This is it. As close to a final draft of Chapter 1 of The Galaxy and All Her Charms as I will produce without feedback from an editor. I owe my wife and my writing critique group a universe of thanks for their feedback. This chapter would be infinitely worse without their kind guidance and occasional gut punches.
The reason I’m posting the chapter online, is because I promised I would when I wrote about Tiny Frontiers. Those of you who followed the TF Kickstarter know it was highly successful. In the meantime, Alan Bahr and Gallant Knight Games have started funding a follow-up: Tiny Frontiers: Mecha & Monsters. It looks pretty amazing, so I’ll recommend you send all the monies to help unlock all the stretch goals. You can also look forward to a full review of the first book here on the blog. I got my copy last week!
Moving along to TGaAHC. I hope you enjoy chapter one. I’d want to hear from you either way, even if you just are “meh” about it. I have 20,000 words of this book written, and your feedback will help me make it better!
The heavy lift door slammed shut with a metallic clank, just missing Jeita, as she rushed to enter. The dull edge of the automatic entrance would not slow its progress for her sake. She suppressed a sigh and spoke the lift command, “Deck three-oh-seven.” It would leave her current deck when an inappropriate amount of wait time had passed.
Since the Second Holy Arab-British Empire sanctioned its ban on safety features for Abdalam-only service machinery, servant lifts were dangerous –no, life-threatening– contraptions. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first loss Jeita suffered at the hands of the “Shabby”. She nearly chuckled at thinking the forbidden nickname Abdalam often used for the S.H.A.B.E. and was careful not to let it turn the corners of her lips. Best to keep the outward appearance of being dull-faced and broken in case the Raqib were watching.
As the lift lurched into movement, her stomach seemed to shoot down into the tips of her toenails. Jeita Grotto wedged herself into the corner of the rough metal box for balance, and she felt its cold start seeping into her side. Hundreds of floors of the spaceship screamed past as the lift careened upward from the cramped Abdalam level of the ship with minimal metallic shrieking.
Must have been adjusted recently, she thought.
Normally, the sound was loud enough for any Abdalam who used it to be forced to plug their ears or risk damaged hearing. No one gave members of her caste much thought, and it surprised Jeita anyone bothered with maintenance at all. She didn’t give it much thought today. Her time as a neglected subject of the Shabby was about to be behind her, with any luck. She had seen something intriguing in her last waking-migraine dream. Based on her previous experience with the painful and often disturbing visions, there was a good chance today would be her last trip in a death-trap servant lift onboard the IMS Damascus.
The lift came to a screeching stop at deck three-oh-seven, its riveted metal door slamming open for the mandatory 2.7 seconds just as the warning sticker above it stated. Jeita moved out quickly, and the lift door crashed shut behind her in a not-so-surprising attempt to perform an impromptu amputation. The odor of overflowing bins assaulted her nostrils. She wished for the thousandth time that more Abdalam quarters were in the ship design so that the cleaning schedule could be more frequent. She pushed her way reluctantly into the almost visible stench. She forced down the wave of nausea and steeled herself against the flared sense of mourning and loss accompanying it. Anything reminding her of her son still shook Jeita even now, months later. She pushed the thought of him back, avoiding the display of emotion she knew it would lead to.
Straightening her servant’s smock, Jeita surveyed three-oh-seven. The Anglo-Arab soldiers of the Shabby military caste usually inhabited the deck. Right now, the “double-ays” were off enjoying Concentrated Holy Mess, a registered trademark, in the cavernous mess hall on deck nine-oh-two. Since servants were meant to be neither heard nor seen, tidying always happened during chow or training hours.
Jeita moved lazefficiently from bunk to bunk in the first lodging block, gathering waste left behind by double-ays, and emptying bins into disintegration stations. The lazefficient method was designed to avoid attention from the Raqib, and most servants knew it. She wondered yet again why the military couldn’t be allowed to throw out their own trash, but today was not the day to question her lot as Abdalam. Keeping up appearances was vital. If the proctor caste singled her out for discipline on this day, it would be disastrous. Born Abdalam, Jeita’s lot was simple: perform menial tasks on fifteen of the 1095 crew decks onboard the Damascus each day. It was all very mathematical. The organizational officers must revel in it, for even the ship designs ensured the numbers all came out perfectly.
One servant, of course, was relegated to the officers’ deck daily. The bluebloods weren’t to be left neck-deep in filth.
