Backworlds Book 1
Edited by Leigh T. Moore
Cover by: edhgraphics / Graphic Artist Erin Dameron-Hill
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In the far future, humanity settles the stars, bioengineering its descendants to survive in a harsh universe. This is the first book in the science fiction series, The Backworlds. Try it for free. A space opera adventure.
After the war with the Foreworlders, Backworlders scatter across the remaining planets. Competition is fierce, and pickings are scant. Scant enough that Craze’s father decides to improve his fortunes by destroying his son. He tells his only boy their moon isn’t big enough for them both and gives Craze a ticket for the next transport leaving the space dock.
Treated worse than a stranger, like the scuzzbag of the galaxy, Craze is forced to flee his home. Cut off from everyone he knows with little money and no knowledge of the worlds beyond his, he must find away to forge a new life and make sure his father regrets this day.
Rekha Sang made this awesome video as a surprise. How cool.
Copyright 2012 M. Pax
Craze never imagined his pa would turn on him. Bast served up manipulation and cold calculation with cups of malt to strangers, to suckers, to fools, and competitors. Not to his son, not to anyone in the family.
Bast had always said, “Never trust a con.” He pounded in the lessons until Craze could recite them inside-out and could smell a schemer from ten kilometers away. Craze should have known to ignore the one on how dodgy fathers don’t count as cons, should’ve known Bast couldn’t be trusted.
Craze snorted, glowering into the single malt. The wooden cup added to the flavor, deepening and enriching the magic carpet in the tumbler. Craze had dubbed it magic, because just a few swigs could transport him out of reality, even this horror pit his pa had just shoved him into.
“This world ain’t big enough for both of us,” his father had said while pouring the drink. “Time for you to find new opportunities. For us.”
For us? Craze wanted to laugh. Shit. That kind of talk was for uncooperative members of the council of elders or business rivals. Swirling the liquid smoke around his tongue, the fire mellowed into a flavor akin to pleasure. Craze let it trickle down his throat, savoring the burn trailing deep into his stomach. It staved off the damp and his father’s chilling words, “Time for you to go, Son.”
They sat at the bar of the family tavern, sharing the end of the day as they often did. Only this time, they didn’t conspire about how to rise in status among the Verkinn, or discuss which council elder they needed to manipulate into doing what. They didn’t laugh over the saps they’d duped out of chips either. Years of acquiring chips and standing Craze had assumed would come into his hands, making that ancient saying about assumptions, older than Backworlder genes, right.
Craze found it hard to meet his father’s gaze. His thick digits flicked over a corner of his tab—a data device the size and thickness of a card with funds transferred onto it. He stared at the figure.
“That ain’t much, Pa. Won’t even buy me a place to piss.”
Outside the window next to Craze’s right elbow, dew settled as the sun sank among the tangled jungle of ganya tree leaves and branches, reaching high and low like an enormous bramble thicket. The moisture thickened, cloying as the day grew long, pooling into puddles, seeping in through the panes. The heaters couldn’t keep out the cold of the coming night, couldn’t warm up his pa’s order for him to leave either.
The painful sentence echoed like bad hooch stuck in the digestive tract. Go where? Craze’s chest constricted, his thoughts went round and round. He rubbed at the aches in his breast and temples, hoping he’d heard his father wrong. The malt numbed it some.
He threw the rest of the drink back, licking off any remnants clinging to his thick lips. His dark eyes narrowed, studying his father. The man stood behind the bar like a boulder, his square jaw set, which widened the splay of his nose and cheeks that were so much like Craze’s.
Everyone had always remarked on how much Craze and his pa were alike in appearance and manner. They could both schmooze better than a slick-tongued peace negotiator bargaining a new truce. They both had ebony hair and eyes, olive skin, and an intimidating, burly build. Craze used to take pride in that. In one moment, one sentence, it all changed. His father had broken the rules he’d set up between them. He’d sold his son in order to rise in the Verkinn elders’ esteem. Craze swore right there and then to never become like his father, and he didn’t want to do what his father asked of him, resented it’d been asked at all.
Tapping out the last droplets from the cup into his needy mouth, Craze held it out for a refill. His pa made the finest malt on all the Backworlds, drawing connoisseurs from all over the Lepper System—the portals of transportation the Backworlders traveled on. Craze would need a whole keg to deal with the words filling his flat, indistinct ears.
“I’ve saved money for this day,” Bast said. “I know the startup fund ain’t much, but it be enough for a position where you can make better ‘n move on. You’ll make the most of it. I know.” He poured the equivalent of three shots into a cup, the malt gurgling pleasantly. “Then you ‘n I will come to dominate the Backworlds. Folks wanting our malt, mead, and ale. Hollering for it everywhere. Telling us their secrets as they sip down our hooch, sometimes secrets we can profit from.”
