The critically acclaimed author of Polaris Rising takes readers on an exciting journey across the galaxy with the start of her brand-new series about a female bounty hunter and the man who is her sworn enemy.
Octavia Zarola would do anything to keep her tiny, close-knit bounty hunting crew together—even if it means accepting a job from Torran Fletcher, a ruthless former general and bitter adversary. When Torran offers her enough credits to not only keep her crew afloat but also hire someone to fix her ship, Tavi knows that she can’t refuse—no matter how much she’d like to.
There’s just one catch: with so much money on the line, Torran and his crew insist on joining the hunt. Tavi reluctantly agrees because while the handsome, stoic leader pushes all of her buttons—for both anger and desire—she’s endured worse, and the massive bonus payment he’s promised for a completed job is reason enough to shut up and deal.
But when they uncover a deeper plot that threatens the delicate peace between humans and Valoffs, Tavi suspects that Torran has been using her as the impetus for a new war. With the fate of her crew balanced on a knife’s edge, Tavi must decide where her loyalties lie—with the quiet Valoff who’s been lying to her, or with the human leaders who left her squad to die on the battlefield. Because this time, her heart is on the line.
Think you have what it takes to explore the stars as part of a badass bounty hunting crew? Take the quiz to figure out where you’d fit on Starlight’s Shadow!
I leaned against my ship’s cargo ramp and watched with narrowed eyes as four soldiers in Valovian armor stalked through the landing bay. This was a human station in human space—Valoffs shouldn’t be here. Yes, we were at peace—for now—but both sides had made it clear that they preferred it when everyone stayed in their own sectors.
The soldiers advanced from ship to ship. At each, the group leader spoke to the ship’s captain for a few minutes before continuing on. They moved like Valoffs rather than like humans wearing stolen armor, so I raised my mental shields as they approached. It wasn’t easy for a human to learn to shield against Valovian abilities because we had no natural defenses, but I’d learned the hard way during the war. Certain death provided excellent motivation.
The leader was male: tall and muscular, with thick black hair, dark eyes, and skin a shade or two lighter than my own golden tan. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t immediately place him. He was encased in layers of synthetic black armor from neck to feet, and I knew from experience that it would deflect all but the strongest plas pistols and blades. It had exactly two weaknesses, and you had to be within reach to exploit either of them.READ MORE
The group stopped several paces away, but even at this distance, their leader looked almost human. In general, Valoffs had a wider variety of hair and skin color and were a little taller than humans, with a slightly finer bone structure. However, their eyes were the biggest giveaway. Their irises were often threaded with multiple vibrant colors, and they had better-than-human night vision. They spent a lot of time in the dark—days on Valovia were only ten hours long.
There were a few other minor differences between us, but at a glance, most Valoffs could be mistaken for human easily enough. Scientists had confirmed that they were nearly human, a branch that had diverged several millennia ago. The constant debate was whether they’d settled Earth and created the human branch or if some long-forgotten humans had hitched a ride to Valovia.
Or maybe an unknown third party had created us both. The speculation and conspiracy theories were both varied and unending.
I felt the slightest brush of a mind against mine. It felt cold, as always, even though I didn’t think it really had a temperature. When he encountered my mental shield, the leader raised an eyebrow. He was all hard angles and harsh beauty. Sharp cheekbones, strong jaw, straight nose.
And a mind that could kill with a thought.
Three soldiers in full armor—including the battle helmets that covered their faces—waited behind him. I couldn’t tell if they expected trouble to find them or if they were prepared to be the trouble.
“Are you the captain of this ship?” the Valovian leader asked in lightly accented Common.
I straightened away from the ramp. I wasn’t particularly tall, and I had to look up to meet his eyes, which added an annoyed bite to my tone. “Yes.”
“I am Torran Fletcher. I want to hire you.”
Now I understood why all of his previous conversations were so short. This one would be, too. “No.”
“I’m a bounty hunter. I hunt criminals and murderers; I don’t work for them.” And I especially didn’t work for one of the top Valovian generals who’d led the war against the Federated Human Planets, commonly shortened to FHP or Fed. No wonder he’d looked familiar. He’d been one of our priority targets, but as far as we knew, he’d never been anywhere near the front lines. Disgust pulled at my lips. Coward.
His piercing gaze seared me. “I know you. Lieutenant Octavia Zarola, hero of Rodeni,” he said with mocking reverence before his expression hardened. “Slaughterer. You are worth a lot in Valovian space.”
Memories of blood and death and war and betrayal caused my mental shields to falter. Torran’s expression went carefully blank—the look of a Valoff using their ability—and once again I felt his mind touch mine. I slammed up my shields and locked away the pain.
I hoped that whatever memories he’d glimpsed gave him the same nightmares they gave me.
My palms itched with the desire to grip a weapon. The enemy stood at my door and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it unless I wanted to cause an interstellar incident—which I did, very much. But the thought of my crew stayed my hand. I couldn’t go and get myself killed for a vengeance that was three years too late, not when two people still depended on me.
I returned to the conversation, pretending the lapse hadn’t happened and that I hadn’t imagined sinking a plas blade into his armor’s weakest point. My smile was not kind. “Then it’s good that we’re not in Valovian space. And I know who you are, too, General Fletcher. You’re not worth anything at all, but station security might make an exception on principle alone.”
Torran tilted his head as he considered me. “I could tear through your flimsy shields in half a second. You can barely maintain them as is.”
“Try me,” I taunted with a careless shrug. “You will be dead before they fall. As you mentioned, I’ve fought your kind before.” And they’d always, always underestimated me. It was why I was alive and they were not.
He stared for a few moments longer before apparently coming to a decision. “I will pay you two hundred thousand Federated credits to retrieve a missing item for me. Half up front, yours to keep as long as you make an honest effort, and half on successful delivery.”
I blinked at the number, certain I’d misheard. Just the up-front half was ten times more than the largest bounty we’d ever landed. It would keep us in food for over a year, allow me to hire an actual mechanical engineer or two, and provide for the ship upgrades that Kee, my systems engineer, desperately wanted. There had to be a huge catch or every other captain in the landing bay would’ve snapped up the offer, Valoff or no.
