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Staked: Chapter Seven

After that, we spent a while gathering information to send Pietra to prove to her that Cambrie was perfectly safe where she was and didn’t need to be forced to move in with Oleg and Shaymarie––or play third wheel by tagging along with Dalla, for that matter.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t actually be that bad,” Cambrie had admitted with a slightly rueful smile, “but I like a bit of space sometimes. Besides, I like the people here. I might even be able to pick up some new clients. We’ll see.”

I wished her luck, and left shortly after she sent Pietra the report we’d put together. It was edging into mid-afternoon station time, and the decks were busier than they’d been earlier. I tried to stay out of notice and immersed myself in the crowd, people-watching without really knowing what I was looking for.

I stopped for a moment in the opening of an alley to watch a woman across the street rearrange the wares at the front of her shop. They were just trinkets, nothing special, but she smiled as she did set them out in neat rows. Her shop was small, buried down here, but she was content. Two kids barreled off the deck and into her, and she laughed and pulled them in for a hug. I moved on.

What did I really want?

Kieran’s face rose before me, unbidden, and the thought of his touch made my skin ache. I pushed it away, savagely. Not him.

I wanted the Star back. But that was just a place. Sure, it was filled with memories, but what I really wanted, was for my people to be safe. And for us to stay together.

I thought back to the woman by the shop. She was happy. What would it take to be happy like that?

Maybe I’d been focusing on the wrong thing for too long. We didn’t need the Star to stay open, not as much as we needed to find a way to keep together as a family.

A weight lifted from me briefly, only to resettle as I wandered on.

We still had a mortgage to pay…unless I sold.

The thought stung, but not as much as it had previously. Just admitting to myself that there might be life outside the Star cut me, but the place wasn’t as important as the people. There were more options than I’d let myself see––there had to be.

My path had taken me spindle-wards, and I found myself home without realizing it. I stared across the walkway at the Star.

She really wasn’t much to look at, really.

She’d gone up not long after the station was first constructed, as lodgings for the construction crew.

Then she’d been a hotel for a while until Dad had bought her from the mother of one of his buddies. Unlike the rest of the buildings on the deck, she hadn’t been modded much––just to clean up the downstairs, and the bare minimum for safety upgrades.

It was hard to remember that just behind the curve of her rooms the Spindle ran, turning us endlessly in the black.

She wasn’t too pretty, either, but she’d been my home for my entire life.

I looked over the structure. The sweepers hadn’t put up any signs that the structure was considered unstable, but they might not have come around yet. The loose rubble that had been thrown into the street had been moved to the side.

I reached for my tablet, and then remembered again that I hadn’t taken anything with me last night to Kieran’s.

If I needed to, I could access all my records from Pietra’s equipment, but it wasn’t just the tablets. If I was really considering abandoning the Star, there were some things from home I wanted to take with me.

I picked my way through the rubble and ducked under the slanted door. I stared at the open room in disbelief. Tables and chairs had been tossed around like toys in the aftermath of a child’s tantrum, lying flat or standing lopsided on what remained of broken or splintering legs.

The smell of alcohol from the broken bottles staggered me and brought tears to my eyes. There was another bill to add to the tally.

I edged around the room on the lookout for anything that might fall, but it seemed as if the building and its contents had come to rest.

Debris blocked the right-hand staircase; I gingerly tested the left-hand flight of stairs but other than the fourth step from the top squeaking, as it had for a year, they seemed fine.

I reached the landing and picked my way down the hall, checking the rooms. Each resident had a play room and a separate, private room of their own. Most of them were unlocked, the doors left ajar when everyone had left. I peeked inside and saw items in disarray, but other than that, nothing seemed terribly wrong.

The hallway was a different matter, though. There were some deep fissures in the ceiling and a few places where great chunks of the walls had slid to the floor.

I wondered how much an engineer’s estimate would be to assess the structural soundness of the building. Our clientele probably wouldn’t notice as long as the building looked to be in good repair, but there was no way I would let everyone live in an unsafe building.

Still, the costs of cosmetic repairs alone seemed daunting enough.

I shook my head and went to my own quarters, promising to worry about that later when I had more facts on hand. I’d do what I needed to when the time came.

In the meantime, trying to obsess over everything at once was only going to slow me down.

My quarters was one of the smallest upstairs rooms; I’d spent most of my time in my office. I grabbed a handful of clothes and stuffed them into my largest bag. I didn’t really need any of my other things from my room at the moment. Not from here, anyway.

I braced myself as I headed for my office. The hallway outside it hadn’t looked great, but the office was against the column of the spindle itself.

Surely that should make it stronger?

Maybe?

So far, though, the evidence wasn’t too promising: the damage was worse down this hall, and some of the “guest rooms” had a couple of collapsed walls. The imagined bills in my head ticked up that much further, and I tried to ignore the added weight in the pit of my stomach.

My office door was ajar, one of its hinges hanging loose from the wall. The latch hung free, too, with the strike plate lying warped on the floor just outside the frame. I eased the door out of the way just far enough to slip inside, and looked around.

It was a mess, but I’d been expecting that.

Fortunately, the walls all looked to be intact, so it seemed safe enough to move around. I started out by clearing floor space––hanging up the wall screens to check for damage. Most of them were spiderwebbed with cracks, but even if they were functional, I was wary of trying to turn anything on without knowing if there had been damage to the wiring.

 All construction on space stations was meant to be extremely resistant to fires, electrical or otherwise, but there was no point in taking that chance. The Star was far from the newest construction on the station, after all.

Once I had the screens hung up again, most of the floor was clear. Only the contents of my desk scattered the room, so I wandered around, picking things up, checking them for damage, and replacing them on any surfaces that seemed stable.

My desk was a bit lopsided––it looked like one of the legs that had been loose for a while had finally given up the ghost. Most of the belongings I’d wanted had been on it, or in the drawers, so it didn’t matter that it wasn’t up for holding much.

I retrieved my datapad and looked it over; fortunately, it didn’t appear to be damaged. Then I spotted my holocube beside my foot and paused before picking it up.

A corner was cracked, but when I switched it on, it still worked. The default image was the one I remembered setting a few weeks ago––my parents, at a party with some friends I’d never known, arms around each other, laughing.

I cycled through the photos. Dad’s hair had been starting to go gray around the edges before I was born, but it was looking distinctly silvery in the shots where I was around as a baby.

Mom, on the other hand, looked young right up until she disappeared from the photos. They didn’t stop there, though––Dad had been pretty good about taking photos, and his friends had shared ones they’d taken.

There were plenty of photos of me and Dad with people that I could barely remember now, people who had been his friends but I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years, or even since he’d passed on.

One of the photos made me pause. I wasn’t in this one––instead it was Dad and a handful of his close friends, arms thrown over each others’ shoulders––but I recognized the building behind them. It was the Star, and it was from its opening night.

The building wasn’t new then, either, but it still shone in the background of the picture, the welcoming glint from the windows catching in my father’s hair.

I swallowed hard. The Star had been my home for pretty much as long as I could remember. Could I really ever give it up? Did I have any other option, at this point?

I sighed to myself and stepped back, leaning against the wall and taking the wreck of my office in. It didn’t look as bad, now that I’d tidied up a bit, but there were some problems that would take a lot more work to fix.

If I kept trying to figure everything out, would my chances of keeping the Star look any brighter? Or would I only find out that my hopes had been doomed from the start?

The spindle of the station hummed at my back. It was the backbone of the entire station, and having it nearby had always made me feel as grounded as anyone could get out here in the deep of space.

I closed my eyes to listen to it now, trying to get lost in the calming monotony of the noise, but instead I heard something out of place––some kind of scraping sound, not faint enough to be my imagination.

I opened my eyes, thinking to look around for the source of the noise, but before I could something heavy and warm pulled tight against my chest.

I felt a faint cold prick against the side of my neck.

And then nothing.


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Staked: Chapter Six

“More of a problem than someone bombing the Star?”

“Well…” I reluctantly looked up at her. ”Maybe it’s all tied in.”

She nodded as though she already had her suspicions. “Want to tell me why you were so reluctant to go back with your lover boy? When you came out of the flitter, you looked like you didn’t mind him, not a bit.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did he do anything?”

I blushed. “No––I mean yes, but no, that’s not it.” I ran my hand through my hair, working through the tangles as I thought things through. “You still know people, right?”

Pietra shook her head. “Of course I know people. If you’d think about it, you know people too. Your dad’s company wouldn’t let you hang dry.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk to them. Not yet.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do about the Star. The inspections to get recertified alone are out of our budget, even if we don’t have to do any rebuilding.”

Pietra stood and went to a small cabinet in the corner, pulled out a bottle and two tumblers, and poured us both drinks. “You don’t think the new silent partner will pick up the bill?” she asked, handing one to me.

I sipped it, and the rough taste helped clear some of the fog from my brain. “I don’t think we should trust him to do any more than he has.”

I didn’t want to give voice to my fears, but Pietra should know. “I saw him with Jahal.”

“What? When?” She put her drink down. “Not when…”

“No, at the Star, when we came back. He was talking with her at the edge of the crowd. What if he’s in partnership with her cabal, and this is all a way to get the Star?”

Pietra took a long sip of her drink, considering it. “Maybe. Seems a complicated way to go about it, and expensive for them, too. Would have been easier to let the note come due.”

“But it’s still a maybe?” I was tired and frightened and unsure of my own judgment, but Pietra was one of the most careful people I knew.

If she thought it was possible that I was right, then I really knew we had a problem.

She nodded. “Could be.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “Can you check into it? Do you know anyone who could check into him? What’s he been doing since he left?”

“What did he tell you?”

“A story,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

She shrugged. “I’ll put some feelers out, see what we can find about Mr. Kieran Matthias. But for the time being, you need to sleep.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I could––too many things going on.”

“Sure you can,” she said. “I slipped a mild soother into your drink. We should get you to the guest room before it hits.”

Any outrage I might have felt was swallowed up by laughter at her deadpan expression. “Really?”

She smirked. “You’ll never know. Why take the chance of sleeping in your clothes?”

I followed her down the hall, still laughing, with only a tinge of hysteria.

The guestroom was more of a closet for sleeping in, with just enough room for small bed that folded out from one wall, a chair that folded out from another, a light panel, and space for my things under the bed.

Of course, I didn’t have any things that weren’t at the Star, so the lack of storage space wasn’t really a problem.

Pietra folded my clothes and put them away as I changed into the soft green pajama set she’d lent me.

I was out the moment I crawled under the covers, either my exhaustion or whatever Pietra put in my drink causing a dreamless sleep.

***

I woke up the next morning to the brightening of the light panel. The room was as calm and silent as it had been the night before, and I took a long moment to stretch and stare up at the ceiling, considering the events of the previous day. They made a little bit more sense in retrospect, but it was still a lot to take in.

Jahal’s ultimatum had been a long time coming, but her arrival in the Star to deliver it had made the threat of losing the Star into an obvious crisis.

I’d been trying to talk it over to with everyone else when Kieran had re-appeared in my life, as suddenly as he’d left all those years ago.

His offer to become a silent partner in running the Star had come out of the blue. And then there was our bet, and the outing that resulted from it––and the shatterbombing of the Star, which, conveniently enough, had happened while I was with Kieran.

He’d wanted a night together as a condition in our deal at first, but I’d convinced him to make it a gamble.

Had he been confident that he could win against me, or had he had a back-up plan to get me out of the Star if he lost?

In this quiet, it was hard to believe that any of it was real, but even after a good night’s sleep I was managing to wind myself up about it again.

Being in debt to Jahal was bad enough, but being at the center of a conspiracy that involved Kieran, of all people, was worse. But worse or not, it was better to know for sure than to try to put it off. I sighed and pushed myself up.

