Coming off the terrestrial spookiness of Halloween, my eyes return once more to the stars. In part to help celebrate Irish Book Week, in part to show off an updated look for my first novel, and thirdly, as a thank you, my way of giving back to those of you who support and appreciate the literary world, the digital version of my first novel, After Terra: Year 200, will be free on Amazon’s Kindle platform during November 3 and 4, 2018.
I realize that some of you prefer to read physical, rather than digital, copies of books, and that is totally understandable. If you don’t have a Kindle, I beseech you to pass on the word to those that do so they can score a free story, one I hope they will enjoy.
As always, reviews and shares are appreciated by any of those who read my work. I am now on goodreads.com as well as bookbub.com, so if you for some reason encounter any problems leaving feedback through Amazon, there are other options.
For those of you new to the After Terra series, and want a preview before downloading, please click the read more link below to sample the first chapter of Year 200. Thank you!
Chapter One: Into the Azure
Out in the fringe of the Solar System, two hundred years beyond Terra’s death, there was an aberration: a silent, star-lit field pierced in an ungraceful manner by a metallic human construction. The overworked, underpowered shuttle sputtered across the expanse, struggling to stay on course toward the blue orb in the distance. The passengers’ fragile hope of making it to their destination alive was wounded by a collision between the shuttle and a hunk of debris.
The only passenger in the front cabin, Matthew Garrison, grabbed hold of the rail above his head. The sensation of prickly rust on his fingers made him regret the impulse, though he reasoned it to be better than falling on his face. The specks of dirt and dust were thrown up from the collision marred his pressed outfit, a plain and practical set of tan cargo pants and an olive green worker’s shirt. “Uh, sir,” he asked the pilot ahead of him, “what did we just hit?”
“Ne’er you mind. She’ll hold together! I’ve been flying this shuttle fer twenty years, no piece of trash is gonna do her in!” The pilot’s ceramic white helmet bobbed around with each bout of turbulence.
With the shuttle’s course now corrected, the pilot resumed his tirade. “Where was I? Oh yeah! I was telling you my credo! You know what it is? It’s that space is wondrous. Space is vast. Have you ever just stopped, I mean dropped everything you were doing and thinking, and ‘ppreciated it? The cosmos that just go on and on, endless beauty as far as the eye can see?” The passenger peered beyond and into the star-kissed void beyond. To the left of this field, azure hues from the ice giant Neptune crept into sight.
“I live in space, you know? Back on my crop, I can’t help but see the stars every day.”
The pilot didn’t offer a look back, continuing on. “Folk now, so many are fussing with their soddin’ devices, wasting time on making stupid looking holo-tats, they couldn’t bother thinkin’ of anyone but themselves.”
Matt started to wonder if the pilot was actually trying to say something meaningful to him or just babbling. Maybe the other people… maybe they’re staying away from this guy for a reason. “Sir, I was just wondering how much longer it’ll be ’til we reach Neptune?”
Unfazed, the pilot continued on. “You know I don’t waste time on makin’… what’d you call them? Spacepages. Folk everywhere sitting around everywhere, updating their Spacepages or their CHiRPs. You know what I tell ’em? Same thing I say to you now, son! While you’re all off tellin’ the whole system what they had to eat, I’m out here makin’ money!”
While the words hung in the stale air, the pilot reached his hand out toward a button on the far right of his control panel. It projected a holo-picture of a man and woman, the former being a much younger version of the pilot. Each of them held a small child in their arms. The man’s dark skin did not have the pits and scars it now bore, nor was it so tainted with sadness. The people in the picture seemed as happy as any family one might see. “My wife and sons died out here, you know? Taken out by hunters. They didn’t give any shits about any crossfire. But do ya see that stoppin’ me? Folk these days’ll bitch and moan ’bout standin’ in line to see a vid. Or that their fav’rite new gun sold out. Makes me sick to see it.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your family, sir, but—”
“Don’t sir me. I’m a pilot, not a soddin’ moon shuttle conductor.”
