Would you believe I wrestled for days with what to write for my blog post? Then I remembered that the reason I was stressed and unprepared was that I have a novel coming out…
This is the first chapter of Captain’s Boy, coming April 1st (Monday, aaah!) from Turtleduck Press. As stated in this handy-dandy timeline, it occurs about two years before the events of Knight Errant.
Warning for some explicit language.
Donte looked at the sagging awning above him, at the straggly hedge separating the restaurant patio from the graffitied wall next to it, and thought about space and how he’d like to be there. Out there he and Jordan would both be safe, and Jordan might actually learn math.
“Yes, Alex is a bully,” he said, interrupting Jordan’s story. “But I’m not fighting him.” Donte shoved his hair back and tapped the notebook. “This answer is wrong,” he said. “Can you see why?”
Jordan didn’t even look at the paper, staring instead at Donte in challenge. “Why not?” he demanded. “You could take him! Alex is big, but he’s just a coward. And it’s not just me that he picks on. He stole Cadie’s bundle last week. You know she thinks it’s her baby what died. She was on her knees begging him to be careful and he held it over his head and laughed.”
“Math.” Donte tapped the paper again. When he started tutoring Jordan, Donte had bent the mentoring rules to give the boy a digital workpad and stylus. Jordan’s aunt had sold the tech to buy a bottle, so now Jordan and Donte worked on paper that fluttered in the intermittent breeze. “Find your mistake.”
Jordan muttered, but he pulled the tablet closer and frowned at it. Donte tried to ignore the tapping of the stylus on the boy’s teeth as he thought. If he didn’t tap he’d click, and if he didn’t do either he would talk. Jordan’s body was not compatible with silence. It was a failing of small children, apparently.
The sun came out again, wan light at a low angle to stream under the awning’s edge and warm Donte’s right shoulder as he waited. He shifted the chair to catch more sun, careful not to let the flimsy thing fold under him. Winter was coming, he’d been told. He should enjoy the weather while he could. Donte doubted the winter here compared to Tolberra VII’s, but he soaked in the sun anyway, because he had known the unending winter of Tolberra VII.
Jordan’s movements increased as if they powered his thoughts. His legs swung, his chair wobbled and the dingy “cape” he’d started wearing swayed in the motion, all while he tapped faster and thought harder.
Aside from the child’s small noises, the sandwich shop’s patio was quiet. The few other customers had chosen to eat inside, out of the wind.
As Donte thought of it, the wind picked up, flinging grit and garbage smell in Donte’s face before sinking back to just a breeze. Donte wiped his face and coughed. He’d thought he knew the worst of slums, but the smell here always surprised him. Garbage didn’t rot in Port Royal, it froze, and soon the wind blew snow over it. Here in the hidden part of Greater Ma Terr, the stench was strong enough Donte could taste it on the back of his tongue. He considered going inside for a drink to remedy that, weighed the likelihood that Jordan would want to go along or would decide he needed the restroom or more nachos or any of a hundred other needs or wants that weren’t math, and stayed where he was.
Jordan started whistling between his teeth. Donte propped his arms on the table and rested his head on his fingers.
It could be worse. He could be tutoring Taro in history. Taro learned history by reciting and editing his list of the Biggest Jackasses of All Time. While he kicked his feet, wriggled, whistled, muttered, tapped—
“Hey, Tiny!” A hand fell on Donte’s shoulder. “I heard—”
Donte caught the hand with both of his, twisting the arm as he bounded up and to the side. His mind caught up with his reflexes; he stopped the follow-up kick and let go of Alex’s arm before he tore ligaments in the shoulder.
Alex was not grateful.
“You stupid bastard, you about broke my arm!”
Dislocated, Donte didn’t say. And he didn’t apologize. Courtesy looked like weakness. Weakness made you prey. Donte put his hand on the back of a chair and waited.
“Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry, college boy?” Alex’s gaze swept his subordinates; they chuckled obediently. “You’re usually so polite!”
As fast as any prey before a predator, Jordan had scurried behind Donte. Now he poked his head around Donte’s waist. “You idiot,” he said. “I told you if you fucked with Donte he’d kill you.”
“Is that so?” Again Alex’s glance collected laughter from his followers. “I don’t want to die!” Not as dumb as he looked, the bully took a moment to re-evaluate his target. Donte knew what he saw. Skinnier and shorter, shaggy hair and baggy clothes and a tired face. Captain Marcori had tried to give Donte attitude as well as skills, but it was like trying to get a flit-about to reach orbit.
Alex came to a decision. The tough swung a gut punch.