“What time is it?” I asked the room, hoping the comm system would understand a different voice than Pietra’s.

“It is now 1100,” a flat voice replied. I scrambled up––I’d slept half the rotation away. I slid out of the bed, wedging myself between the edge of the sleeping platform and the opposite wall so I could flip the platform back into the wall and clear some space. I pulled my clothing back on and switched the wall display to mirror to rebraid my hair before hurrying out of the room, keying off the light panel behind me.

The short hallway led me back to the main room where Pietra was already up, bent over her commtab.

“There you are.” She nodded towards the small kitchen. “There’s a bit of breakfast left. I was going to get you up if you weren’t awake for lunch.”

I grabbed a slice of toast and perched on a stool. “I can’t believe you did that.”

She shrugged. “You needed it. I didn’t want you to spend the entire rotation staring into the dark, wondering about your guy and worrying about the Star.”

I swallowed the dry toast, my throat just as barren. “Did you find out anything about him?”

She flicked the contents of her tablet to the room’s wall screen: lines of text, a few photos. “Not much.”

I skimmed over the entries. “I don’t understand this.”

“These are recorded ports of call for his ship, or the ship registered to his name. As you can see, there aren’t many. There’s a lot of holes here.”

“All right,” I answered, thinking. “Could he be using another name?”

Pietra threw another screen up. “I’ve been asking about that, and things are coming in unclear. Whatever your boy has been doing, he’s been very careful about hiding his activities.”

The knot in my stomach tightened. “What do you think he’s been doing?” I asked.

“The best guess my sources have given me is some sort of smuggling.” She shrugged. Which would be anything from food, to medicine––to humans.”

I felt the blood drain from my face and grabbed the edge of the counter for balance. Human trafficking. Kieran couldn’t be…

Pietra looked at me. “Nothing says that’s what he’s doing. If we had a better record of his ports of call, I could give you a better analysis.”

“But…” I swallowed hard. “Do you think he’s working with Jahal?”

She nodded, face grim. “If he’s actually a smuggler, and I’d say the probability of that is over eighty percent from this data. It would be surprising if he didn’t have contacts with at least one of the cabals on station. Since you’ve seen him with Jahal, it could well be hers.”

The knot turned to lead in my belly, but I shook myself. “So, nothing has changed, other than confirming what I already suspected.”

“Statistically likely––not confirmed,” she repeated.

“Confirmed enough for me.” My thoughts raced. “So what do we do now?”

 Pietra didn’t answer right away, but when I looked up, she was smiling at me––a tight smile, but warm nonetheless.

“Now, we deal with things one at a time and see what we can find out,” she said. “I’ve got a few places I can keep digging, but it’ll take time. For now, my first priority is keeping in touch with the others––they all checked in this morning, but I’m not too sure about Cambrie’s setup. Do you think you could go look in on her and let me know who she has to look after her?”

“Sure,” I said, surprised. “What about the others? Should I check on them as well?”

“They should be fine,” Pietra said. She’d pulled the images from earlier back onto her commtab and was fiddling with something on it, frowning absently. “Shaymarie and Oleg are sticking together for the moment, and I trust them more together than I’d trust either by themselves. Dalla’s friend has been generous enough to take her in for at least the next few days; I already checked up on him, and he seems honorable enough.”

“And Cambrie?” I’d never seen where she lived and wasn’t entirely sure she had her own place. Pietra was the exception, not the rule––most of the others had lived part or full time in the Star with me.

“That’s what I want you to find out,” she said. “I’ll forward you the location she sent me; I want you to ask her about what precautions she’s taken, and more importantly, who knows her in the area and whether they know that she could be in danger.”

“Sure,” I said, then paused. “Ah, actually, could you write it down? I don’t have any of my tech on me.”

“Right,” Pietra said. “We’ll have to see about getting you a replacement.”

***

Outside of Pietra’s apartment, the rotation was going on, people living their lives like nothing had happened, as if everything hadn’t been turned upside down.

And I guess for them, it hadn’t. I shook off my sense of melancholy at the thought and set about trying to decipher the directions Pietra had given me.

Fortunately, she knew how to write directions that worked even if they couldn’t update you if you took a wrong turn, and better still, Cambrie wasn’t far away.

The door I was led to was unlocked and led into a common lobby. It looked to be a flat of either hotels or apartments––I wasn’t sure which. I took the stairs up to the fourth floor and went to door number 408, knocking seven times as the instructions stated. I waited a moment, and then heard a sequence of locks being opened, followed by Cambrie opening the door.

“Ani,” she said, sounding casual, unworried. “Come inside.”

The inside, like the outside, was decorated to look like the midway point between hotel and longer-term living space. There was a small kitchenette that didn’t look very capable of feeding one and a sitting room set up with a couple of older holo-screens.

Right now, they were displaying an overcast, gray-sanded beach, with steel-gray waves pounding silently against the shore and the green ridges of trees in the distance. It was an odd little old-fashioned space, but cozy. Cambrie seemed perfectly at home as she curled up on the couch, pushing her feet under a cushion.

“This is beautiful,” I told her honestly, looking around. “I’m glad you were able to find a place to stay. It’s not costing you too much, I hope––”

“It’s fine,” Cambrie interrupted me. “I know the people who run this place. They’re friends of mine––they offered me a pretty steep discount as long as I agreed to help them out. When I asked them about it, they said one of their employees quit recently without warning, or at least they haven’t seen her for several weeks.”

“It sounds like something could have happened to her,” I said, shuddering.

“Bad things do happen sometimes,” Cambrie said, not ungently. “Which is why I can understand why Pietra’s worried, but can you tell her that I’m fine, please? I know the people that run this place and several of the regulars as well. They don’t want to lose any more employees, or me, for that matter. And I’m perfectly capable of being careful.”

“I believe that,” I said, relieved.

Cambrie had a level head and enough quiet confidence to get her through anything that might get thrown her way. If she said she would be all right, I believed her. “Just remember that it’s fine to contact me or Pietra if you need anything.”

“I will.” She rested one elbow on the arm of the couch and set her chin on it, looking me over pensively. “I’m more worried about you, honestly. How is everything holding up?”

“No real changes, for the moment,” I said ruefully.

“Any leads?”

“Well…yes and no,” I started. I didn’t know how much I wanted to try to explain, but somehow her understanding, patient expression had me explaining everything over to her almost before I could think twice.

“I see,” she said when I was finished. Then she shook her head. “I knew that guy was bad news,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “Everyone was so eager about getting me to go out with him before…”

“I hoped he might be the good kind of bad news.” Cambrie was smiling––a teasing smile, but somehow sad. “You should’ve seen yourself. You were sparkling, just being around him. Anyone could tell the two of you had history.”

“Well…yeah,” I admitted. “We were friends when we were younger.”

“Do you mind if I ask what happened?” The question was gentle. “You don’t have to share if you don’t want to.”

“No, maybe it would help.” I paused, trying to think of where to begin, find the point in the times we’d shared when we were kids that was bothering me now. “Kieran’s father was the only family he had, at least that he knew about, and he was horrible. He never liked to talk about it much, but I know he was a drunk, and that he beat Kieran. That much was difficult to hide.”

Cambrie made a soft sound of sympathy. “That can’t have been easy for either of you.”

“It wasn’t. And I think it only got worse as he got older.” I remembered how worried I’d been about him back then, how it had twisted up in the games we’d played and the odd childhood flirting that had turned up regularly, even then.

“There were days when he was so angry he would hardly even talk to me, but he still came to visit. We got together for a little while, but before we could go much of anywhere with it, he just disappeared. No warning, no note, not even a single clue of where he went. I thought his father had…” I swallowed. “I was never sure what happened, so I tried not to think about it much. That’s what it means to live out here, right? That everyone knows someone who’s had that happen to them. Or worse.”

“You’re not wrong,” Cambrie said.

We sat in silence for a while as I thought about what I’d said, trying to figure out where it all fit with what I was feeling now. “He…when I went with him for that night, he was…different,” I said eventually.

If Cambrie had been waiting for the conversation to get around to the gritty details of my and Kieran’s night together, she didn’t show it. “Different how?” she asked.

“I never quite knew what to expect. There were times when he seemed…really angry, and then he would suddenly be…something else.” Amazing, if I was being honest, but it was all a little bit frightening, too. “I just get the feeling that there’s so much about him that I don’t understand yet. I’m worried about what I’ll find when I do.”

“That’s understandable,” she assured me. “But…if you had to guess, go off your gut, what would you say? Did you feel safe with him?”

I thought about it. “When I was with him…yes,” I admitted. “I was definitely nervous at first, but by the end––or I guess until we were interrupted––I felt almost like I was starting to understand something important.” I laughed bitterly. “Of course, that was before I suspected him of conspiring to blow up my bar.”

“I imagine that would change your perspective a bit,” she said.

“Just a little,” I deadpanned. She chuckled lightly.

“Do you think there’s still a chance that he’s good?” I asked. “It…really doesn’t look good for him, at the moment.”

“He might be, and he might not.” Cambrie didn’t sound too worried about either possibility. “Nobody’s completely good or completely bad. The real question is what you’re expecting as an answer…and how much of the bad you’re willing to live with.”

That was true enough, I supposed. “I wasn’t expecting for him to show up in my life again at all, to be honest,” I grumbled.

“That’s understandable, too,” she said, smiling at me. “But most things in life are unexpected. You’ll figure out how you want to come to terms with it sooner or later.”


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Staked: Chapter Five

We got to Zelta 10 deck in record time. I finished dressing in the flitter, grateful again for the covering swaths of Oleg’s cloak, as I pulled on the plain black pants and a drab olive tunic Kieran’s staff had found for me.

The flitter landed in the street outside my building, pushing aside the crowd that had gathered to gawk.

I rushed towards the door, but Kieran caught me, held me back.

“It’s not safe, you know that. A shatter bomb could have loosened every joint in the place. For all you know, one footstep inside would bring it crashing down on you.”

I kicked at him. “Who the hell makes something like that, anyway? And why my place?” Fear spread icy fingers from my stomach, wrapped around my heart. “And where are my people?” I whispered.

I turned back from the Star to search the crowd. Maybe there had been a witness, maybe someone saw something, maybe… Oleg!

I pushed away from Kieran and rushed towards the tall blond.

He wrapped me in a hug. Pressed around him, I saw the rest of my friends. Pietra looked as immovable as ever; Shaymarie and Cambrie held hands, packages at their feet. I blinked. A bright pink short nighty was all that covered Dalla.

“What happened? Is everyone alright? Where is—”

Oleg interrupted me. “We’re not sure what happened, but everyone is fine. Since we’d closed, Shaymari and Cambrie decided to go out and get some shopping done.

Dalla and I pestered Pietra to teach us that card game that got you into so much trouble.” He attempted a grin, but I watched it fade. “The bomb…”

His eyes lost focus, and I hugged him hard. “It started as a tremor, the ground shaking under our feet. We had no idea what was going on. Dalla thought the station had been hit with an asteroid. Dalla and I, well, we were pretty useless.” He swallowed, his face grim.

Dalla cut in. “Pietra recognized it immediately. Cleared us out, yelled at me for wanting to go change before heading outside. She even shouted at the folks on the street to keep back.”

Pietra shrugged. “There’s a sound they make as they’re ramping up. You don’t forget it.”

“It’s a fine thing we were closed.” Oleg winked at me, and my cheeks heated. “Where is your mystery man, anyhow? He sure got you here quick.”

I turned, scanning the crowd. Where had Kieran gotten to? There, at the far edge of the crowd, I saw him, his back turned towards me. I bit my lip.

After the last few hours, I’d recognize those shoulders anywhere. Despite the bomb, despite everything, I caught myself smiling.