He opened his mouth to speak again but hesitated. I just hope that the poor guy has enough scruples left in him to actually dock this piece of junk. He lifted up his device, a sleek slab of metal mounted on his left wrist. On its holographic display he reviewed the itinerary for when he arrived at Neptune; specifically, for when he made it to the spaceport in orbit colloquially dubbed, “Gravin’s Base.” It was an oblong, almost mushroom-shaped construction that spun around Neptune, bathing in the ice giant’s radiation. They weren’t far now.
As he messed with his device, a sliver of self-consciousness crept in on him. He rarely used these things. He was still playing with its features and its varying applications, but had spent most of his time on it admiring the holographic picture of a young, delicate-looking woman. He pictured what her petite hand would look like with a rare Terran gem, something called a ruby, placed upon one of her fingers.
As his imagination took hold, he did allow himself to consider something the pilot said: Space is wondrous. Space is vast… He put his device into standby mode and went back to his seat. He allowed himself the chance to lie down, using his backpack as a pillow. From here, he had an undeterred view of the stars. He let himself drift away as the words echoed into his sub-conscious mind: Space is wondrous…
* * *
An androgynous voice chimed in over the transport’s intercom, rousing more than one passenger from slumber. It called one of them by name:
“Matthew Garrison. You have arrived at your destination. Please disembark. Matthew Garrison. You have arrived at your destination. Please disembark.”
Stirred from his nap, Matthew snapped himself to attention, hurriedly yanking his backpack up from the seat. The other passengers from the back cabin grumbled and groaned through various languages in his direction, which he ignored with enthusiasm.
“You know I’d a told you we were here,” the pilot offered. “Didn’t need to use your soddin’ device to do it for you. Sheesh. If I had a cred for every time I—” A loss of power in the cabin cut him off. In the near-total darkness, the sound of a gloved fist pounding on metal permeated the air. “Shite! Not now, darlin’, not out here! Wake up!” The flight control panel briefly hummed back to life after being struck, and then died out completely. The artificial gravity failed; anyone not strapped to their seat began to float. “Shite!”
Matthew didn’t panic, something that couldn’t be said for the other passengers. He felt around in his backpack, producing a small penlight. “I’ve had to put up with power failures like this before. Hold on, let me take a look at your grid.” With the tiny light to guide him, he moved along the walls of the cabin, tracing the varied cables and wires back to a small relay box. Once he had a look inside, he saw that the problem was a simple one: a wire had come unplugged. A piece of tape once held it to its proper place but had now come loose. Matthew re-fastened the electrical tape, put the wire back where it belonged, and with a few shimmies, the old shuttle came back to life.
“Well, hows about that? Son, you actually know how to fix something without using a device to figure it out for ya? Didn’t think anyone of yer age could do it!” The pilot started caressing his helm controls. “Yep darlin’, you’ve still got it. Never doubted you! Alright now, lemme finish cyclin’ the airlock and you’ll be good to go, kid!”
“Uh, yeah, sure, thanks! I think…” Finally… time to get off of this creaking heap. He woke up his device and rescinded its itinerary program.
The airlock door groaned and croaked in protest as it slowly opened up before him, revealing the long expanse of Gravin’s Base. A long, well-worn mooring platform connected the shuttle to the station. It allowed passengers to disembark with no chance of vacuum exposure, a thing most considered to be poor for one’s health. The platform had a scant few windows; Neptune’s blue aura could be made out through several of them. Okay! This is it! My big moment. My first adventure outside of home. The stupid grin on his face as he walked out telegraphed his thoughts.
No one else on the old transport had Gravin’s Base as their port of call. Shortly after the door closed behind him, the shuttle departed and there he stood, alone. Strange that he’s not here to meet me. I’m right on time. Befuddled, he called up his device. Its readout confirmed that the time was 17:00 Old Terran Standard, almost to the second of when he was expected to meet his contact.
