Dardanos Station, 2269
From his shaded booth, Zed scanned the bar’s patrons for his contact. The dark, anonymous interior could’ve belonged to any bar on any station or colony in human space. It suited this sort of establishment, making sure it didn’t stand out in anyone’s memories—perfect for Dardanos Station and its rough complement of miners and support staff.
Fifteen men and women, all worn thin by the physical demands of mining the asteroid belt, sat at the bar or the tables. Some were twitchy, their eyes in constant motion as they scanned their surroundings—junkies searching for their next hit of whatever drug they could afford, maybe, or ex-soldiers who’d never quite figured out how to hit the off button. Two in particular had a haunted look about them, quiet, subdued, as if the galaxy had kicked them in the balls so many times that they expected nothing more. Zed knew that look; he saw it every morning in the fucking mirror.
War would do that to you.
Unless Elias Idowu was the sort to wear a shitload of tech—not bloody likely, since jump-space messed with cybernetics and implants, rendering them useless—the captain of the Chaos had not yet arrived.
Zed turned his attention to the wall of garish holo ads and tried to ignore the floating freeform versions that approached his table to entice his creds to leave his hands. Some days he wanted to shake the people around him and demand whether they remembered that six short months ago, humanity had been at war. Everything was just so bloody normal at times, it made his teeth ache. No, he didn’t want to sample the “Station’s Own!” beer. He was good with the generic piss sitting in front of him, seeing as he’d hardly touched it. Unlike the fifteen men and women surrounding him, he hadn’t come here to drink. The bottle was a shield, a reason for him to sit and watch the news program on the holoscreen without the notice of anyone but the ads. The sound was off, the anchor’s lips moving out of sync with the music pumping through the bar. Didn’t matter, he’d seen the report often enough to repeat the reporter’s words even without reading her lips. The image that flashed across the screen still caught him off guard, though.
So familiar and yet so freaking different. He always remembered Emma with a smile, triumph flushing her olive skin after a successful mission. Her green eyes glowed and her smile was wide enough to encourage creases in her cheeks. He’d appreciated her beauty like one might appreciate a work of art in one of Earth’s museums, with a twist in his chest and a spurt of thankfulness that he’d been allowed to witness it.
The woman staring out of the holo had dead eyes. The creases that had enchanted Zed had been etched into her skin, around her mouth, at the corners of her eyes, beneath them. Emma looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks—a state Zed knew too well.
He gritted his teeth, staring at her image until the news switched to the video that had captured Emma’s fall from grace. The security footage of a hydroponic square on Chloris Station was grainy and too distant to get the details he wanted, but he’d know Emma even if she was little more than a collection of blurry pixels. He recognized her movements. The speed of them, the accuracy, the deadly intent. She took out a squad of station security in a matter of minutes, her body her only weapon.
Zed had studied the footage, trying to find some clue to explain why Emma had attacked and killed so many. There had to be a reason. He refused to believe the assertion that Emma had acted without provocation. She wouldn’t. That wasn’t their training.
Fuck. No. He wasn’t going there. There was no point speculating until he saw her and found out for himself what had happened.
Movement at the door caught his eye. A man of just above average height stood there, dark-skinned, with brown eyes and brown hair, scanning the bar’s interior. He might be looking for a seat, but something in his demeanor suggested he sought more than an empty stool. His clothes marked him as someone who didn’t work on this particular station—for one, he had no wearable tech and, two, he was too damned clean. Like on other mining stations, the folks who called Dardanos home worked hard, long hours—though the company that managed this station made sure its workers were rewarded and cared for, miner culture was what it was. Rude, crude, rough and harsh. Most of the people sitting around the bar sported jumpsuits with rock dust ground into them so deeply that it would never be washed out. In contrast, the newcomer wore cargo pants and a vest over a plain long-sleeved SFT. Good, practical gear for a ship captain, though the smart fiber of his shirt looked worn in places.
Zed raised his hand. The newcomer spotted it immediately and started in his direction, then paused on the opposite side of the table.
“Loop?” The corner of the man’s mouth twitched, as though the name amused him.
Zed inclined his head, acknowledging the alias he’d been going by. “Elias Idowu. Have a seat.”
