Corvin Duvall embarks on another mission that will take him across the galaxy, from the sun-scorched world of Braxis to the towering ecumenopolis of Huros III, tracking a shadowy organisation that has framed him for a murder that threatens all-out war. Follow Duvall as he treks the galaxy in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy that could destroy the tenuous peace between the coalition races in George Knight’s newest thriller, The Arkian Imperative!
Gavin read the blurb, once again with disgust, as he signed the back-cover of his newest book. In spite of being one of the most acclaimed authors of his time, his publisher still won’t let him write the blurbs for his own books. He gave the book – one made of actual paper – back to the starry-eyed fan, a young Cani who scurried off. Leaning to one side, Gavin examined the queue. “I’ll be here for bloody hours…” Gavin wasn’t the most sociable of fellows, and while he was more than happy to engage with his readers over the CoNet, he wasn’t so fond of face-to-face encounters. A Koz stepped up to the desk and handed him another copy of the book. Gavin signed the front, back and inner covers at the fan’s request, and shook one of its many hands with a forced smile. He was set up in a small bookshop on the Quera arm, one of the upper three. While the vast majority of people bought and read books digitally, enough traditionalists remained to warrant the printing and selling of actual physical books made of paper. The shop itself was rather tiny – space is hard to come by on Corymbus – and the line snaked around nearby streets. Not a week ago, Gavin’s newest book was released to impressive sales and glowing reviews. While the blurb didn’t reflect it, Gavin was a rather skilled author of thrillers and adventure stories, which would often deconstruct and poke fun at tropes and clichés. He was more than relieved when he finished writing it a good year ago, as it concluded the trilogy of his most successful character so far, Corvin Duvall, whom Gavin killed off in a controversial move.
Gavin was glad to write from a new perspective for a change. The story he was working on since he sent the final version of The Arkian Imperative off to the publisher is shaping up to be much darker than his usual work. He considered changing pseudonym, releasing it under a name different than George Knight, the pen-name he became famous with. Like so often, he once again drifted away, trying to find a title for the work, only to be snapped out of his daze by the shrill voice of an Eris. “Mr. Knight! Are you feeling well?” – the female bird-like creature asked. “Yes, yes of course…” – he quickly grabbed the book and scribbled his signature. Hours had passed before the store’s clerk-owner-janitor finally activated a sign that would turn away any new arrivals, and the station’s lighting system had switched to night-mode. The glowing, holographic sign followed the last person in the line – a nervous Jakki, who was clearly made ever more anxious by the stalking of the notice – it eventually came into view outside the window. As it crept closer with each signature, Gavin started to think of it as the ever desired light at the end of the tunnel. He probably looked like shit by this point, as the previously mentioned Jakki, a small and peculiar cross between insect and mammal, seemed more distraught by Gavin than the holo-sign dogging him. He scurried off without so much as a thank you when Gavin handed the signed book back with a forced smile. “Good day, good haul, yes?” – Asked Arce, the owner. The elderly Tekkith was clearly pleased by the increase in customers this little event gained him. He either genuinely did not pick up on Gavin’s malcontent, or chose not to. “One of these days, you might even afford a bigger shop, Arcie.” – The writer replied. “You might want to, uh, think of a different name when you do.” The proprietor furrowed his bony, plated brow. As much as this was possible, that is. “I still don’t understand why you keep bothering me about the name! As for the bigger store? If only it were possible. They’re increasing rent for businesses the next cycle again.” – He sighed. Now it was Gavin’s turn to furrow his brow. He heard it all in the news, in spite of trying to avoid any contact with real-life politics and affairs. Increased taxes on exports for small businesses, decreasing wages across the board and price hikes on medical services. In each case, the new policies are wrapped in some contrived tale to make it seem like a good thing. The revenue from the taxes goes towards funding the tourism ministry to attract more potential customers, the difference from the wage decrease goes towards health insurance coverage while proceeds from paid medical services support research efforts. “Just do me a favor and don’t close until I publish my next one, alright?” – Gavin said with a smile that ended up looking sadder than a grimace. “Well, if you’ll hold me to it…” – Arce replied in kind. Gavin grabbed his bag and with a wave, stepped out. The store was huddled into a corner, squeezed between a handmade jewelry emporium and a lawyer’s office. Aptly named the “Arce-hole”, from the outside the shop was just a door, and a window next to it no wider. Only three, maybe four, books ever fit on the display, depending on their size. Arcie refused to carry coffee-table books and atlases for years now, as they took up too much space.
