Chapter 1: Dawn
Sunlight sliced the clouds, cutting clean, unbroken paths through the sky. The light slammed across the surface of the planet, carving out the landscape. The darkness retreated before the dawn, shadows fleeing and scattering a million different ways before the light could wash them out. There were some shards of the night that were not quick enough, and the trees snared them, holding fast. These bits and pieces of darkness sat huddled on the ground, clinging to each other as they desperately tried to survive the day. As the sun rose, the shadows shrank back, cowering before the light, but they silently watched and waited for the night to return.
Indifferent to the hopes of the shadows, the sun continued to rise, and its light choked off the last traces of the night. Nothing could hide from the strengthening light, and the dawn finally found the hard, bulky hull of the stolen shuttle. Running along the edges of the shuttle, the light traced out the pale Star Federation insignia blazed across the metal surface, caressing the abstract shape of wings poised at the height of a beat and encircled by a ring, a symbol that invoked thoughts of power and freedom across a wide variety of species. The insignia was meant to inspire awe and unification, though in recent times, it had become more of a herald of brute force. The light danced playfully across the insignia, showcasing its own strength far more than that of the galactic military before moving on to wink off the thick, unbreakable glass of the shuttle’s cockpit. Inside the cockpit, Lance Ashburn raised his uninjured arm to shield his eyes against the glare of the light, and with the dawn came the reminder that he was running out of time.
As his eyes adjusted to the strengthening light, Lance looked out at the towering trees that made up the Phanite forest. His last visit to this planet had been only four sidereal days ago, but on that day, rain and darkness had soaked the world. This clean, bright green forest was alien to him.
He could not believe that it had only been four days. He had spent most of that time onboard a Star Federation starship, drifting somewhere between unconsciousness and a waking dream as Captain Anderson had interrogated him, trying to pry more information out of him about the Neo-Andromedan organization known as the Seventh Sun.
Lance had not been able to give her much, or so Captain Stone had claimed. The more distance between Lance and his part-release, part-escape, part-desertion from the Star Federation, the more he wondered if Stone had released him as a form of manipulation. Recent events had smeared Lance’s credibility, and now that the drug-fog of sedation and painkillers had begun to lift from his mind, doubt had crept in to fill the void. Perhaps the Star Federation had purposefully turned Lance loose with the intention of tracking him to whatever hideaway or rendezvous a traitor might slink off to. They were going to be sorely disappointed if that was the case.
But when he had released Lance, Jason Stone had been withholding knowledge of some process called an Awakening and the true threat the Nandros posed. He had claimed that he had not shared that information with Captain Anderson for fear of sparking a purge, and Stone had said that while plenty of unpleasant things came to mind when he thought of Lance, “traitor” was not one of them.
Lance had to trust Captain Stone. Not that he had much of a choice.
After the attack at Ametria and the unwitting betrayal of Captain Backélo, there was no one left for him to trust. When he had escaped the Star Federation ship, his superiors had been questioning his loyalties, and his subordinates had been leery of his motives. The only person who could say for certain what his motives were and where his loyalties lay was an Alpha Class bounty hunter known to the galaxy as the Shadow, and to him as Lissa.
She was not his first choice of ally.
But Lance owed her his life, and far more than that, for his hope of saving the galaxy from the looming storm rested with her. She knew things about the Seventh Sun that the Star Federation could only guess at, and with her help, the Star Federation might have a chance at rooting out the Seventh Sun before the Nandro organization had the chance to strike.
The old mantra echoed in Lance’s mind: Stand and Protect.
But find her first.
It had only been four sidereal days since the Seventh Sun had ambushed Lance and Lissa on Phan and captured her, but that was more than enough time for the Neo-Andromedan agents to hide themselves somewhere between the stars. Lance was about to begin the hunt for them, and he could feel the crushing weight of that task bearing down on his shoulders. He had the arkins, but for the first time in a very long time, the Star Federation was not behind him. He had been under suspension and arrest before escaping the starship, and if the Star Federation ever caught up with him, he had doomed himself to court-martialing at the very least, and only if he was very lucky.
More likely, he’d be facing capital punishment: death, or the rest of his life on one of the isolated prison planets, however long or short that turned out to be.
