Someone wants Captain Admiral Zander Graydon dead. Like yesterday. Almost getting killed three times in one day is pushing it, even for Zander. He’s convinced the delectable Lieutenant Marshal Petros knows who’s behind the attempts on his life and he’ll do whatever it takes to discover what she’s hiding.
Shape-shifting aliens are assassinating political and military leaders and assuming their forms, and Mae Petros is suspicious as hell of Zander Graydon. Mae is on a mission to determine if the captain admiral is still human but finds herself losing her perspective as they run for their lives. There’s no way she could be falling for an alien. Right? Especially when all of humanity is on the line.
Previously released as Quantum in August 2016
Each book in the Atrophy series is STANDALONE but it is best enjoyed in order.
* The Last Sky
* The Lost Stars
* The Dark Moon
* The Empty Night
* The Final Dawn
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Jess Anastasi, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Jess Anastasi
All rights reserved.
In Captain Admiral Zander Graydon's opinion, it was damned impolite to try to kill a man while he was taking a piss.
The flash of a flare knife reflecting in the flawlessly shiny chrome of the urinal jacked his heart rate into orbit and forced him into a duck, even as he reached up to grab the arm swinging at him. The metium-reinforced, superheated blade could cut through armor plating. If it went into his flesh, it'd be like slicing water.
With a bone-crushing grip on the man's wrist, Zander came up, twisting to face his attacker.
Mask. Of course.
He yanked the man off balance and grabbed a handful of the black material covering the guy's face. Before he could jerk the disguise off, the man got his other arm up between them and slammed the heel of his palm into Zander's nose.
Zander stumbled back, the burning blaze of pain exploding through his face making his eyes water, but he didn't release his grip on the hand still holding the knife. Taking the wrist in both hands, he smashed the guy's arm into the rounded edge of the urinal. A wet crack sounded. The man swore as his hand went limp, and the blade flickered out when the weapon dropped to the floor.
With an imminent knifing no longer a threat, Zander released the man's now-broken wrist and shoved him away. Hauling his arm back, Zander put all of his weight behind ramming his fist square in the guy's face. The momentum sent him crashing into the stall behind him and then crumpling to the floor.
"Frecking christ." He gulped in a long breath and then wiped at the trickle coming from his nose. Blood smeared across the back of his hand, and he grimaced while his heart stuttered back into a normal rhythm. Hell. He was getting too old to take on random knife-wielding bad guys in bathrooms. Damned if next time he didn't have a heart attack.
He moved over to the basin and ripped some toweling out of the dispenser, cleaning his hand and then shoving the cloth up against his nose as he approached the prone man.
Bending down, he tugged the mask off, but the guy's face gave him no answers as to what might have motivated this little scene. An opportunist robbing the poor, defenseless captain admiral when he least expected it? Too bad for this moron — Zander hadn't earned his admiralty behind a desk like some of his contemporaries had.
He dropped the cloth and got busy unbuckling the man's belt, sliding it free and securing it around the man's wrists, then attaching him to the bracket holding the stall partition to the floor. After that, he took out his commpad and snapped a couple of quick pics to upload later for facial recognition.
He straightened and winced at the ache radiating down his back, into his upper thighs. "Jezus, I really am getting too old for this shite."
After backing out of the stall, he paused by the mirror to check for any blood he might have missed. A damp towel took care of most of the mess, but he couldn't do anything about the few drops staining the collar of his light blue shirt. With a sigh, he pulled his formal dress-uniform jacket straight and smoothed down his hair before leaving the bathroom.
Outside, two air squadron officers approached at a march and stopped a few steps away from him. They both snapped to attention like choreographed dancers. He still wasn't used to seeing the young, fresh face of Jaren — younger brother of his long-ago buddy Mikel — on his ship.
When Jaren had told him he was joining the IPC, he'd had a momentary flash of misgiving, since Mikel's last words to him had been to look out for his younger brother. He didn't think letting the kid join the military would have necessarily come under Mikel's meaning of looking out for him.
But with the war long over, and the IPC forces mainly chasing marauders and illegal traders across the known galaxies, along with quelling the occasional rebellion, there wasn't the same inherent danger in putting on the boots and stripes any longer. Still, it hadn't been an accident that Jaren had been assigned to the Swift Brion straight out of military college.
"Captain Admiral, sir, we're here to escort you to the Swift Brion's shuttle, sir," the other young man said, keeping his gaze trained off in the distance.
"You couldn't have arrived maybe three minutes earlier?"
The officer who'd spoken shifted his gaze to look right at him, confusion creasing his expression before he regained his rigid composure.
"Sir, no, sir, the shuttle only just arrived and we came straight — "
"Never mind." Had he been that stuffy when he'd first joined the Inter-Planetary Coalition military? "One of you might want to go do something about the unconscious moron in the privy who just tried to stab me."