Everyone was all right. The Star could be fixed.

And that sexy man over there was…

Talking intently to Jahal.

Touching her arm as she leaned into him.

A wave of dizziness swept over me. The cold vice around my chest returned with a vengeance.

Why would…?

Oh. Of course.

Kieran and Jahal. Working together. The timing had been too perfect. This would be the end of the Star. There wasn’t enough credit on the chip to pay off Jahal and rebuild. I’d have to close anyway.

I’d have to sell—maybe not to Jahal and her syndicate, but to someone.

Through the tangled web of syndicate alliances, Jahal would probably get the Star anyway.

My people would be out in the cold, or worse, forced to work for a brutal syndicate.

And he … he had bought me.

As if he felt my eyes on him, Kieran turned to me, a grin on his face.

I couldn’t stand to watch them together.

“Pietra, can we get out of here?”

***

We didn’t leave fast enough.

Pietra was still leading me away from the ruin of the Sapphire Star, out of the circle of observers, when Kieran turned my way.

I heard Pietra stop and turn back behind me, too.

Kieran walked over, face grim. “I’ve asked around. No one claims to have seen anything.” He reached for me, trying to pull me under one arm, but I stepped back, closer to Pietra. He frowned.

“I’m going to stay with Pietra tonight, okay?” I said, playing up the worry in my voice. “I need to make sure everyone is all right.”

He started to talk, and I interrupted––the words coming out in a rush of embarrassment and suppressed suspicion.

“I know we’re not done with the…contract, but I’ll have to make it up to you.”

His forehead wrinkled. “Are you sure? I’d thought most of your people lived at the Star. Where are you going to stay?”

Oleg stepped forward from where he must have been lurking among the onlookers, a light smile on his lips.

I could see the worry in his eyes––he knew something was up, and would play it my way. “Don’t worry about us. We have plenty of friends who can put us up.”

Pietra wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Anisha can stay with me. We’ll have plenty to do to figure out what we’ll do next with the Star––might as well start planning now.”

He turned back to look at me, biting his lips for a moment before he spoke. “Ani, I…”

I shook my head. “Please. My mind won’t be on anything else tonight.”

He nodded slowly. “If you’re sure. I’ll come down in the morning and check on you, see what the engineers have to say about reconstruction.”

“Sure,” I said more brightly than I felt.

I didn’t care what I said anymore. I just wanted him to go away and leave me with my family.

He reached for me again, and I flinched. It was a small movement, but big enough for him to see, and he stepped away with something like hurt in his eyes.

That couldn’t be, though: to be hurt, he’d have to care.

And I’d never trust Kieran again.

“Let’s go,” Pietra said, and we turned into the semi-darkness of a side street, surrounded by my friends from the bar. I couldn’t help myself.

I looked over my shoulder and saw Kieran still standing where I’d left him, alone, apart from the crowds that were finally beginning to wander away from the accident.

I felt a twinge, just a little one, at how lost he looked.

“Let’s get you off the street and into warmer clothing,” Pietra said. I flushed hot, thinking about how I’d lost that first set of clothing.

Pietra kept us all in the shadows and out of notice as we walked, but I still worried that someone might see under my cloak and know that my clothes weren’t mine; they might somehow guess what I’d been doing while my friends were in danger and my livelihood burned.

If Kieran had known, had been in on it, then how could he have kept it from me? I never would have guessed that he was that good a liar, but it was getting harder and harder to believe anything else.

The world of riches and surprises I’d seen in the Uppers––what might he have done to make it there?

***

Pietra lived on a quiet, clean street––not too new, with fairly dim lighting. All of the buildings had been kept up well, and there was warm light coming out of a few of the windows.

“I should go,” Dalla said, pulling away as we arrived at the front door of Pietra’s building. “I’ve already gotten in touch with a friend, and he’s offered to have me over.”

“Ask him to come get you, then,” Pietra said. She calmly scanned the street behind us before she turned to unlock the door.

Dalla shifted uncomfortably, frowning. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m already putting him to a lot of trouble, so––”

“If he really cares about your safety, he’ll understand that it’s dangerous for you to go alone,” Pietra said matter-of-factly.

“And if he can’t make it out, then you can stay here and save him the trouble.”

Dalla didn’t look entirely convinced. “But I––”

Pietra ducked behind us to close the door, making sure it was shut tight and locked. “Just this once, let’s pretend I’m not overly cautious, all right?” she asked softly.

No one answered––it was hard to argue with her tonight.

Dalla reached up to her ear and began speaking softly with her friend as Pietra led us down a warmly lit hallway.

I looked around. If you’d asked me a rotation ago to describe Pietra’s quarters, I’d have guessed they would be sparse, almost military, but they were nothing of the sort: thick tapestries woven in lush colors hung from the walls, and eclectic bits of furniture scattered across the room.

None of the pieces matched, and the designs on the tapestries were hardly coordinated. It was a mess of color, but all the colors were warm, and somehow the appearance of the room was soothing.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Oleg made a lustful noise in the back of his throat and went to fondle a tapestry, dragging Shaymarie behind him. He began flitting around the room, praising various details while Shaymarie watched and injected the occasional comment of her own.

Pietra followed behind them, looking fond and answering questions whenever Oleg paused for breath. Cambrie, meanwhile, found a small stool and folded herself quietly onto it, looking around the room with sedate interest.

I unfastened the cloak and folded it, laying it over the corner of the couch. Dalla glanced over at me. The corners of her lips quirked up. “That’s not what we sent you off in,” she noted.

I felt myself flush again. “Well…we headed back in a hurry,” I hedged.

Dalla grinned and was about to say something else when a gentle chiming noise filled the room. “That’s the bell,” Pietra said, and Dalla grinned and scampered to the door.

I caught her eye before she could leave. “Ping me in the morning,” I asked.

Dalla rolled her eyes, but grinned. “Yes, Mom.”

“You can ping us, or we can do check-in calls every hour, on the hour,” Pietra growled.

“Fine,” Dalla laughed and darted out the door before I could make her promise anything else.

I lowered myself carefully onto the edge of the couch and fought a losing battle with a long, shaky sigh.

Oleg, who’d been examining the detailing on a side table in the corner of the room, glanced over. He gave me one quick look, and then bent his head down to Shaymarie’s and muttered something.

He turned to Pietra. “I’m thinking what Shay and I need is a good night out,” he said. “That is, as long as you have no objections?”

Pietra frowned and glanced at me, but though I was a little worried by the idea, I had been wondering how I could begin explain my suspicions to everyone.

“All right, if you really want,” she said finally. “But you need to be smart about this. Stick with each other. And I expect a call in the morning, or I will track the both of you down myself and make you regret it.”

Oleg grinned and began to answer but was interrupted by Cambrie. “Do you mind if I come along?” she asked. “I’ll be sure not to drag down the party.”

“Good idea,” Shaymarie said approvingly, pulling her up and hooking their arms at the elbow. “Safety in numbers, right? And it’s been too long since the three of us went out together.”

“Fine, then.” Pietra didn’t sound too displeased, though. “Same goes for all of you, then. Watch each other’s backs, don’t stay out too late, and I expect to hear from you first thing tomorrow morning. Got it?”

Oleg snapped off a rather sloppy salute and herded the other two out the door, Pietra following to double check that it locked behind them.

From where I sat, I could hear their cheerful farewells fading into the night outside.

I took a deep breath in the silence they left in their wake then slid down further into the couch and put my head in my hands.

I heard the door close, steeled myself.

“Pietra, I think we have a problem.”


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Staked: Chapter Four

Without warning, he grabbed me from behind, pulling me tightly to his front. The hand which had been stroking the bra now kneaded my breast through the lace, while his other hand reached between my legs, rubbing my mound through the silky covering.

“Getting wet, Ani?” He breathed in my ear.

His fingers slipped inside the fabric, brushed my opening, and I jerked back. His hips ground against my ass, trapping me between his hand and his hardened need.

His teeth grazed my neck, and I bucked against him. Teased by his fingers and seeking hands, I desperately needed to touch him. I struggled in his arms, trying to reach him.

Instantly, his arms clamped around me. “You have two options. Are you going to let me do as I wish, or do I need to restrain you?”

I fought for my voice. “I honor my bets.” My voice shook.

He turned me to face him, running his hands over my breasts. My nipples stood out clearly through the thin fabric. He reached around to unclasp the bra and my breasts fell free. He lifted one as if weighing it in the palm of his hand, considering, then released the breast, and took the thin cord at the side of the sodden panties in both hands.

“Oh, I know you do.”

With a quick motion he tore the cord, throwing the fabric to the side. “But I think I’ll hold you down anyway. Watching you struggle as I control your body, control your pleasure, has been on the list for a long time.”

He pushed me back onto the bed, then reached into a side table and brought out a dark brown blob of gel, and raised one of my wrists above my head. Stunned, I could only watch as his eyes grew darker. The substance oozed over my wrist, holding it firm. I gave an experimental tug. No movement. He brought the other wrist up, and it slid into the restraint. The device held at a constant ten centimeters above my head.

“Something else we can bring to the Star. But tonight, there’s only you and me.” He stretched out next to me and ran a line of kisses down the side of my neck, feather light.

“Roll over.”

I tensed.

He raised an eyebrow. “Roll over.” His voice brooked no argument.

The device allowed slight movement, but kept my hands fixed over my head as I rolled onto my belly, my nerves tight as a drum. I could hear movement behind me and glanced over my left arm to see him step away from the bed. He slowly removed his shirt, exposing his broad, tanned chest.

I whimpered, deep in my throat.

He frowned. “Ani, I’m not going to hurt you. You should know that.”

His gaze ran over me stretched out before him. “Only in good ways.” He tossed his shirt to the side, then climbed onto the bed, straddling my ass. “Just relax.”

His hands began to rub in circles across my shoulders, digging deeper. With each stroke, he moved lower on my back.

I moaned into the comforter, eased by the movements. “I don’t know where you’ve been, but you’ve picked up some good skills along the way.”

“I wish you weren’t always so tense.” I jumped as he reached down and slapped my bare ass. “Less talking now.”

He dug into a knot in my lower back, and I groaned. “That’s an acceptable sound.” As he worked his way back up from my lower back to shoulders, he stretched out over me.

A hard length rubbed between my ass cheeks through the fabric of his pants, and I bucked in realization.

“Kier—”

Two fingers thrust into my mouth silenced me. “Suck,” he whispered. He rocked back and forth against my ass. The sensation of the smooth fabric as it slid against me drove the pressure building between my legs.

I turned my attention to Kieran’s fingers, sucking them, swirling my tongue over his rough pads, easing him deeper into my throat.

He groaned and ground harder against me. His breathing roughened. “Kneel.” He pulled his fingers from my mouth so suddenly I blinked.

The growing need between my legs combined with his intensity blurred my thoughts.

He sat back, freeing my legs from between his and dragged my ass backwards and up into the air. “Spread further.” He didn’t wait, but moved my knees further apart with his own, as far as my hips would stretch while I supported my weight on my elbows.

“Oh, Ani.” The raw need in his voice dug into me. He traced a line up the inside of my thigh, almost brushing my slick folds, but stopping short of where I wanted, where I needed him to be.

I moaned in frustration.

“Not yet, honey. It’s a long list.” He positioned himself between my knees, stroking my thighs, my ass, my back. Overstimulated, every touch felt like he ran fire across my skin.

I jumped as he reached around me to grab one of my breasts, squeezing to the point of delicious agony. He pressed against my ass again as he reached to the other side, kneading both in his hands, rubbing against me.

I moaned and ground back into his hips. “Please, Kieran …” I whispered.

He leaned over to kiss the nape of my back and I spasmed under him at the brush of his lips.