Space was one of the most valuable commodities on Corymbus, as while the population ever grew, the station didn’t. It was expanded time and again in the past, but there was only so much the superstructure could handle. The Senate increased the funding and reward for any architectural plan that would allow for the construction of a new set of arms above the current upper three each year, but either no such plan was ever developed, or has been straddled by bureaucracy. Gavin ranked as pretty wealthy among the 99%, but even he could only afford to rent a one-room apartment on the upper arms. Sure, that one room was fairly comfortably sized for a man living alone, and the bathroom was separate, but for the price he paid each month, he could buy something three times as big planetside. The truly wealthy, the political elite, lived in extremely lavish apartment-mansions in the station’s central spire. The interior of the spire was characterised by vast, wide open spaces of absolutely nothing but air, since that was the single most obvious sign of wealth on Corymbus – and the nobles loved flaunting their wealth. The upper arms collectively accounted for the majority of the station’s structure, and yet this is where the lack of space was most severe. While the central spire was solely dedicated to residences and diplomatic functions, and the lower arms were almost entirely residential, the upper arms contained all of the station’s warehouses, business districts, commercial areas and the majority of its docks and green areas. While the residents of the central spire and some select individuals have clearance to the VIP docks there, and there are a few commercial docks in the lower arms, the upper arms see well over ninety percent of the traffic. Seeing as everything essential to the maintenance of the station sans engineering are crammed into these three arms, not much room is left for comfortable living.
Gavin’s apartment was located on the far end of the arm. He would have preferred something closer to the center, but he couldn’t quite afford any of the grossly overpriced apartments that fell within spitting distance of the spire. Galactic society might have advanced to the point where 11 different species are capable of coexisting in peace and operating a unified government from a massive space station, but it also degraded to the point where class differences and inequality have gouged unbridgeable gaps between populations of different stature. Instead of hailing a cab, Gavin opted to walk, at least part ways. The endless sea of holographic signs, gleaming metal, and the sight of the technicolor nebula seen beyond the immense skylights across the ceiling always reminded him why he enjoyed living on a space station. The densely packed, ever bustling and never sleeping hum of life on Corymbus was as stark a contrast with the empty lifeless void that lay just a bulkhead away as could be.
Of course, the space on the station was hardly utilized as efficiently as possible. Corymbus was the center of galactic politics, and was supposed to be the peak of civilisation, elegance, and comfortable living. While this image is nothing more than a memory on the lower arms, the upper arms have retained this gleam. Surely he central spire is considerably more lavish than the upper arms, however relative to the rest of the inhabited galaxy, the upper arms are a picture of luxury. The interior of the arms were set up like a terrestrial metropolis, just without the ground. Large, vertical structures extended from the lower levels. Some reached all the way to the ceiling, some extended beyond, comprising the cityscape growing out of the arm’s surface, while others ended while still inside the hollow arm. Platforms, walkways, glass corridors and bridges connected the buildings, with vast, open spaces in between them. Ever moving multicolor lines travelled in these open spaces, zigzagging between the buildings, comprised of thousands of vehicles getting hurried beings of all races from point A to B. While the structures themselves ranged through various shades of silver and grey, laced with the green of vegetation, the interior of the station was even more colourful than the nebula outside thanks to a sea of lights, constantly in motion, pulsating with the life of the station itself. Signs, advertisements, decorations, holographic waterfalls, billboards, view-screens and more lit up the thousands of buildings and streets in every color imaginable – depending on what manner of eyes the observer possessed, of course.
Gavin walked along and open-air corridor on the side of one of these immense buildings, gazing out at the vast city around him. Even though space travel has been the norm for centuries, the fact that all of this could be enclosed in an artificial structure floating out in the vastness of the void never ceased to fascinate him. Whenever he left his apartment – not an everyday occurrence – he preferred walking to his destination. Of course, usually it would not have been viable to walk all the way, and he’d signal a cab after some time, but rarely did he travel the whole distance by skycar. Being the hub of galactic governance and commerce, the residents of Corymbus usually fell into one of two categories: those who were constantly rushing everywhere, barely even noticing the world around them, and those who tried their best not to get in the way of the former. Gavin was quite fortunate, rarely ever having to hurry anywhere. The hustle and bustle around him seemed distant in spite of enveloping him. He wasn’t a typical Corymbian, and he stood out like a sore thumb simply because he walked slowly. Of course, there was more to his walks than just marveling about the world around him, which is so wantonly taken for granted. Gavin suffered from chronic writer’s block, which, as opposed to common belief, is more than just an excuse used by writers to not write for an hour. Or week.
