Phase Shift Excerpt

Chapter One

Chloris Station, 2270

Zed eyed the table he’d set up, wondering for the fifth time if he should have just booked a restaurant. There was a nice one near the space station’s promenade, supposed to have the best hydroponic and space-grown fruits and vegetables on Chloris. Convincing the owners to close its doors to the public for the night would have been easy—just wave enough credits in their direction, and he had plenty to wave. No problem.

He checked his wallet for the time. Was it too late to make other arrangements? Maybe he could—

No. He took a breath that was far more ragged than it should have been. This was the right spot for this—aboard the Chaos, their home. In their quarters.

Right. Yes.

Footsteps pounded down the corridor, the familiar rushed cadence Flick displayed everywhere while aboard ship. It was as though the Chaos was his personal playground—which, really, wasn’t too far from the truth. Felix Ingesson—Flick to Zed, and Fixer to most everyone else—was half owner of the little ship, engineer in title. Tinkering was his trade.

Even though they’d been best friends for most of their lives and lovers for the past year, Zed’s palms grew damp and his heart skipped a few beats at the thought that Flick would be appearing in the doorway any second.

Oh God.

“Hey,” Flick said softly as the door slid open. “Elias said he got a ping from you, that you needed—” He stopped, taking in the table for two that normally did not belong in their small quarters—the candles, the single rose in a vase, and the bowls of berries and chocolate waiting for dipping. A brow slowly arched and one corner of his mouth quirked upward. “So, not a life-or-death situation or anything?”

Zed huffed out a chuckle. “No. For once.” Surreptitiously, he brushed his palms along the thighs of his pants, then gestured at the table. “Have a seat.”

Smile widening, Flick stepped fully past the door and slid into the seat in front of him. Closing his eyes, he leaned forward and inhaled. “You got me strawberries.”

Zed retrieved the bottle of sparkling juice from where it sat in a reverse thermal induction sleeve on Flick’s tinkering desk and poured two servings in the champagne flutes beside each plate. “Your favorite.”

“And melted chocolate. Are you going to feed me dipped berries, Zed? Is this why everyone else is doing their own thing on Chloris, so we have some alone time?” Flick’s brows waggled.

Warmth edged into Zed’s cheeks. Kind of…though not quite for the reasons Flick was thinking, most likely. “Maybe.”

“All right!” Flick clapped his hands on his thighs, then leaned forward, eyes closed. “Feed me.” He opened his mouth expectantly.

Chuckling, Zed grabbed one of the ripe, juicy berries by its leafy cap and swiped the end through the melted chocolate, kept nice and liquidy by a flameless heater tucked beneath the bowl. He extended it slowly past Flick’s lips, the nerves coursing through him easing just a bit as Flick let out the most decadent moan he’d ever heard while they were both dressed.

“Good?” Zed asked.

Flick’s eyes opened, but the lids remained at half-mast. His green eyes looked almost post-orgasmic. “Oh my God, so good.”

Instead of waiting for Zed to serve up a berry this time, Flick did it himself.

Zed didn’t fault him for it. Fresh fruit of any sort was a luxury since, without specialized containers, it didn’t survive trips in jump-space. It was Flick’s favorite food and one he hardly ever got to have, which was the main reason Zed had talked Elias into a trip to Chloris. The fruit here grew bigger and better than anywhere, save maybe Earth. He helped himself to a berry, but his enjoyment of the taste paled in comparison with his enjoyment of indulging Flick.

“So what’s the occasion?” Flick asked, wiping a stray droplet of red juice from the corner of his mouth. “Not that I’m complaining—get me fruit anytime, man, seriously. But this is a lot fancier than just handing me a basket to snack on.”

“Yeah. Well…” Zed cleared his throat. His face heated and he prayed that Flick couldn’t see the blush in the low lighting. He busied his hands with his champagne flute and the berries on his plate to avoid making them free for Flick’s touch.

Over the past four months, since Flick had acquired a fancy new arm from the galaxy’s fourth species—crystalline giants known as the resonance—they’d gotten used to communicating wordlessly. Zed bore a piece of the telepathic aliens too, a shard in his neck inserted by the mysterious and unknowable Guardians. It allowed him and Flick to share emotions, thoughts and, if they concentrated, simple phrases. He loved that connection. Reveled in it. But right now, he didn’t want to communicate what he was thinking and feeling without words.

