I feel like I should have titled this blog post No, I’m Not Dead. I’ve been hard at work writing the sequel to Echelon and thought I’d share a little of the beginning as it currently stands.
Bear in mind, this is not the finished product. I may scrap all of this when I start revising and editing, etc. Key plot points may change. I know a lot of the descriptions are probably going to change, and I definitely haven’t checked this for typos. Just thought I’d share a portion of the beginning, as it currently stands.
Please let me know what you think in the comments below.
* * *
The city of Skielach spread out below them through the tops of the clouds like a multitude of brightly-colored rubber balls. Maia barely registered it due to the fact that she was trying very hard not to feel queasy as the shuttle bounced its way through the atmosphere.
Kaylan, standing beside her–both of them holding onto the rings bolted into the ceiling (though his long arms didn’t have to stretch nearly as far as hers did), their feet the only part strapped down–was no help. She could almost feel his irritation, even though she wasn’t in the shared space between souls and even though his face, like all Darushee, rarely showed whatever emotion he happened to be feeling. His tall frame moved with each bounce, his knees like a spring, bending and unbending as they descended, his copper-red braids in a high ponytail swaying back and forth. Maia had been trying to mimic him, but it only made her legs feel like jelly.
“We have almost finished our entry,” a female voice chirped. “Thank you for being patient.”
Another bounce and Maia gritted her teeth. Any harder and the baby might decide to try her own descent.
Maybe staying on Roz would have been better.
No, she told herself yet again. In the four months since she’d left Earth and become part of life on board the Darushee ship, Roz, life had been pleasant enough. And nerve-wracking. Not because of anything Kaylan, bounty hunter and Roz’s captain, or Roz herself had done. They’d both been very accommodating. No, the problem had been something that had happened while they were leaving Earth’s solar system through the Weird, a problem that wouldn’t go away and was the reason they were traveling to Skielach in the first place.
Something was wrong with Roz. Of course, if you asked Roz directly, she would say she was perfectly fine. Kaylan and Maia knew better. Kaylan had tried to explain, when Maia had first brought up the idea of going with him, that she had no reason to mistrust either Roz or Ventra, the program that had caused the trouble in the first place by claiming Maia could be a possible substitute for the ones that should be using it. Ventra seemed to be designed as a tool for the Matriarchs, rulers of the Darushee clans. Only a Matriarch could use it. And that was what frightened Maia the most.
Ventra, according to Roz, held the files that the ship would use if she went into labor. And the more she thought about that, the less she liked the idea.
She might have Darushee abilities due to the serum her husband had given her, but the end result of that was unknown. And if she was treated as a Matriarch by a Darushee ship, the changes he’d begun might accelerate and that was the last thing she wanted in these last few months of pregnancy.
As far as she was concerned, this was going to be her only child. And she wanted to experience it as a human, not a Darushee.
Of course, there was more to her wanting to leave than that: things like whether or not Ventra’s files might actually be useful for a human. Now, as the ship barreled closer to the planet she was beginning to think she might have preferred to stay.
It lurched and her enormous belly bumped into the alien in front of her, a creature that looked like someone had put the upper half of a lizard on a squid’s tentacles. It turned and hissed. Maia pressed herself as far back as she dared in the cramped quarters. “I’m sorry,” she apologized in Darunihin.
Kaylan hissed back, though the tone was also apologetic. There was a bit of hissing back and forth, and she realized the person she’d bumped was grumbling when another passenger clicked at the lizard-squid and he gave her one final glare before facing forward like the rest.
Maia held tighter to the ring.
“You won’t want to come,” Kaylan had said when she’d first asked. “I can’t bring Roz near the planet without Idierd knowing. Four months in a Xingsen shuttle is miserable for anyone traveling in it, let alone an Airie getting ready to give birth. How close are you now?”
She hadn’t felt she could give the reason, not with Roz listening to everything they said. She’d given him one weak excuse after another: what if Idierd found out and came for Roz and he wasn’t there (“It would be more dangerous for you to come with me,” he’d countered), what if one of the prisoners he in the Hold escaped, (“Nemed would stop that before it started. It’s why he stays in the Hold.”). Finally, when she’d exhausted all her weak reasons, she hinted at the true one.
“I don’t know what will happen while you’re gone.” And she’d hoped that something in the look on her face would tell him what her words couldn’t, what she didn’t dare even think for very long. She didn’t trust Roz. Not unless he was there.
