Chaos Zone’s release date is quickly approaching, so I wanted to share a quick sample with you! Chapter one is pasted below — but you can also click here to download a full five-chapter sample. No need to provide an email address or anything like that — just download and enjoy!
Sloane didn’t know who had named this place, only that Shard was a poetically appropriate title for a cursed sliver of ground like this one. A leftover from an obliterated planet, Shard had somehow sprouted a city, in the same way that a rock might sprout a diseased fungus.
From a distance, Shard resembled nothing so much as a chunk of eggshell, or a broken piece of pottery. It tipped precariously as it wobbled along its orbit, as if one good hard shove might send it spinning into a neighboring rock.
As bad as it looked from afar, though, Sloane couldn’t help feeling that Shard was much, much worse on the ground.
It took the better part of her focus not to lose her footing as she picked her way along the street, stepping around discarded wrappers and mysterious puddles where destroyed fliptabs had just happened to land. Single-use tech, and no doubt stuffed with incriminating data—had the tech not been obviously broken past saving.
It wasn’t easy to maintain a don’t-talk-to-me swagger while trying not to slip and fall in a puddle of grossness, but Sloane did her best. She’d had been warned away from this place—from the whole Bone System, in fact, by an entire conference table full of Fleet captains—and for good reason. She had to look like she belonged.
Or, at the very least, like she wouldn’t make a good mark.
It wasn’t that she took the stay-out warning lightly, though she didn’t hold much stock in anything a Fleet slug had to say. It was more that she needed tokens—a lot of tokens—and she wasn’t going to get them by picking up a dish-washing gig.
The power vacuum in the Bone System meant opportunity. And if the Fleet opposed her presence here, well, that was just one more reason to show up anyway.
“Remind me what happened the last time you tried to steal from a casino.” Sloane’s pilot, Hilda, tiptoed her way along the street a few steps behind, as if hoping Sloane would meet with any unseen traps before she did. She’d wrapped her long gray braid into a bun at the nape of her neck, and she had on a pair of black boots with silver spikes running up the sides. Sloane suspected the boots contained an armory’s worth of hidden knives, though she hadn’t dared to ask for confirmation.
Hilda piloted Sloane’s ship—her uncle’s ship, technically—but with no security officer to help, Sloane had had to beg the woman to join her on this job. Shard wasn’t the kind of place you landed without someone to watch your back.
“That was a lux casino,” Sloane replied. “And I told you, I’m not going to steal.”
“What are you going to do, then? Trick? Con? Tap dance?”
Since Hilda wasn’t going to like the plan, Sloane opted to keep her mouth shut. Hilda would understand the job as soon as they reached the casino. Or shortly after.
Assuming they could find the casino. Sloane’s uncle had abandoned her, it was true, but he’d left behind a treasure trove of information on every underworld ring in the galaxy. Black markets, drug cartels, smuggling rings. If it had a mildly nefarious purpose, Uncle Vin had catalogued it.
But some of her uncle’s records were out of date, and things in the Bone System had shifted rapidly since his disappearance. Even if she could find the casino, the entrance protocols might have changed.
If that happened, she’d do what she did best: she’d improvise.
For now, she concentrated on scanning for the casino entrance while also keeping her footing and maintaining the all-important swagger. A hidden casino in a place that was already about as underworld as you could get—at least until you reached the outskirts of the galaxy—was not going to be easy to find.
It was impressive that someone had built a city on Shard at all, even if the effect was more that of a child’s tower that’d been made with a pile of rusty blades.
The place was dirty and broken and loud. Every shout echoed down from the dome that enclosed the city, glancing off the repurposed steel beams and layers of scaffolding that somehow seemed to serve as living quarters. Hov-train markers spiraled above the city, the trains themselves obscured behind an orange-tinted cloud of smog and grime. Sloane could hear them, though, the telltale huff-and-grind of their engines cutting through the city noise.
The whole city was a mishmash of jangled music and yells—some happy, some not so—and it smelled moldy and sick, like week-old dishwater. Even the gravity anchors that dotted the pavement to either side were spotted with rust, and Sloane was glad she’d thought to tuck a spare O2 bag into her pocket. If the devices that kept her feet on the ground were that banged up, she didn’t want to think about the shoddy maintenance on the life support systems.
