Astra Nullius – Full Episode List

Astra Nullius is a collection of free science fiction stories following the crew of the starship Benevolence. While it’s technically a piece of serial fiction with events unfolding in chronological order, each story stands alone as an episode, so you can start reading anywhere in the series.

If you’re jumping into a later story but you still want to know some of the details of this world, you can check the list of people and places for descriptions of characters and alien species. You can also check the content notes if you need more information about whether certain sensitive topics will appear in Astra Nullius.

In 2017, new episodes are being published on the 15th of each month. In 2018, the posting schedule will switch to weekly publication.

Gone Before, Part 1 • Gone Before, Part 2Our heroes answer a distress signal and find more signs of life than they expected.

Cover-Up, Part 1 • Cover-Up, Part 2The crew gets talked into participating in some less-than-legal activities. What’s a little smuggling between friends?

Such People In It: The crew debates some tricky moral questions during a trip to an abandoned medical facility.

It Runs in the Family: A stolen sexbot, a pissed off programmer, and a client who’s totally telling the whole truth this time.

Quality Testing: The crew gets some downtime by signing up to playtest a relaxing new game.

A Failure to Communicate: The crew attempts to rescue survivors on a stranded ship.

Worst Contact: An unexpected stowaway forces the crew to make first contact with a previously unidentified species.

Old Flame: Nyx’s meet-up with an old member of the Benevolence‘s crew doesn’t go as planned.

Human FoodWeyland goes on a shopping trip, as normal humans do.

Respect: Exposure to a strange substance sends Captain Dysart spiraling out of control.

Trust Me, Part 1 • Trust Me, Part 2 Trust Me, Part 3Trust Me, Part 4 • Trust Me, Part 5 • Trust Me, Part 6A journey into a war zone forces the crew to reckon with their limitations. (Currently publishing)

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Trust Me, Part 7 – Astra Nullius

Nyx

While it was only a short hop to the next planet over, that too was contested ground. After some deliberation, the crew decided to head to a Falacerian colony in the 58 Persei system.

Having so many extra people on board the Benevolence was causing some unexpected problems. Although the original ship had once been designed to keep a crew of over a hundred comfortable, it had been operating for a long time with a lean crew. Nyx had kept a couple of spare mattresses around just in case, but she hadn’t planned for so many passengers. They bunked wherever they could find space to spare: in every room of the nose cone that wasn’t occupied, in the corridors, and on the cold floor of the cargo bay.

A few vats of algae had caught on a structural beam when the rest of the cargo blew out the hatch. Nyx had handed these over to Weyland, who was doing the best he could to feed forty people on a larder meant for five. What he produced three times a day was edible, at least technically.

Nyx was in the ship’s dining room, pushing a glob of wet and stringy greens around her plate with her fork, when Xinyi stepped in. In the days since their narrow escape they hadn’t had much time to talk, except for a few words in passing about logistics. Now, perhaps, they would finally have some time to catch up.

Xinyi was carrying a plate of her own. She set it down on the table across from Nyx and began a similarly fruitless exercise of pushing the food around as if something good might be hidden under it. It was still strange to see her like this, with her hair coming loose from its braid and an oily stain on the shoulder of her shirt. In Nyx mind, it was almost like seeing double: the unshakeable captain she had been, and the woman she was now, one laid on top of the other like a glitch in a com screen. Nyx had been flying with her son for long enough to see something familiar in the way she held herself carefully, pretending she wasn’t tired.

“I got a holiday message from Lorelei,” Nyx said. The Falacerian had been another of Captain Du’s junior officers aboard the Eloquence. A few years ago she had married a human, and like many Falacerians, she’d developed a powerful fascination with human rituals. Nyx had been surprised to see a Christmas greeting sitting in her inbox. Somewhere along the line, she’d forgotten to keep track of which season it was all the way back on earth.

“Oh. How is she?”

“She’s doing well. I think she wants to get another dog.” Nyx paused, wondering if now was the time to go for it, and decided to go ahead. “Actually, she’s working on a diplomatic project right now, and she was wondering if there was any interest in a Coalition–”

Xinyi put her fork down. It was a small gesture, but deliberate, and there was a tension in the set of her shoulders that made her look more like the captain Nyx remembered.

“Nyx,” she said, in that calm and measured voice that could keep a room full of young officers hanging off her every word, “what the fuck are you doing?”

Nyx considered her options. She knew this wasn’t about a holiday message. Besides, playing dumb had never worked with Captain Du. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said. It seemed like a safe answer.

“No, you’re not.” Xinyi leaned in and laced her fingers together above her plate of grey-green muck. “Look at this ship. Look at yourself. Still wearing your old uniform around, still acting like the rescue squad. It’s pathetic.”

Nyx, stung, said the first thing that came to mind. “I just saved your life.”

“I had other contacts. I could have called someone else. I would have, if I’d known how much of a mess this ship is.” Xinyi paused, sighed, and conceded, “My son thinks very highly of you.” She didn’t even try to make it sound like a good thing.

Nyx said, “We’re making money.”

“Please,” Xinyi said flatly.

“I mean, we’re not losing money. We’re breaking even.”

“Only by putting off necessary repairs. You can’t borrow from your own future forever. And when some crucial piece of the Benevolence breaks in a way you can’t afford to fix, then what?”

