Authors: Jennifer Mandelas
Universe of the Soul:
Strategic Book Group
Copyright Â© 2011
All rights reserved â Jennifer Mandelas
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or
by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage
retrieval system, without the permission, in writing, from the publisher.
Strategic Book Group
P.O. Box 333
Durham CT 06422
This book is dedicated to
L.P. You helped with the birth of this whole universe. Thanks.
My family, for all your support, A.S.-W. and J.R., for your critiques.
I remember that day, the day my parents died. I was sitting in the living room, playing with my mother's pendant. I wasn't supposed to play with it, especially when my mother was not home, but I had swiped it anyway, sneaking into my parents' bedroom while Mandy was busy downstairs and carefully picking it out among the rest of my mother's jewelry. I didn't know why I liked that one pendent so much; it wasn't as shiny or as large as many of the others mother owned, but I had always liked it. Maybe it was the pretty tear shape, or the pale violet color, or the smooth feel of the shell against my skin. Whatever the reason, it was my favorite. I had gone into the living room with my prize, because it afforded a view of the city streets several stories below, in order to keep a wary eye out for my parents' return.
Or perhaps I was just silly enough to sit out where Mandy would eventually find me and discover my actions. After all, I was only seven.
The noise from the streets below didn't really penetrate my conscious until the shooting began, almost directly below our house. At first I thought the loud, shuddering booms to be thunder, just a great deal stronger than I had ever heard before. Storms did not normally frighten me, but the loudness of it made me nervous, so I fingered the pendant and wondered if I should go down and find Mandy. The sudden eruption of blaster fire made me jump, but, innocent that I was, I thought it to be the beginning of some sort of meteor shower.
Today, I would never mistake the sound of S-range nuclear explosions, nor the hiss and whine of rapid blaster fire. But then, as a child, I had never truly picked up on the unrest within the city, or the planet at large.
Curious, if still a little anxious, I walked over to the broad window overlooking the street. Below I saw people running around in outfits similar to those of the Peace Keepers, only their armor covered them entirely. Others were dressed in normal clothes; they were the ones running around the most. They were all armed. I knew what blasters were, but I was amazed at seeing so many. The people were hiding around the corners of buildings and behind transports. I thought, for one hair of a second, that they were playing some sort of game.
They started firing at each other.
I understood at last, ran away from the window and screamed for Mandy. Together we hid in the basement, and waited as the firing and bombing continued well into the night.
My parents never came home.
moke still rose from the ashes of the destroyed supply depot, darkening the already leaden sky with plumes that reeked of death and destruction. The battle had been over for several hours, but soldiers still roamed the wasted range, fully armed and alert. Adri was both relieved and deeply satisfied that they were
With her battered helmet tucked under one arm, and the other hanging loose above her holster, she surveyed the damage that had been wrought. There wasn't much left of the depot, or of any of the surrounding buildings. Her superiors would be irked with the news that yet another depot had been destroyed. What was costing a great deal of time and money and â they would grudgingly add â lives, was now a smoldering rubble to join a long chain of other smoldering rubble heaps along the front. But they would not doubt Adri's success.
Another success in a long trail of successes, Adri mused; not that she impressed herself much. More importantly, this retake of the depot might aid in wringing out a promotion, which would give her more authority both on the field and aboard ship. It wasn't so much a power trip, she thought to herself, as the assurance that she was capable. She would rather be the one in charge, knowing her abilities and weaknesses, than trust the lives of herself and her troops to others.
“Looks like rain,” said a voice to her right.
Adri shrugged without glancing over. “It'll put out the last of the fire, at least.”
“So it will,” the voice agreed morosely.
Adri finally broke down and grinned, turning to her companion. “By Danwe, Duane, aren't you used to it by now?”
Duane, his own helmet clipped to his belt, soot scouring his bright magenta face, gave a long sigh. “I wouldn't mind at least one sunny day. Just one. Well, then again, if we did get one, I would know that we
get one and all the following gloomy days would drive me mad.”
“So I guess it's better if it just rains,” Adri concluded soberly. “What is it you wanted to speak to me about? Are the shields up around the camp yet?”
“Yeah, yeah. The boss had us set them up before you had even cleared the ridge. The north generator is wearing out; I'll need a replacement core within a few days.” Duane frowned musefully out at the devastated scenery. “Of course, the captain has already retired for the night. The sloth.”
“Duane, do not criticize a superior officer,” Adri admonished. “At least not out loud.”
“I'm not criticizing, Lieutenant Rael! Honest! I was stating a verifiable fact. Captain Heedman shows every slothful tendency - and this is not what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Adri turned and began to walk back towards camp just as fat, dirty raindrops began to fall out of the gray sky. The air quickly filled with smoke and dirty steam as the water fell onto the ashes of the depot. Duane muttered an oath and plopped his helmet back onto his head. Adri didn't bother. “What
you want to talk to me about?”
