Copyright © 2009 Leigh Wyndfield
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Aidan turned to find Marsley watching her. Silently, she celebrated the fact that if all went as planned, this was the last time she’d ever have to see him.
“Aidan.” Marsley leaned back in his booth, the seat appearing to be a massive red throne cradling his black and white striped suit. Local rumor had it he hadn’t left the club in years and Aidan believed it from looking at him. His body had grown puffy and soft, his skin an unhealthy white which almost appeared translucent. “Always nice to see your shining face.” He pointed to the tiny red chair before the table, indicating she should sit.
“It’s never nice to see you, Marsley.” She didn’t take the offered chair, preferring to look down on him, rather than stare up. “Here’s the last of your money.”
She set the bag containing the final payoff on the table, but didn’t raise her hand from it.
Marsley shook his finger at her. “Now, now, Aidan, let’s not play games.”
“Oh, I’m not playing.” She kept her eyes narrowed and angry. “Understand this warning, Marsley, and know I’m not joking with you. If you extend credit to my brother in any of your gambling halls again, you will suddenly have a large problem finding pilots to carry freight on or off this planet for you.”
Marsley snorted. “As if you can control all the independent contractors who fly in this region.”
Aidan supported her weight with one hand on the money and the other on the cold, black table to lean over him. “I’ll call in every favor that has ever been owed to me to make sure enough pilots won’t fly for you, then I’ll put out the word to let people know what I’ve done. Those pilots who don’t support me will be more than willing to charge you four times the going rate.”
When she stopped speaking, she realized the circle of partiers at her back had gone silent, leaving an odd quiet in the harsh loudness of the room. Even the music seemed distant and muted. Her awareness sharpened, but she couldn’t afford to look away from Marsley, not until he believed her threat was for real.
Marsley’s gaze flickered behind her and flared wide. Odd tingles of warning rushed along her spine, but she couldn’t let herself be distracted.
Banging the bag holding the money onto the table, she reacquired his attention. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Marsley?”
“Yes.” He wanted to fight, she could tell, but whatever was behind her had him sidetracked. Whoever had his attention had come closer and, if the bead of sweat that began to track down his cheek was any indication, he was worried about the newcomer, a lot more than he’d ever be concerned about her. Marsley waved, as if coming to a decision. “I wouldn’t have extended Zach credit again anyway.” He brushed a piece of lint on his jacket and pulled the fabric down. “He’s proven himself to be too large of a risk. What if you suddenly wised up and stopped picking up his markers, Aidan? Then where would I be?”
Aidan straightened, ready to let loose a sharp reply, but felt heat behind her. The hairs on her arms rose. She could sense him—and it had to be a him or an incredibly huge female—along the whole surface of the back of her body. Whoever it was, he was taller than she, which was unusual, since she was a tall woman. She ignored the newcomer, wanting to make sure she rammed her point home. “As long as we understand each other.”
Marsley waved her away. “Fine. See your way out. It’s been nice doing business with you, Aidan.” He looked beyond her. “What can I do for you, Warwick?”
Aidan went cold, then hot. Warwick the Enforcer worked for Reed Landrig, one of the men who ruled this corner of the universes. His presence in the Liberty Lounge explained why Marsley was uneasy. Enforcers tended to take care of people who got out of line, usually in some painful way. Aidan couldn’t control the small smile she sent Marsley as she stepped to the side and turned.
Her breath caught in her throat, even though she was prepared for the view. She’d heard so many rumors about this man, she’d been ready for the mask.
Warwick was a full head taller than she and big. Too muscled, really, but she supposed it was part of his job. He wore black from head to toe, except for his right hand, which was bare. His left hand was covered with a tight leather glove that matched the mask hiding his face. Holes for his eyes, nose and mouth were cut into the leather, giving him a frightening appearance. His head was encased by a leather helm, completing the view.
He watched her take it all in, then glanced at Marsley. “We’ll need your table to talk.” His voice held so much menace, she shivered.
Aidan’s mouth fell open when she realized Warwick had come to speak with her instead of the Lounge owner.
Marsley laughed, a mixture of relief and gloating that had her grinding her teeth. “Sure thing, War old buddy.” He inched around the table, his flabby gut making the process cumbersome. “It’s all yours.”
