Good morning, everyone. I thought I’d give you a taste of the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes this morning. This is the first chapter. Those of you who have read the original version will see that nothing had changed, not in the grand scheme of things. However, there has been an expansion of the chapter to the tune of approximately 500 words. As with all snippets, this is the pre-publication file. There may be a few spelling or punctuation errors that will be caught in final edits. I hope you enjoy!
“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.
Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.
Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.
Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Even so, they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.
Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.
What she didn’t know was why. Why had she been betrayed? Worse, why had those who’d served loyally at her side been targeted?
The soft swoosh of the heavily armored door sliding open broke the silence of the small cell a few moments later. With her back to it, she couldn’t see who entered, not that she wanted to. One of the first lessons she had learned after arriving at the Tarsus military penal colony was not to look. That had been a very painful lesson, one that landed her in the prison’s infirmary for several days. It was also a mistake she’d never repeated.
That had been one of many lessons she’d been forced to endure since arriving there. With the commandant’s tacit – hell, as far as she knew it was his overt – approval, the guards could be as sadistic as they wanted. Correction for even the most insignificant infraction might take the form of a rifle butt to the ribs or kidney, and that was if she was lucky. If not, the beating that followed would leave her hurting so badly she could barely move. Even then, the guards wouldn’t send her to the infirmary. After all, it was so much more fun to watch her suffer, reminding her that she alone was responsible for what had happened.
Fortunately, she’d heard the horror stories before arriving at the penal colony. Even though she hadn’t been ready to believe them, they had helped prepare her for what she’d face. Even so, it had been a shock the first time one of the guards beat her down for asking what would have been a simple question on the outside. That had been enough to convince her that the best course of action was to remain silent unless it was imperative that she speak. That wasn’t to say there hadn’t been times when circumstances forced her to break that rule and she bore the scars to prove it. All she wanted now was to live through the remainder of her prison term. Survival was the first goal. Vengeance would come later. Not for her, but for those brave and loyal souls who had followed her despite her protests and who had paid the ultimate price as a result.
She swallowed hard, forcing her mind away from past horrors, as boots clomped across the small cell in her direction. A rough hand grabbed her right arm, twisting it painfully behind her back. She flinched as a security cuff was locked tightly around that wrist. Her breath hissed out as the process was repeated with her left arm. Moments later, similar restraints were fastened about her ankles. Then a gloved hand closed around her left arm and jerked her to her feet.
Guard-captain Gavin Haritos spun her to face him, grinning sadistically. His fist caught her with a vicious backhand. With a sharp cry of pain, she staggered back. The short chain connecting her ankles tripped her. Only the man’s quick grab at the front of her jumpsuit kept her from falling. He pulled her forward and, with the ease of much practice, draped a heavy hood over her head before she could react.
Haritos’ cruel grip on her arm kept her on her feet as he hauled her out of her cell and down the long corridor. Blood pounded in her ears, almost deafening her. Fear and hatred raced through her, sparking every fiber of her survival instincts. She knew this was going to be bad, very bad. It always was when the guard-captain came for her. But she could do nothing to stop him, at least not yet.
“This is your lucky day, bitch.” Haritos shoved her into one of the three lifts at the end of the corridor and she heard him slam his fist against the control panel. A moment later, the lift gave a slight lurch and she felt the car start downward. “You’re being transferred, Shaw. But don’t get your hopes up that it means the rules no longer apply because they do. If you’re smart, you’ll remember those poor bastards sentenced here with you. Everything you say and do from now on impacts them.”
A soft moan escaped her lips before she could stop it and fear raced like an open current through her. No matter how many times she’d been in this position before, she couldn’t help it. A transfer could mean almost anything, none of it good. Not as long as the survivors of her unit were still on Tarsus.
Bile rose in her throat as the lift came to a sudden halt. But it wasn’t that which caused her breath to catch. The guard-captain’s low chuckle sent a shiver of fear down her spine. Once before he had stopped the lift short of their destination. He’d told her then it was time to deliver a warning.