Bast swigged his finely-crafted booze. “Later, I’ll send on your sisters with their families ‘n more son’s. You’ll send out your offspring ‘n the galaxy will be liquid resin in our hands. Moldable and shapeable to our whim. Yup, the boys of Bast will take the stars. Our…,your, your future is so bright, my boy.”
His pa’s chest swelled and his eyes gleamed as he gazed wistfully into the tomorrow he envisioned, lips twitching into a faint smile. “Talked the council elders into agreeing. So, this be sanctioned. Yup, you’ll be the Verkinn’s next great hero, spreading our people out in hopes you can make something amounting to success on what’s left of the Backworlds. Make a statement our kind be not done. No, the Verkinn will rise again ‘n you’ll lead the way.”
Craze heard nothing beyond the glory of Bast. “My leadin’ greatly benefits you. So you hope.”
His father frowned, spitting, starting to snarl. Then he fell quiet, saying nothing. Eyes brimming with moisture, he washed cups and wiped off bottles and kegs. His shoulders sagged. “If you want to think me so low… after all we’ve shared… I thought you knew me better, Son.”
Craze cradled his head in his large hands. Shit. His father had kept him and taught him all these years. Maybe his pa did mean well, did mean to further Craze’s standing in life. Craze wanted to believe that more than his father turning on him.
“Where do you suggest I go, Pa? No other suitable world’s been found for us. Not for thrivin’, so the Verkinn council has said. As soon as I set foot on another world, I’ll go into hibernation if the air isn’t right.”
“The council lied. They wanted the Verkinn all in one place to regroup after the war. So our people could grow strong again. I don’t know where you should go, but go you must. Many worlds won’t be suitable for you. The council ‘n I planned for it though.” Bast leaned over, resting his elbows on the counter. “We met a man with a mechanical woman; she was a cybernetic Backworlder, an engineer type. She invented a pair of coveralls that’ll keep the right amount of organics flowing in your blood, enhancing whatever oxygen there be on whatever world you end up on, keeping you from hibernating if you don’t wish to. The garment be in your pack. See, I be looking out for you, my boy.”
His father thrust his chin at a corner by the door where a canvas sack laid. Wrinkled and deflated, the worn bag sank in on itself decreeing not much was in it.
If they’d engineered a whole freaking garment to keep Craze from hibernating in less ideal environments, Bast and the council had known about this day for some time. Just how long had they been planning this? Craze’s stomach churned cold, creating a granule of ice in his center. He felt certain he’d never warm up.
A lantern sat on the bar between Craze and Bast. It flickered out of beat with the fire crackling in a pit in the center of the dim room. The tavern had been created from a ganya tree—intelligent flora that adored the Verkinn. The walls, floors, and ceiling spanned in a natural canopy, and the trunk twisted and arced as Craze’s father had commanded, scented with a sweet spice inviting customers to hang around. The bar and shelves were formed from limbs crossing and braiding. They swathed the walls and counter in swirls. The bark had become smooth from years of being touched by Backworlders of all kinds, but most of all by the Verkinn. The tree had absorbed the softness of Verkinn flesh, making the trait its own.
His pa’s living hair slicked itself back, taut and straight, pulling his wide face into an expression used to send unwelcome patrons out the door. Mixed messages. One second he was the loving father, the next a self-serving bastard. Which Bast did Craze deal with? A tiny inkling in the back of his mind whispered the slickster Bast was the true man standing there. No matter what Bast said or did, he served himself. Craze didn’t really want to listen. There was comfort in thinking he dealt with the father. It wasn’t to be though. Bast’s sneer grew more menacing, belying all the good Craze wanted to put his faith into, showing the reality beyond the charismatic facade. The bastard.
The tavern belonged to Craze as much as to his father. He wouldn’t give up his position without a fight. He had his hair braid itself tight into a single plait, matching crusty expressions with Bast. “This is my place, Pa.”
“No.” His father folded his powerful arms over his barrel chest.
Craze had the same physique, so Bast’s stature didn’t intimidate him. Nor did the surly posture. Craze could take the older man on and win, therefore, he copied the stance and kicked the bar. The ganya tree trembled from the blow.
“All Verkinn live here. Here! Where am I to go?” he asked.
Bast grabbed at Craze’s shirt, lifting him off the chair, growling. “Watch your manners. You ain’t my only means of branching out. I can marry your sisters off to some saps who’ll follow my every word. You do what I say, or I’ll take the funds back ‘n give you the boot anyway. You understand?”
Bastard plus two. Craze pulled out of his father’s grasp, wheeling about to face the window. The setting sun twisted the glow of daylight, distorting colors in the village. Not so different from Bast lifting the veil over Craze’s eyes. How had it come to this? Craze’s fists balled.
