Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My Heart Is Full


You guys. YOU GUYS are AWESOME.

If you're just joining us, I'm taking commissions to raise money for my parents' medical bills. All the details are HERE.

I'm taking a moment before diving into working on Velocity Stories tonight to say thank you for the outpouring of support these last three days. You've given me commissions to keep me busy when it would be so easy to give in to grief and despair; you've shown me there is a shared community between comics and prose; you've humbled me with so many kind words and your sharing of my last post.

As I write this over 1400 people have visited to read about my parents and how I'm hoping to help them. People I've never met and who had never heard of me have written to commission stories from me. I'm going to be busy for quite a while as a result.

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all.

Without going all mushy on you, these folks have my eternal gratitude:

R.L. Naquin, Rob Schamberger and John Holloway jumped right in and boosted the signal. They're all good friends and have said nice things about what I'm doing. So has Dayton Ward, a friend and one of my table-mates at local comic cons, who also wrote nice things. All of them are responsible for commissions coming my way, and interesting ones at that.

I would be remiss to not mention the social media staff of Planet Comicon and Kirk Chritton in particular. They boosted the signal an awful lot today by spreading the word across every platform they're on. This is huge and I'm much obliged to them for doing it. I will be there next April, for sure.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has bought a story or reached out both privately and through social media. This is not about me; it's about making sure that the people who raised me to have an interest and be active in the arts are reaching some level of comfort they don't currently have. I will keep taking commissions as long as I can, as long as you all will wait for me to get them out to you.

If you would like to help them by commissioning a story, there's a convenient button below. I will email you back to tell you how long it will take but it could be up to two weeks.

Anything helps, especially letting others know. There are so many wonderful humans in the world and you're one of them.

Tell me your prompt:

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Writing in Agony

My mom is dying of cancer.

I've tried to write this post dozens of times over the last two months. It's time to write it down and get it out. It's a long story and I hope you'll stick with me to the end.

In May of 2014 I was summoned to my parents' house and informed that Mom had Stage 4 colon cancer that had already spread across her liver and her lungs. She was preparing to begin chemotherapy which would maybe beat the cancer into remission. Surgery was impossible. Mom was positive though, and certain she'd have a good amount of time left.

That December, Dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It was operable and in the spring of 2015 he underwent radiation treatments and surgery and was down for months. Mom cared for him day in and day out. All while getting chemo every other week. Her cancer markers dropped and dropped and she seemed to be doing okay.

Cancer doesn't care about that. Dad had been working - he hangs wallpaper and paints when people need a room or several redone - up until just before he started radiation. The last months before his diagnosis, Dad also found out he had arthritis in his hip, which explained the stabbing pains in his hip and back. He needed surgery for that, too. When he was healthy, he got his hip done and Mom took care of him then, too.

Mom has only ever raised me and my brother, kept house for her and Dad and worked for herself. Dad has been self-employed since the late 80s. They don't have insurance beyond Medicare because until Obamacare, self-insuring was more than cost-prohibitive.

So the bills were mounting. Flash forward to spring 2016. Mom's cancer markers started increasing again. The doctor decided to change her chemo cocktail to something stronger, to see if it would help shrink the tumors. Of course it made her sicker. Not cancer-wise but she got weaker and weaker on the new drugs. And they weren't helping.

Meanwhile her liver was starting to shut down, she started retaining fluid. The doc told my parents Mom needed a break from the drugs. He wanted to see if she could get some strength back. The fluid retention made her tired, kept her from getting up and around. The doc could only drain her once a week. Six liters at a time, sometimes more. Her discomfort increased.

In late July, the doc said that there couldn't be a return to chemotherapy. Mom was given weeks to live.

All they have is their social security. It's enough to pay the mortgage and keep the house running. They've put aside their pride and taken charity whenever it's been an option, but the bills are mountainous now. And Mom is nearing the end. As I write this she has great days where she's really strong and really engaged. She's the Mom I know and love dearly. She's the Mom who encouraged me to explore art and music and storytelling.

So here's what I'm doing to help them.

I write stories on demand at comic book conventions. I call them Velocity Stories. How it works is I get a prompt from the client - a phrase or just a couple of words - and then I run with that for 125 up to 350 words. I hand write the story on a 5.5"x 8.5" card emblazoned with the rocket logo. Or if it's a longer tale, it goes on a 9"x12" piece of Strathmore. There are two examples here on this post. On occasion I've added a drawing utilizing my poorer illustrative skills.

What Mom and Dad need is money to keep afloat. I'm looking for commissions to do in order to get them some much needed cash. The small cards (usually 100 - 150 words depending on the size of the sketch) are $15 including shipping and the large pieces are $30 including shipping. All proceeds go to help my parents. Send me an email (jasonlarnett&gmail.com [replace the & with @]) with 'Commission' in the subject line and your prompt in the body. I'll reply with a timeline and payment details. I like to work fast on these so unless I'm totally overwhelmed you should get it in two weeks or less depending on the mail. By the way, the two pieces shown here are for sale.

The other way you can help is to spread the word via social media with a link back here.

I understand we're not the only family going through this. Cancer affects more and more people all the time. Most of us know someone who's dealing with cancer. I hope that someday, with the right people in the right places, cancer can become a thing of the past. I hope that these pleas for assistance become unnecessary. Until that happens, any and all help is deeply and truly appreciated.

Tell me your prompt:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

KCCC 2016 post con debrief

Photo by Nick Forristal
What a weekend!

First, THANK YOU to Matt Driscoll and Justin Cline for putting on a great show centered on Kansas City and the creators that abound here. You probably know how much it means to us all that you care enough to put on a convention like this. There just aren't enough words to express the depth of feeling.

Had a great time at Kansas City Comic Con this past weekend. August 12-14, 2016. (I'm woefully behind on so many things!) I got to share a row with good friends Holly Messinger, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, James Young, Anita Young and a new friend in Jonathan Maberry. Across from us were buddies Nicholas Forristal, Thaddeus Nowak and A.R. Crebs. So many other friends were all around us that it felt like home for three days.

I scored a bunch of great reads, including Jim Starlin's Mystery in Space featuring Captain Comet (an old fave of mine) and the 1976 Howard the Duck Treasury Edition. I also acquired a collection of Marvel's Doc Savage comics from the 70s, but it was published by DC, who had the rights later on in the early 90s. I love it for the Ross Andru art.

Though I was only scheduled for two panels, I ended up doing three. My first panel on Friday got moved to Saturday due to some snafus in the airlines properly delivering Jonathan Maberry to Kansas City. Everything got rescheduled for the same time the next day and eventually he made it safe. On Saturday morning I moderated the writer's panel with guests Forristal, Nowak, Brian W. Peterson and new to the show writer J.B. Garner. It was lively and funny and the tables stayed on the stage this year.

