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Hyperion Los Angeles New York


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


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—it’s okay. Shhh. I’m right here.”

“What? I—sorry, beautiful. I was dreaming.”

here.” “What? I—sorry, beautiful. I was dreaming.” “No kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to
here.” “What? I—sorry, beautiful. I was dreaming.” “No kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to
here.” “What? I—sorry, beautiful. I was dreaming.” “No kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to

“No kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?”

kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” “Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been
kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” “Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been
kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” “Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been
kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” “Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been
kidding. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” “Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been

“Mmm. You’re warm. You’ve been stealing the blankets again.”

You’re warm. You’ve been stealing the blankets again.” “Stop trying to distract me. I thought I

“Stop trying to distract me. I thought I was supposed to be

trying to distract me. I thought I was supposed to be the one with the nightmares.”
trying to distract me. I thought I was supposed to be the one with the nightmares.”

the one with the nightmares.”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

nightmares.” “You’re not going to let this go, are you?” “Do I ever?” “Good point.” “Who’s

“Do I ever?”

“Good point.”

“Who’s Sanjana?”







ONE THE SUN’S WARM ON THE BACK OF MY NECK, bird- song filtering down from the
ONE THE SUN’S WARM ON THE BACK OF MY NECK, bird- song filtering down from the



ONE THE SUN’S WARM ON THE BACK OF MY NECK, bird- song filtering down from the

song filtering 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 fiber composite of my flak 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 flower, 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-five, this is HQ. Do you read? Over.” Fisk raises a brow as I thumb the talk-patch and reply. “HQ, three-six- five. 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-five 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 find 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 field 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 figures 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 fitted 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 find 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 fine, 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.

“It’s too late to shout at you now for going in there, isn’t it?”

late to shout at you now for going in there, isn’t it?” “You’ve shouted at me
late to shout at you now for going in there, isn’t it?” “You’ve shouted at me
late to shout at you now for going in there, isn’t it?” “You’ve shouted at me

“You’ve shouted at me for plenty of other reasons.”

“You’ve shouted at me for plenty of other reasons.” “Well, you do insist on being brave

“Well, you do insist on being brave a lot.”

reasons.” “Well, you do insist on being brave a lot.” “Of the two of us, Lilac,
reasons.” “Well, you do insist on being brave a lot.” “Of the two of us, Lilac,

“Of the two of us, Lilac, I think you still win in the category

the two of us, Lilac, I think you still win in the category of doing stupidly

of doing stupidly brave things.”

still win in the category of doing stupidly brave things.” “He was on your mind a

“He was on your mind a lot, wasn’t he?”

things.” “He was on your mind a lot, wasn’t he?” “Who, Fisk?” “Alec. He was on
things.” “He was on your mind a lot, wasn’t he?” “Who, Fisk?” “Alec. He was on
things.” “He was on your mind a lot, wasn’t he?” “Who, Fisk?” “Alec. He was on

“Who, Fisk?”

“Alec. He was on your mind when you were delirious, too.”

“Alec. He was on your mind when you were delirious, too.” “I don’t think something like

“I don’t think something like that ever changes.”

“Alec. He was on your mind when you were delirious, too.” “I don’t think something like
TWO THE COURTYARD IS EMPTY NOW, except for the white-coated figure sprawled on the far


THE COURTYARD IS EMPTY NOW, except for the white-coated figure 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 first time they see combat—for the first 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

the sight of three white-coated researchers backed up against a wall, with half a dozen armor-clad

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 rifles, the kind whose shots aren’t stopped by armor or metal, like those from my sidearm are. For the first 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 finished 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 floor, slowly, two fingers.” I comply, though it kills me to ease my Gleidel down and set it on the floor, 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 flak 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 floor. 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-five. Please acknowledge, over.” The patch crackles to life. “Three-six-five, go ahead, over.” I want to shout a warning, I want to fight. 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-five, 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 flash 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 flash 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 offices 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 office doors, and I glance right, then left—I like the office 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 flinching, without any sign of regret; a rueful half-smile flickers 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 first 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 finished, 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 fight. “Don’t try to escape,” he says quietly. “You cause problems, he’ll shoot me first, 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 look like your head’s about to explode, Lilac.”

“You look like your head’s about to explode, Lilac.” “But that I could kill him. He
“You look like your head’s about to explode, Lilac.” “But that I could kill him. He
“You look like your head’s about to explode, Lilac.” “But that I could kill him. He

“But that


could kill him. He was in uniform.”

