Riff Khora is a broken man. Once a medic serving in the marines, he is now a criminal serving out the remainder of his days on a prison ship. Haunted by the memories of the men he killed, whose dying screams still haunt both his sleeping and his waking thoughts, Riff made a deal with the devil. A deal with Captain Vidal.
In exchange for certain freedoms and certain luxuries, Riff offered himself to the emotional sadist, Vidal. The captain can make the screaming stop — briefly — beneath the crack of his whips, the beatings, and other tortures he inflicts upon Riff’s body… and even his spirit. But the screaming never stops for long, and Riff keeps coming back, provoking Vidal again and again for those blessed moments when his mind stops working.
But in the meantime, his body must work. Riff is one of the few trusted enough by Vidal to be allowed — with his small team — to board derelict and damaged ships they find floating in the depths of space. They determine what may be salvaged, what little incidentals may be sold on the black market for a modest price, or even help get the ships in working order to be sold whole and undamaged. Riff’s team is short a man and so he picks the newcomer Zed Jackobson to be their fifth. Zed is accused of the kidnap and murder of his niece, a girl no more than a child, but Riff doesn’t care about his crime so long as he can do the work.
Zed is — or was — a ship’s engineer at his brother-in-law’s shipyards. Now he’s a criminal with no friends. He’s also a psionic, gifted with the ability to read emotions and events of a person or object by touch. And something in the air of the Pandora — the derelict ship Vidal has his eyes set on — doesn’t sit right with him. It starts with the blood smeared over the walls, the damaged control panels, the signs of violence and the drums. The sound of drumming that echoes in his blood. Soon he’s seeing visions of Hannah, his niece, and he’s not the only one affected. But the one thing no one is seeing is bodies. With all this blood, all these signs of chaos, there are no bodies on the Pandora… until Riff finds the cryo chamber, undamaged, and with a single sleeping person inside. They bring the survivor back to the prison ship, much to Vidal’s irritation. Even a single survivor will cut deeply into his profit margin, something he intends to take out of Riff’s hide. But the horrors Vidal has in store for Riff are nothing compared to what happens when their sleeping prince wakes up, and everything goes to hell.
First, before I say anything else, I will caution you that this is a violent book. Riff is a masochist and Vidal a sadist and the scenes between them are bloody and written in all their brutal glory. This is very much a book in the grimark style with gore, pain, death and a glimpse at the monsters people can make themselves into. But… it does have a happy ending.
For all it’s darkness, this is a beautifully written book. The very first sentence drags you in to a world of science horror with a lyrical touch:
The derelict ship twisted in a slow, graceful spiral against the backdrop of a rogue moon. Signs of life remained. Lights flickered near the nose, slanted down as if poised for an endless dive.
As a fan of science fiction and horror, this book hit all the right buttons for me. The wounded hero — wounded, but not broken — Riff is a brilliant leader, snarky and prickly and yet… confident, even arrogant. Yes, he made a deal with Vidal he regrets, but he feels no shame in it. Why should he? Why should he feel any shame in getting what he needs, in being who he is?
But it’s a sad, sick, and tangled relationship with Vidal. When the screaming is too much, when the pressure starts to break him, he turns to Vidal for the release of pain, of surrendering control. Vidal gives him that release, but the distaste of it, the lack of true emotional connection and the lack of humanity Riff needs only add to the unhappiness that causes him to brood back into the dark places of his mind… which lead him back to Vidal.
When he’s with Zed, though, it’s different. Vidal gets off on emotional pain and obedience; Zed gets off on control and domination. Neither are quite perfect, but that’s what makes life interesting and what makes relationships work. Zed will give Riff what he wants, but only so far, and only so much. He has no desire to actually hurt Riff, though he will cause him pain because Riff enjoys it. Zed is healthy and clean where Vidal is a foul corruption on Riff’s soul, and the scenes between the three of them show so clearly the nature of their twisted triangle.
There is no love between Riff and Vidal, and the emotions between Zed and Riff begin as more of a hurt-comfort bonding than love. However, that doesn’t in any way change the sincerity of what they have, or the hopeful nature of what they begin.
There is a great deal of symbolism if you want to look for it where black and white meet shades of grey, but even without that it’s a fun, dark book filled with visceral scenes and an amazing atmosphere. The plot, however, doesn’t get much deeper than what you’d expect from any horror book, and there aren’t any twists or red herrings to mislead you. It’s rather straight-forward from start to finish, but I recommend it on the strength of its character and the quality of its writing.
And just a little , if it gets to dark for you, just remember, I promised you a happy ending.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.