Photo by Mindy Kinnaman. 
After the panel I was ready to leave when I was press ganged by the writers coming in after. They insisted I stay to moderate their panel. So the next writer's panel featured Messinger, Crebs, Bethany Hagen and Jae B. Wells. There were more attendees and the novelists talked about what it takes to be an author. It was livelier and entertaining and full of laughs. Seriously. Hagen is really funny on a panel.

Then it was back to the table to try and sell some books or hawk a couple of Velocity Stories for commission. Though I talked to a lot of people, not much moved off my table except for bookmarks either Friday or Saturday. I have to attribute it to the lack of new books written by me and the trends I see in my day job. Presidential election years are notoriously slow, with some parts of the population just holding on to money out of fear of whatever may come. New books will appear on my tables after the new year, at least three and maybe more, and the election will be resolved.

I pass no judgement on anyone but from an artist's point of view, it's frustrating. Luckily friends Kristofor Harris and Scott Drummond and C.W. Cooke were around to chat with and commiserate.

The gang at Arthur Bryant's, the BEST KC BBQ
But the high point of my weekend, and maybe my career at conventions, was the interview panel I had with Jonathan Maberry. We had messaged back and forth a little on Friday when it was clear he would not be in the building for the 4 PM panel but met early on Saturday. In preparation for the interview I read/listened to the first Joe Ledger book, Patient Zero, and the first book of his Rot & Ruin series. I'm not a zombie guy (Maberry is) but he told compelling stories with these horrors that made me a fan. After our panel together, and chatting off and on during the weekend, I'm a bigger fan of his. He's just one of the coolest cats you'll ever meet. Maybe I'll get to do more panels with him as I expand my catalog and con base. Buy me a drink and I'll share the stories with you.

There was a lot of BBQ involved, there was a great dinner on Friday with one of my oldest and dearest friends that's a KC convention tradition, and another dinner on Saturday with friends old and new, including Shannon Denton, Brent Peeples, Ande Parks, Andy Kuhn, Frank Barbiere and Bo Hampton.  I could not have asked for a better time. Justin and the team took exceptional care of me and the cohort in our row of Artists' Alley and I look forward to returning next year.

Hope you'll come out, too.

My next appearance will be at Freestate Comicon on October 1. Would love to see you there.

Friday, August 12, 2016

This Weekend at Kansas City Comicon

To everyone who's come by in the last month to read The Cold Distance:


I am humbled by the numbers of you that have popped in and appear to have read all the way through. I hope that you'll be at Kansas City Comic Con this weekend and we can chat about it.

Reasons you should go besides to see

  • ALL the creators including but not limited to comics, animation, and authors
  • The events around the show
  • Chances to discover the next big thing
  • Rubbing elbows and getting pictures with media guests
  • Hanging out with like-minded people

This is the second year for this show and I had a blast last year. In the 1200 row (where I'll be hawking books and writing flash fictions for YOU) alone is enough talent to blow you away: Jonathan Maberry, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, Holly Messinger, James Young, Thaddeus Nowak, Nicholas Forristal, A.R. Crebs... I mean, you could spend MONTHS  being entertained by all their books and still only scratch the surface of their stories. 

The comics folk are brimming over, too. Scott Drummond, Josh Cotter, Travis Fox, Shannon Denton, Andy Kuhn, Ande Parks, C.W. Cooke, Christopher Priest, James O'Barr, Clay Moore, John Lucas, Kyle Strahm. Guys, these are the people who are making stuff you should read.

There are artists like Rob Schamberger and Hector Casanova and Ant Lucia that will be there. The guys from Worst Comics Podcast EVER will be there. Mike Sullivan, Arie Monroe, Ed Bickford, Joel Pfannestiel, Jared George, Kristofor Harris, Alex Maday, and Jim Mehsling will all be around. 

This is the creator-focused show you want to go to. Spend a little time with your favorite creators, explore the works of others and discover something you didn't know you needed.  There will be cosplayers, cool vendors and more special guests than you can shake a stick at.

I'll take as many pics as I can but don't hesitate to share yours with me via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

I'll check back in next week with an assessment of the show and fill you in on the plans for the next book of The Cold Distance.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Eight

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones if she wants to live.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Chapter One 
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

To Infinity and beyond!


