Read a sample from A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE by Alex White

Chapter Two

Rule number one when crafting a compelling salvage map: magic must always be the point. Of the almost fifty legends Boots had cobbled together and put out for sale that year, thirty-two of them had been focused on the arcane. Star charts for ancient artifacts or sites of incredible spiritual energy commanded a high price, bringing in almost a week’s worth of living expenses apiece. Treasure hunters would scramble to snatch them up far more often than the charts for mundane prizes. Maybe it was because no one knew the limits of what magic could do. Maybe everyone fancied themselves grand magi in the making.

Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth had a pedigree. Once in her past, she’d been right about a treasure. Even after all this time, that was still worth something.

Boots thought on this as she looked over the ephemeral screen that contained her bank account information. She wasn’t broke. Broke would’ve been good—comforting, even. She was less than broke, and soon, debtors would come calling.

“You have some new messages,” Kin’s tinny voice echoed through Boots’s firetrap studio apartment.

She pushed the projected screen away, where it wafted into nothingness, then stretched as she made her way across the room, a new pop in her shoulder the latest in a host of recent bony creaks. Her gait had a drunken limp this morning, and she supposed she shouldn’t have tied on her sixth glass the previous night.

Rule number two: a good legend is a fluffy story wrapped around a piece of hard evidence.

Boxes of binders leaned on shelves of books, which were piled atop towers of sheaves. Loose leaves stuck out from every edge, and hundreds if not thousands of scroll tubes stood precariously on top like crenellations on her makeshift fortresses.

Of all the people on Gantry Station, she imagined she had the most paper at any one time. The rubes loved paper, and the older the print, the more true something became—even if it was just a census chart or loose page from a catalog. She told herself she read the papers to craft legends, but she couldn’t deny that part of her hoped to find another truth.

She bought the pages where she could, particularly favoring anything from Origin, but she couldn’t afford first editions—only copies. As long as she could point to some shred of hard copy as evidence, her customers would happily snap up a star chart for a few thousand argents. After operating expenses, archival purchases, paid searches, and maintaining her office lease, that didn’t leave much.

“It looks as though you might have some new clients,” said Kin.

She scoffed at the word “client.” There was nothing reputable about her remaining fans. They were fools at best and insane at worst. Still, if they wanted to show up and buy star charts, she’d make sure there were a few for sale.

Safely arriving at the dispenser, she dropped a cube of coffee into a mug and filled it with hot water. “Just read the messages.”

“Sure thing, Lizzie.”

She gingerly took a sip, waking up a tiny bit of her whiskeyed brain. Kin began to read: the landlord had no intention of fixing her lock and suggested she buy her own (no cash). Some guy named Cameron wanted to partner up for a salvage run (probably a scam). Her neighbor Arty wanted her to stop slamming her door if she was going to be out late drinking (nope, not happening). There were an additional eight messages from various conspiracy theorist whackadoos who saw her ads but couldn’t afford her products.

“Oh boy,” Kin sighed. “Let’s just skip this one.”

“Let’s not,” said Boots. “What is it?”

“Voice message. Death threat from Rocco.”

“So? I get those all the time. Play it.”

“Lizzie, I don’t think—”

She rolled her eyes. “I said play it, Kin!”

After a short hiss, the message began. Rocco’s voice had a musical quality—like an accordion being kicked down some stairs. Boots winced as he barked the first sentence: “Boots, I been using your maps for years. I believed in you. But this is the fifth run with no treasure, you short, ugly, double-crossing, sparkless, dull-fingered—”

And that was all Boots heard before her cottony skull awoke to a new fire. Her nostrils flared, but she managed to stop herself from smashing her mug into the floor.

One in five million people: those were the odds of being born without magic—arcana dystocia. Most people would never meet a spell-less person, yet everyone had a word for her condition—“dull-fingers,” “nulls.” “Sparkless” was a particular favorite, because she didn’t have a cardioid like every other human. It was a tiny little nub of an organ nestled next to the amygdala—but it left a big hole in Boots’s life. Without it, she’d never spark her fingers to cast a spell.

“Stop the message, Kin.” And Rocco was silenced.

