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Excerpt for Proxima Five by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Proxima Five

By Missouri Vaun

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Missouri Vaun

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Proxima Five

Geologist Dr. Leah Warren wakes after extended cryogenic hibernation to discover she’s crash-landed on a foreign planet. The sole survivor of her crew, she struggles to piece together what went wrong. Leah ventures from the ship in search of signs of life only to be captured by desert raiders.

 

Keegan, a clan warrior, discovers Leah, weak and barely alive. Her kindness and affection for Leah seem in direct conflict with her tough and emotionally remote façade, and Leah’s attraction for the reserved warrior grows. Unfortunately, Tiago, the clan’s volatile chieftain, is a tyrant who wants Leah for himself. Keegan will have to relinquish Leah or challenge Tiago. Will love give Keegan the strength to defeat him?

What Reviewers Say About Missouri Vaun’s Work

Love at Cooper’s Creek

 

“Blown away…how have I not read a book by Missouri Vaun before. What a beautiful love story which, honestly, I wasn’t ready to finish. Kate and Shaw’s chemistry was instantaneous and as the reader I could feel it radiating off the page.”—Les Reveur

 

“Love at Cooper’s Creek is a gentle, warm hug of a book.”—The Lesbian Review

 

 

Crossing the Wide Forever

 

Crossing the Wide Forever is a near-heroic love story set in an epic time, told with almost lyrical prose. Words on the page will carry the reader, along with the main characters, back into history and into adventure. It’s a tale that’s easy to read, with enchanting main characters, despicable villains, and supportive friendships, producing a fascinating account of passion and adventure.”—Lambda Literary Review

 

 

All Things Rise

 

“The futuristic world that author Missouri Vaun has brought to life is as interesting as it is plausible. The sci-fi aspect, though, is not hard-core which makes for easy reading and understanding of the technology prevalent in the cloud cities. …[T]he focus was really on the dynamics of the characters especially Cole, Ava and Audrey—whether they were interacting on the ground or above the clouds. From the first page to the last, the writing was just perfect.”—AoBibliosphere

 

“This is a lovely little Sci-Fi romance, well worth a read for anyone looking for something different. I will be keeping an eye out for future works by Missouri Vaun.”—The Lesbian Review

 

“Simply put, this book is easy to love. Everything about it makes for a wonderful read and re-read. I was able to go on a journey with these characters, an emotional, internal journey where I was able to take a look at the fact that while society and technology can change vastly until almost nothing remains the same, there are some fundamentals that never change, like hope, the raw emotion of human nature, and the far reaching search for the person who is able to soothe the fire in our souls with the love in theirs.”—Roses and Whimsy

 

 

Birthright

 

“The author develops a world that has a medieval feeling, complete with monasteries and vassal farmers, while also being a place and time where a lesbian relationship is just as legitimate and open as a heterosexual one. This kept pleasantly surprising me throughout my reading of the book. The adventure part of the story was fun, including traveling across kingdoms, on “wind-ships” across deserts, and plenty of sword fighting. …This book is worth reading for its fantasy world alone. In our world, where those in the LGBTQ communities still often face derision, prejudice, and danger for living and loving openly, being immersed in a world where the Queen can openly love another woman is a refreshing break from reality.”—Amanda Chapman, Librarian, Davisville Free Library (RI)

 

Birthright by Missouri Vaun is one of the smoothest reads I’ve had my hands on in a long time.”—The Lesbian Review

 

 

The Time Before Now

 

“[The Time Before Now] is just so good. Vaun’s character work in this novel is flawless. She told a compelling story about a person so real you could just about reach out and touch her.”—The Lesbian Review

 

 

The Ground Beneath

 

“One of my favourite things about Missouri Vaun’s writing is her ability to write the attraction between two women. Somehow she manages to get that twinkle in the stomach just right and she makes me feel it as if I am falling in love with my wife all over again.”—The Lesbian Review

 

 

Jane’s World and the Case of the Mail Order Bride

 

“This is such a quirky, sweet novel with a cast of memorable characters. It has laugh out loud moments and will leave you feeling charmed.”—The Lesbian Review


Proxima Five

© 2018 By Missouri Vaun. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13:978-1-63555-123-5

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185

 

First Edition: September 2018

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Melody Pond

By the Author

All Things Rise

The Time Before Now

The Ground Beneath

Whiskey Sunrise

Valley of Fire

Death By Cocktail Straw

One More Reason To Leave Orlando

Smothered and Covered

Privacy Glass

Birthright

Crossing The Wide Forever

Love At Cooper’s Creek

Take My Hand

Proxima Five

 

Writing as Paige Braddock:

Jane’s World The Case of the Mail Order Bride

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank the team at Bold Strokes Books for all the continued support. Rad, Sandy, Ruth, Stacia, and my editor, Cindy, you guys are really terrific to work with. I continue to be so grateful to all of you for the community of writers and readers you’ve introduced me to. I’d also like to thank my beta readers, Jenny, Vanessa, Alena, and Deb. A special thank you goes out to Anne Laughlin for reading a very early draft of the first few chapters and offering valuable feedback. Peggy, thanks for talking geology with me. I greatly appreciate our shared love of rocks.

I hope you enjoy reading this adventure as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Dedication

For Evelyn, for always.

Chapter One

Leah Warren dreamed a landscape of eternal daylight. Wait, not a dream. She squinted at the fierce light from the small oval window. As sharp as a laser, the shaft cut through the dark compartment. Leah tried to lift her arm, but the nerve signal from her brain went unanswered.

Should get up. Need to move. Nothing. Her body refused to respond.

Leah rotated her eyes away from the window toward the spaceship’s interior. Emergency lights flickered, but they were no match for the intensity of the light from outside. The long glass access door for the stasis tube hovered above her, open but partially blocking her view of the rest of the ship. Is the crew awake? Where are the others? Are we on Proxima B?

