-K. Sozaeva "Obsessive bibliophile," Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer and Vine Voice
"This author's many strengths include complex world building, complex societal structure, complex technology. The plot was well-crafted as well."
-J. Wells, Amazon Vine Voice
"The author has a way of paying attention to details to the point where every nuance is covered; the reader will be able to picture the environment, expressions, and scenes very well."
-Chels, Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer
"AMBASADORA has a lot to say about the human spirit and it says it well."
-Mike Resnick, Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author
"With an anthropologist's eye for world building and an engaging fast-paced style, Heidi Ruby Miller hurtles her characters through a dystopian labyrinth in which hollow beauty is revered and love a virtual crime."
-Christopher Paul Carey, author of EXILES FROM KHO
"Beautifully vibrant and intricately textured, Heidi Ruby Miller's AMBASADORA explores the value of true humanity, the limitless power of desire and the triumph of the individual soul. Amidst edge-of-the-seat action, Miller effortlessly incorporates the conflicts of the modern woman inherent in upholding feminist sensibility. AMBASADORA is a banquet of sumptuous words, a truly exciting adventure that fans of science fiction are sure to enjoy."
-Mary SanGiovanni, author of THE HOLLOWER series
MARKED BY LIGHT is the first book in the Ambasadora science fiction adventure series. This space thriller contains elements of space opera, science fiction romance, cyberpunk, military science fiction, a galactic empire, anthropological science fiction, and dystopian society.
If everyone told you love wasn't real, would you still be willing to die for it?
Sara Mendoza and Sean Cryer are.
In their multi-partner, caste-ruled society, love and jealousy are considered emotional fallacies, nothing more than fleeting moods and sentiments biased by hormones. Relationships and conceptions in this world obsessed with celebrity, beauty, and power are based on DNA and lineages...or should be. But not everyone believes in the ruling traditions of the all-powerful Embassy. A quiet rebellion prowls the dark underground of this shiny world where techno-militants calling themselves fraggers grow in numbers and bravado. The Embassy intends to silence the fragger movement before the heresy of equality spreads throughout the system.
Sara Mendoza is part of the Embassy's plan. Captured, tortured, and falsely accused of treason, she is given a chance to win back her freedom. She only needs to charm information
from one of the fragger leaders, then kill him. But by the time she figures out the Embassy's intel is flawed and that Sean Cryer is her true mark, she's already in love with him.
Sean knows why Sara is on his ship from the start, but as a lonely, anti-social doser, he doesn't value his life, only his ideology within the fragger organization. Against his better judgment,
he becomes her protector, each day caring more about a future he was always afraid to hope for.
THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF
AMBASADORA BOOK 1: MARKED BY LIGHT
"It's not real. None of it's real." For most of Sara's imprisonment, she tried to convince herself of just that.
She dragged herself across the entryway by her elbows. Blood oozed from hundreds of cuts on her legs, a miasma of red streaks on the geometric design of the olive tiles. She would rest here at the Sovereign's apartment within the Palomin Canyon Reserve until he decided it was time to return her to Faya’s dank cell.
This guest suite was like a gilded cage. Only here the torture wasn’t needles or shockers, but knowing that even if she escaped the windowless room, she'd never make it out of Palomin alive. Not that she had the strength to even try it. Maybe when the Sovereign first imprisoned her here—twenty, forty days ago? She had lost track.
Lost track of how long ago Chen Starrie had set her up and abandoned her to save his own rogue skin.
Abandonment seemed to be a theme in this society, going all the way back to those citizens on the worldships millennia ago. They must have felt as she did now—trapped and hopeless, sick and dying. She couldn't help but think about them during these hateful days spent in the remnants of one of their old ships, creatively converted into this repository for the system's Archives and desert home to Sovereign Simon Prollixer.
She never cared about those ancient days, never understood, but her present circumstances mirrored those of the Lowers back then. The Lower Caste had been shut away from the rest of society for being unclean, damaged.
Thinking that even those people managed to survive through their horrors sometimes gave Sara resolve. Sometimes.
The cold tiles stuck to her skin as she crawled the short distance to the bathroom. Her tears blurred her vision, morphing the intricate white archway at its entrance into a hazy apparition. The normally straight and regal columns bent at irregular angles as though melting.
She stopped to wipe her nose on her arm. A pair of disembodied silver eyes appeared in the archway.
It’s just the dosing. Another hallucination.
The eyes flew at her. She ducked her head and screamed. They hovered there, within touching distance. Just like the fragger v-mitter lenses, but they had wide black pupils in their centers.
