Excerpt for The Heights of Perdition (Book 1 of the Divine Space Pirates) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

C. S. JOHNSON








THE HEIGHTS

OF

PERDITION

BOOK ONE OF THE DIVINE SPACE PIRATES



♦♦♦♦



C. S. Johnson



Copyright © 2016 by C. S. Johnson.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher.



eBook ISBN: 978-0-9996728-2-2

Print ISBN: 978-0-9996728-3-9



Per usual, this is for Sam. There is just no leaving you behind when it comes to a new adventure.

This is also for Tyler. You were a great student but you make a better friend. I have such hope for my children thanks to you.

I also feel a great deal owed toward my favorite friends. Esther and Jennifer, thanks for your support during the last few weeks of this novel’s writing. I wouldn’t have the drive if I didn’t think where I was going was any fun, and you always make me have fun.

In addition, it is only fitting that my first “more romance” romance novel should be for my mother. I might live in a world splattered with fantasies, but there is nothing unreal that did not come into being without the solid reality of your love. I love you, Mommy!






TABLE OF CONTENTS

1♦

2♦

3♦

4♦

5♦

6♦

7♦

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9♦

10♦

11♦

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13♦

14♦

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24♦

25♦

26♦

27♦

C. S. Johnson

Author’s Note and Acknowledgements

Book 2

Reading Sample


1



At just the right angle, the dark blue and white orb, suspended in a sea of invisible shadows, held in place by a faith as impossible to believe in as it was to see, fit nicely between his fingers. Outside his window, Earth looked small and fragile, seemingly innocent, and mostly harmless. A hollowness slipped between his thumb and forefinger as he squashed them together, crushing the blueberry-sized circle.

Amused by the irony of the forced perspective before him, a rare, genuine smile formed on Exton Shepherd’s face.

It was, he decided, almost a shame no one else was around to witness such an unusual event. He smooshed his fingers together, imagining the world completely decimated into dust.

But then, he recalled, he’d given plenty of smiles earlier, as all the hubbub went on about the ship. Surely the crew, his hodgepodge of adopted family and coworkers, would have been satisfied with those, even though they were inauthentic at best and mocking at worst.

Duty sometimes demanded playing happy. Exton knew that, and he followed it, even in instances he loathed.

Like today.

Between the thirteenth and fifteenth sunrises of his day, he’d watched the only other person he truly cared for in all the world—no, he mentally corrected himself, in all the universe—pledge her love, heart, and life to another man.

It was heartbreaking on some levels, but strangely freeing, too.

The wedding had been quaint, warm, and sweet. Its simplicity suggested nothing of its socially taxing nature.

Exton had no regrets about ducking out as soon as the bride and groom finished their vows and the Ecclesia had pronounced them husband and wife.

Once he had successfully slipped out of sight, Exton proceeded to the Captain’s Lounge, the small room he’d claimed as his the day after launching the Perdition into space. There was little to be said of the room’s comfort; it was more like a tall elevator shaft than a room, empty of everything but the coldness of space and a small window hidden up near the far end. More than once, Exton wondered if he’d found a kind of kinship with it; hollow and bleak, with a tiny view looking out toward the fleeing horizon.

It was there, on a window seat built into the windowpane, where Exton tucked his legs under his chin and entered into his own world of privacy, where he was free to be who he wanted, even if it was for only a moment.

As captain of the ship, he didn’t want his crew to see him in one of his more melancholy moods.

His frown returned when he opened his fingers again, only to see Earth was still hanging in space before him, its silence mocking and spiteful. Rearranging his hand, he made it seem like he was carrying the earth in the palm. Fleetingly, he toyed with the idea of pretending to toss the small pearl away into the dark recesses of space, into an imaginary hell.

But he knew that would not work.

Exton knew two things with startling clarity and unshakable certainty: The first was that hell was real, and the second was that it was his home.

“Having fun?” a voice asked from below him.

“Huh?” Exton jerked around in surprise, nearly falling off the window ledge. “Come on, Emery, don’t do that,” he groaned, while the young woman dressed all in white only laughed. His balance, already compromised by the pull of the starship’s gravity, faltered again as Exton tried to adjust himself. “You know I don’t like it when people interrupt me, especially when I’m here.”

“But it’s my wedding day,” Emery insisted. “And I’d like to have a dance with the ship’s captain before the night shift starts. Come on, we’re up first.”

Exton gave up on staying by the window and jumped down as gracefully as he could. “All the shifts up here are technically the night shift,” he grumbled.

“Some would say we live in perpetual day up here on the Perdition,” Emery offered, her voice gentle even as she maintained her stance. “Sunrise and sunset are only ninety-two minutes apart for us now, when we’re this close to Earth.”

“Sunrises and sunsets do not make day and night up here,” Exton told her, touching his forehead.

Emery reached out and took his hand, before she placed it over his heart. “I think your problem is too much night in here, not out there.” She turned her attention back to the window, where six inches of steel-grade glass separated them from the vacuum of space.

Exton followed her gaze, wondering if she was looking for any sign of familiarity from their old home. He watched as the end of the ocean braced itself against the shore of the Old Republic; he felt his memory pull him in, and he could see it clearly inside his mind.

The chill of the old mountains where he would go work and play with his father, the spray of the salt water on his transport module, the warmth of his mother’s arms as she welcomed him home from school—all of it embraced him, surrounding him and penetrating into the deep recesses of his heart.

And then there was pain, and then it was gone.

Exton shook his head. “I know it seems like a long time has passed, but it’s time to cause the URS some trouble. It’s almost the anniversary, you know.”

“I know,” she replied. A sudden sadness appeared in her gaze, and Exton wondered if she had been reminiscing as well.

Pushing aside his grief, he straightened his shoulders. “I have a plan that will really make them sorry this year, Em.”

“I know you’re a man of your word,” Emery replied, “but I’m not sure it will be enough to convince them to give us what we want.”

“They already cannot give us what we want.” Exton shrugged. “Our game was never for power. It was for meaning.”