“Wait, what? No. That wasn’t my second question!”
“Then you should pay more attention to your phrasing,” Alu said. His tone was dismissive but he didn’t send me away. 
I weighed my options and as if he were reading my mind, Alu continued. “I expect you to decide between Poosh and Leileu. You have been told the costs.”
There was an opening there and I dove it to exploit it. I wondered briefly if Madeleine would be proud that I learned something from her.
“Have you been honest with me?”
That took Alu aback. “Why would you think I have not?”
“You’re a thief. It benefits you to lie overtly and by omission. Perhaps you think you can bully me into making a hasty choice.”
“That’s enough,” Jugee said.
I didn’t hear him. “From the moment we met you have acted badly, ordering me here and there, interrogating me and offering nothing in return. Well, except for escape from the Clave and for that I thank you. You have demanded money, extorted is more the term, at a rate that is beyond unreasonable. This ship is efficient in design and function and it makes sense that with two AIs on board it is extremely efficient in its fuel usage.”
Nerves made me stumble over my words, caused me to be less effective than I had thought I would be in this kind of situation. I paused long enough to reset, pull in  a quick breath and let it out. Jugee took the opportunity to start in.
“Miss Holling, this is unacceptable in the -“
“Quiet, Jugee.” Alu gave me his full attention. 
It was obvious that Alu wasn’t going any further. He unclasped his hands from behind his back and folded his arms across his chest. Waiting for me to go on.
So I did. “You offered me transport before I had the chance to ask. You bullied me into it when you were showing off your deductive prowess. Which in hindsight shouldn’t have been as impressive as it first appeared. You’re a thief. You know things about the people you’re stealing from and you knew Madeleine, know her, well enough to be concerned that she’d stolen something from you when we got there. 
“You’ve done everything you can to keep me off-balance since we met. And - and, well, I’m tuned in now so it’s not going to be so easy. You’re going to have to actually deal with me - ME.” I slammed my fist against my chest for emphasis. “I don’t appreciate the treatment and you can go to Jommua if you think I’m going to stand for it one minute more.”
Silence rushed in to fill the void. I could feel the thrum of the ship’s drive under my feet and hear the hum that went with it but that was all the sound in the room for a full minute.
Until Alu burst out laughing.
“Jugee you owe me ten thousand ferune!”
Bewildered, I watched the Symbi’s smile widen, his eyes crinkle. “I don’t - understand.”
Alu took a breath and said, “I told you she was like her adoptive mother.” He burst into another round of guffaws that sounded like barking. Reaching out for his couch, Alu pulled himself down and reclined so he could laugh more deeply.
“Funds are transferred,” Jugee said, petulance creeping into his voice around the edges. In fact, his voice wasn’t as near as it had been before. 
“It was a test, you see,” Alu said, “we had a wager that you would crack under the pressure. It helped that Medayma Skartarine accelerated her timetable.”
“She was in on this? She set me up?”
“No,” Jugee said, still pouting. “No. We were there to retrieve a certain article from her directly. Alu had it in his head that you might want to test yourself by coming with us, joining us but I insisted that you wouldn’t be interested or if you were, not capable enough.”
Anger. Fury. Rage. Fire from my belly surged through my body and I fought to keep it under control. I took an extra two seconds to be sure I said what I wanted to say. Then I took two more seconds.
“I wouldn’t have put it past her to have engineered — this.” I threw my hands out to take in the entire flight deck. 
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say, so I bit back on my feelings to wait for the consequences of my outburst. In my mind I was sure they were going to space me long before we got to Poosh. I couldn’t face Alu so I examined the carpet under my boots. I liked the color, a dark maroon that blended in well.
“Ship,” Alu said.
“Ready and waiting!” The ship’s AI voice was mature like Madeleine’s but had a different tenor, more sonorous. Despite the eager tinge to her reply, I suspected something lay underneath it. Unsure of what it was, I filed that fact away as something to look into later. If there was a later.
“Ship, plot our course for Poosh.”
“Got it.”
“What’s the best time?”
“If I course correct now and fire the FTL no more than one hour after that, we’ll make it in three ships’ days.”
“Which are how long?” Alu was asking for my benefit, not his. I still couldn’t look up.
“Thirty bells total across three ten-bell cycles. Each bell is half an hour standard.”
“Do you understand that?” Alu addressed me.
Slowly I brought my face up but kept my eyes to my left, where my valise lay in a flight couch. After I swallowed I looked Alu in the eye and said, “Yes.”
No matter how I tried I couldn’t read him, he looked hard again but I thought I saw a flicker of compassion.
“Ship, set course for Poosh, best time. Set our transponder code to innocuous with a four bell rotation. Use set ‘Dodger’ and randomize it.”
“Roger, ‘Dodger’.” Ship seemed to enjoy the rhyme. 
“You need to rest,” Alu said. He sounded like an exasperated father. “But while you are resting I want you to consider this proposition: I am in need of an apprentice. You have skills, you are clever and a lethally quick study. You remind me of me in some ways. 
“This would not be easy. I will test you in ways you have never been tested and you will grow to hate me. But I believe that you might have a knack for what we do.”
“How long is the apprenticeship? Am I free to go whenever I want?”
“You are not a prisoner. You will stay because you want to. The length of your apprenticeship depends entirely on your performance. I will dismiss you if it turns out you are not suited to the job.”
Before I could ask the next questions, Alu went on. “We will drop you on the nearest settled world and you will have your ferune plus whatever you earn along the way. You need not fear for your well being.”
I didn’t know what to make of this. It sounded like I could go whenever I wanted but I would learn some trade skills. Illegal trade skills but…
“You’ll have my answer when I’ve rested,” I said. “Though I reserve the right to ask some questions.”
“Done.” Alu put out his scaly hand. 
I took it. 

To my surprise, I wasn’t repulsed at all by the feel of his hand in mind.


Jugee lit the way back to my room when I insisted on not taking the vator. “I want to learn the ship,” I told him. 
“You’ll remember better when you’re rested,” he said. I got the feeling that he was torqued at me. For losing ten thousand? I didn’t know.
I climbed down the ladder to the corner of the lounge where I’d come in from the lander. The vator was across the room. The door nearest me on my right opened.
“Your room,” Jugee said. The frame around another door lit. “That’s Alu’s room. Strictly off-limits. So are the other two.”
“I’d like to ask you a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.”
For the longest while Jugee didn’t answer. I waited, though, because I was genuinely curious. My eyes roved over the entire room now that I was relaxed in it, and I was surprised there wasn’t any art on the walls. Alu must not have been much of a decorator.
“Go ahead,” Jugee replied at last. 
“Thank you. Where are you in the ship?”
“You saw the frozen light lattice on our approach. That’s the backup mainframe. My quantum servers are housed underneath that lattice.”
“Oh.” I had a nominal understanding of the basics of quantum computing and had only ever scanned articles about frozen light systems. “So you’re a quantum AI.”
“Correct,” Jugee said. “I am a McCarthy MH1997 programmed by Talokian designers on the planet Urewgan in the Eathet system. I am programmed to behave as a thirty year-old human, in your case, using references to popular culture, science, politics and general interest topics within fifty parsecs and fifty standard years. That said, I can emulate a simulacrum of any of the two hundred forty seven sentient races, with permutations for regional and continental differences as needed.”
“Huh?” I was always elegant when I was dumbfounded. I can’t help it.
“It’s easy to interface with local satellite systems. Of course it helps that they don’t know I’m doing it.” He couldn’t help himself. Jugee was full of pride at being able to steal knowledge like that. His programmers were geniuses, really. I still marvel at what he did.
But that’s off-topic. He continued to tell me how great he was, how much he could do, how essential he was to Alu’s operation. Well, he called it ‘their’ operation. Finally he came to the point he’d been dancing around.
“My stochastic quantum optimizers give me storage for more information than would be possible to keep in any organic brain. But I’m not a computer, I am a sentient in my own right. I am a person.” If he’d had a body, he would have puffed out his chest, maybe he would have thumped his fist on it for emphasis. 
I stood outside my room, looking in at the bed. Its invitation whispered softly in my ear, promising soft covers and deep pillows to lay on. A place to really rest. It occurred to me then that I had no concept of the time. I’d napped for about two hours, and it took us three hours from the surface to arrive on the yacht and we escaped the embassy which took us another hour…
It was hopeless. No way would I put it all together. “Jugee? What time is it?”
“Five bells.”
My confusion must have shown, because Jugee quickly added: “It’s midafternoon.”
“Ah. Well, I shouldn’t sleep now,” I said but I didn’t mean it. The lack of adrenaline was more than noticeable and my energy levels were terribly  low. I was betting the walk would do me some good. “How about that tour?”
I was at a disadvantage in every conversation with Jugee. Without seeing him I couldn’t get a read on his emotions. The house AI back at Madeleine’s wasn’t nearly at his level so all my experience didn’t help me either. In the end I didn’t know if he hesitated or not because he could make calculations or reach deductions a thousand times faster than anyone else I’d ever known. 
“Fine,” he said and lit the hatch that I’d entered the ship by. “Gravity is off in the access tunnel but follow the lights and I’ll show you the servers.”
I went feet first into the access. With the hatch closed, Jugee guided me down ten rungs and had me follow the curve of the tunnel to my left. There was another hatch, one I hadn’t noticed the first time. I went through.
And came out on my hands and knees. 
“I turned the gravity on in here just because you’re going to prefer standing up but remember that you’re standing parallel to the access. You might watch your head, too. It’s short in here.”
When I got to my feet my hair touched the panels overhead. At my height, I’m not used to feeling the ceiling close at all. It was weird.
The space was filled by a loud hum punctuated by whirrs and clicks. Monitors and keyboards lined the tiny room. I imagined that if I was ever stuck in here I would probably feel claustrophobic quickly. 
“The main workstation here,” Jugee said flashing three red lights above a monitor, “is where all the ship’s AI functions can be monitored.”
“Right, because you two are separate.”
“I’m a person, Miss Holling.”
“Some would argue the ship AI is, too.”
“Yes.” Jugee stumbled over that, I thought.
“Just because you’re smarter doesn’t make you better.”
“You’ll notice that glass wall at the end of the room. That gives you  the view of the actual servers.” 
I walked to the huge window. That rainbow I saw on our approach to the yacht dominated the view, its light so bright that I couldn’t see the stars behind. Each beam crossed six others and within each was variation the likes of which I’d never seen before. “The lattice,” I said. “You said you were a quantum computer. That’s frozen light out there for an optical computer.”
”I’m sure that you could eventually understand it all and if you decide to go with us I may explain it. But for now this is all you need to know.”
My training as a diplomat allowed me to take the compliment and to know when it was appropriate to let a statement pass. “Well, it’s beautiful,” I said. “I bet Alu comes here all the time just to meditate.”
“I can’t say.”
“Does he own you? I mean the servers being part of the ship must mean that you came along with it.”
In my gut I know I surprised him. He hid it well, though.”
“I am a free person, Miss Holling.”
“Dee. Call me Dee.” Yes, I was warming up to him. In retrospect, I’d probably already made my decision.
“I am a free person, Dee.”
“And yet you respond to him as if he were your master. How do you reconcile that?”
The hatch popped open with a hiss. My feet floated off the floor and I began to tumble. “What the -?”
“Time to go back,” Jugee said. “I will show you the food lockers, the kitchen, the composer and all the things you’ll need to do for yourself while you’re on the ship.”
Flailing, I grabbed for a handhold as I twisted and tumbled with the sudden absence of gravity. “Hey!”
“Anything can happen any time,” Jugee said. “You will have to learn to prepare yourself.”