When I didn’t say anything, Torran frowned. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you just fine. I’m waiting for the catch.”
“My team and I will accompany you for the duration of the search.”
Uncomfortable, but not so much that the other captains would turn down a fortune, especially if they were smart enough to limit the search to a set amount of time. There had to be something else.
“And the search will begin on Valovia.”
Ah, there it was. Valovia was the heart of the Valovian Empire, and humans who ventured into Valovian space tended to disappear. That, plus the bounty on my head, meant that I wouldn’t fly there even for the fortune on offer. I mentally blew a farewell kiss to the most money I’d ever almost earned. “I decline. I suggest you find a Valovian crew to help you.”
“I can offer you and your crew safe passage for the duration of our contract. You will not be bothered and once the contract is complete, I will accompany you to whichever human station or planetary system you prefer.”
“I would have to trust your word and the fact that you are even able to offer safe passage. I don’t, for either. So my answer remains the same.”
One of the soldiers behind Torran stepped forward, their body language furious, but Torran held up a hand and the soldier fell back. Ah, right. It was an insult to question a Valoff’s honor. They were all about to be very, very insulted, then.
“A human stole a family heirloom,” Torran said. “I want it back. And I want the thief caught.”
Whatever had been taken must be beyond priceless if he was willing to pay so much for its retrieval. But the thief had probably long since fenced it, meaning it could be anywhere in the universe. It was an impossible task, and one I didn’t relish tackling while a Valovian general breathed down my neck.
This mission was a hard pass from me. Dead women couldn’t spend credits.
Still, I couldn’t stifle my curiosity. “Why not have your own people look into it?”
“We need a human crew to track a human thief.” I could hear the subtle sneer beneath the words. It took all of my strength not to point out that a human had gotten the better of him and that now he was asking humans for help. The irony was not lost on me, but apparently it was on him.
“Why did they all turn you down?” I asked with a wave toward the other ships. I knew some of those captains. At least two or three were stupid enough to take this job.
“They didn’t turn me down. I didn’t ask them. They were clearly incompetent. You are… less so.”
My comm implant crackled to life before I could tell him exactly where he could shove his faint praise. I held up a finger, so Torran would know that I wasn’t just ignoring him, even though I’d like to. The implant piped Kee’s voice directly into my inner ear. “Tavi, don’t say no. We have to help. They must be desperate if they’re coming to us.”
It didn’t surprise me that Kee was eavesdropping. She was plugged into every system on the ship and could easily hack her way into the whole station if she felt like it. Hell, she was probably linked in to my personal comm and listening through my microphone, never mind that that was supposed to be impossible.
Kee’s heart was like the finest china—proudly displayed, incredibly delicate, and easily broken. She’d never met a creature she didn’t want to help. I’d known her for years, and she was one of my closest friends, but I still didn’t understand how the universe hadn’t shattered her yet. Somehow, no matter what happened, she just kept putting herself back together and believing the best of people.
If everyone were like Kee, the universe would be a far better place. Unfortunately, it was filled with vicious bastards like me and General Fletcher.
“No,” I responded subvocally.
My subvocal microphone was a tiny, flexible sensor patch stuck to my throat with clear adhesive. It was barely visible, and if anyone noticed it at all, it looked like a small, silvery tattoo.
Thinking about words was enough to move the throat muscles by minuscule amounts. Together with my comm implant, the patch picked up these subvocal movements and translated them into words using my personal voice sounds. The transmitted result was close to my speaking voice, and no one standing next to me could tell that I was communicating.
Not even a Valovian general.
Using a subvocal microphone well took quite a bit of practice and calibration. The trick was to think loudly about the words you wanted to send and very quietly about everything else, unless you wanted your whole squad to get a running monologue of your internal thoughts.
When we’d first started there had been a lot of embarrassing incidents, but now we tended to leave them on all day without issue. Subvocal comms were a crude form of synthetic telepathy, but they would never match the natural telepathy the Valoffs enjoyed.
“Come on,” Kee wheedled. “We need that money, and it’ll give me a chance to study Valovian tech up close. And everything I’m seeing says that Fletcher does have the authority to offer safe passage. He’s kind of a big deal in Valovia now; a war hero turned rich noble or some shit. And his ship is broadcasting a diplomatic registration.”
Kee might be all emotion and sunshine, but she knew me well enough to use more pragmatic levers to move me. She had wanted equipment upgrades for years, but I kept putting her off because I didn’t have the money. We barely earned enough to keep us in food and supplies.
But if I accepted this job, I could afford the upgrades and more, even if I didn’t find the stupid heirloom or the thief who’d stolen it.
I’d risked my life for far less, and if Kee’s research said his offer was good, it was good. I sighed in silent defeat, and she let out a delighted whoop. “Don’t get your hopes up,” I warned quietly. “We’ll see how negotiations go. And I’m not committing to an indefinite wild goose chase. They get eight weeks, max.”
“Give ’em hell,” she agreed cheerfully. “If you can raise the price enough, I can get two new processing units and drag this scrap heap into the current century.”
I patted my ship lovingly. Starlight’s Shadow wasn’t the newest or fastest or prettiest, but she got the job done—kind of like me.
Torran stood silently waiting for my answer with the kind of coiled strength that could flash into deadly action at a moment’s notice. His gaze never wavered from me. Behind him, his soldiers kept careful, discreet watch on everything in the landing bay. They moved like a team who had been together for a long time. If Torran wasn’t a general anymore, who were they?
Had he, like me, tried to keep his squad together after the war? I laughed under my breath. Of course not. He’d been a general. He didn’t have a squad—he had underlings.
I centered myself and focused. The three soldiers behind Torran were not suppressing their power and their auras sparkled and danced around them in beautiful jewel tones: ruby, sapphire, and topaz. Torran was another matter entirely. His aura limned him in brilliant platinum that sparkled with hints of color, like light hitting a prism.
I’d never seen an aura like it. Of course, humans weren’t supposed to be able to see auras at all, but in the last, desperate years of war, the FHP had come up with an experimental augmentation, and I’d volunteered in a reckless attempt to save my squad.
