A brief report from Fletcher; he’s in position outside the loading ramp waiting for it to open. I enter into an interview stance and try my best to look relaxed, although I’m rough around the edges and still need to have my dominant hand hovering about my holster out of necessity. Tea kicks the toes of her boot impatiently against the platform floor while waiting for it to finish lifting us into the airlock. I motion for her to stop that, because she looks like a petulant child with a submachine gun. Unnecessary, maybe, but I don’t know when the lift will stop and these doors will open. She acquiesces and stands to attention.

The lift comes to a halt and there’s a slight hiss from the hydraulics. Something mechanical clicks into place, and my heart skips one beat as the sliding doors open in front of us. To our great relief and surprise, there is only a graying, short man smartly dressed in a tidy navy blue pilot’s regelia to greet us.

“Welcome aboard, interdictors. What seems to be the trouble? I believe it must have something to do with our change of flight plan. We could certainly use your help.”

I look at Tea bewildered and she gives me a similar stare. Even a wayward civilian flight doesn’t check out like this. We’d have heard profuse apologies from the pilots and their carrier alike over comms by the time we touched down. The most likely scenario I’d played out in my mind after we learned the vessel’s communications were malfunctioning was perhaps a commercial flight that couldn’t land at Farsleigh or Lodestone because of their inability to talk to traffic control. But here’s just one stout flight officer calmly welcoming us aboard. Not exactly a commercial crew complement. Who the hell owns this Heron? Why did she have no squawk code? Is this the only pilot of this vessel, and if so, why doesn’t he seem to have a co-pilot for backup? After a beat I gesture for Tea to step out and clear the room, and she does so, first slowly peeking around the corner of the airlock, then strutting out, her gun pointed forward but lowered.

The interior of the Heron is bright and custom. I’ve never seen the walls of any vessel accented with mahogany paneling. Lining the inside of a vessel with any kind of wood decor is just dead dry weight. And that tree doesn’t grow here on Sibyl. An import from our Novani frenemies. The inside of this windowless fuselage is a brightly lit blue-white, and portrays a sense of spaciousness where in reality there is very little. This couldn’t be a government vehicle, could it? I hesitate.

“Uh, yes...” my voice crackles more because I am baffled, and less because it’s transmitted through my helmet. But my eyes fall back on the man, who is patiently awaiting me with an unnerving little smile. “I am Interdictor Ashlee Rinn, and as my deputy Teresa Shaaban relayed to you before we touched down, your vessel is under warrant for inspection under royal mandate.”

I step out of the airlock. No signal from Tea. She’s sweeping the cabin in the back. At this moment I’m perplexed enough that I want to see this fellow and his luxurious ship with my own eyes, and he seems gentle enough that I should assure him I mean no harm.

“Would you mind allowing me a moment to take my helmet off?”

“Certainly, officer,” he replies, with a nod and an air of reassurance that I find only those advanced in age can project.

“Heh.” A common misconception. “We’re not exactly lawmen, sir. We are only here to assess your situation, relay any trouble to the higher authorities, and render first assistance.”

I give the short man one last look and reach for the clasps around my neck. A wispy sound, and a cool draft of air around my face as my head pops out. I shake some unruly ice blue bangs out of my eyes and place the helmet down on a heavily cushioned seat, possibly where the flight attendants would strap in. Standing awkwardly and regarding the man, and perhaps losing some of my authority in the process, I find him with arms folded, looking at me patiently.

“Recycled air gets stale on the job,” I comment. I’m not sure why I do.

“Understandable. It’s cold out there, too.”

I step forward. I’m quite a bit taller than the suspect—although he is looking less suspicious by the moment—and I hope that will help me reassert myself.

“What’s your name, sir?”

“Senior Pilot Jase Vendian, ma’am, at your service.”

Well, that’s flattering. Don’t let your guard down, Ashlee.

“I have requested a resupply vessel to bring you fuel and get your ship turned around for departure to wherever it is you need to go. I can’t imagine that I will be detaining anyone. But you were flying erratically up there without any identification, and the safe stewardship of orbital traffic is my charge. Just give me some information, and we can make this painless and get you on your way. Okay?”

He bows his head in an abbreviated nod.

Ever the mild-mannered gentleman: greeting Tea and I with a smile, patiently waiting for me to address him humanely, getting my pronouns right from my name alone without so much as asking if I’m a boy or a girl. Already more affable than any interdicted pilot or civvie captain I’ve ever interviewed. I cant my head up slightly.

“Who owns this ship? What were you doing operating without a squawk code? Royal aerospace regulations require the details of your flight to be broadcast at all times, from takeoff to landing.”