Exhaustion.

So sleepy.

She fought the urge to close her eyes.

Her body jerked awake. She hadn’t meant to doze off. How much time had passed?

Hazily, Leah realized she was still in the stasis tube. She fought against gravity to sit up. Her thoughts were murky and confused. She covered her face with her hands and exhaled. The interior lights were brighter now. The compartment illumination had risen to normal levels. The floor was cold against her feet as she slid out of the tube and made her first attempt to stand. Dizzy, she dropped back to a seated position.

Where is John? The onboard doctor should be checking her vital signs right about now. There was a list of protocols that should follow extended cryogenic hibernation. Hydration was imperative. Her foggy brain remembered that much.

Leah managed to stumble to a water unit. She pulled a tube free and drank. A fit of coughing followed the first few swallows, but after a minute she was able to drink comfortably.

Her mind was coming back to life. She scanned the hibernation quarters that bordered the cargo bay for the fifty crew members. Her tube was the only one open. A sick feeling threatened to overwhelm her as she viewed the dark, unopened stasis beds from across the large compartment. Swallowing the nausea, she examined the panel readout of the nearest tube. Inactive. Vital signs, negative. The doctor, John Reed, was dead in his tube. Why? What happened?

All the other panels she checked delivered the same data. She was the only survivor. Her entire crew was dead. She barely made it to the nearest trash receptacle before throwing up.

Leah dropped to the floor, leaned her head against the smooth surface of the wall, and focused on breathing. In and out, in and out. The muscles in her arms and legs began to quiver. A stress reaction? Or a symptom of extended hibernation?

First things first, address basic needs.

Sorting through data wouldn’t be an option if she passed out from dehydration. There’d be no one to revive her. She was utterly alone. Panic choked her airway. Leah took a deep breath, stood, and braced against the narrow passageway for a moment to settle another wave of nausea that threatened to capsize her.

Life support, water, and food systems seemed to be operational. She drank a protein mix. Waited a minute to make sure her stomach was stable, then took a quick shower and discarded the stasis sleeper suit. The brief spray of cool water helped. She pulled a faded blue shirt and cotton pants from her gear trunk. The softly broken in fabric felt good. It felt familiar. The skin on her arm pebbled. The air was cool but not cold; maybe she was simply fatigued. The lightweight crew jacket she tugged on offered an extra layer. She finger-combed her wet hair, droplets of water soaked into her jacket where damp tendrils brushed her shoulders. She leaned against the console in the galley and searched for something to eat from the store of rations.

Despite the fact that she had no appetite, her body needed food and more fluids.

And she needed energy and nutrition to think.

It was hard to keep food down as she visualized her crewmates, forever asleep in their cryogenic chambers.

Dead. They were all dead.

Her body trembled with silent sobs.

Leah forced herself to concentrate on chewing, then swallowing, then chewing and swallowing again.

Chapter Two

Dust and smoke swirled in small puffs around her boots as Keegan kicked a clump of smoldering black embers. They scattered across the dirt. This particular outpost had been constructed of packed earth and timbers, surrounded by a few open-air shelters with plank siding. Now all that was left of the wood struts was blackened sticks and ash.

This place wasn’t continually manned. It was more of a stopover for small squadrons heading north or south along the desert rim. But there had been at least enough supplies here to feed a few troops for several days, and now everything had been taken, the shelves picked clean. But why go so far as to destroy an outpost that would at some point be resupplied? Why not just steal the food?

“Fucking raiders…cowards and thieves.” Tiago stepped through the charred struts of the doorframe. The door hung at an angle, one hinge ripped away. He was almost as tall as Keegan, and what he lacked in height he made up for in mass. He was stoutly muscled through the shoulders and chest, swarthy, with dark hair. “Well, this is your mess to clean up. I have to be in Haydn City before lights out.”

“I can handle a few raiders.” Keegan wondered what was so urgent but was happy to be rid of him.

Tiago made a circle in the air signaling to his two men. The three of them piled into his crawler, leaving Keegan and her two soldiers, Yates and Gage, standing near the smoldering rubble.

“Report back to me with anything you find.” Tiago leaned from the crawler’s passenger side door. “I want to question the raiders personally.”

“Fuck you.” Keegan muffled the comment with a cough.

“What did you say?”

“I said, no problem.” She smiled thinly. There was no way she was reporting back to him. She and Tiago held the same rank, even though, lately, he acted as if they didn’t. She didn’t answer to him, and she wasn’t about to start now. The dust trailed behind Tiago’s crawler as they drove east, toward the green zone.

“There are two sets of tracks.” Yates was standing several feet away looking west toward the desert.

Keegan joined her. They stood shoulder to shoulder. Yates was a couple of inches shorter than Keegan, her skin brown, her build slender but fit. Yates’s long black hair swirled around her face in the breeze.

“They took every fucking thing.” Gage walked over to where they were standing. He was almost as tall as Keegan, but thicker. He was as solid as a tree. His thickly muscled, tanned arms bulged from his sleeveless shirt. He picked up a stone and threw it at nothing.

Keegan studied the horizon.

“We’ll have to split up.” Yates holstered her weapon. She was practically a sharpshooter with a gun and if possible, even more lethal with a knife.

“Why did they split up? Were they trying to throw us off?” Gage squatted as if examining the tracks might answer his questions.

“We won’t know for sure unless we follow.” Keegan crossed her arms.

“Well, there goes your two-day furlough.” Gage looked up at Keegan.

“Fuck.” Keegan turned and walked back toward her two-wheeled rover. She slid her rifle into the sheath mounted at the side and reached for the canteen. After a minute, Yates and Gage joined her. “I was hoping for a drink. All I can taste is dust.”

“They never keep the good stuff here anyway.” Yates pulled her canteen free.

