From the moment she took a job on Captain Caldswell's doomed ship, Devi Morris's life has been one disaster after another: government conspiracies, two alien races out for her blood, an incurable virus that's eating her alive.
Now, with the captain missing and everyone-even her own government-determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi's never been one to shy from a fight, and she's getting mighty sick of running.
It's time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.
About the Author
Rachel also writes fantasy under the name Rachel Aaron. Learn more about her first series, The Legend of Eli Monpress, and read sample chapters for yourself at rachelaaron.net!
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By Rachel Bach
OrbitCopyright © 2014 Rachel Bach
All rights reserved.
I've woken up in a lot of weird places in my life, but coming to in a xith'cal escape pod was pushing it even for me.
I woke with a start, jumping so sharply I would have put a fist through something if I hadn't had the foresight to lock my suit. Fortunately I had, so all I did was bang around a little.
I glanced at my cameras to see Rupert smiling over his shoulder at me. In the normal run of things, I would have counted waking up to an attractive man's smile as a plus, but my relationship with Rupert Charkov was a thorny, complicated mess at the moment, so I mumbled a hello and looked away, though not before I noticed that Rupert had shifted out of his symbiont scales and put on clothes while I was asleep.
I'll admit I was a little disappointed I'd missed that. I might have been infected with a crazy plasmex plague and generally confused about my situation, but I wasn't dead. At least, not yet, which was in itself nothing short of a miracle considering the events on Reaper's tribe ship and our subsequent crazy escape from the lelgis. But though I'd had one of my best nights ever celebrating not being dead with Rupert back on Caldswell's Glorious Fool, a lot had changed since then, so I forced my eyes off Rupert's admittedly lovely back and settled them firmly on my surroundings.
Surprisingly, it turned out to be worth the look.
"Wow," I breathed, craning my neck back. The sky outside the ship's tiny canopy was absolutely full of stars all crowded together against a rainbow of color that ranged from deep blue to brilliant pink. The combined light was so bright my cameras darkened to compensate, but even my suit couldn't dim the glare of the giant, golden gas planet we were currently orbiting, its swirling cloud cover shining like a second sun in the reflected light of the twin star system behind us.
"Where are we?" I asked, covering my eyes with my hand.
"The Atlas Emission Nebula," Rupert replied. "Birthplace of stars and, as you might have guessed from the name, a licensed territory of Atlas Industrial."
I whistled. "I know you Terrans give your corporations a lot of freedom, but this is ridiculous." Why would anyone give up a place this beautiful?
Rupert shrugged. "There are plenty who would agree with you, but at the moment the Terran Republic's policy of licensing unused space works in our favor. Every possible terraformable satellite in this sector has been turned into an Atlas cash development, which means we have our choice of places to set down, so long as we do it in the next thirty minutes."
"What happens in the next thirty minutes?"
Rupert turned back to the screen at the front of the ship. "If I'm reading this right, that's when we run out of fuel."
He said this so blithely I almost missed the doom inherent in that statement. "Hold up. You're saying we've got thirty minutes to safely land a xith'cal ship on a Terran colony?" He nodded, and I threw up my hands. "Why don't we just shoot ourselves down and save them the trouble?"
Rupert must have been breathing the xith'cal's poison air for far too long, because he actually laughed at that. "Everything will be fine," he said, pointing at the gas giant below us. "That's Atlas Fifty-Nine. It's got a regular trade route and ten moons we can pick from, any one of which is bound to have communications equipment and a hyperdrive-capable ship we can requisition. We'll be down and back up again before you know it."
I was about to ask where the hell he thought we'd be going since Caldswell—my only guarantee that I wouldn't be immediately tossed in a lab and ground into patties by scientists looking to extract my phantom-killing plasmex virus—was still lost in hyperspace, possibly forever. But I wasn't ready to start up that hill just yet, so I stuck to the more immediate problems.
"Have you been here before?" I asked. "Like, do you have any contacts you could radio not to shoot us?"
"I haven't been here personally, no," Rupert said. "But we've got a Republic military all-access code that will guarantee us safe passage. I just need you to radio it out from your suit, because I can't figure out how to send anything from this." He pointed at the xith'cal ship controls.
I couldn't help smirking at that. "Powered armor comes through again," I said. "But why didn't you wake me before we entered orbit? They could have shot us already."
Rupert flashed me a smile. "You looked like you needed the sleep, and no one puts long-range missiles on a cash colony."
It was a fair point. I pulled up my suit's com with a thought and flipped to an open channel. Since I don't make a habit of getting stranded in ships that don't have communications equipment, I didn't actually have a lot of experience with open-space frequencies. Subsequently, it took quite a bit of fiddling before I figured out how to send a message.