The grav anchors looked like dropped coins, as if they could be picked up and shoved into a pocket.
In fact, she was kind of hoping they could.
“There,” Hilda said, and Sloane paused, twisting to follow the older woman’s extended index finger toward a window with a yellow border. It wasn’t the window itself, with its broken pane of glass, or the sickly color of the neon that bordered it; it was the rose petal, a real one, that someone had skewered on the edge of the sill. The bloom was as red as a wound.
“Inviting,” Sloane said.
Hilda’s fingers twitched, as if she wanted to reach for her boots. “It’s not too late to take a bounty instead.”
Sloane licked her lips. Maybe Hilda wouldn’t object to her plan, after all. Because they were here for a bounty. It just… wasn’t one Hilda would agree to take.
But their ship wouldn’t make it to any other bounty. After everything Sloane had put the Moneymaker through in the last few months, she’d barely be able to drag it to the closest reputable service station—once she had the money to pay for service—let alone prevail in the inevitable fight that an out-of-atmo bounty hunt would mean.
No, this was the only option. If she said as much to Hilda, though, the pilot might dig her heels in and back right out. So instead, Sloane stepped over a pile of refuse, choosing not to look too closely at it, and sidled up to the door beneath the petal. It looked like every other door on the block, with a slipshod coat of gray paint that was peeling at the corners.
Sloane ran her palm along the stones, searching for a scan point, while Hilda stayed a step behind, arms crossed over her chest. “Try to stop looking like my mother, will you?” Sloane said. “We’re here to have fun.”
Or pretend to, anyway. But it was more than likely that someone was listening to them by now. No reason to broadcast their plans.
And it was probably going to be at least a little fun.
One of the bricks buzzed against her hand, just as Uncle Vin’s notes had promised. She said, “Foxglove,” and the door clicked open, admitting her into a narrow hall with chipped green paint and a floor that was more rust than metal plating.
According to Vin, the petals outside the window changed regularly—but the password into the place did not. Given that he’d been missing for half a year now, she was lucky the rules hadn’t changed.
A second door clapped open, letting Sloane and Hilda slip into a box of an elevator with blue-screen walls, as pleasant as an elevator in a fancy hotel or outlet station.
The car started up, without so much as a shudder, and a light bell tone sounded as if to announce the voice that began to rattle off a welcome. “The seven blades in your boots must be checked.”
The voice spoke to them from somewhere in the ceiling, and it issued the instructions in a pleasant, musical voice, even though whatever system could identify and count hidden blades on someone’s person was intimidating by default.
The elevator certainly seemed like it belonged to a lux casino. Sloane’s father probably didn’t even have an elevator this nice back in his penthouse. He definitely didn’t have scanning technology that could pick out each individual weapon a person might be carrying.
When Sloane stuck her hand out to prod at the wall, though, her fingers melted straight through a holograph. An open lift. That was just like Dad’s. Excited, Sloane flicked the holo-walls off, revealing the orange glow of the streets of Shard all around them. The towers looked even more like blades from here, dark and foreboding. This place wasn’t pretty. At all.
But the open lift always gave her a rush.
“Don’t do that,” Hilda said, squeezing her eyes shut. “You’re giving me vertigo.”
“You’re a pilot.”
“Right. Not an elevator operator.”
Sloane didn’t want to lose the view, so she dug a fistful of coins out of her pocket. Most places didn’t use physical tokens for currency, but she’d brought some along since casinos occasionally did. For fun, she suspected, more than convenience. Who didn’t want to see stacks of money adding up on the table?
“Do you know this trick?” she asked.
Hilda was glowering at her. “Where did you even get those coins?”
Not important. Sloane held her hand out, positioning it over the edge of the lift, and dropped the coins, watching as they fell down the channel. They dropped a bit too slowly, as if they’d been caught in a strong breeze.
A count of three later, and the coins were zipping back up toward her, just sparkling glints in the darkness. And they’d multiplied, too; she’d dropped three, and now she counted five.
The coins would ride the channel all the way up to the top of the lift, if she let them.
With a single sweep of her hand, Sloane caught them as they passed the edge of the lift. The take? A pair of rusty gravity anchors from the surface. Not too bad.
“The lift is connected to the grav anchors,” Sloane said. “They do that sometimes, when they want to cut corners.”
