Here's a first look inside Shadow Behind the Stars, the first book in the forthcoming Shadowed Space series set in the Cadicle Universe. This co-authored book by Lucinda Pebre and A.K. DuBoff is set in the years following the original Cadicle series, but it can be read as a standalone.
About the Book
Kali's next test may be her last.
Kali Wietris wants nothing more than to become an Agent in the Tararian Selective Service. In this elite telekinetic branch of the Taran military, she can use her abilities to help people and fight for justice. The only thing standing between Kali and graduation is her final internship.
However, lingering emotional scars from her time as a captive of the corrupt Priesthood have left Kali with a short temper, seriously calling into question her suitability as a TSS Agent. Not only will her internship require Kali to venture into the unknown, but the case is all too similar to her own history... by design.
Someone is kidnapping women on the outer planets. When Kali is assigned to investigate the involvement of a blues band in the abductions, it seems simple. Little does she know the disappearances are part of a larger rising threat, and the TSS greatly underestimated the danger they’ve sent her into.
With time running out for one victim, graduating becomes the least of Kali’s worries. She must risk everything to confront the evil lurking in the shadows.
Shadow Behind the Stars will be released on February 7th!
Kali trudged after Tanya, hardly noticing her surroundings until they arrived in the middle of the Primus Junior Agent lounge. Other trainees had already banded together in small friendship groups, too excited for the upcoming announcement to sit on the upholstered benches or chairs.
Of course, Tanya headed straight for the loudest circle. “Come on. Let’s see what the fuss is about.”
Kali rolled her eyes and dragged her feet, far from eager to engage in forced social interaction. She peered through the strands of her deep brunette hair.
Like the rest of Tararian Selective Service’s Headquarters, the room was comfortable and utilitarian—not that Kali would be able to stomach bold stylings, such as her mother’s over-the-top floral prints, after being away for so long. Before being kidnapped by the corrupt Priesthood when she was sixteen years old, she’d thought deep pile carpets and white furniture that stained if you looked at it wrong was how everyone lived. By contrast, she’d grown fond of the simple comforts in TSS Headquarters, particularly the trainee lounge where she liked to sit in the far corner with a hot chocolate. If she ever made it to Agent, she intended to get someone to take a photo of her in that exact spot.
Kali absently began chewing on the ruined nail of her left index finger. This has to be it. Everyone must have received the same cryptic message to convene, which would explain why the room contained enough nervous energy to feed her anxiety a steaming point.
Internships were coming up, and Kali knew she wasn’t ready to take on her final test as a Junior Agent before graduation. A few months ago, she would have been eager for the challenge. But that was before the nightmares had started again. Before she was reminded about the dark evil that could overpower her.
She’d thought she’d put the trauma from her teenage years behind her, but memories of her time as a captive always seemed to resurface at the most inopportune times. Now, the emotional baggage might threaten her chance to become an Agent—the only future Kali could imagine.
Tanya grabbed Kali’s arm with a telekinetic force and yanked her fingers away from her mouth, jarring her focus back to the present. Kali wished, not for the first time, that she hadn’t asked her friend to help break her of the habit of biting her nails when she got anxious.
Kali narrowed her eyes at her tall friend, but the effort was wasted. Tanya was too busy scanning faces.
Spotting Ben, a gangly guy with pale lips and a hint of facial hair, Tanya sidled close. “What’s going on?”
Kali sighed. Nobody would know anything, and they were both capable of enough wild speculation. Despite her irritation, Kali kept her mouth shut. Tanya couldn’t resist flirting with any male within shouting distance. Perhaps it was caused by a deficiency in her DNA; it was only one of the reasons why their friendship was so unlikely.
Ben’s eyes slid to Kali with a calculated glean, and he smiled, revealing teeth too perfect to be real. It was scary that there’d been a time when she would have been attracted to his tall frame and clean-cut image. Perhaps she should be more worried that she couldn’t imagine wanting anything to do with him now.
Before he could open his mouth, she said, “Don’t bother.”
“I was going to—”
“I said, don’t bother.”
Tanya interrupted, “Seriously, Ben, she’s right, you are wasting your time. You have to have heard about her reputation. Kali doesn’t date, full stop. She has an allergy to having a good time and, apparently, there’s no cure.”
