Observation Deck. We became fast friends along with the legion of other commenters (aka Niners) in the tight knit group from io9. Over the years, a number of amazing collaborative projects have sprung out of the Niner community and one of the best is the new science fiction and fantasy short story anthology, We Had Stars Once.
Released last Tuesday, the collection is comprised of handpicked fantastical tales previously written by Niners for #ThursdayTales. We Had Stars Once is currently ranked 76 on Amazon's Kindle Literature & Fiction Short Stories download list (quite an impressive feat) and even includes a story written by S4 commenter Nemesis Goldenhair! (I'll let her tell you which one if she's so inclined.) Oh, and #HumbleBrag alert, the absolutely stunning cover was designed by David Y., the very same talented artist who created the Stellar Four logo you see above.
We're super excited we have been granted permission to print one of the stories in the book. Prepare to whet your appetite for We Had Stars Once with J.A. Platt's Derby Girl...
by J.A. Platt
Beatrix skated as fast as she could. Faster than she thought possible with a broken wheel and her palms streaming blood from the last wipeout. It was impossible to see. No electricity here, no moonlight, just the stinging rain and the faintest outlines of buildings traced by the glow of the emergency floodlights. Hard laughter and the slap of skates echoed off the alley walls.
A crash of metal ricocheted behind her. She whipped her head around, sure she’d see them swarming down the alley. There was only the black of the buildings, the wet pavement, the spindly silhouettes of dark street lamps.
Distracted, Beatrix hit the wall, the brick scraping her already raw hands. Her wrist guards had been left in the locker room with the rest of her gear when she’d heard them coming. She pushed away from the wall, moving slowly now, wary as she neared the end of the alley. The ghost of light from the center of town was brighter here and she came to a stop leaning her shoulder against the wall, pushing wet hair from her face.
The street was as empty as the alley; everyone was near the lights. Even the patrols weren’t out in the downed sections. The real cops and their real guns were busy manning the barricades down by the generators.
The dregs with tasers were left to hunt bounties in the dark.
Beatrix felt for her ID and tucked it deeper into her pocket. She couldn’t lose it. Not if she wanted to get down to the lights.
It was brighter to the right so she rolled onto the sidewalk, skimming along on one skate, pushing with the other, wincing at the way it scraped over the pavement, the broken wheel rasping like a file.
When she saw movement ahead her heart stuttered in her chest. She tucked herself into the doorway of a burned-out deli and tried not to breathe.
At the end of the street was one of the avenues, four lanes wide and bright. So bright she could see the strolling gait of a man walking by. He walked with his hands loose at his sides, coat shining with rain. And then a woman appeared. Walking. Followed by two more.
A clatter of wheels and laughter floated out of the darkness behind her.
Beatrix dropped to one knee and clawed at the laces of the broken skate. Rain and blood made the knots slick. When they gave, she ripped the skate off, putting her dry sock on the ground. Cold water soaked through to her skin while she worked at the other skate.
Another group was passing. Beatrix walked as naturally as she could toward the intersection, already feeling slow and vulnerable. It took all of her resolve to drop her custom skates into the trash can on the sidewalk.
The group ambled out of sight and she let out a shaky breath. She wiped her bloody hands against the sides of her dark pants. As long as she kept them in her pockets and moved with the crowd she could pass for another tourist. No one would even glance at her feet on a night like this. She took a step toward the avenue.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you Slaughter?”
Beatrix could hear the thin whine of other wheels against the concrete. Lynx was closing behind her with at least five more coming up fast. She slid her right foot back, lifting the heel and adjusting her weight forward like she was at the line waiting for the whistle, ready to take off. With a deep breath she bolted for the lights.
* * *
There was an ache building in her side; she wouldn’t be able to run much longer.
Beatrix darted through the growing crowd, ducking between grumbling locals coming in for second curfew, the pain in her feet slamming up through her shins.
