"Honor Among Spacers" (~3100 words)


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  1. #1

    "Honor Among Spacers" (~3100 words)

    This is a story I wrote for a competition prompt last fall. Like other stories I produced as a result of prompts ("Siren" being the last of these I've posted on these boards), I am trying to go back through this one and fix anything I left out back when I wrote it. And if there's anything wrong with this one, I know where it will be most blatant: I struggled with the last third of this one for a while, and I am not sure I got it right - I'd appreciate any thoughts.

    I had a good idea about the characters' personalities going into this, but that last scene was... well, difficult. I wrote at least a half dozen versions of it, at least one where each character died and several where the interaction ended a good deal differently than it does currently.

    What I'm looking for specifically here is thoughts on that last scene. Is it wrong? Should I go back and do it again, and if so what should I throw out? What about that strikes you as wrong or jars with the rest? I know I'll get conflicting opinions on that, but I need to hear at least one more perspective before I start digging into this again. Simply put, I've read it too many times in too many different iterations to keep straight what's in it right now and what's not. Any thoughts on the piece as a whole are also welcome, and I will of course consider anything said in response, but the primary goal here is to get the ending right, if it isn't, or to tweak it to be better if it is.



    Honor Among Spacers

    by "The Jaded"

    The bar on Crossroad Station was marked only by a colorful insignia spray-painted on the doors. It didn’t really need a name, being the only bar on the station. It was crowded, but Derek Talowe managed to get a seat at the bar. He didn't really pay much attention to the other patrons, human or otherwise - Derek had come to Crossroads to take a life, and that knowledge occupied his mind thoroughly.

    As he started slowly consuming the fourth cheap drink of the night in as many hours, he pulled a palm-sized device from a pocket and, as he'd done every ten minutes since he'd arrived, checked its battery and settings. In theory, the proximity detector would buzz when Dom Kavellor got close. The rest of the plan was more than a little improvisation - but Derek had resolved that before the station’s lights came back up for simulated morning, Kavellor would be dead. The only hitch in the plan was that Derek didn’t know what Kavellor looked like, hence the proximity detector. Doing a search might raise red flags with his target, after all.

    ”Expecting a call?” The woman’s voice startled Derek, and he turned to face an attractive brunette woman of apparent age of thirty. She had slight, makeup-concealed circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in some time, but her manner was energetic, probably because of stimulants. The double row of metal studs implanted in her left temple marked her as having been a strike pilot at one point or another, but the fact that the studs were not rubbed to brilliant shine by constant use meant that she probably left that line of work some time ago.

    ”Waiting for an old friend who I heard was in dock.” Derek lied. ”Thought I might have a few beers with him. Just setting my prox, so I don’t have to watch the door.” Derek waved the device for emphasis.

    ”Clever.” The woman nodded. ”But what if your friend is carrying a scrambler?”

    ”Don’t see why he would. He’s not wanted, as far as I know.” It was true. Kavellor had managed to pass under the radar of the law, simply because his crimes had been committed during a war.

    The woman took the empty stool next to Derek, and pulled a small silver hemisphere from her pocket. ”One makes enemies too easily out here to take chances. Why, once I was attacked by a Vriehg in a space station bar because I’d followed him into dock too closely.” She put the scrambler back in its place, in the same motion tucking a few loose strands of hair behind her ear with the opposite hand. ”That’s when I started carrying one. You never know who you’re going to insult by accident.”

    ”That’s true.” Derek nodded, then paused to take a drink from his latest synthesized-flavor beer approximation. ”Happened to me once, too. Getting attacked in a station bar by a Vriehg, I mean.”

    ”Really?” The woman leaned on the bar, a little towards Derek, or perhaps a little away from the obese Jalxu merchant on the other side of her. ”What’d you do, make faces at him out the window?”

