After his sister is abducted by enemy forces, 10-year-old Cam joins the Dominion's military academy to fight to get her back. But when Cam uncovers a machine monster lurking within the academy, Commandant Rogman threatens his expulsion from the school. Will Cam uncover the Dominion's dark secret in time to save his sister?
"Powerful storytelling from a thrilling new voice."– D.J. Butler, author of Witchy Eye
"Blue Sky Tomorrows is an emotionally rich space opera with endearing characters ready to bare themselves open through the novel and their hardships. Engrossing, deep, and a story that will resonate with many."– R. R. Virdi, Nebula and Dragon-nominated author of Grave Beginnings
"A gritty and engaging sci-fi story that is, at its core, about how our experiences and relationships can shape us, if we let them — and how we can choose to find strength in ourselves."– M. Erickson, Amazon Reviewer
On Cam's tenth birthday, the skies turned black. He ran out of their apartment, forgetting the cardboard cutout of a birthday cake, and his sisters who did their best to assemble some kind of meal as his mother screamed for him to get back inside. He had to see, he had know what sent deep, bass vibrations that unsettled the flimsy walls and floors of his home, scrambled the digital interfaces on the sidewalk advertisements, and turned all the radio broadcasts into static.
Cam stopped halfway down the crumbling front stairs, his neck craned. Behemoth warships scored the Cerkan sky, blotting out the sun, casting a great shadow over the city. His entire body vibrated from the rumbling ships' engines.
Red insignia on the wings.
His heartrate doubled.
The United Starways Coalition.
As his mind wrapped around the galactic military's arrival, sirens cried out.
"Camzen, get inside!" his mother slurred, stumbling out of the door, brown bottle in hand. She tipped forward, catching herself on the iron railing. "It's not safe."
Cam ignored her. How did she know? Not safe was a single-bedroom, east-side apartment crammed with five people, and a mother who drank herself into oblivion each day. Or long winters with no heat and scavenging for food in back alleys and dumpsters. Not this. This was something else, a monstrosity, another world, bigger than his, colliding—
Kara burst through the front door, dodging their teetering mother, and ran to him.
"Hide," she said, grabbing his hand.
But Cam resisted, transfixed by the interstellar juggernauts and the swarms of fighters dropping from their open bellies.
"Cam!" Kara, ten years older and stronger than him, yanked him inside. "Help me with the others."
Dazed, he didn't realize what she asked him until she gathered up their entire lot—his drunk mother and two other sisters—and guided them down into the utility room in the basement.
No electricity flowed through the broken lightbulbs, but the lone, rectangular window, smeared with dirt and debris, let in enough light for him to make out the bulbous shapes of the water heaters and furnaces, and the silvery webs that connected them. He didn't like the damp smell, or the smoke residue from whatever maintenance person came down here under the guise of work.
"Keep Em and Sarh safe," she said, trying to comfort the four-year-old twins as they sobbed and clung to her leg. Prying them off, Cam led his little sisters over to the driest spot and sat them while Kara tended to their mother.
"It's those chakking leeches!" his mother slurred.
"Shhh, mama," Kara said, brushing back her peppered hair and guiding her down as she collapsed against one of the inert furnaces. "Everything will be alright."
Still clutching her bottle, the inebriated woman muttered another slew of expletives as her eyelids drooped shut. Kara took off her jacket and covered their mother, making sure to tuck in the sides.
The walls rattled, shaking the dust from the ceiling and unsettling the spiderwebs. Em and Sarh whimpered, hanging on to one another. Cam did his best, putting his arm around them, but they didn't calm to him the way they would have to Kara's solace.
Other families crowded inside as the steady thumping of gunfire and bombs drew closer. Still new to the complex, Cam didn't recognize half of the dirty-faced kids or the slow-moving adults Kara helped to find a place to sit or lie. Some of the younger adults approached Kara, talking to her in low whispers while everyone else cried or hid their faces.
He didn't like the congested smell of unwashed bodies in a cramped space, the way the old woman next to him coughed and hacked, or how the twins pushed his arm off, whispering to each other in their secret language. He especially didn't like his mother, oblivious to another attack by the USC, unable to do anything but lie there, head drooping, and snoring loudly for all the rest of the complex to see. He stared at her, wishing her to wake up, to see how he didn't cry anymore, and after five years of being fatherless—motherless—cold, hungry, tried, angry, afraid—he didn't need her anymore.
But he did need someone.
"You okay?" Kara asked, kneeling in front of him. Her brown eyes, much like his, searched for the answer he would not give her.