“I don’t know,” Nyx said. She’d been aiming for confidence, but the words came out small and pathetic, squeezing around the lump in her throat. “I was never good at making money.”

“So find something you’re good at,” said Xinyi. “And for your crew’s sake, find it soon.”

“I was good at exploring.” It sounded stupid when she said it, like a child’s fantasy. It had been her job for years. It was the only thing she’d ever been good at, really.

“So be an explorer,” Xinyi said. “Find a surveying company, take a contract, submit some reports. It’s a good job. It pays well.”

Those surveying companies weren’t out for the greater good of anyone but themselves. Hundreds of them had formed in just the last few years, rushing in to fill the power vacuum the Coalition had left behind. If someone hadn’t laid claim to a bit of territory, it was fair game as far as the corporate surveyors were concerned. They’d find a spot suitable for a mining outpost or a colony, ship in some colonists as fast as possible, and call it theirs. And if there happened to be complaints later that the planet they’d surveyed wasn’t as empty as it appeared, well, who would listen? Handling the delicate nuances of inter-species territorial disputes had been a job for the Coalition’s diplomats and lawyers. Now that there was no Coalition, there was no court that could make any ruling worth listening to.

Nyx looked down at her dinner. Without the constant motion of her fork, the piled greens had slumped into a damp hillock. A trickle of cold fluid was leaking out the bottom. “I’ll think about it,” she said.

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Trust Me, Part 6 – Astra Nullius

Jianyu

“The good news is, you’re going to survive this,” Weyland said.

From her makeshift hospital bed, Sera mumbled, “Suck it, death.” Weyland had given her a lot of painkillers. Either she had been in more pain than she’d been willing to admit, or he’d figured out that it was the only way to get her to sit still enough to accept treatment.

“The bad news is, you’ve set your recovery back by at least a month. You’ve got a complete tear through your supraspinatous muscle, and the tendon’s badly damaged. If you want to regain full range of motion I’ll need to perform surgery, and then you’ll be on a physical therapy regimen.”

Sera made a face, but quickly lost interest and began trying to scratch under her bandages. Captain Dysart redirected Sera’s hand with her good one; her fingers on the side of her broken wrist had swollen so much that she couldn’t move them.

Weyland turned to Jianyu, who was holding a tissue to his face, trying to stop the blood streaming out of his nose. “Time for your examination.”

Jianyu sighed, but ducked his head and allowed Weyland to slide the medical probe into his neural port. His senses shifted as the probe began collecting data; the metallic taste of the blood at the back of his throat was suddenly a high musical tone, and the cold metal of the algae vat he was sitting on smelled like cinnamon. When he came to, he was on the floor for some reason. Captain Dysart and Weyland were kneeling on each side of him, and Sera was doing a poor job of trying to sit up to get a better look at the action.

Parsing the sounds he was hearing was difficult. Jianyu stayed still, waiting for the words to make sense again, and then he kept lying down for a while longer so he could pretend he hadn’t heard phrases like can’t keep doing this much longer and irreversible damage if this continues. This was exactly why he’d asked Weyland to examine him before letting his parents into the lab.

When he was finally able to sit up, Weyland moved on to examining Captain Dysart’s hand. Standing too fast didn’t seem like a wise idea, so he scooted his way across the floor to the cot Sera was lying on. She grinned when he settled down next to her. “Hey, dummy.”

“Hey, idiot,” he replied. “Why’d you take the capacitor out of the copilot’s station?”

“Because nobody makes that kind of capacitor anymore.” Sera tried to pick at her bandages again. When Jianyu moved her hand away, she settled for scratching at the scars along her jawline. “I told you I could fly one-handed.”

Jianyu’s parents, held off for as long as Weyland could manage, finally pushed into the lab. The room was already cramped, and now, with another human and an Eridani inside, it was standing room only. Jianyu stood up carefully, his head still swimming, and tolerated his parents fussing over him. “It’s just a blood pressure thing,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. I’m not burning out.”

Sera glared at him. He looked away, and found Weyland staring at him with his eyebrows fractionally raised, which was about as expressive as Weyland ever got.

Better change the subject, and fast. “What’s next for you and dad? Are you going to try to find another farm?” It had been his father’s idea to try farming, after decades of service to the Coalition as a diplomat. He hadn’t expected his mother to take to a rural life, but after the end of the Coalition, she’d taken to land management with unexpected enthusiasm.

“I don’t know,” his dad said. “We’ll see where we land.”

“If you need money, transportation, anything, you know you can ask me for anything.”

“We know.” His mother slipped her arm around his, elbow crooked around his forearm, fingers resting on his wrist. A part of Jianyu would always remember her as a giant, but in that moment he was painfully aware of how small humans were, how frail. “The best option for us might be a Minervan outpost. We’re keeping our options open.”

Minervan space was as close to lawless as the known galaxy got, and most Minervan outposts were on small, mean planets that weren’t worth fighting over. Few of them had prime agricultural land. But then again, Minervans wouldn’t look twice at a mixed-species couple, and many had a fondness for the Coalition that a few years of turmoil hadn’t erased.

“That was certainly an interesting flight,” said his mother, turning to Captain Dysart but keeping her hand on Jianyu’s arm. Weyland was holding a scanner over the captain’s cast, and frowning slightly at whatever he was seeing.

“Sera used to be a Coalition pilot,” said the captain.

