Skip Trace Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Alpha Station, 2269

“Does Zander have a large family?”

“Hmm?” Felix glanced up from the holotext he’d been skimming. Docking protocols were the same at all Anatolius stations. Of course, Alpha being the oldest, and home base to the Anatolius family, there were several hundred extra cautions. But really? He could land a battlecruiser on a comet; he didn’t need to be reminded of the buoyancy of a gravity differential.

Qek had a blue finger pointed toward the forward holoscreen, which showed a magnified view of their designated pier. “None of the seventy-three people waiting at Beta Twenty-Five bear a familial resemblance to Zander,” she said.

No one else in Zed’s family had ever worn an Allied Earth Forces uniform, either.

Felix studied the small crowd depicted in the holo. The front line shone with brass. The AEF had turned out a general to honor Zed’s return home—well, to the station where his family lived. To be reunited with the people he’d avoided after the end of the war, because he hadn’t been able to face them after the AEF had fucked him over so badly.

“That’s not his family, Qek.” Felix’s ire rose quickly and reliably. He stabbed the holo, bent finger of his crooked left hand sinking through the image. “Turn it off—”

“What the fuck?”

Too late. Zed had arrived on the bridge and stood openmouthed in the entry. The panel beside the open doorway flashed in irritation as his bulk prevented the hatch from sliding closed. Resisting the urge to chew on his lips, Felix studied his lover’s face, looking for clues on how to handle this particular situation. Swear? Throw out an off-color joke? Blame the alien? No, Qek had done nothing wrong—except indulge in her habit of using the forward-view screens when they could rely on sensor data to dock.

“Is this what you would call a welcome wagon?” Qek asked. “There appear to be no wagons attached to the contingent, but human idioms often account for factors not present.”

A muscle jerked along the tight line of Zed’s jaw, and that damned crease teased the middle of his dark brows. Felix hated the crease. Back when Zed had been on a sharp decline to oblivion, that line between his brows had been a permanent furrow.

“Only my family knows we’re arriving today.” Zed stepped forward and the door slid closed with a sigh of relief.

Felix turned back to the copilot’s console. “I’ll contact Docking Control, request a new berth.”

“Don’t bother. We’re obviously on approach. If we change course, they’ll follow. And it’s likely someone in Docking Control leaked the information in the first place, because my family sure as hell wouldn’t give me up.”

“Y’all need a private dock or something.” Felix reached over to kill the display.

Zed arrested his hand halfway. “We have one. But with the whole family here to meet me, the private dock is full, and I thought we’d draw less attention this way. The Chaos isn’t registered to me or anyone related to me.”

No, it wasn’t. Despite having thrown enough credits at the small corvette to replace every system—and she still looked as if she’d flown through a debris field backward—Zed did not own the Chaos. Felix did…half of it, anyway. The other half belonged to his business partner, Elias Idowu, who captained the vessel. Felix kept engineering humming. Qek was their pilot, which was awesome as the Chaos had an ashushk star drive and no one handled jump-space like the little blue aliens who’d figured out the best way to traverse it. They also had a doctor on staff, and Zed served as their security officer.

Given the events of the past few months, however, it would be reasonable to assume that Zed had become linked with the Chaos. The AEF had followed them to Ashushk Prime when they were trying to save Zed from the effects of the experimental training he’d undergone during the war with the stin. Other aliens. Not blue, not friendly.

The AEF also must have followed them to Alpha. Or made the assumption they would stop here before resuming business as usual—shipping shit from one end of the galaxy to the other, tracing the occasional skip or bounty, or—

“You don’t think this has to do with the project Marnie’s working on for us, do you?” Felix grabbed the water bottle he had stashed next to his console. The flexible plastic crunched as he sucked on it. Man, his throat was dry. Recycled air, fear…pissedoffedness.

“If it is, we’re up shit creek without a paddle.”

Qek turned away from the pilot’s console, unblinking gaze flicking between them. “Do you mean we are in trouble?”

“If the AEF suspects we’re tracking down the last members of Project Dreamweaver, then, yes, we’re in trouble. Deep trouble,” Felix said.

Zed huffed. “Marnie is covert ops. This didn’t come from her. Let’s just assume someone in Docking Control sold me out.” He waved at the holo. They were a couple hundred meters out from their pier, and the small sea of faces had come into sharper focus. “They scrambled to put this unit together. Check out the uniforms. Ground ops, station ops. No special forces, no MPs. It’s an honor guard or some shit.”

