Supreme Constellations

 

 

 

Pirate’s Fortune

 

 

By Gun Brooke

 

 

 


Prologue

 

“Madisyn, darling, can you hear me?” The male voice sounded familiar, yet somehow alien.

“Mmm.” Madisyn’s lips and tongue wouldn’t obey. Her eyelids felt heavy or, rather, as if they weren’t there. “Uh…”

“Calibrating the synapses now.” The metallic-sounding male voice changed, became darker and garbled.

“Wha…?” Madisyn stiffened as pins and needles travelled through her system, making every nerve ending burn in agony. “Ah!”

“Too much, Silestian!” A female voice blended with the male. “Reduce the synaptic stimulant.”

“Reducing.”

The pain slowly dissipated and Madisyn struggled to open her eyes. Everything was a blur. She blinked several times, the movement jerky, numbness taking over as the pain subsided.

“You need to boost the synthesized synaptic fluids, Silestian,” the female voice said, her tone sharp.

Silestian? Father? Where was she and how did she get here? Everything was hazy, and she couldn’t pinpoint the origin of any of the sounds.

“Just relax, child,” the female voice said. “Just your father and I are here. Look at me. Can you see me?”

Slowly the surroundings stopped swaying and the lights stopped searing her eyes. A woman’s face came into focus; it was indeed her mother. “Mama.”

“Oh, thank the Seers.” Lonia Pimm smiled through tears. “She recognizes me. Madisyn, darling, your father is here too. You’ll be all right.”

“What’s wrong…with me?” Madisyn managed to say, her mouth numb as she formed the words. Even her own voice sounded alien.

“You were in an...an accident, but the worst is over. You’ll be fine. Won’t she, Silestian?”

A man came into view and Madisyn wanted to cry. Her father looked so worried and worn. A dry sob broke free, and Madisyn tried to move her head to hide her feelings. Though she expected medical equipment and hospital staff, she saw her parents’ laboratory. Why would she be on a gurney in their laboratory if she’d had an accident?

“Mother?” Madisyn trembled inwardly, or at least she thought she did, as she was still completely numb.

“We will explain everything in time, darling. Just trust me—you will be fine.” Lonia kissed her forehead. “We love you more than anything or anyone else, Madisyn. We just couldn’t bear to lose you. You will understand later, I promise.”

Her mother’s words, and waking up in the lab rather than a hospital, sent a flurry of thoughts through Madisyn’s fatigued mind. Lonia sounded both regretful and afraid.

Madisyn turned her head the other way, grateful that she wasn’t entirely paralyzed. A drape closed off the rest of the laboratory, but a mirror over a sink at the far end made it possible to see behind it. At first Madisyn thought she was seeing one of her parents’ prototype androids, but when she tried to look more closely, two things proved her wrong. Her vision changed, and a series of numbers and mathematical signs scrolled along her left field of vision. She blinked confusedly; her eyes had zoomed in on the android in the mirror.

It wasn’t an android at all.

“Oh, no.” Madisyn wanted to scream, but couldn’t. She stared at the reflection, at herself, and could only murmur two words, over and over. “Model Eighteen-B? Model Eighteen-B? Model Eighteen-B?”

“For the love of the Seers, Silestian, close the drape.” Lonia bent closer to Madisyn. “Listen, darling. Focus on my voice. We had to try, your father and I. We had to. We were losing you.”

“You…made me…into…Eighteen-B?”

“You were dying, darling. We had no choice.” Lonia was crying now, and Silestian embraced them both.

“My daughter. We couldn’t let you go,” her father said, his voice barely audible. “And we didn’t use Eighteen-B.”

“What? What am I? What did you do?” Madisyn tried to sit up, needing to see for herself.

“Easy, child. Easy,” Silestian said, holding on to her and helping her to sit propped up against his shoulder.

Madisyn looked down her body. The long, lanky limbs of her nineteen-year-old self had disappeared. Instead, she gazed in horror at the unfamiliar, perfect-looking body of an android. “What…what did you do to me?” Madison asked, hating her strange voice.

“It’ll be fine. We’ll fine-tune your voice and customize your appearance. I promise, my darling.” Lonia had stopped crying and spoke with emphasis. “We couldn’t let you die.”

“You should’ve. You should’ve.” Panic rose inside Madisyn and she wanted to lash out physically at them. “I hate you for this. You have to kill me. Stop this…machine…and kill me!” She had to endure their hugs and embraces, but for hours she wept without tears, whispering repeatedly, “You have to kill me. Please kill me. Please. Please.”


 

Chapter One

 

Admiral Rae Jacelon stood behind the desk in her office, her hands behind her back, gazing at the stars. They appeared as blurry streaks as the Constellation warship moved with unimaginable speed. The Paesina had disembarked from the Gamma VI space station eight hours ago, and, with Jacelon in command, it headed a convoy of ships flying into intergalactic space.

They planned to engage the Onotharian Empire and liberate Gantharat. Jacelon smiled joylessly. Excited about returning to battle, she wasn’t naïve regarding the political intricacies behind the conflict.