“Oh,” said his mother, smiling. “What ship did you serve on?”

“The Integrity,” Sera said.

“Under Captain Zttr?” his father asked. His pronunciation of the name, while not truly as good as a Centaurian’s, got some of the tonal clicks humans didn’t have the range for.

“That’s right,” Sera said.

His parents caught each others’ eyes, and shared a look even Jianyu couldn’t read. Sera, too high to notice, continued, “So, got any good stories about Jianyu? The more embarrassing, the better.”

His dad said, “Well, there was that time I came back from the treaty negotiations on Iota Pavonis…”

Dad,” Jianyu said, already covering his face to hide his blush.

“You were, what, eleven? Twelve?” his mother said, picking up the story seamlessly. “And someone in your class had slipped you this anonymous note, covered in hearts–”

Mom,” Jianyu said, as Sera laughed, delighted already or maybe just so far gone that everything was funny.

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Trust Me, Part 5 – Astra Nullius

Sera

“You can’t do that,” Sera said.

Du’s voice was icy. “I think I know more than you about how to fly.”

Sera took her hand off the yoke and keyed in a new set of manual commands: full power to the ion rocket and the secondary chemical thrusters. “I’ve had worse flights than this.”

A warning popped up on her console: Admiral Du was requesting control of the ship’s primary flight functions. Sera didn’t have the time to turn around in her chair to see Nyx’s face, but she knew her captain well enough to understand that she was struggling with this decision. “Trust me, captain,” she said. “She can’t control the Benevolence.”

They were picking up speed. Sera brought the ship in an arc, heading around the main force, hoping the pursuing human vessels would drop off when they saw the enemy. The ship shook as the chemical thrusters fired at full force. Nyx’s voice was soft, barely audible over the sound of rattling metal. “Tell me why I should.”

“Because I took the primary capacitor out of the copilot’s station two months ago,” Sera said. “It’s still got full permissions to control of the ship, but there’s no steering.”

Du swore, at some length, in both English and Chinese. Sera turned her focus to the field of battle. Most of the encroaching vessels were falling toward the planet, but a collection of smaller Eridani ships were creating a blockade. She had heard of the technique: the slower dreadnoughts would try to herd the human vessels toward the atmosphere, but if they tried to escape, they’d be cut off. Human ships were awkward in atmosphere, and on the ground, humans troops wouldn’t stand a chance.

Her screen was flashing again. Someone was firing at them. Human or Eridani, she wasn’t sure, but the force field that protected their hull was just for deflecting debris. It wouldn’t stand up to real fire.

“Everybody hang onto something,” she said.

“Uh, should I be on guns?” Jianyu asked.

“No,” Sera said. “We can’t waste energy heating plasma. But Admiral Du, I need you for this part.”

For a moment she thought Du would refuse. Instead, in a clipped voice, she said, “Tell me what to do.”

Sera yanked on the yoke, turning the ship’s nose up away from the planet. Two of the nearby Eridani ships must have noticed, because they began to move, closing the gap to prevent the Benevolence from escaping. Sera checked the readouts one last time. The chemical thrusters’ fuel was running low, and every possible volt of power was going into the ion rocket.

“When I give the word,” Sera said, “I need you to open the cargo bay doors. All of them. Override the airlocks so they open at the same time as the interior doors.”

Their window was closing. Sera made a minute adjustment to their flight path, aiming dead center between the two closest ships. Spaceflight had a strange way of changing her perception of speed; they were going hundreds of miles per hour, and yet as the chemical thrusters finally ran out of fuel and powered down, a strange stillness settled over the ship as if they were drifting powerless in the void. The two warships closed the distance, massive hulks moving with the grace of microgravity.

“On my word,” she said when there was no turning back, just the two ships ahead and the narrow path between them, “Now.”

The ship lurched as the cargo bay’s doors blew, sending hundreds of vats of algae flying across space. They weren’t the missiles she would have chosen, but as far as the Eridani were concerned, the Benevolence was now the center of a field of unknown debris. One tried firing a round of plasma into the field, spraying metal and water in a glittering cloud. The other veered off course, trying to avoid the friendly fire. And then a heartbeat later they were outside the blockade.

The Benevolence was lighter now, and she kept going faster. The G force of their thrust pushed Sera back in her seat. Something unpleasant was happening in her shoulder as her half-healed muscle tore under the strain, and her vision was narrowing, the stars at the edges of the window going dark. She didn’t have the luxury of passing out right now.

The ships were turning too, but not fast enough. Another few minutes at full speed, and they’d be able to engage the faster than light drive safely. Sera could hang on for another minute. She could hold off the darkness creeping across the sky for that long. Another thirty seconds. Her whole side was throbbing now, but she could do it.

It took a lot of effort to turn her head. Jianyu’s eyelids were fluttering as he calculated their path through spacetime. Her display flashed. They had their route. She tried to reach for her console, but when she took her hand off the yoke, it was difficult to raise it to the screen. “I need,” she began, but couldn’t get the rest of the words out.

The stars shifted and blurred. It wasn’t just her eyes this time. Admiral Du must have engaged the faster-than-light drive. The pressure on her shoulder vanished as the ion rocket powered down, leaving them adrift in the bubble of spacetime created by the drive as it folded space around the ship. Without the pressure there was just the pain, and the darkness nibbling away at the edge of her vision, and a dull sense of alarm as Jianyu’s head fell forward and blood ran from his nose.