“It’s not a game, Exton.”

“I know it’s not!” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Emery flinch. “I know it’s not,” he repeated carefully, reverting to his usual, detached tone. “It’s not our fault that it became a quest for survival, Emery. I know that even more than you do.”

“If it’s survival you want,” Emery scoffed, “there’s no point in selling your soul in the process.”

Before Exton could assure Emery he had no soul left that was worth saving, let alone selling, he stopped. Happy times, he reminded himself.

Emery’s wedding was a special occasion, one that had excited her for the past several months, offering a glimmer of hope on a horizon of gloom and turmoil. Exton was determined not to let the past rob him—or her—of anything else, so long as it was in his power. “You’re right,” he acquiesced, momentarily giving in.

Emery smiled brightly, and Exton suddenly had a hard time believing she was only two years younger than he was. At twenty-two, she seemed much more innocent than the figure that gazed back at him when he looked in the mirror.

He slipped his hand out from under hers, before taking and squeezing it. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have the first dance with your new husband?”

“Tyler is my heart’s desire,” Emery told him firmly, “but you will always be my hero.”

Exton grimaced. He knew he was no hero. “It would be a shame to waste your time with me.”

“Time with you is not a waste.”

“Did Tyler approve of changing up the dancing order? The man might be in love, but there’s no need to make him prove to be the fool.”

“Hey, Tyler’s your commander, and your best friend,” Emery objected. “You know he’s not a fool.”

“Not where it concerns you. He would be smart to correct that, and I have been telling him since he received approval from the Ecclesia to start courting you,” Exton told her. He gave her a devious look. “Should I make him walk the plank?”

Emery frowned and searched the darkened shadows of his face. “That’s not funny, Exton.”

“I know.”

They walked in silence for a few moments before Exton spoke once more. “I don’t want to dance. No offense, Em.”

“Traditionally, it was the daughter’s duty to dance with her father, first.” Emery smiled. “But that’s more of a cultural thing I’ve read about from the Old Republic.”

“Yes, I remember that,” Exton agreed. “Ironic, how the Revolutionary States would be appalled by it now.”

Of course, he recalled, even the idea of using the term “father” might have some of the more militant protestors up in arms, as the beloved Daddy Dictator of the URS, Grant Osgood, did not encourage familial relationships, unless such feelings were directed toward government.

“If the URS is against it, you should be more inclined to appease me, then,” Emery contended.

There was a breath of silence and stillness before Exton responded. “I’m not our father,” he scoffed.

“You’re more like him than you might wish.”

As Exton scowled at her, Emery pointed her finger at him accusingly. “See? You even have the same exasperated look he used to get when he was frustrated.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” Exton shrugged, scratching his head. He frowned as he realized it had been some time since he’d gotten a haircut. His father used to do the same thing, especially when he was planning his next engineering endeavor. Exton suddenly wondered if it was his own scruffy locks that had been making him shrink back from mirrors of late.

He missed his father too much to want to see him staring out of the mirror from the other side of the grave.

Emery chuckled again, drawing him out of his thoughts. “Well, I know at least one trait you share with him. He had a hard time telling me no to anything I wanted, if memory serves.”

“You look too much like Mom for me to say no,” Exton admitted. “I’m sure he had the same problem, but that’s one I’m more willing to share with him.”

With her dark brown hair, blue-green eyes, and petite form, Emery was the living memory of their mother. She even had the same dimple hovering above the left corner of her lips, a trait Exton knew was the extent of their common features. Their father’s blue eyes, as clear and sharp as ice, had passed to him, along with his height, broad shoulders, and black hair.

“He always did want me to follow in his footsteps,” Exton muttered as they headed out of the Captain’s Lounge. “But I’m not sure he would have enjoyed the ghost of Captain Chainsword, the infamous space lumberjack pirate.”

“I don’t think he would have liked it, given how much he derided you for enjoying those fantasy adventures you used to read.”

“It seemed fitting at the time, to create a new role for him to play, along with the rest of us.”

“I suppose.” Emery shrugged. “But Papa was a brilliant engineer, same as you, and a good man. I’m not sure he would have liked your emphasis on piracy and power.”

“For the most part, I think you are right,” Exton agreed. “But he was too idealistic by far. That was what got him killed.” He looked out a nearby window, where, even as he could no longer see Earth, he still felt the pull of its shadow.

“In hindsight, you would prove to be correct on that point.”

“That is why I will not make the same mistake as he did. While Paradise is out of reach, Perdition will do what it can to ensure a better life for us.”

“And others, too,” Emery added proudly.

“Maybe.” Exton shrugged. “I only have a duty to you, and you’re technically Tyler’s problem now. Anyone else is just extra.”

“Your duty to me hasn’t ended.”

Exton rolled his eyes. “I’m going to dance with you, aren’t I? What else is there?”

“Your duty to me might include a dance tonight, but I wish for you to find someone you would love as I love Tyler.” She smiled. “Someone you can spend your life trying to make happy.”

“Even as life makes me miserable?”

Emery frowned and sighed. “I don’t know why you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Make it impossible for yourself to be happy.”

“Happiness is fleeting, remember?” Exton rolled his eyes. “Even the leaders of the Ecclesia would agree with me there.”

“They don’t often agree with you, especially when it comes to your mandates,” Emery concurred. “The only reason they would on this account is because the phrasing is vague enough to seem to agree on the meaning.” She narrowed her gaze. “And the practice.”

Exton wrinkled his nose. “We’ve been up here for too long if you know me so well.”

“I still prefer this to when we were off at different universities, working on our studies,” Emery admitted with a thoughtful smile. “But as for the argument, you don’t seem to agree with the Ecclesia a whole lot, either. You don’t share most of their beliefs. I find it hard to believe that you would try to garner support from among their teachings.”

“Their teachings on wisdom and life, and how it should be, I respect. But it’s different when you’re trying to manage a pirate starship and ruin an empire.”

“Not to mention when you insist so stubbornly on remaining miserable.”