    ”Hardly. Looking at it from his side, he had reason to be angry.” Derek shrugged. ”I was on dock approach, and took a micrometeor right in the life support mechanics. Vented everything in the system, and I mean everything.” That was back when Derek was flying a long-haul transporter with a fully closed life support system. The waste tank blowing was what caused the confrontation. ”I barely got into the station before I ran out of air.” Pausing for effect, and for another swig, the man turned slightly toward his audience. ”Apparently, this Vriehg named Ko’dh’la was in approach pattern behind me, and... let’s just say his hull and viewports needed a really good cleaning that day. He did a gene scrape on the stuff and, surprise surprise, he found my DNA in there somewhere. Came into the bar fuming, crests all extended, with this huge rusty knife...” Derek chuckled. ”It took three meshweb rounds to glue him to a wall long enough that I could explain that it was an accident. But once he got that, he was pretty understanding. We had a good laugh about it after I cut him out of the web.” At least, Derek was pretty sure that the sound that Ko’dh’la had made was the Vriehg equivalent of a laugh. Regardless, the other had not again tried to cut Derek into tiny pieces with a knife, so the situation was defused.

    The woman chuckled lightly at the story, and waved, trying to flag down the bartender. ”Is what you’re drinking any good?” She asked, gesturing to the bottle in front of Derek.

    ”Not in the least.” Derek grimaced. ”But it’s cheap.” Something was wrong. Derek’s target should have been here by now. What if Dom Kavellor decided to stay on his ship until he departed, or worse, he was already here, but wearing a scrambler, like the woman had suggested?

    ”Thanks for the warning.” The bartender arrived. The brunette ordered something expensive-sounding. ”By the way, what’s your name?”

    ”I’m Derek.” Derek extended a hand.

    ”Dominique.” She accepted the handshake. ”You’re ex-military, right? You don’t hide it well.”

    ”Yeah. Old habits die hard, and all that.” Derek shrugged. ”I fought for Lyrandon for a while. They were crazy enough to give me command of a light frigate.” And while Derek was off pounding Merseillan ships during the war, a Merseillan privateer named Dom Kavellor had made it his business to intercept each and every supply shipment headed for Derek’s home, a newly-established foothold colony on Uridor II. The colony, unable to sustain itself on the partially-terraformed world, was wiped out. Nine thousand men, women, and children had starved, including Derek’s parents and siblings.

    ”Lyrandon?” Her eyebrows shot up, then slowly came back down, and Derek tried to figure out what that meant. Probably that she had enemies there, or that she was Merseillan. On Crossroad, Merseillan ships weren't uncommon. ”Fought against Mersailles, then?”

    ”Yeah. But that’s ancient history.” Derek waved dismissively. ”I haven’t held a commission in nearly a decade.”

    Dominique relaxed visibly at Derek's words, just as her drink arrived, something bluish and murky served in a glass. After sipping from it, she leaned in a little closer. Derek could smell her perfume, even over the smells of three hundred beings and of an approximately equal number of intoxicants. ”With all the species in the galaxy, it continues to amaze me that humanity still manages to go to war with itself.”

    ”It's not unprecedented.” Derek pointed out. "The Tushavo almost never stop fighting each other."

    ”I'd like to think...” Dominique paused to take another sip of her drink, and leaned in a little closer. ”I'd like to think we're above that sort of petty squabbling.”

    "I don't know. If humanity's good at one thing, it's killing humanity." Derek pointed out jokingly. Dominique winced slightly then, and shook her head. Derek attributed the brief expression to painful memories. He knew that pretty much anyone who made a career in space had something in their past to run away from, and didn’t think too much on it.

    ”Sometimes it seems that way, but I’d prefer to think of it in slightly more... Optimistic terms.” The brunette pointed out, though there was little feeling in the words. Derek did not respond, except by looking back over to the door and checking the settings on his prox again. ”Something wrong?”

    ”Yeah, the guy I was hoping to meet here... isn’t here.” Derek shrugged. ”I was thinking I might take a walk around the station. Even if I don’t bump into him, it’d be good to be somewhere less crowded.”

    ”Yeah, but that means moving away from the alcohol.” Dominique pointed out. ”You sure you’re up for that?”

    Derek chuckled. ”We’ll see.” She was charming, he admitted. On any other day she’d have his full attention, but today Derek had more pressing matters to attend to. Pulling a currency tab out of his coat pocket, Derek paid the bar, finished his beer, and stood up.

    ”Mind if I come along then?” Dominique gestured to the rest of the patrons in the bar. ”Good company looks to be a premium tonight.”

    She was right. Besides themselves, the only other humans Derek could see in the bar were a large cluster of filthy-looking mercs clustered around an exotic, hookah-like device, lounging in narcotic stupor. Making casual conversations with other species was possible for the well-versed, of course, but Derek figured that Dominique wanted a bit more than conversation out of the evening. Derek thought for a moment, trying to think of a reason to dissuade her without hinting at his purpose, but could think of nothing offhand. ”Sure.” He felt confident that, when he found Kavellor, he could "lose" her, and maybe even find her again if he got away clean with killing Kavellor.