A pair of boys passed her, bags held over their heads as they ran for the gates. One of them tossed something black into the trash as they pounded across the intersection, long legs propelling them over the pavement.
Covering the same ground seconds later, she ducked around the curve of a golf umbrella, seeing the trashcan and the crumpled umbrella the boy had thrown away. She grabbed it with a stinging hand and tucked it tight under her arm, squinting hard into the rain.
A tour group was milling at the next intersection, their black umbrellas and black shirts creating a smudge of darkness in the growing light.
Beatrix pushed herself harder, putting as much distance as she could between her and the eyes she felt on her back. When she could make out individuals in the tour group she slowed to a jog, heart hammering in chest, the bent umbrella in both hands. She moved closer, skirting the loose edges of the group, fumbling with the bent stays of the umbrella as she passed an older man with white hair peering at a map of the ruins that surrounded the city. Stumbling to a stop, she forced the umbrella halfway open before it collapsed again. With a curse she looked around. She caught the man’s eye and shrugged in apparent embarrassment.
He glanced at the group behind him, then beckoned her with a wink.
Beatrix smiled and walked over, the ruined umbrella clutched in her fist. She strained to hear the skaters over the rain. “Thanks.”
He tucked the map into his pocket and held the umbrella over both of them. “It’s not much, you couldn’t get wetter.”
“True enough.” Beatrix took a casual look back the way she’d come, searching for that smooth bobbing movement of a figure skating through the crowd. Her breath caught when she saw a blue uniform turned black by the rain. The girl was too short to be Lynx and rolled past without even looking at the tour group.
A firm grip settled on her arm and she whipped around with the umbrella tight in her hand. “We’re headed for the gate,” the man said, half-shouting over the rain.
Beatrix nodded and he led the way, holding his umbrella to the side so it covered her head and shoulders. They shuffled into the middle of the group, claustrophobic and safe. She caught a glimpse of another skating figure as they joined the end of the line for the gate.
“So,” the man said.
He’d raised his hand to touch her shoulder and stopped short. A smile seemed to reassure him; he beckoned her forward, voice low but clear. “The police are nervous here. You will want to pull those socks up before they can wonder why you have no shoes.”
Her breath caught and her toes curled in her wet socks. “I lost them—”
Shaking his head he put a thick finger to his lips. “We’ve all had a wild night or two.” He looked out over her head as though he was trying to spot the skaters too.
Beatrix bent and yanked up one sock, then the other, the fabric cold and prickly on her skin.
The man held the umbrella over them as they rounded the first bend in the line and lost sight of the street. He didn’t speak as they wound through the barricades and mounted the stairs to the gate. She pressed her bleeding hands inside her pockets and imagined she could see figures rolling in the crowd below, heads turning left and right, looking for a black uniform in the sea of people. They would stay clear of the cops to avoid splitting the bounty. Unauthorized competitors were worth five hundred a head.
“You go ahead,” the man said near her ear.
Beatrix hadn’t noticed they were at the head of the line. The gray-uniformed police were thrown into sharp relief under their awnings, the only bright, dry things in the night. Digging in her pocket, she felt her ID slide against her slick palm as she stepped forward. An officer with bored brown eyes was watching her, giving her no time to wipe it before she held it out to him. The back of the card had blood across the corner as he raised it to inspect the country seal. His eye implant focused and refocused as he measured the exact dimensions of the seal and recorded the numbers under it.
Beatrix knew she was caught before his eyes widened, before he took a step back or reached for his comm.
There was nowhere to run with cops ahead and the wall of people behind.
* * *
“Ich verstehe immer noch nicht. Wo ist Ihr Übersetzer?” she said, asking for a translator. “Look, I know this isn’t you,” the police sergeant said, waving the ID card at her, flicking his thumbnail against the bloody edge.
A fleck of blood chipped off onto the table. Beatrix kept her eyes on him, her clipped Berlin accent matching the address on the ID chip. “No Englisch. Haben Sie nicht einen Übersetzer?”