He tried not to dwell on those possibilities, but when he wasn’t imagining the consequences of his actions, he was thinking about the massive gap behind him that the Star Federation had filled for so many years.
Now, in place of the soldiers, the familiar technology, the vast resources, there was only the cold, hard knowledge that his life outside of the military had been nothing short of a disaster. The only comfort to him was that he had managed to pick Orion out of that mess and get them both back to the Star Federation. Maybe he could get a little good out of this chaos, too.
Lance did not expect to be forgiven for his desertion, but if he could track down one of the deadliest bounty hunters in the galaxy—again—and deliver whatever information she had on the Seventh Sun to the Star Federation, then maybe there would be a little leniency for him.
He did not consider the possibility of not going back. He knew what would be waiting for him when he did, but outside of the Star Federation, there was nothing. There never had been. There never would be. He had accepted that a long time ago.
With a groan, Lance pushed himself to his feet and began to gather his supplies. He tried to forget about his bleak future but his thoughts kept drifting back to it, and he moved too fast for his enerpulse injury. He gasped as the pain fired through his chest and down his arm.
I’ll be lucky if I can get out of the damned shuttle without passing out.
Landing the thing had been hard enough. The enerpulse wound the Seventh Sun had given him had burned deep, and even though the Star Federation’s medics had accelerated his healing, the wound would not fade quietly. Three times already, Lance had bitten back tears after he had moved too fast or reached too far, and Orion had whined in sympathy as Lance’s breath had rasped through his throat.
Not for the first time, Lance found his hand dipping into the pocket that held the stimulators Captain Stone had given him before helping him escape. Lance let his fingertips brush along the hard capsules that contained the stims, but sighed off the hunger for relief and withdrew his hand.
Too much overlap between doses, and his heart would spin out of control. Then Jason Stone would find Lance’s body in the middle of the Phanite forest, and that would be the end of everything.
As Lance waited for the pain to ebb back down to seething discomfort and for his mind to clear as much as the ever-weakening painkillers and the stims would allow, Orion stuck his head into the shuttle’s cockpit and fixed a flat stare on Lance. His impatience stood out in sharp relief against the splash of black fur across his face.
The arkin was tired of being cooped up in the shuttle. There wasn’t much room for him to move as it was, but with Blade taking up the rear of the shuttle and her depression seeping into the rest of the space, Orion was especially agitated. He was not going to be pleased once they landed and Lance told him that he had to stay with Blade to guard her and the shuttle.
Orion fidgeted as Lance stepped out of the cockpit and began to organize his supplies. The arkin tried to unfurl his wings, but they brushed the walls and roof of the shuttle and he snapped them closed with a frustrated grunt. He bent himself into a tight turn and skulked towards the back of the shuttle, and Lance got a good look at the patch of rough, dark gray fur on his left flank.
It was an old wound, and the fur had grown back a long time ago, but it had left its mark. Every time Lance looked at the dark patch, he remembered the way the arkin’s scorched fur and flesh had smelled.
Lance had killed the man responsible for that wound a long time ago, a vicious gang leader that had gone by the name Red Jack. There were a lot of bad memories tied up with that man, and Lance had to give his head a hard shake to keep them scattered at the back of his mind.
But it was hard to look at Orion—gray and black and yellow-eyed Orion, with the burn mark on his left flank—and not remember.
So Lance looked away, found Blade’s wing, and slowly picked out the full form of the black arkin.
Curled at the back of the shuttle and mostly hidden in the gloom, Blade had her eyes shut and her limbs drawn in close, save for her injured wing, which she had spread out over the floor. The wing had been broken when Lissa had been forced to crash-land the starship Resolution in the middle of the Phanite forest, and though the injury had been treated while aboard the Star Federation ship, Lance worried that the arkin would not be able to fly again. Arkins were sturdy creatures, but broken wings were crippling.
As if Blade sensed him looking at her, she cracked open her eyes and stared back at Lance. Amber against shadow black. Usually bright and fierce, but dulled by pain and depression now.
“I’ll find her,” Lance promised for what must have been the hundredth time, but it was more for him than Blade by this point. He always felt better after he said the words.
Blade grunted and shut her eyes again, not opening them even when Lance opened the shuttle’s airlock, letting the morning light spill inside. Lissa’s abduction had hit her hard.
