Today, we’re excited to launch the first piece of multi-part Starfinder fiction, Misery’s Company, a serialized novella by Hugo Award-winner Tim Pratt. The first chapter is presented here, while future chapters will be featured in the Paizo Newsletter over the next few months. Make sure you catch each weekly installment by signing up for the Paizo Newsletter. If you already have a Paizo.com account, simply ensure your privacy settings allow for us to send you emails regarding “products, offers, news, and events,”, and you’ll get them too!
DOWN AND OUT
Misree crawled out of an air duct and looked around the hangar bay, one of the cheapest and most cluttered on Absalom Station. She crouched behind a pile of spent energy cells and listened past the hiss of leaking hydraulic lines and the clang of someone banging on a bolt for anything that sounded... worrisome. Like, say, snippets of conversation between enforcers bent on capturing her. She didn’t pick up anything alarming.
There were two dozen ships in the bay, arrayed in uneven lines, from little one-person runabouts to bulky cargo vessels, and her own swift courier, the Up and Out, was way in the back, closest to the exit, just where she liked it. This was the kind of hangar where you had to pay your docking fees up front, so there was nothing stopping her from jumping on board, spinning up the engines, and racing out of here. Sure, coming back to the station without getting murdered on arrival would be tricky, but once she got her hands on some credits, she'd make paying back Zephonith her first—second—at least third—priority. In Misree's experience, enough credits could smooth over just about any difficulty. It was just a shame she always had more difficulties than credits lately.
Once she was confident the way was clear, Misree ran across the hangar toward her ship... and was within steps of the boarding ramp when a vesk shimmered out of some kind of stealth field and stood in her way, holding an immense wrench casually in one clawed hand.
Misree stopped short, very nearly colliding with the vesk, which would have made a bad situation even worse. She looked up (and up, and up) into the reptilian smile. The vesk was easily seven feet tall, while Misree was on the short side for a human. "Smeliel! I was just looking for you."
"Isn't that lucky," the vesk enforcer rumbled. "I was looking for you, too." She rapped the nose of the Up and Out with her wrench. "You weren't going to leave, were you? You have an appointment with our mutual employer, and I’m sure you don’t plan to keep her waiting."
Misree's smile slipped. "I don't work for Zephonith." Misree didn't work for anyone anymore. She charted her own course, made her own choices, and didn't have to answer to anyone—or answer for them, either. Flying solo was better in every way. Though it did mean, at times like this, that nobody had her back.
"Zephonith owns you, though." Smeliel crouched, bringing her closer to Misree's eye level. "Until you pay what's owed."
Misree had borrowed heavily from Zephonith to finance a heist, outfitting the Up and Out with the latest infiltration, stealth, and combat tech, all part of a plan to rob the orbital pleasure palace of a lashunta oligarch... but it turned out her contact sold the same security system plans and station blueprints to another crew: one that managed to strike a lot faster. The prize was stolen from Misree, which meant she didn’t have the capital to repay her loan, or even keep up with the eye-watering interest. "I'm going to pay,” Misree said. “In fact, I was just going out to scout a new job, so I’d have good news for Zephonith at our meeting."
Smeliel turned her head and looked at the ship. "You've got everything you need on here, don't you?" Her voice was full of undisguised admiration. "I had a word with the engineers you hired. The Up and Out is a custom-built flying crime spree. Seems a shame to leave it in such.... ineffectual hands."
Misree's guts went cold. "Smeliel, no, you can't—"
"Half the value of that vessel comes from upgrades you made with Zeph's money," the Vesk said, as if idly musing. "The other half... should pretty much cover the interest, plus a gratuity to thank my employer for not tossing you out an airlock for trying to run away today. In which case, you can just transfer the title, and we’re done."
Misree gritted her teeth. "You can't take my ship. She's all I've got. I poured my life into the Up and Out—"
Smeliel clamped an immense clawed hand on Misree's shoulder. "Then don't make me pour your life out all over this hangar deck."
Did you always want to be a hired thug? Was this your childhood dream? Beating people up for a crime boss?" Misree winced at herself. Sometimes her thoughts slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them.