An explosion, this one closer than the one before it, shook the building, making the children and adults cry out.
"It's going to be okay."
When he didn't respond, she repeated herself, this time taking his hand. "It's going to be okay, sweet boy. I won't let anything happen to us."
She said it with such sincerity, such authority, that despite all that had happened, all that had been stamped into him by the street-slums, by terrorism and death, moved aside, allowing something he wouldn't let himself feel. Not unless Kara said it.
The lopsided-smile, the one that inevitably came with her ridiculous giggle, lightened her face. "Cam-cam, don't make me sing it."
He bit his lip, not wanting her to, and wanting her to at the same time.
"Alright then. Rain drops a fallin' today," she sang just above a whisper, "washin' all our tears away. But the sun will come again, and take away our sorrows. Just hold out, my love—"
She kissed his forehead.
"—for blue sky tomorrows."
Blue sky tomorrows.
Her promise since their father was killed and their mother withdrew; since their entire world was ripped apart by the telepath wars.
"I got you," Kara said, pinching his side. He squirmed, but she only doubled her attack until he relented and met her gaze with a smile.
"How about we play our game?" she asked, settling into a cross-legged position.
Cam pulled at the knots in his shredded shoe laces and shrugged.
"Okay," Kara said, closing her eyes and conjuring their imaginary pieces. "I've got four knights, one paladin, and a queen. You've got a mage and a hawk. Twenty by twenty board, elimination only."
"Come on!" Cam exclaimed. Not that she ever made their strategy games easy. Yes, his hawk wouldn't take any damage unless his mage got hit, but two against six much stronger opponents didn't seem fair.
"Okay, since it's your birthday—you get first move."
"Oh, gee, thanks."
Cam sighed, thinking through the moves. Kara loved making up games to play with him, from memorization to word play, but strategy games, especially this one which she insisted be played in their heads, always tripped him up. But why is she making this one so hard? Usually she gave him a chance.
Frustrated, he picked at the peeling rubber on his shoe. "It's impossible."
"No, think it through," Kara said, calm and intent.
I can't do it. He dug his fingernails into the worn bottoms of his shoes as the seconds ticked by. Every time he failed to think of the winning move, he felt like he failed her, embarrassed himself, falling short of whatever expectation she had for him.
Then it struck him. She's a strategist, I'm not.
She expected some kind of coordinated attack with his mage and his hawk to draw out her forces, surround them, and strike down her pieces in one swoop. He couldn't do that, or at least he couldn't see how. But I can play her.
"Hawk, b2 to g5."
She countered, bringing her knights to attack formation.
"Hawk to b2."
She followed, her queen protecting the rear.
"Hawk to f5."
Puzzled, she sent out her paladin, dividing her forces, leaving an opening that—if he were smarter—he might have been able to exploit.
"Hawk to h3."
"Are you thinking this through?" she asked, frustration in her voice as she diverted her attention to his mage.
He sent his mage on the run, letting his hawk continue in a random flight pattern.
After five minutes of his nonsensical moves, she crossed her arms and scowled. "For real, Cam?"
He continued on. "Mage to h3."
"You're just running away."
Another five minutes passed as she chased him around the board, bombs thumping away, shaking the dust from the ceiling.
"Alright, I'm calling it," Kara said, throwing up her arms.
"Great, I win."
"You didn't win—you ran away."
"You gave up. That's elimination, isn't it?"
Kara's expression went from frustration to amusement. "So that was your strategy?"
Cam diverted his eyes. "I'm not smart enough to beat you on the board. All I could do was stall and hope you got annoyed enough to quit."
"But you are smart," Kara said, leaning forward and tousling his hair. "You identified the real threat—me, not the game pieces. And you figured out your opponent's weakness."
"Pesky little brothers?"
"You got that right," she laughed. Taking one of his hands in both of hers, she whispered, "remember something for me, okay?"
"Huh?" he said, not understanding the sudden serious shift in her tone.
"This place. This war, this misery; it can bring out the worst in people, Cam-cam." She glanced over to their mother but returned her gaze with an extra squeeze of his hand. "I love you; there is love in your heart. Don't let anybody—anything—take that away, make you forget who you really are."
He tilted his head, confused, trying to understand what she meant.
A handsome man with blondish hair, blue eyes, and serious expression called to her from underneath the rectangular window. He stood there expectantly, canvas backpack slung over his shoulder, holding the one of the straps with a fingerless glove. Kara let go of Cam's hand, but gave him another pat on the head before joining the man.
