This Starfinder

Book Cover: This Starfinder
Excerpt:

Prologue

John Rey counted his chips. Ten thousand dollars in all, five black chips at $1,000 apiece, five red ones at $500 apiece, and a handful of green and white ones that made up the difference. He began fingering his property chits. This is like playing Monopoly without being stuck buying property on the roll of dice. A sharp glance at the other players. No game of chance with you suckers. His heart raced as Mr. Schmidt, his sociology teacher, counted down the start of the game.

“Five seconds, four, three, two, one, begin.”

Starfinder was in play.

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John stood up from his school desk quickly, wanting to make his first trade. Then he hesitated and self-consciously looked down at his threadbare corduroys, which used to be dark green. Now they were a faded olive color, another hand-me-down from his older brother, Jeremy. John felt the familiar anger overtaking him, making him want to hurt someone. It was deep within him and he didn’t know where it came from. Every one of his classmates’ families seemed to have more money than his.

He looked around trying to find the nearest “swell,” as his father referred to the wealthy¾instinctively knowing the best way to deal with his demon was head-on. He spotted Kyle Parsons, who was wearing a crisp polo shirt, khakis, and a self-indulgent smirk.

Suddenly John felt small, though he was the tallest, most broad-shouldered boy in the eighth grade.

You have to be weak, then reach out to God for strength to be strong. His father’s advice crowded John’s thoughts, but he ignored it. As far as he was concerned, his father was a coward.

“The first trading session is for ten minutes, precisely, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Schmidt said. “If you trade for four or more of the same type properties their value doubles. Good luck.”

The word luck hit John like a slap. You make your own luck, Son. It was his mother’s voice that flooded his mind this time. You don’t have to let happen to you what happened to your father and me. You’re my star child.

“What if I’m not?” he whispered.

He wanted to run from the class, from his family, from his life, but all he saw was Kyle with that smirk plastered across his face. There was no escaping him. Hiding his pain beneath his anger like a young Lawrence of Arabia turning the insanity of war on the Turks, John turned his private hell on Kyle.

“So, ya wanna give me all your chips and properties now, or am I going to have to work at this?” John smiled and then sat down beside Kyle.

“I’d give ’em to you if Schmidt wasn’t grading us,” Kyle said.

John turned on the charm, leaning closer to Kyle and talking in a whisper. “Tell you what, you can be my silent partner. You put in $5,000 and the same value in properties and I’ll match it. I’ll make the trades and we’ll split our profits. Take a nap for all I care.”

Kyle’s eyes opened wider, bordering on showing interest.

“Of course, I’ll have to take 15 percent extra for doing the work.”

“Deal, jerk.” Kyle shoved the chips and property chits over to John, then folded his arms on top of his desk and laid his head down.

John went to work. He hard traded, making deal after deal. On the deals that brought together four or more of the same type properties he bought them for himself using some of the money he’d held back from his and Kyle’s partnership. When Mr. Schmidt announced that one minute remained, John rejoined Kyle to divvy up. As the trading session ended John was still trying to explain why what he’d given Kyle was the right amount even though John’s portion was significantly larger.

“John, Kyle, I’ll have to disqualify you if you don’t stop now.”

John looked at his teacher intently; he had to stay in the game. Kyle sat up stiffly and looked at the chalkboard.

“Just out of curiosity, Kyle, did you get enough sleep last night?” Mr. Schmidt asked.

“I ah . . . John and I—”

“Mr. Schmidt, could I talk to you in private?” John interrupted.

“In private?” The teacher chuckled. “I don’t see why not.”

John walked hurriedly to Mr. Schmidt’s desk, then glanced at the class to make sure no one was trying to listen in. “This game’s supposed to be like the real world, right, Mr. Schmidt?”

“Starfinder is designed to emulate the open market and to see who does well in it, but what does that have to do with Kyle sleeping through it?”

“Some people sleep through life, sir, but they’re still in the game.”

“Do tell.”

“Kyle and I have a partnership. He sleeps and I trade. I get an extra 15 percent for the effort. We won’t go over on time again, but it’ll cost me if you make Kyle wake up.”

“God forbid.” Mr. Schmidt shook his head as though astonished. “Good thinking, John. Now go back to your seat. The next session starts shortly.”

John turned to face Kyle, and was relieved to see his head resting on his arms again.

Things got easier for the remainder of the game. Having convinced Kyle that their teacher would disqualify them without warning on any further slip-ups, John waited until seconds before the trading sessions ended, then quickly sat next to Kyle and gave him his share—never cheating him, just not allowing time for debate.

When the final session ended John was exhilarated, confident that he’d out-traded his classmates. But when he made his final split with Kyle he was surprised to feel shame instead.

Oh well. John shrugged off his misgivings. I won. He was sure of it.

John lined up with the others to turn in his chips and property chits. Mr. Schmidt wrote the amounts on paper, then he wrote each student’s name and the value of chips and properties he or she had accumulated on the chalkboard, starting with the student with the most money and property, and ending with the one who had the least.

John couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Kyle’s name was above his with $153,250 written beside it. John’s name was sixth on the list with $112,500. Kyle had somehow cheated; John was sure of this too.

“Mr. Schmidt, something’s wrong!” John raised his hand. “I need to talk with you again.”

“I think I know your concern. Just stay with me a minute here.” Mr. Schmidt drew a line across the board above John’s name, then another several names below his, and a final one after the last name listed. “You didn’t start the game with the same value of chips and property. The top group started with $100,000, the middle $20,000, and the lower $5,000.”

“That isn’t fair!” John snapped.

“Exactly! Starfinder illustrates how hard it is to rise above your socioeconomic class.” Mr. Schmidt circled John’s name. “But, Mr. Rey, you did it!”

“It still isn’t fair,” John murmured, slouching in his chair.

“Poor baby,” Kyle said. “It’s just a game.”

“Buzz off!”

“That will be enough, boys.” Mr. Schmidt’s face looked pained. “You did well, John.”

“I should’ve won.” John folded his arms across his desk and put his head down.

He stayed that way until the bell signaled the end of class. He kept his eyes on the floor as he walked out of class into the hall.

“John,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“Yeah,” he replied dejectedly. He turned to see Mr. Schmidt standing from behind his desk and walking over to him.

“You’re being awfully hard on yourself.”

“If this is what real life is like, it sucks, sir.”

“John, I’ve had my classes play Starfinder for ten years, and you’re the third student that’s made it to the upper class when he didn’t start there. Some people are blessed with the ability to make life fairer. You’re one of those people, John.”

“You think so?” His eyes brightened.

“I know so.”

“Thanks Mr. Schmidt. I’ll send you a postcard when I’m thirty and set for life.” He turned and walked with bounce in his step toward English Lit, feeling in some ways like a wise old man, but in most ways like he had a lot to learn about life.

“One more thing,” Mr. Schmidt called out.

John wheeled to face him. “What’s that?”

“Don’t ever prostitute yourself for money.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I would never do that.”

Then black butterflies filled his stomach.

 

Chapter 1

 

 

John could barely contain his excitement as he and Tish made their way out of the backstage tunnel into the Astrodome. A rainbow of color whirled over the floor seats—a huge beach ball soaring through the air. Fans were jumping up from their seats to bat it back into orbit.

As John scanned the crowd of at least 60,000 people packed into the Dome, he wondered whether he was going to enjoy the Lubheads’ performance as much as he had fifteen years ago, the last time he’d seen them in concert. With each step into the arena, his senses quickened to a pre-concert buzz.

Flashing his All-Access-Artist’s-Guest pass to the heavily muscled guards who were standing halfway in the pathway at the entrance to the floor seats, he took hold of Tish’s hand and led her through the throng pushing toward the stage. He felt like a nervous teenager out on his first date.

Just as John and Tish settled into their front-row seats, the stadium went black and the crowd fell eerily silent. Spotlights burned into the curtain, which was draped like a huge white sheet over the entire stage. Then the curtain flew up through the roof. Ten-foot speakers stacked almost to the top of the stadium on either side of the stage emitted a massive prerecorded inhale. As the sound faded, the humongous dashboard of a classic Corvette appeared, pulsating in the white-hot lights.

A dashboard three stories tall.

Fifty thousand Head Lubbers yelled, “Heads! Heads! Heads!” as the sound tech cranked the system full open and blasted the Steppenwolf classic through the arena. “You don’t know where you could be . . . come and ride with me little girl . . . on a magic carpet ride.”

Then silence again.

“Heads! Heads! Heads!” The crowd took up the chant again, more frenzied now.

The entire stage revolved until the front end of a giant Corvette appeared. Red laser beams shot out of its headlights and quivered just inches above the heads of the fans on the floor.

Once more the crowd fell silent, breathless with anticipation; then the massive speakers exploded with the sound of raw piston fire from a 454 V-8 engine. The stage revolved back around to the dashboard. One of the glowing gauges shifted from park, through 1st, 2nd, 3rd, into 4th, and sparks began flying as the gearshift kicked into overdrive. The radio lit up and a three-story wall of blinding spotlights began rotating behind the stage, then turned onto the audience.

The engine roared, and the spotlights swiveled off the audience and onto the big dashboard.

And then the Lubheads materialized on stage.

On top of the dash, Steve Slurry, whipping his long, dirty-blond hair, started pounding his drums with the opening beat of “Lola’s Lay Down.” At one end of the dash thirty feet below, Eddie Howell was standing beneath the gauges and the radio, manhandling the strings of his bass. Across the stage from Eddie, Kellye Rippit writhed like a serpent, playing her guitar with a vengeance. The huge speedometer raced and the gas gauge started to fall as the Lubheads opened the show.

