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SHE WAS SEVENTEEN, and her life was about to end.
The girl pushed back strands of her tangled black hair and pressed her forehead flush against the glass window. Outside were twenty starjets from the Royal Star Force, the military fleet of the Olympus Commonwealth. A shimmer of panicked whispers flittered around her, and she realized the other passengers had seen the squadron coming their way, too.
The girl glanced over her shoulder and caught sight of the Elder moving through the crowd of Tawny refugees, trying to quell the growing panic.
"Why the mif is the RSF here?" she called out to him. The
Elder shook his head, his lips drawn into a tight line. "If Deus is on our side today, Girl, they'll wave us by."
The passengers on the ship called her "Girl," which was fine by her. After traveling with them for a month, she didn't know their real names either. Her dark hair and golden skin stood out in this crowd like a crooked screw on a brand-new sheet of metal. The twenty-seven Tawny refugees on the ship all had milky complexions and hair as blue as the deepest ocean. That was what happened in the All Black. You got mixed up with all sorts of different people just trying to survive.
The RSF starjets knocked into the transport ship's hull, and the ship pitched forward. The girl heard the screech of metal scraping against metal, of screws twisting and connecting. The RSF had sealed its docking bridge to the transport ship's air lock.
The Elder held a hand up, attempting to ease the wave of anxiety passing through the crowd. "The air-lock door will hold. They won't be able to board without permission."
The girl held her breath, praying he was right, wishing that door was made from the strongest vinnidium steel instead of salvaged antique metal.
A tinny voice came through the speakers. "The Royal Star Force requests entry to your vessel."
Fear ripped through her. What were they searching for? Weapons? Contraband? She swallowed, her throat tight. The Royal Star Force had a reputation of being rougher out in the Fringe territories. Olympus had no problem taking everything from the many people of the Fringe — their homes, their water, their fuel, and their planets.
The Elder rushed to an intercom speaker and pressed a thumb to a red sensor. "We are outside Commonwealth territory. This ship is not subject to your jurisdiction. Be kind and pass."
But there was no response. Only a gentle hiss permeating through the small holes of the intercom speakers.
Silence settled, and then came some light taps on the metal, one for each hinge on the entry door. From all her years traveling in the All Black, surviving scuffles against pirates and black-market traders, the girl knew what that sound meant.
"Take cover!" she screamed.
A dull tone reverberated from outside, followed by a loud boom. The doorway flew inward, carving a hole in their ship. Passengers scattered as twisted pieces of metal flew their way. Even with a veil of smoke hanging over them, the girl heard the shuffle of footsteps and armor, and she knew. The Royal Star Force was boarding.
The Elder grabbed her shoulder. At such a close distance, she saw the gray hairs speckled throughout his navy-blue mane and the age spots dappling his cheeks. But despite his years, his eyes were bright as starlight.
"Best to stay out of sight." The Elder pulled her away from the windows, and she was swallowed up by the crowd. Around her, everyone's shouts merged into one, and she felt her lungs compress as bodies drew tightly together. The smoke settled, and small orbs fixed with camera lenses flew out from the docking tunnel. It was the Commonwealth's media; they had sent their little Eyes to film and broadcast this entire thing. One camera drone buzzed by so close that it tousled her hair. She glanced at each Eye, watching them change position to find the perfect angle to capture the passengers' distress.
It was then she realized: this wasn't a routine search.
"Where is he?" A thick voice bellowed from the other side of the threshold. A formation of officers emerged from the docking bridge, followed by a large figure. The girl recognized him from the broadcast streams: General Adams, a war hero celebrated throughout the Commonwealth. The medals on his chest — shaped like golden stars and silver olive branches — jingled as he walked.
"Where is I. A. Cocha?" he growled.
As if on cue, Commonwealth holoscreens appeared around them. On the screens was a Wanted banner, one she had seen over and over again, plastered on interstellar gates, projected on travel hubs — anywhere people could see. The banner had an image of a helmet, a red feather painted across its helm like a stain of blood.
General Adams was after I. A. Cocha, a monster with many names: the Sovereign of Dead Space, the Rogue of the Fringe Planets, the Blood Wolf of the Skies. Cocha was the most dangerous criminal in Commonwealth history.
General Adams surveyed the faces of the Tawny refugees. "I don't care much for guessing games. I know he's here. Send him forward."
The girl stayed hidden, waiting for someone to speak. The tension among her fellow travelers thickened, but even with the surmounting pressure, they nodded knowingly to one another, a secret agreement to stay silent.
"So be it." Adams motioned for his soldiers to come forward. All fifty of them were armed with laser pistols lethal enough to burn everyone on the ship to ash. The General's blue eyes glinted like a newly polished dagger. "I'll just have to shoot all of you."