    Dominique finished her drink and settled up, and soon both threaded their way out of the station bar and into the main thoroughfare beyond. The lights were dimmed to simulate night, but not enough to pose a hazard. Most of the other establishments on this level were closed at that hour, so traffic was light. Along the outer wall, a series of large viewpanes gave a stunning display of the stars, and of the Witch’s Head nebula. Crossroad Station was on the wrong side of the cloud to see the long-nosed old woman’s face that the ancient earth-bound astronomers had seen, of course, so it just looked like an amorphous mass of wispy blue.

    The pair got a quarter of a way around the thoroughfare ring before either spoke again. Derek eventually broke the silence. ”So, Dominique, what brings a woman like you all the way out to Crossroad?” Derek’s tone indicated that he was both conscious of and mocking the old cliched line.

    She grinned. ”This and that. Looking for somewhere to make myself useful. And you can call me Dom. So many spacers get trapped in all those sounds that...” She stopped, seeing Derek’s reaction. ”What?”

    Derek, looking a little sick, thought fast. This was a development he hadn’t expected, but it fit. The scrambler, the initial reaction to his mention of Lyrandon... Had Derek just spent the first part of his evening making small talk with the murderer of his family? He had to be sure. ”Uh, nothing. My guts don’t like the stuff I was drinking.” Derek struggled to compose himself and go back to making small talk without a change in his manner.

    As they walked, Derek steered toward the docking bay where his ship was berthed. If Dom noticed, she didn’t mention it, at least until Derek stopped at the boarding hatch. Derek, for his part, did his best to keep up the light banter until he stopped in front of the mating lock.

    ”This your ship?” Dom leaned over the console near the portal and brought up the vessel identification. ”A Freerunner-14. I’m impressed. Lots more fun to fly than anything I’ve ever owned.” She leaned on the wall and grinned. ”Did you come all the way over here to show off?”

    ”I wanted to see if my friend left me a message.” Derek typed a few digits into his commpiece and the hatch opened. ”But if you’re impressed, that’s a bonus.” With a wink, Derek beckoned inside, though he shuddered even at the idea that he might be pretending to flirt with a mass-murderer. ”This will only take a moment. You can come in if you’d like.” Derek sincerely hoped that his suspicion was wrong, but his gut told him that it wasn't.

    Dominique did come in, as Derek was hoping. Trusting the ship’s automated security to not let her into anywhere sensitive, he excused himself and headed for the cockpit of the little ship. Rather than check for messages, Derek queried the computer for a list of all personnel onboard.

    The computer returned two names, as expected: his own, and that of Dominique Kavellor. Derek winced, then typed in a few more commands.

    ”Derek!” Dom’s voice, piped up to the cockpit by the ship’s computer, sounded more curious than worried. ”Everything all right? You’re taking a long time up there.”

    Derek hit the last key, and the computer sealed the outer doors. Drawing his beam gun, Derek headed back down to kill Dom Kavellor.

    ”Uh, Derek?” Dom sounded a little concerned, as she tried to glean information from a console. ”The door’s sealed - ” She turned around from the console and saw the gun. ”Oh.”

    ”You don’t look all that afraid.” Derek aimed at her, finger on the trigger.

    ”This is not the first time I’ve been held at gunpoint,” Dom replied. ”May I ask what this is about?”

    ”This is about the colonists of Uridor.” Derek’s hands shook a little as they gripped his gun, but not enough to impede his aim in the enclosed space. ”My family among them.” Dom winced at the mention of the dead colony, but otherwise met Derek’s gaze silently. ”You killed a world, Dom Kavellor. It takes the worst kind of monster to do that.”

    ”Does it?” Dom sighed, and it seemed that a good deal of the energy animating her seemed to drain out.

    Derek frowned, but didn't answer the rhetorical question. He figured he'd let Dom speak - he could stomach pleading, attempted bribery, begging, or worse and still, he felt sure, get the job done.