Jacelon briefly allowed thoughts of when she had commanded Gamma VI to surface. As a commodore, she had come across a Gantharian fugitive and married her only a few days after they met. Becoming an instant spouse and parent should have been a recipe for failure, especially since the young boy, Armeo, was the heir to the Gantharian throne, with a horde of threatening pursuers trailing him.

The woman accompanying Armeo was destined to care for and protect him. Kellen O’Dal carried the title of Protector of the Realm, an honor that Jacelon now bore through marriage. They had been married almost eighteen months, and Jacelon had never dreamed of finding such love. She thought of Kellen each day when she first woke and right before she fell asleep. She couldn’t imagine life without either Kellen or Armeo, yet they were separated again, as Kellen’s duties as a Lieutenant Commander of the Supreme Constellation military forces had sent her on a different mission.

The device indicating that someone was at her door pinged.

“Enter.” Jacelon kept her back to them. She was expecting her visitor and was not about to show them any courtesy whatsoever—yet.

“Your guest, Admiral,” a male voice rumbled.

“Thank you. Dismissed.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

Jacelon turned around slowly. The woman on the other side of the desk wore slate-gray coveralls, like all civilians who traveled aboard a SC military vessel. With her dark-brown hair held back in a tight, low bun, Weiss Kyakh stood ramrod straight, her frost-green, deeply set eyes unwavering.

“I take it you haven’t changed your mind after boot camp?” Jacelon spoke coolly, making sure her animosity didn’t show. Kyakh had facilitated the kidnapping of her mother, Dahlia Jacelon, so it was difficult to treat Kyakh as anything but a criminal.

“I can hardly refuse your offer, can I?” Kyakh spoke in a low tone, but sounded confident.

“You need to commit. People’s lives are at stake, innocent people who have nothing to do with any of us. The SC covert-operative training facility should’ve taught you this, and more.”

“Oh, I learned a lot. Innocent people don’t exist. Everyone has an agenda, and they all have a price.”

“Then what’s your price?” Jacelon noted the pride in Kyakh’s eyes and the defiant angle of her chin.

“My freedom.”

“Ah.” Jacelon placed her hands on her desk. “You are looking at life in a SC maximum-security prison.” Jacelon knew what that meant and was sure Kyakh did too, but she didn’t even blink. The MAXSEC prisons were stark buildings erected on several moons throughout SC space. Without an atmosphere, and with a booby-trapped sensor grid surrounding the moons, they were virtually impenetrable and close to escape-proof.

“And if I agree to infiltrate this band of pirates?” Kyakh asked disdainfully. “Your plan is flawed. Anyone who knows me would realize that I wouldn’t join a band of thugs when I have access to the best people out there.”

“Correction, had access. Past tense. We’ve made sure everybody knows that all your people are either dead or in custody. So far, we’ve kept the truth about your status a secret. Rumor has it you managed to escape when war broke out and that you’re laying low, biding your time somewhere. As for your objectives, trust me, this is no mere band of thugs but a highly motivated and outfitted organization, led by a man called Podmer.”          

“Podmer?” For some reason, the pirate leader’s name got through to Kyakh, who quickly sorted her features back into a look of indifference, but it was too late. Podmer was surely the key to coercing Kyakh to comply.

“Ring a bell?”

“Yes.” The one-syllable sentence held a universe of emotions.

“He’s nearly royalty when it comes to piracy. I would almost think he’s been your role model.” Jacelon was playing the devil’s advocate now.

“Podmer is a cold-blooded murderer. A thug in designer clothes, using designer drugs and traveling in a state-of-the-art ship, but a thug nonetheless.” Kyakh spat his name. “I may be a thief, and I have lives on my conscience, I don’t deny that…but use my talents in other ways.”

“You kidnap distinguished diplomats, fire on children, and don’t care much about collateral damage.”

“I do not fire on children!”

“People who work for you did. It was mere coincidence that they hit Ayahliss instead of Armeo!” Jacelon circled the desk and stood within Kyakh’s personal space. The other woman didn’t flinch, but lowered her gaze after a few moments.

“White turned out to be less than dependable, but she acted against orders.”

“You are still accountable!” Jacelon raised her voice marginally.

Kyakh paled. “I’m aware of that.”

“Are you all right? My chief medical officer assured me that you were fit for duty.”

“Dr. Meyer is very thorough. I’m fine.”

“Very well.” Jacelon rounded her desk and sat down. “Take a seat. We need to discuss a few things.”

Kyakh remained standing for a few seconds, but then complied.

“Podmer has moved up in the world the last two years, and the conflict between Onotharat and the SC is adding to his wealth and, thus, his power. He is running a lucrative arms dealership with most of the weapons being the property of the SC military.” Jacelon scrutinized Kyakh’s face for an emotional response, but so far she saw none. “We need to know who he’s doing business with and how he manages to obtain the weapons. Our last intel suggests that he’s planning something elaborate, something that might cause the SC setbacks. We need someone like you to infiltrate his senior officers’ group.”