“You two take the crawler and follow the tracks heading southwest. I’ll track the ones that head northwest.” The military-issue crawler could carry four. Keegan’s rover was really only good for one, two in a pinch.

“I’m starving.” Gage was always hungry.

“You two.” Yates shook her head. “One of you is always whining about lack of food or drinks.”

“We can’t all be as self-controlled as you, Yates.” Keegan admired Yates. She was glad that at least one of them was professional and disciplined, and was especially happy that it didn’t have to be her.

“Don’t you mean evolved?”

“Ha. Good one.” Keegan shook her head as they walked back toward the vehicles. “If you don’t overtake them within twelve hours, turn back for Haydn City. It’s not worth the risk for the value of what they found here. Even the liquor.” Keegan paused to allow her joke to sink in. Yates shook her head. “Report to Maddox whatever you find if you get back before me.” Maddox would likely be at the garrison by the time they returned, and he could share any pertinent intel with Behn, the chieftain of the ruling clan. The three of them had taken an oath to serve under Chief Behn’s House, the house of the Tenth Clan.

“You mean we’re not going to turn any intel over to Tiago?” Yates smirked.

“Yeah, that’s not happening.” Tiago was Chief Behn’s son, sadly, soon to take the chieftain’s chair. But until then, Keegan refused to answer to him.

“Just don’t openly piss him off.” Gage crossed his arms. “I’d hate to have to step in and save your ass.”

“As if.” Keegan snorted. She checked the readout on the rover. There was plenty of power left, enough for several more hours of running time, even over rough terrain. The sun was strongest in the desert so she could deploy the solar charger even if she had to stop to sleep.

Gage nodded as he and Yates climbed into the front seats of the all-terrain vehicle.

“I’ll see you in twelve hours, or less.” Keegan balanced the rover between her legs, her boots planted firmly on the ground, and lowered tinted goggles.

“Last one to Haydn City buys the drinks,” Gage shouted. He sped away, not waiting for a reply, a churning dust trail in his wake. Yates gave a single wave from the passenger seat.

Keegan gripped the accelerator and the rover lurched forward. She shifted her position, low over the steering column, keeping her center of gravity fluid as the rover moved across the soft and shifting terrain. After about two hours, the tracks veered due north. They were clearly skirting the boundary of the desert rim, parallel to the green zone. She put the rover in neutral and scanned the horizon with binoculars. Three clicks ahead, she saw smoke. She knew the spot.

Greer had taken over the outpost a few years earlier. It had been a safe place for his son who’d suffered in the city because of his physical limitations. City life was hard for anyone who was perceived to be weak, or for those who tolerated weakness.

Thick black smoke was not a good sign. She hastened, revving the rover, throwing sand as the oversized wheels gained air and bounced over the dunes.

When the structure was in sight, she abandoned the rover and continued on foot. The vehicle was easily hidden from view by a dune. Weapon drawn, Keegan crouched low and moved swiftly toward the earthen structure. Whatever had happened she’d missed it.

Tire tracks moved north again, away from the structure across the sand. One four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, pulling a trailer from the look of it.

There, on the horizon.

Keegan sighted the dust of their escape through the binoculars. They had a good head start, but she’d catch them. She stowed the glasses and looked back toward the smoking structure.

The small homestead probably hadn’t awarded the raiders with much. Anyone choosing to live this close to the desert rim was barely scraping by. In Greer’s case, he had a particular reason for being here, and it certainly wasn’t the acquisition of wealth. Keegan scanned the surrounding barren land. This outpost was on the frontier border of Chagall’s province, a province bound to Behn, the chieftain, but regionally under Chagall’s control. Keegan didn’t like Chagall. He was weak, lazy, and soft. And those were his good qualities.

Keegan kicked a broken pottery chard with her boot. She exhaled loudly and then surveyed the outpost for Greer’s son.

Keegan’s tolerance for suffering had grown as thin as the gauze mask that shielded her nose and mouth from dust. And in this world, women and children seemed to suffer more than their share. She’d been luckier than most, because she was physically stronger than most boys, even as a teen. She’d pushed herself in the art of hand-to-hand combat. She was winning cage fights by the time she was in her late teens. Average men would not even consider challenging her. Her reputation and skills with a gun or a knife, and her popularity among the soldiers of the Tenth, garnered her a healthy dose of respect, even from Tiago, and he was tough to impress. He basically respected nothing but his own desires.

There was no movement about the place. She circled the exterior of the adobe building. Smoke still drifted from an open window at the back. A thread of black swirled up and dissipated against the cloudless sky. Greer’s body lay near the door. She’d have described his position as facedown, except that his head was missing. She discovered the missing head mounted on a stake in the dirt near the fire pit. Broken cookware was scattered all around the death marker like clay confetti, his gaping mouth and glassy eyes frozen.

Keegan leaned closer to study his lifeless face.

This brutal scene seemed extreme. She knew enough about Greer to know he wouldn’t have put up much of a fight. He’d have given the Fain raiders what they wanted, so why had they killed him? The Fain stole food, supplies, and women; murder in this manner was highly unusual. Small hairs tingled up the back of her neck. Were they trying to send a message? And if so, to whom?

The Fain were hunters and scavengers, oath-bound to some shadow leader they called Solas. The Fain were a loosely organized group of disenfranchised citizens. They dwelt in the hollow hills of the lifeless dark, on the night side of the planet, in a world unto themselves. In her opinion, shared by many, the Fain were outcasts and deserters. They lived at the edge of the dark. In recent years, they’d started raiding dwellings along the thin strand of livable space, the green zone.

Lately, there’d been isolated, violent attacks. As if they were becoming more militant. But why? Stealing was bad enough. Killing was just going to piss everyone off even more. The squadron of the Tenth had already been issued a “shoot at will” directive. It was hard to shoot an unarmed person holding a bag of food. But it was another thing to come across someone capable of what had just befallen Greer. This was a different sort of thing altogether.