Elias slid into the chair Zed gestured to. A holo floated by and he ordered himself a beer, the same variety sitting in front of Zed.
“It’s piss,” Zed warned.
“Wets the throat.” Elias leaned back into his seat, the image of ease and comfort, but Zed noticed one hand stayed beneath the table. Near a weapon, probably. “So, Mr. Loop. How can the crew of the Chaos help you?”
Zed supposed the name of the ship suited a crew that made their living by less-than-legal means, not that it mattered. He wasn’t in a position to judge the people who offered the type of help he needed. Besides, hadn’t they all done what they’d needed to do to survive the past eight years of war?
“I need passage to Chloris Station and help tracking someone down once we’re there.”
Elias offered the server a smile as she set down his beer, and waited until she wandered off once more before speaking. “Passage and a bounty?”
“The Chaos isn’t a passenger ship.”
“I figure for the right amount of creds it’ll be anything I need it to be.” Zed arched a brow. “Am I wrong?”
Elias sipped his beer, then his long, dark fingers played with the bottle’s neck. A casual gesture, one that masked furious thinking. “Who are you looking for?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
“Oh, hell no. I don’t play games like that. I have a crew to watch out for, and I need to know, up front, what sort of shit I’ll be getting them into. You tell me who you’re looking for or I walk. Simple.”
Damn. It’d been worth a try. Zed jerked his chin at the news program playing above Elias, which had cycled around to the portrait he knew so well, and yet didn’t.
“Her name’s Emma Katze.”
“Huh.” Elias watched the holo for a few more seconds. “You’re chasing down an AEF bounty?”
Zed grimaced. No, this had nothing to do with the price the Allied Earth Forces had put on Emma’s head. Or, rather, everything to do with it. Anyone else going after her might end up in a body bag and send her deeper into the shadows as a result.
“She’s a friend.”
“You keep interesting company, man.”
You don’t know the half of it. “She’s in trouble.”
“And you’re, what? Her white knight?” Elias gifted him with a crooked grin.
“No. Just a friend.” Zed stared at the label on his beer bottle for a minute. The curlicues of the lettering seemed to shift, writhing across the logo. He blinked. “I’m not going to get into the history. You don’t need to know it.”
“It’s the truth. You ever been responsible for anyone, Idowu?”
“I’m a ship’s captain, of course I—”
“No. I mean beyond duty. Not being responsible because it’s what’s required of you or expected of you, but being responsible because you’ve chosen to be.”
Elias’s expression sobered. “Like family.”
Family had a lot of meanings. Soldiers had two families: the one you were born with and the one you found with your unit. Zed had always figured he’d lucked out in both cases, with parents and brothers who loved him and soldiers he’d been proud to serve with. Thing was, war tended to pull you away from one family and toss you at the other, and you had to go with it or you’d crumble. Worse, your unit would crumble. And then, sometimes, there was just no finding your way back to the family you’d been born with.
Sometimes, there was no finding yourself at all.
The captain turned back to the holoscreen, lifting his beer to his lips as he watched the cycle of the top stories restart. Zed waited, pulling on patience he hadn’t used much lately. Elias had to come to his own conclusions about this job. After a few minutes, once the security footage rolled around again, he let out a soft curse.
“Your little sister’s gotten herself into some deep shit.”
Little sister. That almost made Zed chuckle, since other than their size difference—he had about twenty centimeters on her—it couldn’t be further from the truth. They’d attended Shepard Academy together, an elite private school that funneled its graduates into specialized AEF training. Most of the time since graduation, Emma had acted like his big sister, offering advice, being a shoulder to lean on, a constant connection to his childhood. They’d watched out for one another.
Lately he’d done a piss-poor job of holding up his end of that unspoken bargain.
“That’s why I need to find her. You familiar with Chloris Station?”
“Been there a few times. It smells weird. Plants aren’t meant to grow in space, not like that.”
Zed tilted his head to one side, acknowledging the point. “I have the schematics for the station, but I don’t have the connections to know where someone would hole up. Word is, you do.”
“Where the hell did you get the schematics? Never mind, I don’t want to know.” Elias glanced at the holoscreen again. “I might have some contacts. But I don’t want to bring the AEF down on their heads.”
