The truth will set you free.
Mark Sayre joins the Interstellar Navy for the money—his only goal is to keep his little brother out of the colony mines that sent their father to an early grave. With concepts like duty and honor floating high over his head, he hardly expects to fall for the serious, idealistic Shane Cawley. Not to mention that Shane is his commanding officer . . . and his Resonance partner, a one-in-ten-thousand mental connection so profound that they can travel in each other’s mindscapes.
Shane Cawley is carrying on the family tradition by serving in the Interstellar Navy. He hardly expects to fall for the quirky, happy-go-lucky Mark Sayre. But as the Resonance between them grows, neither can deny what he feels for the other.
When war breaks out, Mark and Shane find their military training and their Resonance link tested to the edge of sanity. Shane is haunted by memories and flashbacks, and Mark becomes trapped in his own mindscape. But with help from an unlikely ally, they may be able to salvage their futures and the love they share.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The first time Shane enters the Rigsby Psychiatric Ward, the noise and smells slam into him like a fist to the solar plexus. The air reeks of some lemony disinfectant. Somewhere, someone is screeching a song, and from nearby comes the hissing of a man whose burned hands are being tended by a nurse. It’s all Shane can do not to throw up. The thought of Mark, of all people, being locked in this place . . .
He’s grateful when the head nurse comes out to meet him, if only because it gives him something else to focus on. She insists on giving him the third degree.
“Shane Cawley,” he answers. “From New Wyoming, yes . . . His name is Mark Sayre. With a Y . . . I’m his partner.” His Resonance partner, he doesn’t add. “Not married, no . . . Yes, I know about his condition.” And finally, “Can I see him now?”
She leads him down a hallway, past a woman who laughs at him like a hyena, and into a small room with two beds. One is occupied by a man who is lying on his back and burping repeatedly. On the other bed, looking dazed and oh so out of place, is Mark.
“Mark,” Shane says, and for the first time since the news of Mark’s captivity, his face softens enough to smile.
Mark keeps staring ahead.
Shane’s smile falters as he steps closer. “Mark, it’s me. Shane.”
He had hoped that the sound of his voice would do it, or the mention of his name . . . call Mark back from whatever land in which his mind wanders. But Mark keeps staring ahead, and his face remains blank.
Zombie-like, Admiral McKenzie had warned Shane. Semi-catatonic, the head nurse had called it. Shane hadn’t really believed them, not until now.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse says behind him.
Shane waves her away and takes a seat on the bed beside the man he loves. It almost kills him when Mark flinches away.
“No, hey,” he says softly. “It’s okay.” And because he’s only human, “It’s me, Shane.”
Mark is breathing hard through his nose. His stare never leaves the opposite wall.
“Okay,” Shane says. “Okay. It’s good to see you, you know. They wouldn’t let me before. I told them—I told them maybe I could help, what with us being, you know, but they wouldn’t let me.”
And he can see their point, now. Mark and he are in Resonance—their minds are perfectly attuned to each other—but touching Mark’s mind in this unresponsive state feels intrusive, almost profane. He can’t bring himself to do it and only hopes that Mark’s consciousness is traveling some pleasant vista.
He looks around, and suddenly it’s all too much to take in. The ceiling and walls crash in on him; Mark’s harsh breaths are like a roar in his ears, and the occasional burp from the other bed sounds like explosives going off. Shane turns away, panicking, and finds the head nurse still standing there.
“Can we go outside?” he asks.
And for once, the nurse, bless her soul, asks no questions as she helps him maneuver Mark into the nearby tree-shaded garden.
The shuttle docked at Fort Beta One, and the pressure doors hissed open. Mark was amused to see a great banner overhead declaring, “Welcome to the Inter-Stellar Navy.” What everyone called the Space Navy nowadays, or Spavy for short. Earth’s first line of defense in the galaxy. God help him, he had no idea what he was doing there.
“Move, move, move!” a sergeant yelled.
