Hyperion

Los Angeles New York
Copyright © 2014 by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Excerpt from These Broken Stars copyright © 2013 by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.
Excerpt from This Shattered World copyright © 2014 by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book
may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written
permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New
York, New York 10023.
ISBN 978-1-4847-2419-4
CONTENTS
Title Page
Copyright Page
One
Two
Three
Four
Five
Six
Seven
Epilogue
Letter from the Authors
Preview of These Broken Stars
Preview of This Shattered World
“Hey—i t’s okay. Shhh. I ’ m r i ght here.”
“What? I —sor r y, beauti ful . I was dreami ng.”
“No ki ddi ng. Are you okay? Do you want to tal k about i t?”
“Mmm. You’re war m. You’ ve been steal i ng the bl ankets agai n.”
“Stop tr yi ng to di str act me. I thought I was supposed to be
the one wi th the ni ghtmares.”
“You’re not goi ng to l et thi s go, are you?”
“Do I ever?”
“Good poi nt.”
“Who’s Sanj ana?”
SIX MONTHS BEFORE THE ICARUS
CRASH...
ONE
THE SUN’S WARM ON THE BACK OF MY NECK, bird-
song fltering down from the trees lining the edges of the walking track.
Unlike my last posting on Avon, surrounded by mud and swamp, this
part of Patron is all blue skies and grassy hills. This far from the nearest
town, I could almost forget I’m not home, that my parents’ cottage isn’t
just beyond the next rise. Almost—except for the gun at my hip, the dim
outline of Patron’s rings faint across the afternoon sky, and Private Gil
Fisk crunching along behind me.
“Listen,” I tell him as we crest the hill, sweating a little under the
heavy carbon fber composite of my fak jacket. “All I’m saying is there’s
an argument to be made for coming in a little gentler. You lead by saying
you miss her, not that you miss getting—look, it’s about poetry, Private.
Her eyes, her lips. Didn’t you ever do poetry in school?”
Gil snorts, coming up alongside me, scratching behind his ear. “Yeah,
but it was all roses and clouds, and if I start comparing her to a fower,
she’s gonna think I’ve lost it. You really get girls to go for you by talking
’bout their lips, sir?”
I hide a grin. This patrol takes almost as long by hover as on foot and
isn’t usually sought after—but now I know why Gil traded two days of
mess hall duty for this patrol shift: to get me to help him win back his
girlfriend. “I know, it’s a mystery. Listen, when we get back from patrol,
I’ll show you a couple of poems, and you can try something based on
those.”
“Can’t you just write it for me? Cole said you wrote his whole letter to
his boyfriend on Babel.”
“I wrote Cole’s letter because he can’t write,” I point out. At this rate
I’m going to have to start charging my men a fee.
“What about you, Captain?” Gil kicks a rock half buried in the road
and sends it skittering off into the grass.
“Nobody in particular,” I reply. “I can’t see myself settling down.” I’m
about to continue when the comm patch on my vest crackles to life. We
both slow as we listen.
“Patrol three-six-fve, this is HQ. Do you read? Over.”
Fisk raises a brow as I thumb the talk-patch and reply. “HQ, three-six-
fve. Go ahead, over.”
“Patrol, just a heads-up. VC-Delta opened a comms channel a few
minutes ago, but we got no broadcast before it shut off again. They’re not
responding to hails. We think their system is glitching, but they may not
be aware. Request you have them run a systems check on arrival.”
“Will do. Thank you, HQ. Three-six-fve out.”
Fisk is pulling a face as we set out again. “How long’s a full systems
check gonna take, sir?”
“Long enough,” I reply, trying not to grimace myself. “I had a card
game tonight. That’s shot now.”
Fisk shades his eyes against the setting sun, surveying the hill ahead
of us. “I can go check it out if you want to start heading back, sir. No
reason you gotta miss your game.”
But something about this doesn’t sit right, and the prickle down my
spine is one I’ve learned not to ignore. “No,” I say slowly. “No, let’s both
go check it out. It’s probably nothing, but if it’s not, better to have two
of us.”
“You sure, sir?” Gil’s impatient, and I suppress a smile—he really
wants me to write that letter to his girlfriend. “Those things are always
breaking. Scientists got their heads in the clouds, don’t bother with main-
tenance. Call it my punishment for being late to the yard this morning.”
I snicker. “You’re learning to recite a sonnet for being late to the
yard,” I tell him, setting off to move a little quicker than before. “And
then you can write to your girlfriend and tell her it reminds you of her.”
He curses under his breath, and jogs a few steps to catch up with me.
We’re still at least a quarter hour on foot from VC-Delta, the VeriCorp
research facility we’re checking on this evening’s patrol. “What d’you
think we’ll fnd there?”
“Probably some idiot who spilled a drink on the comm set,” I reply.
“But that’s what I think, not what I know. There are other reasons their
comms could be down.” And however long a shot, those reasons are why
we’re here.
We circle around to come in toward the base from the west—the
approach up the road is completely open, and if anything’s up, we’d be
sitting ducks.
There’s no reason it should be anything other than faulty equipment;
Patron’s been peaceful for years now, but for the occasional incursion by
raider ships, and these patrols are more a courtesy than anything else.
Part of the government’s contract with the corporations that terraform
these places. This isn’t Avon—no rebels lurking in the wilderness, no
discontented townsfolk to wrangle. It’s supposed to be an easy posting,
so I can recover from my time on the front lines.
We’re both silent as we work our way through the scrub, climbing
along just below the ridgeline to avoid our silhouettes showing, until we
can get a better look at the valley below.
It dips down to a gentle bowl, trees scattering the slopes of the hills
around the facility itself. A long mound bisects the valley and curves
back around through the hills—it’s the research facility’s particle accel-
erator, a layer of earth and grass concealing whatever manner of science
they keep inside there. Not my feld of expertise. All I know is that they
build their facilities out here because the land’s cheap and they can make
their equipment as large as they want.
Fisk starts to stride down the hill toward the compound, but I reach
out and snag his sleeve, pulling him back. I know I’ve spent too long on
the front lines, that the caution Avon drilled into me is still too fresh,
but something’s still warning me not to walk in blindly. We stop instead
at the edge of a copse, crouching between the tree trunks to get a better
look at the compound itself, the large courtyard visible within the walls
from this height. I pull up my goggles from where they hang around my
neck, blessing my commander for insisting we patrol in proper gear, and
thumb the button to magnify the view. Two fgures walk out across the
courtyard, taking a curving path between the tables and chairs set out
there to catch the sun, an old satellite dish dumped in the open space.
The wind in the trees around me melts away, my world turning silent.
They’re in ftted body armor, but though it’s almost like military issue,
those aren’t soldiers. I know every face on my base, and these two aren’t
among them.
“Gil,” I murmur, looking across at him to fnd he’s staring down at
the compound too. “Those look like our guys to you?”
“Not so much, sir,” he replies. “We—” But he gets no further—he’s
cut off abruptly by a scream from the courtyard below, carried only
faintly on the wind, followed by the quick, sharp shriek of a weapon
rending the air.
Dammit. “Call it in, Fisk, use the sat phone. They could be monitoring
our comm frequencies, we can’t risk that. I’ll try to get a better look at
the approach.”
“Yes, sir.” Suddenly he’s all business—no longer the guy who tries
to wheedle poems out of me, who can never get anything quite right no
matter how hard he tries. In this, at least, he’s sure of himself. He swings
his pack off, dropping to one knee to pull out the sat phone, reaching up
to adjust his goggles where they sit behind his ear. “Try the southwest
entrance, I think the trees come in closest there.”
I nod, using hands and feet to make sure I don’t slide down the slope,
keeping to the shadows of the trees. My mind’s scrambling, compet-
ing thoughts and questions all shouting for attention. No sign of their
vehicle; no military hovers, no chopper. Either they came on foot, like
Fisk and me, or—more likely—they were dropped here. They’re too well
organized to be raiders looking to strip the facility, and since they’re not
military, that means they’re mercs. There’s a reason hiring mercenaries
was made illegal decades ago: no regulation. No way to stop the people
hiring them from forming their own private little armies on the edge of
space.
It’ll be impossible to know who hired them—a rival corporation after
VC’s tech, probably, but which one, I doubt we’ll ever know. They’ll be
covering their tracks. People like these don’t leave witnesses behind.
Assuming our commander mobilizes units the second he hears Fisk’s
call, there’s only three ways the cavalry arrives—on foot, which will take
an hour we don’t have; via road, which will take even longer thanks to
the winding roads of Patron’s hilly countryside; or via air, which will
give the game away completely. The facility’s staff will be dead before
our guys can land.
Which means it’s on us. Me and a private I like just fne, but a guy I
wouldn’t choose to partner me in a game of cards, let alone a two-man
military operation. I almost wish I was back at my last posting on Avon,
with half a dozen soldiers I’d choose over Gilmore Fisk, who’s never seen
action like this.
He’s just setting down the satellite phone and turning an anxious gaze
on me as I return a few minutes later. I make my voice sound steady
when I speak, completely sure of myself. “Okay, good news is there aren’t
many of them in the courtyard. Bad news is that shot was an execution.
One of the civilians. We can’t sit here and watch them take out the others
while we wait for reinforcements.”
Fisk nods, swallowing hard, and stows the sat phone before coming to
his feet and pulling his Gleidel from its holster. “Yessir.”
I draw my own gun and check its charge, then take point. We work
quickly and quietly down the hillside, using what cover there is to get
close to the wall, then easing in along it to make our way to the gate.
My brother Alec was caught alone, when he died, and I’ve wondered
countless times what he was thinking. Whether he knew he’d screwed
up, getting himself cut off like that. Whether he kept trying or knew he
was done. Whether he was scared.
But I’m not alone, I remind myself, looking back at Gil, who’s white as
a sheet but gripping his Gleidel in a steady hand. And this is our duty. We
can’t sit up there and watch them executed while we wait for backup.
With my brother’s face before my eyes, I ease in through the gate.
“I t’s too l ate to shout at you now for goi ng i n there, i sn’ t i t?”
“You’ ve shouted at me for pl enty of other reasons.”
“Wel l , you do i nsi st on bei ng br ave a l ot.”
“Of the two of us, Li l ac, I thi nk you sti l l wi n i n the categor y
of doi ng stupi dl y br ave thi ngs.”
“He was on your mi nd a l ot, wasn’ t he?”
“Who, Fi sk?”
“Al ec. He was on your mi nd when you were del i r i ous, too.”
“I don’ t thi nk somethi ng l i ke that ever changes.”
TWO
THE COURTYARD IS EMPTY NOW, except for the white-coated
fgure sprawled on the far side, blood slowly trickling away from him to
pool in a dip in the paving.
“Oh God,” Gil whispers behind me. “Oh God, he’s dead.” When
I look back, his normally olive-tan features have paled a few shades,
and he’s got that same pinched expression I saw half a dozen times on
Avon. No amount of training prepares someone for the frst time they
see combat—for the frst time they see death.
“Let’s concentrate on the live ones.” My spine’s pricking all over
again that there’s nobody out here keeping guard, but I allow myself just
a sliver of hope that they’re amateurs. That there’s a chance we’re going
to catch them unawares.
The back door’s unlocked, and that sliver of hope widens a little.
Guns drawn, we make our way silently down a long, empty corridor
leading into the heart of the station. I’ve been here only once or twice
before on a patrol; usually we stay outdoors. But I’ve got a rough idea of
the layout, and I keep scanning for any sign of the intruders. Voices rise
at the far end of the corridor, and exchanging a glance with Fisk, I keep
low and creep further along toward the source of the sound.
I crouch to get a look through the crack where the door sits ajar—
better to avoid eye level, where they’re most likely to spot you—and take
a beat to absorb the sight of three white-coated researchers backed up
against a wall, with half a dozen armor-clad mercs standing between
them and us. Their clothes are good enough to pass as military, unless
you know what you’re looking for. Their posture tells me more, though.
They’ve clearly had combat training—I can see it in the way they stand,
the way they hold their weapons. That shooting outside wasn’t amateur
hour, it was a deliberate decision, and judging by the way the researchers
are pressed against the wall, they know it.
The mercs are carrying the latest in cutting-edge combat rifes, the
kind whose shots aren’t stopped by armor or metal, like those from my
sidearm are. For the frst time, my Gleidel—designed for use in space,
where an errant shot could trigger a decompression—seems inadequate.
Even if I were in full armor, like them, they’d still have the edge.
The leader—obvious from the way the others are looking at him—is
a sandy-haired guy in his late thirties with the edge of a tattoo climbing
up out of his uniform collar. He’s just fnished speaking, and is looking
expectantly at the trio clad in white.
It’s the woman who answers. She’s in her early twenties, with a dark
ponytail and a light brown complexion, and attitude enough to make
up for her fearful coworkers. Arms crossed, brows crowded together in
a frown, she’s leaning forward to argue with him. Even that posture,
though, can’t hide the fear tensing her frame and making her voice
breathy, close to cracking. “There’s nothing like that here. This is a par-
ticle accelerator, pure research. There’s nothing here raiders would—”
A woman dressed as a lieutenant backhands her, sending her stum-
bling back to crash against the wall. “We’re not raiders,” she hisses.
I adjust my grip on my Gleidel, shifting my weight, ready to ease up
to my feet.
And then something cold and hard presses against the back of my
neck. “Sorry, Captain.” Fisk speaks loudly enough that every head turns,
though when he reaches past me to push the door open and expose us,
nobody looks surprised except the white-clad researchers.
My brain stutters and simply stops for a moment, trying and failing to
latch on to what’s happening. Fisk? Gil Fisk? He’s been in my platoon for
months. He’s barely competent. This is some sort of misunderstanding.
“Private,” I try, keeping my voice low, calm. “You haven’t done this yet.
You don’t have to.”
There’s a soft sigh from behind me, but the pressure of the gun
against my neck doesn’t waver, and I know his answer in that moment.
“It’s already done, Captain. Did it years ago. Put your gun down on the
foor, slowly, two fngers.”
I comply, though it kills me to ease my Gleidel down and set it on the
foor, where Fisk kicks it far enough away for one of the mercenaries to
pick it up. I clench my jaw as the man inspects the weapon and, grinning,
tucks it into his waistband. I take another careful look around the room.
The other mercenaries are herding the three scientists into the far cor-
ridor and out of sight, and only the leader stands watching us now.
“I’ll have your fak jacket please, Captain,” Fisk continues, all traces of
his corn-fed country accent gone. He sounds like a completely different
guy, hard-edged and competent. I grind my teeth as I unzip the vest and
then yank open the straps along its side. Keeping my movements slow,
I shrug it off my shoulders and let it slide to the foor. With it goes my
comm patch, and all hope of signaling for reinforcements.
When he speaks again, he’s once more Private Fisk, pressing his thumb
to the transmit button. “HQ, this is three-six-fve. Please acknowledge,
over.”
The patch crackles to life. “Three-six-fve, go ahead, over.”
I want to shout a warning, I want to fght. But one wrong move won’t
get just me killed; every hostage in this place will die if these mercs
decide they have to burn and run.
“We’ve run the comms check here,” Fisk continues. “Just a glitch.
The locals have invited us to stay for chow, so we’ll be a little late, over.”
“No problem, three-six-fve, enjoy your meal. HQ out.”
The comm crackles and falls silent, and my lifeline is gone.
“Where are you holding the others?” Fisk asks the tattooed leader.
“Room for him there, too?”
The other man shakes his head. “Just take him out back.”
My gut knots. All three of us know what “out back” means. In my
mind’s eye, I can see the trail of blood from the dead researcher slowly
seeping across the pavement outside.
Only now does the pressure of the gun barrel against the back of my
neck lift. Not enough for me to risk trying something, but I can feel
Fisk’s hesitation in the way he shifts his weight. “We might need him
yet,” he says, giving me a fash of hope that he’s thinking twice about
shooting me. “If they ask for him on comms and he’s not there, what do
we do?” Then again, perhaps he’s just hoping someone else will handle
the execution, when the time comes.
The blond man looks us both over, gaze measuring, and I feel my
pulse thump-thump-thump as I wait. Half a dozen tactics and appeals fash
through my mind, but I can read the man well enough to know that
the smartest thing I can do right now is keep my mouth shut. After a
lifetime, he nods. “If you think it’s worth the risk of keeping him alive,
he’ll be your responsibility. The others are in offces down the hall, there
should be plenty of room.”
Fisk prompts me to stand with a silent nudge of his gun barrel, and I
keep my hands out to my sides as he walks me down the hallway.
I wait until we’re alone to speak again. “Nothing’s done until it’s done,
Gil. We’ll say these mercs mistook you for their contact and you went
along with it to get the jump on them.” Keep it familiar, try and draw up those
months of memories, all the times I’ve looked out for him. “We’ve trained for situ-
ations like this, you and me.”
“Just shut up, sir,” Fisk replies—and despite everything, there’s still a
note in his voice that’s at least a distant relative of respect.
We reach the open offce doors, and I glance right, then left—I like
the offce on the left better. There’s a paperweight on the desk, a vent
high up on the wall, an extendable pointer on the windowsill. Weapons,
ways out. I turn left, and he lets me. I stop in the doorway, spinning to
face him in the faint hope he won’t follow me in.
“There’s still a way out of this if you want it,” I say quietly. I’m not
pretending when I search his features, registering the way the lines of his
mouth have hardened, his jaw has squared. How could I have mistaken
him so badly?
Fisk meets my gaze without finching, without any sign of regret; a
rueful half-smile fickers across his face. “I’m not some kid they bribed
with a pack of cigarettes and the promise of a promotion.” He gestures
with the gun for me to keep moving, and my heart sinks as he follows
me into the room. “This isn’t what you think it is, Tarver.”
Hearing my frst name from Private Fisk’s lips is a jolt nearly as tan-
gible as when he pressed his gun to my neck. “I don’t need to know what
you’re doing here, Fisk. You’re breaking your oath, and that’s exactly
what I think it is.”
“You think I’m some sixteen-year-old fresh off Paradisa. Bad with
girls. Impatient with books. Never quite good enough at drills. Endear-
ing. Like someone’s kid brother.” He shrugs. “Not your fault, just means
I did my job. But I’m twenty-three, and I’ve been doing this a hell of a
lot longer than you have.”
He tried to get me to turn back, to return to base rather than investi-
gate the call that led us here. I search his face for some sign of that boy,
the one who didn’t want me dead, but he’s utterly blank. We used to play
poker in our off hours, me and Gil and a few others; Gil lost every time.
Even off duty everything about him was a lie.
When I don’t answer, he squares his jaw and shrugs again, the gesture
so familiar and, at the same time, so out of place on this new, warped
version of my friend. “Just stay quiet, and I’ll try to keep you alive.”
He doesn’t speak again. He yanks the cord from the desk lamp and
gestures to the chair, and this time I don’t bother hiding my frustration.
Coming back from being tied up is going to be a lot harder, and we both
know it. I focus on keeping my wrists as wide as I can, but by the time
he’s done, the cord circles them and binds them to the bar at the back of
the chair, already cutting into my skin. He conducts a quick sweep of the
room, pocketing a pair of scissors and a metal ruler, shoving the paper-
weight down between the desk and the wall, where I’ll never get to it.
Once he’s fnished, he looks back at me from the door, slowly replac-
ing his gun in his holster. He reaches up to scratch behind his ear as
I’ve seen him do half a dozen times today. But this time he peels away a
small skin-colored patch: a transmitter. Dammit. That explains the empty
courtyard, the easy way in. They were laying out the welcome mat so they
could take me without a fght.
“Don’t try to escape,” he says quietly. “You cause problems, he’ll
shoot me frst, then you. He’s not playing. Got it?”
“Day I’m having, there’s no way I’m lucky enough that he’d shoot you,
too,” I mutter, drawing a quick, mirthless grin. I force myself to hold
still, without testing my bonds. “I understand. Get this done, get out,
and hope we never meet again.”
He seems to take me at my word, nodding slowly. “All the world’s a
stage, sir.” So much for the kid I thought hadn’t read so much as a sonnet. “Not
time for either of us to make our exits yet.”
He shuts off the lights and locks the door behind him.
“You l ook l i ke your head’s about to expl ode, Li l ac.”
“But that. . . I coul d ki l l hi m. He was i n uni for m.”
