Jack Tressler, an aspiring smuggler, is used to taking misfortune in stride. When he legitimately buys a ship for his illegitimate smuggling operation, he soon discovers the ship was stolen from a powerful weapons dealer. As recompense for the crime he didn't commit, Jack is given the choice to either die or get an ill-fitting cybernetic eye and join a crew of thieves on a crazy heist. He opts for the unpleasant modification. After all, it’s just another day in the life.
With rabid pirates, ruthless corporations, and a scorned former employer all vying for the same bounty, Jack and his new friends will need all their wits and snark to survive until their next meal in Troubled Space, a farcical space opera adventure.
CHAPTER 1: Shot in the Foot
Shooting himself in the foot with another business-deal-gone-wrong took on new meaning for Jack Tressler as he stared down the barrel of a real gun pointed toward his actual foot.
“Really, this is all a terrible misunderstanding,” Jack tried to explain.
“Misunderstanding or not, you’re a dead man.” Svetlana Korinov charged her laser pistol while a handful of women in her crew looked on with amusement around him in the freighter’s cargo bay. Her reputation for being the most powerful weapons smuggler in the sector showed in her pistol choice—sleek, shiny, and with pink accents on the barrel that made it clear she would be judged by no one. “I’ll incinerate you piece by piece, and I’ll enjoy every second.”
Jack held up his hands and plastered on the most charming smile his mediocre looks allowed. “While I’m sure killing me would bring you great short-term satisfaction—I mean, who doesn’t like to start out Monday morning with a revenge killing—what else would it really accomplish? Wouldn’t you rather find out who stole your ship in the first place?”
Svetlana’s violet eyes narrowed to slits beneath her exaggerated eyeliner. “Yes, but how could you possibly be of any use to me?”
“Me? Useful?” Jack forced a smug chuckle and smoothed back his blond hair with one hand. “Do you have any idea who I am?”
The weapons dealer activated Jack’s holopin she was holding in her free hand, displaying his credentials. “Jack Tressler, age thirty-four. Outstanding warrants on five planets and banned from a sixth for… inappropriate yodeling?” She raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Hey, it was very appropriate at the time. The authorities and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
“Of course. And what about the forty-eight thousand credits in unpaid debts?”
Jack made a dismissive flip of his wrist. “Petty cash. That’ll all be settled up after my next job.”
“The one you intended to complete with my ship?” Svetlana asked.
“Well, yeah…” Granted, Jack hadn’t known that it was stolen at the time when he’d purchased it from the third-party seller. In retrospect, he should have realized the terms of sale were too good to be true. Misfortune often came his way, especially when he tried to accomplish anything through proper channels. The fact that he had legitimately purchased the ship with the intention to use it for smuggling was beside the point; the ship’s title was supposed to be free and clear. Unfortunately, it was looking like this misstep may be his last.
Svetlana scoffed. “You’re a small-time criminal incapable of following through with his promises. I’d be doing everyone a favor if I end you.” She altered the handgun’s aim from Jack’s foot to his head.
“Whoa, whoa!” Jack raised his hands again with renewed urgency. “You stopped reading too soon. You didn’t get to the part about me being a legendary detective.”
“You mean your one-time role as Sherlock in a primary school play?”
Jack lowered his hands. “Wow, you really did read my file.”
“Your acting career won’t help uncover who stole my ship, which confirms that you’re utterly useless to me.”
“Did you watch a recording of the play? You have to admit that an eight-year-old detective is adorable.”
“Enough!” Svetlana took a step forward.
“Actually,” a woman in her late-twenties standing in the throng behind Svetlana cut in, “we could use someone to modify for our next venture.”
Svetlana lowered her weapon partway, which Jack hardly found to be an improvement since that meant it was pointing directly at his groin. Nonetheless, ‘modify’ sounded like a status upgrade from ‘dead’.
“If I can be of service…” Jack began tentatively.
“I don’t know if he’s worth the trouble, Alyssa,” Svetlana stated.
Alyssa looked Jack over, her tawny eyes partially obscured by dark, side-swept bangs. “I can handle him.”
Svetlana sighed and deactivated her laser pistol. “Fine. If he assists and is successful, his debt to me will be forgiven.”
Jack perked up. “You won’t regret this!”
“I already do,” Svetlana muttered as she holstered her handgun. “Prep him for surgery.” She headed for the cargo bay door leading to the rest of the freighter.
Two women hung back with Alyssa, and the other dozen followed Svetlana toward the exit.
“Oh, right… the ‘modifications’,” Jack gulped. “What exactly—”
“We need to replace your eye,” Alyssa stated with the matter-of-factness of a tax auditor.
