Interview with Steve McHugh – What’s New

4 Dec

 

promise-of-wrath

 

Steve has a true passion for what’s he’s doing – and it shows. He’s come a long way from his debut release of April 28, 2012 when he self-published his first book, Crimes Against Magic, selling 28 copies opening day. Now he’s got the whole Hellequin Chronicles under his belt with book 6 Promise of Wrath released September 13, 2016. He’s working on book 7 Scorched Shadows right now, but took time from his busy schedule to answer some more questions.

 

You left your full-time job in December 2015, to have more time to write. At what point did you decide that you could give up your day job? Was leaving that security net scary?

Through most of 2015 it became apparent that there was no chance I was going to be able to write books quickly enough for the amount of stories in my head. At least not if I worked full-time too. I was doing maybe 1 ½ a year while working. So far this year, since leaving my job, I’m finished 2 and started a 3rd.

On top of that I started to earn enough that it just didn’t make sense to keep working full-time and write. My writing had become my major earner, and it made financial sense to run with that.

It was nerve-wracking to leave and move away from a job I’d done for over a decade, but I’d pretty much done everything I could do while I was there and was essentially coasting because it was easy. I needed the shake up of doing something new.

You tried the traditional route first, looking for an agent, then decided to self-publish. How did you feel when a publisher approached you later? And then you were contacted by an agent. Why did you decide to sign?

Self-publishing was never really my first thought when I was trying to get an agent. I did it because I had friends who had been very successful doing it, and I wanted to give it a try and see how things went. As it turned out, it went well, but when 47N asked if I’d like to work with them, the idea of having a publisher do marketing and the like, allowing me to concentrate on the actual writing side, was something I thought would help me in the long run.

After book 3 came out, I started looking for an agent. I contacted maybe 7 or 8 and explained my situation, but got rejections. Paul, my current agent, and I got on really well from the start and having someone go to bat for me in negotiations meant was great.

You’ve hinted at a new project in the works, a departure from Nate’s adventures. What will that story be about?

I’ve just finished a book that will be out next year. It’s called Divided and it takes place in the Hellequin universe, but isn’t a Nate book. It’s about a young woman by the name of Layla, who through circumstances of someone else’s making, ends up with these incredible powers, throwing her into a world she didn’t know existed.

It was a lot of fun to write, and Layla is a big departure from Nate who was already well established by the time the first book came around. Layla gets sort of dropped in the deep end and told to survive.

What advice would your old self give to a new writer? (Throw yourself back in time about six years to answer that question.) How about now?

I don’t know. I’d probably tell him to just keep writing and not worry about reviews or rankings. I’d probably tell him that he gets to do his dream job and that all of those days when I had to go to a job I didn’t care about were worth it in the long run.

On a non-writer related topic, how’s the puppy?

Unfortunately, our youngest daughter and the puppy didn’t really get along. Harley was far too skittish around the dog, and the dog was constantly trying to show her dominance over our daughter. So, we returned the puppy to the breeder. We’ll try again with an older dog in a few years when Harley is a bit older. It was sad, but it was a learning experience.

https://www.amazon.com/Steve-McHugh/e/B007YYWVHA/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1480881232&sr=8-1

https://www.amazon.com/Steve-McHugh/e/B007YYWVHA/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1480881232&sr=8-1

New Release Coming Soon…

20 Nov
synchronicity

Synchronicity Cover

 

 

 

A snowstorm continues raging outside, the first one of the season. Two days ago it was warm and sunny, fall leaves scattering on green lawns. And this should make me sad…but it doesn’t. Why? Three reasons:

  1. I don’t have to drive anywhere today in this crappy weather. No shovelling. Yay.
  2. Still full from last night’s BBQ grilled steak. Yummy.
  3. This cover. Wow.

Yup. This cover. It’s new and exciting. The initial buzz still hasn’t worn off yet. Another fledging about to fly into the world. I thought I would get used to this feeling. Nope. And that makes me happy.

