Following Fortune's Pawn, the space adventure continues in this action-packed military science fiction series featuring hotshot mercenary Deviana Morris.
You said no?” the girl shrieked, crushing the letter in her fist. “You didn’t even think you should ask me first?”
Her father folded his arms over and fixed her with the look that used to make his soldiers tremble. “No. It was not your decision.”
The girl threw the balled‑up letter at him, bouncing it off his chest. “I can’t believe you, Papa!” she shouted. “The best plasmex school in the galaxy invites me to be a student, and you ruined it! You don’t even ask me what I think, you just said no like you get to talk for me!”
“I do talk for you, Yasmina,” her father said calmly. “You are twelve, a child. Children should not go so far from home.”
“I’ll never go anywhere,” Yasmina wailed. “I’ll be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere forever!” She whirled around and ran through the farmhouse to her room. “I hate you!” she screamed.
“You will not speak to me like that!” her father yelled back, but it was too late. The girl had already slammed her door.
He took a step to follow, then stopped, running his hands through his thick, curling black hair, which seemed to be getting grayer by the day. He knew from experience that confronting her now would do nothing but make her angrier. That was natural; Yasmina was young. He was not. It was his responsibility to be calm, to do what was best. But that was cold comfort when he could hear his daughter crying.
The man sighed and sank onto the worn chair beside the picture window that looked out over the open fields that surrounded their sprawling house. Honestly, he didn’t like being out here any more than she did. He’d never liked wide open spaces. There was too little cover, too many ways someone could sneak up on them, but he’d had no choice.
Yasmina was plasmex sensitive. It hadn’t been so bad when she was young, but with her powers growing every year, they couldn’t stay in the city with all its voices. So he’d quit his job with the Terran military and moved his family to the colonies, away from everything that could hurt her. The isolation had been bearable while his wife was alive. Now, things were . . . less easy. But with just the two of them, it was more important than ever that he keep his Yasmina safe and close at his side.
Something bumped gently against his shoe, and the man looked down to see the balled‑up letter his daughter had thrown. He leaned over and picked it up, pressing the crumpled paper flat across his knee. The letter from the plasmex school informing them of Yasmina’s acceptance was printed on heavy, old-fashioned paper. A ploy, he was sure, to convey an age and importance he’d seen no sign of when he’d looked the place up. He’d sent his reply on a far less prestigious droid relay, and despite Yasmina’s tears, he felt no regret. So long as he breathed, his little girl was not going to a coed school on the other side of the galaxy.
He balled the letter up again, crushing the paper ruthlessly. He was getting up to toss it in the incinerator when he heard a knock on the door.
The man froze. He was not expecting anyone, and you didn’t get accidental visitors this far out. More worrisome still, none of his proximity alarms had warned him someone was coming, and he’d bugged his farm very thoroughly. Whoever it was must have flown in, but he had not heard a ship land.
The knock sounded again, louder this time, and the man burst into action. He grabbed his army pistol off its rack above the field-stone fireplace and loaded it with stun rounds from the box on the mantel. Then, hiding the gun behind his back, he opened the farmhouse’s heavy door a crack to reveal two strangers, a woman and a girl.
The man paused. The woman was middle-aged and clearly elite military; no one else could make standing still look so dangerous. The girl was different, though. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and she was far too thin, with dark brown hair cut flat just above her jutting shoulders, but what worried him even more than her thinness were her eyes. The girl’s gaze was glassy and blank, like she was drugged, and the man tightened his grip on the pistol hidden behind his back. “Can I help—”
The words weren’t out of his mouth before the woman grabbed him. Her strike was so fast he had no time to think, but he had been a solider himself for many years, and he didn’t need to think. Even before her fingers tightened on his wrist, he was swinging his gun out to shoot the stranger in the leg, but as his gun came up, a second hand stopped him.
The grip was so hard, he thought it was the strange woman again, but one look proved him wrong. It was the girl. The strange, blank-faced girl had her thin hand wrapped around his wrist like a vise, and as her fingers dug in, a word spoke in his mind.
The command landed on him like a weight. All at once, he was falling, the gun clattering from his hand as he tumbled to the ground. A second before his shoulder hit the floorboards, he was out.
The man woke with a snort. He was sitting in his chair, staring out the dark window. He blinked groggily and wiped his hands over his face before glancing at the clock. Nearly nine; he must have fallen asleep.
The man stood up, stretching the soreness out of his limbs as he walked to the door. He had a vague feeling that someone had been there, but all was quiet and the bolt was set, just like normal. Shaking his head at old paranoia, the man glanced down the hall toward his daughter’s room. It had been hours since their argument, but the sight of the shut door still stung.