He needed to say stuff vocally. They could touch later, confirm the words with thoughts and emotions to solidify it all.

Flick munched on another berry, then gestured with the half-eaten remainder when Zed didn’t continue. “If you’re trying to let me down easy, it’s way too late.”

Zed shook his head. Not that, no, God no.

Slurping up the rest of the berry, Flick leaned forward again, his crystalline hand reaching across the table. The gleaming skin caught the low light of the candles and refracted it, throwing muted patterns on the wall. “Talk to me, Zed.”

Right. Now or never. Suck it up, Anatolius. “I—”

The chime of Flick’s bracelet interrupted him. Flick glanced down at it, frowning, then brushed a finger over the holo interface. “It’s Marnie.”

A familiar visage popped into view—Marnie Scott, one of their oldest friends from the Academy and a former military intelligence operative who’d retired to become the Chaos’s go-to intelligence-gathering guru. She and her husband, Ryan, lived on an asteroid named Morrison, the Chaos’s unofficial home base.

“Hey, Marnie.”

Marnie’s face creased into a smile. “I can barely see you, it’s so dark. Did I interrupt sexytimes or something?

“Do you really think I’d answer your call if I was sexing up my man?”

She winced. “Flick, honestly, scratch ‘sexing up’ from your vocabulary. Please.”

Zed cleared his throat. “Actually, Marnie, we were kinda…uh…” Kinda what? Marnie didn’t usually call unless there was a reason. Even if she disconnected now so he could finish what he’d been planning, he’d be thinking about why she’d interrupted them. “Never mind. Go ahead.”

Are you guys researching a job?

“No. Zed’s feeding me strawberries. Why?”

So…” Marnie’s brows dipped low over her almond-shaped eyes. “Have you got an automated process running?

Flick glanced at Zed over the holo. “Not that I’m aware of.”

You’re not pulling data off the asteroid’s servers right now. You’re sure?” Marnie’s expression grew slack with something like shock. “Shit, Ryan! I think we’re being hacked, baby.”

Zed’s blood turned to ice. “Hacked?”

Out of the range of the holo’s feed, he could hear Ryan cursing.

“What are they accessing, Marnie?” Flick demanded. “Marnie!”

Her eyes focused on something offscreen, Marnie shook her head. “Shit. Shit! We need to cut all connection to the Chaos. I’ll be in touch.

“Marn—” The holo winked out of existence.

“They thought we were accessing data.” Zed met Flick’s wide eyes.

Flick opened another holo interface. “Nobody on board but us. Ship’s clear.”

“There’s an external access port, though, isn’t there?” Something for engineers to plug into during maintenance. “Could someone—”

“Fuck!”

Flick charged out of the room, leaving Zed to scramble after him.

***

The external access port was located outside the auxiliary hatch in Cargo Two. Beneath the competing glare of three holoscreens, Felix managed to climb the narrow stairs from engineering to the main level of the Chaos without falling. Having two functioning hands helped. He skidded through the mess, into the aft corridor, through Cargo Two and stopped in front of the small airlock. As they were docked, the inner door was open. The external door remained sealed.

Zed pulled up so close behind, his breath tickled the back of Felix’s neck. “Let me go first,” he said, stunner raised and ready. He’d stopped at the arms locker on the way, obviously. He must have Zoned to catch up so fast. Zed angled around Felix’s shoulder as if preparing to barrel through the sealed door.

“Panel isn’t responding.” Felix keyed in his access code again, but the panel next to the external hatch remained inert. A single light indicated power, but it was otherwise dead. A coincidental fault, or had someone uploaded a remote lock? “Shit.” Felix canceled two of his displays and opened another.

“What’s wrong with the door?”

“Hold on, trying the captain’s security key.” Technically, Elias was captain, but all five crew aboard the Chaos had access to the codes for the entire ship. The key failed to activate the door. As Felix pulled up his list of hacking routines, the panel light blinked off. A power fluctuation? The lights in the cargo hold flickered, brightened and died. Then they switched on again. Off. The all but imperceptible hum of a ship at dock hiccupped next. Felix felt the variation through his boot soles. He put a hand to the wall.

“What are you doing?” Zed asked.

“Listening to the ship.” Felix glanced over at Zed. “Can you feel the power fluctuating?”