Ben’s smile faded, either due to Tanya’s serious expression or because he’d never been turned down before. She half wanted to reassure him that nobody had said anything bad about him and the problem was her. It wasn’t the sort of conversation she was about to get into with anybody, never mind someone she didn’t really know.
The door slid open, saving Kali from the effort of punching Tanya on the arm. The whole group turned toward two figures entering the room, a woman Kali instantly recognized as Saera Alexri, the Lead Agent, and a man she didn’t know, also dressed in Agent black. All conversation and nervous laughter trailed away.
Agent Alexri surveyed the room, poised and annoyingly beautiful, as always. “Thank you for joining us.”
Next to her, the man beamed, inviting a camaraderie that would be snapped up by the more outgoing individuals in Primus. Kali had seen him a few times in the corridors and the mess hall. He had the same ageless look of most Agents in their middle years—a youthfulness coupled with a measured demeanor tempered by life experience.
His smile was less than perfect, with a hint of something feral that made Kali think he’d tasted some of the horrors that lay outside their protected environment. It should have made her back away. Instead, she was curious.
He appeared relaxed but, like every other TSS Agent she’d ever met, his bioluminescent eyes took in every detail. It must be her imagination, but they appeared to linger longer on her.
“I’m sure Agent Alexri needs no introduction. Since many of us haven’t met, I’m Andy Renteria.” His voice carried out into the corridor with ease. “Anyone want to guess why you’ve been called here?” There was no response. Everyone waited, not wanting to be singled out as a fool.
“I’m sure most of you have already guessed,” the Lead Agent added.
People looked at each other as if expecting to find an answer there. Tanya dug an elbow into Kali’s ribs, causing her to let out a pained gasp. Kali dropped the offending hand from her mouth to hang limp and out of place at her side. Then without thinking, she grabbed a piece of flesh from under Tanya’s arm and twisted.
Tanya let out a squeak and pulled away, rubbing the injured spot. She covered her mouth as Agent Renteria’s full attention snapped to her. Shaking her head, she stepped back, and his eyes slid to Kali.
Fortunately, Ben raised a tentative hand, as if in class, but then seemed to realize it might be inappropriate and blurted, “Is it about the internship assignments?”
Kali let out a breath as Agent Renteria looked at him. She returned Tanya’s glare with an apologetic shrug. Best to merge into the background, even if it was something she tried and failed to do frequently.
“That’s right,” Agent Alexri confirmed. “This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for but, a word of warning: some of you will be starting sooner than you thought. Others will have more time to prepare and become acquainted with the specifics of your assignment. Likewise, some of these assignments may take a week to complete while others may have you in the field for months. As you can appreciate, coordinating these many internships is a huge task, and this is the largest Junior Agent cohort we’ve ever had. So, the timing is dependent on what is available and when. I’ve asked Agent Renteria to assist with the coordination this year, since Agent Andres is otherwise occupied.”
Kali’s heart sank. She should be excited at the prospect of getting away from the confines of the base, but the thought of venturing into the outside world made her skin prickle and her head pound. The intensity of their training had allowed Kali to avoid leaving the only place she felt safe. Even then, she couldn’t hide from the nightmares. Worst was the guilt, which was never far away.
She knew that she couldn’t stay locked within TSS Headquarters forever. Not unless they could find her a job training the new recruits, or perhaps an administrative role. Of course, first, she had to complete the dreaded internship assignment.
Kali had scored well on tests but her aptitude had never been the problem. Though she tried to tell herself that the internship was just another routine test before graduation, she couldn’t delude herself. Every internship assignment was personalized to give each trainee a chance to overcome their weaknesses. Kali could only imagine what challenges hers would present—she had so many faults.
To make matters worse, if she was going away for any length of time, she owed it to her family to let them know. Unfortunately, there was no way of doing that without actually speaking to them. She’d tried sending messages before, but her mother refused anything other than direct contact.
It still hurt that they wouldn’t support her decision to join the TSS and didn’t understand that she could never slip back into her old life. Why was it so difficult to understand that she couldn’t think about marrying and having a family? Instead of acknowledging what she’d been through, her parents seemed keen to pretend it never happened. But it did, and Kali carried the memory with her every day. Just like she’d carried the child implanted in her womb against her will, genetically engineered by the Priesthood as part of their perverse experimentations. She’d been liberated from the Priesthood’s holding cells, but she still found herself there in her mind in her dark moments.