Most of the test subjects had lost their minds from the strain. I had not, but it had been touch and go. Chunks of my memory were still hazy.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Aura colors didn’t seem to be directly related to power levels or abilities, at least not in any way we’d been able to determine with our admittedly limited study. Maybe the FHP knew more now, but I’d cut ties and ensured they stayed cut by making myself scarce. I’d served my time. I wasn’t giving them any more to be a test subject.
I stopped focusing and my head throbbed. It’d been a while since I’d used that particular ability and my body wasn’t used to the strain anymore. Or maybe time had softened my memory of the constant pain of war.
The soldier with the ruby aura turned their head toward me but didn’t attempt to enter my mind. Had they felt me looking at their auras?
I mentally shook off the past and met Torran’s dark eyes. I wasn’t close enough to see all of the colors, but a clearly visible line of silver traced a vibrant lightning bolt pattern across both of his irises. I forced myself not to look away. “What was stolen?”
“A family heirloom. I will explain further once we’ve reached an agreement.”
His tone said he wouldn’t elaborate, but I pressed anyway. “It’s hard for me to agree when I don’t know what I’m hunting. If the thief stole a unique, easily identifiable piece of art then finding it is far easier than if they stole a generic piece of jewelry.”
Torran said nothing. His team’s subtle movements highlighted his incredible stillness. He could’ve been carved from stone. And, indeed, I’d met rocks that were more forthcoming.
I tried again. “How long ago was your mystery item stolen?”
“Approximately eight standard days.” The tiniest curl of his lip told me exactly what he thought of referring to human time units as the standard.
I wrinkled my nose, both at him and at eight days. More than a week was a long time for a trail to go cold. We’d gotten lucky picking up older bounties in the past because of Kee’s ability to find information, but that might not help us on Valovia. “Kee, you finding anything?” I asked under my breath.
“I’m looking, but I’m not seeing anything. Either they haven’t reported it, or the Valovian police force is better at keeping secrets than the FHP. And based on what I’ve seen before, they’re not.”
“Did you get the authorities involved?” I asked Torran.
There was the tiniest crack in his calm facade, and his glare became even fiercer. “No. This is a family matter.”
“Who assessed the crime scene?” I asked, my limited patience running dangerously thin.
“I did,” he replied.
“And? Did you find any leads?”
When he didn’t say anything else, my patience snapped. “So you expect me to agree to help you find an unknown item stolen by an unknown thief over a week ago with nothing more than your word that this isn’t just an elaborate plot to lure me and my crew to our deaths in Valovian space?”
He stiffened and his glare turned icy. “I already offered you safe passage and agreed to explain after the contract is signed.”
“So you said.” I blew out a frustrated breath. I didn’t like going into a contract blind, but with half of the money up front, I would make a tidy profit even if the task was as impossible as I feared.
I knew what I had to do, but I still didn’t like it. Working with the enemy felt like betrayal, and bitterness filled me. I tried to think of it as relieving a Valovian general of as much of his money as possible.
It didn’t help.
Before I could change my mind, I spoke. “Double the price and deliver a signed guarantee of safe passage, and I’ll give you four standard weeks of my crew’s best effort. If we haven’t recovered the item or the thief by then, I keep the first half of the payment and we go our separate ways—after you’ve escorted us to safe territory. You and your team will be allowed on my ship, but you must respect my crew and follow my orders. Rifle through anyone’s head without permission and I’ll dump you into space. Do we have a deal?”
Torran’s expression remained frustratingly blank. I would have better luck reading a painting. My patience was shot, but I had stubbornness in spades. I stared him down.
Finally, after an age, he said, “Give me twelve weeks and I’ll give you two-fifty.”
I laughed in his face. A Valovian squad on my ship for three months? No thanks. “Eight weeks, three hundred thousand credits. That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
When he didn’t respond, relief chased disappointment. Kee still wouldn’t be getting her upgrades, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with Torran and his squad for two months. I tossed him a mocking farewell salute and turned to my ship. I’d been waiting for Eli, my first officer, to return from a supply run, but I could just as easily wait inside.
I was halfway up the ramp when Torran stirred. “Wait.”
The extra height from the ramp meant he had to look up at me. It was petty, but I enjoyed it anyway. “Yes?”
Torran raised his chin. “I accept.”
Eli showed up while Torran and I were in the middle of heated contract negotiations. Torran had refused my standard bounty hunting boilerplate and now he was trying to give me an aneurysm from sheer rage and frustration.
My first officer parked his levcart at the bottom of Starlight’s ramp and circled around toward me, his face set in granite lines. He was tall and heavily muscled, with deep brown skin and warm brown eyes. He wore the dark pants and black shirt that had become his working uniform. When he wasn’t scowling, Eli was incredibly handsome, so much so that Kee and I gave him shit for it. People took one look at his face and underestimated him, even with his build.
“Problem?” he asked quietly.
Eli, Kee, and I had served together during the war, and while I didn’t need the support, having him at my side loosened some of the tension I’d been carrying. Eli and Kee were the siblings I’d never had, and the bonds we’d forged in blood and death were diamond hard.
If I needed help burying a body, Eli would silently grab a shovel and start digging while Kee erased all evidence of the crime.
I would do the same for them.
“This is General Torran Fletcher,” I said with a wave at the Valoff in question. “He’s trying to hire us, but my standard contract isn’t good enough for him, so we’re negotiating. Rather, he’s dictating, and I’m ignoring him.”
At the name, Eli’s eyes darted to Torran. I knew that look, so I tensed to intercept an attack, but Eli merely growled something nasty under his breath. He looked at me, and his voice came through my comm, picked up by his subvocal mike. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Eli shot me an exasperated look and heaved a long-suffering sigh.
“Yes, blame me for forcing Tavi to accept more money for eight weeks of work than we’d normally make in two years,” Kee said over the comm, her voice tart. “Woe is us.”
I covered my laugh with a cough. Torran had to know we were communicating with each other, even if he couldn’t hear us, but his expression remained unreadable. “General Fletcher, meet my first officer, Elias Bruck. When I’m not around, you’ll follow his commands while aboard Starlight’s Shadow.”