“Dull-fingered?” Had she heard right? There was no way Rocco would’ve said that to her face without a broken nose. She hadn’t been called dull in a few years, and the last fellow who said that had ended up in a cast.

“That cocky scribbler…” She set her coffee down. “What was the last thing I sold Rocco?”

“He got coordinates for the Connick Cargo—a shipment of crystals lost in the—”

She waved the computer off like an unpleasant smell. “Yeah, I remember now. Shoot those coordinates over to Vargas and tell him where his old partner is.”

“He’ll want to know the reason for your betrayal.”

“Tell Vargas that punk called me dull. No point mincing words.”

“This might result in Rocco’s death. Those coordinates are a long way from a jump portal. Vargas will get there long before Rocco can escape.”

She picked up her mug and took a warm swig. “Wages of sin, I guess. I’ll show you ‘dull-fingered,’ you supremacist piece of…”

Rule number three is the most important one. A great legend always happens in the middle of nowhere. Rocco wouldn’t be getting away from his past this time. That system was a big one, but there weren’t many places to hide from a good scanner.

“It’s done,” Kin sighed.

Boots felt better already. “Great. Next message.”

“This one is from the… Asselion Group.”

Boots winced whenever he mispronounced things. On a good day, she could pretend he was still alive. Kinnard, the AI assistant, was constructed from her memories of the real Kinnard, who’d fought alongside her in the Famine War… and a pale imitation. When she’d bought his voice from the mnemonimancer, she didn’t know the word “Acclion,” so neither did he.

“That’s pronounced ‘Ack-lion.’ It’s the leasing company,” she said.

“Roger that. It’s in regard to your office on their premises.”

“Read it.”

“Ms. Elsworth, hello. This is Sondra Kohan from the Acclion Group, contacting you in reference to claim number 4506J-00349, the fire at our Cresting Flows location. The fire marshal’s investigation revealed that the flames started outside your office. They believe it’s an arson case. Arcane explosives were involved, and there was a distinct resonance.

My questions at this point are myriad, as I’m sure you can imagine. Of course, our concern for your safety is paramount, so we hope you will not attempt to visit the remains of your office for the time being. If this was an attempt on your life, it would be dangerous for you and others around you to be here. All future correspondence will be remote.

As this is an arson case, it’s your liability. This is clearly stipulated by the leasing agreement, and we are not responsible for any loss of property. I’ve sent the contact information for our general counsel to your assistant. Per the terms of our contract, please contact us with any developments law enforcement has regarding your investigation.”

That office contained half of her archives—the good half she used during meetings with hopeful salvage captains. Those archives weren’t officially appraised, but she’d sunk a sizable portion of her savings into them. Her office was her taxable business front, and she’d hoped to convert part of it to a realty later so she could draw a more stable income.

But now it was up in smoke, and they weren’t going to replace her papers.

Boots spat into her trash can. “So much for going legit.”

“You want me to read you the contact info?”

“Nah. Screw them. That bloodsucker can call me if she wants me. Any theories on who toasted my office?”

“I wouldn’t want to speculate.” That was Kin’s code for “not in my memory banks.”

“What other messages do we have? Anything?” Boots tossed her mug into the dishwasher.

“Let’s see… here we are. It’s from the dockmaster.”

After a beep, she removed her mug and put it back on the countertop. No point putting it away when she was just going to use it again at lunch. “The dockmaster?”

“You put out a watch on the Capricious, in case it came into the station.”

Her stomach dropped. “And?”

“Looks like it docked six hours ago. Second time this week, in fact. He says he’s sorry for not telling you sooner. It slipped his mind.”

“Oh no. Kin, eject your core. We’ve got to go.”

“I was about to order some breakfast for—”

“Now, Kin!”

She scrambled over her couch to get to the dresser, where she tore into her drawers. She located a duffel and began stuffing her clothes into it as quickly as possible. Pants, shirts, and undergarments went in first, then she dug out the case for her old slinger. Boots popped the latches and looked inside at the dusty weapon—an ancient Carrington 23. She had scarcely fired it since the war, and she hadn’t been a crack shot even then. It had a few cartridges, each aglow with the orange light of a fire spell. Maybe she couldn’t carve a glyph, but even a dull-finger could pull a trigger.

