Susan Sizemore

Excerpt


Sometimes I have to obey the Muse – that is write a story that demands to be written whether I’m under contract for it or not. An idea lodged itself in my head and I couldn’t get it out anyway but by writing it down. So this summer I wrote what I hope will become a second series set in the Vampire Primes universe, a future version of my heroic paranormal heroes and heroines. I wrote IN THE DARK for fun, and I’m including an excerpt of this futuristic romance here on the site in the hopes that you’ll enjoy it as well:

The title was changed to DEMON IN THE DARK and then to DARK STRANGER and will be in stores November 2009.

Dark Stranger

by

Susan Sizemore

Chapter One

"Not again," Zoe muttered as the ship shook from a direct hit once more.

This had been going on far longer than usual, and it was getting worse by the moment.

Though her quarters were deep within the center of the command ship’s many hulls she could still feel the energy blows against heavy shielding, and how that shielding was fading. The communications stem in her ear let her know that the whole task force was in trouble and on the run. And not only their ships, but Asi ships were also scattering under the Hajim attack.

"Damn."

She knew her exasperation was inappropriate, as good people were fighting and dying on the ships around her. She honored the sacrifice, but she wasn’t supposed to be in battles, and this was the third time in five years. She’d ended up piloting a fighter during the first battle, and a freighter full of refugees the second time. She was a good pilot, but she functioned best as a diplomat. At least she tried.

Why did this have to happen just as the talks were beginning to make progress? She smiled grimly at the naiveté of her own question, knowing full well that the attack was likely happening because the negotiations were proceeding. No matter how tight security seemed to be, leaks were always possible.

That the war had gone on for five years told her that she and all the other diplomats were failing at their jobs.

They failed not only the human worlds of Byzant, but the aliens of Kril, Denthera and of Asi. Only the Hajim did not know failure, for they refused to negotiate. They simply fought. Sometimes they forced others to fight for them if not with them, but they made no true alliances. This war went on and on, battle lines swinging back and forth across system after system.

Now the Hajim fleet had appeared to break up yet another attempt at negotiation.

The deck shook beneath her at yet another hit, knocking Zoe forward just as the hallway door cycled open. Jazaon stepped inside and steadied her before she could fall, then stepped back quickly. She could tell by his grim expression that things were not going well at all. She didn’t ask for a status report, because she knew why he would enter her quarters at such a time.

She wanted to say that she would not abandon the ship as long as her people fought on, but by a new law passed since those other battles the decision at such a time of crisis was not for her to make. Jazaon was head of the security detail

"It’s time," was all he said.

Silence stretched tautly between them while he waited. She changed clothes and made other necessary preparations as quickly as possible. The decks rattled and shook while she was occupied; he stood with his arms crossed, his back braced against the door. Alarms blared, and by the time she was ready the abandon ship siren sounded a harsh, doomed tone in her ears.

When she was changed she wore the blue uniform of a navy lieutenant. It took another moment to insert a fresh ID chip into her right wrist.

While the pain of the insertion still stung, Jazaon took her by the elbow and led her into the controlled chaos in the corridor. There were people everywhere, in navy, marine and civil service uniforms. The pair of them blended into the crowd heading for the escape pods, but Jazaon guided her quickly to the head of the line. By now the shaking from enemy fire had turned into the constant fatal shuddering of a ship about to disintegrate.

Zoe noted the fear on every face, but everyone responded to the safety routines that had been drilled into them. It was well known that the Hajim took prisoners even though no one knew where the captives were sent. The important thing right now was to reach an escape pod and get off the dying ship. To stay alive.

Jazoan, with years of experience at dealing with crowds, got them to the pod deck quickly. Then the unexpected happened at the entrance.

The young officer directing the loading looked at her in surprise, and stammered, "Porphrygia! What are you doing—"

"Lieutenant Alynn Ryan," she said, accessing information on the young man from the vast database implant in her brain. He was one of hundreds of service people she’d spoken to on a hospital visit a year before. She managed a smile for the brave young man now. "I see your wound has healed well."

His eyes shone. "You remember me? What are you doing here?"

He was flattered and flustered, but there was no time for it. Besides, she could see that Jazaon was not at all pleased at this unexpected turn. He considered anonymity crucial for her security. She didn’t like the way he looked at the young officer. She gave a faint shake of her head, hoping this was enough to keep her protector on his leash.