Orion tried to follow Lance out of the shuttle, but after some firm words, Lance managed to convince the arkin to stay with Blade. He left some food out for them, but they both eyed it with distaste, and from the way Orion looked out at the Phanite forest, Lance had the feeling that he would return to find a pile of bones left over from whatever unfortunate creature the arkin managed to catch. As long as both arkins were present when he got back, Lance would happily clean up whatever mess they left for him, but he knew that he was more likely to return to find the shuttle swarming with Star Federation soldiers.
Captain Anderson must have learned that he was missing by now. The scrambled shuttle signal would throw her off for a bit, but Phan was one of the first places she would look. Lance still had to see Aven before she sent her ship screaming after him. The visit would cut his time and bring him dangerously close to Anderson, and based on what Stone had told him, he did not doubt that Anderson would hand him directly over to Fleet Commander Keraun if she caught him.
Lance had to move fast.
Digital compass in hand, water and a little food in a pack slung over his good shoulder, and a hologram projector secured to his belt, Lance set off from the shuttle on foot.
He was glad that the clearing he’d found was not far from the city that held Aven’s hospital, but that was more of a curse than a blessing. Anderson would find the clearing immediately once she had teased out his trail. Moving on foot, one slow step at a time, frustration boiling in his gut, Lance could almost feel her closing in, could almost hear the shriek of starships breaching the sky, but he forced himself to keep a steady pace. The forest floor was illuminated by golden streaks of sunlight, but tree roots and fallen branches were everywhere, and Lance was not certain that he could recover from a misstep.
The forest had not completely dried after the rainstorm, and the few patches of clear ground were soft and spongy under Lance’s feet. The air was clear and crisp, but the scent of wet leaves and mud haunted the forest, although Lance was so grateful for the cool temperature that he would have endured almost any smell. While his enerpulse burns had been cleaned and dressed carefully, the cool air was a relief, and he lifted his shirt a little and let the light breezes play over his chest and side. The air could not touch the wound, but his skin felt hot outside of the bandaging, and Lance welcomed the chill.
By the time he had reached the outskirts of the city, Lance was shivering a little, and was strongly tempted to take another dose of stimulators. Instead, he crouched behind the last row of trees and activated the hologram projector on his belt, letting the little machine envelop him in a disguise. It was a Star Federation standard-issue hologram projector, top-of-the-line as befitting Star Federation soldiers, but Lance hesitated long enough to raise his good arm and shift it around, watching the hologram react to the light and simulate shadow on fabric and skin. The settings were a little off, with too much contrast and not enough soft shading to pass as reality, and Lance took a few precious moments to adjust the levels. When he was finally satisfied, Lance peered out from the forest and checked for any unwanted observers.
There were mostly buildings and alleyways in front of Lance, but between them and the trees was a stretch of open land, a wide strip cleared away to divide the city from the forest. Judging by the uniform width of it, Lance thought that there might have been plans for a wall at some point, but they had been postponed or scrapped in favor of some other project.
Lance scanned the sky, took a step backwards as a small transport cruiser streaked over the outskirts of the city, steeled himself, then plunged into the clearing and stumbled across it as fast as he could. He made it to the closest alleyway and ducked into the gloom, pausing to catch his breath before setting off again at a slower pace and doing everything he could to conceal his injury. His hologram would not help him hide that.
It was still early morning, and a large part of the city had not come awake yet. There were, however, several figures marching across the overhead walkways, and as he drew closer, Lance heard the drone of the crowd from the main streets. When he emerged from the alley, he slipped into the thin pack without drawing more than a bored glance or two, and set off for the hospital. He let the crowd carry him along, but took care not to bump his bad shoulder against anyone. As the sun rose and the street swarms thickened, that task turned his easy walk into a strange, jolting dance, but by that point, he had almost reached the hospital and managed to avoid too much attention.
When he found the right building, he came up short, and someone jabbed him in the side and growled something nasty at him, but between the flare of pain and the surge of stress at seeing the group of Star Federation soldiers stationed outside the hospital, Lance did not hear it.
Ducking into a nearby alley, Lance forced himself to calm down and catch his breath. He peered out at the soldiers, awkwardly trying to keep himself in the shadows as he did so. He studied them for a quick moment, then pulled back, thinking.
