Chapter 1:

Chase/Race You

Drop Pod Romantic Error Log

Uranishi Taru dashed down a decaying road. Gold towers encrusted with vines lined the way, glittering in their millennia of decay. Above her head, squawking things flapped from tree to fruiting tree with three pair of wings. She was on an alien planet, passing a chaingun to whichever hand was on the inside of the next turn for balance, decked out in like-new Series 2 ceramic composite powered armor—despite all this Taru found herself craving a slice of toast. Why was she thinking of toast on a planet where bread was never invented? She didn’t even like toast.

“This is Ascender 032. Update: 2 seats remaining.”

“Late!” Taru panted. “I’m going to be late!”

Barreling around a corner, Taru slammed into something soft. Taru stumbled, more out of surprise than impact, but the other party to the collision sailed backward into a bouncing, tumbling roll that ended when he met a crumbling wall.

“Shit. Sorry!” Taru walked over and offered a hand.

“No worries. My bad.”

The fellow she had run into remained plastered upside-down against the wall. He wore a black pearl jumpsuit that ended halfway up his neck, there giving way to olive skin. Gray-blue eyes looked back at her through old-school glasses—the sort which sought to redeem chunky plastic frames with fun colors, in this case transparent lavender. Integrated armor covered his heart and a couple other vitals, and he wore no weaponry but a small burst pistol strapped to his thigh—definitely a Wayfinder. Not many people chose that role, and fewer chose to stay in it. First into trouble, but without the armor or firepower to fight their way back out. Quite the rare bear she had run into—not that he resembled a bear, quite the opposite: he was clean shaven and cut a svelte—if short—profile. His smile and brows soaked in their mischief.

Something tightened in her chest, or was it in her throat? He looks like trouble.

The Wayfinder saw Taru looking him once, twice, thrice over. Short blue hair isn’t really my thing. No idea what she’s got going on thanks to that chunky armor, though. But if a girl’s checking me out I’ll be damned before I disappoint.

“The name’s Jack, by the by.” With a lazy kick, Jack peeled himself out of the wall and rolled onto his feet and looked over his shoulder with a glance that said: I know you’re wondering, go on, ask me.

So Taru asked: “How much do you weigh?”

“Yes, I’m single...what?”

“How much. Do you. Weigh?”

“Excuse me?”

“Our collision just now was a glancing blow and you still went flying. If I had hit you properly, you’d be in orbit.”

This isn’t how it was supposed to go. “I wasn’t rooted,” Jack said. Then he lowered himself into something resembling a fighting stance. “Go on. Give me a good clean hit. I’ll sway, but I won’t fall.”

Yeah, no. I’ve wasted enough time on you as is. As if to confirm Taru’s thought, their headsets crackled with an incoming message: “This is Ascender 032. Update: 1 seat remaining.”

Taru left Jack with a curt goodbye and a trail of dust. The ascender waited 800 meters away, 100 of those meters being straight up the ruins of a vine-encrusted tower. Sure, the powered armor assisted her strides and let her run almost naturally, but the armor plus chaingun presented a lot of additional weight to steer through turns and navigate rotted stairs with. She scanned the side of the tower for faster ways up—anything would help, the sun was going down and the rest of Taru’s team were already back in orbit.

Mom wouldn’t want me to get lost in the Snarl at night.

“Coffee, you me, tomorrow?”

“Wha...?” Taru looked and found Jack trotting easy alongside.

The offer of a date didn’t register. All Uranishi Taru saw at the moment was an ascender with one seat left, and next to her was a potential rival for that seat whose whole shtick was to put cheetahs out of business.

“Shoo,” she hissed, and swung the barrel of her chaingun around to clothesline him at the waist.

Jack launched upward like a caracal and cleared the obstacle with room to spare. “Okay, not coffee. How about tea?”

They were nearing the base of the tower. Golden hour light sparkled on the ruined tower and managed to give a warm glow to the ascender’s charred black carapace. Taru hit the brakes and unclipped the zipline launcher from her belt. It was the only mobility tool gunners were provided, but it could carry a whole team in full gear and her armor’s harness had a winch for going up, not just down. She braced herself and sighted a scrap of ceiling in the tower a floor below the ascender. A trigger pull sent an harpoon trailing nanotube cable sailing to its mark, while the reverse anchor buried itself in the ground behind Taru. She beamed as she clipped in and began sliding up the cable. With this, she’d skip 15 stories worth of stairs.

She chuckled and called down to Jack, who had stopped to watch. “See ya, sucker!”