"We have our duties, Alynn," she reminded the lieutenant, and touched him on the hand reassuringly.

"Of course," he answered. "This way."

He led her forward into the hangar bay, with many others crowding behind and then surrounding her. The ship gave the most violent shake yet, and the emergency lights went from yellow to red. A siren howled, barely audible above a howl of crunching metal.

She made it into an overloaded pod, one of the last onboard before the hatch cycled shut. But by the time she was on board Jazaon was not at her side. She could only hope that he hadn’t turned back to deal with the hapless young man, for her guard could be dauntingly ruthless in the name of the empire. There was nothing Zoe could do but struggle to a free seat, strap in, and hope for rescue as the lifepod was ejected from the dying ship.

##

"Bad news, Doc," Corporal Arco said as they met in the middle of the wide dirt floor at the bottom of the Central Shaft. He pointed upwards, where faint, filtered light flowed down through dust motes. "They’ve got another eighty in the processing camp up top."

Doctor Matthias Raven took the news with a fatalistic shrug. He was the highest ranking Byzant officer in Camp 5, holding the rank of brigadier general in the Space Marines, which put him in charge of the human POWs. He was also the chief medical officer for humans in the prison camp. He had to deal with the prisoners, the Kril who ran the camp, and occasionally, the Hajim who forced the Kril to do their dirty work for them.

This was not what he’d signed on for when he joined the marines, but duty took many forms. He’d been in the dark, vast underground dungeon of Camp 5 for sixteen months now. At least he wasn’t afraid of the dark, like so many others. There was a part of him that just wanted to take his chances and walk out. But – duty…

"The Asi and Denthera aren’t going to like this. We’ll outnumber the alien prisoners now," Arco said. "Remember the snorting and snapping from the Asi when they brought in those two hundred new humans a couple of days ago."

Raven nodded. "The rise in population isn’t good for anybody. Do you think the rations are going to increase just because we have more people?"

Arco clearly hadn’t considered this. In fact, until now he’d seemed rather pleased that there were more human prisoners being processed into the camp.

"Are you homesick, Corporal Arco? Or just forgetting why we’re here?"

Arco gave a bitter laugh. "Come on, Doc – sir. You know I was put into 5 with the very first batch of human prisoners. And yeah," he added. "I’m damned homesick."

"Me, too. You did say eighty newbies?" Matthias asked

"Yes, sir."

He shook his head. "I wonder what sort of battle we lost to bring in that many prisoners." Some were bound to be in need of what medical attention he could provide. "I better get the infirmary set up for them."

His medical staff consisted of himself, one nurse, a couple of volunteers, and a biobot. They didn’t have much to work with to keep the human inmates healthy. Now they had more people to call on their already stretched-thin resources.

"Commandant will want to see you first, Doc. They’ll want you to give your speech, too."

Yeah, that was true. Bureaucracy before compassion. It wasn’t necessarily the Kril way, but the Hajim had forced the Kril to work for them. Before Arco’s news he’d been planning on finding a quiet spot to enjoy a smoke of recently smuggled in arja tobacco, but he’d have to forgo that pleasure until later

He ran a hand over his bald skull. "You get word to the medical team about the new prisoners. I’ll be there when I can"

Chapter Two

The processing center was bleak; just a few low, ramshackle buildings huddled on a windy plain around a badly maintained landing field.

"Take a look at the sky," one of the Kril guards told her group when they formed a ragged, tired line outside the transport ship. "It will be the last time you see daylight for a long time."

Zoe was stretching aching muscles when the guard spoke. She exchanged puzzled looks with the people around her, then glanced up at the alien sky. It was orange, streaked with thin gray clouds. It might not be a thing like the pale blue sky of her own world, but she was delighted to have its wide expanse above her. There was a stink like boiled cabbage in the air, but at least it was natural and not recycled.

Being in the black vacuum of space was her least favorite part of traveling. She was overjoyed to be standing on solid ground after days surrounded by uncompromising dark. Even if she hadn’t been able to see outside the escape pods and the prison ship, space had weighed on her.

Most of the time had been spent inside a Hajim prison ship, where she’d been scanned and questioned and made to feel threatened at all times. But her treatment had been no different than any other prisoner’s. Now, being handed over to the Krils who operated this facility, she was certain she was no more than an anonymous body and bit of data in the POW system. Zoe was anxious about the future in a prison camp, but glad to be one of the human herd.