“I am going back to your wedding celebration, aren’t I?” Exton groaned. “Please don’t push it, Em. You know how I feel. If God would grant your wish for me, if he wanted so much for me to be ‘happy,’ he could have let me ‘fall in love’ with someone on the Perdition, like you and Tyler. But even when we send our smaller ships down to Earth for supplies, see Aunt Patty, or attack the URS, there’s no one there for me. There are only people there who want the protection Perdition can offer to political dissents or refugees such as themselves.”

After a moment of thought, he added, “Besides, my job is to protect and lead aboard the spaceship. The last thing I need is to be led around by the whims of a woman.”

“There’s no need to make it sound so deplorable,” Emery scoffed, arching an eyebrow at him. “Do you honestly think dealing with the moods of a man are any easier?”

He flashed her a charming grin.

“You don’t need to set yourself up for failure like that. We have only been up in space for six years now, hiding in the shadows of all the toxic clouds while playing war games with the URS.”

“Not to mention watching destruction of all other sorts go unchecked,” Exton added, his voice grim.

“It’s not all ‘unchecked,’” Emery reminded him. “Exton, you still can’t lose hope. God is a supposed to be a god of miracles, remember? We have time.”

Exton wondered how his sister could be worried about his heart, when his life, as well all the lives of his crew, faced the bigger risk. It was one thing to be aware of danger, but another to disregard it, especially for something as silly as true love.

He studied Emery’s daydreaming smile in silence and decided he had the right of it: As much as she was ever his practical and precise sister, Emery’s wedded bliss was affecting her judgment.

Exton was surprised at the sudden stab of jealousy. He squashed it down as he caught sight of the approaching Earth through the galley windows.

Didn’t Emery see the coming battle? Exton wondered. Didn’t she feel the haunted air about the starship, with specters of the past lurking around every corner of the Perdition?

They couldn’t outlast the URS forever up in space. While Exton and the Ecclesia had established the Perdition as a safe haven over the past few years, it was only a matter of time before the URS would come for them, and he knew it would not be to make peace.

“What is it, Exton?” Emery asked, jolting him out of his gloomy thoughts.

Exton sighed. “It’s not like God’s just going to dump someone into the ship just for me. You might as well save your breath for dancing, Em.”



2



All Aeris St. Cloud wanted to do was dance.

The musical fanfare surely had to resonate all throughout the URS, Aerie thought. From the auditorium of her school, the New Hope Education Center 616, the country’s anthem surely had to echo out into even the bleakest ends of Earth.

It seemed wrong to resist the urge to jump up and down.

But she knew she had to present a respectable, stoic face to the brave new world before her. She had to. There were too many people in the large assembly before her, and the rest of her graduating class was counting on her not to make any mistakes or mess up.

For once.

Mara Fleming, the class president, had triple-checked Aerie’s pinned-back hair, while Claire Luceno, the graduating class student coordinator, warned her that this time she was going to have to hold in her sneezes, no matter how powerful.

Similar reminders from her housing unit members—always her toughest critics—burned in the back of her mind like a warning flare, sending a wave of embarrassment rushing through her.

Luckily, the sheer power of it triggered the hidden reserves of her self-control.

But not before she wriggled her butt and smiled brightly.

“Ahem.”

The quick, sharp cough came from a familiar shadow from far down the line. It was quiet enough that the Master of Ceremony marched on with his speech relentlessly, the small indiscretion unnoticed by the crowd beyond him.

Aerie let only a tiny sigh escape in protest. No one was allowed to break formation throughout the URS ceremonies, and even she knew she would never be the exception.

She leaned forward, watching her teacher’s familiar nostrils flair as his large pair of eyebrows sank into their trademark frown. How did Master Browning even see me from all the way over there? Aerie wondered.

She knew it wouldn’t be much longer before the ceremony was over.

And then everything in her life would be perfect.

Almost as if he could read her mind, the schoolmaster glared even more fiercely at her, his face suddenly blushing an angry purple.

Even as guilt sunk in, Aerie nearly giggled at the reproving look. After six years, she knew better than to disappoint her schoolmaster. But no one could really blame her for her slip-ups today, Aerie decided, though she knew the State wouldn’t hesitate to punish her for them.

Today was the day when she would finally join the rest of her unit in the New Hope Military Academy. She would prove them wrong, at last, and they would finally accept her.

Sadness gently brushed through her. This is the day I’ve been waiting for ever since Mom died.

Aerie had heard the rebellious mutterings about Heaven, a place in the clouds where people would go when they died. She might have thought her mother was watching her from there if most of New Hope wasn’t located underground, and if the Earth’s ominous, gray clouds didn’t look so opaque.

And if Heaven wasn’t illegal, she added belatedly to herself.

But she hoped if her mother was watching, she would be proud. Aerie had put more care into her appearance than usual; her hair, a golden shade of ginger, was pulled back into the tightest bun she could manage, with her long bangs tucked underneath her URS student service hat. She was wearing her best uniform, and her boots, perpetually crinkled and scuffed, were buffed to an acceptable shine.

Of course, no one noticed. But at least no one teased her for looking sloppy or trying to draw attention to herself. Aerie decided that alone was a good sign.

Nothing is going to go wrong today.

Another smile slipped out.

“Aerie.”

At the sound of her name, Aerie glanced over to her to her left. She nearly melted at the sight of her longtime friend, Brock Rearden, until she saw he was signaling her to get her to be still.

She rolled her eyes at him, feeling unexpected irritation starting to push through her enthusiasm. She could understand the schoolmaster’s rebuke, but Brock’s was frustrating.

But then, she reasoned a moment later, there was a rumor going around that Brock was going to ask her to the Military Academy Ball, the opening gala where all the new recruits and accepted personnel were honored.

Maybe that was why he was concerned, Aerie thought. He wouldn’t want to go with me if I caused a scene at graduation.

After all, Brock had an impressive reputation as one of the top students in their class. Other rumors she heard said that he had been talking with the Military Academy Board since the previous year.