He hummed in pleasure. “Well, that’s interesting. A little wound up?”

I could only shudder as he moved one hand back to run along my spine, following it with feather light kisses and tentative licks.

He sat up behind me and caressed the outside of my legs while my breathing evened. I’d never experienced anything like that before, as if the entirety of my back was another sexual organ for him to play.

As my breathing slowed, his caresses moved to the inside of my thighs, each stroke reaching higher. He traced a finger along my folds and I trembled, my own need taking over thought.

“Is that good, Ani?” he murmured.

I couldn’t get my tongue to work; I lay panting under his touch.

A sharp slap on my ass took my breath away. It somehow melded with the sensations of him playing with the edge of my pussy. “Answer me, honey.”

“Yes, Kieran,” I gasped.

He moved his attention to my mound, rubbing my clit in circles with his palm. “And this, is it good?”

“Kieran,” was all I could moan, my voice pleading for more. I wantonly tried to press against his hand, but he held me firm.

“Oh no, Ani. We’re going to go at my speed.”

I let out a sob of frustration.

“But don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.” He dipped a finger between my pussy lips and I cried out.

He slid it deeper inside me, working it back and forth. “I do believe you’re enjoying this, Ani.”

A second, then a third finger slipped inside me, and I shook as he began to rotate them with every thrust, brushing my throbbing clit. I squirmed against his hand, desire making me shameless.

The pressure built with each thrust, and I strained against the device, knowing it was useless, but needing release.

“There’s no place to go, Ani. Just you and me.” He switched his attention back to my clit, rubbing in tight circles, then rocked back to press again. It slid in, a tiny bit, and I squirmed, my nerves on fire.

The muscles in my legs shook, threatening to collapse under me.

He flicked his fingers over my clit, sending waves of sensation spiraling through me.

“Kieran,” I sobbed. “Please…” My back arched as he grabbed my hips with both hands, grinding me against him. Even through the fabric of his pants, I could feel him, hot and ready.

Suddenly, he pushed me to my side, the damn device still keeping my hands fixed above my head. I lay curled, a shuddering wreck, and stared at him.

He stood before me at the edge of the bed, his broad chest rising and falling with breaths as uneven as my own. He raked my flushed body with his eyes. “I’m going to watch your face as you come.”

He undid his pants and stepped out of them. My eyes widened as his cock sprung free, long, and thick. “I’m going to hold you so I feel every twitch, every shudder.”

He lay down on his side facing me and eased me onto my back. His hand kneaded my breasts, switching from one to the other, each grasp a bit harder, more demanding.

I arched my back, pressing myself into his hands. He rolled one swollen nub between his fingers and bent his head to suckle at the other, his hair falling to brush against my chest.

His sucking started gently, and I sighed as he became more insistent, light nibbles alternating with the barest touch of his lips.

At my groan, the kisses turned rough, all gentleness gone. One arm wrapped under my shoulders to keep me pressed against him, while his leg covered my knee, forcing me open and exposed.

His hand replaced where his mouth had been minutes before, stroking my thigh, teasing with the lightest of touches, circling nearer and nearer.

He broke away from my mouth to travel down my neck, licking and sucking, as his fingers rubbed across the top of my mound, grazing the hood of my clit. My eyes fell closed, lost in the sensations.

He paused, and I blinked my eyes open, my heated body hazing my brain. “Eyes open, Ani.” He brushed my lips with his, fixing me with his stare as his hand resumed.

I panted as his fingers circled my clit, getting closer and closer. His face was so close all I could see was his eyes. I was burning in the blue of his eyes, melted by his heat.

The palm of his hand pressed into my clit while his fingers danced over my opening, sending spasms through me.

He pulled me into his chest and groaned, his fingers never stopping. “I love how you feel. I love knowing I made you feel this way.”

His voice, his words pushed me closer to the edge, while his fingers impaled me. The sensations overwhelmed me, sucked me in, and I felt myself slipping. The arm around my shoulders squeezed tighter, and I shattered, twitching and jerking beyond my control, held tight in his arms.

My eyes fluttered open. I sat cradled in Kieran’s lap. He stroked my hair and looked a bit concerned. “Everything all right?”

I shrugged, then realized the device was missing from my wrists.

He must have seen the question in my eyes. “Break time.” He grinned roguishly. “And who knows what I’ll pull out of my bag of tricks for next round.”

My heart beat faster. My throat was dry, but I forced the words out. “Next round?”

“Oh, yes. A full rotation worth of rounds.”

He stroked my breast, then groaned as I squirmed in his lap. I felt his answering twitch, the hard length pressed against my back.

My own heat began to build anew, but first, I had to understand.

“Why are you doing this, Kieran?”

He didn’t answer, but I pushed away the inferno building inside me. I had to know. I cupped his face with my hand, waited for him to meet my eyes.

“You remember my dad, right, Ani?”

I nodded, fighting down my shudder. The man had been an animal. Drunk, abusive. My father had banned him from his place, as had most every other saloon owner, but it didn’t matter. The man lived to be high or wasted. And to hurt people.

Kieran’s arms tightened around me. For my protection, for his comfort, I couldn’t tell. “The day I left, he…” his voice tightened. I looked up to find his gaze locked onto a memory far away. I reached up to stroke the side of his face. He looked down, caught his breath. “He beat me pretty bad. I didn’t even want to go to your dad. I was fifteen. Shouldn’t I have been able to take care of myself?”

I started to speak, but he laid a finger over my mouth. “I know better now. But I didn’t then. I went to the dock to watch the ships.”

We’d done that often as kids, snuck down to the smaller ring mounted at the base of the spindle. They weren’t pretty, shiny space ships—pleasure boats and personal craft usually went to the upper dock. Battered old cargo ships, refugee transports were what landed. Still, it was magic to us.

“People got on and off, men and women with perfectly normal lives, able to do anything they wanted.” He shrugged. “At least I thought so. I guess my view of being an adult was over simplified.”

I snorted.

“And I realized that if I stayed here, stayed with my father, nothing would ever change. Except maybe, one day, he’d kill me. And I didn’t want to give the bastard that pleasure. I had found my way into a loading dock as the crates were being loaded up. I wasn’t going to stow away.” His grip around me tightened again. “I thought if I could hide long enough, I could float away with them when they departed. That it would be over.”

My stomach went cold. I’d been angry with him for a decade for leaving me, for disappearing. I’d worried that his father had actually killed him.

But I’d never realized how lost he had been. He idly stroked my arm, caught up in the telling.

“I ducked between two crates, pressed into a niche in the wall. No one would find me. They took the crates, everyone loaded the ship, then … nothing.”

“The sensors,” I guessed.

He nodded. “How stupid could I get? Of course the bay sensors registered a life form, and the airlock wouldn’t release. I didn’t know any of that. I just wished they’d hurry up and go before I changed my mind. I’d squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the vacuum to hit. Which is why I didn’t see him coming.”

He grinned, just a little. “I heard boots on the steel, heavy, heading right towards me. But there was nowhere to go. I just pressed back into my niche, hoping they wouldn’t find me. Hair cut short, older than your dad, but he had the same tough look to him. He told me I made a lousy stowaway, then lifted me up from the floor. I thought that was it; I’d be sent back, given to the guards.”

“But the light hit my face, and he saw the bruising. I’d been hiding for an hour or so, so they’d developed pretty well, I guess. He asked if I wanted to come along; could I obey orders. Did I want a life of hard work, possible death, but wonder and mystery? And away we went.”

Kieran stroked my hair. “There’s so much out there, Ani. So many worlds, colonies, each going their own way, making discoveries, learning. So many things to explore.” The roguish grin was back. “And trade for. With smart connections and planning, the Captain put a tidy sum aside. Three years into my time, he and most of the old crew retired. He said there gets to be a point when the risk to get more outweighs what you’ve already got. I bought the ship from him with my share, and have been working my way back up ever since.”

I looked around the opulent apartment. How far up had he gotten? And what, exactly, was he trading? Most captains I knew from the bar didn’t seem to have this sort of money.

Kieran kissed my forehead. “I always meant to contact you. But … at first I thought you’d be angry I’d left without telling you. Then, before I knew it, it had been so long I didn’t know what to say.” He pushed a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “But I always thought of you. What you’d think of a new flower, or food. How much you’d love the adventure. You were the only one who believed in me, you know.”

I shook my head. “My father believed in you too.”

He grinned wolfishly, and I shivered a little in his lap. “That’s true, but I never wanted to do this to your father.” He brushed his thumb over the top of my breast and I moaned.

His eyes gleamed with heat, and I could feel him hardening beneath me. He reached for the device, once again a glob of jelly.

I kissed his shoulder. “Are you sure you need that?”

He held my wrist. “Seeing you tied up, open to anything. Ani, you don’t know what that does to me.”

I reached between our tangled legs with my free hand and caressed the velvet skin of his hard length. “I think I can guess.”

He lost focus as I stroked him, from the thick base to the bulbous head. I could feel his pulse as he panted. Without losing my rhythm, I squirmed until I faced him on the bed, legs wrapped around his torso, enough room between us to maintain my attention to him.

My fingers wrapped around him, pumping faster.

He grunted, eyes beginning to roll up, his chest shuddering from shallow breaths. “Oh, no, honey.” He snapped back, snatching my hand from him.

He leaned forward, pushing my hands above my head, fingers laced around my wrists. He held both tight with one hand. With the other, he braced against the bed and forced us down, until he lay over me, breathing still ragged.

“Don’t move.” The warmth in his voice from our talk had burned away; nothing but lust remained.

He pressed his lips to mine. His tongue flicked over my lips and I opened for him, relishing the feel of his tongue. He sucked on my lower lip and I felt my body respond to his need; answer with heat of my own.

He lowered his torso to mine, his length hard and hot against me, timing his thrusts against my mound with the plundering of my mouth. He moved down my neck, alternating kisses with nibbles, his free hand kneading and squeezing my breast until I squirmed under him.

A pulsing noise rang in my head. I blinked, confused, unable to decipher it through the rising pressure through my body.

The volume of the noise increased until it broke through Kieran’s focus.

He looked around, face blank, while I panted under him. His eyes cleared—clearly the sound was an alarm of some sort. He trembled above me with the effort to remain still, and grunted, “There. Had. Better. Be. A. Fire.”

A long pause, then a voice from a speaker at the side of the room. “Mr. Matthias, there’s been a shatter bomb attack at the Sapphire Star.”

The words melted the fog of sensation from me, and I pushed Kieran away. “Is anyone hurt?” I called out to the unseen voice while searching for some remnant of clothing.

“No casualties reported at this time.”

I stared in dismay at the wisps of gauze on the floor.

“Find a set of women’s clothing. Prep the flitter. We’ll be leaving in five minutes,” Kieren ordered. He squeezed my hand. “He’ll have it here by then, and we’ll be in the air.”

But he couldn’t answer the question beating in my mind. What? Who would have done this?


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Staked: Chapter Three

Downstairs, a dark man waited by the door where Pietra had let him in.

Polished shoes, immaculate suit, he stood out in the Star like a denizen of the Uppers come slumming.

This was the driver?

“I’ve instructions to bring you to Mr. Matthias immediately. This way please.”

A crowd had already gathered around the sleek silver flitter hovering in the street outside. Curious eyes peered at me, and I was thankful for the concealing cloak as the driver helped me into the plush, padded interior.

“Have you worked for Kieran long?” I asked him as we began to move.

“For almost five years, Mistress.”

My eyebrows shot up. Mistress? “Just Anisha, thanks.”

He shook his head. Sitting behind him, I couldn’t see his face, but his voice sounded amused. “Mr. Matthias was very specific. You are to be treated with the utmost respect.”

I leaned back in the deep upholstered seat, careful not to undo all of Oleg’s work on my hair.

