Orion’s Price is the sixth book in the Loralynn Kennakris series.
Mariwen Rathor was once a leading interstellar celebrity, revered from one end of charted space to the other. The victim of a terrorist plot, she’s been living as a recluse after undergoing years of intense rehabilitation that suppressed most of her memories. But they couldn’t suppress her memories of Kris and thanks to their unexpected reunion, Mariwen has finally found herself again.
But when Kris went deep into Halith space with Rafe Huron to rescue a hero long thought to be dead, they stayed behind to delay a major Halith attack, allowing their people to escape at the cost of their own freedom.
Now, to save the woman she loves, Mariwen must do the impossible: take on the Halith Empire.
Or die trying.
Or something much worse.
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Taymyr Island, Severnaya Archipelago
Amu Daria, Epsilon Aquila, Aquila Sector
Cold. Smoke. The ketone-laced smell of fever-sweat, lurid-sweet. No wind, not a breath of air, as if the air itself were tired—too feeble to push the dense smells away. Distant hacking coughs, random words, low and muffled; the disarticulated fragments of a conversation.
Fighting to keep open eyes with the salt of tears crusted on the lashes, not knowing when she’d last slept—if she’d slept. Everything since she’d fired the flare a nightmarish montage of events, overlaying and colliding with each other: searching the horizon with her fingertips on Huron’s pulse while the flare burned innocently, mockingly, overhead; the light fading as the primary sank towards the sea, its bloated orange orb distorting as if squashed by its own weigh, pouring out the last of its light in a fury of crimson and molten brass across the ocean’s heaving surface; then gone, the waves turning indigo and inky black, the boundary of sea and sky erased, even when the first stars appeared; heat leaching from the sticky air to bring a chill that made her shiver; his skin burning beneath her hand, holding him as he tossed—a garbled word or two—and at last the low dull far-off thump of a tilt-rotor approaching . . .
After that, being plucked from the raft by a pair of lines and dragged ruthlessly onboard, the pilot sheering off before she even cleared the side-door. Holding onto Huron all through the wild careening flight with one arm and both legs—no seats for them; her captors (she’d seen the Halith MPS insignia on the fuselage, lit by the running lights) had left them sprawled on the deck, gripping the cargo netting. The roar of the tilt-rotor’s engines churning through air crushing all other sound; sickening jolts and twists and drops as the pilot skirted the edge of a storm—she saw flashes of lightning through the windows, followed almost instantly by vicious slaps of turbulence—and no sense of elapsed time.
Touching down—a sudden shock. Four men prying Huron from her grip and taking him away. Three more marching her into a cramped facility—all gray walls and harsh lights—where she was impersonally stripped and made to lay on a table to be scanned, prodded and examined. Not resisting even when one of the three yanked off Mariwen’s necklace and casually pocketed it—the burn from the cord being ripped away feeling like a slash to the jugular, though it cut so much deeper—using her old trick of closing her consciousness to it all until they doused her with a chill, astringent-smelling spray and a person—as gray and faceless to her as the room—threw her a unisex jumpsuit. Before she could put it on, two other guards took her arms and propelled her, unresisting still, into a large, open compound.
Getting dressed under a cold sky full of sullen clouds, her senses came back to her in a rush and she half stumbled, half ran through the compound, looking for him; finally finding him in this grimy corner . . .
So cold, soaking deep into whatever is left of self; the close exhausted air, the raw naked brick and bare boards. Huron on the thin pallet next to her, shivering in the fever’s grip, the aimless plucking of his hands over the worn blanket, the restless galvanic twitch of his legs and jaw—horribly unlifelike—mopping the acrid sweat from the contorted brow, chewing the tough bitter leaves the camp’s ‘doctor’ (another prisoner) had given her and tucking the sodden mass into his cheek, feeling the thready pulse in the flushed throat . . .
And talking. And talking, in streams and sometimes in torrents; a soft restless unrelenting voice recounting dismembered memories exhumed from the burial grounds of her mind; a lifeline—a net of words to capture the fractious soul that seemed to tremble, impatient to be gone . . .
