First Chapter Friday: Dusk

It’s Friday, and that means I have another first chapter for you! This time, I’m pleased to present a book which was notable both for its inception and for the process it went through from first publication to finally being realized as a single, standalone volume, as it was intended.

Dusk started life at the end of 2013, when I decided to have a contest to see what I would write next. I cobbled together a batch of different times, genres, complications and romantic connections, put them into a poll and threw it out into the universe to see what would happen. I got a great response…and a confounding mess which I then had to work out how to put into words!

An MFM menage, set on a distant world, with aliens, evil noblepersons and magick was not an easy thing to pull together. To my surprise, and the contest winner’s delight, I was able to deliver the first draft around a month later! Given I was in college, pulling a full course load and working under a grueling publication schedule, it should come as no surprise that the weekend after I completed Dusk, I slept for almost a full day.

Dusk also marks one of the few times I had a serious disagreement with the owner of Changeling Press. She was adamant Dusk needed to be a three-part serial; I felt this was a poor tactical move. Despite my misgivings, we forged ahead, releasing Dusk in April of 2014; Darkness Rising in June; and Tides of Astaroth, the finale, in August. The handful of reviews I received quickly proved my misgivings correct. Readers HATED the serial format, feeling they had not received fair value for their money. For what little it’s worth now, I couldn’t help but agree.

When my contracts with Changeling expired, I sat on Dusk for several months, debating whether to put it back out into the world again or just leave it be. Finally, I decided the story was strong enough and the work I’d put in hard enough to warrant a re-release, which I did in September of last year, to little fanfare. After some fumbling false starts, I got the formatting right, and now I’m proud to present Dusk in its original and intended format. I hope you enjoy it, and please be sure to come back on Sunday for the second chapter!

Chapter One

In the dry code parlance of the Planetary Exploration and Knowledge Repository, the tiny, unassuming world some fifteen parsecs from the galactic rim was known as TMA-L-24381. “T” designated one of the thirty-six spokes into which the first astrogators had divided the galaxy, breaking it into arcs ten degrees wide. “M” indicated the planet’s status as a world capable of sustaining both human life and Terran flora and fauna, within limits. “A” described the planet’s approximate location within the galaxy on the X-Y axis, while the -L denoted its location on the Z axis. The first numerical indicator described the type of star around which the planet orbited, in this case a huge, hot blue giant. The remaining numbers detailed the planet’s size, about 1.25 times that of Mars; its composition, primarily carbon and rare earth elements; in what order the planet had been located within sector TA and cataloged for future reference; and the number of satellites, in TMA-L-24381’s case, only one.

To its inhabitants, TMA-L-24381 was known simply as Dusk.

* * *

Olivia Gunnarson folded her arms behind her back and stared out the synthetic sapphire viewport at the jagged fangs of relatively young rock comprising the moonscape around the planetary south polar city of Galacia. In the warm, faded lavender light of the eternal dusk for which the planet had been named, the city’s lights shimmered and winked from the valley floor to heights nearly equaling her own aerie’s vantage point. A subtle blue glow on the southwest horizon heralded Astaroth’s incipient rising, lending a steely sheen to the city’s polished metal and natural obsidian towers.

Beyond the city, the dark gray and black stone spires of Dusk reared all around. With the mastery of gravitational repulsion had come freedom from the credit-devouring, time-consuming process of constructing terrestrial roadways beyond the city itself, as the entire population shifted from the clumsy, heavy-wheeled groundbound transports they had arrived on-planet with to hovercars. Even so, navigating over and around the needles of rock could be a hair-raising experience that most Dusk natives preferred to avoid. This made for a brisk transit economy.

To a native-born Terran, Dusk would look as inhospitable as the gaping, hungry gates of Hades itself. Olivia had seen vids of how Terrans believed the mythic home of sinful souls might appear, and there wasn’t much to choose between Dusk and the nightmarish visions they conveyed to tri-vid in an apparent bid to scare the living hell out of themselves and others. The only functional difference between one and the other, to judge from the Terrans’ dismal imaginings of the netherworld, was that Dusk had a moon where Hades, being reputedly under the ground, did not.

She shrugged. Her family lineage traced back well beyond the first settlement of Dusk by the generational colony ships that struck out toward the galactic rim, to when humans were first perfecting the art of water-based navigation and set forth in craft made of an exotic material called “wood.” There was no such thing on Dusk, although by repute the material was so common on Earth as to be nearly devoid of value. Likewise, the first colonists of Dusk had largely left the superstitions and myths of Earth behind in a bid to create a new world. The spirit of adventure lived in her veins as surely as it had in a twelfth-century Viking berserker who landed on the shores of Greenland with conquest, treasure, and rape in mind. The sole difference between Olivia and her allegedly bloodthirsty forebear was that she would gladly forego the rape.