She buried her face to hide her tears from them.
"Get away from me."
She should have expected to see some residual images. Faya had finished her latest modification session only an hour ago. And this time she had stepped up the hallucinogenic dosers.
The eyes aren’t real. There aren’t any fraggers here.
Sara never told Faya about her fear of the techno-militants or what really happened before she was captured here at Palomin. She never would, no matter how many torture sessions she had to endure. But Faya didn’t need to know what inspired Sara's terror, only which drugs would make it manifest.
Her hatred of Faya gave Sara a moment’s courage. She clawed at the fresh cuts on her legs, begging that the horrendous sensation of splitting skin destroy the horrid images. Pain had become her only tether to reality these past weeks. Another secret she had kept from Faya. The more intense the pain, the less the dosers worked, the more Sara retained her clarity.
She looked up to stare at one silver v-mitter, now featureless and dead, its mate, the bloodied eye of the fragger she had fought outside these walls.
"You're not real." Sara slammed a fist against the tiles. The pain wasn't working this time. Had Faya finally dosed Sara so much that the visions would never go away?
Angry and frightened, she continued her crawl toward the bathroom. The raw eye stayed just ahead of her, rolling around as though still in a socket. She ignored it and counted tiles, anything to force her focus elsewhere, until the eyeball plopped onto the back of her hand.
It stared at her.
She screamed and flung it off.
The stench of charred flesh wafted from where the eye had rested on her hand. There were no signs of burns, but the acrid smell overwhelmed her. She heaved and pulled herself up to the toilet. Bluish mucus and bile burned her esophagus and mouth as it came back up from her stomach. The taste reminded her of cleaning chemicals. The throat-searing pain overloaded her senses. The eyeball rolled around on the tiles a few times, as if to get her attention, then vanished.
Now that her mind cleared, the pain in her legs grew in proportion. She smiled weakly at the trade-off.
With mustered strength, she propped herself up and grabbed a thick towel from the washstand. The towel caught on the rim of an empty water glass and sent it tumbling to the floor, shattering it into tiny pieces. Dark red streaks soaked through the towel's pale green fabric as she pressed it against her legs. The contact of even the softest fibers sent needles of reassuring pain through her.
Blade cuffs. What sick mind came up with that idea?
Faya favored the devices over the shockers, which had stopped Sara's heart once, and dental torture, though there weren't many molars on her right side left to pull. Faya was at least kind enough to rub anti-microbial salts into the cuts and empty sockets and rinse them with chlorate, to keep down the infection.
Can’t have you dying on me yet, Faya had whispered against her cheek.
Sara could still smell the pungent chlorate here in the sterile bathroom, mixed with Faya’s strawberry scent.
But, the worst part was the nightmares—they stayed after the split skin and contusions healed.
Trying not to move her lacerated legs, she grasped the side of the huge bathing tub and dragged herself into a sitting position. Her naked back absorbed the coolness of the tub’s side. She closed her eyes and panted.
"I see Faya went for the blade cuffs again."
Her eyes flew open and her heart jumped. He was here. Rainer was finally here.
Glass crunched under his boots as he approached. "At least she stayed away from your face this time." He nudged her head up to look at her scars.
His skin had tanned since a few days ago, or was it yesterday? Or last week? The bronzing complemented his sculpted face and dark hair. She was deathly pale and her face now bore no resemblance to the woman she used to be. Faya had succeeded in her humiliation.
Rainer reached past Sara and turned on the water for the tub. Its rushing noise brought comfort, static to fill her mind. When he bent down beside her, she smelled the subtle woodiness of his scentbots. Breathing deeply, she allowed his scent to calm her.
"I’m giving you the stims first because it’s going to be painful when you hit that water." Rainer pressed a doser patch into Sara’s neck before she could protest.
She barely noticed the pinch of the tiny needle or the endorphin stimulants pumping into her bloodstream.
"Let me see what damage she did." He lifted the towel and set it aside. A brief sadness crossed his face. After a careful inspection of her cuts, he grabbed a crystal atomizer from the wash stand and sprayed her legs with an analgesic.
"You’ll still feel some pain, but that should help until the stims flood your system."
Rainer was always gentle when ministering to her wounds, but very clinical. When his actions became too tender, his touch too caressing, he detached himself from the work and became methodical. Nevertheless, she craved his touch, any touch besides that of her tormentor.
"Thanks," she whispered.
"Hold onto my neck." He lowered her into the tub.