Cam didn't like him. Something about his clothes didn't fit, even though they looked like any of the other rags and second-hand-shop attire the rest of them wore. Maybe it was his posture—perfectly erect, with muscular shoulders that filled out his soiled jacket. Or the way he looked at his sister, the directness of his focus, as he whispered whatever he didn't want overheard.
Standing on her tip-toes, Kara gazed out the dirty window, said a few words to the man, and then returned to Cam.
"Cam—the bombings have stopped. I'm going to go check if it's safe. Stay here."
"No," Cam said, scrambling to his feet as she followed the blonde man to the door. Not after what happened last time. There could be ground troops, drones, a second bombing run—
"Give me a second," Kara whispered to the man. Cam narrowed his eyes at him as he gave his sister the hand signal to make her exchange quick.
"Don't leave," Cam said, grabbing on to her jacket.
"I need to make sure it's safe."
"Let someone else go," he said, knowing the futility of his argument.
"Who?" she said, nodding at the handful of adults. Cam didn't look, not wanting to see their poor conditions, debilitated by disease, neglect, or malnutrition, especially their mother.
"Let someone else go," he insisted.
"But this is how I can help."
"Anyone I can," she said, holding on to his grip.
"Look at these people, Cam."
Cam glanced again over his shoulder, seeing their lowered gazes, shaking hands; hearing their whimpers and muffled sobs of the children.
"Maybe I can't win this war, but I can be brave for these people. Even the smallest gesture can mean so much, like checking for an all-clear." Kara nodded toward their mother, slumped over and mumbling into her bottle. "Without hope, there is no tomorrow."
Cam let her go.
Sliding down to a sitting position, Cam sat against the utility room door, waiting and listening for any sound to indicate Kara's return. The twins wandered back over to him, opening and closing their hands, asking for any remnant of food from his previous day's search. When he turned out his pockets, showing them nothing but lint and crumbs, they both curled up next to him, too exhausted to put up a fight.
"Those chakking leeches will kill us all!"
Cam made himself smaller, hoping that no one else would associate his mother's drunken exclamations against telepaths with his presence, or that of his sisters. But no one stirred, not even throwing so much as a casual glance her way.
"They killed him—they killed my Yashin," she sobbed, covering her eyes and shrinking into herself. "Chakking leeches. Death of this world. Death of this galaxy. Kill them all!"
Colin, the boy from the floor above them, snuck over on his hands and knees to sit by him. Any other time, Cam would have distanced himself from their overly friendly neighbor, but at that moment, he welcomed any distraction to get his mind off of his raving mother and the mention of their dead father.
Cam looked around, careful that their interaction wouldn't be overheard. With the war between the United Starways Coalition and Cerka, his homeworld, in its third year, not many went to bed each night with a full belly, and any mention of food tested even the strongest bonds between people in a starving population.
Colin, a bright boy who would have excelled in school if it hadn't been blown away two years ago, understood the protocol just as well as Cam. Turning his back to the rest of the refugees, he produced two blue mints from the flap of his ragged overalls. Something that, long ago, Cam would have taken out of a restaurant bowl in handfuls and tossed at his sisters on the hovercar ride home. Now, despite the dirtied plastic wrapping and age cracks splitting the blue discs, he salivated, anticipating the sweet treat that would tease his empty stomach.
"Where'd you get those?" Cam asked.
"That guy that was talking to your sister. He had more."
"No, military rations."
Cam frowned. It didn't make sense. Military rations, as opposed to the less caloric, nutrient-deprived civilian rations handed out by the relief organizations, were hard to come by, even for the bigger street rubs and the organized gangs.
Cam accepted the candy, but put it in his pocket as Colin popped it in his mouth.
"What's wrong? You should eat it."
"I'll wait," he said, stomach gurgling as he thought about how he'd split it four ways. "Thanks."
Still turned away from the rest of the group, Colin rested his forehead against the faded brick wall, his cheeks sucked in as he savored the mint.
"Those chakking leeches," his mom babbled, smashing her bottle into one of the water heaters. Two older men tried to calm her as she flailed and cried. "Yashin…they killed my Yashin. Those leeches brought this war! They brought the USC!"
"I hate this place," Cam whispered, pulling his sisters in closer and looking away from his mother.
Colin chuckled. "Yeah, I'm getting out."
"No one gets out."
"My cousin on Neel got out. Took the Dominion entrance exam and got sent to the academy the next day. Pretty sweet deal I hear. And you get to kick some USC assino."