“He saved my l i fe.”
“I t shoul dn’ t have been i n danger i n the fi rst pl ace.”
“No, but he sti l l —i t’s more compl i cated than that.”
“Ever ythi ng about thi s stor y i s, i sn’ t i t?”
THREE
I ALLOW MYSELF THE LUXURY of a full thirty seconds of
silently mouthing curses that would horrify my parents, and then I get
to work. Standing with the heavy chair strapped to my back is out of the
question, but its wheels allow me to move around the offce. I try strain-
ing with all my strength to see if I can stretch the lamp cord. I try angling
forward to see if I can catch the knot on the sharp corner of the drawer
handle and loosen the ropes.
A faint scuffing sound comes from the other side of the vent, and I
remember: the researchers are locked in offces, too. I raise my voice as
loud as I dare, hoping the guard, if there is one, is out of earshot. “Can
you hear me?”
There’s a muffed clatter from the room next door, and a long silence.
Then comes a woman’s voice—quite clear, like she’s up close to the vent.
“Yes. But you shouldn’t talk. They shot Nico because he was trying to
talk them down.” It’s the dark-haired one who was standing up to them
before; I recognize her voice. Good. If I had to choose one, she’s the one
I’d pick.
“Worth a try, Nico,” I mutter, then lift my voice a little so she can
hear me. “They’re going to shoot us, too, unless we do something about
it. Their faces are on the security cameras, but they can wipe those. They
can’t wipe our memories, so we have to go. I promise you, the only thing
you can do from here is improve your chances.”
Silence from the room next door.
I take a deep breath, realizing too late that telling a civilian she’s about
to get shot might not be the best way to encourage her. I try a different
tactic. “What’s your name?”
“Sanjana Rao,” she replies, so quietly I can barely hear her. She pro-
nounces her name with the same infection I heard in Little Bangalore,
on the northern continent of Corinth, when I was there on leave. I won-
der, feetingly, if that’s where she’s from. If she has a family there, waiting
for her, the way mine is for me in the little garden cottage in our valley.
“I’m Tarver, Sanjana,” I say, hoping conversation will ease her fear
enough that I can enlist her help. “Captain Tarver Merendsen.”
“You’re military?” Her voice rises with surprise. “Why aren’t you
with them?”
“Because they’re not military, they’re mercs. As was the guy I was on
patrol with, it turns out. I’m the only real soldier here.”
“Well,” she replies, “no offense, but your track record so far doesn’t
fll me with confdence.”
Against all the odds, her quip makes me laugh, and my breath comes
a little easier. “Not my fnest hour,” I allow. “But the day’s not over yet.
Still time to redeem myself.”
“Look,” she says, “I have no intention of sitting here and waiting for
them to shoot me.” Underneath the fear in her voice, there’s a note of
resolve. That hint of steel means she hasn’t given up, and that means I’m
not out of cards to play just yet.
“You sound like you’re up near the vent, are your hands loose?”
“I am, but it’s sealed down, the windows, too. But I’m nearly out, I
can go for the comms panel in the main offce.” A pause, as my words
catch up with her. “Your hands aren’t loose?” Short, choppy sentences
try to hide the shake in her voice.
“Tied up,” I tell her. “There’s just no trust in this world, you know?”
From the other side of the vent there’s a soft huff of laughter. That’s
good. I need her to breathe, to think.
“How are you nearly out?” I ask.
“The door’s got an electronic lock,” she replies. “Not my specialty,
but I’ve nearly got it. You weren’t the only one with a partner who turned
on you. Michaela’s with them. She must have reprogrammed the locks,
because mine won’t recognize my thumbprint.”
“Can you do mine, if you get out into the hallway?”
“If there aren’t any guards. It takes about ten minutes.” I can hear the
nerves creeping back in, and frankly, I don’t blame her.
“Listen,” I continue, before she can start to panic. “We can’t use the
comms. I guarantee they’re monitoring the military frequencies. In any
event, the lead time on a rescue mission is too long, especially if they
hear us calling for help. We need to do this ourselves. But we can do it,
I promise you.”
I wish I felt as certain as I sound.
Sanjana doesn’t answer me, but I hear her exhale, the tension in that
single breath carrying through the vent. I don’t have to strain my imagi-
nation to picture her fear. Hell, I’m scared myself.
“You know, when we get out of this, you and I are going to have to
seriously review our choice in companions.” I try to smile, hoping it’ll
carry through my voice. “Unlock my door, though, and I think I could
really get to like you.”
“Easy, buddy, I’ve got a girlfriend.” But it worked—her voice is a
little lighter. “Okay, let me get it open and check for a guard. I’ll tell you
through the vent, or else if this doesn’t work, I guess you’ll hear me being
shot.”
“You’re a real comfort,” I whisper. There’s a muffed thud as she
climbs down from whatever she’s standing on to reach the vent, and pre-
sumably she gets back to work. And so do I—for all I’m getting nowhere
trying to untie my hands, I’ve got nothing else better to do, and this is
no time to be without a Plan B.
It’s about twenty minutes later when I hear her at the vent again.
“Tarver?”
“Still here,” I tell her. “Though the service is terrible. I’m seriously
considering complaining to management and trying a different hotel.”
“You’re telling me,” she mutters. “My door’s open, but there’s a guard
out there. He had his back turned, but it’ll take me at least ten minutes
to get yours open, and if he turns around...” She doesn’t have to fnish
the sentence.
We just had to be taken hostage by professionals. I hate well-organized opponents.
“Okay,” I reply. She’s not going to like what’s coming next, and I
know it. I force my voice to stay low, calm, confdent. “I’ll try calling
him in here so you can slip in after him and come at him from behind.
You’ll need to hit him, and hard. Can you fnd something in there that’s
heavy enough?”
Her hesitation speaks volumes. It’s one thing to think about violence
or see it on the HV, and another entirely to commit it. I wish I didn’t have
to ask a civilian to get involved, but I’ve got no other choice. Sanjana’s
voice emerges from the vent, fnally: “Yes. Yes, I can do that.”
“Good. We’ll make a soldier out of you yet.”
“No, thank you,” Sanjana replies, her voice dry. Then she falls silent
before I can think of another joke to lighten the mood.
“Sanjana,” I say quietly, abandoning my attempt to fnd humor in our
situation. “If we don’t get ourselves out of this, they’re going to kill us,
your colleagues, and anyone else who’s seen their faces. Soldiers choose
to accept the risk of taking a life when they enlist, and I know you never
asked for this. Truly, I wouldn’t ask you if there was another option.”
She takes a long, slow breath in, then exhales audibly. “Okay.” Her
voice frms, and I know she’s made up her mind. “Call him in.”
I reach for the version of myself that knows how to keep a raw recruit
moving, that doesn’t finch when missiles fy overhead. There’s a head-
space for that kind of thing, and I need to fnd it now, because what
comes next is going to demand a lot of her. “Just think about the actions,
put everything else out of your mind.”
Still not alone, Alec. Still fghting.
I push my chair over to the door, using one foot to stomp at it, hoping
the sound will carry down the hallway. “Hey! Is anyone out there? I need
someone in here.”
I count to ten, then stomp again. I repeat this six times before a
shadow passes across the strip of window in the door, followed by the
fuzzy outline of a head as the guard peers through it. “Fisk said you’d try
something,” he barks through the door. I recognize the voice—it’s the
same guy who took my Gleidel. “I’m not buying.”
“I’m tied to a chair,” I reply, trying not to let anger color my voice,
and push back from the door. “I’ll stay on the other side of the room
if it makes you feel better. But you need to take a look outside, because
there’s someone out there, and it’s not one of your people. If my guys
worked this out and try to start something, I’m not interested in dying in
the crossfre. You take a look, and if it’s them, you get on the comm and
tell them you have a hostage, right?”
He hesitates for a few more seconds. “Other side of the room,” he
echoes fnally. “And turn your back so I can see your hands.”
I turn, and a moment later I hear the lock on the door open with a
pop, then the sound of his footsteps. Trying not to think of the gun
that’s probably aimed at my head right now, I talk, hoping I can cover
Sanjana’s footsteps as she moves. “Just between the trees out there, there
are two thick tree trunks, I thought I saw someone between them, but
I can’t stand up on account of I’m tied to a chair. Fisk did a good job, I
have to grant him that.” I turn my head to catch a glimpse of the door.
It’s spring-loaded, swinging closed way too fast. Dammit.
But an instant before the door closes, Sanjana’s fngers appear in the
crack, and rather than closing and sealing, it slams on her hand. I wince
and force myself to keep talking as she starts to push it open “Thing is,
if I were you, I’d be asking myself this: if Fisk managed to fool me for
months to get ready for this raid, if he’s that good an actor, then how can
you be sure—”
“Will you shut up,” he mutters, leaning over to look out the window
as Sanjana slips into the room and out of my line of sight. “Fisk didn’t
mention you like the sound of your own voice so—”
There’s a crash, and I swing the chair around, the cord biting into my
hands. The guard’s on the ground, and Sanjana’s standing above him, a
desk lamp hanging from one hand, chest heaving, eyes closed.
My own relief threatens to overwhelm me, my mind coming up with
half a dozen jokes I’d use with my platoon to keep them grounded—but
they never look this traumatized. I let my breath out in a rush, then try to
sound as gentle as I can. “Well done. Now we’ve got a chance.”
She only just stops herself dropping the lamp, instead setting it down
on the carpet and walking over to crouch behind me. “Nice to meet
you,” she manages, still shaky as she starts working at my bindings.
“You too,” I say with a hint of a smile I don’t expect. “You might just
be my favorite person on the planet right now.”
The lamp cord comes loose, and fre rushes into my wrists as the
blood returns. I drop to my hands and knees, crawling over to the guard
to retrieve my Gleidel and return it to its holster at my side. Such a slight
weight, but with it, I already feel better.
“Is he okay?” she whispers behind me.
Blood’s starting to pool underneath the guard’s head, and his eyes
are staring vacantly at the wall. But I put myself between the body and
Sanjana, reaching down like I’m feeling for his pulse. “Yep,” I lie, trying
to sound relieved. “He’s out cold, but he’ll live to fght another day.”
“Oh, thank God.” She sinks down onto my chair, nursing her bruised
fngers.
“Does he have a security pass?” I check his belt, pulling aside his
jacket to look for a lanyard around his neck.
When I glance back at her, she’s shaking her head. “It’s all thumb-
prints, no passes. Makes it harder for outsiders to infltrate.” Her gaze
acknowledges the irony of that and confrms what I’m realizing—it’s
going to be impossible to move unnoticed around the station. I could cut
the merc’s thumb off, but the scanners won’t work without proper blood
fow, and that would completely shatter the tenuous grip Sanjana has on
her calm. I don’t have much experience with civilians in life-or-death
situations, but I’m pretty certain that dismembering people isn’t going
to help.
“What do we do now?” Her voice is soft, shaking.
“Now we take the fght to them.”
“I l i ke Sanj ana.”
“Me too. Remi nds me of another gi r l I know. Not afr ai d to do
what had to be done.”
“I s thi s stor y goi ng to end badl y for her? Somethi ng about i t
gi ves you ni ghtmares.”
“Just someti mes. I have them about that other gi r l , too.”
“Oh, Tar ver.”
“We’re not goi ng back to sl eep, are we?”
“I ’ l l make us somethi ng hot to dr i nk.”
FOUR
WE CAN SPARE ONLY A FEW MINUTES to make a plan.
Assuming Sanjana’s friend Nico is the only casualty among the staff,
and Michaela’s the only defector, there are probably ten others locked
in offces along the hallway. Which means we don’t have the hundred
minutes it would take for Sanjana to hack all their locks.
But if we leave them here, the mercs will bail and shoot the research
team the moment we’re discovered missing. We need a faster way, a way
to open them all at once. Sanjana’s best guess is the administrative offce,
at the end of our hallway—there’s a chance she might be able to reset
security from there.
We make our way down the hallway in silence. I take point, a fash of
frustration passing through me as I think of the last time I did this, an
hour ago. Whatever Fisk thinks he’s doing, he’s betraying the uniform.
But alongside the frustration is the thrill that comes with combat, and
knowing you’re really alive—for the moment at least.
Once we reach the offce, I take up a position at the door, Gleidel in
hand, keeping watch. She hurries across to the console, her uninjured
fngers fying over the keys. From the way the other hand’s starting to
bruise and swell, I think the door might have broken some fngers. She
brings up the projection display and settles in to work in silence, direct-
ing fles and issuing commands with ficks of her eyes and swipes of her
good hand, rather than hitting the keys.
My gaze shifts from her to the time and climate display on the wall,
before I return my attention to the hallway. It’s well after dinner now.
When was the guard scheduled to report back in?
“They knew what they were doing,” Sanjana mutters, pausing in her
work to study the streams of data in front of her. “Only Michaela and I
had access to this, I didn’t even know she could shut me out.”
“Just Michaela and you?” I risk a glance across at her for a moment.
“You’re in charge?”
“Past tense, Captain, I was in charge.”
“Do you have any idea what VeriCorp’s doing here that would deserve
a raid of this scale? These guys didn’t come cheap. If we know what their
motivation is, what they’re after, perhaps that could help us.”
She’s silent, staring at the lines of code. She lifts one hand to swipe
down, and a red error message fashes up. With a grimace, she starts
again. “It’s not VeriCorp running this facility.”
“What? It’s called VC-Delta. This is VeriCorp territory. The VC
stands for—”
“I know what it stands for, Tarver. This place belongs to another cor-
poration, one with no stake here.”
“Which one?”
She hesitates; no doubt she’s had to sign half a dozen nondisclosure
agreements to work here. But a glance back at the lines of code for the
thumbprint scanners makes her sigh. “It’s owned by LaRoux Industries.”
“Why keep that undercover? What are they doing here they don’t
want people to know about?”
“They’re a prime target for this sort of thing. Masquerading as
belonging to a less cutting-edge corporation would discourage—well,
what’s happening. They have to be here to steal LaRoux Industries’ intel-
lectual property. Which means...they want me. As soon as they fgure out
I’m the one with the information.”
“Michaela doesn’t know?”
“She’s the facility manager. She handles the logistics, not the science.
It’s my head that has the information they need.”
“Well, they’ll have to come through me to get to it,” I say.
“That shouldn’t reassure me as much as it does,” she replies dryly,
turning her attention back to the screen. “Considering we’ve got one gun
and three working hands between us.”
“None of that defeatist language,” I reply, easing my head out the
door to check the hallway. “In a few hours this’ll be done, and you and I
will be drinking and ensuring the story grows with every retelling.”
She snorts. “Are you even old enough to drink?”
“Who, me?” I’m grinning too—of all the times to be having fun.
“No, ma’am. I lied my way into the military at thirteen years old, they
think I’m thirty-nine by now.”
“And I thought running this place at twenty-seven was impressive,”
she replies, wry.
“I’m old enough,” I reply—because beneath the jokes, I know what
she really wants to hear is I know what I’m doing. “Old enough to command
a platoon, but I’ll take your doubt as a compliment to my beauty regimen.
You getting anywhere at all?”
“Maybe,” she mutters, squinting at the screen. “I’m rebooting it, it’ll
take another couple of minutes.” Already the tension’s creeping back into
her tone.
“So, twenty-seven, and already this smart?” I ask, reaching for a tease
again. “Too much for this soldier. I don’t understand a thing about what
your team does here.”
“It’s complicated,” she replies absently.
“No kidding.”
She huffs a soft laugh, looking up. “No kidding indeed. We’re work-
ing on a new, safer hyperspace drive.”
“That makes no sense...who would hire mercenaries this good just to
steal a glorifed seat belt?”
“You’re calling my life’s work a glorifed seat belt?” She rolls her eyes,
causing the display to scroll backward as it registers the movement as a
command. “It’s not that simple.” Her shoulders are tense, her eyes fxed
on the display, avoiding mine.
“Somehow I don’t think you’re telling me everything.”
She sighs, glancing back at me in the doorway. “Look, it’s...classifed,
to say the least. It’s all theoretical right now, but if it works, it’ll be revolu-
tionary. Still...well, I guess being fred is the least of my worries right now.
Imagine a big electromagnet, whose feld envelops the hyperspace drive
and prevents destructive forces from escaping. There’s a huge energy
discharge when you use a hyperspace drive, and this stops it damaging
the ship. Like a ground wire. It’s a brand-new way of doing it, much more
effcient.”
“Okay,” I say dubiously, still waiting to hear something worth stealing.
“Now imagine a ship with that new magnet in place passes too near
another ship with the same device. The felds would interfere with each
other.”
“And...?”
“And...anything. Without proper safety precautions, hyperspace travel
is unpredictable. Maybe nothing would happen. Maybe the entire ship
would be ripped apart.”
I exhale slowly. “So a rival corporation with this technology could
use it to sabotage or even destroy LaRoux Industries spaceliners, leaving
absolutely no trace of tampering. That’s tech worth stealing.”
Sanjana nods, glancing at me again, her expression sober. “I’ve been
trying to tell them about this faw for months. It’s not just ships. If a
ship outftted with the new drive came too near this facility, for example,
when we’ve got the Ring up and running—”
“The Ring?”
“That’s our name for the electromagnet. Big metal ring, keeps the
energies contained. LaRoux’s had the technology for at least a genera-
tion, but this is the frst time we’ve tried applying it to a hyperspace
drive.” She sighs. “It’s too fragile a balance, too delicate. It gets disrupted
by anything, and the results could be catastrophic.”
“Well, nobody at LaRoux Industries will know about it if we don’t get
out of here,” I say, then wish I hadn’t.
But she’s staring at her screen. “I can’t get around their security
blocks,” she murmurs, turning that gaze on me. There’s already a bruise
spreading slowly across her jaw, thanks to the blow she took earlier. “I
can’t open the doors from here at all. We need another way.”
“The faci l i ty. . . was my father ’s?”
“I t meant nothi ng to me at the ti me. I assumed Sanj ana
was r i ght, that some other cor por ati on was tr yi ng to steal thei r
technol ogy i n order to weaponi ze i t. But now. . .”
“Now you thi nk he sent the mercenar i es i n to l evel hi s own
base. Oh, God.”
“I thi nk that technol ogy came from what they used to contai n
the r i ft back on our pl anet. That’s what your father was tr yi ng
to hi de when Sanj ana star ted aski ng questi ons.”
“What she was tal ki ng about—that potenti al catastrophe, that’s
what happened to the I car us. My father knew i t coul d. . . God,
Tar ver, I can’ t—”
“Li l ac, he coul dn’ t have known. He woul dn’ t have l et you on
board i f he’d thought there was any danger.”
“No. He woul d j ust murder a hal f a dozen i nnocent researchers
to avoi d havi ng to answer questi ons.”
FIVE
I’M ABOUT TO REPLY WHEN I HEAR A SOUND up the hall-
way. I hold up a hand and Sanjana freezes. I don’t dare stick my head out
the door to look, but closing my eyes, I slow my breathing and focus on
my hearing. There it is again. Soft footsteps making their way up the hall.
I point under the desk, and Sanjana slips off her chair, crawling
beneath it as I crouch low, crossing the offce to cram in beside her.
We wait shoulder to shoulder, and I force myself to relax my grip on
the Gleidel, ready to move if I have to. Beside me her breath is shallow,
shaky. The footsteps approach at an even pace, then stop outside the
offce, and Sanjana closes her eyes. I take the advice I gave her earlier—
just think about the actions, not the reasons or the feelings.
Then the light above us ficks off, and the footsteps recede. We
both hold still until they’re no longer audible, then together we slump,
exchanging glances in the dim light. Time to stop talking, start moving.
For all we know, that patrol’s next stop could be the guard we left dead
in the offce.
“Think,” I whisper, easing the safety back on once more. “Is there
any other way to open the doors besides having a recognized thumb-
print, hacking it, or physically breaking it down? Can you think of any
other time when the door has ever opened?”
She closes her eyes, and I wait, nerves jangling. Eventually she shakes
her head. “I don’t—no, wait. There’s an emergency shutdown measure.
I’ve never seen it happen, but I’ve been briefed on it. If the station loses
power, like in the event of a fre or an earthquake, all the offce doors
will unlock so nobody’s trapped inside.”
Hope surges, and it feels like coming back to life. We’re not done yet.
