Content guidance: Stardust contains adult themes: gore, violence, profanity, sexual innuendo, and hate speech (fictional nationalism and transphobia)

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

Clipper-type voidcraft don’t have articulating VTOL engines, much less the spare fuel or propellant capacity that would be necessary for a gentle vertical landing. That’s a problem in this, the most inhospitable region of our world. Clippers are engineered for brisk worldwide transportation. They barely skip off the atmosphere. This Heron is no exception. When we hailed her, she had few options but to continue to her original destination. That was always going to be an airfield or a very flat and lengthy geological feature.

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

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

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

“Always the optimist, Tea,” I respond.

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

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

“I’m bringing her in.”

Windsong is a heavy and powerful vessel for only three operators, and she cuts right through the crosswind as I bank over and prepare her for hover mode. The Starlings were originally envisioned as a heavy cargo runner. They were merely going to supplant the super-heavy launch rockets we had used for over a century. That is, until someone discovered that their modular interior design and powerful articulating engines made them versatile for all sorts of unexpected tasks. My ship is a Jill of all trades, master of none. She isn’t nimble, but she’s stable in flight, and switching over from a horizontal flight profile to VTOL in a tempered gale is no issue. I’m able to get us within two hundred meters of the Heron without too much of a struggle against the climes.

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

I check a few things before I dismiss myself. The gauges are looking good for a quick hop over to resupply our reactor and propellant at Lodestone on our way back to Tencair. Nominal battery—a little surprising considering how much electrical energy we pumped through the hull upon descent—but I guess the alternators kept up. Our four engines are spinning down to idle just fine, and the landing suspension is steady.

Once satisfied, I reach overhead and switch the engines off. The engine housings to either side of the ship bellow in cries of ever-lower frequency and volume.

Our impounded clipper sits horizontal to our own flight deck. The Heron is prone, compliant, and ready to be inspected. Snow haze blows around her frame and renders her more of a contour than a shape. It hits me that this harsh arctic weather might pose a problem for us and an opportunity for any malicious actors onboard. I could have called for reinforcements earlier, but our target wasn’t stringing us along. Lodestone is so far away now that it would take over an hour for the Royal Constabulary to arrive with subsonic patrol sloops. I decide it’s a good idea to call it in, anyway. The clipper will need fuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea just wants to put my mind at ease. We know the dangers of this job, but deferential suspects aren’t much better than the real criminals. Most often, a cooperative landing like this results in a warning. At worst, it results in a summons, a fine, and a few choice curse-outs from the captain. Sometimes it’s a slur directed at me specifically. Those exchanges are just the best.

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

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

As I step off Windsong’s gangway, I hear the crunch of ice and snow beneath my boot. The sudden noise brings a tingling sensation to the base of my skull, and reminds me of the importance of sound in awareness, memory, and recollection. I often try to justify the solitary nature of my job, but I always come back to my teenage treks through Sibyl’s equatorial zone. The few protected regions left untouched by civilization, that is. The sounds I hear now allow me to imagine myself in that same natural beauty once again: driftwood twigs breaking beneath my toes, the wind howling over a jagged landscape, and the sky above blazing red and lavender. Even though the scene in front of me is different, now that I’m here after so much time spent in the black, it feels similar.

But those rekindled memories betray my senses. My visor says the temperature here is eighty degrees below freezing. Pleasantly warm for the poles.

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

Snow blasted air attenuates the amber morning light of our home sun Astrild in every direction, so we tread towards the clipper carefully. Our visibility is nearly adequate, but Fletcher was right to bring along the infrared scopes. They could prove useful in our search.

I take point, attempting to correct my posture as we walk toward the metal bird ahead. My flight suit can provide warmth and moderate comfort for several hours in any conceivable environment. But it’s not a true second skin. Nor is it an exoskeleton. Alternating between ankle-deep compacted snow and ice as smooth as glass with my weakened legs is a frustrating challenge. I need to bring my quivering knees back under my control. I find the simple body language projected by standing tall helps a lot when encountering the suspect.

Though I’ve taken point, Tea is right next to me, trudging through the frigid mess. I send Fletch around back to enter from the clipper’s loading ramp. It’s not down yet; something the Heron’s captain will hear my complaints about shortly. I have my hand hovering over my holster in case that goes sour.

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

Tea and I step into the shadow of the vessel. Instead of a gangway, she has a fancy embarking platform. It has already been lowered and illuminated for us. It’s a chokepoint. If anything unlawful is going on inside, we could emerge from the elevator with several hand cannons pointed in our faces. But we’re going to have to accept that risk. That’s the job. With giant icicles in the way and no fuel, these guys aren’t going anywhere.