Something must’ve gone wrong. Maybe he beeped me if he had to change our plan? Garrison decided to patch into the local com-net to see if there were any messages waiting for him. A little holographic wheel sputtered in the air, and seconds later he was in:
Welcome to Gravin Enterprises Ship-Building Outpost, at Neptune Station Number 17. Please review the menu below for your navigational options.
“Huh, that’s a mouthful,” he thought aloud, “now I get why they just call it Gravin’s Base.” Though basic entries that he expected to see, such as a map of the Base and its landmarks, were available, he didn’t find any virtual tour guides. I thought those were standard issue on stations. Weird. But, he did see one thing in the menu that elated him: a private message.
Something big came up, can’t tell you by coms. Rendezvous time and place have changed. You need to meet me at Little Neptune’s. It’s a bar about half a click down the way from the shuttle docks, just follow the holos. The goods are going to be delivered there instead. Be there at 17:30, NO LATER.
Sent: 15:36 OTS
From my NEW Icarus Device 2S! Now available at your nearest space station!
Relieved that he hadn’t been forgotten, he proceeded onward. Twenty meters down the adjoining hallway, a beat up staircase ushered new arrivals up into the main confluence of the Base. It appeared that these stairs were once escalators but had fallen into disrepair. Ugh… this place looks as beat up as the shuttle. That old rust heap might’ve had working gravity, well, barely. Stabilizers might as well not have been installed for all the good they did. What a piece of junk!
No tourist vid prepared Matt for what he saw at the top of the stairs. A veritable city stretched out before him, the various disembarking stations all feeding into massive streets that then branched off in a dizzying number of directions. The superstructures of the base were massive brown and gray feats of engineering that served as the foundation for this fortress in space. There were holo-signs everywhere, most serving as advertising to newly arrived buyers. The first one nearly slapped him in the face:
Please refrain from discharging firearms in low or no-grav areas.
Well that’s an unpleasant first impression. He walked with slow, shaky steps out into the sprawling space station. Advertised all through the skyscape was almost any conceivable good or service, the most prominent and frequent of them being:
Buy one get one free on all ammo boxes .50 or smaller! Going on for a limited time at Buchannon’s Ammo Outlet!
Trade in special! Sell us your old device and get 10 creds off the NEW Icarus S2! Beep your nearest Ellis System Industries Representative at GBN/Ellis/Trade for details!
A reminder to all merchants: The advertisement, sale, or attempted sale of insurance and/or warranties is punishable by death. If you are found in violation, you may choose between being spaced or shot.
Need to get somewhere fast AND cheap? Hire McCarthy’s shuttle service! Ask about our planet-to-planet special!
“I’m not using McCarthy’s again, that’s for sure,” he mumbled to himself as he pressed his way into a crowd of traffic.
Every few meters he found himself walking under or through a holo, each one trying to send him to a place to spend money. While pushing through the chaos of people and dubiously effective advertisement, Matt was drawn to one particular sign that shone prominently on the largest and central-most structure in the Base:
Current human population count: 370,001,435
Remember to do your part! Help us rebuild and replenish what was lost. Every human counts. Visit the ROH site on the com-net to find out how you can help: SWN/ROH/Donate
Wow, the Movement even has a presence way out here. They’ve always been some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He stopped in place as he gave the sign further consideration. Maybe they have a Sanctum here at Gravin’s? I’ve always wanted to see what one was like.
Lost in that brief reverie, Matt didn’t know that he had put himself into the thick of people traffic on a crossing bridge. A flash of lavender purple struck him from his right side; before he even realized it he was tumbling toward the bridge’s edge, only catching himself on a guard railing at the last moment. It was there, looking over the edge that he realized just how far he could potentially fall.
“Watch it, asshole!”
Still doubled over, he turned his head around enough to see who yelled at him. It was a woman, not much older than him, he guessed, but far tougher in appearance. Her ripped physique and cache of mean-looking weaponry suggested that she was not one to be trifled with. Her hair was a shock of light purple, pulled into a tight braid that went all the way down her back, her skin a warm shade of tan, a few tattoos partially visible along her neck and collarbones. A rough, patched green jacket partially covered a matching tank top. She wore a set of slinky black pants studded with a variety of ammo, knives and other nasties.
