Music is a huge part of my writing process. That’s why I decided to put together a new series of playlists to pair with sections of my novels and short stories.
First up will be the Europa series.
In the coming months, I will be releasing a series of playlists on Spotify along with a matching excerpt from each chapter of Europa
Today is Europa Playlist 1, featuring Active Child, Son Lux, James Blake and others.
Europa, Chapter 1:
He tried to scream at her. He wanted her to run, but with a collapsed lung, he could only mutter like an infant. The wave would come soon and she was trying to save him instead of finding shelter. While he babbled, with blood dripping into his eyes, she knelt by him. She held his head in her lap and her palms were smooth and cold like the inside of an Abalone shell. Her hair, naturally a vibrant red, looked ablaze with the sun low behind her. She smiled down at him and it was the culmination of every good feeling he knew. He would never let go of that image, that moment just before it hit.
The wave did not drown him too. That would have been a kindness. It washed him out of the rubble and laid him gently on a grassy hill, nearly on the spot that Red-Cross set up camp after the water receded. The Earth itself did not want him to die. Nor did it want him to forget the terror on Emma’s face as it took her away.
“Doctor Janovic?” the host's voice cut through his thoughts, polite but commanding.
Luka shook off the memory. “Sorry, what? I didn't hear the question.”
Someone in the audience chuckled but the host leaned closer. She was careful with her expressions, practiced as an actress, but she held her head a little higher and that was her tell. She caught a scent that she liked.
“I asked what it was like when you woke up from the coma. What was your first thought then, was it of the mission?” she asked.
“No, it wasn’t. I can see that. You thought of Emma first, didn’t you?” she said.
The cameras closed in on him. He watched them zoom on a stage-side monitor. Suddenly, he was aware of the sweat beading in the crook of his back, and the tingling in his fingertips as muscles wrenched his spine.
“Waking up from a coma isn't like waking up from a nap. I had no thoughts. I was dead,” he said.
“Hum. Interesting that you chose that word—dead.”
She held the clicker of her pen to her temple and looked down at a notepad in her lap like she needed to brush-up on her line of questioning.
“Do you feel like you are a different person now than one The Committee selected years ago? I mean to say, did her death change you?” she asked.
“I'm not sure I understand,” said Luka. It was a plea. He knew they both understood her intent perfectly well.
“Well, there have been a lot of questions as to whether or not you are still fit for this mission, doctor Janovic. I don't mean that as an insult to your intelligence. You are undoubtedly the most intellectually qualified. It’s your physical health—more so your emotional state—that some in the public are concerned about. I guess we are all wondering, are you up to the task?”
His nostrils flared and the veins in neck throbbed as he spoke, “I am aware of the rumors regarding my health and it is not the media's role to make these determinations. The Committee selected us, all of us, and they alone are qualified to make such a judgment.”
Her pink lips curled into a smirk. It was a fleshed-out version of the excitement she held back earlier. “Let me say it this way, are you unhappy doctor Janovic? Are you possibly hoping for a way out?”
His mind choked on a glut of words. He wanted to say too much, so nothing came out. He stared at her incredulously for several seconds and watched satisfaction wear through her veneer of professionalism.
“Fuck you,” said Luka as he stood.
He stormed off stage and rushed down an office corridor, hoping to find the exit without knowing where to go. He ignored the sheepish glances of station employees as he went, and to the brave few who made eye contact, he returned venomous looks. He was turning a corner when his publicist, Michael, intercepted him and rammed him into a wall with the flat edge of his arm. Michael’s face puffed with anger and his jaw swelled as he gritted his teeth at Luka. Luka pushed back, throwing Michael’s weight over his heels momentarily. Michael recovered and doubled the force over his arm. Luka’s pulse hammered in his ears while they glowered at each other.
His adrenaline was fading, though, and in its absence, he began to understand his mistake. Luka let his shoulders go slack and Michael dropped his arm in response. They both let out a heavy breath as Michael stepped back and smoothed out his clothing. This was a temporary armistice, he knew. Michael relented only because he would not have this sort of argument in public. He had more control.
Michael jerked his head to the left in the direction of the hallway came from and they set off together. He navigated the broadcast station with Luka a step in tow. The whole building was a maze of uniformity and Luka had no idea how Michael made the correct sequence of turns through the series of white hallways and beige office areas. After what seemed like a century, they broke into a large open hall. It had a ceiling several stories tall and an empty floor, save for a few benches and indoor plants. A solid panel of windows comprised the outer wall and it offered a brilliant view of the New Seattle skyline. In the forefront were the modern towers. They were bright, monolithic structures that cast their light high into the night. Their collective glow stained the clouds above them a hazy orange. Looming behind them, not far in the distance, were the shabby remnants of Old Seattle. They were broken silhouettes extending from the brackish water of Elliot Bay. They gleamed in the light from New Seattle, but above them the sky was dark. Their fragmented shapes were wraiths emerging from the water.