The soldiers looked bored more than anything else. They must have been assigned to the hospital as a precautionary measure, and based on their lounging postures, were not expecting anyone of special interest to pass their way. Lance weighed his options, but ultimately decided that his odds of sneaking past them were not good. Disinterested as they were, they were still trained soldiers, and they would notice that he was trying to hide an injury. If they stopped him, a hologram would not protect him from an identity scan. And even if he made it past them, there could be more soldiers inside the hospital, watching and waiting.
Lance moved away from the main street and threaded his way through the alleys, working out an indirect route towards the hospital. He’d been prepared to come up with some excuse to see Dr. Chhaya, but now he was hoping for an unguarded side entrance that he could force his way into. He knew that was about as likely as sneaking past the soldiers, but he was running out of options. If he could not find anything, he would have to risk the main entrance and hope the soldiers gave him little more than a passing glance.
When he reached the hospital and began to prowl around the perimeter, he felt his chances of success slipping further and further away. There were side access doors, but they either opened solely from the inside, or required identification scans to access. Lance could not bypass those.
Just about ready to give up, he turned one last corner and jerked to a halt when he saw the man standing in the alleyway. The man’s eyes were closed, and his face was turned towards the sky as he spoke softly into the quiet. Sunlight had not yet slanted into the alley at this early hour, but through the gloom, Lance picked out the man’s wiry gray hair, brown skin, settlements of extra weight around his middle, and soft age lines etched into his face.
Lance had never thought that he would be so thrilled to see Dr. Chhaya, but he held back and let the doctor finish.
Finally, Chhaya sighed and lowered his head. He withdrew something from his pocket, turned, and caught sight of Lance. For a moment, the two men stood perfectly still, staring at each other. Then the doctor took a stumbling step back and turned to run.
“Dr. Chhaya!” Lance called out, as loudly as he dared.
The doctor hesitated, but kept edging away from Lance, throwing glances over his shoulder towards the main street where the group of Star Federation soldiers was stationed.
Lance held up his hands to show that he was unarmed, wincing a little when even that turned out to be too demanding for his wound. “Fleet Commander Ashburn,” he said, then winced again, but not from motion. “Actually, just Ashburn now.” He lowered his arms and touched the hologram projector on his belt, letting the disguise flicker.
Distrust lingered in the doctor’s gaze, and the tension remained in his body.
Lance took a small step forward and thrust his chin towards the main street. He kept his voice low when he said, “Have the soldiers found him yet?”
Chhaya considered him for a long moment. “No,” he finally said. “They’re looking, but they don’t seem to know what they’re trying to find.”
Lance breathed out his relief, though he knew it would not be much longer before the soldiers stormed Aven’s room. “I need to speak with Aven.” He took another small step forward and dropped his voice even lower. “It’s about Lissa.”
Something shifted behind the doctor’s dark eyes, and he gave Lance a long, searching look. “They took her.”
Lance swallowed. “Yes.”
Pain flared across Chhaya’s face, but he fought it back and quickly motioned Lance towards a door in the side of the building. Chhaya stood before the identity lock, allowed it to scan him, and then held the door open for Lance. When they had slipped inside, Chhaya snapped his hand on to Lance’s bad shoulder, sending a fresh wave of pain down his arm.
Lance yelped softly, but even through the burning, he knew that the move was too calculated to have been an accident.
“I hope,” Chhaya said softly, “that you’re here for the right reason, Mr. Ashburn.” His dark eyes drilled into Lance’s.
Lance breathed through the pain, and nodded.
Chhaya released him and led the way through the halls. They bypassed security checkpoints without trouble, but paused at the decontamination ones. As one of the chambers sterilized them, Lance asked the doctor what he had been doing out in the alleyway.
The doctor looked at him sidelong. “I was praying.”
“Really? I’m surprised.”
Chhaya’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m sorry,” Lance said quickly. “That’s just not something I expected from a doctor so far from Earth.”
Chhaya said nothing until the sterilization process was complete and the chamber had hissed open. “If I were ruled purely by logic,” he said as he led Lance through the hospital, “I would have given up on Aven a long time ago.”
Chapter 4: Silence
There was darkness, but it was far from peaceful.