General Adams raised his weapon at the nearest Tawny, a teenage boy. Adams would kill him, just because he could. The girl's heart raced, rage boiling inside her. Surging forward, she grabbed an orb from her side pack and threw it down. A translucent-green energy force field spidered upward to the ceiling, creating a protective wall between the passengers and the RSF.
Across the barrier, General Adams grimaced. "Who are you?"
The girl slammed her palm against a button on the collar of her suit. Her helmet slid on, smooth and automatic. Upon its brow was a blood feather, shining in the darkness. To many, it instilled fear, but to her, it inspired hope. "I think you already know."
The General's eyes widened in recognition. "I. A. Cocha."
Ia stared him down. "It's pronounced Eye-yah. You don't spell my name; you say it."
Gunfire erupted, and the air was filled with a flurry of bright-blue energy blasts. They showered around her, absorbing right into the protective wall of the force field.
This type of force field was called a Carpion shield, designed to block any bullets coming from the other side of the protective wall, but any gunfire originating from within would pierce through. Ia grabbed the energy pistol holstered in her boot and aimed. Shot by shot, her bullets soared through the shield and toward the soldiers. Her aim was precise and clean. But there were too many of them, and she didn't have enough of a charge to pick them all off.
She checked the orb at the base of the shield. The meter showed 50 percent strength. The shield was strong, but it wouldn't last. If she wanted to survive this, she had to act quickly. Ia ran to the overheard bin above her seat and grabbed her pack.
She turned back to the Tawnies. "You have a choice," she told them. "You can get to the escape pods, or —"
She threw her pack onto the f loor, revealing her stash of weapons. No more shields, but she did have more than enough guns.
"This is our ship," the Elder said, stepping forward. "We fight."
Ia pulled out her favorite hand cannons and tossed them to him.
"Aim for the quartered shield." It was the symbol of Olympus, a red-and-white shield embroidered on every RSF uniform, stitched on the chest pocket right at their hearts. The perfect target.
She quickly distributed the rest of pistols to the others in the group, and soon they were firing across the force field.
The Tawnies had terrible aim. Their rounds burst the pipes, dinged the softer metal of the ship, and hit everything but the RSF officers. The Elder and his group weren't warriors. They were civilians.
Ia glanced again at the meter on the Carpion orb. It was at 35 percent. At the state they were in now, they weren't going to win. She had to call in an even bigger gun for that.
She blinked inside her helmet, accessing the ArcLight, a communications system that spanned the known galaxies. A holo-image flickered onto a small panel on the right side of her visor. She sighed in relief at the sight of Einn Galatin's face. It was like hers. Black hair, golden skin. But her brother's cheekbones were more pronounced. Sharper, more angular. And his eyes were a different color, a stormy gray instead of her coal black. An image of two white hearts cast side by side was pinned prominently onto his collar. Their father always told them it was their family symbol. It meant loyalty, a word wasted on the father who had abandoned them long ago, but very fitting for her brother. Einn was the only person she could ever count on.
"Ia." Her brother crinkled his forehead. He did that when he was angry. "Where the mif have you been?"
It had been months since she'd seen her brother. With the end of the Uranium War, the Commonwealth's leaders had increased their efforts at hunting down the criminals on their Most Wanted list. Ia had gone into hiding, hoping the heat on her would eventually die down. It never had.
"I'm in some deep mung, Einn. The Bugs found me."
That was what everyone on this side of the galaxy called the officers of the Star Force: Bugs. Ia had spent her whole life swatting them down, but no matter how many she killed, there were always more who took their place.
"What?" Einn asked. "How?"
"Don't know. I cloaked my signal with Alary tech, but that miffing general still knew I was here." She grunted, firing another round across the force field.
Her brother's eyes darkened. "Ia, get yourself out of there."
She shook her head, beads of sweat dripping down her forehead. "It's not that easy. There are innocents onboard. Tawnies." She kept her eye on the firefight, watching the Tawnies as they attempted to defend themselves. Their firepower and skill weren't even close to being enough. "We need your help."
"You don't have to save every refugee who crosses your path."
"Einn," she whispered. "Please."
Her brother shook his head in resignation. "Ping me your location. Try to hold them off until I get there."
Her heart leaped. "I owe you one, Brother."
"Just survive. That's all you need to do."
Ia nodded. "May your eyes be open, Einn."
Einn said the words as though they had been programmed into his heart. "And your path be clear."
It was their farewell, the lines they spoke to each other before they parted at each mission. A secret prayer to keep them safe. As he signed off, Ia reminded herself that he was right. She had to get through this. She would find a way. They didn't call her the Blood Wolf of the Skies for nothing. With their viselike jaws and mighty wings, Lavisian blood wolves were vicious contenders in the Dead Space betting pits. And just like those fierce creatures, if anyone backed Ia into a corner, she was going to bite right down to the bone.