Donte blocked with the folding chair. Shoved the thing back, smashing Alex’s face. Turned Alex with the chair, tripped him into the path of one minion, dodging the swing of the other, who hadn’t expected Donte to go through the middle of their formation. Donte slammed a fist into the second minion’s face, slipped clear as the man staggered.
On the far side of the formation of toughs, Donte waited. Alex was smarter than the average bully. He might call off the fight. The man stood staring in disbelief as blood dripped from his nose.
Jordan had jumped well out of range when the swinging started; now he darted a wide arc around the attackers and hid behind Donte again.
“Don’t taunt them,” Donte ordered softly.
“You can take them!” the boy shot back, but quietly. “You can end their reign of terror!”
Reign of terror? That explained the cape. Donte shook his head. What someone read didn’t matter, Dr. Alexander said. What was important was that he read.
“What the fuck!” Alex finally said, grinning around the damage Donte had done. His minions looked confused. “They don’t teach that at your fancy college.”
“Why didn’t you just say you were one of us?” The brute swiped blood from his face and waved. “Come on, boys. Tiny’s one of us.”
“He isn’t—!” Jordan cut off when Donte grabbed him. The thugs picked themselves up and left. Donte sent Jordan inside with cash to get them both a drink.
When the boy was out of sight, Donte stumbled into the alley and threw up.
Normally Donte took the bus back after tutoring Jordan, but after the fight the thought of sitting in a small space with a lot of people made him shudder, so he walked back to the university. The light faded as he trudged, grey day into dark and forbidding night, and Donte watched his path and his fellow pedestrians. He wanted to go home, or what passed for home anyway, and take a long shower then crawl into his bed forever. Instead he had to go to the Safehouse. All semester Donte had gone to the coffeehouse three nights a week, doing his homework in public to fulfill his orders to “get out sometimes dammit.” Selene might think he’d died if he didn’t at least stop in.
Back in the better part of town where the sidewalks were wider but no one walked after dark, Selene was waiting outside the door of the coffeehouse. Donte didn’t know how she stood in those high-heeled shoes of hers, but she was there and it looked like she’d been there for a while. Donte found energy to smile at her, but her expression didn’t change, and her arms were crossed under her breasts. Was he late? He didn’t think he was late—
“You are late, Donte Stromei.”
“I’m sorry, Selene. And I’m sorry that I can’t study tonight, so—”
“What has happened?” She didn’t wait for an answer; she snatched his hand and tugged him into the light from the window to look at his face. Donte winced as her grip made his skinned knuckles sting. She saw it, frowned and lifted his hand to see the damage.
“Boys,” she snarled, and shifted her grip to his wrist as she turned towards the Safehouse door.
She wasn’t listening, and he wasn’t going to fight her. So Donte let her drag him inside where he blinked, half-blinded by the soft lighting. Selene pulled on and he went, back to the table they usually took. It was empty not only because of Selene’s reputation, but because being in a far corner with no windows and nothing nearby but the emergency exit, it had little appeal to most.
“Sit,” Selene ordered, tugging Donte past her to push him at the chair that backed the wall. She stood looking at him for a long moment even after he’d obeyed.
“What?” he asked. Selene tossed her hair and turned her glare on the next table. Three students Donte knew and a couple he didn’t sat there, and they all hunched over their study materials to avoid Selene’s eye. She put her hands on her hips and moved the glare on until the entire room was pretending there was no corner table.
“I will return,” she said then, and walked away, her heels clicking on the polished wood floor. Donte propped his head on his hand and felt some of the tension leave his shoulders. They knew Selene here, knew she was quick with a slap or a spiked heel or even a knee, and while many of the males might risk her temper to ask her out, no one of whatever gender would chance getting her angry just to talk to Donte.
He’d still rather be home.
After a few minutes Selene came clicking back, a mug in one hand and a small box in the other. As always, eyes followed her, men watching the switch of her short skirt and women glaring at the back of her head. For once she didn’t take the opportunity to stir trouble. She came to set the mug in front of Donte, then pulled the other chair around so she sat in front of him. She opened the box that he now saw was a small first-aid kit she must have borrowed from the manager.
“Give me your hand,” she ordered. “And drink the tea.”
Especially since he was sitting close to her, Donte was less eager than the rest of the coffeehouse to annoy Selene. He let her have his hand, but he didn’t touch the tea. “Caffeine—”
“It is chamomile,” she said, mopping his skinned knuckles with something that smelled clean and made his scrapes sting. Her tone was sharp, but her hands gentle. “It has no caffeine.”
Donte sniffed the tea. It smelled good, sort of citrus-y with a hint of spice, so he sipped it. It was good. Selene blew on his knuckles. “You’re not supposed to do that,” Donte said. She looked up and he shut up. She reached into the box for bandages. “I don’t need—” She looked up again. Donte shut up and sipped his tea.