Voices swarmed around her ears, and try as she might, Lissa could not make out the words. There was just an unending drone of whispers and breaths, and she tried to track the sources of the voices through the dark, but she never found them.
She listened for familiar voices, hoping to follow one out of the dark, but the sounds blurred and meshed together, and all of the whispers sounded alien to her, just an unfamiliar rush of words echoing across infinity and back. She tried to close her ears, but the voices always found a way in, filling her until she threatened to burst.
She tried calling out, but her own voice had been stolen, and she could only scream silence.
Lissa tried to run. She did not know where she was going, or if she was moving, but her breath slowly melted out of her chest. The air grew tight and warm around her, and the voices grew more frenzied, buzzing and pressing into her ears until they finally aligned into a single voice that whispered, “Welcome to the Light.”
The darkness exploded into searing brightness, and Lissa gasped in agony, her lungs and vision burning and sweat streaming down her face. The breath came back into her in shaky bursts, and her eyes slowly adjusted to the light as she returned to reality.
The world fizzled into focus.
She was in a small room. She rested on either a table or a hard cot—she could not tell which—in the center of the room, and there was a door off to her right. To her left were a few machines, probably monitoring her vital signs, all out of reach. They were definitely medical technology, but she could not see their readouts all that clearly. The room smelled sterile enough to be a hospital room or a division in a ship’s medical bay, but something felt off about it. She glanced around the room again, and saw a lot of gray. There was a spark of blue, a cluster of flowers that were harshly out of place on top of one of the machines, but the rest was gray. Bare gray walls, gray ceiling, gray floor. For a brief moment, she thought that it might be the signature gray of the Star Federation that she was looking at, but it was too light. Far too light. Not a gray room, but a white one.
White-hot, killing shot.
Not the Star Federation, then.
She squinted at the medical machines, and realized that they were not displaying data in the Written Unified Voice. The characters were strange but familiar to her, something that she’d seen a long time ago and forgotten, and Lissa found a sense of dread sneaking into her. Then recognition clicked, and Lissa realized that the language was Neo-Andromedan.
The breath fled from her all over again, and hot, angry tears ran down her face. She thrashed and struggled, but something was restraining her, and the most she could do was whip her head back and forth and curl and uncurl her fingers. Her breath returned to her, and with it came the raging thirst to scream and tear apart the silence of the room. One ragged half-shout escaped, but she bit back the rest and forced the screams to die.
The Seventh Sun had taken everything from her, her hope, her light, her brother Aven, and even Blade—fierce, brave, loyal Blade—and they were about to take her life, but she would not give them her voice. That much she could keep. That much was hers, and hers alone.
She still wanted to scream, but she took a deep, shuddering breath instead.
I’m going to die, she told herself, but that’s all right. I wasn’t fighting for anyone, not even Aven. I wasn’t protecting anyone. Not anymore. It’s okay. There is nothing left to survive for.
Lissa lifted her head and glanced around the room. It looked the way she felt: cold and empty.
Numbness washed in, and Lissa welcomed it.
She did not know for how long she lay alone in the room, the hard surface of the table-cot pressing into her bones, but at some point the door opened. She dimly registered the noise.
The footsteps were a bit more entrancing, and despite her numbness, she focused on their sounds. They were brisk, heavy steps, the movement of someone agitated. The footsteps drew closer, a face appeared in Lissa’s vision, and Lissa stared at the ceiling just beyond the curve of the face’s cheek.
“Sen valasha?” the face said. “No screaming?”
Lissa blinked in slow response.
The face considered her. “They said that you were angry when they brought you down. They said you fought them all the way.” The face came a little closer. “Are you going to fight now?”
Lissa blinked again.
There was a small sigh. “I need a fighter. A fighter is my only hope.” The face dipped closer still, and Lissa registered warm breath against her skin. “Will you fight for me,” the face whispered, “Little Light?” The lips curved into a mocking smile, and Lissa finally focused on the face.