“But that I could kill him. He was in uniform.” “He saved my life.” “It shouldn’t
“But that I could kill him. He was in uniform.” “He saved my life.” “It shouldn’t

“He saved my life.”

kill him. He was in uniform.” “He saved my life.” “It shouldn’t have been in danger

“It shouldn’t have been in danger in the first place.”

“It shouldn’t have been in danger in the first place.” “No, but he still—it’s more complicated
“It shouldn’t have been in danger in the first place.” “No, but he still—it’s more complicated

“No, but he still—it’s more complicated than that.”

place.” “No, but he still—it’s more complicated than that.” “Everything about this story is, isn’t it?”
place.” “No, but he still—it’s more complicated than that.” “Everything about this story is, isn’t it?”

“Everything about this story is, isn’t it?”

place.” “No, but he still—it’s more complicated than that.” “Everything about this story is, isn’t it?”


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 office. 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 scuffling sound comes from the other side of the vent, and I remember: the researchers are locked in offices, 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 muffled 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.”

memories, so we have to go. I promise you, the only thing you can do from


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 inflection I heard in Little Bangalore, on the northern continent of Corinth, when I was there on leave. I won- der, fleetingly, 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 fill me with confidence.” Against all the odds, her quip makes me laugh, and my breath comes a little easier. “Not my finest 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 office.” 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 muffled 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 finish

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, confident. “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 find 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, finally: “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 find 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 firms, 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 flinch when missiles fly overhead. There’s a head- space for that kind of thing, and I need to find 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 fighting.

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 crossfire. 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 finally. “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 fingers 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 fire 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 fight another day.” “Oh, thank God.” She sinks down onto my chair, nursing her bruised fingers. “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 infiltrate.” Her gaze acknowledges the irony of that and confirms 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 flow, 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 fight to them.”

“I like Sanjana.”

“I like Sanjana.” “Me too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do
“I like Sanjana.” “Me too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do

“Me too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do

too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do what had to be
too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do what had to be
too. Reminds me of another girl I know. Not afraid to do what had to be

what had to be done.”

girl I know. Not afraid to do what had to be done.” “Is this story going
girl I know. Not afraid to do what had to be done.” “Is this story going

“Is this story going to end badly for her? Something about it

this story going to end badly for her? Something about it gives you nightmares.” “Just sometimes.

gives you nightmares.”

“Just sometimes. I have them about that other girl, too.”

sometimes. I have them about that other girl, too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to
sometimes. I have them about that other girl, too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to
sometimes. I have them about that other girl, too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to

“Oh, Tarver.”

I have them about that other girl, too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to sleep,

“We’re not going back to sleep, are we?”

too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to sleep, are we?” “I’ll make us something hot
too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to sleep, are we?” “I’ll make us something hot

“I’ll make us something hot to drink.”

too.” “Oh, Tarver.” “We’re not going back to sleep, are we?” “I’ll make us something hot



FOUR WE CAN SPARE ONLY A FEW MINUTES to make a plan. Assuming Sanjana’s friend Nico
FOUR WE CAN SPARE ONLY A FEW MINUTES to make a plan. Assuming Sanjana’s friend Nico
FOUR WE CAN SPARE ONLY A FEW MINUTES to make a plan. Assuming Sanjana’s friend Nico

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 offices 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 office, 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 flash 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 office, I take up a position at the door, Gleidel in hand, keeping watch. She hurries across to the console, her uninjured fingers flying over the keys. From the way the other hand’s starting to bruise and swell, I think the door might have broken some fingers. She brings up the projection display and settles in to work in silence, direct- ing files and issuing commands with flicks 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 flashes 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-

want me. As soon as they figure out

lectual property. Which means

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.”

would hire mercenaries this good just to

steal a glorified seat belt?” “You’re calling my life’s work a glorified 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 fixed 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 classified,

to say the least. It’s all theoretical right now, but if it works, it’ll be revolu-

I guess being fired is the least of my worries right now.

tionary. Still

Imagine a big electromagnet, whose field 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

“That makes no sense



the ship. Like a ground wire. It’s a brand-new way of doing it, much more efficient.” “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 fields would interfere with each other.” “And ?”