But while my Lady has many strengths, she's not much of a broadcaster, and even after I put all her power into it, my signal was still pretty weak. Fortunately, the com chatter in this sector of space was almost dead silent, which meant even a weak message could get through. I just had to figure out where to send it.
"You were right about having our pick of landings," I said, looking over the half dozen different colony identifiers my suit was picking up. "I've got a fix on all six Atlas Fifty-Nine moons. Any preference?"
Rupert glanced at something on the complicated screen in front of him. "Whatever's closest would be best, I think."
That didn't sound good. I picked out the strongest of the signals, but as I tried to compose a Mayday that wouldn't be taken for a xith'cal trick, something made me pause. The list of planetary identifiers on my message screen was giving me the strangest sense of déjà vu. This, in turn, was enough to seriously piss me off, because I'd thought I was done with this missing-memory bullshit. But a quick search of my contacts list proved I was overcomplicating things. The call sign looked familiar because it was, and my anger vanished as my face broke into a huge smile.
"Oh man," I said, putting in the familiar code. "You are so lucky you have me."
I expected Rupert to laugh at that, but all he said was, "I know."
The quick response threw me off balance, and I turned back to my screens before he caught me blushing like an idiot. I wrote my message and sent it off, then crossed my fingers. When we didn't get anything back for several minutes, I started to worry my signal was too weak even in the silence. Before I could work myself into a panic, though, a man's gruff voice sounded in my ear.
"Unidentified xith'cal ship," he said in heavily accented Universal. "I don't usually give warnings, but since you were either kind enough or stupid enough to call in on a Paradoxian ID, I'm giving you ten seconds to explain why I shouldn't shoot you out of the sky."
I'd turned on my external speakers the moment the hail came in so Rupert could hear as well, and the look on his face was priceless when, instead of answering, I pursed my lips and whistled a piercing shriek into the com. It was so loud Rupert actually jumped, but by the time I finished, the man on the other end had changed his tone completely.
"Well met, Blackbird," he said in his native King's Tongue. "How can I help? Are you a xith'cal prisoner?"
"Not hardly," I answered in kind. "Nice to hear your voice, Hicks."
There was a pause, and then the man on the other end burst out laughing. "Deviana Morris, I don't believe it. What the hell are you doing on a xith'cal ship?"
"Trying to get off it," I said, grinning. "Can you get us a safe landing spot? Preferably somewhere that doesn't involve missiles?"
"For you, baby, anything," Hicks cooed. "I'm messaging the tower right now. Give me five minutes and I'll have a beacon for you."
"Copy that," I said. "Thanks, Hicks, see you in a few."
The connection cut off with a click, and I looked up to see Rupert glowering at me. "Baby?" he repeated, arching an eyebrow.
I did not like the implication in his voice that I needed to explain myself, but since Rupert was the one who was going to be landing us, I did it anyway. "Hicks and I go way back," I said, switching to Universal again. "He was my first squad leader in the Blackbirds before he landed a cushy corp job as head of security on some nowhere colony." I'd thought he was crazy for doing it, too, but Hicks had always liked money more than glory. "Never thought I'd be visiting, though."
Rupert's scowl didn't fade. "And the whistle?"
"Well, we were Blackbirds," I reminded him.
"I never heard a bird make that awful sound."
"You've never heard about Paradoxian blackbirds?" I asked, looking at him sideways. "Black feathers, ten-foot wingspans, teeth like saw blades, hunts in packs?"
Rupert made a face as he turned back to the controls. "From that description, I'm glad I never encountered one."
"What, you didn't think we were named after those sissy Terran birds, did you?" I scoffed. "Please. Blackbirds were the reason no one lived above the snow line until the first Sacred King appeared and gave us back technology. Good-sized flock can pick a grown man down to his skeleton in fifteen seconds, and their scream ..." I shuddered. "Turn your bones to water. My whistle ain't nothing to the real thing."
"The joys of Paradox," Rupert muttered. "Though I still don't see why we have to go through this man. I could have used my security clearance to get us landing permission."
"Well, now we get the personal touch," I said, though that was only part of it. Honestly, I felt a lot better having an inside man. Hicks was a flirt and a flake of the worst order, but he was still a Blackbird and a Paradoxian, both of which I trusted way more than Rupert's clearances. Especially on a little dirt ball corp planet where it was easy to cover things up. But as I was setting up my com to receive Hicks's landing beacon, I noticed the time stamp on his transmissions.
"Rupert?" I said weakly. "Remember when we first came out of the jump? When you said we lost some time?"
He nodded. "How much did we lose?"
"Eight months, twelve days, five hours," I read off, heart sinking. Eight months galactic was almost a year on Paradox. A whole year gone, just like that. Rupert didn't seem to share my concern, though.
"That's not so bad," he said. "I was braced for far worse, though it does make me worry about Caldswell and the others."
That snapped me out of my self-pity. "Why?"
