Prologue

Nightmares meant you’d survived. It was one of the first things they taught, in basic training; so early that it was one of the very few memories she’d kept from the months before everything else had happened. Before the gaping hole in her memory, and before her next memories after it, of another waking, this time in Senja Ventiva’s circle, learning exactly how much her freedom was worth to her.

Nearly ten orbits later, Khyria lay still, looking up at the dark ceiling of the sleeping room in her quarters on Corina, waiting for her pulse to slow and her breathing to even out, trying to remember what had sent her startling into wakefulness. All she got for her efforts was an echo of phantom pain between her temples.

She swore under her breath, and swung her legs out of the bunk. She’d had just under a watch to sleep when she finally went to bed; it seemed very unlikely there was enough of it left to make going back to sleep more than an exercise in futility.

The outer room was dimly lit by the dormant console dominating one corner of the room, more than enough for Cortiian vision. She moved over to the dispenser, and a brief glance at the display glimmering over the main door confirmed her guess about the time. It would be watch change in less than an hour.

She ordered faran from the dispenser, the scent of the hot stimulant going a long way to send the nightmare, and the memories, back where they belonged. She frowned, half her attention on the curls of steam rising from the beaker. On record, as Cortiian assignments went, her last one should have been little more than an extended leave, assisting a Federated Planets Alliance team evaluate a recently-discovered civilisation for membership in the Federation. Certainly nothing to provoke nightmares. Off record, fulfilling the parameters of two very different sets of orders and keeping her principal source of information on-planet alive had proven surprisingly challenging, and if half her theories about her final encounter before leaving the planet were more than worst-case hypotheticals, the nightmares she couldn’t remember might have some basis. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

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