Aidan wanted to scream. No sooner had she paid off Zach’s last debt, then her brother had done it again, only this time in one of Landrig’s gambling establishments. A few transport pilots banding together to drive up prices would only serve to amuse Landrig, before he squashed them all like the bugs they were.
Her brother Zach had gambled since they were children. He had come from the womb with a compulsion so great, time after time Aidan had been forced to bail him out.
She was getting damn tired of it. Maybe this time she’d let him take the heat. Maybe she wouldn’t step in and save him.
Even as she thought it, she knew it would be almost impossible to follow through. Zach was her last living relative. That allowed him more than his fair share of fuckups.
Warwick slid the massive table to one side like it weighed nothing, then sat on the edge of the booth. He pointed to the small chair located about ten leagues too close to him.
She sat as if he held her in a mind-meld, trying to wrestle with her emotions. Running wasn’t an option. There was no place to hide from Landrig, not in this corner of the cosmos.
“I need a pilot.” Warwick’s voice wasn’t harsh as it had been when he spoke to Marsley. Now is was soft, deep and calm.
She blinked, coming back from her thoughts of her brother to notice Warwick’s ungloved hand lying palm-up on the edge of the table. His left hand rested on his huge thigh, also open. It was an unusual position, unnatural in the extreme and certainly odd for an Enforcer.
Her stomach twisted, and she scrubbed a hand down her face when it hit her why he was doing it. He felt sorry for her and was going out of his way to calm her down. The fact that he had to do so made her furious at herself. He needed a pilot. Her brother hadn’t gotten in trouble again. Business. It’s only business, Aidan. Get yourself together, you twit.
Dropping her hand, she met his gaze. “Where are you flying?”
“Down Neck. There and back in one day.”
She raised an eyebrow at that and realized as crazy as it sounded, this might take her bank account up from zero to a nice sum with only a day or two of work. Maybe her luck had finally turned for the good. “The increased risk will cost you more.”
“So I’ve heard,” he said, and she was surprised to hear a bit of irony in his voice. His eyes were blank, the black mask leaving his face expressionless and creepy. “How much?”
“Twenty thousand balseems.” She doubled her usual price, but figured flying an Enforcer increased the risk above and beyond the usual peril of traveling Down Neck. The journey encompassed flying through a deathtrap to reach a mining town located in the middle of a field of poisonous gas.
He didn’t so much as twitch at the price. “Steep.”
“Not many will fly the Neck.” She needed this money if she had any hope of starting over.
“Not many can, you mean.” The hand on his thigh turned over and the fingers drummed for a moment.
He’s left handed. Then her gaze met blue-blue eyes through the mask and she realized she’d been caught staring.
“I have to leave tomorrow at sunrise.” A thread of amusement went through his words.
She tried to focus on business instead of his body. “I can be ready.” There was nothing she could do, except try not to be rude again. Apologizing would only make it worse.
“It will be a routine trip. Fly me there, wait, fly me back, for twenty thousand balseems.”
Relief washed over her. Warwick the Enforcer was about to make her life much easier. “You have a deal.” Without thinking about it, she held out her hand.
He leaned forward slowly, as if he thought she might jerk away once she knew what she’d done. It took her more willpower than it should have, but she closed the gap, grasping his bare right hand, jumping a little at the warm feel of skin on skin contact.
This close she could smell him. Spicy male, old leather and danger curled around her.
“I’ll be at your transport in the morning.” He released her.
Stumbling to her feet, shaken by the odd tumble of fear and curiosity she felt in his presence, Aidan backed a few steps away before answering. “We’ll leave when you arrive.”
Somewhere on the outer rim of nowhere
Callie Justice might be an ex-captain of a patrol starship, an ex-up-and-comer in the Inter-world Troopers, and an ex-winner at the game of life, but she knew how to connect the X-bolt cables to their console. Obviously her superior, Lieutenant Mildred Hornburn, didn’t think so since she was painstakingly explaining the process as if Callie was as big a moron as Mildred herself.