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Trust Me, Part 4 – Astra Nullius

Sera

Coalition designers had made a single pilot’s station the regulation on every type of ship, from science vessels to freight ships to defensive cruisers. Each station came with a variety of settings that could be changed for the pilot on duty. There was one setting for Centaurians, who had four clawed forelimbs. There was another for species with opposable thumbs. And of course there were hundreds of different options that could be altered to suit a pilot’s preferences, from the sensitivity of the yoke to the amount of resistance it took to move each thrust lever.

There was no setting for a pilot with only one working arm. Sera had done the best she could jury-rigging a solution. She’d set up voice commands for the buttons she couldn’t reach on her left side and for some of the trickier functions that required both hands. Although she hadn’t told the rest of the crew, she’d been hoping she never actually had to put her makeshift system to the test. Their now-abandoned flight plan had them scheduled for weeks of faster than light travel, and Sera had been hoping that by the time she had to take manual control again her arm would have healed.

She took the ascent slower than she would have otherwise, checking and double-checking the readings. The G forces of of the ship’s thrust were still strong enough to cut through the ship’s artificial gravity, a pressure that sat heavy on her chest. Her shoulder ached, and she ground her teeth but said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could do about it for the time being. Flying with one arm might be tricky, but flying with one arm and her reflexes impaired by painkillers would be stupid.

The clear blue of the sky thinned out to an airless black. Jianyu was already plugged into the computer, although his job wouldn’t start until much later. The ship needed thousands of miles of empty space as clearance before the faster than light drive could be engaged.

Her console flashed red. Sera still had a hand on the yoke, and she couldn’t tap her screen to kill the readouts and pull up the new warning message. She hadn’t thought to program in a voice command to do it for her. “Hey, someone read that for me,” she said instead.

Captain Dysart said, “There’s a military ship approaching. Looks like a combat vessel.”

Admiral Du added, “It’s coming in fast. The call sign is Eridani.” She must have pulled up her own set of information at the copilot’s station, because she added, “There are two more ships behind it. Both human, so they must be in pursuit.”

Shit. Computer, show me all nearby objects, render in three dimensions.” Her holographic display showed the planet falling away behind the Benevolence. The three ships were still distant, but approaching fast. They were on a path that would intersect with the route she’d been planning to take. She adjusted their course, giving them as wide a berth as she could. “Okay, I think they have bigger things to worry about than us.”

She told the computer to feed some extra power into the ion rocket, hoping it wouldn’t make them look more suspicious. Any trader would want to get out of the way of a fight. She would circle the planet, and with that mass of rock to hide them from the other ships’ sensors, the Benevolence would set off on a new trajectory that would take them far away from the fighters. Sera had been in more awkward spots before. This would be easy.

Heimstätte turned beneath them, serene at this distance. The fighters slid away out of sensor range. Sera was just starting to relax when a new dot appeared on her tracking screen, this one on the other side of the planet.

Please be a satellite, she thought, but another dot appeared, and another–a whole cluster of bright points lighting up her holographic display, drifting across the vastness of space right toward them. The war had come to Heimstätte.

They were still out of visual range, but if the Benevolence had picked up dozens of ships, she’d be equally visible on their systems. Humanity had come to the fight with more vessels, but the ship’s computer had highlighted multiple Eridani dreadnoughts, some of the deadliest military ships in known space.

Captain Dysart said, “We have to turn around.”

The two human ships Sera had spotted earlier appeared on her tracker again, moving toward them. Either they’d made short work of their target, or they’d decided that an unknown trading ship in the middle of a combat zone was worth investigating. “We can’t turn around now,” Sera said, adjusting the ship’s course again to send them up over Heimstätte’s pole. If she could only get the planet between them and the battlefield, she’d be able to get away.

More dots appeared on screen. “Shit, shit, shit,” Sera muttered. Her computer, thinking she’d given a voice command, tried to downshift the power going to the ion rocket. She had to take her hand off the yoke to fix it. They were fully out of the atmosphere now, orbiting the planet, and the pressure that wrapped around her chest now had nothing to do with the rocket’s thrust.

“We can head back into atmosphere,” Captain Dysart said. “Go dark until all this is over, wait for our moment, and escape.”

“They’ll find us before we’re out of the thermosphere,” Admiral Du said. “If we’re getting out, we have to do it now. And we need a pilot with both hands, so with your permission, Captain Dysart, I’d like to assume control of the ship.”

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Trust Me, Part 3 – Astra Nullius

Nyx

“Nyx,” Du said, coming up behind her, “is there anything I can do?”

“Captain.” Nyx stood up straighter, an instinctive gesture. “Uh, I mean, Admiral. Thank you for the offer, but I think we can take it from here.”

“Please, call me Xinyi,” she said. “I’m not your superior officer anymore, just a friend. Although I really would be happy to help.”

Nyx had begun her career in the Coalition under Captain Du, serving as a junior officer on the Eloquence. Some days it felt like that had been a different lifetime, and some days it felt like just yesterday that she’d stepped on board her very first Coalition vessel. Du had been a good captain, kind to her subordinates but not overly familiar with the youngest members of her crew. In time Nyx had moved on to the Compassion, and then she’d been given the captain’s chair on the Benevolence, and then everything had fallen apart.

