I’m ridiculously excited to share this novella with you. In fact, I’ve been trying to reread it all afternoon in order to proof it for typos – but I keep finding myself caught up in the story and skipping ahead. (Even though I know what happened – I wrote the damn thing.)
Starfall is the story of a deaf teen girl who’s whole life has just been turned on its head. After her home was destroyed in an Alliance attack, Starla Dusai finds herself held in an ill-famed prison on a wretched desert planet. Her parents – infamous space pirates – may be dead, but Starla’s unable to glean even the most basic information from the civilian interpreter brought in to speak with her.
Meanwhile, notorious crime lord Willem Jaantzen is about to end a fearsome vendetta – and most probably his life. When he learns his goddaughter has been captured by the Alliance, will he be able to save her? And her, him?
If your interest is piqued, read on for the first chapter. Or, dive straight in and buy it here.
Oh – and if you want to read the whole thing for free, no problemo.
STARFALL [Chapter 1]
Gravity here is crushing.
Starla Dusai switches gingerly from side to back to sitting, the terrible mass of this planet making it hard to breathe, making her joints and bones ache, her heart race at the slightest movement.
Not that she has much opportunity to move.
The cell she’s in is about two paces wide and just long enough for the cot — which is not long enough for Starla. At fifteen, she’s already shot past her Indira-born parents by a full head, growth spurts set free by the low gravity of Silk Station.
She’s tried to sleep the last three nights with legs crooked up and spine curled forward, but the ache in her knees wakes her, the ache in whichever side is being rammed by this planet’s gravity through the thin mattress.
The ache in her heart of not knowing if anyone else is still alive.
Cot, sink, toilet. Harsh yellow overhead lights that call out sickly undertones in her pale-colored skin. The walls are featureless but for what looks like a speaker and a camera in the ceiling opposite the cot, where she can’t reach. Useless to her, anyway.
Food is dispensed automatically through a slot at what seems like regular times. The lights dim and rise. A cleaning bot scurries through every afternoon and then slips back into its pocket door. On the second day, Starla tried to catch it, but it shocked her so badly the muscles in her hands twitched for what felt like an hour. She lets it do its job in peace now.
The air smells sharp and scorched, like a recycler system gone over-hot and baking its seals. The temperature is uncomfortably warm.
It’s what she’s always imagined desert-hot New Sarjun would smell like.
Because she’s on New Sarjun.
She has to be.
She’s in an Alliance prison colony on New Sarjun.
There’s no place else she could possibly be.
* * *
At the end of the third day, guards.
A man and a woman, wearing the same uniform as the Alliance soldiers who’d transported her from Silk Station. They slip through the door, come at her with outstretched hands and careful quiet steps like they’re trying to corner a wild animal and they’re not sure it won’t bite. The man says something to his partner, his pudgy lips mashing the words into meaningless shapes.
They don’t bother trying to speak to her.
Starla pushes herself into the corner of the cot, feet digging into the mattress. She’s snarling as they pounce, drag her to her feet — she’s panting with the effort of moving on this stupid, stupid planet — and wrench her arms backwards into cuffs. They push her through the door. She’s barefoot.
Starla tries to stay calm, but for as badly as she has wanted to leave the cell over the last three days, now the metallic, vibrating hallways and branching corridors close in on her. She cranes her neck to see down the corridors they pass and is rewarded with a shove between the shoulder blades.
The two wrestle her through hallways, keying regularly through double-thickness glass doors to enter less secure — or more secure? Starla doesn’t know — areas of the prison. Into a dingy metal room, bigger than her cell, a single metal table bolted to the floor, a bench on one side, a chair on the other. They fold her kicking and struggling and panting onto the bench, uncuff her, and slam her hands into new restraints on the table before she even realizes she had a brief moment of freedom.
Job done. The two leave.
Starla twists, cranes her neck to see the door they left through, trying to learn anything she can about this new prison.
Brushed aluminum walls and a floor scuffed with shoe rubber — some of the marks scraping high up the wall as though someone had been testing the strength of it, or kicking out in anger. The walls are battered, with dents and dings that catch the harsh light and pool it into tiny craters. The room stinks of something acrid, a mix of cleaning solvent and welding fumes that seems to be cycling through the air vents.
She’s waiting only a moment before two women enter. One’s short, even for planetborn, with a blunt gray bob and glasses, wearing a plain purple dress suit. The other’s tall and thin, with a square jaw and thick black hair cut close to her scalp. She wears an Indiran Alliance uniform. They remind her of something, a split second of recognition that fades the more Starla tries to grasp at it.
The short woman wrinkles her nose and says something to the tall one, too fast for Starla to catch.
“Hi Starla,” the short woman says then, speaking and signing. “My name is Hali.” She spells it out, then makes her hand into an H and taps it against her left shoulder. “This is Lieutenant Mahr.” Mahr doesn’t get a name sign.
Starla lifts her chin a touch, but makes no show that she’s understood. The short woman, Hali, frowns at her.
“She’s a child,” Hali says to the Alliance woman, Mahr. She’s speaking more clearly now than when she first entered the room. Starla stares at her lips, greedy for information. “You can’t keep her like this. There are laws.”
The lieutenant shrugs. “Figure out what she knows,” she says — or, Starla thinks she says. The lieutenant’s lips barely move, her scowl permanently carved into her dry, angry mouth.
Hali turns back to Starla, speaking and signing again. “Have they treated you well?”
Starla frowns. What is she supposed to answer to that? Everything’s fine, thanks for asking? The amenities could be a bit more posh, but they’re serviceable?