The flitter moved immediately into the high-priority traffic zone, then rose through openings in the decks of the spindle.

I expected us to slow, to move into a residential deck, maybe near the top of the Lowers. I gasped as we passed through the meridian, the thick deck at the vertical center of the spindle.

The boundary between Upper and Lower that in twenty-three years, I’d never crossed.

We hadn’t been stopped; no challenge came over the comms. Obviously Kieran’s flitter had been fitted with a high-priority beacon.

When had Kieran—my Kieran—become someone with that sort of credit?

Or a person who could command obedience from other people?

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t take advantage of my first chance to look around the Uppers, and all too soon the ship docked.

Another man, shorter, blond this time, stood by the door, hand outstretched.

“This way, Mistress.”

Bewildered, I followed him.

The small docking area led to a plush garden. Kieran stood in the middle.

Covered by the hood, I had to tilt my face up to see past my feet, but quickly lowered it.

His face was stony, jaw tight.

I couldn’t read any expression on him at all. My stomach clenched.

“Thank you, Hamilton. Please send the codes as arranged.”

The man nodded, then bowed to me and withdrew.

“Come here.” The tension in his voice pulled at me.

I stepped along the path, the thin soles of my slippers letting me feel every irregularity in the surface.

Oleg certainly hadn’t been expecting a garden when he picked them out of Dalla’s closet.

I stopped in front of Kieran, focusing on his feet.

Damn. Even his shoes looked expensive.

Dark grey fabric clung to every muscle in his legs. I let my eyes drift upwards, as far as I could without lifting my head.

He reached out and traced my lips with his fingers. “Take off the hood.” His voice was rough.

With quivering hands, I reached up and drew the hood back from my face, looking in his blue eyes.

He ran his hand down the side of my cheek and I shivered. Fear mixed with something else, something I couldn’t name coiled in my belly.

“Take off the cloak.”

My fingers fumbled at the clasp. Finally I freed it, and shrugged it off my shoulders, the fabric pooling at my feet.

He raised an eyebrow. “Well…” He walked around me, never touching, but I felt his eyes cover every inch of my body.

As he returned to face me, I crossed my arms in front of myself.

“Leave them at your sides.”

That was it. “Look, Kieran. I’m here. That’s what you wanted, right?”

In a flash he was on me, one arm pressing me to him in an unbreakable vice, the other wrapped in my hair, bending my neck to the side. He ran the side of his cheek against my neck, from collarbone to my ear.

“No,” he whispered. “The deal was that you were mine for one rotation.”

The whisper affected me more than if he’d been shouting.

“And mine means doing what I say. Is that clear?”

My knees threatened to go out from under me, and he held me closer to his body.

“Answer me,” he growled.

I nodded as far I could with his hand in my hair.

He turned my face towards him. “Answer me.”

Nerves dried my throat. I licked my lips before I could get the words out. “Yes, Kieran.”

Those two words plunged him over the edge. He covered my mouth with his, plundering my mouth with his tongue. His hand stroked my back, insistent, bringing me even closer to him. His raw hunger sparked something within me, and I responded, flicking his tongue with my own, tasting his want.

He pushed me away, and I gasped at the sudden loss of contact. He bent to grab the cloak from the ground, shook it out, folded it over his arm. “You won’t need this for a while.”

My head reeled, body still aching from the sudden need for him.

No.

I didn’t need him.

Didn’t want to be here. I took his offered arm, trying to ignore my hands which now shook, not from fear, but from want.

He led me through the path into a gently lit room. Windows stretched from floor to ceiling, overlooking wide streets. I wandered towards the windows while Kieran went to a small table at the side. Not far away from his building, a splash of green covered an entire block.

“What is that?” I asked, both fear and lust pushed aside by wonder.

Kieran appeared next to me, handing me a tall glass. He sipped from his, following my eyes with his own. “One of the city parks.”

I shook my head. Below, buildings crammed into whatever space they could manage. I knew there were gardens, but so much space for one? I thought of all that room, all that water. Simply to make a pretty place?

I took a sip from the glass. Slightly sweet and bubbly, it surprised me. I looked over at Kieran, and my question must have been clear on my face.

“A drink I discovered while trading with an isolated colony. A fruit juice mixed with sparkling wine.” He flashed a grin. “We’ll make a killing at the bar for offering drinks no one else does.”

I relaxed a bit.

Business I could talk about all day. Business was safe.

He guided me away from the window to a small table set for two. He pulled out my chair. When had Kieran become such a gentleman?

He laughed at my expression. “I’ve learned a lot in the time I’ve been gone. Including manners.” He reached for a covered tray from a side table and paused. “No new allergies?”

I shook my head and smiled. Kieran had been with me when we’d found the one thing I was allergic to—Parvian blowfish. There’d been so little food around, as kids it hadn’t seemed terrible to try to sneak a little something from the food carts down on the bazaar level.

We’d followed one as the vendor set up, waiting for a chance, then grabbed the first cellopak we could reach and ran like mad. Jerky wasn’t what we’d been after, but we weren’t picky. Back in the day, he was always hungry. Always. Looking at his broad frame now, I could see why. He had a lot of growing to do.

“Your dad had us doing chores for that vendor for a full month after that stunt.”               

I laughed. “He chewed me out thoroughly, even while I was so swollen that the medtek came and threw him out.”

Kieran looked like he was going to drop the tray. “Someone yelled at your dad? And he listened?”

I shrugged, relishing the memory. “Apparently, riled up medteks feel strongly about quiet.”

Kieran shook his head and uncovered the tray. He put a small portion of a blue jelly on the edge of my plate. “Give it a taste,” he answered my questioning look.

I gingerly dipped a finger into the jelly. Colder than expected, the texture was mostly smooth. I brought my finger to my lips and tasted. Not at all the fruit sour I was expecting, but savory and rich.

I sucked my finger clean and looked up. “What was that?”

His knuckles were white around the serving spoon, and his eyes were glazed. “Do that again.” His voice was flat, cold.

Gone was the old friend I’d glimpsed.

Apparently, I didn’t move fast enough.

He put down the tray on the table behind him and dragged my chair back from the table. With one hand, he gripped my chin and ran his index finger over my lips. He pushed one, a second finger into my mouth. “Suck.”

Eyes wide, I flicked my tongue around the intruding digits as he slid them back and forth. I stared at him as his heated gaze flickered between my mouth and my eyes.

His fingers went deeper, and I fought down the urge to gag, squirming under his hand. He pulled his fingers out and caressed the side of my face, running a damp trail down my throat to the neck of the caftan.

“Dinner will wait.” His voice was husky. He pulled me to my feet and before I could move, he caught me up in his arms and carried me around the corner.                     

The bed. Of course a bed. I struggled in his arms, but it was no use.

“One rotation, Ani. You knew exactly what I meant when you agreed.”

He placed me by the foot of the bed, carefully as you might a child. His gaze ran the length of my body, the thin gauze covering leaving nothing to the imagination.

He fell on me as if he’d devour my mouth instead of the meal now growing cold, his hands running up and down over my back. One hand stroked my hair while other snaked under the hem of the caftan, stroking the soft skin of my back.

He pulled me tighter into him, and all I could do was cling to him, holding on against the assault on my senses.

His attention shifted to the curve of my ear and I collapsed against him. “Ani, I’ve had ten years to think about all the things I want to do to you,” he whispered.

The hunger in his voice frightened me, but also sent a thrill through my spine. “And I’m going to do them all.”

In one move, he pulled the caftan off me, and I stood, blinking as the cool air hit my heated skin.

The pale lace of the bra against my skin caught his attention, and he stepped back to admire it. “I’m surprised.” He ran a finger over the edge of the cup barely containing my breast. “Doesn’t look like your usual style.”

I blushed. “One of the ladies went shopping for me.”

“Remind me to thank her.” He walked behind me, his finger tracing the edge of the fabric around my chest.


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Staked: Chapter Two

Pietra knew someone who knew someone, and in less time that I would have liked, a freelance clerk had transferred Kieran’s draft contract to his own tablet for review. “Ms. Cheng, the document seems in order. If anything, it may be slightly more favorable to yourself.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t going to give up any advantages, however small.

“We do have one addendum and would appreciate your assistance with the phrasing,” Kieran said.

The clerk’s eyebrows didn’t rise a millimeter when Kieran explained the stakes of the game. I couldn’t imagine what craziness he saw in his job.

“There. Ready for your thumbprints, then it’ll be filed and a matter of legal record.”

I gulped. “Wait. Is there a way to make the last… condition private?” The thought of curious legal students running across our little bar bet edged too close to exhibitionism for my taste.

The clerk pressed his lips together. “I can put a seal on that section, so it’s only revealed to a judicial level inquiry, but that’s about all. And it’ll cost extra.”

Kieran grinned and slipped the clerk a credit. “Do it.” He winked at me. “Your happiness is my only concern.”

The laughter in his eyes faded when I didn’t respond. “Do you have cards with you?”

He shook his head, looking a little sad. “Would you use them if I did?”

I felt my lips pull up into a twisted smile despite myself. “No, probably not.”

Oleg appeared with a sealed deck.

I passed it to Kieran for inspection.

He broke the seal, fanned them open. Nodded. “Looks fine to me.” He reached to hand the deck back. “Shuffle?”

“I called the game. Go ahead.”

One, two, three, four, five. Five slips on the table before both of us.

This was my big plan to save the bar and my pride?

I picked up my hand. Not great, but I could work with it.

Discarded one, drew another. And that made it totally workable.

I glanced up at him. Kieran frowned at his cards. Maybe he hadn’t played since he left. Maybe he had one of those crappy hands my father always called a foot.

Another draw, and the hand fell into place.

Once upon a time, I would have waited, dragged the game out a bit, seen how much I could make Kieran squirm, but in three rounds I laid my cards down.

A run of three, a pair and a discard. Nothing left in my hand, and Kieran still held all five of his cards.

The iron vice around my chest eased just a bit. “One point to me.”

He tossed his hand to the table and shrugged. “Not over yet.”

I shivered. His voice had a certainty to it, a confidence I didn’t expect.

I dealt the next one. Picking up my hand, I cringed. This was a foot.

Nothing connected my cards—not symbols, not colors.

All I could hope for was that his hand was as bad. Kieran pulled from the top of the pile, not a flicker of emotion on his face.

One round, the next. That vice around my chest was back. I hesitated at my next turn, gnawing my lip.

“A problem?”

Other than wanting to choke the slow drawl out of him, no. I smiled brightly. “Everything’s fine, thanks.”

“Good to know.” He slapped his cards on the table, a mirror of my earlier play. “And now a point to me.”

Hell. I should have gone for the single game.

Why didn’t I just pick one game?

My thoughts raced as he gathered the cards for my deal. I jumped as his hands brushed mine.

“Sure everything’s okay?”

He was mocking me. “Fine,” I growled through gritted teeth.

One deep breath, then another. I looked at my cards. All right, I might be able to do something with this. If the Domina moved here…

“Tunk.”

My head snapped up. “What?”

“You heard me. Check them out,” he crowed.

I placed my cards down carefully on the table, trying to control the sudden shaking of my body. His hand was face up on the table.

Tunk damn near never happened, but here it was. All low point cards, equaling less than fourteen.

An automatic game winner.

I rocked back in my chair.

He’d won.

He’d won me.

I stiffened as he came around the table towards me, then bit my lip at the intensity of his gaze. Kieran bent over, whispering in my ear, “I’ll send a car at 1800. Keep the spike, I’ll send the transfer codes when you arrive.”

His scent surprised me.

Warm, heady, almost spicy. His lips brushed the rim of my ear, and despite myself, I quivered.

He walked out of the bar, calling over his shoulder. “Don’t be late, Ani.”