Kaylan had looked at her for a long time through those eyes whose odd angle was just enough to make it clear he wasn’t human, then told her to pack whatever she needed. “You do realize,” he’d said as she’d turned away, “that if you come with, you won’t be on Roz when you give birth. There won’t be time to bring you back.”
“I think there will,” she had said. “Things go wrong with Idierd, you’ll want to make a fast getaway. I can’t see you not planning for that.”
It was the last time she’d seen him smile since they began this trip. And for some reason, that smile was what kept her going.
“You’re not holding tight enough,” he grumbled, and put an arm around her, even though her enormous belly made that awkward.
“I’m sorry, master,” she replied in Darunihin. That had been the other stipulation to her going with him. Given the current status of humans in this part of the universe, he had to pretend she was his slave.
An obviously pregnant slave, which no Darushee in his right mind would take with him anywhere, but a slave nonetheless. Only the fact that the act ended when they were in their quarters made it even somewhat tolerable.
But after four months, she had begun to worry, though he’d showed no signs of it, that the pretending might be forming a bad habit in his mind. Darushee were, after all, the same ones who had shipped a large portion of humanity off into space as slaves…for their own good, as she’d recently learned, since it was believed they weren’t sentient, according to the Darushee standards. Apparently, slavery was supposed to help with that. Somehow. Though Kaylan didn’t act like others of his kind, that didn’t mean he didn’t think the same. And when she’d realized that, she also realized they were still strangers, even after four months in the same close quarters.
Which was, she decided, as it should be. Once they found the information Kaylan thought Idierd might have about Roz and the newly discovered program, Ventra, she would start looking for a new place to raise her daughter. The sooner she could find her feet, the better.
The ship tilted to the side as they circled down through the clouds and she gasped when she saw Skielach for what it was.
It was, as near as she could tell, a floating city. What had looked like enormous rubber balls were actually the tops of a multitude of dirigibles that moved above and among skyscrapers that weren’t visible above the clouds. They descended to a sleek, gray platform that connected two of the skyscrapers. Kaylan didn’t move, so neither did Maia. He’d said nothing to her through their whole journey about where exactly they’d be staying in the city of Skielach, but given that he knew far more than she did and had, in his job as a bounty hunter, traveled far more than she had, she’d decided to trust him.
“Now arriving at Virach Station,” a female voice chirped from overhead. “Please gather your things and leave the ship in an orderly fashion. Eishan Shuttles would like to remind its passengers that, for your own security, all faces are scanned both on entrance and departure of the shuttle. We provide this service as a way of thanking you for choosing us. Eishan Shuttles will always do everything in its power to make sure your trip to Skielach is as safe as possible.”
How comforting, Maia thought with an internal grimace. It didn’t escape her that scanning faces helped Idierd know who was arriving and who wasn’t, given that he owned the company.
As the woman spoke, the crowd jostled past. Kaylan tightened his grip around her and didn’t let go until more than half of the people on board had left.
“Next stop,” the voice chirped from overhead, “Brrrath Station.”
The doors closed and the ship descended again, leaving the sleek, gray platform to fly down into a web of traffic that caused the ship to slow and start in fits and jumps that made Maia cling tighter to the ring than she had when they’d first arrived.
And still Kaylan said nothing.
The air increased in what had to be smog and she caught glimpses of open windows with red feathered creatures sitting in them, looking tired and worn. The ship turned and descended yet again, this time low enough she saw actual paved streets far below them, with people walking along the cracked surface.
They landed on a rickety looking stone pathway (if stone could look rickety) and the voice overhead chirped, “Brrrath Station.” She repeated everything she had said previously, and most of the ones left gathered their things and walked through the doors.
Kaylan waited until a small clump had formed, then quickly grabbed his bag from between his feet and hoisted it over his shoulder. Maia did the same, grabbing his sleeve as they joined the crowd. The last thing she wanted to do was get separated on a strange planet, especially one with a merchant whom Kaylan was concerned might still be after Roz and had an enormous amount of power in this city.
As they approached the doorway, Kaylan got behind a particularly tall creature with a face and body that vaguely resembled granite. Maia did the same, looking down just in case that was a sign of submission on other worlds as well. It couldn’t hurt.
They left the shuttle and Kaylan followed the crowd to an elevator with rusted silver trimmings and peeling fabric covering a metal skeleton that shimmied as they descended even further down. At each stop, the elevator car screamed and shuddered until Maia was sure whatever was lowering the box would finally let go and they would fall to the bottom, however many floors that was.