Most days, she was barely holding it together in the artificially protective environment of the TSS; she would combust if she was forced into the constraints of so-called civilized society.
Agent Renteria was speaking, and Kali forced her attention back to what he was saying. “To find out about your individual assignment, look at your handheld in… three, two, one, now.”
Everyone’s eyes instantly dropped to their personal devices. Except for Kali, who was not so eager to see her future, which was why she caught the glance that Agent Renteria gave her before he left with the Lead Agent.
I wasn’t imagining his interest in me.
Tanya was unusually quiet while reading the small screen, biting her bottom lip. After several moments, she lifted her head, grinning. “Lapponte, to help secure the prison and make it safe for both guards and prisoners.” A thoughtful expression crossed her face. “Sounds difficult.” Her smile returned. “Just think, me amongst all those half-naked men.”
Despite the stress, Kali couldn’t help a burst of laughter at the twinkle in Tanya’s eyes. “Where are their clothes?” When Tanya continued to grin, Kali shook her head.
Finally, unable to put it off any longer, she looked at her own handheld and scrolled through the data to the critical information.
Tanya leaned over Kali’s shoulder, using her height to pry. “Come on, let’s see.”
Kali read and then re-read the words. No, it can’t be. They want me to investigate a band. They wouldn’t do that, would they? Don’t they think I’m capable of something more challenging? Do they feel sorry for me? All thoughts of staying in Headquarters for the rest of her life evaporated.
“They want you to join a traveling band?” Tanya’s eyes were wide. “That is so my type of assignment. Are you sure they haven’t got us mixed up? We do spend too much time together, it’s possible…” Tanya’s voice faded as a surge of adrenaline made Kali’s head spin.
“This isn’t fair.” Kali spun on her heel and stormed out of Primus lounge, leaving a speechless Tanya behind.
A voice screamed at the back of her mind as she headed for the command wing on Level 1. Stop!
She ignored the inner warning. There was no way she would let them do this. Not after everything she’d been through. She’d had a few problems, but she’d worked hard, scored well on tests, had done everything they’d asked.
They’d given her a joke internship—a softball assignment, going through the motions without any of the rigor. It was too much. They needed to forget her past and stop giving her special treatment like she was helpless. If only she could go somewhere nobody knew about her past. Somewhere they didn’t see her as a victim.
She let out a bitter laugh. Where would that be? Her family pretended that nothing had happened. How could she pick up where she’d left off as a sixteen-year-old? A girl who had only cared about clothes and boys and getting good grades.
Kali had joined the TSS desperate to give her life some meaning. To make up for what she’d done by refusing to become a single mother to the child she was forced to bear. The Priesthood had made her a surrogate to one of their illegal clones while she was held as their prisoner, and she’d struggled to reconcile her lack of connection to the innocent life she’d carried to term. She couldn’t look at him without thinking about how his life came into being—how her own innocence had been robbed in the process.
In the years since, she’d been trying to find a way to feel secure. She wanted to be as strong as she could be, so no one could take advantage of her again. In time, she hoped she could use that strength to protect others, too. Though the Priesthood had been destroyed after Kali's time as a captive, there would always be new enemies to face.
The truth was that the TSS was the only place where she could learn to master her telekinetic and telepathic abilities. They were her greatest asset in protecting herself, even though that had been what drew the Priesthood to her as a target for their program.
As far as Kali could see, she had two choices: deny who she was and spend the rest of her life running, or embrace it and use her abilities for the good of the Taran race. Doesn’t that sound selfless? Yet, she couldn’t deny that the altruism was secondary to the fact that TSS Headquarters was safer than the outside world.
But how did the TSS repay her for dedicating her life to their cause? By giving her an internship assignment to babysit a foking band. A wave of bitterness washed over her, morphing into resentment and then anger. She charged toward the Administrative wing
It’s professional suicide. You’ll never work in the TSS if you march in there like this.
The voice sounded remarkably like her mother’s, and it got louder the nearer she got to Lead Agent Alexri’s office. She had to ignore her own warning. If she let them treat her like this, it was the same as saying she deserved it. Then she would never get a chance to do anything. Never be able to make her life matter.
Tanya was off to a prison, for fok’s sake. She would have to use everything she’d learned in training, while Kali would be at risk of… a hangover.
Kali had intended to burst into the Lead Agent’s office and give her a piece of her mind, but she faltered at the door. No, I won’t let anyone take advantage of me. She pressed the buzzer.