Ia took aim, gunning down as many RSF soldiers as she could.
Then another. And another.
Ia smashed her palm against the butt of her pistol, but her ammunitions chamber hummed to silence. She was about to ask someone to toss her another gun when she realized the gunfire on her side of the ship had gone quiet. Their ammo had run out. They had nothing else to use to defend themselves. She breathed heavily, her eyes shifting from the never-ending fire coming from the Star Force's side. Each bullet further drained the strength of her shield.
The media's Eyes flew to the front lines, pointing straight at her.
"It's over, Cocha," General Adams hissed. His white teeth reflected the lights of the cameras. "I don't even need to wait until that flimsy shield of yours runs out. I can just gas this entire ship and end it now."
Ia's heart pounded deep inside her chest. She glanced back at the Tawnies. This was a passenger ship, which meant there would only be one grav suit, maybe two. They'd never withstand a chemical attack.
"I see you figured it out." The General's voice interrupted the zigzag of her thoughts. "You have enough air in your helmet for what? Two hours? All these Tawnies will be long dead by then." His quiet calm slashed like a razor into her skin. "Or, you can surrender."
Ia gazed out the window. Five more RSF battleships had joined the others, completely surrounding the Tawny ship. Each one of them was big enough to house fifty starjets. Even if Einn was on the way, he wouldn't be able to break through them.
General Adams turned to one of his lieutenants. "Get the gas ready."
Ia heard cries of panic from behind. She glanced back, her eyes landing on a Tawny woman holding her child and shielding his eyes so he wouldn't have to see their fate. The Elder stroked her hand, trying to keep her calm.
Ia took a deep breath as a decision shook her bones. General Adams might have won, but there was still something she could do.
"I'll surrender. On one condition ..." Ia said. "Name it."
She dropped her pistol, nozzle clanging sharply on the floor. "Take me, but only me."
A smile slithered onto General Adams's lips. "Done."
Ia ripped her helmet off, her eyes searing into the general. "We have a deal."
The general looked back to the one of the officers. "Tell the ships to clear a path."
The Elder looked over at her in alarm. "What are you doing, Ia?"
"You helped me," she whispered, just loud enough that the Elder could hear her. "You didn't have to, but you did." She glanced at all the Tawny refugees. There were twenty-seven of them, enough to fit into the two escape pods built into the ship. "Get to the pods. My brother will find you." She looked back to the Elder, and she paused, her heart heavy with guilt. "I should have told you who I am."
"We knew, Girl. You can't outsmart a Tawny."
"Then why take me in?"
His eyes shone at her. "Not all the stories of I. A. Cocha are bad ones."
All this time, they'd known who she was, and they regarded her the way she always wanted to be seen. Not as a monster, but as a person, just like any other.
She fought back tears. "Thank you," she said. Then she jutted out her chin, telling them to go. The shield wall blocked the Star Force from the starboard side of the ship where the escape pods were located. In her head, Ia counted to thirty, giving the Tawnies time to get to the pods.
At the end of her count, she put her pistol on the floor, and with her foot, she tapped the Carpion orb. The shield flashed green as it deactivated. The soldiers punched through the fading sheen of the force field and surrounded her, their pistols pointed at her head.
As she raised her hands in surrender, she felt a brush of air as cameras whizzed around to film her at all angles. One of them stopped, hovering in front of her, blasting its bright-white light into her eyes. She squinted at the lens.
After today, everyone in the known universe would know Ia's face. And no matter where she went, she would no longer be safe.
Mif. This was going to suck.
The soldiers grabbed her arms and bound them behind her back. As she struggled against the binds, she turned to the windows. One of the escape pods had cleared the blockade as promised, its silhouette now a mere speck in the distance. Ia sighed in relief.
But just as the second pod was about to pass, an RSF battleship closed in, blocking the pod's escape. Her gut twisted. She had been a fool to think the general would keep his side of the bargain.
"You agreed to let them go," she screamed, lunging toward the General. Before she could dig her shoulder into his chest, someone kicked the back of her thighs, forcing her to kneel.
A young soldier approached the General, whispering low, yet loud enough for her to hear. "What about the other escape pod, sir. Should we pursue?"
"Don't waste your time," General Adams told the soldier and then nodded over at Ia. "She's the one we want."
Still seething, Ia whispered a silent plea, praying Einn would find the first escape pod. He would see that those Tawnies were safe. And after that, he would come to rescue her. Guns in both hands, he would board the ship they were in and shoot the General right between the eyes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ignite the Stars"
Copyright © 2018 Maura Milan.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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