Hat Trick

29 May

THE HARVESTERS-medium

 

While listing all of my published work for a new contract, I released how much that list has grown in the past few years. Perhaps my list is shorter than other authors’ lists, but it is significantly longer than the one I had three years ago.

This will be my third novel released – all of them dear to me, in different ways. This one stands alone, not part of a series, nothing to fall back on. Just pure sci-fi, no ghosts or bats or gothic themes. A true product of the ‘80’s influence: different in tone and theme and voice.

A Hat Trick is when you score three goals on the same game – and that’s what this release date feels like: the culmination of a lot of hard work, a significant event, something that should be celebrated.

 

The Harvesters will be released on May 31: my personal hat trick.

 

Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

23 Apr

Where did the idea for the story come from?

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

 

The idea for The Harvesters came from a dream – actually a terrifying nightmare – that just wouldn’t fade once daylight invaded. Farmers’ fields being torn up by a giant machine, abandoning a home, frantic escape by car, making sure my loved ones were all accounted for…the struggle, the mad dash, the anguish of leaving things behind…

A compelling idea. Story-worthy.

The more I researched the genre, the more comments and articles I came across telling me my project wouldn’t work. Sci-fi wasn’t targeted for “women over 30”. The main character was a mom, trying to save everyone. Not daunted by those parameters, I plunged ahead anyways and wrote a few scenes.

When I tried to mold that dream into a story, it just wouldn’t work. It was dark, it was deadly, and it didn’t have a moment of victory. So I discarded the outline, quit working on the chapters I had written, and moved on.

A few years later (and a few books later), I was attending one of Brian Henry’s writing workshops intending to polish up my kids’ chapter book (The Persnickety Princess, released April 12 2016). I had an eureka moment! The Harvesters might work if I changed the point of view to the oldest sibling’s – a teenager. Armed with this new concept, I tackled the old outline and much to my surprise had a whole novel a few months later.

The book is all about things I know – the setting, the sports, the power struggles, injected with a hefty dash of sci-fi. The sunset at the lake, the wind turbines, the clash of sweaty kids on a football field, the dusty bookstore. Secrets and lies and the struggle to survive – all very human concepts. The realism grounds the fantasy.

And it all started with a nightmare.

 

The Harvester will be released on May 31 2016 by MuseItUp Publishing.

99 Hours in Joanland – Part Two

21 Aug

This is part two of my real-life experience with surgery.

Down The Rabbit Hole

When I was a kid, I had read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They had been called classics, highly recommended, and I was a voracious reader. Sounds like the perfect combination. But I didn’t like those books. Not at all. I remember thinking that the stories had a surrealistic dream-like quality that was eerily unsettling. As an adult, I re-read the books and did some research on the author, and found out why those stories were so odd and uncomfortable. There is no mistaking that altered state. And I knew I was in an altered state now. Waking up was weird and disorienting. First I could hear, then I could see, but I couldn’t respond or move my body. I’d woken up from surgery before, so this effect didn’t freak me out. What did freak me out was the amount of time that had gone by – like maybe eight hours?

