Authors: Sasha Alsberg
Copyright © 2016 Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any methods, photocopying, scanning, electronic or otherwise, except as permitted by notation in the volume or under Sections 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of the authors.
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"Stand aside, Starlord! The Bloody Baroness is coming! ZENITH is a fun romp through space with the ultimate girl-power squad!"
- Susan Dennard,
New York Times
bestselling author of
"A dazzling space opera by Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings, ZENITH moves at hyperspace speed and never lets up. Epic, mesmerizing and heart stopping, you'll be left breathless and wanting more."
- Danielle Paige,
New York Times
bestselling author of the
Dorothy Must Die
To my Dad for being my cheerleader in life.
You are the brightest star in my galaxy.
As always, to my dad, Don Cummings,
for giving me a love of science fiction.
Here’s to #7 :)
Thirty-six days of endless darkness.
It surrounded Valen Cortas in cell 377, twisting and turning itself into his bones until he and the darkness had become one.
His thoughts had long since stopped running wild with every groan and creak of the prison walls. A thinning blanket, his only companion, was wrapped tightly around his shoulders, though it didn’t block out the cold kiss of air that snuck through the threads.
I am Valen Cortas.
He rolled the words over and over in his mind. It was the only thing that kept him going, and it leashed a sharp coil of courage around his veins as he added,
Vengeance will be mine.
What he would do, what he would
, to have a single moment of time in the light. To feel the touch of a warm, mid-day breeze on his skin; to hear the rustle of the wind through the trees that swept through Arcardius.
Valen had traveled all his life, leaving his home for long stretches at a time, sometimes to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. It wasn’t until here, in the darkness of cell 377, that his memories of Arcardius had begun to grow dim. He had always looked at the world and seen it in a thousand colors, his fingers itching to paint each turn of light, each curl of wind sweeping through the silver streets.
Every shade was unique in Valen’s eyes.
And yet...he was losing colors, too.
Try as he might, Valen couldn’t remember the precise shade of green that sprouted from the floating mountains. He couldn’t recall the blue of the moons that hung in the sky or the sparkle of starlight when darkness fell, a constant, glowing guide. As each moment in this abyss passed, the colors all melted into a single shade of black.
He shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around his thin shoulders. The pain of remembering things loved and lost had sunk its claws into him, threatening to crush his bones. Somewhere, in the dank darkness, a scream rang out. Razor sharp, like the tip of a blade scratching its way down Valen’s spine.
He rolled over, pressing his hands to his ears.
“I am Valen Cortas,” he whispered, fingertips touching his cracked lips. “Vengeance will be mine.”
Another scream. The sizzle and pop of an electric whip, a flash of blue light that ghosted across the bars. Valen gasped, his eyes aching, head throbbing, memories churning.
A blue like the powerful sea, a blue like the open, cloudless sky. And then...darkness again, and silence.
The new prisoners always screamed for days, crying out the names of loved ones until their throats were raw and ragged.
But names no longer meant anything. On Lunamere, everyone became a number in the end.
Deep in the belly of hell incarnate Valen became 377.
The cold was endless. The food was enough to keep skin hanging on bones, but muscles atrophied and hearts slowed. The stink of bodies hung in the air like a dense fog, a scent that had long since sunk into the steel and stone.
Only a worn wall separated Valen and countless prisoners from the void of space and their deaths. He’d thought of escape. He imagined breaking through the wall, diving out into the airless abyss. It would be a quick death.
Death had never scared Valen, and with each day that passed, it grew closer and closer to becoming his greatest wish.
But he had to survive.
He had to bide his time, and hope that the godstars had not forgotten him.
And so he sat, wrapped up in the cold arms of darkness.
I am Valen Cortas.
Vengeance will be mine.
Her nightmares were like bloodstains.
They were impossible to get rid of, no matter how hard Androma Racella tried to scrub them from her mind. On the darkest nights, they clung to her like a second skin. In them, she could hear the whispers of the dead, threatening to drag her down to hell where she belonged.
But Andi had decided, long ago, that the nightmares were her punishment.
She was the Bloody Baroness, after all. And if surviving meant giving up sleep, then she would bear the exhaustion.
Tonight, as promised, the nightmares had come. Unable to return to sleep, Andi sat on the main deck of her ship, the
scratching a fresh set of tallies into her twin swords.
Her fingertips were white as she gouged a thin tally the length of her smallest finger into one blade. Without its spirals of electricity, the sword looked like any other weapon, the tallies, any other soldier’s lucky mark. But Andi knew better. Each line she etched into the metal was another life cut off, another heart stopped at the slice of this very blade.