He sounded confident, but Felix caught the more cautious undertone. Zed was worried, and if he was worried, then it was time to hit the panic button.

Or come up with a plan.

“What does the bright green uniform signify?” Qek asked.

Felix glanced at the holo again. Behind the AEF and spilling around the sides were a number of men and women dressed in the ubiquitous green skin suits of the media. News was entertainment, so reporters on assignment dressed in suits that could be programmed at a whim to resemble anything from military armor to ashushk formal wear.

“The media. Scum suckers.”

“Tell us how you really feel,” Zed said.

“That would take too long.” Felix smacked Qek’s console, killing the display. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. D’you think if we just docked and sat there, they’d eventually go away?”

“Not likely. Get us locked in. I’ll go call my brother.” Zed delivered a quick squeeze to Felix’s shoulder before ducking back through the hatch, leaving the bridge feeling empty.

Felix twitched his display toward Qek. “Can you lock us in?” They’d been coasting through the docks with minimal input from him, anyway. Just as well Alpha Docking Control ran a tight operation—Felix had been so distracted by the view of their pier that he might have hit anything that wandered off course, or similarly disregarded the hundred or so extra cautions.

“Certainly, Fixer.”

The crew of the Chaos called him Fixer, a nickname he’d acquired in service aboard an AEF battlecruiser. It suited him. He fixed stuff. Zed, on the other hand, called him Flick, and had done since they were boys. So often lately, though, neither name fit properly. He’d been confronted with stuff he couldn’t fix. Or flick aside.

Qek took over operations, initializing the sequence that would guide the Chaos into position, equalizing conflicting fields and activating the virtual tethers. Shaking off his moment of introspection, Felix reached for a more useful mental exercise. What he could fix or flick, otherwise known as “reviewing the mission.”

One, get Zed home and all cozy with his family. Two, track down his other family, the members of Project Dreamweaver. His teammates, the ones who hadn’t been fixed. How they’d help those men and women hadn’t been decided, so three was vague. None of them knew who they’d find or what state they’d be in. Three was a rolling point. Four…four was even more nebulous. Four was trying to be what Zed needed him to be. Friend, lover…could he ever be considered family? Could families consist of only two people?

Wondering about that was not useful.

He activated an external feed. The Alpha Station docks were typically Anatolius. Beautiful and functional. Strung in an arc around the vast bay, ships hung from their platforms like bristled jewels. The gravitational differential between the docking cradles and the access piers caused each “jewel” to bob slightly, giving the illusion of a current moving beneath them. Running lights flickered and flared against the black oval of space behind the stasis field. Felix had seen pictures of ocean-going ships in harbor at night, and the scene was eerily similar, even the backdrop of stars. The AEF contingent lining their pier stripped any romanticism from the vista, however.

“Are you searching for something in particular?”

Felix switched the view to the approaching pier, specifically the lower portion. “That.” He pointed to the end of their berth. “Ladders down. There will be an under dock. Maybe we can duck down there. Avoid the welcome wagon altogether.”

“My experience of the AEF has not been particularly welcoming to date. You and Zander being the notable exceptions, of course.”

“Amen.” Felix had enough of the AEF to last several lifetimes. So had Zed. Was it too much to ask that they could have a couple of quiet days on Alpha—let Zed do the family thing—before disappearing into the black to do stupidly unremarkable things for the rest of their lives?

Not that Zed would ever be unremarkable. Zander Damianos Anatolius would always be the third son of the richest man in the galaxy. He would always be a hero, the AEF’s prize, the man whose actions might have ended the eight-year war with the stin. He would always be the man who had died—no matter how hard Felix had wished him to live—and been resurrected by the mysterious gatekeepers of the galaxy, the Guardians, for a purpose which none of them could divine.

“We are locked.”

Felix deactivated his console and pushed out of the copilot’s chair. “Thanks. I’m gonna go see if Zed and his brother have worked out a Plan B.” Being an Anatolius, Brennan would have Plans C through Z already laid out as well.

Felix found Zed in conference with Elias and their doctor, the redheaded Nessa O’Brien. Nessa and Qek were a package deal. Best friends for over a decade, they always crewed together. Nessa and Elias were something else entirely. Felix had given up keeping track of their on-again, off-again relationship.

“We throwing Zed to the wolves or what?” Felix put on a smile that felt a bit too tight.