The problem with having a bad boss was that you were stuck with them, possibly forever. Callie pictured herself reduced to a skeleton as Mildred instructed her on how to insert the cable into the socket that had been built for it. How Mildred had made it to command rank wasn’t a mystery. Hornburns filled the upper echelon of the military. Her name alone would have gotten her the basic promotions. How Mildred ended up here wasn’t a mystery either. This ship, sent to patrol the outer rim of nowhere, had been filled with those the military wanted to hide. Dimwits, like Hornburn, and the ex-elite demoted for conduct unbecoming in an officer—like Callie.
If she were the captain of this ship, rather than the slab of muscled hunk named Captain Rafe Vantry, she’d fire Mildred and send her back to Borrus in disgrace, highly placed family or not. Instead, Callie nodded docilely and reminded herself that flying was better than the rubber room.
Reassignment Center 001, called the rubber room by anyone who’d ever spent time there, was an old worn-out building on the outskirts of Capital City where they sent those in command who’d made an “egregious” error in judgment. The dregs of the Troopers sat waiting for new assignments which never came, sometimes for years. After months of coming in every day and sitting for ten straight hours waiting for orders to go to a new assignment, people had literally gone crazy, which had earned the building its nickname. The rules stated that anyone who failed to report for duty was AWOL and therefore could be dishonorably discharged. That meant a loss of benefits and the end of being a Trooper. For Callie, it meant losing the only home she’d ever known.
So when she’d been offered an assignment in the middle-of-nowhere space, on a piece of junk years out of date, she’d done the only thing she could to escape the hell of waiting endlessly. She’d taken this position as third in line to Mildred’s position as lieutenant.
She’d thought anything would be better than the rubber room. Now she wasn’t so sure.
“Here, you try,” Mildred said, her voice the same tone used with very small children. She pulled apart the cable from the socket and handed over the pieces.
Taking the parts automatically, Callie looked at them, her mind stuck in a circle of disbelief. Was she really supposed to put them back together? Did the lieutenant think she couldn’t insert one end into the other?
A strangled laugh worked its way up her throat. She’d been here a week and already she’d begun to question her sanity.
“Lieutenant, I need you to check the cargo we took on this morning,” a low, sexy male voice growled from behind Callie’s shoulder.
As always, a slow curl of lust spiraled inside her, making her skin tingle and her breath catch. She rolled her eyes at herself.
Really, this lusting had to stop. It had been a long, long time since she’d been with a man. Too long. Drastic steps had been taken, though. Soon she’d have an outlet for all this pent-up need, if she could hold on long enough.
“Yes, sir,” Mildred trilled, happily marching away, leaving Callie standing there facing Captain Yummy.
“Do you know how to fix the Comm?” His voice was a perpetual growl, his bad mood constant for the seven days she’d known him. He didn’t walk, he prowled. His body always appeared on the edge of action, a circle of intensity surrounding him like a cloud.
She found the fact that she lusted after him more interesting than the lust itself. It had been two years since she’d had sex. She cringed admitting that to herself. So lusting was healthy. For the year she’d captained her own ship, she’d been celibate by necessity. Captains couldn’t have sex with crew members, even in the Command-sanctioned Relaxation Program. But after she’d returned to Borrus to face charges, she’d been too pissed off to have sex, too angry with everyone, herself included.
But the fact her body had chosen him of all people baffled her. On the outside, his brown eyes and brown hair should have made him completely uninteresting, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He drew her notice the way one might be unable to take their gaze off an asteroid shower. The danger combined with a strange sort of beauty dazzled the senses. It was what drove her yesterday to put her name in for the Relaxation Program for the first time since she’d become a Senior Officer.
“Major,” he snapped, taking a step closer.
She blinked away her thoughts and rewound the last sentence he’d said to her. “Of course I can fix it, Captain.” The words came out as a purr. Gods above! She’d only exchanged a handful of sentences with him, but already control slipped from her grasp. She had to take care of the lust. Tonight by herself if she wasn’t matched when she went off duty.
Her tone pulled him up short, and he looked at her as if she’d grown a third eyeball. Then his intensity whipped around him like a cloak, making him appear to lean further into her airspace. “For the last three hours, we’ve had no functioning internal or external communication equipment.” His voice dropped to a deadly whisper. “While we’ve had to put up with the intra-ship Comm being down for the last few months, we can’t fly without contact to life outside this ship. Do you understand my concerns, Major?”
Her mind pictured him saying other words in just that tone and a shiver of desire passed through her. “Yes, sir.” She gave him a snappy salute, hoping he’d go away so she could get herself back under control.