Luka and Michael came to a bank of elevators, which brought them down to the main lobby of the broadcast station. It had a circular desk in the center of the room, where the receptionist sat, and an elegant LED logo hung above it. It was indistinguishable from the dozen others he saw in the past few weeks.
They stepped through the exterior doors and as he planted his feet at the door’s landing, a motorcycle, a combustion motorcycle, rumbled by. The air hung with black smoke from its tailpipe—sulfurous and sweet, threatening and pleasant, all at once. Luka’s eyes followed the relic until it disappeared over the hill. Then he noticed the swarm of reporters between him and the safety of their black sedan and his stomach churned.
Michael clenched his jaw and pushed forward with confidence. He knocked people to the side, dropping the guise of politeness, as he forged a path through the sea of bodies. Luka tried to follow in Michael’s wake, but the crowd kept finding small inroads between them. They blocked his path little by little, and soon they isolated him. They stretched out their arms like antennas and forced their microphones into his face. They shouted their questions in volleys.
“Can you comment on tonight’s allegations?”
“Will The Committee remove you from the mission?”
Luka knew this mission would be a spectacle. Even years ago, when The Constellation spacecraft was ones and zeroes in a schematic file and the crew were profiles in a list of candidates. Even then, he knew, but he never foresaw being at the mercy of public opinion.
They pressed in tighter against him. It was hard to breathe in such a dense group and the muscles in his back began to clench. They torqued his spine and pain radiated from the plates the doctors had used to repair it. Beads of cold sweat began to form along his brow and his vision fuzzed.
Michael looked back. They met eyes and Michael did an immediate about-face. He shoved his way back through the crowd toward Luka, knocking a few people to the ground in the process. He gripped Luka’s arm and pulled him in the direction of their car. The violence of his action tempered the reporters. Although they fired off obscenities, they parted for Michael as he pushed through. Michael yanked the rear door open and Luka slumped into the backseat. Michael slid in after him and slammed the door shut.
The cacophony died instantly. The heavy tinting on the windows tempered the camera flashes too, which continued to snap long after the door shut. The cabin pulsed with the dulled white glow of the cameras firing beyond it. The car came to life and he felt the gentle pull of momentum as it accelerated away.
Luka drew in a slow, deep breath. His face felt hot as blood rushed back to it. The air in the car was cool and calming. Michael was massaging his forehead with a thumb and forefinger. He was only thirty-five, but already deep wrinkles crossed his face. Not that he looked bad. He had sandy-blonde hair and a classically masculine jawline and dimpled chin. His eyes were light and engaging. He had vitality, but also the look of someone who wore concern too often. His was the visage of a person who spent their life cleaning up someone else’s.
“What the hell was that?” shouted Michael.
“I know, I know,” said Luka.
“No, you don’t,” said Michael, continuing to yell.
Michael was still rubbing his forehead. A red spot had formed where his thumb moved in a tight circle. His cheeks were flushed and the veins in his neck bulged like old roots breaking through a sidewalk. Luka knew this look. Michael was not putting on a show. This was actual anger.
“Jesus, Luka. You're not as irreplaceable as you think. There are plenty of people behind you who are just as prepared to go and The Committee's been watching. Closely. You all have replacements, all of you. You can't be doing this. Especially not on an international broadcast. This will be all over the media.”
Michael shook his head. “Christ, it already is. Who am I kidding.”
Luka turned to face him. “She crossed the line. You know that she did.”.
“Yeah, sure. It was wrong—and way off the script we approved—but that doesn't mean you can lose it every single time someone brings it up. It might still be painful for you, more painful than I can know. Regardless, she is dead, and you are not. To the rest of the world, this is a god-damn interesting story and so people will continue to ask about it. Bottom line is you're going to have to buck up because this is what you signed up for.”
Luka nodded and the cabin of the car went quiet. He looked down at his right hand and studied the scar spanning from his forearm to the second knuckle of his ring finger. He ran a thumb along it. Years of healing and PT had not helped. All the skin on the upper part of his forearm was dead to the touch.
“Just made her career, didn't I?” said Luka.
Michael huffed. “Yeah, you did.”
He gave his forehead a rest, slipping his hands into his pockets and letting out a heavy breath as he reclined back into his seat. His suit was the same shade of charcoal as the leather of the seats and when he reclined his body blended into them, giving the impression that he was a disembodied head. He looked like a Cheshire Cat that worried constantly in place of smiling.
“...and I'll do what I can to make sure you didn't just unmake yours,” he added as he closed his eyes like he was about to take a nap.
He would come around. He always did.
Luka turned his attention back to his window. “So, what do we do now?”
Michael’s eyes snapped open and he exhaled loudly. “You tell me.”
“Honestly, I'm hungry.”
“Not what I meant, but I'll have something sent over when we get back,” said Michael.
He turned his attention to his interface. His eyes went dead as he manipulated the augmented reality in his mind.
“What I really want is a steak.”
Michael dropped the interface and shot Luka an annoyed look. “You know you're not allowed to eat that...even if I could by some miracle get my hands on an actual slab of cow.”