“But,” she says, holding up one fnger, “those soldiers—or mercenar-
ies, I guess—are in the corridors leading to the exits.”
“So we can get them out of their cells, but not out of the facility?”
But she’s smiling, and though it’s only faint, there’s a hint of some-
thing there that I fnd I like. “I didn’t say that, Captain. We can go out
through the tunnel housing the accelerator tubes. It’s over twenty klicks
long, but there’s a maintenance hatch every few klicks or so. I can show
you the way, if you can get us there. I know those tunnels like Michaela
never will.”
“I like the way you think, my friend.”
“I get that a lot.” Her smile widens, and I want to smile back, despite
the desperation of our situation.
“Let’s go get the others freed. Do you know where we go to cut the
power?”
“I do.” She pauses, eyeing me as her smile fades again. “But you’re not
going to like it. The fuse box is in the dining hall, on the opposite side of
the courtyard. We’ll have to get out without being seen, and there aren’t
many places to hide out there. And I’ll have to get a good look at it once
we’re there—it won’t just be a matter of fipping a switch. There are too
many backups for that.”
She’s right. I don’t like it. Night is falling now, so we’ll have darkness
on our side, but I saw foodlights on my way in, and from what I’ve seen
of these mercs, they’re smart enough to have guards outside watching for
any incoming forces.
For the frst time, I’m glad it’s just Sanjana and me as we slip through
the corridors, ducking into labs full of computer banks and unrecogniz-
able equipment every time a merc rounds the corner. By the time we
make it to the doors, it’s several hours past sundown, but as I feared,
the mercs have put the facility’s foodlights to good use. Their coverage
isn’t as thorough as they’d be on a military installation, and shadows still
gather along the edges of the courtyard. It’s not quite dark enough for me
to pull up my goggles from where they hang around my neck and switch
to night vision—the foodlights would fare too bright, though it would
be useful in the shadows. It’s from the dark of the shadows that we’re
making our move.
There’s a guard patrolling, fashlight in hand, making a long, slow
loop around and through the tables and chairs, the satellite dish, the vari-
ous debris strewn around the yard. Sanjana and I keep to the shadows,
inching along with agonizing slowness, only able to move when he’s fac-
ing away from us. On the far side of the courtyard, brightly lit, lies Nico’s
body, still facedown, arms reaching.
As the guard continues the remainder of each loop, we crouch together
against the wall, faces turned away from the light. Sanjana’s left her white
lab coat behind, and we stick to the shadows. I can tell her hand is hurting
her badly now, cradled against her chest, but she keeps moving without
complaint. The guard reaches the point in his loop where we’re out of his
sight, and together we creep forward as silently and quickly as we can.
We’re just one more run from the dining hall and the fuses when the
loudspeakers crackle to life. We freeze in place as they hiss and spit, then
broadcast a voice. It belongs to the blond, tattooed leader of the mercs.
“Captain Merendsen, Dr. Rao, I see you’ve declined our hospitality. Not
to worry—we have Dr. Stewart here to explain your mistake.”
“Sanjana!” It’s a man’s voice, ragged and high with fear—he can barely
speak, gulping for air in quick, short gasps. “Sanjana, he’s going to—”
The world slows and I know, an instant before it happens, what’s
coming next. As Sanjana starts to leap to her feet in horror, I lunge for
her, clapping a hand over her mouth and pressing her back against the
wall as a gunshot shrieks through the speakers, sending them crackling
and whining with feedback in the aftermath. I pin her to the wall so
she screams against my hand, the loudspeakers drowning her out, and
I crowd in after her to press my forehead to hers, one hand over her
mouth, the other wrapping around her. I’m praying my dark uniform and
dark hair will hide us in the shadows, praying she falls silent before the
speakers do, fghting the way my pulse wants to leap up my throat, the
pounding in my temples. There’s no what’s next, there’s only now, and this
moment lasts forever.
She buries her face against my shoulder and muffes the sound of her
breathing, though I feel her whole frame jerking as she hyperventilates.
I’m holding on to her just as tightly, trying not to let my own shock show.
This isn’t how it’s done. He’s supposed to give us the chance to turn our-
selves in before he starts killing hostages.
But the man with the tattoo is a professional, and he knows that what-
ever it cost me, I wouldn’t have surrendered. Not when it meant giving
up the lives of all ten hostages. So he went for Sanjana. To take such a
piece out of her that she’d give away her location, or just hand herself in.
And I’m afraid she will, as she grabs a handful of my shirt, still hiding
her face against my shoulder.
The speakers crackle again, and I hold her tighter. “Now, Dr. Rao,”
he says. “We understand each other. Whatever Captain Merendsen is
telling you, he is wrong. He is a soldier, and is not permitted to surrender
in such a situation. But you are a civilian, and no such rules apply. All you
need to do is assist us with the information we require, and we will leave.
We’ve been instructed to allow you to live if possible, and we have no
wish to harm you. Nobody else needs to die, unless you insist, Dr. Rao.”
She lifts her head, and my heart sinks as I look down to make out her
features in the dim light. It takes me a moment to realize she’s not trem-
bling with fear, or even distress.
She’s shaking with fury.
“Dr. Rao, if you will not cooperate, I will go fetch another hostage,
and we will have another conversation,” he says, sounding a little weary,
as though he’s a disappointed parent.
I drop my head so I can whisper in her ear, barely a breath. “He said
‘fetch.’ He doesn’t have anybody there. We have a minute.”
She nods, and I duck my head further to hear her reply. “We need to
cut the power. I know my way in the dark.”
My heart’s racing as I squeeze her shoulder, easing away from her to
look across the stretch of half-lit courtyard between us and the dining
hall.
Still not alone, Alec. And nowhere near done.
“The newsvi ds di dn’ t say anythi ng about hostages getti ng
shot.”
“They never broadcast the defeats. Onl y the tr i umphs.”
“Al l those medal s, your promoti on to maj or, the publ i ci ty tr i p
on the I car us. . . ”
“For show. Meant nothi ng.”
“Stop that. You sur vi ved, and you got at l east hal f a dozen
hostages out. Di d they make that up too? Just because you
coul dn’ t save ever yone doesn’ t mean you’re any l ess of a—”
“A what?”
“A hero.”
SIX
WE CAN’T AFFORD TO WAIT FOR THE GUARD to start
moving again, not with his boss walking toward the row of offces this
very moment, heading for Sanjana’s team. We stay low, heads down, and
run as quietly as we can for the dining hall door—and we’re just a couple
of feet short when the guard’s fashlight swings across our bodies.
“Stop,” he shouts, and I yank the door open, every nerve in my body
on fre. Sanjana throws herself through it, and I stumble after her, pull-
ing it closed but for a crack so I can see what’s happening in the yard.
“Go, fnd the fuses,” I shout, and she runs across the room, pull-
ing open a closet that looks like it should hold coats. Instead I see row
upon row of switches and levers, a tiny automatic light illuminating her.
She gets to work, and I position myself by the door, scanning the yard
for the mercenary. He’s smart, he’s turned his fashlight off, but I catch
a glimpse of him as he runs under one of the spotlights, and I loose a
warning shot over his head. No point hiding where we are now, and per-
haps I can slow him down.
He dives behind a table, pulling it onto its side to act as a shield with
the combat refexes of a seasoned soldier, and I hold my fre, watching
him, willing my hands to stay steady. Behind me, I can hear Sanjana
frantically pulling at wires, swearing in a tone that’s half frustration, half
entreaty. “There’s backup upon backup here—just switching these off
isn’t going to trigger the release protocol.”
“We’ve got thirty seconds,” I call as the guard starts to climb to his
feet, and the door on the other end of the courtyard fies open, half a
dozen mercs pouring out of it. I suck in a long, slow breath, lifting my
gun, bracing it with both hands. No other choice left. If I want any
chance of getting the rest of the research team out of here alive, I have
to make a statement that will slow down the raiding party. I breathe
out, and once I’m totally still, I sight down the barrel and squeeze the
trigger.
The fgure at the front of the group running down the courtyard
staggers, crashing to the ground a heartbeat later. Chest shot, straight
through the joint of his armor at the shoulder. Game over. The rest
of the group drop, but it doesn’t stop them—they scramble for cover
behind the tables and chairs, darting out unpredictably, that much harder
to hit. Come on, Sanjana.
I fre again, and this time they return fre, shots screaming across the
courtyard. They’re blowing holes in the shutters along the length of the
dining hall, pinpricks of light illuminating one after another, like they’re
painting constellations on the wall.
“Now, Sanjana!” I shout as I duck down low, returning fre through
the door—no longer aiming over their heads, no longer sure what I’m
hitting. There are too many shots incoming, and I haven’t got time to
aim. I’d trade anything for one of their rifes, or just to get my fak jacket
back. It’s not as good as full body armor, but it’d give me some protec-
tion. Right now I’m a sitting duck.
“I’m trying,” she screams, hoarse, ripping at wires—but the lights are
still on. I risk turning my head for a moment, in time to see her wrench
the covering plate off the whole setup, using both hands. At least one of
the gunshots has hit the circuits—not enough to cut power, but enough
to set the mass of wires sparking and fzzing, fames starting to lick at
the control box. She tries to reach for the wires feeding power to the
facility, then jerks her hand back with a cry of pain.
There’s a deafening roar from the other end of the dining hall, and a
mercenary comes leaping through one of the closed shutters, splintering
the shredded plastene, landing with a crash in a pile of chairs. I stand, lift
my gun, and fre at his face, the only part of him I’m sure isn’t covered
with armor that’ll stop my Gleidel.
Sanjana screams something at me, but I can’t hear her over the gun-
fre. She stares at me, then looks back at the cabinet. With a wordless cry,
she plunges her good hand into the tangle of wires and sparks and fame,
grabbing a handful of wires and hauling with all her might.
The world goes black.
“Was she. . . ?”
“I ’ l l get us some more tea.”
SEVEN
EVERY SOUND IS AMPLIFIED now that we’re blinded so com-
pletely. I hear Sanjana cry out again, this time in pain, her breathing
quick and sharp. I pull up my goggles and switch them to night vision,
and suddenly the world springs to life before me, lit a dim green. At the
other end of the room, the mercenary is groping around in the dark, and
near me, Sanjana’s lying still. She moans as I drop to a crouch beside
her. She just thrust her hand into an electrical fre—my mind shies away
from her injuries. I slide my arm around her and haul her up to her feet,
praying she can still move, and together we make our run for it, out into
the courtyard.
It’s pitch black out there now, thanks to Sanjana—two of the mercs
have fashlights, beams swinging around wildly. A shot rings out, and
there’s a cry, and a roar from the blond man that sounds less collected
now. “The next man who shoots blindly in the dark, I’ll damn well shoot
him. Find them!”
An instant later the emergency alarms start up, and beside me San-
jana staggers forward with renewed haste. If we don’t get back inside the
main building before they get organized, we’ll be playing a game we’re
guaranteed to lose. We abandon stealth completely, and I make the most
of the fact that I’m the only one who can see the layout of the court-
yard—we run for the far end together, praying the fashlight doesn’t fnd
us. A mercenary rises to his feet from behind an overturned table with
no warning, and instinct takes over as I knee him in the jaw and send
him sprawling. I pause only long enough to grab his rife, stowing my
Gleidel in its holster as I start running again. Beside me Sanjana’s moan-
ing now, but she’s still moving.
We tumble through together, and she leans against the wall as I slide
the doors shut behind us with a loud clang. Perhaps they’ll give us a
few seconds of protection against a bullet in our backs. The emergency
sirens, mounted out in the courtyard, are muffed now. There are win-
dows along one side of the hallway, and enough light from Patron’s
rings makes it in that I can pull my goggles down around my neck once
more—they mess with my depth perception, and I can discern shapes
along the walls without them. I automatically check the charge on my
new weapon; nearly full, plenty of power to make it through this. If we
can make it through.
We’re a few steps down the hall when I spot a fgure sitting inside one
of the offces, and my rife swings up before I even think. It’s a woman
in a white coat, slumped back with a bullet between her eyes, her stare
unblinking, blood trickling down her face.
“Michaela,” Sanjana says, and there’s not an ounce of sorrow in her
voice.
I guess they were fnished with her.
Sanjana stumbles as we turn the corner to make for the offces. “I
don’t think I can—” She gasps, muffed, as she stops by the frst door,
leaning in against the wall. In the dim silvery light of Patron’s rings, her
whole left sleeve is soaked with what looks like ink.
The offce door nearest us opens, and a silhouette emerges—it’s a
man, holding something with a faintly illuminated screen. An e-fler,
maybe. It outlines his features as he steps forward, hesitant. “Sanjana?”
“Jacob,” she whispers, hoarse.
He hurries forward, lifting the e-fler so he can get a look at us in its
glow. The light gives me my frst good look at Sanjana’s hand. Bile pushes
up my throat, like I’ve been punched in the gut. The burns on her hand
are a mass of raw, glistening blisters, and blood’s pouring from a cut on
her wrist.
“Oh my God.” He backs up, and I dart out a hand to catch him, and
pull him in.
“Hold it where I can see it,” I snap, as Sanjana sways. I can’t imagine
how she managed to run even this far. She won’t last another minute. I
can’t lose her now. He shines the light on her hand, and I yank my T-shirt
off over my head, wrapping it around her wrist. She screams, and the
other offce doors fy open, scientists emerging armed with desk lamps
and other implements I can’t make out in the dark. The man with the
light calls out to them to stand down as I pull off my belt, wrapping it
around her wrist and hauling the tourniquet tight.
Another woman hurries up to take up position behind Sanjana, brac-
ing her as I fasten the belt in place, and together we catch her as her
knees give.
“What’s happening?” she asks, wrapping an arm around Sanjana’s
shoulders. “Why are you helping us?”
“Because I’m not them,” I reply, taking a quick head count. Nine
researchers, plus Sanjana—everyone we were expecting, with Dr. Stew-
art dead. “We’re getting out of here.”
The researchers just stare blankly at me, like animals lined up for the
slaughterhouse. I bite back a curse. This was always going to be the hard-
est part—which is saying something, the day I’ve had. Sanjana’s ability
to keep moving made me think that maybe I could get them moving too,
but she’s one in a million. The terrifed civilians in front of me just heard
their colleague shot over the loudspeakers, Sanjana’s covered in blood,
and they’ve clearly been promised they won’t be hurt if they cooperate.
Their offces must seem like the safest place to hide right now. But the
one we thing we don’t have is time to argue.
I start with Jacob, who was at least game to come out of his offce
when we arrived, and the woman with her arm around Sanjana, meeting
each of their gazes in turn in the dim light. Spending precious seconds
locking eyes with them, letting them take my measure. “We’ve got to
go,” I say quietly, and slowly, each of them nods.
I move along the row of researchers, who stand along the wall as
though they’re lined up for inspection, clutching their makeshift weap-
ons with white-knuckled hands. I read their names off their coats, I
cajole, I harden my voice and issue orders, and over the longest minute
of my life, one by one they step forward, ready to go, until there’s just one
man standing in his doorway, clutching a jagged piece of plastene ripped
from a printer. He refuses to budge even when I shout at him to follow
us. I can’t leave him behind. I have to leave him behind, or everyone else
will die, too.
Then Sanjana is beside me, supporting her own weight and straight-
ening her back, white with blood loss—even swaying, she’s in command,
and I know by the way his eyes lock on to her that he feels it. “Malcolm,
if you don’t get your ass out here and with the group right now, you can
die under your desk,” she snaps. “Move it.”
And miraculously, he does. Apparently sometimes threats do work on
civilians.
Two of Sanjana’s colleagues take her by the arms once more, and
though she cries out in pain at the contact, she clings grimly to con-
sciousness. We’re turning to head down the hallway when abruptly the
sirens cut out—our footsteps are suddenly amplifed, and voices raised
just to be heard ring through the halls for a moment too long.
And in return I hear shouts as the mercs pick up our scent.
“The tunnel,” I snap, and several arms lift and point the way we need
to go. And so we run. I push the herd ahead of me, bringing up the rear
with my gun at the ready, every nerve in my body screaming at them
to hurry up, run faster, outpace the attack I know is coming. We round
the frst corner in the near darkness, then the second, running along
a stretch of corridor and beneath a sign that reads Maintenance Tunnel
Entrance. Every second I’m expecting a merc to catch up to us and open
fre, and I keep my gun pointing the direction we’ve come.
We round the next corner, pouring into an abandoned staff room,
tables overturned, a plate smashed in the middle of the foor. The people
ahead of me stop short, and in the dim light through the window, it
takes me several frantically drumming heartbeats to work out why. Then
I see it.
There’s an armor-clad fgure leaning against the far wall, gun pointed
straight at my chest.
It’s Fisk.
The researchers stop, a couple ducking behind tables, most simply
standing, waiting for what has to come next.
His throat is covered in blood, and it glints darkly down his chest
plate, his skin white, hair matted against his forehead with sweat. Either
he was one of the mercs I shot in the yard, or else he was hit by one of
them while they fred blindly in the dark. But his gun doesn’t waver, the
sights fxed on me, despite the blood gluing his hand to the grip.
Too much blood. He’s done, and we both know it—our gazes acknowl-
edge it as they meet. But my gun’s still pointing back the way we came,
and he could drop me in the time it’d take to swing it back toward him.
He could shoot me now, and their mission—whatever it is—would suc-
ceed with no survivors. Our eyes lock, and all I can see is the kid who
kept losing at cards and fretting about his girlfriend; all I can see is the
kid I trained to stay alive.
And then he drops his arm to his side. He can’t speak—the wound in
his throat is too severe—but he jerks his head toward the door beyond
him, and I take his meaning nonetheless.
“Go,” I snap over my shoulder, and the surviving researchers startle
forward, pouring past the dying mercenary and through the door. Gil
lets his knees buckle, armor scraping as he slides down to sit against the
wall. The only sound is the rasping, bubbling sound of his breath in his
throat. My own throat feels tight. He doesn’t look like the hard-edged,
competent mercenary anymore. He just looks like Gil Fisk, the farm boy
from Babel. And now there’s nothing I can do for him.
His hand moves, fngers clumsy with pain; he’s gesturing toward the
tunnels. Go.
So I do the only thing I can, breaking into a run until I catch up
to the others at the tunnel entrance, blocked by a massive metal hatch.
Sanjana is gasping instructions in a voice gone hoarse with pain and
shock, shaking violently now. Malcolm follows her instructions, pulling
at the arm-length levers and straining to muscle the hatch open with-
out any power supply to its hinges. I can hear an argument breaking
out behind her, a blond woman whose name I can’t remember gesturing
back the way we’ve come, on the verge of panic.
“We’ve got to call the base, or try to reason with them—one soldier
versus a dozen mercenaries? It’s suicide to stay with him!” The blond
woman doesn’t even look at me, too frightened to care that I’m well
within earshot. And I don’t blame her.
“There’s no going back,” Sanjana snaps. “There’s no negotiating with
them, trust me.”
“And you think running down here with guns on our tails is safer?”
The woman’s voice is shrill. “He’s a teenager, why are you listening to
him?”
I can hear shouts growing nearer, and the scientists crowd in against
the wall for shelter as I take up position by the corner of the corridor the
mercs will come down, weapon at the ready. A few of the researchers
are listening to the blond woman, torn by indecision—two of them join
Malcolm, and inch by agonizing inch they pull the tunnel hatch toward
them.
We’re not going to get the hatch open in time. I’ll buy them as much
time as I can, but without armor and without cover, it’s not going to be
enough. Before I can think of a distraction, a white-clad fgure bolts past
me. It’s the blond woman. I grab for her coat, but she rips away from my
grip, voice raised as she runs back around the corner.
“Wait, don’t shoot, I can—” Her voice cuts off in a hail of gunfre.
From behind me, I feel a tickle of breeze. The hatch is open. I swal-
low hard, trying to suppress the thought bubbling up: the woman’s death
bought us the few seconds we needed.