Matt stammered, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
She offered an indignant half-smirk. “Ma’am!? Who are you calling a ma’am you twat!?” She leaned over and slid a shiny silver dagger from her belt, sticking the tip of it into Matt’s chin. “You sound like a typical stuck-up little Saturner. And from the dopey way you’re dressed, I’d bet you’re a cropper. You get one piece of free advice out here, crop boy. You call me that again, and you’ll be on next year’s soddin’ harvest. You follow!? Now stay the fuck out of my way!”
As quickly as she’d appeared, the purple-haired woman vanished into the crowd. There were other people around in this throng who’d altered themselves in unique ways; many folk had eccentric, outlandish hair and clothing styles, elaborate tats both real and digital, as well as augmented skin and hair coloration. What did I say that was so bad? The blood trickled down his chin. Wow, that was really sharp…
More self-conscious than ever, Matt hoisted himself up and went the rest of the way across the bridge toward the heart of the space station. He looked down at his outfit: the green shirt, tan cargo pants, black synth-leather belt and matching boots, and wondered why it made his profession so obvious. It finally occurred to him that with his simple appearance, he was the oddest person here. No wonder she had my job figured out so fast…
He kept his head down, his shoulders tucked in and his hands stuffed into his pockets, trying hard to look like a nobody. The air here, though breathable, was caustic. The noise was worse than anything he’d ever experienced. He’d encountered doublespeak in passing, but not to this extent. Folk all around him were talking in all manners of different languages, their speech translated by devices, with a delay, into a dialect that the listener could understand. The doublespeak created alarming and unnatural combinations of sounds to his ears. The vids never prepared him for this experience.
In this sensory chaos, he managed to follow the holographic signposts to find his way to Little Neptune’s; it was a sight which, once seen, could not be unseen. The sign was made out of blue neon lights instead of holos. It advertised not only the name but also suggested the sorts of things that might go on inside. The chief display above the bar’s logo was a crudely animated scene of a portly man inserting his phallus into a woman. Matt couldn’t decide on whether the animation was more disgusting or funny. He checked the time on his device: 17:25. Oh no. Not much time to spare…
The door to Little Neptune’s was heavy. A handle was welded onto the original metal and when he pulled on it, a rush of hot air was released. It tousled Matt’s already roughed-up reddish, sandy brown hair even more. A cacophony of what he presumed passed for music played inside, an energetic combination of buzzing bass, electronic drums, and vocals that were so overly synthesized as to be unintelligible. Though he barely made an impression on the noise level, Matt’s appearance was an anomaly in a sea of weird; he was a fair complected, beardless, tattooless, apparently unarmed twenty-something lad, who now wished he was a fictional character in one of his favorite vids.
Matt shyly sulked around the establishment, looking at the different booths for his contact, Geoff. The main bar was a ring of white light in the center of the room, inside which was a variety of taps for drinks that looked to be fed from an upper level. The room itself was a giant circle like the bar. The floor pulsed light with every beat of the bass.
He checked the time. 17:29. No sign of him. Even if this place wasn’t so hot and humid as is, Matt would’ve broken out into a sweat just from being nervous. Perspiration beaded on his forehead. Electronic bass matched the thumping in his chest. But at last, his device chirped. Matt begged his own luck that the incoming message was from Geoff.
On your left.
Sent: 17:30 OTS
From my NEW Icarus Device 2S! Now available at your nearest space station!
The booth to Matt’s immediate left was unoccupied. The holographic sign above it, instead of reading Available like the other empty seats, said: Sit down, you idiot.
He complied with a plop down at the waiting booth, the holo-sign winking out of existence as he did. Two seconds later a pair of men in long, black, metal-plated coats came into view. They sat down across from him, and each put their gloved hands flat on the table. They wore hoods over their heads and with the drab, dim lighting in here, it was almost impossible for him to make our their features.
