Chapter 1 (Search the Stars [X-Verse Book 1])

Aug 8, 2022

Zachariah Coburn stared down the barrel of Culum Rodriguez’s gun and smiled. Usually at this point in a sale, the client opened the crate and checked the material.

But Culum was stalling.

“First of all, what you’ve so inelegantly referred to as smuggling is bootlegging, not smuggling,” Zach said, flashing Culum and his men one of his trademark grins. It was meant to disarm them. Or charm them, he’d take either. Negotiations like this could get dicey without the right nuance. “There’s a difference. You see, bootlegging is classy. Like me, a gentleman bootlegger. Smuggling is dirty, base, and only pirates and honorless cads do it.

“Second of all, the crates are coded. You won’t get those till you’re back on your ship with the crates, and I’m back on my ship, and there’s 1 au between us. I’ll send them to you over the galactic net. That’s how I always do it. Standard operating procedure. Protects us both from baseless accusations or accidental deaths.”

He considered explaining it further and with more sarcasm. But there were twelve of them and only three to his own crew, counting himself—it was a very small crew. Zach liked it that way. People were less likely to surprise you with a change of allegiance or a knife between your ribs when you kept things small and intimate.

You knew your crew and they knew you.

Culum cocked his head and waved his gun like he wanted Zach to do something—open the crates or move out of the way. It was hard to tell.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Zachariah Coburn, you think you’re somehow above being called smuggler? Same thing.”

Culum’s group—gathered about fifteen meters away, on the other side of the meadow—leered at him. Big guys, every one of them, none of them smiled or laughed. While they seemed tough, they also seemed like princesses. Nervous princesses who were afraid to piss their daddy off for buying bootlegged goods. Their continued insistence on calling Zach’s wares ‘smuggled goods’ was pretty damn annoying.

He’d had the discussion many times—it seemed there was an epidemic of misunderstanding when it came to the words. Words mattered.

Zach was better than a mere smuggler. He had a vested interest in keeping his clientele happy by being certain that the items he sold were top of the line. He was a gentleman in that way.

He took a step backwards—choosing to also act nervous since that was the going currency at the moment—and the back of his legs bumped into the crate he’d brought to the deal. Just one crate, carried over by Ozzy. The rest of the shipment remained on their ship, The Toadstool, which was about 150 meters away—safely out of range of random gunfire.

Acting nervous. That was key. Because he sure as hell was not.

Zach took a step sideways and gestured innocuously at the crate. “Why are we even having this discussion? The point is I brought you what you asked for. Let’s finish this deal. Four crates of Witch Head, two of Hungus Fungus, one of Fat Cigars, and one of Whisky Love. Check the shipment. Pay me, and I’ll leave. I’ll just go in peace. Walk out of here full of good will and nothing but kind words to say about Culum Rodriguez and company. Glowing reviews, spread all across the galactic web. Let’s not start a little tiff.”

Truth be told, he was kind of used to moments like this. All his clients wanted the goods, but they also got jumpy at the last minute. Maybe it was the money, or maybe it was the fear of trying out a new strain of mushroom, untested by them, maybe—well, who the hell knew?

The important thing for Zach to do was finish the deal, get Culum to calm down, and put his damn blaster away. Otherwise Zach would find his limbs incinerated by that gun.

And he had some fondness for his limbs. In fact, he didn’t have losing a single one of them on his to-do list for the day.

The gun waggled at him as Culum talked and got more nervous. “Who else knows you’re here, Zachariah Coburn?”

Zach bit his lip so he didn’t sarcastically repeat the question with a different name and emphasis back at Culum, like a six-year-old might do.

“Besides you and your gang of what is that—” he squinted and pretended to count how many beefy guards Culum had with him for the first time— “nine, ten, eleven, twelve… is this a wedding party?”

“I don’t know. Might be your funeral. We’ll just have to see.”

Zach laughed. What a good joke. Anna hadn’t mentioned that Culum had a sense of humor. “That’s about everyone who knows about this—you and your twelve men. Anna. Remember her? Plus Ozzy and Cody here. But they’re harmless. I swear it. I just bring them along to count the money.” Zach jabbed his thumb toward Ozzy, who was anything but harmless. A Pegasion. He was huge. By himself he could take out six of Culum’s men.

At the moment, the Pegasion leaned against his phase rifle, pretending it was a cane. All part of Ozzy’s act.

Cody, on the other hand, was as harmless as he looked. His pale cheeks were ruddy at the moment and his innocent blue eyes nervously shifted back and forth between Zach and Culum. The boy was still learning the ropes. He was completely naïve and this deal was the first run he’d come on.

“That’s it? You weren’t followed?” The muzzle of Culum’s blaster swayed as he gestured.

Zach spread his hands and smiled, flicking his gaze around the cluster of goons surrounding Culum.

Time to turn the charm up to high intensity, Zach thought, debating which kind of charm he should use. Delightful rogue? Endearing smooth-talker? The wise mentor?

His seventh sense—or eighth? Maybe ninth?—was going haywire, warning him of a reactor meltdown. This deal was going south. It never boded well when someone involved in a deal asked “who else knows you’re here?” Zach didn’t even need a tenth sense to tell him that much. It was as obvious as the misshapen moon hanging in the sky over the meadow.

“Please. Call me Zach. That’s what my closest friends call me,” he said, going with delightful rogue. That one always came out first. “The first and last name thing doesn’t sit right. Makes me feel like, I don’t know, you’re pissed off at me.”