She went about her duties, as usual, not wanting to arouse suspicion. Time was her enemy, as it refused to pass fast enough for her liking. She knew from previous shifts on this floor that her timing was just right. Eventually, when she entered the second lodging block of one-hundred and forty-four bunks laid out in a twelve-by-twelve grid, Jeita stopped and noted the shielded release for the block’s escape mechanism. Its understated warning label promised the violence of action.
SECURE ALL LOOSE OBJECTS BEFORE ENGAGEMENT
She reached up to touch the release mechanism, and its shielding gave her the familiar and obligatory shock that sent tingling, numbing nerve pain shooting up her arm. They had explained it all to her in detail in her dream. The slight, young Abdalam knew what came next…
At the precise moment it was supposed to, deck three-oh-seven shuddered around her, and Jeita felt the weightlessness of the void take over her body. She watched in dismay as uncollected garbage, blankets, pillows, and personal effects floated up into the air as well.
It’s going to be very untidy in here now, she thought. The concern was so irrational she laughed out loud and immediately felt guilty for doing so. Her emotions flashed to irritation at her guilt. Any Raqib who were watching had bigger concerns now. They wouldn’t be focused on the outbursts of one random Abdalam.
Red alarm lights flared, and she knew they would be ship-wide. She had seen the plans of the resistance fighters who were helping her to be free. The entire fleet would be on alert now. Hyper-vigilant, yet blind to the Abdalam escapee right inside their flagship.
Finally, she would be free of her tormentors and away from the Shabby. Jeita could, at last, flee from the memory and pain of Jerom’s passing. A tear escaped her eye and trailed a watery path down her cheek at the thought of the forbidden name she had given him in her heart.
Jeita reached out, and her fingers grasped the emergency release, its shielding now disabled by protocol. She flinched slightly, half-expecting a second shock, but of course, there was none because of the emergency status of the Damascus. With the solid, narrow metal lever in her grasp, she pulled.
“EMERGENCY CONFIRMED. RELEASE ENGAGED. Q-DRIVES EMINENT.” a mechanical baritone voice with a Shabby accent said vibrating through the barrack.
Blast doors at the block entry crashed to seal the barrack from the rest of the enormous ship, and it was now a lodging-block-turned-escape-pod. Jeita let go her hold on the release lever and tried to claw her way through the air to a more stable position. She only succeeded in rotating herself vertically and now her head aimed at the floor. The hiss of lock releases sounded from multiple directions as air-driven components released the barrack from its once snug-fitting home on the starboard side of deck three-oh-seven.
No longer bound to its former home, the large escape vehicle’s Q-drives engaged without regard for free-floating items, or people, within its zero-g space. Jeita and everything unattached in the escape pod flew violently against the back wall and blast doors as the emergency Q-drives pushed the vehicle out and away from the rest of the Damascus at an assuredly unsafe speed. The Shabby quality control people who insisted on the warning label about securing objects hadn’t been joking. Unfortunately for Jeita, though she tried to heed the label, she hadn’t the skill in zero-gravity. She crashed into the former exit, and her head hit the corner of an exposed bulkhead. The youthful Abdalam felt a brief flash of pain followed immediately by the blackness of unconsciousness. Jeita didn’t even notice as the rest of the loose contents of the barracks pelted her and the wall around her.
The escape pod cruised away from the enormous capital spaceship. It was nearly unnoticed amid the flurry of the ship-to-ship battle raging throughout the fleet. Flying almost directly toward the attacking flotilla of unmarked vessels, it was a barely noticeable speck among the void. The pod shuddered then, as its engines struggled in vain to carry out the predefined escape sequence against the strength of a powerful tractor beam.
The chilly metal floor had just enough nip in it for Ayda to do a scamper-dance until the pads of her feet numbed from the cold. Everything seemed colder in the void of space.
Sure, she understood the myriad heating systems, insulation, and plating protecting the delicate human life onboard. A floating fortress like the Damascus was layered with extensive protection from the void.
The knowledge of those protections didn’t put an end to Ayda’s disconcerted thoughts. She hated space, except when being here allowed her to fly. The first morning touch of toe to floor was colder than it had any right to be. Perhaps irrationally, some small part of her always attributed the cold to being in space.
Numbed though her feet might be, Ayda walked on tiptoe toward the officer’s common showers. The showers were empty and, because she was clearly the last to use them this morning, also unbelievably chill. Cold water was the Office of Motivation’s way of not-so-subtly hinting to late risers that they had made an “unfavorable decision”. The water seemed to Ayda like icicles falling from the shower head, spearing into her scalp and shoulders.
