Rich socialite, inveterate flirt, and walking disaster Tennalhin Halkana can read minds. Tennal, like all neuromodified “readers,” is a security threat on his own. But when controlled, readers are a rare asset. Not only can they read minds, but they can navigate chaotic space, the maelstroms surrounding the gateway to the wider universe.
Conscripted into the military under dubious circumstances, Tennal is placed into the care of Lieutenant Surit Yeni, a duty-bound soldier, principled leader, and the son of a notorious traitor general. Whereas Tennal can read minds, Surit can influence them. Like all other neuromodified “architects,” he can impose his will onto others, and he’s under orders to control Tennal by merging their minds.
Surit accepted a suspicious promotion-track request out of desperation, but he refuses to go through with his illegal orders to sync and control an unconsenting Tennal. So they lie: They fake a sync bond and plan Tennal’s escape.
Their best chance arrives with a salvage-retrieval mission into chaotic space—to the very neuromodifcation lab that Surit’s traitor mother destroyed twenty years ago. And among the rubble is a treasure both terrible and unimaginably powerful, one that upends a decades-old power struggle, and begins a war.
Tennal and Surit can no longer abandon their unit or their world. The only way to avoid life under full military control is to complete the very sync they’ve been faking.
Can two unwilling weapons of war bring about peace?
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Ocean’s Echo by Everina Maxwell, on sale 11/1/22.
Tennalhin Halkana arrived at the party fashionably late, which might have meant something if he’d been invited in the first place. Tennal often set out to make trouble, it was true, but this evening, he was genuinely here for a drink and a good time.
That was a lie. He also wanted an architect, and this party would be full of architects.
The party was in the penthouse of the most exclusive hotel in the city. It was a glittering front for an underground gambling ring, so it was full of dangerous people, but Tennal had stopped caring who he mingled with some time ago. Tennal floated from one gambling meetup to another these days, always just interesting enough to be kept around, never involved enough to get in serious trouble. As a lifestyle, it had its ups and downs. As an escape plan, it was an amateur one, but he could keep it going as long as he had to. He just needed the right architect.
He didn’t risk the private drone service ferrying people up to the balcony. Instead Tennal flirted his way past security in the hotel lobby and walked into the elevator as if he belonged there. There was no security at the penthouse door. People didn’t go to this kind of party uninvited, but Tennal had found there were very few things you couldn’t do if you didn’t care about fucking up. Tennal was low on money, low on options, and didn’t have a lot left to lose.
The penthouse was a dark fug of noise and low-level sensory vibrations. It was dimly lit by colored glows under tables and light filaments like sprays of vivid flowers in the corners. Dozens of people gathered around various games, or the bar, or smaller tables where more serious business was being done. Under the talking and the music, there was the low, vibrating drone that people on certain chemical substances found enjoyably hypnotic. Some people were obviously high already. Tennal was envious.
But he’d been right. There were architects.
That woman over there, with the flint-and-gold necklace and the weapon at her belt, was an architect. So was the grayhaired tough picking over the buffet. So—interestingly—was the ethereally beautiful twentysomething waif who looked like someone’s trophy boyfriend. Tennal didn’t often meet architects his own age.
None of them were that good. They weren’t slinging around mental commands at the bar or anything, but Tennal could see it: architects gave off an aura, if you knew how to look for it, like light radiating from a star. The ones he was watching were pretty faint. They might be able to take over someone’s mind for a split second, but only if they really tried. Tennal was looking for someone else. Someone better.
Of course, every architect in here would be careful what they used their mental influence for. Using it on the wrong person in the street might get you a warning from law enforcement, but in here, it might get you shot. And architects had the acceptable kind of power.
Tennal was too sober for this.
He slid into a seat at the bar and smiled glitteringly at the bartender. “What’s free?”
There was usually something free at these things. The bartender paused and squinted at him suspiciously, as if Tennal didn’t look quite wealthy enough or dangerous enough to be here. Tennal didn’t show any signs of backing off, though, and eventually a shot glass came sliding across the bar.
Might as well ask. Tennal tilted his head at the dozens of conversations behind him and said, “So, which one’s the boss?” The boss might refer to any number of people in the city of Sanura, but in here, it meant the leader of this gambling ring, the one who owned this hotel. “I was told he’s an architect.”
The bartender’s hand stopped on the table. Tennal felt a sudden spike of wariness from them. They met Tennal’s eyes and shrugged.