I learned where everything was in relation to my apartment. Jugee’s attitude bothered me but I let it roll off so I could think about what I needed to do. 
Since there was no plan — and that was something neither Jugee nor Alu needed to know — I decided to go with them. I took time to discern the level of surveillance in my rooms without hiding it. Jugee dropped two eyes and four ears to the floor.
“Alu ordered all the rooms be audited on a regular basis when guests were on board,” he said. 
“Yeah? And how many guests have you had on board?”
“You’re the first.”
“How long have you been with him?”
“Long enough to know that I’m not falling into that argument with you again. I am a free person and it’s in my own interests as well as his to keep tabs on you.”
“So if there are a handful of eyes and ears in here that you’re showing me, how many more are there?” I waited for an answer which came in the form of ten more devices slipping out of their hiding places to the floor. “Come on, Jugee. There’s more, isn’t there?”
Two more, one over the door and one at the ceiling dropped.
“Keep the main camera there, facing the door, and the two-way comm.” I shucked off my jacket and threw it on the edge of the bed. “No spying on me. I expect privacy the same way Alu does. No coming in unless you’re invited. You can call if you want to talk to me.”
If he’d been a flesh and blood person, I imagined that Jugee would have been exasperated with me.
But that didn’t last long.
“Alu is asking for you on the flight deck.”
“I’m busy,” I said.
“It’s an emergency. You’re needed.” 
The door to my apartment slid back. “Now,” Jugee said.
Annoyed, I grabbed my jacket and climbed the ladder up to the flight deck. I cursed with every step.
“You should have taken the vator,” Alu said as I emerged from the ladder well. 
“I’m not your slave like some other people,” I said. I closed my jacket and joined him in the center of the flight couches. “Now what’s the deal?” My intention was to sound as pissed off as I could to show that I didn’t appreciate being ordered around.
Floating above the edge of the well was a large screen that showed empty space. 
“Coming in fast, Alu. From the far side of the sector, heading for Ffeine.”
“Keep it out of our systems as long as you can,” Alu said without taking his squinted eyes off the screen. “Ship, cycle the call signs.”
“What is going on?” I stood close to Alu without thinking about it, kept my eyes on the screen. “Oh Jommua. It’s the favring Clave, isn’t it?”
“They’re pinging us hard, Alu. I’ve got them looking in the ghost environments. If they punch through, there’s another layer just in case. They’re running bioscans too. I’ve shown the false schematics but this is new for them.”
“We’re a pleasure craft on honeymoon from Arcl Six, heading for Okingery and just passing through. We laid over at Ffeine for two weeks. You are a well-known plasma dealer and Miss Holling is a beauty queen.”
Alu scowled down at me, snorted. “Maybe they will believe it.” When he returned his attention to the screen, he pointed. “There. Do you see?”
I peered forward and saw nothing but stars. Finally a pinpoint of light grew too fast in dead center of the screen. “Okay, there it is.” I felt a little better. Of course the ship and Jugee could register that kind of thing way farther than any Eye could see. 
“It’s not slowing,” the ship said. “Collision in forty seconds.”
“He will not smash us,” Alu said. “The Clave are never suicidal.”
My shin bumped against one of the flight couches. “I don’t know anything about them. Where they come from, how they work… None of that is available in any database -“
“Quiet. Later. After.”
“They’re hailing us, Alu.”
“Thirty-five seconds to impact. Their weapons systems are online and charging.”
“On the screen.” Alu immediately softened, allowing his body to slacken as he held his hands out in the universal gesture for I didn’t mean to piss you off.
In front of us the screen showed a green background behind the Clave’s badge: a hand with an eye in the palm. “By order of the Clave, declare your origin and destination. Failure to declare in ten seconds will result in your destruction.”
“We’re on our honeymoon!”
“Impact in twenty-five seconds,” the ship said.
“Declare, Jugee,” Alu said then faced the screen again. “I promise we are -“
“Origin and identity confirmed.” The screen went black then changed back to the original view of the star field. Their ship was flat and ovoid, no wings or fins, just a rock skating across the black water of space. It was plain, too, which made it even more intimidating, I guess. 
“They haven’t changed course, Alu.” Jugee sounded worried. “And they’re continuing scans, including the deep records in the underenvirons. Trying hard to crack the servers.”
“Ten seconds,” the ship’s AI said. “No change. They’re going to hit in eight, seven…”
“Change of course,” Jugee said. 
“Six, five.”
“They’re going to pass over us but will miss us by only half a mile!”
The ship lurched and I was thrown into the wall of the well, hitting it hard with my back and head. Alu had grabbed onto one of the couches to steady himself but he strained to stay  standing. My angle on the screen was distorted but I saw the exhaust of the Clave ship fuzz out the picture. When I realized I was holding too tightly to one of the braces for the rail, I relaxed a little. In a moment, the ship had settled back and I could get to my feet.
It hurt to stand up. I had taken a harder shot than I thought when I crashed into the wall. The couch nearest me seemed so far away I didn’t try to reach it. Instead I laid my arm across the rail and leaned into it.
“We’re clear,” Jugee said. “They’re in orbit now around Ffeine.”
“Okay,” I said. “You want my answer now?”
Alu held out a hand to slow me down. “In a moment. First, ship - lay in our course for Poosh and execute. Fastest route avoiding all known Clave sectors.”
“Jugee, check our inventory, reset the ‘Dodger’ cycle and -“
“Who died and made you boss?”
Alu stopped short. “Is there an issue?” He cast a sidelong glance at me, which I returned as stonily as I’d ever seen him give me.
“What will you be doing while I and the ship take care of everything?”
“I will be in my quarters.” He said it so coldly that even I shivered. His anger wasn’t hot, boiling or anything like I’d ever encountered. He was icy, harsh, biting. So of course he returned to me. “What is your answer?”
Just like that. No preamble, no subtlety or nicety, just the straightforward question.
So I gave it back. “I’m with you. I’m your apprentice.”