He stood, leaning over her, the light flashing on the silver buttons of his coat and the wide shield over his heart. “No English my ass,” he said, hooking a thumb through his black belt, fingers brushing his sidearm.
Beatrix met his eyes with the most confused expression she could manage and cursed herself for not filing travel dates. It would have limited the number of days she could use the ID but she would’ve been less likely to get stopped. On a blackout night it could be hours until the intelligence section commander showed up and sent her on her way with a lecture and a warning.
“You’re going to tell me who you are before you leave this room, I guarantee that.” The sergeant stood over her for another minute before he turned to the door. Over his wide shoulder, she caught a glimpse of patrolmen and a few officers loitering in the hall. They were gone a second later as the door closed, but not before she had seen the narrow, predatory face of Captain Garret Fillmore.
The sounds from the hall were muffled by the blood rushing in her ears. Fillmore knew her by sight. She would be charged with unauthorized competition, identity theft and whatever else he could come up with. It would be an end of everything: the skating, her career, Charlie’s career.
The door handle rattled and Beatrix froze.
An intelligence officer with familiar blue eyes slipped inside. He had a pair of boots in one hand. “I thought you’d want these, Madame Secretary.”
She let out a shaky breath. She had seen him at the Department of Defense. The hair had been shorter then but the eyes were the same. “Thank you. It’s been a long night.”
He nodded and stepped toward her with the shoes held out. “I checked your file when I saw them bring you in. It said size nine.”
Beatrix took them with her free hand and bent, not quite able to reach her feet. She twisted her wrist in the cuff and sighed, a weary sound to cover the sudden surge of adrenaline making her hands shake.
“Um, I could,” the intelligence officer stammered, gesturing to her socks and flushing a deep red.
“Thank you. You worked with Charlie, didn’t you Officer…?”
He went down on one knee and pulled off her socks. “Langley. Harry Langley, ma’am. I was stationed with your husband when I was a second lieutenant.” He folded the socks and set them aside.
“Thank you, Harry.” Beatrix was straining to hear the high buzz of Fillmore’s voice, an approaching step, a hand on the doorknob.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t round up any dry socks.” Harry was drying her feet with his handkerchief.
There was a flash of guilt as she looked down at him, his blonde head bent over her feet. She would do something for him. After. “I appreciate getting the wet ones off.”
Harry smiled, slipping the boots over her feet and tying them up her ankles with quick fingers. “It was chance the depot had these.”
Beatrix shifted against her cuff, trapping it silently between the chair and her skin. Metal pressed hard into her wrist, grating against the bone until her eyes watered. Her arm was relaxed when Harry looked up. “Is this really necessary?” She nodded toward her reddened skin.
His expression was apologetic. “All these new regs, you know how it-” he stopped, frowning at her wrist and reaching for his keys. “Damn Benton, he always does them too tight.”
The click of the lock giving way was the loudest sound in the room.
Harry hovered over her wrist, loosening the bracelet.
He didn’t see her move until it was too late.
With a tight grip on the arms of the chair Beatrix drove her knee into the underside of his jaw. The bone was so hard she thought she’d broken her leg. She shook her wrist free of the cuff. Blood leaked from the unconscious officer’s mouth as she took his comm and his keys and stood on stiff legs. There was another door behind her chair, one no one had used. She clenched her jaw and opened it.
A speeder bay.
Two-man speeders lined the far wall and there were a few crewmen standing near the bay doors looking out at the rain flashing in the floodlights.
Beatrix walked to a speeder, hoping that Harry had transport clearance. It started on the first swipe of his key and she sat astride the long body, the thrusters lifting her feet off the ground. She opened the rear compartment and pulled on the rain gear, her focus on the men at the doors, jerking every time they moved.
When she eased out of the slot she was in yellow to her knees, her face hidden behind a helmet, her hands in sticky black gloves. She accelerated toward the closest bay door; the garage crews were particular about speed through the exit sensors.
