Excerpt: Dust on the Wing

Tam’s attention was divided between three monitors and his comm transmission with the shift commander at Cantholm port, attempting to safely navigate the Paradigm Princess as she broke atmosphere over the planet. Tam waited for the green light from the commander before engaging the servos, one hand braced for balance as his Princess juddered through the landing sequence. She’d been playing up for weeks, demanding his attention with increasingly insistent clunks and shaking, and Tam hoped to find someone on Cantholm to assist with maintenance. His last tech had been a wash, and it wasn’t easy to find a tech able to both navigate the Princess’s delicate innards and keep their mouth shut when another payday raised its head.

A few cycles back—six months, give or take, Standard time—Tam had fallen out of favour with Spade, one of the Suits that controlled most of the outer planets. Where the wealthier inner planets had the Space Authority, the outer planets had the Suits: four groups overseeing industry on the outer planets, both above and below the radar. Although initially a close-knit group, time and space had grown long between the Suits and they had broken off into their own territories. Only the Jokers—Black for Club and Spade, Red for Diamond and Heart—could travel safely between quadrants while wearing the pips, a mark of rank, at their neck. The system worked for years, dogs bristling at each other through their intermediaries, but no planet suffering because of ego.

Two years ago Club had been wiped out, and everything went to shit. What remained of the Suits—the Thirty Nine, as it became—were as hungry and scared as stray dogs, scrabbling over territory even as it shrank as the Authority encroached onto formerly-Club space. The Red Joker had changed face eight times since the fall of Club, due to betrayals and skirmishes and bad judgement.

For his part, Tam was quiet about his former life as the Black Joker, and kept to neutral planets like Cantholm. Spade had been calling for Tam’s return since Tam’s check-in a year ago became his last, the King’s voice increasingly loud and sharp. There were bounties out for Tam on Spade planets, and increasingly on those governed by the other Suits. Fortuitously, the last person who had seen Tam’s face was killed several Red Jokers ago, so the noise on comms was vague at best.

It was bad timing that his Princess needed repair: Tam was on a transport job from an inner planet, moving some goods out to a space station for distribution. He had a few weeks leeway, but early delivery came with a bonus that would make a significant bump in his credits; Tam hoped to eventually pay Spade off, but he wanted a sizeable sum before he started looking for a seat at the negotiation table.

Until then, all it would take was the wrong person to recognise his Princess and that would be it. There weren’t many old Authority T14-Sigmas in the sky, though there were enough Tam didn’t have to retire her yet, but her age and Tam’s situation made finding a tech difficult. Tam’s previous tech had come as part of an off-the-books deal with Diamond, and had ended badly. Hence, Cantholm: a neutral planet, ostensibly aligned with the Authority, with its underworld under control of the Marquis. The Marquis took no shit from anyone, and valued silence above most everything aside from credits.

Despite his thing for credits Tam had no fear for the Marquis trading Tam in for his bounty; they had an understanding, Tam and the Marquis, and so far, Tam was more useful alive than dead. Contacts and routes established during his time as the Black Joker served Tam well in his new life, and the Marquis had made it clear when he first found Tam—trying to patch up his Princess, still wearing the pips of his rank because he was a fucking idiot—that the past meant nothing other than what use it had for the present.

Shaking his head to clear it, Tam signed off with the port commander and braced for landing. After the Princess finished making her displeasure known, he climbed down the ladder to the deck, careful not to get his scimitar caught in his legs as he descended; swords were not compatible with haste, in his experience. Once his heels struck the metal grating of the landing area, Tam tapped the security code into his control bracelet and there was a shimmer as the Princess protected herself. Neutral planet or not, Tam didn’t shirk on security.

It was easy to lose track of daylight hours in the black, but Tam had managed to arrive on Cantholm as evening was ambling in, though the hour didn’t affect the bustling port activity. Tam’s heels rang out over the grating as he walked, an accompaniment to the raucous shouting and selling among traders. Their words were obscured by the thrum of engines and the low mutter of cursing techs, voices revving up when captains were out of hearing range. The racket was startling after the silence of space, and Tam soaked it up, rejuvenated by chaos.

Cantholm stank the way he remembered, and Tam breathed in lungfuls of spiced food and burnt plastic. He’d moored on the top level of Cantholm’s main city, wanting to be closer to the sky and escape—not that he was anticipating a run, but it was always a possibility. The city was divided into three layers, expanding upward rather than outward as the population increased: riches were concentrated at the centre, the distribution growing scarce with altitude. The Marquis worked top-down, his network of captains and spies helping to stabilise the top level—sometimes literally, when it came to steadying the walkways—and distributing supplies and justice where required.

Although the air was thin, Tam found it easier to breathe at top level than down among the rigorous security of the lower levels; despite being closer to the sun, top level was for the shadows, and anyone with a tall story and open pockets was welcome. Tam fit right in, having a good line in stories and no money to lose.

For captains, top level was the best place to acquire crew members. Tam wasn’t in the market for crew; he’d tried, once or twice in his life before the Princess, until realising what he truly needed was his ship and the sky. Tam wasn’t a captain: he was a pilot. His one concession was a regular tech to consult with on the minutiae a pilot shouldn’t have to bother his damn head with—gravity, for instance, or small rattling things that used to be attached to the engine of his Princess.

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