I was so happy to be through the successful reconstruction, and very very alive. I ran my tongue over my teeth – yup, all still there and no damage (another possible effect of surgery). Another reason to be happy. The recovery nurse told me that my room wasn’t ready yet. I laughed and replied “I’ll just wait here.” Like I could do anything else – I was stuck on that stretcher, tubes and IV’s connected to my body. My husband was waiting outside the recovery room, joining us in the hallway as the porter wheeled the stretcher to the elevators. I was so happy to see him. Things like this test your relationship, and we’d been through so much already, but when you really know you can trust somebody, that you can let yourself fall and they’ll catch you – that’s special. As the hospital corridors flashed by, I fisted my hands. They felt like they had woken up, too. I could feel all my fingers, no numbness, no pins and needles. I hadn’t felt them in their entirety for years. I wondered what medication they had given me, because to have your hands wake up like that was weirdly delightful. Everything was weirdly delightful. Let’s face it – being high is grand. I was so happy to be alive, that I got to keep my kidney, and now on the road to recovery. Happy, happy, happy. Yeah, cue the ominous music.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that evening. Just wheeling to my room, the blip of machines, the pulsing of some contraption that was wrapped around my lower legs so I wouldn’t get blood clots. I was hooked up to a narcotic painkiller pump so I could push a button when the pain got to be too much. A catheter had been inserted so I didn’t have to get up to go pee. Oxygen was vented into my nose. A drainage tube had been inserted into my abdomen, hooked up to a circular bag. The IV kept me hydrated. Both incisions were covered, and they both felt fine. My husband told me that my spleen had been nicked during the surgery, but fixing it wasn’t a problem. You don’t need your spleen anyways; other systems will take over if it’s gone. After I got settled, my husband went home. I wasn’t really there anyways, kept drifting in and out of sleep. Blink, I was gone. Blink, I was back. Somebody came by every hour to check on me. Morning light. Fade out, fade in. Breakfast. Tick tock goes the clock. Fade out, fade in. Lunch. Tick tock. The surgeon came by, checking the incisions. He read the chart on the pain pump, telling me I had a good pain tolerance and that the pump was addictive and he wanted to get me off of it as soon as possible. I agreed – his recommendation seemed logical, a good idea. It made sense to give it up. I knew the stuff was bad for me, so I had used it sparingly and sucked up the rest of the pain. You’ve got to expect some pain after surgery, right? If only I’d known what I was going to be up against. Maybe it is better that I didn’t know. Somebody came in and removed the pump. The catheter went, too – no pain, no problem. Until I actually had to get up to go pee.

I couldn’t get out of bed. It was like going to sleep normal, and waking up nine months pregnant. My abdomen was distended to the point where it was pressing into my diaphragm, making breathing awkward, a deep breath impossible. I’d been through natural childbirth twice, surgery three times before – I thought I knew something about pain. I would have to invent a new scale; my previous “ten” had been chewed up and spit out by this monster. My legs were wrapped in those claustrophobic bindings, and I had no abdominal muscles to help me rise. Just sitting up became a huge problem, such pain rippling, cramping, hammering. I was counting the minutes between oral painkiller doses, and the nurses wouldn’t give me the meds off schedule, not even ten minutes too early. Supper came, but I had no desire to eat. It made me nauseous just to think about food. My brother and his wife dropped by to visit. I wished they’d come by a few hours earlier, when I was still high and happy. I must have looked bad, as she kept talking about patient advocates and how patients needed someone on the outside to fight for their needs. But I never once felt like I wasn’t getting the help I needed, and I didn’t want somebody sitting beside me all day, watching me sleep. It would have been too exhausting to pretend that I was okay, to put on that false front, to act like I had my shit together when clearly I didn’t. My husband came by, bringing our daughter with him. I could see the tension and shock in her face, that her mom would be such a mess.

That night I was in such pain, I wanted it to be over. The logical part of me knew that the meds were taking over my thoughts. The emotional part of me wanted to give up. Which side would win? While I was wrestling with this dark mood, a man appeared, standing at the foot of my bed. I didn’t know him. I wondered if he had wandered into the room by mistake, or had come to visit my room-mate. He was wearing a weird hat, the big brim shadowing his face. His clothes were odd too, from a different era. The strange hat tipped me off, that and the fact that nobody else was reacting to his presence. What I saw wasn’t at all like a dream – there was too much reality injected in the details. It didn’t have the weird, altered state that goes on in a dream. He asked, in an impatient, bored tone, if I was going to cross over. I always figured that when I crossed over, somebody I knew would come to get me, not this indifferent stranger. If this was a hallucination, why didn’t it contain someone familiar? It really shook me up, that the afterlife would be so different to how I thought it would be. Maybe I’d seen too many episodes of The Dead Files. Or maybe this was just the way things were going to be. Logic claimed he was a hallucination. Emotion claimed he was a ghost. Both sides agreed that he was scary. Months later, the creepy image of that man in his wide-brimmed hat still haunts me.

No way did I want to cross over. I had too much to live for, a beautiful family that was counting on me. Many people, some of them strangers, had invested their time and effort to get me here.