The two officers shared a startled look, then they both dashed by him into the men's room. And while they were handling the injured half-wit — because, seriously, who attacked a uniformed member of the military — he needed to find his shuttle, contact his ship, upload the mug shot, and start getting some answers about who said idiot was and why the hell he'd made the poor life choice to take on a captain admiral today.
He continued across the spaceport, heading for where he assumed his shuttle had touched down, since neither of the officers had told him. Halfway across the large open space, the smell of real coffee hit him with enough strength to make his mouth water, and he stopped by a kiosk.
Hell, it'd cost him more than a few credits, but he'd pay for one last genuine cup of ground coffee beans before he ended up on the Swift Brion drinking the repli-coffee all serving members of the IPC were stuck with, no matter their rank.
The woman in front of him ordered some concoction with cloves and hazelnut syrup. Usually he drank his coffee straight, but that sounded too good not to try.
He leaned forward and waved to catch the attendant's attention. "I'll take one of those as well."
The woman in front of him turned, her long sable hair in a sleek ponytail sliding over her shoulder. His gaze automatically slipped down the length of her body and sized her up, leaving him with an impression of a lithe, athletic build. A reverberating percussion of sparking distraction caught him off guard. Yeah, he had a preference for strong women who could hold their own, both physically and mentally.
She wore an IPC uniform with the Swift Brion insignia pinned to her collar, so he moved back a step, grabbing control of the momentary aberration in his usual professionalism. Her slate-gray eyes glinted with recognition.
"Captain Admiral." The woman shifted to attention with a respectful nod, a little less rigidly than the two young officers had. "Did you lose your escort, sir, or did they lose you?"
Zander held out his hand, and the woman shook it with a firm grasp, leaving his awareness riveted on the sensation of her palm against his.
"They're taking care of something for me. I figured stopping for one last real coffee would give them a chance to catch up. My apologies, but I don't believe I've seen you onboard my boat before."
He'd made an effort to know all his crew, though sometimes it got hard, considering the size of his ship.
She inclined her head. "Lieutenant Marshal Mae Petros. I'm your new admiral's assistant, sir."
"Of course. I just finished reading your file, Lieutenant. Welcome aboard."
She glanced around the spaceport, a smile tilting up her lips. "We're not exactly onboard yet, sir."
The kiosk attendant called out their orders, so Zander moved forward to take both cups and pay for the order, then handed one of the coffees off to his new assistant. She shot him a slightly indignant look but apparently wasn't dumb enough to say anything about him paying for her coffee.
"So what made you return to the IPC?" he asked as they started across the spaceport toward the hangar designated for government and military craft. "Most people who leave to work for the Universal Armed Forces Agency never come back. Apparently they pay better and don't have the same strict military codes."
She shrugged and took a sip of her coffee. "I discovered my superiors weren't who I thought they were. And then I made a promise to an old friend. So here I am."
He grinned over the rim of his coffee. "Cryptic, much?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you expect me to spill my entire life story two minutes after meeting my new commanding officer?"
At that, he laughed outright. From reading her file, he'd already been impressed with his newest crew member. He and Lieutenant Marshal Petros would be working closely together. Her apparent sense of humor and quick wit would make things that much easier.
"I'll give you that, Lieutenant, but I must warn you, I'm good at getting details out of people without them even noticing. I'll have the full story before the week is out." He added a wink, aiming for his most disarming smile. He'd found over the years that being easygoing got a person a lot further than barking orders and being all kinds of disagreeable.
Lieutenant Petros didn't seem fazed by his obvious attempts at charming her, though she did appear to be hiding a grin behind her cup as she glanced away. He liked the spark in her gaze a little too much, reviving the initial flare of avid preoccupation he'd gotten when he first laid eyes on her. He cleared his throat and took another sip of his coffee as they reached the security checkpoint and waited for clearance.
After going through the usual protocols, he followed Lieutenant Marshal Petros down a short hallway until it opened out into the hangar.
The Swift Brion's short-range shuttle was the only ship docked in the large area. Another female officer stood at attention by the shuttle's hatch, Sergeant Katrien Nazari, who'd served a few years on the Swift Brion now.
He shot her a friendly smile as she saluted and then opened the hatch to let Lieutenant Marshal Petros and him into the ship.
"When the two officers I sent to get you decide to turn up, we're clear to launch immediately," Petros said as she set her coffee into a drink console and then slid behind the controls of the shuttle.
Zander dropped into the copilot's chair and slouched, not ready to relinquish his own coffee yet. "I'm in no hurry."