“And you’re going to guarantee that.”
Zed’s gaze held steady. “The AEF won’t touch you or your contacts.”
“You’ve got balls, man, to make a statement like that.”
The way his eyes narrowed indicated he didn’t believe Zed for a minute—not that Zed could blame him. To the man sitting across from him, Zed was nothing more than a muscular guy in plain, serviceable clothes. The scar on his right cheek indicated he’d seen action of some sort—but then, the war had been over for barely six months. Most men and women of a certain age had seen battle, whether under the AEF’s banner or privately. Zed knew if he dropped his full name, the captain’s attitude would change. But he wouldn’t risk it here. Last thing he needed was to be identified and have to deal with all the damned attention that would bring. If it became necessary to let Idowu in on that secret later, he would.
So, instead, all he said was, “I have connections too.”
“Uh-huh. Those kinds of connections wouldn’t have you sitting in a shitty dive hooking up a ride on a thirty-year-old corvette.” Elias took a long swallow from his beer before setting it on the table. “Good luck, man. You’re gonna need it.” He started to get up.
Zed didn’t move. “Two hundred k.”
“Two hundred k what? Good luck wishes?”
“Creds.” Zed nudged a flexible plastic square across the table. A wallet of unhooked credits. “Nice, clean and untraceable.”
The captain settled back into his seat but didn’t call any further attention to the wallet. Smart. “You’re paying that up front?”
“That’s half. You get me to Chloris and we track down Emma, and you get another two hundred k.”
Elias didn’t bother to hide his shock. “Holy shit. That’s…Who the hell are you?”
Zed’s lips twisted into something between a smile and a grimace. “Her big brother. Do we have a deal, Captain Idowu?”
Elias let out a breath and extended a hand. “Welcome aboard the Chaos, Mr. Loop.”
“Shit!” Felix Ingesson shot an accusatory glare at the ashushk crouched in front of the gutted refrigeration unit. “I thought you said you’d disconnected this panel.”
His companion’s blue face wrinkled into an approximation of a smile. “Actually, I said, ‘Wait for me to disconnect that panel.’ Do you require medical assistance?”
Felix flapped his hand but the motion only made his burnt finger throb. “Jesus, Qek. If Nessa sees what we’ve done to her refrigerator, she’ll break my good hand.”
Ashushk names were generally long strings of consonants that tangled human tongues. Qek had chosen a fluid equivalent in Standard—Qekelough, pronounced Keck-eh-low—but she seemed happy to be referred to as just Qek.
“Your glove is a remarkable piece of engineering, Fixer.”
She never shortened his nickname, though.
Felix flexed the web of steel and wire that gave him use of his mangled left hand. Then he stuck the injured finger of his right into his mouth and sucked on it. The taste of scorched metal and solder swirled across his tongue as connections formed in his thoughts. Withdrawing the finger with an audible pop, he tapped the scarred metal bracelet nestled into the crook of his left elbow, activating a holographic projection. A maze of circuitry materialized in the air between them. He picked a single line and traced it through several junctions before tapping the projection. The image enlarged.
Qek leaned forward and clicked her teeth, an ashushk mannerism that roughly equaled a human hum. “Our unit is configured differently,” she said, extending a blue finger toward the same point.
“Yes, it is.” Felix scowled down at the panel, then picked it up and peered at the manufacturer’s logo in the bottom right-hand corner. “Someone has swapped out the regulator unit. This one isn’t rated for jump-space. In fact…” He held the clear plastic panel up to the striplight and squinted at the configuration of circuits. “This one is designed to interface with a domestic implant.” For those who had to know exactly how cold their beer was, all the time. “It shouldn’t even be on a ship. No wonder our food keeps spoiling.” He dropped the panel with a noise of disgust.
“Nessa should be pleased by the fact we have disassembled the refrigerator.”
“Until she finds out where we put the food.”
“Where did we put the food?”
“In the medicine locker.”
Qek immediately grasped the problem. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” Felix hitched up one shoulder. “At least we didn’t leave it out this time.”
“I suspect that had we purchased a second refrigeration unit and moved all our supplies there, Nessa would have found fault with the procedure.”
