Last year I read and reviewed Admiral by Sean Danker (review here). Free Space is book two in his Admiral series. Today, I have an excerpt from the new book. Please come back tomorrow for my review.
About Free Space
In the follow-up to Admiral, the intergalactic war has ended and hostilities between the Evagardian Empire and the Commonwealth are officially over, but the admiral is far from safe. . . .
“I’d impersonated a prince, temporarily stopped a war, escaped a deadly planet, and survived more assassination attempts than I could conveniently count. After all that, there shouldn’t have been anything simpler than a nice weekend with a charming Evagardian girl.
However, some corners of the galaxy aren’t as genteel as the Empire, and Evagardians aren’t universally loved, which is how I ended up kidnapped to be traded as a commodity.
Their timing couldn’t have been worse. I’m not at my best, but these people have no idea whom they’re dealing with: a highly trained, genetically engineered soldier in the Imperial Service who happens to be my date.”
Excerpt from Free Space
The shuttle rocked gently, and I reached up for a safety handle. The carpet was blue; the seats were blue. Even the viewports were tinted blue. Like, if you didn’t have the color blue burned into your retinas, you might fly with another service next time. Galactic branding sensibilities. Subtlety was an alien concept to these people. Primitive, really.
A serving android was making her way down the aisle, a tray of glasses in her hands. I stepped aside to let her pass, and moved up to take the seat beside Salmagard.
From the way she looked up so quickly, it was clear she was full of nerves. The smile she offered was a reflexive one, one she’d used a million times before. There was nothing real about it.
After that automatic smile, she looked back down at her hands in her lap for a moment, then slowly looked up at me a second time. I didn’t look that different. If she hadn’t recognized me, she was even more preoccupied than she looked.
“It’s me,” I said, settling in. The last time I’d seen Tessa Salmagard, she’d been dead and I’d been trying to get her body into stasis so she could be revived. That had been almost three weeks ago. A part of me expected her to be different here in civilization-and she was. Back on that planet, with things like oxygen and hostile xenos to think about, Salmagard had had use only for the soldierly parts of herself.
In a place like this, there was no need for any of that.
“You’re different.” Her voice was just as musical as I remembered.
“This is closer to my real face. I still look a lot like him, though, don’t I?”
I sighed. “But at least we’re not perfect twins anymore. I didn’t think you’d show.” It was risky for her to meet me, after all.
“You saved my life.” She said it as if it was obvious. Like the risk meant nothing.
Maybe it didn’t. Salmagard was nothing if not bold. In part because she was an aristocrat and had been brought up to look down on everyone and everything to include danger-all in the interests of her bloodline. And in part because of her military training, which had taught her essentially the same things, except, rather than her own line, the Service compelled her to bring glory to the Empress.
She didn’t see danger the way most people did. For many in the gentry, danger and risk were things that happened to other people. Salmagard had actually been killed in action-so she knew better. Maybe that was what had emboldened her. She’d already died, so what was the worst that could happen? Dying again? That wasn’t likely. Meeting me was dangerous to her career, not to her physical safety.
Maybe that was her thinking. Such was the life of an aristocrat.
“Don’t tell me you’re here out of obligation,” I said.
Salmagard shook her head. Did she mean it? I’d never know. It was obvious that she hadn’t been sure I’d actually show up. That didn’t particularly hurt my feelings. She didn’t seem disappointed I was there, though. That was a good sign.
She was wearing an extremely becoming red dress in an Isakan cut, with a beautiful sash. Her dark hair was especially elaborate, with lots of jeweled clips. She’d clearly gone to some effort. I was flattered. Of course, I’d gotten all dolled up too-but my new black outfit was already a bit rumpled. That was a pity; I’d bought it only an hour ago.
“How, though?” she asked. “How is this safe?”
“It’s not.” I shrugged. “But it’s doable because there’s some bad news,” I told her. “The threat level’s up. There’s not as much Imperial Security presence out here, and I’m not at the top of their list anymore. ‘Safe’ isn’t the word I’d use, but I’m not hung up on details.”
“What’s going on?”
“Apparently there’s credible intelligence that New Unity’s up to something. Imperial Security and Evagardian Intelligence are extra twitchy with the peace talks so close. All the imperial agents in Free Trade space are on alert status-they think something’s going to happen. So the people that might be on the lookout for me- Well, they’re not looking for me at the moment.”
Salmagard didn’t look surprised. The war wasn’t really over; there was only a cease-fire-and it was tenuous. The Empress wanted real peace, and Salmagard knew what every Evagardian was brought up to know: if the Empress wanted something, New Unity wanted the opposite.