©2016 by Jason Arnett. All Rights Reserved. Please share by linking to this page.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Seven

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones if she wants to live.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Chapter One 
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

All ahead full!


Lights outlined a door to my right as it slid back. “This is your room. There are three others on this deck and all are off-limits to you. Understand?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“I’ll give you a tour later. The refresher is on the left.”
Exhausted, I went inside. The door closed immediately and I was alone. My room was as chic as the one at the Riange. I yawned while I walked around, touching the walls and the light fixtures. The clothes on the bed were functional: sleek red leather pants, a short jacket with a v-neck undershirt, and knee-high boots with low heels to match. The leather was soft, well broken in. They were a stark contrast to the golden coverlet underneath them. The bed itself was king sized with four pillows, firm to my touch which suited me fine.
Four drawers in the wall next to the door to the refresher had everything else I might need, in exactly my size. When I closed the drawers I felt sticky and ill. Jugee must have measured me somehow. Upon further thought, they had all my clothes out of the valise. A good composer could have produced these items while we talked in the lounge. Of course that’s what they’d done. 
Which reminded me that I should be indignant about that when I wasn’t so debilitated. 
I undressed and took a shower. Relishing the hot water washing over me, I took my time without thinking about it. As I toweled off, it hit me that the water supply was limited here and I should be careful. Then I thought that it likely I would have received a warning about using too much water. I dressed, finding the suit the most comfortable thing I’d ever worn. I searched the room for a mirror and one rolled down to the floor.
Yeah, I looked good.

Aside from the dark circles under my eyes, which made me look like a Procyon. I waved my hand and the mirror rolled back up to disappear into the wall. Fatigue washed over me. I turned the corner around the foot of the bed and crawled up on it, boots, jacket and all. The pillows smelled good, so I snugged down.


Startled, I sat up straight. Wide awake. Nothing was changed. I was still in the room I’d fallen asleep in. I was not in the crush of people trying to escape a crumbling building. Not in the cabinet of a conference room with the door held shut. 
But the screams echoed off the walls. It took me too long to slow my racing heart, to even out my breathing. 
“Miss Holling.”
“Yes.” The echoes had faded back into memory or wherever my mind had dredged them up from. My heart slowed.
“Alu is asking to debrief on the flight deck. Do you need some time to ready yourself?”
Why was he so formal now? It sent the message that they were concerned, which meant that I should be concerned too. But they knew everything and still took me in. 
“Can I have five minutes to compose myself?”
“Alu says three. I will light the way for you.”
It hit me that I’d been passing out a lot since I met these two. Stress and fatigue and the shifting gravity had something to do with it, but maybe they did too. Maybe they were bad actors looking to push me into something I didn’t want to do. After all, no one would miss me now. And I got the sense they could drop off the grid any time they wanted to avoid the darmes, hide in plain sight. Even from the Clave.
Again I asked myself, what had I gotten into?
The door opened and I stood, smoothing down my hair, pulling my jacket straight. I drew a deep breath and followed the lights. First to the vator which took me up. When the door opened I traced the light path onto the flight deck. 
I wasn’t prepared for what the flight deck was or what it looked like. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
Clean and sharp are the adjectives that still stick with me. The deck was carpeted and the walls were painted a comforting shade of green. Four workstations circled the room with embedded keyboards and large screens; plush benches hovered in front of each station; the desks were large with space for a dinner plate on one side and a tablet on the other. In the center of the round flight deck, two steps down, four flight couches faced into each other.  Above was a digital board, one of the large round ones I’d seen at sporting events. It displayed a series of designs that faded one into the other after about twenty seconds or so. 
Alu reclined in one of the couches, my valise was closed on another to his right. He indicated I should sit across from him. 
I stepped into the well and paused next to the couch with one hand on the headrest. Alu’s face was inscrutable which made me nervous. Swallowing, I sat down and rested my hands in my lap.
After a moment, he looked up at me and asked, “Did you sleep well?”
“I suppose so,” I said. “I don’t know how long I was out.”
“Two hours,” Jugee chimed in. 
“And there is much to discuss. For instance, do you have an idea where you would like to be dropped off?”
My shoulders moved up involuntarily. In fact I hadn’t given it much thought, too much had been going on. “Where are you going?”
“Someplace you will not want to go, I am sure,” Alu said. “But we could take a slight detour toward Poosh.” 
His face was an absolute mask of impassivity. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, anxious or anything. Those cold, deep set Symbi eyes gave me no clue as to what he wanted or whether I was a burden. Jugee stayed silent, which of course was no help at all. 
“I don’t know enough about Poosh,” I said. “My education didn’t include much about anything outside of the system.”
“A decided lack in your education. Our business takes us to several systems. Eventually we will get to Leileu, but that will not be for quite some time. Are you prepared to pay for a long voyage?” 
His face changed as he asked the question, his left brow rising as he asked it. He surely doubted that I would want to incur an expenditure like that given that my funds were severely limited. This negotiation was not going my way. I needed to find a way to regain my stature here.
“Without knowing the cost, I can’t agree to any such charge.”
“That is a diplomatic answer.” 
“What are you charging for me to travel with you?”
Jugee chimed in. “Your weight and nutritional requirements - plus the calculated fuel cost - comes to just under fifteen thousand ferune. More for use of the composer for things like clothes and toiletries.”
My eyes widened.
“And that’s just to Poosh. If you continue on with us to Leileu it comes to forty-seven thousand.”
“I can’t pay that much,” I said. I could, but it would have left me with less than half that to live on while I established myself.
Alu held out his right hand, palm up, and pointed at the valise. “I have questions. Your answers may go some way to paying for part of the costs.”
Without taking my eyes off Alu, I nodded. I should have asked how much that would take off the price of passage but I was too stunned by the numbers to think with any clarity. 
“Be assured I have no interest in fleecing you,” Alu said. “I know how much money you have. I know enough about you to have some more questions. I believe you may be open to a business proposition.”
My guard went up. “I’m no doxy.”
“She judges too quickly, Alu. I told you.”
“I do not propose anything of the sort.”
“Then —?”
Irritation showed on his features. All the scales in his brow and chin slid together in a frightening display. If I didn’t know better I would swear that he was ready to tear my arms off. Twice now I’d seen real emotion in his face. 
“You make too many assumptions. You have not learned your trade well. Perhaps we will drop you at Poosh simply to be rid of you.” He waved a hand and made to get up from his couch.
“Wait,” I said. I counted three and went on. “Ask your questions. I’ll give you the best answers I can.”
Alu didn’t stop. He got up and left the well, headed for the door to the vator.
“I will give you answers,” I said as forcefully as possible.
The door to the vator opened but Alu paused. When the door closed, he was still on deck.


