an excerpt

Chapter One

Sahak pushed himself to his feet and fought against the chemical haze that tried to drag him back to the ground. The walls of his cell were stone, less built than carved out of the gray bedrock itself. The bed was made from the same material, jutting out from the rough-hewn wall like someone had just gotten tired and stopped chiseling. Sahak didn't like to think about that. He didn't like to focus on the dark stains on the rock shelf either, so old and ancient they couldn't be bleached out. The musty smell with its iron tang sent electric jolts of alarm right up his spine.

Sahak couldn't stay here.

He could be certain he wasn't meant to stay here for very long. His captors wouldn't take long to identify him, if they hadn't already. They wouldn't trust a low-tech cell with rock walls and a metal door to hold him, either. He'd escaped better. He wasn't exactly a high-value target, but he'd definitely made a name for himself with the Federated Armies, and not in the way his mother had intended all those years ago. The Feds wouldn't be content to leave him on this rock.

The people he'd been with, though, were another matter. He couldn't leave his comrades, not if he had any chance of finding them. The consequences to Khajag and to Siran, if they'd been taken, would be so much worse than they would be for Sahak.

He paced the tiny cell for a few minutes, trying to evaluate his options with a calm mind. He'd been here for a few hours and no one had come with food or water. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious after the ship had been captured, but docking would have taken at least an hour.

He had no way of gauging the time of day down here; the artificial lights never changed from their ghastly mocking glare. He recognized the tactic. It was mean to soften them up before the real questioning began. He'd guess, based on his thirst and his hunger, that he'd been here for at least eight hours. That didn't bode well for his captors' intentions. If he was lucky, he'd face summary execution in about half that time. He'd never been more than nodding acquaintances with luck.

Sahak had no plans to make it that easy for them. He could, in theory, sit and wait to be questioned, assuming they tried. He could trust the Federated System's laws against torture would protect him from harm or ill treatment. He still had scars from the first time he'd trusted in the rule of law to protect him from zealous enforcers, enough of them to ensure it would be the last time he made that mistake.

Sahak hadn't survived the Rebellion for as long as he had by sitting back and waiting for rescue, either. He'd always believed if he wanted something to happen, he had to make it happen for himself. This little cage was no different. If he wanted out of here, he was going to have to do it under his own power.

He considered his physical status. He had a few bumps and bruises from when his ship had been attacked, but they were minor irritants. He could fight with them. His clothes had been left intact, for which he was grateful. He hadn't been that fortunate every time he'd been in captivity. His captors had searched him thoroughly, though, taking everything with them that he could have used to aid in his escape. They'd even taken his metal jewelry, most likely to keep him from using it to pick locks or disrupt electrical systems.

That invasion, seemingly so minor, made his skin crawl.

They'd replaced the jewelry with bioplast, which was even more invasive but it gave him something to work with. It gave him some clue as to their plans for him. They didn't plan to kill him, not right away. Either they didn't know who he was, or they'd decided enslavement would be a better result than execution. Neither one was a great option in Sahak's humble opinion. He'd been down the slavery road once before and it had been terrible, but at least he'd gotten away.

Execution would probably be a little harder to overcome, but Sahak was a resourceful guy.

In an ideal world, he'd be able to get away without having to try his hand at going back into slavery or looking at the firing squad. That meant getting out of this cell. A quick examination of the door confirmed the technology was primitive, but he would need more than a uniform-tunic and trousers to make it open. That meant he would have to get aggressive.

He grinned. He wasn't usually a violent guy, but he figured that could be excused if he wanted to take out his frustrations on a day like today. Anticipation chased the drugs out of his system.

The door didn't have a window or view screen. His cell didn't have any cameras. There was no place to hide. There was only the shelf and the door. Everything else was bare, damp rock. All Sahak could do was sit on the bare shelf-bed and wait.

He had to wait for an hour or so; he couldn't be more precise than that. He couldn't hear anything from the rest of the prison, just the dripping of water from above and the harshness of his own breath in the cool air. He had to try to combat his own mind while he prepared. He wasn't afraid, not exactly. He'd faced down death a hundred times before, and if it came he'd deal with it then. There were worse fates, after all.

He might not be scared, but he was anxious. His anxiety wasn't for his own skin, but that of his companions. He'd been part of a crew of five, and nothing bothered him more than not knowing their fates. Siran, another fighter and more or less a constant companion for years, had been at the workstation beside him and would have taken as much of the blast as Sahak had. They had saved one another's lives a thousand times over, ever since they'd joined the insurgency as teenagers. If she hadn't been taken captive, it could only have been because she was dead. What about his captain, Khajag? Or the medical staff they'd had on board? What had become of them?