After she took her look at the sky, she shuffled along into one of the buildings with a long line of other captives. It was only after being crowded into a huge open elevator that proceeded to go down and down that she realized the place where she was to be a prisoner was deep underground.

It was not that she was afraid of the dark, but…

She was.

It was like being buried alive.

##

The big man standing in front of them wasn’t wearing much of a uniform though he was obviously the one in charge. Zoe kept her focus on him rather than let herself think about the environment. The expression on his rough-hewn face seemed to be a sort of odd combination of exasperation and compassion. The only way to tell his rank was because it was tattooed on his bare right bicep. The insignia of a marine brigadier general didn’t surprise Zoe, but the caduceus emblem on his left arm did.

Zoe noticed that quite a few of the long-term prisoners that gathered to watch the newbies arrival had shaved heads and had stripped their clothing choices down to bare minimum. It was understandable, considering the sweltering, humid underground prison. Plenty had the large eyes and sunken cheeks that told her food wasn’t plentiful. But there was also a lean wiry strength about them that reminded her more of a pack of predators than a contingent of soldiers.

The darkness, the heat, the odors of sweat and dirt lent an organic claustrophobia to the place that was far more intimidating to her than the prison ship had been. Everything here was in shadow. The only person fully illuminated was the marine general, and that was because he stood in the center of the shaft of diffuse light that fell the long distance through the milky force shield so far above.

She ran a hand through her thick hair. It was shorter than she normally wore it. Instead of her dark brown curls, she’d let her stylist talk her into a gene-fixed straight style with dark navy blue coloring before leaving on her diplomatic misson. It had been done more as a fashion statement than as a disguise, but she was grateful now for any concealing change in her appearance.

It hadn’t prevented Alynn from recognizing her, had it? She wondered what had happened to that young man, and hoped that Jazoan hadn’t chosen to do anything drastic to him but she wouldn’t put murder to cover her tracks past her security chief. She also wondered and worried about Jazoan’s fate, but—

"Listen up," announced the deepest, most rumbling voice she’d ever heard.

Zoe immediately turned her attention back to the big man in the center of the circular plaza.

"My name is Raven. Call me Doc," the general said. He folded burly arms over his wide chest and passed a sneering glare over the raggedy line of newcomers. "You are now prisoners of the Hajim, but your asses are mine. You’ve all been taught that a prisoner of war’s duty is to try to escape. Forget that rule. Until such time as a superior officer replaces me you live by Raven’s Rules. Raven’s First Rule is, nobody tries to escape. Is this understood?"

Zoe wasn’t the only one of the new prisoners who reacted with surprise and outrage, but she wasn’t among the ones who turned to each other to mutter and complain. She watched the ones who did.

Then she looked back at Doc and saw that he was doing the same thing; observing, marking out potential troublemakers.

"Why?" she spoke up, and took a few steps forward from the anonymous center of the group. She didn’t know if her question would help stop trouble, or bring it on, but it was a question that needed to be asked. "Why not try to escape?"

This brought General Raven’s sharp gaze to hers, his eyes so brown they seemed black. They looked at each other for a long moment of mutual assessment. His regard was the most intense she’d ever encountered, and this said quite a bit for the man’s forceful personality. She recognized in him a leader who did what must be done, used who he had to. She received the strong suspicion that he marked her down as a useful commodity. Or possibly just as a troublemaker.

Chapter Three

Doc knew immediately that the slender blue-haired woman who’d stepped to the front of the line wasn’t strongly psychic, but her mind was strongly shielded. Artificial, he thought, and wondered why her interrogators hadn’t noticed. He doubted there was anything guarding her head that could hold out against a natural telepath as strong as him, but he didn’t interfere with personal privacy unless he needed to.

"Why, indeed, lieutenant," he answered the question new prisoners always asked.

He took in the stubborn set of her chin and the stance which showed she feared no man, or the rank on his arm. He could have pointed out that an order was an order, but chose to explain his reasons to her instead. He bet that happened around her a lot.

"Because, gentlemen, ladies and the pretty blue-haired one up front." He had to pause for a moment as the warmth of her physical and psychic blush reached him. "We’re stuck in a situation that is far too politically and ethically complicated for poor little soldiers like us to grasp," Doc said, his deep voice pitched so that newbies and old timers could all hear. The reminder never hurt. "This camp is run by non-combatants at the behest of the Hajim. We are housed with prisoners from other sides in this war. Alliances change so swiftly on the outside that none of us knows who’s fighting who at the moment."