As the warm water inundated the shallow cuts, bright red clouded the bath. The shock sent her head spinning. Her fingers dug into Rainer’s neck, and he waited for her to relax before pulling away.
"I take it you haven't told Faya what she wants to know yet." Rainer moved toward the tall cabinet to the right of the tub.
Suspicion crept into Sara’s ailing mind. Was this part of Prollixer’s ploy? Faya roughed her up, then Rainer came in as trusted healer.
"I've told her everything I know about Chen. And I don't know anything about Simon’s curse." Her voice broke when saying the Sovereign's given name, but the endostims kicked in enough to make the insult sound strong. "I just hope he dies from it."
"He might." Rainer left the room.
Maybe Simon figured the male contractor could seduce information from her that Faya couldn’t procure through behavior modification. Only, Rainer had never tried to seduce Sara. In fact, he always turned down her physical advances.
How could she blame him? She'd bashed every mirror in this suite just so she wouldn't catch a glimpse of herself. With a sick little look, she spotted a brand new shiny mirror above the sink. Simon always made sure to replace them just before she returned from another torture session.
Rainer stood over the tub with a crystal shaker and poured a silvery powder into the water. Sara held her breath in anticipation of the burn from the metallic antiseptic, but its pinch was subtle compared to the chlorate. When Rainer turned off the water, the silence was stark and unnerving.
"I believe you don't know anything more," he said.
His words almost stopped her heart.
"Otherwise, why put yourself through all this? To cover for a man who left you to die? A man who led you to believe he'd have a child with you." Rainer swirled the powdery solution around her legs.
The burn in Sara’s heart matched the sensation on her sliced skin. She couldn’t even think of Chen without wanting to wrap her hands around his throat and crush the life from him. The sudden surge of emotion brought with it a panic, and panic often brought on—.
She looked to Rainer, then past him into the bedroom. It was there.
Her body shook as she stared at a hovering orb of light, no larger than a pebble. The expanding sphere drifted toward them. Rainer scanned the room, even drawing one of his cenders.
He couldn’t see it.
On some level she understood it was just another deranged image in her mind, but that didn’t make her reaction any less real.
The fragger energy orb augmented, its speed increasing, until it hurled its room-sized mass directly at her. She threw her hands in front of her face, afraid its energy would char her body as it had those contractors on Palomin's rim.
"Sara." Rainer’s voice sounded distant, like he still fought to be heard over running water. "Sara, there’s nothing there."
He pulled her dripping arms from her face and tilted her head up. "Look at me. Sara, look at me."
Ashamed of her scarred visage, she twisted out of his grasp. Scraping at her legs drew fresh blood and calming pain.
Rainer grabbed her hand to stop her. "What did you see?"
She shook her head and closed her eyes.
"Tell me what you saw."
"A fragger orb." The absurdity of it disgusted her.
"Do you still see it?"
"No," she said, then defiantly, "Do you?"
Rainer ignored the question and took a fresh towel from the cabinet. With careful hands, he helped her out of the tub. Her legs still screamed with pain, but she could at least stand if she leaned up against him. That physical contact felt better than the stims, than the pain. He wrapped her legs in silky gauze then guided her around the broken glass and into the bedroom.
She rested her head on his shoulder.
He held her with one arm while he turned down the bed with the other. When he laid her down, she held onto his forearm and rubbed her thumb over the fine dark hairs.
"Can’t you stay with me a little longer? Just hold my hand, until I fall asleep?" She craved affection, gentleness, someone to hold her and say it would be okay.
Rainer stared at her, his expression unreadable. "This is business, Sara. The healthier you are, the stronger you'll be to defy Faya."
"I'm not defying her." The thought was more absurd than a fragger orb detonating inside the room. "I don't know anything, including why Faya's failure is so important to you."
"That's business, too. Mine."
"Would it be different if I didn't look like this?" She placed a shaking hand on his, trying to hold onto its warmth. "I just need someone to be near me." She wanted her mother, her father, one of her cousins, even her sister to hold onto right now. Most of all, she wanted Rainer because he was here and he was always the one to take her pain away, to listen to her ravings.
A commotion in the hallway put them both on alert.
Rainer tugged his hand away and looked at her. Not quite a look of pity, but it still stung. "I’ve been here too long already," he said. "If the Sovereign knew about this, we’d both be dead. You won’t need me soon. He has other plans for you, ones that don’t involve torture...or at least not like this."
Watching him leave, Sara couldn't even muster the strength to care what the Sovereign would do to her next.
