Honor and Shadows

Honor and Shadows is a 10,000-word prequel novelette set just before the start of Hunt the Stars.

The original rough draft was written as a bonus for preordering Hunt the Stars. This is a short action/adventure story with the Starlight’s Shadow crew before they meet the Valoffs.

Captain Octavia Zarola needs an infusion of credits—fast—if she’s going to keep her close-knit bounty hunting crew paid and fed. Tracking down an escaped embezzler on a backwater planet should be a piece of cake, but bounties are rarely as easy as they seem.

As the crew closes in on their quarry, the hunt becomes entangled with a local criminal overlord, and Tavi will have to decide what’s more important: money or honor, and how much she’s willing to risk for either one.

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Chapter One

As we approached the landing zone, I couldn’t decide if the man who’d allegedly stolen more than a million credits from one of the largest conglomerates in the galaxy had incredibly terrible or incredibly brilliant taste in hideouts. Either way, the tiny, dusty village on a backwater mining planet was not what I’d expected.

Starlight’s Shadow settled onto the sole landing pad in the spaceport—a fancy name for what amounted to a glorified field. Nearby, a small cluster of buildings served as the village square, and a few dozen houses were scattered around seemingly at random.

Eli, my first officer, turned to me from his place at the tactical terminal and tilted his head skeptically. “Are you sure this is the right place?” Eli had the face of an angel on the body of a bruiser. Tall and muscled, with deep brown skin and warm brown eyes, Elias Bruck was uncannily handsome, a fact that Kee—my systems engineer—and I ribbed him about ruthlessly.

But he’d also hauled us out of more than our fair share of messes, something he didn’t let us forget. The good-natured teasing went both ways.

“Kee tracked the bounty, and she’s never wrong, so I’m going to go with yes.”

Eli grinned. “Well, there was that one time…”


“That wasn’t my fault,” Kee said without looking at us. Her hands flew over the screen of her navigation and systems terminal. “They were using bad data and didn’t know it, but that’s not the case this time. Alan Hudson is here,” she said with complete confidence. There wasn’t a system designed that Kee Ildez couldn’t find a way into—legal or not.

If she thought Alan was here, then he was here.

Kee’s pale skin, rainbow hair, and delicate build disguised a sharp mind and a fierce optimism. Kee and Eli had both been soldiers in my squad during the war, and pain and fear and death had hardened the bond between us into something as close as family. I would always, always have their backs, just as they would have mine.

Even if we did occasionally poke fun at one another.

“If I had a million credits, I’d be somewhere nicer than this,” Eli groused. “How long do you think it’s been since an outsider showed up?”

“Hopefully a long time,” I said, “or this trip is going to be worthless. If Alan is smart—and I have no reason to believe otherwise, since he’s eluded capture for more than two years—then he already knows we’re here. We need to move.”

Bounties from the big conglomerates weren’t my first choice, but the last few months had been extremely lean. We needed an infusion of credits however we could get them. But even when I was desperate, there were a host of bounties I wouldn’t touch. Anyone with credits could post a bounty and most of their reasons were shady as hell.

And I had enough blood on my hands without adding any more.

While I tried to stick with official government bounties or at least options from the slightly more trustworthy conglomerates, everyone competed for those bounties, so some months I had to dig deeper just to keep us fed.

This embezzler was the least distasteful option this month, plucked from a pile of much worse. I didn’t love working for a questionable conglomerate, but if we could catch Alan, I would be able to breathe easy for a few weeks until something better came along.

“What’s the plan?” Eli asked. “Are we going to do a quick grab, or do we need to run him down first?”

“He’s here, but I don’t have an exact location,” Kee said, finally turning away from her screen. “We’ll have to see if we can talk the locals into letting it slip.”

Kee and I glanced at each other, then we both turned to Eli who sighed and rolled his eyes. “Why do I always have to sweet-talk the locals?” he grumbled.

“You can take care of yourself—” I started, but Kee interrupted me.

“It’s because you’re pretty,” she said with a grin. “Tavi’s scowl isn’t likely to win us any friends.”