At that point, someone tapped Tennal on the shoulder, and he flinched.
He tried to cover up the twitch as he turned. He had to get that kind of reaction under control. If the legislator had really found him, it wasn’t as if her people were going to gently tap him on the shoulder and start a conversation.
This wasn’t much better, though. A young woman in an armored vest stared down at him, her hand resting on a holster at her hip. This was somebody’s bodyguard.
There was no security at the door for this kind of thing because everyone brought their own security. If you turned out to be law enforcement, it was very simple: you left, or somebody’s bodyguard would shoot you. Tennal wasn’t law enforcement, though if they’d known exactly who he was, he wouldn’t have totally blamed them for shooting him.
“I don’t think you were invited,” the bodyguard said.
Tennal raised his hands in front of him, fingers spread. “I’m unarmed. Promise. Unless you count three tissues and a pack of soothers—and honestly, I’d have to get very inventive.”
She gave him a thin, unimpressed stare. Flint ear studs glinted under her short hair. “I’ve seen you before.”
A jolt went through Tennal. She couldn’t know. Could she?
Tennal’s mind was always a little too open to the universe. He wasn’t an architect, because that would have made life too easy. No, he’d ended up with the unacceptable kind of powers. He nudged his senses further open, just a fraction, and read her mind.
The instant he opened himself up, a dozen minds flared in his perception. The party was crowded; each person moved in a haze of their own moods like a shimmer of light. And if architects were faint stars, pulsing with intention and influence, Tennal was the opposite. Nobody had ever told him what his mind looked like from the outside, but he had his suspicions: an unsettling void, a black hole.
As far back as he could remember, Tennal had always been aware of a low-level drone from the minds around him. It was like an indecent form of tinnitus. Random impressions drifted in his direction, and if he actively tried, he could read them: vague emotions, nonspecific intentions, nothing particularly helpful. People’s surface thoughts were seldom interesting, in any case— right now, from the crowd in the room, Tennal could feel hunger, irritation, interest, boredom. All standard.
Reading that kind of background mental drone wasn’t illegal. Not quite. After all, it was only a step above watching people’s body language; he wasn’t going any deeper. Tennal focused on the bodyguard, looking for threat.
Nothing. She wasn’t interested in threatening him, and there was none of the prurient interest that would suggest she knew who his family was. She was just fed up with her long shift, overdue for a break, and Tennal was paranoid.
“I’m just here to ask a favor from the boss,” Tennal said, leaning back against the bar. “Is that a crime?”
He could have tried announcing the reader thing, but he needed to save that for when it would make an impact. Being a reader—they were rarities—made him just scandalous enough to be interesting, and Lights knew nobody was inviting him anywhere because of his delightful personality.
She gave him one of the most unimpressed looks he’d seen in his life, and Tennal was a connoisseur of unimpressed looks. “Ask the boss for what? Three square meals and a job?” She slapped a hand on the bar to get the bartender’s attention. “You should clean up and get out of here. I hate the ones who get in over their heads.”
The bartender, who obviously knew her, slid her a plate of food. Tennal paused in the act of popping out a mild soother from the pack in his pocket. Yes, he was coming off a days-long hangover, and yes, his meals and sleep were all over the place because the concept of scheduling was fatally dull, but surely he didn’t look like that much of a mess. “I’m doing fine, but I appreciate the concern.”
She took the food without looking at Tennal. “I’m back on duty in an hour. You should be gone before then.”
“Or I could get your boss to invite me to stay,” Tennal suggested. He got a flash of irritation and knew his guess was right: she worked for the host of this party. He could use that.
“Lights,” the woman said to the ceiling, as if a divine Guidance might come to her aid and throw Tennal out a window. She jerked her head at the bartender. “Get him some food. Put it on the party tab; fuck knows these nights cost thousands. Maybe he’ll sober up and leave.”
Tennal was thrown. He opened his mouth to say he didn’t need charity—or at least not this kind, not pity—but she’d taken her sandwich and gone.
Tennal vindictively ordered the most expensive plate on the menu, the one that came with gold leaf scattered around artistic constructions of pastries and fruit. He ate the pastries while he watched the crowd and scanned for clues to the boss.
As he watched the bodyguard leave for her break, he made one more attempt to read her. He had to be careful. Reading was draining, and if he went any deeper than the surface layer, she would feel it. And if she felt it, he would be in a lot of trouble.
All he got when he tried was a pulse of vague awareness from her toward one corner of the room, where a small knot of older people had gathered to play cards.