A faint blue ellipse decorated a large circle of pavement outside the Embassy's expansive halfmoon-shaped complex. Rainer caught glimpses of the faded symbol within a mix of drably dressed Embassy staff, flamboyant Socialites, and black-clad contractors. Bodies crisscrossed in kaleidoscopic regularity to and from the ferries and ship berths at Shiraz Dock here within the Hub.
Tampa Quad's largest urban center used to be a different kind of hub. Rainer formed a vague image from stories his family told of archivist ships constantly arriving and departing from the system's six planets, before Sovereign Archivist Simon Prollixer dropped the archivist part of his title and managed to gain control from a council too willing to give up its power. Now there was only the Sovereign.
Like Sara, Rainer didn't believe Prollixer deserved his manufactured title.
Thinking of her brought mixed feelings, ones he pushed aside as he passed the defunct landing pads and avoided the commonways used by most pedestrian traffic to the Hub. He never entered via the grand main entrance with its sparkling chalcedony wall, preferring to maneuver through the Hub's underground tunnels. Head Contractor had its privileges, including access to places most citizens couldn't imagine.
Though Prollixer originally commissioned the tunnels' construction for quick getaways at the onset of his take-over, he now preferred to be as high profile as possible in order to bask in the appreciation of his citizens. Maybe he forgot that not everyone celebrated the regime change like he did.
Contractors and fraggers protested the loudest; Prollixer made sure to turn one against the other very early. Those contractors who found working for the Embassy too restrictive left the guild to become rogues for hire. At first, Prollixer denied marriage rights to the rogues, but quickly changed policy after the guilders threatened to mutiny as well. Once any group of Uppers was denied rights, others could easily follow.
The Sovereign might pay Embassy contractors to be loyal, but no price was worth losing their family privileges. It was too much like what had happened on the worldships when the diseases ran unchecked and the quarantines were first enforced. A negative growth in population left the citizenry in serious jeopardy of extinction.
Without the archivists' History lessons, the Sovereign might have thrown the population into decline, or worse, allowed the purer lines to become tainted. Reinforcing the need to marry within one's caste and with multiple partners ensured a thriving populace among the six planets. Of course interpretation of caste varied. Most took it to mean any from the Upper Caste, but family circles consisting mostly of contractors took the mandate to a new level, nearly becoming a sub-class themselves. Most of them formed their family circles with other contractors exclusively. Rainer's family subscribed to this tradition, as was evidenced by the lineages of his amours.
Three figures rounded the corner ahead. Few traveled the featureless white corridors with their overly bright ceiling lights, so Rainer often used his transit time down here to disconnect from everything, allow his mind to rest and wander. It annoyed him to have this meditation interrupted, especially today.
The approaching forms became recognizable as Archivist Phoebe Lewellyn and her contractor bodyguards.
The woman's blue-streaked blonde hair almost glowed in the harsh lighting.
"Hello, Contractor Varden." Phoebe motioned her escort ahead. "May we speak?"
The mayfly holo-broach securing her pink wrap fluttered its wings.
"I have a few moments before the Sovereign expects me." Rainer kept the movement of Phoebe's bodyguards in sight at all times.
"The Sovereign dismissed the quorum today without even making an appearance. I hope he's not still ill. He hasn't been himself since our foray onto Tampa One last month." The gaze of her dark green eyes watched Rainer closely, but he was too disciplined to display any tells.
"He was fine when I saw him yesterday. He's a busy man."
"Too busy to meet with his own advisors?"
"Maybe he no longer needed your advice." Rainer and Phoebe both knew the Quorum of Archivists served only as figureheads to make Prollixer's rule fall more into line with the History teachings. There had always been archivists, would always be. Even the Sovereign couldn't change History, but he could decide how History was interpreted, like giving the other archivists no real political responsibilities.
"Anything else?" Rainer asked.
"No, just my concern for our dear Sovereign. Good day."
Rainer had regarded the woman with suspicion for some time. Normally his instincts were dead on. He imagined it wouldn't be long before Archivist Lewellyn met with misfortune.
Within the medical suite, Rainer followed a white beam of horizontal light as it passed over Sara’s naked form and projected its readings into the air above her. A doctor studied the scan silently.
Sara’s will to survive continued to impress Rainer. An urge surfaced to touch her hand, but he quelled it immediately. Each time he had left her at Prollixer's mercy he took with him the memory of her touch—the pressure, the swish of her thumb, the signaling of need. The power he held to elevate her mood, take away her pain, and give her hope fed his emotions almost as much as his ego.