Elias’s return grin flashed white in his dark face. “I thought I might go out there and announce I tossed him out of an airlock somewhere around Zilos.”

“The media would rip you apart,” Nessa said.

If the media knew who was on board, and it would be stupid to assume they didn’t.

“Plan, ah…F?” Felix surveyed faces for clues.

“Fuck ’em all?” Elias’s brows formed two high arches.

“Yeah, that’s always my go-to.”

“We’re going to go with Plan A,” Zed said. “Get out there and see what they want. Could just be a ‘we know you’re here’ kinda thing. The AEF throwing their weight around and making sure everyone hears the thump.”

Felix swallowed for about the thirtieth time in the last half hour. His fingers curled into his palm and he wished he’d brought the water bottle with him. He could use a soft object to squeeze and break. “That better be all they’re about.”

“Bren’s on his way with the entire Anatolius legal department. If they want more, they’ll get it.”

Felix was not comforted. He didn’t go in for legalities. Action begat action. “There’s a ladder at the end of the pier. We could head out the auxiliary hatch and be under the docks before anyone knew we’d left the ship.”

Zed shook his head slowly. “Whatever this is, I want to face it now.”

Like a damned hero. Fine.

“I’m standing right beside you then.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Zed’s warm smile didn’t caress his psyche as it usually did. Felix was too worked up. He should have anticipated this—the media, the AEF, the sensation. Zed was Zed, after all. Destined for greatness, and now, with his health and future restored, he could reach out and touch the stars. Felix, broken and put back together with spit and wire, could only stretch and fail. But not today. He’d do all he could to protect Zed from the AEF and the media, even if it meant causing a scene. Felix was good at that, the whole distraction thing. With his scars, shabby clothes and station-rat pedigree, he had little to lose by acting the ass.

The echo of their boot heels striking the gridwork flooring chased them across Cargo One. Felix activated the external hatch and tried not to blink as the large door slid up into the skin of the ship, exposing the relative brightness of the docks. A low murmur crept into the cargo bay. As the ramp extended, the murmur rose to a hum. Then, single voices punctuated the bustle. Reporters calling out for “Zander” and “Mr. Anatolius.” Beside him, Zed stiffened. Felix fought the urge to grab his hand. Distractions aside, it probably wasn’t good press for the hero of the galaxy to be gripping the hand of a scruffy engineer.

He nudged Zed’s elbow. “Your adoring fans await.”

“Not so sure about the adoring part. Or the fan part.”

Yeah, the AEF had their expressions set to a polite glower.

Zed started down the ramp and a single uniform broke the AEF front line. Felix recognized him as he stepped forward—General Bradley. Zed’s former CO and the man who’d chased them to Ashushk Prime. He appeared less than happy to be there, which…well, it wasn’t good.

“General.” Zed offered a perfunctory salute.

Without returning the gesture, Bradley said, “Major Anatolius, you are wanted for questioning regarding the terms of your retirement from the Allied Earth Forces.”

***

Brennan looks like Dad.

That thought struck Zed hard as he watched his brother stare down General Thomas Bradley. For a second it was as though he’d zipped backward in time, to when his dad’s dark hair was just starting to streak with silver. Seven years Zed’s senior, Brennan wore his late thirties well, with just a few strands of silver at the temples of his dark brown hair and deepened lines at the corner of his eyes that spoke more about his penchant for smiling rather than age. Brennan even dressed like Dad—the serious, strong lines of his dark tunic and trousers might be modern, but they still drew forward memories, so many memories.

There was no grin now, though, and none of the happiness Zed had hoped to find when he’d imagined stepping off the Chaos to be reunited with his family at last. Fury rode Brennan’s shoulders hard, every line of his body rigid.

At least Zed wasn’t the target of it.

He leaned back against the conference table, arms crossed, eyes on the general who used to be his commanding officer. Brennan had arrived just as Bradley had produced his writ, and had herded them into a nearby Anatolius-owned warehouse. The media had been left outside to grumble at the soldiers guarding the door. Brennan’s aides hadn’t entered the room, either; other than the crew of the Chaos and Bradley, only the Anatolius lead counsel was in attendance.

Bradley remained at parade rest, though the tension in his burly frame belied the stress of the situation. For all of them. “Mr. Anatolius—”

Brennan glared. “Stop. Unless you’re going to say this is all a misunderstanding, I don’t want to hear it.”