“Why someone like me?”

“You enjoy a certain reputation. You’re also like royalty when it comes to space pirates. You would be an asset to any such gang.”

“You flatter me,” Kyakh said ironically.

“Not even a little bit.” Jacelon wasn’t in the mood to smile. “You’ll be working with our contact aboard Podmer’s mother ship. She’s been undercover with his band of pirates for more than six months.”

“Why can’t this person finish the job?”

“She’s unable to get close enough to enter his inner circle of senior crewmembers.”

“And you expect me to work with such an inept person?” Looking arrogant, Kyakh shrugged. “I don’t hold hands during any sort of mission.”

Jacelon bit off the exasperated curse that formed on her tongue. “Our agent is not inept. In fact, she’s extraordinary and her success rate is a hundred percent.”

“Then what’s her problem?”

“She’s unable to complete her mission only because of one reason. She’s a BNSL.”

“Oh, for stars and skies, she’s an android?” Kyakh flung her hands up.

“She’s a one-of-a-kind, highly advanced prototype of a Bio-Neural Synthetic Lifeform.”

“And that’s supposed to reassure me?”

“Oh, I never figured you for a person who needed reassuring, Kyakh.”

“And what if this android malfunctions during a critical phase of the operation?” Cold, and getting colder still, Kyakh’s eyes narrowed.

“She won’t. She has more fail-safes installed than you and I could even dream of. She was constructed at the Stagmanza University on—”

“On Guild Nation, in its prime capital, Toran Denza.” Kyakh sounded reluctantly impressed.

“You seem familiar with the Guild Nation, our newest member of the Supreme Constellations.” Jacelon noted how Kyakh immediately sorted her features back into her former disdainful expression.

“My paternal grandmother was born on Guild Nation.”

“I see. A good way for you to connect with Madisyn Pimm.”

“The android has a name?” Kyakh snorted. “This gets better and better.”

“I’m glad you think so, since she will be my liaison while you’re on your assignment. Madisyn will not know your true status or your sordid past, but she will report anything amiss…with just about anything and everything during your mission. We will provide you with a plausible back-story of how you became a civilian agent for the SC.

“I wouldn’t lose any sleep over an android knowing about my past.”

“In this case I’m more concerned that it might jeopardize the mission.”

“Not that I want to seem dense, or suggest that you are, Admiral, but what’s to keep me from making a run for it, once I’m out there on my own?”

“I thought you’d get around to asking that.” Pleased, Jacelon couldn’t stop from smiling. “You must have heard that we have obtained cloaking ability for our vessels.”

“Yes. I even saw the blueprints but didn’t have time to outfit the Viper with it before—”

“Before you crashed, killed and wounded hundreds of Disians on Corma.”

“Yes.”

“Well, we can transfer the same cloaking ability to other pieces of technology. You have the same implant under your skin that Ambassador M’Ekar had when he was confined to house arrest, with one clever upgrade.”

“You cloaked it?” Kyakh looked dumbfounded, to Jacelon’s satisfaction.

“We did. Given your technical skills, you would no doubt easily be able to bypass the poison-inducing feature, if you could find it. But since you won’t be able to locate it…” Jacelon shrugged. “If Madisyn Pimm reports anything that suggests you’ve gone AWOL or betrayed us, I won’t hesitate to activate it. This also happens if Madisyn Pimm is taken off-line, or otherwise destroyed. If something happens to her and you don’t report in within twenty-four hours...” Jacelon snapped her fingers. “Click. That’s it. The poison will invade your system, and unless you receive an antidote within six hours, you will die. And, oh, I should mention that the formula for this poison is brand-new. In fact, you’re the lucky first customer.”

“I’m thrilled.” Kyakh stood rigid at Jacelon’s desk. “Guess I was more correct than I realized when I talked about an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

“All right. I’ll carry out your assignment. Then I expect to regain my freedom.”

“All the legal documents are ready for your signature, and mine.” Jacelon watched as Kyakh meticulously read through the digital files before signing them with a retina scan. She hated this woman for what she’d done to her family, but also reluctantly admitted that Weiss Kyakh somewhat fascinated her. Much like a poisonous spider could be simultaneously beautiful and lethal.

A lot depended on how Kyakh managed to carry out this assignment, and Jacelon could only hope she hadn’t made a horrendous mistake by pitting one pirate against another.


 

Chapter Two

 

“Pimm!” Captain Podmer, tall, burly, and with a bluish-red complexion, roared from his command chair on the bridge. “Return fire!”

“Aye, Captain. Plasma pulse fire.” Madisyn Pimm answered calmly while punching in commands at the tactical station. “Direct hit to the Supreme Constellation vessel. Their shields are holding.”

“Damn.” Podmer gripped the armrests. “Arm the torpedoes.”

“Torpedoes armed. Initiating aiming sequence.” Madisyn made sure the torpedoes would disable but not destroy the SC ship. She kept scanning the information feed on her computer console. “Torpedoes locked.”