She slapped the case shut and threw it in the duffel, then dashed to the wall panel where Kin’s crystalline core had begun to slide out of the edifice.

“Where are we going?” asked Kin.

“Away.” It was the truth, because she had no idea. “Get me a ticket on the first ship leaving the system.”

“You have no money, Lizzie.”

“So? You’re a military-grade AI! Make one for me!”

“Roger that. This will require several hours, and there is a high chance of alerting the authorities.” Kin was an ace code breaker, but he wasn’t exactly subtle inside a database. His attacks were brute force and left lots of evidence. “You’re likely to be arrested.”

“Forget it,” she growled.

She could’ve snapped that dockmaster’s neck for his failure to alert her. Those idiots on the Capricious were the last people in the galaxy she wanted to see after what she’d done to them. Yanking Kin out of the wall, she shoved the cube into the duffel and zipped it shut.

She whipped open her front door and stopped short.

The lanky silhouette of the Capricious’s Captain Cordell Lamarr filled her stoop. The artificial light of Gantry Station’s day cycle wreathed his dark brown skin with a yellow halo, blinding her hungover eyes and blocking her view of his expression. Was he angry? She didn’t wait to find out.

“Hey, Bootsie,” was all he got to say before she rushed forward and sunk a kick so hard into his groin he came off the ground.

She considered shoving him over the railing, but it was ten stories to the street, and she owed him for old times’ sake. Instead, she knocked his forehead against the rail as he doubled over, then she muscled past.

She couldn’t tell if he swore or choked on his own spit, but it didn’t matter. She’d put him down, and she’d be far away by the time he got back up.

She couldn’t take the stairs down. They’d be waiting. She could try to make the one-and-a-half-meter jump to the next building—it was only certain death if she fell. Boots took one more look at Cordell and vaulted the rail, launching across the small gap between the two buildings to land on the roof of Skylane Apartments. She rolled, but her knee responded with searing pain. Cordell bellowed her name somewhere behind her, but she wasn’t about to look back. Scrambling to her feet, she limped quickly to the other side of the roof and looked over the ledge.

Boots instantly recognized Orna Sokol, the Capricious’s quartermaster, lurking far below. Close-cropped black hair, a scarred face—even outside of her fighting armor, the tall woman couldn’t blend into a crowd. Boots searched her memory; Cordell needed six crew for a full complement, and a good captain never went out half-cocked. There’d be others skulking around.

“Boots, get back here!” Cordell shouted from the balcony, a quaver in his voice—not so commanding now. He clutched the railing, pain further contorting his enraged face.

She didn’t take the time to respond. Instead, she crossed to the escape ladder, slung a leg over, and slid down. She landed hard, her ankle taking the brunt of the blow. That leg wasn’t going to withstand much more punishment, and she’d be buying a healer’s mark if she wasn’t careful.

The plan had been to kick her way into someone’s window and head down through the building’s quick chutes, but she spotted an emergency box on the wall. She bashed in the glass and was pleased to find an unused descender, though now the fire alarm clicked on, alerting everyone to the nonexistent distress. Taking the small, crystalline disk in one hand, she mounted the side of the fire escape and leapt into the open air of the alley.

She crushed the fragile crystal, and its gooey magic enfolded her in a gelatinous cocoon. Her container hit the floor of the alley once, then after a big bounce, struck again, splashing open like an egg. She was left dripping wet with phantoplasm, flat on her ass in the middle of a dirty alcove, but at least she’d gotten down quickly.

Once upright, she surveyed her exits. Starward, there were more narrows to dive down and maybe lose her pursuers. Planetwise, she could rush into the public thoroughfare, where she might be able to confuse them.

“Orna!” screamed Cordell, tracing out a glowing glyph with all the speed of a pro. “She jumped! She’s in the alley!” He finished his spell and leapt over the edge. A bright blue shield snapped into focus around him and he shattered the pavement where he landed.

Not waiting another minute, Boots took off for the crowded street.

Hundreds of people milled through Gantry’s lowtown marketplace, and Boots was happy to see all of them. This was her town, and she knew dozens of places on the other side of the market to hide. Cordell wouldn’t shoot into a crowd, and he wouldn’t let his subordinates do that, either.

