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Former assassin Raena Zacari thinks she’s left the past behind. The Imperial torturer who trained her is dead; the human empire is disbanded; and she is finally free.
But Raena is troubled by a series of nightmares that always seem to end with her shooting an ex-lover in the head. She needs to get her mind clear because there’s a flaw in the most commonly used starship driveand the band of media-obsessed pirates she’s fallen in with is right at the heart of the controversy.
With humanity scattered across the galaxy, she’s going to have to rely on the alien crew members of the Veracity to help her put the pieces together. It doesn’t help that the Templars wiped out in a genetic plague while Raena was imprisonedhave left booby-trapped biotechnology scattered across the galaxy.
Kill by Numbers mixes military science fiction with sweeping space opera that features aliens, androids, drug dealers, journalists, and free-running media hackers. Kill by Numbers is the second book in Loren Rhoads’s epic Dangerous Type trilogy.
Skyhorse Publishing, under our Night Shade and Talos imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of titles for readers interested in science fiction (space opera, time travel, hard SF, alien invasion, near-future dystopia), fantasy (grimdark, sword and sorcery, contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, alternative history), and horror (zombies, vampires, and the occult and supernatural), and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller, a national bestseller, or a Hugo or Nebula award-winner, we are committed to publishing quality books from a diverse group of authors.
About the Author
Loren Rhoads is the author of Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues, Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author (with Brian Thomas) of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. She was the editor of the cult nonfiction magazine Morbid Curiosity for ten years and runs the website CemeteryTravel.com, where she blogs about graveyards as tourist destinations. Rhoads resides in San Francisco, California.
Read an Excerpt
Something caught Raena Zacari's attention. She glanced over at Ariel and Gavin, but they were engrossed in feeding each other pieces of some bright yellow alien fruit. Nothing strange there, except that they were being nice to each other.
Shoppers filled the souk today. Even though they ranged from humanoid to feathered to she didn't know what, they were all acting like privileged rich people at a mall, haggling unnecessarily with the shopkeepers. Nothing seemed out of place, but adrenaline poured into Raena's blood. She clenched her fists, ready for the fight to begin.
Something stung her thigh. Raena glanced down at her leg, bare in the slit of her parrot-blue dress. A tiny dart, fletched with silver foil, pierced her skin.
The drug hit her so fast she couldn't call for help. Gavin saw her going down and lunged forward to catch her. She saw her terror reflected in his expression. Then his head came apart. She couldn't even reach up to wipe his blood away.
Screaming people fled into the maze of the old Templar city. Kai was supposed to be a weapons-free world. Everyone paid enough to guarantee their safety here.
Ariel knelt beside Raena, staring at Gavin's corpse, trying to figure out what had happened.
A second Gavin fought his way through the panicked crowd. He knocked Ariel aside and pulled Raena up over his shoulder. Then he dodged away through the souk.
This Gavin turned a corner to charge down a narrow street. He didn't see the teenaged boy hiding there. Jain Thallian stepped out from a doorway to fling a shock net over Gavin and Raena both. Its initial jolt knocked Gavin from his feet. Raena fell to the dirt with him. With the drug in her system, she couldn't raise her hands to break her fall.
Raena fought her way awake from the dream before the Thallians could take her prisoner. Then she lay on her back in her bunk, trying to slow her hammering heart. She breathed deeply, concentrating on the sounds of the Veracity around her. Its engines hummed with a steady, reassuring sound. She could hear the hiss of its air exchangers and the gurgle of water in its pipes. All appeared to be right in the galaxy.
Except for this dream. It felt wrong. Its weight — if that was the word she wanted for it — was too great for a soap bubble created from her subconscious. Rather than a mere nightmare, it felt more solid, almost like a memory: a memory of something that hadn't really happened to her.
She scrubbed the tears from her eyes with her fists. There hadn't been two Gavins. There had been only one. And on that day on Kai, he'd gotten knocked out as soon as Thallian's soldiers attacked. Raena had killed as many of the attack team as she could, disabled the rest, and kidnapped Jain. Then she'd left Gavin and Ariel behind, stolen the Veracity, and assassinated the rest of the Thallian family. She was free now.