“Fire!”

“Targeting their weapons’ array.” The torpedoes hurtled through space, forming a low arc before they connected with the other ship. “Direct hit,” Madisyn said without emotion. “Their shields are failing and their weapons’ array has sustained damage.”

“Hit them again.”

“Aye, sir.” Madisyn obeyed, and this time the torpedoes crumbled what was left of the SC ship’s shields. The protrusion beneath its belly exploded in quickly dying sparks. “The SC ship is rendered defenseless.”

“That’s what I want to hear.” Podmer rose from his chair. “I’d have you blast them to atoms, but I don’t want to attract too much attention. We’ll have to settle for leaving them helpless.” Podmer looked disgruntled. “How far until our rendezvous point, Struyen?” he asked, turning to a young man at the ops station.

“Four hours and thirty minutes, Captain.” Lucco Struyen was a transporter brat. Born on a generational transporter ship, he had grown up in space and only rarely set foot planetside. He had joined Podmer’s band of pirates as a teenager and quickly proved himself indispensable. Madisyn had caught herself shuddering at the cold expression in his eyes. Something eerie about Struyen made Madisyn never turn her back on him willingly.

“Pimm, you’ll be the liaison and responsible for our new tactical officer.” Podmer favored handing out military ranks to his crew, which suggested that he might have a background in the Fleet. She would have to relay her suspicions to her SC contact at some point, but right now she could focus only on the new double agent she was supposed to work with. Madisyn wasn’t sure if she was relieved not to have to carry the entire burden alone aboard the pirate ship Salaceos or annoyed at having to bring a new operative up to speed.

“Captain,” Struyen said, interrupting before Madisyn could respond, “I don’t think Pimm is the best choice, considering she’s rather new aboard the Salaceos.”

“Really?” Podmer squinted at his senior crew. The bridge held five stations, including the captain’s command chair. “Are you volunteering your services, taking on this newcomer yourself?”

“I’m always ready.” Struyen smiled triumphantly at Madisyn, and she calmly kept an eye on her controls, not revealing how she despised the callous young man. Sometimes not being allowed to show emotions was the hardest thing of all.

“I’m sure you are,” Podmer now said slowly, “but I don’t think you’re ready for someone like Weiss Kyakh.”

“Kyakh?” Struyen’s voice nearly cracked, which would’ve amused Madisyn if she hadn’t been filled with such contempt for him that she had no room for any other feelings. “But I thought she was killed. Everyone thinks—”

“—she was killed on Corma. She was badly hurt, but managed to escape the SC prisoner transport.” Podmer grinned. “She laid low for a while, and now she’s back and for hire again.”

“Have you met her, Captain?” Struyen asked, clearly not about to push the idea that he’d be the liaison anymore.

“No, not personally. Very few of her peers have. Her reputation is solid, but her elusiveness has kept her so successful.”

“Until Corma.” Struyen shrugged.

“True, but the circumstances were very difficult, even for a seasoned pirate.” Podmer retook his seat. “Not only was she transporting a high-profile Onotharian prisoner of war, but she was involved with kidnapping some big-shot SC diplomat.”

Madisyn had to admit she was curious regarding Weiss Kyakh. Her masked internal sensor implant had received the intel she required to make a positive identification, and she had filed the information in her encrypted memory banks. The SC had outfitted Kyakh with a tailor-made history, making her a dream associate for someone like Podmer.

Madisyn forced her facial expression to remain unreadable as she browsed through the files. Images flickered through her mind of a tall, wiry woman with dark hair and light-green eyes, reminding Madisyn of the vast glaciers on the Guild Nation northern pole. What would Kyakh be like in real life? Undoubtedly, she would regard Madisyn with the same standoffish skepticism as everyone else.

“Pimm!”

“Sir?” Chastising herself for allowing her mind to wander, Madisyn focused on her annoyed captain.

“You’re relieved. Go prepare your quarters. You’re sharing them with Kyakh.”

“Aye, Captain.” This last piece of information blindsided Madisyn. Her quarters were her only refuge aboard the Salaceos. Even after so many years, it still took a huge toll on her to play the part of true BNSL. In her quarters, she could relax and rest. Real BNSL androids needed sustenance to feed their biomatter, such as their artificially grown skin and other tissues. Madisyn required that, but also regular sleep, to rest her human brain. The special features her parents had outfitted her, their prototype, with also entailed small, elaborate internal force fields to hide her secret.

To bunk with Weiss Kyakh, whose back-story indicated that she was as tough as they come, posed considerable danger to Madisyn on a personal level. Madisyn’s mother had constantly instilled in her that she could never tell anyone the truth. According to the world, Madisyn had passed away, the victim of a band of space pirates. The official version told the story of how her bereaved parents created the most advanced Bio-Neural Synthetic Life form to date, in her honor.

After her parents were killed, only Madisyn knew the truth. Madisyn sighed inwardly. She should be used to it, but it was utterly lonely to be the only one who knew that she possessed a human brain and spinal cord.

