Chapter One Excerpt
Jarrett didn’t need an alarm to tell him that, though one insisted on screaming anyway. He’d felt the jolt right through to his bones. Which meant the energy bolt had hit the skin of the ship. Which meant the shields were down. Which meant he was screwed. A new alarm joined the chorus, announcing power was down to twenty percent and still falling. The bastards would be on him in minutes.
They wouldn’t kill him. That was the worst part. They wouldn’t destroy the ship; they’d snag it and tractor it into their hold. He couldn’t let it happen. He couldn’t go back. Blow my ass out of the sky, but don’t take me back. He’d blow his own ass out of the sky if he had to. He’d wired a ship up to self-destruct enough times to know how. Just never stayed aboard for the final show before.
No more shots for what…thirty seconds? Maybe he lost them? No sign of anything on the sensors.
The ship shook again, flinging him hard against his seat belt.
Or maybe the sensors were fucked. That was a possibility. Deciding he’d better get a visual if the sensors were out, he slowly raised the blast shield over the forward viewer, ready to slam it back down if he found himself eyeball to eyeball with a sun. No heat warnings in the chorus of alarms, but if those sensors were out too…
He didn’t find himself blinded by a sun when he raised the blast shield, but the viewport instantly turned darker, cutting down the reflected light of a planet that lay far too close. Where the hell did you come from?
A gas giant. Pretty as hell, like they usually were. And giving off enough radiation to fry a man’s balls if his ship wasn’t heavily shielded. Right then, this one wasn’t, and the radiation sensor glowed bright red. Never mind. Fried balls were the least of his troubles.
Okay, gas giants. They had moons, lots of moons and random rocks captured by the gravity. If he could find one, play a little hide-and-seek until the bastards gave up…
They wouldn’t give up.
He tried not to think about that as he set a course closer to the planet, hoping to find a moon—or any damn rock—to hide behind. He’d just spotted a mass up ahead when the ship jerked, shuddered, and almost stopped.
Tractor beam lock! He sent all the power he had left into the engines and tore out of the powerful grip, flew on. Like the damn cat his family had owned when he was a kid. Every time he’d picked it up, it tore itself out of his arms and took off like a rocket. His ship—“his” only in the sense that he was currently flying it, not owning it, having stolen the thing to make his escape—took off like that cat, hurtling closer to the planet. Shit, no, not too close! If he got caught in the gravity well, he didn’t have enough power to get back out. This wasn’t the Vengeance, he had to remember. He was trying to vector away, shoot back out into open sky, when it happened.
Something hissed against the hull, as if he’d flown into a sand storm. The forward viewport went opaque, and—fucking hell—tiny cracks spread across its surface before the blast shield slammed down automatically. He gasped for breath, though knew it was just suggestion. The hull-breach alarm had sounded for about a half a second before the blast shield fell, then cut off. He still had air.
But not for much longer. The alarms blasted out again. All of them. Including a hull breach somewhere in the back section. The cockpit door sealed, leaving him trapped. The hissing sound continued outside, but it was joined by worse sounds—bangs and crashes against the hull.
What the hell had he flown into?
No way to tell. Almost all the sensors were out. Power was on critical, below five percent. The one sensor he had left was proximity, and it began to sound its warning. There was something out there. The Earth ship? No, it couldn’t be a ship, because it was staying in one place, and a ship wouldn’t just sit there waiting for him to crash into it. Had he found one of those moons he’d been looking for, and was he about to spread the ship and his person all over its surface?
Jarrett tried to alter course, but he had no functioning navigational controls, and the engines were dead. Thrusters, then, to slow his approach to whatever was ahead. If he couldn’t pull away, he could try not to smack into it too hard.
And what then? He looked around the cockpit and saw the emergency suit locker. A pressure suit! It was probably pointless. If he lost hull integrity when he crashed, the suit might keep him alive, but for what? What the hell did he think was out there? A five-star hotel with a spa? More likely a barren rock, where he’d suffocate when his suit’s power ran out.
But he had to try. He was not a man for giving up. He’d been refusing to give up for a decade, and he wouldn’t start now. He ran for the suit locker and hauled out the hardsuit he found in there, then stripped off his clothes, down to his skivvies, and climbed into it.
I will not give up. I will live.
He lowered the helmet over his head and locked it into place. The cold, dry recycled air filled his lungs, and the faceplate briefly fogged from his panting breath. All the sounds of the alarms were muted until he opened the comms to bring him the sounds of the ship.
Horrible sounds. A dying ship, screaming. Burning out the last of the thrusters to slow the vessel as it approached whatever lay out there.
The floor tipped, pitching Jarrett toward the control console. He grabbed the pilot’s chair and got himself into it by bracing a foot against the console, then strapped himself into the harness.
The proximity warning rose in pitch. It screamed. Impact was seconds away. He closed his eyes and made a vow.
I, Jarrett Blake, soldier of Chindra, I will fucking live.
* * * *
How long have they kept him in the dark? Never a way to tell. They bring the meals, but how many a day? Three? Two? One? Never hungry enough for it to be less often. But they’ve been treating him like a dog since he arrived, so one meal a day would fit.
No. I’m not there anymore. I got out. I remember. They thought I was broken. Thought I was safe. Wrong.
Got out. Running. Remember running. Stealing a ship. I’m hit!
And now light. Blinding. He’s never believed in that light, but he guesses he was the one who was wrong.
Open your eyes, Jarrett.
Light’s too bright, but look anyway. After all he’d done, he has to wonder. Light? Really? Not the eternal damned darkness of hell? He knew about hell. Had been there already a few times. Trial runs at least. It’s always dark there. But brightness glares through his closed eyelids as he rises up to the light instead of falling down to the darkness.