With a deep, tired breath, the man set off down the hallway. He knew he was giving in, being soft, but Yasmina was the only one he had left. Fortunately, her light was still shining under her door, so he knocked softly. When she didn’t answer, he leaned his head against the cool, painted wood.
“Yasmina,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I know you feel isolated out here, but you have to understand, we did it to keep you safe. I should have asked you about the school before I turned them down, but I couldn’t bear to let you go.” His voice began to shake, and he started talking faster. “Now that Mama’s gone, you’re all I have left. If anything happened to you, I would pull the universe apart.”
He stopped, holding his breath, but there was no sound from inside. Scowling, the man knocked again. “Yasmina?”
No answer. Suddenly furious, he reached down and threw open her door. “Yasmina! I know you’re angry, but you will answer me when—”
He stopped cold. His daughter’s room looked just like always—the floor too messy, the walls covered in pictures of places she wanted to go—but there was no one in it. The room was empty. Yasmina was gone.
That was all he saw before he tore back through the house and out into the night, screaming her name into the cold wind that blew across the empty fields.
Yasmina made herself as small as possible, hunching her shoulders and keeping her chained hands close against her back. The strange woman walked beside her, tugging her along. The other stranger, the large man in the dark suit, walked behind with the girl. That was good. The adults were scary, but their danger was understandable, like her father when he had his rifle out. The girl was different. Her glassy eyes and blank expression were terrifying in a way Yasmina could not explain. Sometimes it felt like there was nothing inside her at all. Like the strange, silent girl wasn’t even human.
It had been two days since the strangers had taken her from the house. Since then, she’d been watched every moment, unable even to use the bathroom alone. The man and the woman treated her like a piece of luggage, refusing to tell her who they were or where they were taking her, and the glassy-eyed girl didn’t seem to realize Yasmina existed. She just sat in her chair while they made one hyperspace jump after another, playing her chess game like it was the only thing that mattered in the universe.
By the time they arrived at a huge black space station, Yasmina had grown numb to her own terror. She hadn’t even cried when they’d marched her into the hangar like a prisoner. Instead, she’d tried to keep her eyes on her surroundings, looking for some kind of marker, some clue she could use to let her father know where she was. But the station was a blank. There were no markings or logos on the walls, there wasn’t even any directional signage. Just a maze of hallways that the strange man and woman navigated as if they’d lived here all their lives. The blank corridors were so bleak, Yasmina had given up hope completely by the time her jailers marched her through a heavy steel door into a large, windowless room that looked like a lab with other people in it. The first people besides her captors she’d seen since they took her from her father.
It was two men, both older, deep in conversation. One, a stern-looking man with a white beard and hair, was dressed like an officer in a military coat and boots, though he wore no insignia and she didn’t recognize the uniform. Surprisingly, the other was dressed like a spacer in a worn leather flight vest, ship boots, and a heavy pistol in a leather holster at his hip.
Both men looked up when the door opened, and Yasmina seized her chance. Since the spacer likely couldn’t help, she threw herself at the man in the military coat. After the obedient trip from the ship, her guard was unprepared for the sudden movement, and she actually made it several feet before they caught her.
“Help me!” she cried to the officer as her guard wrestled her back into line. “My father’s a very important man! He’ll—”
Her words cut off as a gag slid over her mouth. Yasmina screamed in protest, but it did no good. The woman tied the gag tight before lifting Yasmina one-handed, tucking her under her arm like an unruly child. Yasmina screamed against the cloth in her mouth until her throat felt raw, kicking and fighting as hard as she had when they first took her. She even tried to use her plasmex, stabbing at the woman with all her strength, but her captor didn’t even seem to notice. Tears of frustration poured down Yasmina’s face. If only her father had let her go to school, she wouldn’t be weak now. Wouldn’t be here at all.
That thought made her cry even harder. “Papa,” she sobbed against the gag. She’d seen him on the floor when they’d dragged her out. He’d fought for her, she knew, and they’d still gotten through. She’d always thought her papa was invincible. If these people could beat him, what hope did she have?
“You see what I was talking about?”
Yasmina swallowed her cries and looked up. The men who’d been talking when she’d been brought in were walking toward her now. As they approached, her guard saluted and set Yasmina back on her feet, though the woman’s hands never left her shoulders. Yasmina knew from days of experience that the woman’s iron grip was unbeatable, but she fought against it anyway, scowling up at the men, who were looking down at her with pity.
“She’s unstable,” the white-bearded man in the officer’s coat said. “Rejects influence. They couldn’t even sleep her on the way over.” He glanced at the second man, the one dressed like a spacer,with a severe frown. “I know you’re the expert here, Caldswell, but she’ll just be trouble if you try to take her out into the field.”
“That’s fine,” the man called Caldswell replied. “That’s why I have the Fool, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” the officer said, looking back at Yasmina. “Your little experiment.”