“. . . the Sorenson’s kid—they lived two steadings down from us, I’d stay there at times when my dad went to Gabriel for a few days—he’d come by. He liked to shoot marbles. Sometimes he’d smuggle me these chocolate-covered things—I don’t know where they’d get ’em—like jelly cut into squares. Gawd, I loved those. I think his mom would’ve killed ’im if she ever found out. They left . . . just up and left. Right before the snows. I never heard what happened to them . . .” Moistening a rag with their carefully hoarded water ration, pressing it to the nape of his neck, the heat beating against her fingers. “Nobody much came around after that. Dad got married again. The second one was nice. She took care of me when I got my vaccine boost. I thought I was gonna die. All I remember is watching vids on a loop. Did you ever watch Wayfarer? I wanted to be Jax. Loved him. Lark was all badass, but she’d do these dipshit things just to get them in trouble. Hear a funny noise, of course you go check it out. Somethin’ bangs on the hatch . . . sure, open it. Fuck’n unbelievable. I told my dad I wanted to be a navigator like Jax—I’d just won the math prize for my grade—and he told me to be a teacher. He said he never wanted me setting foot on a starship. He hadn’t started drinking then. Well, not a lot . . . That’s the first thing Mariwen and I ever did on Arizona—watch a dozen episodes.” Outside, framed by the open doorway, the pale shrouded disk of the primary low in the iron-colored sky. “Why’d you say she was a sunset? She’s not. She’s so . . . alive. Real. I never met . . . I mean, not the same way. Being with her is like . . . home. I don’t get how you guys coulda missed that . . . how ya didn’t feel that. Cuz, you knew . . .” You knew . . .
Voice fraying, the words all tatter-ran as the shadows lengthened and lost themselves in the dusk. Tongue too dry and sticky to wet her chapped lips. Small sips of precious water that made her feel guilty but did almost nothing to help. The anguished lines in his face as she wiped his brow again. And always the thought returning: You knew. That’s why you didn’t fight. You knew me better than I know myself.
Finally, stretching out alongside the recumbent form in the soft, close darkness, ignoring the twinges low in her abdomen from the examination, his body inert now but for hesitant shallow breathing, the paper-like skin heated by an all-consuming inner fire and, pressing herself against him, arm across his chest, leg over his hips, closing her dry eyes and putting her lips to his ear.
“Don’t go.” A panting whisper. “You can’t fuck’n go. D’ya hear me?” No tears on her lashes, no tears staining her cheeks that were as chilled as his were burning—they were all in her words. “I know it’s selfish and fucked up and wrong . . . but you gotta stay. No one believed in me before you. You showed me how to be and gave me Mariwen and I just gave you shit and none of it makes any fuck’n sense but you gotta stay. You can’t go . . . Please don’t go . . .”
Laying her head in the cup of his shoulder, her eyes closing for a moment; just a brief instant but enough to expose the deep well of exhaustion on whose lip she tottered.
Just one more sec . . . the slow rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek; the febrile beat of his heart in her ear . . . one more . . .
Her consciousness wavering, hovering a moment above the beckoning chasm . . . slipping.
* * *
A check in his breathing shocked her awake; his chest lifting suddenly, a startling gasp and a sigh—but not the hollow dry papery rattle she dreaded. A deeper, slower breath and she felt the sweat break out on his neck again. Sitting up, she grabbed the rag and swabbed his face. His eyes moved, restless beneath the lids, then fluttered open and closed. The living spark she glimpsed there made her chin tremble.
Lifting his head, she held the water bottle to his parched lips and dribbled a thin trickle between them. His throat moved as he swallowed. Another sip and another, until he licked his lips and bent them into an almost-smile. His shoulders shifted with a restless grunt and she rearranged the inadequate bedding beneath his head. His breathing settled into the rhythms of normal sleep, and—watching him for a silent minute—she rose and went to doorway. There, in the amber light of dawn, she saw the doc coming across the compound, his slow limping shuffle stirring up vague puffs of dust.
Entering with the barest nod to her, he lowered himself into an awkward squat and took Huron’s pulse, sniffed the cloth she’d used to wipe his face, palpated his neck, abdomen and beneath his arms; bent lower with a pained grunt and pressed an ear to his chest. At last, he rocked back on his heels, hands dangling between his knees, and coughed.
“How is it?” Kris asked, the moisture coming back into her mouth by stages. “Is he gonna get better?”
The man cleared his throat noisily and squeezed his thin dry lips together. “He’s not dead. Is that better enough for you?” Then, gauging the look in her eyes: “These things are touch and go. Those leaves I gave you might help—and I can mix you up some teas—but he needs more than I can do.”
“So what’s gonna happen?”