The endless sea of lights and gleaming metal had a calming, hypnotic effect. Most often did he achieve epiphanies when he lost himself in the swath of the station. He imagined these sudden, brilliant ideas were what other referred to as “shower-thoughts”, however that method never did seem to work out for him. The current dilemma that has been eating away at him for the past few weeks was coming up with a title for his new book. While most authors would suggest to come up with a title once the work is complete, Gavin found that without a title to give shape to his ideas, he couldn’t produce particularly good pieces of writing. Naturally, a handful of chapters were already drafted. The new story would be a departure from his previous spy thrillers. While his work was usually upbeat, moderately satirical and contained healthy doses of comedy, he wanted to experiment with something darker, and less fantastical. Instead of a valiant soldier, or a decorated operative, the trade of this new protagonist would be utterly dull and unremarkable – a patent lawyer. The story itself would still be a thriller – Gavin wasn’t one to step far out of his comfort zone – but the protagonist would be one who lacks most of the skills and talents usually employed by the hero of such a thriller. The unsuspecting lawyer would be dragged into a violent plot when an influential politician is killed outside his house. The lawyer is stripped of his identity and framed by malicious forces working from the shadows, and would go on to oppose them in their schemes. Lacking a title, Gavin was bogged down by details. Instead of progressing with the plot, Gavin wrote up extremely lengthy and elaborate descriptions of people, places and what few events have already occurred. The crime-scene, for example, was described in such forensic detail that it would have likely gone over the heads of most readers. The lawyer, for whom Gavin has yet to come up with a name, would arrive home one day only to find the politician lying face-down in a pool of his blood just two strides from the front door. Bloody footprints would lead from the body to the door, and the same blood would be smeared across it. The body would show obvious signs of being pilfered. Gavin managed to stretch this description across three pages, penning odes to the exact shape of each bloody footprint. It would all go into the trash once he found a title, of course.
After walking a good hour, Gavin decided to fly the rest of the way. He stepped up to one of the many consoles on the edge of the walkway and used his Virtual Butler to verify his residency status. Moments later, a skycar pulled up with a low zoom and popped open. The vehicle was empty, being autonomous. Gavin climbed in, and the vehicle automatically merged with the nearby pseudo-lane in the direction of Gavin’s home, as the console had registered his address. A good thirty minutes later, Gavin stepped out of the vehicle on the platform closest to his apartment. Instead of heading home, he rather started towards his favorite watering hole, a fairly unknown little bar-café hybrid a few levels down in the same tower called the Lab. The place ran a gimmick where all of the beverages would be served in laboratory containers such as test tubes and beakers, and the décor of the place reflected this theme as well. Gavin came to know the proprietor, a fat Tekkith known as Jazren, well over the years. As he walked into the bar, he noted that more than half of the very few customers are the ones who come here every day, if they even leave at all.
“Ah, our favorite abstinent celebrity arrives!” – Jazren exclaimed when he saw Gavin. He and the other regular enjoyed teasing the writer about his refusal to consume alcohol and synthol.
“At least people know about me!” – He replied with a smile.
“Hmph. A strong ristretto to kick you in the teeth at bit?” – The barkeep asked.
“Jaz, it’s almost midnight.”
“Pah, you humans drink the strangest things at the strangest times.”
“Just tea, thanks.”
“You better not start disagreeing with caffeine too, or I’ll have to expand the menu just on your account.”
“Don’t even say it, mate. The last thing I need right now is something to keep me up.”
“Tough day, eh? What, book signing?” – Addim, an elderly Eris who frequented the Lab and was usually found at the bar, asked him.
“You know it. I don’t know how many people came but it took more than five hours to get done.”
“Ha! The man complains of a hard day, and it turns out he sat for an excruciating five hours!” – Jaz, Addim and a few other regulars who heard the owner’s purposefully loud exclamation had themselves a hearty laugh.
“Hey now, that’s five hours dealing with people. The next time a book signing is coming up I’d gladly switch with any of you working the machines or maintenance.” – The author grumbled.
“And did all of them have actual prints?” – Addim asked. The question caught Gavin by surprise.
“Well, uh, most of them. A few just wanted pictures since they had the books on their VB, but yeah, most had prints. The real thing.”
“I’m just surprised people still buy actual books. Paper is expensive these days, and the way things are looking…” – Suddenly a grim air filled the Lab.
“What do you mean?” – Gavin asked.
“Do you read the news, Ritter?” – Jaz asked back.
“I don’t particularly like depression, so as a rule, no.”
“Kid has that right” – Addim mumbled, eliciting some grunts of approval.
“Worse. Every big news outlet is flooding every venue with filler. Pointless rumors, unimportant statistics, and fluff about celebrities is the only thing you’ll see, but the few that haven’t been bought or intimidated show things as they are, and even if they wouldn’t, we’d be feeling it alright. Groundwalkers are getting the worst of it with colony scams, reduced security on the rim and rising export tariffs, but we’re hurting up here on Corymbus too. Wages under a line are getting cut again, rent is going up across the board for all non-residential blocks, import fees are soaring and more. It’s tough, and only getting tougher.” – Addim spoke with weariness in his voice.