He exhales in that contrite sort of way someone who has explaining to do does. I can hear the frustration in his voice. He wants to be able to do his job. He doesn’t want to be here, nor did he expect to be here.

“I am a senior pilot with Vista Aviation. This is a state-chartered flight from Diya to Farsleigh. Her Majesty’s Government knows of our original flight plan: we’re HM 899. We encountered trouble with our radio and backup communications equipment, strangely including the transponder, some time into our flight. In my over thirty orbits of flying I’ve never experienced such a thorough fault. Farsleigh is quite the congested aerodrome, as you might know. So without the ability to contact traffic control, I decided the best course of action was to land where we could be of no harm, get the radio functional, then broadwave for assistance. But then, there you were. We used the signal lights to contact you.”

“Diya is in the southern hemisphere.”

“Correct. We have a few varied house diplomats on board. Your deputy will find them and their staff in the cabins amidships and high aft, where I asked them to remain.”

That means they weren’t cruising in the equatorial orbital plane where most traffic is, just crossing it. I press a finger to my earpiece.


“All clear back here, Ash. Just a few stuck-up government suits and terrified flight attendants,” she responds. “They really didn’t like the sight of my guns. I’m checking the cargo bay now.”

I sigh and return to the man.

“Where’s your co-pilot?”

“He went below aft to see what he might be able to do about the communications equipment, as he is more experienced in such machinery. It’s a very strange thing to lose all radio and satellite contact, and he’d have been back there sooner, but we needed to both be at the helm for our emergency descent, you see.”

“I see that, sir. And your cargo bay doors? All access points should be made accessible when you submit to a search.”

“Captain Rinn,” he replies with a bemused look, “I took care of that the very moment we landed.

I share in Vendian’s confusion for less than a second before—

“Contact, hard contact!” from a frantic Tea. Bursts of muffled gunfire in my ear.

One hand to my earpiece; the other unholsters my pistol. Fuck.

“Fletch! Tea is under fire. Are you onboard yet?”

“Negative, the bay door is refusing my requests to access. I’ll have a look around.”

Sternly, I quickly cast the directives out of my mouth, while pointedly staring down the bewildered little old man. I can’t be affable any longer.

“You— Vendian. I require your assistance. Get in the cockpit and attempt to unlock the cargo ramp again. Lower it completely. Tamper with the hydraulic controls if you have to. See what else the ship can tell you about your hardware.”

“Uh, I uh, yes officer—captain—” he stammers, before stumbling off to the voidcraft’s cockpit ahead.

I dash in the other direction, the way Tea went down, past rows of private cabins and tiny conference rooms. I get to the first bulkhead and order the door open, pistol at the ready. There are the suits that Tea mentioned, gossiping amongst themselves as suits do, and they all stare at me as I burst into their room. That’s the look I always get; startled or not. I glance once to the column of officials on either side as I begin running down the center corridor.

“Get to the forward cabin, for your safety!” I clamor.

I line up to the side of the next bulkhead door in a breaching position and look back at the addled and mystified faces, all of the well-groomed advocates and minor politicians staring me down, all of them interested in who this loud and disgruntled gendarme is.

I furrow my brow and shout.


The small mass of humanity bickers and huddles together, hurrying out of the cabin the way I came in.

I can’t hear any gunfire myself, but I hear a controlled shot or two ring on our comms, and I know a fight is still happening. Whatever Tea is up against, it’s not trivial.

I bust into the next room, this one empty, with rows of seats two on either side, like a conventional passenger craft. I scurry down the length, and it becomes apparent that the shots are reverberating through the floor below me. A Heron should have a bulkhead door or ingress somewhere for access to the cargo bay. I kneel down and find a gap in the floor paneling that’s obviously been accessed already, then give the heavy metal hatch a pull and a heave...

“Ash, watch—”

A witch’s brew of cordite and ozone stinks up my face before I even register the shot. Alternating tracers buzz my silhouette from below, and I double back ass-first to escape the gunfire coming through the opening. I’m not hit, I think, but it looks like I found Tea.

Hostile rounds are still popping through the floor access and ricocheting when I get back in contact.

“Tea, what’s your status?!”

“Pinned down by the comms mainframe. Two goons directly under you, and that’s the only way in I know short of the cargo ramp.”

“Shit.” I realize how close that was. My suit was frayed at my bicep, but upon inspection I’m not bleeding. There is a lull in the gunfire, and everything is silent.

Quietly as I can whisper, I relay, “Fletcher is coming in now. But I don’t think he can get in through the bay doors.”

“It’s a beautiful day to die, Ash.”

Fuck you, Tea.

“What’s the layout down there?” I try to be as noiseless as possible. I’m very thankful that Tea must still have her helmet on. It’ll help us communicate in a clandestine manner.