“Sounds like a bad movie,” Mark whispered to the man at his right.
The man sniggered.
The sergeant did not. “You! Three laps around the dock! Move!”
Oh, rainy. Mark took off with a sigh. He suspected he’d be spending a lot of his time in the Spavy doing laps. Good thing he was in shape.
In any case, the pounding of his feet on the tarmac did not prevent him from hearing the sergeant’s welcoming speech, which seemed to echo in every nook and cranny of the massive docks. If any roaches lived there, Mark thought, they probably knew the speech by heart.
“Today you become something greater than you’ve ever been,” the sergeant was saying. “Today you become members of the Inter-Stellar Navy. Frankly, I’m not sure how many of you deserve that honor. You have fifty-four days to prove yourselves to me, to prove yourselves to humanity, and above all, to prove yourselves to you.”
Oops, that should have been “to yourselves,” Mark thought, and mentally slapped himself. He liked reading too much, that was his problem.
The speech continued, and the sergeant’s inventive grammar kept Mark occupied throughout his three laps. He slowed to a stop beside his fellow recruits just as the sergeant was winding down.
“Understood?” the sergeant called.
“Yes, Sir, Drill Sergeant, Sir!” everyone shouted.
Mark mimed with his lips while trying to figure out how much of that sentence was capitalized.
Later, when he first pulled on his uniform, he made a face and looked discreetly around him. Boy, they all looked so stupid. Dressing up as soldiers. But some of the men around him straightened up as if given a new spine, and someone next to Mark even smoothed down his fatigues.
“Ain’t this something?” he asked.
“It itches,” Mark answered.
But hey, it paid the rent. And it kept his little brother out of mining—the same job that had ruined their father’s health.
“Move!” the sergeant yelled at them again.
Mark rolled his eyes and moved.
The second time Shane comes visiting, it’s easier to swallow down the pressure in his throat. A giant male nurse greets him. Shane repeats the series of answers that gets him admitted into Mark’s room, from which the burping man is gone, thank God. Mark is sitting up in bed, staring at his covered lap as if entire galaxies swirl between the threads of his blanket.
“Hi there,” Shane says. He isn’t really expecting an answer this time. “Wanna get out of here?”
He doesn’t mean out of Rigsby Psychiatric Ward. Sure, he wishes he could take Mark home, but he knows better. Mark requires round-the-clock care; when his nightmares start, it takes three overgrown nurses to subdue him. Shane, with his own moments of weakness, isn’t equal to the task. No, he only means out of the depressing little room.
“Come on, the garden is nice enough,” he says.
He draws the blanket off Mark and takes his arm, pulling lightly, like he saw the head nurse handle Mark the day before. Mark doesn’t budge.
“Come on . . .” Shane pulls a little harder.
Shane lets him go and backpedals, startled. “It’s okay, Mark, it’s just—”
“What’s going on?” the nurse in charge demands, stalking into the room.
Shane feels his face heat up. “I was trying to move him . . .”
“Look,” the nurse says, tucking the blanket back around Mark, “you may be his partner, but I doubt he even recognizes you. He’s in a delicate state. Be careful, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” Shane says, and rubs at the sudden annoying itch in his eyes.
The physical tests were easy; Mark had spent most of his childhood running around and climbing things in high-G. So he did push-ups and pull-ups and squat-downs and what-nots with the best of them, and kept his breath on the long-distance run—which took place in laps around the base, of course.
The intelligence tests were another story.
He’d never had the chance to study beyond high school, and he’d been average there, too. No brilliant mind hiding in his thick skull. True, his thoughts were as fast as his footwork, but they went nowhere interesting, and his treasure trove of knowledge consisted mostly of comic discs and every thriller and sci-fi novel he could get his hands on.
“That went well,” Dale said when they were done and heading for the mess hall.
Mark raised an eyebrow at his bunkmate. “You mean you could actually calculate that stuff? It looked like Chinese.”