“Go,” Malcolm’s hissing, and one by one the team crams through,
pulling Sanjana with them. A hand grabs my elbow to guide me backward
so I don’t have to lower my gun, my eyes streaming with the effort of
focusing in the dark corridor. The frst of the armor-clad fgures comes
barreling around the corner, and I lift the rife to return fre, squeezing
the trigger—and nothing happens. The gun’s jammed. I try again, my
brain too numb to understand; but even at full charge, the fancy new
weapon’s locked up. A bullet clangs off the hatch cover an instant after
I duck behind it, and I throw the rife down and reach instead for my
Gleidel. It might not pierce body armor, but it’s never once locked up on
me. It just needs a good arm and a good eye. I wait half a breath for my
hand to steady, then lean out around the hatch to aim for the joint in
his armor at his shoulder. The merc drops with a scream as two others
round the corner and lift their weapons.
Half a dozen pairs of hands grab at the hatch to haul it closed behind
us, and I fre once more before staggering back. Then the last little sliver
of light from outside is gone, and we heft the heavy levers to lock it in
place behind us.
It won’t take the mercs much longer than it took us to get it open, and
I swing around, taking in the tunnel ahead of us. It must have its own
backup power source, because there’s dim emergency lighting stretching
away into the distance, until eventually the tunnel curves out of sight. The
ceiling is an arch, covered in rows of pipes, and a waist-height tube runs
down the center of the tunnel. But there’s a pathway alongside it, and a
bunch of small motorized carts to convey maintenance crews through
the accelerator housing. I don’t have to instruct the research team to get
them started; they’re piling in before I even register what the vehicles are.
There’s a loud clanging as the mercs grapple with the levers on the far
side of the hatch and start to pull it open, and I pause to shoot out the
wheels of the carts we’re leaving behind, then climb up onto the back
of one driven by Sanjana’s friend Malcom. I keep my gun trained on the
door behind us as we take off up the tunnel.
The access door a kilometer down the tunnel takes three of us to wrench
open, sending cool night air washing over us. There’s a copse of trees
not far away, and the man who drove my cart helps me move Sanjana to
where she can lie down. The remainder of her team sets to work wedg-
ing a fallen tree against the door to make sure nobody can climb through
after us. From here, I can jog to the base in no more than a quarter hour,
leaving the research team tucked safely in the shadows of the trees. I
know that by the time my commander gets a team back to the facility,
the mercenaries will be long gone, but right now I can’t bring myself to
care—the ten of us made it out.
I look down at the woman who made it possible, her eyes closed as I
check the tourniquet once more and then cover her in my coat.
“What now?” she whispers.
“Now I go get the cavalry.”
“I might just stay here.” She’s trembling in shock or pain or both, but
she opens her eyes, tries to bend her mouth to a smile.
“You take a rest,” I agree softly. “Just not too long. You still owe me
that drink.”
EPILOGUE
LILAC’S STARING AT ME, her mug of tea forgotten and left to
cool beside the mattress. She’s got her lower lip between her teeth; she
does that when she’s thinking, and it gets me every time. I lean toward
her, moving before I’ve registered the impulse to kiss her, but she pulls
away, frowning at me.
“Tarver,” she says slowly, “how come you’ve never told me about this
before?”
Damn. And I was hoping maybe we could skip the debrief and go
straight to the comforting. “Because it’s not...Why would I have told you?
I tried to tell the brass for two months that this wasn’t something they
should give me medals for. I got used to ignoring it whenever anyone
brought it up.”
“Yes, but LaRoux Industries—my father—”
“I never made the connection until I started dreaming about it. The
tech was theoretical, and to be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to it
then. I didn’t have any reason to. I was more concerned with getting out
of there alive, with as many researchers in tow as I could drag.”
“Well, I guess I have Sanjana to thank for preparing you for dealing
with civilians in life-or-death situations.” Lilac’s voice is dry.
I reach for her to pull her in against my side, putting my own mug
down on the empty box serving as a temporary nightstand until we get
the rest of our furniture in. “Beautiful, an entire year of training couldn’t
have prepared me for dealing with you.”
Lilac laughs, the sound easing the bands of tension wrapping around
my rib cage. “Why, Major, you do know how to fatter a girl.” Her grin
fades a little, brows drawing together. “What happened to Sanjana?”
“She lost her hand.” Of all the images my dreams have been dredging
up, the one I can’t dismiss is the sight of that hand, burned and bloody.
“Too much nerve damage for them to repair. LaRoux Industries gave
her a cutting-edge prosthetic, though. As far as I know she’s still work-
ing for them.”
“Still? Why?” Lilac’s blue eyes are softer in the lamplight, fxed on
my face.
“She doesn’t know that LRI is the one who sent those mercs. Hell, we
don’t even know that...not for sure.”
She drops her head down onto my shoulder. “I know.” Her whisper is
feather-soft against my chest.
I squeeze her gently, reaching for her hand and lifting it to my lips.
“You’re rid of him now, Lilac.”
She takes a long time to reply, long enough that I’ve almost started to
think she’s fallen asleep. “You know that’s not true, right?”
“I know.” I close my eyes, trying to sear this moment into my mem-
ory. “Are you still having your dreams?”
She nods, her cheek rubbing my skin and hair tickling my face. “I
don’t know where they are, or how they’re still here, but I can feel them,
Tarver. Somewhere out there.”
I know she’ll be able to hear my heart pounding with her head on my
chest, but I try to keep my voice even anyway. “Whispers.”
“This thing...with my father, with our planet, with us. It’s not over.”
It terrifes me, this connection she feels with the creatures who gave
her back to me. My world used to be full of certainties, of steps to be
followed, orders to be given. Even betrayed by Fisk and tied to a chair, I
knew what my next moves were. Now I feel adrift—except for the tether
binding me here, to this girl at my side.
I gather her in against me, exhaling slowly as she presses her lips to
my throat and then reaches past me to turn off the lamp.
“You should call her,” Lilac whispers in the darkness.
“Who?”
“Sanjana. She should know the truth about my father. About LaRoux
Industries.”
“I know. Maybe we can fnd a way to contact her without drawing
attention.” I shift so I can kiss the top of her head. “We haven’t spoken
since the medal ceremony. You just drift apart, once the dust settles.
There’s nothing to bind you together, it happens to everyone.”
“Except for us,” she murmurs sleepily.
“Beautiful,” I whisper into her hair, “we’re an exception to every rule
there is.”
LETTER FROM THE AUTHORS
A note from Amie and Meagan...
Thank you for reading This Night So Dark—we hope you loved it! Com-
ing up next, you’ll fnd chapters from These Broken Stars and This Shattered
World, the frst two books in the Starbound trilogy.
These Broken Stars tells the story of what happens to Tarver and Lilac
when they are shipwrecked on a mysterious planet, and This Shattered
World follows the mystery they uncover there to the planet Avon, where
we meet a soldier and a rebel whose lives depend on fnding out more.
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See you next time!
“When di d you fi rst meet Mi ss LaRoux?”
“Three days before the acci dent.”
“And how di d that come about?”
“The acci dent?”
“Meeti ng Mi ss LaRoux.”
“How coul d i t possi bl y matter?”
“Maj or, ever ythi ng matters.”
ONE
TARVER
NOTHING ABOUT THIS ROOM IS REAL. If this were a party
at home, the music would draw your eye to human musicians in the
corner. Candles and soft lamps would light the room, and the wooden
tables would be made of actual trees. People would be listening to each
other, instead of checking to see who’s watching them.
Even the air here smells fltered and fake. The candles in the sconces
do ficker, but they’re powered by a steady source. Hover trays weave
among the guests, like invisible waiters are carrying drinks. The string
quartet is only a hologram— perfect and infallible, and exactly the same
at every performance.
I’d give anything for a laid-back evening joking around with my pla-
toon, instead of being stuck here in this imitation scene from a historical
novel.
For all their trendy Victorian tricks, there’s no hiding where we are.
Outside the viewports, the stars are like faded white lines, half- invisible,
surreal. The Icarus, passing through dimensional hyperspace, would look
just as faded, half-transparent, if someone stationary in the universe
could somehow see her moving faster than light.
I’m leaning against the bookshelves when it occurs to me that one
thing here is real—the books. I reach behind me and let my fngers trail
over the rough leather of their antique spines, then pull one free. Nobody
here reads them; the books are for decoration. Chosen for the richness of
their leather bindings, not for the contents of their pages. Nobody will
miss one, and I need a dose of reality.
I’m almost done for the night, smiling for the cameras as ordered. The
brass keep thinking that mixing feld offcers with the upper crust will
create some sort of common ground where none exists, let the paparazzi
infesting the Icarus see me, the lowborn boy made good, hobnobbing
with the elite. I keep thinking that the photographers will get their fll of
shots of me with drink in hand, lounging in the frst-class salon, but in
the two weeks I’ve been on board, they haven’t.
These folks love a good rags-to-riches tale, even if my riches are no
more than the medals pinned to my chest. It still makes for a nice story
in the papers. The military look good, the rich people look good, and it
gives the poor people something to aspire to. See? say all the headlines.
You too can rocket your way up to riches and fame. If hick boy can make good, why
can’t you?
If it wasn’t for what happened on Patron, I wouldn’t even be here.
What they call heroics, I call a tragic debacle. But nobody’s asking my
opinion.
I scan the room, taking in the clusters of women in brightly colored
gowns, offcers in dress uniforms like mine, men in evening coats and
top hats. The ebb and fow of the crowd is unsettling—patterns I’ll
never get used to no matter how many times I’m forced to rub elbows
with these people.
My eyes fall on a man who’s just entered, and it takes me a moment
to realize why. There’s nothing about him that fts here, although he’s
trying to blend in. His black tailcoat is too threadbare, and his top hat is
missing the shiny satin ribbon that’s in fashion. I’m trained to notice the
thing that doesn’t ft, and in this sea of surgically perfected faces, his is a
beacon. There are lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth,
his skin weather-beaten and marked by the sun. He’s nervous, shoulders
rounded, fngers gripping the lapels of his jacket and letting go again.
My heart kicks up a beat. I’ve spent too long in the colonies, where
anything out of place might kill you. I ease away from the bookshelves
and start to weave my way toward him, past a pair of women sporting
monocles they can’t possibly need. I want to know why he’s here, but I’m
forced to move slowly, navigating the push and pull of the crowd with
agonizing patience. If I shove, I’ll draw attention. And if he is dangerous,
any sudden shift in the energy of the room could trigger him.
A brilliant fash lights up the world as a camera goes off in my face.
“Oh, Major Merendsen!” It’s the leader of a gaggle of women in their
mid-twenties, descending on me from the direction of the viewport.
“Oh, you simply must take a picture with us.”
Their insincerity is poisonous. I’m barely more than a dog walking on
its hind legs, here—they know it, and I know it, but they can’t pass up an
opportunity to be seen with a real, live war hero.
“Sure, I’ll just come back in a minute, if—” Before I can fnish, all
three women are posed around me, lips pursed and lashes lowered. Smile
for the cameras. A series of fashes erupt all around me, blinding me.
I can feel that low, stabbing pain at the base of my skull that promises
to explode into a fully fedged headache. The women are still chattering
and pressing in close, and I can’t see the man with the weathered face.
One of the photographers is buzzing around me, his voice a low
drone. I step sideways to look past him, but my eyes are swimming with
red and gold afterimages. Blinking hard, my gaze swings from the bar, to
the door, the hover trays, the booths. I try to remember what he looked
like, the line of his clothes. Was there room to hide anything under his
dinner jacket? Could he be armed?
“Major, did you hear me?” The photographer’s still talking.
“Yes?” No, I wasn’t listening. I disentangle myself from the women still
draped over me on the pretense of stepping closer to speak with him. I
wish I could shove past this little man, or better yet, tell him there’s a
threat and watch how fast he vanishes from the room.
“I said I’m surprised your buddies on the lower decks aren’t trying to
sneak up here too.”
Seriously? The other soldiers watch me head to frst class every eve-
ning like a man walking down death row. “Oh, you know.” I try not
to sound as annoyed as I am. “I doubt they even know what cham-
pagne is.” I try for a smile too, but they’re the ones good at insincerity,
not me.
He laughs too loudly as the fash explodes in my face again. Blinking
away the stars, I stumble clear and crane my neck, trying to locate the
only guy in the room more out of place than I am. But the stooped man
in the shabby hat is nowhere to be found.
Maybe he left? But someone doesn’t go to the trouble of crashing a
party like this and then slip out without a fuss. Maybe he’s seated now,
hiding among the other guests. My eyes sweep across the booths again,
this time examining the patrons more closely.
They’re all packed full of people. All except one. My gaze falls on a
girl sitting alone in a booth, watching the crowd with detached interest.
Her fair, fawless skin says she’s one of them, but her gaze says she’s bet-
ter, above, untouchable.
She’s wearing the same hue as a navy dress uniform, bare shoulders
holding my gaze for a moment—she sure as hell wears the color better
than any sailor I know. Hair: red, falling down past her shoulders. Nose:
a little snub, but that makes her more pretty, not less. It makes her real.
Pretty’s not the right word. She’s a knockout.
Something about the girl’s face tickles at the back of my mind, like I
should recognize it, but before I can dig up the connection, she catches
me looking at her. I know better than to mix with girls like her, so I don’t
know why I keep watching her, or why I smile.
Then, abruptly, a movement jerks my gaze away. It’s the nervous man,
and he’s no longer meandering in and out of the crowd. His stooped
posture is gone, and with his eyes fxed on something across the room
he’s moving quickly through the press of bodies. He’s got a goal—and
it’s the girl in the blue dress.
I waste no time weaving in and out of the crowd politely. I shove
between a pair of startled elderly gentlemen and make for the booth, but
the outsider’s gotten there frst. He’s leaning close, speaking low and fast.
He’s moving too quickly, trying to spit out what he came to say before
he’s picked out as an intruder. The girl jerks back, leaning away. Then the
crowd closes up between us, and they’re out of sight.
I reach down to lay a hand on my gun, and hiss between my teeth as I
realize it’s not there. The empty spot at my hip feels like a missing limb. I
weave left, upsetting a hover tray and sending its contents crashing to the
foor. The crowd recoils, fnally giving me an avenue toward the table.
The intruder has grabbed her elbow, urgent. She’s trying to pull away,
eyes fashing up, looking around for someone as though she expects
help. Her gaze falls on me.
I get one step closer before a man in the right sort of top hat claps a
hand on the stranger’s shoulder. He has an equally self-important friend
with him, and two offcers, a man and a woman. They know the man
with the fervent light in his eyes doesn’t belong here, and I can see they
mean to remedy his presence.
The redhead’s self-appointed guardian jerks the man backward to
stumble against the offcers, who take him frmly by the arms. I can tell
he’s got no training, either formally or the rough-and-tumble sort they
learn in the colonies. If he did, he’d be able to handle these desk jockeys
and their sloppy form.
They start to turn him toward the door, one of them grabbing at the
nape of his neck. More force than I would use, for someone whose only
crime so far seems to be trying to talk to the girl in the blue dress, but
they’re handling it. I stop by the adjacent booth, still trying to catch my
breath.
The man twists, breaking free of the soldiers, and turns back toward
the girl. As the room starts to fall silent, the ragged edge to his voice is
audible. “You have to speak to your father about this, please. We’re dying
for lack of tech, he needs to give the colonists more—”
His voice gives out as one of the offcers delivers a blow to his stom-
ach that doubles him over. I jerk forward, shoving away from the booth
and past the widening ring of onlookers.
The redhead beats me to it. She’s on her feet in a swift movement that
draws the attention of everyone in the room in a way the scuffe didn’t.
Whoever she is, she’s a showstopper.
“Enough!” She has a voice well suited to delivering ultimatums.
“Captain, Lieutenant, what do you think you’re doing?”
I knew I liked her for a reason.
When I step forward, she’s holding them frozen in place with a glare
that could fell a platoon. For a moment, none of them notice me. Then I
see the soldiers register my presence, and scan my shoulders for my stars
and bars. Rank aside, we’re different in every way. My medals are for
combat, theirs for long service, bureaucratic effciencies. My promotions
were made in the feld. Theirs, behind a desk. They’ve never had blood
on their hands. But for once, I’m glad of my newfound status. The two
soldiers come reluctantly to attention— both of them are older, and I can
tell it rankles to have to salute an eighteen-year-old. Funny how I was old
enough by sixteen to drink, fght, and vote, but even two years later, I’m
too young to respect.
They’re still holding on to the gate-crasher. He’s breathing quick and
shallow, like he’s pretty sure someone’s going to fre him out an air lock
any minute.
I clear my throat, making sure I sound calm. “If there’s a problem, I
can help this man fnd the door.” Without more violence.
We can all hear how my voice sounds—exactly like the backwater boy
I am, unpolished and uncultured. I register a few scattered laughs around
the room, which is now entirely focused on our little drama. Not mali-
cious laughter—just amused.
“Merendsen, I doubt this guy’s after a book.” Fancy Top Hat smirks
at me.
I look down and realize I’m still holding the book I took from the
shelves. Right, because this guy is poor, he can’t even read.
“I’m sure he was just about to go,” says the girl, fxing Top Hat with a
steely glare. “And I’m pretty sure you were about to leave, too.”
They’re caught off guard by her dismissal, and I use the moment to
relieve my fellow offcers of their captive, keeping hold of his arm as I
guide him away. She’s effectively dismissed the quartet from the salon—
again her face tickles my memory, who is she that she can do that?—and
I let them make their enforced escape before I gently but frmly steer my
new friend toward the door.
“Anything broken?” I ask, once we’re outside. “What possessed you
to go near them, and in a place like this? I half thought you were aiming
to blow someone up.”
The man gazes at me for a long moment, his face already older than
the people inside will ever look.
He turns to walk away without another word, shoulders bowed. I
wonder just how much he had riding on this manufactured encounter
with the girl in the blue dress.
I stand in the doorway, watching as people give up on the drama
now that it’s done. The room slowly comes back to life, the hover trays
zipping around, conversation surging, perfectly practiced laughter tin-
kling here and there. I’m supposed to be here at least another hour, but
maybe just this once I can skip out early.
And then I see the girl again—and she’s watching me. Very slowly
she’s taking off one of her gloves, pinching each fnger deliberately in
turn. Her gaze never leaves my face.
My heart surges up into my throat, and I know I’m staring like an
idiot, but I’m damned if I can remember how my legs work. I stare a beat
too long, and her lips curve to a hint of a smile. But somehow, her smile
doesn’t look as though it’s mocking me, and I get it together enough to
start walking.
When she lets her glove fall to the ground, I’m the one who leans
down to pick it up.
I don’t want to ask her if she’s all right—she’s too collected for that.
So I put the glove down on the table, then fnd myself with no excuse to
do anything other than look at her. Blue eyes. They go with the dress.
Do lashes grow that long naturally? So many perfect faces, it’s hard to
tell who’s been surgically altered and who hasn’t. But surely if she’d had
work done, she’d have opted for a straight, classically beautiful nose. No,
she looks real.
“Are you waiting for a drink?” My voice sounds mostly even.
“For my companions,” she says, lowering the deadly lashes before
peering up at me through them. “Captain?” She tilts the word upward,
as though she’s taking a stab at my rank.
“Major,” I say. She knows how to read my insignia; I just saw her
name the ranks of the other offcers. Her sort, the society girls, they all
know how. It’s a game. I might not be society, but I still know a player
when I see one. “Not sure that was smart of your companions, leaving
you unattended. Now you’re stuck talking to me.”
Then she smiles, and it turns out she has dimples, and it’s all over.
It’s not just the way she looks—although that would do it all on its
own. It’s that, despite the way she looks, despite where I found her, this
girl’s willing to go against the tide. She’s not another empty-headed pup-
pet. It’s like fnding another human after days of isolation.
“Is it going to cause an intergalactic incident if I keep you company
until your friends get here?”
“Not at all.” She tilts her head a little to indicate the opposite side of
the booth. The bench curves around in a semicircle from where she sits.
“Though I feel I should warn you that you could be here for a while. My
friends aren’t really known for their punctuality.”
I laugh, and I set down the book and my drink on the table beside her
glove, sinking down to sit opposite her. She’s wearing one of those enor-
mous skirts that are in fashion these days, and the fabric brushes against
my legs as I settle. She doesn’t move away. “You should have seen me
as a cadet,” I say, as though that wasn’t just a year ago. “Punctuality was
pretty much the only thing we were known for. Never ask how or why,
just get it done fast.”
“Then we have something in common,” she says. “We aren’t encour-
aged to ask why, either.” Neither of us asks why we’re sitting together.
