Damian might be on the cover by himself (though not for long!) but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one taking center stage.
Meet Shannon Forest…
The key to a good article, a good human interest story, was always in the details.
Shannon Forest collected details like a weaver collected thread, tucking them away to add color to a story, a feed post, or a gossip column. Details were the bite of chocolate in a handful of nuts and dried torkfruit. Details were flutes trilling in the background of a rock song, a single ruby gemstone in a sea of sand.
Details, whether good, bad, or ugly, told the reader everything.
Unfortunately, most of the details on Bromar were ugly ones. She’d been staying in a town called Gamerin, which on any other planet would have been dubbed a seaside town; but Bromar’s seas were the color of rust, and they made the entire town smell of ancient metal. The water wasn’t potable or swimmable. Any building that touched it ended up with stained foundations.
Why they’d placed a town here at all, she didn’t know.
Gamerin had other details, though none that particularly recommended it. Cracked cobblestones, where cobblestones existed at all. Spiral signs splashed on certain street corners to warn people away from Catch Clan territory. Rusted out gravity anchors and spiderwebs in doorways and smells of old ale, burned oil, and that ever-present metallic tinge that the seas pumped into the air.
Shannon wanted to find kittens tucked safe in the hood of a criminal’s sweater. She wanted to unearth secret gardens and meet assassins with big dreams, or—she was growing desperate—at least a stamp collection. She wanted to find more to the story.
If the ‘more’ she sought was here at all, it was buried. Which was why she needed to get on the inside.
Shannon slipped between two squat, mud-gray apartments buildings and padded down the shallow steps that led to Masters Pub. The door let out a long squeak when she pushed it open, as if she’d woken it from a deep sleep.
Phil Masters sat snoozing at the end of the bar, his head propped against one hand. Despite her noisy entrance, he didn’t rouse until she gave him a businesslike tap on the shoulder. At which point he snorted and jerked his head up, a default spark of fear igniting in his eyes before he registered her identity.
“Oh,” he said, propping his head back in his hand with a yawn. “It’s just you.”
With jowls to rival a bulldog’s and a scraggly beard of short white whiskers, Masters had a permanently disreputable look about him. His jacket was wrinkled, his thin hair waving around his scalp in little wisps, and a cloud of liquor smells hung around him like a fog.
Still, of all the proprietors she’d met in Gamerin, he was the most lucid. And the least likely to kick her out on her ass.
Also, he’d been willing to make a deal.
Shannon opened her fliptab, where she’d left the information he requested open on the screen, and shoved it in front of his face, giving him a moment to focus his bloodshot eyes. “I got what you wanted,” she said.
Masters squinted at the screen. “That’s hardly a closeup—”
Shannon swiped to the next photo, and the next. “There are fifty. Your business partner’s definitely embezzling and using the money to invest in Fox Clan’s new ships. Best show these to your Catch Clan friends before they find out and assume you’re involved, too.”
Masters rubbed a hand over his face. “Leave the scheming to me, girl. What’s your price?”
Girl. She was almost thirty. Shannon let the comment go, leaning an elbow on the counter and weighing the pros and cons of reaching across the bar to pour herself a drink. It would be a power move, for sure. And she could use a drink right now. On the con side, she was as likely to lose her balance and fall over the bar, thus negating the power move. Also, she’d seen Masters watering down the gin with her own eyes.
She stayed put. “I want you to get me in to the party tonight.”
Masters chuckled, eyes lighting with a hint of challenge. “What party?”
“I know Catch Clan’s having its annual gala tonight, and I want in.”
He leaned forward, straining for a bottle of amber liquid that might once have been whiskey, depending on how much water he’d added to it. He poured himself a finger. “How the Fringe do you know that, girl?”
She’d been hiding out here for several weeks now, during which time the vendor traffic on the main street had peaked at ten hov carts per hour. For the last three days, it’d been steadily running at double that. The market shelves had been picked over this morning, too, if not completely bare—the Catch Clan would get the majority of their deliveries privately—but in the end, it was the wine that told the story. All the mid-to-high-range wine was gone. Gift-range wine, no doubt swiped up by guests with images to uphold.
She’d purchased a bottle herself, at that. One of the last.
She didn’t say any of this to Masters. Instead, she plucked his drink out of his hand and swallowed the whiskey, wincing at the watery bite of the liquid. He didn’t even save the decent stuff for himself. “You want the pictures or not?”
Masters watched her finish his drink. “Listen, girl,” he said, “you don’t want to go to the cartel. They’re gonna recognize you in a second. Probably already know you’re in town.”
Shannon winced. Ever since she’d accidentally released that article out of a war-occupied space station—the only article to leak through the occupation—going undercover had been… complicated.
She was just a little bit famous at the moment.
“The party’s my best shot.” She held up a hand to staunch further protest, though Masters hadn’t opened his mouth. “See these heels? I don’t do heels like this when there’s no party to go with them.”
He barked a wet laugh, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You should,” she said. “You’re short.”
She raised her eyebrows at him, and he sighed. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll take you. But at least go in disguise, will you?”
Claim the Void is coming November 14th, 2023!