He had beaten her so badly that day she had prayed for death. Was he about to repeat that performance? If so, why? She had done nothing to break the rules. She hadn’t been out of her cell in weeks, her only contact had been with the guards who checked on her three times a day.
Without warning, Haritos’ fist connected with her stomach. Pain doubled her over. Tears filled her eyes beneath the hood and she fought the urge to vomit. The neck of her jumpsuit tightened uncomfortably at her throat as the guard-captain’s hand fisted in the material. Using it to hold her in place, he continued his assault. Her head snapped back and she tasted blood. She lost track of the number of times he struck or where each blow landed. All she could do was stand there, held in place by the hand at her collar, and pray the beating ended soon.
Suddenly, Haritos released her and she fell to the floor of the lift. Before she could struggle to her knees, his heavy boot caught her in the ribs. Once, twice, he struck, each time forcing her to cry out in pain. Her ribs ached and it hurt to breathe. Her face, especially her nose, throbbed with each beat of her pulse. From the stuffiness of her nose, she knew Haritos had broken it – again. Her right eye felt puffy, swollen. It had been a long time since she had been beaten this badly and why?
“Listen carefully, bitch,” Haritos growled as he once more hauled her to her feet. “This is only a temporary respite for you. Sooner or later, you will be sent back. Remember your people are still here and we can do whatever we want with them. So keep your mouth shut. We’ll know if you do or say anything about your time here.”
To her surprise, Haritos said nothing more. That was unusual. Whenever he’d come for her before, he’d taken perverse pleasure in detailing what horrors awaited her. The fact he’d gone silent worried her. And what did he mean by this being a respite and she would be back?
Dear God, what was happening?
Haritos remained silent as he forced her off the lift. Doors opened and then closed behind them. She didn’t know how to react when, for the first time in months, she felt the sun beating down on her. They were outside. But why? Where were they going?
It didn’t take long to find out. Haritos led her up a ramp. The hood obscured her sight, but she could hear the muffled sounds of a crew working to prepare a shuttle, maybe even a courier ship, for launch. Haritos pulled her to a halt and told her to stand still. Then he released his hold on her arm and she sensed that he had moved a short distance away. There were soft voices. Straining to hear, she only caught a few words. Transfer. . . prisoner. . . dangerous. . . tried to escape. . . take no chances. . . don’t listen to anything she says. . . .
Dear God, was she actually being transferred out of the Tarsus penal colony?
Hope flared only to die as quickly as it had been born. She remembered Haritos’ warning. Her people, those few who had survived the ambush only to be betrayed by those who should have stood for them, were being left behind. That meant she had to do as the guard-captain said. Otherwise, her people were as good as dead.
Before she could do anything – not that there was much she could do, bound and hooded as she was – Haritos was once more at her side. She stumbled forward as he grabbed her and led her further up the ramp. He hissed one last warning not to do anything foolish. Then he turned her over to someone else. Flanked on both sides by unseen guards, she was led into another lift. A few minutes later, her restraints were removed and then her hood and she found herself standing in the center of a small cell. She didn’t need to hear the announcement for all hands to prepare for departure to know she was on a ship. But a ship to where?
And what about those who’d been sent to the penal colony with her? Why weren’t they being transferred with her?
Now, almost a week later, she stood in yet another cell, this one planetside, and worry warred with anger. She’d overheard enough from the guards on the transport to know her fears were true – the others had been left behind on the penal colony.
That’s when an anger so great it overrode the fear of the unknown had flowed through her. For the first time in two years, she’d been separated from the survivors of her unit, those poor, brave souls who had fallowed her into hell and back only to find themselves brought up on charges right along with her. It didn’t matter that the commandant of the penal colony hadn’t let her see her people. She’d managed to get word of them from time to time and that had been enough to let her know they were all right – or at least as all right as anyone could be after being sentenced to the Tarsus penal colony.
It still amazed her how the prison grapevine managed to keep tabs on everyone and pass along information. It might be inconsistent, but it was there and it had been all that kept her sane. She’d never thought herself a social animal, but two years of rarely seeing anyone but her jailers had been almost more than she could handle. Thank God for the grapevine and the bits of information it brought her.