We’re smart.
“I can see at least half a dozen guys watching us. Am I making any
deadly enemies? Or at least, any more than I already have?”
“Would it stop you from sitting here?” she asks, fnally removing the
second glove and setting it down on the table.
“Not necessarily,” I reply. “Handy thing to know, though. Plenty of
dark hallways on this ship, if I’m going to have rivals waiting around
corners.”
“Rivals?” she asks, lifting one brow. I know she’s playing a game with
me, but I don’t know the rules, and she’s got all the cards. Still, the hell
with it—I just can’t fnd it in me to care that I’m losing. I’ll surrender
right now, if she likes.
“I suppose they might imagine themselves to be,” I say eventually.
“Those gentlemen over there don’t look particularly impressed.” I nod
to the group in frock coats and more top hats. At home we’re a simpler
people, and you take your hat off when you come inside.
“Let’s make it worse,” she says promptly. “Read to me from your
book, and I’ll look rapt. And you could order me a drink, if you like.”
I glance down at the book I plucked off the shelf. Mass Casualty: A
History of Failed Campaigns. I slide it a little farther away, wincing inwardly.
“Perhaps the drink. I’ve been away from your bright lights for a while,
so I’m a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure talking about bloody death’s not
the best way to charm a girl.”
“I’ll have to content myself with champagne, then.” She continues,
as I raise a hand to signal one of the hover trays. “You say ‘bright lights’
with a hint of disdain, Major. I’m from those bright lights. Do you fault
me for that?”
“I could fault you for nothing.” The words somehow bypass my brain
entirely. Mutiny.
She drops her eyes for the compliment, still smiling. “You say you’ve
been away from civilization, Major, but your fattery’s giving you away. It
can’t have been all that long.”
“We’re very civilized out on the frontier,” I say, pretending offense.
“Every so often we take a break from slogging through waist-high muck
or dodging bullets and issue dance invitations. My old drill sergeant used
to say that nothing teaches you the quickstep like the ground giving way
beneath your feet.”
“I suppose so,” she agrees as a full tray comes humming toward us in
response to my summons. She selects a glass of champagne and raises it
in half a toast to me before she sips. “Can you tell me your name, or is it
classifed?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know.
I reach for the other glass and send the tray humming off into the
crowd again. “Merendsen.” Even if it’s a pretense, it’s nice to talk to
someone who isn’t raving about my astounding heroics or asking for
a picture with me. “Tarver Merendsen.” She’s looking at me like she
doesn’t recognize me from all the newspapers and holovids.
“Major Merendsen.” She tries it out, leaning on the m’s, then nods her
approval. The name passes muster, at least for now.
“I’m heading back to the bright lights for my next posting. Which one
of them is your home?”
“Corinth, of course,” she replies. The brightest light of all. Of course.
“Though I spend more time on ships like this than planetside. I’m most
at home here on the Icarus.”
“Even you must be impressed by the Icarus. She’s bigger than any city
I’ve been to.”
“She’s the biggest,” my companion replies, dropping her eyes and
toying with the stem of the champagne fute. Though she hides it well,
there’s a ficker through her features. Talking about the ship must bore
her. Maybe it’s the spaceliner equivalent of asking about the weather.
C’mon, man, get it together. I clear my throat. “The viewing decks are the
best I’ve seen. I’m used to planets with very little ambient light, but the
view out here is something else.”
She meets my eyes for half a breath—then her lips quirk to the tiniest
of smiles. “I don’t think I’ve taken advantage of them enough, this trip.
Perhaps we—” But then she cuts herself short, glancing toward the door.
I’d forgotten we were in a crowded room. But the moment she looks
away, all the music and conversation comes surging back. There’s a girl
with reddish-blond hair—a relative, I’m sure, though her nose is straight
and perfect—descending upon my companion, a small entourage in tow.
“Lil, there you are,” she says, scolding, and holding out her hand in a
clear invitation. No surprise, I’m not included. The entourage swirls into
place behind her.
“Anna,” says my companion, who now has a name. Lil. “May I pre-
sent Major Merendsen?”
“Charmed.” Anna’s voice is dismissive, and I reach for my book and
my drink. I know my cue.
“Please, I think I’m in your chair,” I say. “It was a pleasure.”
“Yes.” Lil ignores Anna’s hand, her fngers curling around the stem
of her champagne glass as she looks across at me. I like to think that she
regrets the interruption a little.
Then I rise, and with a small bow of the sort we reserve for civilians,
I make my escape. The girl in the blue dress watches me go.
“You next encountered her. . . ?”
“The day of the acci dent.”
“What were your i ntenti ons at that stage?”
“I had none.”
“Why not?”
“You’re j oki ng, r i ght?”
“Maj or, we aren’ t here to enter tai n you.”
“I found out who she was. That i t was over before I even sai d
hel l o.”
TWO
LILAC
“DO YOU KNOW WHO THAT WAS?” Anna tilts her head
toward the major as he slips out of the salon.
“Mmm.” I try to sound noncommittal. Of course I know—the guy’s
picture was plastered across every holoscreen for weeks. Major Tarver
Merendsen, war hero. His pictures don’t do him justice. He looks younger
in person, for one. But mostly, in his pictures, he’s always stern, frowning.
Anna’s escort of the evening, a tuxedo-clad younger man, asks us
what we’d like to drink. I never bother to remember the names of Anna’s
dates. Half the time she doesn’t even introduce them before handing
them her fan and clutch and skittering off to dance with someone else.
As he heads to the bar with Elana, Swann follows them, after a long,
level look at me.
I know I’ll catch hell later for slipping my bodyguard and getting here
early, but it was worth it. You have to know to look for it, nearly invisible in
the lines of Swann’s skirt, but there’s a knife at one thigh and a tiny pistol
set to stun in her clutch. There are jokes about how the LaRoux princess
never goes anywhere without her entourage of giggling companions—
that half of them could kill a man at a hundred yards is not exactly public
knowledge. The President’s family doesn’t have protection like mine.
I ought to tell them about the man who accosted me, but if I do,
Swann will usher me out of the salon, and I’ll spend the rest of the
evening locked in my room while she verifes the man in the cheap hat
didn’t intend to harm me. I could tell he wasn’t dangerous, though. It’s
hardly the frst time somebody’s wanted me to intervene with my father.
All his colonies want more than he can give, and it’s no secret that the
most powerful man in the galaxy dotes on his daughter’s every whim.
But there’d be no point to Swann hiding me away. I recognized the
particular slump of the man’s shoulders as the major guided him out. He
won’t try again.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Lil.” I look up, startled. She’s
still talking about Major Merendsen.
“Just a bit of fun.” I toss back the last mouthful of champagne in a
way that makes Anna crack a smile in spite of herself.
She erases her smile with an effort, summoning a scowl far more
suited to Swann’s face than hers. “Uncle Roderick would be cross,” she
scolds, sliding into the booth next to me and forcing me to move over.
“Who cares how many medals the major managed to wrangle in the
feld? He’s still just a teacher’s son.”
For a girl who spends more nights in someone else’s room than her
own, Anna is a prude when it comes to me. I can’t help but wonder what
my father has promised her in exchange for keeping an eye on me on this
trip—or what he’s threatened her with should she fail.
I know she’s only trying to protect me. Better her than one of my
bodyguards, with no reason to cushion the truth when reporting to
my father. Anna is one of the only people who knows what Monsieur
LaRoux is capable of, when it comes to me. She’s seen what happens to
men who look at me the wrong way. There are rumors, of course. Most
guys are smart enough to steer clear, but only Anna knows. For all her
lectures, I’m glad she’s here with me.
Still, something in me won’t let it go. “One conversation,” I murmur.
“That’s all, Anna. Do we have to go through this every time?”
Anna leans in so she can slip her arm through mine and put her head
on my shoulder. When we were young, this was my gesture—but we’ve
grown, and I’m taller than her now. “I’m only trying to help,” she says.
“You know what Uncle Roderick is like. You’re all he has. Is it such a ter-
rible thing that your father’s devoted to you?”
I sigh, leaning my head to the side to rest it on hers. “If I can’t play
a little when I’m away from him, then what’s the use in traveling on my
own?”
“Major Merendsen was rather delicious,” Anna admits in a low voice.
“Did you see how well he flled out that uniform? He’s not for you, but
maybe I should look up his cabin number.”
My stomach gives an odd little lurch. Jealousy? Surely not. The move-
ment of the ship, then. And yet, faster-than-light travel is so smooth it’s
like standing still.
Anna lifts her head, looks at my face, and laughs, the sound a delight-
ful, well-practiced tinkle of silver. “Oh, don’t scowl, Lil. I was only
joking. Just don’t see him again, or you know I’ll have to tell your father.
I don’t want to, but I can’t not do it.”
Elana, Swann, and the faceless tuxedo return with a hover tray in tow,
laden with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The girls have given Anna enough
time to chastise me, and they’re all smiles as they slide into the booth to
join us. Anna sends the tuxedo back to the bar because her drink has a
stick of pineapple in it rather than cherries, and she and the other girls
titter to one another as they watch him walk away. It’s clear why Anna’s
chosen this one—he’d give the major a good run for his money in the
flling-a-suit department.
Anna begins describing the tuxedo’s enthusiastic attempts to court
her, much to the amusement of Elana and Swann. Sometimes this kind
of conversation is all I want—light, easy, and not remotely dangerous. It
takes the spotlight off of me and puts Anna at center stage, so that all I
have to do is smile and laugh. Usually she’d have me in stitches by now.
But tonight it feels hollow, and it’s hard for me to let myself go.
I glance at the door now and then, but though it swings open and
closed dozens of times, it’s never to admit Tarver Merendsen. I’m sure
he knows the rules as well as I do, and there’s not a person aboard who
doesn’t know who I am. That he spoke to me at all is a wonder. Though
my father made a show of letting me travel by myself for my birthday in
New Paris, the truth is that he’s always there, in some way or another.
There is one tiny comfort, though. At least he left of his own accord,
and I didn’t have to end him in front of all my friends. After all, on a
ship carrying over ffty thousand passengers, the odds of ever encounter-
ing again the major’s crooked smile and distracting voice are next to
nothing.
The next two nights Anna and I skip the salon, and go straight to the
promenade deck after dinner. We walk arm in arm, and talk out Anna’s
gossip. I know she’ll still spend the entire night in our adjoining suites
draped over the foot of my bed, chatting. Though she never seems to
show the effects of not sleeping, I inevitably wake up with purple smudges
under my eyes, standing out like bruises on my fair skin. Outside of these
voyages, Anna and I never get to spend so much time together. Here, we
can be like sisters.
And so we walk. Swann is with us as well, of course—I can barely get
out of bed without her at my elbow—but if she listens to us, she doesn’t
comment.
Though Anna’s said nothing else about the major, he hasn’t been far
from my thoughts. Most of the lower classes, when they speak to me, try
to pretend they’re on my level. They fawn over me, dancing attendance,
so phony it makes my teeth ache. But the major was candid, genuine, and
when he smiled, it didn’t seem forced. He acted like he truly enjoyed my
company.
We turn into the broad sweep of synthetic lawn that curves around
the stern of the ship as the lights, timed to the ship’s clocks, dim past
sunset into dusk. The observation windows tint from their daytime
image of sunny sky and clouds through gold, orange, pink, and fnally
to a starry sky more brilliant than any you could fnd on a planet. Back
home on Corinth there are no stars, only the gentle pink glow of the
city lights refected in the atmosphere, and the holographic displays of
freworks against the clouds.
I’m watching the window and listening to Anna with only half an ear
when her arm in mine tightens convulsively. I nearly stumble as she stops
abruptly, but thankfully I catch myself before I can face-plant on the syn-
thetic lawn. Tripping over my own feet would land me in the headlines
for a week.
Anna’s eyes aren’t on me but rather fxed on something—or
someone—some distance away. I look over, and my heart drops into my
violet satin shoes.
Major Merendsen.
Has he seen us? He’s speaking to another offcer, head bowed to listen
to him—maybe he’s distracted enough that he won’t notice me. I turn
my face away, willing him not to spot me. I curse my unusual hair, too
bright to be fashionable or subtle. And why do I insist on jewel tones? If
I was dressed like the other girls, maybe I would blend in.
What awful backwater posting would my father have him reassigned
him to, if Anna reported back that I’d been associating with the infa-
mous Major Merendsen, teacher’s son, scholarship student, classless
war hero? If only the major realized he’d be lucky to make it out with a
reassignment.
“Good heavens, he’s actually coming over,” Anna murmurs in my ear
through a fxed smile. “What on earth ails him? I mean, does he suffer
from some mental—”
“Good evening, Major,” I interrupt, cutting off Anna’s stream of
insults before he’s close enough to hear them. I hope.
The major’s fellow offcer waits respectfully some distance back, and
my heart sinks even lower. Anna knows the rules, so she and Swann
make their excuses and walk some distance ahead, ostensibly to look out
the window. Anna glances back at me once she’s passed the major, both
brows lifted in concern.
Don’t, her expression warns me. Let him go. I can see a momentary fash
of sympathy in her gaze, but that doesn’t change the message.
They stay within earshot, providing only the illusion of privacy. Swann
leans back against the railing, watching us closely. Still, she looks more
amused than concerned. She may be lethal when I’m in danger, but she’s
still right at home with the others, thriving on gossip and giggling and
the intricate dance of society. Anna’s used to this rotating roster of body-
guards, and she adopts them into our circle as readily as any of our other
companions. My father chose well.
“Good evening,” says Major Merendsen. Behind him Anna whis-
pers something to Swann, who giggles loudly. The major barely finches,
merely smiles a little. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted your eve-
ning with your friends. But I never got the chance to ask the other night
if you’d be interested in seeing the observation decks some evening. You
mentioned you hadn’t been there much.”
Anna is staring at me, her green eyes fxed on mine. There’s no sym-
pathy there now, only warning. That not even my best friend will keep
my secrets is a truth I’d rather not face right now. Especially since the
most painful part is that I can’t even blame her. There’s no one my father
can’t rule. Not Anna—not me.
And certainly not Tarver Merendsen. How arrogant can this guy be?
Maybe he thinks the rewards are worth it. Men will do just about any-
thing for a rich girl’s attention. If he won’t back off on his own, well—I’ve
done this before. Nothing short of absolute annihilation will do. I have
to choose my moment with care to maximize the damage.
“You remembered.” I fnd my smile, feeling it spread across my face
like a sickly grimace, and turn my attention back to the major. “I think
my friends will understand if I miss out on one evening.”
Behind the major, I see Anna’s face freeze, genuine fear fickering
there. I wish I could tell her to wait, not to panic. But that would give
me away.
His face shifts, the cautious smile widening as some of the tension
drains. It’s a jolt to realize that he was nervous. That he really, truly,
wanted to ask me. His eyes, the same shade of brown as his hair, are
fxed on mine. God, if only he weren’t so handsome. It’s a lot easier with
the older, fatter men.
“Are you busy now? Tonight?”
“You certainly don’t waste any time, do you?”
He grins, clasping his hands behind his back. “One of the things you
learn fast in the service is to act now, think later.”
Such a change from the circles I travel in, the deliberate games and
calculated slips of the tongue. Anna’s mouthing something at me, but I
only catch the end of it. Something about now.
“Listen, Major—”
“Tarver,” he corrects me. “And you still have the advantage on me,
Miss...?”
It takes me a few seconds to understand what he means. He’s watch-
ing me, brows lifted, expectant.
Then it hits me. He doesn’t know who I am.
For a long moment I just stare at him. I can’t remember the last time
someone spoke to me who didn’t know who I was. In fact, I can’t think
of any time at all. Surely when I was little, before I became the media’s
darling? But that seems so far away from who I am now, like a movie
seen in another lifetime.
I wish I could stop, let it sink in, even revel in this moment. Enjoy
speaking to someone who doesn’t see me as Lilac LaRoux, heiress to
the LaRoux Industries empire, richest girl in the galaxy. But I can’t stop.
I can’t let this stupid, foolish soldier be seen with me a second time.
Someone will say something to my father, and ignorant or not, Major
Merendsen doesn’t deserve that.
I’ve done this before. So why do I have to hunt for the right words
to bury him? “I must have given you the wrong impression last night,”
I say airily, summoning my brightest, most amused smile. “I try so hard
to be polite when I’m bored out of my skull, but I guess sometimes that
backfres.”
There’s little reaction to be seen at frst on Major Merendsen’s face,
merely a subtle closing down of the amused eyes, a tightening of the
frm mouth. Even so, there’s an irrational surge of anger toward him, for
being so ignorant as to talk to me at all.
You smiled at him frst, a tiny thought points out. And let him retrieve your
glove, and bring you a drink, and sit with you. Beyond him I see Anna and
Swann about to collapse with laughter, and my jaw starts to clench. The
anger shifts.
End it now. Make him walk away. Before you break.
“Did you not understand me?” I toss my hair back over my shoulder.
I can only hope that if my expression shows how much I’m hating myself
right now, he reads it as disgust. “I suppose it’s to be expected that you’re
a little slow. Given your...upbringing.”
He’s silent, his face utterly wooden. He just stares at me, as the sec-
onds draw out. Then he takes a step back and bows. “I won’t take up any
more of your time. If you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course, Major.” I don’t wait for him to leave but brush past him
to rejoin Anna and Swann, sweeping them up with me in my momen-
tum. I want nothing more than to look over my shoulder and see if Major
Merendsen is still standing where I struck him down, if he’s storming
away in anger, if he’s following, if he’s talking to the offcer he came with.
Because I can’t look, my imagination conjures a dozen possibilities—I
expect at any moment to feel his hand on my elbow or see him out of the
corner of my eye at the elevators away from the promenade deck.
“Oh, that was brilliant, Lil,” gasps Anna, still laughing. “Was he
actually asking you to accompany him to the observation deck? To see
the stars? God, how cliché!”
The faster-than-light vibrations, usually undetectable, are giving me
a headache.
He didn’t know who I was. He wasn’t after my money; he wasn’t after
my father’s business connections. He wasn’t after anything, except an
evening with me.
Suddenly Anna’s hysterics are like sandpaper on my nerves. It doesn’t
matter that her laughter helped drive the major away, that she saw me
hesitate and understood, that she’s only doing her best to protect me
from something unthinkable happening again. All that matters is that I
had to slap that poor guy in the face, and now she’s laughing.
“If you’re jealous, get your tuxedo of the week to take you,” I snap.
Leaving her and Swann staring after me, I aim for the elevator. There’s
a pair of techhead guys there already in their fashing, circuit-laden suits,
waiting for the doors to close. When I sweep inside, one of them whis-
pers to the other, and muttering something like an apology, they skitter
out and leave me alone.
In the sound of the doors rushing closed, my mind conjures up the
techhead’s words. It’s happened enough times that I don’t need to have
heard him to know what he said.
Oh, spark it. That’s LaRoux’s daughter. They catch us in here with her and we’re
dead, man.
I lean back against the synthetic wood paneling lining the interior
of the elevator and fx my eyes on the symbol emblazoned on the eleva-
tor doors. The Greek letter lambda, for LaRoux Industries. My father’s
company.
Lilac Rose LaRoux. Untouchable. Toxic.
I should’ve been named Ivy, or Foxglove, or Belladonna.
“You next saw her when the i nci dent occur red?”
“That’s cor rect.”
“Di d you tr y to fi gure out what was happeni ng?”
“You’re not mi l i tar y, you don’ t understand how we wor k. I ’ m
not supposed to ask questi ons. I was j ust fol l owi ng orders.”
“What orders were those?”
“We have a duty to protect ci vi l i ans.”
“So there wasn’ t a speci fi c order that drove your deci si on?”
“Now you’re ni tpi cki ng.”
“We’re bei ng exact, Maj or. We’d appreci ate i t i f you tr i ed to do
the same.”
THREE
TARVER
THE AIR LEAVES MY LUNGS WITH A RUSH, pain shooting
up my back as I slam down onto the practice mats. The other guy falls
with me, and I realize I’ve still got a handful of his T-shirt. I suck in a
quick breath as I shove my weight to one side, coming up to my knees
in one movement so I’m looming over him, instead of the other way
around.