“Below your stepladder, an elevated walkway rounding your side of the cargo hold. Only a few palettes wide in every direction. The bastards jumped me when I tried to access the computers. They’ve all been sabotaged.”

Well, that explains a lot.

“I’m behind a couple of stacked crates. Thank fuck they seem to be loaded with something sturdy. One clip left.”

A flashbang would be nice right now. But peacekeeping civvies don’t get to have grenades, lethal or otherwise. I’d like to punch the bureaucrat who proposed that regulation square in the jaw.

This seems like an impossible encounter. Two perps, supposedly now with their attention split, one gun each trained on myself and Tea. If either of us move into the open, we’ll become blood and dust in seconds.

“Fletcher, if you have any means of helping, now would be a damn good time, pal.”

“I might have something, skip. Give me a moment.”

A few heartbeats later there’s a rustling sound underneath me. I can’t make out what it is at first, but it sounds like a snake writhing against thin metal, like the shuffling of… no way.

“I have a shot, skip. When I take it, you both come out guns blazing.”

“Fletch, where the hell are you?” Tea asks.

No reply. But there’s a popping sound, and I take that as a cue. I hop through the hatch brazenly, not knowing what to expect but a hail of death screaming at my face. But that’s not what I get. Instead, I see one dead suspect with his brains splattered about the grated floor, and the other—

Hobbling down the stepladder at double-quick speed, I leap onto the gantry and open fire at the remaining thug. He’s unflinching under my inaccurate hail and raises his carbine to fire at me just as Tea pulls out from cover with a controlled burst, hitting him with several rounds to the spine. The brokeback man and the guy with a lethal buzz cut are no more.

I stand up from my knee and wobble against the railing.

“Status?” I call.

“Present,” from Fletch.

Tea takes a moment to scope out the corners below.

“Clear,” she says.

Holstering my pistol, I move across the walkway and take the next set of steps that lead down to the cargo bay floor. Walking briskly toward the mess we just made, I give them a look over. Two gaunt-looking men, both wearing polar cloaks and armed with high-capacity personal defense weapons. I’m glad that we’re not in the crime scene investigation business, because those folks will have a hard time identifying half a skull.

A few meters away, up against the anterior wall of the fuselage, is a slumped lifeless body dressed in navy blues. The co-pilot.

Groaning with lament and looking away from the gruesome scene, first to Tea—who’s stood across from the carnage with her submachine gun at her hip—and then around in any direction I can, I search for the source of our salvation.

“Fletch, where the hell are you?” I ask.

“Right here, boss.”

I can’t see him at first, but then I hear a clank of tin and spot a bulky shadow out of the corner of my eye. My engineer, also still fully clad in his environment suit and stocked with all his gear, struggles to wiggle out of a ventilation duct that his burly frame has no right to be in.

I can barely restrain my laughter.

“What in the Five Flames are you doing there?”

“And how?” adds Tea.

“Got in through the gear wells,” he says. “Had to laser-cut a panel. Sorry it took so long.”

Fletcher practically falls out of the opening, and hits the floor hard, making both us girls giggle. We’ve immediately forgotten the danger we were just now in, and that we just killed two men. They rot behind us as we both step forward to see if we can help our friend, but he’s standing and slinging his rifle over his shoulder by the time we meet him face-to-face.

He takes his helmet off and Tea reciprocates. I’m glad they hadn’t been stupid like me, dressing down before we knew what we were dealing with out here, in the middle of nowhere. Metal can ricochet. Flesh cannot.

I haven’t seen either of these faces in two rayspans. Not since we shared an interstitial meal onboard Windsong have I glimpsed Tea’s freckles and elfin countenance or Fletcher’s chiseled grin. Despite the horror of this moment, we are in good spirits. This is a good team; a chosen family, even.

“Good to see you, colleagues,” saying those words, I allow myself a short little smirk as reprieve. “I left the civvies up front. Fletch, do a sweep of the hold and then meet me up in the forward cabin with whatever you find. Tea, stay back here and rummage through the sabotaged computers. This bird is hiding too much.”

Fletcher and I are back up in the neck of the clipper, sitting the pilot down in a conference for a more forceful and direct conversation. Next to him sits the lead diplomat on the chartered flight, someone who can be a little more irenic where I now cannot be. For once, that might be helpful, if only to impress upon the pilot the severity of what we found.

I believe Vendian when he sputters about how he had no idea there were stowaways in the bowels of his vessel. At first he was strongly in denial, but then I showed him the images from out back. He has been quiet, bargaining with himself over the loss of his co-pilot since. I wonder if the two had a close working relationship; but it’s none of my business. The politician, in contrast, is rambling on defensively. I’ve tuned out as much as I can.