Hyperbole, Ayda? she thought to herself. Not very ladylike.
Siwa, her childhood nanny, would disapprove. Most people, certainly members of the Raqib and Abdalam castes, didn’t have the luxury of showering with water while in space. They had to make due with sonic showers and earplugs to protect their hearing. The occasional sponge bath was a rare treat for rank and file members of the military.
Ayda could shower at night when there was a slightly better chance of warm water, but she always felt greasy the following morning even if it wasn’t true. Honestly, she should just learn to get up earlier. The dread of taking her feet out of the covers and shivering uncontrollably always kept the young officer in her rack too long. She was always cold it seemed. Except when she was flying Esmerelda, her fighter. Then, adrenaline kept her warm.
Walking back to her locker from the showers, wrapped in a white cotton towel that smelled clean yet slightly burnt from the high heat of military-grade dryers, Ayda noticed a furtive figure shuffling out of her barracks. Was it so late in the morning the Abdalam assigned to tidy the officer’s deck was already working?
“Hello?” she called out. A slim Adbalam man shuffled back around the corner. They are all too thin, Ayda thought.
He glanced at her face briefly before directing his eyes to the floor and speaking in a soft, small voice, “Lieutenant McDeckard, Mum. May I be of service?”
So, he knew her face. Of course he did. She replied keeping her tone conversational, “I apologize for keeping you from your work. I didn’t think I was running so late. Please, don’t let me interrupt your schedule. Allow me one moment to gather my clothes, and I’ll be out of your way.”
The man nodded in deference and turned to walk away, but stopped in his tracks as George al-Abdul slipped from behind the corner and into the Abdalam man’s path. He was an imposing man in his late twenties. A cruel smile twisted his lips.
“What is your name, rijs?” al-Abdul asked letting the insult linger on his lips. Then he laughed and said, “Nevermind. I couldn’t care less. Begone.”
He pivoted around the Abdalam with the grace of a trained fighter and pushed at the small of his back with enough force to nearly send the servant sprawling. The gaunt man caught his balance and walked away in haste.
“Why do you even speak to them, Ayda? They aren’t worth the effort of forcing sound from our lips.”
“My reasons are my own. I wouldn’t expect you to understand, George,” Ayda replied. “Now you begone. Aren’t you late for mess anyway?”
“I’ve just finished. Thought I’d come back here and see if you were still a lacking bitch. I can see that you are,” George said, his face scrunching in anger.
As if on queue, Djinni, Ayda’s rackmate, appeared through the doors of the barracks and rounded on the irate man. Her face was blotchy from crying, as usual these days, but she didn’t let it stop her from tearing into al-Abdul.
“Are you bothering Ayda again, you lack?” she said. Djinni’s nostrils flared as she sized the man up. She stood herself directly between George and Adya, but only inches from George. Her head barely tilted up to look in his eyes, and the olive-skinned woman nearly blotted out Ayda’s view of the man. Without a word, he spun on his heel and marched away, infuriated.
Djinni turned to Ayda and half-smiled at her. Her face was still red, and her eyes were bloodshot as well. When she spoke, her voice was soft and caring, probably to soften the scold, “Miss Ayda McDeckard, you just walk away from that lacking man the next time he tries to corner you. He’s a cowardly zabad who doesn’t deserve any courtesy.”
“Thanks, Djinni. I know he’s a blowhard, but you didn’t give me any chance to fend for myself,” Ayda replied. “Still, you know I appreciate it.”
“You’d better go, girl. There isn’t going to be plus food left at mess soon,” Djinni said. “Me, I’m going to catch a cat nap before training. See you soon.”
Ayda hurried to gather clothing and waved goodbye to her friend, and then she jogged back to one of the dressing chambers near the showers. As she dressed, she wondered why Abdalam and people in the higher birth couldn’t have relationships more like the one she had with her old nanny Siwa.
Finally ready for chow, she pushed the musing aside for another time and rushed to the officer’s lift. It recognized her on approach and glided open, the car waiting for her arrival. Once she was inside, the door closed efficiently and quietly shut and, almost as soon as it had done so, reopened in the anteroom of the officer’s mess hall. She stepped out into the room, and the lift door closed gently behind her.
Mess lived up to its name, as usual. The disgusting slop passing for food onboard would have been unappetizing even to fringe settlers living off colony rations and whatever they could grow with their hands. Ayda always wished her father would do something about the chow the officers ate. Then again, he ate whatever he wanted — steak, hummus, fresh fruit. Perks of being an admiral in the Peace Fleet. What she wouldn’t give for a nice crisp apple right now. Perhaps it was time to make nice with him.