I told the man “no!” Adamant, final, determined. He left, drifting backwards to dissipate through the wall. He came back again later but never said anything, just stood there and waited as if I might change my mind. I closed my eyes, trying to shut him out. Eventually he left again, right through the chair and the clock and the shelf and the wall. I couldn’t fall asleep after that happening. To sleep meant that dreams may come, weird unsettling surrealistic illusions, and I had had enough of that altered state.

Morning couldn’t come soon enough.

99 Hours in Joanland

23 Jul

I barely ever journal. Usually I prefer to take my life experiences and camouflage them into fiction so the emotions are true, if not the details of the events. This time though, I felt compelled to write it all down before the experience faded. I don’t want to forget. The pain can fade, gladly, and the scars too, but not the other truths. You need to understand one thing: when a writer stops writing, it is serious. I had used writing to purge my soul; it ended up in my fiction. But for many months that internal drive fell silent, and I didn’t have the energy to miss it. I’m glad that it woke up again, even if it’s not what I’m accustomed to. So this is what I want to write about, my life-altering event.

Letting Go

Nobody likes hospitals. Especially the one in which your mom died while you held her hand. Sad memories surround this building. This is where my surgery would take place. Everybody there calls me Joan. I’ve never used my first name. Not even my mother ever used it. Joan became my alter-ego, a depersonalizing label that cloaked my real self from that invasive world. After a while, I just embraced the alternative name. Being called by the wrong name used to piss me off, but somewhere along the way I stopped caring.

I’ve had surgery before, but nothing on this scale, never on an organ. My kidney wasn’t working properly, like a kitchen sink with a clogged drainpipe with possibly damaging repercussions. I had an UPJO, an ureteropelvic junction obstruction. Sometimes my kidney wouldn’t drain, which caused painful swelling. Like puke your guts out, curl up in a ball and involuntarily cry kind of pain. Most of the time I would ride it out, down some painkillers, but sometimes the pain would go on for hours, requiring another trip to the ER. An ultrasound would confirm whether that kidney had ruptured. UPJOs can be corrected by robotic surgery. The machine is named DaVinci, an apt label for something so inventive. My surgeon is top-notch, a pioneer in the robotic laparoscopic field. He’s the co-director of the multi-organ transplant program. A Google search brings up plenty of positive information. And he’s been on the news. If anybody can fix me, he can.

It’s no wonder that after the long, long wait for this very specialized surgery, I couldn’t sleep that night. The clock finally showed 4AM. Good enough. My husband couldn’t sleep, either, getting up when I stirred. We quietly got ready to go, not wanting to wake our kids. I peeked into their rooms. My son was out cold, sprawled across his now too-small mattress, the blanket thrown off like usual. My daughter was tucked under her blanket, her exposed face tempting me to plant a kiss, so I did. This could be the last time I saw either of them. One of the possible unfortunate effects of surgery can be death.

The roads were clear that early in the morning, the sky gradually lighting as we drove across the city. We arrived at the hospital, well before the assigned time, but we were not alone. Another patient was already there, lugging the crutches he would need later. After a quick visit to pre-admit, we were directed upstairs. A long wait in a soon-crowded bland waiting room was followed by another long wait for just patients in another room, followed by a trip to the intermediate destination: a stretcher in a curtained cubicle. I removed everything that made me unique, changing from an individual to a patient when I donned that hospital gown. IVs were inserted, one in each hand. An injection of blood thinner went into my thigh. The anesthesiologist introduced herself. Somebody told me (her?) that I would be given medication so a pre-existing problem wouldn’t flare up, another possible effect of the stress of surgery. I’m not sure who said this – I had met lots of medical staff that morning and everything was a blur, lost in tension and anticipation and the literal blur of not having my eyeglasses anymore.

I said goodbye to my husband – my rock – wondering if I would ever get to see him again. He’d taken me to ER many times, seen me through visits to the oncologist when cancer was a consideration, and managed to remain positive through the months-long wait for surgery. I devoured the details of him, just like I’d stared at my kids earlier that morning.