A curt nod was Torran’s only response.
“You may want to move this somewhere more private,” Eli said. “You’re starting to draw interest.”
I’d noticed the increasing frequency of people walking by, but for all of our furious disagreement, Torran and I had kept our voices down.
“They’re not setting a single foot on my ship without an iron-clad contract,” I growled with an impatient wave toward the Valoffs. “It’s not my fault the general refused a perfectly good one.”
“My ship is—” Torran started, only to stop when I made a disbelieving noise. I certainly wasn’t setting foot on a Valovian ship, contract or no.
For the first time, frustration showed in Torran’s expression. Welcome to the party.
Without warning, one of the Valovian soldiers broke from the group and headed toward the landing bay’s exit into the station. Eli stepped protectively closer to me. We were both a little jumpy with so many enemies nearby.
“Chira is going to secure us a neutral location,” Torran explained.
This was a Fed station, so as long as we remained in the station itself, it was unlikely to be a trap. And if it was a trap, well, then more fun for me.
“Message Starlight when you have the location. My team and I will meet you. And I suggest you think about accepting my boilerplate, or at least compromising on some of your ridiculous requirements, or this discussion will go nowhere, and you’ll just waste our time.”
Torran’s mouth tightened, but he inclined his head a fraction of a centimeter. Without another word he and his remaining team turned as one and headed for the door.
Well, that wasn’t creepy as all hell or anything.
Eli waited until they had cleared the airlock into the station before he spoke. “Do you really think this is a good idea?”
“No. But Kee’s right—it’s more money than we’ll make in two years and that’s if we fail to retrieve the item. If we get lucky and find it, we’ll be set for a while.”
“Damn straight,” Kee chimed in over the comm.
“Or we could all die,” Eli said drily.
Kee huffed out a breath but held her tongue. She and Eli were the opposite sides of the same coin. Kee was optimistic and idealistic while Eli was more pessimistic and pragmatic. They balanced each other, and they’d learned long ago that neither would change the other’s mind.
“Kee, keep digging for info while General Fletcher finds us a meeting room,” I said. “Eli, grab the levcart and I’ll help you unload the supplies. I want us to be ready to fly as soon as the meeting is over, whether or not we get the job.”
The supplies did not take long to put away. The levcart had been less than half full and most of it had been food, cheap staples that went a long way for not a lot of money. This month was especially lean. If we didn’t nab a bounty in the next few weeks, I wouldn’t even be able to buy us rice and generic protein next month.
I docked the levcart in its place in the cargo bay and then entered the main part of the ship. As soon as I cleared the hatch, I was attacked by a leaping ball of white fur. I caught Luna before her claws could find purchase in my tender flesh. She chittered at me as longing and a vague picture of a small rabbit-looking creature—Luna’s idea of food—flooded my mind.
Luna was a burbu, a mildly telepathic animal native to the Valovian sector. She communicated with simple emotions and images. The combo she was giving me right now meant she was hungry. When I didn’t move toward the galley, she sent me another image, this time of her empty food bowl. That one was relatively new, proving that she could learn and adapt her images.
“I’m going, I’m going,” I grumbled. Nearly a quarter of our food budget went to an animal that weighed less than five kilograms. “I just fed you this morning. Where do you put it all?”
Luna whined at me and rested her head against my chest. I snuggled her closer and buried my nose in her fur. She looked like a cross between an arctic fox, a small house cat, and a ferret, with a long slender body, a pointed snout, four slim legs, and a fluffy tail. Her fur was dense, soft, and as white as freshly driven snow.
Big violet eyes and adorable rounded ears that swiveled made her look harmless, but she had sharp, retractable claws and even sharper teeth. We’d all been gently nipped when we’d displeased our imperious mascot—usually by not feeding her fast enough.
I’d found her injured and alone while we were on a mission deep in enemy territory. I would have left her behind because I’d been having enough trouble keeping my squad safe, but then her pitiful plea had breached my mental barriers and it was all over. I’d had our medic patch her up, and I’d carried her kilometers in my pack, sure that she was going to die before we were safe.
She had also resisted all of my efforts to release her back into the wild once she was healthy. And she’d taken an instant dislike to being left behind, which meant many of our missions were accompanied by a white shadow. My commanding officer had looked the other way only because Luna turned out to be an excellent tracker and early warning system.
Kee popped her head out of the large utility closet she’d converted into her personal engineering control room and systems hub. Her pale skin and rainbow-colored hair glowed in the overhead lights. “Don’t believe her. I just fed her thirty minutes ago.”
I pulled back and looked in Luna’s eyes. “You sneaky little devil. No more food for you until dinner.”
Luna chirruped at me, a lilting trill that sounded like no animal I’d ever heard, and sent me another wave of longing. I shook my head at her. “Not going to work. Dinner.”
Luna squirmed in my arms and I put her down. She sent me a baleful look and leapt two and a half meters straight up to the narrow walkway I’d installed along the top edge of the hallways for her. She liked to be tucked up against the ceiling—the better to ambush her prey.
After Luna stalked out of sight with a final twitch of her tail, I turned to Kee. “Find anything interesting?”
She grimaced. “Not much. Whatever is going on, Torran’s people are keeping it close.”
Eli came in behind me. “Or nothing is going on and it’s an elaborate trap.”
I held up a hand before they could devolve into arguing again. “Assuming it’s not a trap, who do we need to hunt a thief?”
“Lexi,” they both said at once.
“I agree. Kee, track her down, see if she’s available, what her current rate is, and where she is.”
“You know she’d do it for free, if only to see the look on the Valoffs’ faces when a human does what they couldn’t,” Eli said.
Lexi had been in our squad during the war, and she had no love lost for Valoffs. When it became clear that bounty hunting wasn’t going to make us rich, she’d struck out on her own with my blessing. We still helped each other out occasionally, but Lexi was doing far better than we were. If many of her jobs were questionably legal, we all pretended not to notice.
“I’m on it,” Kee said. “You want me to go to the meeting with you or stay here and keep an eye on things?”