 

#

 

Weiss Kyakh stalked through the run-down small space station. Located just outside the Supreme Constellation border, it was a popular stop for traveling scum, occasional shady SC citizens out to strike an illegal deal, as well as deserters and adventurers. She stopped by the window where the store owner, a Madame Roja, displayed garments, jewelry, body art, face paint, derma reconstructers, and old-fashioned makeup. Dr. Meyer had done wonders with her scars, but she looked too polished. Weiss knew she needed to look the part of a rough and seasoned fugitive before she joined Podmer and his crew. She browsed the long-lasting body paints and purchased a set and a derma reconstructer.

Back at the tiny quarters, she recolored the part of her hair that had turned white around a scar into her previous dark brown. She ran the reconstructer over her face, after making sure it was set to sharpen her features, thus erasing the lingering fatigue after her injury. The tired lines had softened her expression, and now she needed to look her normal edgy and unbreakable self.

Once she finished, she sat down and started her computer. Opting to forego the normal voice operated feature, she punched in commands, opening the encrypted SC document. She found the file containing the assembled intel regarding Podmer and his band of pirates, and her contact, Madisyn Pimm. Weiss studied the two images, one of Pimm’s face and the other a full-body picture. If Jacelon hadn’t told her, Weiss would never have known Pimm was artificial. Unruly blond curls framed a soft face, and long black lashes shadowed gentle blue eyes. She was slender, but curvaceous, and obviously sculpted to look entirely humanoid. Zooming in on the picture of Pimm’s face, Weiss had to admire the engineering behind the artificially grown skin. Complete with pores and small hairs, it was indistinguishable from real skin.

Weiss’s subspace communicator, located in her epaulette, beeped softly via the internal audio sensor planted in her ear duct.

“Jacelon to Kyakh, come in.” Admiral Rae Jacelon’s voice was unmistakable even if some static distorted the signal.

“Kyakh here, Admiral. Go ahead” Weiss placed a hand over her ear so she could hear better.

“Your chip places you aboard the Dasmach space station. Perfect. You will rendezvous with Pimm on the Salaceos at approximately 2000 interstellar time tonight.”

“Affirmative.” Weiss hesitated, not wanting to sound worried or weak while communicating with Jacelon. “I’m concerned that Podmer might have acquired scanning technology capable of detecting the communicator or the chip.” She hated the chip implanted at an unknown location in her body.

“Doubtful.” Jacelon spoke curtly. “It’s made of an undetectable compound, which isn’t available on the market yet. It’s a closely guarded military secret.”

“If you only knew how easily I’ve obtained ‘closely guarded’ military secrets over the years, you might be more understanding,” Weiss said disdainfully.

“I can only imagine,” Jacelon replied. “However, in this case, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. The Guild Nation provided the formula only weeks after it was tested for the first time, and rather than putting it through more extensive trials, we decided to analyze its use it in the field. The benefit should be obvious.”

“So are the downsides.”

“I understand that, but you have little choice, don’t you?”

“So, I’m chock full of Guild Nation technology and I’m hooking up with a Guild Nation android. Let’s hope these people are as good at tech stuff as rumor suggests.”

“Report back every two hours during the first twenty-four aboard the Salaceos, starting at 2200. If you’re unable to talk, use the nonverbal signal. Your reports will be cross-referenced with Madisyn Pimm’s.”

“Of course. Kyakh out.”

They broke the communication and, despite her dislike for the admiral, Weiss felt a little less lonely knowing Jacelon was a mere subspace call away.

 

#

 

Madisyn stood next to the crewman responsible for guarding the gate, keeping her eyes locked firmly on the crowd of people passing across the concourse. She recognized Weiss Kyakh instantly as the tall woman appeared at the end of the corridor. Striding forcefully toward the gate where the Salaceos was docked, Kyakh wore a long, black leather-like coat that fanned out behind her like a cape. Her face revealed nothing as she calmly approached them, a set of high-end hover luggage following her.

“Weiss Kyakh,” she told Madisyn, and pressed a sensor on the remote control that halted her luggage. “Permission to come aboard.”

“Permission granted, Ms. Kyakh. My name is Madisyn Pimm.”

“Ms. Pimm.” Kyakh nodded politely.

“Call me Pimm or Madisyn, please. I’m not much for titles.”

“I’m Weiss.”

Madisyn motioned for Weiss to follow her and guided her through the narrow corridors to their quarters. “This isn’t very spacious, I’m afraid.” She wasn’t sure why she was apologizing, since it was hardly her idea to share quarters.

“It’s fine.” If Weiss disapproved, she didn’t let on.

“You can take the left bed.”

“You use a bed?” Weiss sounded surprised. “You sleep?”

Madisyn was used to misconceptions and prejudice against her kind. “Yes, of course. I need rest like everyone else, to recharge the batteries.” She laughed heartily at Weiss’s expression of discomfort. That joke never failed. “I’m kidding. I don’t run on batteries. Believe it or not, I digest nutrients to sustain my systems, just like you do.”