Xinyi was looking around the bridge, and it was obvious that she wasn’t impressed by what she saw. Sure, the Benevolence could have used some touch-ups. Sera’s style of repairs was ruthlessly practical, with raised solder marks left unfiled and wires hanging out of abandoned consoles where she’d cannibalized hard-to-find parts. There had been many mechanics before her, none particularly skilled at maintaining the Coalition’s sleek and seamless look without the Coalition’s endless supply of free replacement parts. Nyx had learned to live with it, although now, under her old captain’s eye, she felt faintly ashamed that she hadn’t done more to tidy up.

“I noticed your copilot’s station is empty,” said Xinyi. “Mind if I sit there?”

“I’d be honored.” Lowering her voice, Nyx added, “To be honest, Sera could use the help.”

“I noticed. Why is she still flying?”

“We’re a little short-staffed at the moment. I’d planned to take a break after this quick run, but, well, you know.” Nyx spread her arms, a gesture encompassing the ship and its new passengers.

Xinyi was giving her a strange look. Nyx realized that she was looking at the cast on her wrist. The ship wasn’t the only thing looking a little beat up at the moment. “ I am, of course, grateful that you were available to pick us up on such short notice,” Xinyi said. “After this, I think you should take that break.  Consider it friendly advice,” she added, barely heading off Nyx’s instinctive yes, Captain.

“We’ll definitely do that,” Nyx said. “Right after we’re done here.” How long has she been telling herself the same thing? They were always on the verge of having a chance to relax after just one more quick run.

Weyland approached, his com screen in his hand. His expression was neutral, his bearing unruffled–but then, it almost always was. “Captain, could I have a word with you?”

“Of course,” Nyx said. She expected Xinyi to stick around, but the older woman only gave her a thin smile and moved off to the copilot’s station to begin strapping in. “What is it, Weyland?”

“I’ve been checking the crew’s medical charts,” he said. “I don’t think they should be flying right now.”

“I know, but we’re going to do it anyway,” said Nyx, waving him off with her uninjured hand.

Weyland didn’t budge. “A standard takeoff in a ship the size and condition of the Benevolence exposes the human body to 2 gs of force. With the way Sera flies, the average for the Benevolence is closer to 3 gs…”

Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose as Weyland enumerated the many delicate structures of human anatomy that could snap under strain. Under other circumstances, delivered by a less monotonous storyteller, it might have been fascinating. Spaceflight was risky even for a species as strong as the Eridani or as a hard-shelled as the Centaurians. Even without letting the vacuum in, there were so many ways to die.

Now Weyland was going on about neural overload. Nyx held up a hand, and when that didn’t stop him, she said, “I acknowledge that this isn’t ideal. But do you know what happens when a human’s hit directly with a plasma rifle bolt?”

“Yes,” said Weyland. “The heat vaporizes organic material on contact, causing the expanding gas to–”

“This is a war zone,” said Nyx, flatly. “We’re getting out of it. End of discussion.”

Weyland nodded. If he disagreed with that decision, he didn’t show it. “Yes, captain,” he said, and went to his seat.

Nyx sat down in her own chair, looking down at the rest of the crew. She caught herself scratching an itch under her cast and forced herself to keep her palm flat on her armrest. Just ahead of her, Xinyi had pulled up a diagnostic report of the ship’s systems at her station. A good portion of it was solid red. The Benevolence’s computer still occasionally glitched out and tried to diagnose problems in the portion of the ship that had been blown off years before. Sera was tapping out a string of commands on the pilot’s console. Nyx buckled her harness, then killed time fiddling with it, tightening the straps and loosening them again.

At last she felt a familiar thrum through the soles of her feet as the Benevolence’s chemical thrusters powered up. Remembering the dozens of passengers the ship was carrying, Nyx used her own console to send a reminder to strap in. The view from the forward window tilted, the open field panning to a clear blue sky, and the thrust of takeoff pushed Nyx back into her seat.

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Guest Post: Nicole Field on Worldbuilding

I asked Nicole Field, author of Changing Loyalties, about how she came up with the world of her Shadows of Melbourne series. Nicole writes across the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. She lives in Melbourne with her fiancee, two cats, and a bottomless cup of tea. She likes candles, incense and Gilmore Girls. Changing Loyalties will be available for purchase from Less Than Three Press on January 24th, 2018.

The answer to this question is both simple and complex. The simple answer is this:

I have lived in Melbourne, Australia for most of my life. Yet, I am used to seeing the Tri-Cities (the Mercy Thompson series), Missouri (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter), Louisiana (Sookie Stackhouse), Chicago, (Dresden Files), Arizona (Iron Druid Chronicles), Atlanta (Kate Daniels) and London (Kate Kane, Paranormal Investigator) in paranormal and urban fantasy series.

The initial plan for Shadows of Melbourne (of which Changing Loyalties is the first installment), was that it would be set in a city with which I was incredibly familiar. Beyond that, it needn’t read all that differently than a paranormal novel set within the States, or England.

The more complex answer includes my awareness that Australia is a land of immigrants. I was certain early on that I wanted to represent that history in having two of my main vampire characters—Elliott and Annabelle—come across to Australia from England not too long after the time of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788.

But it also occurred to me that Australia’s cities are very diverse, and I wanted to represent more of that than just the city of Melbourne.