An extra gun would be handy if things went sideways, but Kee was even more powerful when she was plugged into her systems. “Stay here. If things go wrong, be ready to launch in a hurry.”
She nodded and disappeared back into her room.
“How long do you think we have until they secure a location?” Eli asked.
“Not long. My guess would be in the next fifteen to twenty minutes.”
“I’ll get ready.”
I did the same. I always wore a few weapons when we were on-station, but a few more wouldn’t hurt, especially with our counterparts in full Valovian armor. I secured a plas blade to my right leg. The twenty-five-centimeter energy blade wouldn’t activate unless I held the grip and pressed the switch, which meant it didn’t need a sheath.
The energy blade defaulted to a lethal cutting edge, but it could also be set to deliver a nonlethal stun. I could draw it and switch modes in a heartbeat, a move drilled into us by countless military instructors because the line between life and death could flip in a fraction of a second.
A plas pistol went on my other hip. I wasn’t as strong shooting with my left hand, but my left-handed knife skills were shit, so this was my strongest configuration for close fighting. I peeled off my short-sleeved shirt and strapped on a lightweight, flexible armored vest. It wouldn’t stop much, but it was the most inconspicuous armor I owned. When I put my shirt back on, it was difficult to tell that I was protected.
I pulled my long hair up into a tight bun. The dark, curly strands fought containment, but I ruthlessly pinned them in place. Long hair was a liability in a close fight, but I refused to cut it off—my hair was easily my best feature. It set off my golden tan skin and pale blue eyes and gave me a hint of softness that my face lacked.
As the last pin slid into place, a soft ping rang through my cabin. The ship had received a new message. A glance revealed it was from Torran and that he’d secured a private room at a nearby restaurant.
I hit the ship’s intercom. “Kee, the meeting details are in the ship’s log. Eli, be ready in two.”
They both confirmed and I released the intercom. Time to see if this was a trap or a legitimate offer.
The restaurant Torran had chosen was one of the nicest in the area. It was the kind of place two CEOs would meet to discuss mergers and acquisitions. The few patrons I saw from the entrance were well heeled and well dressed.
The maître d’ flicked a glance from my head to my feet—including my visible weapons—and then did the same to Eli, who sported even more weapons. Her gaze stopped on his face, and she just stared for a second before she remembered to smooth her expression. “May I help you?”
I suppressed my smile, well aware of how Eli affected some people. “I’m meeting someone in the private dining room.”
She made a subtle gesture and a young man in a black-and-white uniform appeared beside her. “Please follow him.”
I inclined my head in thanks. Eli and I followed the server deeper into the restaurant. We skirted the main dining room, which was broken into small, intimate spaces with nooks and alcoves, the best of which had a view of the floor-to-ceiling window.
Distant stars sparkled against the velvety darkness of space, and a faint nebula smudged color across the wide expanse. I knew the window was at least as strong as the metal and composite of the rest of the station, but it looked delicate and fragile. And standing next to it, staring out into the black, one was reminded just how precarious our place in space truly was.
The server led us down a short, secluded hallway. He swung open a wood-paneled door and gestured us inside. Torran sat on the far side of a long table. Behind him, the floor-to-ceiling window offered the same breathtaking view as in the main dining room.
An advanced antireflective coating meant I could still see outside even though the room was far brighter than the view beyond the window. It also meant that I couldn’t use the window as a mirror to see anyone who snuck up behind me. If I sat across from Torran, my back would be to the door.
A glance around the room revealed that Torran’s group had lost a member. The two remaining Valoffs stood behind Torran and remained hidden beneath their armored helmets, so I didn’t know if these were the same two who had accompanied him in the landing bay. I could check their auras, but it wasn’t worth the headache.
Torran took in my weapons with a sweep of his gaze. His expression shifted, but before I could identify the emotion driving the change, he smoothed it away. “Thank you for joining me, Lieutenant Zarola,” he said stiffly. “Please have a seat.” He gestured at the chair in front of me, the one directly across from him.
“It’s Captain Zarola now,” I corrected. “I’m no longer part of the FHP military.” And instead of sitting in the indicated chair, I moved left and sat at the head of the table with a wall at my back. Eli stood a step behind me on my right. We both had an unobstructed view of the door and the rest of the room.
“I’ve got eyes on you,” Kee said through our group comm. “I’ll let you know if any surprises show up.”
The server who had led us to the room hovered by the door and Torran begrudgingly turned to me. “Would you care for something to eat or drink?”
The air I was breathing was the only thing I could afford in this restaurant, and that was only because they hadn’t figured out how to charge for it yet. “No, thank you.”
Torran waved the young man away, and the server bowed and withdrew. He closed the door behind him, leaving me trapped in a room full of enemies, so I decided to go on the offensive. “Have you reconsidered your objections to my standard boilerplate?”
Torran ignored me. “I brought a contract for you to review.” He slid a slate across the table. Made of Valovian tech, it was a wafer-thin flexible display about the size of my two hands held side by side. I heard Kee’s soft exclamation over the comm and bitterness twisted through me—not at her, but at myself. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t afford to get her the tech she wanted and needed.
But if I took this job, that would change.
With that in mind, I focused on the slate. It displayed a long wall of text, written in legalese. I read the contract twice, then slid the slate back to Torran. I clenched my fists, fury burning away the bitterness. “I will not sign that.”
Torran’s expression didn’t change. “Why not?”
I had many problems with the contract, but I listed the worst first. “It gives you the right to take over my ship and my crew in the event of an emergency—an event you can define however you like. So if I refuse to do something I think is stupid or dangerous, you can declare that to be an emergency and take over. If I continue to refuse, you can lock me—and my crew—up. Any captain who signs that contract is not qualified to be called captain. If that is what you expect, then we’re done here. Find someone else.”
Torran stared at me for a long moment, but I didn’t feel the telltale brush of his mind against mine. We were closer than we’d been earlier, and I could see hints of copper and teal in addition to the silver in his irises. If he thought he could cow me into agreeing by staring at me, he was about to be disappointed.