“Thanks,” I said drily. I didn’t scowl—much. My long, curly, dark hair softened my face, but not enough to disguise the hard edge honed by war. I looked like what I was: Octavia Zarola, former FHP lieutenant, current bounty hunter, and captain of Starlight’s Shadow.

Kee flashed me a grin, then turned back to Eli and continued, “If they don’t like your pretty face, then you can use your pretty fists to make an exit. One punch and they’ll move out of your way. Tavi and I would have to work a lot harder. So go, be charming. I sent you the information on Alan. Did you review it?”

Eli waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah. A man in his mid-twenties, kind of mousy looking. Speaks Common with an accent and is smarter than all three of us combined.”

“Pretty much,” Kee confirmed. “Don’t underestimate him. He’s eluded capture three times, and at least two of those teams weren’t stupid.”

Alan had escaped without injuring anyone, so I wasn’t too worried about picking him up, but caution was always warranted on bounty runs. “I want everyone in lightweight armor. Kee, stay with the ship and keep an eye on us. Eli, find the local hangout and start digging for info. I’ll see if anyone wants to trade.”

I loved my ship and the familiar comfort of space, but I wouldn’t mind some fresh air and wide-open skies for a day or two. Plus, trading would give us a cover story, not that it would withstand much scrutiny. But people on tiny little planets didn’t ask too many questions when traders came by, so I hoped it would be good enough.

I scooped Luna from my lap and stood. The little burbu blinked her eyes open and chirruped grouchily at me. Burbus were native to the Valovian Empire, and Luna looked like a cross between a house cat, a ferret, and an arctic fox, with dense white fur, rounded ears, and a fluffy tail.

She was our ship mascot, and she didn’t appreciate it when her naps were interrupted—unless it was for food.

Sure enough, a telepathic image of her empty food bowl appeared in my mind, and I scratched her behind the ears. “I just fed you, which is why you were passed out in the first place. No more food until lunch.”

Her chirp told me exactly what she thought of that, and Eli snorted in amusement, used to her antics. Luna jumped down to the floor, then left the bridge with a dismissive flick of her tail. I chuckled. I adored that little ball of fluff, even if she did have very sharp teeth and a mind of her own.

Icy, bitter wind chafed my exposed face, and the thin air had only the minimum amount of oxygen to support life, so walking on the flat ground felt like climbing a mountain. The frosty gusts sliced straight through all the layers I was wearing, chilling my arms and legs. I took back all of my kind thoughts about the pleasure of open skies—given the option, I’d retreat to Starlight’s Shadow at the first opportunity.

If the cold or the oxygen level bothered Eli, he didn’t complain about it as he headed deeper into town. We all had our comm implants active so we could communicate subvocally in case of trouble.

I pushed the levcart ladened with supplies to the edge of the spaceport where a series of rickety stalls had been set up. I found the one that seemed least likely to come down on my head, then posted my trading information to the local network.

“I’m in position,” I murmured to Kee and Eli.

They each confirmed the message, then a few minutes later Eli let us know that he was heading into what appeared to be the only bar in town. I silently wished him luck and turned my gaze towards the huddle of buildings. Other than Eli, I hadn’t seen a single person out.

Was this a ghost town?

A few minutes later, the question was answered when a woman huddled in several layers of outerwear and a thick fur hat made her way toward me. When she arrived at the other side of the table, she pulled down her scarf, revealing her face. Age had barely begun to carve lines into her light brown skin, but her mouth was pressed into a flat line, deepening the creases.

“Do you really have peaches?” she asked in accented Common, her suspicion clear.

“I really do,” I replied in the same language. “As I posted, five credits each, and one per customer.”

Her eyes narrowed behind the protective goggles she wore. “You could sell them for three times that much.”

“I could,” I agreed easily, “which is why there’s a limit. I don’t want someone else buying them all and undercutting me.”

“I could buy one and sell slices for that much.”

“And I couldn’t stop you. But I hope you’ll enjoy it yourself or share it with someone you love.”

When the suspicion didn’t clear from her expression, I smiled softly at her. “Sometimes, fresh fruit was the only thing that kept me going when I was stuck on a foreign planet, far from home. The trader who sold it could’ve charged us the moon and we would’ve paid, but she didn’t. I try to repay that kindness when I can, and our last stop had a surplus of peaches.”

