Naval officer Mila Blackwood is determined to keep her country’s most powerful secret – shrouding, the ability to traverse their planet in seconds through an alternate realm – out of enemy hands. But spies are everywhere: her submarine has been infiltrated by a Dhavnak agent, and her teenage brother has been seduced by an enemy soldier. When Blackwood’s submarine is attacked by a monster, she and fellow sailor, Holland, are marked with special abilities, whose manifestations could end the war – but in whose favor? Forced to submit to military scientists in her paranoid and war-torn home, Blackwood soon learns that the only people she can trust might also be the enemy.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Enemy Within | Periscope Down | Gods and Monsters | Lightning Strikes Twice ]
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Blackwood's New Recruit
There were better ways to end a watch than being summoned straight to the captain's stateroom. Chief Sea Officer Mila Blackwood could think of three right off the top of her head. Eating breakfast. Snatching a short nap before diving drills. Going over the procedures for the upcoming shrouding mission. She ran a hand over her tired eyes, wishing she'd at least had time to grab a mug of nettlebark tea, but she thought she knew why she'd been called, and she didn't wish to prolong this anymore than she had to. First we're so short-staffed I have to take on watches, and now this.
She delivered three knocks to Captain Rosen's door, rather harder than she meant to.
"Enter!" the submarine captain called.
Blackwood turned the knob and pushed open the stateroom's door, stepping into the room doubling as the captain's private quarters and office. Right now, there were only two people at the small table opposite the bunk. The captain of the BZS Desert Crab sat on the far side, wearing a dark blue jacket with gold-embroidered stripes on the cuffs. Her hard-brimmed hat bore the sigil of two moons, one in crescent phase and one broken, picked out in blue and yellow thread. The skin around the captain's eyes was creased into a perpetual harshness that only seemed to intensify as her gaze landed on Blackwood.
Blackwood's newest team member was seated at the table across from her, hands folded in his lap. Blackwood suppressed a sigh as she brought her right fist to her left shoulder and stood at attention.
"Close the door, CSO Blackwood."
Blackwood lowered her fist and did so before turning back, standing stiff with hands at her sides.
"Apprentice Deckman Holland was found in an unauthorized area," said the captain. "Specifically, he was discovered in the lower flat beneath the solar power room."
Blackwood felt her stomach drop. That was where the new shrouding drive for the submarine had been installed. Blackwood could see its appeal to the young submariner – the bright glittering arphanium pipes, the crackling of the stored energy in the reservoirs, the hot steel smell that overpowered the stench of kaullix grease permeating the rest of the boat. Slipping behind the heated pipes to get some alone time, especially in the early hours before a precarious mission, would be almost irresistible to someone barely on the sane side of losing his mind.
Blackwood pursed her lips and glanced at Kyle Holland. The kid looked back just long enough to meet her eyes from behind wisps of black bangs, his face clean of any emotion. His skin, already almost as pale as a Dhavnak's, seemed even whiter in the solar lamps of the captain's stateroom. If he'd had light hair to go with that skin, the captain might have given him a full interrogation without ever calling Blackwood. The slight slant to Holland's dark eyes, giving him a hint of Criesucan blood, was a blessing with that washed-out complexion; most Belzene folks would see that first and think "ally" rather than "enemy."
"Captain," Blackwood said, turning her attention back to the senior officer, "my apologies. I can assure you it won't happen again."
"This is the fourth new recruit that's landed in here in the two days since we left port," Captain Rosen said. "I know there wasn't sufficient time for training, but I don't have time for this. If it happens again, I will hold you personally accountable. Is that understood?"
"Good. Please go." The captain pulled a pile of papers from a drawer behind her. As Holland stood, she glanced up again. Her voice came out even harder than before.
"If you try sneaking off tonight, deckman, or any other time the sub shrouds, there could be far more dire consequences than this. Think long and hard about that before you give Chief Sea Officer Blackwood here the slip again."
"Yes, ma'am. I understand that, ma'am." Holland's voice came out as cool and collected as ever, if a bit on the high side.