Zach started to pace, to see if Culum would keep the gun aimed at him. He did. But Zach pretended not to care and kept pacing. He waved a hand in a friendly gesture and smiled bigger as he continued.

“A little lesson. A quick one. The difference between a bootlegger and a smuggler is that a bootlegger like myself cultivates and grows his wares. What that means for someone like you, who’s about to buy some of my wares, is that you can trust that they’re good. Those crates of Witch Head and the other mushrooms? I know what’s in them. I know what kind of soil they were grown in, and the most important fact about them? I grew them with love. That right there,” he pointed at the hermetically sealed crate, “is full of 100% pure, premium flight-state psychedelics. I know for a fact that strain can get you 40 light years, no problem. No stopping to juice up again. No chances for drifting into an empty system with no fuel stations. No need to call for a fuel ship or worry about needing a tow. Witch Head is the future. So are the others, but Witch Head is my crowning glory, so far.”

Culum eyed the crate, but kept his blaster aimed right at Zach’s groin. It was as though Culum knew Zach’s penchant for those body parts. Honestly, if he was forced to lose something today, he’d pick his pinky finger.

“You’ve tried it?”

“What sort of specialist do you—” Zach took a deep breath, “—I’m sorry, you know who I am? Me? A dedicated mycologist. I test all my cultivars. This makes me wonder, have you bought from another mycologist before? Or have you solely lived on Jungle Corporation shit?” He muttered a string of curses that caused Cody to blush. Zach shook his head. This was beginning to feel like a real song and dance. Like Culum was just reciting lines.

“This is the strain he used to bring us here,” Ozzy volunteered, breaking character in a move that surprised Zach, and motioning toward the crate of Witch Head. Even Cody seemed shocked, blinking and exchanging a surprised look with Zach.

“Mr. Coburn is as honest as they come,” Cody ventured, also surprising Zach. The boy’s cheeks turned red as he broke free of his comfort zone, trying to act the part of a bona fide crew member.

It was a moment that made Zach proud—go kid, Zach thought. He paused in his pacing. Culum was the surprise here. Zach had never had a buyer drag things out this long. It was almost like Culum was stalling. But why? Anna had vouched for him and set the deal up. She’d done counseling work with Culum, that’s how she knew him. Running tests on him and helping him navigate a bout of Pilot’s Block, which had led to him not being able to pilot at all.

Zach needed time to think it through, but things kept rolling along, distracting him. Something wasn’t right here.

“But this is an illegal strain,” Culum said, pulling Zach out of his thoughts again.

Zach huffed a sigh. He’d been so close to pinpointing what was bothering him, aside from the blaster aimed at his groin.

“Illegal? No. Define illegal. Not traditionally illegal. Pilots have been using my wares for months now.” It was only illegal if Zach considered himself a subject of the Red Monarchy. And since he didn’t, because he wasn’t, he considered it a gray area.

He shrugged and sighed. Well. In his book, it was a gray area. But if he were honest, at the moment he found himself conducting this particular deal in a sector of the galaxy that was actually under Red Monarchy rule. A gorgeous meadow in a valley surrounded by towering, snow-topped peaks. It was beautiful and serene, but Zach hated it here. He was completely exposed. The location was chosen by Culum when he set up the deal. Zach would have done it in neutral territory, where the rules about flight-state psychedelics were much more relaxed…

…wait a minute…


He snapped his fingers. “Oh, this is a set up.”

“It might be. Maybe.” Culum looked around at his men, a wry grin on his face. “Is it, guys?”

He thought he was funny. His minions exchanged smiles like they’d just performed the trick of the century. Imbeciles.

Well, Zach had walked right into it, so maybe he was the imbecile.

No chance. He’d fix this.

Zach laughed, then clapped, slowly, sarcastically.

He was done holding the sarcasm back. Culum wouldn’t shoot Zach now, not if it was a set up, plus whatever his plan was, Zach wasn’t giving up the crate codes until he’d been paid. This wasn’t playing out like a traditional set up, unless the only reason to do it was to get Zach arrested…

Things were starting to make sense. Clear as mud at this point.

And he needed to buy time while he thought of a way out of what was looking to become a real nasty mess. He could do a sleight-of-hand type of thing, if he just had a little bit of time to work through the problem.

Culum bowed. “Thank you. I needed the money. The connection. And incidentally, the Witch Head. I think it’ll help me get past my block.”

“Sure, pay me and you can have the Witch Head.” Zach put his hands on his hips. He was suddenly acutely aware of his own blaster in its holster on his leg. It was a powerful hand cannon that he kept with him at all times, and which he hadn’t yet drawn because he’d been a gentleman. If he drew it now, things would escalate. He risked a glance at Ozzy and Cody, who both stood with their own guns pointed at Culum and his men. Zach’s look was meant to convey that they should be ready for anything. He wasn’t sure they saw it.

“This is really damn annoying.” Zach pulled half a cigar out of his jacket pocket, shoved the end between his lips and re-lit it.

“That’s what we’ve decided about you—annoying,” Culum said, watching carefully. “What’re you doing?”

“Oh, you know what I’m doing.” Zach puffed on the cigar and let the smoke roll around in his mouth. This was turning out just like one of his first deals—he should have seen it galaxies away—the Angel Starwanderer job, without all the perks and benefits that one ended up affording him.

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