Beatrix passed the men as fast as she dared and saw the closest do a double take. She was already out of the garage when she realized her mistake. On blackout nights every speeder had to be pre-authorized.
Now this one was stolen.
* * *
The stark white faces of buildings towered over her, their edges sharp even as everything else was blurred by the rain and the speed she coaxed out of the engine. Sirens rose and fell behind her as she looked for anything familiar, darting between hotel shuttles, buses and lumbering cargo transports.
The next cross street was narrow, gray in the reflected light, the far end cut off by a riser for the monorail. Beatrix continued up the steep hill, squinting through the rain, feeling sweat run down her back as she tried to picture where the next checkpoint was. Once she crossed, she’d be out of gate jurisdiction.
At the top of the hill her breath caught in her throat.
The spotlight. Brighter than sunlight, so bright that there were no shadows, so bright that even in the lashing rain the buildings around it became pillars of light, concentric rings of whiteness that stood like sentinels around an earthbound sun. Only at the very edges of City Island did the light begin to fade, turning the ribbon of river around it a silvery gray.
Exhilaration filled her chest as Beatrix threw the speeder down the hill toward the river. The lights flashed behind her, painting the street pink, their red faded in the glow of the spotlight. They were gaining; the second body on the police speeders gave them an extra push downhill. She saw the nose of one edging up beside her, grinned, and maxed out the throttle.
The river was below them, the spotlight a sliver of blinding moon peeking through the buildings. Beatrix dropped the speeder closer to the pavement and ducked her head against the fuel tank, drawing her elbows in, squeezing her leaden legs tight, trying anything to streamline her and gain more speed.
The cops on her right nosed out in front, another speeder crowding in on the left when red light lashed across her console.
Checkpoint lock down. Every cop and bounty hunter in city limits had been alerted.
The riverside highway was coming up fast, an endless stream of traffic whipping by.
Beatrix gripped the thruster control tight in her left hand and her grin became a grimace. There was only one chance.
The traffic was so close it blocked out the river, the spotlight, everything. She could smell the ozone burn of the engines, see the wide eyes of tourists whizzing past, hear the curses of the patrolmen beside her.
She hit the thrusters, jamming the slider as far as it would go; her eyes squinted almost shut, her stomach staying back on the street.
The speeder jumped high, sliding into a huge arc, spinning her in a lazy circle as the buses and speeders and shuttles passed feet below her. Beatrix caught a glimpse of the patrol speeders and their lights flashing against the wall of traffic before she started to fall.
She felt the briefest moment of relief when she looked down and saw the shimmering surface of the water.
Then it was rushing toward her. Closing over her and dragging the speeder down into the silver depths.
* * *
Beatrix pushed through the water with heavy legs, coat dragging at her back, helmet filling with water every time her head dipped forward. It felt like she’d been swimming for hours, the riverbank at the base of the bridge still out of reach. They would drag the river once they found the speeder. The patrols would discover her in this lead coat, pulled headfirst to the bottom by her helmet, no ID, no prints if the fish got to her. Just another body pulled from the river, another statistic on Charlie’s security report.
Her boot touched something hard. Her feet jerked away and she looked down so fast, the bottom of the helmet filled with water. A panicked kick hit rock and bobbed her head free of the surface. She brought both feet down and was standing.
Heart hammering, she dove forward, slipping, splashing, and crawling until she was on the rocky bank, stones hard under her knees. Beatrix lay on her back and drew deep, rattling breaths, eyes stinging from the water and the effort. Along the bank she could see the sharp line of shadow where the bridge ended and the spotlight shone over the rocks. She lay there and watched as the white light began to pulse red. Smaller lights darted over the silver water, alternating red and bright white.
The tinny wail of a siren pulsed in her ears and she knew the light show was for her. With a distant sense of urgency, Beatrix pushed off the thick gloves and jerked at the zipper of the coat. When the coat flapped open she worked her arms free and fell back, the helmet dragging her head down. She raised her hands to the buckle and felt a tangle of canvas. It took concentration to work out the shape she was feeling; she had to close her eyes to picture it, a knot of excess canvas around the buckle. Holding the knot steady with one hand, she tried to catch her nail under one of the loops, face contorted in frustration as her fingers slipped again and again.