During transport from the penal colony, no one had told her anything. Held in the transport ship’s brig, she had no opportunity to learn anything about their destination or why she had been taken from Tarsus. A guard brought her food and drink at regular intervals but he never said a word that wasn’t necessary. He certainly hadn’t volunteered any information. Still, she’d managed to work out that she was alone in the brig by the way his steps never stopped before he appeared at her cell door and because no one had responded when she’d tapped out messages using the code learned on Tarsus.
She had just noticed the slightest change in the rhythm of the ship’s engines, indicating it had assumed orbit somewhere, when another guard arrived with a change of clothes for her. She’d looked at the plain black jumpsuit with suspicious eyes. Nothing about it marked her as a prisoner. It could have been something worn by almost any worker on the docks or in a warehouse. That should have reassured her but for one thing. There was nothing about the guard’s manner to indicate she was about to be freed. In that moment, she’d come the closest to breaking her rule of “never ask a question you don’t know the answer to” than she had been since her first few days on Tarsus.
Half an hour later, she’d been seated on a shuttle. The guards had secured her hands behind her back before locking her safety harness in place but they hadn’t hooded her. They obviously weren’t worried about her recognizing where she was. Of course, the only way she could do that was if she could actually see something of the lay of the land. So she’d craned her neck in an effort to see into the shuttle’s cockpit. One corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly at the sight of the high rises ahead of them. Her heart beat a bit faster and her breath caught as she recognized the skyline of Fuercon’s capital city. New Kilrain. She was home. But why?
Now, after being processed into the same military brig where she’d been held during her trial, she still didn’t know why she’d been brought back home. It couldn’t be good. They may have taken away her prison issued jumpsuit, but she’d still been brought there shackled and had been processed into the brig as quickly as humanly possible. It had almost been as if FleetCom was afraid word of her return might leak out. But why?
Damn it, what was going on?
Of course, there’d been no explanation. Nor had she asked for one. It would be a long time before she forgot that lesson. Too much talking, too much curiosity was a bad thing that almost always resulted in painful punishment. She might not be on Tarsus any longer but that didn’t mean things would be any different here. After all, who policed the jailers? No one, at least not on Tarsus and she wasn’t willing to risk it now that she was home. That was especially true after the way she and the others had been betrayed by those they’d been loyal to
Freed of her restraints and alone, she looked around. One cell was pretty much like any other. Across from the door was a narrow bunk. Hygiene facilities were at the foot of the bunk. It was almost exactly like her cell back on Tarsus. There was nothing she could use to escape and nothing she could use to kill herself, not that she planned on taking that route out. At least not anymore. No, there were others who needed to die before she did.
“Prisoner is secured,” the guard who had brought her to the cell radioed as he stepped back.
Ashlyn Shaw, former Marine captain, didn’t move. Instead, she stood in the center of the small cell, her brown eyes focused on some point beyond the guard, her hands behind her back even though the restraints had been removed. As the security field across the cell door activated, she gave no sign of realizing it even though the faint, high pitched hum was something she’d learned to listen for over the last two years. That sound, like a distant bunch of angry bees, meant she’d fry her nervous system long before pushing through the field. Freedom might look close, but she’d be dead – or worse – before she actually found it.
At least the guard didn’t close the physical door. For the first time in what had to be months, she could look beyond the confines of her cell. It might not be the same cell she’d occupied since her conviction. Hell, this wasn’t even the same planet. That didn’t matter. All that did was the fact that the open cell door gave her at least some semblance of not being completely cut off from all other life on the planet.
As the guard disappeared from sight, Ashlyn remained where she was, motionless except for the rise and fall of her chest and the slow blinking of her eyes. She listened, counting his footsteps as they slowly faded away. When she’d been escorted to the cell, she had focused on what was directly in front of her. She had not wanted to give the guards on duty the satisfaction of seeing her look around in curiosity. Now, with only silence filling the air, she allowed herself to relax a just a little.
Once convinced the guard was gone, she moved to the door, careful not to get too close to the security field. Looking to her left, she couldn’t tell how far away he might be. All she knew for certain was that her cell was located at the end of the corridor, the door situated so she couldn’t see much beyond the far edge of the cell. So there might be any number of other prisoners close by but, for all intents and purposes, she was alone – again.