***

The next two hours passed in a blur. Pietra argued none of us would be focusing on business as usual and against my protests, closed the Star for a rotation.

One by one customers drifted out, and finally the bar was empty of all but residents.

Dalla and Shaymarie coaxed me upstairs to one of the bedrooms where Oleg had already been making plans.

“Let’s find something nice to wear, all right?”

My voice sounded far away. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Dalla spun and glared at me.

“Of course it matters! Look.” She plopped down on the edge of the bed where I sat. “Here’s the thing. You’ve never quite had to learn this, and that’s all right. But you need to know this now. Your clothing, your makeup, your hair. That’s your armor and weapons. You can do anything you need with a client, but put a little effort into it, and you’ll own him as much as he owns you.”

She stared into my eyes, waiting for some sign of understanding, an acknowledgement I couldn’t give, not while my mind still reeled.

I’d lost to Kieran, again.

She sighed. “Never mind. Will you trust us?”

I nodded.

That I could do. “I trust you,” I croaked. “But… Kieran…”

Oleg rubbed my shoulders. “He doesn’t look like a bad guy. I’m not getting a dangerous vibe from him.” He stopped. “Actually, I am. But not that he’d be dangerous to you.”

I swallowed.

Somehow that wasn’t very reassuring.

Dalla wasn’t done. She brushed the small, pale scar on my upper arm and raised her eyebrows. “Is your implant current, and your shots up-to-date?”

I nodded. I might not go out much, but growing up in the Star had reinforced the necessity of protection from all sorts of surprises.

Oleg led me to a chair in front of a dresser and brushed my hair as Shaymarie arranged pots of color and brushes.

The strokes through my curls, accompanied by the feathered touches of the brushes across my face relaxed me.

Maybe this would work out after all.

I watched in fascination as Oleg pinned my hair into an elaborate pile at the top of my head, then pulled out locks according to some unknown plan.

“What? After all that effort, why?”

Oleg’s eyes twinkled. “The instant he sees you, I want him to think of how you’ll look on his pillows.”

I shivered.

I’d love to say it was from fear, but the thought of laying, spread before Kieran, letting him do anything he wanted to me….

I sighed. Once, I would have given anything to be his.

Later, he was the first man I learned to hate.

Now, I didn’t know.

“Sweetie, tilt your head up.” I did as she said, and Shaymarie applied deep ruby tint to my lips.

Dalla came back into the room, arms piled high with clothing.

“There wasn’t a thing in your closet suitable for a date,” she griped. “When this is over, we’re going to talk. You’ve got to get out more.”

Pietra grinned. “I’ve been telling her that for years. Wouldn’t have thought it would take something like this for it to sink in.”

I stared at her.

Of all people to be joking about this. “Pietra, you don’t go out either.”

She quirked her lips up at the corner. “Shows what you know. Why do you think I don’t live here? Easier to keep my personal life just that, personal.”

I stared in disbelief into the mirror as they sorted through clothing, not bothering to consult me. Finally, they settled on a gauzy syntra caftan of the deepest blue, covered with tiny purple jewels.

Cambrie ran into the room right before they dressed me. “First things first!”

She held up a tiny bag with a logo I didn’t recognize, but everyone else in the room did.

When I didn’t react, she pulled out two ivory tinted scraps of lace. I blushed.

She laughed. “I didn’t even look in your drawers. I know you don’t have anything… appropriate.”

Dalla giggled. “Did you get a good deal?”

They whispered behind me as I stepped into the sheer panties and slipped on the lace bra that was nothing like my usual support.

There must have been strands of tech in the weave, because there was no way that thin fabric should have lifted my breasts as well as it did.

They arranged the midnight syntra over the lingerie, the amethyst flecks sparkling.

A chime rang from the front of the house.

“It’s time!”

I’d thought there’d been a scurry of activity before, but the frenzy only heightened as the last bits and pieces of my costume—my armor, as Dalla had called it—were arranged.

“And now,” Oleg stepped in, his arms covered in fabric. “The gift is ready to be wrapped.”

He gently settled a deep burgundy colored cloak over my shoulders, fastened it down the front, and drew the hood up. I peeked under the hood to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The only thing visible was the lower third of my face.

The lip stain matched the fabric, catching the eye immediately.

Damn.

They really, really were good at their jobs.

Steel straightened my spine. And that’s why I was doing this. To keep everyone’s jobs. To keep this, my little family, safe.

They were right. Kieran wouldn’t hurt me.

At least, not my body, a tiny voice in the back of my head whispered.

And the steel weakened, just a bit.


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Staked: Chapter One

I flicked through the bills in my tablet’s incoming folder. At least the ones I’d bothered to organize. At some point in the last few months, something in the back of my brain decided to ignore them.

Since I wasn’t able to keep up with things anyway, why file them?

“Because now it’s twice as hard to find things, Anisha,” I muttered.

On a separate screen, I started a running total of how much I’d need to get out from under this debt. The amount so far made me gulp.

It was possible, just possible, I could get another loan. I’d have to mortgage the Star, and the interest would be exorbitant.

I looked around my cramped office.

Any sane person would walk away from the Sapphire Star. Cracked ceilings and sputtering lights were the norm in the rooms we didn’t let guests into.

A hydro-gen needed percussive maintenance way too often.

Apparently, I wasn’t sane.

I leaned my head against the back wall, letting the reassuring hum of the spindle run through my body.

I’d grown up here, watched my father run the bar, gather in hosts who became more than staff.

And I’d be damned if I’d leave without a fight.

I snapped the bills folder closed and pulled up the camera feeds from the floor downstairs.

Pietra was on bar, scanning the room as usual, but her shoulders were down. Her face, well, not exactly relaxed, but not ready for a fight either.

On the next screen, Dalla smiled up at a potential client. The room may not have been as full as we’d have liked—as we needed—but Dalla could still find a client.

Hell, with her open smile and tumble of curls, she could probably find an interested customer outside the station hull in the inky black.

She might not be a bred and groomed looker like the up-tower hospitality houses featured, but she was pretty and fresh, and honestly enjoyed the work.

Oleg worked the table next to her, the barest excuse for a vest covering his chest. His long legs were poured into synth pants that showed off every inch of his ass as he leaned over a little farther than necessary to pick up his customer’s drink.

Flirt.

It was the same small crowd more or less every night, mostly crews of ships docked here at Cilurnum 8 to switch cargo to move between other platforms.

Maybe even on their way to planetfall.

Captains and pilots would stay in the gardens of the Uppers, but crews didn’t get paid that much. They’d spend their money in the dark streets on the bottom side of the spindle.

And tonight, I hoped they’d spend extra.

We could use it.

I kept scanning the room. Sometimes residents of the Uppers would come down, slumming, bringing a nice bonus credit flow with them. I didn’t pick any out tonight.

My eye paused at one man sitting at a corner table. I couldn’t get a good look—the camera facing him had been on the blink for the last cycle—but something about the line of his jaw caught my attention.

The hands cupping his drink were tanned and broad. Sandy, shaggy hair obscured the side of his face turned towards the working camera.

Not a denizen of the Uppers, certainly.

I shook my head. Probably just a crew member who’d been in often enough to look vaguely familiar.

I flicked the camera back to Pietra in time to see her look directly at the camera.

Well, then. Time to check on things in person.

With relief I closed the tablet. Bills and problems I had no answers for would have to wait.

I paused to check myself before going downstairs. As the owner of the Sapphire Star, no one expected me to look as good as the ladies and gentlemen on the floor, but I still had to be somewhat presentable.

While fighting paperwork, I’d managed to pull my hair out of the braid. I looked for a brush, gave up and ran my fingers through the strands. Better.

My dark grey slacks were wrinkled, but not much I could do about that. I frowned at the small spot of lunch at the wrist of my white shirt. Maybe the jacket would cover it? I shrugged.

My bar.

Not like anyone was going to mistake me for a fashion plate. A jacket would cover too much of the crazy purple paisley design of my favorite vest, anyway.

Dalla passed me on the stairs, pressing into her client a little more than necessary to make room. She gave a little extra wiggle and winked at me. At least one person in this place would be making rent.

And… that wasn’t fair of me.

Everyone did their part, hustled the best they could.

If there was a problem with the finances, that was my fault.

I’d set up the contracts so that the hosts kept all of their fees and paid the house rent.

It seemed fairer than the usual arrangement, where the entire fees went to the house and hosts got a tiny percentage out of any profits.

More fair, but to be honest, my idealism might put us all on the street.

At the landing, I paused to survey the room and see what had disturbed Pietra.

There—at a small table on the far side of the U-shaped bar.

Shoulders hunched, eyes flicking through the room, the girl couldn’t have been old enough to get past the automated bouncer.

My mouth tightened. A forged ident card, no doubt.

There had to be a way to program the ‘bot to do a better job picking those up. I added it to my mental list for later.

If there was a later.

I headed over to the girl, picking up the glass Pietra handed me on the way over.

Nice to have someone know what I want before I asked.

I sat down across from the girl; the sudden movement made her jerk back.

“Hey,” I said softly. “Want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin, defiant. Her hair fell back to show the growing bruise across her cheek. “I’m looking for a job.”

“Not a chance, kiddo.”

Her lips tightened. “I can lie on my back as well as anyone else.”

Even if she didn’t mean it, the insult rankled.

“You think that’s what my people do? They like people; they enjoy spending time with them. And yes, they go upstairs, but that’s not all they’re getting paid for.”

She rocked back in her chair. “I can be good with people.”

From her tone of voice, I’d lay money she was still in the surly stage, but bringing that up never helped.

“Also, I don’t take on kids.”

Pink rose through her cheeks. “I’m old enough. It’s not like I’m a virgin.”

“I’m sure you’re old enough to do whatever you want to do, but not here. Look, it’s clear you haven’t thought this through. Why are you really here?”

The girl looked down. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Word ‘round the spindle is that you keep a clean house, nobody gets beat up.”

I chewed my lip.

There was no way I’d let the girl work here, even if I kept her downstairs on the floor serving drinks. Someone was bound to get the wrong idea, she’d get scared, Pietra would get protective, and I’d have another bill for repairs on my hands.

But that didn’t mean she was out of options.

We’d gotten the updated directions through the whispers just the other day, they should still be good.

“How good are you at remembering directions?”

The girl’s brow wrinkled.

“I won’t write this down, so you’ll need to remember it.”

The girl was a quick learner, and it only took a couple of rounds for her to memorize each of the steps.

“And at the end I ask for a lady with a sword?”

“No. The Lady of Swords.” I rubbed my eyes.

How it could be the 156th year of the empire, and there still be a need for shelters, I’d never understand.

Tech might change, maybe people never did.

The girl gave me a shy smile as she headed back out through the floor. Maybe she’d be all right.

Maybe not, but I’d done everything I could.

I went to the bar to check with Pietra. “Everything smooth?”

She kept polishing glasses. “Like landing on silk.”

“You’d know better than me.”

Behind the bar, no one could see the artificial legs supporting Pietra. Years ago, I’d given up the argument that no one cared about her augmented legs, but although Pietra was reluctant to leave her fortifications, the former pilot kept a keen watch on her domain.

Over the years, a few rambunctious patrons had been surprised at how fast she could appear, weapon drawn.

When Pietra stiffened, looking at the front door behind my back, I knew there was trouble. “You’re not going to like this, boss.”

I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t turn.

“Jahal just walked in with two of her muscle boys.”

The knot in my gut that had festered all night turned as heavy as a collapsed neutron.

Jahal might be the last person I wanted to see right now, but I forced myself to turn around and paint a bright smile on my face.

Station rumor said Jahal worked her way out of the worst of the Lowers, and though she might not have broken through to the Uppers, you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

I would have appreciated that sort of initiative if she didn’t have her eye on taking over my place.