He slid his comm out of his pocket, the device already connected to the shuttle's onboard computers, and took a moment to upload the picture of his attacker. When they got within range of the Swift Brion and the shuttle reconnected to the larger flagship system, the picture would go into the IPC database, and hopefully by the time they docked, he'd have a name to go with the face. And an all-inclusive trip to Erebus — the IPC's hell-like prison world that no one ever escaped from — for the guy.
Petros brought the shuttle online and started prelaunch sequences. "Not in a hurry to get home?"
He shrugged and stared out the viewport across the massive empty space of the hangar, leaning sideways to put his comm into his pocket again. "I guess I've been living on the Swift Brion long enough that I could call it home, but it's never really felt that way."
Ergh, now he was getting all maudlin. He'd been a career soldier since his first day of military college when he was a teenager. Home was wherever the IPC ordered him to be, and he'd never had a second thought about it. He shook his head and drained the last of his coffee then dropped the empty cup in the waste chute. A few silent minutes went by while he watched Petros bring up nav data between Tocarra and where the Swift Brion orbited the planet. In a bit over half an hour, he'd be back onboard and checking in to find out where he and the IPC flagship were needed next.
The hatch at the back of the shuttle opened again, and Nazari walked in, followed by Jaren and the other AS officer.
"I assume the matter was taken care of?" he asked as the three of them took their seats.
"Yes, sir. The man in question was handed over to the spaceport authorities, though he still wasn't conscious," Jaren replied as he fastened his harness.
He nodded and caught the sharp look Petros sent him as he turned to face the viewport again.
"Problem?" she asked as a voice over the comms cleared them for launch.
"Just some idiot who thought a captain admiral would be an easy mark."
"And you knocked him unconscious?"
The ship lifted off, and he straightened to pull the safety harness over his chest — IPC shuttle protocol. "You would have thought breaking his wrist and disposing of his flare knife would have been enough, but the guy just didn't know when to quit."
"I see." She turned her attention back to the controls, a frown drawing down her expression.
As they cleared the spaceport, the shuttle gave an odd shudder, and Petros leaned forward against her harness, hands moving in a precise pattern over the crystal display controls, sorting through data so fast he couldn't catch what she was doing.
"Problem?" he asked, repeating her earlier question.
"Just something odd with the inertial dampeners, though I've managed to compensate for it." She sat back again, but her frown didn't lessen as she stared at the screen.
They gained altitude, and the landmass beneath them shrank rapidly away. A trembling rattled in the ship, and Petros muttered, sitting forward again. As she touched the screen, a warning beep chimed.
Zander swiveled the copilot's chair to face the secondary control screen and brought up the error data. "What the hell —?"
He expected to see one, maybe two, slight issues, but the screen flashed with a scrolling list of primary functions failing, one after another. His heart slammed to a hard stop against his ribs. Oh, jezus, they were in serious trouble.
"Sir, what's going on?" Nazari called over the rumbling of the shuttle and the warning alarm.
"Not sure, Sergeant."
He noted the problems Petros was already working at and tackled others, starting with the fact that the energized pressure and heat shielding on the outer hull had gone offline. If they didn't get crushed from pulling hard G's, since the inertial dampeners weren't working right, then death by compression and/or cooking when they hit the mesosphere seemed like an impending possibility.
"Take her back down." Sweat crept along his hairline, and he took a second to wipe at the gathering drips.
"Navs aren't responding."
Apart from her words coming fast, Petros's tone sounded mostly calm. Good, because he needed her to keep her head if they were going to get off this shuttle alive. The whole vessel was shaking hard enough now that anything not bolted down skittered across the grate floor. The groan of stressed metal was audible under the shrill chime of the emergency sirens.
He abandoned the shielding as a lost cause. The only play they had left was to disconnect the autopilot, which was taking them higher into the ether. Another few moments before they left the stratosphere altogether. Without the shielding, the craft would burn and implode almost in the same instant.
His breath came too short, chest too tight as the same error message kept blinking at him, telling him autopilot could not be disengaged. Frecking christ, the higher they got, the harder it would be coming down. And he had no doubt they were going down. Whether or not they got destroyed in the planet's atmosphere before they crashed was still up for contention.
Swiveling the chair away from the all-but-useless control panel, he ducked down and pulled a section off the bottom of the console.
"What are you doing?" Petros demanded as he wrenched out a whole bunch of wiring.
"Manually disengaging autopilot. Until that's offline, we've got no hope of doing anything." He skipped through several wires until he found the one he needed and yanked it clean out of the micro-crystal panel.
A new warning siren joined the dozen others already wailing, and the ship dropped sharply to the right, on the verge of going into an uncontrolled spiral. Zander's stomach flipped up into his chest, and he grabbed hold of the chair's armrest.
Excerpted from Quantum by Jess Anastasi, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2016 Jess Anastasi. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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