“Ancient Chinese,” Dale corrected. “The modern kind is easy to read.”
“You know, cool. Svelte. Awesome.” Mark grinned. “Rainy.”
“Whatever, man.” Dale straightened up his uniform. “I want to make Officer School.”
Mark tugged on his uniform, too, to make it stop itching. “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
They queued up at the mess hall doors, entered, and took their trays. Surprise syntha-meat, Mark guessed, grimacing at his portion. They sat down near the back of the room.
“What about you?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Wherever they agree to stick me,” Mark said with a shrug.
Dale frowned at his fork, which was dripping mashed potatoes. “That bad?”
Mark scooped up a forkful and tasted it. “Nah, it’s passable.”
“I meant the tests.”
“Oh.” Mark grinned at him. “Let’s just say I hope they don’t tell me there’s been some mistake and I can’t enlist after all.”
By the fifth time Shane comes visiting, he’s gotten the knack of handling Mark in his semi-responsive state.
“Come on, buddy. The garden is waiting.”
He pulls gently on Mark’s arm with no result. He pulls gently again. And again. And again. Finally Mark uncoils from his fetal position in bed and sits up, then stands. Shane gives another gentle tug, and Mark begins walking.
“It’s a lovely day, I don’t know why you stay cooped up in your room.”
Except, of course, he does know.
They walk down the hallway in painfully small steps. Mark moves as if hobbled, and it tears at Shane’s heart to think why. Finally they step out into the garden.
“Here?” Shane asks, gesturing at one bench. “No? How about there?” He likes to pretend Mark is answering; it makes it a little less painful to interact with his empty husk. “Oh, of course. Over here. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
He steers them over to the stone bench by the willow tree and settles them down. His fingers still tingle where he touched Mark’s arm. He wants to take Mark’s hand, to kiss it, to kiss his way up the forearm and elbow and arm and shoulder and neck and jaw and cheek, brow and eyelids, nose, lips, to reclaim Mark and the intimacy they once knew.
But he settles for weaving their fingers together as they sit side by side in friendly silence.
Mark doesn’t flinch away.
Baby steps, the nurses have said. Shane squeezes Mark’s hand and silently celebrates.
It took them three days to return the results. Mark swallowed hard, trying to drown the butterflies in his stomach as he watched the officer in charge of the tests slap folded pieces of paper into everyone’s hands. Up the line, Dale whooped, then cleared his throat . . . and, at a bark from the drill sergeant, fell out to run a few laps.
The officer reached Mark and held out the folded paper. “Congratulations, son.”
“Huh?” Mark said, and instantly regretted it. But neither the officer nor the sergeant seemed to have heard.
He fumbled the paper open and read through it several times. Combat Training, it said. Space Fighter Pilot. (Capitalized, of course. He’d long ago reached the conclusion that in the Spavy, you should capitalize everything.)
“Brilliant!” Dale whispered in his ear. He thumped him on the shoulder, then continued his laps.
“But wait, isn’t this for people who are—”
“Sayre, three laps!”
Mark shoved the paper into a pocket and fell out, running. He’d thought pilot training was reserved for smart people. And judging by his own knowledge—and the look on the drill sergeant’s face—he was anything but smart.
He concentrated on running and tried to push the assignment out of his mind, but it intruded on him again and again. Space Fighter Pilot. He suddenly skipped and whooped, earning himself another three laps.
Pilot . . . now that was bound to pay the rent.
On the tenth time Shane comes visiting, the head nurse is on duty again.
“Nurse Delgado,” he greets.
“Mr. Cawley. How are you? Come in, Mark must be waiting for you.”
He isn’t, but Shane allows the lie to smooth over his soul like aloe. He heads down the hall to Mark’s room.
“Hee hee hee,” the hyena woman laughs at him.
“Good morning, Mrs. Freedman,” he says to her.
“Hee hee! Morning. Hee!”
He enters Mark’s room to the sound of a loud burp.
“Morning, Mr. Chapman! Where’s Mark?”