We do have a great deal more industry and urban sprawl in cities like Melbourne and Sydney. Therefore, it made sense to me that this would be where the vampires were most powerful. Certainly, Melbourne is where Annabelle and Elliott have set up their own power base over the last 100 years. Future books in the series will show a similar power base set up in Sydney.

Although there is a werewolf presence in Melbourne, it is made clear in Changing Loyalties that the power base for werewolves within Australia is in and around Perth, Western Australia, wherein the urban sprawl is less, and the wide open spaces much more. In Melbourne, the pack house (pictured in the gorgeous cover art by @NatashaSnow) is on the outskirts of Melbourne. It is the suburbs and the remoter regions where they choose to make their home.

Another thing I’ve noticed Melbourne is very good at is its arts and culture. Our outcries when we notice terrible things in the news. I could vividly see a company of librarian-style witches coming up in this city behind the business front of a place I’ve called ‘Personal Documentation’.

It’s partly a support group where people who have been attacked by werewolves or vampires, or have family or friends who have had the same, can find peace. It’s also a place where they can learn about what has happened. It’s a place where they can take power into their own hands against them, if need be. And it’s also where my main character—a wholly human university student, Dahlia Noone—will find people who know as much about the supernatural elements of Melbourne as she does.

When Dahlia finds the body of her father, a werewolf, brutally murdered and left to die alone, she’s left with more questions and grief than answers. But who or what killed him remains unknown, and it soon becomes clear her father isn’t the killer’s only target.

Adding to the growing pile of mysteries in her life is the new job—for a company that seems to be run by the kind of people who have no qualms about murdering werewolves. Even more frustrating, Dahlia’s new boss, Bianca, is curt and rude—and far more intriguing than seems fair.

Changing Loyalties will be released on January 24, January 24th, 2018. You can preorder it at the Less Than Three Press store.

Trust Me, Part 2 – Astra Nullius

Jianyu

Their destination was a settlement at the center of a big green continent, set next to a wide silty river. The atmosphere was so favorable that there was no port to dock in, just a flat swath of grass at the edge of town where Sera set the ship down and opened the airlock directly into the native air. Jianyu supposed he could guess why this system was worth fighting over. Humans and Eridani thrived in similar ecosystems, and this planet would be a perfect agricultural world for either species.

Most of the passengers who filed through the door were human. He recognized a few in passing from his last visit. Captain Dysart waited by the door, watching the crowd come in and glancing now and then at the sky, as if she’d be able to see the fleet encroaching from all the way down here. Jianyu stood in the hallway a few steps away from her, directing the traffic and trying to hide his disappointment at every unfamiliar face. Sera leaned against the wall beside him, her right thumb hooked in a pocket of her vest, her left arm held up in its sling.

Beyond the doorway, Jianyu could see a beautiful field, the grass thick and remarkably close to earth’s native plants. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. It didn’t look like a war zone to him. He supposed he didn’t know what a war zone was supposed to look like. He’d never been in one before, and whenever the news showed images of plasma-scarred fields, he always turned it off. He knew that the territorial squabbles between human and Eridani forces were boiling over into real, pitched battles, but it was easier to know that in the abstract than to confront the reality of it.

In the doorway, the captain stopped to talk with a woman. Her face was turned away, but when the two clasped hands briefly his heart started hammering. She turned his way, and they locked eyes, and his mother smiled. There were new lines on her face, although it hadn’t been that long since they last saw each other.

Sera straightened, noticing that he was watching someone in the crowd, but she was too short to see over the mass of people. “How much are we charging per head?” she asked.

“What?” Jianyu looked down for a moment, distracted, and when he turned his eyes back to the crowd he’d lost her again.

“The price per passenger,” Sera said. “It should work out to a nice cut for each of us.”

“Oh, this is all free.” Jianyu kept watching for another familiar face. “Personal favor.”

“Free?” Sera didn’t sound pleased hear that. “We’re flying through a war zone for free? And who’s so important that the captain’s willing to risk our lives for nothing?”

She couldn’t have known, of course, but that didn’t stop the jolt of anger from lancing through Jianyu’s chest. “Go back to the bridge and get ready to go,” he said, knowing he sounded gruff. “I’ll finish up here.”

Sera gave him a puzzled look, but headed off, pushing through the crowd. Jianyu kept waiting, his stomach tightening with every new face.

His father was last through the door, ducking to get under the metal frame. He too looked as if he’d aged years since they’d last spoken. He put his hand on Jianyu’s shoulder and squeezed briefly, then stepped back. “That’s all of us,” he said. “Time to go.”

Jianyu keyed in a command to close the airlock. The hallway was emptying out, the settlers filing off to the empty spaces that had been conference rooms and offices when the Benevolence was a Coalition vessel. The crew had done a hasty job of turning them into passenger cabins, moving furniture into the cargo bay and fixing emergency harnesses on the wall.

When they were alone in the hallway, he turned to his dad and stepped into his spread arms for a hug. He was never going to be as tall as his Eridani father, always child-sized at only seven feet, and he wished more than ever that he could be the one to step back and let his parents handle things.

“Where did mom go?” Jianyu asked. “I saw her for a second, but then she disappeared.”

“Probably went straight to the bridge,” his father said. “You know how she is.”