Suddenly Raena needed to get out of her cabin, into the company of people. It had been a month since she'd felt that way — and Jonan Thallian, the man who had been hunting her then, was dead. She'd watched his body burn.
Still jittery, Raena climbed off her bunk. She pulled a clean catsuit from the locker and shimmied into it. This one was poisonous magenta. She hoped the color would lift her mood.
She rubbed some static into her short black hair to make it ray out from her head. Then she strapped on her high-heeled boots like she was putting on her armor.
Ariel Shaad woke up herself by reaching for the gun that should have been holstered on her thigh — except that Ariel herself was worlds away from the events on Kai, safe in bed in her villa on Callixtos.
Shivering, Ariel examined the vestiges of the nightmare still fogging her head. There had been two Gavins. The new one murdered the Gavin she had been traveling with and ran off with Raena flung over his shoulder. One of Thallian's sons had thrown a shock net over Gavin and her sister. Raena, paralyzed, was weeping in fear.
Ariel rolled over in bed, seeking coolness in sheets that were soft as water, but her thoughts were still entangled in the dream. That hadn't been how things really happened. True, Thallian's soldiers had attacked the three of them in the souk, but Gavin hadn't died there. He'd merely gone down after his hard head met someone else's even harder fist. One of Thallian's men had grabbed Ariel's arm. She'd lost precious time reaching after her nonexistent gun on the weapons-free pleasure planet. Raena stepped up, going on the attack, barehanded and in heels, taking down the kidnappers with a fluid poetry of motion that neutralized the threat until only one teenaged boy and his uncle were left. Then remorseless as an angel, Raena killed the uncle, squashing him like a bug. The boy fled, the only sensible course of action left to him. And Raena ran after him, legs flashing in the parrot-blue sheath dress. She'd been laughing.
That was real. It was over. Raena was safe and all the Thallians were dead.
A shudder crawled over Ariel's flesh and impelled her to get up. She would get no more sleep today.
She switched on the screen by her bed and checked messages, but saw nothing from Raena. Ariel told herself that the silence signified nothing. It had been only a nightmare.
Two Gavins, Ariel's thoughts repeated, circling back to the weirdest part of the dream. The second Gavin had seemed — what? Older? More focused? He reminded Ariel of the era when Gavin had been using the Dart, a Templar drug that focused his personality into something so hateful that Ariel had broken off with him and hidden. In those days, she'd slept with a Stinger under her pillow, just in case.
Somehow, in the dream, Ariel felt that the second Gavin had been the one to drug Raena, just so he could steal her away. It didn't make sense. In real life, in those final days on Kai, Ariel and Gavin had tried to hide Raena, to keep her safe from the Thallians. Luckily, the outcome had been the best anyone could hope for. Anyone who wasn't a Thallian, of course.
Or, Ariel supposed with a wry twist of her mouth, anyone who wasn't Gavin Sloane.
She sighed, glad to be rid of her ex at last. She scrolled through her messages again, but saw no more word from him. It had been a couple of weeks since Gavin left his last haranguing message. Did that mean he'd found a new obsession? Not bloody likely. Maybe he had checked himself in somewhere, gotten the help he so desperately needed. Taken some time out to rebuild his life without Ariel or her sister in it.
Probably he had been arrested again. Ariel tried to decide if she cared enough to check the news. In the end, she signed off the computer and went in search of breakfast. Business wasn't going to do itself today.
Raena came out of her cabin into the Veracity's passageway. She paused, as always, listening to establish the locations of the rest of the crew.
Something smelled good. Mykah, the human captain, must be busy in the galley. Raena had never eaten as well as she did in Mykah Chen's crew. Before her imprisonment, when she'd served in the diplomatic service of humanity's Empire, military rations had always been provided by the lowest bidder. Mykah, who'd worked in food service on Kai before Raena tempted him to become a pirate, insisted on fresh ingredients when he could get them — and knew how to combine them to best effect to please the spectrum of palates on the Veracity. Raena counted herself lucky to be serving with him.