This, at least, was the honest truth. Near the end of the war, our rations had been thin and tasteless as the supply lines started to fail, but somehow, once a month, a smuggler had shown up with a load of fresh fruit. Some days, a bruised apple, carefully hoarded, was the only thing standing between me and bottomless, screaming despair. If nothing else, I’d learned to never take small comforts for granted.

I shook off the memories of war and death and returned my attention to the woman across from me. “Would you like one?”

She rocked in place as longing fought suspicion. Finally, she nodded and held out her comm to transfer the credits.

When a chime indicated success, I waved a hand at the tray of peaches. “Take your pick.”

Her hand hovered over the tray, never quite touching the fruit as she made her decision. She had learned caution from traders who were more protective of their wares than I tended to be. After a moment, she plucked a golden peach from the center of the tray, and it disappeared into her coat.

Her eyes darted to mine, the suspicion banked but not gone. “Thank you.”

I dipped my chin at her. “You’re welcome.”

“You should leave,” she murmured, her voice barely louder than the wind. “No good comes from staying.” She turned and hurried away before I could ask what she meant.

“Well, that sounded ominous,” Kee said over the comm.

She wasn’t wrong. “Eli, watch your back.”

“You, too,” he murmured.

I grunted in acknowledgment and huddled deeper into my coat as a slow trickle of customers braved the frigid wind to see what I was offering. Most wanted the fruit, but a few bought some of the spare parts I’d brought along. All were wary and taciturn—something more was going on here than suspicion of an outsider.

I was down to my last peach when an older man approached my stall, his back stooped and just a strip of pale skin around his eyes showing. “Is that your husband in the bar? If so, you might want to fetch him before he trips and falls into Megan’s pants.”

I shook my head. “He’s not my husband, and it’s not my business whose pants he falls into.”

“The girl’s daddy might have something to say about that.”

My eyebrows lifted in surprise. Eli wouldn’t flirt with someone underage. I knew it as an immutable fact, so something didn’t add up here. “Just how old is Megan?”

“Twenty-three,” the man begrudgingly replied, “but she’s still too young to know better than to be dazzled by an off-world stranger. Her daddy won’t like it.”

I pointedly looked around at the run-down buildings and empty streets. “You’re right. With all of this on offer, I can definitely see why she shouldn’t flirt with fresh blood.”

“Tavi,” Kee warned over the comm. “You’re supposed to be making nice.”

“This is me being nice,” I replied subvocally. The stranger wouldn’t know Kee and I were communicating because the subvocal mic on my throat worked with my comm to translate tiny, silent muscle movements into sounds.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s your captain? I want to speak to him.”

I waved an arm at myself and gave him a sharp smile. “You’re looking at her. Octavia Zarola, at your service.”

The sneer was immediate and obvious. He muttered something in the local dialect that I didn’t need a translator to know wasn’t a compliment.

I drew my plas pistol as the movement in my peripheral vision solidified into two people, both bundled against the cold. “We may have a problem,” I said subvocally.

“Scanners show all three are armed,” Kee warned.

“Fantastic,” I muttered before drawing a second pistol and raising both. “I wouldn’t try it,” I said, pitching my voice to carry over the wind. “I spent a decade fighting the Valoffs, and I’m still alive to talk about it. You won’t find me an easy mark.”

“Just give us the supplies and we’ll let you go,” the older man in front of my stall said. “We won’t even rough up the pretty boy in the bar.”

I rolled my eyes. It never failed to amuse me when people discounted Eli’s many, many muscles just because he had a handsome face. “They’re going to jump you,” I told him over the comm. “Try not to hurt anyone too badly unless they escalate.”

“Aye-aye, Captain,” Eli’s cheerful voice responded. The man lived for a bar fight. This was probably going to be the highlight of his month.

I returned my attention to the group that was attempting to rob me. “My systems engineer is still aboard the ship and in full control of its vast and lethal weaponry. If I don’t kill you, she will. Walk away and I’ll forget this happened.”

