Exclusive Extra Content and Deleted Scenes!
This Atrophy series scene has not been published in any of my books, but I've made it available here for my readers! It follows on from the events at the end of Quantum...
Onboard the Imojenna
Rian rolled out from the sheet that was half-suffocating him, cracking one eye open to see his cabin. Everything was the wrong way up. Whoever had left him on his bed had put him face down with his boots on his pillow and the sheet he’d kicked off last night scrunched up under his cheek.
He got his hands underneath himself and pushed up, getting vertical and expecting the usual post-Violaine head spin. But apparently his equilibrium had its shite together today, because everything around him remained motionless and whirl-free. Which would have been weird, until he remembered that liquor hadn’t put him down this time.
Frecking Ella had.
Furious heat stormed him with the recollection of what she’d done—used her Arynian abilities and put the whammy on him. A glance at the clock in the bulkhead revealed it had only been an hour since he’d come in here with the intention of drowning himself in the hard liquor. Yet the darkness boiling in his veins he’d been so desperate to smother had settled to its usual low rumble in the back of his mind. No doubt thanks to whatever sorceress powers Ella had used on him.
The notion didn’t bring a sense of relief. No way in hell. It was the complete opposite, sending a thrashing wave of apprehension through him. If her touch—one euphoric, heated blast of those mystifying abilities—could so effectively repress the demons within him, even when they were at their worst…? Jezus damn. He could become far more addicted to her than he ever had been to Violaine.
Like the first night she’d been onboard all those months ago, and he’d comprehended the extent of her power, an unfamiliar shot of dread and anxiety swamped him, starting in the middle of his chest like he was having a frecking heart attack and radiating out through his limbs in spikes of sharp coldness. He clamped a hand against the middle of his chest, forcing himself to breathe through lungs that had become solid chunks of ice. Because this was all in head, damn it. No one had any power over him, not the Reidar and not the frecking priestess.
He stumbled to his feet, knocking the pillow off his bed. He staggered out to his office and over to the drinks compartment, already standing open with no bottle of Violaine in sight. Where the freck was it? If Zahli had confiscated it, thinking she was helping him—
A surge of anger burned away some of the ice as he started toward the hatchway, boots crunching over broken glass.
He glanced down at the scattered shards. Oh, right. He’d drunk what was left of the Violaine and then tossed the empty bottle, shattering it against the bulkhead near where the priestess had been standing when she’d refused to leave him alone. Well, she’d sure as hell had the last laugh, hadn’t she?
He kicked a few of the larger pieces out of the way and stomped out into the passageway, not hearing any voices. Since the Imojenna was still docked on the Swift Brion, no doubt his crew were making the most of being on the larger ship with more room to move.
The short trip down to the cargo hold proved that the ship was definitely empty, which he was taking as a win since he didn’t have to face his sister’s disapproval over his treatment of Ella or anyone else’s damned silent opinion over his drinking habits. He dug a new bottle of Violaine out from one of the secret compartments.
As he made it back to the bottom of the stairs, a light tread of footsteps echoed from the ramp, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Zahli coming into the ship. He almost turned his back on her to continue up-ship to his cabin, where he planned on locking himself in and not putting down the bottle of Violaine until he could forget all about what Ella had done to him. Or at least not have the weird tingles all over his body every time he recalled it.
But no doubt his sister would simply follow him, especially if she had something on her mind she thought needed to be said. So instead of making like he hadn’t seen her, he shifted to lean against the rail, twisting the lid off his Violaine as he waited.
Zahli topped the ramp, definitely looking like she was on a mission, but paused abruptly as she saw him standing there.
“Oh, you’re up.” She took several slow steps closer, as though now she was face to face with him, she wasn’t sure what to say.
“Yeah, I’m up. Did the princess expect me to be out longer after scrambling my brain?” He took a long swallow of the liquor, keeping a close eye on her expression for hints about what was going on in that head of hers.
“Actually, Ella didn’t say anything about it. She disappeared into her quarters. I was just going to check on her.”