The burping man looks at him with hollow eyes, and a few more burps escape him; he seems unaware of it. He pops his fingers one after the other, cnuk-cnuk-cnuk.
Worried, Shane returns to the nurses’ room (“Hee hee hee!” and “Yes, Mrs. Freedman”), where he locates Delgado.
“Anything happen to Mark?” he says.
She looks startled. “No, why?”
“He’s not in his room.”
“Oh. He must be in the garden already.”
Shane nods, relieved, and heads there. Strange, usually he is the one to insist Mark spend some time in the sun. Mark certainly never wanders anywhere on his own. But maybe today . . .
Outside, Mark is sitting on the bench by the willow tree, but he isn’t alone. Nurse Park, one of the large men who usually handles Mark during an episode, is sitting beside him. Shane stifles a pang of protective jealousy.
“Mr. Cawley!” Park calls, waving him over. “Come on! I was just telling Mark you were probably on your way.”
“Thank you, Nurse Park.”
“Well, you’re welcome.” Park rises to his feet, easily dwarfing Shane. “I think you’ve got him addicted to the garden. He looks happier here.”
“Must be the sun,” Shane says, struggling not to back off.
“Must be the company,” Park says with a bright smile.
Shane glowers, then realizes the nurse meant Shane’s company, not his own. He flashes him a smile instead. “I hope so.”
“I’m sure it is. I’ll be inside if you need me, okay?”
“Thanks,” Shane says, and suddenly realizes how much easier it is to carry on a conversation when the other party actually answers.
He wants to kick himself in the shin for the thought.
Operating a space fighter, or like the Spavy liked to call it, a Space Fighter, turned out to be all about quick reflexes, steady hands, and the ability to keep a cool head. All of which Mark had in spades.
Knowing where to point said fighter was a whole different issue.
And that was where Tactical Officer Shane Cawley came in.
Unlike the poor, uneducated pilots, the tactical officer was a highly trained, well-schooled person with a master’s degree and at least three-years’ worth of combat experience; Earth-born, but a man of the universe. In other words, a demigod.
“We’ll be playing Red vs. Blue today,” the T.O. announced on their first day on board the Cyclopes. “Live drill, not the sims.”
The briefing room erupted with excited murmurs. Even Mark, hot and stuffy in his spacesuit, straightened up.
“Fighters One through Seven will be Blue Wing. Fighters Eight through Fourteen, you’re Red. We’ll be playing in the asteroid field near Sigma Seven-One-Two . . .”
Shane detailed the fighting conditions and laid down the rules, but Mark only listened with half an ear. The rest of his senses—eyes, ears, and soul—were trained on Shane himself. He liked the T.O.’s profile against the tactical screen, liked his alert eyes and serious face. Shane must have done a million live drills in his military career, but he wasn’t cutting any corners. His intensity was unnerving. It was stimulating.
It was, Mark realized, simply Shane. And Shane was very rainy, in his book.
“. . . the winning team gets their choice of dinner. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir!” they all answered together.
Mark pushed himself to his feet and filed out the door along with his wing mates, locking on his helmet. They all turned right into the long corridor of drop-tubes. At the third one, Mark jumped and grabbed the ceiling handle, then swung into the tube feet-first and dropped the rest of the way into the cockpit.
He buckled up, took a quick check of his readouts, and was good to go. “Blue Three ready to drop,” he reported.
“Stand by, Blue Three,” came Shane’s voice, intimate in his helmet’s speaker.
One by one, his wing mates reported in. Then, at Shane’s command, they fired auxiliary thrusters and shot out of the Cyclopes, heading for the asteroid field. Mark felt a smile crawling up his lips.
Shane likes to keep Mark up-to-date on daily events. Sometimes he feels as if Mark’s mind is on vacation somewhere, and he likes sending these vocal postcards—bits and pieces of the life they should be sharing.
“Mr. Furrypants is doing fine,” he tells Mark. “The new diet food is helping his kidneys. Poor puss, he hates it.”