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 flaw for months. It’s not just ships. If a ship outfitted 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 first 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 facility

was my father’s?”
my father’s?”
“The facility was my father’s?” “It meant nothing to me at the time. I assumed Sanjana

“It meant nothing to me at the time. I assumed Sanjana

“It meant nothing to me at the time. I assumed Sanjana was right, that some other
“It meant nothing to me at the time. I assumed Sanjana was right, that some other
“It meant nothing to me at the time. I assumed Sanjana was right, that some other

was right, that some other corporation was trying to steal their

right, that some other corporation was trying to steal their technology in order to weaponize it.
right, that some other corporation was trying to steal their technology in order to weaponize it.
right, that some other corporation was trying to steal their technology in order to weaponize it.
right, that some other corporation was trying to steal their technology in order to weaponize it.

technology in order to weaponize it. But now ”

steal their technology in order to weaponize it. But now ” “Now you think he sent

“Now you think he sent the mercenaries in to level his own

“Now you think he sent the mercenaries in to level his own base. Oh, God.” “I

base. Oh, God.”

sent the mercenaries in to level his own base. Oh, God.” “I think that technology came
sent the mercenaries in to level his own base. Oh, God.” “I think that technology came

“I think that technology came from what they used to contain

think that technology came from what they used to contain the rift back on our planet.
think that technology came from what they used to contain the rift back on our planet.
think that technology came from what they used to contain the rift back on our planet.

the rift back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying

back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking
back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking
back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking
back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking
back on our planet. That’s what your father was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking

to hide when Sanjana started asking questions.”

was trying to hide when Sanjana started asking questions.” “What she was talking about—that potential catastrophe,

“What she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s

she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew
she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew
she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew
she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew
she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew
she was talking about—that potential catastrophe, that’s what happened to the Icarus . My father knew

what happened to the Icarus. My father knew it could God,

what happened to the Icarus . My father knew it could God, Tarver, I can’t—” “Lilac,
Tarver, I can’t—”
Tarver, I can’t—”

“Lilac, he couldn’t have known. He wouldn’t have let you on

he couldn’t have known. He wouldn’t have let you on board if he’d thought there was
he couldn’t have known. He wouldn’t have let you on board if he’d thought there was
he couldn’t have known. He wouldn’t have let you on board if he’d thought there was

board if he’d thought there was any danger.”

let you on board if he’d thought there was any danger.” “No. He would just murder
let you on board if he’d thought there was any danger.” “No. He would just murder

“No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers

was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid
was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid
was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid
was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid

to avoid having to answer questions.”

was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid
was any danger.” “No. He would just murder a half a dozen innocent researchers to avoid


I’M ABOUT FIVE TO REPLY WHEN I HEAR A SOUND up the hall- way. I hold



I’M ABOUT FIVE TO REPLY WHEN I HEAR A SOUND up the hall- way. I hold

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 office 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 office, 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 flicks 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 office. “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 fire or an earthquake, all the office 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 finger, “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 find 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 flipping 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 floodlights 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 first 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 floodlights 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 floodlights would flare 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, flashlight 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, fighting 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 muffles 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 newsvids didn’t say anything about hostages getting

“The newsvids didn’t say anything about hostages getting shot.” “They never broadcast the defeats. Only the


“They never broadcast the defeats. Only the triumphs.”

“They never broadcast the defeats. Only the triumphs.” “All those medals, your promotion to major, the
“They never broadcast the defeats. Only the triumphs.” “All those medals, your promotion to major, the
“They never broadcast the defeats. Only the triumphs.” “All those medals, your promotion to major, the

“All those medals, your promotion to major, the publicity trip

those medals, your promotion to major, the publicity trip on the Icarus ” “For show. Meant

on the Icarus


“For show. Meant nothing.”

“Stop that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen

that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make
that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make
that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make
that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make
that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make
that. You survived, and you got at least half a dozen hostages out. Did they make

hostages out. Did they make that up too? Just because you

hostages out. Did they make that up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean
hostages out. Did they make that up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean
hostages out. Did they make that up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean
hostages out. Did they make that up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean

couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean you’re any less of a—”

up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean you’re any less of a—” “A
up too? Just because you couldn’t save everyone doesn’t mean you’re any less of a—” “A
“A what?” “A hero.”
“A what?”
“A hero.”