“Successful experiment,” Caldswell corrected, though his voice wasn’t smug. He was merely stating fact. “I’ve got the numbers to prove it. The crew environment keeps my daughters stable twice as long as the usual setup. Ren lasted almost five years this time. That’s a record.”
The man in the officer’s coat did not look convinced, but Yasmina wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, because Caldswell was standing in front of her now. He wasn’t a particularly tall man, but he was broad and bulky, and his short, reddish brown hair was going silver at the temples, just like her father’s. He was smiling at her as her father used to do, too. None of the others had done that, though his smile was so sad Yasmina wished he’d stop. She didn’t want to know what was coming to make him look at her so sadly.
“Hello,” he said softly. “I’m Brian Caldswell, and I’m sorry as hell this is happening to you. I’m sure you hate us right now, but you need to know that even though you didn’t choose this, what you’re doing makes you a hero.” He reached out, squeezing her arm softly with his calloused hand. “Thank you. Thank you with all my heart. I swear I won’t let your sacrifice be in vain.”
The man in the officer’s coat scowled as Caldswell finished. “I wish you’d stop doing that,” he said coldly. “It’s demoralizing for the others, and she won’t remember.”
“She still deserves to hear it,” Caldswell said.
The officer’s scowl deepened. “In all likelihood, she won’t even make it. She’s only a ninety-eight percent match. Maat ate a ninety-nine-percenter just yesterday.”
That statement made Yasmina whimper against the gag, but Caldswell shook his head. “She’ll make it,” he said. “I have a good feeling about this one. Send her in and see.”
The officer gave a long-suffering sigh and waved his hand. A second later, Yasmina was nearly taken off her feet as her guard yanked her by the shoulders and began to drag her toward a door on the opposite side of the room.
This door was smaller than the one they’d come in through, but it was heavily reinforced and covered with a thick, glowing shield, the kind banks used to cover vaults. As soon as she saw it, Yasmina began to fight harder than ever. After Caldswell’s cryptic remarks, she wanted nothing to do with whatever was in that room, but as always, her struggles did nothing. The woman dragged her across the room like she was a tiny, unruly dog. The shield vanished when they reached it, and the heavy door slid up into the ceiling with a soft hiss to reveal what looked like a white closet. That was all Yasmina could make out before the guard yanked the gag off her mouth and shoved her inside.
She stumbled through the door, tripping on the frame. She caught herself on her hands just before she landed on her face, which was unexpected, since her wrists had been cuffed behind her not a second before. But the strange woman had removed those too, leaving Yasmina unrestrained for the first time since they’d grabbed her. There was no time to do anything with her freedom, though. Already, the heavy door was sliding back into place, sealing her into the white room.
Yasmina ran for it anyway, banging on the metal with her newly freed fists, but her hands barely made a sound. Defeated, she slid down the door, sobbing in great heaves. She wanted her papa, she wanted to go home. She’d never complain about living in the country ever again if only she could get out of here.
She was still crying five minutes later when she heard a soft rumbling. Her head shot up, looking for the next terror, but she couldn’t see anything but white. She could feel the vibrations through the floor, though. Something was happening.
Yasmina got to her feet, keeping her back to the door. She was trying to figure out if the grinding sound was coming from the floor or the ceiling when it stopped. For one second, the white cell was silent, and then the wall directly across from the door she was cowering against slid up.
The sight was so odd, it took Yasmina several seconds to realize that the interlocking mess of metal joints on the other side was some kind of moveable platform. The rumbling she’d heard had been the huge metal machinery moving it into place. The metal itself was spotless and gleaming, clearly medical, which made sense, because at the center of it all was a person.
It looked like someone had set a hospital bed on its end so that the mattress was vertical. Likewise, the person lying on it was bound upright, held to the bed with so many restraints Yasmina couldn’t even tell if it was male or female. The only part not covered by straps was the person’s head, which was instead completely encased in a smooth metal mask.
The case covered the person’s entire skull starting from the neck just above the shoulders. It had no features, no visor, not even an air vent. Just seeing it made Yasmina claustrophobic and terrified, but the terror was manageable until the blank metal face jerked up to look at her.
Yasmina screamed, her voice breaking in pure panic as she threw herself at the door, clawing at the smooth metal. “Let me out! Let me out! ”
No one answered. Behind her, she heard the click of something unlocking, and then a crash as the metal mask fell to the hard plastic floor. The sound was so loud Yasmina almost turned on instinct but she caught herself just in time. She didn’t want to know what was under that mask. Didn’t want to see—
Yasmina stopped. The voice spoke softly, but she’d heard it clearly even over her panic, because the voice was in her head. At the same time, she felt something brush over her cheek, almost like a gentle hand.
Don’t be afraid.