Blackwood sighed. Holland hadn't even been on her roster. It had been some fellow named Jeremiah Magnus. But Magnus hadn't shown up the morning of the mission, and Holland had been sent running from the academy practically as the gangway was rising. Blackwood was just glad to have gotten a replacement for her fifth torpedomate in time. A body fighting Dhavnakir was a body fighting Dhavnakir. Even if he was undertrained. Even if he was skittish as a weerbat in the daylight. Even if he was always awake when Blackwood left the compartment for the half-light watch, eyes staring into the bunk above as his lips moved in some silent comfort to himself.
Blackwood led Holland from the stateroom, heading out of officer country and back toward the aft torpedo room at the stern of the submarine. As they passed through the mess, she grabbed a mug of nettlebark tea and sprinkled some sugar in it. She blew it to drinking temperature on her way through the crew's quarters, squeezing past all the sailors who were climbing out of their bunks and zipping up brown-checkered coveralls for the day. In the solar power room beyond that, the generators were running strong; the cells just below the ocean waves were absorbing as much sunlight as possible without reflecting the glare up toward potential Dhavnak spyplanes. Technicians hurried around them, adjusting and distributing the energy throughout the boat in preparation for the upcoming dive. It reminded Blackwood how much work still had to be done in her own compartment. She swallowed a mouthful of tea, grateful for the slightly-sweetened but still acerbic taste of nettle to jolt her brain awake. She wouldn't be getting so much as a half-shift of sleep today, and she was already running on little more than naps as it was.
When she and Holland reached the maneuvering room, she took the young man by the elbow and guided him to the other side of the propulsion controls, away from the sailors fixing a pipe valve at the fore. Holland squared his shoulders and met her eyes calmly, his eyebrows raised.
"Listen, Deckman Holland," said Blackwood. "Captain Rosen is right. This behavior has got to stop. The only reason you haven't been called up on charges by now is because the captain doesn't know about the last two times you showed up somewhere you shouldn't have been. Next time you need to have a panic attack, or break down, or whatever it is you do, do it in your own bunk."
Holland glanced toward the hatch leading to the aft torpedo room, his eyebrows creased. Blackwood snapped her fingers in irritation, bringing Holland's gaze back to her.
"Don't worry what your crewmembers think," she said. "If you're the guy who can't listen to orders, or the guy who isn't there when we need him, that's worse. Those are serious offenses, Holland. Do you have any idea what people will think if you keep turning up in random corners of the boat?" "No, ma'am."
"They'll think you're a Dhavvie spy."
The kid's face went white. "But–"
"Just stop hiding and stay where you're supposed to. This is life and death we're talking about."
Holland nodded, swallowing. "Yes, ma'am."
Blackwood started to turn away, but paused. They'd been losing sailors to the war so fast that the whole boat had gone through three batches of new recruits over the last month, each one more raw than the one before. But the aft torpedo crew had been lucky, and Holland was the first one she'd personally had to train in her own compartment – a replacement for Christa Thickrey, whom they'd lost to that last devastating shrouding accident. The accident that Holland had undoubtedly heard about by now. Every other department head was probably going through this same thing. She sighed and turned back to him.
"Look," she said. "I know the idea of shrouding terrifies you, deckman. It did me too, when they first developed it. But I can promise you, it's actually safer in some ways than a regular patrol. There's less chance of being seen by a Dhavvie warplane, since we don't have to travel through the whole ocean. They haven't figured out where we come out on the Dhavnak side, so there's never been an ambush over there either. And they don't have the technology yet, so we don't have anything to fear while we're in the shrouding realm."
"Yes, ma'am," Holland said. "But ..."
"But what? Go ahead."
"But they say sometimes people've disappeared when you come out on the Dhavnak side," Holland said in a rush. "They say there are things out there while you're shrouding. They say if you shroud without steel around you, you'll be ripped apart! They say even if none of those things happen, you have to stay completely still and quiet, or–"
Blackwood grabbed Holland's shoulder. The kid clammed up immediately, staring at her with wide eyes. "So, who are they?" said Blackwood. "Who are the 'they's' who have been telling you these things?"