The surgery room wasn’t at all what I expected. I’d had surgery three times before, yet this was completely different. The room was huge, with lots of people working inside. They all said hello, a friendly greeting to somebody who would soon be carved up by this team. I expected to see my surgeon, have him say something, but he wasn’t there. They helped me onto this weird bed, lie on my right side, raise my arms, wiggle so my head was on this odd platform that felt like a bean-bag.

And that was it. Blank. No nothing. No winking out. No sensation of fading, like I’d experienced with the other surgeries. Just one second I was on the operating table, and the next second I was gone.

Trust is a conditional gift. You break it, and it’s gone. I had to trust that this team would fix me, wake me, see me through. Letting go of control of your life is a hard, hard thing to do.

Hoarfrost: Episode 6

20 Jan

HOARFROST

This is Episode Six of the Garden of Hell series of science-fiction short stories, following after Tiger Lilies, Two Moons, Crow’s Flight, Impasse, and Winner Takes All.

Copyright J. Dianne Waye January 2015

Contains mature subject matter and violence.

“Perez. Wake up. We’re here.” Crow shook me. I opened my eyes to see his grinning face, his bald head glistening.

I blinked, rubbing my eyes, swallowing in my parched throat. My skin was itchy from the dry cabin air and weeks of short water rations. Most of that time we’d drifted in space, using gravity to tug the ship forward. Every time we used the engines we had to deal with the constant threat of fighter ships finding our contrail signature, blasting us to smithereens. And every time Crow fell asleep, I tried to figure out how to override his destination co-ordinates. All of those useless adrenaline spikes left me tired and wired, out of focus.

“We made it. We’ll both be dead of old age before Mothership tracks us here.”

I wiped the cockpit window, disturbing a patch of hoarfrost obscuring the view. Tiny crystals surrendered to the heat of my touch, drifting into the weightlessness of the cabin. Outside was a beautiful sight, swirling white clouds over blue seas, brown and green swatches of colour making continents, making life.

“I get it,” he said. “You’re still mad at me. But I’m not the one that infected you, and I’m not the one that killed Andy. He was my son. Don’t ever forget that.”

How could I forget? Andrew’s death burned deep inside, a pain that didn’t go away, didn’t lessen with time.

Crow banked the craft. I buckled the seatbelt harness for a rough atmosphere entry that shook the ship. We flew over forest canopies, sweeping planes, deep ravines filled with rushing water. Birds took flight, big ones with white wings and pink underbellies. Animals grazed flatlands, disturbed into stampeding at our approach. Plenty of places to hide on this planet, with no crazy vengeful plants trying to murder us. And from its deserted look, it had been rejected for colonization.

Or had it?

Off in the distance, beyond a crescent ridge, symmetrical shapes emerged, dirt-coloured but distinctly unnatural. We drew closer. Barbed-wire fences surrounded a compound, multi-storied levels with windows lined up in a row—a view to nowhere.

“850 is the code for a colonized planet,” I said, anger making the words snap. “We can’t land here.” And we couldn’t go home. We would infect our world, wipe out millions of lives before they found a cure.

“Ah, she speaks at last.” Crow circled the ship and landed, maintaining radio silence, sending a bustling beehive of heavily-armed men marching onto the flat compound, guns and cannons raised in salute to our arrival.

“What is this place?” I hissed.

“Halcyon Colony. The prison planet. Now you have a reason to be mad.” He popped open the door, raising his arms over his head, clasping them together in the signal for surrender.

“Get out,” he said to me, nodding. “Slowly. Slowly, Perez.”

“Screw you, Crow.” I followed him outside. There was no other choice.

A bullhorn shouted instructions. “Citizen Crow—on the ground. And you, Private 4930, drop.”

“Now is that any way to welcome home the prodigal son?” Crow shouted back. “Commander Edding, I brought you a present. Our secret weapon.” He smiled that jack-o-lantern grin of his, and lay down in the dirt.

I copied him and lay prostrate on the ground, stirring up dust that tasted vile in my dry mouth, as swarms of armed men surrounded us.