A sound from behind caught her ear. Keegan swiveled toward the dark doorway of the building. She should have probably checked the interior first. Sloppy. Instinct directed her movements as she edged past the fire pit. She stopped near the entryway and listened. No more sounds.

She crept forward, weapon in hand. Upturned furniture, clothing, broken dishware, and open and emptied drawers were strewn about haphazardly. The raiders had taken everything of value. A streak of blood led her to a storeroom at the back of the dwelling. Shelving was askew, empty now, with the exception of one ruptured bag of flour. The white powder was clumped in spots like miniature snow drifts, splattered with blood.

Tristan, Greer’s son, lay at the back of the room. Blood pooled under his head from a single gunshot. Keegan stood over him clenching and unclenching her fist. If only she’d arrived sooner.

He was facing up, as if he was looking at Keegan, but not seeing her. He was still, his slender arms at his side as if he was sleeping, but his eyes were open, seeing nothing. His deformed legs were covered by long trousers, and his crutches were broken and tossed in a corner. Despite his father’s efforts to shield him from the cruelties of this world, his had been a short, painful life. If he’d been fit, strong, the raiders would no doubt have taken him, recruited him to fill their ranks. But this child had been neither fit nor strong.

For a fleeting instant, memories flooded Keegan’s head. Her childhood, her introduction to the world. She couldn’t remember her mother, and she’d never known a father. Life on this rock was hard for a child alone. By force of will, she blocked the memory.

Keegan knelt beside Tristan and closed his eyes, keeping her fingers in light contact with the young boy’s face. He was still warm, but he was no more. Keegan holstered the firearm and found a blanket to cover his body. Fuck all. A tingle of rage wound through her gut.

She looked out the back window of the thick-walled, dwelling in the direction the raiders had headed. Her heart thumped in her chest. She took a few deep breaths and exhaled slowly. Anger caused mistakes. She looked back at the blanket covering Tristan. Her memories of the past threatened to rise again. She swallowed the lump in her throat and closed her eyes against them.

Keegan thought of the rolling hills to the north. The unsettled lands. Quiet, pristine, and the scent of evergreens in the air. When she opened her eyes, she felt calm, focused.

The main squadron had been heading south along the edge of the Great Desert, in a show of force meant to discourage exactly what had just taken place at this outpost. Six of them had split off, headed back to Haydn to report their findings. But then they came across the first ransacked weigh station. It was dumb luck really. And with a little more luck, Gage and Yates would catch the other half of this Fain raiding party and put them to rest permanently.

Keegan strode back to the rover, still thirsty for something stronger than water.

She would easily be able to overtake those in retreat before nightfall.

Chapter Three

Dr. Leah Warren was a geologist, not the flight commander or an engineer. Although each member of the crew had been trained to step into different roles if an emergency called for it, she wasn’t as confident about her ability to reboot the ship’s navigation system as she should be. Maybe it was hibernation fatigue, but her mind felt sluggish and unclear. She’d managed to choke down another freeze-dried meal while she checked systems and attempted to bring a few of them back online. The data seemed to indicate a solar storm, mid-flight, had damaged certain key functions. She couldn’t be absolutely sure just yet, but probably one of the systems affected had been navigation. The computer cycled the data stream while she waited. The data pack was very large, indicating an extended time period, possibly longer than the anticipated two-decade flight time from Earth.

According to the atmospheric readout, the planet’s air was breathable, she’d figured out that much. Although carbon levels were lower than Earth’s, she wouldn’t have trouble breathing if she ventured outside the ship. Well, except for the temperature, which hovered around one hundred and two degrees.

The ship had obviously landed at the edge of the desert region. How far from the habitable zone? Unknown. Could she pilot the shuttle craft if she needed to? Yes, probably. But she wanted to explore outside the ship on foot first, just to get her physical bearings. And to walk on solid ground. The passage from Earth was supposed to take twenty years. It had been far too long since she’d breathed outside air or felt the warmth of the sun on her skin. It seemed impossible to imagine. The scale of space and time was hard to grasp even having experienced it. Or, more accurately, slept through it. She was four light years from home, and there was no return flight. The enormity of it all settled over her, making it hard to breathe. She paused in the corridor and took several deep breaths.

While she waited for the data to collate, she punched in the codes for the other ships.

“This is Proxima Five, come in colony central command. This is Proxima Five.” The communication screen was dark except for a single green thread that rippled and spiked like an EKG readout every time she spoke. She cycled through every ship’s emergency call frequency after getting no response from central command. Nothing.

She pulled up the navigation screen on the nearest terminal. A topographic overview of the landing site filled the screen. The only sound in the silent compartment was the humming of the cooling fans in the wall and the clicking of the keypad as she zoomed out.

If the other colony ships had already landed, their beacons would ping on the map. Nothing. The next logical question prompted her to switch to astral charts. She confirmed that she was in the right planetary system; she had landed on Proxima B. The first four ships should have already arrived at the drop site. She exhaled and sank back in the chair, unsure of how to interpret her findings.

The solar charging arm had been deployed, but it would take another few hours to have enough battery to bring more systems online. Leah checked the power reserve and decided to cycle down everything except life support. If she didn’t keep the interior of the ship cool, then she’d never survive and she needed to keep food storage and the mainframe cool and operational to figure out what the hell had happened.

The cryo bay was eerily dark and silent. She stood in the doorway for a moment looking over the rows of dormant, failed tubes before she went inside. Kristin’s stasis unit was near the center of the compartment. Leah rested her palms on the unit, looking down at Kris, a ghostly sleeping figure beneath the frosted glass. Sleeping beauty, only there would be no kiss that could wake her.