“No, but the blinking lights clued me in.”

Felix opened a diagnostic and cursed softly. No way those readings were right. Whoever was hacking their ship was fucking with him, which meant—

“Shit.”

“What?”

“Whoever locked this door knows I’m trying to open it. The power fluctuations? They’re laughing at me. We need to get outside now.”

Zed was halfway across the small cargo bay before Felix finished speaking. Following, Felix tapped his bracelet to open a channel and selected the icon for Elias’s wallet. After two pings, he urged him to pick up. “C’mon, Elias. Fuck!”

A holo bearing Elias’s amiable face popped into being, flashing off walls as Felix ran back through the ship to Cargo One. “Hey! I don’t even have to ask if you said yes, right? Should we stay out another hour or so while you two—

“How close are you to the docks?”

Elias lost his smile. “Maybe two levels down and half a klick away. Why?

Felix swallowed a growl. “I think someone is plugged in to the external access port, and they’re fucking with the whole ship. Aux hatch in Cargo Two is locked. Trying to unlock it set off a chain of power fluctuations.” The lights dimmed and Felix tripped over the door frame into Cargo One. He flew two meters before connecting with the floor and sliding into the back of Zed’s legs. Zed reached down to haul him to his feet.

Fix?

Ignoring the flare of pain from his knees to his shoulders, Felix said, “Can you get in touch with Qek and Nessa and make sure they’re all right?”

Even as a holographic representation, Elias’s expression was easy to read. The lines of his face hardened and a scowl overtook his mouth. “Ness is with me. I’ll call Qek now. Check back in as soon as you have more news.

The connection closed and Felix pulled up another display when it became clear Zed’s code and the captain’s key had failed to open the main hatch. Power throughout the ship continued to fluctuate, lights flickering and door panels flashing. Air circulation coughed and wheezed. Frustration snapped through Felix’s veins with a near audible crackle. “Can you…?” Felix gestured toward the blank expanse of plasmix.

“What? See through walls?”

“No, try your cuff. You’ve unlocked doors with it before, haven’t you?”

Zed ran a finger along the Guardian cuff circling his right wrist. Outwardly, it was the only symbol of his connection with the peacekeepers of the galaxy. Most people mistook it for a comm bracelet or jewelry. Brow furrowing, Zed concentrated on the door for a second or two, then shook his head. “Can’t do it with the power fluctuating like this.”

“Double shit.” Felix slapped his palm against the blinking panel. Then he glanced at Zed, another idea taking shape. “Could you phase-shift through it?” Through half a meter of interleaved alloys, cabling, insulation and ceramix. The door was nearly as thick as the outer hull.

Zed eyed it uncertainly. “Ah, I can try.”

Zed had been part of an experimental project with the AEF. He could move very fast and shift out of phase. Felix had seen him pass through people as though they weren’t there. But never a wall or door. Nothing not made of flesh. He shimmered for a fraction of a second, then disappeared. A fleeting shadow, something like an afterimage, ghosted toward the sealed hatch. One blink and it was gone. Felix’s bracelet chimed.

Another holo unfolded, showing Zed with that damned crease between his brows. “Made it.” Wincing, Zed rubbed at his temple. The holo skewed, making it look as if he’d swayed to the side.

“Are you okay?”

Just a bit out of it. I’ll be fine. Where’s the external port?

“Past the aux hatch. Duck under the portside exhaust housing. You’ll see the indented square of the panel cover.”

The holo shifted and bobbed, showing Zed’s progress along the side of the ship. A moment later, Zed huffed over the connection. “No one here, but our perp left in a hurry. There’s some doodad hanging from the inside. And a bunch of wires.

Felix shunted aside thoughts of his ship being disemboweled through an external access port. Wasn’t possible. But someone with the right tools could do a lot of damage—after fucking up the internal systems. As proven. That someone would have had to hack the port open first. Getting into the ship’s systems after that would have been the easy part.

Going to case the docks,” Zed reported.

“I’m going to try and open the fucking door.” After he stabilized the power systems.

I’ll leave this channel open.”

The holo shut off, but the sound of Zed running and the background noise of the docks echoed quietly in the empty cargo bay. Felix called up another display and searched back through the diagnostic results looking for the blinking smiley face that had mocked him in Cargo Two. Fucker. He dove beneath the idiotic readings, seeking out actual diagnostic data. Sifting through status reports left his mind free to wander along different paths, such as what other ship’s systems had been accessed and compromised, and what Elias had meant by saying yes. Yes to what?