While getting into the military academy would mean proving her worth to her unit, showing up with Brock Rearden would prove her value to her peers.

Not that that is really a major concern, Aerie told herself. There were other, more important, elements that went along with getting invited to the ball by the most handsome, cunning, and eligible military recruit.

She sighed silently and happily to herself. The ball was a tradition in the URS, and it was the perfect place for her to get her first date, her first dance, and even her first kiss.

Which Brock was perfect for, too, she thought, still pretending to pay attention to the speaker as she conjured up an image of her friend.

Like many military recruits, his hair was cut short, but its wheat color reminded Aerie of the surface, of the softness of soil or the warmth of fur. His eyes were a combination of green and brown, which made her think of her mother’s small garden, with specks of life surrounded by the warmth and power of the earth.

Power, Aerie decided, was a word that matched Brock. While his ruggedly handsome face and build were hard to miss, it was his strength and shrewdness that made him stand out among everyone else in the room. He projected an aura that was both protective and predatory.

It’s hard to imagine Brock not getting into the military, Aerie thought appreciatively.

“—and now, comrades, please join with me in welcoming our graduates to their new ranking as full members of the United Revolutionary States.”

Aerie, along with her class, automatically saluted the audience with the formal RSS, the Revolutionary State Salute. Her right hand closed into a fist and then covered her heart, before she bowed her head. It was the URS salute of the highest order, required as a sign of respect.

She’d always thought it was a bit odd, but she heard the legends and stories of the past—at first reluctantly, then insatiably—which told of ancient nations that showed respect by grasping hands, bowing deeply, and exchanging name cards. Before the URS rescued the citizens of Earth, there was so much diversity and so many differences it was impossible to maintain any working order. She could easily see the Founding Fighters working to compromise on a design for respect, and that was how they arrived at the Revolutionary State Salute, before the first dictator, Hal J. P. Rothsburton, approved and mandated it.

“Thank you for that warm welcome to our new graduates.”

Aerie struggled not to break formation. If there was any time to ensure she was following orders perfectly, it was at that moment.

Dictator Osgood is here!

She peeked over at him, excited to see the leader of the fair world speaking at her school. It was a special occasion indeed, even if his wrinkles seemed deeper and he was shorter than when he was onscreen; he couldn’t have been any taller than Brock.

Like all educated students, Aerie knew Dictator Osgood had been the URS Dictator for about eleven years, ever since the previous ruler retired.

He just wasn’t what she would call handsome, Aerie decided privately.

“—pleased at the new recruits for the Military Academy this year. It will prove to be an interesting year, too, as we have received a message from the so-called ghost of Captain Chainsword.”

Silence remained, but stillness suddenly accompanied it.

Aerie glanced to the left side of the podium, where His Excellency stood. Posted up on the walls were several pictures of defectors. Some, long destroyed, were marked off with a large, red slash. Others had faded over time, forgotten to the passage of progress.

Except one.

Among the sea of criminals, Captain Chainsword’s profile stood out. Aerie, having little to no desire to pay attention to the various lectures she’d been forced to attend in the auditorium, was familiar with the pirate’s features. Under the crimson slash that crossed his profile, his expression remained steadfast. A pirate hat was perched crookedly on his head, while his hair was black as starless night, running into his gray and white beard. His eyes, clear and sharp despite their age, mocked the onlooker with an almost compassionate gaze, reminding them all that there were some who would have power at any price.

“Captain Chainsword, as you know, has taken it upon himself to declare war on us, despite his death ten years ago,” Osgood continued. “He has cut our access to our satellite systems, making our scouting attempts to find survivors out in the nuclear and chemical minefields much more arduous and hazardous. His ship, the Perdition, has remained undetected. But last night, we received a transmission.

“I am here to warn you, and remind you of the great sacrifices our nation has made over the past decades. Ecological disaster, accelerated by war­—not the least among the list the destruction of the Persian oil fields, the nuclear discharge compromising the Old Republic electric grids, the chemical warfare unleashed upon the oceans—has forced us to find a new way of life.”

Osgood paused, and Aerie quickly glanced at Brock, who was eying the poster of Captain Chainsword with barely contained hatred.

“Fortunately for us, it was a better life. With all the capitalists and bankers”—a collective flinch went through the crowd at the mere mention of the former state’s slave owners—“rounded up and routinely executed, we were free to begin again, and in a fair manner.

“But now, Captain Chainsword’s ghost seeks to return us to the days of market competition and economic inequality. In his quest for power, he has continued over the years to reign down tyranny against us, saying the days of the dictators are nearly over. Captain Chainsword’s message to us this time was simple: ‘War is coming to New Hope.’”

As a collective wave of unmoving surprise rippled through the audience, Aerie gasped. Immediately, her face burned red. She quickly tried to quash her feelings of reflexive shame.

After years of training, even the most outraged of individuals would be able to restrain themselves, especially in the face of a credible threat.

You’d think I would have learned that by now!

Osgood cleared his throat loudly. “While it might surprise some of you, I want you to know I am pleased by this. Since Captain Chainsword has been living on his starship, he has allowed himself to remain focused on his quest for power. In attacking New Hope, he will find that we have changed much over the last ten years.

“Indeed, if you recall your lessons on our history, New Hope was chosen as the United Revolutionary States’ great capital for its values and resistance. When unscrupulous villains would try to bomb or attack it, we would rise when knocked down, coming out more powerful than ever before,” Osgood said, referencing the tranquil times before the URS had been born, before the nuclear ash and toxic clouds made a large part of Earth uninhabitable. “As a result, I am confident we will be able to withstand his attack.”

Aerie puffed up with pride. She was honored to be a resident of New Hope. Even in the dark days of capitalism, New Hope, previously known as New York City, was a beacon of hope to people all over the world.

“To prepare for this,” Dictator Osgood continued, “I am personally reminding all citizens of New Hope to remain in their underground living quarters.”

Her heart stilled as her intuition flared.