They’d gone through astronaut training together. Kris had been her roommate, and they’d become close. Kris was the best friend Leah had, and they’d dreamed of starting this adventure on a new world together.

Leah laid her cheek against the glass. It was cold. She closed her eyes and let the tears come. Oh, Kris. I’m so sorry.

After allowing herself to grieve briefly, she closed the hatch of the dark compartment and walked slowly back to the galley.

There were other ships.

There were other ships.

She repeated the phrase, more of a wish than a declaration.

Her ship, Proxima Five, had been one of ten colony ships to leave Earth for Proxima B. The Roman numeral V combined with the profile of an eagle had become the ship’s insignia on the mission patch, and it was printed on the back of the jacket she was wearing.

Proxima B was an Earth-like exoplanet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star. The Earth next door. Four light years from home, this planet was supposed to be plan B for humanity as Earth breached its own planetary boundary, the point of no return. The point of looming extinctions because of industrial excesses, overpopulation, and climate collapse. The Earth’s demise was the harsh reality of anger politics and the side effects of populism.

The last days on earth would be ugly. She felt a twinge of guilt that she’d escaped the looming collapse, of everything. The Proxima missions represented the last gasp for humanity. Every bit of resources in reserve among the remaining first world countries were gathered to make the ten ships resemble something like the mythical Ark from the ancient great flood.

Leah had been happy to sign up for the mission. A chance to be part of something truly meaningful. A do-over, a chance to do things right. Mankind had learned from its mistakes, right? That was her hope, her belief. All of it was a huge leap of faith. Unfortunately, only a few would be awarded the chance to start over on a new world. She’d been one of the lucky ones, although, at the moment, she didn’t feel very lucky.

She spent the next hour prepping a field bag with supplies: water, protein bars, high-powered binoculars, solar charger, a handheld O2 tank, and a locator to track her position in relation to the ship. The locator relied on optics bounced off the atmosphere from a transmitter on the ship. Low-tech, but functional in even the most technologically isolated setting.

Hours had passed, but she had to remind herself that there would be no sunset. Proxima B was tidally locked, like Earth’s moon, one side awash in permanent daylight, the other side trapped in an endless cold night. Only a green, habitable zone ringing the central part of the planet from pole to pole had a temperate climate close to that of Earth in the nineteenth century.

That had been the last question in the Proxima B puzzle. Was there an atmosphere? Two decades before the first colony ship left Earth’s orbit, the question had been answered. A probe measuring the infrared bounce back from the planet’s surface finally determined there was an atmosphere. Enough of an atmosphere to circulate wind to keep the habitable green zone at the perfect temperature for liquid water, possibly even an ocean. Her ship had obviously missed the planned drop in the green zone and come down in the desert. But by how far? Since the other ships hadn’t registered on her initial scan, she worried that she was completely in the wrong hemisphere.

Leah needed to see the landscape for herself. She needed to venture out or she was going to lose it. Being confined inside the ship with her dead crewmates was causing the walls to close in. She needed to move. She needed to breathe the outside air and feel a breeze across her skin. She needed to touch the sand.

Leah sealed the door from the cargo compartment to keep the rest of the ship cool once the exterior door opened. The seal on the large bay door gave way with a hiss, and a blast wave of oven-temperature heat flooded the compartment. Leah staggered backward and shielded her eyes. The tinted bay window had obviously softened the sun’s intensity. She shucked out of the jacket and pulled dark glasses from the field bag and put them on. She tromped down the cargo ramp and hesitated for just a moment before remotely closing the hatch from a keypad near the bay door.

The surrounding terrain was desert, but a dark line of something undulated through the heat on the distant horizon to the east. Trees? Dwellings? That was her hope. She probably didn’t have enough stamina to make it that far, but she could close the distance enough to get a better view using the long-range binoculars from a higher vantage point.

The plan was to walk in a straight line following set coordinates and then return to the ship and regroup. Her body was not acclimated to the extreme heat, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to take much exposure to it.

After an hour of walking in the soft sand, she was incredibly winded. More fatigued than she should be, more than she expected to be, but she was sure her strength would return. She obviously needed additional time to rebound after the extended hibernation.

Leah stopped walking and took several deep breaths. Her head throbbed and her head felt heavy, foggy, almost as if she had a hangover. It might have been foolish not to give herself another day to recuperate, but she was anxious to find the other ships. That was assuming her craft had come down anywhere close to the planned colony site.

She knew she would not survive for very long alone.

Leah was only fifteen when the first images of Proxima B reached Earth. Rapid technological advances had opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at significant speeds in the decade before she was born. Ultralight nanocraft probes—miniature probes attached to lightsails—moving at one hundred million miles an hour, still took twenty years to do a flyby mission near Alpha Centauri to send back the pictures. It took another decade to build and fund the Proxima initiative. She was twenty-five when she finished undergrad and applied for astronaut training.

There were four colony ships ahead of hers and five to follow. The first four ships were tasked with setting up the infrastructure required for long-term habitation. Structures had to be constructed, communities designed, and a power grid established before colonists could begin to arrive. What better place to harness solar power than a world where the sun never set?

The third and fourth ships carried colonists, tradesmen and craftsmen, male and female, and agriculture. And with agriculture came livestock and certain insects for pollination. Truly, each ship was an Ark, carrying pieces of the puzzle that would be used to build a new world order.

Her ship, Proxima Five, transported the Earth Science group—physicists, chemists, biologists, cartographers, mathematicians, and geologists. She was hopeful that the ships that preceded hers had rendezvoused at the planned colony site where there should be water. That was assuming the data they received from the probe was accurate. Inevitably, a lot could happen, even an extended drought, in the decades it would take for the colony ships to make the journey from Earth.

Leah chewed on a protein bar and drank a third of her water. She’d turn around soon, but she wanted to get a view from the top of the large dune just ahead.