It belonged to a woman with an unpronounced jawline, and a chin lost in extra flesh. Her skin was rosy copper, her eyes were large and round, and her nose darted down her curved face in a straight, sharp line. Her lips were thin and red, her teeth large and off-white. Her hair was light brown and wavy, pulled back into a loose bun that rested against her neck, but wisps hung down over her ears and small forehead. She had a thick neck and a gentle slope to her shoulders, and she lacked the quick, certain movements of the Sun’s predatory field agents. But in spite of all that, she had the same hungry fervor of the field agents. Lissa could see it in her eyes. They were very pale, white gold almost, but without the harsh light of an Awakening in them. The absence of that light left her eyes shallow and flat.
Lissa did not know this woman, but it was as though she had haunted Lissa’s nightmares for as long as she could remember.
“I’m going to fight for you,” the woman said softly, still smiling. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep you alive.” She brought her fingers up and slowly caressed Lissa’s cheek. “I want to see you Awake.” Her fingers dropped to Lissa’s throat. “I want to see you fight.” Her free hand brought something up, and she fastened the thing around Lissa’s neck almost lovingly. “But Awake or dead,” she purred, “you’re going to help a lot of people.”
Lissa felt herself start to shake. She wanted to scream at the woman, break loose from the bindings that held her down, claw and bite if she had to, fight her way out of the room, but most of that she would never be able to do, even if she tried. The rest she forced herself to keep in.
It’s mine, she reminded herself. This one last thing is mine.
The woman smirked at Lissa. “So silent,” she murmured. “But you won’t be for long.” She cocked her head and studied Lissa for a moment. “You belong to the Light now, Arrilissa.” Her full name rolled off of the agent’s tongue with calculated ease, and Lissa’s skin crawled. “All of you. Even those screams you’re holding inside.”
Lissa released a hard breath.
“You can try to defy us now,” the woman said, withdrawing her hands and straightening, “but we’ll break you if we have to.” She moved around the table-cot, circling behind Lissa’s head, and stepped to the strange medical machines. She reached out to hit a few buttons, and through her fresh tears of frustration, Lissa got her first good look at the woman’s hands.
Her fingers were not her fingers. They were far too long, almost twice the length that they should have been, and they looked delicate and spindly, but they moved with more speed and dexterity than the woman possessed in the rest of her entire body. There were neat lines of scar tissue along the woman’s knuckles, and Lissa realized that the operation had not been a necessary one. The woman had been enhanced, modified to make up for clumsy shortcomings.
When she turned back to Lissa and saw the direction of her eyes, she dropped her hands and curled her bionic fingers up tight.
And Lissa began to laugh. It was little more than soft, delirious giggles, but it was laughter all the same.
For all their power, for all the fear they had packed into her heart, for all the nightmares they had forced her to live, the Seventh Sun was still only a group of people, and people could be hurt.
“Be quiet,” the woman hissed.
“You weren’t good enough for them,” Lissa managed to gasp out, “were you?”
“I said be quiet.”
“And you’re still not good enough.”
Suddenly, the woman was standing over Lissa again, one hand with its too-long fingers clamped over her shoulder, the other gripping her face with two pointed fingertips poised over her eyes. Lissa stopped laughing, blinked, and felt her lashes brush the tips of the bionic fingers.
“I could blind you if I wanted to.” The woman’s voice was a venomous whisper. “Or I could pierce your throat and watch you drown in your own blood.”
A slow, vicious smile spread over Lissa’s face. “Are you allowed to harm candidates?”
The woman clenched her weak jaw. “I am the overseer here,” she snarled. “I have total control over your life, and your death.”
“But you’re still worthless to them,” Lissa said. The smile died. “Not like me.”
The woman said nothing. She only stood looking at Lissa for a long, silent moment. Then she abruptly straightened up, withdrew her modified hands, and fled the room.
Lissa did not laugh again. She had wanted to push the overseer into acting harshly, maybe even cutting Lissa’s life short and sparing her the pain of an Awakening. Now that she had left, Lissa knew that she would live to taste an Awakening, but maybe she had forced in some room for mistakes on the overseer’s part. She did not expect an opening, but if she found one, she would take it, no matter how small it may be. Any opening was certain to end in death, but there was nothing left. There was nothing to lose.
Nothing, except me.
The Sun wanted her body and her life, and probably would take both no matter what she did, but there was one escape, one tiny fleck of shade in a world that was far too bright.
But to reach it, she had to embrace the light.
End of excerpt from Unbroken Light.
Official Release Date: Nov. 18, 2015
© 2015 K. N. Salustro