He looked at her, head tilted in an oddly bird-like gesture. “That depends. Who are you? You are not one of us.”
The question didn’t help the dryness in Kris’s mouth. She certainly was not one of them, though as the man didn’t appear to be a native Amu Darian, she wasn’t sure who them was in this case. But that was a small concern compared to why he was showing such interest in her. Her arrival with Rafe must have caused a stir and during her frantic search for him, none of the people she saw looked like recent POWs. They were all like the doc: people who’d been here a long time, probably years. Goosebumps marched along her forearms at the thought they’d brought her and Rafe someplace special . . .
“Nobody,” she mumbled.
“How did you come to be here?” he asked with that same hawk-eyed inquisitiveness.
“I don’t even know where the hell I am now.”
A brief wheeze at her evasion. “Any number of names. All mean ‘the end of the line’ for most of us.” He continued his unnerving sizing-up of her. “But maybe you wish a technical answer. You are on Taymyr Island. In the Severnaya Archipelago. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Not much.” She knew the archipelago was off the southern continent. They’d flown a long way. “Who do they send here?”
The comment was obviously satirical. Kris had never associated forgiveness with any part of the Halith character. “Dissidents? Political prisoners?” Spies?
“We are a cosmopolitan bunch.”
The vague answer made Kris bite the inside of her cheek. “Anyone new?”
That intensified his look. “You are aware of events in the north?”
It didn’t sound much like a question. “Yeah. Some.”
“There was a boatload came in—arrived late yesterday. I think it shall be crowded soon.”
So they were sending POWs here. Maybe there was nothing special about their treatment. Maybe they were just another couple of POWs after all . . .
Pondering her silence, he gestured at Huron. “What of him? Is he another ‘nobody’?”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“Pity. Were he ‘somebody’, he might have a chance.” Levering himself upright, the man stood tottering for a moment. “I shall bring you soup. Eat it. You look like shit.”
Kris ate the soup when it came, in a disposable cup with a plasticene spoon, redolent of glue in both smell and consistency. Even after a life of eating rat-packs, she had a tough time choking it down. But choke it down she did, managing at least three-quarters before she had to stop. Staring at the remainder with mounting disgust, a commotion outside made her lift her head. Nothing could she see, but then she heard it: the heavy unmistakable tread of boots, a lot of boots. Three quick steps to the door and she saw, rounding one of the ramshackle buildings, a squad of Halith marines in full combat gear, weapons ready and visors locked. The leader swung out an arm and three men moved rapidly left, herding back the crowd of surly-looking prisoners that were gathering there. Then his arm swung forward.
Pointing straight at her.
A hot adrenal surge raged through her, tightening her muscles to the snapping point. With unnatural clarity, she saw the details of his helmet insignia, the flash scarring on his assault rifle’s muzzle brake, and herself, coiled and ready to spring, in his mirrored visor.
He saw it, too. The rifle’s barrel came up. “You! Back off.” A deep, guttural snarl. Deeper and more guttural for the helmet speaker and thick accent. The fingers of his off-hand snapped. Four men broke ranks and took up guard positions either side of the door. He and the rest came straight on.
It seemed impossible that she could step back. Impossible her legs would obey her. But they did, stiffly, as though they were more steel than flesh. Only then did a sticky viscous wetness dripping across her knuckles tell her she’d crushed the soup cup in her left hand.
Two men entered, he stayed outside, rifle trained on her midsection. “Alive?”
The pair bent over Huron; prodded him. One consulted a medical scanner. “For now.”
They slung their rifles and lifted Huron together. Kris tensed anew. If they gave her just a half-second chance at one of those rifles . . .
Not yet. Wait . . .
As they carried Rafe out the door, the leader twitched his gun barrel at her. “Come with me.”
Forcing herself to appear to relax, she offered her wrists to be cuffed. He’d have to lower the rifle and reach for his belt to get a pair of cuffs. The men closest to him were burdened with Huron. His other men were watching the crowd.
She waited for his hand to drop; the rifle to waver. Just for that fraction of second.
He backed a step, with a sound very like a chuckle. The rifle never moved.
Shit . . .
Tension released, liked a main spring breaking. Exhaustion flooded her, making her limbs shake. Behind the mirrored visor, she knew he was smiling.
Motherfucker . . .
“Walk in front of me.”
Yeah. Definitely smiling.
The jet of hatred met exhaustion’s rising tide and was overborne, swamped, swept away.
Trembling inside and out, she walked.