Zoe supposed she could fill him in on the current political and military alignments, but this wasn’t the time or place to challenge the camp’s senior officer’s authority any further. She’d already made the stupid mistake of not keeping her head down and her mouth shut. She had to respect the chain of command. Plus, he was right. In fact, what she knew now would be irrelevant within a short time.

Doc was aware of the lieutenant’s mental withdrawal. She was itching to talk, had plenty to say, but kept it to herself. Good decision. At least she hadn’t taken offense to his singling her out, or calling her pretty.

He probed deeper through her shielding, and caught the surface thought, I can best help him and our people by keeping my mouth shut.

Zoe saw him smile, and realized to her astonishment that the general was smiling at her. She’d never been smiled at by a brigadier general before.

His expression quickly grew serious again. "We’re stuck here. In a hole in the ground on a desert planet where the only ships in and out are transports from orbiting Hajim ships. Understood?" This last was bellowed with the expertise of a marine drill sergeant.

"Yes, sir!" most of the prisoners, new and old, answered, Zoe among them.

General Raven nodded and turned his attention firmly onto the newbies. "Time for your checkups. Then you’ll be assigned quarters." He pointed. "Infirmary’s that way. Since I’m the only doctor on the premise, we’ll no doubt be seeing each other again very soon."

##

"Are you cold?"

"What?" Zoe looked up. "Sorry sir."

She’d been staring at the smooth stone floor and hadn’t heard the big man enter the tiny examining room. She must have been too deep in her own thoughts, because no one as big as the general could move silently.

"I was told to wait here and—"

He moved closer, filling the space before her. "You’re shivering, and rubbing your arms. Those are signs of being cold. But you’re not cold, are you?"

Though his tone was gentle, his deep voice was still – not threatening – but it had a deep effect on her. Zoe supposed that compelling was the proper description. This was a man you answered, and it had nothing to do with his rank, or his size. He dominated the little room with more than the bulk of his thickly muscled body.

"It’s the darkness," she told him.

It was even dim here in the medical section, but not as much as out in the corridors. She dreaded going out of here. She still couldn’t shake the feelings that started in the elevator and grew as they were herded even further down the winding ramp that circled down and down into the heart of the prison. Along the way she caught glimpses of the corridors that wound like giant snakes off into the bowels of the place. There were lights strung in those hallways, but not very bright ones, and at far too distant intervals.

"I’m not afraid of the dark – but I am intimidated."

"It’s understandable to be intimidated, and pretty common," he reassured her. "But don’t lie to yourself about the fear."

"I’m not lying to myself," she answered. At his coaxing smile, she added, "I don’t suppose I should try to lie to you, either."

"That’s right."

She forced herself to put her hands down flat on the table on either side of her. The goosebumps didn’t go away even though she willed them too. "How can anyone stand this place? How can you?" she asked the general.

He shrugged. "I’ve got better night vision than most, so I don’t find the dark all that oppressive. But I know it’s not good for humans to spend too much time in the dark. Or underground. You aren’t going to have a panic attack are you?" She shook her head. "You’re not going to run up the ramp trying to escape while a dozen guards stick stunners in you?"

"Of course not!"

"Good. I hate treating stunner burns."

"I would hate to make your life more difficult than it already is, Raven."

"Call me Doc. Now, say ah," he added, holding up a scanner.

Zoe suddenly remembered their respective positions and jumped to her feet. "Sorry, general. I meant no disres—"

"Doc."

"I meant no respect, Doc?"

He chuckled, a deep seismic rumble she felt from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. They were definitely standing too close.

She considered her odd physical reaction to the man while he ran the med sensor over her. It read her ID chip as well

"Lieutenant Zoe Pappas," he read off his sensor screen. "Born on Terra, I see. In New Constanz itself."

All this information was true, if not at all accurate. Pappas was a common name, and had been used by her family far in the past, before humans spread out from the Terran solar system. The Pappas family were once a merchant family that lived on the asteroids out beyond Mars. Her ancestors went back to Terra at the height of the Restoration Movement to fight for democracy – even if it hadn’t quite turned out that way.

And of course she had been born in the capital of the Byzant Empire, along with hundreds of other babies born on the same day. From what her mother told her, Zoe’s birth had been perfectly normal and routine.