In the end Crow did betray me, but not at all how I anticipated. He was really good at keeping secrets, just like his son.

#

My cage had a hastily-erected transparent overlay to keep my toxic spittle from melting the guards patrolling outside. Crow was in the cell next to mine, lying on the cot, no plastic shield surrounding his cage. Only bars separated our cells, which was good for him because I wanted to kill him for bringing us here.

A sink stood beside the toilet, both naked and exposed, the ledge holding a toothbrush, toothpaste, a jar of cream. The mirror was polished metal glued firmly to the wall, shatter-proof or I would have already broken it to use the shards as weapons. But someone had already thought of that.

The wavering reflection mocked me. My spore scars had healed, sunburned a different shade than the healthy skin. A fading bruise on my jaw outlined where Faust had hammered me senseless.

But the C carved into my cheek marked me as Crow’s. And hidden above the sleeve of my uniform, a vaccination pock-mark matched the one on his bicep.

Damn him. Damn all of this.

I picked up the jar of regeneration cream intended to repair my face, and threw it at the door. It bounced off the plastic shield and shattered, white goo splattering the clear walls.

Two guards stomped into the outer room, their rigid postures different from the slack spines of the men guarding my cell. Their faces were covered with helmets to keep them safe from my toxins, every inch of skin protected. I couldn’t even see their eyes through their mirrored visors, just my own fear glaring back at me.

They unlocked the cage, needing to use their tasers for me to surrender.

“Where are you taking her?” Crow’s hands fisted through the bars separating our cells. “I asked you a question!”

But he never got an answer. He didn’t have any authority here, now that they had me.

#

The night stick smashed into my face again. My teeth cut my cheek. Blood filled my mouth, enough fluid to spit out at my attacker. Spitting was all I could do to fight back, hands pinned behind my back, feet anchored to the chair. But that’s what they wanted me to do, what the sink and toothbrush and toothpaste was for. So instead I swallowed, because they wanted me to spit.

The interrogator yanked my head back by the hair, roots screaming in pain. If he wanted me dead, he would have killed me by now. The stick smashed into my ribs this time.

“I am Private Perez 4930. I am a hostage. I cannot be broken—”

He jerked my hair, levelling my forehead, exposing my throat. I thought he was going to break my neck, slash my throat. Instead he let me go, my head dropping from exhaustion.

Through unshed tears and blurred vision, I saw the door glide open. The interrogator left me alone in the empty room. No guards, no beatings, nothing but throbbing pain mimicking my heartbeat. There wasn’t even a ticking clock to tell me how much time passed.

Sleep. Precious sleep.

Something smashed my ribs, jolting me back to consciousness. The world narrowed again, so small my wavering universe, what I could witness through swollen eyelids.

Pain. Focus on the pain.

My interrogator wasn’t wearing a bio-hazard suit now, tempting me to attack, no doubt figuring his vaccination would protect him like it had protected Crow. It was a huge gamble; he must want to win really badly. Almost as much as me.

He drew a hand over his chin, stubble grating against his fingertips. I guess he’d been at this a while, for him to need to shave. His once-neat hair was messy, his ironed uniform wrinkled, sweat stains darkening his armpits. The focus in his eyes had been replaced by a crazy sparkle, unhinging in its obscenity.

Three pounds shook the door. It glided open, hinges silent.

Crow entered the interrogation room, handcuffs rattling behind his back. “Commander Edding, nice to see you again. I take it Plan B didn’t work.”

“Which is why you’re here,” Edding said.

“She’s too smart for you. You can’t break her by beating her. You need to hit her weak spot.”

“Which is?”

“Oh, you need my help now?”

“You came back for a reason. What’s the price?”

“My wife. My shuttlecraft fuelled and stocked.”

“And Perez?”

“Do you think I care about Perez? You get what you want, Marcia comes with me. I want your word that you won’t order our deaths, that you’ll tell Mothership we died.”

“Mothership will demand corpses.”

“Tell her you burned us. Decontamination protocol.”

“I would never order that,” Edding said.

“Then tell her it was a mistake made by one of your minions. She’ll believe that. I brought you your prize, now give me mine.”