For bloodlust and ruthlessness, Olivia could match her ancient kinsman and then some when necessary.

Tilting her head, she turned to consider the small potted succulent on the windowsill. Like all the native-bred Dusk plants, it had evolved to thrive in the low light and high heat of the planet. It produced fine, tough fibers that could be woven into anything from lingerie to body armor, and was frequently used as a resilient outer coating for the treads of minecrawlers and the exteriors of hovercars. To Olivia’s mind, the healing properties of this particular plant’s gluey sap made it even more valuable: as a little girl, the powerful regenerative stimulant had saved her life more than once when her blossoming power had overridden both her control and common sense.

“We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we, Dudley?” She patted the plant’s clay pot fondly.

Dudley emitted a wave of floral contentment, scenting the air with a spicy, pleasant whiff of cinnamon and peppers, underlain with a more exotic fragrance unknown anywhere but here.

Her lips curved up for a second, then fell again as she peered at the double-faced digital chronometer. The top readout showed the local time on Dusk, 28:47:13, and the date, 10 July 2845. The bottom readout gave the same information for Earth, in Terra Mean Time: 06:09:29, two months and four days earlier. Her typical bemusement at the ludicrously short Terran day and the paradoxically long Terran year shriveled as she realized her woolgathering had put her behind schedule.

“Damn. I’m going to be late.”

Waving a hand at the recessed door of the wardrobe while she muttered a sibilant phrase, she caused the panel to slide silently to one side. Within hung a neatly arrayed series of similar items of clothing woven from the excrescences of Dusk fluteworms. The fabric was as light and soft as a sleeping lover’s breath against her skin, but capable of stopping even the most brutishly overpowered hand-fired chemical projectile and utterly immune to incineration or the strongest acids humans had yet managed to discover.

She chose one in a shade of blue-black that precisely matched the color of Astaroth’s reflected sunlight. The complicated assortment of straps would cover everything that needed covering while still allowing her extremities freedom of motion and her skin the ability to breathe. The temperature on Dusk rarely dipped below thirty-two degrees, making any more than the absolute minimum clothing an exercise in torture. While she had other, more “formal” attire available, she generally refused to wear it for anything less than the most solemn affaires d’état. Tonight’s informal debriefing of the Dusk Diplomatic Corps did not qualify. Most of the men would be in the shortest short pants or breechclouts that propriety and their individual builds would permit, while only the oldest and least attractive women would cover their bodies any more than utterly necessary.

One corner of her mouth turned up as she wondered what Hui Sin Ling would wear tonight. The woman had been blessed with a body that commanded every eye to look, and no sense of modesty to balance her sensual magnetism. At the last convocation, she had showed up with the tiniest of pasted nipple shields and a tiny strip of cloth held on with adhesive to cover her crotch. Ambassador Nils Trelawney, the head of the DDC, had finally directed her to leave and come back when she was “decently attired,” as her charms were “distracting” the members from their rightful business.

From the smug smile on Ling’s lips, she had already guessed for herself that what was distracting Trelawney was not her charms, as he so delicately put it, but his aging manhood’s firm reaction to them. Olivia barely kept from laughing out loud at Trelawney, settling for exchanging a conspiratorial glance dancing on the verge of a giggling fit with Ling before the other woman ducked out.

With quick, practiced motions she stepped into the complex web of deep indigo straps and set about arranging them over the essentials. A rebellious voice in the back of her mind whispered she could do worse than getting “sick” and calling Merrick to go beachcombing.

She shook her head emphatically as she pulled the straps taut over her thighs, covering her mound to the minimum standard public decency required. Even a junior member of the DDC enjoyed a level of prestige and social cache largely denied to the general population. As tempting as the idea of ditching the meeting in favor of finding a secluded cove on the Galacian coast and allowing Merrick to ravish her was, her sense of duty would not be denied. Besides, it would set a poor precedent and make a commentary on her reliability and capability that she was utterly unwilling to permit.

Seconds later, she finished dressing. Fishing in one of the recessed drawers, she withdrew a sheath bearing a slender curved blade and clipped it to the equatorial band about her waist. The satisfying weight of the short sword and the way the hilt curved toward her hand brought another smile to her face. Then she picked up her tiara from the bedside table and placed it around her head so the faceted, polished chip of dark blue stone set in the center lay directly between and above her eyes, in the tiny cleft in her skull she shared with all humans. The titanium tiara snugged about her temples readily, holding as securely as a limpet-worm attached to a hurczek lizard. The key difference between the native parasite and the magickstone was that the limpet-worm would inevitably destroy its host while the tiara aided its owner by permitting access to the secret areas of the brain humankind had never adequately plumbed. It was this unique property of the stone, known in scientific parlance as gallartium, which gave it its common name: magickstone.