A hundred lives to cover up the pain of the very first. A hundred more to shovel away the hurt into a place that was dark and deep.
Andi looked up from her blades as a flash of light in the sky caught her eye.
A piece of space trash, hurtling through thousands of stars.
Andi yawned. She had always loved the stars. But tonight, she felt as if they were watching her, waiting for her to fail. Mocking little bastards. They’d be sorely disappointed.
, a glimmering starship with walls made from the rare glass Varillium, was known for its devilish speed and agility. And Andi’s crew, a group of girls who had run from every hellish corner of the galaxy, were as sharp as Andi’s blades, the heart of the ship, and the three reasons that Andi had survived this long.
Five days ago, the girls had taken on a job to steal a starload of sealed BioDrugs from the planet Solera in the Tavina System, and deliver them to a satellite station just outside the planet Tenebris in the neighboring system of Prime.
It wasn’t an unusual job. BioDrugs were one of Andi’s most requested transports. These particular drugs could turn someone's brain to bits or, if done right, send them to a blissful oblivion.
Andi thought, as she picked up the metal shiv and resumed her death-mark scratching,
I wouldn't mind having right now.
She could still feel the hot blood on her hands, from the man she’d slayed in Tenebris. Could still see the way his eyes had locked onto hers before she’d pulled her sword back out, silent as a whisper.
Bringing herself back to the present, Andi worked in silence to the hum of the ship’s engines far beneath her and the random hiss of the cooling system kicking on overhead. Outer space was quiet, and soothing, and she nearly felt herself succumbing to sleep, where the nightmares would be lurking.
The sound of footsteps made her look up.
The rhythmic tapping made its way down the small hallway that lead out of the pilot’s bay. Andi continued her scratching, glancing up again when a figure stopped in the doorway, blue arms poised on narrow hips.
“As Second in Command,” the figure said, her voice as smooth as the spiced rigna they drank last week, “I demand that you return to your quarters and get some sleep.”
“Good morning to you too, Lira,” Andi said, sighing. Her Second always seemed to know where she was, what she was doing.
It was one of the peculiar traits of Adhirans. Along with their pigmented skin and hairless bodies, their eyes seemed to catch every detail, no matter how small. It made Lira one of the best damned pilots in the entire Mirabel Galaxy, and it was the reason they’d managed to succeed at so many jobs thus far.
Lira stepped into the starlit bay and lifted a hairless brow. “Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of space on those swords.”
“And then I’ll turn my tallies on to you,” Andi said, with a wicked grin.
Lira smirked back as she lifted her wrist to her blue lips. “Rise and shine, ladies. If the captain can’t sleep, we shouldn’t either.”
Andi couldn’t hear the response Lira chuckled at, but soon enough, more footsteps sounded from the decks below and above, and she knew the rest of her crew was on their way.
Gilly arrived first, her fire-red braids bouncing on her shoulders as she approached. She was small for her age, no older than thirteen, but Andi wasn’t fooled by her wide, innocent blue eyes. Gilly was a bloodthirsty little beast, a gunner with plenty of death on her hands. And she had one hell of a trigger finger.
“Why do you insist on ruining my beauty sleep?” Gilly exclaimed, in her fluid little voice.
A tall, broad-shouldered girl appeared behind her, bending so as not to hit her head on the doorway as she entered. Breck, Andi’s head gunner, rolled her eyes as she placed a large hand on Gilly’s shoulder.
“Kid, when are you going to learn not to question Lira? You know she won't give you a reasonable answer.”
Andi laughed at her pilot’s sharp glare. Lira usually explained herself in complex riddles that no one could decipher; a smart ploy to get out of questions she would rather not answer.
“If only you would look up from your gun sights long enough to begin to understand me, you’d know that my answers are, in fact, quite reasonable.” Lira winked at the gunners before settling into her pilot's seat beside Andi.
“Adhirans,” Breck said, crossing her thick arms over her chest. Seven feet tall, with black, choppy hair that ended right before her muscled shoulders, Breck was the most intimidating member of the crew, a giantess from the planet New Veda, where Mirabel’s greatest warriors were born. She’d been on the run, pegged for arson, with a bruised and beaten Gilly at her side when Andi picked them up two years ago.
Gilly, plucked from the market streets of her home planet Umbin, had been on a Xen Pterran trafficking ship with hundreds of other children when Breck saved her. The rumor was that the ruler of Xen Ptera had hopes of building an army from the ground up, no matter the lives she destroyed along the way.
Breck had saved Gilly from a fate worse than death, Andi thought, and now the two girls were as close as kin. Breck tugged on one of Gilly’s red braids, then lifted her chin and sniffed the air. “I don’t smell breakfast. We need a cook, Andi.”