Osgood gestured to the right side of the stage. “It is my pleasure to have with me today General St. Cloud, who, as my new Lieutenant Commander-in-Chief, in addition to overseeing the new graduate PARs today, will be recruiting and training Emergency Responders to help with any attack Captain Chainsword’s ghost might be foolish enough to unleash on our city.”

Aerie’s gaze sharpened as her father briefly glanced in her direction. Her heart stopped as he caught her eyes with his.

Then he turned and took his position at the podium. Without so much as a word of welcome to his audience, General St. Cloud began listing off all sorts of reminders and procedures.

Aerie felt her heart slowly, but loudly, resume its beating.

If her father was here, maybe her brothers would need to leave before she saw them. As fighter pilots in the Air Force, they might be called to the first line of defense for the URS.

Her gaze went back to Brock. He’d always dreamed of flying.

If war is coming to New Hope, he might get his chance.

Aerie wasn’t sure of the exact moment their graduation ceremony ended, but when she was finally allowed to smile, she suddenly had to force it.


3



Despite the events at graduation, Aerie reasoned that there was no reason to believe Dictator Osgood’s appearance was cause for immediate concern. She could still have her perfect day.

After all, she had passed her classes with high marks in tactical and combat skills, both difficult and necessary requirements for entering the URS Military Academy. There was also her final graduation project, where she’d prepared and delivered a research project presentation. Her instructors had given her many good compliments on that.

Surely, that will be enough to get me into the military, she thought.

“Aerie!”

She turned and smiled brightly as Brock came up to her. “Hi, Brock.”

“That was so intense back there,” Brock said, nodding toward the stage. “I’m so glad you didn’t slip up. Master Browning was about ready to blow, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure he should be used to it after all these years,” Aerie said with a laugh. She tried not to let the fact that it was true hurt her. “Besides, if he did, wouldn’t he be the one who would need to be reeducated in self-control?”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “Though you could get penalized for it as well, for being the cause of it.”

Does Brock have just absolutely no sense of humor today? Aerie wondered. She shrugged it off; maybe he was, like her, just too overwhelmed by the ceremony and the PARs coming up.

“So, when do you go in for your PAR?” Aerie asked, tucking her hands behind her back.

“My review is supposed to be soon.”

“Oh, really? You’re lucky. I’m expected to be called up close to last.”

“Well, you do have to consider your privilege,” Brock told her. “Being a member of General St. Cloud’s unit and all.”

“Ha!” Aerie laughed. “The General is hardly around for me to see him, let alone talk military strategies. I was lucky he remembered to enroll me in combat class this year.”

She didn’t mention that his appearance at the graduation ceremony was the first time she’d seen him since the mid-quarter retreat several weeks ago.

“Others might think you are at an advantage, and it’s important to make sure these things are fair,” Brock said.

“Are you feeling okay?” Aerie asked with a frown. “You’re sounding an awful lot like my instruction manual on how to be an officer, instead of my comrade.”

“Aerie, come on,” Brock muttered. “We’re graduates now. You know as well as I do that the facts are not more important than feelings on this sort of matter; in fact, that’s pretty close to breaking the State Codes. That’s how the laws are here.”

Aerie sighed. “Speaking of facts,” she said. “I heard a rumor that you were going to take someone from our class to the Military Academy Ball.” She smiled again, trying to bat her eyelashes the way her older roommate and sister, Serena, did when flirting with one of her many admirers.

“I do have an idea of who I’d like to ask, if I get in,” Brock said. He gave her a kind smile—the first one all day from him, she pathetically noted—and winked at her.

Aerie felt her heart race as she wondered if he was going to ask her to the ball then and there.

The rush of possibility was instantly derailed.

“I’m waiting. If I ask anyone to the ball, I’d hope she would be accepted into the academy, too.”

“You wouldn’t just want to ask any girl?” Aerie asked, surprised. “Even if she didn’t get in?”

“Nearly all our classmates are hoping to get into the academy,” Brock reminded her. “If I ask someone who didn’t get it, can you imagine how awkward it would be to explain to everyone else at the ball why she didn’t get in?” He shook his head. “It would be an insult.”

“Not for your company,” Aerie told him wistfully.

“It’s no matter now. I haven’t been accepted yet.”

“You don’t think you’ll get in?” Aerie playfully risked punching his shoulder. “Come on, no one is going to get in if you don’t. You’ve got the highest scores and your final presentation was phenomenal, I heard.”

“Well, General Sootan and General Tanner were both very interested in my analysis of hand-to-hand fighting techniques from the pre-war era of the Old Republic,” Brock admitted, some color coming to his cheeks.

Finally, Aerie mused. A topic she could get him to focus on that didn’t make her angry in the process. “Oh, I heard it was the best!”

“Did you really?” Brock grinned. “Well, I do want to look into climbing up through the ranks of the military quickly. Maybe all that research will come in handy.” He nodded toward the towering profile of Captain Chainsword. “Especially if that traitor decides to come and visit us. I’d love the chance to prove he’s not a ghost.”

“Let’s not talk about him,” Aerie said. “He’s an unpleasant topic.” There was more than one reason Aerie did not want to talk about Captain Chainsword. For all the scornful derision she saw in his picture’s gaze, she could not shake the feeling he was more than just an enemy.

She’d heard the stories, the rumors—the ones the URS never encouraged. They said he’d been betrayed by those closest to him, and died of a broken heart more than the bullet that pierced it.

How evil did you have to be before the people who knew you best betrayed you? Aerie wondered. She shuddered at the thought, thinking of her own unit. They would not be happy to know she had been listening to rumors again.

“All right.” Brock shrugged. “If you don’t want to. I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable on purpose.” He cleared his throat. “Tell me again, what did you present on for the URS General Education Board?”

“I was given the assignment on weaponizing pollen,” Aerie reminded him. “Master Harrick thought I would enjoy that topic since it was on plants. She thought weaponizing them would be a fun project for me, since I wanted to go into the military.”

“What did you find out?” Brock asked politely.