"Just ... just heard it around, ma'am."
Blackwood felt a surge of anger and fought to keep it from her face. She settled with running a hand through her dark hair, tucking a stray curl back into her ponytail. "Deckman Dillon Vin. Right?"
Holland looked down.
"His sister was killed at the Battle of Riachmar," said Blackwood. "So, when he sees someone with pale skin, he can be more ... judgmental than most. He was the same way with Deckwoman Strachan 'til he got to know her. He'll come around."
Holland shrugged, his gaze flicking around the small compartment. "But is any of it true about shrouding, ma'am? Or was he just ... I mean, was it all just a way to scare me?"
"Something in the boat reacted badly with the dekatite vein we traveled through last time," said Blackwood. "That's it. It's been fixed. It won't happen again." She hoped Holland wouldn't realize that she hadn't answered his question.
"The dekatite vein?" Holland asked.
"Yes, the dekatite veins we use to enter and exit the shrouding realm. Like Kheppra Isle."
Blackwood stopped him with a raised hand, her patience finally frayed to its end. "You've been through all the guidelines and precautions. You know about not wearing dekatite jewelry, and about what to expect when we shroud. And that is all you should be thinking about. Letting yourself be distracted by rumors is dangerous in this line of work. I don't want to hear about this again. Got it, deckman?"
"Of course, ma'am," said Holland hastily. A look of uncertainty flashed across his face, but it disappeared as quickly as it arrived. She knew what he was thinking. Yes, he'd been trained not to wear dekatite jewelry, but what did that have to do with shrouding?
He would just have to wonder. She wasn't about to tell him that a piece of dekatite was found on one of the bodies after the accident. It would lead to the why of the matter, and the veteran sailors knew full well not to mention that those things in the shrouding realm – those creatures, or whatever they were – were actually drawn to dekatite. They knew not to wear dekatite now. It wouldn't happen again. And that was the end of it.
Xeil's grace, let that be the end of it.
Blackwood turned and pushed open the hatch to the aft torpedo room. Mahanner, Vin, and Strachan were all at the other end by the torpedoes, deep in conversation. Vin sat at the edge of his bunk, his coveralls on his bottom half but the top unzipped and lying on the blankets. His hair hung in dark curls around his face, still mussed from sleep. Mahanner sat on the opposite bunk from Vin, pulling his long black hair back, and Strachan leaned against the lower starboard torpedo. When they noticed Blackwood, they came to their feet, fists to their shoulders. Blackwood gave a quick nod.
"Deckman Holland," she said, "help Deckman Mahanner finish the fuse sweep on the port side, and don't forget capacity checks on the last fuse replacements. Deckwoman Strachan, inventory the torpedoes and run the count by the forward torpedo room when you're done. Deckman Vin. Over here. Now."
"Yes, ma'am," Vin said, his words several seconds behind the other deckmates'. He pulled up the top half of his coveralls over his undershirt as he made his way over to her. Blackwood set her mug down on the locker by the hatch. She waited until the other sailors were absorbed in their duties before speaking.
"Stop with the stories about shrouding," she said.
Vin's lips twitched. "To Holland, ma'am? I'm just making sure he's prepared so he doesn't panic when the time comes. You know how that kid–"
"It never occurred to you that you're making it worse?" she cut in.
"No, ma'am." A light of defiance flashed through his eyes. "If he doesn't know what to expect, how can we trust him if it goes down again? It's hard enough to trust them as it is, that's all I'm sayin'."
"Them," Blackwood repeated. "Trust them."
"Anybody with ..." Vin finished with a gesture toward his own dark-toned skin, in an obvious comparison to Holland's light shade.
Blackwood felt her anger creeping up again. She took three deep breaths before answering, "No, Vin. It is not hard to trust them."