GUARD to start

moving again, not with his boss walking toward the row of offices 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 flashlight swings across our bodies. “Stop,” he shouts, and I yank the door open, every nerve in my body on fire. 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, find 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 flashlight 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 reflexes of a seasoned soldier, and I hold my fire, 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.”

backup here—just switching these off isn’t going to trigger the release protocol.” WE CAN’T AFFORD TO


backup here—just switching these off isn’t going to trigger the release protocol.” WE CAN’T AFFORD TO


“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 flies 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 figure 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 fire again, and this time they return fire, 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 fire 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 rifles, or just to get my flak 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 fizzing, flames 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 fire 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- fire. 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 flame, grabbing a handful of wires and hauling with all her might. The world goes black.

“Was she

“Was she ?” “I’ll get us some more tea.”


“Was she ?” “I’ll get us some more tea.”
“Was she ?” “I’ll get us some more tea.”

“I’ll get us some more tea.”

“Was she ?” “I’ll get us some more tea.”


EVERY SOUND IS AMPLIFIED now that we’re blinded so com-

EVERY SOUND IS AMPLIFIED now that we’re blinded so com- pletely. I hear Sanjana cry out

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 fire—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 flashlights, 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 flashlight doesn’t find 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 rifle, 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 muffled 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 figure sitting inside one of the offices, and my rifle 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 finished with her. Sanjana stumbles as we turn the corner to make for the offices. “I don’t think I can—” She gasps, muffled, as she stops by the first 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 office door nearest us opens, and a silhouette emerges—it’s a man, holding something with a faintly illuminated screen. An e-filer, maybe. It outlines his features as he steps forward, hesitant. “Sanjana?” “Jacob,” she whispers, hoarse. He hurries forward, lifting the e-filer so he can get a look at us in its glow. The light gives me my first 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 office doors fly 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 terrified 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 offices 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 office 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 amplified, 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 first 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 fire, 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 floor. 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 figure 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 fired blindly in the dark. But his gun doesn’t waver, the sights fixed 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, fingers 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 figure 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 gunfire. 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 first of the armor-clad figures comes barreling around the corner, and I lift the rifle to return fire, 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 rifle 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 fire 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.”


T 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

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.”

would I have told you?


year of training couldn’t have prepared me for dealing with you.” would I have told you?


Lilac laughs, the sound easing the bands of tension wrapping around my rib cage. “Why, Major, you do know how to flatter 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, fixed on my face. “She doesn’t know that LRI is the one who sent those mercs. Hell, we

don’t even know that

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.”

not for sure.”

“This thing


my father, with our planet, with us. It’s not over.”

It terrifies 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.


“Sanjana. She should know the truth about my father. About LaRoux Industries.” “I know. Maybe we can find 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



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 find chapters from These Broken Stars and This Shattered World, the first 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 finding out more. If you’d like to receive behind the scenes peeks at our stories, exclusive news and giveaways, writing tips and book recommendations, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter at—we’ll make sure you never miss out! And of course, if you enjoyed this story, or any other, please think about leaving a review online, to help other readers discover it too! To pre-order a copy of This Shattered World and receive a limited edition poster of the cover, click here. See you next time!

a copy of This Shattered World and receive a limited edition poster of the cover, click
“When did you first meet Miss LaRoux?” “Three days before the accident.” “And how did

“When did you first meet Miss LaRoux?”

“When did you first meet Miss LaRoux?” “Three days before the accident.” “And how did that

“Three days before the accident.”

meet Miss LaRoux?” “Three days before the accident.” “And how did that come about?” “The accident?”

“And how did that come about?”

before the accident.” “And how did that come about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could
before the accident.” “And how did that come about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could

“The accident?”

“And how did that come about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly
“And how did that come about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly
“And how did that come about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly

“Meeting Miss LaRoux.”

about?” “The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly matter?” “Major, everything

“How could it possibly matter?”

“The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly matter?” “Major, everything matters.”
“The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly matter?” “Major, everything matters.”

“Major, everything matters.”

“The accident?” “Meeting Miss LaRoux.” “How could it possibly matter?” “Major, everything matters.”