Boots knew a few of the vendors, and as she pushed her way toward safety, she prayed no one would call out to her. She pulled up her collar and kept her head down.

She wasn’t often thankful for a short, stocky stature and plain looks, but they came in handy from time to time. In a bland work shirt and worn pants, she looked exactly like everyone else. Cordell’s crew would have a tough time locating her from behind, unless they had a mage who could sense her specific life force. She’d only met three of his crew, so who could be sure?

It had been cold-blooded to sell them the map—even Boots had to admit that. But Cordell had so much money from two decades of smuggling, and was it Boots’s fault he wanted to believe in old legends? If anything, she was doing him a favor, because someone else might’ve led him into a trap, ambushed him on the far side of the galaxy and left his poor crew adrift in deep space. Boots didn’t have the resources required for an ambush, a starship, weapons, or a crew, but her impulse to spare them surely made her a good person.

She ducked down a side passage and sprinted to the next row over, all the while mulling the situation in her head. She didn’t feel bad about screwing over Cordell; he was part of the reason she was a broke liar in the first place. She’d tried to play nice after the war, do the right thing and surrender. Big-shot Arca Defense Force Captain Cordell Lamarr had refused.

She emerged from the passage in front of her favorite bar. A quick flash lit the crowd, and she spun to see a petite woman in a pilot’s jumper complete a glyph: she had marksman’s magic, which meant she’d never miss her next shot. On instinct, Boots tried to raise her duffel in front of her face, but the pilot leveled her slinger and put a clean shot into Boots’s hand. Numbness slithered up Boots’s arm and she lost her grip on the bag as a spasm flung it into the crowd of screaming bystanders.

The pilot’s aim snapped to Boots’s face and both women locked in place.

“Don’t even think about it,” said the pilot. For such a skinny thing, her voice had a clean edge. She was definitely ex-military. “Paralysis bolt. What do you think happens if this hits your chest?”

Boots slowly raised her nonparalyzed arm as the crowd parted behind her. “Easy, kid.”

The pilot’s slinger didn’t waver in her hand one bit. Boots hadn’t seen a marksman mage since the war, and the effect unnerved her.

She cleared her throat. “What do I need to do to make you stop pointing that heater at me?”

The pilot smirked. “We’ll ask the captain when he gets—”

A hard tackle from Garda, Boots’s regular barman, cut the pilot short. “Run!” he screamed as his two brothers came bursting through the front door. Her eyes darted to the duffel, but Boots did as she was asked, one arm flopping limply at her side.

Garda, a teenager with a hero complex, probably thought he was helping a defenseless older woman out. She’d have to remember to play that up next time she saw him; maybe it was worth a few drinks. Just before she rounded the corner, Boots saw Cordell and Orna descend into the melee with a few other members of the crowd. Silently, she thanked everyone who bought her a tiny sliver of time as she disappeared into the circuitous depths of Gantry Station.

The sign over the Widow’s Watch had extinguished long ago, its ephemeral beacon once a rallying point for all the refugees of Clarkesfall, both Arcan and Kandamili.

You don’t have to go in. Boots kept telling herself that, but she knew otherwise. She’d lost Kin in the scuffle, and she needed answers, so she came to the only place on Gantry Station she could get them. Boots despised the Watch and its owner, Silas, but he was connected, and he’d helped her out more than a few times. She watched the open door to the bar as though it would come billowing toward her, swallowing her alive. She wouldn’t be the first to die in there; there were loads of folks who shot one another inside those walls, or simply dosed themselves into a wakeless sleep.

Get in. Get info. Get out.

She stepped through the doorway and muscled past the junk-strewn alcove.

“Look who it is!” Silas’s rickety teeth barely supported the weight of a disgusted grimace. “I thought me and the boys kicked you out last time for fighting.”

He gestured to the “boys.” Not one of them was under forty. They languished in the darkness of the bar, listless each. They slept in military jackets worn twenty years past their use.

“Maybe you came to make amends… or maybe you want to peddle some more of your trash,” he added; pretty rich, coming from him. “Some of your junk star charts.”

“They’re not junk.”

“Maybe those charts were good, once. I watched your show. We all did. Cheered for you even, but in the end, you’re one of us: destined for the garbage heap.”