“Transfer troops arrived an hour ago, a real mismatch group. The transport didn't stay in the system long enough to do anything but spit them on the surface. Captain Heedman wanted you to greet and reassign them within the company this evening, as he would be - and I now quote â âindisposed and otherwise unavailable' for the rest of the night.”
Adri hummed in her throat. “Duane, you could write a book of Heedmanisms.”
“No one would buy it,” Duane grinned. “It would bore everyone by the end of the first page.”
“Where are the new troops?” The camp was being assembled in what had once been the residential zone beyond the depot. Adri walked through the shield surrounding the camp and headed directly to her quarters. Around her, soldiers were assembling for the first night's watch or beginning to relax for the night. There was still a lot of activity around the medic station, but most of the more seriously injured had already been transported back to the spaceship. Some of the less injured soldiers looked up as she passed and saluted. She nodded in recognition, but continued walking.
Duane scrambled to keep up with her. “The captain gave me the list, and if you would just slow down on those infernally long human legs for just one second, I'd give it to you!”
Following Duane's impatient gesture, Adri stepped into her new makeshift quarters. The accommodations weren't bad; she had four walls and a roof this time. Civilians had abandoned the area around the newly conquered depot for some time, and in the interim someone had sloppily written âTHIS LAND IS WET HELL' in galactic standard across the far wall. The ensign who had moved her trunk in had also tried to give the room more of an ambiance by using a board supported by rubble for a desk, setting her cot across from it.
Adri tossed her helmet onto the desk. Duane huffed in behind her. “Let's see the list,” she said, sitting down on the tunsteel trunk.
Duane pulled out his holoboard and located the list. Handing the board to her he added, “Most are from the Turotian regiment.”
“Good, they've seen some action and we're not getting a bunch of green recruits.” Adri scanned the list and frowned. “We've got some new officers,” she tapped the holoboard on her knee contemplatively. “A replacement for Rumman.”
Without any deference for her superior rank, Duane sat down on the side of the cot and began rummaging in his pocket for something to eat. “Lets hope that the new replacement lasts longer than Rumman did.”
Adri made no comment.
Finding a half melted chocolate bar that he had secretly pilfered from the captain's private simulator, he munched cheerily. “Are you going to meet them tonight?”
Adri sighed and leaned back against her desk, tossing the holoboard back to Duane. She was tired. She had been up for the last twenty-six hours fighting a vicious battle against the Advance Force of the Belligerent Coalition, and then securing the conquered territory. She had led her troops to victory while her captain had sat in camp, demanding that the security shields go up.
That was life. Adri had learned long ago to accept what fate dealt and make the best of it. “I suppose so.”
Field Lieutenant Thaddeus Vanden Grayson rolled his mug around in his hands and wondered vaguely why military coffee always tastedâ¦simulated. Of course, it
, but nothing tasted less genuine than simulated coffee on a cold day.
Around him, the usual chaos in a military mess hall abounded. Soldiers spoke of their victory earlier that day, or carefully avoided it. They boasted, or quietly mourned. Some talked of other things â the war in general, the possibility of a promotion, the happenings on their home planets.
Gray tuned out the noise and looked around with only mild interest. This was the second transfer he'd made in his career, and he was hoping that it would turn out to be a better decision than his last one. Huddled together nearby were the other new transfer troops, many of them from his own regiment, if not his platoon. In the three hours since their arrival, Gray had met no officer over his own rank (which, granted, was a rather hefty one) and was beginning to wonder if all the rumors about Captain Heedman were true. But if they were, he mused, gingerly taking a sip from his mug, then that meant that the rumors about the lieutenant commander could also be true. That would definitely be a perk. Or they could all be half-truths, and he could be worse off than he had been in Turotia.
Ah well, at least the weather was cooler.
“The L. C. is coming!” someone shouted by the door, pulling Gray out of his thoughts.
Gray watched as several of the men straightened their uniform jackets, and smoothed back their hair. Even some of the kievians attempted to tame the tentacles that grew from their scalps. He leaned forward ever so slightly to get a better view of the door, curious now.
The person who walked through the doors of the mess hall was not what he had been expecting at all. The fellow was of average height, with black-blue hair and wide blue eyes. His most distinguishing feature, however, had to be the bright magenta color of his skin. Obviously a paranthian, Gray mused, wondering why such a rare species would choose a military career.
All thoughts in Gray's head ground to a halt when she walked in, only a second or two behind the paranthian.