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 filtered and fake. The candles in the sconces do flicker, 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 fingers 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


spines, then pull one free. Nobody here reads them; the books are for decoration. Chosen for

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 field officers 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 fill of shots of me with drink in hand, lounging in the first-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, officers in dress uniforms like mine, men in evening coats and top hats. The ebb and flow 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 fits 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 fit, 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, fingers 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 flash 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 finish, all three women are posed around me, lips pursed and lashes lowered. Smile for the cameras. A series of flashes 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 fledged 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 first 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 flash 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, flawless 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 fixed 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 first. 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 floor. The crowd recoils, finally giving me an avenue toward the table. The intruder has grabbed her elbow, urgent. She’s trying to pull away,

eyes flashing 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 officers, 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 officers, who take him firmly 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 officers 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 scuffle 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 efficiencies. My promotions were made in the field. 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, fight, 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 fire 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 find 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, fixing 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 officers 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 firmly 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 finger 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 find 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 officers. 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 finding 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, finally 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 find 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 flattery’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 classified?” 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 flute. Though she hides it well, there’s a flicker 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 fingers 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 accident.”

next encountered her ?” “The day of the accident.” “What were your intentions at that stage?”

“What were your intentions at that stage?”

accident.” “What were your intentions at that stage?” “I had none.” “Why not?” “You’re joking,
accident.” “What were your intentions at that stage?” “I had none.” “Why not?” “You’re joking,
accident.” “What were your intentions at that stage?” “I had none.” “Why not?” “You’re joking,
“I had none.” “Why not?”
“I had none.”
“Why not?”

“You’re joking, right?”

had none.” “Why not?” “You’re joking, right?” “Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found

“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.”

right?” “Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it
right?” “Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it

“I found out who she was. That it was over before I even said

“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it was
“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it was
“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it was
“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.” “I found out who she was. That it 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 verifies the man in the cheap hat didn’t intend to harm me. I could tell he wasn’t dangerous, though. It’s

hardly the first 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 field? 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 filled 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 filling-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 fifty 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 finally to a starry sky more brilliant than any you could find on a planet. Back home on Corinth there are no stars, only the gentle pink glow of the city lights reflected in the atmosphere, and the holographic displays of fireworks 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 fixed 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 officer, 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 fixed 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 officer 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 flash 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 flinches, 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 fixed 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 find 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 flickering 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 fixed 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 backfires.” There’s little reaction to be seen at first on Major Merendsen’s face, merely a subtle closing down of the amused eyes, a tightening of the firm 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 first, 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 officer 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 flashing, 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 fix 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 incident occurred?”

“You next saw her when the incident occurred?” “That’s correct.” “Did you try to figure out

“That’s correct.”

her when the incident occurred?” “That’s correct.” “Did you try to figure out what was happening?”

“Did you try to figure out what was happening?”

“Did you try to figure out what was happening?” “You’re not military, you don’t understand how
“Did you try to figure out what was happening?” “You’re not military, you don’t understand how

“You’re not military, you don’t understand how we work. I’m

not military, you don’t understand how we work. I’m not supposed to ask questions. I was

not supposed to ask questions. I was just following orders.”

supposed to ask questions. I was just following orders.” “What orders were those?” “We have a
supposed to ask questions. I was just following orders.” “What orders were those?” “We have a

“What orders were those?”

was just following orders.” “What orders were those?” “We have a duty to protect civilians.” “So

“We have a duty to protect civilians.”

were those?” “We have a duty to protect civilians.” “So there wasn’t a specific order that
were those?” “We have a duty to protect civilians.” “So there wasn’t a specific order that
were those?” “We have a duty to protect civilians.” “So there wasn’t a specific order that

“So there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?”

there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?” “Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact,
there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?” “Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact,
there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?” “Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact,

“Now you’re nitpicking.”

that drove your decision?” “Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you

“We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you tried to do

“Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you tried to do the

the same.”

“Now you’re nitpicking.” “We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you tried to do the


TARVER THE AIR LEAVES MY LUNGS WITH A RUSH, pain shooting up my back as I
TARVER THE AIR LEAVES MY LUNGS WITH A RUSH, pain shooting up my back as I

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 fist 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 officer down here is the sergeant overseeing the sparring, and he’s not about to tell us to watch our mouths. Well—the only officer 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 fingers. I draw a breath, and before I can move, the sergeant is leaning down to stick his hand between us, showing me the flat 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 officer.” 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 officer, 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 official training, rather than out in the field 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 filters 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 field 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 first 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 flicker 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 first 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 spacesickness. 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 flight. 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 difficulty 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 firmly in the camp that reads up on all the safety information the moment they get a chance. You develop that attitude after your first 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 find 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, fighting 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 first 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 significant gravitational field, enough to pull the Icarus out of her flight


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, flashing 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 flooding 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 floor 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 fighting 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 flash 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 floor 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 dont know theres 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.

and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and lanterns crisscrossing overhead. No one
and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and lanterns crisscrossing overhead. No one
and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and lanterns crisscrossing overhead. No one
and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and lanterns crisscrossing overhead. No one
and disappear into the bright patchwork maze of laundry lines and lanterns crisscrossing overhead. No one




T ME from the other end of the

THERE’S A GUY STARING A T ME from the other end of the bar. I can

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. Definitely a recruit, with something to prove, like they all do at first. 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-fitting, 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 first 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.