Hilda rolled her eyes. “Excellent. That looks like the kind of trick one could use to, I don’t know, heist major amounts of anything magnetic.”
Sloane winked. “Exactly.”
“I guess I know who taught you how to do that.”
And with that, the fun of the game died. Sloane kept the smile on her face, anyway, hoping Hilda couldn’t see through it. She’d brought up the trick as a distraction, but she clearly hadn’t thought it through. She didn’t want to talk about Oliver. Not now, not ever.
Luckily, the elevator voice seemed to have decided that it was time to read the rest of the rules. “Welcome to the Snapdragon. No AIs are allowed. Weapons must be checked. And there is no fighting allowed in the casino, except on Level C.”
Sloane would’ve been willing to bet the voice was tied to some kind of AI, if a limited one, but house rules were house rules.
“Please confirm if you agree,” the voice said.
“Confirm,” Sloane said. Hilda sighed, then echoed her agreement. Sloane could almost hear her mourning her blades.
Sloane would’ve liked to promise she’d get them back, but she couldn’t. She had three possible exit points in mind, and none of them involved returning through the front door.
The elevator doors opened with a musical cadence, and Sloane stepped out into a dream.
Blue-tinged lighting transformed the casino into an underwater cavern, with wavy patterns on the walls and columns of golden beams that shone like starlight reaching down toward the ocean floor. When Sloane took a step forward, a school of holographic fish darted out of her path, swirling around the nearest card table before fading away.
A soundtrack of waves and gurgling bubbles played quietly behind the rhythm of jingling slot machines and clattering luck wheels. Cards flipped, men laughed, and serving drones hummed through the space carrying trays of fizzing drinks.
“Not a lux casino,” Hilda muttered. “Right.”
Vin hadn’t mentioned the lux aspect of this casino in his notes.
Maybe it hadn’t been lux, back then. He’d made those notes well before the Bone System’s dictator had run off to another galaxy, leaving a lot of relieved people behind.
Maybe the casino had come into its own luck since then. Shard wasn’t the kind of place where straight-and-narrow rich people would show their faces, but why shouldn’t well-off criminals have a little lux-level fun, too?
While Hilda made her way to the counter to check her knives, Sloane took a good look around the place. She almost felt like she’d gone through a portal to another part of the galaxy. Shard’s streets had been defined by torn boots and suspiciously stained sleeves, zigzagging drunks and bulging pockets that hinted of hidden weapons.
Here, the gamblers wore long evening gowns and puffed-out skirts, silk ties, glittering heels. No one was staggering drunk. No one was armed, either, except—she assumed—for the pair of tuxedo-clad guards who watched from either side of the room.
How did the clientele get here? Through underground tunnels? A hov-train station, maybe? She glanced up, as if the ceiling could supply the answer, but all it gave her was a holograph of a kraken that devoured a pirate ship as she watched, sending glints of treasure raining down on the casino floor as it feasted.
“All right,” Hilda said, returning to Sloane’s side. “Where to?”
Sloane looked away from the kraken, trying not to question whether the tableau was meant to be a promise or a threat. Pirates got devoured for stealing, right? No doubt she was overthinking it. “Level C, of course.”
Hilda rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “Didn’t the elevator AI say fighting is allowed on Level C?”
Sloane grinned. “Yup. Come on.”
Three gold-plated escalators later, they emerged in a rooftop garden to the soundtrack of live piano music—and fists pounding into flesh.
Obviously, the casino allowed fighting on Level C. Fighting was Level C.
The garden did have plants, enough of them to fill the air with herbal notes, but she couldn’t imagine who would come here for a leisurely stroll. Not with the elevated fighting ring that dominated the entire center of the terrace. A gray stone tower surrounded it, recalling some kind of ancient arena. They’d somehow built it so that the ring stood open to the air. Even with a ramp that wrapped around the first floor, the setup made the tower look like it was floating.
On the upper levels, shadows moved inside the walls, people passing beyond the open arched windows or sitting on the edges, shouting and laughing and raising fists as they traded bets around. There were even figures lined around the top edge of the tower—she counted six stories—and she couldn’t make out a railing. The casino probably had a forcefield or something to keep people from falling into the ring.
Though maybe not. This was the Bone System, after all.