“You should not go to Old Greater alone,” Selene said as she folded a gauze pad. “It is not safe.”
“Nowhere is safe. I can’t always hide under my bed.”
“Here where the police patrol, you go out of your way with friends rather than let them walk alone. There where none care what happens, you will not take a friend. You make no sense.”
Donte shrugged and sipped the tea and didn’t ask how Selene knew he’d been in Old Greater alone. Selene knew things, and she only looked smug when he asked how.
“Your precious Captain Marcori would not approve.”
Donte tensed. Talking with Selene about his captain was far more dangerous than going to the slums alone. Especially as she held a pair of scissors near his hand.
“No,” he said slowly, “but if Captain Marcori wanted to go somewhere, she wouldn’t stay home because a friend decided he wasn’t getting out of bed on the weekends any more.” Donte knew he wasn’t supposed to meet Jordan alone, but when Albert wouldn’t even get up, let alone go meet his own partnered student—and he was studying to be a teacher!
Selene sniffed and went on cutting tiny bits of medical tape. Donte decided it was probably safe to relax and drink the tea. Selene picked up his injured hand and carefully applied the bandage over his knuckles, using the bits of tape to fasten it securely while leaving his hand fully mobile. He let her work and didn’t tell her that the bandage would surely come off in the shower he’d be taking just as soon as he escaped and got home.
Of course then a waiter showed up with the dinner Selene had ordered for Donte. He should have known. Often if he didn’t order food, she ordered for him. She always let him pay, though.
“If you will go to Old Greater,” Selene said as the waiter set a soup-and-sandwich meal on the table, “I will go with you.”
“I thought you worked in the afternoons,” Donte said. Most of his own classes were bunched in the mornings. Back on the Pendragon’s Dream, Dr. Alexander had suggested that, since Donte was already used to getting up early. On the Dream physical training started at 0500. At the university 0500 meant Donte got to use the public areas of the dorm when they were nearly empty.
“Then we can go before. Or after.”
“I have an appointment. And I can handle it. Thank you.”
“College boy,” Selene muttered.
Donte didn’t sneak into the residence hall, but he did hurry his steps to slip in at the back of a loud group of students, attempting to use them as camouflage. He failed. Rob the Residential Advisor went right through the middle of them, greeting each by name but arrowing in on Donte.
“Guys, Rob the Residential Advisor is in love with the crazy boy!” one of the loud group announced like it was a new joke. The others dutifully laughed. The name with title was a leftover from the beginning of the semester, when Rob had introduced himself that way to every student repeatedly, explaining that “you have so many names to learn, I don’t mind telling you again.” The “love” part was because Rob thought Donte needed extra attention, and applied himself with enthusiasm. The “crazy” was because it was Donte.
“Bleep off, you bleeping bleeps!” Rob the RA replied, censoring himself for the babies, as he put it. His grin split the beard he claimed to wear so it was easy to spot “the grown-up” in an emergency. Donte tried to go around him, but Rob draped an arm across his shoulders. “Can I get your assistance, Donte?”
Donte stifled a sigh for the long-awaited shower. “Yes, sir.”
“Not sir!” Rob waved his finger at Donte yet again. “I’m just Rob. I’ll even let you leave off the ‘residential advisor’ part.” He guided Donte into the big common room where he sometimes put on community-building events that Donte only attended if they were mandatory. “I can’t get my handcomp to play nice with the new projector,” he said, finally letting go of Donte when they reached a small table holding equipment. “I was hoping you could work your magic.”
Compatibility. Fun. Donte set his bag down and leaned to check the cord connecting the computer to the projector.
“I checked the connections,” Rob said. “And I restarted them both, separately and together.”
Donte swiped the comp’s control, starting the slide-show Rob had loaded. Across the room the first slide appeared on the screen, a smiling young woman with a ragged glowing line across her.
“I thought there was something in there,” Rob said, “but why would it glow like that? Then I remembered my handcomp was doing that a while back, the screen going funny after I downloaded—ahem—something I shouldn’t have. That’s why I know it’s the connection.”
Donte lifted the hem of his sweater from his thigh and wiped the lens, but when the woman was back, the line was too.
“Can you return the projector?” Donte asked.
Rob made a face. “Do you have any idea how many forms I’d have to process? I can’t just do an exchange—it already has the inventory number etched on the side.”
“What if I break it, trying to fix it?”
“Then I’ll have to do the forms, won’t I?”
Donte nodded and disconnected the power source. He pulled his circuit meter from his pocket and used the pry end to remove the back of the projector. Something on the light assembly, maybe…
“I had a talk with a few of the guys today,” Rob said. “Hopefully I’ve put an end to this ‘scare dare’ bullshit.”