I’m uncertain how long Alu studied the closed door but it stretched out to what seemed forever. Prudence dictated I not push the issue so I sat in my couch, staring at his back while he decided what to do. He had all my attention when he was ready for it.
“I will know if you lie to me,” he said at last. He was so quiet I took a second to be sure I’d heard him correctly.
“I believe you will. So — truth.”
Over his shoulder he asked, “You have a cipher chip for translation, yes?”
Alu turned slowly now, unforgiving once again. I nodded to emphasize my answer.
“How many languages?”
“The Seven plus thirteen others. All the languages and dialects in the Ffeinian system.”
“Total of sixty-one,” Jugee offered. “Her translation scores were first in her class.”
“Any machine languages?”
“A smattering of of Jiswis Architecture and less BASA.” I hated coding bur was forced to take a year. “My tutor got so frustrated he quit three times and I only barely passed the courses.”
“Visual and aural translation?” He was facing me now, his hands behind his back in the manner of a schoolmaster quizzing a troublesome student. Which was true enough.
“Yes. I wasn’t allowed the upgrade to understand the pheromone options of Gitsu, though. I wouldn’t trust my translations without that. The nuances of the language are too fine, mistakes could cause a lot of trouble.”
Alu raised his head to look down on me, seemingly satisfied. An odd feeling came over me, then, that I was pleased he was pleased. I shoved it down hard because I didn’t want his approval. I didn’t need it. He took two steps and leaned on the rail around the well. “Any other bodymods? Phone? DNA? Physical?”
“Just a phone.”
If he’d had a microscope I couldn’t have felt more on display as he considered the validity of my statement. There was no shading in anything I’d said, either. I had everything to gain by being honest with him because I really didn’t want to go to Poosh. That would be going backwards. Waaaay, backwards. Frontiers hold no romance for me, I’m an urban girl. Always have been.
In contrast I’ve always felt that cosmetic bodymods were for insecure people. I can achieve the same looks by modifying viewpointers, and in a much wider range.
“She’s telling the truth, Alu.”
A screen popped open next to Alu but it was masked so I couldn’t see anything but the barely lit outline. I assumed it was more information from Jugee, maybe the readings of his biometric scans.
Alu waved the screen out and stood straight. “Tell me about the contents of your case.”
Without looking at it, I launched into the list of the inventory which included all the wearable tech embedded in my blouses, pants, belts and shoes. I ran down the the entire list and didn’t leave anything out. He inquired about the specs regarding memory and processing speeds, interoperability and version upgrades. And I gave it all to him. Alu had it all anyway so I was being tested yet again. If they didn’t have everything - a categorical impossibility given what little I knew of them, especially Jugee - they could have easily figured it all out. I intended to pass their test.
When I was done, Alu continued his assessment of my demeanor. “Jugee?”
“Absolutely honest.”
“Good. As long as this continues I will be generous and take you to Leileu at the fifteen thousand ferune rate.”
Before I objected to the outrageousness of the rate, I held my tongue. Any respectable commercial line would charge only half that so I couldn’t be thankful. Except I was a fugitive at the moment and they were hiding me. So I looked Alu in the eye.
“Will you answer a couple of questions for me?”
He held up two fingers.
“What do you two do for a living? I mean, all this costs an impressive stack of djoffis. Probably several stacks.”
He chuckled. “We work for the University at Qarondepts, acquiring high value items for the museums. And other, anonymous, buyers looking to complete certain collections.”
The guffaw escaped before I registered it. “You’re thieves? You steal things?”
I clapped my hands over my mouth, horrified. I should never have insulted my host in so vulgar a fashion. I knew better, had been taught better. I backed up a step. I’d gone over a line I knew full well existed and now I was at greater risk.
“Quick to judge, I said.” Jugee’s reminder was cold with a tinge of glee at my gaffe.
Alu’s gaze fell on me, a storm I had no shelter from. His disdain was a physical thing that crushed the breath from my lungs. “There is truth in your assessment. Crude and cruel, but truth nonetheless.
“Yes, Miss Holling, we are thieves. And that is your second question.”


©2016 by Jason Arnett. All Rights Reserved. Please share by linking to this page.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Cold Distance : Chapter Six

Welcome to the first adventure of Jugee & the Duchess:

Dee makes the hard choices, the ones that change people's lives. The result of her latest choice means she must put a lot of space between herself and her adopted home with the law hot on her trail. Her escape is cut off and she strikes a bargain with a mysterious alien and his companion to get off planet. 
As she learns more about her traveling companions, Dee must decide whether to join them or evade agents of the enigmatic Clave on her own. More hard choices are in her future and she has to make the right ones if she wants to live.

This is Book One, Way Out. It will run for four weeks from July 18th through August 11th. I'll be at Kansas City Comicon August 12th through the 14th where we can talk about it face to face if you like. Chapters will drop on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 AM Central Time. Feel free to comment here or over at my Facebook Page.  If you like it, please tell your friends. You know us writers are an insecure, superstitious lot.