Felix chuckled, as amused by the ashushk’s statement as by her acceptance of collusion. “Yep. We’d probably have had the meat touching the cheese or something like that.”
Nessa O’Brien, ship’s doctor and cook, liked things kept in a certain order. She had two stations to keep organized and did so with more military precision than Felix had acquired during his five years with the AEF.
“Can you fix it?”
“Y’all don’t call me Fixer for nothing.”
“How may I be of assistance?” Qek’s expression had morphed again, subtly, until her features were arranged in quiet question. The ashushk were a peaceful species. Scary intelligent, but benign in their intent. They were explorers and expert astrogators. Within their enlarged skulls, they held the keys to the universe—star charts and the mathematical skill to fold, unfold and navigate the ripples of space. They also resembled little green men, except they were blue.
The Chaos was extremely fortunate to have an ashushk pilot, particularly as their star drive used ashushk technology. As ship’s engineer, Felix could fix most systems aboard the corvette. Even his genius tried to dribble from his ears when confronted with the inner workings of the star drive, however. His request for a spare to pull apart and tinker with had been respectfully declined by Elias, his business partner and captain of the Chaos. They couldn’t afford the spare engine or the cargo space.
“I’ve got this, but if you’ve some time, we could continue our lessons. I think we were up to programming the drive to jump cold,” Felix said.
“The drive cannot jump cold in the sense you would like it to.”
“Yeah, I know. Pity ’bout that.” He waved at the ashushk. “From your definition of cold.”
“After a burn and before a windup.”
“None of these terms are in the manual, are they?”
“There is no manual and I have devised simplified phraseology for your use.”
“You sound like a computer sometimes, Qek.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Hey! That one almost fits!” Ashies loved to use idioms. It made them feel fluent in whichever language they absorbed, even if they didn’t often get them right. Felix put his good hand to his heart in a gesture of sincerity. “I appreciate all of your lessons, please continue.”
“As you wish.” Qek’s blue face creased into another smile. “If the temperature of the drive is above—”
Felix tapped his bracelet. “Hey.”
Elias’s voice squawked from the communicator. “En route with a load.” Which translated as: The client is with me. Cargo was cargo. A load, or possible passenger, represented significantly more work.
Lips twisting, Felix surveyed the disassembled refrigerator. Shit. If a client traveled with them, they’d need a functioning galley. Some folks could be picky about the whole having-to-eat thing and their foodfactor really only made decent coffee. It could do donuts in a pinch. Every other meal it produced had the taste and texture of a prepackaged ration bar, hence the kitted-out galley and doctor with a delicious hobby. The doctor who might need to medicate herself if she returned to the ship too soon.
Qek rolled her almond-shaped eyes at the anachronistic expression. Felix winked at her.
“Have Qek request a slot for eighteen hundred.”
“Will do, Captain.” With a subtle shift of her lithe frame, Qek rose to her feet. “We will have to continue our lesson later, Fixer. I want to run some preflight checks.”
Felix affected a wounded expression. “You’re leaving me alone with this mess?”
“Mess?” his comm inquired.
“We’re in the mess. See you when you get here, Cap’n.” Felix cut the connection and surveyed the jumble of panels and wires spewing out of the refrigerator. “Double shit.”
He could fix it, given the right parts. He had a crate full of regulator units and the like in…“Triple shit.”
They hadn’t had a client aboard the Chaos in ten months, which meant no one had used the one spare cabin in ten months. Well, almost no one. Felix had been using it to store spare parts.
Unfolding his lean frame took considerably more effort than Qek ever exhibited. The ashushk had not broken as many bones as Felix; nor was her skin marred by as many scars. Felix didn’t often have trouble getting around—he was thirty-one, not sixty-one. He kept himself limber with daily exercise and the wonder of modern medicine. But two hours cross-legged on a hard floor would mess with anyone’s joints.
His spine snapped, crackled and popped as he stretched his arms overhead. A sway to either side relieved more tension. Straightening, Felix hustled out of the mess. The steel web covering his left hand clanked lightly on the rail as he hauled himself up the narrow stairs between levels. He keyed open the hatch to the spare cabin and stood in the doorway, chewing on his lips.
