As we barrel toward the August 29 premiere of Rayguns Over Texas at LoneStarCon 3 (aka the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention) in San Antonio, I am presenting book excerpts, one contributor per day.
Today’s selection comes from Nicky Drayden‘s “The Atmosphere Man.”
On an alien world, illegal packaged atmospheres come at a price. How far will someone go to please the one you love? Nicky Draden questions the cost of nostalgia, honor, and romance.
The Atmosphere Man feigned shock. “That’d be illegal, Jedd!”
“And very profitable.” I handed him a flimsy duffle bag with “Whennyho City Resorts” screen-printed on both sides. The zipper was cheaply made as well, and barely functional, but nevertheless, The Atmosphere Man forced it open and peeked inside at the stacks of kalax. It wasn’t a fortune, maybe half as much as he’d gotten to air up this place, but I was betting that the paper I clutched in my hand would be much more valuable to him. I laid it out on the bar and dropped my charade. “Before you make any decisions, I want you to know that this is a personal matter, not a professional one. Still, if you’re agreeable to this trade, I can make these VACI files disappear.”
The Atmosphere Man swiped his finger across the sheet, looking at twenty years worth of dirt VACI had accumulated on him. Admittedly it wasn’t much. Not even a real name to go with the blurred surveillance photos. He was quite the illusive criminal, always managing to stay just to the right of VACI’s radar, but I’d invested more than a healthy amount of man hours strategically digging through the details of his exploits — pole-skimming on environmentally sensitive planets, bribing and blackmailing members of the Open-Air Alliance, and of course, dealing in contraband atmosphere.
“Why are you doing this?” The Atmosphere Man asked.
“For my wife. She’s Earthborne.” Despite myself, I flinched at the word. It was a mild slur used for those who’d stayed behind after the Major Exodus, and the next dozen or so of the minor ones. The stubborn people who refused to admit that the Earth was dying.
“You don’t say. Not many of them made it off.”
“She was lucky.” I was lucky. I couldn’t imagine not having her in my life. And there I was in the presence of a known criminal, begging him to help me keep her.
“There’s no shame in thinking you can change the inevitable,” The Atmosphere Man said, sucking the boifruit off the pointed tip of his toothpick umbrella. “They fought a good fight. Repopulated a couple seas, found a vaccination to combat the dais blight, decontaminated the runoff from dozens of thermonuclear bombsites. Who knows, if they’d started a few years earlier, maybe they would have succeeded.”
The Atmosphere Man leaned back, his elbow propped casually against the bar. “What you’re asking could get you into a fair amount of trouble if you’re caught.”
“I won’t get caught.”
“So sure of yourself, are you? This wife of yours … “ The Atmosphere Man shifted forward on his stool, fingers steepled at his lips. Flecks of gold rimmed his irises, and in the span of milliseconds, the thin membrane of secondary lids blinked across his eyes. I wondered if any other VACI agents had ever gotten so close to him.
“What about her?” I said, gravel in my voice.
“You’re sure she’s worth it? I mean, one slip of my tongue and your whole world could come crashing down, faster than one of these porta-planets.”
A threat. But I too could play that game. “Oh, she’s worth it, Yoris.”
The Atmosphere Man’s eyes bulged at hearing his name. His spots darkened, then faded again. He nodded, then shoved the VACI sheet inside his duffle bag, struggling with the zipper before finally giving up. “Ah, well. Send Anise my best, then, will you?”
I tensed. He’d known my identity before I’d walked into this humid pit-stain of a bar. The Atmosphere Man swatted another bloatfly to the ground, stomped its juicy carcass, then left without another word.
Excerpt from “The Atmosphere Man” © 2013 by Nicky Drayden.