They broke apart. Jianyu led the way, taking advantage of the empty hallway and the fact that he was facing away from his father to dry his eyes with his shirtsleeve. His mother was indeed on the bridge, standing next to the captain’s chair with Xrrt and Captain Dysart, her arms clasped behind her back. Jianyu slid into his seat and began fastening his harness. Sera turned around in her own chair, leaned over to him, and whispered. “Do you know who that is?”

“Yes, I’m aware, thank you.” Jianyu picked up the cable that plugged into his neural port. His stomach was churning. The turnaround was going to be tight–he didn’t normally perform the tricky work of calculating the ship’s faster than light trajectory without taking at least a couple of days to rest, but they didn’t have a couple of days. The fighting was getting dangerously close to Heimstätte.

“I mean, we studied her work in class. That five-point plan at the battle over Sigma Scorpii, I did a presentation on that. You could have just said we were picking up Admiral Du.”

His mother walked over to his station. Sera gawked openly. In her retirement she’d gained a little weight, and let her hair grow out and braided it. If she’d kept her old uniform, she wasn’t wearing it; her clothing, her easy smile, everything marked her as a civilian now.

In Chinese, she said, “Your pilot only has one arm. Is this going to be a problem?”

Jianyu responded in kind, the syllables a little awkward on his tongue after so long speaking only English. His mother had insisted that he learn both his parents’ languages, but he didn’t get much of a chance to practice. “She can handle it.”

“She better,” his mom said. She rubbed a hand over his head, a gesture he remembered from childhood, then walked off to speak to Captain Dysart.

He turned back to Sera, who looked like she was putting two and two together. He knew he would never be the mirror image of either of his parents, but it wasn’t hard to see he had his mother’s dark eyes and hair.

“Holy shit.” Sera was giddy. “When were you going to tell me your mom’s Admiral Du?”

“Promise me you won’t get weird about it,” Jianyu said.

Sera’s eyes were shining. It was the happiest she’d looked in weeks, the first time in a while her face hadn’t been pinched with pain. “Oh, I’m going to get weird about it,” she said. “As your friend, getting weird about it is my sacred duty.

“Just don’t get us all killed.” Jianyu glanced at his own console. Weyland had sent him another message about his neural readouts. He deleted it.

🚀

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Trust Me, Part 1 – Astra Nullius

Sera

At first, the voice was just another part of her dream. She was back home again, down in the cramped tunnels sunk deep into the lunar rock. A pack of bullies was chasing her, bigger kids who loomed larger in her dream than they ever had in life. She kept running, following a route that was both familiar and impossible to remember, and a voice was telling her to get to the bridge, get to the bridge right now.

She startled awake, the dream shredding, and for a moment she couldn’t remember what her name was or who she worked for. Sera, she thought at last, as the voice continued to tell her to get to the bridge immediately. I’m Sera, and this is the Benevolence, and that’s Captain Dysart’s voice telling me something’s gone wrong again.

Good thing she’d fallen asleep with her clothes on. She still needed a sling for her injured left arm during the day, and struggling out of her shirt and pants alone often felt like more trouble than it was worth. She slipped her socks and boots on one-handed, leaving the laces untied, and ran the fingers of her good hand through her hair. The shaved sides were getting fuzzy. They’d need a trim soon, although she didn’t think she could use a razor without help. Being injured sucked.

“I’m on my way,” she told the intercom before half-running, half-shuffling toward the bridge.

Captain Dysart was seated in her chair on the dais. She was wearing her old purple uniform short, the five silver circles of the Coalition’s symbol winking in the light. One sleeve was folded back over her forearm to accommodate the bulky cast over her fractured wrist. Xrrt wasn’t standing in her usual position at the captain’s side, but strapped down in one of the specialized rigs made to protect Centaurian anatomy during violent ship maneuvers. Weyland, sitting out of the way at the station that would have belonged to a xenolinguistic specialist if the ship had a full Coalition crew, also had safety restraints in place. Sera looked up at the crystalline window, but everything looked normal to her; they were travelling faster than light, and the pinpricks of starlight coming through the window wavered and smeared across the black as the Benevolence slipped through folds of time and space.

“What’s the problem, captain?” Sera slid into her own seat and pulled up a diagnostic chart of the ship. Normally she would have been the first to notice anything wrong with the Benevolence, since she slept so close to the ship’s engine that even a minute change in their steady hum could wake her up. Since she’d been taking painkillers, she’d been sinking deeper into dreams and waking up disoriented.

“We’re making an unscheduled stop,” said Jianyu from his seat next to hers at the navigator’s station. He was already plugged into the ship, looking up at the light dancing across the window. He was wearing his old uniform too. The bright orange made his green skin look even greyer and more washed out in comparison. “It’s a planet in the Eta Persei system.”

Sera checked her diagnostic screen, but the ship’s systems were green across the board. Well, green-ish, at least. The Benevolence was a mess of disparate parts, and she’d never run as smoothly the exploration vessel she’d been when the computer’s systems were designed. “I thought that was a war zone.”

“It is,” Jianyu said.

Sera reached for her harness and buckled the mesh straps across her chest. “Any particular reason why we’re stopping there?”

“We’re picking some people up.” Captain Dysart’s voice was tight with tension. “We’ll get in and out quickly. The worst fighting’s on the other side of the system, so if we turn around quickly enough, we might be able to slip by unnoticed.”