“Nothing, really. It’s a terrible idea, so I researched plant generations instead. It’s really quite—”

“What?” Brock rounded on her. “You defied the Board’s orders for your assignment?”

“I gave them a better one,” Aerie insisted. “Breeding plants for war might not be technically chemical warfare, but it is still—”

“You defied an order,” Brock interrupted.

“Come on, Brock. It’s a matter of taking initiative. Besides, they seemed to like what I­—”

“Aerie, I thought you wanted to get into military school,” Brock interrupted.

“I do,” Aerie insisted.

“You can’t defy an order and expect to get into the URS Military Academy. It’s just not possible.”

“I thought you were supposed to be my friend, Brock.”

“I am,” he agreed hastily. “We are comrades for life.”

“Then why are you being so difficult today?” Aerie countered. This discussion is rapidly turning sour.

I’m the one being difficult?” Brock looked astounded. “You’re the one who has defied an order set by the council. Do you think they’ll let you slide into the academy I’ve worked my whole life to get into simply because you’re the General’s charge?”

“No,” she snapped.

“And now you’re denying you’ll use the only possible privilege you have in getting what you want?”

“I don’t believe in the whole ‘privilege’ concept when it comes to my unit,” Aerie told him matter-of-factly. “I told you, I’ve barely seen the General since he was promoted to the URS’s National Guard ten years ago after the last dictator retired—”

“The military academy has standards for a reason,” Brock insisted, ignoring her arguments.

“Well, I have standards, too,” Aerie declared. “And I am not going to stand for this conversation anymore.” With that, she turned on her heel and walked away, not even bothering to salute him before she left.

It was for the best. If she’d bowed to him, she would have been too tempted to spit on his perfectly shined shoes.

The nerve of him. Aerie clenched her fists. Why did he have to ruin her good mood?

She’d known Brock for many years, and they were friends, as he said. He helped her with her training, while she invited him over for dinner. She had even let him borrow the General’s written accounts of his early-career battles against the Middle Eastern Nuclear Arms Coalition and Enterprise, also known as MENACE. The history of the nuclear attacks on the United Nations of America and her allies in the books were perfect for his studies, and Brock must have known books were still extremely rare, given the decimation of trees and plants since the Old Republic war began.

At that thought, she turned around and headed in the other direction, suddenly inspired.

Aerie checked the time on her wristwatch; it wouldn’t do to be late for her final PAR.

Her stress gradually lessened as she climbed up through the back stairways and ducked inside the old air duct.

Finding her way up to the surface followed naturally after all her previous visits.

Aerie might have said, though in jest because she knew it was forbidden, that something supernatural seemed to call her attention to the secret way above ground.

She breathed in the air, unpurified and untreated, and smiled brightly before pushing the top of the duct portal free of its locked position.

And then she stepped out into what was left of New Hope’s above-ground world.

The years of toxic rain, sharpened by nuclear attacks, ate at the metal and cement, leaving the city pockmarked with rust and rot. Rather than abandon it, the citizens of the Union of North America followed the rats underground, forsaking sunlight rather than their home. Aerie had heard the legend of New Yorkers, and she wondered at it, because as passionate as they were about their home, she felt somewhat trapped by their pride. Once the URS was born from UNA’s remains, they continued the practice, enforcing it as part of the rule of law.

Which made sense in many cases. After all, their civilization could only survive if they were safe.

She made her way down the empty blocks, where occasionally a few homeless people were snuggled into corners, some crippled, some rejected by the government below.

None of them ever seemed to make a move to talk to her, for which she was partially grateful and partially saddened.

Aerie scanned her surroundings but did not see any other people around. She felt her excitement renew itself as she finally saw what she’d come for—the Memory Tree.

Nearly eighty feet tall, the grand oak tree had been a signature site in the city before war and ecological disaster had drastically transformed the outside world. While the rest of the manmade world around her looked decrepit, rusting over and wasting away, the tree seemed unaware that it was supposed to be dying as well.

Her steps increased in speed as she set her eyes on her intended destination. The tree was a survivor, and Aerie could more than identify with the loneliness accompanying the privilege of living in a broken world.

A small mew! sang out, calling to her.

“Moona!” Aerie reached down and picked up the small kitten at her heels. She petted the soft, black-and-white ball of fur before burying her face in it. The dirt clinging to its hair bristled her cheeks, but Aerie didn’t mind. She was just glad to see Moona had survived, even if the cat’s white coat was no match for city life. “I’ve missed you.”

It had been awhile since she’d come back to see Moona and the Memory Tree. At least two weeks.

“I’ve been busy with schoolwork,” she told the kitten as she hoisted her up on her shoulder. “I have my PAR later today, but then I’ll be finished with school.”

“Mew,” the cat replied.

“I should be able to come up here more frequently after I get accepted into the Academy,” Aerie said. “As long as my father—sorry, the General—doesn’t pay much attention to me.” She paused. “Which he shouldn’t, considering Dictator Osgood told us that Captain Chainsword’s ghost is on his way to New Hope. That should keep him busy for a while.”

The kitten purred in agreement next to her, and Aerie laughed, the sound hollow and strange against the silence of the rotting city remnants. The wind tickled against the Memory Tree, the only remaining tree in all of New Hope, and Aerie decided that was the tree’s way of giving her a friendly response. She was near enough she could see the small breeze fluttering through its branches, making some of the burnt-brown leaves crinkle a small hello.

She finally reached the tree. “Hello, my friend,” she whispered. Her hands reached down and pressed into the soil, studying its texture and the different sediments she found around the tree’s roots.

“It’s still doing well,” she observed in wonder. “Even though the URS has been reporting higher concentrations of toxins lately.” Aerie suddenly wished she’d brought her gardening tools and sampling kit. As much as she knew it was frivolous, Aerie had always loved working with her mother’s small garden and learning different ways to care for plants.

Before she ended up dwelling on her final project, and Brock’s unpleasant comments, Aerie shifted Moona to her arm and carried her like a small baby as she approached the tree.

Moona hissed in futile protest.