He felt an instant connection, as if something he hadn't known he was missing had just been reattached. It wouldn't have surprised him more if thunder had shook the air and a mighty voice had said from above âShe's The One!' Dumbstruck, Gray sat back in an attempt to gather his wits, which had gleefully run off.
She was beautiful, pale skin, brown hair that skimmed her chin and serious brown eyes. Average height, and â from what Gray could see of her in her thick combat suit, perfectly formed. Gray decided that as soon as he could get his mind out of the gutter, where it had taken a detour, he would get the woman's name.
He didn't have to. She said it aloud. The paranthian had pointed him and the other new transfers out to her. As she wound her way through the mass of troops to their table, the soldiers all stood and saluted respectfully, showing her to be an officer of some higher rank. She nodded to them as she passed, then stopped to take the holoboard from the paranthian, who trailed behind her.
“I am Lieutenant Commander Adrienne Rael,” she announced. Confidence and authority rang in her voice, easily heard over the hushed noise in the hall.
She glanced down at the board before looking them over again. “Captain Heedman sends his welcome as well, but is unfortunately indisposed this evening.”
Like he was every evening
, Adri thought irritably. “I shall be re-assigning you within the company now. Stand up and come forward when I call your name.”
So this was the famous Rael
, Gray thought. He watched her as she called one of the ensign's names and began speaking to him. He'd heard rumors of her rapid rise within the Advance Force, and of the promotion to lieutenant commander at the shocking age of twenty-four. She had been one of the reasons he'd requested the transfer. He wanted a competent, cunning leader to serve under.
He hadn't expected her to turn out to be the woman of his dreams.
Gray smiled and leaned back, blessing his luck. This decision had obviously been a fated one.
“Field Lieutenant Thaddeus Grayson,” Adri called. She looked up at him. He was the only one left. A man of slightly over average height, with light brown hair and calm gray eyes. When he stood, she noticed that he moved well, and the bland gray uniform looked good too.
, Adri thought, as he rose and strode towards her, her long-neglected feminine side sighing in sheer appreciation.
Definitely an improvement to Rumman
What was she doing again? Her mind snapped back to the present as her military discipline reasserted itself. Sensible Lieutenant Commander Rael did not drool over incredibly handsome field lieutenants. Scarred and troubled Adrienne Rael hissed the old warning âdon't get close!' But quiet and often overlooked feminine Adri Rael sighed and wished anyway.
Gray wondered what Rael was thinking when she continued to stare at him blankly after he had walked up to her. “Is something wrong?”
Adri took a long, deep breath. “No, nothing's wrong.”
You're just the best looking man I've ever seen in my life, and I can't figure out why I care.
“And you would beâ¦?”
What was his name again?
Gray smiled, and Adri's cells sighed again. “Field Lieutenant Thaddeus Grayson, at your service, ma'am,”
“Yes of course.” Adri studiously glanced down at the holoboard and stared at his name written there.
Think! Think! What was it you wanted to say to him?
“I see that you transferred here from Turotia,” she said lamely.
Could the woman get any cuter?
Gray had been attracted to the competent and authoritative woman she had been when dealing with the other troops, but this absentminded, slightly bewildered woman was even better.
Oh no, he was smiling again!
All of Adri's thoughts happily flittered away when she looked at him. This was not going to work at all. Glancing back down at the holoboard, she saw that her notation had him attached to her company, to serve directly under her as Rumman had done. Which meant the man was going to be underfoot twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of the campaignâ¦which was not in the foreseeable future.
! the quiet Adri sighed.
the troubled Adrienne groaned.
Better make the best of it
, the sensible Lieutenant Commander advised.
And for Danwe's sake, stop staring at him like some brainless ensign!
“You've been assigned to my squadron,” Adri said at last. “My late field lieutenant fell in the line of duty last month.”
“My condolences,” Gray replied, happily astonished at this brilliant twist of fate. He'd be with her from bed rise to bed rest for the duration of the campaign. And if that wasn't opportunity enoughâ¦
“There are some things I need to brief you on,” Adri was saying, bringing Gray back. She beckoned him to follow as she turned to leave the mess hall. “Since you're from the Advance Force, you're used to having the dual responsibilities of a field lieutenant on the ground, and lieutenant aboard ship, correct?”
“What's your experience aboard ship?”
“I'm a lieutenant in security, with some engineering ability if called for,” Gray replied. They had left the hall and were now walking out towards the sleeping quarters.
“That is good,” Adri said, falling back in the comfortable mode of commander. “To be an elite member of the Advance Force, you have to be adept at field fighting and tactics, as well as handling command of a ship, and all that it entails. What position were you given aboard our vessel?”
“I was given command of security. It appears there was a vacancy there as well.” Gray responded. Adri stopped in front of the ramshackle construction that served as the officer's quarters.