“I don’t appreciate being jerked around,” I said when he continued to hold his silence. “This does not bode well for our future working relationship, and I have serious doubts about our ability to work together. So here is my offer: we start with my boilerplate. I will give you an hour of my time to modify it until it is satisfactory to both of us. If we can’t reach agreement in an hour, we’ll go our separate ways.”
Torran pulled the slate closer and tapped on the surface. The text changed and he slid it back to me. “These are the modifications I require.”
My clenched fists tightened. We desperately need this money. I had to keep reminding myself or I’d tell him exactly where he could shove his modifications.
I pulled the slate toward me and started reading. It was my standard contract, modified in a few places with some of the changes we’d discussed in the landing bay. The modifications were not unreasonable. I glanced at Torran, who sat staring at a second slate.
Without his eyes on me, he was handsome, in a harsh sort of way. His features benefited from the fine bone structure common to Valoffs, which kept his face on the attractive side of brutal. He looked like someone who could take a fist to the face without breaking stride.
Right now, I would very much like for someone to test that hypothesis.
I returned to the slate, modifying Torran’s changes until I was happy with the resulting contract. Before I slid it back to him, I had to ask, “Why did you start with the other contract if you already had this one ready?”
His gaze met mine and I fought the urge to look away. “If you had signed the first contract, you would’ve proven that you were the wrong person for the job.”
I scoffed. “No one would sign that contract.”
Torran’s mouth thinned. “You’d be surprised.”
It took us another thirty minutes to nail down the minutiae. But at the end, I had a signed contract, a promise of initial payment later today, and a start date of tomorrow morning. Torran had pushed for starting today, but I still had a few things to finish up before we left.
Tomorrow, we would head directly for Valovia with a single stop to pick up Lexi, if she could join us, which meant I had less than twenty-four hours to resign myself to the fact that I’d be hauling around a squad of Valoffs for the next two months.
We returned to the ship and Kee met us in the cargo bay, her eyes bright. “Lexi is in. She has to finish up a job and will meet us at the Bastion station.”
“Good.” Bastion was the last human system before Valovian space. We’d have to travel through it anyway, so it was a good place to meet. But I wondered why Lexi was so close to the border.
Kee clasped her hands in front of her and sent me a pleading look. “Now that we’re getting paid, can I order a new processing unit?”
“How much?” I asked.
I couldn’t quite suppress my wince. That would be almost a third of our initial payment, and I still had to pay Lexi and hire a mechanical engineer or two, at least temporarily. If we were heading into Valovian space, then I wanted to ensure that we would make it back out again, no matter what happened.
“It’s top of the line,” Kee wheedled. “It usually goes for over twice that, but someone special ordered it and then ghosted, so my contact is willing to cut me a deal. It would be a huge upgrade for every system on the ship—including nav and defense.”
I moved the numbers around on my mental spreadsheet. I could make it work. It meant we wouldn’t have as much cushion as I would like, but we’d make do. We always did.
“Can you get it up and running by the time we pick up Lexi?” I asked.
Kee bounced on her toes, hope shining on her face. “Yes!”
“Then order it—after General Fletcher’s payment goes through.” Kee nodded and turned for the main part of the ship. I called after her, “And find me some mechanics who’d like a temporary job and can serve as muscle in a pinch!”
She gave me a thumbs-up over her shoulder as she disappeared through the hatch.
“You’re a softie,” Eli accused with a grin.
I laughed. “You try saying no to that face. I’ve been putting it off for years, and this is probably the only time we’ll have the spare capital. I hope you weren’t planning to retire soon.”
“Early retirement isn’t in my plans. You want me to help you screen the mechanics?”
“Would you rather do that or go back and get more supplies? We’re going to need more food. We’ll do a final stock up in Bastion, but we’ll need supplies to get there.”
Eli’s nose wrinkled as he thought. “Supplies,” he said at last. “Should I get anything special or just our usual?”
Valoffs could eat human food as easily as humans. It might not be their first choice taste-wise, but if they wanted something special, they’d have to provide it themselves. “The usual. And restock the medbay. Double up on bandages, medicine, and trauma kits. Wait for the payment to go through.”
Eli left to check the medbay’s current stock of supplies, leaving me alone in the cargo bay. I sucked in a deep breath and slowly let it out. I felt like I was getting ready to go to war.
And perhaps I was.
I spent all afternoon interviewing mechanical engineers. A couple of them had been very promising, but they’d balked when I told them our destination. I rubbed my tired eyes. Taking a crew of four into enemy territory wasn’t my first choice.
“You Captain Zarola?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
I’d turned the cargo bay into my impromptu office. A woman stood at the base of the cargo ramp. She was tall and muscular, with light brown skin and curly black hair, cut short. She wore a green tank top, long black pants, and thick boots.
At my nod, she said, “I heard you’re looking for a MechE.”
“I am. It’s a temporary position and we’re heading into Valovian space. I’m looking for someone who can also fight if circumstances call for it.” Three interviews ago I’d decided to lead with the information most likely to terminate the interview. And all three candidates had thanked me and moved on.
The woman didn’t run. “Permission to come aboard.”
I waved her in and watched her climb the ramp. She moved like a soldier, efficient and light on her feet. She looked around with a scowl. “If you have a MechE now, they’re shit,” she said without prompting.
“Thanks,” I responded drily. “And you are?”
“Anja Harbon. I spent six years as an FHP grunt and survived. That was followed by four years as a mechanical engineering specialist. I was booted out after I punched my commanding officer.”
“Did they deserve it?”
Her smile was fierce. “Yes.”
That smile told me that she’d happily punch them again. “Are you going to have a problem following my orders?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Are you going to give me stupid orders?”
“Quite possibly. We’re going to Valovia with a squad of Valoffs. Most would argue that was stupid at the outset.”
“I looked you up,” she said quietly. “You’re the reason my company made it out of Rodeni.”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t just me.”
Shadows darkened her face. “No, but you’re the one who volunteered to risk everything, and your entire squad went with you. You won’t have to worry about me following your orders.”