He stared at her for a long, agonizing moment, his eyes narrowing to slits. Finally, he turned on his heel and marched off. Most likely he thought she was a few ions short of a full charge the way she’d acted.
She turned to her work, trying to blot him out by assuring herself that her body would get some relief as soon as possible. That would raise her intelligence level back to normal.
Forcing herself to remember where she was (the biggest hunk of junk still flying in the Troopers), she let a slow burn of anger wash in her veins while she waited until he’d walked far away before kneeling. There was something just plain wrong about dropping down at his feet. Bad visions hit her brain of her unbuckling his weapons belt. The thoughts didn’t make sense at all. She’d never been submissive to any lover. It was a matter of principle.
Besides, he was more like Captain Grumpy than Captain Yummy. There was nothing sexy about a bad-tempered man.
It’s not bad temper. It’s caged animal.
“Shut up,” she whispered to herself.
Blocking the captain out wasn’t difficult after she slid under her workstation. Wires sprouted this way and that, hidden by the overhang of the console. “Whoa,” she whispered, in awe of what she’d found. Talk about a patch job. With a shaking finger, she touched an actual piece of string holding together what looked like the internal communication links.
She swallowed back a hysterical bout of laughter. “Mother of the gods.” If it had been her ship, she’d gut anyone who’d done this. But it was not her ship. In fact, she was about three steps above the guy who cleaned the toilets.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to make sense of it all. Seconds ticked into minutes. She followed the dark green internal Comm link, trying to understand why it was on the wrong side of the console. Her finger traced along like a child following a shooting star, past the blue piece of string, down along where it wrapped around some other more secure lines, down, down, down into the external communication power source.
She sat in shock, knocking her head. “Double damn,” she moaned, rubbing the spot, breathing deeply through the pain and the dizziness. What the hell was going on here?
Lying back, she searched for her Zen, knowing it was nowhere to be found, but trying to fake it. She’d been a rock once, more professional than the current yummy captain if for no other reason than she hadn’t been in a perpetual bad mood. Clinging to that, she traced the line the other way, back past the blue string, all the way to the internal Comm side of the console, where it hooked back around a support beam and hung a 120 degree zig back in the other direction.
She finally found where it went.
Someone had hooked the internal communication lines to the external control, using it for the external communication. But why? Following the other lines, she found out quickly that none of them went anywhere.
With a shiver of sudden insight, she knew what had happened. Whoever had done this job before her had used the external power source to alternate between the inside and outside communication, switching the cable as they needed it. The sheer craziness of it overwhelmed her as much as the genius. This was her life now. Thinking outside normal protocols. Making a lot of little.
“A challenge,” she mumbled.
She could do this. Maybe she wasn’t captain material. Most likely she would never be at the helm again, not unless she joined the resistance, but she wasn’t ready to betray the Council. She wasn’t a lowly maggot, eating on the underbelly of the human universes. Even if she might secretly wish she was, just so she could be in command again.
Okay. So now she had to figure out where in the jerry-rigged hell all this went wrong.
Not a problem for someone with her intelligence level and drive. She may have lost her rank, but she hadn’t lost the core of herself.
Although her current lusting after the brooding captain might signal the impending end of her sanity.
Captain Rafe Vantry steepled his fingers and studied the very nice ass of his new major, wondering what in the universes she’d done to piss off the top brass. Because she had to have done something bad to land this assignment.
She was too competent to end up here for being an idiot, like most of his crew. He could tell that within the first two sentences out of her mouth, and watching her face as she interacted with the crew. It was on the tip of her tongue to start correcting people, but each time she’d fought it down.
Again he ran through the list of possible violations which would tank her career. Having sex with a married fellow officer wouldn’t land her here, even though Command had been cracking down on that infraction lately. He could handle her having had a past, elicit affair, as long as she was good at her job. To bust her down to major, she had to have been at least one grade above. Possibly even a lieutenant. He shut his eyes briefly, sending a prayer to the higher beings. To have a decent lieutenant, even one with a small issue with following rules, would change everything on this ship.
He almost snarled aloud at how low he’d fallen. Four months ago, he would have never done anything outside protocol. Now he found himself bending rules almost continuously to keep the Ventura flying for another day.