“Sorry,” Aerie told her, “but if you’re going to climb the tree with me, you’re going to have to trust me.”

The kitten gave only a hardened silence for a reply as Aerie climbed up the spotted branches of the tree swiftly. It had been several months since she found this place; she knew instinctively which branches would hold her weight and which ones would be strengthened if only the sun would shine through the clouds.

She found her favorite branch about forty feet up from the ground and settled against the trunk. The leaves on the underside of the tree twinkled green at her, while the topside ones were a dark, rusty-looking brown.

“From here, Moona, you can almost see past the city’s horizon,” Aerie said. “I think Mom would’ve liked this place.”

Moona yawned and curled up once more, kneading her paws into Aerie’s leg.

“I miss her,” Aerie admitted aloud. “Mom would have loved coming up here. I still take care of her small garden, you know.”

Aerie giggled as the kitten stretched. “I know I’m not supposed to call her that, you know. But somehow ‘Madame’ or ‘Unit Director’ didn’t seem right.” She frowned. “She told me in secret, when I was old enough, I could call her ‘Mom,’ but then nothing else really fit. The General would punish me if he heard me call her that in front of anyone else. To say nothing of what he would do if he found me here.”

Having grown up in the heart of the State, Aerie knew her allegiance to the State came first. But somehow, her loyalty to her mother insisted on taking those risks, and as time went on, it was more natural to do so.

A pungent smell wafted into Aerie’s nose. Her eyes, already damp with unshed tears, flickered shut. “Something stinks,” she muttered. She moved a reluctant Moona away and stood up, glancing around. Was it rain? Aerie glanced up at the sky.

“Captain Chainsword’s ghost is supposed to be joining us here in New Hope,” Aerie told Moona. “I wonder if this means the URS is going to launch an attack of its own?”

Probably.

It’s what I would do, she thought. Tell all the people to stay underground, and then blame all the blasts and booms on the enemy.

Not that the URS would lie to their people, unless it was for their own good, she thought with a pinch of guilt.

Aerie gave the tree a loving pat as she scooped up Moona and tucked her into one of her coat pockets. “Sorry, Moona,” she apologized. “But we’d better go. Between the rain and warfare, you’ll be safer with me. We’ll come back when it’s clear.”

The small kitten squirmed in initial protest, but once she realized the inside of Aerie’s uniform jacket was dark and cozy, she settled down and went to sleep.

Aerie grinned, knowing it would be her last smile for some time. The URS required seriousness in all matters, it seemed. There was little time for fun and laughter.

When survival is the endgame, she thought, there is nothing funny.

She took one last look around, grateful for the small moments she had to herself; the city was far from peaceful, but being topside had settled her heart and renewed her determination to make a difference.

“Hold on, Moona,” she muttered, before jumping skillfully into the abandoned air duct. “War might be coming, but even that can’t stop me from getting into the Military Academy today.”



4



Exton knew from his studies that the earth had once shone with a crystal blue, brown, and green face, covered with a sporadic white veil of clouds. As the Perdition passed through the ocean of satellites and other space electronics, including the Old Republic’s International Space Station, he looked through the windshield of the Perdition and wondered if it ever would return to its previous state.

“Probably not,” he murmured to himself, sickened yet transfixed by the sight before him. Flickers of grisly auroras snaked along the poles, shielding the darkened earth below while a relentless cloud cover, reaching from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, sheltered the middle of the world, almost like a serpent had wound its way around the earth several times and was slowly squeezing it to death. He could clearly recall the gray underbelly of the beast from his days training in the URS.

“We’ve reached our intended altitude, Captain.” Tyler Caldwell, the ship’s Commander and his new brother-in-law, turned toward him. Before Exton could reply an affirmative response, Tyler frowned.

“What is it?” Exton asked.

“Did you just come from the Biovid?” Tyler asked.

“Uh … no.”

“Really? Because you’re tracking mud behind you.”

Exton frowned. “Ignore it,” he ordered. “And call for Olga. Tell her to send a crewmember to come and take care of it once I’m done here.”

“Yes, Captain.” Despite the exchange, Tyler smiled before he continued with his report. “I’ve put down the anchor on the ship’s electro-fission core.”

“Very good,” Exton commended. “See to the preparations of Captain Chainsword’s capsule.”

“Already completed.” Tyler pointed to another screen nearby. “Emery says everyone is ready to go down on the launch pad. The preflight tests are completed, the atmosphere’s been checked … our analyst, Thora, says there is a storm brewing west of New Hope and moving eastward. It should work to our advantage, with the rain hitting their military base. Central and Western regions of the URS are clear.”

“Excellent.” Exton nodded. “Have them prepare a place for me on the ship.”

Tyler raised his brows. “You’re going to go down to Earth with them?”

“Surely you don’t think just because you’re married to my sister now, you think it’s fine to challenge my decisions?”

“I’ve almost always challenged your decisions,” Tyler reminded him. “As do most members of the Ecclesia. But you know we’re always leery when you return to Earth.”

“I know, and it never seems to stop me,” Exton replied. He looked at the newest member of his family and faltered. Tyler was not just his best friend now; he was family, and family was family.

In all fairness, Exton knew he couldn’t have asked for a better addition. Tyler had been at his side in the URS, and he’d been the first to rally behind Exton as captain of the Perdition.

But even as Tyler gave his fealty, Exton could see the uncertainty lingering behind his gaze.

“This is the tenth anniversary, Tyler. I want to honor my father,” Exton explained. “I always go.”

Tyler sighed. “I know.” He ran a hand through his blond hair in frustration. “I guess this means I’m stuck at the helm, right?”

“You already knew that,” Exton pointed out in a flat tone. “That’s your job as Flight Commander.”

“Jared’s been coming along nicely with his flying exams,” Tyler countered. “I could let him pilot the ship for a bit and come with you guys.”

Behind them, a young man close to twenty years of age suddenly jolted and straightened upright, hearing his name. Exton shot a nod in the boy’s direction. “The capsule crew has been briefed on the mission. I’ll need you to keep Perdition targeted on the eastern point of New Hope.”

