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Tanager’s Fledglings: Snippet 1

I may have snipped this before – actually, I think I have. Sorry for the repeat, but this is the official run-up to the novel. It has been edited and altered from the original opening scenes since I decided to take a plotted short story and blow it all the way up into novel, and didn’t want it to be a YA. I’m planning for publication at the end of August, which means I need to have the manuscript draft done by end of July. I think I can manage that, as I’m past 40K words now. I don’t know yet what the total wordcount will be, I’m planning an arc of about 100K words, but honestly, I’ll write until the story is done, and then it’s done. I’m going to be snippeting about 1K words a week, maybe a bit more. So what you’re getting here is raw rough draft. There will be errors. It’s all copyright to me, and may well change prior to publication. Without any further ado…

Chapter 1: Just a Pup

Jem hefted the crate, ignoring the vehement hissing the Altarian lizard inside was emitting, and waited for the door to Peter’s warehouse to slide open. His gut was in a knot. This was not only his first trade expedition alone, but Peter was Walter’s brother.

The door slid open, emitting a palpable cloud of scent and sound. Jem swallowed his gorge and stepped inside.

“Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?” and that was Peter, irritated as always. “You’ll let out all the heat. Why should I pay to heat the whole station…” He came around a rack of cages and stopped dead.

“I have your lizard, sir.” Jem offered. He shifted awkwardly on his feet. Peter had an uncanny ability to make him feel like he were still a boy, with his voice breaking and all the grace of a wildebeest in a glass shop. The cage was heavy, but Peter’s gaze was heavier.

After an eternity, it seemed, Peter sighed. “Come on in, boy and tell me about it.” He pointed at a gap on the rack. “Set the damn thing there.”

Jem followed him to the office, panting slightly in the hot, humid air of the Pet Emporium: Odd, Exotic & Rare! that Peter ran, providing the rarities of the galaxy to only the wealthiest clientele. It always smelled to Jem of animal droppings and bizarre creatures. When he was a boy, it had been the best place on the route to visit, where he could prowl the racks as long as he kept his fingers to himself, while Walter and Peter talked.

In the office, Peter sat slowly on his old chair behind the desk. He swiveled around to face Jem. “Sit, sit…” he waved the young man to the other chair. Jem moved a box of freeze-dried mealworms and did as he was told.

“So when did it happen?” the old man asked.

“You knew?” Jem blurted, and then felt himself blush.

“I knew he was ailing. And I knew he intended you to take over the ship when he was gone.”

Jem nodded. There was a lump in his throat. He’d been with Walter for the last five trading seasons, and the old man had been the closest thing he had ever had to a father. He stammered, “Two… two stops ago. I did what he’d said to do, and then came straight here.”

“You skipped a stop?”

“He said…”

“You did fine.” Peter fell quiet and studied him for a long moment. “So, what are your plans now?”

Jem lifted his chin and took a deep breath. “I’d like to stay on his route.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah, I don’t need anyone, I can handle it all.” He frowned, then added, hesitantly, “this last season, I’ve done it all, really. The Tanager is a sweet set-up.”

Peter nodded. “He was failing fast.”

“I’m sorry,” Jem offered after a pause.

“It was his time.” Peter passed a hand over his face, smoothing the wrinkled skin back into a friendly mask he wore for clients.

“So, lad, what are you going to take a gamble on?”

“What’s hot right now?”

“Jewel lizards from Sirrocco, but that’s not what you need. C’mon.” Peter grunted as he levered himself out of the chair and Jem stood, letting him go out first. Peter charged into the head-high racks of cages, muttering to himself. “Let’s see…”

Jem would have liked to stop and look at the various creatures that were housed here, some in stasis, others alive and fascinating. But he knew if he didn’t keep up with Peter, he could get lost in here. Peter’s assistants, rumor had it, carried special location devices keyed to the station to help them find their way in and out of the ever-changing maze of racks. Peter came to a halt and bent over.

“Ah, here we are!”

Jem looked down. “What is that?”

“‘That’ is the next big thing.” Peter proclaimed proudly. “I’m not talking it up to many traders yet, boy, but I want to give you a leg up.”

Jem crouched down and took a closer look. The creature was in stasis, and it seemed to be a loose bundle of fur. He could see a snout, and paws, but everything else was covered in brown and white folds. He felt dubious that any rich kid would find it cute.

“That there is a pure-blood Basset Hound.” Peter told him. “It’s a kind of dog. There’s only a few hundred left in the galaxy. They didn’t make the jump off old Earth real well.”

“I’ve heard of dogs.” Jem admitted. “In old story books, but I never saw one. They used to be common?”

“Yep, before we became a space-faring species. But when we lifted for the stars, they got left behind. Too little room, too few resources. Cats made the cut, dogs didn’t. Which means, young Jem, that mankind is primed for this old pet to come back in a big way.”

“Well,” Jem scratched his head. “I suppose if they used to be such an everyday thing that they wrote books about them, you might be on to something. I’ll take him, if the price is right.”

Peter bellowed with laughter. “You are a chip off the old block, all right.”

Jem left a little later with the stasis box tucked under his arm and a small hover pallet of jewel lizards in tow behind him. The Basset Hound was not very big. He’d declined Peter’s invitation to stay to dinner and a night in a ‘real bed.’ He needed to get used to being on his own again. He’d been used to it before Walter, and even the seasons with the old man hadn’t been too bad. He’d let Jem stay to himself pretty much, as long as chores got done, and studying. Jem remembered how he had resented the studying, at first, and the old trader had to practically stand over him during lesson time. But that had changed, until Jem outstripped the lessons on board.

Jem didn’t look back, so he didn’t see Peter standing in the corridor watching him out of sight. Peter didn’t know how old Jem was. No one did, he thought ruefully, not even Jem himself. Walter had shown up with the lad in tow perhaps ten seasons before, and he’d been a twig of a thing, looking as though he would break under the older men’s gaze. He’d hidden under the table, Peter remembered with a twist of his lips and a surge of pride. Wouldn’t know that now, to see his back walking away so strong and straight. He looked forward, not down. Peter sighed. With Walter gone, the lad was all he had left. Jem surely didn’t know he was also Peter’s heir. He wouldn’t take that well.

“Ah…” Peter blew an exasperated puff of air out between pursed lips. “He’ll do well.”

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