Tennal examined the corner. The gamblers there looked like military veterans; most people with any kind of power on Orshan had been in the army at some point. Their clothes were dark, but most of them wore colored division paraphernalia: pins, medals, colored bands. They had their own private drinks cart. When Tennal casually moved across the room and opened his mind—he had to be close to read someone’s aura with any certainty—they pulsed like a cluster of suns. Tennal breathed out. It’s one of you.
Tennal was out of options. Time for his plan of last resort.
Nobody stopped Tennal from walking up to the game. This corner of the party was quieter and more private. Hanging lights shed a dim amber glow over the card game, the only other illumination the night skyline through the windows. Silver jewelry glinted in the darkness on wrists and chests. Tennal would bet money that these were the leaders of all Sanura’s gambling rings.
He could feel himself being watched. He glanced at the armed bodyguards casually standing not too far from the table, which
just confirmed it. Tennal was fine with being watched. He smiled back at the hostile stares and surface-read the bodyguards until he found the one who was at slightly heightened stress levels, the sort that might indicate you’d been a two-person team, until your partner took their break, and now you were covering the post alone. Tennal paused and zeroed in on the gambler that bodyguard was watching.
Found the boss.
Not all the ringleaders had been playing this round. One was at the drinks cart. He was pale, well-built, and expensively dressed, with a wooden gender-mark on his bracelet like the one on a casual silver chain around Tennal’s neck. Tennal would have given him the time of day even if he hadn’t been an architect. When Tennal looked through his reader senses, though, there wasn’t any doubt about the architect bit.
Tennal slipped in beside him and leaned over the selection of drinks.
He should be careful. If he had the right person, this man owned the underground racing market, half the financial district, and the weapons trade. Tennal should be polite and circumspect. But Tennal had never been careful, and he only knew a few ways to get someone’s attention.
He reached out and jostled the man’s arm so he dropped his glass.
“Whoops,” Tennal said insincerely. “Let me get that for you.”
The man grabbed his wrist without changing expression. Tennal felt a flash of anger from him. Time for the party trick. Tennal passed a hand over the lavish collection of imported drinks and picked the one most prominent in the man’s thoughts: a small blue bottle of distilled silverberry, which had embossing from some galactic backwater and was probably worth its weight in gold. Tennal thought it tasted like neat oil. Bad choice for a favorite; his opinion of the man’s taste went down.
Tennal carefully poured it into a new glass without dislodging the man’s grip on his wrist. “I heard you do favors for readers.”
The man released his wrist. He smiled faintly. “Direct. I do favors for readers who do favors for me.”
Tennal opened his mind and focused on him. The man wasn’t giving much away on the surface—mild interest, a condescending sense of being in control of the room. He had met readers before, so maybe he thought he knew what Tennal could do.
Readers were scattered and rare. Most reading didn’t actually tell you that much about what someone was thinking. Tennal, like any reader, could focus on someone and read them on a shallow level whenever he wanted, though he would only pick up a vague outline of their feelings and intentions, and if he left his mind open for too long it gave him a headache. Even that shallow reading was illegal, but it could be useful if you were discreet about it.
Readers who could go deep, beyond surface emotions, were even more of an anomaly—so much so that many people didn’t believe they existed. Tennal might have appreciated being an aberration more if it hadn’t nearly gotten him arrested several times when he was growing up. But hiring out his deep-reading skills wasn’t an option because people had a habit of noticing you were doing it. And he didn’t want to get too far into a criminal operation. He’d have to pretend to be good, but not too good. “I might be able to help you out.”
“I work with readers now and then,” the man said, watching him. “Before we go any further, though, tell me—how good are you at defending yourself? You’re not much use to me if the first architect you meet can make you spill your guts.”
Tennal let a lazy smile creep onto his face. He twirled the embossed bottle. “I’m hard for architects to get to,” he said. “You
want me to prove it? How about a bet?”
The boss cleared a table for them with a look. His bodyguard didn’t even have to step closer. He waved a hand for Tennal to sit
At the back of his mind, Tennal knew this was further than he’d ever gone. He was taking risks he wouldn’t have imagined a few months ago—but it was fine. It was all fine. It had to be fine, because Tennal had run out his welcome everywhere else. He’d be out on the streets if he didn’t find something. Going home wasn’t an option. “Let’s make this easy,” Tennal said. He held out his glass for a refill. “I bet you I can go three minutes without drinking that. Start the clock.”