Chapter One 
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five



At the moment I was pushed back into the couch all I could think of was holding tight to my mother.
The building hailer shouted at us in the Seven Standard Languages. “ATTENTION. ATTENTION. AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED. ALL TENANTS MUST EVACUATE. ATTENTION. ATTENTION. AN EMERGENCY HAS BEEN REPORTED” blah blah blah.  I can hear that in my head without any effort. I’ll never forget it. Everyone crowded into the halls, trying to get to one of two stairwells. TWO stairwells in a building a mile long. There were dozens of vators but of course they were at the basement because of the emergency. We didn’t know one of the stairwells was closed. Of course we lived in the poorest part of the city, and in the poorest of the tower blocks. We lived on the 87th of one hundred forty-three floors and our apartment was small as was everyone else’s. 
Mama had me in her arms and I held tight to her. So tight she asked me to relax enough so she could breathe. Papa pulled us along in his wake, shoving people aside with a violence I’d never seen in him. I was nine.
It was — a complete disaster.

That - it was. Well, it was the day my parents died. Sorry to digress.

Thank you.
Where was I?
Right. Escape velocity. My second time leaving a planet to travel in space. With two people I didn’t know and who I wasn’t sure I could trust at all. 
“Are you all right?” Jugee sounded concerned.  “We’re three seconds from the end of the burn. You’ll be okay.”
“Th-thanks,” I said. 
When gravity let me go I slumped in my seat. I realized there hadn’t been a big rumble of the boosters pushing us out of the planet’s grip. I wondered again what Alu did to afford such extravagance. The werlibug was easily a million ferune and a transport like this one had to be at least as much if not half again more. And this was only the lander. What was the ship going to look like?
“Counter measures, Jugee?”
“Normal spread, closer range, Alu. With the other five ships leaving the planet at the same time, we won’t stand out.”
“Good work.”
I looked out my window. It wasn’t a port, it was a full window. In fact, I could see the blackness of space dotted with a few stars for about two hundred degrees around me. Ffeine glowed blue-green below and Alu tilted the ship to starboard. “Hail the ship,” he said.
“We’re good to go,” Jugee replied. “Miss Holling’s vitals are returning to normal, given the conditions.”
Jugee said, “None so far. Which approach are you taking?”
“Half an orbit then pull a backstop under cover. Misdirect toward Nicoss Station.”
“Dropping the drone now, shifting signals.”
I had no idea what they were talking about. If you’d made me guess then I would have been dead wrong. 
“The drone is matched with us, Alu.”
“Initiate signal swap.”
“New ident engaged. Launch records at Baeleweck are changed. Surveillance logs corrupted. They’re expecting the new signal at the L1 station in two hours.”
“Separation, then.” Alu moved a digital slider. I watched the control panel as best I could. As Alu moved his scaly finger down the screen I noticed that our ship gave birth to a new ship on the display.
I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve disguised ourselves,” Jugee said, “and dropped a decoy. Alu is slowing our speed so the decoy maintains our original heading. Meanwhile I’ve inserted new records of a launch from Baeleweck destined for Nicoss.”
“Focus, Jugee.”
“I can multitask much better than you,” Jugee said with a hint of irritation. “You focus on piloting the ship.”
Alu didn’t reply and the cabin was colder for it. 
“We’ll do this again and that’s how we’ll rendezvous with our cruiser.”
“What’s it called?”
“Too much talking,” Alu said from the pilot’s chair. “Do not give away all our secrets, Jugee. Or are you trusting her now?”
The werlibug flapped its wings and the conversation was over. I admit I sulked a little. Who were they that they didn’t trust me? I mean, all I did was betray the person who saved me from a terrible orphanage and a potentially awful life. What was not to trust?


In silence, Alu piloted the lander and Jugee laid down so many false trails I think he was the only one who could ever follow it.
“There,” Alu said, pointing straight ahead. “That is the ship.”
I said, “That’s not a ship. That’s a -“
“Pleasure craft.”
“Yacht.” Jugee whirred his wings for emphasis.
All I could do was whistle. I wanted to ask about, well about everything about the yacht. From where I sat it was capital-h Huge. And beautiful. Long and sleek with three engine bells on the back, three fins near the back and a sphere at the top. It was beautiful as starships go. It turned as we approached and I leaned forward as far as I could to get a closer look.
“Is that some kind of rainbow there?”
A lattice of colored beams nestled in the shaft of the ship. It ran all the way from the back of the sphere to the middle of the fins. As it rotated toward us I saw it took up half of the bulk of the ship. 
Neither Alu nor Jugee answered my question. I didn’t ask again. My curiosity was up. Just who were these two?

When the lander docked, its roof was on the belly of the yacht, and we had to climb up into the big ship. I tried to open the buckles on my restraints but they didn’t budge. Alu flowed past me and hauled himself up the rungs and out. Jugee flew up and hovered in front of me. The secure box from the embassy dangled from his legs.
“Your first test is to free yourself and join us in the common room. You have five minutes before we depressurize  the lander.” With that, he was gone up the hatch. Just to make sure I knew how much I had left, a clock opened in the air and counted down. I struggled against the restraints.
There had to be a trick to opening the buckles. I slapped at them, pulled at the latch, yanked on the belts. Of course I had no hope of using muscle to get loose. My next thought was to try to slip out but the harness was snug under my arms and came up over my belly and chest. I was stuck and there was no mistake about it. I’d spent almost two minutes on these attempts, desperation increasing with each foiled attempt.
Then it hit me. It’s a flight harness. It’s supposed to keep me tight against the couch, keep me from floating away in zero gee. I relaxed. The belts were loose now, ready to catch me if need be. I reached up to take the buckle and gently pulled at the latch.
It opened.
Damn, I thought to myself. I’m really stupid sometimes. 
There were two minutes and eighteen seconds left. 
I climbed the ladder. When I came through the hatch in the yacht, gravity pulled me to my left. My teachers back at the Academy always warned us about how there is no up or down in space. We’d gone on a field trip to a simulator but it was truly inadequate preparation for the real thing. 
Half in and half out of the lander I reached across to my right, looking for rungs that would allow me to climb forward. My heart raced faster when I saw the clock had followed me and now I had less than two minutes to reach the common room. I pulled myself out of the lander and pushed upwards. The hatch ahead was closed and the indicators said it wasn’t sealed. Behind me I heard the hatch to the lander swing shut. A rush of air was followed by heavy bolts throwing themselves home. Like it or not, I was committed to going forward. 
Look, going from gravity to heavy gravity to no gravity to gravity again is no fun. It’s hard on your body, takes a lot to get used to. Well, it took a lot for me to get used to, anyway. I had zero training at that point and all the shifts in weight had exhausted me. I wanted to rest. I had a minute ten to get to the common room. 
Then the thought hit me: what would they do if I didn’t make it? Somewhere inside me was a reserve of strength that got me up that ladder. I reached over my head and turned the wheel to the left.
The hatch opened so I climbed through and fell on the other side. Gravity had switched again. Of course, it’s a pleasure craft, I thought to myself. They want to maximize the space by using artificial gravity. This was one tricked out ride.
But I was breathing heavy and my heart threatened to burst out of my chest. Forty-five seconds left. I hauled myself up, braced against the wall and the clock - that damned clock - stayed in sight with every move I made. Forty seconds. I leaned to my right and got the hatch shut. It immediately locked and vacuumed secure. Now to figure out where I was and how to get where I needed to be in thirty-five seconds.
“Follow the lights,” Jugee said. His voice came from everywhere. When I turned around I saw an LED line on the wall flashing. I walked toward it.
“You’ll have to move faster to make your deadline.”
I jogged, still fatigued, following the lights as they lit up ahead of me. A door slid open and I peeked in. It was a vator. Twenty-seven seconds.
The door closed and I waited for the lift to take me wherever it was going. Up, it turned out.
Admittedly it was a short ride. Five seconds. I reached the common room with six seconds to spare. The clock stopped and popped out of existence. 
Alu stood there with his hands behind his back, impassive, assessing me. I stood as straight as I could, sweating, trying to catch my breath. That’s when the room started spinning.
“She’s going to pass out,” Jugee said. His voice soothed me, grounded me. It was the last thing I heard before it all went black and I heard my head hit the deck.