When she crested the ridge, she realized the dust she’d seen on the horizon earlier hadn’t been due to the wind. A vehicle of some kind was below. It was as if her brain was working in slow motion. Her first thought was that these were people from one of the other ships who’d seen her craft go down. But then nothing about the men seemed familiar. Her intuition told her to hide. She moved too quickly, and the crest of the dune collapsed beneath her feet. She half tumbled, half slid down the long slope.

Dark figures filled her vision, backlit from the sun. Two of them grabbed her, and her head bobbed to one side as she was dragged toward the vehicle. The men drug her by her arms so that she couldn’t stand and she couldn’t break free. They dropped her, and one of them roughly yanked the gear bag away. He rummaged through it, sniffing the half-eaten protein bar before tossing it in the sand. Another man removed her sunglasses and put them on. Hands searched her body invasively, without any care for personal space. She swatted at the man’s broad, dust covered fingers. He groped and ripped her shirt open.

Panic constricted her lungs. She focused on breathing. Just breathe. Her mind raced as she tried to grasp what was happening.

She broke free and scuttled away from them, moving into the shade cast by the large tires of the nearby vehicle, but one of the men grabbed her foot and pulled her back. He was above her now. She searched his face for some ounce of kindness and saw none. His muscles were sinewy, and his skin was leathery, sunbaked, with stubble on his face. His clothes were the color of the sand, splattered with dark stains.

“Check for others.” One of the men standing beside where she lay spoke to the man standing next to him, and he walked in the direction she’d just come from, but he didn’t climb the dune.

The fact that he spoke English gave her a millisecond of hope that almost instantaneously faded. Something wasn’t right. These men didn’t fit within her framework. Was it possible that they were rogue colonists from the first four ships?

“I don’t see anyone else.”

“Get up.” The man who’d tugged her by the leg yanked her painfully up by her arm and propelled her toward some sort of military looking vehicle connected to a trailer packed full of supplies and gear. The vehicle looked oddly similar to something she’d seen on Earth. Leah felt her limbs giving way from exhaustion. She stumbled and fell to her knees.

The man who’d jerked her to her feet grabbed a handful of hair and shoved her face into the sand. She tried to roll over so that she could breathe, but this only gave him better access. She kicked and fought him, swinging wildly. She managed to kick him before he pinned her legs. He slapped her so hard her head snapped back, thumping hard against the ground. The other two men stood and watched, their faces shadowed, their collective energy aggressive.

If these men were from one of the other colony ships then it was becoming clear why they’d been cast out.

Winded and dizzy, Leah was yanked to her feet and dragged toward the vehicle. The man forced her into some sort of heavy gauge wire cage at the back of the trailer and locked the gate.

Shock and nausea fought for dominance. Leah got to her knees, there was not enough room to stand, and grasped the cage with both hands.

“What are you doing? You can’t do this!”

The man ignored her. He took a long drink of something from a flask, and then turned to look out at the open, lifeless landscape.

“Let me go! Let me out of here. You have no right to do this.” Leah shook the cage door. It rattled but didn’t give way.

The man stowed the flask, and with his arms over the top of the cage, leaned against it. Leah shrank back.

“You better shut up or I’ll put something in your mouth to keep you quiet.”

Leah drew herself up into the corner, as far as she could move away from him, and made herself as small in the space as was possible.

He smirked at her and then turned to join the other two men as they climbed back into the four-seated crawler. She fell sideways as the trailer lurched forward across the sand. Her heart sank. They were taking her away from her ship.

She tugged the pieces of her torn shirt together and wedged herself into the corner of the small cage. Leah hugged her knees to her chest. She couldn’t see the men from where she was at the back of the trailer, but she heard occasional muffled comments. Their words were too unclear over the whine of the engine to make out.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. She’d been careless and cavalier to strike out alone and unarmed. She squinted up at the glaring sun.

Chapter Four

Keegan stood several feet in front of the rover, its solar panel open and charging. Slowly, she followed the horizon’s thin ribbon with binoculars until she saw the dust cloud. She lowered the distance glasses for a minute and then checked again. Although night would not come to the desert, she would still have to sleep, at least for a few hours. And hopefully, so would they.

Damn, how were they still ahead of her?

She’d expected to intercept them by now. They had not altered course; they were definitely heading toward the Black Cliffs. She needed to catch them before they entered the Narrows to make a run for darkness on the far edge of the green zone. She’d never capture them if they made it that far. It would be unsafe to even attempt it without backup or cold weather gear.

The sun’s glare on the gauge made it hard to read. Keegan leaned down and shielded the readout with her hand. It would take a few more minutes with the engine off to rebuild the charge. She straightened and looked back toward the horizon. The good news was they had nowhere to hide in this terrain.

The canteen was stowed under rations in the small cargo compartment at the back of the rover. It was two-thirds full. She took measured sips and let the water sit on her tongue before swallowing. Something stronger than water was what she wanted, but water would have to do for now. She closed her eyes, with her back to the sun, and thought of other things.

The coolness of water.

The sound of the wind in the conifers.

The sensual dip of a woman’s waist just where it met her hip. And then the velvet skin along the inside of her thigh…

A shadow passed across her face. A bird crossed overhead, flying west out over the endless sand. Keegan sipped more water.

Where could you possibly be going?

Away. Which was exactly where Keegan had wanted to be for her two-day leave. Away and free.

She watched the black bird effortlessly cross the sky. She swept her fingers through the stubble at the back of her head where the tattoo was inked into her scalp. The mark represented comfort and belonging. Knowing the mark was there even though she couldn’t see it grounded her. The tattoo meant something.

She leaned against the seat of the rover and tried patience on for size. Not the best fit she decided. Waiting didn’t suit her.