It stood to reason that Evagardian forces would be more interested in preventing terrorist attacks than hunting for me.
But I didn’t want to talk about terrorists, and I especially didn’t want to talk about New Unity.
“Lucky timing, I guess,” I said.
“What about automated security?” She meant facial recognition and DNA scans.
“That won’t work on me anymore,” I said. “My face is different enough not to trip any searches looking for Dalton. And there aren’t any records left. Of who I used to be.”
“You have a fake ID?” She said it very quietly, looking around as if someone might hear. I was taken aback, but it was no surprise she’d find that scandalous. In Salmagard’s world-at least before she’d joined the Service-lawbreaking had probably been an alien concept to her.
But there were dampeners around our seats to give us privacy, and the other passengers on the shuttle had their own lives to live. A few were talking; most were absorbed in their holos. One woman I’d seen had actually put on a VR collar and completely checked out for the flight.
“I can’t walk into the Evagardian consulate, but I can walk around a Free Trade station. I’d have to change my DNA if I wanted to take a trip to imperial space, though.”
“Then you’re free,” she said, gazing up at me.
“I could move around before, just not in the most comfortable ways,” I told her. The serving android came by, and I accepted a small cup of tea. “So what have I missed?”
“Lieutenant Deilani’s been reassigned.”
I recalled the tall physician. I’d met Deilani when I’d met Salmagard, and she’d been instrumental in our escape from Nidaros. Normally I liked to travel, but that was a planet I didn’t feel a powerful desire to visit again.
Salmagard had recognized me as Prince Dalton right off. Deilani hadn’t.
“What’d she get?” I put the cup aside and gave Salmagard my full attention. The shuttle’s overhead chime sounded and the vessel shuddered again-but only for a moment. Perfectly normal, but it got my attention every time.
“Demenis Affairs,” she said, troubled. “I don’t know the details. Something must have happened. I saw her before I came here, but it seemed like she couldn’t talk about it.”
I winced. “That’s probably my fault,” I said. “Well, no. It’s her fault. But it’s because of me.”
“She confronted me on Payne Station right after we got off Nidaros. It was in a public space, so while there probably wasn’t audio, it’s on the record that she saw me. She didn’t try to stop me, and that probably put her under suspicion. Remember, everyone that matters thinks I’m one of the bad guys-so being seen with me isn’t a good career move. It’s not too late to back out,” I added.
Salmagard shook her head. If she’d taken the plunge to come this far, she wouldn’t break it off now. And she wouldn’t be turned from the topic at hand. “Why the reassignment, though? Why not investigate her? Clear her?”
What was this? Was Salmagard concerned for Deilani? Of course she was. That was how she’d died, after all-buying time for the lieutenant. That was her duty, I supposed, but still. Deilani had been awfully abrasive during that crisis, but Salmagard had no trouble looking past that. She had a big heart.
“I’m sure they’re investigating her. But she doesn’t know anything. She’ll be all right.”
“She wasn’t happy. At least, not when they reassigned her. When I saw her just a little while ago, I don’t know. She seemed different.”
“It was vain of her to come out and gloat at me,” I said. “I’ll take my share of the guilt. She gets the rest. She’s not stupid. She knew that wasn’t a brilliant thing to do.”
Salmagard smiled slightly. “That does sound like her.” She really was worried.
“What about Nils? How’s he doing?”
The ensign had been almost as bad off as Salmagard by the time we got off Nidaros. I’d been about done in by my withdrawal by that point; Deilani had been the only one of us still on her feet.
“He’s almost out of treatment. He’s on Mikkelgard. A university hospital in the provincial capital. I can’t pronounce it.”
“Sounds fancy. I hope he gets out soon.”
Salmagard nodded. My chrono chirped. Grimacing, I took a hypo from my jacket and injected. Salmagard watched, but didn’t say anything. Obviously someone like her could never let anything as vulgar as judgment or disdain show on her face.
I hesitated, then held up the empty hypo. “It’s an antidote. Look for yourself.”
“I’m told it’s called Cleyane Strychnine.”
“What is it?”
“Some kind of poison.”
Her eyes widened.
I put the hypo away. “Don’t look at me like that. This is part of the reason I can move around freely. I let EI get me.” It had actually taken Evagardian Intelligence a little longer than expected to catch up to me.
“And they poisoned you?”