Guess God was on Chindra’s side after all.
Eyes open. Dazzled. He tried to raise a hand, but he had no strength. Did he even have a hand? A body? Or had he left that behind? He squinted into the glow, tears forming, either from the glare or in mourning—for himself. Mourning for the life he’d had and the life he might have had, if it had been different. Tears of regret for the things he never did. And more. Anger that those bastards got him in the end. Relief it was over.
Who might be waiting for him in the light? Lovers and friends he’d seen fall or who’d died in his arms. Or the people he killed. How many? He’d tried to count, at first, but it got so chaotic in combat. He’d long ago lost track. And then once he had the Vengeance…well, who knew how many died aboard the ships he took out? He didn’t want to see all of them lining up waiting for him. He’d have to answer for every one of them.
He gasped and flinched as a face floated out of the light. Not a face he knew—family, friend, or enemy. A stranger and, by God, an angel. A straight-off-a-stained-glass-window fucking angel. The angel gazed at Jarrett with big, long-lashed dark eyes in a face an artist would go into raptures over. Thick dark hair framed it, falling almost to his shoulders, onto the gleaming white of his clothes. He touched Jarrett, who gasped again, the angel’s elegant hand cool against Jarrett’s face.
“Rest.” The angel spoke softly, an echo in his voice—or was it a chorus behind him? An angel here to take care of Jarrett. A face he didn’t know, yet one he felt as if he’d known forever. Hadn’t he dreamed of a such a perfect face? Dreamed of a beautiful man with unscarred skin and soft hands. A companion with a soothing voice and a gentle touch to ease away all the pain.
“Rest,” the angel said again. “You’re safe now.”
Yes. “All over now,” Jarrett whispered. He’d fought so hard to live, for so long. Now all he wanted to do was let go of the life he’d always clung to. No more hurt. No more pain. Too soon perhaps—Jarrett wasn’t even thirty. But he’d lived lifetimes of pain already in a decade. For years he’d longed to lie down and rest.
His eyes closed again, but he knew his angel was still there. His soft, cool hand held Jarrett’s. Would the angel stay with him? Walk at his side? It couldn’t be paradise without love, after all, and Jarrett loved him. He’d looked into his eyes and loved him instantly. He was a gift for Jarrett. An eternal companion and lover.
Pain. But distant. The last flicker of life in his body trying to pull his soul back to it. He wouldn’t let it. The death he’d feared and fought off so successfully for years he now welcomed, now that he knew he wouldn’t be alone. Now he knew he would shake off the pain of living and ascend with his angel. He opened his eyes to be sure the angel was still with him. Yes. Silent, watching, waiting for Jarrett to slip the last of the bonds of flesh and join him.
Jarrett pulled away from the pain, trying to break the thread holding him to his body. But the light faded when he tried. Darkness then, creeping close, like ink pouring across his eyes, blotting out the face of the angel. He tried to cry out, but he had no strength to rail against the darkness. It had him.
It had had him for months in the prison. And oh, how crowded it had been in the darkness. Friends. Lovers. Victims. The Earthers called it solitary confinement, but it was full of people. Sometimes he only heard them. Crying or screaming. Sometimes he saw them, even in the darkness. He saw them now, moving around, jostling, restless, rustling. Except one. One he’d never seen before. A faceless figure stood still in the middle of the crowd. A figure darker than the darkness. How could that be? Like a singularity in the shape of a man. A dead, blank space, blacker than the blackness surrounding him.
“Who are you?”
The dark man didn’t answer.
* * * *
Jarrett opened his eyes and knew he wasn’t in paradise. Paradise didn’t have monitors that went bip with the rhythm of your heartbeat. He moved his head and saw a bank of screens on one side of him, the displays blurry to his eyes.
He turned his head to the other side. Nothing on that side except an empty chair. Beyond that, what looked like storage and more medical equipment. He was in a medical facility of some kind. He tried to remember the one at the prison—was this it? Had they taken him back? Or had he only dreamed about escaping?
Or was this a sick bay on an Earth ship? He didn’t think so; theirs were bigger and shinier. And he’d be under guard, and he was damn sure there was nobody else in the room. His eyes were blurry, his hearing muffled, but he still had his instincts. He knew when someone else was close even when he couldn’t see them.
He was alone.
Which might be their first mistake. Medical facilities had all kinds of shit usable as weapons. He just had to get off his ass and go find something. He had to…
He looked down at himself. There was something wrong with his legs. He couldn’t see what because there was a sheet and blanket covering him, but he could see odd blocky shapes under the covers. He wanted to pull the covers aside, but his arms were too heavy to lift. And his legs—could he feel them at all? Shit! Panic washed over him and he made a desperate attempt to move his legs. The pain that flooded up from them sent him spinning back into unconsciousness.
He came out of it an unknown time later. Okay, pain was bad, but at least he still had feeling. That had to be good. But he needed to get a look at his legs. The pain had eased to a dull ache, and he had enough sensation to feel that they were encased in something. But he couldn’t move them. He had to get the damn bedcovers off to take a look. This time when he tried to move his hand, he actually managed to get it out from under the sheet, but he couldn’t keep it from flopping over the side of the bed.
The voice came from somewhere else in the room, and if Jarrett could have moved, he’d have jumped right out of his skin. So much for instincts. A dark shape somewhere on the other side of the room moved closer, and in his helpless state Jarrett cringed, his heart racing.
“Who’s that?” he gasped, trying to put some authority into it. The figure still moved forward, but more slowly, and came close enough for him to focus on it.
The angel. Fuck, he was real. The face Jarrett had seen before, somewhere in the middle of life and death. The angel sent to him, to be with him eternally, was a man. A real man.
And Jarrett had fallen in love with him.
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