Memories crept around my mental block. I’d volunteered because it was that or die. It didn’t make me noble—it made me reckless. I’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, but only at a terrible cost. General Fletcher wasn’t the only one who thought I was a monster.
“Show me the rest of the ship. Hopefully it’s in better shape than this,” Anja said with a wave around the cargo bay.
I laughed, shaking off the memories. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
Anja muttered the entire time I showed her around the maintenance level of the ship. In the engine room, she patted an open maintenance hatch and murmured, “Poor baby. I’ll fix you up in no time.”
After the tour, we returned to the cargo bay to discuss details. When she quoted me an extremely low salary requirement, I raised my eyebrows and waited.
She broke eye contact. “I need to leave this station,” she said. “I’m not in legal trouble, and it won’t affect my performance, but by taking me along, you’d be doing me a favor.”
“Am I going to have a crime syndicate on my ass?”
She shook her head. “Nothing so dire. Just a messy breakup. This station is only so big, and I don’t have the funds to leave right now.”
“Will trouble follow you?”
“No.” A wealth of bitterness infused that statement, and I got the feeling that the breakup wasn’t Anja’s idea.
“If you were going to fight a Valoff in armor, where would you attack?”
Her eyes narrowed. “At a distance or up close?”
“At a distance, the armor is nigh impenetrable. A high-powered plas pistol or rifle can occasionally punch through, if you get lucky. Up close, a plas blade will penetrate under the jaw or up through the groin joint, but it’s hard to get it right.”
Either her story about being in the military was true, or she had done her research about Valovian armor. Either way, it was enough to give her a trial—and to help her get off this station.
“We leave in the morning, and we’re heading to Bastion. Prove yourself on the way and I’ll hire you for the full job. Fuck up, and I’ll leave you at the station with a week’s pay and a ticket to wherever you’d like to go.”
She smiled faintly. “Sounds like you’re incentivizing me to fail.”
“Maybe,” I agreed, “but I don’t want anyone on my ship under duress—it only leads to more problems later, so I’d rather find out early. My systems engineer will be digging into your history tonight, so if you have anything you’d like to add, now would be the time, because she will find it.”
Anja looked down and away, avoiding my gaze. Ah, so there was something else. I waited for her to gather her thoughts.
“It was the station master’s wife,” she blurted. She looked up, distress clear. “I didn’t know who she was, or even that she was married. We dated for months. I thought…” She trailed off, swallowed, and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. The station master found out and shadow banned me from every available job, ship, and resource. If I stay here, I’m as good as dead.”
And if I gave her a lift, the station master would likely ban me, too.
The commanders who oversaw the space stations scattered throughout the galaxy had an enormous amount of power over the people under their care. The best treated it as the responsibility it was and ensured everyone prospered. The worst let the power go to their heads and declared themselves supreme ruler, helping a select few who then maintained the status quo while everyone else suffered. Clearly this station’s commander fell into the second category.
I sighed. Getting shadow banned sucked, especially at a station like this that was the only thing around. But there was nothing for it. I couldn’t leave her behind.
“I’ll work for free,” Anja offered gruffly. She was fighting hard not to show just how desperate she was. “I can fix everything on your ship by the time we arrive at Bastion. You won’t owe me anything other than transport.”
“We leave in the morning. The terms remain the same: a week’s pay if you want off at Bastion or if you fail. Otherwise, we’re headed to Valovia, so bring your weapons and gear.” I paused in thought. “In fact, bring everything you have.” I waved an arm around the mostly empty cargo bay. “We have room for it. If you decide to stay on, we’ll figure out what to do with it.”
She nodded once, sharply, and turned to leave. She paused at the top of the ramp. “Thank you,” she murmured without turning around. She didn’t wait for me to respond before she continued on her way.
I activated my subvocal mike. “Kee—”
“I’m on it,” she confirmed. “So far, her story checks out. I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”
The initial payment had landed while I was in the middle of interviews. I still couldn’t quite believe it, but I’d authorized Eli and Kee to buy what they needed. Eli was still out getting supplies, so I headed into the main part of the ship to take stock of my own equipment. I wouldn’t mind another weapon or two before we hit Valovian space.
A few meters into the ship, Luna leapt at me from her walkway along the top of the wall. Used to her antics, I snagged her out of the air, and she grumpily chirruped at me. When we were in space, I wore a padded shoulder guard that she could jump onto without ruining my clothes or skin. And she was smart enough to know not to jump on me without it, but we’d been on this station for a few days, and she was getting bored.
“I know, darling,” I said soothingly, “I’m ready to leave, too. But soon you’ll have more people to attack, and I’ll totally let you sink your claws into the Valoffs as often as you like.” I snuggled her close and scratched behind her ears.
Luna tilted her head, closed her eyes, and sent me a wave of affection. I returned the sentiment a thousand times. I didn’t know if her telepathy worked both ways, but I hoped she knew how much I adored her.
I gave her one last scratch. “How about I get my shoulder guard and then we go check the crew quarters?” I asked her. Despite her intelligence, Luna couldn’t answer, not really, but I’d gotten used to talking to her—we all had. I often overheard Kee working on a problem aloud while Luna chirped back at her.
I turned down the hallway toward my quarters and Luna stayed happily snuggled in my arms. That was answer enough.
Starlight’s Shadow was a moderately small ship, with room for twenty regular crew and overflow bunks for another dozen. The crew quarters lined both sides of a long corridor. At the far end, set apart from the rest of the quarters, four rooms served as the captain’s and officers’ quarters with single bunks and en suite bathrooms.
At this end, eight double bunks shared two large, communal bathrooms. The double bunks were divided into two sets of four, with the bathrooms between them.
I would put Anja and Lexi in the rooms at this end of the corridor—the farthest away from mine. I would usually put Lexi next to me, in the officers’ quarters, but I needed to put Torran there. I didn’t want to, but there was some truth to that old saying about keeping one’s enemies close.
The rest of the Valoffs would share the middle set of rooms. That way I would have friendly eyes on both exit points, just in case they decided to try something.
I stopped outside my door. Eli, as my first officer, had the cabin directly across the hall from me, and Kee’s quarters were beside his. They could both help keep an eye on this end of the corridor. The door next to mine seemed too close for comfort, but I would just have to deal. Separating Torran from his squad was also a good idea.