John rocked on his feet with the sound vibrating through him and drew a deep breath, trying to catch a whiff of marijuana. But times had changed since his last concert, and there wasn’t even a hint of its sweet heady smell in the air. He glanced down the row beyond Tish. A bra-less teenager in a spaghetti strap shirt stood next to a tattooed boy with purple spiked hair, who stood next to a gray-bearded Jerry Garcia look-alike. Their faces seemed to be glowing in the stage lights as they nodded their heads with the beat, eyes glued to the stage. Nothing mattered but the music.

Halfway through the song, white smoke began billowing over the huge dashboard. Kellye walked to the base of the gas gauge, Eddie to the base of the speedometer. Almost invisible in the thick haze, they stepped into the huge gauges and reappeared moments later on a mid-level platform on top of the radio selector buttons. John felt the chill of the dry ice on his face as its smoke rolled over the first few rows on the floor, and he smiled to himself. Who but the Lubheads could’ve dreamed up such an awesome set?

The glimmer of the spotlight on Kellye’s guitar caught John’s eye, and he remembered the carved letters in its well-worn face. As the stage smoke cleared, he saw that they were still readable: “K’s Axe.”

He chuckled at the memory. He and Tish had both been seventeen, sitting in the nosebleed section at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. In the middle of a song, Kellye had pulled a knife out of her jacket and carved those letters into her guitar. The fans close to the stage had roared in appreciation, but John and Tish were sitting too far away to read what she’d written.

Not tonight, though, fifteen years later. Kellye was playing better than ever tonight, and singing from her soul about the “heaven in his touch,” her “sinuous delight.”

John knew that wonder; he and Tish had lived it. Until their divorce. Until he immersed himself in the cocoon of being the whiz-kid founder of Pace Investments.

Tish was still every bit the beautiful tomboy he’d met back in English Lit. He turned to look at her. Her blue eyes were as vibrant as ever, her body as lithe and muscular as a dancer’s. Maybe New York had quickened the blond curly-headed girl from Texas, added the world to her heart, but it hadn’t hardened her.

John breathed her in and let his mind slip back in time, to the day he had walked into senior English Lit and plopped down in his desk.

“Can I borrow a pen?” he’d whispered without turning around.

“Here,” she replied, tapping him on the shoulder.

He’d reached over his shoulder and grabbed it. But it wouldn’t write, and then he saw what she’d handed him¾a tube of lipstick. He burst out laughing.

She started laughing too, and everyone turned to stare at them. “Give me that, you goober!” she said.

John had swiveled around to find Tish Kendrick, the most beautiful girl in the school, smiling at him. “I’m . . . a goober,” he managed, “but you’re the one who handed me lipstick to write with.”

They’d both laughed, then kept on laughing from that day on. When had they stopped? Was it John’s lust for the front-row seat in life that had buried their easy chemistry? The chemistry had surfaced again tonight on Tish’s face, and it was dancing in her eyes to the music. John was savoring every moment, their first “sort of” date in three years, since D-day.

Tish caught him watching her. She winked, scooted a little closer, and pinched him on the rear. “I see . . . I like, cowboy,” she said, narrowing her eyes mischievously. “What say you don’t climb up on your high horse tonight . . . just come out and play a little, will ya?” She winked again, then turned her attention back to the stage.

John laughed, light-headed with happiness. They were back. Back in their wonderful place.

He let himself relax, focus on the music again. That was easy to do. The band was playing Blue Love¾the first of its songs that he and Tish listened to together in high school. They had cut their adolescent teeth on the Lubheads’ music, even joined the Head Lubbers fan club. He turned her on to them one night when they were out on a date and he’d slid the Headmaster cassette into the tape deck of his old Chevy Camaro. His hair had been almost jet-black back then, and he’d preferred tank tops and painter’s shorts that showed off his muscles.

Now, at thirty-two, his hair was flecked with gray, and he felt more comfortable in a black leather vest and faded Levis. He was still fit, though, and right now he felt like a kid again. Being with Tish seemed to be melting away not only the years, but the memories of all the bad things that had happened between them. Maybe tonight would be a new beginning.

By the time the Heads kicked out their third and last encore two hours later, the gas gauge was almost on empty. Tish was still glowing with excitement, mesmerized by Kellye’s gutsy, sexy lyrics and the freight train of sound coming off the stage. And so was everyone else.

John felt like a proud new parent as he looked around at the audience. He already had Steve, the drummer, as a client, and he was well on his way to getting the others. Just a heartbeat away from closing a deal with the only famous band other than the Stones that had managed to stay together, a band that had continued to reinvent itself from one hit to the next, from one generation to the next. These legends¾Kellye Rippit, Eddie Howell, and Steve Slurry¾were about to be his dream come true.

When the encore ended and the stage went black for the last time, an all too familiar emptiness overcame him. The words his mother had said to him, over and over again as he was growing up, echoed in his mind. You are my star child.

But then came the nagging response that always followed. So why does my life feel like a nightmare?

Suddenly, he saw the shadowy figure of a man slam onto the right side of the stage, as if the man had fallen from the top of the Dome. He instinctively glanced up into the darkness. Tish screamed, and he held her close. His eyes locked on the man’s limp body. “He’s dead,” he whispered.

COLLAPSE

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