After some silent staring, a familiar face entered the scene: Geoff. He was shorter and stockier than the lanky Matt and kept a squat blonde mohawk on an otherwise bald head. His complexion was mixed and ruddy. His squalid, scarred nose dominated much of his face. Across his burly, exposed arms was a duality of holo-tats and real tattoos, many of which were the names of different women. A small device was mounted to Geoff’s right ear, which was linked to a lens hovering in front of his right eye. This was the first time Matt had ever met his pen pal, and he was a larger presence than his holos suggested. Geoff sat down and slapped Matt hard on the shoulder.
“Alright! Matt Garrison, I can’t believe you made it, buddy! That must’ve been a wallop, what was that, a straight shot from Saturn to here? Whoosh!” With a ridiculous smile and a wave of his hand, Geoff ushered a waitress over to the table.
“Yeah Geoff, I made it alright. You gave me a pretty good scare when I didn’t see you at the dock—”
“Just a change of plans, my friend! Happens a lot in this biz. If you want to be a real man of connections like me, you need to be flexible!” A waitress floated over to the table, offering a tired smile to Geoff after asking for his order. Matt stole a glance at her; she had pale, milky white skin, short, cropped hair as deep a blue as Neptune itself. She wore no physical clothing other than a few strands of blue lights, which barely covered her feminine attributes. He blushed.
“A round of the house draught for me and my friend here. What’d you guys want?” Geoff looked toward the two mystery men, but no sound nor movement came from them. “Ah, I guess they’ll pass on the drinks, hon.”
More useless small talk and a few minutes later, the waitress returned with two tall glasses, each filled with some bubbly concoction that shifted in hue from azure to violet every few seconds. Geoff gave one to Matt, grabbed the other and then clinked them together sloppily. “Here’s to friendship, and good business!” Geoff sucked down half of his glass with one gleeful chug. Matt tried to follow suit, but only managed to get a quarter of his drink finished before his throat felt like it was on fire. He sat it down and coughed profusely. His vision blurred so fast that it frightened him.
Geoff slapped Matt on the back. “Good shit, huh? Ah, the first time’s always a rough one. You’ll get used to it. Puts hair on your chest. Unless you lasered yours off. I won’t judge. Now, let’s get down to some business, shall we?”
Matt collected his senses enough to nod in agreement. Still coughing, he reached for his backpack and brought it up on his lap. He produced a small black box from inside, sat it on the table and removed its mag-lock.
“Cred boxes are always a sight that makes me smile. Nicely done, Matt! I know you saved those for a good long while. Just let me do the talking and we’ll be wrapped up in no time.”
Geoff propped open the lid, turned it and slid it toward the men in black. The man on Matt’s right reached inside and pulled out a small, blue, semi-transparent tape. He spun it around, inspecting every facet of it. “Now gentlemen,” Geoff started, “you being businessmen, I of course don’t have to tell you that blue means a hundred genuine creds… but I just did anyway! Point is, my friend here has produced the real article, I can vouch for that! Ten big blues, and unlocked, like we agreed!” For the first time, Matt noted a hint of nervousness in Geoff’s voice and demeanor. Or has he been nervous the whole time, and I am just now picking up on it?
The unknown man nodded, once toward Geoff, and once toward his partner. He returned the credit chit to the box and closed it. His partner reached inside his black coat and pulled out a digi-paper, which he slid to Geoff. After reading it intently, Matt’s friend gave a nod. “Got it. Thanks for your business, gentlemen.”
One of the strangers picked up Matt’s cred box, the box he’d worked for years to fill with his scraps of savings. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they got up and vanished from the scene, their exit obscured by the other denizens of Little Neptune’s. For the last seven months, Geoff told Matthew that his credits would not leave his sight until the latter received the merchandise he was looking for. Matt stood as if to go after them, but Geoff put a firm hand on his shoulder and forced him back into his seat. Then, he whirled a massive fifty-six Jacobsen pistol out of his holster and stuck the business end of it squarely into Matt’s ribcage.
“Oh I’m sorry my friend, but this’s the change of plans I was talking about.”