“Why don't we cheat, try our luck? There's a place I know of,” Luka said.
He knew he was being irritating. He counted on Michael to tolerate as much.
“Yeah, we’re not going there. Answer’s no,” Michael replied as he returned to the digitized world of his interface.
Soon the whole crew would be fitted with interfaces like Michael’s. Most already had it. He was among the holdouts, those that preferred a device they carried. One that could be left behind. Soon he would have a memory chip implanted too. This would give him access to—memory of—the schematics for the power systems on The Constellation craft. He insisted to The Committee that he could memorize all this information without the chip, and he had, but they would not accept that risk. There would be no unplugging in his future.
“Do you ever get sick of that thing?” Luka asked.
“Only when I'm using it to clean up your messes,” said Michael.
Luka could not suppress the small grin that crept across his face.
“There, I made sure the kitchen will have something sent over to your place by the time we get there. Something approved that is, just for you. Me, I might go have that steak. And you can bet your ass I’m expensing it to your account. Now, remind me again, what’s the name of that place?” Michael continued.
Luka shrugged. “Be my guest. I could have a hundred steaks a night between now and launch and not run through my account.”
Michael frowned. “It's not a one-way trip, remember? You might want a thing or two when you get back. Food and shelter come to mind. They’re not going to let you live in DA housing forever.”
“Odds aren't in favor of the crew returning. I say you have the steak, then at least one of us can.”
“You know, someday, you might find a reason to want that money. You could meet someone, have kids. Big house, certified food, private colleges. All of that. Believe me. I can personally attest that you'll wish you had the money then.”
Luka kept his eyes on the window and watched the passing buildings.
“Why don't you come over to my place and eat with us tonight? We'd be happy to have you. The kids will be asleep by now, but Rebecca said she'd stay up to eat with me,” Michael asked.
“Pretty sure that's not approved,” said Luka.
“Why do you think I’m inviting you?” said Michael.
Luka laughed. “Then I'm on board.”
If they shared only a single point of agreement—and sometimes that was the case—it was that they found The Committee’s rules aggravating. They were bureaucratically and inefficiently restrictive. Their scope covered even the extraordinarily mundane aspects of crew member’s lives like what types of deodorant could be used and how many pairs of socks they could keep in their DA quarters at any given time. The constant nagging of these restrictions tried even the most patient of the crew and staff.
Their sedan slowed to a stop.
Luka and Michael both leaned toward the middle of the vehicle to peer through the windshield.
“Why are we stopped?”
Michael’s eyes went blank as he pulled up the car’s diagnostics on his interface.
“Martial blockade, it looks like. Everything’s fine with the car.”
“Any idea what they're up to?”
"No, but it looks serious. They're geared up. It isn’t just some checkpoint.”
Michael pulled out of his interface and looked over at Luka. “I don’t like this.”
“Yeah, a lot of them.”
Luka caught a glimpse of Michael’s interface. Military Police were forming up in front of the barricades ahead. They wore black body armor and full-face tactical helmets. The faceplates of their helmets were made of a matte black one-way polymer that extended below the chin. The backs and sides of their armor were emblazoned with the letters NSMPF in bold cyan. Those forming the front line took a kneeling stance with their rifles braced on the barricades. Another squad was setting into formation behind them, standing so that their bodies staggered with the line ahead of them like checker pieces on a board. There were fifteen of them at least. Luka could not get an accurate count because the video feed on the windshield began to stutter. The frame rate dropped to a near frozen state as a high-velocity drone screamed overhead. The shrill whine of its engines pierced into the cabin of the car. Michael and Luka both clamped their hands down over their ears in reaction. Their eyes went wide.
Then there was a bright flash. Even through the tinting on the windows, it was blinding like an arc welder held at arm’s length.
The vehicle went inverted twice over, maybe more. His seat belt kept his body locked in place, but his arms flailed recklessly as the car tumbled.
It came to a rest upside down. The roof was buckled in. The windows were broken. Luka shook his head and opened his eyes. Dust hanging in the air immediately stung them and he had to fight to keep them open. His brain felt foggy. Thoughts came slowly.
He looked over to his right. Blood was running from Michael’s mouth. It dribbled down his forehead and fell to the roof in a steady, pattering trickle. It matted his hair and stained the blonde a muddy red where it ran. His head hung slack from his shoulders, and his arms dangled down to the roof of the car with his knuckles resting on the asphalt where the glass sunroof had been moments before. Luka could not see the source of the blood flow. He wanted to know whether it was internal damage or just a cut on his scalp; from this angle it could have been either. Best case Michael's face had smacked against the window, opening a gash on his head in the process. Worst-case would-be blood running from his ears—concussive damage. Michael’s eyes were open but distant and confused like he was locked in his interface. He was in severe shock.
A peculiar odor began to fill the car and with it came a thin, caustic black smoke. Trails of it floated in through the broken windows, like will-o’-the-wisps passing by. Luka remembered the smell, but he could not place it at first.
Then he knew.