"No, ma'am? Their entire religion is built around cutting out some woman's eye for stealing–"
"Vo Hina?" Blackwood broke in. "She's one of their goddesses, not 'some woman'. And she wasn't stealing, she was hoarding. Her eye was shattered, not cut out. Their main god, Shon Aha, was punishing her – that's why the Dhavnaks call the Shattered Moon 'Vo Hina'!" By the moons, his ignorance sometimes ...
"Hoarding. Exactly," Vin said with a wave of his hand. "How dare anyone try to keep money for themselves in that forsaken country? And it's always women, right?" He stopped, narrowing his eyes. "Wait. You actually know the legend of how it happened?"
Blackwood let out a sigh through her teeth. "A Dhavnak family used to live in our neighborhood. Four years ago, just before Belzen was pulled into the war. My little brother was friends with their kid. I caught pieces of the stories he'd share with him."
"Your brother's cozy with a Dhavvie?" Vin said incredulously.
"It was when he was thirteen," Blackwood answered coldly. "Andrew's friend is long gone now."
"Thank Xeil for that, huh? Else you mighta gone home to find him a woman-beating, polytheistic, fair-skinned loving–"
Blackwood grabbed a fistful of Vin's coveralls and pulled him toward her. "I have a problem with their politics, Vin!" she hissed under her breath. "I have a problem with them attacking us and starting this stupid war. But I don't treat every light-skinned person like a sandbarb in my shoe. You focus on your damn job and mind your own affairs. Or I will keelhaul you myself, war on or not."
Vin took a step back, raising his hands in placation. "Didn't mean anything by it, CSO," he said evenly.
Blackwood took a deep breath, then another. And a third. Vin is not my enemy. My anger is the enemy.
She shoved away from him and turned back to the rest of the room. Holland looked away quickly. Mahanner and Strachan were still hard at work, not wishing to get involved. Blackwood retrieved her mug and took another life-restoring swig, avoiding her crewmates' eyes as she appraised the compartment. The four brass torpedo tubes at the stern were loaded, and the reloads were stored on skids above the top bunk and below her own. Three of the twelve bunks were still folded out. Mahanner's was spread with books.
"You want to get some sleep, CSO, we'll finish up here," said Mahanner, as casually as if nothing had happened.
"No sleep," said Blackwood. "Just get that–"
The rest of her words were drowned out as the loud blat of the klaxon sounded, echoing through the small room. It rang out twice, and before the sound had faded from Blackwood's ears, the Chief of Boat's voice spoke throughout the sub.
"Dive, dive. Repeat. Dive, dive."
A Dhavnak spyplane. It had to be. Mahanner grabbed the books strewn on his bunk and swept them into his bag. Blackwood tossed back the rest of her tea, and threw the mug, along with Mahanner's bag, into the locker by the maneuvering hatch. By the time she'd finished, all the bunks were folded up against the walls, and the other sailors were finding handholds on the bulkheads. Blackwood scrambled up the ladder in the center of the compartment to ensure the hatch was tight and sealed. The boat was going quiet around them as the power draw was rerouted to the battery. Blackwood kept a tight hold on the ladder as the deck began to tilt slightly beneath her feet.
"Are we shrouding, ma'am?"
Blackwood looked over to see Holland watching her with wide eyes, both hands clutching the chain on one of the bunks.
"Not yet," she told him.
"Because we're not close enough to ... to a dekatite source ...?"
"The source is Kheppra Isle," she said, "and yes, we are. But we get more warning than this. Unless we're actually being pursued, or if a Dhavvie ship is using hydroacoustics to track us ..."
She trailed off. Unless we're actually being pursued. With their boat out of commission for the few days following the accident, it was entirely possible a Dhavnak ship had gotten through the Qosmya Canal. And the last thing Captain Rosen would want was to inadvertently lead the enemy to the other side of the island, where all the research stations were. What better way to vanish without a trace than by diving under the waves and shrouding through the dekatite of Kheppra Isle?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shrouded Loyalties"
Copyright © 2019 Reese Hogan.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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