Ah. So he hadn’t been the intended victim of her concern. Mostly he was relieved, but a small part of him was frecking annoyed that apparently the priestess rated more worry than he did. From his own sister, yet.
He half stepped to the side, waving an arm toward the steps. “Don’t let me get in your way. I’m sure she’ll appreciate your solicitations.”
Her features tightened a little, as if she wasn’t impressed with him, but working to keep herself locked down. She started to walk past him, but then paused. This time when she looked up at him, he could well read the apprehension in her eyes, the same color their mom’s had been, making his heart pinch in his chest.
“You would tell me, Rian, if it was getting worse?” Her gaze roamed him, as though searching for the answer on his face. “You’d tell me if we were all in danger, wouldn’t you?”
He tightened his hold on the Violaine, resisting the urge to suck down a large, smoldering mouthful because it would likely be too telling.
Damn it, why did she have to ask him that? She should have been smarter. They all should have been smarter. He’d never trusted himself a single day since escaping the Reidar. Maybe he’d been on a leash since his parents had died, when he’d forced himself to maintain tighter control, but there was always that little niggle of knowledge in the bottom of his mind that he could be one decent blackout away from killing every single one of them.
“I can tell you with all certainty that you’re in exactly the same amount of danger today as you were yesterday.”
Despite this not being much in the way of an answer, Zahli actually looked somewhat relieved.
She reached out as if she was going to take his hand, but then changed her mind and crossed her arms instead. “I know it helps, but try not to drink too much Violaine. I worry about what it’s doing to your liver.”
He could have almost laughed at that, but simply sent her the ghost of a grin. “Pretty sure I’ll be dead long before my liver craps it.”
She shook her head with an exasperated glare. “So optimistic.”
Without waiting for him to reply, she continued up the stairs. Rian stood there for a moment longer, taking another drink. If Ella was on the ship, why hadn’t he sensed her presence…? But even as he had the thought, that invariable, low-vibrating awareness of her hummed back to life, as though it’d been there all along, but he’d been too distracted to notice.
And freck him if he couldn’t decide whether he was annoyed or relieved that the invisible tether binding them together was still in good working order.
With a longer swig of Violaine, he headed back up into his cabin and did a few cursory checks for messages and any media reels that might be connected to Reidar activity. Nothing of any particular interest grabbed his attention.
The bottle was over three quarters empty, and this time when he stood, the expected head-spin hit him. But instead of feeling woozy, relief spread through him, and he allowed a small release of the furious tension of control he held onto savagely, knowing the hard liquor would douse any sentiment of violence, and with a bit more Violaine, his body would be too sloshed to follow through, anyway.
He unsteadily grabbed up the liquor and made his way over to his bed, not bothering to pick up the pillow as he plonked down on the edge. When he tipped his head back for a drink, his whole body went with the action and he flopped back onto the mattress.
He was sinking fast and happy to go under. But maddeningly, the last lucid thought he had was of the damned priestess and the way her touch sparked through him like an elemental chain reaction bursting new stars to life.
Like always, he didn’t sink into a deep, oblivious slumber or liquor-induced-coma. He was forever conscious on some level, like the Reidar had destroyed his mind’s ability to completely shut down. Either that, or because he was too aware of what could happen if he entirely blacked out, he simply couldn’t let himself go.
The dreams started as they always did—more a sense of voided existence, empty of life. Totally hollow. No heart, no soul, no will. Only the darkness.
Snatches of images began flashing, and he knew this dream was going to be more of a recollection. He couldn’t stand remembering—even disjointedly—the things he’d done, the faces of the people he’d killed during those lost years. The number was countless, but every single one of them was in there somewhere, their last moments an incoherent jumble of brutality and bloodshed.
However, something about this was different. The pictures were clearer, more vivid.
He was walking through a spaceport. He had a target, an important target. But not one he had to kill, one he had to take. A girl. The Reidar wanted her. He didn’t care why, he just wanted to get this done so they’d give him his next assignment, the next fix, the next bloody repast to feed the darkness.