The three of them communicated silently for a moment before deciding my pitiful pile of spare parts wasn’t worth their lives. They disappeared back into the town without a word.

I doubted that was the end of it, so I piled my supplies back onto the levcart and returned them to the ship. “Keep everything locked down,” I told Kee. “And find Hudson. I’m going to rescue Eli.”

Chapter Two

By the time I made it to the bar, Eli had laid out half the room and the other half watched him with wary respect. His knuckles were bloody, so he’d started with fists, but now he held a plas blade. The long energy blade was blue, indicating that it was set to a nonlethal stun.

“Having fun?” I asked.

He grinned at me until it pulled at his split lip, then he grimaced. “Some of these people need to learn bar fight etiquette. That asshole”—he pointed to a man slumped unconscious on the ground—“pulled a plas pistol on me.”

“Are you injured?” I asked over the comm.

Eli minutely shook his head. “But I was talking to someone potentially interesting before everything went to shit.”

Before I could ask him about it, a pretty young woman with pale skin and dark hair crossed the room to Eli’s side. She winced at his split lip and bruised jaw. “We have a first aid kit in the back. Come with me and I’ll patch you up.”

Eli turned to me. “Captain, meet Megan Gail. Meg, Captain Tavi Zarola.”

I nodded at the young woman even as her expression cooled into wariness. “You might as well come, too,” she said, her tone carefully polite. “I’m sure you’ll want to verify your first officer isn’t hurt.”

Something in her tone warned me not to ask questions, so I inclined my head in agreement. She led us behind the bar and through a secured door—which she relocked behind us. She held up a finger before I could demand an explanation and then quickly checked the three rooms along the hall before returning to us.

“You have to get out of here,” she hissed. “It’s not safe.”

Eli held up his hands in a placating gesture. “We can take care of ourselves.” He grinned and hitched a thumb at the door to the bar. “Shall I go back out there and prove it again?”

Megan shook her head. “I’m not talking about the drunks. There’s worse here, and you’ll be better off if you leave and don’t look back.”

“Do you need help?” I asked.

She hesitated, clearly wanting to say yes, but not quite trusting me enough to do it.

I looked her over. At twenty-three, she should still be in her mandatory FHP military service period. The easiest way to get out of it was to pay the waiver fee, but the cost was so high that the vast majority of people couldn’t afford it—and nothing on this dusty rock had led me to believe that she or her family could.

“Tell us what’s wrong,” Eli said, his voice gentle. “We can help.”

Megan’s short laugh had a bitter, desperate edge. “I should let you try, just to prove how wrong you are.”

“Is it your father?” I asked.

Shock crossed her face before swiftly morphing into suspicion. “How did you know?”

“A few people warned me that your father wouldn’t appreciate Eli flirting with you, right before they tried to rob me.”

The color drained from her cheeks. “Then he already knows you’re here. You need to leave.”

“Why do you think your father is a threat to us?”

“Because you’re here for Alan.” She said it matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t even a question.

Using a combination of keen observation and disarming charm, Eli could pick out the most interesting person in any room with an ease that I envied, and it looked like his streak of wins wouldn’t be broken today. “Did you know?” I asked him over the comm.

“Not exactly,” he replied.

Until I knew how Megan was connected to Alan, it was better to deflect. “Why do you think—”

She waved me off. “Don’t bother. You’re not the first to try for his bounty. It’s the only reason anyone comes here.”

“So your father is protecting Alan?” Eli asked, his tone careful.

She scoffed. “Hardly.”

Eli didn’t press, and I bit my lip to keep my questions contained. Our patience was rewarded when Megan sighed and continued, “Father finds Alan useful, and the bounty means that Alan can’t escape him. Neither of us can.” The last sentence was muttered beneath her breath with a wealth of weary bitterness infusing the words.

So much for my easy bounty. The young woman was obviously hurting, and while it wasn’t any of my business, I had a very hard time walking away from someone in need. I rubbed a hand down my face. “Kee, have you found anything?” I asked over the comm.

“Gerald Gail—Megan’s father—is a real piece of work,” she responded immediately, aiming for my soft heart with unerring accuracy. While I had trouble turning my back on someone who needed help, Kee found it impossible.