Kaylan said nothing, not until the box was empty and they arrived at the ground floor. He stepped out and a faint smile appeared on his usually emotionless face. Though she saw his lips move in his native Darunihin, the comm in her ear translated them into English. “Wishing you’d stayed?”
She couldn’t help a touch of defiance in her reply, even though she was probably supposed to be keeping up the act now that they were in public. “Not yet,” she replied in English, knowing it would be translated as well.
“Just wait until we get our rooms. The Norbern is well-known for a lively ecology of insects in…everything.”
Her skin crawled, but if this was his way of making her wish she’d changed her mind, she wasn’t going to give in. “I can handle that.”
His smile grew. “No, you won’t. I’m going to ask for fumigated rooms.”
Relief flooded her. “Thank you.”
It still felt odd, hearing his words as casual English. Another result of the problem in the Weird. Roz had gotten inside her head and used what she’d found to add to the language files on board. The more she thought of that, the more relieved she was that Kaylan had agreed to let her come with, even if hearing casual English made her feel like he was less of a stranger and more of a friend.
They stepped out into the gray sunlight of street-level Skielach and walked carefully down the broken street. Weeds grew up in between the cracks and she made a point of trying to avoid brushing against them as they walked.
“They won’t hurt you,” Kaylan said, digging in his jacket pocket for something as they walked.
“Are you sure?”
He paused, then murmured, “No.”
Alerted by his change in tone, she lifted her head and saw a small group of gray-skinned men, shirtless, with a symbol etched in tattoo on their right pecs that looked either like a squiggly square or a twisted circle. A ribbon, she finally decided, based on the way the lines turned. And in the center of that twisting ribbon was a circle.
“Eyes down,” Kaylan murmured. “Don’t speak.”
“Yes, master,” she answered in Darunihin.
The men came forward, dark hair blowing in the wind like a shaggy dog’s fur. They stopped, not letting them pass, and the leader smiled, revealing sharp canines. “You are one of the honored ones.”
“So they tell me,” Kaylan replied.
Maia looked down, afraid her response was too late. She heard the leader take a step forward.
“Our leader wishes to speak with you. He is also one of the honored ones.”
Another of the Darushee? The last thing she wanted to do was be around Darushee.
Except for Kaylan. Kaylan was all right.
“And which one of the honored ones is he?” Kaylan replied. “There are many in Clan Eishan.”
The leader paused. When he spoke, Maia knew Kaylan had offended him. “The one who owns the city of Skielach. The one whose vessels allow you to travel from space to sky. The one–”
“Tell Idierd I’ll see him as long as it means you’ll stop talking.”
Now, there was a long pause. Then, deeply offended, the leader continued in a clipped tone. “He is waiting for you in your room.”
And with that, the small group fanned out, clearly intending to follow them the rest of the way.
“May I ask a question, master,” Maia said in Darunihin, not wanting to take any chances.
“Of course.” But his tone was wary and she noticed he was staying alert.
“How great an honor is it for Idierd to go out of his way to meet you?” she asked in English to save time.
“He never touches the ground,” he answered in Darunihin, though the comm translated. “It’s rumored that even the Matriarch of Clan Eishan wouldn’t move him from his place in the clouds.”
“And yet,” she said, trying her best to sound humble, “he’s decided to visit you.”
“Yes. It is,” and she noted the tension in his smile when he spoke it, “quite an honor.”
Idierd was not what Maia had expected. The only Darushee she’d known, other than Kaylan, had been beautiful, deadly, and void of expression. Only Kaylan showed emotions she recognized, and never at the volume that blasted her when they opened the door to a top-level penthouse suite they had been told was reserved for them.
“Noritarsha Kaylan!” The powerful merchant, Idierd, stood and walked toward them, his violet gown rippling like water as he moved. “What a surprise! I never expected you to come back after our disagreement.” Maia had never seen a smile that wide on a Darushee before. “Why did you not warn me so that I could prepare?”
“I don’t intend to stay long.”
And Maia realized somehow from the way Kaylan stood and the unsurprised, faint smile on his face, that Kaylan had expected Idierd to catch up with him at some point.
“And you thought it would be rude. Or did you think I was still angry?” Without waiting for an answer, Idierd turned away, waving his hand as if at some invisible fly. “Such petty things, disagreeing over who owns a ship. That day has caused me much regret, and the only thing I regret more is that I didn’t send a roly after you to let you know that I no longer have any interest in something you earned. After all,” Idierd turned and sat in one of the worn, yet cushioned chairs, “my own life is a constant battle against the rulers of this city to keep what I’ve earned by my own sweat and industry. Taking what’s yours would make me far too much like them.” He shuddered.