Cam didn't believe him for a second. The USC ships had been attacking Cerka for years, and despite years of dutifully paying tribute to the Sovereign, not a single Dominion ship came to lend aid to the dwindling planetary forces. And now that the USC brought their warships, their biggest interstellar vessels, it would only be a matter of days before what was left of the Cerkan government surrendered. The telepaths—the leeches—had won. They would be released from prisons, and granted back their citizenship, despite the threat they posed.
Still, he asked: "Where… where do you take the test?"
Colin twirled the messy dark hair that reached his shoulders, eyes glinting. "In a couple weeks we're supposed to meet at the old arcade. The CCWF is hosting at some secret place."
Concerned Citizens for World Freedom. The biggest anti-telepath movement on the planet, the group that his father pledged his life to after a leech stole his position at the factory. The one that convinced his mother that their father's death, a supposed critical sacrifice during the anti-telepath demonstrations, meant the freedom of Cerka.
Colin frowned. "Why? It's safe."
Cam disagreed. Nothing about the hate group was safe. Still, he couldn't argue the desire to leave, to get out of the ruined city by any means possible.
"Look, my mom... she isn't doing so well," Colin said, looking over his shoulder at the shivering woman hugging her threadbare sweater to her skeletal frame. "If I don't join, then…"
He didn't have to say it. They all knew what happened to orphaned kids in a war-torn city.
Hiding his tears with a quick wipe of his sleeve, Colin brought his bare feet underneath him and offered Cam a quick piece of advice: "You should sign-up, Cam, before it fills up. Dunno when it'll happen again."
As Colin returned to his mother, Cam decided he couldn't wait any longer. Gotta check on Kara.
Sliding out from underneath the twins, he stood up and pressed his ear against the utility room door, listening for any warning signs. Stillness. Quiet. It almost unnerved him more than the bombs.
"Where you going? Camzen!" his mother cried. "Get back here!"
In one quick movement, Cam opened and shut the utility door behind him. He paused, holding his breath as he looked and listened. No movement up the cement stairs that led to the apartment complex entrance; only the whistling of the winds between the boarded-up windows and the leaves skittering through the sparkling sea of shattered glass and broken fixtures from previous attacks.
Cam tip-toed up the stairs, mindful of the slightest movements. Afternoon light, dimmed by the starship blockade, filtered through the windows in dusty yellow beams. He followed the fresh footsteps through the debris and peeked out the front door.
The air stunk of bomb-discharge, making him cough and cover his nose with his sleeve. Eyes stinging, he gazed down the block, but the haze of brown smoke and poor light made it impossible to see more than a few houses down.
His better sensibilities questioned his actions: Go back. It isn't safe.
But he couldn't. Not after spotting the same treads in the dust-covered walkway leading out into the streets.
Where did Kara go? She was just supposed to check—not go out into the battle.
Keeping his eyes and ears peeled, Cam walked down the block, the apartment complex disappearing behind him. Gunfire and sirens sounded off in the distance.
It isn't over.
(Where is Kara?!)
Cam darted his eyes back and forth from bullet-pocked structures to collapsed rooftops. He didn't recognize anything. Up ahead, where the corner store, pawn shop, dingy old laundromat sat, he spotted a smoldering pile of rubble. Dark figures, bent into unrecognizable shapes, moaned underneath the fallen beams and walls.
Cam couldn't process it all. He wanted to look away, to run screaming back to the underground utility room, and curl up with his mother. But as he turned, his eye caught the same blonde-haired man he saw earlier kneeling next to his opened backpack, speaking into what looked like a rectangular communications unit. Next to him, a young woman with pink-streaked hair hunched over a bloodied man, tending to his wounds.
He did something stupid. Something against what all of his years of surviving in the war-torn city taught him.
"Kara!" he cried out, running out to her.
Don't alert the drones, the soldiers—it's not safe—go back—
Not without Kara.
"Kara!" he screamed again, trying to get her attention as the ground shook.
She whipped her head toward the sound of his voice, unable to find him as a thunderous boom reverberated all around them.
Losing his bearings in the commotion, Cam tripped, landing hard on his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs. Gasping for air, he rolled onto his back as black drones whizzed past.
As he scrambled to his feet, the first bomb dropped behind him, catapulting him forward and onto his side. Cam heard a snap just before pain lanced up his left arm and into his shoulder. Blood and bits of broken asphalt covered his tongue and lined his mouth, making him gag.
Pushing himself up with his good arm, Cam caught a glimpse of the black-winged viper before the attack ship disappeared into the smoke.
Amidst the chaos, he saw her. Kara, his older sister, the only person who cared about him in the whole world, running toward him, arms outstretched as the dark skies fell.