Every mission was about precision. Every move premeditated and deliberate. Passing effortlessly through checkpoints and security stations, he’d calculated exactly where he needed to intercept and snatch her without the deed appearing on cameras or gaining the attention of spaceport officers.
He reached the intersecting passageways and shifted to lean against the bulkhead, a few people passing here and there. A shuttle would be docking right about now and in a few minutes, there would be an influx of passengers heading into the main terminal.
Counting down the seconds, he recalculated the timeframe as the first few groups of people began flooding down the corridor, bringing a low murmuring wave of chatter with them.
Finally, he spotted her coming toward him down the corridor, walking between two male minders. Even though he knew this was already a dream and a memory, everything became surreal. The girl walking down the passage was Ella.
She couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. She looked so much younger, but he had no doubt it was her. Those eyes—he could never mistake her eyes.
He straightened, counting their steps toward him as she approached. When the trio drew even, he inserted himself into the shifting crowd, coming up behind her and reaching out to grab her arm. As his fingers closed around her wrist, she glanced back at him, their eyes clashing.
Hers widened and for a moment, nothing existed, like the whole universe had stopped. Like time had frozen and his breath was no more. He was suspended as surely as he’d been immersed in pure, clear crystal.
Sensation returned in a roar. And this time, everything vacuumed into a tiny atom of awareness, riveting on where his skin was in contact with hers. Then every thought in his mind exploded with blinding light and ripping noise. He let Ella go as she collapsed, her eyes rolling into the back of her head when she went down.
But he—he was coming apart from the inside out. He clamped his hands over his ears, but the shrieking that tore through his skull was inside his head.
Rian stumbled away into the crowd, his movements no longer precise or controlled. The darkness thrashed, lost its grip on him, was cut free in the depths of his mind. And he remembered in a crushing tidal wave.
Aliens. Those aliens…the Reidar. They’d taken him from his military post. They’d killed his friends. The things they’d done to him—
His gut clenched, and he veered into another corridor, this one leading to the men’s. He slammed into a cubicle in the mercifully empty bathroom. But the churning had settled, and he’d succumbed to a cold sweat, deep shivers wracking his body like a junkie coming down.
He surged up from the near-dream, coming fast awake and too-sober, considering the amount of Violaine he’d drunk, but the memories didn’t leave him, they only became sharper.
That had always been the first lucid moment he could recall—waking up in some men’s room on a random station, sick to his soul from the mind control and reprogramming the Reidar had subjected him to for years on end. He’d never been able to remember why he’d suddenly kicked the Reidar hold and come back to himself.
It had been Ella.
He’d touched her and the darkness had released him.
After that, he’d gone on the run, knowing the Reidar would come for him. That they’d try to reacquire him, and failing that, would send out other brainwashed assassins to kill him. And they had. Any number of the bastards had tried to take him, and he’d put down every single one of them.
Surging to his feet, Rian almost tripped over the pillow on the floor in his haste, rushing across the room and out into the passageway. The dim wayfinding lights were on, which meant it was night ship-time with everyone likely asleep.
But none of it mattered right now.
He needed to know. Had to find out if the memory was real or some sick game his damaged mind was playing with him.
At her door, he didn’t knock, simply used his captain’s codes to gain entrance. She wasn’t asleep, but sitting in the middle of her bed, making notes on a commpad.
She didn’t glance up as he stopped at the foot of her bed. No doubt she’d known this was his destination the minute he’d gotten upright in his cabin.
“Did you know?” His voice came out rough, but strong—an undeniable demand.
She set the commpad aside and clasped her hands in her lap then looked up at him.
“Did I know what?” Her voice, serene as always, was like an effervescent in his veins, making his blood fizz.
He set a knee on her bed and leaned down toward her, planting a fist on the mattress and bringing them face to face. For a second his mind scrambled, and he saw the girl from his memory, her as she would have been seven or eight years ago, young, barely a woman, the potential of her beauty like a new blooming bud.