That was fine. Alone meant fewer chances for anyone to figure out what she planned. But it also meant she had to keep up appearances. She couldn’t let them guess what she had in mind. So she lay on her bunk, her back to the doorway. She wouldn’t let those she knew were watching over security monitors see her curiosity or her concern.
This was as close to home as she was likely to get in a very long while. If the opportunity to escape presented itself, she’d take it and be damned with waiting on the military courts to finally get it right. Once free, she’d deal with everyone who had betrayed her and then she’d find a way to free those who had been sent to the penal colony with her. After that, she really didn’t give a damn about what happened.
* * *
The two followed the guard down the long corridor. Bare white walls intersected by six reinforced doors on each side marked their path. Silence, broken only by the sounds of their steps, enveloped them. This wing of the security complex felt deserted – which it was with one notable exception. There hadn’t been a need to use the high security cells for a long while.
As far as the tall redhead was concerned, there was still no need to – even considering just how special this particular prisoner happened to be.
Admiral Miranda Tremayne (ret.) and Admiral Richard Collins were there with one purpose. They had to find a way to convince Ashlyn Shaw to trust them enough to listen to what they had to say. That was their first hurdle. The second would be harder. Somehow, they had to persuade her to work with them again. If she agreed, they’d secure her immediate release. It was a long shot, Tremayne knew, but they had to try. Not only for the prisoner’s sake but for the sake of so many more.
Their escort stopped before the last cell and nodded. Like every other cell along the corridor, this was a high security cell. Thick, reinforced walls with one narrow opening, just wide enough for a single person to step through. That opening could be secured with a reinforced door that slid firmly into place when activated. But for now that door was open, the security field active.
Directly across from the door was a single cot. On it lay the prisoner. Her back was to them and nothing about her revealed whether she realized she was being watched. But Tremayne knew better. She’d known the prisoner for years, most of the younger woman’s life in fact. She had no doubt Ashlyn Shaw, decorated Marine captain and now convicted war criminal, was well aware of the fact someone was there, even if she might not know who.
“On your feet, prisoner!” the guard barked. “I said, on your feet!”
Tremayne watched Shaw as the guard pounded his stun baton against the cell wall once and then again. Not that it seemed to phase the young woman. Only the slight tensing of her muscles, so slight Tremayne almost missed it, betrayed the fact Shaw even heard the guard. Interesting. The young woman had always possessed great self-control. Clearly, she’d honed it to a new level during her incarceration.
“Damn it, Shaw, on your feet. Don’t make me come in there,” the guard all but growled.
Tremayne frowned. The last thing they needed was to further antagonize the young woman. Besides, were their roles reversed, she’d probably be doing her best to show as much indifference as was the young woman. Even so, she could understand the guard’s frustration. He was under enough pressure just escorting the two of them through the security wing. Collins was First Fleet’s commanding officer. Then there was Tremayne herself. So-called war hero, not that she thought of herself as such, and now a member of the Senate. To have a mere prisoner ignore his order in front of such “luminaries” had to be not only frustrating but humiliating as well.
Of course, there was nothing mere about Ashlyn Shaw and there never had been.
“Ma’am, I can go inside.”
The guard sounded unsure, not that Tremayne blamed him. She doubted there was anyone on the planet who didn’t know who Ashlyn Shaw was. Her war record had been stellar up until the time she’d been court-martialed. Whether they believed the charges that had been leveled against her or not, they’d know she wasn’t someone you wanted to cross.
Tremayne frowned and shook her head. This wasn’t the way to proceed. If the prisoner wouldn’t respond to the guard, it was time to try something else.
Carefully judging the distance, Tremayne stepped forward, coming so close to the barrier that she could feel the energy dancing across her skin.
“Out of that rack, Marine, and on your feet!” she snapped in her best command voice.
Her order met with a more pronounced physical reaction from Shaw. This time there was no mistaking the way the young woman’s muscles tensed, as if preparing to sit up. Holding her breath, Tremayne waited. Would Shaw respond or would she force herself to return to her relaxed pose on the bunk?