 

* * *

 

Leah squinted through the bars. She swallowed, her throat ached from dust and thirst, and the constant exposure to the sun was sapping what little reserve she’d built up. From inside the cage, she could see her bag near the front of the trailer. It contained water and protein bars, but there was no way for her to reach it.

She wasn’t sure how long they’d been driving. At some point she dozed off despite her best efforts not too. Exhaustion and heat were working against her already overwrought system.

The vehicle stopped, and the man circled to the back and unlatched the gate. Leah couldn’t decide if she was more afraid to be inside the cage or out of it. Either option seemed perilous.

“Get out.”

She tried, but she fumbled her first attempt because her ankle was stiff, her foot an uncoordinated ball of pins and needles from resting for too long at a strange angle. He grabbed her arm as she stepped from the cage. Leah worried that once she stood she’d feel the urge to relieve herself, but no doubt the lack of water she’d consumed made that unnecessary.

Her head felt too heavy as she was tugged away from the cage toward the shaded side of the crawler. The man wrapped dark cord around her wrists several times. He yanked it tight, too tight, and lashed the cord to an exposed roll bar. He pulled it taut so that Leah’s arms where above her head.

Her fingers began to tingle. She pulled her knees underneath her body in an attempt to lessen the vertical stretch of her arms. Feeling began to return to her hands. Leah flexed her fingers and tried to slow her rapid breathing. She needed to stay calm and keep her wits about her.

One of the men began to set up a canvas tent while one of the other men worked to start a small fire. He mounted a large pot low over the gradually increasing flame and sat back. He was watching her now, and his scrutiny made her skin crawl. She rotated so that he couldn’t see her face.

A shadow fell over her. It was the man who’d tied her hands. He knelt and with a finger on her chin, forced her to look at him.

“Which House do you belong to?”

She didn’t understand his question. Dizziness threatened her again. She blinked, trying to clear the fog, but didn’t answer.

“Who do you belong to?” he asked again and pushed her sleeve past her elbow as if he needed to examine her arm for some reason.

Who did she belong to? No one. What was he looking for? If he thought she was alone would that be better or worse?

“It doesn’t matter.” He stood.

The sun never waned. She squinted as he stood, backlit, and moved away from her. This sun was so much larger than Earth’s sun, which made sense because Proxima B rotated around a red dwarf star, from a much closer orbit. Luckily, because it was technically a dying star, despite the heat, the sun didn’t emit enough ultraviolet rays for Leah to sustain too much of a sunburn from the exposure.

But what time was it? It must be late. In a normal twenty-four-hour day it would have to have been dark by now, nightfall, but not here.

Maybe her ship had landed near the drop zone after all, but if that was true, then who were these men? Whoever they were, they didn’t know her, and they didn’t seem like any of the men she’d met from the crews of the other colony ships. Not that she’d have known them by name, some of the crews were rather large, but she might have recognized them. Their aggression had surprised her.

Could it be that she’d missed the scheduled landing window? Timeframe was one of the things she hadn’t sorted out. Even if she could be certain of where she was, she had no idea of when. Maybe these men were part of the first crew. That ship had departed almost five years ahead of hers, charged with setting up the initial infrastructure for a settlement. Maybe that’s why they’d asked about others. Maybe they knew she came from one of the other ships. Somehow, she doubted that to be true based on the questions they’d asked. What had they meant by house? What had he asked, what house was she from? Facts were not adding up; her head pounded from need of food and water.

Leah felt an unwanted tear trail slowly down her cheek. She squeezed her eyes shut and clinched her bound fists.

Chapter Five

A blast reverberated through the desert camp.

One of the men sitting near the cook fire rocked backward. Blood splattered across his torn shirt from the wound in the center of his chest. He sank back to the ground and didn’t move. Before the second man could take cover, another gunshot. Half his face was gone when his body hit the sand.

The third man, the one who’d tied her up, scrambled to his feet. Leah squeezed against the smooth metal of the vehicle, trying to make herself invisible. The last man standing rested his hand on the weapon clipped to his belt, but he didn’t remove it from the clasp. The look on his face was one of surprise. Leah followed his gaze until she too saw the figure approaching.

Leah shivered either from nerves or shock or dehydration or all three. The air was hot, but she began to tremble. She pulled her knees to her chest and huddled next to the metal frame. She prepared to hear another blast. She squeezed her eyes shut, covering her face as much as she could with her upstretched arms. When she heard nothing, she opened her eyes. The gunman had walked to the fire and nonchalantly lifted the lid on the cook pot. The man stood like a statue, never taking his eyes off the shooter.

At first glance, Leah had assumed the gunman was a man. The gunman definitely had a masculine physique, and nearly shaved head, but the smoothness of the neck, the shape of the jawline, these details told Leah the shooter was a woman. She had the build of a professional athlete or collegiate swimmer. Her shoulders were broad and her biceps were well-defined even though she wasn’t flexing them. She wore a sleeveless shirt so that Leah could see some sort of markings on her shoulder, a tattoo of some kind perhaps. Wide leather straps crisscrossed her chest. The pants she wore looked like part of a military uniform. Green-gray cargo pants stretched snuggly over muscled thighs, riding low on narrow hips.

The shooter straightened and looked at the man. She was taller and oozed confidence. The man took a few steps back but still made no move to pull his weapon.

“I don’t want any trouble with you.” It seemed he knew the shooter, and he was clearly intimidated by her.

The woman took a step toward the man. Her eyes were shadowed, her expression unreadable; the strange looking rifle was at her side. Her stance was relaxed, but energy pulsed off her as if her entire body was a weapon, cocked, loaded, ready to fire.

“You can take the woman.” He took a step backward. “I’ll take the supplies and leave you the woman. She’s worth more than all of it.”

“I have a better idea. I’ll take everything, including the woman, and drop you right here with your friends. I sort of prefer that plan. It’s cleaner…Simpler.” The shooter glanced at Leah, then took another step forward as she raised the rifle.