She raises a hand to sign something rude, but she’s cuffed to the table.
Her hand comes up short with a jerk.
“We can’t communicate if she’s restrained,” Hali says to Mahr.
If Mahr replies, Starla can’t tell. The lieutenant turns to knock on the door, looks like she shouts something through it, and one of the original guards returns with leg restraints, locking Starla to the crossbar of the bench before releasing her hands. “Thank you,” Hali tells him. He ignores her.
Hali sits in the chair across from Starla; Mahr leans against the wall with arms crossed, one hand resting on the stunner in her hip holster. Hali sees this and frowns. “She’s a child,” she says again. Mahr just raises an eyebrow.
Starla sits with hands folded. Trying to look like a child, whatever children look like on Indira. She’s heard her entire life, from newcomers to Silk Station, from people born on either planet — Indira or New Sarjun — that she and her asteroid-born cousins look years ahead of their age because of their height. On some, like Mona, it looks graceful. On Starla it just looks boyish and scrappy. One of the uncles told her that once. She thinks he meant it as a compliment.
A stab of panic pierces Starla’s heart.
She tries not to worry about her cousins. About Mona. About Auntie Faye. About her parents. She saw escape pods, shooting like torpedoes; she saw ships peeling away from docking bays and flashing out of view before the Alliance missiles tore through the station and set Starla’s home blazing bright as Durga herself.
1, 4, 9, 16, 25 . . .
Starla forces herself through multiplications to redirect her thoughts.
She’s missed something: Hali signing to her. Starla furrows her brow, and Hali repeats herself. “I’m here to decide what to do with you. Do you understand?”
Starla finally nods. She’s found that if she refuses to respond at all, some people write off communication for good. This might be her only chance to get answers.
“Good.” The woman’s still speaking aloud while her hands dance, probably for Mahr’s benefit. “Do you know where you are?”
Starla considers. Is the woman gauging her knowledge of geography, or her intelligence in general? Probably both. Prison, Starla signs. New Sarjun.
Hali frowns at that last sign, and Starla fingerspells it. She can’t remember the standard USL sign for New Sarjun — she and Mona had their own slang for so many things.
“Yes,” says Hali. “That’s right. You’re under Alliance protection.”
What happened to my parents? Starla leaves the last sign hanging in the air a moment before resting her hands back on the table.
Hali looks at Mahr, who’s apparently said something to her — Starla sees only the last few syllables slicing out of Mahr’s sneering lips. “She’s asking about her parents,” Hali says. Mahr just shakes her head.
“We’ll get to that,” Hali says and signs to Starla. “But for now I have some questions. Can you tell me about life on Silk Station? Were you taken care of there?”
Starla wrinkles her nose. It was home, she signs, confused. Was she taken care of there? What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Who raised you?”
Starla glances from Hali to Mahr, who is watching her coldly. What are these questions?
My parents raised me, Starla signs. Where are they?
Hali ignores her question. “I’m confused. Did your parents take you with them on their raids? On the Nanshe?”
Of course not, Starla signs. She’d wanted to go for years, but they hadn’t let her. Not until this year, until her fifteenth birthday, when they’d finally agreed she could start training as crew. If not for that, she wouldn’t have been on the Nanshe when the Alliance attacked Silk Station. Wouldn’t have —
Hali is waving to get her attention. “Then who raised you when they were gone?”
Starla shrugs. What, did this woman want a list? Any number of aunts, uncles, older cousins, station mechanics, and cooks had done the job.
Starla and the other children had stalked Silk Station, hurtling through the corridors as if propelled by rockets, chasing after older cousins in the peculiar game they played in the figure-eight hallway near the bioregenerative gardens, screaming and reversing directions on a toe, arms flinging out to correct over-exuberant spins in the low gravity. They were legion, underfoot, existing continuously on the verge between play and being snatched up by one of the station crew and given a chore.
Dinners were the same chaos, a gaggle of children descending on the commissary at any hour, whenever they were hungry. School was TUTOR, an AI that came preloaded with courses from Hypatia Educational Facilities Corporation that students could work through at will, with full knowledge that their progress data was being reported to the aunts and uncles. Curfew was a word from the novels she downloaded from TUTOR.
Who had raised her?
Whoever was around, Starla signs.
“Whoever was around,” Hali says, and she and Mahr share a look full of meaning that Starla can’t decipher. “You’re very thin,” she says and signs to Starla. “Did they feed you well?”
What the hell did that mean?
Starla glares at her. Where are my parents?
“We’re just trying to understand your life,” Hali says, hands fluid and defensive. “You’re on the edge of what the Alliance considers a child. Your parents chose to become criminals, but you had no choice. You’ve had a hard life. Do you understand?”
Starla feels a chill. Raj and Lasadi Dusai chose to live life on the fringes, managing their glorious and infamous empire from an asteroid station hidden deep in the debris of Durga’s Belt. Starla Dusai, on the other hand, could tell a sob story about being beaten and neglected and starved at the hands of her horrible pirate parents, and win a free ticket into the open arms of the Indiran Alliance. A free ticket into the society her parents had fled years ago.
Where are my parents? Starla snarls the words on stiff, angry fingers.
Hali looks sad. “I don’t think she’s ready to talk yet,” she says to Mahr.
Mahr knocks on the door and the two guards come back in, hands and stunners raised to subdue her.
Where are —
Starla gets only those words out before her hands are grabbed, her arms cuffed, her ribs slammed into the hard metal edge of the table.
They drag her back to her cell.
Interest piqued? Read STARFALL for free here.