As she watched, a hov-train clanked to a stop far above the tower—they must be well clear of the smog up here—and hovered in midair as a trio of teardrop-shaped cabs broke free from the body of the train. They dropped silently to the top level of the ring, where they discharged their passengers and admitted more before ascending to click back into place.
A beat, and the train took off again, snaking its trackless way through the city like a serpent on the hunt.
That explained how the casino’s clientele avoided the streets. Sloane wouldn’t have expected to find drop-cabs in a place like Shard, though. Hov-trains were one thing—they were ubiquitous throughout the Parse Galaxy—but drop-cabs added a layer of complication that hinted at infrastructure.
Or innovative thinking. She frowned after the disappearing train, trying to decide if it meant anything. She itched to flick another coin toward the ring, just to see if the grav anchors were tied in with the drop-cab channels.
Even if it didn’t tell her anything, it’d make a neat sound when the coin hit the bottom of the pod.
A loud cheer from the crowd jerked her attention away from the sky and back to the matter at hand. She’d have to look into the drop-cabs later. Because there, standing in the center of the ring with his teeth bared and his fists raised, was the bounty whose capture would pay for Moneymaker’s repairs.
If she was lucky, and if she was quick, she might be able to use the tokens to set her own bounty, to find her uncle, and to get back to her real life.
A girl could hope.
Brighton was a huge man, and strong, his upper arms rippling with muscles. And he knew how to use his size to win a fight, if the skyboard was correct; it showed him as winning the last five.
He looked poised to win this one, too. His opponent was half his size and swaying fitfully in the middle of the ring. Sloane was no expert, but the guy seemed half cooked to her.
She managed to take three steps toward the ring before Hilda froze. Not bad, considering. She’d expected the pilot to catch on a beat sooner. “Oh, no,” Hilda said. “Dammit to the Fringe, Sloane. You knew Brighton would be here, didn’t you?”
Sloane grabbed a flute of sparkling wine from a passing tray and tossed back half the glass, almost choking on the riot of fizzles that crowded down her throat. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I did. See? No robbing. It’s a Federation-approved bounty.”
“That’s what you said last time!”
Yeah, she might’ve tried to capture Brighton once before.
Sloane rolled the stem of the glass between her fingers. “To be fair, last time you found the bounty posting. In my ex’s things. After he betrayed us with his criminal tendencies.”
Sloane wasn’t sure if he could technically be referred to as her ‘ex’ if he was dead, but it got the point across.
She really hadn’t wanted to bring up Oliver.
Hilda crossed her arms again, adding a frown and a disapproving chin tilt into the mix this time. Clearly not ashamed of her actions, then.
“I just need someone to watch my back,” Sloane said. “Can you do that?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Sure. But the ship only flies when I say it flies, so if I die you’ll be stuck on Shard. Not the best place for a summer home, though I’ve seen worse.”
She hadn’t, and neither had Hilda. Probably. After a moment of glaring, Hilda grabbed her own flute of wine, gripping the stem so hard Sloane expected it to crack. “I’m going to kill your uncle.”
Not if Sloane got to him first.
Trusting Hilda to follow, Sloane made her way to the curving ramp that led into the towering stands, scanning her palm for entry. The passage was dimly lit, castle-like, and it smelled like sweat and old wine. So much for the lux.
Sloane kept half an ear on the ring as she moved toward the top of the tower. She had time; as long as Brighton stayed in the fight, she’d be able to pin him. She ran a finger along the tech inlay in the stone, a thread of black that marbled every inch of the gray walls. This place was well watched.
Every few steps, her foot crossed a gravity anchor pressed into the floor. They weren’t nearly as shoddy as the ones on the streets of Shard. Those, she could’ve displaced with a chisel and a prayer.
Contemplating her options, Sloane emerged onto the top level of the ring, where a burst of wind from a descending drop-cab whipped her hair into a frenzy. As she grabbed for it, Hilda gasped.
Still moving, Sloane turned back to see what had scared her.
And ran straight into a midnight-blue Fleet uniform. Or, more accurately, the chest of the person inside the uniform.
Sloane stepped back as the Fleet soldier shot out a hand to steady her, half ready to tell him to get the hell out of here in that uniform before someone stuck a switchblade in his back. But when she looked up at his face, his gray eyes widened in recognition.
It was mirrored, no doubt, in her own expression. Because this man commanded the entire Galactic Fleet. And worse, she’d met him before.