Finally, Taru could relax and enjoy the breeze in her hair. The ruins were beautiful, not that her six missions completed thus far had taught her much about them or who had built them. Go down, shoot robots if they get in the way, grab whatever mission control tells you to grab, go back up. It wasn’t always easy, but it was a lot less run-up to a living than the education you needed these days—even the gas station attendants had PhDs.

The zipline began to thrum, then bounce. Taru thought the anchors might be pulling loose and overrode the speed governor on the winch. Shit shit shit! Then her worry evaporated when Jack ran past her. On top of the zipline. For a second she was speechless.

“Y-you’re not supposed to do that!”

Jack jumped from the cable to the window frame, then vanished inside.

“Son of a...” Taru swung the chaingun around, half considering committing a little friendly fire. She decided against it, but planned to sock him in the jaw next time their paths crossed. For now she’d do whatever she could to catch up.

As the winch carried her to the window, Taru swung up to glide straight through, and reached up to hit the release.

“Wait! It’ll be safe in a sec.”

Jack hadn’t run ahead as she had expected. He dashed around, setting up some small devices Taru hadn’t seen before, around a gaping hole in the floor she hadn’t noticed either. It was ten meters across, and directly underneath her, and reached down floor after floor past ground-level, the bottom swallowed by gloom. She had almost hit the release without looking—the thought sent chills spiraling up her arms.

“And. There, we, go.”

The little boxes he had placed around the hole’s circumference reached black threads out to each other, weaving a net that was ethereal at first, but fast grew solid and blocked out the hole completely.

Taru hit the release and dropped onto the net. It swayed, but it held.

Walking up the stairs toward the ascender, she looked Jack’s way. “Weren’t we racing?”

“Were we?”

“There’s only one seat left and two of us.”

“Another ascender landed ten minutes ago, 25 clicks north-north-east of here. I’ll catch that one.”

“But you’re not on my team.”

They stepped up into sunset. The ascender sat in the middle of a ruined room, a black teardrop hissing at the ground.

“Well, there’s your ride.” Jack started walking backwards toward the corner of the building. As she stepped aboard, he called out to her, “If you’re on station and want to get
drinks, look me up.”

Taru’s impression of Jack had improved, but not that much. “Whatever.”

She settled into the crash webbing and fell asleep before the ascender had left retracted its landing legs.


An hour later, in another ascender, Jack sat felt his stomach lurch. The pod stopped accelerating, the flame coughed, reignited once, then spluttered into darkness. Warning
lights lit up a pod in freefall, hurtling back towards the ground. He tore at the webbing. Anything to get out of this death trap.

A hand grabbed his. “Don’t worry. We’ll be alright.”

Then the pod doomed reignited its engine. The flame raced up a leaking fuel line to the tanks, and Ascender 057 winked off of radar.


“Did you hear? A rookie got toasted.”

Taru tried not to listen to the morning gossip going on across the table from her. Why did
people feel the need to discuss death over breakfast?

“Seriously, who?”

“Get this.” The storyteller did her best to amp up the story with broad gestures and made
eye contact with everyone nearby. Taru stared a hole in her sandwich. “They sent this rookie on a solo mission—”


“No, no. He finished his objective and made it to the ascent pod too.”

Taru looked around for another seat, but the mealhall was packed to the gills. Finding a
new spot might take all the time left till her mission briefing, and even if she nabbed one,
chances were the same gossip would be there too.

“...I thought you said he died.”

“The ascender blew up.”

Most of the table offered a collection of sympathetic grunts—they were all eating after all.

“Yeah, but who was he?”

“Wayfinder...had one of those boring names. John, Joe—Jack!”

Taru nearly choked on her food.

He’s...dead? Just like that? It’s not like wayfinders had the best life expectancy, but she had low-key expected him all morning to appear around some corner. Running atop a loaded zipline had impressed her, just a little, enough to convince Taru she would be seeing him again. She didn’t have feelings for the guy—some residual annoyance aside—but it still tasted sour to see people batting around the tale of the death of someone they had never met around for entertainment.

Shoving her tray in the return, Taru hurried to her mission briefing.

“Ah, good.” The comptroller smiled a fractional smile as she entered. “A little early, but you’re all here so we may as well start. Meet your teammates. Nekkau and Jack.”

There, good as day, stood the same Jack.

“Hey.” He waved. “Didn’t catch your name yesterday.”

Taru found herself nailed to the floor. What the hell?

F.C Fondness