I can’t believe I made such an idiot of myself tonight. Everyone in the
galaxy knows who Lilac LaRoux is, and I couldn’t have glanced at one
lousy newscast, watched one of those damn gossip shows, and learned
what she looked like? I must be the only guy alive who doesn’t know.
Normally you couldn’t get me near a girl that rich and entitled if you
held a gun to my head. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking at all. I had
my mind on dimples and red hair and—
The guy underneath me pushes up against my shoulder, and I roll
it back so he can’t get purchase, planting a knee in his chest and draw-
ing back my arm. My fst makes it halfway to the guy’s cheek before he
catches it, gripping and twisting so I have to throw myself backward to
break free. He scrambles after me, grinning and panting.
“That all you got, kid? Try harder.”
That’s all I ever hear. That all you got? Try harder. Be richer. Be smarter.
Learn which damn cutlery to use. Speak like us. Think like us.
Screw that all the way to hell.
A ragged chorus of shouts and swearing in a dozen different languages
erupts from the blur of fatigues and faces around us. The only offcer
down here is the sergeant overseeing the sparring, and he’s not about to
tell us to watch our mouths. Well—the only offcer other than me. But
they don’t know that. It’s only upstairs that everyone recognizes my face
from their magazines and newspapers and holovids.
Still, I bet they would have recognized Lilac LaRoux.
I can’t get my mind off of her. Did she think it was funny to play with
me like that in front of her friends?
I lash out so quickly we’re both surprised, and there’s a crunch, and
then the other guy’s rolling away, hand up in front of his face, blood
seeping through his fngers. I draw a breath, and before I can move, the
sergeant is leaning down to stick his hand between us, showing me the
fat of his palm—bout over.
I lean back on my elbows, chest heaving as he helps the other guy to
his feet and hands him over to one of his buddies to head for the sick
bay. Then the sergeant turns back to stand over me, arms folded across
his massive chest.
“Son, one more like that, and you’re off the mats, you understand?
One more and I’ll be speaking to your commanding offcer.”
Down here it’s all plain fatigues, khaki T-shirts and pants, and I can
ditch my stars and bars and pretend I’m a private. Down here I’m just
eighteen, not an offcer, not a war hero. He doesn’t imagine for a moment
that I could be a major. I prefer it that way. Some days I wish it was that
way. That I could earn my stripes in offcial training, rather than out in
the feld like I did, where mistakes cost more than marks on a piece of
paper.
“Yes, Sergeant.” My breath’s still coming quickly, and I climb to my
feet carefully. I want to stay a little longer.
The military quarters are utilitarian, the metal skeleton of the ship
showing, but I’m more at home down here. The air is humid with so
many bodies working and sweating, the flters chugging on overtime
without much result. These guys are on their way to one of the colonies
to put down the latest rebellion. Take away my medals and my feld pro-
motion, and I’d be traveling in military quarters too, waiting to see what
terraformed wonders and pissed-off rebels were waiting for me. I wish.
The sergeant sizes me up a moment longer, then turns his head to
bellow, parade-ground style. “Corporal Adams, front and center. You’re
up next.”
She’s a few years older than me, a couple of inches shorter, blond hair
spiked. She shoots me a quick grin as she shakes out her arms and readies
herself, and I suck in a breath and square up. I’m going to do this until
I’m tired enough to sleep.
Turns out she’s fast, shifting her weight nimbly as we circle each
other. This is the sort of girl who suits me, quick and direct, none of that
upper-decks intrigue. The way she moves reminds me of a line from one
of my mother’s poems. Quicksilver light and motes of dust.
She smiles again, and for an instant I can see Lilac LaRoux’s smile,
and those blue eyes.
But next thing I see is the metal grating across the roof of the deck.
Corporal Adams has her bare foot on my throat, and it’s over. I lift my
hands carefully, think about grabbing her ankle, and show her my palms
instead. She got me. I should have had my mind on the job at hand.
She lifts her foot and leans down to offer me her hand. I grip it, she
hauls, and I come up to my feet.
Now Miss LaRoux’s getting my ass kicked on the sparring mats as
well. Is there any part of my life that girl can’t mess with?
I lace my hands together behind my head, arching my back until the
stretch tugs at sore muscles, looking over at the sergeant. He directs the
corporal to the next mat over, and closes the distance between us.
“Son, I don’t know what you’re working off there, but you might want
to try the weapons range,” he begins.
I don’t want my gun. I want someone I can lay into, here in person.
“Please, Sergeant, I—”
The ground bucks and heaves beneath me and we both stagger
backward— for an instant I think someone’s tackled me from behind,
and then I realize it’s the ship herself shaking beneath us.
I plant my feet wide apart, waiting to see if there’s going to be another
tremor. The sparring hall is eerily silent as everyone turns their faces up,
waiting for information from the loudspeakers. The Icarus hasn’t been
anything but perfectly stable in the weeks I’ve been on her.
Nothing breaks the silence, and I exchange glances with the sergeant.
Slowly he shakes his head, broad shoulders lifting in a quick shrug.
Where’s the announcement?
There’ll be more information upstairs. For sure, someone will be tell-
ing the rich folks what’s going on. They’d expect nothing less. I toss off a
quick salute, and stomp into my boots.
When I push through the doors of the silent sparring hall and out into
the network of gangways beyond, it’s like entering another world. It’s all
soft luxury upstairs, but down here they don’t waste an inch.
The gangways crisscross over and under each other like spiderwebs,
populated by techheads in suits that pulse lights in time with the music
around us, emigrants heading for new colonies, tourists taking the
cheapest route to other planets, folks making the long haul for family
visits. I hear a snatch of worried Spanish on my left, and an Irish curse
nearby. A cluster of missionaries bent on bringing comfort and relief to
the unenlightened rebels on the new planets stands watching the bustle
of humanity like it’s their frst time off-world. Amid all the sound and
movement, there’s not a top hat or a corset in sight.
Footsteps clang on the metal gantries, voices echoing in a dozen vari-
ations on Standard, lesser languages woven in. Everybody’s wondering
what’s going on, but nobody knows.
Brightly lit screens ficker nonstop advertisements at me—they line
the walls and the ceiling, blaring words and songs and jingles. As I work
through the crowd toward the frst set of stairs, a 3-D holograph springs
to life in front of me, a woman in a hot-pink catsuit throwing her arms
wide open to invite me to a club at the aft end of the ship. I walk right
through her.
My stomach lurches as though I’m in for a bout of space sickness.
I notice I’m not the only one looking uncomfortable—there are other
faces in the crowd turning pale as well.
I can’t be spacesick. I’ve been shunted around the universe on ships
so badly tuned you could barely hear yourself over the chugging, and all
that time I kept my insides on the inside. I must have overdone it on the
sparring mats.
I can feel the metal gangway beneath me vibrating to the hundreds
of sets of footfalls banging down on it, but there’s something else under
that—a tremor that doesn’t feel right. Abruptly the vid screens all around
me freeze, the jingles and voice-overs cutting out so a woman’s voice can
broadcast up and down the hallways, smooth and professional.
“Attention all passengers. In a few moments we will be cycling the ship’s hyperspace
engines. This procedure forms a part of our routine maintenance of the Icarus. You
may notice some minor vibrations. Thank you for your understanding as we carry out
this routine maintenance.”
She sounds calm, but I wouldn’t use the words routine maintenance twice
in one announcement myself unless I was trying to keep people from
noticing it’s not. In two years of space travel, I only ever saw a ship cycle
her drives once, about six months back near Avon. By the time we got
that tub landed, she was more or less held together by spit and good luck.
This is the Icarus. Newest, fanciest ship to come out of orbital dock,
built by the one corporation in the galaxy big enough to terraform plan-
ets all by itself. I’m quite sure Roderick LaRoux made certain that spit
plays no part in the way she holds together.
I jog along the gangway, ignoring legs that feel like they’re weighted
down after my sparring session, and start on the next staircase with one
hand on the rail, just in case. It’s a good call—I’m halfway up when
another one of those “minor” vibrations hits.
The ship shudders so violently this time that a ripple runs along the
gangway beneath me. I can track its progress by the way the civilians
ranged along it shout and grab at the handrails, knees buckling.
The crowd’s growing frantic, and I turn my body to push through a
gap and make for the stairs, then break into a run as I head for the next
fight. At the top, I press my palm against the ID plate, and the door
slides soundlessly open.
I hurry through to the richly carpeted hallways of my own deck. Lilac
LaRoux’s deck. It’s more crowded than usual as folks emerge from their
cabins like they’re going to discover some kind of collective wisdom out
in the hallways. Another time I’d pause to admire these women showing
off their unlimited sleepwear budgets, but just now I’m moving.
I turn for my own cabin as three sharp alarm blasts cut through the
soft music that plays in the hallways. The woman’s voice comes again,
this time high with fear, and tense with the attempt to conceal it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. We have experienced diffculty with
our hyperspace engines, and the Icarus has suffered substantial damage as a result of
the dimensional displacement. We will attempt to keep the ship in hyperspace, but in
the meantime, please follow the illuminated strips in the corridors and make your way
to your assigned emergency pods immediately.”
The hallway comes to life. It’s clear most of these people wouldn’t
know their assigned emergency pod if it bowled up, introduced itself, and
offered to tango. I’m frmly in the camp that reads up on all the safety
information the moment they get a chance. You develop that attitude
after your frst this-is-not-a-drill emergency evacuation, and I’ve had
more than one.
We military types are all trained to travel with a grab bag. The things
you need to take with you if you evacuate, survival gear. None of it is
much use out here in deep space, of course, which is the only place you’ll
fnd this ship. She was constructed in orbit. Like a whale, she’d collapse
under her own weight if exposed to real gravity. Still, I’m doubling back
before I have time to think about it.
I jog up the hallway toward my cabin, fghting my way against the
crowd, which is surging along in a panic.
I palm my way into my cabin and unhook the bag from where it’s
hanging over the back of the door. It’s a basic hiking pack from my cadet
days, designed to fold down small. I hesitate, then grab my jacket as well.
I need to get three hallways along to my right, then take a left and
keep going, though with the crowd growing louder and more unstable by
the minute, it’s going to take a while. I make it to the frst hallway, pass-
ing by the doorway that leads out to the observation deck. I glance out
sideways through the door.
I know what the view’s meant to be—and it’s not like this. The stars
beyond the clear screens blur, then lurch, then come back into focus.
They’re not the long, graceful lines that should be visible in dimen-
sional hyperspace. They’re in focus for a moment, white pinpoints of
light, then long blurs again. I’ve never seen a view like this before—it’s as
though the Icarus is trying, and failing, to claw her way back into hyper-
space. I’m not sure what will happen if she’s torn out prematurely, but
I’m pretty sure nothing good.
For a moment something huge and metallic is visible out the corner
of the observation window, and then it’s gone. I crane my neck, trying to
catch sight of the object again. It’s so massive that it would have its own
signifcant gravitational feld, enough to pull the Icarus out of her fight
path.
I turn back to work my way through the crowd toward my pod. The
press of bodies is too thick, and I duck to the side to slide along the guard
railing. On these back passages, the railing is all that stands between us
and a nasty drop, all the way down at least a dozen levels. As I turn the
corner I collide heavily with someone smaller than me, and I’m instinc-
tively putting my arms out to keep the person from toppling over.
“Excuse me!” says a breathless voice. “Sir, watch where you’re going!”
No. Oh, hell no.
A pair of blue eyes meet mine, fashing shock—then outrage—before
she’s shoving me away with all her strength, staggering back against the
walkway railing.
I unclench my jaw with an effort. “Good evening, Miss LaRoux.”
Drop dead, my tone says.
In spite of everything—the screaming of the crowd, the jostle of bod-
ies, the blaring of the ship’s alarms—I take a moment to savor the shock
and dismay on the faces of Miss LaRoux and her companions as they
register my sudden reappearance. I’m not expecting the surge of people
that comes fooding from a side passage.
They knock me off balance, but the crowd is so dense that I don’t fall.
As if I’m caught in a violent river current, it takes me a moment to get my
feet onto the solid foor again. I catch a glimpse of Miss LaRoux’s friends
as they’re swept down the corridor. One of them is trying to battle the
crowd, make her way back toward me, shouting Miss LaRoux’s name and
slamming into people right and left. I realize she’s had training—not just
another pretty face. A bodyguard? But even she can’t make any headway.
The others are already almost out of sight.
I see one of them scream—mouth open, sound drowned out—in the
same instant I realize Miss LaRoux’s not with them. I shove my way
through to the railing, trying to catch a glimpse of that brilliant red hair.
This panicked crowd is enough to trample the unprepared. With a
wall on one side and the balcony railing on the other, they’re channeled
wilder and faster every moment, like beasts in a canyon. I see people
lifted off their feet, slammed against the wall. She’s not here. I’m about
to stop fghting the crowd and follow the current when a cry pierces the
chaos.
I shove my way toward the sound. I’m in time to see a fash of green
dress and red hair and white face vanish over the railing, as some frantic
man twice her size goes barreling down the walkway.
I’m moving before I have time to think. I swing out over the railing,
shifting my grip so I can angle my momentum toward the foor below
mine, and jump after her.
The girl is standing on a battlefield, and it

s the street she grew up
on. The people here don

t know there

s a war coming, and every
time she opens her mouth to warn them, the city called November
drowns her out. A car screeches past, a siren wails, children laugh, a
holoboard starts playing its looped ad high above. The girl screams,
but only the pigeons at her feet notice. Startled, they fly upward
and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and
lanterns crisscrossing overhead.
No one hears her.
ONE
JUBILEE
THERE’S A GUY STARING AT ME from the other end of the
bar. I can only see him because I’m in the habit of leaning forward,
elbows on the plastene surface, so I can see past the row of heads. From
here I can keep an eye on the whole place by watching the bartender’s
mirror overhead. And the guy I’m watching is using the same trick.
He’s new. For one thing I don’t recognize him, but for another he’s
got that look. Defnitely a recruit, with something to prove, like they all
do at frst. But he’s still glancing around, careful not to bump into the
other guys, not too familiar with anyone else. He’s wearing a uniform
T-shirt, jacket, and fatigues, but the clothes are ill-ftting, the tiniest bit
too tight. Could be because he’s so new, they haven’t ordered them in his
size yet. Could also be because the uniform isn’t his.
Still, the new ones know by the end of their frst week not to hit on
Captain Chase, even when she’s at Molly Malone’s. I’m not interested.
Eighteen is pretty young to take yourself off the market, but it’s safer to
send them all the same message from day one.
But this guy...this guy makes me pause. Makes me forget all of that.
Dark tumbly hair, thick brows, dangerously sweet eyes. Sensuous mouth,
tiny smirk barely hidden at its corner. He’s got a poet’s mouth. Artistic,
expressive.
He looks oddly familiar. Beads of condensation form around my fn-
gers as I hold my drink. Scratch that—I’d remember this guy if I’d seen
him before.
“All good?” The bartender comes between us, leaning on the bar and
tilting his head toward me. It’s a crappy bar on a crappy makeshift street,
wistfully named Molly Malone’s. Some ghost story from the Irish roots
claimed by this particular cluster of terraforming fodder folk. “Molly” is
a three-hundred-pound bald Chinese man with a tattoo of a chrysanthe-
mum on his neck. I’ve been a favorite of his ever since I landed here, not
least because I’m one of the only people who can speak more than a word
or two of Mandarin, thanks to my mother.
I raise an eyebrow at him. “Trying to get me drunk?”
“I live an’ dream an’ hope, babe.”
“Someday, Molly.” I pause, my attention returning to the mirror. This
time, the guy sees me looking and meets my gaze unapologetically. I fght
the urge to jerk my eyes away, and lean closer to the bartender. “Hey,
Mol—who’s the new guy down at the end?”
Molly knows better than to look over his shoulder and starts rinsing
out a new glass instead. “The pretty one?”
“Mmm.”
“Said he was just posted here, trying to get a feel for the place. He’s
asking lots of questions.”
Odd. The fresh meat usually comes in herd form, entire platoons of
wide-eyed, nervous boys and girls all shuffing wherever they’re told. A
little voice in my head points out that’s not really fair, that I was meat
once too, and only two years ago. But they’re so woefully unprepared for
life on Avon that I can’t help it.
This one’s different, though—and he’s all alone. Wariness tingles at
the base of my neck, my gaze sharpening. Here on Avon, different usually
means dangerous.
“Thanks, Molly.” I fick the condensation on my fngertips at him,
and he finches away and grins before turning back to his more demand-
ing customers.
The guy’s still staring at me. The smirk is not quite so hidden now. I
know I’m staring back, but I don’t really care. If he really is a soldier, I
can say I was sizing him up in an offcial capacity, looking for warning
signs. Just because I’m off duty doesn’t mean I can leave my responsibili-
ties behind. We don’t get much warning when we’re about to lose one to
the Fury.
He doesn’t look much older than I am, so even if he enlisted the day
he turned sixteen he won’t have more than two years of service under
his belt. Enough to get cocky—not enough to know he should wipe that
grin off his face. A few weeks on Avon will do that for him. He’s chis-
eled, with a chin so perfect, it makes me want to hit it. The shadow of
stubble along his jaw only emphasizes the lines of his face. These guys
invariably end up being assholes, but from this distance he’s just beauti-
ful. Like he was put together by an artist.
Guys like this make me want to believe in God.
The missionaries should really start recruiting guys like him before
the military can get to them. After all, you don’t have to be pretty to
shoot people. But I think it probably helps if you’re trying to spread your
faith.
With my eyes on his in the mirror overhead, I give a deliberate jerk of
my chin to summon him over. He gets the message, but takes his time
about responding. In an ordinary bar on an ordinary planet, it’d mean he
wasn’t interested or was playing hard to get. But since I’m not after what
people in ordinary bars are after, his hesitation makes me pause. Either
he doesn’t know who I am or he doesn’t care. It can’t be the former—
everyone on this rock knows Captain Lee Chase, no matter how freshly
arrived. But if it’s the latter, he’s no ordinary recruit.
Some stooge from Central Command, trying to lie low by dressing like
us? A feld agent for Terra Dynamics, come to see if the military’s doing
its job in preventing an all-out uprising? It’s not unheard of for a corpo-
ration to send in spies to make sure the government is holding up its end
of the terraforming agreement. Which only makes our job harder. The
corporations are constantly lobbying to be able to hire private mercs, but
since the Galactic Council doesn’t exactly relish the thought of privately
funded armies running around, they’re stuck petitioning for government
forces. Maybe he’s from the Galactic Council, here to spy on Avon before
their planetary review in a couple months.
No matter who he is, it can’t be good news for me. Why can’t these people
leave me alone and let me do my job?
The dark-haired guy picks up his beer and makes his way over to
my end of the bar. He puts on a good show of eager shyness, like he’s
surprised to be singled out, but I know better. “Hey,” he says by way of
greeting. “I don’t want you to panic, but your drink appears to be blue.”
It’s one of Molly’s concoctions, which he sometimes gives me for free
as an excuse to actually mix drinks instead of flling pitchers of beer.
I make a snap decision. If he wants to play it coy, I can do coy right
back. He’s not exactly hard on the eyes, and this curiosity is tugging at
me—I want to see what happens if I go along with it. I know he can’t be
interested in me. At least not the way he’s pretending to be.
I fsh out the plastic sword—it’s hot pink—from the martini glass
and suck the cherries off of it, one by one. The guy’s eyes fx on my lips,
sending a brief surge of satisfaction through me. Molly doesn’t get much
opportunity to mix drinks here—and I don’t get much opportunity to
firt.
I let my lips curve in a smile and lean in a fraction. “I like it blue.”
His mouth opens to respond, but instead he’s forced to clear his throat
at length.
“Got a touch of the swamp bug?” I feign concern. “Molly’ll take care
of that for you. His drinks’ll cure anything, from wounded feelings to
appendicitis.”
“That so?” He’s found his voice again, and his smile. There’s a gleam
behind the aw-shucks new-boy persona he’s wearing: pleasure. He’s enjoy-
ing himself.
Well, so are you, points out a snide little voice in my head. I shove it
aside. “If you give it a second, we’ll fnd out if it’ll turn my tongue blue,
to boot.”
“That an invitation to make a personal inspection?”
I can see some of my platoon at a table in the background, watch-
ing me and the new guy, no doubt waiting to see if I rip off something
important. “Play your cards right.”