Not everyone wore their magickstone in the same place. Some people preferred a pendant about the neck, depending from a slender yet strong chain. Some preferred a ring, or a bracelet. One brash young fellow of her acquaintance, with rather a larger credit balance than intelligence, had set his magickstones into wristlets that covered fully half his forearm. He felt the bracers made him appear more menacing. She just thought they made him look callow and ludicrous.

One last item remained. From the closet, she prized out the butter-soft silk boots that matched her current attire, such as it was. She stepped into the left boot and then twisted the tiny stud on the side that cinched the footwear around her calf. Olivia repeated the process with the other boot with dispatch and made the tiny twirling twitch with her fingers that would shut the closet door again.

“Mirror,” she said aloud.

Obediently the door brightened and turned silver and reflective. She considered her image in the shiny surface for a moment critically and gave a small nod of approval. Turning away, she picked up the small satchel containing her credit chit and identification and clipped it to her belt. With a final glance at the chronometer, she turned and hurried out of the room. The door whispered closed in response to her silent mental command.

* * *

Minutes later, she stood in front of another set of doors, elaborately emblazoned with the stylized phoenix emblem of the Dusk Diplomatic Corps and a number of scenes abstracted from its history. Even through the sound-baffled metal structures, she could hear the thumping and scraping as the members took their chairs. As fast as she’d hurried down from the top levels of the Aerie to the DDC chambers, she had still managed to be several minutes late.

She winced. That meant she had missed the opening oath and invocation, the gossip session beforehand, and the chance to finalize her plans with Merrick on top of it all. Even better, she’d just set herself up for a truly epic ass-reaming if Ambassador Trelawney was in a bad mood.

She swallowed and squared her shoulders. If the ambassador were in a bad mood, delay would do nothing to sweeten his temper. Better by far to get in and get it over with before she caused an even greater disruption.

With a muttered word which resonated through the magickstone at her brow on the same frequency as the doors, she commanded them to open. They opened noiselessly, allowing her just enough room to step in. Another mutter sent them shut again as quietly as they’d opened.

“So good of you to join us, Ambassador,” a stentorian voice with a crisp Scots accent echoed coldly through the high-ceilinged chamber.

Every eye in the room turned toward her.

Olivia squeezed her eyes shut for a second, biting back a curse. She thought about voicing a protest, or at least an excuse, but checked the impulse. One of the first things a junior ambassador learned was that one never offered excuses. One could be late, or even absent, one could behave in a disgraceful manner, one could even commit cold-blooded murder in the Terran Council Chambers. What one never, ever did under any circumstances was offer excuses.

“Thank you for your gracious welcome, Ambassador Trelawney. Please accept my sincere apologies for my tardiness.”

The rote response had the desired effect. Instead of pressing the issue, Trelawney nodded at her. “I trust you are well, Olivia?”

“I am, Ambassador.”

Although in the chamber everyone present was at least nominally on equal footing, by unspoken mutual accord the senior ambassador was always granted a measure of deference by his juniors that just missed overshooting into the realm of derision. Olivia’s answer, devoid of emotion or anything that might even remotely suggest sarcasm, further served to defuse the situation.

“Excellent. If you will take your place, we have already dispensed with the formalities to discuss the most pressing business before us.”

It was Trelawney’s way of saying that although Olivia’s tardiness had been noted, he had no intention of taking her further to task. She relaxed subtly under the implied forgiveness. Trelawney, as a consummate diplomat, had made his point while still cutting her an appropriate level of slack. She shuddered to think how much worse it could have been had she been half a minute later, but hurried to her seat with as much decorum and dignity as her furiously flushing cheeks would permit.

As she folded into the chair, made from the leather of a native lizard, Trelawney stood.

“We have had a request from Terra.”

Murmurs immediately broke out through the chamber. Over the last six hundred years, Terra had treated Dusk as the red-headed stepchild of the Interstellar Confederacy. With its relatively isolated location and its utter lack of military usefulness, Dusk was hardly a favored trade partner. The planet’s only exports of any real value were industrial-grade diamonds, of which Dusk had rather more than its fair share by mass, and various medicinal and fabric plants like Dudley’s extended family. While tourists often came to marvel at the sight of Galacia’s galaxy-famous black sand beaches and the (to them) unsettling appearance of Astaroth over the ocean, relatively few humans chose to make Dusk a home.

“What kind of request?” Merrick asked Trelawney, his generous mouth and narrow cheeks drawing down into a frown. He turned to his left and offered Olivia an abbreviated but lustful once-over, clearly appreciating her choice of attire, before he turned his full attention back to Trelawney. “Terra hasn’t wanted much of anything to do with us in eight generations. What’s changed?”