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

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

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

A couple of last items as we ascend the glitzy neon tube. Suit comms switched to external. Standoff sensor packs and multi-tools on standby. A brief report from Fletcher; he’s in position outside the loading ramp waiting for it to open. Although I’m rough around the edges and need to have my dominant hand hovering over my holster, I enter a relaxed interview stance. Tea kicks the toes of her boot impatiently against the elevator floor while waiting for it to finish lifting us into the airlock. I motion for her to stop that. She looks like a petulant child with a submachine gun. An unnecessary reproof, maybe, but I don’t know when the lift will stop and these doors will open. She agrees and stands to attention.

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

“Welcome aboard, Interdictors. What seems to be the trouble? I believe it must have something to do with our change of flight plan.” With a light chuckle, he adds, “We could certainly use the help.”

I look at Tea, bewildered. She gives me a similar stare. This situation with the civilian flight makes little sense, and the light reception isn’t helping. We assumed it was a commercial flight that couldn’t communicate with air traffic control and headed off into the wilderness for safety. But instead, we have a lonely flight officer welcoming us on board. It’s not a typical commercial crew compliment. We should be greeted by two pilots and an attendant.

I motion for Tea to leave the room. She does, cautiously checking around the corner before confidently walking out, gun ready but lowered.

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

I hesitate.

“Uh, yes...” I start. My voice crackles, more because I am baffled, and less because it’s transmitted through my helmet. But my eyes fall back on the man, who is patiently awaiting me with an unnerving little smile.

“I am Interdictor Ashlee Rinn Jensdottir, and as my deputy Teresa Shaaban relayed to you before we touched down, your vessel is under warrant for inspection under Her Majesty’s mandate for aerospace safety and freight security.”

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

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

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

“Heh.” A common misconception. “We’re not the Constabulary, sir. Our role is to assess your situation and provide first assistance. Any further concerns will be promptly communicated to the appropriate higher authorities.”

I give the short man one last look and reach for the clasps around my neck. A wispy sound, and a cool draft of air around my face as my head pops out. I shake some unruly ice-blue bangs out of my eyes, feeling the damp strands brush against my skin, and carefully place the helmet down on a plush, heavily cushioned seat. Standing awkwardly and regarding the man—and perhaps losing some of my authority—I find him with arms folded, looking at me patiently.

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

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

I step forward. I’m taller than the suspect, although he is looking less suspicious by the moment. Maybe that will help me reassert myself.

“What’s your name, sir?”

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

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

“I have requested a resupply skiff to bring you fuel and get your ship turned around for departure. I can’t imagine that I will detain anyone aboard. But you were flying erratically up there with no identification, and the safe stewardship of orbital traffic is my charge. Just give me some information I can pass off to the Constabulary, and we can make this painless and get you on your way. Okay?”

He bows his head in an abbreviated nod.

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

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

He exhales in that contrite sort of way someone who has explaining to do does. I can hear the frustration in his voice as he begins his story. This pilot wants to do his job and go home, just like my own crew. He doesn’t want to be here, in the middle of nowhere.

“I am with Vista Aviation. This is a state-chartered flight from Diya to Farsleigh. Her Majesty’s Government knows of our original flight plan. We are HM 899. We encountered severe trouble with our broadwave equipment some time into our flight. Strangely, that seems to have included the transponder itself. In my over thirty years of flying, I’ve never experienced such a thorough fault.”

He pauses briefly to tap on a dataslate. He continues, “Our tightbeam is functional, but it’s optical and not made for atmospheric operation. I lased out a PAN-PAN to a few satellites ahead of us before we hit too much air. They should be able to relay the distress and landing coordinates. Without radio coverage, landing at a busy aerodrome like Farsleigh would have been unsafe. Luckily, this bird has some sturdy tundra tires for shuttling out to remote airstrips. I decided the best course of action was to land where we could be of no harm and try to fix the broadwaves while waiting for support to arrive.

“And then, there you were. We used the signal lights to contact you. You are right to be here. I’m glad you are.”

“The Royal Constabulary is already on its way?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s my assumption,” he replies.

“I’m from Tencair, so remind me if you would. Diya is an old stronghold of House Lamont, right? Southern hemisphere, far side of the Raina Mare somewhere?” I recall aloud with wavering confidence.

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

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


“All clear back here, Ash. Just a bunch of stuck-up government types and scared flight attendants,” she says. “They really didn’t like the sight of my guns. I’m checking the cargo hold now.”

This is going to make the most absurd story. We just pulled a five G re-entry and chased down a house charter for no reason. If the R.C. and the traffic controllers received Captain Vendian’s message, this being a government flight, we might not even get paid for our intercept.

Suppressing my exasperation as best I can, I sigh softly. Maintaining a respectful demeanor, I return to the man.

“Where’s your co-pilot?”

He gestures toward the corridor behind me.

“Trace went down below to see what he might do about the broadwaves. He’d have been back there sooner, but we needed to both be at the helm for our emergency descent, you see.”

