As I announced Wednesday, Nocturnal Interlude is now available on Amazon as an e-book and will be available in print in a couple of weeks. (YAY!) The book was both a joy and a pain to write. I love the characters, even when I want to hit them over the head, but the plot of this book in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I did have a general plot in mind when I started it. But that plot quickly went out the window, down the street and over the hill as I began writing.
Fortunately for my continued sanity, Sarah A. Hoyt and Kate Paulk held my hand — metaphorically speaking — and listened as I plotted at them. They have been there throughout the series, helping when needed and more often kicking me when I’d doubt myself too much. So, for their continued support, I offer a huge “thank you” because without them, I’m not sure this book would ever have been finished.
Below is a widget that will take you to the product page for Interlude and, at the bottom of the page, is another widget that you can use to check out all the titles in the Nocturnal Lives series. I’d appreciate it if you’d click on the widgets — and I’d really appreciate it if you’d buy the book. The dog needs kibble and the cat needs more kitty litter — because I do get a bit more that way.
But this is Friday and that means I owe you a snippet. Because Interlude is out, I’m going to start snippeting something I’ve been working on off-and-on for some time and have decided I’m going to go ahead and finish. It’s my first attempt at space opera and this is a very rough draft. For those of you who followed the blog earlier, you may recognize the snippet — I think I’ve posted it before.
“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 just done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.
Two years. Two very long years of 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. But they had come close to it. 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.
The soft swoosh of the heavily armored door sliding open broke the silence a few moments later. With her back to the door, she couldn’t see who entered, not that she wanted to. One of the first lessons she’d learned after arriving at the Tarsus military penal colony was not to look. That had been a very painful lesson, one that had 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 happened.
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 in quick pain as the process was repeated with her left arm. Moments later, similar restraints were fastened about her ankles. Then a gloved and 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 tripping 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 that doesn’t mean the rules no longer apply because they do. If you’re smart, you’ll remember those 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 that she could do anything about it, at least not as long as the survivors of her unit were still on Tarsus.
To her surprise, Haritos said nothing more. That was unusual for him. 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. Could he finally be leading her to her death, despite the fact her sentence was for only five years?
Dear God, what was going to happen?
Haritos remained silent as he forced her off the lift. Doors opened and 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. Where were they going?
It hadn’t taken long to find out. Haritos led her up a ramp. The hood might have 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 muffled voices. Straining to hear, she only caught a few words. Transfer. . . prisoner. . . dangerous. . . .
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 had a feeling she was the only prisoner in the staging area. That meant 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. Was that what Haritos meant when he told her to remember them?
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. With one last warning not to be stupid, he’d 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? Where were they?
Now, two days later, she stood in yet another cell, this one planetside, and fear warred with anger. She’d overheard enough from the guards on the transport to know that 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 company, those poor, brave souls who had fallowed her into Hell and back only to find themselves brought up on charges right next to 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 on the Tarsus penal colony.
It really was amazing 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. She’d been held in the transport ship’s brig. A guard brought her food and drink at regular intervals but he never said anything 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 she never heard anyone else trying to make contact.
She’d 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, but nothing about the guards indicated she was about to be freed either. That had been the closest she’d come to breaking her own rule of “never ask a question you don’t know the answer to”.
Half an hour later, she’d been seated on a shuttle. The guards had secured her hands behind her back 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 as she recognized the skyline of Fuercon’s capital city. New Kilrain. She was home. But why?
Now, after being processed back 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 they were afraid word of her return might leak out. But why?
Damn it, what was going on?
Of course, there’d been no explanation, not that she’d asked. She’d learned very quickly after her conviction not to ask about anything. Too much talking, too much curiosity was a bad thing that often resulted in punishment, usually of the painful kind. Not that that sort of thing was officially sanctioned. But that didn’t stop it. After all, who policed the jailers? No one, at least not on Tarsus.
Fortunately, she’d heard the horror stories before arriving at the penal colony. That had helped prepare her for what she’d face. Still, 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 to keep her mouth shut. That wasn’t to say there weren’t times when circumstances forced her to break that rule and she bore scars as a result. All she wanted now was to get through her prison term. Survival was the first goal. Vengeance would come later. Not for her, but for those who’d followed her despite her protests and who had paid the ultimate price as a result.
Now, freed of her restraints and alone in her new cell, 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. Exactly like her cell back on Tarsus. Nothing she could use to escape and nothing she could use to kill herself, not that she planned on that. At least not anymore. No, there were others that needed to die before she did.
“Prisoner is secured,” the guard who’d 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 they 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. Of course, this wasn’t the same cell she’d occupied since her conviction. Hell, this wasn’t even the same planet.
As the guard disappeared from sight, she continued to stand there. She listened, counting as his footsteps slowly faded. 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 little and her thoughts once more drifted back to the events leading up to her transfer
Once convinced the guard was gone, she moved to the door, careful not to get too close to the security field. Looking down the corridor, 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. More importantly, she wouldn’t let them see her planning. 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.
* * *
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 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. 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 only a small 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 or not. 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 on the side of the cell once and then again. Nothing seemed to phase the young woman. Only the slight tensing of her muscles, so slight Tremayne almost missed it, betrayed the fact that 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 as well as her war record. 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 com, Tremayne’s hand closed over his arm.
“No.” Most definitely not. But they had to get through to her somehow. Maybe it was time to put aside rank and go to the personal. “I know you can hear me, 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.” 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’re 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 that I still have three years to serve on my sentence, Admiral. 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 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. But there was more. Her face showed scars that hadn’t been there when she’d been sentenced to the Tarsus military prison. 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 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 retired from the military and had run for office. She’d known she needed to work the system to get those brave souls freed and their names cleared, not that she’d 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, not that she blamed him. It was his fleet about to head to the front lines, his people who would be the first to die. 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 it.”
Tremayne turned and retraced her steps down the corridor. She’d realized it would be difficult to convince the young woman to trust them. As far as Shaw knew, they’d 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 all Tremayne and so many others done to fight to gain not only their freedom, but to also clear their names.
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. But what had happened and how badly had they damaged the young woman? Obviously, she had her homework to do before she next tried to talk to Ashlyn Shaw.
“Miranda,” Collins began, 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 them once and that trust had cost her and her command dearly. It would take more than their assurances that things had changed for her to trust them again.
It was 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. She was damned if she’d let anyone see how badly this had shaken her. She hadn’t 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 only defense just then.
But it was hard, so very hard. Dear God, 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 company 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.