She was pulling hard at the strap without realizing it and stopped, clenching her hands. There was nowhere in Center City she could go with the helmet on, not with the blue gate seal etched on the side. The backs of her eyes stung and she wiped her bleeding palms on her pants before she tried again.
When the knot finally gave, Beatrix saw the underside of the bridge through a blur of tears. The buckle parted with a soft click and she pushed the helmet off, tears slipping over her cheeks and into her ears.
Beatrix wished she was home. Home with a shower and dry clothes and Charlie back early from the senate session so they could curl up in bed and sleep for a week.
The sound of the third curfew bell made her struggle to her feet. There were figures on the shore, tiny gray uniforms with long shadows and flashlights swinging in purposeful arcs.
Beatrix scrambled up the steep bank, away from the patrols, her hands and boots sliding on the wet rocks. At the edge of the bridge’s shadow she paused, panting and dizzy. She smoothed her shirt, ran her fingers through her hair, and wiped her face with her sleeve.
She stepped into the white light and smiled in reflex. On this side of the bridge, the police lights were blotted out by the spotlight.
* * *
The streets in the center of town were brighter than day and almost empty, the color washed from the storefronts and the trees and the neat little fences that surrounded them. A few insomniacs shuffled along the wide sidewalks with their heads down, shades drawn over their faces, unable to sleep in the un-tinted rooms allotted to foreign workers. The stumbling grayed-out figures were almost comforting. They meant home was close.
Without a shade for her eyes Beatrix kept her head up, her hands in her pockets, and fought not to squint in the full glare of the spotlight. The street ahead was dimmer, a silver twilight that spanned three blocks before it became blinding brightness again.
A tall iron fence separated the deepest shadows from the bright storefronts, ivy blocking any sign of the houses beyond. She slowed her pace, listening to the dragging steps of the insomniacs. There was a panel under the wide leaves. Beatrix tapped out the code without looking away from the street.
The gate opened with a faint groan, the weight of the metal grinding down on the hinges. When she closed it behind her, the locks clicked into place one after the other. She stood by the gate, her heart pounding in her chest as she was faced with a quiet residential street and the black windows of the houses. With a steadying breath she pushed away from the gate, alert for a late night stroller.
A dog barked and Beatrix faltered for a step before walking on toward the shaded jogging path at the end of the block. Her shoulders dropped in relief when she reached the shadow of the trees. Seven houses down, she left the path, pushing through thick bushes at the base of a tall, wrought iron fence. She pulled her sleeves down over her hands and took a deep breath before she reached for the top rail. There was a searing pain in her right hand as she boosted herself to the top of the fence. With one leg over she had to pause, panting and exposed. Beatrix clenched her jaw and got her other leg over, her arms shaking hard as she lowered herself to the ground, not letting go until the toes of her boots touched grass.
She walked unsteadily to the back door of her house, hand cradled against her chest, so thirsty her throat felt raw. The entry code let her into the dark kitchen. Her boots squeaked against the tile floor, making her hunch her shoulders. Beatrix took a glass from the drying rack and turned the tap on, filling the glass and drinking too fast, the water running over her cheeks and down her neck.
“Stop right there,” a deep voice barked.
The glass fell from her fingers and her head came around so fast her neck cracked. A tall shadow had appeared between her and the back door.
Beatrix coiled her legs beneath her and threw herself across the room.
She hit him high in the chest and he staggered back, his thick arms reaching, crushing her against his him.
“Charlie,” she said against his neck.
Charlie lifted her off her feet and turned them in a slow circle. “I thought I’d try to catch the finals. Did you win?”
Beatrix ignored the pain in her hands, linking them behind his back and squeezing hard. “I won.”