The voice was so soft, so sad and sincere that Yasmina stopped crying and turned. What she saw almost stopped her hammering heart. There, tied to the wall like a mummy, was the girl who’d brought her here. No, that wasn’t right. This girl looked exactly like the other one—same delicate features, same olive skin, same dark hair cut straight right above the shoulders—but where the girl on the ship had looked empty, this girl looked full to bursting.
“Who are you?” Yasmina asked, her voice quivering.
The bound girl gave her a sad look. Poor little rabbit, I’m your death.
The words were so matter‑of‑fact, it took Yasmina several seconds to understand what the girl meant. Once she got it, though, she pressed herself so flat against the door she could barely breathe. The bound girl just gave her a pitying look. Here it comes.
Yasmina craned her neck, looking every direction, but there was no one in the room but the two of them. Then she caught the sound of something whining somewhere beyond the walls. It was a building pitch, like some huge piece of machinery was charging up. “What’s that?” she cried, looking back at the girl as the whining got louder and louder, higher and higher. “Stop it!”
The girl began to laugh, a horrible, mad sound that turned Yasmina’s bones to water. I can’t. Her mouth split into a wide grin, and Yasmina recoiled in terror. In her entire life, including the horrors of the last two days, she had never seen anything as awful as that insane, hopeless smile. See you on the other side.
As Yasmina opened her mouth to scream, the whining pitch reached its highest octave. For one painful second, the room was filled with a piercing shriek, like an alarm going off right by her ear, and then all sound stopped as the bound girl began to seize.
She writhed against her restraints, her mouth moving in huge screams, but nothing came out, not even a gasp. Her face was contorted in horrible pain, her brown eyes bulging, and despite her own terror, Yasmina felt a sudden wave of pity. Before she realized what she was doing, she began to move forward, reaching out automatically to help the suffering girl a few feet away.
She’d only made it a step when the hand landed on her spine.
It was the most peculiar sensation, like the invisible touch that had stroked her cheek just a few moments before was now reaching through her skin to grab hold of her vertebrae. For five seconds, Yasmina stood frozen as her mind tried to make sense of the feeling of fingers touching parts of her that had never been touched. Then, like a hand running up a pole, the fingers on her spine slid up her neck to wrap around her brain.
Across the room, the bound girl’s convulsions stopped, but Yasmina didn’t notice. Her whole world had shrunk to the fingers closing around her brain. And as Yasmina’s scream finally broke the silence, the hand began to squeeze.
Brian Caldswell stood inches away from the reinforced door of the conversion chamber, listening. The girl had been in there for a little over an hour. The rules said he couldn’t go in to check until the full exposure period had elapsed, but things weren’t looking good. In his experience, if it wasn’t over by the hour mark, the girl wasn’t coming out. He was about to call Commander Martin back in to discuss the next girl on the docket when the door alarm went off.
His hand shot out, punching the button that would close the panel inside. Through the heavy metal, he heard Maat’s sobbing cut off as the drugs kicked in, forcing her back into sleep. Crying was a good sign. Maat usually laughed when they died.
Behind him, the two Eyes who’d brought the girl in were restless, watching him for clues. Caldswell ignored them, focusing on the reinforced door until, at last, it opened.
The girl standing in the doorway looked nothing like the girl who had gone in an hour ago. The twelve-year-old the Eyes had dragged off the ship had been brown skinned and tall for her age with wavy, thick dark hair that tangled around her face. The girl who stood before him now was a good six inches shorter with olive skin, straight black hair cut above the shoulders, and calm, empty brown eyes, just like every other daughter of Maat.
Caldswell reached out at once, grabbing her hand. With newly imprinted daughters, you had to act fast to ensure obedience. But despite Commander Martin’s worries that she’d be trouble, the new daughter accepted his grip meekly, letting him pull her forward until they were standing right in front of each other. When she was in position, Caldswell bent down until he was staring straight into her empty eyes.
“My name is Brian Caldswell,” he said firmly. “You are my daughter, Ren Caldswell. Say hello.”
“Hello,” the girl whispered, her voice little more than air.
Caldswell nodded, adding his other hand so that her thin palm was sandwiched between his fingers. “We’re going to do bitter work, Ren,” he said softly. “But I’ll be with you the whole way. I’ll care for you until the end, and when it comes, I’ll do it myself. I promise.”
The girl didn’t answer, but they never did. Caldswell let her go with a sigh and turned around, waving for her to follow as he walked out of the room. Ren obeyed silently, her brown eyes watching nothing as she trailed him through Dark Star Station’s blank tunnels to the dock where the little shuttle was waiting to take them back to the Glorious Fool.
Behind them, buried beneath the most sophisticated security system in the universe, bound by restraints strong enough to stop enraged symbionts, Maat’s silent sobs went on and on and on.