She had to have done something worse than simply sleeping with the wrong person. Steal supplies and sell them on the black market? There had been a lot of that going on. Maybe. Insubordination? She was a woman, after all. There were still those at the top who hated that females were allowed on ships and would do all kinds of chicken-livered things to keep them from the higher ranks. So far, there were no women at all in the highest echelon of the Troopers. That spoke volumes to him.
He doubted he could be so lucky as to have a wrongly accused superstar on his ship.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes and massaged his temples, trying to relieve the headache that had taken up residency there.
He was Captain of this barely flying heap because he’d been dumb enough to make a bet that he could whip any crew, no matter how terrible they were, into shape. Picturing the moment at the Senior Staff Celebration Gala where he made the bet, he could not believe how arrogant he’d been. He’d practically begged for this assignment. He really had believed he was that good of a captain that his presence alone could solve any issues, no matter how great.
He’d been wrong.
Utterly, horribly wrong.
If he could have just one higher-ranked crew member who wasn’t a slacker or an idiot, he could do it. But even he couldn’t be everywhere at once.
On second thought, he’d settle for a semi-idiot.
The whole thing had eaten him alive over the last four painful months. Especially since the losing end of the bet was staying in this command forever. He’d had the best assignment in the whole fleet, with the best crew and the best equipment. No wonder he’d been a superstar. He still wasn’t ready to give up his belief that he had the ability to fix the Ventura. Only now he’d modified his thinking to include a few other key individuals who could help him get the job done. Even the gods called upon others for assistance sometimes.
Like now. He was stuck on this ship, without any working communication. Floating forever out here with this merry band of idiots and incompetents…
He felt the constant growl vibrating under the surface of his chest climb up his throat. It was all he could do not to unleash a blast of anger at his hapless crew. He didn’t use to be this much of an asshole, but he couldn’t help the fury which raged within him.
“Captain,” a breathy voice said beside him, excitement dancing below the surface.
He turned his head slowly, inch by inch, wanting to chew up and spit out the joy from whoever dared to think there was anything to be happy about here. Why wasn’t he surprised that it was his new Communications Specialist, Callie Justice, doer of unknown violations?
“Major.” The word crawled out of his mouth, the tone so dangerous, even he winced.
“I’ve got the communications up and running.” A grin flashed across her face and he realized she was younger than he’d originally thought. Prettier too, with regulation bob-length brown hair and deep green eyes framed by thick lashes. Her short, slight build made her appear almost waif-like.
He raised an eyebrow, glad that with the return of the external communications a floating death wasn’t in his future. Things were looking up. “Patch me through to the Relay Station.”
“Yes, sir.” She dashed off without saluting, leaving him wondering if her crime had been insubordination after all. Maybe her last captain had a stick up his butt about regulations? If he could only be so lucky. He’d requested her records twice, but had received only vague answers. He’d take someone competent who didn’t know how to salute any day, but something about the whole situation had him on edge. His gut told him Callie Justice was going to be a double-edged sword, and his gut was rarely wrong.
After a quick check-in with the Relay Station to let them know the Ventura was online, he sat back, enjoying the first time something went right since he’d boarded the ship.
His first day he’d found out that over half of the crew had reached the end of their tours and had been replaced. So not only did he inherit a ship which was falling apart, fifty percent of his staff was brand new, and most of them had never seen the inside of a patrolship before. Things had only gone downhill from there.
Glancing down at the computer inside the armrest of his chair, he noticed a blinking light, signaling he had high-priority mail. Tapping through quickly, he paused when he saw who had sent him the missive. The ship’s computer, known as M.A.R.L.I.S. (Machine ReLay Intelligent System), had only sent him mail once before, about an issue with the portside engines. Unlike most ships, this one had no sentient computer to help him understand the complex functioning of the ship. With everything else broken, it didn’t surprise him that M.A.R.L.I.S. needed to be fixed as well.
He should have known things would take a turn back to the worst once again.
Tapping twice, he opened the mail and read the standard form letter, expecting the news to be grim:
You have been matched with the perfect Relaxation Partner based on your personality analysis. Please report for your first encounter at 0200. Regulation states—
He stopped there and backed up. Reread.
The Relaxation Program had malfunctioned, just as he’d known it would.