He had to struggle against his concerns for them and try to keep himself from giving in to despair. He could worry when he got out and got the lay of the land. For all he knew, the cell was at the bottom of a hole, with no way out.

He almost shouted with relief when the door finally opened. He channeled his exuberance into action instead. He punched out with his left fist once, twice, and sent the first jailor to the ground. He didn't stop to check on the man, but turned his attention to the second. That one fell to a knife-edge attack to the throat. It wasn't much of a fight. Sahak wasn't the best hand-to-hand fighter, but he was trained and he could hold his own. They called him scrappy. All these centuries, all this time, and humans were still falling prey to one another's bare hands. Far be it for Sahak to bemoan the fact, of course. He didn't want the Feds to start wearing effective armor.

He moved his hands quickly over the soldiers' bodies until he found a keyring, and he shook his head. He couldn't think of any planet in such a primitive state that they would still rely on physical, metal keys, but this is what they had. It made his job easier, so once again he didn't complain. Instead, he dragged the stunned guards into the cell. He took the rest of their tools, too, although he didn't have time to do as thorough of a search as he would have liked. When he'd taken as much as he could, he locked them in the tiny little cave and stepped out into the hall.

His luck held, for once. The hallway lacked surveillance of any detectable type. He supposed they didn't have much space for cameras, given how deep below the surface they had to be. He'd worry about that, and what it meant for his escape bid, later. Right now, he had to find his people.

None of the doors had windows. Sahak would have to open every door and look into every cell. Any one of them could be a trap. For half a second, he considered walking away. The risks were too high. Someone could come looking for the two guards he'd incapacitated. One of the other cells could be booby-trapped. He could be in a regular prison and accidentally release a dangerous criminal--Sahak wasn't so naive as to believe that they didn't exist right alongside the political prisoners.

No one would blame him if he left, but Sahak couldn't do that. He had to find the others. Maybe no one else would judge him for leaving them, but he'd always judge himself.

He moved quickly down the corridor, unlocking doors and peering into cells. The first cell held a corpse, gone for at least a week. Sahak fought back bile. He hadn't been wrong about the intentions of the people holding him, then. He closed the door behind him and continued to the next one, covering his mouth in hopes of restraining his sickness. Later, he promised himself. There would be time to break down about that awful sight later.

The next three cells were empty. The one after that contained someone he desperately wanted to see.

Siran leaped at him, floppy dark hair flying as she launched into a kick that would have been devastating if he hadn't been prepared for it. "Siran!" he hissed. "It's me!"

She landed without a hitch. Siran had always been graceful. "Sahak? You got out?"

He shrugged. "They came into my cell first, I guess. They're locked in, but I don't know how much time we have." He passed her one of the blasters he'd taken from the goons and looked her up and down. "What kind of shape are you in?"

"Right arm's shot," she reported, shrugging her left with a wince. "Nothing some nanobots can't fix as soon as we get to some."

Sahak bent to examine her damaged shoulder. He thought it would take more than a few nanobots to fix the wound properly, but if they could find those two doctors they'd been transporting when they were taken it might work out okay. "We need to find Khajag and those medics." He strode across the hall and on to the other row.

Siran joined him. "I don't know if we will. They were outside the blast radius. They might have been able to get away." She stuck her head into the cell. "Empty."

Sahak grunted. "I'd feel better if the medics got a look at that shoulder." He moved on to the next door, cursing the slowness of the process. Maybe this was the enemy's real goal in using such a primitive technology for their jail. Every minute wasted in unlocking and opening empty cells was time that the garrison here, wherever here was, could discover their freedom and try to take it away.

The corpse in the cell next to his sprang back to Sahak's mind. He put on an extra burst of speed.

The cells on the opposite side came up empty every time they opened one. On the one hand, that meant that Khajag had gotten the medics out and hopefully to safety. Since getting the medics where they needed to go had been the whole mission, Sahak supposed that was a victory. On the other hand, he had an injured crew mate here and he'd just wasted ten minutes searching an empty jail. Only one cell remained, the one directly across from the one where he'd left the guards.

"Did you lock someone in?" Siran asked, tilting her head at the door to Sahak's former cell.

"I didn't feel up to just killing them." Sahak walked over to the last cell in the row and went to unlock it. The cell wouldn't have anyone he knew inside, but he couldn't in good conscience leave a prisoner in the clutches of the Federated Systems after an escape like this. He knew all too well what would happen.

He slid the key into the lock.


Azat slumped against the rough-hewn rock and closed his eyes. He'd been down here for three days now, and at this point he figured his jailers had either forgotten about him or were trying to find out how long he could go without the necessities of life. He considered himself fortunate that these sadists knew nothing about Arascid biology. They could deprive him of water for another two weeks at least, and of food for longer than that. No, it would be the lack of touch that killed him in the end, and he wasn't about to let them know.