Looking over at Jianyu, Sera saw that his hands were clenched tight on the arms of his chair. His knuckles stood out pale against the green of his skin. “All right,” she said as she killed the diagnostic screen and pulled up the layouts she’d need to see as she flew the ship manually. “Ready when you are.”

Jianyu’s eyes rolled up in his head as he fed a new series of calculations into the ship’s computer, altering their current trajectory to bring them out of the folds of space-time. They would return to sub-light speeds about a half hour’s ride from a planet called Heimstätte, an earthlike outpost that had, until recent events, been firmly under the control of humanity. Now, with Eridani fleets encroaching on the system, she supposed there were plenty of people who wanted a quick escape route. She wondered how much the captain was charging for this particular ride. Their cargo hold was already full of vats of algae, and their client wouldn’t be too happy if this unplanned stop delayed their delivery.

The ship dropped into the normal flow of time and space. The stars beyond the window stabilized into unwavering points of light. Sera set a steady speed, one that would make them look like any other trader en route to the planet.

“Can’t we go any faster?” the captain asked.

“It looks suspicious to come in like we’re in a hurry,” Sera told her. “As far as whoever’s currently patrolling this system knows, we’re profiteers hoping the war means scarcity.”

Heimstätte was a pretty planet, like the earth Sera had seen in simulations of what the planet was like before humanity put its stamp across its homeworld. She keyed in a command to her console, typing awkwardly with just one working arm, and the ship maintained its steady course.

🚀

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Astra Nullius publication schedule changes in 2018

The first year of Astra Nullius weighed in at 54,000 words over 12 installments. About 3,000 additional words were cut as I made edits to scenes that weren’t working, and around 12,000 words are sitting in documents that are in the process of being turned into next year’s stories.

That’s a decent chunk of text for an amateur author, and while there are a few tweaks I’ve considered making, I’m happy with my work overall. While I’ve written longer stories, this was the first year I held myself to monthly deadlines and routinely published my work. I learned a lot about writing, editing, and marketing in 2017.

My biggest lesson: serials are meant to be, well, serial. Dumping a huge chunk of text once a month makes it harder for readers to follow along as the story unfolds. Starting in January 2018, I’ll be moving to a weekly publication schedule. One new point-of-view scene will go up every week, and I’ll start moving into longer, more complex stories that don’t fit neatly into 4,000-word blocks. You’ll be getting the same amount of content, with around 1,000 words published per week, plus some possible bonus stories if I have the time to finish them.

The email newsletter will keep going out once a month, since a weekly newsletter would get annoying pretty quickly. I’m also working on a nicely formatted ebook version of the first year’s stories, which I’ll send out via the newsletter when it’s completed. I’ll include a few different file types so folks who prefer to read on e-readers, tablets, and phones will have options that aren’t eye-straining walls of text on a white background.

I’m excited about everything I have planned for the crew in 2018; it’s been fun establishing the world they live in, but now it’s time to raise the stakes. The galaxy’s about to get way more dangerous, and the crew of the Benevolence is going to have to make some changes if they want to keep on flying.

2017 Wrap-up: The end of the beginning

Usually, I devote a little blog space at the end of the year to quantifying the work I’ve done and making grand plans for the year ahead. But this is 2017, and a series of color-coded graphs can’t quite capture everything that happened.

I didn’t do much formal tracking of my word count this year. If I had, you’d see long lulls punctuated by spikes of feverish activity. You might be able to pick out periods where I got deep in the weeds of stories that didn’t pan out. You’d see the same scenes getting picked at over and over. I didn’t write with my usual joyful abandon in 2017. A lot of the words I ground out were hard won.

Keeping up with Astra Nullius was, in some ways, the easiest piece of longform writing I’ve ever done. The short story format allowed me to toss out work I wasn’t enjoying and play with interesting ideas that weren’t robust enough to be entire novels. This year, I made a point of setting aside the idea that I was writing something intended for traditional publication and just let myself write what I wanted to write.

In other ways, this was the hardest writing project I’ve ever embarked on. For the first few months of stories, hitting publish or even just sending a draft to my beta reader was enough to leave me shaky and anxious for days. When I started publishing Astra Nullius, I hadn’t let anyone read my fiction in five and a half years.

I wrote the first story for Astra Nullius in October 2016. Hillary Clinton was cruising toward what looked like an easy victory, and while I had plenty to worry about in my personal life, I was optimistic about where my country was headed. The fantasy world I was creating was a fun sandbox to play around in: the messy end of a Star Trek-esque utopia, viewed through the eyes of libertine heroes who want to bring back the good old days but spend most of their time just scraping by.

2017 was a weird period for us all. Talking about my personal life has never come easy to me, and it’s been especially hard this year. It was a weird, frightening, overwhelming time in my life, and I ended up slamming face-first into a lot of major life events in very quick succession.

I think it’s pretty obvious how all that played out in my fiction. I’d originally planned Astra Nullius as a loving send-up of pulp scifi, a goofy homage to a genre I’ve always turned to for comfort. What I actually wrote was stranger and sadder, a story about how victory sometimes looks like making it through another day.

I’m excited about everything I have planned for the crew in 2018. It’s been fun establishing the world they live in, but now it’s time to raise the stakes. I’m also changing the publication schedule and working some new ways to read the series that won’t require readers to slog through eye-straining walls of text. Stay tuned for more updates in the next few weeks.