A hint of roses enveloped her, thanks to new scentbots. Breathing a little deeper, he couldn't remember how she smelled before. It didn't matter. This smell was as fresh and new as her body. He stared at every detail of her.
The changes to her appearance played with him. Her lips were fuller, her nose a little wider. And the scars were all gone.
Sara's reconstruction didn't technically constitute a breach in law. Allowances were made for little fixes all the time, but her alterations took away any natural attributes she had once had, at least so far as Rainer was concerned. Mores and tradition still held more sway with him than laws.
Seeing her lying there both excited and disturbed him.
"How is my newest ambasadora?" the Sovereign asked from the doorway.
The doctor stood straighter.
Rainer stepped back from the post-op table and avoided Prollixer's stare.
"I didn’t expect you to personally check on…" the doctor said, "I mean, you didn’t visit any of the other ambasadoras."
The Sovereign made no response.
The doctor cleared his throat and continued. "She’ll be coming out of the anesthesia soon."
"The implantation was successful?" Prollixer walked over to the bed where Sara lay, exposed and vulnerable in her drug-induced sleep.
The doctor peeled back the single bandage covering her right arm. "Yes, all the cells grafted well. And, as you can see, the intra-tattoo’s design is flawless."
"How can you tell with all the bruising?"
Hundreds of puncture wounds in varying shades of purple and black covered her entire arm from the back of her hand to her shoulder. The site of more marks marring Sara's new skin agitated Rainer.
"It looked much better when the light matrix covered her skin during insertion," the doctor said. "But, not to worry, the contusions should heal quickly."
"Fine. Now, if you wouldn’t mind leaving us."
Prollixer waited until the doctor left the room. "Contractor Varden, what do you think of my modifications?"
Rainer stared at Sara's hand to avoid looking at the rest of her. He had more discipline than to let his physical desire show, but involuntary responses like pupil dilation were more difficult to control. Few citizens ever overcame that genetically hardwired reaction to sexual stimuli.
Except for the Sovereign.
Had he lived so long that coupling was no longer important to him? Perhaps that would explain why he hadn't produced any offspring for nearly sixty years. Speculation about a true genetic link to his previous children still surfaced occasionally, mostly due to their early deaths, but most citizens shied away from gossiping about the Sovereign for fear of repercussions. Of course, most wouldn't have guessed that his longevity bots were more than a myth, that his scientists had actually found a way to lengthen his life, and that this technology wouldn't be shared with anyone who couldn't pay the exorbitant price.
Rainer wondered if, now that Prollixer's supposed immortality was threatened, the panic of being heirless gnawed at his guts.
The Sovereign dissolved a sedative strip on his tongue as if in answer.
Rainer's gaze drifted to Sara's breasts, which were larger now, but he quickly pulled it back to her face. Considering the circumstances, any type of arousal displayed by Rainer would be expected, but he feared Prollixer knew of the unauthorized visits to Sara during her modification.
"I don’t see much difference except for the longer hair. Good color choice, by the way. I’m kind of partial to dark-haired women." But, changing her hair color still wouldn't make her a contractor, and that disappointed Rainer more than he cared to admit.
"I’m glad it pleases you. I chose a similar hue for her eyes."
"Quite a change from the honey color they were," Rainer said.
"You remember the color of her eyes? Surprising. I believe it was quite dark and dusty the only time you saw them."
Rainer gave Simon a guarded look, but his response was even. "Eyes are just my thing. Some guys focus on a woman’s mouth or her ass. I always go for the eyes."
"Precisely why I didn’t hire you for the modification."
Rainer's mouth folded at the corners. "You didn’t even know about the eye thing until just now."
"I knew there was something you liked about her. You took great care of her…"
Rainer didn't blink.
"…before Contractor Renault took over that night."
"I took care that she didn't die before we got any information from her. Then you cut me out of the modification process. I would have charged less than Faya."
"Really? Contractor Renault wouldn't accept any payment to break the woman."
Rainer's breathing paused for just a moment, but the Sovereign had caught it. His smile said so. "Not to worry. I have more important jobs for you."
He looked back at Sara. "And you, Ambasadora Mendoza, have the most important job of all. You get to lift my curse."
"Bait. The rogue who left her at Palomin will be very interested to know she is still alive, and now serving as one of my ambasadoras. He will either come back to save her or to kill her. But, either way, he will come back."
Prollixer's rising tone hinted at desperation, a trait emerging more frequently in the ailing Sovereign. Rainer supposed curses would do that to a man.