“No kidding, each time some suited mook came in here with a franchise offer to buy me out, I told them to shove their contracts where the stars don’t shine. Things go on like this, I might have to take the next one up on the offer. Thing is, the price went down with each mook.” – Jaz interjected.
“You, selling out? Nah Jaz, it really can’t be that bad. Last I checked the bright dots still shone out in the black.” – Gavin tried easing the tension, and a small chuckle crowned his victory.
“Not if the shills buy ‘em all up they won’t. But seriously, the Lab can’t survive like this anymore. When you came to Corymbus seven years ago there was still demand for underground, cult places like this. Times changed so quickly, suddenly if you don’t have a corporation standing behind you, it’s like you don’t even exist.” – The barkeep explained.
“Oh, I’ve been seeing it without the news. Arcie’s thinking of selling the Hole and moving away.” – Gavin spoke of the bookstore owner so casually since he and Jaz were long-time friends, from before the time they moved to the station.
“Damn, man, Arcie? He’s been here as long as I… “
“Calm down Jaz, I wouldn’t let him leave if I had to pay his rent myself.” – Gavin assured him.
“People like he and you, Jaz, are the ones that should be in the spire you know. Some of these days I’m wondering why we don’t go there and enact some “corporate restructuring” of our own.” – Addim grunted.
“Come now, Addim. Talk like that will get us nowhere.”
“No, think about it! Things were calm enough when the shills were content treading on the Lowers, but now we’re feeling the hurt up here too. These arms hold the majority of the station’s people, and the lower ones are packed just as dense. We have the numbers, and if the Council has its way we’ll have the anger too.” – The old man continued, ever more enthused.
“Addim, listen to yourself. This is madness and you know it. Times may be hard, but what you suggest is worse than what the shills are doing.” – Jaz’s voice became sterner than Gavin had heard it over the past seven years.
“I… yeah, you’re right. It’s the drink speaking, I better turn in.” – Addim picked himself up from the bar with a struggle.
“I guess I’ll go too. Books don’t write themselves.” – Gavin said to Jaz.
“Not yet, anyway.” – The large being said with a wave.
Gavin strolled towards his apartment, which was on one of the upper floors of the complex. This day was like any other, he had thought before, but after his visit to the Lab, he started observing the people more closely. Jaz was right, there was a heavy feeling in the air, and it radiated from the faces of the people as they hurried to their business. It wasn’t one of sadness or anger or even malcontent. It was merely a sense of foreboding, a little shadow sitting in the back of one’s mind, not yet quite prodding, but making its intent to do so clear. Gavin found that he had begun to take hurried steps homeward. So unused to hurrying he was, that he bumped into a strange looking Roswellian on the way home. Or it bumped into him? He couldn’t tell. His apartment was one of many identical quarters, arranged in a complex on one of the building’s open-air terraces. There was a small gathering square in the center of the complex, with a fountain in the centre. Gavin’s apartment was facing outward from the building, across from the fountain. As he got near the door, he swiped his VB which unlocked all the security measures and the door slid into its frame with a gentle whoosh. Gavin sighed deep when the door slid close behind him. The apartment was small, but homey. A tiny doorless room, no bigger than a stall, was the first area of the apartment one came into. He deposited his shoes and coat here, and stepped into the main room of the flat. A combined living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom made up much of the accommodation, with a small bathroom with a shower and toilet in a separate space. The far wall of the apartment was a relatively large sheet of glasteel, essentially making the entire surface a window. A small console next to it allowed Gavin to control opacity, even possessing a setting that made it opaque from the outside, but allowed him to enjoy the view from within. This setting was the only one he’s used since living here. This wall also served as a highly customizable screen, though Gavin found he used it rarely. Stationary screens were so outdated most people forgot they even existed. The entire area of the apartment was covered by a holographic projection grid, meaning he could summon a screen of any shape and size literally in any point in space within the abode, as well as just about anything else. He often worked standing up and pacing about, with a holographic screen and hardlight keyboard floating at a comfortable distance from him, following his every step. The space was far too little to comfortably accommodate a bed, therefore one was hidden in the wall, and would slide out whenever needed. Gavin, being a heavy sleeper, devised an ingenious method of waking himself – disabling safety measures allowed him to program the bed to retract at a preset time, regardless of whether Gavin was still on it or not.
He was just about to settle and start writing for a bit before turning in when he heard something he never thought he would in this part of town: shots. Shots and screams. He was unsure what to do at first, and naturally worried for his own safety. He prompted his VB to show him the external camera feed. The camera had a limited field of view, but Gavin had hoped he’d learn at least something of what had transpired – and learn he did.
Just two strides from his front door lay a well dressed Umaraan in a pool of its own blood, and bloody footprints lead from the corpse straight to Gavin’s door.
Next: Chapter 2