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 fin- gers as I hold my drink. Scratch that—I’d remember this guy if I’d seen

him before.

But this guy


“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 fight 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 shuffling 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 flick the condensation on my fingertips at him, and he flinches 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 official 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 field 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 filling 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 fish 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 fix 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 flirt.

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 find 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 flinch 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 find 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 fidgets with the plastic sword, weaving it back and forth through my fingers. “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 flow 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 firm. 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 finally. “And not a local. Quite the little puzzle. You’re not going to leave me so unsatisfied, are you?” “Unsatisfied?” The guy’s smile doesn’t flicker 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 wildfire after my first few days here. I don’t reply, scanning his features and trying to figure 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 fingers 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’ ceasefire—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 first 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 fire it. And if this blows up into a firefight, 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 infiltrate 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 officer, 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 fight.

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 mothers 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.

a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of
a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of
a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of
a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of
a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of
a lit firecracker from the biggest boy. Her skin crawls with the hiss and heat of

PAIN SEARS DOWN MY LEG, and my grip loosens for an instant. She’s away like a flash.

I have only a split second to act, and if I miss, she’s going to kill me.

second to act, and if I miss, she’s going to kill me. I leap back as

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 find 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 fighting for my family, my home, my free- dom. She’s fighting for a goddamn paycheck. For a long moment there’s only the harsh staccato of our breathing as we fight to get ahead of one another. Then my hand finds 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 fingers 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- ouflage myself with the mud at our feet. Her skin’s brown and more difficult 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.


shift my grip on the gun, letting it press against her a little harder.


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 pacifist 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 find 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 ceasefire 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, mudflats 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 floating clumps of vegetation mean the waterways are constantly shifting—deeper, shallower, interconnecting in different ways each week as mud and algae flow 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 flow 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 flat-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 find 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 flick 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 fist 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 find 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 camouflage 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 fine 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 first

on the scene, the fiercest fighters. 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 ceasefire 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 dont fit together and slice at her memory. The girl is on Paradisa, and shes trying to climb a wall. Times 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.

back , using a word that will later earn her a week digging trenches. There are
back , using a word that will later earn her a week digging trenches. There are
back , using a word that will later earn her a week digging trenches. There are
back , using a word that will later earn her a week digging trenches. There are
back , using a word that will later earn her a week digging trenches. There are





HANGOVER FROM HELL. My head’s pound-

THE THREE JUBILEE HANGOVER FROM HELL. My head’s pound- ing; how much did I have to

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 finally 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 finally 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 first. 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 first day of training. There, all it meant was that I didn’t make the best first 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 floor? The ground sways under me, and I force my eyes open, ignoring the way my eyelids feel like they’re lined with sandpaper. The first 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 floor shudder and sway; my hands are bound and tied to something. A flash 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 floating 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 finally, 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 float- 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 first 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 first 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 first 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

a chance I could escape. For now, my only hope is to play along. “So what is it you think you’re going to find 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 five minutes with swamp debris, while the natives slip through the narrow corridors soundlessly. A military patrol could pass not fifty 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 fish 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 find?” 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 flush 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

there’s still

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 find 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 find 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 flask, so it’s not going to be poisoned or drugged. Avon’s muddy-flavored water never tasted so good. Romeo sighs, setting the canteen back down when I’m finished. “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 first 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 fighters. 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 find 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 field, 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

floating 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 floating 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 find 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 find 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 traffic, the patrols, the static defenses? There’s only silence. His fingers 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, fingers 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 fingers 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 confident 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 find myself step- ping softly, like I really might find 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 fire. 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, fists 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 fist 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 find 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 floating. 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 flickers, 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 flashes into existence, and between

it and me, a high chain-link fence. And just beyond it, a figure 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 flinch- 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 fingers 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 find 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 flail out for the old-fashioned pistol, only a few inches from my fingertips. My shaking fingers 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 five 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 carrying me the rest of the way back to his boat.

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