I came to with the room still whirling around me. I closed my eyes tight to wish away the vertigo, to catch my breath again. I thought about where I was yesterday and I shivered. 
“Is she all right?”
Alu’s voice was far away. I heard the tink of glass on glass.
“She’s conscious, vitals are normalizing again.”
Sure didn’t feel like it. I rolled to my left, everything tilted along with me. My right hand  fell on the carpet which is when I realized there was carpet under me and not a metal deck. Small favors. I opened my eyes a crack, then a little more. Nothing happened; the room was still. The carpet was lush and had a smell like the summer garden at the embassy. For the moment, it was a comfort. I breathed deep and pushed up to a sitting position.
I felt normal. My head throbbed where I smacked it on the floor but otherwise I was okay. Slowly, I collected myself and got to my feet.
Alu had his back to me but I saw a glass of dark liquid in his hand. 
“Please make yourself comfortable,” he said without turning around. He stood next to a table where my valise was open. Everything in it was now arranged around the open case.
“Hey,” I said, “hey, you can’t just go through my stuff like that!”
“Then you should have chosen a more challenging combination,” Jugee said. “Your birthday times Medayma Skartarine’s and taking the square root of the result is insultingly simple.”
“Jugee, do you have the secure box from the embassy open yet?”
“Hm.” The Symbi turned, sipped his drink. “Do you have any idea how to open the box?” He watched me intently, looking for some hint, probably, that I would lie to him.
“Will you help us open it then?”
I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes. “Is that payment for the ride out of here? I’m assuming we’re still in orbit around Ffeine.”
It took him a long moment to consider it, but Alu assented. “Opening the box will pay for your passage to the next station.”
My smile widened as he said it. The box was coded for me, Madeleine said so in the message she left for me. I remembered then that they had gone to get something from her too, but it wasn’t there. Now I wondered if there was a clue in the box, I wondered how she could be sure that I would go back to the embassy. It was enough to make me crazy if I dwelled on it.
The muscles in my legs started to shake. 
“You should sit,” Alu said, indicating a sofa on my right. “Jugee, the box.”
The werlibug flew the little box to me as I collapsed into the soft cushions of the sofa. I held out my hands for Jugee to set the box in them but he dropped it on the sofa instead. The muscle spasm subsided as I picked up the plastic container. 
“You know these things are laced with titanium fibers, right? It feels like plastic and is lightweight, but nearly impossible to smash open.”
The werlibug perched on the table near Alu. Implacable, Alu and the werlibug waited for me to live up to my promise. I decided to have a little fun with them.
I cradled the box in my left hand, holding it on top my fingertips. Then I waved my right hand over the top in a slow circle, once, twice, thrice. “Bim skala bim,” I intoned and kept moving my right hand, splaying my fingers as wide as possible.
“Just open it,” Jugee said. “Stop playing games. You’re not impressing anyone.”
Alu sipped his drink again.
“Fine.” I sandwiched the box between my hands; first with them pointing the same direction, then moving my left hand underneath to point opposite my right hand. My elbows were straight out from my body when the box began to glow blue, then green. I withdrew my right hand and the top of the box opened.
I set the box on my lap and opened the lid all the way.
Inside were two things, a thumb drive and a small envelope with my name on it. I looked up as Alu came near me. He looked down with interest then held out his hand. “May I?”
For all my bravery, for all my bluster, I was terrified of him. I was right back in the crowd with my parents, feeling the clawing fear that I must have felt then. Something tried to scrape its way through my stomach with sharp claws.
“The envelope is for me,” I said. Much quieter than I wanted to.
“You shall have it in a moment.” Alu took the box. He walked away from me to examine the contents of the box.
Jugee jumped in with both feet. “The key was in your DNA, wasn’t it? The box read the DNA from the sweat in your hands and cross-referenced it with your palm prints. You probably had to maintain a certain amount of pressure to twist the lock open once your palm prints and DNA samples matched.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“No,” Jugee said. “Is that right? Is that the process? I”ll examine the box and find out anyway.”
“Fine. That’s how it works.”
Truthfully, I had no idea. Madeleine had showed me once and told me that when I saw that box again, the same one Alu had in hand, that I was to open it. Everything Jugee suggested made sense. They call ‘em secure boxes for a reason. Only the intended recipient can open it. Otherwise, the boxes are impervious to all but the most brute force.
Alu slotted the drive. “Jugee, review the data. I need to know if Medayma has betrayed us after all.”
As an afterthought, Alu held out the envelope. He didn’t turn around. “Jugee will show you to your quarters. Clean up. Fresh clothes are laid out for you on the bed. We will debrief in one hour.”
I grabbed the envelope and turned to face the common room. 
Now that I took time to take it all in, it was unlike anything I’d seen outside of the embassy. The couch was plush and deep and soft and I hadn’t noticed it. There were three armchairs of the same material. I was so tired at that point that I could barely stand up. So much had happened so quickly that I hadn’t processed any of it. Which is part of why I passed out onto that ultra lavish carpet. 
Sleep was the cure, I knew.  But I didn’t know when I would get any. And I still didn’t know anything about my traveling companions except that they had skills I’d only ever seen on screens.
And what did that make me?

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