The commander let loose a great exhale, pondering Crow’s demands. “All right. But you promised me two weapons. I only see one.”

“Yeah, well, sorry my son’s death changed your plan.”

My breath quickened at the mention of Andrew. Crow turned around, watching me watch him.

“Oh, that bothers you when I mention Andy.” He drew closer, riveting me with his gaze. So much like Andrew’s, so different the soul. “Uncuff me, Commander. Turn off the camera on your way out.”

Crow waited to be uncuffed, for the door to seal shut behind Edding, for the camera behind him to click off, before he spoke. “I get what you’re trying to accomplish here—the right thing. What you’re trained to do. What Andy wanted you to do. But it’s not going to work. The rules have changed.”

“I’m not interested in your version of how the world works,” I said, the words croaking.

“You should be, because my version affects your future. The way Edding sees it, you don’t need your knees. He can simply blast them away.” He drove his thumb into my ribs where a fresh bruise bloomed, pain spotting my vision. “You think that hurts? Imagine what losing your knees will feel like. First one, then the other.”

He leaned in, resting his hands on mine, his breath pulsing against my face. “I’ve seen him do that to other prisoners. How will you survive the agony?” he whispered.

The pulsing stopped when he pulled away. “Edding will take what he wants, one way or the other. If he can’t break you, then he’ll dissect you, cut out those precious saliva glands. If that doesn’t give him his answer, he’ll order fresh recruits down to that planet, to wait for the tiger lilies to bloom again. Your defiance will be for nothing, forgotten.”

He walked around my chair. “Misplaced loyalty is clouding your view. Mothership abandoned you to die on that planet. Andy abandoned you when he chose to die to save you. Why die here? Andy’s sacrifice would be in vain. You don’t owe anyone anything. You only have loyalty to yourself now, to your own life.”

My job is to keep you alive, Andrew had said to me. Dying would be like betraying him.

Crow circled the chair, letting his message sink in. “Your own life. That’s all you have. Your struggle will be forgotten, a waste. There won’t be anyone left to remember what you fought for.”

I remembered Crow laughing, back on that planet of hostile plants, saying Miller’s been feeding you that crap. I’ll break you Perez. You’ll see. His words penetrated my resolve, breaking me like nothing else could.

He’d been right all along; I just couldn’t see it.

Gasping and shaking, I lowered my head, the fight draining from my body.

He leaned in close again, his warm breath brushing the scar on my cheek. “Escape,” he whispered, so softly I wasn’t even sure he spoke. “You can’t escape without your knees. You need your knees to run.”

Escape. Damn Crow for tempting me with the only thing I wanted.

He continued speaking in a louder voice as if someone was listening, shoving an empty bowl under my chin. “So spit in the bowl, give Edding what he wants, and live whole and complete for another day.”

Crow was the only one who could help me escape, the only one I could rely on to keep me alive. And he was Andrew’s father. That had to count for something. I’d heard him cry over Andrew’s death, no way he could fake that sound.

I let saliva build up in my mouth, not swallowing while I pictured lemon wedges next to salted tequila shots, puckering at the memory. Andrew had toasted our mission with tequila when we got the news, downing the stunted shots like they would be his last.

Crow held the bowl under my mouth while I spit into it. Over and over, until fluid smeared the sides, thick and slimy and slightly yellow.

“That should be enough.”

Crow pounded on the door. Two bio-hazard-suited men entered, releasing my hands from behind my back, holding me upright under the arms, dragging me from the barren chair. My arms hung limply at my sides, full of impotent rage. My legs weren’t much better, bursting with needles when I tried using them.

The commander entered the room, looking neat and tidy again.

Crow held out the half-filled bowl to Edding. “Here’s what you wanted. Now give me what you promised.”

Edding laughed, a cold hard sound. “I promised you wouldn’t die at my orders. I never said you wouldn’t die. Guards, put them both in general population.”

“You lying bastard,” Crow hissed.

“How does it feel to be betrayed?” the commander said to Crow.

Like hoarfrost around my soul.