"The jump from Reaper's tribe ship to here was barely five minutes, and we had the tribe ship's gate to help," he said. "The second jump they made to escape the pursuing lelgis was far more reckless, and much, much longer." He looked up at the star strewn sky. "Dark Star Station is nine hours from here by hyperspace, but on a jump so wild, the time dilation is almost random. They might end up coming out seconds after they went in."
"Or they might come out a thousand years from now," I finished for him. "That would suit Caldswell's terrible luck."
Rupert glanced back at me. "You know, among the Eyes, Caldswell's actually known for his unusually good luck. Though the captain always says that only fools count on being lucky."
I chuckled. "Guess that explains the name of his ship."
Rupert's voice went suddenly serious. "Actually, I believe Caldswell named the Glorious Fool after himself. A long time ago, he told me only fools gamble what they can't afford to lose."
"What does that have to do with Caldswell?" I asked. "He's not exactly a reckless gambler."
"I believe the name is meant as a reminder of what not to be," Rupert said quietly.
Not for the first time, I wondered what a man like Caldswell could have gambled and lost that hurt him so badly he'd name his ship after it as a warning. I was still puzzling it over when Hicks called me back with our landing.
I'd never been to a cash planet before. The Sacred King had banned them in Paradoxian space, and Terrans didn't bother hiring elite mercs to guard such low-margin operations. Considering what I'd heard, though, I'd always pictured them as barren wastes, hunks of rock stripped of everything valuable by their greedy corporate overlords, so you can imagine my surprise when Atlas 35 Moon E turned out to be actually sort of beautiful.
It was about half the size of Paradox, a bright green and blue ball basking in the intense combined light of the double star and the reflected brilliance of Atlas 35's golden clouds. The place had clearly been terraformed within an inch of its life; there was just no other way continents ended up perfectly square. There were only two seas, both wrapped in rings around the north and south poles, leaving the equator and everything north and south of it for thousands of miles as a huge, flat, uniform tract of arable land covered in a forest so green I had trouble looking at it directly.
As we entered the atmosphere, I realized the brilliant green that covered every inch of the planet's surface wasn't actually forest. Or, rather, it was a forest, just not of trees. The green came from rows and rows and rows of soypen. Some genetic monkeying must have been going on, because the stalks were enormous, easily ten times bigger than anything I'd seen back home. Even the smallest ones had truck-sized, neon-green leaves spread wide to catch the bright light that shone from every direction.
Thanks to its pale yellow clouds, Atlas 35's reflected light shone down on the farming moon even brighter than the twin suns did. Even after we'd cleared the reflective upper layers of the atmosphere, the glare was almost unbearable. But when I looked up in disbelief that anywhere could be so bright, I realized I could still see the stars overhead. Even through the hazy atmosphere and the blinding light, the Atlas nebula shone clear through the deep blue sky, creating a star-spangled high noon that would have been amazingly pretty if my visor hadn't had to go almost black to let me look at it without burning my eyes. I was still trying anyway when we reached the coordinates for Hicks's beacon.
Though the planet had looked like nothing but plants and water from the air, Hicks's signal had directed us to a small city. As we got closer, though, I realized "city" was probably the wrong word. There were a lot of buildings, but I didn't see any sign of people. No houses, no shops, no civilian ships, just loading zones, shuttle tracks, and huge packing machines gleaming in the harsh sunlight. No one even came out to gawk as Rupert set us down on one of the huge, open loading areas stacked high with crates of soypen flour, which seemed very odd considering we were landing a xith'cal ship smack-dab in the middle of a Terran colony.
The escape pod set down with a clunk and a shudder it would probably never recover from, but even so, I couldn't help being impressed. The little thing had put in a fine show for what was basically a lifeboat. I could shoot a lizard every day of my life and feel just lovely about it, but damn if they didn't build nice ships. Rupert had just reached up to unlock the canopy when I spotted Hicks jogging toward us across the white paved landing.
At least, I assumed it was Hicks. I couldn't see his face since his visor was blacked against the blinding sun just like mine, but I couldn't believe there'd be anyone else on this dirtball wearing a Count-class suit of Paradoxian armor. I waved to him when he got close, hopping out of the pod just in time to get swept into a bear hug.
"Devi!" Hicks shouted, picking my armored body up and swinging me around without missing a beat. But then, of course, Count armor like his could lift a tank. "By the king, woman, call ahead next time. I almost hit the guns when I saw your lizard can."
"Just working with what I had," I said, wiggling free. "Thanks for guiding us down, and for not shooting. Always a pleasure not to be shot."
"Must be a change of pace for you, certainly," Hicks said, stepping back to look up at Rupert, who was pulling my armor case out of the cockpit. "Who's your friend? Another merc?"
Excerpted from Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach. Copyright © 2014 Rachel Bach. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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