Almost as tall as Oleg, her cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut ice. She’d had the latest enhancements, deeply toned skin with a dusting of metallics over the planes of her face, her collarbone, and her hip bones.

The sheer panels of her dress gave me a far too clear view of the decorations. On either side lounged a pair of young men. Their matching faces would make anyone suspect Jahal of recruiting twins, but I’d bet it was easier to pay for facial sculpting.

They didn’t look particularly dangerous, but it was safe to assume they’d been enhanced for strength and speed while they were on the operating table.

“Jahal, I’m surprised to see you here.” My voice sounded strained, even to my own ears. “I thought we had a meeting in three days up at your place?”

Her light tone set my teeth further on edge. “Oh, I just wanted to check out my investment, get to know the building and the staff a little better.”

“Not yours, yet,” I forced the words out from a locked jaw.

Oleg brought me a fresh drink. He didn’t offer Jahal one.

To hell with politeness.

Jahal ran her eyes over Oleg’s form, then turned to spot the rest of the staff working the room. “Yet. It’ll be mine soon enough. My sources are confident you won’t be able to repay that note. And then… what a lovely little place you’ve built up for me. And such very fresh looking… hosts for the clients.”

I felt Pietra stiffen behind her and shook my head slightly. This wasn’t the time to get into it. “Like I said, it’s not yours. I still have three days to make sure it never will be.”

Jahal’s face hardened and the pretty boys with her tensed. “Not only will it be, I’m looking forward to revising the contracts around here.” She smirked, her thin lips curving up at the corners.

I stepped forward. “But since you’re not the owner now, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

She sniffed. “I’ve certainly spent enough time here.” She sauntered off, leaving my emotions raging behind her.

And the worst thing was the bitch was right.

There was no way I could think of to get the money in time.

I turned back to meet Pietra’s worried face.

“Did you really take out that large of a loan from her?”

I rubbed my eyes and took a drink. “Remember a few months ago when Monty was sick and couldn’t work? And Siovan left with her captain? And then the hydro-gen needed all that maintenance?”

She nodded, eyes wary.

“There wasn’t enough coming in to cover the bills. I thought I could get a little loan, something to tide us over until business picked back up, until we were fully staffed again.”

Pietra put down the glass she’d been holding. “You should have told us sooner. We could have helped.”

“I know. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t want anyone else to worry.”

“And of all people, Jahal?”

I sighed, looking away from the disappointment in her eyes.

“I tried my dad’s contacts first. Black Company was away on a job and I couldn’t get through. Hit up the Skulls and the Outlanders, but they wanted partial ownership.”

I looked back at her, hoping she’d understand. “I couldn’t do it. Finally went to Jahal. I guess I thought from one business woman to another, there might be a little flex.”

“You know better than that. No one gives anyone flex around here.”

“I know. I got desperate. The terms seemed fair enough. I was sure I’d be able to pay it off before the interest really ramped. Once it started to kick in, there was no way I could keep up.”

“How much is it up to?”

I took another sip, delaying the confession. “Thirty thousand.” I shrunk in my seat, ashamed of letting everyone down. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t know that you’re not contracted employees.”

Pietra scowled at me. “We don’t have to work for her, sure, but we all like it here. Where else is Dalla going to work where she gets to choose her clients? Or any of us?” She took my glass away. “Kicking her out may make you feel better, except it doesn’t do anything in the long run. How are we going to get the money in three days?”

I ran my hand through my hair. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed everyone.”

Pietra snorted. “You should have told us what was going on earlier. Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help. We need a plan.”

A chair scraped against the floor as the man in the corner, the blond who’d caught my attention earlier, stood up and headed over to us.

“Maybe I can help.”

My eyes widened at an all too familiar voice. “Kieran Matthias. What the hell are you doing here?”

Kieran raised his hands shoulder high in mock surrender. “Not quite the welcome I’d hoped for, Ani.”

“That’s because you’re not welcome,” I snapped.

Pietra moved from behind the bar. “We’ve had enough nonsense for the night. Get a move on, sailor.”

Kieran didn’t move his eyes from mine. “Even if I know a way to get out of debt with Jahal?”

I laughed. “You’ve never seen that kind of money.”

“Here.” He moved his hand towards a hip pocket.

“Slowly,” growled Pietra.

He froze. “Ani, you’ve got to know, I’m not going to come in here and blast you.”

I thought a minute.

Con me.

Sweet talk me.

Bring up all sorts of old memories.

Distract me when I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Sure. Any of those.

But shoot me? No, I couldn’t imagine. I nodded. “Pietra, he’s all right.” He grinned roguishly, and I immediately regretted my words. “Well, mostly.”

Kieran brought out a credit spike and slid it down the bar. “Check that.”

I handed it to Pietra to run. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I’ve been off the platform for a while.” Kieran reached towards a chair. “Mind if we sit? This is feeling a bit formal.”

I nodded and dropped into the chair facing him. “Yes, you left. I remember that.”

And I did. My father had sworn like the ex-marine he’d been, about the no-good son of a trader, probably signing up with some syndicate, disappearing, turning out to be a rat like the rest of his family.

I’d agreed with my father, but kept my own hurt well-hidden.

“Ani, I couldn’t stay here. There was no way out, and nothing for me.”

I felt my face harden.

“Dammit, that’s not what I meant.”

“You said what you meant pretty clearly.”

Pietra slid to the side of the table. “The spike has thirty-six thousand credits on it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How the hell did you end up with that sort of credit?”

Kieran shrugged. “No matter what I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Would you?”

I shook my head. “Probably not.”

“You’ll trust me as far as a few things I wouldn’t do, right?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s pretty clean,” he promised. “Clean enough.”

“Why should I care? And why are you here?”

“I’ve been back for a little while, long enough to ask around. It didn’t take much time to hear about your issue with Jahal.”

I stood. “That’s my problem. Not yours.”

Kieran shrugged. “I think this place could be a money maker, but it needs a little work.” He nodded at the spike Pietra still held. “That would be my investment.”

“Oh no.” I stepped away from the table. “I’ve already heard from all sorts of people on ways to make the place more profitable. My people aren’t meat.”

Kieran held his hands out. “I’m not going to tell you how to run anything. I have some suggestions, but that investment would include me as a silent partner.”

“Silent?” I scoffed, but felt a trickle of hope. “As in you’re going to give me the money and walk away?”

“Nope. An investment, as in we’d work out a percentage that would come back to me, but yes, silent as in I’d make suggestions and you’d have the power of veto.”

I slid back down in the chair, legs weak.

It could be an answer to the problem. But what if I only made things worse? “Who draws the contract?”

“Clerk of your choosing.” Kieran shrugged. “I have a draft pulled together, but you should go through it.”

I tilted my head, trying to think of his angle. “What’s in this for you?”

Kieran leaned back in the chair. “This place, your dad’s place… this was the one safe spot for me, you know that?”

I looked away, nodding.

Everyone had it rough down here, but Kieran’s family was on the streets more often than not. His mom disappeared when he was little, leaving Kieran to the mercy of an abusive bastard.

My dad always found small jobs around the bar for Kieran, and usually a bit of extra food.

Kieran cleared his throat. “Anyway, the idea of it falling into the hands of Jahal and her crowd turns my stomach.”

I studied him, really looking at him for the first time since he’d shown up.

Blond hair, shaggy, darker than before. Skin weathered, a new scar at the edge of one cheek.

Tall and long and lean, he’d grown to have more muscle than his father. And the same clear blue eyes I’d cried over late at night all those years ago.

I thought about the bills I’d run through earlier in the night. He was right. This was the only way.

But he kept talking. “There’s one other thing I want.”

I nodded. We’d have to hash out the contract, down to the last detail.

“I want you.”

I shot away from the table. “What?”

“You heard me, Ani. One rotation, you’re all mine.”

“Oh, hell no.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “What makes you so much better than the men and women who work here?”

I sputtered angrily. “That’s not the same at all, and you know it!”

He rolled his eyes. “They’re entertaining clients to make ends meet. Sure, they can pick and choose the client, but that’s the life. This is one night.”

My blood beat in my ears. He was right.

I wasn’t better than anyone else. Not Dalla or Oleg or Shaymarie, none of them.

But… my face paled. Not with him.

With anyone but Kieran Matthias. Unless…

“Fine.”

His eyebrows shot up at my sudden capitulation.

“But how about we play a little Tunk for it?”

It was his turn to look angry. “Tunk? For …”

“If I win, you’re a silent partner with no extra benefits. If you win…” I swallowed “I’m yours for one rotation. Anything you want. Either way, you’re investing in the Star.”

He scratched his head. “I should have known you’d pull something crazy. How many hands?”

I thought. It’d been awhile since I’d played, but I’d regularly beaten the pants off him when we were kids.

“Five.” That should give me a buffer, get up to speed.

“One.” His face was grim.

“Three,” I countered.

He nodded.

I turned to Pietra. “Get a clerk. Get a good one.”


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Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Four

Merren

He was trapped.

Trapped in the prison of lightning and pain that came back every time he closed his eyes.

And this time he could not wake himself, even though deep in the back of his mind he knew he was safe, home with his brothers.

He was trapped, and the agony was tearing him apart.

“Tell me what you remember.”

The voice drilled into his mind.

There had been voices then, too, he knew that much. Voices that threaded themselves through his dreams, a never-ending litany.

This voice held an echo of familiarity, but still, he could no more answer it than he could the inquisitors from so long ago.

“Tell me what you know.” Over and over again it repeated, demanding answers he didn’t have.

“Stop it!”

A new voice.

He should recognize it, he knew it, he was sure.

But he couldn’t hold onto the sound, couldn’t grasp anything past the torment that shredded his frame.

Suddenly the scent of burnt flesh was overwhelming.

“Come on, come on,” the new voice insisted, and suddenly cool hands were on his skin, soothing away the pain, pulling at him, leading him out of the trap.

“What are all of those wires for? What was he doing?”

He couldn’t answer her, even as he began to be aware of the darkened room around him.

Kennet’s lab.

That’s right, he’d gone to Kennet’s lab with…

Suddenly a face filled his vision, smooth copper skin and deep brown eyes glowing softly in the faint light of the laboratory’s work panels.

“Sasha,” he croaked.

She smiled, and for a moment all of the pain was gone, vanished.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” she said, and laced her fingers with his.

He stopped, turning her hand back and forth within his own, entranced by her smooth skin.

“I promise you can look at my hands all you want later, just follow me.”

And so, he did.

He stumbled, then leaned on her small shoulders as they wound through the corridors of Ship.

Step by step, his mind cleared, but it wasn’t until they had crossed into the trees outside that his senses fully returned.

He came to a stop, pulling her against him.

“What happened?” he demanded. “What have you done? Where is Sonoda?”

Sasha bit her lip, shook her head, eyes wide with fear and worry. “He was doing something to you. I don’t know what it was, but it was wrong.”

He grabbed her shoulders. “He’s an authorized genetic technician of the Alliance,” Merren enunciated slowly. “Technicians like him are the ones who built me, built all of us. Sometimes they have to do some fixing up, work out the kinks.”

He tried to keep his voice light.

What had happened to him was a little more serious than a kink.

But Sasha wasn’t convinced. “He wasn’t trying to help you,” she insisted. “He was demanding answers from you. And you,” she looked away. “You were screaming. He might be with the Alliance, but whatever you think he’s here for, he’s looking for something else.”

Merren let go of her and dropped down to crouch on his heels as her words sank in.

“Do your usual checkups end up with you screaming in pain?” Sasha pressed on.

“No,” he admitted.

He ran his hand through his hair, clutching the sides of his head, focusing on his breathing.