All dreams of making a dramatic entrance evaporated when the frosted glass door slid open to reveal Agent Alexri sitting at her desk behind a holoprojection of a mission report. “Can I help you?”
The Agent’s expression remained neutral as Kali rode her tide of righteousness to stand before the desk. “Did you let me into the TSS because you felt sorry for me?”
Agent Alexri frowned, clearly confused.
“My internship, it’s—”
The Lead Agent’s face cleared. “Ah, yes. An important assignment.”
“It sounds like a joke!” Kali blurted out.
“Have you read the details?”
The Agent’s level tone caught Kali off-guard. “Well, I mean, the summary says it all. You want me to follow a band across the star system because you don’t think I can manage a real challenge.”
Agent Alexri rose from her seat with a sigh. “If that’s how you took it, I can understand why you stormed into my office—not that I’ll accept that as an excuse. At this stage of your training, you need to have better control over your actions and emotions.”
Kali’s head swam, but her gaze managed to meet the Agent’s bioluminescent green eyes. “How else was I supposed to take it? Other people are getting sent off on diplomatic or security missions, but I’m supposed to just be a groupie for a few months. How is that a test?”
The Agent came around her desk and leaned against the front. “Kali, you show a great deal of promise, but that only counts for anything if you embrace your own worth. You’re the only one here who’s not taking you seriously.”
Kali wanted to argue, but she didn’t dare open her mouth. She was afraid of saying something she would regret.
“I want to see you graduate and flourish,” Agent Alexri continued after a pause. “I know firsthand what it’s like to have demons from your past coloring your perceptions. The TSS can help you move on, but it has to be something you want for yourself. If you aren’t ready, then this isn’t the place for you.”
Kali looked down, faintly nauseated now the anger was draining away. Talk of leaving the TSS was too real and cut through her anger more effectively than anything else could. She swallowed. “I know, I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s just… I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes things set me off and I can’t think.”
Agent Alexri nodded, her eyes softening. “I understand more than you think, but I have to make sure you’re up to the job, because people’s lives are on the line. You can’t be the weak link.” She returned to the seat behind her desk, gesturing for Kali to take one of the two chairs across from her.
Kali collapsed to sit as the strength seeped from her legs, the enormity of the situation starting to sink in. She shoved her hands under her thighs so she couldn’t bite her nails.
“Why did you stop counseling sessions after your first year?” Agent Alexri asked.
Kali blanched. “I didn’t find them useful.”
“That may have been shortsighted. I’m sorry we didn’t pay closer attention to your needs sooner.”
Over the years, Kali had talked regularly with Agent Alexri as part of her Primus trainee check-ins. Agent Alexri had told Kali that only her supervising Agent would know her history.
It hadn’t worked out that way. A couple of women who’d been held captive with Kali had told their stories, and everyone involved had become instantly famous. The few, including Kali, who refused interviews were considered the most mysterious.
Kali had been grateful for the protective bubble of the TSS, but it hadn’t taken long for her fellow trainees to find out the truth. Their less than compassionate reactions had reminded her about why it was better to keep people at a distance. How could she possibly know who to trust? Tanya had slithered under her barrier somehow, probably because she was relentless. No one else could be considered more than a casual acquaintance.
“I didn’t exactly let on,” Kali eventually replied.
“I should have known better.” Agent Alexri looked at her for a long moment before pressing the comm link on her desktop.
A familiar male voice answered, “Hello, Saera.”
“Can you join us in my office, please?”
“Be right there.”
Agent Alexri returned her attention to Kali. “I’m going to ignore your outburst for now, but don’t think this is the end of the matter.”
The door slid open and Agent Renteria entered. He smiled at Kali as if he expected to find her in the Lead Agent’s office. As he took the second chair, the two Agents looked at each other, the telltale electrical hum of a telepathic exchange rippling through the air.
Kali sat on her hands again and waited, focusing her entire energy on staying calm.
“Kali came to me before I could send for her, so we might as well do this now,” Agent Alexri stated.
Agent Renteria nodded. “The sooner, the better as far as I’m concerned.” He looked at Kali. “Call me Andy. I’m not much for hierarchy.”
Agent Alexri continued, “She was concerned about being sent on a meaningless mission.” Kali opened her mouth to apologize again, but Agent Alexri waved it off. “You couldn’t be further from the truth.”
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