He shook his head, despair putting aside its war with disgust and making common cause. Humans. They cloaked their sadism in a thin veil of scientific curiosity and convinced one another it was for the greater good. Someone should have found a way to contain them, or exterminate them, centuries ago. They'd managed to more or less destroy their original planet. How long before they turned the rest of the galaxy into lifeless craters, too?

Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. Not by him, and probably not by any other Arascid. Arascids had once been renowned warriors, but there weren't enough of them to stand against the damned humans anymore. Azat himself wouldn't be standing for much longer. He'd been caught smuggling. Maybe the authorities here on Kavadh would come for him and put him on trial. It was one of the hazards of a smuggler's life, but he'd known that when he started in the trade. It was a risky business, but anything open to non-humans was risky business, if it brought them into contact with the universe's most invasive species. He might as well get rich doing it. He had very little to lose.

Maybe they'd execute him out of hand. He wasn't human; he had no legal rights. Even humans had few rights that the Federated authorities bothered to acknowledge in practice.

Maybe they'd sell him into slavery. He'd seen that happen a time or two, seen the wreckage of the bodies left behind when their owners were done with them. He wouldn't let that happen, not if he could stop it. He'd take his own life first. He might die on a rock instead of out there among the stars, the way he was meant to, but at least it would be on his own terms.

No sound entered the little cell. The walls were too thick, and they were too deep underground. The humans who had colonized Kavadh had wasted nothing, unusual given the way that they usually squandered everything around them, and had repurposed this depleted mine into a prison. Azat could admire their thrift while his violet skin crawled. He had been in what amounted to a soundproof room for three days, or something close to it.

The key sliding into the lock and turning, therefore, was as loud as a thousand glass tumblers being dropped onto a tile floor at the same time.

Azat leapt to his feet, dropping into a ready stance. He could fight, and he wanted to, but he needed to use his brains here. Kavadh was a relatively cosmopolitan port, but Arascids were still rare here. He wouldn't exactly be able to blend in with the local population if he escaped.

The person standing in the doorway stared up at him with wild, amber-colored eyes. The color, unlike most aspects of a human's appearance, was striking, and Azat stayed his hand long enough to take in the rest of him. The man's dirty and singed garments weren't the uniform of the Federated soldiers. On the contrary, he was dressed more like one of the Rebels fighting to claw control of some of the outlying systems away from the Republic. "You're Arascid?" The human's voice was deep for such a small creature; it probably had something to do with that overdeveloped upper body of his.

Azat inclined his head in acknowledgement. He had to admit to some surprise that the human could recognize even that much. Most humans could identify "not human" and "human" and that was the extent of their interest in the matter.

"You can call me Azat." Azat was not his name. It was as close to Azat's name as a human's lumpen tongue could pronounce, though, and it sounded like a name that belonged to the Armenian language this particular human used. Maybe it would make the human less likely to lash out at Azat.

A human woman, thick, dark hair cut short and blunt at her ears, stuck her head in beside the man. "Sahak, come on. We can't waste time. Is the Arascid with us or no?" She wrinkled her flat nose. "They don't usually get involved with the revolution."

"Your revolution is a human struggle." Azat sniffed. They both stank of sweat and blood. Had they been injured? Now that Azat chose to look closer, he could see blood on the woman's shoulder. "The rest of us are neither interested nor welcome."

The pretty man smirked, although his hand twitched by his side. He seemed impatient to leave. "What are you in for?"

"Smuggling." Azat saw no reason to lie to them. He didn't care about their moral judgment.

"We don't have time for this, Sahak." The woman put her good hand on the man's arm.

Sahak shook his head. "I'm not leaving a person to rot in here, especially not once we've gotten away. They'll take it out on him, and that blood would be on our hands, Siran. You know it as well as I do." He jerked his head toward the corridor. "We're getting out or we'll die trying. You can come with us or take your chances in the cell."

Azat took two long strides and emerged into the hallway. "You said it yourself. Staying isn't an attractive option." He raised an eyebrow at Sahak. "Not that staying was an attractive option before."

"Can't imagine that it was. Were you brought in here while you were awake?" Sahak turned toward the single door leading out of the prison corridor.

"You weren't?" Azat supposed he should have expected something like that. The humans were rebels, after all. Everyone knew they were crafty. The jailers would have wanted to minimize their risk. Azat himself wanted to minimize his own risk with this pair. "I think that I can probably get us out of here, but what then? It's not as though I'm going to blend in on Kavadh."

Sahak led the way. "We'll steal a ship, of course. I'm hardly going to abandon you on Kavadh." He opened the door and paused, blaster coming up and online just in case. He didn't hesitate, not even for a moment, and Azat had to admit he was impressed by the way the human carried himself. Sahak was a true warrior.