This is the first of three tie-in short stories for my new novel, “The Chronicles of Henry Harper.” Each of the trio features a short glimpse into the lives of some secondary characters from the novel. Enjoy!
An Unexpected Fate
Vivian tried to fight back the sinking feeling as she rapidly worked the lock on the case holding the holoart she was after. Getting this far into the museum had gone smoothly, and that should reassure her. Unfortunately, her partner was late. Vivian wasn’t even supposed to be the one dealing with this lock, but Sasha wasn’t here when she’d made her way down from the security booth.
Normally, she’d wouldn’t have been working with a partner at all. It was only the second time she’d done so since leaving Earth, and it was only the fact that she’d run into Sasha casing the same museum, with eyes on the same newly added holoart masterpiece, that had resulted in their teaming up. Vivian had been reluctant about working with the unknown. She was a fairly decent judge of character, but the uptight, stuffy nature of Brillians threw her off. Personally, it seemed to her like the whole species had a case of narcissism, and with every single one of them reading that way to her, it was hard to tell anything else about them.
Now, as she finally popped the lock open, she cursed agreeing to partner with the woman. It had taken her precious minutes to get the display case’s base open, and she still had to remove the custom projector unit without damaging it. If Sasha hadn’t shown up with that much of a delay, she’d either chickened out or worse. The worse, of course, being the possibility that she’d sold one Vivian Longbridge out.
Vivian froze as she was about to snip the last security wire. She held her breath and listened intently. What was that noise? A heartbeat passed, a second, then Vivian was on her feet and darting toward the far exit at a sprint. But it was too late, the primary exit, the one she’d locked down from the security booth, exploded open with the brutal thump of a breeching charge and an authoritative shout demand she stop.
She didn’t of course. But that didn’t matter, three steps later her world went black as the stun blast overtook her from behind. Her last thought was a virulent swear that she’d never trust a Brillian again.
Vivian scowled darkly as her tormentor pulled on her chained hands, forcing her to follow into the brightly lit interior of the jail’s meeting room. The chains on her ankles, wrists, waist and neck were overkill, even without the pair of guards carrying stun rifles. It wasn’t really their fault, of course, and not an intention to be cruel either. They simply didn’t know what to do with a human, not with how few of them had made it this far from Earth, and so they were treating her like a member of a far stronger species. That was just the chains, though. Her scowl became a dark smirk when she remembered why they’d added the pair of guards. They had no idea how she’d completely removed the chains overnight, again, and she wasn’t about to let them in on the secret. Pity she hadn’t known about the tracker in the clothes they’d forced on her, or she might have gotten away that first night.
Her thoughts derailed when the jailer pressed a button and the chains fell away. The…being, she hadn’t yet figured out how to tell the furry local’s genders apart yet so being would have to do, backed away slowly and then left the room. The door audibly locked behind her jailor, leaving Vivian even more puzzled. Just a few moments of confusion passed before the door at the other end of the room unsealed and a human man entered. She only barely stopped herself from gaping. What the hell was another human doing way out here?
“Good evening, Miss Longbridge. I do hope they haven’t treated you overly roughly?”
She stared for several moments longer before mustering an answer. “They don’t seem to know what to do with a human, but they haven’t caused any permeant problems.”
The man grimaced, likely understanding what she was getting at, and she took the moment of pause to study him. He was probably a decade older than her twenty-five years. Maybe fifteen years older, at a stretch, but certainly no more than that. He was in good shape, with flowing movements that suggested at least basic self-defense training, and likely a bit more than merely basic. His hands were rough and calloused, contrasting sharply with the high quality of his clothes, and the dichotomy was puzzling. Those clothes were of the finest make, and cut from seriously hi-tech fabrics. They had to have set him back a few thousand credits. Why would a man that rich have hands that looked as ill-used as a dockworkers’?
A good minute of silence had passed, and she realized he’d been assessing her in the same way she had him. The realization made her wary. “Who are you? And what do you want?”
The man chuckled. “What makes you think I want anything?”
She snorted in reply, but didn’t say a word.
His grin faded and he sighed. “Very well. My name is Fredrick Saint Claire, and I want to offer you a job.”
Vivian couldn’t have kept the bitter sarcasm out of her voice if she’d wanted to. “Somehow, I doubt I’m going to be accepting a job from inside a prison cell.”
“The job comes with the nice benefit of you being released into my custody. Though I warn you, if you try anything after all the favors I had to use to get that offer, you’ll probably be executed rather than thrown back in a cell.”
Vivian stared at him in shock. “What?”
“Well, the local authorities didn’t intend to let you be executed. You’ve only ever been accused of grand theft. No violent crimes. But if you commit another crime after they’ve given you a second chance, they’ll likely throw you to the Queen of Altcal’ta. I hear she wants your head for that stunt you pulled, ransoming her scepter back to her for enough credits to buy a small moon.”
“Not that! I mean how did you get them to release me. Why did you get them to release me?”
He settled back and smiled at her. “My dear, the how is for me alone to know. Suffice it to say I had a chain of favors to call on. Nothing direct, which is why it took a few days, but it worked well enough in the long run. The why, of course, is because I want to hire you. That I can do so in a way that ensures you’re unlikely to run is just the icing on the cake, as they say.”
Vivian stared for long, silent minutes. Just what was this man’s angle? The combination of battered hands and fine clothes…could he be some sort of criminal who needed her talents? Saint Claire looked perfectly content to wait her out, so she took her time and looked for all the angles. After she worked out all the possibilities she could think of, she made her decision. “Okay, you get me out of here and I’ll work for you. So long as you never ask me to kill someone for you.”
The man across from her burst into laughter. She glared at him, but he waved helplessly, taking his own good time to calm down. “My dear, I think you have the wrong impression of me. I’m an archeologist, not a criminal.”
What? That couldn’t be right. “An archeologist? What the hell would you need me for? Surely you can get just anyone to dig around in a pile of rocks.”
Saint Claire smirked. “Oh goodness, we do need to educate you. Miss Longbridge, archeology on the galactic scale is far more often breaking into the vaults of dead alien species than it is digging up pyramids. And that, of course, is why I need someone like you.”
Vivian looked at him dubiously, but eventually shrugged. If it got her out of several lifetimes worth of prison charges, she could live with digging through boring old ruins. At least she’d be more or less free.
She stared in awe at the monolith rising three hundred meters above her. She looked from it to her boss, then back again. “No one has been able to get in?”
“Nope. Not a single successful attempt in the six hundred years since it was discovered. It will open doors for us all over space if we can do it where no one else has. It’ll make them take us seriously in a way my more minor successes haven’t been able to. It’s still a bit hard for all the aliens to believe the new kids can keep up, after all. But, then, you know that better than most. So, think you can do it?”
Vivian nodded, then slowly let a maniacal grin creep onto her face. “Boss, what I think is that this,” she gestured between the two of them, “is the start of a beautiful friendship.” She cracked her knuckles, slung her pack of goodies back over her shoulder, and set off toward her new challenge.