“I see that, sir. And your loading doors? All access points should be cleared and disarmed when you submit to a search.”

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

I share in the captain’s confusion for less than a second before...

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

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

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

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

Sternly, I quickly cast the directives out of my mouth, pointedly staring down the bewildered little old man. I can no longer be polite.

“Captain Vendian, I need your assistance. Get up to the flight deck and try to lower the cargo access again. Tamper with the hydraulic controls if you have to. See what else the flight computer can tell you about your hardware.”

“Uh, yes, Officer—I mean, Captain,” he stammers, before stumbling off toward the voidcraft’s nose.

I dash in the other direction, the way Tea went down, past rows of private berths and compact staterooms. I get to the first bulkhead and order the door open, pistol at the ready.

There are the ‘government types’ that Tea mentioned, gossiping amongst themselves as pretentious suits are wont to do. They all stop and gawk at me as I burst into their room, stepping back to the wall. That’s the look I always get, startled or not. I glance once at the officials on either side as I run through the space they’ve made for me.

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

I line up aside the next bulkhead door in a breaching position. Looking back at the addled and mystified faces, I find all the well-groomed advocates and minor politicians are staring me down. They want to know who this loud and disgruntled gendarme is.

I furrow my brow and shout.


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

I don’t hear any gunfire myself, but I can hear a few controlled shots over our comms. A fight is ongoing. Whatever Tea is up against, it’s not trivial.

I bust into the next compartment, this one vacant. It has rows of seats on either side, like a conventional passenger craft. I scurry down the length, and it becomes apparent that the shots are reverberating through the floor below. A Heron’s voidframe broadens toward the aft, so there should be a bulkhead door or ingress somewhere for access to the cargo hold. I kneel and find a gap in the floor paneling that’s been accessed already. I give the heavy metal hatch a pull and a heave...

“Ash, watch—”

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

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

“Tea, what’s your status?!”

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

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

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

“It’s a beautiful day to die, Ash.”

Fuck you, Tea.

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

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

Well, that explains a lot.

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

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

This encounter feels impossible. We have two heavily armed criminals, and each will have a gun aimed at a narrow ingress. If either of us ventures out, we'll be reduced to blood and dust within seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rise from my knee and sway against the railing.

“Status?” I call.

“Present,” from Fletch, over wave.

Tea takes a moment to scope out the corners below.

“Clear,” she says.

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

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

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

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

“Right here.”

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

I can barely restrain my laughter.

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

“And how?” adds Tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am inclined to believe Vendian's assertion that he had no prior knowledge of the stowaways lurking in the recesses of his vessel. At first, he was in denial, but then I showed him the images from out back. He has been quiet, bargaining with himself over the loss of his co-pilot since. I wonder if they were close friends, but it’s none of my business.

The politician, in contrast, is rambling on defensively. I’ve tuned out as much as I can.

“ a diplomat reporting directly to Her Majesty’s House Assembly, I can reassure you, Interdictor Rinn, that a complete investigation will be executed once the Royal Constabulary arrives. It is unthinkable that a government flight would harbor stowaways, particularly violent criminals, as you report. You may, of course, be called upon to give testimony in such an inquiry, should it occur at the Klatching.”

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

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

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

“Yes, of course, Envoy Giroux,” I mutter.

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

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

“Yes, sir, that’s our thought.” Thank the stars Fletcher picked up that confab. I’ve had enough talk with this egotistical nutbucket.

“As dangerous as it is,” Fletcher continues, “Compound K is a popular recreational drug, even among the elite. While we interdictors do not have jurisdiction over law enforcement investigations, our initial assessment is that the sabotage of your broadwave was calculated to force you to land in a remote location so the packages could be smuggled off under cover of solitude. It is not unreasonable to surmise that the trafficker’s client is among your passenger manifest.”

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

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

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

“Yes, I am aware,” the diplomat stops him mid-sentence. “But it begs another question. Why do you suppose these men did not disembark with their illicit goods immediately?”

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

“They fucked up,” I finish. Enough dancing around the only obvious conclusion. “And they accidentally severed the government-coded transponder. That was their only ruse when they cut the broadwave. They panicked when they realized you had us in tow, and now an innocent life is lost.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

Tea appears before our second-rate inquisition, standing in the doorway. Her shadow is impossible to miss in the blinding light that envelops this garish little conference room.

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

I push myself up from the table.

“Yeah, we’re done here,” I say.

I glare back at the two men sitting across from Fletcher and myself, making sure that my distaste is known.

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

That sarcastic tone is purposefully chosen for everyone in earshot. My venom will let them all know how far I feel this society has fallen. I don’t look back as I round the corner, put on my helmet, and enter the airlock. I fucking hate politicians.

Proceed to Chapter 4 >