“Did you know you were the one who brought me back the day you saw me on Arleta?”
Very rarely did her collected countenance ever alter, but now a definite note of confusion entered her gaze.
“What are you talking about?”
“This.” He clamped a hand on the side of her neck, his thumb along the line of her delicate jaw. The usual warm tingles hummed to life, but this time he was the one in control. He let the memory flood his mind, and the vibration between them intensified. Her eyes widened as the images flowed, connecting them almost like they were forging one consciousness. And then the pictures, the memory was changing. He started seeing things from Ella’s perspective. Walking with her father and older brother through the spaceport the first and only time she’d ever left Aryn until the day she was kidnapped.
In the midst of a crowd, not long after they’d left the shuttle, someone had reached out and touched her. The sensation of his hand closing around her wrist had been like nothing she’d ever felt before. A heated and delirious intoxication had sufficed her. She’d turned, not sure what she’d been expecting, but then she’d met his eyes and everything had turned cold.
Because those eyes—they were dead. As though he had no soul.
And when their gazes had met, so had their minds, and she’d seen nothing but a vast, terrifying darkness. On instinct alone, she’d filled herself with light, drawing it inward to protect her very essence—more luminosity and power than she’d ever called on before.
It’d been too much, and some of it had blasted into him where he still held her wrist, until her mind had shut down.
Ella wrenched out of his hold, breaking the connection, and Rian half-collapsed forward, both hands braced against the mattress as he struggled to regain his breath like he’d just run up fifty flights of stairs.
Her breathing equally unsteady, Ella stumbled to her feet, backing away from him until she reached the bulkhead and leaned heavily against it.
“Did you know?” he repeated, voice now ragged and disjointed over the words.
She shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. “I didn’t know. I had no memory of that. I didn’t remember anything after leaving the shuttle. I didn’t wake up until we were back on Aryn. I asked my father what had happened, and he simply told me that I wasn’t able to cope with being out in the galaxy and forbade me from even leaving Aryn again.”
“Until the Reidar decided they wanted you enough to risk snatching you off your home world, since apparently I failed seven years earlier.”
This connection, though he didn’t understand it, though it had been immediate and apparent the first time he’d touched her all those years ago and forceful enough to break the Reidar hold on him, it was real.
It was real, and he feared where it would lead them.
He got himself upright, limbs jellied like half-formed repli-rations, only just supporting his weight. “Don’t tell anyone about this. Not a word. In fact, this is the last and only time we’re going to talk about it.”
She stepped toward him, expression becoming a little calmer. “Rian, this could be important. We need to understand why—”
“No!” He shifted back from her, holding out both hands to ward her off before she got any ideas about touching him. Christ, he couldn’t take that right now. Clearly her touch would be his ultimate undoing. Never mind the Reidar, the real danger to him was residing on his own damned ship. “It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change who and what I am, what I’m capable off. In fact, it gives me one more reason to warn you to stay the hell away from me.”
He spun, stalking out of her cabin before she could say anything else. His mind reeled, both from his newly surfaced memories and Ella’s memories he’d experienced as though they were two parts of a whole—something he couldn’t comprehend and refused to acknowledge.
He couldn’t accept the knowledge that if it hadn’t been for her, if the Reidar hadn’t sent him to abduct her, he might still have been under their hold to this day.
Shite, he needed the rest of that almost-empty Violaine. And he needed to find some way to forget again. Because this revelation, despite what he’d just said to the priestess, it changed everything—everything he knew of himself, everything he’d assumed of her.
No, he couldn’t deal with this right now. But he could deal with the why. Why the Reidar had wanted her, even back then. What exactly was so goddamn special about the woman? What did they plan on doing with her?
Somehow, someway, he had to avoid her and at the same time, work out just what exactly he’d taken on to his ship the day he’d decided to keep her for his own gain.
The idea now was almost laughable, that he’d thought to wrench some advantage from the Reidar by taking the captive they so clearly wanted.
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~ Jess Anastasi