“We’ve been accommodating, Mr. Anatolius. Don’t push me.”

“Don’t push you? Don’t push you?” Brennan leaned closer, his jaw flexing. “I have just gotten my brother back.”

“I want to question him, that’s all.”

“Question me. Right.” Zed snorted. He’d heard that euphemism before.

Brennan tossed him a glance, then turned his attention back to Bradley. “Like hell you’re going to take him away again because he’s inconvenient to the AEF.”

Bradley stiffened, the implication of Brennan’s words not lost on him. The AEF’s closely guarded secret—that they’d experimented on some soldiers in a desperate measure to match the stin’s prowess on the battlefield—was out. At least among the Anatolius family.

“I told Brennan everything, sir,” Zed confirmed. “About the project, about the stin, about the poison, and what I can do. Also how the AEF abandoned us to go insane and die alone.”

“Damn it, Anatolius—” Bradley clenched his teeth. “That was never something I agreed with.”

Zed let his shoulders rise and fall. “I honestly don’t give a shit.”

“Telling your family…” Bradley sighed. “That alone is enough to get you thrown in the brig. The conditions of your retirement were clear. The specifics of your training were classified higher than top secret and—”

“My loyalty is no longer to the AEF.” It was a vague statement, as he intended—there was no point in telling Bradley about the Guardians, not yet. Maybe not ever. Zed needed to find out more about why the omniscient aliens had saved him and what purpose they wanted him to serve. They’d been adamant that they wanted him to do something, but what it was remained a mystery.

“Clearly.”

“Oh, what the fuck do you expect?” Flick snarled. He stepped forward and Zed uncrossed his arms to grab his lover’s shoulder, halting his progress. “You cut Zed and his teammates loose. The AEF knew they needed help.”

“Again, not my choice.” Bradley leveled his dark eyes on Zed. “So you told your family. The crew of the Chaos as well, I’m assuming. Who else did you tell, Anatolius? What secrets did you share with the ashushk?”

Qek stepped forward to take up position next to Flick. “My people are your allies, General.”

“That doesn’t mean your government wouldn’t use whatever intel Anatolius could provide.”

“I assure you, what humanity can offer us is not ‘intel,’ as you say.” Qek clicked pensively. “Your military and technical knowledge is not sufficient for our needs. It is your people we wish to know. What makes humanity human and different from the ashushk. It is fascinating and wonderful.”

Bradley stared at Qek’s large, unblinking eyes, clearly trying to determine if she was telling the truth.

“We told the ashushk enough to help them treat me,” Zed said quietly. “The knowledge was irrelevant to them, sir, as they had already conducted their own experiments with stin poison. It’s why we went there.”

Qek’s forehead smoothed, a sign she was not pleased with this information being shared, but Zed saw little choice. He had to give Bradley something.

“The Guardians ended their war with the stin shortly after that experiment, just like they did ours. So the details might have been a secret to the ashies, but the fact that we’d messed with the poison was something they already suspected.”

Bradley didn’t say anything for a moment as he absorbed the new information. “And your survival?”

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t a lie—he didn’t know how the Guardians had resurrected him.

“A miracle,” Nessa supplied, her voice quiet.

The Anatolius Industries lawyer stepped forward, his friendly expression making his brown eyes twinkle. He was probably a killer in the courtroom. “Is that enough, General?”

“No. This was a start, but I need—”

“It doesn’t matter how many people you get to bark questions at me, General, my answers are not going to change.” Zed met Bradley’s glare. “I’m here to visit with my family. That’s my priority.”

“Don’t make me arrest you,” Bradley growled.

“Does the AEF want to fight Anatolius Industries?” Zed drew on the skills he’d learned during five years of covert ops combat missions, the ability to keep his face blank and unresponsive. As though it didn’t matter what Bradley said. As though the AEF going head-to-head with Anatolius Industries wasn’t one of Zed’s biggest nightmares. That was one of the reasons he’d held off returning to the fold for so long. The idea that his dad, or Brennan, might try to take action against the AEF had given him cold sweats more than once. A conflict between Anatolius Industries and the AEF would not have a good outcome—for anyone—and he hoped Bradley wouldn’t call his bluff.

But it was leverage he couldn’t ignore, not if it would keep him free and able to continue his search for his teammates. Now that his life was more than just counting the days until the end, he had friends to find. Maybe he could help them. Maybe, despite the Guardians’ insistence that they didn’t need an army of Zanders—just him, just their so-called proof that all of the species in the galaxy were so similar that their essences could be combined in one body successfully—maybe he could convince the Guardians to save his teammates.