“…thank you,” Donte said, tilting the projector to see if anything rattled. Engineer test number one: had something come loose?
Rob sighed loudly. “I wish you’d been the one to tell me,” he said. “I’m here to help, Donte.”
And how exactly did one explain that some guys had made a game of jumping at him from behind doors and sneaking up to poke him, awarding each other points for style and not getting hit? Bad enough they all called him crazy already. Donte pulled the power element out and the unit went dark. He set it aside.
“I do still need you to work harder at not hitting people,” Rob said. “I understand the point of their game was playing chicken with your limits, but…” He shook his head. “Well. I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but here you’re lucky you haven’t been arrested.”
“I’ll be more careful,” Donte promised. Somehow. He had to get control— “Sorry.”
“Or…” Rob said. “I mean, definitely work on not hitting people, but…if you went to the help center, then if you did get in trouble it would be better because you were already getting help, right?”
Go tell officials he was crazy and he couldn’t stop himself. Sure.
“I have a friend who works there,” Rob said. “I’d be happy to walk you over.”
Donte had learned since starting school that when you told people no, they pushed harder. “I will think about it,” he said instead.
“Great! How’s that looking?”
“Taken apart,” Donte said, setting a divider aside.
Rob chuckled. “So are you ready for the end of semester?”
“Yes.” Donte stirred the leads inside with a finger, looking for—that one. He detached the tiny wire carefully.
“Are you?” Rob asked. “All studied up and ready for finals?”
“Yes.” Donte pulled the remote sensor component out and set it aside.
“I don’t know how,” Rob said, “with what I’ve heard about your study partner. You’re not studying anatomy, are you?”
“Me, I skived off a bit this semester. The fire last month threw me off schedule big time. I’ll be lucky to pull a Satisfactory out of Abnormal Psych, but I can take an incomplete and write a paper for extra credit. So that and watching the hall are what I’m doing over break. How about you? Going home?”
“No.” Captain Marcori had tried to arrange it, but the contracts hadn’t fallen out that way and Donte had told her he’d be fine. And he would. “Turn the lens turret to the right, please.”
“You don’t have to say please when you’re doing me a favor,” Rob said, turning while Donte twisted inside the machine. “So you’ll be around to help me fix whatever I break over break? Awesome!” Rob snapped his fingers. “We should hang out. Have you seen Wilberforce Rides Again?”
“No.” Donte tossed his hair out of his face. “Tri-vids give me headaches.”
Rob laughed. “It’s a live show, silly! We can go over break. You’ll love it; it’s hysterical.”
“That—” Donte took a deep breath. “Thanks. It sounds fun. But I do need to study.” Finally the lens apparatus gave up and came apart. As he’d guessed, there was something in it. Donte pulled the bit of shiny string-like something out and handed it to Rob.
“Tinsel!” Rob said. “It’s a bit early for that! Or maybe it’s from last year’s celebration?”
Donte re-assembled the lens apparatus. He almost dropped it as Rob clapped him on the shoulder.
“My hero! You have to let me take you to Wilberforce. My treat, all the way.”
“I—I really don’t think—”
“You can’t study the entire month. Your eyes will fall out. Tell you what—bring someone.” Rob grinned. “That’s it—you bring your study partner and I’ll bring that pretty girl who kindly says she’s my girlfriend but is too busy earning A’s and scholarships and baking cookies for orphans to come see me ever.”
“Selene…doesn’t get on well with others.”
“Oh, so it’s true? I heard she’s a spitfire!” Rob flung himself into an overstuffed chair as Donte secured the lens apparatus inside the projector. “Is it true she walks by and fire alarms go off for three city blocks? Details, man, details!”
“She’s a person,” Donte snapped, reassembling the projector much faster than he’d taken it apart. “If you want details, ask her.”
“Whoops!” Rob raised his hands. “Sorry, Donte. Didn’t see you for the jealous type. I didn’t mean anything.”
“Your projector works,” Donte said, flicking the handcomp so the young woman reappeared on the wall, unmarred by debris. “Goodnight, Rob.”
Donte considered the five flights of stairs to be part of his physical training, so he never took the lift no matter how tempted he was. Once he made an excuse, he reasoned, he would find more. So he trudged up flight after flight, telling himself it was good for him. When he finally reached the far side of his door he leaned against it and locked it, heaving the long-pent sigh before he checked the closet. Checked the tiny bathing room he got laughed at for calling the head, checked under his bed and cracked the window to check on the continued and undisturbed existence of the fire escape. When he was certain everything was as he’d left it, Donte at last slipped into the shower and turned it as hot as he could stand.