Barely large enough to swing an ashushk, the cabin housed a single-and-a-half bunk, a desk, a chair and a cubbyhole of a closet. When not littered with stuff—small bins of parts, flexible plastic circuits, panels, wires, spare tools—both the bed and the desk could be folded back into the smooth metal walls. Larger bins peeked out from the underside of the bunk. The cabin didn’t look bad, per se, just…cluttered. Huffing out a sigh, he bent to the simultaneous tasks of finding a compatible regulator while sorting his vague piles of parts into their appropriate bins.
“Fixer!” The cry echoed through the ship without the assistance of the comm system. “Oh my freaking God, what have you done to the refrigerator?”
Felix leaned his head out of the open hatchway. “Don’t touch anything. I’m about to fix it.”
Nessa’s voice shot up the access stairs. “We have a client coming!”
“I know, I got the call. I’m cleaning up the spare cabin.” Sort of. Felix thumbed his bracelet, which had slipped back down to loosely encircle his left wrist. “Nessa? I found the fault. Once I fix it, the deep freeze will work after a jump.”
“How long…where…” Felix could hear Nessa moving through the mess. “Where’s the food?”
“Want to come toss some stuff in tubs while I clean up the mess?”
“You’re asking me to clean up one of your messes while you clean up the other.”
Nessa’s sigh whistled through the comm as her boots clanked against the stairs in the access. “That’s about three jillion you owe me!” she called out.
“Fine, fine, add it to the tally.”
Felix grabbed the correct regulator and went to meet her at the access. Her ginger head emerged first, her freckled face followed. Finally, Nessa stood before him, arms folded beneath her ample bosom, one hip cocked and ready, brown eyes flashing, lips pursed into something resembling a plum.
Felix adopted a pose of quiet appeal. “It will work better, I promise.”
“And you’ll get those contaminants out of the medicine locker?”
“That’s our food you’re talking about.”
She arched a pale auburn brow. Felix flashed a dimple at her. “Our beer won’t freeze when I’m done.” Which had been more mystifying and annoying than the spoiled food.
Grumbling, Nessa stepped around him and leaned into the spare cabin. “Okay, this isn’t as bad as I expected.”
Felix made his escape while he could. He had the correct tool out of his belt before he even dropped from the stairs, and his momentum allowed him to kneel at the door and skid across the mess floor on his knees. He grabbed the panel and began working the bum regulator loose. Ideally, he’d like to replace the whole panel, have it match the spec of the rest of the unit, but he didn’t have time. A quick fix was in order.
A hum buzzed against his throat and seconds slipped into minutes.
Footsteps approached the mess from Cargo One, two sets. Felix slotted the panel back into the refrigeration unit and began scooping up the arterial tangle of cables. He glanced up when he sensed Elias and their guest reach the door. Elias stepped through first, his handsome face held in an expression of anxious calm. Not exactly his client face, more his “we need to talk” face, and Felix did not think the exposed refrigerator guts would be part of the conversation. The job must have sounded or paid right for Elias to accept, but he obviously wanted to confer with his partner.
Felix stood up and scrubbed his right hand against his thigh. The dead smart fibers in his worn pants didn’t even flinch away from the smudge of burnt skin and solder.
“Fixer, this is our client, Mr. Loop.” Smile broadening, Elias stepped to the side and gestured grandly. “Mr. Loop, this is my engineer and business partner, Felix Ingesson.” Elias aimed a pointed look at the half-gutted refrigerator. “Goes by Fixer.”
A tall, broad-shouldered man ducked his head through the hatch and stepped into the mess. As he straightened, Felix felt the blood rush from the top of his scalp down to somewhere around his boot heels. But for the scar on the right side of his face, the dark-haired, blue-eyed giant was a dead ringer for Major Zander Anatolius—AEF specialist, his oldest, dearest friend, his lover for five short days, the man he had planned to spend his life with until the war with the stin had pulled them apart. That had been nearly nine years ago.
“Fix?” Elias said into the awkward pause.
Ignoring Elias, Felix worked his mouth until his throat moved. “Zed?”
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Text Copyright ©2015 by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen
Cover Art Copyright © 2015 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.