She culled the thought as soon as it occurred to her. An improved relationship with her father wouldn’t make a difference. Propriety was Admiral Allamu McDeckard’s number one concern, and it would be improper to have a lowly PF Lieutenant sitting down to eat with an Admiral. Even if she did happen to be his daughter.
She finished her meal in near silence as most of the remaining officers filed out to prepare for training. Ayda was already wearing her khaki green training flight suit, so she took her time, continuing to peruse memories of her father.
Those musings faded quickly when the general alarm sounded.
Another drill? Seriously? she thought. The entire Fifth Flotilla had just completed a full-scale general alarm drill the previous week. It was strangely curious to have another so soon. Ayda’s heart rate accelerated. If the fleet had located pirates smuggling contraband, they would see their first real action in months. Ayda pined for action. She left the remains of breakfast and sprinted for the lift. It anticipated her arrival; it’s door opened to receive her.
Moments later, she was with the others suiting up in the barracks. There was a tight sense of anticipation coming from the pilots lined up near their racks changing into flight suits. The room was silent save the whisper and rustle of clothing being changed and the thumping boots of those jogging from the room as they finished.
“I can’t get another poor drill score, Ayda,” said Djinni, who had finished changing and was waiting for her friend. “I could lose rank, or worse, be decommissioned. I’m not sure what I would do with myself if I couldn’t fly. It’s the only thing holding me together since– Ladin,” her voice barely able to choke out his name. “Then what would happen to Charlie? Our parent’s inheritance didn’t leave enough to pay for his education on enlisted wages.” Ayda didn’t know what to say. She finished changing in silent thought.
Jogging down the corridor to the flight deck, Ayda couldn’t help thinking that Djinni probably was on her way out. The young officer couldn’t seem to keep it together since Ladin had died in a training exercise two months prior. They had been closer than propriety dictated. If she didn’t improve her scores–
Ayda reached out and nudged Djinni with an elbow as they ran side-by-side, and using her given name said, “You’ll do great today Lamia. You’ll be lights out.”
The expression “lights out” was more applicable than Ayda had intended. A brief ten minutes later, Djinni was blown to space by one of the unidentified fighters swarming around the Peace Fleet pilots who had managed to launch thus far. Her lights were out permanently because the auto-eject of her fighter never had a chance to fire. From her rear camera display, Ayda watched in shock as metal slugs from an enemy fighter entered Lamia’s cockpit from above, killing her instantly. She had been trying to circle around to cover Ayda’s six– for the second time today.
There was no time to mourn her friend. Ayda was fully engaged in the null-g combat now, and ships on both sides had already been sparked, not just Lamia. She picked a trajectory that put her on the six of the enemy pilot who killed Djinni and let loose a full barrage of plasma and energy, vaporizing the unshielded ship in an instant. The comms lit up with a cheer, and she rounded on her third target of the fight.
It was her cockiness in the instant that earned her ending. In Ayda’s haste to end the existence of the filthy zabad Djinni fell to, she made her fatal error. Her starboard side was exposed. As she watched a third enemy fighter pop its atmo and scatter debris across her bow, a cold feeling tingled up Lieutenant McDeckard’s spine. She recognized the feeling of warning when you’d done something too stupid for the galaxy to forgive.
Of course, the galaxy was a she. And she was not feeling magnanimous.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. The thought came to Ayda in that split-second of silent retrospection. The seeming inevitability of her death stretched on like the last light of a dying star, ready to wink out of existence with a finality that might just collapse into a never-ending abyss so powerful, even light could not escape its grasp. The events of the morning flashed through Ayda’s mind at incredible speed in a maddening way that made this moment seem less important than it was. The detonation of an explosive-packed projectile was no laughing matter. When it was in proximity to the hull of your spaceship, it was a deadly one.
I really should have stayed in the warm comfort of my bunk this morning, Ayda thought. Lack the bloody void. Court marshals weren’t so bad. It had been too cold to get up anyway.
The irrational idea fled as the concussion of explosives knocked her automated ejection off course, and her head collided with a nearby piece of debris the size of one of her twin Dalmatians back home at the family manor on New Scots.
What were the odds? her last conscious thought. Perhaps no one would ever tell her.
The end. Chapter 1 of The Galaxy and All Her Charms. Let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. I’m pretty anxious to hear them, but I have thick skin. Don’t be afraid to tell me if you don’t enjoy it.
Thanks for reading!