And another day: “Lisa is having a baby. My little sister, can you believe it? Isn’t she supposed to be like, sixteen years old? I tell you, you look away for a minute and they grow up . . .”
And another day, loudly, because the Bible Man—a new patient who reads from the Bible in a constant mumble—is also in the garden: “Mom made her famous blueberry pie yesterday. I swear, I could smell it over the phone.”
Little things. Simple things. Nothing about their days together in the Spavy, nothing about the Redoren War, or Shane’s dismissal with PTSD, or Mark’s decision to keep serving and his time as a POW.
But always, always, “I miss you. Come back to me.”
“Blue Wing, stand by to engage,” Shane’s voice echoed in Mark’s ears. A warm, pleasant voice. Mark liked to imagine it was meant only for him.
He shifted against the grav-belt and fixed his hold on the control stick, the blood singing in his veins. He felt like a hunter’s falcon, ready to launch at Shane’s barest flick of the wrist . . .
Mark jerked. He pulled on the throttle and swung his fighter into the nearby asteroid field, zigzagging between the rocks alongside his wing mates. Somewhere on the other side of the debris-strewn space, Red Wing was working its way toward them and this mock confrontation.
“Come on, come on,” Mark hummed, dodging one asteroid and skirting another. He flicked a switch on the control board, and the engine whined as some power rerouted from the thrusters to the weapon system.
“Weapons hot,” he reported to Shane.
“At your discretion, Blue Three,” came the answer.
His discretion came in the form of blips on his radar, opposite his own location.
“I’ve got sights,” he said.
“Steady . . .” Shane whispered in his ears as other people reported sights.
Mark dived under an asteroid and came up sharp on the other side—straight at a Red Wing fighter. Months of training made his hands fly to the fire controls, and the fighter, programmed to tag but not destroy its target, recorded a direct hit.
“Ha! Take that, Red Seven.”
Mark did a flyby next to the tagged fighter, then straightened up at the emergency sound coming from his console.
“Target locked,” the tactical system warned.
“Shit.” He dove behind the nearest asteroid and wormed his way through a denser part of the field. A quick look at his console: Red Two was hot on his tail, and Red Four was waiting for him up ahead. Mark shut down the weapons system and directed full power to the engines. This could get tight . . .
Red Four appeared on his screen, and Mark pulled up and right, leaving Red Two to take the heat of the targeting system. He drove a hard loop that plastered him against his seat, heated up his weapons again, and came down hard on top of Red Four. Another burst of mock fire, and the opposing fighter was tagged.
“Sayre!” Shane snapped on the open comm channel.
A pause, then, gruffly, “Stop stealing everyone’s targets.”
“Yessir,” Mark said happily, and set all his sights on the tactical officer instead.
It hurts, Shane has to confess. He’s a Spavy officer—was a Spavy officer—and denying pain is part of his training and mentality. But pacing the little garden around a nonresponsive Mark hurts, and he can no longer ignore it.
Nor can he ignore the other feeling that bubbles in the pit of his stomach.
“I don’t get it,” he says to Mark. “What are you seeing in there? What fantasy world is so much better than facing reality with me? I mean, sure, reality sucks, but at least we’d be together. Isn’t that important to you anymore? Don’t you want to—”
He stops when a nurse pokes her head through the gate. “Everything all right, Mr. Cawley?”
All right? Ha. Shane wants to laugh. He wants to scream. He has a feeling that either reaction would get him thrown into Rigsby Psychiatric Ward alongside Mark. Would that be so bad? God, he’s losing it.
“All right,” he manages to parrot back, and the nurse disappears.
He looks at Mark and sighs. “You know it isn’t. Not without you, buddy. Never without you.”
[I] had a hard time putting this book down.
A . . . [P]owerful novella.
[A]n atmospheric story that draws you in.
[T]his riveting tale had a lot going for it.
[A] quick and enthralling read.