    ”There’s an old saying. ‘You either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain.’ Heard it? No?” Dom took a step toward Derek, and he kept the gun on her. ”I didn’t set out to starve Uridor. I set out to shorten the war, make Lyrandon send ships after me instead of after the rest of the Merseillan fleet.” She dropped her gaze to the deck. ”I only learned later how many people had died as a result. I see that colony in my dreams, you know, even though I’ve never been there. Crumbling buildings being slowly eaten by a cold desert wind. And bones everywhere, picked clean and white. The skulls of all those thousands, glaring from where they fell, and every breath of wind whispering curses on my name...” Dom shuddered and closed her eyes, as if to banish the image.

    The gun did not stray from Dom’s center of mass, but this was not what Derek had expected. He considered that it was a trick, that Dom really was the bloodthirsty buccaneer that would starve a colony intentionally to help the Merseillan war effort, and that she was also skilled at play-acted remorse. Could it be an act?

    The woman spacer looked back up at Derek. ”If we’d been captured or just blasted by a patrol, I’d have been a hero on Mersailles.” Dom pointed out. Derek realized she was probably right. "But instead... they threw me out. I don't blame them."

    ”Is this supposed to be a defense?” Derek asked.

    Dom shrugged. ”There is no defense. This is my side. If a good man like you still has it in him to pull the trigger knowing both sides, then I probably deserve it.”

    It was Derek’s turn to chuckle, and he put malice into it. ”Good man? Hardly. I came to Crossroad to kill you in cold blood, Dom.”

    ”But you could have shot me in the back as soon as you knew who I was. Pragmatically, you should have.” Dom took another step, and the gun was mere inches from her sternum. ”Honor’s rare among spacers. You came here to kill a monster, and I don't blame you for that.”

    Derek kept his aim, trying desperately to see any sign that she was acting, playing on his sympathies as a defense. After all, Dom had not denied her crimes, had not denied starving Derek’s family among thousands of others. That she showed remorse years after the fact didn’t void what she'd done, but it did show that she was still human. That maybe, just maybe, Dominique Kavellor was more than the sum of her actions.

    Dom, taking advantage of Derek’s preoccupation in thought, moved in a flash, stepping aside and grabbing for the gun. Derek reflexively fired, and the beam went wide, lighting a glowing red spot on the bulkhead behind the intended target. Dom twisted the weapon, forcing him to drop the gun and kicking it into a corner. In less than a second, Derek was disarmed.

    Then she stopped. Rather than trying to subdue Derek, she released his hand and leaned against him, encircling her slim arms around his neck. "There, that's better."

    Derek, disgusted, tried to pry her off, but found Dom to be far stronger than she looked - that and the almost unnatural speed with which she'd disarmed him caused Derek to suppose that combat implants lay beneath the smooth skin of her limbs. "Dom - I'm not going to forgive mass murder because you throw yourself at me."

    She smiled, and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I know. You're too good a man to even entertain the thought. I could have knocked you out and put you out the airlock, you know. Probably should have."

    "Just like I should have shot you in the back, right?" Derek tried again to pull her arms off his shoulders, but as much as he strained he didn't even budge them.

    Dom gave a wordless sound of agreement. "That makes us even, yes? You spared me, I spared you."

    "I haven't spared you yet. You're still stuck on my ship." Derek countered.

    Dom laughed. "Am I?" She released him, and jumped back, holding Derek's commpiece in one hand. Derek hadn't felt her remove it from his pocket. As she did so, she pressed a button on the small device, and the outer doors opened behind her.

    Derek knew that if he dove for his gun, she'd be long gone before he had it in hand. "I'll find you again one day, you know."

    "I'm sure you will. But before you do, you need to figure out what you'll do with me when that happens." She tossed back the commpiece. Derek reflexively followed its path, and when he looked back to the hatch back into Crossroad, Dom Kavellor was not there.
    Last edited by The Jaded; February 21st, 2012 at 04:18 AM.
    Hidden Content - My works of fiction, in handy blog format.

  2. #2
    I can see what you mean about the last third, although I was satisfied with the ending itself.

    one sentence I read a few times to try and get to grips with was

    Dom laughed. "Am I?"
    It seems a bit disjonted as I assume it is a responce to the

    Thats makes us even. yes?
    I like where you went with the climax though. Perhaps some more tension before the resolution? I was enjoying the face off between Derek and Dom.