It was worth a shot.

Bradley stared at him for a couple of tense moments, his expression dark. If Zed were still a soldier, he’d be expecting a thunderous dressing-down.

“No,” Bradley said, finally. He drew in a breath and focused again on Brennan.

“My brother has done nothing but live, General,” Brennan said, his voice quiet. Zed wondered if anyone else knew how close Brennan was to losing his temper completely. The little bit of yelling earlier? That was nothing. Venting. If—when—Brennan lost his cool, there would be heads rolling. And that might not be metaphorical.

“We have evidence—”

Flick snorted, his opinion of the AEF’s evidence clear. “We all know any evidence you’ve got was pulled out of your ass, so don’t insult us by pretending otherwise.” He waved his gnarled left hand at Zed. “He told us and his family about the project and he’s alive. That’s all he’s done.”

“Lieutenant—”

“I’m not a fucking lieutenant anymore because the AEF kicked me out the door as a thank-you for being a POW.” The general’s eyes narrowed at Flick’s words, but Flick rolled on. “I bought into all this shit before, you know? Mostly ’cause he did,” he said, jerking his head at Zed. “But it sounded good. And the AEF did take care of me…until I was inconvenient. Just like Zed.”

“This is not helping.” Bradley clenched his teeth. “Look, someone leaked information to the media concerning Project Dreamweaver.”

Well, that explained the number of media folk outside. They wanted to report on more than just his apparent return from the dead.

“What information?” the Anatolius lawyer asked sharply. What had Brennan said his name was? Casales?

“Names and ranks of participants.”

“And you can tie this leak to my client?”

“No,” Bradley admitted. No doubt if they could, there wouldn’t be the courtesy of questioning. “But Major Anatolius is one of very few individuals not currently employed by the AEF who have this information and, potentially, a desire to damage the AEF’s reputation.”

“I didn’t leak anything.” Zed pulled his wallet out of his pocket and tossed the slim plastic square at Casales, who caught it gracefully. “Go ahead, have that analyzed. I’ve only communicated with Brennan and my crewmates in the last few weeks.”

Casales tucked the device away and turned back to Bradley. “When did the leak occur?”

“Two days ago.”

The day after Zed had contacted his old friend Marnie, a Military Intelligence operative. It’d been a secure transmission, though—one he didn’t route through his wallet—and no way would Marnie have leaked it.

The lawyer arched a brow. “The link sounds circumstantial at best.”

“It’s enough to bring him in for questioning. I have my orders.”

“You’ve questioned my client and he’s answered. Unless you can bring forward additional evidence to implicate Major Anatolius, I believe we’re done, General.”

Bradley’s jaw flexed. “Done for now, maybe.”

Brennan bristled. “Is that a threat?”

“Just a statement of fact.” Bradley shifted out of parade rest. “My superiors are going to argue that the only solution here is Major Anatolius in my custody.”

“That’s not happening.”

Really not happening. Zed’s fingers found the cuff on his right wrist, the one the Guardians had put on him before depositing him back on the Chaos a few days before. He wasn’t sure what it was, beyond evidence that he hadn’t dreamed the whole being-brought-back-to-life-and-communicating-with-the-galaxy’s-highest-life-forms thing. He might not know what their plan was for him, but he was pretty sure it didn’t include being imprisoned by the AEF.

“I can see that.” Bradley’s form seemed to deflate slightly—never a good thing to see from a general. “But he needs to stay contained.”

Zed scowled. “What am I, a disease?”

Brennan held up a hand, halting Bradley’s rejoinder. “He’ll stay in the Anatolius compound. Sufficient?”

House arrest. Wonderful. Seeing as the alternative was potentially actual arrest, though, he’d take it. Besides, the two buildings in the Anatolius compound—the Damianos building with the offices and the Thessaloniki Tower with the family’s apartments and other condos—had everything he could want. Except, well, freedom.

“I doubt my superiors will think so,” Bradley hedged, then sighed. “But yes, sufficient for me.” He held Zed’s gaze again and Zed remembered the last time his former CO had looked at him that way—on Ashushk Prime, when Zed could no longer remember who he was and was barely cognizant of his surroundings. “Watch your back, Major. I hope your brother’s lawyers can work magic.”

 

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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.