She'd asked Mykah once why the others let him become the Veracity's captain. At the time, Mykah laughed. "I'm an excellent cook and an apprentice journalist. Everyone else has useful skills." Besides, captaining the Veracity wasn't time-consuming. Mostly, Mykah's job was a matter of entertaining himself with minor media hacks.
At this moment, Haoun, the pilot, and Coni, the resident hacker, were on duty in the cockpit, chatting about a solar wind race, critiquing the media coverage. Neither of them seemed to have placed any bets.
A faint tang of solder burned Raena's nose. Somewhere toward the back end of the Veracity, Vezali must be tinkering. Upgrading the antique diplomatic transport ship — registered as the Raptor, before Raena stole it — seemed to fascinate Vezali endlessly. Raena supposed that had to do with the sheer amount of cobbling together Vezali was called on to do.
Galley first, Raena decided. She started in that direction, moving down the passageway silently, just to keep in practice.
When Mykah saw her reflection in the coffee pot he was filling, he smiled. He'd reshaped his beard again. Today he'd twisted it into two coils under his chin.
"Morning," he wished amicably, even though it wasn't morning any longer. Mykah didn't seem to mind whatever hours Raena kept. He grasped that sleep was elusive for her, that she only captured it after hours of stalking it. He always wished her good morning the first time he saw her for the day, no matter the Galactic Standard hour.
"Is it almost lunchtime, Captain? That smells wonderful."
"I was just about to call the crew. You want to eat first?"
Raena appreciated that he tried to accommodate her, but really, she had to start trying to fit in or else she needed to move on. The longer she held herself apart, the harder it was going to be to settle in — and nowhere else was likely to be a whole lot better than the cushy gig she had now. This crew was small and the work wasn't demanding. And she had the largest cabin, since she'd been the one to provide the ship.
"No," she said quietly, picking an apple out of the crisper. "I'll join you, if you think it won't put Coni off her food." "Nah, czyk is her favorite," he teased. "Nothing will stop her from eating it." He pressed the intercom chime.
Raena chose the corner of the table where she could get her back against the wall. Once the crew settled in around the table, she'd be penned in, but they posed no real physical threat to her. Well, maybe Haoun did. The big lizard was strong and could move faster than one might expect, if only for short bursts. He had a calm temperament and quick reflexes, which made him a stellar pilot, but he also calculated for safety rather than excitement. He wouldn't stir anything up.
Raena watched them all come in, note her presence in the galley, then pick their seats at the table. Coni sat diagonally from her, holding a spot at her side for Mykah. Haoun settled on Raena's left, easing himself onto a stool designed for a smaller, more humanoid, creature. Vezali slipped into the banquette at Raena's right, arranging her tentacles under the table. Raena meant to watch to see if the same tentacles always served Vezali as hands, but it was hard to keep track. The tentacles seemed to be in constant flux, changing from feet to hands as Vezali required.
"There's been a new request to interview you," Coni said. The blue-furred girl didn't raise her gaze from the plate Mykah set in front of her. Nothing was stopping her from eating the czyk, Raena was amused to note.
"How was the interview request addressed?" Raena asked.
"They didn't know your name."
One of the earliest requests had called her by name. Others had addressed her as Fiana, her mother's name, which she'd used on Kai while hiding out with Gavin and Ariel. Ariel wouldn't contact her so obliquely, wouldn't ever do anything more than leave a message on the Shaad family's private channel for Raena to retrieve at her leisure. Anyone who called her by name or the Fiana alias knew or was working for Gavin Sloane. Raena didn't respond to those calls.
"I don't do interviews," Raena repeated, same as she always did. She thought Coni must hate acting as her secretary, but she also expected that was the least of her behavior that freaked the blue girl out.
"Is it from a legitimate news outlet?" Mykah asked. Since everyone had been served lunch now, he joined them at the table.