“Keegan, I don’t want any trouble with you—”

“Too late.” His words were cut short by the blunt force of the rifle blast to his midsection. The close-range discharge of the weapon threw him back several feet where he hit the ground with a solid thump. His arms twitched, and blood splattered from his mouth as he tried to speak. Keegan stood over him for a few seconds before she discharged another round into his chest. “That was for Tristan.”

Leah shivered as Keegan strode in her direction. Keegan knelt and set the rifle aside. When she made a move to reach for Leah, she flinched. She did not want to be touched.

“Hey, I’m not gonna hurt you.” Keegan held her palms up as if to signal that she meant no harm. She pulled a knife from a sheath at her waist and cut the cord, releasing Leah’s hands. They dropped to her lap, aching from loss of blood flow, and at first her thick fingers wouldn’t move.

Leah’s muscles twitched and her face ached from being struck earlier. Her head felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds, and she was having difficulty remaining upright.

She needed to get back to the ship. That was the only thought she had as she struggled to her feet, using the side of the vehicle for balance. She took a few steps. Could she walk that far? How far had they traveled?

Keegan stepped in her path. Leah tried to move around her, but Keegan caught her by the arms. Her grip was painfully strong.

“Let me go.” She’d meant for the words to sound commanding, but her voice cracked because her throat was so dry.

Keegan held her fast.

“Are you going to kill me?” Her words sounded small and far away.

Keegan was twice Leah’s size, pure muscle mass, and tanned from the sun. Dark-eyed, sensual, and recent empirical evidence suggested, violent. She was probably six feet tall, towering above Leah by six inches. She leaned very close as if she were sampling Leah’s scent. Like some predator memorizing the fragrance of the prey it was about to devour.

“Are you going to kill me too?” Leah repeated the question.

“I hadn’t planned on it.” There was teasing in her voice, but she didn’t release Leah.

“Let me go.” The request was barely more than a whisper. Barely more than a wishful thought. Where the earlier command had no effect, the whispered request seemed to hold power.

Keegan let her hands fall away. No longer anchored, Leah swayed on her feet. She shifted her stance in an effort to stabilize.

“What’s your name?” Keegan asked.

She blinked, surprised by the mundane question in such an extreme context. “Leah.”

Whoever this warrior was, the man had known her by name and he’d been afraid of her. Keegan reached for Leah again. “I’m thinking you’re not too stable on your feet.”

Leah was mesmerized by Keegan’s intense gaze. And because of it, she made no move away from Keegan. As if she was in some sort of trance, she stood there and allowed Keegan to capture her again.

Keegan was standing so close now, too close, so that Leah could feel the warmth of her skin. She smelled of leather and fresh air with the faintest hint of something…juniper perhaps?

“You’re hurting my arm.”

“Am I?” Keegan didn’t release her. She brushed the back of her fingers over Leah’s cheek where she’d been struck. In contrast to what Leah expected, Keegan’s touch was gentle.

“I need to get back.”

“Back where?”

“To my…” Leah’s head began to swim. Her vision shrank as if she were at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, and the air rushed from her lungs. No, no, no. She sank against Keegan’s chest, the world swallowed up in darkness.

 

* * *

 

Keegan eased Leah to the ground. For a few moments, she stood silently and studied Leah’s limp form.

Keegan knelt down, pushed strands of hair off Leah’s face, and studied her delicate features. Her cheeks were flushed, but otherwise her skin was pale. Keegan had never seen someone so pale, as if she’d been living underground, protected from the elements. Leah’s hair was dark, and Keegan had noticed her gray eyes the minute she’d gotten close enough to see their color. Gray eyes were rare. Everything about Leah seemed rare and otherworldly. Keegan rocked back on her heels and tried to imagine what this woman could possibly have been doing in the desert to come in contact with these men. Her body had no markings of ownership. Her pale skin implied she’d spent time in the Dark Hills. But she’d been tied up, so these men were not her family or her friends. Leah had been with them against her will.

She held Leah’s hand up and examined her slender, tapered fingers. Soft, smooth, no calluses anywhere. Her breasts, where they showed above the torn front of her shirt, were unblemished and full, the sensual curve of her stomach was exposed at the hem of her shirt. Leah was exquisite.

Keegan stood and surveyed the camp. She would claim everything, including Leah, and take it all back to Haydn City.

It was near midnight and she was tired. The men had set up a large canvas tent to shield them from the unrelenting sun. Keegan decided to take advantage of the camp. It had been a long hard day of riding. There was a cook fire smoldering in front of the canvas tent, open at the front. Keegan scooped Leah up in her arms and carried her to the shade of it. She retrieved a bedroll from her rover, spread it out, and then gently moved Leah on top of it. She returned to the cook fire and served herself some food. She sampled from the spoon. A stew of some sort, probably made with the stolen provisions. It had the flat taste of a soldier’s rations. She rummaged in the cases at the back of the raider’s crawler until she found a flask of whiskey. She took long draws letting the warm liquor settle her system. She glanced sideways at the man who’d called her by name.

Something felt wrong.

He’d known her name, but she didn’t recognize him. She rolled him onto his side so that she could examine the back of his scalp. His hair was in a shaggy, short cut. But when she separated the dark hair at the base of his skull, she saw the mark. He had the same mark she did, designating him as a soldier of the Tenth.

She unsnapped the holster at his belt and pulled the sidearm free. It was military issue, not refurbished or bootlegged. She kept the gun in her hand as she stood up.

Why would a soldier of the Tenth be raiding outposts with the Fain? Other garrisons had suffered from deserters in the past, but not the Tenth. The Tenth was in power, they answered only to Chief Behn, they were the favored legion. In that position, they were well compensated with housing, food, and women.

And why had he tried to disguise who he was?


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