Crownchasers – Rebecca Coffindaffer

THE OTARI CAME HERE TO DIE. The storm is no place for a living thing. Wind and sleet howl through the ravine, thick greenish clouds tainting what little light reaches the cold planet’s surface. The cliff face is bare, just slick black stone eroded by poison rain. The center of the basin has turned to mud a half meter thick, where one misstep would mean a slow suffocation. And yet a figure moves through the mire. The otari pauses to get his bearings and leans against an outcropping. The light from his wristmounted display is barely visible in the maelstrom. He raises his head, looking back the way he had come. Surely this is deep enough, far enough. Remote enough. After a moment, the otari trudges on. His survival suit is standard-issue—airtight and lightly armored, with heavy-duty gloves and boots and the dome of a helmet. But all insignias and labels have been stripped away. The computerized wristband is rudimentary—no geo-pulse or satellite link that might be scanned or tracked.

Electronically, magnetically, the suit is invisible. Its occupant is just as much a ghost. He’d had a name, but he’d left it behind long ago, dedicating himself to serving the throne by joining one of the most secretive, elite forces in the empire. His face exists on no database. His flesh has been scrubbed of any identifying marks. There is no one who knows him, no one who will miss him, no person or creature left alive who will remember him. He’s mastered the art of disappearing, of passing through spaceports like a wraith, another face in the crowd. This has been his life. His journey has taken weeks, hopping from planet to planet, following a seemingly random path across the quadrant to confuse any who might be following him. No one can know his task or his final destination.

Every precaution has been taken to ensure he cannot be tracked. And yet he still glances over his shoulder, as if something might be watching him in the dark. His eyes shift back to the ravine. A little farther. The wind picks up, buffeting his suit. The howl is deafening, screaming through the canyon. The otari pushes on, wedging himself between two rock faces and shimmying down, down to where no light is visible. Under the rock shelf it’s drier, the wind softer, the howling reduced to a low whimper. This is it. Here.

From a secret panel on his suit, the otari extracts the object he’s carried with him for so long, the item he’s kept hidden until this very moment. It is a small thing to be so important—a flat platinum disc, about the size of his palm. The royal seal. As his gloved fingertips touch it, the surface ripples, revealing the slightly raised emblem of the United Sovereign Empire: an array of luminous pinpricks representing the allied planets, joined by faint geodesic lines, and on top of that, a crown situated over the crest of the Faroshti family, who currently hold the throne. Soon—very soon, he imagines—that crest will disappear. At the back of the small cave is a pile of rocks, almost like an altar. Perfect. He places the seal there. The otari returns to the mouth of the cave and glances at the sky, wishing for a moment of sunlight. Just a glimmer of reward, after all he’s done in service to Solarus, even walking away from the war gods of his childhood.

But the planet is too cold, and the storm too violent. It’s all right. He brought a bit of the Everlasting Light with him anyway. Keeping his eyes up and open, he unlatches a small panel on the collar of his suit and presses the button underneath. Heat flares against his skin—so bright, so fierce, so much like redemption. He has been drifting in the cold emptiness of space for so very long. A prayer rises, fervent, to his lips, and a ripple of fire and light consumes him. His body crumbles into ash. The cave goes dark again, and the wind moans. Though no one knows it yet, the chase is on.

One Stardate: 0.05.09 in the Year 4031, under the rule of Emperor Atar Faroshti, stars and gods bless him and long may he reign Location: In orbit around Apex on the best damn ship in the universe SOMETHING CRAWLED UP INTO MY SKULL AND DIED. I’ve seen it happen before. Guy named Holder Ocktay. He was the best black-market circuithacker in the quadrant until one day all his craft just slipped out of his brain. He got this twitch in his leg he couldn’t steady and his eyes started rolling back on the regular. Bright lights made it worse— that was a big red flag. Some Solari came around, talking like old Holder was divinely touched and getting messages direct from Solarus. But I told Holder to wait before he went full prophet and helped him splurge on a medbot instead.

The android went up through Holder’s nose and fished out this thing, about the size of a hangnail but with pincers and suckers that look terrifying under a microscope. Memory-worm. Little bastard was camped out in Holder’s hippocampus. He’d picked it up doing an under-the-table job for a Ygrisl merchants guild on an abandoned planetoid. This is why I never fly a job without a med plan. Long story shorter, I bought that specimen off Holder. Turned it over to the Explorers’ Society— got a badge for exotic plasmodium and a tidy infusion of credits—and have been dealing with lowgrade memory-worm paranoia ever since. This, though . This isn’t some brain insect. This is thanks to the thirteen (thirteen!—that’s our Alyssa Farshot, always breaking records, thank you very much) juniper twists I drank last night.

Which means I’ve got the same splitting headache and sensitivity to light that Holder had, but with an unwelcome coating of sticky sugar and bile gumming up my mouth. Nice, Alyssa. Real nice. I roll over on my cot and groan. Feel the cool laminate of my pillow against my cheek. Wait. Not my pillow. Not my cot. I know that sensation and that burnt-toast smell. I passed out on the galley dining table.