“Actually, they had an android do it remotely, kind of sloppy, but they didn’t actually have any people on-site, so they didn’t have a lot of options. If I pop up, they pretty much have to go at me with whatever they’ve got.” I shrugged. “I had to let my vitals go so they’d be absolutely sure I was dead. They have to confirm these things. I had a guy on tap to revive me. You can buy anything out here. It went pretty smoothly, I think. Since I’m here.” I worked my neck and shoulders. “Now I know how it feels. I guess you do too.”
She swallowed, then leaned back in her seat. “What if they’d shot you instead of poisoning you?”
“I like to think I know what to expect from these guys. Now they’ll think I’m out of the picture for a little while.”
“Why didn’t you tell me straightaway?”
“I didn’t think the negotiator in you would approve.” Salmagard was a security specialist. Protecting things was her particular area of expertise, so a plan allowing myself to be killed probably wouldn’t strike her as ideal. It was deeply contrary to the worldview the Service had worked hard to indoctrinate her with.
She licked her lips. “It’s bold.”
“That’s who you’re spending your leave with,” I said.
“It’s mandatory downtime. I’ve only just finished my evaluation for Nidaros.”
“Really? It took this long?” I arched an eyebrow.
“I guess they take that pretty seriously. I take it you’re coming through it all right.”
“More or less. You?”
I waved a hand. “I’ve had worse.”
There was a pause. She stared up at me. I kept my eyes on her, though it was making her uncomfortable. She fidgeted a little, looking expectant. “Where are we going?” she asked finally.
“Why are you asking me? You’re in charge. I’m just a poor kid from Cohengard that you picked up on Nidaros. Because you’re a fan of Prince Dalton and I happen to look like him, I assume.”
She smiled. “Is that the story?”
“How else could anyone read it?” I leaned back. “We’re on the way to Imperial Pointe, so I was thinking Red Yonder. But you’re leading. I wouldn’t dream of going against the proper way of things. That would be un-Evagardian.”
It wasn’t even a flicker. There was surprise on her face-I thought I’d seen it-but it was gone so quickly that I couldn’t be sure.
“I think I’ve heard of that,” she said slowly.
“I went there a few times as Dalton. It’s a good time.” I couldn’t help but notice the way she was staring at me. “What? I had to. It was expected of me.”
“Not that. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. If there’s one thing you’ve got, it’s nerve.” There was a slight coolness there. I actually preferred this side of her, but I hadn’t expected to see it here and now. What had I done wrong?
“Thanks, I think. Wait,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “You-you’re-I bet you’ve heard all the wrong things about Red Yonder. There’s a little more to it than what you’re thinking about. Yes, there is that, but there’s a lot more.”
“I’ve heard about the tower.”
Of course she had. There was nothing imperials loved more than to be appalled by the perceived depravity of galactics. Naturally, when Evagardians heard about Red Yonder, the part they’d remember would be the tower, notorious for its attractions for couples that were, admittedly, a bit over-the-top, but all in good fun.
I hadn’t actually been planning to take Salmagard there.
I swallowed. “Like I said-there is that. There’s also more.”
She wasn’t buying it, though what I was saying was absolutely true.
“We can go somewhere else.”
“No.” Her face had become that placid mask again. “Let’s go to Red Yonder.”
I watched her turn to look out the viewport. I’d already known about Tessa Salmagard’s poise and courage; she had plenty of that.
But when we’d met on Nidaros, I hadn’t really gotten to see her pride.
“You’re sure?” I asked with a straight face.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “You certainly bring more surprises to the table than my other suitors,” she murmured.
“You have other suitors?”
Being asked about it directly seemed to take her aback. She cleared her throat. “Well, yes.”
“I mean-on the Julian, obviously you do. Do you guys cruise with implants on?”
I winced. Being in the Service was already a cloyingly structured environment. Having to deal with that environment while having one’s hormones and reproductive urges suppressed-to me, that just sounded cruel.
“Oh. Where’s the fun in that?”
“That’s the actual Service,” she said, a bit sternly.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that. But spies are people too; we just don’t have any of those rules. So if there’s no fun allowed on the ship, where are the suitors coming from?”
She sighed. “It’s an issue now because, technically, I’ve been in action. My family’s trying to make the most of it.”
“Does that increase your value?”
“So the fact that you’re in the Service and you’ve seen action gives you the edge over the first daughter from the next district, because she’s just spending her time looking gorgeous.”
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About the Author
Sean Danker been writing novels since he was fifteen. He’s an Air Force veteran, and enjoys cooking, painting, and playing the piano.
NOTE: last year, I interviewed Sean Danker. If you are interested, check it out here.