Luna chirruped and butted me with her head. I stroked a hand through her soft fur. “I know. I don’t have to like it; I just have to do it.”
The door slid open at my touch, and I wrinkled my nose in frustration. When the Valoffs arrived, I would have to start locking it again, which meant I’d have to find another way for Luna to enter and exit.
My quarters were larger than the others, with a bedroom and bathroom tucked away in separate rooms behind a small office. The additional space meant I could talk to people in private without having to invite them directly into my bedroom.
But every square meter on a ship was precious, and even though I had a bit more space than everyone else, my office was cramped. I’d managed to fit in a tiny desk and chair, a comfy guest chair, and a small bookcase. Heavy paper books were a luxury that I could ill afford, but I couldn’t bear to part with them, either.
The office was painted a bright, sky blue that always made me smile. I moved through to my bedroom, which had deeper blue ombré walls, the color of the sky brightening just before dawn.
Luna jumped to the bed and curled into a circle, her fluffy tail over her nose. She watched me with one curious eye. When I pulled out my shoulder guard, her head popped up and she chirped at me.
I stripped off my shirt and armored vest, then replaced the shirt and strapped on the shoulder guard. As soon as it was in place, Luna launched off the bed. I smiled and braced as she landed perfectly on the guard. Her claws dug into the soft top without being able to pierce the flexible armor underneath.
She chittered at me, so I set off. First, I checked the cabin next to mine. The bedroom was painted bright green, a leftover from Lexi, but all of the other personal adornments had been removed. A double bed dominated the space, with a small chair and side table tucked in the corner.
All of the crew cabins were included in the routine cleaning of the ship, so the room was clean, if bare. I pulled linens from the wardrobe and stacked them on the bed. Torran could put on his own sheets.
The double bunk rooms had a single bed built into the wall on each side, with a curtain that could be pulled to divide the space in half. The beds themselves also had blackout curtains so one person getting up wouldn’t wake the other. Each side had a small, built-in wardrobe and a pull-out chair. These rooms were cramped, which made the other common spaces on the ship more important.
Torran was bringing three people with him, but the agreement we’d signed allowed him to bring up to five. I prepared three rooms. There was no reason to double up until it was necessary. It would be far easier to keep the peace if everyone had a private place to retreat to when needed.
I also prepared rooms for Lexi and Anja. I was hoping to hire another mechanical engineer on Bastion, so I made up a third room next to theirs. The bathrooms would be the demarcation between Valoffs and humans.
Luna had stayed with me, exploring the rooms that she didn’t often see. I clicked my tongue and she leapt up to her perch on my shoulder. I stroked her head. “I suppose it’s time to figure out what we’re having for dinner.”
She perked up at the magic word. It had not taken her long to learn all of the food related words.
“Come on, you little glutton. Let’s get you fed, then I’ll see what I can do for the rest of the crew.”
I often took cooking duty because I enjoyed it. Eli and Kee took turns at cleanup. I wasn’t sure if the Valoffs had ever washed a dish, but they were about to learn. Everyone on Starlight’s Shadow did their share—unwelcome guests included.
I stopped by the hydroponic garden on my way to the galley. The garden was mostly self-contained, but I enjoyed spending time in the greenery. One of the first things I’d done after I bought the ship was install a little table and a few comfy chairs in the back corner. I’d planted honeysuckle and trained it to climb a lightweight arbor over the space. The vines draped over the entrance, creating a little oasis of green.
Luna headed straight for her perch in the arbor. I decided I could spare five minutes for mental health, so I followed her and sank into a low chair with thick padding. The blossom-heavy vines waved gently in the room’s ventilation and blocked some of the bright overhead grow lights.
The distant rumble of the fan merged with Luna’s low purr of contentment. I closed my eyes and let the soothing sound and the sweet smell of honeysuckle flowers melt away my stress.
After a few minutes, I reluctantly climbed to my feet. If I stayed any longer, I would fall asleep. I checked on the plants. Vegetables and herbs in various stages of development grew on shallow, multilevel racks filled with circulating, nutrient-dense water. The lights automatically simulated a day-night cycle.
A hydroponic garden was expensive, both in terms of weight and space, but it also helped both the air and water scrubbers. And sometimes eating fresh vegetables in deep space made all the difference—along with sitting in the bright sun lights and admiring the greenery.
Thanks to Eli’s supply run, we had a lot of fresh vegetables already, so I harvested only some herbs. Tonight I would make a veggie paella, which would provide us with plenty of leftovers for lunch.
Kee was vegetarian, so most of our meals were made with synthetic, plant-based protein. Eli and I rarely bothered with meat now, even when we had the money to afford it. It’d taken a bit for me to dial in my recipes—I’d turned out some truly abhorrent meals in the early days—but now I was as comfortable cooking vegetarian as I had been cooking with meat.
I called Luna and she reluctantly emerged. She loved this room. After I’d made sure she wouldn’t mess with the plants, I’d put a sensor on the door so that it would open for her from either side. When she disappeared from the rest of the ship, the odds were good that I would find her asleep on her perch in the vines.
The galley was empty when I arrived. It was a large space, with seating for twenty around two big tables and a food prep area tucked away in the back. If the ship was running with a full crew, at least two full-time chefs would be aboard to cook for multiple shifts. With just the three of us, I usually cooked dinner, and everyone fended for themselves for breakfast and lunch. We ate a lot of leftovers and meal replacement bars.
I should probably hire a chef now that our numbers were going to more than double, but a mechanic was the more pressing need. If Torran and company didn’t like my food, they could cook for themselves. Or they could starve. Either way was fine with me. I ignored the twinge of sympathy I felt at the thought of someone suffering.
My heart was a damn nuisance.COLLAPSE
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“Jessie Mihalik’s thrilling first entry in her Starlight’s Shadow series… Amid all the action and adventure, Mihalik also shows how a group of people in close quarters can become a family. Fans of “The Mandalorian” or “Firefly” will love this sci-fi romance.”