“New Hope?” Tyler repeated. Several crewmembers suddenly glanced over in his direction, their eyes wide or mouths open.

Exton almost laughed at the sight, but decided against it. No need to give them a reason to doubt me, he thought. “Yes. Perdition will align to the coordinates of the city as we pass it in thirty minutes,” he instructed. “I think a short stop will be enough to completely devastate and demoralize the URS this year.”

He turned and walked out, knowing there were several delayed, robotic salutes and soft whispers following him.

“Captain,” Tyler called, stepping up beside him. They headed down the tight hallways, with Exton only half a step in front of Tyler.

“I don’t want to discuss this with you, Tyler,” Exton told him. “I’ve already made up my mind.”

“But I thought—” Tyler stopped, before he glanced around and lowered his voice. “I thought you were dead set against using the nukes.”

Exton balked. “We’re not going to use them. I didn’t say we were, did I?”

“No, but how else would you ‘completely devastate and demoralize’ the URS?”

“When you are going up against an enemy,” Exton told him, “and there is no winning him over, no agreeable compromise, and no possible way to get what you want, then what do you do?”

Tyler just stared at him, frowning.

“You crush his heart,” Exton answered. “That is what we’re going to do.”

“How?”

“The same way we do our usual business—with charges and chainsaws. I’ve got a prize in mind, and I’ll need the Perdition ready for backup.”

“You know, Emery’s worried about you.”

The admission came out of nowhere. While it might have upset him, Exton was secretly pleased. Tyler had run out of logical arguments, so he was going to try to appeal to his softer emotions. Nice try, Exton thought. “My sister has already expressed her concern for me. I assured her there is no great need for it.”

“But don’t you think—”

“No, I don’t think; I know.” Exton’s mouth twisted into a painful smile. “My heart is already crushed, remember? There’s no need to worry for something that’s already been lost.”

As Tyler stumbled behind him, Exton kept walking, stopping only when he came to the deck elevator. “But the bombs—”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Tyler.”

“You can’t order me around like you do everyone else,” Tyler insisted. “I’m not only your friend, but I was your partner in this business long before we knew what we were getting into.”

“If you must know, we need some more supplies,” Exton grumbled. “So I thought this was an excellent chance to kill two birds with one stone.”

“You’re sure you’re not going to do anything crazy?”

“Crazy?” Exton repeated as he stepped into an elevator. “Oh, it’ll be crazy. But I do promise it’s not quite as extreme as you think. In fact, it’ll be similar to our other missions.”

“Well,” Tyler remarked, clearly annoyed, “that’s a relief.”

Exton smiled at the sarcasm before the doors closed, and he found himself descending down to Level Ten, where the ship’s transport hangar was located.

The hangar design had been smart, and the secret launch pad was nothing short of pure genius. While the Perdition had been modeled in mostly astronomic style, the aeronautic design allowed for full and efficient use in a four-dimensional flying field.

Emery came up beside him. “I know you’re dramatic and everything, but it’s things like this that the others and I don’t like.”

“Dramatic? I’m not dramatic.”

Emery arched an eyebrow at him. “Yes, you are, Exton. Don’t you think the ghost of Captain Chainsword is proof of that?”

She has me there. Exton gave her a playful sneer. “Speaking of which, I think it’s time he made his appearance.”

Pain, heady and nostalgic, shot through him as Exton remembered how proud and seemingly invincible their father was.

He quickly and quietly shook off his angry grief. There were more important things to worry about, after all.

It was only fitting that he would lead the crew down and steal the “hope” right out of New Hope.

Emery waved over to one of the cadets, a pretty, blonde-haired girl named Alice, who immediately came forward. In her hands was a large black bag. As Alice neared Emery and Exton, he could see the glowing smile on her face.

He sighed. Every year, more and more girls on the ship attempted to get his attention, and every year he found it more and more tiresome.

“Thank you, Alice,” Emery said, saluting the girl as she reached for the bag. “That will be all.” Alice’s smile caved at being shooed away, but Emery paid no attention to her as she thrust the bag into Exton’s arms.

As he hurried to catch it, Exton caught the look of triumph on his sister’s face. He decided to let her savor it. For now.

“Well, there you go,” Emery retorted.

He opened the bag and pulled out the familiar pirate hat. “You don’t think this makes me look dashing?” he asked, putting it on his head.

“It’s a romantic notion,” Emery admitted, “but with the wig and the outfit, it’s hardly close to what I would call dashing.”

“It goes well with the weaponry, though,” Exton told her, indicating the large portrait of Captain Chainsword’s iconic weapon on the capsule’s starboard side. “And it’s a nice tribute to Papa.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure he would agree with the chainsaw sword.”

“He liked it when I made a smaller one when we were younger, when we would go collect wood for building houses and boats.”

“I don’t think he intended you to actually threaten people with it.”

“If you want to talk about actually threatening people, maybe I should send you down to have a nice chat with Dictator Osgood so he can tell you how he runs the States.”

“Ha! I’d likely murder the man.”

Exton sneered. “Good to see you’re not against using force where force is due, Em.”

“We are called to protect,” Emery reminded him.

“And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to protect us.”

“While provoking others.”

“Well, there’s always a price to pay when it comes to our pleasures, isn’t there?” Exton asked. “Speaking of which, you did send out that message to Osgood, right?”

“Yes, I did send the message,” Emery informed him. She frowned. “I’d hardly believe that this is a pleasure for you, Exton.”

“Avenging our father is the only thing that can possibly give me any pleasure at all,” Exton argued. “Dressing up as a the ghost of a fearsome space pirate while we knock out their satellites and play games with their weapon systems is hardly what I would call fun, I’ll give you that, but there’s nothing else like it.” He tugged at the hat on his head, straightening it determinedly.

“You need to find something more amusing to do, Exton,” Emery scolded. “Or maybe less amusing, depending.”

“I’ll have to work on that.”

Emery frowned. “Your cynicism is just awful to deal with some days, you know.”