Authors: Ann Aguirre
“A terrific first novel full of page-turning action, delightful characters, and a wry twist of humor. Romance may be in the air. Bullets, ugly beasties, and really nasty bad guys definitely are.”
âMike Shepherd, national bestselling author of the Kris Longknife series
“An irresistible blend of action and attitude. Sirantha Jax doesn't just leap off the pageâshe storms out, kicking, cursing, and mouthing off. No wonder her pilot falls in love with her; readers will, too.”
âSharon Shinn, national bestselling author of
Reader and Raelynx
“A tightly written, edge-of-your-seat read with intense characterizationâplus one pounding, hot SF plot.”
âLinnea Sinclair, RITA Awardâwinning author of
Games of Command
“An unflinching tale of survival, redemption, and serious ass kicking. Jax's brutal eloquence will twist your heart when you least expect it.”
âJeri Smith-Ready, award-winning author of
Voice of Crow
is an exciting, evocative, and suspenseful science fiction romance, reminding me of
. Characters and a world you'll think about long after the book is done. Fascinating!”
âRobin D. Owens, RITA Awardâwinning author of
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhiâ110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2008 by Ann Aguirre.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
ACE and the “A” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
You're the reason I get up in the morning.
And sometimes you're the reason I wind up lost
in chicken country.
Which is better than bat country.
This one's for you, like everything I do.
Linnea Sinclair and Elaine Corvidae have been reading my work for more years than I care to count. If not for them,
wouldn't exist. My wonderful agent, Laura Bradford, jumped on this story. Without her, I never would've connected with the talented staff at Ace.
At this point, I need to thank all of the above for their time and expertise. I'm humbled by the chance to work with people who know so much aboutâ¦well, everything.
Much love also to Dionne Galace and Carrie Lofty, who always listen, no matter how crazy I sound or how late it is.
However, this section wouldn't be complete without a mention of some amazing writers who inspired me over the years: Robin McKinley, Patricia Briggs, Sharon Shinn, Patricia A. McKillip, Robin D. Owens, Connie Willis, Jeri Smith-Ready. The list goes on. I spent a great deal of time delightedly lost in worlds they created. I hope readers enjoy their stay in mine.
Are you afraid of falling, baby?
No, I'm afraid of landing.
[He's laughing, and I'm smiling.]
Stupid idiot smile, don't you know what comes next?
Wake. Wake now.
I don't want to see this, not again. It's not helping me deal. This thing is brokenâ
I sit up, shuddering, shoving the dark mop of hair out of my face, and my fingers come away wet with sweat. With trembling hands, I yank the patch away from my skull. It hurts. But then, what doesn't? What the Unit Psych calls dream therapy, I call torture. Seems too cruel to do this to someone on purpose, and I know they're going to find a way to blame me for the tech malfunction. They always do. But it's not my fault they're using gear that should've been decommed after the Axis Wars.
That's what I want to believe. But it's getting harder. There comes a point when you want to accept culpability simply because you're the only common denominator. So yeah, maybe it's my fault. I push to my feet, off the sleep-mat, restless, haunted, although they proved a long time ago that it's all just electromagnetic energy, nothing spiritual. Nothing left of the soul, nothing left of
My AI asks, “Lights on, Sirantha Jax?”
Such a polite Unit spy. The fragging thing reports everything I do, every time I roll over, probably every time I take a piss.
“Yeah,” I tell it, and the soft yellow glow, simulated sunrise on the most hospitable of the tier worlds, fills my cell.
Oh, they wouldn't call it a cell. These are my quarters, provided gratis, while my Unit assesses the damage to my psyche, decides whether I'm whole enough to run. But I'm incarcerated, even if I'm being watched by an AI instead of a hulking brute. There are prisons without bars and worlds without sunlight. I didn't know about either one until I joined the Corp.
I pace ten by ten, and when I reach the door, the AI inquires, “Shall I summon an escort for you, Sirantha Jax?”
“No.” Wheeling away, I head back to the sleep-mat and sit down, legs furled.
To the AI, I'm sure it looks as though I'm meditating. In fact, I'm envisioning ways to execute something that is not, technically, alive. Perhaps the introduction of a virus into its systemâ¦I'll have to think about it some more.
Clearly, I can't be trusted. If I were allowed to roam the station, I'd jump the first freighter I found bound for the Outskirts. Desert. Frag my contract. And they can't let that happen, not until they determine whether the accident was, in fact, my fault. And they
let me go until they know whether my mind is fried and I can't run anymore.
The first thing carries a prison sentence. I'll be shipped off to Whitefish before I hardly know the judgment's been handed down. It'll be some smug bastard who's never been off New Terra, hearing my case via uplink. I don't know if they've gotten to that point yet, don't know if barristers are involved. I should be consulted for my defense if they make me stand civ trial, but since I
Corp, if it comes to that, they'll probably handle it internally, and in which case I'll end up spaced.