He laughs, leaning sideways against the bar. It’s a bit of a capitulation,
a pause in the game. He’s not so much hitting on me as feeling me out.
I set my drink down on the bar next to a set of initials scratched into
the composite surface. They were here before I ever showed up, and their
owner is long gone. “This is the part where you’d ordinarily introduce
yourself, Romeo.”
“And ruin my mystique?” The guy’s thick brows go up. “Pretty sure
Romeo kept his mask on when he met Jubilee.”
“Juliet,” I correct him, trying not to finch at his use of my whole
name. He must be new, not to know how much I hate that. Still, he’s
given me a valuable hint. If this guy knows Shakespeare, he’s got to have
been educated somewhere off-world. The swamp-dwellers can barely
read an instruction manual, much less ancient classics.
“Oh, a scholar?” he replies, eyes gleaming. “This is a strange place to
fnd a girl like you. So, who’d you offend to get stuck on Avon?”
I lean back against the bar, propping myself on my elbows. One hand
fdgets with the plastic sword, weaving it back and forth through my
fngers. “I’m a troublemaker.”
“My favorite kind of girl.” Romeo meets my eyes with a smile, then
looks away. But not before I’ve seen it: he’s tense. It’s subtle, but I’ve been
trained to notice the invisible currents, the ebb and fow of a person’s
energy. A muscle tic here, a line of tension there. Sometimes it’s all the
warning you get before someone tries to blow themselves up, and take
you with them.
Adrenaline sharpens my senses as I lean forward. The air in here
smells of spilled beer, cigar smoke, and air freshener—none of which
is strong enough to drown out the invasive smell of the swamp outside.
I try to shut out the sound of my platoon laughing in the background
and look more closely at Romeo. I can’t tell, in the low light, whether his
pupils are dilated. If he’s new to the planet, he shouldn’t have had time
to succumb to the Fury—unless he’s been transferred here from some-
where else on Avon.
He shifts his weight under my scrutiny, then straightens. “Listen,” he
says, his voice getting brisker, “let me settle for your drink, and I’ll leave
you to your evening.”
Somehow he’s gotten a read on me. He knows I’m suspicious.
“Hang on.” I reach out to lay my hand on his arm. It’s a gentle touch,
but frm. He’ll have to jerk away if he wants to leave before I’m ready to
let him go. “You’re not a soldier,” I say fnally. “And not a local. Quite
the little puzzle. You’re not going to leave me so unsatisfed, are you?”
“Unsatisfed?” The guy’s smile doesn’t ficker a millimeter. He’s good.
He’s got to be a spy from one of TerraDyn’s competitors. Nova Tech
or SpaceCorp, or any one of the neighboring corporations with space
staked out on Avon. “That’s unkind, Captain Chase.”
I abandon pretense. “I never told you who I was.”
“Like Stone-faced Chase needs an introduction.”
Though you’d never catch my platoon calling me that, at least to my
face, the nickname caught on like wildfre after my frst few days here. I
don’t reply, scanning his features and trying to fgure out why he looks
so familiar. If he’s a criminal, maybe I’ve seen his picture in the database.
He makes a small attempt to free his arm to test how badly I want
to hold on to him. “Look, I’m just a guy trying to buy a girl a drink. So
why don’t you let me do that, and then we can go our separate ways and
dream about what might’ve been?”
I clench my jaw. “Listen, Romeo.” My fngers tighten—I can feel the
tense muscle beneath my hand. He’s no weakling, but I’m better trained.
“How about instead, we go to HQ and chat there?”
The muscle in his forearm under my palm twitches, and I glance
at his hand. It’s empty—but then he shifts his weight, and suddenly
there’s something digging into my ribs, held in his other hand. He had
a gun tucked inside his shirt. Goddammit. It’s ancient, a tarnished bal-
listics weapon, not one of the sleek Gleidels I’m used to. No wonder
he’s wearing a jacket despite the heat inside the bar. The long sleeves are
concealing his genetag tattoo, the spiral design on the forearm that all
the locals get at birth.
“Sorry.” He leans close to me to conceal the gun between us. “I really
did just want to pay for your drink and get out of here.”
Beyond him I can see my guys, heads together, laughing and occasion-
ally peeking our way. Though half of them are well into their twenties,
they still act like a bunch of gossips. Mori, one of my oldest soldiers,
meets my eyes for a moment—but she looks away before I can convey
anything through my gaze. Alexi’s there too, his pink hair gelled up,
looking way too interested in the wall. From their perspective, I’m let-
ting this guy drape himself all over me. Stone-faced Chase, getting a little
action for once. Troops cycle in and out of Avon so often that all of those
here have only known the past few months’ ceasefre—their senses aren’t
battle-sharpened. They’re not suspicious enough.
“Are you kidding me?” My own weapon is on my hip, but we’re close
enough that he could easily shoot me before I reach it. “You can’t actu-
ally think this is going to work.”
“You haven’t really given me much choice, have you?” He glances
down at the holster on my hip. “You seem a little overdressed, Captain.
Leave the gun on the stool there. Slowly.”
I roll my eyes toward Molly, but he’s leaning back drying glasses and
watching the holovid over the end of the bar. I try to catch someone’s
eye—anyone’s eye—but they’re all carefully ignoring me, all too eager
to tell stories later about how they saw Captain Chase get picked up at
Molly’s. My abductor shields me with his body as I reach for my Gleidel
and set it down where he indicates. He wraps a hand around my waist,
turning me toward the door. “Shall we?”
“You’re an idiot.” I clench my hands, the pink cocktail skewer digging
into my palm. Then I turn a little, making a token struggle to test his
grip and the distribution of his weight. There—he’s leaning a little too
far forward. I tense my muscles and jerk, leaning back and giving my arm
a twist. It hurts like hell, but—
He grunts, and the barrel of the gun digs more sharply into my rib
cage. But he doesn’t let me go. He’s good. Damn, damn, DAMN.
“You’re not the frst person to say so,” he says, breathing a little faster.
“Fine—ow, I’m going, okay?” I let him steer me toward the door. I
could call his bluff, but if he’s stupid enough to bring a gun onto a mili-
tary base, he might be stupid enough to fre it. And if this blows up into
a frefght, my people could get hurt.
Besides, someone will stop us. Alexi, surely—he knows me too well
to let this happen. Someone will see the gun—someone will remember
that Captain Chase doesn’t leave the bar with strange guys. She doesn’t
leave the bar with anyone. Someone will realize something’s wrong.
But no one does. As the door swings closed behind us, I hear a low
sound of whistles and catcalls in the bar as my entire platoon starts jeer-
ing and gossiping like a bunch of old hens. Bastards, I think furiously.
I’m going to make you run so many laps in the morning, you’ll wish YOU had been
carried off by a rebel.
Because that’s who this is. I don’t know how he knows Shakespeare,
or where he got his training, but he’s got to be one of the swamp rats.
They call themselves the Fianna—warriors—but they’re all just blood-
thirsty lawbreakers. Who else would dare infltrate the base with nothing
but a pistol that looks like it’s from the dawn of time? At least that means
there’s no danger of him snapping into mindless violence, since Avon’s
deadly Fury only affects off-worlders. I only have to worry about the
average, everyday violence that comes so easily to these swamp-dwellers.
He tugs me off the main path and into the shadows between the bar
and the supply shed next door. Then it hits me: I’m not going to be mak-
ing anyone run laps in the morning. I’m a military offcer, being captured
by a rebel. I’m probably never going to see my troops again, because I’ll
be dead by morning.
With a snarl, I jam my hand back and down, sending the blade of the
pink plastic cocktail sword deep into the guy’s thigh. Before he has time
to react, I give it a savage twist and snap off the hilt, leaving the hot-pink
plastic embedded in the muscle.
At least I won’t go without a fght.
The boys are playing with firecrackers in the alley, stolen from the
strings in the temple. The girl watches through a hole in the wall,
her face pressed against the crumbling brick. Yesterday it was the
Lutheran priest

s turn in the temple, but tomorrow is a wedding,
and it

s her mother

s turn to convert the tiny box of a building at
the end of the street to match too-distant memories of traditional
ceremonies on Earth.
The boys are lighting the firecrackers and seeing who can hold
on to the red sticks longest before tossing them away to snap like
gunfire in the air. The girl squeezes through a gap in the wall and
runs to snatch a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin
crawls with the hiss and heat of the fuse, but she refuses to let go.
TWO
FLYNN
PAIN SEARS DOWN MY LEG, and my grip loosens for an instant.
She’s away like a fash.
I have only a split second to act, and if I miss, she’s going to kill me.
I leap back as she swings at me, and the night is shattered by the sound
of a gunshot. My gun. She goes sprawling into the mud with a gasp of
pain, but I don’t have time to consider what damage I might have done.
Everybody on the base will have heard the shot, and even with the echo
bouncing around the buildings, they’ll fnd me soon enough.
I start to reach for her, but she’s already moving; she’s not badly hurt,
or else adrenaline is holding her together. She kicks out, her foot con-
necting with my arm and numbing it from the elbow down. The gun
goes sliding along the wet ground.
We both lunge after it. Her elbow jabs at my solar plexus, missing it
by an inch—I’m left wheezing rather than half dead, dragging in air as I
force myself to move. She scrambles ahead of me and I grab at her ankle,
scrabbling in the mud to drag her back again before she can grab the gun
or shout for backup.
She may be trained, but I’m fghting for my family, my home, my free-
dom. She’s fghting for a goddamn paycheck.
For a long moment there’s only the harsh staccato of our breathing
as we fght to get ahead of one another. Then my hand fnds the famil-
iar grip of my grandfather’s pistol. I jab my elbow back at her face; she
dodges it easily, but it throws her off enough for me to roll over and end
up with the gun pointed between her eyes.
She goes still.
I can only see the dark, furious glitter of her eyes meeting mine. I
can’t speak, too winded, too shell-shocked. Slowly, she lifts her hands,
palms out. Surrender.
I want nothing more than to collapse in the mud. But I can hear the
shouts of soldiers looking for intruders, hunting for the source of the
gunshot. I’ve got no time. I need to get her to my currach—if I leave her
here she’ll be found too quickly and I won’t have enough time to vanish
into the swamp.
I give the gun a jerk, silently ordering the soldier to her feet. I stagger
up myself, then grab for her arm to turn her around and twist it behind
her back. I rest the barrel of the gun against her lower spine, where she
can feel it.
My fngers are wet and sticky with her blood, but it’s too dark to tell
how much there is. I know I hit her; I saw her fall. But she’s on her feet,
so the wound isn’t slowing her down that much. I must have only grazed
her side with the bullet.
I try to calm my breathing, listening for the soldiers. Getting off the
base is going to be a hell of a lot harder now; I wish I had time to cam-
oufage myself with the mud at our feet. Her skin’s brown and more
diffcult to see in the low lighting, but mine’s the pale white that comes
from living on a planet with constant cloud cover. I practically glow in
the dark.
“Well?” She’s panting. “What’s it going to be? You could at least have
the decency to aim for my heart and not my head. I’ll look prettier at my
funeral.”
“There’s something very wrong with you, Captain,” I tell her, keeping
her close. Her black hair’s escaping her ponytail, tickling my face and
getting into my eyes. “You don’t invite a thing like that around here.”
“As if you need an invitation,” she growls, and though she’s com-
pletely still, I can almost feel her humming with anger. I can’t let her go.
She’d never let me go. She shoves back roughly, sending pain spearing
down my leg.
I shift my grip on the gun, letting it press against her a little harder.
It was easy to get the new recruits talking, but their security clearance
is way too low to have any useful information. But trying to get close to
Captain Chase for information was another matter entirely. What was I
thinking? Sean would laugh if he could see me now: the Fianna’s biggest
pacifst holding Avon’s most notorious soldier at gunpoint.
“I’ll recognize your pretty face anywhere now, you know that.” There’s
a smug satisfaction in her tone, underneath her anger. Like winning the
point is what matters, even if it means she ends up dead. “You have to
get rid of the problem.”
“Póg mo thóin, trodaire,” I mutter, tightening my grip. Kiss my ass, soldier.
Captain Chase lets off a string of what sound like insults in return,
though I don’t understand the language. She doesn’t look like she’s got
any Irish in her, probably has no idea what I said. But she recognized
my tone, as easily as I can tell she’s cursing right back at me, speaking...
Chinese, maybe? She looks like she might have that ancestry in her blood
somewhere, but with the off-worlders it’s hard to tell. She gives a savage
twist and then gasps as the movement wrenches at her wound. It’s lucky
I managed to graze her, because I wouldn’t be able to keep hold of her
otherwise. She’s even stronger than she looks.
My mind races. This isn’t over yet, and I can still turn it to my advan-
tage if I think quickly. The recruits in the bar may not have known about
the hidden facility to the east, but now I have a captain, and one who’s
been on Avon longer than any other soldier. Who better to get me that
info than the military’s golden child?
That facility scares me too much to ignore. Until I saw it a few hours
ago, I’d never clapped eyes on it. I don’t know how they hid the construc-
tion. It appeared out of nowhere, surrounded by fences and spotlights.
From the outside, there’s no way to tell what’s in there: weapons, new
search drone technology, ways to destroy the Fianna we haven’t thought
of. Until we know why the facility is there, every minute is danger.
I give her a shove and start moving toward the perimeter of the base,
keeping to the shadows and away from the surveillance cameras. “Ever
seen the beauty of the outer swamps?”
“I suppose out there they won’t fnd my body at all. Smart.”
“Does your platoon’s psych attendant know about this obsession with
your own death?”
“Just trying to be helpful,” she mutters through gritted teeth. We’re
not far from where I snuck in through their fencing. I’m sure on a more
high-tech world, the perimeter would light up with lasers and six kinds of
alarm bells, but out here beyond the edge of civilization, the soldiers are
stuck with wire fences and foot patrols. Central Command spends as
little as it can get away with to supply them, and it shows. On top of that,
the last few months of ceasefre have made them lazy. Their patrols aren’t
what they should be.
I can hear the search parties on the other side of the base, but here
where it butts up against the town, it’s quieter. They always think the
rebels will come from the swamp. Like we’re not smart enough to walk
around to approach from the town, where there’s less protection.
I can tell she starts thinking about those search parties about the same
time as I do—she draws breath to shout, and I dig the barrel of the gun
into her skin in warning. We’re both still for a long, tense moment as she
decides whether to call my bluff. I’m praying she doesn’t. She lets the air
out of her lungs in a furious capitulation.
I kick at the wire until the place I wound the severed ends back
together gives way, and then we’re outside her territory and into the swamp
beyond. The marsh stretches out before us into the gloom, mudfats and
bare rock interspersed with a thousand winding creeks and streams. The
water’s as muddy as the land and half concealed by reeds and rotting
algae, so nobody but the locals can tell where the solid ground is until
they put their feet down. The foating clumps of vegetation mean the
waterways are constantly shifting—deeper, shallower, interconnecting in
different ways each week as mud and algae fow sluggishly.
Most of the swamp is a murky black right now, the permanent clouds
above us blocking any hint of light from the stars. We were taught there
are a couple of moons up there too, somewhere, coaxing the waters to
fow this way and that. But I’ve never once seen them—only the clouds,
always the clouds. Avon’s sky is gray.
My currach is pulled up and beached on the mud by the fence, her
fat-bottomed hull of sturdy plastene a battered contrast to the military
patrol boats. I don’t mind her, though—she can go places they don’t
even see, without making a sound. I push Jubilee ahead of me, down
toward the water’s edge, and she growls a wordless protest.
“You know, most people fnd me charming.” I keep talking in her ear,
hoping to keep her too distracted to think of a way out of this. “Even
you looked keen on me for a sec there, Jubilee.” I hear her huff. Using her
name annoys her for some reason—good. One more way to keep her off
balance. “Maybe you just need to give me a second chance.”
I shove her forward into the currach and knock the lid off the fuel
can with my foot. The crude gasoline we’re forced to use is so toxic, I
can smell the fumes from here, but I grab her collar to shove her face
down against the can. With an indignant protest she sucks in a lungful of
vapor. It takes her a few seconds to push past the pain and work out what
I’m doing, but she’s inhaled enough that her limbs don’t work. When she
tries to push me away, her legs give out and she slips, wrenching free of
me to thump down into the bottom of the boat.
For a moment our eyes meet in the dim light. Her gaze is furious as
she struggles to stay conscious, trying to push up on one elbow. Then
she’s gone, her head falling back to thunk against the plastene hull. I lean
in carefully to peel back her eyelids, but she’s out. She’ll have a screaming
headache when she wakes, but it’s better than hitting her over the head.
Too easy to misjudge the blow and end up killing her instead.
Without wasting another second, I fick on the safety, stick my gun
into my waistband, and shove off with my foot. The currach glides swift
and silent through the water. I can’t risk a light, not when I can see the
lights of the base security forces dancing behind me, still searching for
the intruder. I navigate by feel, unclipping the pole from the gunwale
and using soft, quick touches ahead and around me to make sure I’m
keeping to the channel that will lead me away from danger.
By the time they get searchlights sweeping the stretch of swamp
beyond the fences, I’m too far away for the light to reach. I keep expect-
ing to feel a hand on my ankle, or the captain’s fst meeting my gut, but
she doesn’t stir.
As soon as the sounds of shouts carrying across the water begin to
fade and I can no longer see the distant lights of the base, I stop long
enough to fnd my lantern and light it. We use algae to coat the glass,
giving the light an eerie green-brown wash; occasionally the soldiers spot
our boats or our signal lights, and the camoufage can make them dis-
miss what they’ve seen as the will-o’-the-wisps so feared in this swamp.
What they don’t know is that anyone who’d seen a real wisp could
never confuse it with one of our lanterns.
I hang the lantern on its spur rising from the bow and turn back to
the unconscious trodaire in the bottom of the currach. There’s no way
out of this now. Whether or not she can shed light on what’s happening
in the stretch of no-man’s-land east of the base, she knows my face. She
may not know my name yet, but if she manages to connect me with my
sister, she’ll personally lead the hunt until she has my head on a platter—
she won’t need their so-called Fury as an excuse for taking me apart
piece by piece.
Taking out Captain Chase would be a huge blow for the trodairí, and
a triumph for us. I know at least two dozen Fianna who would shoot her
without hesitation and sleep just fne tonight. If I came back with her
body, my people would love me for it.
I let my breath out slowly, and my thumb hovers over the safety on my
grandfather’s pistol tucked in my waistband. But that way is a pit, one my
sister couldn’t escape once she fell into it.
I’ve heard more stories about this girl than any ten other trodairí put
together. They claim she’s the only one unaffected by what the soldiers
call Avon’s Fury. Probably because she doesn’t need to fall back on that
thin excuse to commit violence against my people—according to the sto-
ries, she practically embraces it. They talk about how she single-handedly
cleared out the resistance cell on the southern edge of TerraDyn territory.
How the soldiers under her command are the fastest to respond, the frst
on the scene, the fercest fghters. How she skins rebels alive just for fun.
I wasn’t so sure about that last one until I saw how she looked at me
after I pulled my gun on her. But at least one of the stories is true. My
cousin Sean nearly got his head blown off by her platoon a week after
she took command, and when I asked him what she was like, he said she
was mind-twistingly hot. He had that part right. If only she weren’t a
murderer-for-hire.
My best hope is to force her to tell me what she knows about the
facility— maybe even get me inside for a look around—then split. At
least I’ll have a head start when the hunt begins.
I tear my eyes away and concentrate once more on the pole. The cur-
rach glides true through the water, my path lit only a few meters ahead
by my dim green lamp. I ought to feel better, lighter, with every minute I
put between us and the bright lights of the base, but I know this is not a
victory. The soldier in the bottom of my boat will stop at nothing to kill
me and escape when she wakes; and if the rest of the Fianna discover I
have her, they’ll stop at nothing to kill her. Our ceasefre will be over, my
people forced once more into a war they cannot hope to win.
I have to work fast.
This time the dream is fragmented, arriving in razor-edged shards
that don

t fit together and slice at her memory. The girl is on
Paradisa, and she

s trying to climb a wall. Time

s up, yells the ser-
geant, making her arms shiver with exhaustion as her toes scrabble
for purchase against the plastene.