Trelawney’s mouth twisted as if he’d just regurgitated a bit of stomach acid. The visage thus created had the disconcerting effect of adding two decades and a legion of wrinkles to his already roughened leather catcher’s mask of a face.

“It seems Terra wants to look into extracting gallartium for commercial usage, and has requested an embassy to discuss possible terms.”

If the Ambassador had lobbed an armed plasma grenade onto the teal diamond surface of the table, he could not have garnered a more immediate or negative reaction.

“That’s absurd!” Ling snapped. “Gallartium is only practical on Dusk because of its concentration.”

“A known factor,” Ingrid Roberts seconded. She waved a dark mahogany hand in the air indolently. “While magickstone is quite costly and highly prized on Terra, there’s no way they could extract enough of it to use it commercially. It’s far too dense to mine easily and the matrix is too unstable for safe transport. What possible value could it have to Terra?”

“They are experimenting with it as a palliative treatment,” Trelawney replied, his expression neutral.

A sea of blank faces stared back at him. Olivia imagined her own visage was frozen in the same confused mask as everyone else’s.

“A therapy to enhance lifespan,” he clarified.

“Don’t they know it doesn’t work that way?” Clarence Granger demanded. He stood, running an agitated hand through his close-cropped salt and pepper beard. “Magickstone only enhances human lifespan when humans are exposed to it at high levels for decades. Short of hauling Dusk to Terra’s orbit, which would be impractical to put it mildly, there is no way to mine out a sufficient quantity to make it an effective treatment.”

As the lead physician in Galacia, Granger would know better than anyone how magickstone affected human physiology. The discovery of the life-extending properties of the precious ore had made Dusk a Mecca for people seeking healing generations before, until they learned that they would have to live on Dusk for the rest of their natural lives to maybe have a chance at attaining the extended lifespan magickstone permitted. It was far more likely that their children or grandchildren would get the benefits than they themselves would, making the pilgrimage across thousands of light-years of alternately empty and fairly hazardous space not worth the expense or the time for most people. Granger’s cultured voice crackled with ironic irritation that Terra would even consider such a foolish idea.

“Can they synthesize it? Is that why they want magickstone?” Merrick drawled. He flexed his muscular arms idly as he spoke. An errant lock of dark hair fell over one eyebrow, lending him a rakish look that made Olivia’s mouth water.

God, I want him right now! A low pulse of heat at her center echoed the mental complaint with a physical twinge.

“While they may be able to duplicate the physical properties of gallartium, at least to a degree, there is no indication that they have the technology to replicate the radiation it emits. That is the ultimate source of its power,” Roberts observed, tugging on a few strands of brilliant silver hair.

Olivia pressed her lips together as she considered the problem. It seemed to her that something was being omitted from the discussion, something more sinister. The stated purpose of Terra wanting to extract gallartium at the cost of billions of credits, when one considered transport, cost of mining and wages, cost of refinement, and the scale of time involved in moving millions of tonnes of magickstone matrix across slightly less than sixteen thousand light-years seemed a little too convenient.

The original settlers of Dusk had left Terra and its war-torn patchwork of squabbling nations for a hope of a better life on another world where political ideology and racial identity took a distant backseat to the sheer necessity of survival. On Dusk, distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion, and all the other reasons Terrans found or manufactured to ravage and destroy each other paled into insignificance. Olivia wondered darkly what the real purpose of the request was, since according to the hyperspatial commcasts not much had changed in several hundred years. History suggested if Terra wanted magickstone, there could be only one real reason for it.

She stood and squared her shoulders in anticipation of the wave of dissent to follow.

“It occurs to me,” she said slowly, “that Terra’s actual reason for this sudden request has nothing to do with their stated purpose. Lifespan enhancement is all very well and good, but as Dr. Granger pointed out, there is no practical way to expose a Terran to enough gallartium to ensure increased longevity such as we enjoy.”

Trelawney frowned, tugging on his sharp, clean-shaven chin. “Then what is their actual purpose, Ambassador?”

For answer, Olivia muttered a sequence of nonsense sounds and stabbed her finger at the writing stylus in front of her position at the table. It rose into the air, twirled sharply, and began describing an elaborate aerial pattern over the gleaming surface.

That is what they really want, Ambassador, honored members.” There was no deference in Olivia’s tone now, only fact. If the other members wanted to believe she was a paranoid fool, then so be it.

“They want access to a new weapon, one powered by magick.”

Silence fell in a leaden cloak over the chamber. Olivia waved her hand in a gesture of negation.

The stylus fell to the azure surface of the table. In the sudden hush, the chiming echoes of the impact rang off the ribbed metal vaults supporting the plastiglas of the clear ceiling with a clear, piercing tone.

Olivia took her seat again.

Pandemonium erupted.

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