Yeah, I've got the J-gene. And it's rare. But if it seems like it's my fault, that god-awful mess on Matins IV, they're going to make sure not a whisper of it gets out. Kaiâ¦he's dead already. So he isn't talking. This leaves me marching out an air lock to keep shit nice and quiet, keep the Corp squeaky clean.
Funny, the shiny adverts that get us to sign on the dotted line never show what bastards the COs are.
Thinking like that makes me sweat. Feel it running down the divots in my spine to pool in the small of my back, clammy beneath the air refreshers blowing down on me. Maybe it
my fault, but I don't want to die, even if I deserve to.
And I could answer the second question right now. Not that anybody's asked me. I can jack in. I can jump.
I just don't want to anymore.
It's been a week since I heard another human voice. Not counting my AIâI swear programmers code them to be annoying, pedantic little fucks. Oh sure, I could summon an escort to walk me around the promenade, but everyone on station knows what that means. I'm not going to entertain the Corp bureaucrats for even a millisecond. Instead I'm pacing and not sleeping except when I'm forced to dream therapy by the Unit Psych, via sedation and veiled threats. Crying and eating choclaste, a synth-food with no sugar, no caffeine, and only burns your tongue slightly after you've eaten it.
I don't need a mirror to know I'm a wreck. Coarse black hair standing up in long scruffy ringlets, skin pallid from lack of sunlight, and let's not forget the circles beneath my eyes. I've lost four kilos since I came on station, extracted from the wreckage on Matins IV. They didn't need to tell me Kai was dead; I was
And yet they did, with excruciating, patronizing precision. Fragging bastards.
Four different Psychs came to talk with me, that first day while I was lying helpless in the med bay. One of them wanted to know if I could describe the smell of burning human flesh. The Corp is full of those types, who in another time would've been chopping up their neighbors and burying them beneath the porch. Now they receive specialized certifications and go to work inside our heads.
For a while, I pretend to meditate, giving the room-bot nothing to report. And as I'm sitting there, mimicking serenity I don't feel, my door chime sounds. The AI informs me, “You have a visitor, Sirantha Jax. Allow entry?”
It's either a Psych or a CO; nobody else has clearance. Mentally I shrug, and say aloud, “Why not?”
The AI objects: “I am not programmed to evaluate the prudence of an action, Sirantha Jax. Allow entry?”
I sigh. “Yeah. Allow entry.”
At this point, anything is better than waiting. I don't get up as the door glides open, then I wish I had. Because it's nobody I expected, nobody I know. He's tall, seems taller because I'm sitting down, and he has a rough-hewn, authoritative face, the look you see on men who are accustomed to getting their own way, always. Doesn't look as if he's ever cracked a smile, grave as well, the grave. But he's not a Psych, and he appears to be in civ clothing, so not a CO, either. Shit, he's probably a barrister, which means I'm soon to be a whitefish, no daylight and no parole.
He looks me over, assessing my thin, foxy face and sharp chin. My nose is too long, and a fresh scar bisects my left cheek. I know he's registering the dark hair, light eyes combo that marks my distinctive heterozygous genotype, tied to the J-gene. Mine are icy gray, ringed in silver. Wolf eyes, Kai used to call them. Remembering that fills me with almost unbearable anguish, and the only reason I'm not sniveling again, while stuffing another square of choclaste in my mouth is because this guy is watching me.
“Have a seat,” I say, and I'm glad I sound calmer than I feel.
He's got the choice of dropping down onto my sleep-mat with me or sitting in the only chair, over by the desk. They didn't go overboard with furnishings and took away anything I could conceivably use to injure myself. I'm surprised when he hitches up his meticulously tailored trousers and plops down next to me. I'd have figured him for a chair man, all the way, which just goes to show you can't judge by appearances. Or rather, you shouldn't because you'll be wrong a lot.
Assuming the lotus position, he still doesn't say a word, and just as I'm thinking this is getting weird, he cants his head toward his open palm. I lean over so I can read something that's inked onto his hand:
Say nothing for 60 seconds.
I raise my head, about to say,
Are you shitting me?
when his dark eyes catch mine, irresistible intensity. His look bores into me, and damned if I can say a word for that entire minute. It's like he's willing me to silence, a feat that others have attempted numerous times, and failed.
“If everything has gone well,” he says at last, “then our people have sent your AI into its maintenance cycle. Still, our time is limited.”
“And if everything hasn't gone well?” That isn't what I want to ask. I want to know who the hell he is. Despite myself, I glance over the terminal, flashing blue, the color code of routine maintenance.
“Then someone would already be here to arrest us.” He flashes me a decidedly saturnine smile. Yeah, that word suits him.
Huh, wonder why I'm not reassured.