She wants to let go and drop to the ground. But when she looks
down, her mother is there, with that always-tired sigh, that soft-
eyed hint of disappointment. Her father is there, hands grimy in
grav-engine grease, a bullet hole in his head.
The sergeant shouts at her again to give up and this time she
screams back, using a word that will later earn her a week digging
trenches.
There are too many ghosts down there to let go.
THREE
JUBILEE
I’VE GOT THE HANGOVER FROM HELL. My head’s pound-
ing; how much did I have to drink at Molly’s last night? Except that’s
impossible. I haven’t had a hangover since the morning after I was fnally
accepted into basic training. It was technically three weeks shy of my
sixteenth birthday, and therefore illegal for me to drink. But after I tried
to get into the military for three years running by lying about my age,
they fnally caved and bent the rules. What was three weeks? Odds were
I’d be dead within the year anyway. Might as well let the cannon fodder
have a few beers frst.
But once was enough. It wasn’t the drinking or even really the hang-
over that got me—it was being less than capable on my frst day of
training. There, all it meant was that I didn’t make the best frst impres-
sion on my instructors, and let my sparring partner pin me in less than a
minute. No big deal.
But out here, being at less than one hundred percent could mean
death. And I’ve never had more than a few drinks at a time since then.
So why do I feel like tossing the contents of my stomach all over the
foor?
The ground sways under me, and I force my eyes open, ignoring the
way my eyelids feel like they’re lined with sandpaper. The frst thing I
see is the blank, slate-gray expanse of Avon’s unchanging night sky. I try
to sit up and fall over sideways, making the foor shudder and sway; my
hands are bound and tied to something. A fash of agony rips up my side,
carrying with it the memory of a bullet splitting my skin.
“Bad idea, Captain,” says an infuriatingly cheerful voice somewhere
above and behind me. “If you capsize us, I don’t really fancy your chances
of swimming to solid ground while tied to a sinking boat.”
I lift my head, squinting at the guy standing backlit over me.
Romeo.
“At least if I drown,” I wheeze, my voice sounding like gravel, “your
friends won’t have the pleasure of stringing me up from the rafters at
your little hideout.”
Romeo narrows his eyes at me, brows drawing in as he pushes us off a
clump of vegetation with one of the long poles the natives use. “We don’t
hang soldiers,” he retorts with exaggerated outrage. “We burn them at
the stake. It takes ages to collect the fuel, given the landscape. It’s quite
a special occasion.”
I snort, using the sound to disguise the creak as I test the strength of
the boat rib I’m tied to. Despite how shoddy-looking the boat is, the rib
doesn’t give. But being tied up is the least of my problems.
Avon’s perpetual cloud cover means there’s no navigating by starlight,
the way we’re trained to do in survival situations. The swamp stretches
as far as the eye can see, giving me no reference points, no way to tell
what direction we’re going. Even the occasional spires of rock thrusting
upward look alike. They’re sharp as razor blades; Avon’s only had wind
and water to erode them for a few generations, barely a heartbeat in
geological time. The waterways between islands and foating masses of
vegetation shift so rapidly that from day to day, the same patch of swamp
can look entirely different. I have no idea where we are. And being lost,
on Avon, is deadlier than being a soldier in the middle of a pack of
bloodthirsty rebels.
There’s a dingy lantern hanging from a pole in the bow, casting a dim
light over the water. We must be far enough from the base that Romeo
feels safe using light. I strain my eyes, trying to get my bearings, but
all I get are spots swimming in front of my vision. My soldiers some-
times claim they can see things out here, lights that seem to lead off
into the swamp. The rebels call them will-o’-the-wisps, out of some fairy
tale from ancient Earth. In all my time here, I’ve never seen anything
but my own mind playing tricks on me—and, I suppose, the occasional
rebel lantern bobbing through the marsh. But when you’re surrounded
by nothingness, your eyes will create anything to keep you from feeling
alone. I blink hard to clear the spots dancing in front of my eyes.
“Why do this instead of killing me on the base?” I say fnally, twisting
my wrists, trying to see how much give there is in the rope. Not much.
It’s thick from repeated soakings, and stiff with age. “Are you planning
some public execution?”
Romeo’s lips press together more tightly, but this time he keeps his
eyes on the swamp ahead of us as he poles through the clumps of foat-
ing algae. “You really are insane.”
My mind is racing, taking stock of my injuries. My head aches from
the gas fumes, sending spikes of nausea rippling through me, and my
side hurts. But there doesn’t seem to be much blood, so he can’t have
wounded me that badly. “I don’t see why it’s crazy to want to know
exactly how you plan on murdering me.” I’m not done yet. All things
considered, I’m in decent shape. I can still get out of this.
“I don’t plan on murdering you at all.” Romeo still won’t meet my
eyes. “That might be your frst instinct, but it’s not mine. You’re going
to get me inside the facility you’ve been hiding from us and show me
exactly what you’re doing in there.”
“My frst instinct was to arrest you,” I snap. “You’re the one who
brought a gun to my bar.” I keep staring behind us, but there’s no sign of
the lights from the military base. “What facility?”
“The secret base to the east. It wasn’t there last week, and now there’s
a full setup. Buildings, security fencing, the works. I’ve seen it, you don’t
need to pretend. I want to know how you got it set up so fast, and with-
out anybody knowing. I want to know what it’s for.”
My hands go still, my attempt to escape momentarily forgotten.
“Secret base,” I echo, trying to quell the dread rising in my gut. It’s one
thing to be captured by a rebel. It’s another to be taken into the swamp
by a delusional madman.
“Act as surprised as you want,” he replies with a shrug. “But you’re
getting me inside that facility.”
His face is impassive, but he’s not as good at concealing his hand as
he thinks he is. There’s a thread of white-hot desperation in his features,
a tension pinching his lips and eyes I’ve seen before, countless times. For
the frst time, I wonder if he was telling the truth before, that he really
was in the bar looking for information—and not a target for that antique
gun of his.
My mind races. There’s no base to the east of us—even if the military
had the funding to expand to a second base in this part of TerraDyn’s
territory, which we don’t, there’d be no reason to keep it a secret. But he
believes it. I can see that as clearly as I can see his desperation.
This is a good thing, I tell myself. Even if he’s mad, he’s still only one guy. If I’d
ended up in their rebel hideout, I’d be dead for sure. But here...there’s still
a chance I could escape. For now, my only hope is to play along.
“So what is it you think you’re going to fnd in this secret facility?”
Romeo doesn’t answer straight away, leaving me watching as he poles
the boat through the swamp. Though there is an engine hanging off the
stern, he hasn’t touched it since I came to. This poling technique is one
a few of us have campaigned for training on from HQ, but to no avail.
We’re forced to navigate the swamps with noisy engines that get clogged
every fve minutes with swamp debris, while the natives slip through the
narrow corridors soundlessly. A military patrol could pass not ffty yards
away from us and never know we were here.
He pauses, withdrawing the pole and laying it across the boat so we
merely drift along with the sluggish current. He’s favoring his leg, which
has a makeshift bandage tied around it where I embedded that plastic
cocktail sword. It gives me a surge of satisfaction to think that he prob-
ably doesn’t have the tools out here to fsh out the broken piece. He
drops down onto the bench, letting me see his face more clearly. He still
looks oddly familiar, though I’m sure I would have remembered him if
we’d met before tonight. “What am I going to fnd?” he asks, reaching
for a canteen stowed underneath the seat and taking a long drink from
it. “You tell me.”
“I can’t tell you,” I say, trying to hide my irritation. And my thirst,
watching him swallow. Play along, I remind myself savagely. Earn his trust,
such as it is. Use it to get out of this mess. “I would if I could, but I’ve never
heard of a facility to the east.”
Romeo rolls his eyes. “Right. Well, there could be anything in there.
Weapons, maybe. Some new tool to fush us out of the caves, for all I
know. It has to be out of the ordinary for you to get it set up so fast, and
with such secrecy.”
I peer through the fog. It’s growing lighter, which means I must’ve
been unconscious for at least a few hours. Dawn is approaching. “That’s
what you risked capture for, snooping around on my base? We already
have weapons that outmatch yours ten to one. We’ve already tried every
state-of-the-art technology to fnd your hideout. This swamp of a planet
makes it impossible.”
Romeo grins at me, a smile that would be charming if there weren’t
something darker behind it. “All that effort to fnd me, and you say you
don’t like me?” He winks, holding the canteen up to my lips like it’s a
peace offering. I could kick at his knees—he didn’t tie my feet, and he’s
within reach now. I could knock him from his seat, have him in the
swamp before he knew what was going on.
But then what?
I give in to my thirst and lean forward to take a pull from the canteen.
I watched him drink from the same fask, so it’s not going to be poisoned
or drugged. Avon’s muddy-favored water never tasted so good.
Romeo sighs, setting the canteen back down when I’m fnished. “Look,
Captain.” He regards me with keen, thoughtful green eyes, as casual as if
he were chatting with a friend and not interrogating his enemy. “I want
a way out of this war for all of us. But frst I want to know why Avon is
generations behind where it should be on its terraforming schedule. You
say that facility out there isn’t military; if that’s true, then it belongs to
Terra Dynamics. I’m tired of them keeping secrets from us. The plan-
etary review’s coming up, and if someone’s deliberately slowing down
Avon’s progress, our side wants to know how.”
Surprise robs me of any clever retort. “You think there’s a secret facil-
ity in the middle of the swamp where we’re controlling the climate.”
His eyes cloud over, and without further warning he gets back to his
feet, bracing them against the ribs and reaching for the pole once more.
“I wouldn’t expect one of their hired guns to care anyway.”
Hired gun? I swallow down the impulse to lash back at him. If all I
wanted was money, there are about a thousand careers I could have cho-
sen instead of volunteering to get tossed onto this mudball and paid next
to nothing to keep the peace. I grit my teeth. “Why would we want to
stop Avon from developing, even if we could? What could the military or
TerraDyn possibly stand to gain from that?”
“If Avon stays like this, too unstable to support a bigger popula-
tion, we’ll never have enough leverage to pass the planetary review and
be declared independent. We should be farmers by now, not fghters. We
should be leading our own lives, earning wages, trading, able to come
and go from Avon as we please. Instead we’re stuck here. No voice in
the Galactic Council, no leverage, no rights.”
He’s got a surprising grasp of the politics of the situation, for some-
one who probably stopped going to school before he was ten years old.
“You really think TerraDyn’s goal is to sit here and oppress a bunch of
backwater terra-trash? They paid good money to create this part of the
world. I don’t see how they start making that money back until Avon
starts producing enough goods to export.”
Romeo’s jaw tightens. “They must. Otherwise, you tell me why
nobody’s trying to fnd out why we’re all still algae farmers and water
testers.”
“Not all of you are,” I point out dryly. “Some of you are thieves and
murderers and anarchists living underground.”
“Why, Jubilee,” he says, grinning when the use of my full name makes
my cheek twitch with irritation. “I had no idea you admired me so.”
I refuse to dignify that with a response, and fall silent. I have no
answer to his question. Terraforming experts come and go, but Avon
never changes. And it’s true that while Avon’s lack of development
prompts a new investigation every few years, the results are always the
same: cause unknown. If Romeo would stop asking so many questions,
he and his so-called Fianna would be a lot better off.
Dawn has well and truly broken now, as much as dawn ever comes
on Avon. In the thick, cold fog, the edges of the world slip away, leaving
only our little boat and the sloshing of the water as the pole dips in and
out. Romeo’s breath catches with each effort, hitching and stopping as
he strains against the pole, then exhaling the rest of the way as he eases
back and lifts it for another stroke.
He’s not using a compass. Compasses are useless on Avon anyway,
which doesn’t have the right kind of magnetic feld, and Avon’s weather
patterns make satellite signals as unreliable as our broadcasts on the base.
Even when they do work, with the way the canals shift and vanish due to
foating islands of vegetation, the SatNav can get us into as much trouble
as a compass would.
But Romeo seems to have an innate understanding of the world he
lives in. Like he’s got a receiver hardwired into his brain, getting signals
directly from Avon. We never run aground, we never get stuck on the
foating islands. As far as I can tell, we never have to double back or
change course.
I keep watching him, trying to understand how he does it. If I can
learn the trick of it, maybe I can fnd my way back to base if I get free.
He turns to navigate around a denser clump of vegetation and I lower
my eyes, studying the way he shifts his weight to compensate. I lift my
eyes only to realize he’s turned back around and is watching me watch
him with one eyebrow raised.
I’m not sure which would be worse, him thinking I’m eyeing the gun
at his hip, or him assuming I’m staring at his ass. I jerk my gaze away and
give up on trying to study my captor. We move through the waterways
in silence for the next half hour or more, my head pounding and his
expression grim.
Abruptly, the bottom of the boat scrapes along mud and reeds and
gravel, splitting the quiet with a screech.
“Ah,” says Romeo, bracing one foot against the bench and leaning
down to clip the pole back to the side of the boat. “We’re here.”
All I can see is fog. He moves around behind me, brows drawing
together in a silent warning against an attack as he bends to untie me. I
clench my jaw so hard a line of pain runs up behind my ear to join seam-
lessly with the throbbing at the back of my skull. I could probably disable
him, but we both know that without some idea of where we are, his
people are just as likely—more likely—to fnd me than mine. I have to
wait for a better chance. If only he were right, and there were a base here,
I’d have the advantage. But a base means people—and where is the air
traffc, the patrols, the static defenses? There’s only silence.
His fngers tug at the rope, warm as they brush the skin on my wrists,
and with a sudden release of pressure, I’m free. I press my lips together
hard against the bolt of agony that comes as circulation returns. He gri-
maces in reply, as though he’s actually sorry for the pain, and curls his
hands gently around my bare wrists, fngers massaging the blood back. I
shake his hands off, too irritated to accept any gesture of help. He rolls
his eyes and climbs out of the boat, landing on the marshy ground with
a squelch.
My fngers tingle with pins and needles as I grasp the gunwale and
climb out after him. The fog is too thick to see anything, but he’s still
acting like he knows where he’s going. “So? Where is this place?” I ask.
“It’s up here. I was here a couple of hours ago.” He’s utterly confdent
as he moves, keeping his voice down. His gun’s on his left hip, but he
keeps me on his right with a vise-like grip on my arm. I fnd myself step-
ping softly, like I really might fnd myself on the wrong end of a sentry
challenge, which is ridiculous—except after surviving this long on Avon,
I’d hate to go down under friendly fre.
He leads me forward a few steps, but we haven’t gone far when even
I know something’s wrong. His hold on me is tense, his face void of all
smugness.
Then the fog clears, just for a moment. Just long enough for us to see
that the stretch of solid land ahead of us is empty, barren of everything
but weeds and rocks and untouched mud. The far side of the island dips
back down into the water, which stretches on, uninterrupted but for the
occasional distant outcropping of bare rock.
We both stare, though I don’t know why. I didn’t believe him—I
never believed him. And yet, standing on this empty stretch of island,
my stomach sinking and ears ringing, I’m surprised. I jerk my arm away,
stumbling backward with the effort. “Why did you bring me here?” I spit
the words, fsts clenched against the urge to strike out at him. “What was
the point? Why not just dump me somewhere out there in the swamps?”
But he’s not looking at me. He’s still staring, though the curtain of
fog has closed again and there’s nothing to be seen. “It was here,” he’s
saying. “This is exactly the place. I don’t understand—it was right—”
“Stop!” My shout brings him up short, and he turns on his heel, blink-
ing at me. “I want an answer. Why did you bring me here?”
“Jubilee,” he murmurs, one fst relaxing and reaching toward me,
palm up. So charming, so open, like we’re friends. This guy oozes cha-
risma from his pores—if he’d been born on a legitimate planet, he’d have
been a politician. “I swear it was here. I’m not lying to you.”
“Your promises don’t mean much to me, Romeo,” I snap.
“They can’t have left without a trace,” he says, clearing his throat and
striding past me. “There was an entire facility here—fences, buildings,
crates, aircraft. Help me look, there’s got to be a sign. Footprints, foun-
dations, anything.”
While his eyes scan the mud, searching for his so-called signs, it gives
me a chance to scan his features. He’s frustrated. More than frustrated—
he’s scared. Confused. He really believes there was something here.
I’ve got to humor him if I’ve got any hope of returning to the base
alive.
It’s a large island, and Romeo drags me through the mist, along the
edge of the vegetation. He’s too cautious to let me out of his sight, but
I’m not stupid enough to make a bid for freedom here. One wrong step
and it’ll be a long, slow sink beneath the surface, with plenty of time to
think about what a pointless way that is to go.
Humor him. Play nice. Talk him into sending you back.
The after effects from that gas can are still with me, long after they
should’ve dissipated. My mouth tastes oddly metallic, like blood, and my
pulse rushes unnaturally loud in my ears. I take a deep breath and try to
focus. I fnd myself longing for the stars, the openness of the sky you
never see on Avon. The fog has closed in again, and it’s impossible to see
more than a few yards ahead, leaving me suspended in a world of gray
and white. I have to keep my eyes on the ground to keep my balance,
because looking out through the fog tricks my eyes into thinking I’m
foating.
Luckily, Romeo doesn’t seem to have noticed. Maybe he chalks my
stumbling up to the fact that he keeps jerking me along by the wrist.
We’ve covered about half the shoreline when Romeo halts and lets go of
me, gazing around with confusion.
Abruptly, a light blossoms in front of my eyes. Pale green, swaying
gently from side to side, it’s no more than a few inches across. It dances
there for a moment and I freeze, and as Romeo turns to start moving
again, I realize he doesn’t see it.
Then the world slides sideways.
My vision fickers, the taste of metal in my mouth growing overpow-
ering. Suddenly I’m not seeing fog and mud and emptiness; I’m not even
seeing the wisp. An entire building fashes into existence, and between
it and me, a high chain-link fence. And just beyond it, a fgure in black
clothes and some kind of mask, staring expressionlessly through its visor
at me.
I drop to my hands and knees, blinded, choking on metal and finch-
ing as the impact jars the wound in my side. When I lift my head again
the vision is gone, but my hand encounters a sharp object digging into
my palm. My fngers close around it. All around me rises a quick, fren-
zied susurration, like the wind through grass, or aspen leaves quivering
in a storm. But Avon has no grass, and Avon has no aspen trees.
Everything goes black, and then the whispering is gone as abruptly
as it started. Suddenly I hear Romeo shouting at me, his voice urgent. I
open my eyes to fnd his face close to mine, gripping me by the shoulder.
“What’s going on? Get up!” He’s drawn his gun; he thinks I’m faking.
“Don’t know.” I slide the thing I found into my boot with a shaking
hand. I can’t stop to examine it now; whatever it is, it’s regular, plastic,
man-made. There’s no reason this would turn up here on its own.
“Stay here, I’ll get you some water.” He starts to release me, but I grab
at his chest, gripping a handful of his shirt. The canteen.
“You drugged me,” I gasp, my vision spinning away like the fog eddy-
ing around us. My body’s shaking, shivering in his grasp like I’m on the
verge of hypothermia.
“I—what?” Romeo peers closer. “Why would I— Stop, calm down.”
He grabs hold of my shoulders again and gives me a tiny shake, my head
snapping back as though I’m too tired to lift it.
Something in my mind is screaming to be heard, something—
something about his hands, gripping my arms, supporting me. Both
hands.
If both hands are on my shoulders, then where is the gun?
There, on the ground by his feet. I fail out for the old-fashioned
pistol, only a few inches from my fngertips. My shaking fngers fumble
with the grip, clumsy with whatever drug is coursing through my system.
Romeo spots the movement. Somehow, despite drinking from the
canteen himself, he’s unaffected; he gives an inarticulate cry and lunges
for the weapon. “Goddammit, Jubilee—give it a rest for fve seconds!”
“Never,” I gasp, dropping to the spongy, wet earth, too weak to stand
without his support. Whatever he did to me, it’s getting worse.
Slowly, the sound of whispering is overtaking my hearing once more.
I reach for Romeo, but I don’t know if I’m trying to get the gun back
from him or hold myself up. He shoves the pistol into his waistband, out
of my reach, and my vision clouds again.
It isn’t until I feel arms wrapping around my waist and a heartbeat
by my ear that I realize I’m slipping out of consciousness, and Romeo’s
carry ing me the rest of the way back to his boat.