Warsong: Preludes is a collection of three sci-fi novellas that follow three very different perspectives on the road to the biggest conflict humanity has ever faced. It’s written by Nathan P. Butler (Star Wars Tales, 10,000 Dawns), Sean E. Williams (Wonder Woman, Fairest), and Jim Perry (Bladewielders).
The following excerpt written by Dillon O’Hara is a preview of all the action awaiting in the rest of the anthology. In “A Quick One Before the Box Opens,” space pirate (and Preludes character) Pepper Tokarates travels to Ireland to track down a mysterious and powerful device, things go sideways when her contacts try to manipulate her. Follow Pepper’s journey here in this special sneak peek at Warsong: Preludes!
A Quick One Before the Box Opens
Galway’s Spanish Arch was full of the sound of stones and foam, engines and a distant siren. It was late, and the cobblestones were colored by moonlight and streetlight. Waiting outside Jury’s Inn, Patrick Punch dragged on a cigarette while Bobby Burke spat. Only a few yards away, a bridge over a rushing river was marked with eclectic ribbons – somewhere between a hundred and two hundred. Each strand tied to the railing was in memory of someone who clambered over it on a night like this.
Punch dropped the butt of his cigarette and crushed it into the footpath. “When’s this one showing up anyway? I’m freezing me hole off.”
Bobby didn’t respond. He was distracted by a blond girl coming their way. She was dressed in a small, sparkling, golden number – the way young people dress themselves these days! Not that Punch minded. “Are you not cold, love?” he shouted with unimpeachable confidence, looking her over like a prize red heifer.
The woman, for her part, didn’t seem immediately deterred, which was all the encouragement Bobby and Punch needed. She came to a halt before them. “Burke and Punch?”
“The very same,” said Bobby. “We have nine number-one hit singles between the two of us.”
Punch groaned. “Don’t mind that lad.”
“It’s true! Most of the artists we recorded with are dead now.”
“Hmm? Yeah.” The woman raised her eyebrows, poorly feigning interest. “Don’t suppose one of you boys can tell me where to find a Dr. Tommy Grayger?”
“We were going to talk to you about that,” said Bobby, wetting his lips. “You don’t want to be doing business with the Brits, they’d only fleece you. Why don’t you let us in on whatever it is you’re—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the woman. “Tommy has something valuable to us.”
Punch narrowed his eyes. “Who am I talking to here, exactly?”
“Pepper Tokarates,” said the woman. “Have you given me your real names?”
Bobby snickered. “Who’d name their child Patrick Punch?”
“My name is Patrick Punch.”
“Sure it is.” Bobby winked at Pepper. “Good, isn’t he? Nothing personal, love. Just safety. I assume you’ve done the same.”
“Not at all,” said Pepper. “I have nothing to be scared of.”
‘Punch’ looked her up and down, which he had been doing the whole time anyway. “You’re not exactly in a bulletproof vest.”
Pepper sighed and shook her hair back. “Are you two going to tell me where I can find Tommy Grayger, or have I wasted a trip?”
“Of course we’re going to tell you,” said Bobby as he slid up beside her and threw an arm over her shoulders. “We just weren’t quite happy with the amount of credits you sent us, and we were thinking we should be cut in for a bit more. Three hundred more on top, to seal the deal.”
“And if not that,” Punch added, “we could skim ten per cent off the top of whatever Tommy’s giving to you.”
Pepper met Bobby’s gaze levelly. The smell of cigarette smoke was thick from his jacket and his breath. “We agreed to two hundred. I’m not fucking around here.”
“We’ll see about that,” Bobby laughed, and he reached down and gave her a pat on the bum.
Pepper’s gaze immediately shifted to Punch. “You gonna do anything here?”
Bobby sensed the shift in the air. “He’s only having a bit of fun.”
Punch faltered. “We’re cutting you a good deal here, love—”
“Understood,” said Pepper, and quick as anything, she grabbed Bobby’s hand and snapped each of his fingers in turn. Every one made a neat, small cracking noise, like a child breaking a twig, and Bobby doubled up in agony, clutching his ruined hand, screaming. The commotion drew looks, but when they saw Pepper had drawn a pen-knife, they got on their way.
Pepper turned her gaze to a quaking Punch. “Now.”
“A-alright,” Punch mumbled, “never mind the last three hundred, we can—”
“No, we’re past that now,” Pepper said calmly. “Anyone who crosses a Maverick gets punished for it. We have a reputation to maintain. Then you’ll tell me where to find Tommy Grayger.”
Punch protested inarticulately, backing away from her, arms raised.
“Come on… it won’t take long.”
With fear in his eyes, Punch turned and ran. Pepper shrugged. Fair enough.
Punch dashed across the bridge, the ribbons fluttering beside him. His van was stalled on a street corner on the other side of the river. Behind him, Bobby’s wails for help echoed, but there was no time for that now, no time. He threw the door open, vaulted in, and fumbled with his key card. Bad read. Panicking now, Punch looked out the window the way he’d come; no sign of that woman. He waved the card again. Another negative buzz. Had she let him off? Too good to be true. He waved the card again, and the van hummed to life. With a mad yank on the wheel, he pulled out onto the road and took the narrow turns faster than was smart.
Behind him, Pepper was in no rush. She had faster equipment, and she’d done her homework, looked at a map. She pulled on her helmet and swung one leg over the motorbike she’d arrived on, and with a twist, it roared into action.