“And we’ll get one, as soon as we have the funds to take one on,” Andi said, with a curt nod. “We’re down to less than 300 Krevs.”
“Speaking of Krevs,” Gilly added, her hand grazing the golden double-triggered gun at her hip, “when’s our next job?”
Andi leaned back, arms crossed behind her head, and surveyed the girls.
They were a good crew, all three of them. Small but mighty, and better than what Andi deserved. She stared at her blades once more before returning them to their harness. If only she could put her memories away just as easily.
“I’ve got a tip for a possible job on Vacilis,” Andi said. It was a desert world a few planets over from Solera, where the wind blew as hot as a demon’s backside, and the air was choked with the stench of sulfur. “But I’m not sure how many Krevs it’ll haul. And it’ll be messy, dealing with the desert nomads.”
Breck shrugged. “Any money is good money, if it brings us more food stores.”
“And ammo,” Gilly said, cracking her knuckles like the soldier she was.
Andi inclined her head at Lira. “Thoughts?”
“We will see where the stars lead us,” Lira answered.
Andi nodded. “I’ll get in touch with my informant. Take us away, Lir.”
“As you wish.” Lira punched the destination coordinates for Vacilis into the Holoscreen on the dashboard, readying the ship for flight.
Andi turned in her seat. “Breck, Gilly, go to the vault and do a weapons check. Then make sure the Big Bang is fully loaded. I want you two ready, should anything go wrong.”
“We’re always ready,” Breck said.
Gilly giggled, and the two gunners nodded their heads before exiting the bridge, Gilly skipping along behind Breck, her golden gun bobbing against her tiny frame.
“Engines are hot,” Lira said. “Time to fly.”
rumbled beneath Andi as she nearly slumped in her chair, exhaustion worming its way in. She watched as Lira deftly steered them toward Vacilis. The expanse of space stretched out before them, causing Andi’s eyelids to droop against her will. Before she knew it, darkness claimed her.
A bloody hand gripped Andi’s shoulder. Fingers dug into her flesh, bruising, unrelenting as Andi tried to drag herself away. The girl’s sky eyes stretched wide as a trickle of crimson pooled from her lips.
Andi awoke to Lira roughly shaking her shoulder. Her heart hammered in her chest as her eyes adjusted in the dim light of the pilot’s bay. She could see starlight ahead, and the Holoscreen glowed before her. But something was off. A light on the Holo blinked red, a silent prox alarm that showed not only the
’s location, but three ships behind them, gaining quickly. An unwelcome sight to any space pirate.
“We have a tail.” Lira curled her lip in annoyance. She tapped a blue fingertip on the Holoscreen, changing it to the rear-cam, where Andi could just see the ships soaring toward them. “Two seekers and one tracker.”
“The stars be damned,” Andi hissed. “When did they show up?”
“Seconds before I woke you.”
Andi’s mind raced, calculating all possible scenarios for their current predicament. Lira never let anyone get the drop on the
They had to have been cloaked, with technology that Andi’s crew could only dream of getting their hands on.
“Do we know who they are? Black market, Olenian, Mirabel Patrol?” Andi asked, staring at the radar as it blinked, the three hellish red dots slowly gaining on them.
Lira glowered. “Patrol, without a doubt. They didn't show up on our radar until they were practically on top of us.”
The Patrolmen, those bastards. They’d had Andi’s ship in their sights for years, but she and her crew were always able to evade Patrol radar. Andi closed her eyes. Black holes ablaze, she was fiked.
The ship rumbled beneath her, as if in agreement.
“Cloaking is useless at this point,” Lira said, as she readied the gears, slamming buttons, tapping in codes. Andi felt the
groan in response to Lira’s touch. “Damn their starshined tech.”
In the distance, Andi could barely make out the ghostly forms of their pursuers, though she knew they headed closer with each passing breath. “Get us out of this, and I’ll see to it that we get devices of the same caliber.”
“And bigger guns?” Lira asked, her blue eyes wide. “We’ll barely scrape by if we have to turn and fire on them. We only have one Big Bang left.”
Andi nodded. “Much bigger guns.”
“Well then,” Lira said, grinning like a madwoman, “I think the stars may align for us, captain. Any last words?”
Andi chewed on her lip. She could have given her Second a thousand words, but instead, she simply strapped herself in, turned in her seat and said, “Fly true, Lir.”
Lira took the ship’s wheel, her grip steady and practiced. “Fly true.”
She pressed in the codes to transfer all available energy towards the thrusters that would rocket them into hyperspace. A humming vibration filled the bay before the ship shot forward, hurtling through the black expanse.