Ugh. I don’t want to open my eyes. Besides the supernova-sized hangover, I know what I’ll see: a mess. Last night’s celebration got a bit out of hand. I don’t want to experience the aftermath. I could scrap the worldcruiser, take my latest paycheck from the Society, trade up to a newer model. The Vagabond Quick—my baby—is several years old, but she has some decent upgrades and is in way better shape than you’d think given the hell I’ve put her through the past three years. Like that time we upstreamed a meteor shower on a bet with Nathalia Coyenne. (Lost, but got farther than her, anyway.) Or when we almost got swallowed up by Sid, the sentient tar pit I interviewed on Rhydin IV.

That was a big one for the Explorers’ Society—first contacts always are. Or when we pulled a slingshot along the rings of Orpheus to outrun a crew of scavengers. My Vagabond. No way I’d toss out a ship this good. Not when we’ve earned so many of our bruises together. I peel open one eye, then the other. Streamers hang from the venting. My left boot is somehow up there too. A super-wobbly dartboard has been drawn onto the bulkhead with red sauce. (I think it’s sauce.

I hope it’s sauce.) The galley counter is a disaster zone of bottles and dirty dishes and a pot of what looks like orangey-gray cheese. Did we try to make foarian nachos? Oh hell. Above it all hangs the banner: “CONGRATS, VAGABOND!” The “congrats” are for our recent successful circumnavigation of Tinus, an Explorers’ Society first. It’s been an open challenge for a decade, ever since Tinus was added to the empire. Traversing a planet with a bad case of volcanic acne, which, combined with unpredictable gravity fluctuations, leads to a weather phenomenon best described as “sky avalanches”—yeah, not everyone’s idea of a fun weekend. The Explorers’ Society had started giving out rewards simply for vids of the planet’s surface, just to encourage members to get out there. I did them one better. Yes, I am that good. Yes, I am that amazing.

Yes, I’m about to be sick. On the galley control panel, the comms light flashes red. I ignore it. I take my time sitting up. Continents drift faster. Only the promise of a grease-filled breakfast gets me moving. I work some moisture into my mouth. “Rose?” A soothing automated voice answers me from the wall speakers. “Good afternoon, Captain Farshot. Your physiological outputs are suboptimal and indicate you may have engaged in excess.

Do you require a BEC?” “In my hour of need, Rose, you’re always there for me.” “Affirmative.” I pull down the banner and wrap it around my shoulders like a robe. Here she is, Queen Alyssa, dauntless pursuer of calorie-rich hangover cures. I roll off my table-bed as the smell of sizzling bacon fills the galley. So good. The comms are still flashing. No thanks. Not right now. Go.

Away. The main party, the big event, went pretty late at the Society’s ballroom down on Apex—open bar, fancy snacks on silver trays, credit awards for me and the other explorers who earned badges in the last quarter. I was pretty well hammered by the time Hell Monkey and I headed back into orbit. I should have called it a night then, but H.M. had other plans. Time for the after-party! he’d said. Bottles for each of us. A card game. Nachos, apparently, and .

Did I . ? I check under my shirt. Bra’s missing. Dammit. Did I hook up with Hell Monkey? Again? I really need to stop doing that. I mean, he’s a buddy and a top-notch worldcruiser engineer, but he calls himself Hell Monkey. The oven pops up with my bacon-egg-and-cheese. Oh yes. I grab my sandwich and start down the starboard-side corridor to the bridge. The bacon is actually crisp—nice work, Rose—and the bun is soaked in grease.

Heavenly. I’ve ignored the red blinking comms long enough that the alert lights have begun to strobe overhead. Each illumination is like a bolt to my temple. But I know this ship like the back of my hand. I could navigate it with my eyes closed, so that’s exactly what I do right now. One hand clutching the last of my breakfast, the other waving in front of me like I’m some sort of undead prowler who’s given up brains for eggs and cheese. My fingers brush the back of my captain’s chair, and I sit. For the second time this morning, I wrench my eyes open. The comms are still going off, lighting up the whole conn. Someone is hailing my vessel.

No identification, no call sign. Just some unmarked liftship. I don’t even need to check the viewscreen—I can see the damn thing through the windows that wrap the Vagabond’s prow. It hangs there, in synchronous orbit with us above the blue orb of Apex. How long has it been hailing me? An hour? Two? What kind of mad sadist wakes a girl this early in the morning? I glance at the time readout on the conn. Okay, maybe not quite morning. Maybe more like late afternoon. But still. Sadist. I mash the unmute button on the conn’s interface and flip on audio communications.

“What?” I say, mouth half-full. “What? What? What? If this is another interview request, I hope you can spacewalk because I’m about to board your scrap-metal liftship and dump you out the airlock. Quote me on that.” Silence. “Now, now—don’t let my cheery disposition intimidate you. Identify yourself already.” A readout streams across my display, the interstellar equivalent of a calling card. Fancy font. A familiar seal. A very familiar name.

In fact, probably the last name I want to see right now. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. The name is Charles Viqtorial, my uncle’s husband and chief envoy. The readout says, “Urgent Business.” And the seal? It’s the imperial kind. Yeah, my uncle is the emperor. Sometimes even I forget.

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