Several long seconds passed as they waited but to no avail. The prisoner continued to ignore them.
“Admiral, let me call for backup and then we can go in.” Before the guard could reach for his comm, Tremayne’s hand closed over his arm.
“No.” Most definitely not. But they had to get through to Shaw somehow. Maybe it was time to put aside rank and go to the personal. “I know you can hear me, Captain Shaw, so I’m just going to talk. I hope you’ll listen.”
God how I wish the last two years had never happened. Everything would be so much easier.
“Things have changed since you were brought up on charges. Those responsible are no longer in power, either in the government or in the military chain of command. That includes those who found you and the others guilty at your court-martial.” She paused, watching, hoping for some reaction. Was there a hint of tension easing in the prisoner’s body? She wasn’t sure. All she could do was continue and hope for the best. “Some things haven’t changed however. We are still at war. It doesn’t matter that we’ve technically been sharing a truce with the enemy. All it did was slow hostilities. The fact is things are about to get bad again and you know what that means.”
Surely that would get through to the young woman. In all the years she’d known Ashlyn Shaw, there’d been one thing she could rely upon – Shaw’s sense of duty. She just hoped the last two years hadn’t destroyed it.
“Shaw – Ashlyn.” She reached out, the palm of her right hand almost touching the security field separating them. As she did, she sensed the guard tensing, ready to pull her back before she made contact with the field. “We need you. Please.”
Finally, a reaction. A slight tremor ran down the prisoner’s back. Then a bitter laugh filled the cell. Tremayne bit her lower lip to hear it.
“You seem to forget, Admiral, not only that I’ve been stripped of all rank but that I still have three years to serve on my sentence. There’s not much I can do for you while I’m a prisoner. So, unless you’ve brought a pardon – for not only me but for my people as well – you can go straight to Hell.”
“That’s enough, Shaw!” Collins snapped. “You may be a prisoner but you’re still a Marine and you’ll respect the rank, if nothing else, and listen to what we have to say.”
“Respect the rank!” Fury filled the young woman’s voice as she rolled over and surged to her feet.
Tremayne gasped in shock. Gone was the promising young officer she’d known. In her place was a hard, scarred woman, a veteran of battles that had killed so many on both sides. But there was more. Her face showed scars that hadn’t been there when she’d been sentenced to the Tarsus military prison. Worse, Tremayne saw the unmistakable signs that Shaw had been beaten, and badly, in the not too distant past. Anger flared and the redhead forced it down as she continued to take in the young woman’s appearance.
A band of white ran from her left temple back, stark against the otherwise dark hair. Thin, not quite gaunt, Shaw had lost a great deal of weight over the last two years. Her once healthy tan looked wan and Tremayne wondered how long it had been since she’d seen the light of day. What in the hell had happened to her in the last two years to bring her to this?
And would it prevent her from helping them, even if they managed to arrange for everyone to be pardoned?
“Ashlyn, please, just listen,” Tremayne said softly.
“I listened once before, Admiral, and it cost most of my people their lives. Those that survived found themselves brought up on phony charges, just like me, and sent to that hellhole of a military prison. But maybe you’ve forgotten that.”
Tremayne closed her eyes and breathed deeply, struggling for calm. She hadn’t forgotten. She’d kept the memory of that betrayal close to her. It had been why she’d resigned her commission to run for office. She’d known she needed to work the system to get those brave souls freed and their names cleared. Unfortunately, she hadn’t expected it to take this long.
She still remembered all too clearly the events that had led up to Shaw’s court-martial. Shaw had done nothing wrong. She’d done her duty. She’d followed orders despite her misgivings – misgivings she’d voiced not only to her immediate commanding officer but to the sector commander and to Tremayne as well. And what had it gotten her? Her company decimated in an ambush and the rest of them, Shaw included, court-martialed and imprisoned and all in the name of face-saving by some damn-fool politicians and senior officers.