“Really.” Weiss looked doubtful. “All right. I better report to the captain.”

“Yes. We’re disembarking in less than an hour. You must meet him before then. His orders.”

“Very well.” Weiss hoisted the hover luggage up on the bed, then walked out of their quarters. “Lead the way.”

“It’s a big ship, but crew quarters are tight. Not a priority in our business to be comfortable.” Madisyn motioned for Weiss to follow her. “Podmer keeps a good game room, though, for the crew to use.”

“I see.” Weiss’s expression didn’t divulge anything as she walked next to Madisyn through the corridors. They used the elevator to reach the bridge.

“Captain. This is Weiss Kyakh.” Madisyn stepped aside, letting Podmer assess their new crewmember. Weiss focused on Podmer as she greeted him, making it possible for Madisyn to observe her. As tall as Podmer, Weiss looked twice as lethal as the burly captain. She stood there, wiry and strangely elegant, gazing calmly at him.

“Kyakh! I never thought I’d have the honor.” Podmer slapped Weiss’s shoulder hard enough to topple a physically weaker person. “You’ve always headed your own crew.”

“Things change.”

“Why don’t we have a drink in my quarters and discuss your duties?”

“Thank you, but I don’t drink.”

Podmer seemed taken aback, and Madisyn knew he would regard this as a character flaw, being quite fond of old-fashioned Earth whisky himself. “Nobody’s perfect,” the captain muttered. “All right. Guess we can postpone our chat, since we’re about to disembark.” He turned to Madisyn. “Pimm. Show Kyakh around and introduce her to the new propulsion system.” He didn’t wait for Madisyn to respond, but turned back to Weiss. “You’ll see why venturing into SC space and hooking up with that disgruntled Guild Nation shipyard technician was worth it.” Podmer ordered his helmsman to initiate the undocking procedure.

“Come on,” Madisyn said to Weiss. “We have a lot to talk about.”


 

Chapter Three

 

“I miss you.” Kellen regarded her wife, Admiral Rae Jacelon, on the communication screen in her quarters aboard the cruiser ship Circinus.

“Oh, Kellen.” Rae sighed and her blue-gray eyes turned a stormy, dark gray. “I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to catch up with you like I thought.”

Kellen’s heart contracted painfully. “I suspected as much.” She tried to not let her disappointment color her voice. “You’re a senior member of the war council.”

“Not only that. I’m responsible for some of the covert operations that my father claims can’t trust anyone else with.” Rae pushed a hand through her short-cropped red hair. “I’m not sure he’s right, but a lot is riding on this mission and, handled right, it can help shorten the war.”

“I’m sure Ewan wouldn’t keep us apart unless it mattered.” Kellen was fond of both her spouse’s parents, and the fact that Admiral Ewan Jacelon outranked them all made it a moot point anyway.

“How’s my mother?” Rae asked, a knowing smile forming on her lips. “Has she recovered enough to drive you all crazy yet?”

“Dahlia is doing very well.” At first, Kellen had been against her mother-in-law using the journey to Gantharat as convalescence time after her ordeal of being kidnapped. She knew better than to underestimate Dahlia Jacelon and tried to push her concerns aside. Dahlia had surprised everybody aboard the Circinus. Captain Jeremiah Todd, Rae’s friend and former subordinate on the Gamma VI space station, was in command of their ship and ultimately also of the entire convoy of ships heading for Gantharat space. “She’s taking every opportunity to go through her physical-therapy routine. Nobody could guess that she went through pure hell in the Disi-Disi jungle on Corma only a few months ago.”

“She’s a fighter.”

“As is her daughter.” Kellen touched the screen with a gentle hand, caressing the outline of Rae’s jaw. “You look tired.”

“I do?” Rae pushed her fingers through her fiery red, short hair again. “I have something slightly unorthodox going on, and if my plan backfires, heads will roll. Probably mine.”

“What?” Alarmed, Kellen zoomed in Rae’s picture on the communicator screen.

“Figure of speech, darling, but the piracy situation is setting us back so much, something needed to be done.”

“I see.” Worried at the look of apprehension on Rae’s face, which she surmised stemmed from fatigue rather than doubt, Kellen adopted a matter-of-fact tone. “Don’t second-guess yourself, Rae. You worked long and hard on this plan, and even if the approach is unusual, it’s still by the book.” Rae was a stickler for doing things the right way. “Remember, you always tell me that you can get away with breaking big rules, if you make sure your poultry are aligned when it comes to the minor things.”

“Poultry?” Rae looked dumbfounded. “Oh. You mean ducks. Ducks in a row.”

“As I said.” Kellen knew what the saying was, but also that Rae loved the humor her getting it wrong brought to their conversation.

“I suppose you’re right, darling.” Rae blew Kellen a kiss. “You very often are.”

“I wish you wouldn’t sound so surprised,” Kellen said, smiling.

“Ha. I wish. It’s more a rule than an exception. Speaking of ruling, how are Reena and Ayahliss?”