Bast clapped Craze on the shoulder, an affectionate caress, a more fatherly gesture, shifting the mood between them again. “Look, I know this be hard on you, but you need to toughen up. Become your own man. It’s for the best. This be as far as you’ll ever get on Siegna. You need to go off on your own. No more tagging on my sorry example. Follow the Lepper, talk to folks ‘n you’ll find something. You resourceful, Son. You’ll figure it out.”
Craze softened under the loving touch and encouraging words. He glanced over his shoulder at a father. Maybe Bast really did mean well. Craze wanted it to be so.
His pa poured another shot of malt, handing it to Craze. Craze sipped the drink. The bite was subdued after the first two cups, swapping out his gruff with forgiveness and a growing trench of vulnerability induced by the flow of alcohol. “It’s good to know you believe in me, Pa. I’m not so sure though. Siegna’s all I know. This tavern is all I know. How do I spread the Verkinn race among the Backworlds? There’s no Verkinn out there by which to mate ‘n start a village of my own. There’ll just be me.”
“I taught you well. You’ll find your way. When you be settled ‘n prospering, I’ll send you a wife.”
“Yerness?” Craze had been courting her the past year. The idea of leaving her brought on a wave of nausea. He wanted to run his hands over her curves again and feel the tickle of her laugh against his throat. He touched the spot on his neck her lips had last touched, cradling the memory of pleasure.
His father wouldn’t meet his gaze, scrubbing at the sticky spots on the bar, washing and wiping, scouring past the filth into sawdust. Cold climbed all over Craze, inside and out.
“She’s seein’ somebody else, isn’t she?” Craze had to know for sure what he’d be leaving behind. He punched the bar. The tree moaned. “Who?”
“It be for the best if you leave her alone. Just pick up your bag ‘n go.”
The words hit harshly, causing Craze to wince and pound on the bar top again. The tree growled. He gulped down the malt and held the cup out for another.
His father waved a hand in refusal. “There be no time. Get the coveralls on ‘n get going. Your transport to Elstwhere leaves in an hour.”
“An hour? That’s so sudden.”
“A successful man puts his business—”
“First. I know, but—”
“You’ll most like fall on your face some, but I taught you to keep getting up. Prosperity ‘n success be found by getting up again ‘n again ‘n again, as many times as it takes. ‘N by finding the right people to take advantage of.”
“I know, but—”
“The council wants this, too. It be for the good of all of us. My time talking with you be up. The council comes now. We agreed that if you ain’t already on your way to the docks by now, they could chase you off.”
His father pointed at elders gathering outside, wearing council robes, prodders slapping loud and intimidating. The electrified ends sparked every time the Verkinn elders smacked the clubs against their palms. The flashes reflected in the growing puddles flooding the packed-earth roads. Three council members were joined by more, becoming twelve then twenty. All of that show of threat for him and sanctioned by his father.
Craze’s reason ached from the whiplash of all the contradictions, all the switches from savage to tender. He couldn’t sort out Bast’s true feelings, and here he was suddenly branded an outcast among his own kind.
“They only raise prodders to chase off leechers ‘n undesirables.” This had to be a nightmare. He banged his head on the bar. Pain flashed through his skull, white to vivid, consuming his senses, tasting sharp.
“Don’t go getting hysterical about it,” Bast said. “It’s temporary. I told them it was the only way to get you to go, to brand you a leecher. They want the prosperity you’ll send home. The rise of the Verkinn must come again.” Bast’s stance didn’t soften, a snarl curled his lips. No matter the words, he wanted Craze gone. “All’s you have to do is go out there ‘n do what you do. When fortune strikes, which it will, the council will say you was on a secret mission for the Verkinn. A hero. A big hero, never a leecher at all. See, nothing to worry about. Unless you disobey me ‘n the council’s wishes. You to go, my boy. Now. No more arguing.”
The words cracked like dried out branches in a windstorm. Bast held out his hand and Craze clasped the flesh as velvety as his own. Verkinn skin was soft as downy fur, irresistible to other races. But that wasn’t why Craze couldn’t bring himself to let go. He didn’t want to leave Siegna or the village and everything he knew. He couldn’t accept he would find another world and his place in it. As far as Craze was concerned, his place was here. With Yerness. What was up with her?
“It’ll take you forty minutes to get to the docks for the trip over to Elstwhere. They’ll make sure you get there in time.” He gestured out of the window at the antsy elders waving their electrified incentives, glowing like peril in the deepening dusk.
“We counting on you,” Bast said. “Me. I’m counting on you. I’m the one who said it had to be you. ‘N just so you don’t hear from someone else, the council rose me in status last week. I’m permitted to take on ‘n I intend to take advantage of my new rank. Yerness will be my second wife.”