"I'm a poet, actually," Smeliel said, grinding down on Misree’s shoulder. "That's why I left home, originally—my family didn't understand my dreams. But poetry doesn't pay very well. Not compared to enforcing the interests of a local entrepreneur. Sometimes you need a night job. I will say, doing this kind of work?" She showed all her serrated, triangular teeth. "It does give me a great deal of insight into the sapient condition, and that's helpful in my art. Maybe I'll write something about you—'An Ode to Misery.'"
"I've never heard a joke like that before," Misree said. "Can I at least get my stuff?"
"You don't have any stuff," Smeliel said. "You walk away with your life. And that deal is only good for the next minute or so. Transfer the title now."
Misree looked wistfully at the Up and Out—her home, her livelihood, and practically her only friend. But you had to know when to let things go, and “two seconds before a vesk enforcer splits your head open with a wrench” was an excellent time to do so. She tapped a command into her wrist-mounted computer and gave up her one true love.
Smeliel looked at a readout on her own datapad, grunted, and said, “Good choice. I hate getting blood all over my good wrench.” She made a shooing gesture. “I'd say 'Don't let me see you on this station again,' but since it's a big place, and you don't have access to a vehicle anymore, I'll settle for saying, 'Stay out of Zephonith's club.'"
“The drinks are overpriced anyway,” Misree muttered.
“True,” Smeliel said. “You couldn’t afford the cover charge anyway, now that I think about it. Stop loitering around my ship.”
Misree trudged out of the hangar. At least she didn’t have to sneak through air ducts and service tunnels anymore. She reviewed her assets. She still had a day left on the rental for the sleep-pod where she'd been hiding out from Zephonith. She had a change of clothes in the bag strapped to her back, an ultrathin switchblade in her pocket, and a few credsticks squirreled away here and there on the station—she'd learned early in life not to keep everything of value in one place.
That was the totality of her net worth, though, and it wasn’t enough to finance any kind of comeback or fresh start. Ugh. Would she be reduced to running short cons on tourists in bars? Or worse, rolling drunks and emptying their pockets? She’d never been into strongarm robbery, and it was a dangerous proposition. She knew a guy who’d mugged a defenseless-looking human who’d turned out to have an integrated cutting torch hidden in a cybernetic arm, and everybody called the mugger “Cyclops” now because he only had one eye left. But even robbery was a better option than hiring herself out to one of Zephonith's competitors, which was her only other plausible path to financial security. It was pretty easy to get a job with a crime boss when you had the kind of skills and résumé Misree did... but it was really hard to quit that job if you ever wanted to move on.
She turned onto a crowded thoroughfare, through a gray-market bazaar that filled a hub where three corridors intersected. She headed down an alley that led to her sleeping pod, one of two dozen stacked cubbyholes, each just barely big enough to sleep in. At least her pod was on the bottom level, so she didn’t have to climb a rickety ladder to reach—
Misree froze. The door to her cubby was ajar. In theory it was biometrically locked to her for the duration of her rental, but there were ways to spoof the locks, or you could always just bribe the manager. Who was inside? Another of Zephonith’s enforcers, one who hadn’t been called off yet?
She crouched beside an overflowing trash bin and watched her door swing all the way open. An android stepped out of her room—ebony skinned with a shining bald head of some silver alloy and bright yellow eyes, wearing a slick black overcoat.
Zephinoth never employed androids; Misree didn’t know why, but she assumed she’d been wronged by one too many androids on her climb up the crime boss career ladder. Which meant... this was some other kind of trouble.
The android turned his head, his stoic yellow eyes fixing immediately on her. “Misree Ludovic! I’ve been looking for you!”
About the Author
Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars and its sequels, The Dreaming Stars and The Forbidden Stars. Tim’s five Pathfinder Tales novels—City of the Fallen Sky, Reign of Stars, Liar’s Blade, Liar’s Bargain, and Liar’s Island—are available now. He's a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection Miracles & Marvels was released last fall. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.