She nodded. “Your left eye. You will be fitted with a multispectral camera that will feed directly into your brain.”
“It’s minor brain surgery, don’t worry,” Alyssa said. “Morine has done it at least once before.”
Jack crossed his arms. “Yeah, about that…”
“It’s the implant or an execution. Take your pick.”
“No Option C?”
Alyssa groaned and turned back toward her boss. “Svetl—!”
“Wait, I’ll do it!” Jack interrupted.
“Great. You’ll hardly notice a difference.”
Jack’s eye fluttered open.
A bright light shone down on him, obscuring his view of the room at first. Then, a figure next to his bed came into focus.
“That is… horrifying.” Alyssa’s nose wrinkled.
Alyssa took a step backward from his medical bed. “Well, the apparatus didn’t quite fit.”
“What do you mean?” As Jack asked the question, he realized that the left half of his vision was missing. He reached toward his face and felt a metal protrusion coming from where his left eye used to be. “Great.”
“I’m sure it’ll seem natural in no time.”
Alyssa shrugged. “I tried.”
Jack sighed and sat up on the medical bed. His head swam. “I didn’t realize this was going to half-blind me.”
“The implant isn’t activated yet—this was just the installation. We’ll give you another day or two to heal before we turn it on.”
“When are you going to tell me what it’s for?”
The woman eyed him. “Someone’s cranky.”
“Well, how do you expect me to be?” Jack shot back. “I bought a ship that I didn’t know was stolen, you held me at gunpoint, and now you’ve taken my eye—my favorite eye, I might add. Aside from my terrible luck, I don’t know why this is happening or what your aim is.”
Alyssa stuck out her lower lip in a mock display of pity. “It has been a rough few days for you, hasn’t it?”
Jack ignored her and slid off the bed. His sense of equilibrium was almost nonexistent, and he needed to keep both his hands on the mattress to prevent himself from toppling over.
He’d be the first to admit that there were a number of questionable decisions in his past. Between dropping out of school, petty crimes, and a handful of more serious infractions, he hadn’t set himself up for a promising future. But, when it came to taking care of his grandmother—the only person who’d ever seemed to believe in him—he’d go to any lengths to make sure her living expenses were covered. Getting conscripted into a pirate gang, however, was a new low.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said, taking an awkward step forward like a newborn foal.
Alyssa rushed over and placed her arm around his waist. “Okay, you want to know what’s going on? I’ll show you.”
She led him out of the exam room—more accurately, a storage closet with a second-hand hospital bed and tarp on the floor—into a drab hallway. Jack took in the details of the corridor and strained to identify any background mechanical sounds that might provide more information about his location. Having grown up on all manner of spacecraft, picking up such tones was second-nature. As near as he could tell, they were no longer on Svetlana’s freighter where he’d been interrogated, but rather somewhere in the depths of a space station.
They traversed the dimly lit hall lined with utility conduits and eventually arrived at a hatch. Alyssa spun the manual wheel to unseal the door, then leaned her shoulder against it. The hatch creaked open.
The other side was far more welcoming than where Jack had awoken after the surgery—an open room furnished with two white couches, an assortment of potted plants, and various other fixtures that enhanced the appearance of a comfortable living room. Most surfaces were white and shiny to a degree that Jack considered completely impractical; even without the worry of tracking mud in from outside, the fingerprint smudges could way too easily get out of control.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Alyssa re-sealed the hatch using a lever that folded back into a disguised recess within the wall. “This is Luxuria, our main base. If I told you any more, Svetlana would probably have me kill you.”
“Keeping it vague works for me,” Jack hastily replied.
“But, now that you’re sporting that neat little piece of hardware, I can share exactly what it is you’re going to do for us.” She stepped over to a low table between the two couches and activated a translucent touch-surface panel inset in the top. She navigated through a menu and made a selection. The tabletop flickered as a hologram of a slowly rotating cylindrical object appeared above it.
Jack studied the image. “I haven’t a clue what that is.”
“It’s a micro energy core, or MEC,” Alyssa explained. “It’s a new prototype that was developed by GiganCorp Labs.”
“They’re the giant, corporate research company, right?”
“The very one.” Alyssa scowled with disdain. “MECs were completely theoretical until this prototype was developed. The potential applications are endless—biomedical, backup power, kitchen appliances…”
“And let me guess: weapons,” Jack completed.
Jack shook his head and groaned. “Svetlana wants said prototype, huh?”
Alyssa nodded. “And you’re going to help me steal it.”
* * *
Like this intro? Troubled Space will be out soon on Amazon and can be read in Kindle Unlimited.