Maia realized she was staring and looked at the floor.
“And what is this?”
“A slave I picked up when I was in the Aishe galaxy.”
“Were you there?” Idierd sounded genuinely interested. “How is Matriarch Larinara doing?”
“I didn’t stay long there, either.”
“Long enough to get a slave. My dear boy,” the chair creaked as Idierd shifted, “if you’d wanted a slave, I could have given you whatever you needed. Do you need anymore?”
“No, thank you, Eishan Idierd.”
“So polite. You haven’t changed a bit.”
Maia couldn’t help hearing a sizing up in that phrase, as if Idierd were circling to see where he might get in.
“Thank you, Eishan Idierd.”
“Just Idierd. Formalities always annoyed me, even when they were necessary to keep things straight. And you shall be simply Kaylan. I hope you don’t mind my impertinence in changing your rooms, but when I received word that you were arriving, I couldn’t let you stay in the rooms you’d chosen. Humility is both your gift and your downfall, and rooms such as you’d chosen were never meant for our kind to step foot in.”
“They suit me,” Kaylan replied. “I’ve never felt comfortable with extravagance.”
She remembered how huge Roz was, the enormous amount of space compared to the Xingsen shuttle that she’d been lucky she could barely lie down in. Kaylan certainly felt comfortable there.
“And a separate room for your slave? I remembered you were kind but–”
“She requires more, temporarily, than my own rooms would provide.”
“Ah.” His tone implied that Kaylan had taken a chance by interrupting him and failed. But if it was a lasting feeling, it didn’t show in his next words. “Pregnant, isn’t she?”
Her face grew hot.
“Did you know it when you got her?”
Which was, Maia knew, the truth.
“I wouldn’t trust whoever sold her to you, then. All slaves are supposed to be marked if they’re pregnant.” She heard Idierd get up and walk toward them again. “May I?”
“Look up,” Kaylan said to her. She did and found herself staring at Idierd’s suddenly keen gaze. He looked at her from the left, the right, then took two steps back and looked her up and down, as if she were an object in a gallery. Slowly, he began to walk around her.
“Not bad. More muscle than the ones I’ve been getting. Where did you get her?”
“On the planet Aishe.”
“You caught her yourself?” Idierd looked scandalized. Then, a slow smile grew, one that made Maia’s skin crawl. “Of course you would, with your skills. Cut right to what you want. I like that. I try to avoid distributors whenever I can, myself. Costs less.” He was standing in front of her again, and this time he almost appeared admiring. “She’s a fine specimen. You chose well.”
“Thank you.” She could tell from Kaylan’s tone that he hadn’t expected Idierd’s assessment.
“Does she know any Darunihin?”
“A little. We use the comms for the rest.”
“Wonderful,” and now he seemed genuinely appreciative. “But don’t stop with the lessons. We’re having a problem right now with buyers who seem to expect Airie to know the language in detail. If they don’t understand, they’re punished. Terrible thing. I’m telling you this because some of the others on my ship might expect her to know more than she does.”
“Your ship? Eishan Idierd–”
“Idierd, only, and yes, my ship. You don’t expect me to let you and this fine specimen of her species to remain here on the ground when I have a comfortable airship for you to sleep on.”
“I don’t intend to stay long.”
“I’m not going to hold you. Just a few days. That’s all. Long enough for you to do whatever you need to do here, and long enough for your slave to rest in comfortable quarters.”
On the Xingsen ship, she’d asked Kaylan was Idierd was like. He’d said that he was powerful, ambitious, traded in everything, and that if he was ever generous to her, to mistrust it as much as she had him when they’d first met. Always ask what he was going to get out of it.
But what that might be in this case wasn’t clear. Not with his warm smile and seemingly genuine concern for Kaylan’s well-being.
“Your ship is always distracting,” Kaylan said, himself showing a faint smile. “It would be an insult to think I could do business while I was there.”
Idierd’s smile didn’t falter. “Then don’t. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your rest. Enjoy whatever I have at my disposal. It’s the least I could do to apologize for the way I treated you before.”
And to her great surprise, given all the warnings and dark looks he’d worn whenever the topic of Idierd had come up on Roz, he smiled, warm and full, and said, “Very well.”
Idierd clapped his hands and an albino human appeared out of the shadows of the room to stand next to him. He turned to her and said, “Tell the men we’re leaving immediately.”