Raena looked down at the plate he'd placed in front of her. Today they were having a slab of some kind of meat glistening in a rich yellow sauce. Ever since she'd come back into the galaxy after her long imprisonment, it amazed her that people still ate meat. With creatures whose heritage looked saurian, octopoid, and some weird pastel-shaded vaguely feline mammal, Raena wondered how the Veracity's crew found any flesh safe or appropriate to eat, unless it was some form of avian creature. Wasn't everything else someone's distant relative? Was there a galactic measure of sentience that edible creatures had to fail before they were fit for the table? Raena might be able to ask Mykah, who was continually entertained by her naiveté, but she wouldn't risk offending any of the others.
On her plate, beside the meat, sat a cluster of roasted grain, garnished with some kind of fancy leaf, and a blue vegetable they'd eaten before. Apparently that was czyk, Coni's favorite. To Raena, it tasted like tree sap. Not unpleasant, really, just not what she expected when she put a blue stalk of vegetation into her mouth.
She ate her apple first. It was probably the most expensive thing on the table, but since the Veracity had collected the Thallian bounty, the crew could afford a few luxuries. Anyway, Raena always tried to ease her stomach into eating with something that passed for human food.
The others tucked into their meals with gusto.
"The interview request seems legitimate," Coni said between dainty bites. "They asked to talk to the human responsible for hunting down the terrorists who spread the Templar plague. No names were mentioned, other than the Thallians'."
Mykah was watching Raena when she glanced up.
"You're the press agent," Raena told him. "Talk to them only if you want to. Feel free to tell them the same thing you told the others. Keep me out of it."
"Do you think that smuggler is still looking for you?" Vezali asked.
"Maybe," Raena said in such a way that it sounded like yes. Gavin Sloane was just as obsessed with her as Jonan Thallian had ever been, without the added fun of psychosis. "Maybe Gavin's gotten himself a new girlfriend," she added, but, really, she didn't think that was likely.
"We need some other work," Haoun said. The translator around his neck made him sound very urbane, while the actual sound of his sibilant voice still raised the hairs on the back of Raena's neck. It was some kind of uncomfortable vestigial reaction, completely unconnected with the affable lizard's presence. Raena refrained from reaching up to rub her neck. "We can't just hang around," the big lizard continued. "We can't just keep living off the last big score."
Raena had headed up the Veracity's last two big jobs: assassinating the Thallians and revealing the looting of the Templar cemetery world, but she had run out of wrongs she felt morally responsible for righting in the galaxy. Her old scores were, for the most part, settled. The only one that remained she was content to let slide.
"Since the last two jobs were human malfeasance," Mykah said, "I'd like to uncover someone else's responsibility for a change."
"Even humans have rights," Haoun said. Everyone laughed, save for Raena. The phrase was the punch line to an almost twenty-year-old joke that had circulated the galaxy after the Templar plague and the consequent destruction of the human Empire. Mykah had tried to explain the joke to Raena, had even played her several recordings of it, but as far as Raena could tell, everyone laughed at the punch line because they found it so improbable. Humanity had really screwed things up in the galaxy; many felt that, after the Templar plague was revealed, it was quite likely that the purges hadn't gone far enough. Human rights were a polite fiction, granted by the rest of the galaxy, but continually subject to reconsideration.
Still, whether she understood the humor or not, she'd chosen the seat with her back to the wall, so Raena knew she had to ride the laughter out. It wasn't directed at her personally — and Mykah joined in, anyway. Raena inclined her head over her plate and ate in silence.
Then a thought occurred to her. "I don't suppose there's anything we can do about the Viridian slave trade," she asked casually.
"That's bigger than we are, unfortunately," Mykah said apologetically. "Slavery has been outlawed on a system by system basis, but even the Council of Worlds hasn't had any luck wiping it out galaxy-wide."
"For the future, then," Raena said. "For now, the four of you will have to decide what work to take. I don't even know which wrongs can be righted. Just let me know if you find anything that requires some security."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kill by Numbers"
Copyright © 2015 Loren Rhoads.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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