    Still I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

    -The Vagabond

  3. #3
    @VagabondSam: Well, oops. That looks like the result of my last-minute metaphorical editing pen and general failure on my part. I'll fix it. I accidentally dragged the "You're still stuck on my ship" line out of place and that's what caused that disjoint. It should be rectified now. Thanks for reading.
    Hidden Content - My works of fiction, in handy blog format.

  4. #4
    I like the ending. A promise of more to come. A resolution without a resolution. Although perhaps it can be seen as a way to finish the story without really finishing it or having to pick a path of "who wins". Of course, life is messy like that too.

    I thought this was quite well written. And it raises some interesting moral questions. They could be delved into further, but perhaps that is left to the reader, on his or her own time.

  5. #5
    I read this last night, chose not to comment because of some exhaustion, and it's been sticking in my mind all day -- so much that I had to discuss it with my girlfriend and suggest it to her for a read.

    The Good: I was very impressed by this. You have a talent for instantly integrating the reader into your world, without any pesky history dialogues. All of the back-story that you want to relay comes out clean and smoothe into the natural dialogue of the story. That, to me at least, is hard to do. I also noticed some subtle up-nods (intentional or not, I can't say for sure) to the Star Trek universe. Gave me more than a few chuckles. So I have to say Bravo, for making me feel welcome into your world from the very first sentence.

    Improvements: Early on in the story, when Derek (excellent name by the way, *winkwink*) and Dom are conversing in the bar, Derek intermittently recalls history in his private mind. And while the conversation was delightful, I felt that that ratio of Dialogue to Private Thought was a little unbalanced -- the 'private thought' sequence stretched on a little further than it should have, I think.

    The Ending: What you really want, though, is advice on the ending. It's easy to see why. The situation that you lead them to can have many outcomes. Hard to choose only one. But of them all, I think you chose the best. You've left the story open for continuation, and I think that most would agree that it deserves that.

    I would certainly read more, if more were written. And so I have to examine what you already have, and think of anything that might improve it. Perhaps Dom could drug Derek, so that he won't give chase, thereby increasing his rage and resolve to find her? It's difficult to say -- one doesn't want to ruin the ambiguity that Derek now feels for her. His new moral dilemma in interesting indeed.

    I dunno, man, I just want to read more. I'll just wait around for that.

    ~Genji

  6. #6
    alanmt:
    Glad you liked it.

    Ending a story like this, with a little bit of ambiguity, is something I tend to do often, not because I don't know what might happen next but because I have hit the point where to add any more words is to take away from the story rather than add to it. I do my best to recognize that point and stop there, even if it means ending something before other people would consider it "done". I have been pleasantly surprised as to how that has been generally well-received (this and "Siren of Atlantis Massif" being the two most recent examples of this that I've posted on these boards). This, though, is the story to which I take that principle to its farthest extent in anything I have written to date, or rather in anything I've written to date that's in readable shape.

    "Honor" relies on an active, imaginative reader to reflexively put the last piece in place (whichever last piece they think fits there). Obviously, readers on this site tend to have no trouble with that, but I am not sure how that would translate to other literary formats.

    St. Genji:
    It may come as a surprise, but I make no intentional references to any universe. I am better-versed in older science fiction (I am a sucker for older printings of "Year's Best SF" and other anthologies) than in the big modern franchises. I needed a many-race space opera universe to pull off what I was working on, and so I put one together on the fly from rather generic components - FTL travel, space stations, many, highly-varied alien races, private spaceships, etc. I've seen some of the Star Trek movies, but that's about where it ends. I'd love to take credit for some clever little winks and nods, but I didn't intentionally put any in, and to my knowledge I am not writing with my subconscious.

    I do know that I will regularly overdo internal monologue, mostly because my own is rather strong and I thus assume most characters have a similar condition without thinking about it. Obviously, that's not the case in all cases, I just pegged Derek as the kind that makes a naturally poor liar - the kind that thinks the truth as they speak the opposite. I might be able to pare down the thoughts in the mentioned scene though... I'll take a look at it.

    While I might write in the setting again, I think the particular story here described should stand as-is, for reasons described above - I am obviously open to editing and changing this, but there probably won't be a sequel (sorry to disappoint) unless I can think of a new angle from which to approach it that adds something new.
    Last edited by The Jaded; February 24th, 2012 at 05:40 AM.
    Hidden Content - My works of fiction, in handy blog format.

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