Paddy, in his lumbering workman’s vehicle with a few cans of paint in the back, had to take the roads. Pepper wasn’t chained down like that. She tore across the bridge, the bike’s back-lights streaming neon behind her, a tangerine jet-trail. A harsh, precise drift at the other end of the bridge turned her by a clean right angle and sent her careening up the riverside walkway, only for pedestrians (who had to jump against the wall as she passed, pity about them). There wasn’t a straight road between many of the buildings – inner-city Galway, like most cities and towns in Ireland, was built long before notions like ‘urban planning’ – but Pepper had run this kind of rodeo enough times to know that a painter’s van didn’t have much acceleration behind it. So at the first proper turn, she banked left and cut across to the next intersection in time to ram Punch’s van side-on.
The bike, of course, was fine. She’d made sure to rent something made of stern stuff, off-world tiranium, in case of a bit of rough-and-tumble. The van wasn’t totalled, but Punch was so easily spooked that he had apparently taken his foot off the pedal anyway. She hopped off the hearse; the helmet could stay on, she decided. It might spook him. She yanked the door open, pulled Punch out with one hand, and threw him onto the tarmac.
“See?” she said. “This is why you wear your seatbelt. Now tell me where Tommy is.”
“London,” Punch blubbered immediately. “He said he’d be willing to meet at Ceres Station, in a bar called the Rat’s Nest. Now please, just-”
Pepper shushed him. What was that? A tinny voice from the van, like someone on a comms unit, or-
On the dashboard, a phone was lit up.
“Hello? Hello, Punch, are you still there?”
Pepper exhaled through pursed lips. This just got a little more tricky. Maybe this punishment could have been a little more delicate. Gingerly, she plucked Punch’s phone from the dashboard, went back to his side, and knelt down to murmur to him: “I’m sure I don’t have to explain what you need to do next.”
Punch looked totally out of it. “Wh-whuh?”
Pepper pushed the phone into his hands, then pulled a very small, very sharp knife from its holster on her thigh and set it near Punch’s throat. Not on the throat, just near enough to make herself understood.
Grave understanding reached Punch’s eyes. He held the phone to his ear. “Hello, yeah, I’m here.”
“Punch, are you alright there? I heard some awful commotion. Thought you were-”
“No, everything’s fine,” Punch said as steadily as he could muster. “There was an accident on the road next to me. I was distracted by it. Sorry.”
Silence on the line for a moment. Then, “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“You said you were near Nova?”
“That’s not important,” Punch insisted. “I thought something was wrong, but it was a false alarm. It’s alright now.”
Another pause. “Understood. See you soon.” And the line cut.
Pepper groaned in exasperation and smacked Punch between the eyes, knocking his head back into the ground. She was not, of course, ever going to cut his throat. She wasn’t a barbarian; she only needed to scare him. But she had done too good a job; the fool was too upset to convincingly lie. Punishment complete, she supposed; overplayed, really.
This was manageable. The situation had turned itself into a pickle, but it wasn’t the worst shit she’d ever seen. But she had to move fast. What had he said? London. Ceres Station. Rat’s Nest. That suited just fine. She had promised her friend Danniko a bottle of whiskey while she was down here anyway.
She stalked away, head down, leaving the bike and a dazed Punch in her wake. He may have seen her coming on the bike, may have had time to describe it to his associates. It wasn’t safe anymore. She pulled off her helmet for good measure and chucked it back into the river as she went past.
Shop Street was milling with bodies. Any one of them could be one of Punch’s men, ready to put a knife in her side. She tried her best to keep her distance from everyone without drawing attention to herself, but it wasn’t that wide of a street, so it was the best she could do to push through. Time and again, she thought she saw someone moving toward her, someone trying to catch her eye, but each time, they walked past her. The same in principle, she supposed, as any other walk after dark.
This is how it was. This is how it had been for years now, and not just for Pepper. Tensions had been rising throughout the system. Certain resources had gone from scarce to scarcer, which made them all the more invaluable for Mavericks like Pepper. That was how you got freedom in this system: you grasped power by both hands and took it for yourself. Earth authorities had no hope of keeping Mavericks in check. A cat can declare itself the boss of the house until she’s blue in the face, but that won’t make her any good at catching mice.
Which is why Pepper, on high alert all the way through Shop Street and Eyre Square, arrived at her craft without a scratch. She had stowed it in the loading bay of a defunct, defunded train/bus station. Her ship was a small Marsian ride, sleek and angular. She activated the boarding ramp—
And in the shadows within, two figures moved. Pepper was almost caught off-guard. With a well-practiced motion, she drew a blaster and fired at the moving forms. With a spark and fizzle, the blasts connected, and two middle-aged men slumped into the moonlight and face-first onto the ramp.
They knew where her craft was, and they knew how to break in. They must have tracked her when she first entered the city. Getting sloppy. She shifted the two stunned bodies off the ramp with her foot, and they fell to the dirty concrete with twin thuds. Once she had thoroughly checked the inside of her craft – a quick process, as it was a tiny, rudimentary thing – she sealed up and made to leave.
Off to find Dr. Tommy Grayger. The doctor had promised something valuable, something entirely new. Pepper expected something that would help the Mavericks consolidate power, keep clinging on, feed their families.
Later, she would reassure herself there was no way she could have known that Grayger’s creation would wreak such havoc. But there was no closing the box. Earth, Gongen, Mavericks – the whole system was transformed utterly, forever.
Dillon O’Hara is a writer based in Limerick, Ireland. Their fiction has appeared in Cwej: The Series, and their media criticism has appeared in Strange Horizons and The Mary Sue, among others. Their favourite Doctor is Clara Oswald.