“Amereena has buried herself in the Gantharian legal texts, which is a lot, and Ayahliss is focusing on her gan’thet training. She’s making progress when it comes to technique, but she’s still hotheaded and hell-bent on vengeance.”

“Not good. She needs to control herself or she’ll end up killing innocents. Perhaps it was a mistake to bring her.”

“I don’t think so.” Kellen shook her head. “It was better for her to be with us, so I can supervise her training, rather than have her run away and join a pirate ship in order to return.” Ayahliss, the orphaned young woman Kellen had come across when liberating Gantharian prisoners, was a strange mix of street-smart resistance fighter, scholar, and martial-art expert. Only Protectors of the Realm, assigned to guard the Gantharian royal family, were trained in the lethal art of gan’thet, but Ayahliss had learned from monks in a secret retreat during the occupation. She had not, unfortunately, learned the equally important self-restraint that having such skills required. Ayahliss was fiercely loyal to her home world and hated the Onotharians more than anything.

“And the vibes we picked up on between her and Reena?”

“They’re doing their best to act casual around each other, but the only ones they’re fooling are each other.” Kellen smiled. Judge Amereena Beqq was twice as old as the twenty-four-year-old Ayahliss, but obviously the intense young woman mesmerized her. “I don’t know what will happen between them, if anything.”

“I don’t mean to gossip, Kellen, but their unresolved emotions could become a security risk.”

“Yes. I’ve thought of that also.” Kellen had tried to talk to Ayahliss about Reena Beqq, and she had reacted with temperament. In polite but firm terms, Ayahliss had asked Kellen to stay out of her private life and at the same time assured her that Amereena was not interested in her that way. When Kellen tried to determine what Ayahliss meant by “that way,” Ayahliss ended the conversation and stalked off. After that, Kellen had merely observed them.

“I miss you,” Rae said. “I wish I could go with you.”

“I—I dream about you every night.” Kellen sighed. “It makes it very painful to wake up alone, without you.”

“It sure does.” Rae smiled wistfully. “Same time tomorrow, darling?”

“Yes, henches.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.” Kellen felt a stab of pain in her abdomen when the fleet’s logo replaced Rae’s beloved elegant features. She resisted the urge to open another communication channel to keep Rae there a little longer. They both needed whatever sleep they could manage. Kellen scowled at the bed beneath the viewport. It looked uninviting, cold, and empty.

 

#

 

The Ruby Red leather suit, a present from Kellen when Ayahliss had mastered her gan’thet skills to a degree that she deserved the traditional Protector combat garment, fit her lean yet muscular body. Ayahliss fought an invisible adversary as she whirled her gan’thet rods around her in the ancient, intricate patterns that she’d practiced so many times that she could do them any hour of the day, no matter if she was roused in the middle of the night.

She slowed to a deceptively immobile stance, one leg stretched out at a forty-five degree angle, both arms in defensive positions, holding the rods loosely. A faint sound from the door made her grip the rods tight and whirl through the air while defying gravity. She halted a mere centimeter from the person who’d had the audacity to disturb her session. With the rods crossed before her, the ends surrounding Supreme Court Judge Amereena Beqq’s leonine neck, ready to snap it with a mere twist of her wrists, Ayahliss inhaled deeply and took a step back.

“This was unwise of you, Reena,” Ayahliss said through clenched teeth. “I was in the zone. I could’ve killed you.”

“That would’ve been unfortunate.” Reena looked calm on the surface, but Ayahliss, who took pride in finding out what every tiny little shift in Reena’s expression meant, knew she had more than startled her.

“I’m sorry. I should’ve realized that nobody aboard the Circinus is my enemy.” Ayahliss knew she spoke stiffly, but her words were sincere. She idolized the people among the Supreme Constellation citizens who had accepted her and given her a home. In turn, she relied on their judgment when it came to their faith in the SC Fleet and Military Forces. Ayahliss was grateful that the SC had taken on the Onotharian Empire, after all the atrocities the Onotharians had committed against Gantharat and its people.

“Apology accepted. I just came by to ask if you would be interested in helping me with some translations. I can read most of the modern Gantharian language, but the old dialects are frustrating. Some words sound like a completely different language, not even related to what your language sounds like today.”

“Like the difference between Premoni and your native tongue?”

“Yes. Were you surprised when you found out how many different languages exist within the SC?” Reena smiled.

“I was surprised to find that Earth alone had so many different ones.” Ayahliss decided that she was done for tonight and stowed her rods in their special casing. She hardly dared admit to herself that she wanted to walk Reena to her quarters. “And yes, of course I’ll help you with the translations.”

“Thank you.” Reena suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Well, I should go to bed. I mean, to my quarters.”

“May I escort you, Reena?” Ayahliss expected Reena to turn down her offer. Reena had been kind and understanding during the times she took care of Ayahliss and Armeo when Rae and Kellen were on a mission, but afterward, something had changed between them.

“Absolutely.” Reena smiled broadly, but still seemed ill at ease.