Worse, Shaw’s family – and the families of the other survivors – had also paid the price. Those in government service who hadn’t been willing to condemn their relatives had seen their jobs disappear. There had been other pressures brought to bear on those in the private sector. That could no more be forgiven than what happened to Shaw and her people, as the next round of elections had proven.
“Ashlyn, I can’t undo what happened. I wish to God I could.” Tremayne waved Collins back as he stepped forward. The last thing they needed was him losing his temper. She understood why he’d reacted as he had. It was his fleet about to head to the front lines. His people would be the first to die. Even more would die if they couldn’t convince Shaw to work with them. “All I can tell you is that things have changed since then. Fleet leadership has undergone a turnover the likes of which you wouldn’t believe. What happened to you and your company became a rallying cry at the last elections and those politicians responsible were voted out of office. There is no chance of a repeat of what you went through ever happening again.”
“At least until the next election.” Shaw shook her head and ran a hand through her short cropped dark hair. “Sorry, Admiral, unless and until you can tell me my people have been pardoned and are safely away from Tarsus, I’ve got nothing more to say to you.”
“Ashlyn, at least listen. Please.”
“Not until I know my people are free.”
With that, she returned to her bunk and once more turned her back to them. There’d be no getting through to her. Between past betrayals and whatever Hell she’d been forced to endure the last two years, she’d changed. But she’d given them a lever they could use, one Tremayne had already considered.
“Admiral, all I want is to finish serving my sentence. Then, maybe, I can finally bury my dead.”
“Please just think about what I’ve said.”
Tremayne turned and retraced her steps down the corridor. She’d known it would be difficult to convince the young woman to trust them. As far as Shaw knew, they had accepted the way she and her people were offered up as political sacrifices just as most of the military leadership had. She didn’t know everything Tremayne and so many others done to clear their names and win their freedom.
What she hadn’t anticipated was the change in Shaw. Something had happened to her during her incarceration. The physical scars were proof of that. Those visible scars were bad enough but how deep did the psychological scars run? Obviously, she had a great deal of homework to do before she next tried to talk with Ashlyn Shaw.
“Miranda,” Collins began as the lift doors closed behind them, his frustration clear.
“Later.” She needed to think before discussing what happened even with him.
* * *
The sounds of footsteps grew fainter. Part of her wanted to call Tremayne and Collins back, to ask all the questions she’d had no answers to for so long. But the other part, the part that had learned how to survive in the military prison, held her back. She’d trusted once and that trust had cost her and her command dearly. It would take more than Tremayne’s assurances that things had changed for her to trust again.
Despite that, it was so very difficult to stay where she was, to stay quiet. Swallowing hard, she squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself not to react. Just because the admirals were gone didn’t mean she wasn’t being watched and she’d be damned if she’d let anyone see how badly their visit had shaken her. She might not have known what to expect when she’d been brought back to the capital but this certainly wasn’t it.
A moment later she drew a shaky breath and held it. When she slowly exhaled, she forced herself to relax. So many emotions raged within her, too many. Among them was hope, something she hadn’t felt in a very long while. But she couldn’t allow herself the luxury of experiencing any of them and especially not the latter. Emotions were a weakness to be exploited. She might not be at the penal colony any longer, but she was still a prisoner. She’d give her jailers nothing they could use against her. Indifference was her best defense just then.
But it was hard. When she’d heard Admiral Tremayne’s voice, she’d thought for one moment she’d finally lost her mind. Tremayne had been the one person in the military she’d always been able to count on. She knew Tremayne had tried to speak on her behalf at that farce of a trial but the military judges hadn’t let her. Tremayne had been on her side then, just as she’d always been.
But now the admiral was asking her to help them despite how she and the remainder of her unit had been betrayed. Had she been wrong all this time in believing in Tremayne? Or had the admiral really been telling her the truth when she’d said things had changed?
She couldn’t think about that, couldn’t hold out hope. Not when her people were still on Tarsus. At least she’d been able to warn the admirals – if they understood. They had to understand. Or they had to at least wonder enough about what she’d said to start digging.
Dear God, let me be careful though.
Otherwise, she’d be joining those dead she’d talked about and, despite everything, she wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. She still had vengeance to mete out first.