The boss laughed. “If I don’t write you, you mean.”
Writing was the informal term for the way architects bent your mind into compliance. It was more accepted than reading, since at least you knew it was happening—and there were so many bloody architects, you couldn’t turn a street corner in Exana without tripping over one. Tennal had never seen why that was so much better for society than reading. “How good are you?” Tennal asked, with enough skepticism to sound like a challenge. This man was obviously an architect, since he glowed bright to Tennal’s reader senses, but Tennal had seen better architects. “Try me.”
The boss gave him a second look, eyes flicking up and down.
“All right, then.” He looked over at his bodyguard and tapped his
After a few moments, the bodyguard silently laid a display case on the table. He flipped up the lid and stepped back.
Tennal tried not to react. It was totally innocuous: a display set of liquor glasses, the high, flared type common in this part of the world. They were emblazoned with the full set of military divisions. Red for Cavalry, charcoal for Infantry, Archer gold,
Vanguard blue . . . the full dozen was there, even the smaller divisions with no political influence.
“Pick your poison,” the boss said, watching his face.
This was a test. The first architects and readers had been created by the military, twenty years ago, so anyone Tennal’s age must have got the reader gene from a veteran parent. That meant Tennal’s family was tied to one of the divisions: if not Cavalry, which was currently in charge of the legislature, then maybe Infantry, or Navy, or one of the others. Military politics mattered everywhere on this bloody planet. You couldn’t escape it. The man wanted to know if Tennal would admit who he was connected to.
Tennal ignored the vivid red of the Cavalry glass and picked one of the others at random. Yellow glinted between his fingers as he slid it over to be filled. “Three minutes,” he said. “Try writing me.”
“And what do you want if you win?” the man said.
“You own this hotel,” Tennal said. “The people I’ve been rooming with want me out. I need a place to stay for a while.” He tried to sound casual. He’d been kicked out this morning, not to put too fine a point on it, but that was an unnecessary detail. Tennal didn’t like the word desperate and saw no reason to apply it to himself.
Tennal felt it. The first touch of an architect command, like a solar flare in his peripheral vision. He didn’t react. “I’m buying time,” Tennal said. He leaned back in his chair, the liquor glass between his fingers. “Why, can’t you afford to let me have a room? Business not doing well?”
The boss struck.
Being written by an architect felt like unshielding your eyes in front of a furnace. A bright mental light flooded Tennal’s eyes, his whole brain, a dazzle that shoved out every other thought. If Tennal found an architect strong enough—or took one of the small neuro-enhancer pills currently nestled in his pocket—he could sink into that white blaze and turn his brain off. As unnerving as it was, it was always a break from the never-ending, relentlessly dull business of existing as himself.
Of course, Tennal was almost sober, and this didn’t cut it. The architect’s command glanced off his mental walls like sunlight off a mirror. Raising an ironic eyebrow would probably have been suicidal, so Tennal inspected the glass in his fingers instead.
The man tried again. The timer ticked down.
A little pool of silence grew around the table as people realized what they were doing. The mental battle took place in complete silence, the boss staring at Tennal as though he could bore a hole in his head through sheer willpower. Tennal slung one ankle over the other and tapped his fingers on the glass. Light beat vainly on the walls of his mind.
The timer beeped softly.
Tennal met the boss’s eyes over the table. “My win.” There was a dangerous moment when the man leaned forward, a sudden twist of anger radiating from him like a sour note. A shot of adrenaline went down Tennal’s spine. He lived for this kind of high, even as he knew it was a bad idea. But if he had fucked up—if he’d finally gone too far—
Then the boss relented. He shrugged and clicked his fingers at one of the hangers-on nearby. “Get him a room. Long-term stay.” He kicked his chair back from the table and rose. “We’ll talk another day.” He paused. “Your accent is from Exana?”
It was a question. Not to get information but to see what Tennal would say when prodded. Tennal had a reaction ready. “Left it behind, obviously,” he said. “Why would I want to be around the politicians? I’m here to have fun—party capital of the planet, what’s not to love?”
The man smiled without warmth. “I hope you have fun, then. Enjoy your night.”
It was a dismissal. Tennal’s moment in the spotlight was over. It was time for him to dissolve back into the crowd and be safely anonymous.
Instead Tennal knocked back his horrible drink, looked up, and said, “Have you got anything better?”
Copyright © 2022 from Everina Maxwell
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