"You’re perfectly healthy," he went on. He lowered the medical sensor while keeping his shrewd dark gaze on her. "But you have more data enhancement implants than I’ve ever seen. Why is that? And how is it that our hosts didn’t notice?"

She wanted to ask him how he had noticed, but she managed to remember that it wasn’t a lieutenant’s place to question a general. She chanced a glance at the sensor in his hand, wondering if it was some sort of advanced model she didn’t know about. It seemed perfectly normal, even a bit battered.

He chuckled again. "I have my ways, lieutenant." For a moment she thought he was going to touch her face. He pocketed the sensor and stepped back as far as the doorway. "What’s up with you, girl? What do you do that needs all that juice?"

"I’m a diplomat, sir," she answered Again the truth, if not the whole truth. "I was assigned to secret talks with the Asi." She gave a bleak laugh. "Things were going well until the Hajim attacked."

"They found out about these negotiations?"

He was openly eager for news, and she wished she could tell him everything. Being trapped here without knowing anything – horrible!

"I suspect so," she answered. "The anti-Byzant faction of the Asi might have leaked the information."

"Or there might be a human traitor?"

She hated that thought, but how could she deny it? "But it could also have been a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How did you get here?"

A lieutenant had no right to ask a general questions, and she didn’t expect him to answer.

"You know about the task force that evacuated the Roge System?"

She was glad that he didn’t rebuff her, especially when he mentioned a mystery. "I know it disappeared."

"I was in command of the hospital ships that went in to take out survivors after the distress call. But I wasn’t in command of the fleet."

"That was Admiral Asalle," she said.

"Admiral Asshole as we like to call him around here."

"Why?"

"He surrendered the whole fucking fleet when the Hajim surrounded us. I would have put up a fight, but it wasn’t my call."

"Admiral Asalle surrendered?" Zoe couldn’t hide her outrage. "His orders were to—" She caught herself, and finished. "Sorry, sir, but the disappearance of the task force has been all over the media for months."

"Now you know where we are. All but the seriously wounded that the Hajim left to die. I’ll never forgive Asalle for that."

"Neither will I."

The promise of retribution in the lieutenant’s tone was very interesting. "I wouldn’t want to be the Admiral when you get hold of him," he teased.

The fiery look in her eyes was anything but amused. "Neither will Asalle." She cleared her throat. "I mean –once the media gets hold of the information about the surrender they will eat him alive."

"I’d do that myself if he was in Camp 5." It was his turn to clear his throat at her questioning look. They exchanged an understanding look that made Doc chuckle. "We’re a pair of patriots, aren’t we?"

She laughed as well, but added, "If you’re going to serve the Empire you should believe in what you’re doing."

He’d found that he’d talked more to her than he had to anyone else in the last sixteen months even more interesting than their shared opinions. Was the woman some sort of natural empath? That might explain the use of enhanced mental shields.

He got back to business. "As soon as we get you settled, lieutenant, I’m going to put your diplomatic training to use. We need to improve relations with our fellow prisoners."

"Yes, sir. I’ll do anything I can to help."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Anything?"

The heat of her blush warmed him. "Sir! Was that a--"

"Come on? Not really, but you’ll be getting plenty of them," he said. He pulled a patch out of his medical kit. "Pull up your sleeve and put this on. Birth control."

Outrage flared in her dark eyes. "I think not."

This woman tried, but she was definitely not used to taking orders.

So instead of making it an order he explained. "Men outnumber women about six to one here. You’re likely to hook up with someone, for your own protection if nothing else."

A flash of fear replaced her outrage but was quickly hidden. "Protection?"

"We try to stay civilized, but things happen in the dark."

"Oh…I see."

"People get lonely, afraid, they get bored. It doesn’t help that the dimness keeps our pupils dilated and that causes our hormones to react with heightening attraction. You’re going to be prey to all those human needs and you’re going to hook up with someone. I’m not going to forbid people to act on their natural needs, but this isn’t a fleet ship or base. There’s no nursery here. I’m not allowing any children to be born into this hellhole."

"That’s literally what this is, a hellhole." She nodded, took the patch and slapped it onto her forearm. It faded quickly into her skin. "I won’t need this, but I see—"

"Trouble Doc," Arco said, pulling aside the curtain that separated the exam room from the rest of the infirmary.

Copyright © 2007 by Susan Sizemore