Ayahliss wished she could say something to elicit the tenderness Reena had showed her before. She had spent countless hours awake during their voyage trying to figure out exactly what had altered things between them. Short of asking Reena, which seemed like the definitive humiliation, one she couldn’t abide, Ayahliss felt completely lost.

Reena walked briskly through the Circinus’s corridors and didn’t seem open to conversation. Desperate to receive at least a few personal words, Ayahliss ventured into the private sphere. “May I talk to you about something?”

“Oh. Certainly.” Reena’s smile turned decidedly nervous, which puzzled and intrigued Ayahliss.

“Kellen doesn’t believe I’m ready for this assignment. She doesn’t trust my ability to harness my feelings and use them in my combat skills.”

“Is she right?”

“Perhaps a little. But I’ve changed. I’ve meditated every day and practiced the techniques for entering the state of bliss that the gan’thet masters must conquer.”

“You seemed to be in control when you didn’t snap my neck off just now.” Reena had relaxed again and now jokingly elbowed Ayahliss. “Once you might not have been able to stop yourself, especially if you were upset or excited.”

“This was training, not combat. In a combat situation, I may not have the strength to…well, I guess, pull back.”

They reached Reena’s quarters and she stopped in front of them, scrutinizing Ayahliss with her frost-green eyes. As usual, her blood-red hair hung in wild curls down her back, her black judge’s cape emphasizing it. “Kellen isn’t the one who really doubts you.”

“No?” Had Reena heard someone else among the crew express concern regarding her? Plenty of them were probably wary of her talents and her intensity.

“No. You are your worst critic. And that’s not bad, unless it keeps you from evolving and growing both as a person and as a martial-arts master.”

“Oh.” Warmth, unexpected and curious, filled Ayahliss’s chest and spread through her system. “Do you ever doubt me?” she asked, before realizing what she meant to say. Groaning inwardly, she wanted to take the pathetic words back.

“No. I have faith in your intentions and also in Kellen’s ability to teach as well as to reel you in, if you get ahead of yourself.” Reena studied her, but her amber eyes didn’t reveal anything. “But I worry about you.”

“Worry?” Ayahliss was surprised. “How?”

“You’re brave, and you wouldn’t hesitate to place yourself in a harmful situation to reach your objective. Kellen is the same way, if a bit more polished, but you warriors…you’re far too willing to sacrifice yourself during a conflict.”

Feeling criticized, Ayahliss clasped her hands. “And you officers of the court believe in negotiations and diplomacy. That tactic has not gotten the people of Gantharat anywhere in the last twenty-six years!”

Reena’s eyes changed from a warm, golden glow, to a fiery stare. “Is that how you talk to Dahlia, who could’ve ended up in the hands of Onotharian agents? She would’ve died at their hands before she succumbed and revealed anything.”

Pain, sharp and all too familiar by now, made Ayahliss step back. She had struggled with this memory ever since kidnappers had snatched Dahlia, a woman she idolized and whose poise she secretly tried to emulate, right before her eyes. The fact that Kellen and Rae had rescued Dahlia and that she had nearly recovered completely was of no consequence.

“You don’t have to remind me whose fault it was,” Ayahliss managed to say with rigid lips.

“Fault? What are you talking about?”

“I failed Dahlia. The Jacelons have kindly forgiven me, but that doesn’t change the facts.”

“You nearly died trying to save her!” Reena looked appalled instead of angry now. “Ayahliss, please. Don’t.” She gripped Ayahliss’s shoulders gently, but firmly.

The touch scorched through the gan’thet suit. Part of Ayahliss wanted to give in to the comfort Reena was offering, but her own conflicted emotions forbade it. She stepped back again. “You’re right. I spoke without thinking.” She freed herself. “It’s late. I hope you have a good night’s sleep.”

Ayahliss didn’t wait for Reena’s reply, simply because she knew how close she had come to throwing herself into the other woman’s arms. Reena was stunning and embodied everything Ayahliss admired, but something else lay between them, something Ayahliss didn’t fully understand. Her sheltered upbringing hadn’t prepared her for social situations and normal family relationships. Dahlia Jacelon had taught her a lot, but nothing of the contradictory emotions that threatened to overpower her when she was around Amereena Beqq.

“Ayahliss, please?” Reena called out.

Ayahliss nearly stopped and turned around, but forced herself to keep walking toward her quarters, located at the other end of the corridor. She slammed her hand against the sensor next to the door, waiting impatiently for the nanosecond it took to verify her biosignature. Inside, she threw the casing with her gan’thet rod on a chair and sank down on her bed.

Hugging herself, she failed miserably to hold back her bitter blue tears, their color indicative of her species. She hated crying, loathed the futility of wasting tears rather than taking action, but right now she couldn’t do anything else.

Want to read the rest of the book? :-)

Available through Bold Strokes Books or your favorite online book vendor September, 2011

ISBN10: 1-60282-563-7

ISBN13: 978-1-60282-563-5

Price: $16.95

ePrice: $11.99