“Didn’t come in here to talk about the show.” She scooted to the bar and knocked twice for a drink. “Just want to know a few things.”

Boots glanced behind herself. She didn’t have time for the posturing and conversation, not with Kin lost and Cordell on her tail. He’d think to look for her here sooner or later, so she needed to get her facts and beat feet.

Silas reached under the counter to find his cheapest rotgut in a scuffed, oily plastic bottle. He made a show of taking a slobbery shot from the mouth before pouring some of it into a dirty tumbler.

She took a long pull of the glass, its burning liquid like sucking an eidolon power crystal. Then she put it down, never breaking eye contact.

“Did Cordell burn down my office?”

“Maybe.” He sniffled. “Did you deserve it?”

Boots’s scowl could’ve scorched a lesser man, but Silas barely noticed. “I’ve done some low things in my time, but of course I didn’t deserve it. I had half my assets tied up in there.”

“I don’t think Cordell put one through your office, but he came in after that. He was asking about you, and of course I told him where you was living.”

Her stiff swallow left her coughing like a dying man. “Why would you do that, Sy?”

“I just wanted you two back on the same team is all. Miss the old days.”

“Not going to happen. So can you take a guess at the arsonist?”

“I got better than a guess, but you got to pay for that.”

“Only if you comp my whiskey.”

“Tell you what: it’s five hundred for the glass.”

She cursed and dug around in her pocket for her paragon crystal—a small, metal box they gave to folks who couldn’t trace a glyph for payment. Everyone knew what they looked like, but whenever she pulled hers out, people acted like they’d never seen one before.

Silas smirked. “What happens if you lose that thing? Can I get into your bank accounts?”

It’d happened before. There were plenty of scribblers who’d boost it from someone who couldn’t cast. She made a habit to keep the paragon a secret, but once or twice, it hadn’t panned out. She’d woken up beaten in an alleyway with a drained bank account. The cops would just tell her she was lucky to be alive.

She tapped it to his cash pad. “Sure. Except you wouldn’t be stealing much.”

He gave her a hard stare while he waited for the money to clear. Then his look darkened. “You got a bad sort looking for you. This old crone came through the refugee district knocking heads, looking for Arcans. You got to know something about this one: she looked like a walking war crime. Had the kind of cruel gaze I used to see a lot during the last days on Clarkesfall.”

Boots suppressed a visible gulp. She knew that look: hungry and brutal.

“She was asking where you lived, and them boys told her where your office was instead. Ain’t nobody going to sell out another Fallen, spite of your ways.”

Don’t call me that. “Ask about anything in particular?”

“Sure. She wanted to know who was peddling info about the Harrow.”

Boots sucked her teeth. The story of the Harrow was a difficult one, and something she’d cobbled together out of a lot of different sources. A simple enough tale: the Harrow was a Taitutian conspiracy theory about a legendary warship capable of wiping countries off planets. It supposedly disappeared under spooky circumstances, but the story was all garbage.

The legend had fetched a high price from some creep back in more civilized space. She couldn’t remember the fellow’s name, but his argents spent just like everyone else’s. Kin would know who the buyer was.

Except she’d dropped Kin back in the marketplace.

She had what she needed; time to find a graceful exit to the conversation and go. A flash of light in the dull room caught her eye: a single screen hovering near the back of the room. It was bent and twisted, its magic about to unravel from years of use and no maintenance. Race cars streaked across it, their colorful stripes setting them against the dingy tavern scenery.

“Shame,” grunted Silas.

“That so many people watch something so stupid?”

“I’m going to ignore that. A racer died today, first in decades. Cyril Clowe—son of a Fallen.”

The screen switched to a distant, blurry shot of a smoking wreck blasting out of a tunnel.

Boots scratched her nose. “Yeah? You know him?”

“Cyril? His daddy was a big muckitymuck after the war. But, uh, nah. I didn’t know him.”

Boots backed away from the bar, sliding her glass forward as she did. “Then who gives a damn? Boy died driving in circles… but I guess you two are a lot alike.”

“How so?”

“You both act like you’re going forward, but you only end up where you were.” She gave him a mock salute, slapping her heart like the Arcans. “Stay cool, Silas.”


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