“ a diplomat reporting directly to Her Majesty’s House Assembly, I can reassure you, Interdictor Rinn, that a full and complete investigation will be executed once the Royal Constabulary arrives. It is unthinkable that a government charter of any echelon harbor stowaways, particularly violent criminals as you report. You may of course be called upon to give testimony in such an inquiry, whether or not it should occur at the Klatching.”

While the politician is speaking, I hand the dataslate containing the morbid scenes back to Fletcher.

I hate orators. Doubly so those who use the throne as a bulwark for their indiscretions. Ascension seems to make prideful and pretentious snobs of any bureaucrat, as if they were somehow individually and uniquely responsible for their house’s political success. Those who serve our queen in even the most minor political capacity—say, hailing from different houses but acting within the same political college—suffer from this delusion. Even a small taste of prestige can get to someone’s head.

This guy has such a voluminous nose that I imagine he’s able to inhale more, just so that he can exhale more bullshit in a single breath.

“Yes, of course, Envoy Giroux.”

The envoy sweeps his chin with his fingers. I scoff internally. This fucking asshole doesn’t even share a name with the queen.

“Of course, we won’t want to damage our relationship with the Novani Republic. But this escalation of… tactics in the illicit drug trade does pose a grave concern, considering the growing scope of the problem in both our countries. I imagine the buyer must be onboard or close at hand.”

“Yes, sir, that’s our thought.” Thank the stars Fletcher picked up that confab. I’ve had enough talking to this egotistical nutbucket. “Compound K is well-known to be a popular recreational drug among the Republican and Sibylean elite alike, and while we interdictors do not have jurisdiction over law enforcement investigations, our initial assessment is that the sabotage of your communications and cargo bay hydraulics was calculated to force you to land in a remote location so the packages could be smuggled off under cover of solitude. It is not unreasonable to surmise that the trafficker’s client is among your passenger manifest.”

I drum my fingers on the conference table and watch the pilot’s pathetic little eyes stare sullenly at the plastic package of sparking periwinkle powder we found in the hold, one of many. I’ve tried hard to imagine he’s innocent in all this, and he probably is. He looks the part of innocence; of an unlucky chauffeur in the wrong place at the wrong time. And he seems genuinely distressed about his co-pilot, who showed signs of a struggle. If that’s true, that’s a little heartbreaking, even for my icy veins.

Out of the corner of my eye I think I see the envoy glance or gesture at the bag. I return to listening to the conversation.

“These two had automatic weapons, sir. We took heavy fire. No civilian short of a registered interdictor or law officer is licensed to carry full autos; not within the borders of any of The Bary’s five major powers. The gravity of this circumstance, a heavily armed stowaway on a government-chartered flight—”

“Yes, I am aware, Interdictor Fletcher.” He is stopped mid-sentence by the diplomat. “Why do you suppose these men did not disembark immediately?”

“Clearly they were not expecting to be intercepted while stowing away on a government vessel, sir…” Fletcher trails off.

“They fucked up,” I finish. Enough dancing around the only obvious conclusion: “...and severed the government-coded transponder that was their only ruse when they cut the radio. They panicked, and now an innocent life is lost.”

There’s a pause. I shoot an apologetic look at Vendian, but I’m certain that he doesn’t see it. His head is in his hands.

“You have a law enforcement dispatch arriving from Lodestone shortly, am I correct?” Giroux asks.

Dejected in purpose and in feeling, I say, “Yes, sir.”

“Then this matter is practically settled for you. I will see to it that the officers are fully briefed on your findings. Moreover, I concur with them, and we will get to the bottom of this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Envoy Giroux,” Fletcher is always more diplomatic.

I hear footsteps and get a glimpse of Tea’s shadow strutting toward our second-rate inquisition. It’s impossible to miss in the blinding light that envelops this garish little conference room.

“Lodestone dispatch is here,” Tea reports. “They’re requesting transfer of authority.”

I push myself up from the table.

“Yeah, we’re done here.” I glare back at the two men sitting across from me, making sure that my personal distaste is known.

Turning back to Tea at the door frame, I say: “I’ll file the preliminary with the R.C., then we can get the hell out of this arctic backwater and collect our dues. Looks like we’ll be getting bonus hazard pay for this one, after all. Isn’t that nice?”

That tone is carefully chosen for everyone in earshot. Something that will let them all know how far I feel this society has fallen. Matter-of-fact sarcasm seems right in the moment. I don’t look back as I round the corner, put on my helmet, and enter the airlock. I fucking hate politicians.

Proceed to Chapter 4 >