Focus on the Chaos.

Before they left port, he and Qek would have to crawl through every inch of programming. Finding a course-correcting bug after they’d flown into a star would suck. Especially now, after he and Zed had finally had a chance to settle in together. Get cozy. Stop feeling as if the future might be limited by the next call, or the next war.

He found the connection between the dummy report and the genuine readings and snipped it. The lights blinked once more and stabilized, the air vents stopped stuttering and a quiet and contented hum slid through the skin of the ship. The false readings had been layered with instructions. Clever. Or not. Okay, it was fucking brilliant and he’d have to try it out sometime—when he wasn’t so pissed off, and on a ship other than his own.

Felix contemplated the panel next to the main cargo door. It was still locked. Briefly, he entertained the idea of taking a fire ax to it—and only resisted because there was no way he could chop through the same wall Zed had effortlessly bypassed without making enough mess to strand them on Chloris for days.

Time to start hacking with code instead of sharp tools.

He tried pinging Marnie and Ryan, but they didn’t answer. Putting out their own fires, no doubt. Time stuttered and blurred as he attacked the door panel with different programs. Distantly, he tracked Zed’s progress through the docks. He ignored a call from the Chaos’s chief—and only—medical officer, Nessa, forwarding it to Zed’s wallet instead. He accepted a call from their ashushk pilot, Qekelough.

Elias and Zander are tracking a suspect toward the market from opposite directions,” Qek reported. “Nessa is on her way back to the Chaos.

“I can’t crack the code the fucker used to lock the ship.”

Did you try the Alerion sequence Mrs. Scott forwarded last week?” Qek meant Marnie. Ashushk tended to start with the most formal form of address and work their way down to nicknames over a period of time only they could measure. Zed had graduated from Mr. Anatolius to Zander in a matter of weeks. Dying on Qek’s home planet might have had something to do with that.

“Where did you store it? I’m afraid to even access the ship’s systems. Bastard cooked up a dummy diagnostic report that was actually feeding instructions to the lights and air circulation systems.”

I would be most interested in studying the code for such a hack.”

“After we make sure the ship is ours we’ll check it out. For now, I just need to get the doors open.”

I have a local copy on my wallet. I will send it to you now.

“Thanks, Qek.” Felix’s bracelet chimed with an incoming data packet. “Where are you, anyway?”

I am still at Belan Laboratories. Zander gave me the Anatolius access codes.” Being related to the station’s owner had distinct advantages. “I used them to access the security footage from the docks. That is how I tracked the suspect to the market. I am having difficulty maintaining visual contact in the crowd, however.”

“Triple fucking shit,” Felix muttered. He needed to be out there, helping track down the asswipe who’d hacked his ship. Not trapped inside the cargo hold trying every hack known to man and ashushk.

The fingertips of his crystalline hand tingled and he spared a glance in their direction. With little more than a thought, he could shape his fingers into various tools, just as the resonance could, making his arm a gift beyond measure. He’d imagined digging them into the guts of the access panel—right before mentally bashing the door down with an ax. Extending one finger, he poked the outside of the panel and thought at it. Could he exploit the weird biotech further by thinking his way into a ship’s system?

Judging by the cool spot at the tip of his finger and the absolute lack of anything traveling down his arm, the answer was no.

Qek’s new routine unpacked and Felix immediately put it to work scanning the lock. Hope flared when the program leaped off in a new direction, his fingers following along on the holographic interface. A map of circuits appeared in the air, a glowing path weaving up and down and through the middle. Several intersections flared brightly, indicating broken connections. Breathlessly, Felix watched the Alerion sequence unlock the panel, one digit of the access code at a time. Then the panel hummed and clicked, and the hatch began the journey upward.

Felix didn’t wait for the door to fully open or the ramp to extend. Crouching, he jumped from the ship and ran through the docks, using his bracelet to key the hatch closed behind him.

If someone managed to jump inside before the hatch resealed—good luck to them. They could go ahead and try to steal his ship. More likely, they’d stumble across the same fucking roadblocks he had just trying to get out. Or, they’d discover that little course-correction routine just before they jumped through a black hole.

 

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Text Copyright ©2016 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.