Eli huffed out a breath. “We can’t save everyone we meet,” he said subvocally over the comm.

“But we can save Megan and Alan,” Kee argued, unrepentant.

“We’re here to pick him up for his bounty,” Eli reminded her.

I blocked out their bickering and looked at Megan. Her chin was tilted at a defiant angle, but fear lurked in her eyes. “Alan has money,” I said gently. “Why hasn’t he gotten you both out?”

Her shoulders hunched. “He used the money to pay off my mandatory service waiver. When he returned for me, my father caught him. We’ve tried to run a couple of times, but we’ve never made it off-planet.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “I have some credits saved up. If you help us, I’ll give them to you. It’s almost as much as you’d get for the bounty, and I’ll make payments on the rest—I swear it.”

“Kee, find out if her story is true,” I murmured over the comm. If Megan was lying, then she was an incredible actor, but I needed to know the truth before I committed to putting my crew in harm’s way. Because although I helped where I could, my crew came first, always.

While Kee worked, I returned my attention to Megan. “What’s stopping me from using you to get to Alan?”

Uncertainty crossed her face, and I felt like I’d kicked a puppy. “But you’re a hero,” she argued. “I saw you on the vids a few years ago.”

I barely contained my flinch. The FHP had paraded me around as a hero, despite reality and my wishes. “Don’t believe everything you see,” I muttered. “Especially where the Feds are concerned.”

“How do we get out of the building?” Eli asked.

Megan pointed to the heavy door at the end of the hall. “There’s a back door, but if my father knows you’re here, then it’ll probably be watched.”

“Where is your father keeping Alan?” I asked.

Megan shook her head. “I’ll take you there if you promise to help, but I’m going with you.”

“Is Alan guarded?” I asked.

“He can move around the compound freely, but the access points are guarded.”

“How many guards?”

Megan’s eyes slid away from mine. “They’re spread out across the compound, so you’ll probably only have to worry about two or three.”

“How many total?” Eli pressed.

Before Megan could work out a convincing lie, I said, “If you give us bad information, it’s much more likely that Alan will get hurt. If we know what we’re up against, we can plan. If you lie to us, then I’m going to pull my team at the first sign of more trouble than I expected.”

She sighed, then admitted, “There are a dozen guards on duty at any given time and more who live on the compound and can be called to action. But they truly are spread out, so if we’re careful, we’ll only have to deal with a few of them.”

“Can you get Alan close to an exit without causing suspicion?”

She nodded. “There’s a garden near a side entrance. We often spend a few minutes in the evening there.”

Unfortunately, if she came with us, her father would know something was up before we got anywhere close to Alan. But leaving her behind meant a different set of issues.

“How good are the guards?” I asked. “Are they former soldiers or just random muscle that lived nearby?”

“Most are off-world contractors,” she said. “They might be former soldiers, but they’re not exactly the best of the best. Father refuses to pay more than a pittance, so only the desperate ever make it this far, and even they leave as soon as possible.”

Most people wouldn’t die for a pittance, but nothing motivated like desperation, so it was impossible to say whether the guards would break and run or stand and fight when presented with an organized challenge.

I pressed my fingers against my forehead. Nothing was ever easy. “Patch up Eli’s face, and he and I will leave out the front. If we leave you here, will you be okay?”

The cautious hope on her face dimmed but she swallowed and nodded. She moved to get the first aid kit and opened it with mechanical motions.

I sighed and made a decision that I hoped I wouldn’t regret. “Tomorrow, four hours after sunset, take Alan for a walk in the garden.” Megan’s gaze flew up to mine, but I kept talking. “Don’t tell him anything. Don’t tell anyone. Only take what you can easily carry without packing a bag. And don’t deviate from your normal routine. If your father catches wind of our plans, I won’t be able to help you.”

Eli grumbled something under his breath, but he didn’t contradict me.

“Thank you,” Megan murmured, and she swiped at her damp eyes. “Thank you so much.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We still have to get you out, and I won’t put my people into more danger than we can handle. If you’ve lied to me, I’ll leave you.”