This was not the time to shift, to let his cat out to solve the problem with the rending and tearing.

Wait a minute…

“Is he dead?”

Sasha shrugged. “I don’t think so. A little charred maybe.”

That was good.

Except in his gut, he wasn’t sure.

She knelt beside him. “What does he want you to remember? Do you know what he was asking about?”

“Carthak.” The word came to his lips unbidden. “It must go back to when we were on Carthak. Everything does.”

She stayed silent for a long minute, watching him. “Then maybe you need to go to Carthak and find out what happened? Because I wouldn’t trust that guy to ask.”

The idea jolted him from his spinning thoughts.

“I can’t,” he said flatly. “Our unit has been stationed here, on Crucible.”

“And the men who ruled over my people thought that I should be locked into a cage, experimented on, and–”

Her voice broke off and her eyes had the lost, haunted look he’d seen there so often.

Sasha shook herself. “I’m just saying, sometimes you can’t trust the people in charge to look after you. You’ve got to get your own answers.”

Get answers.

He nodded, the beginning of a plan forming even as he fought against accepting the idea.

“You don’t understand. An Alliance Enforcer doesn’t leave his assignment. Ever.”

“Why not?” she asked simply.

He took a slow breath in, the cool night air mixing with something else. Something sweet.

With a start, he realized it was her.

“I mean, what happens if you do leave?” She reached over and tapped his cuff. “I know they can track you through this, but what if you just took it off?”

What if…

“How do we even get to Carthak?” he asked, as much to himself as her. “Any of the shuttles we have access to could be tracked just as easily as my cuff by the Alliance.”

She grinned, her white teeth flashing in the moonlight.

“What if we didn’t use anything from the Alliance? You never exactly met the new neighbors, did you?”

It took a moment for her meaning to sink in, then he stared at her in shock. “You want to borrow something from a Prince of the Empire?”

She rose to her feet, lithe and graceful.

“Think of him as your new brother-in-law. Does that make it easier?

Merren blinked once. Then again.

“No. That doesn’t make it easier at all. Besides, that’s the bastard that had me, traded me back to my brothers like a sack of meat.”

Sasha shook her head slowly. “From what I heard, he wasn’t the one that took you originally. But he’d have information as to where you were before, as well as transport. Sounds perfect to me.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“Come on, I’ll introduce you,” Sasha said.

“What? Wait. No.” Merren shook himself all over and concentrated on his breathing.

Really, there had to be something better than that.

And he had to regain control of this conversation.

“Even if I were to go to Carthak, and even if I were to go ask a Prince of the Empire for the loan of one of his starcraft, you are most definitely not going with me.”

Sasha leaned back, her eyebrows raised. “How do you think you’re going to stop me?”

Merren threw his hands up in the air, stomped around the tree, kicked at last year’s fallen leaves, and came back to her.

“There are a million reasons.”

“Alright then. Start listing them.”

“If someone in the Alliance is really willing to torture me in order to get information,” his mind stuttered, stopped.

Someone was.

He knew that. Ridiculous as it sounded, he knew that was the truth.

“If that’s the case, nowhere is safe. Any Alliance world we go to is in danger, any Alliance technology we used could be used to track us, and I’m not exactly going to fit in well with the Empire.”

“Last I checked, nowhere was safe,” Sasha said bluntly. “At least that hasn’t been the case for me. Besides, don’t you want to know what happened to you?”

“Yes,” he rumbled as his cat answered with him.

It was true. Before, the missing years had been a slow lingering weight, a reminder of the damage done to him, to his body.

Now it seemed like ignorance could be deadly.

Now he had to know.

“And wouldn’t it be nice to know you had someone with you who is on your side?”

His brothers would be on his side, Merren knew that.

But if they had orders otherwise?

No, he couldn’t put them in that position.

“As far as the Empire outpost,” he allowed. “I can’t take you off planet.”

Sasha shrugged and turned to the north. “We’ll see.”

He grabbed her shoulders, turned her back toward him.

“No ‘we’ll see’ about it,” he growled. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

She jerked her arm out of his grip. “And you don’t know what’s been here. Somebody’s offering you help, so do the graceful thing, and accept it.”

He recoiled as if she’d slapped him. “You’re right,” he said finally. “But we’ve got one more thing to do before we leave.”

As they headed out to the north, only a small hill at the base of a tree marked where they’d buried her bracelet and his cuff.

Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Three

Sasha

“You should stay inside with the others,” Coracle insisted, standing in front of Sasha to block her way.

“I don’t think so,” Sasha said, squatting down so as to be able to be eye-to-eye with the cat. Because that made as much sense as anything else in her life. “Look, I am grateful for everything you have done and are doing with Nettie. But let’s be clear. I’ve spent far too long taking orders. I’m done with that.”

The black-and-white tail thrashed. “It’s not an order. Think of it as a strong suggestion. For your own safety.” The golden eyes glared. “Besides, you don’t know what’s coming.”

“No,” Sasha said, standing again. “But I’m not going to go hide, just in case. Is it an enemy?”

Coracle sat upright, his tail wrapped tightly around his front paws. “No,” he admitted. “A stranger, a GeneTech from the Alliance.”

Sasha shrugged and walked past the cat toward the reception hall.

Vast and empty, it seemed to unsettle the others. She kind of liked it. No one could sneak up on you, not in there.

“I thought the Alliance was your team. Shouldn’t everybody be getting ready to make this new person feel welcome?”

Coracle reappeared in front of her. She stopped again, sighing. She really hated when he did that.

“Everyone here is on edge between the situation with Matilde and whatever was done to Merren,” Coracle snarled. “Anyone, even an ally, could upset whatever fragile equilibrium we’ve managed to obtain.”

Sasha shrugged and walked straight toward the cat, not slowing this time.

He flickered out before she stepped through him.

“None of that has anything to do with me. And I’m going out.”

The night still held a touch of coolness, the late spring sweetly perfuming the air.

Sasha stared up into the purpling twilight and swallowed hard.

She wasn’t afraid. Not at all.

She just didn’t want to meet this stranger, whoever it was. No matter why he was here.

That was all it was.

She headed across the open field that stretched around the castle the starmen called Ship, her boots silent on the newly green grass.

A light in the tree line caught her attention, and she called a flicker of flame to her hand.

The stranger?

The crackle sparked again, like blue lightning trapped beneath the budding trees.

No.

She knew who that was. Not a stranger.

Well, not exactly.

Despite herself, Sasha let her feet carry her closer.

“You didn’t feel like sticking around and saying hello to the company either?” she asked Merren.

Now that she was closer, she could see how the storm traced over his entire form, snapping and sizzling.

His face twisted into a snarl as he turned toward her. “I don’t think you’re stupid, so what are you doing here?”

This was much more interesting than being stuck inside.

She stepped closer still. “I’m just curious as to why everyone is nervous about this guy’s visit.”

The lightning storm around him grew in intensity, and his shape flickered, the tall dark-haired man flashing to a giant striped cat and back again in the space of a heartbeat.

“I’m not nervous,” he snarled. “I’m just tired of being the problem of the week.”

Sasha leaned back against one of the trees, trying to calm the heartbeat that raced in her ears.

In the months that she’d lived in the castle, she’d learned these starmen had their own kind of Gifts. Heightened senses were the least of them.  The last thing she wanted was for him to smell the fear on her.

“That stupid cat won’t give me any straight answers,” she said. “What is the actual problem with this visitor?”

Merren shook his head. “Of all the things I did not expect to happen around here while I was busy having whatever it was done to me, a talking cat wasn’t even on the list.”

“I know that he isn’t on anybody’s list, but you didn’t answer my question,” Sasha pressed. “Coracle said the guy was a GeneTech? What the hell is that?”

Merren snarled, rage pouring off him to such a degree that she could feel it change the air around her.

Interesting.

“You need to get back inside,” he ground out from between clenched teeth.

“It’s not safe for you to be so close to me when I’m like this.”

Sasha summoned the fire, let it wash over her.

“You’re not the only one with issues,” she snapped. “I think I can take you.”

He bent double, the change ripping through him over and over, until he fell to the forest floor, his hands gripping the soil.

“You might be the only one that is safe,” he muttered. “Everybody else’s too busy being careful around the dead man.”

She called the fire back into her skin and bent forward to offer him a hand up. “You’re crankier than I expected a dead man to be.”

For a long moment, he stared at her with dark eyes, his expression blank, then he doubled over again, this time laughing.

“I’ll rely on you to tell me when I’m being cranky.”

“I’ll make it easy on you,” she said as her defenses relaxed. “Are you awake? Then you’re cranky.”

A soft chime sounded in the air between them, then looking around, she realized that it came from the thin silver bangle at her wrist. It chimed again, and she looked up to see Merren staring at the broad cuff encasing his own forearm.

He tapped the cuff to answer, and she stepped closer.

“Ship says you’re nearby, both of you,” Nic’s rumble filled the night air. “If you’re done having your snit, get back here. Adena wants everyone in for dinner with GeneTech Sonoda.” The cuff fell silent, then his voice came back on. “And try not to be an asshole about it. She’s curious about this guy, and I won’t have it ruined for her.”

Merren’s shoulders sagged as he leaned back against the tree, staring up through the branches.

“Your boss is serious about a lot of things,” Sasha said. “But I’ve noticed he’s really, really serious about it when Adena’s got her heart set on something. Is that new?”

Merren pushed himself away from the tree and began walking back toward Ship. “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here when they got together.”

Sasha lengthened her stride to match his as they walked back.

“But was he such a hardass before? I thought that people in love got soft and squishy or something like that. At least that’s how it always was in the stories.”

Merren cocked his head in her direction but kept walking. “I don’t care what stories you grew up on. The chance that Commander Nic Vistuv is ever going soft is nil to nothing.” His eyes narrowed. “At least, if he does, I don’t want to be around to see it.”

One of the things that fascinated Sasha about living in the starmen’s castle was the insane variety of halls and corridors it contained.

No matter how massive the building looked from the outside, every time she stepped into the small room called the elevator, it seemed possible that it might open out into an entirely new place.

There were far more chambers and corridors than could possibly fit, yet they obviously did.

As she and Merren exited the elevator on the floor with the dining hall, she couldn’t help but notice Adena had not only decided on a welcome dinner for their new guest, but had redecorated the hall, as well.

The warm twinkling lights and screen of the open sky above had been replaced with a staid grayish green which faded to brown at the bottom.

Sasha looked around. Everyone seemed a bit subdued, on edge.

Everyone stood by their chairs, waiting for the latecomer.

“I saved you a seat by me,” Esme called out to her.

Without a word, Merren walked around the table to take the chair that had been left for him between Kennet and Gavin.

Sasha’s eyes ran around the table.

That was strange.

While they certainly had nothing like assigned seating at meals, usually the mated couples sat closer together.

But tonight, other than Adena standing by Nic’s side, all of the human women were clustered together at the far end of the table, away from the newcomer.

But before she had time to think about it, her gaze fell upon the unwanted guest.

He stood, leaning across the table to talk excitedly with Kennet, giving her a chance to study him closely.

Adena had told her and Nettie when they first arrived that the starmen were crafted, part of their bodies carefully shaped to look like humans.

Sasha glanced at Kennet.

Well, mostly like humans.

But the Alliance that had created the Enforcer Units was formed by people from all over the stars, of every shape and size imaginable.

Matilde’s mate, Tirus, had been different enough, with his black scaled skin and horns peeking through his wiry hair, not bothering to masquerade as human.

But this person, this GeneTech, was stranger yet.

Skin the pale blue of a hot summer sky, he was squat, puffy, with lavender folds and frills at his throat, and a pair of short fleshy antennae above either temple.

Three fingered hands gestured impatiently at Kennet as he spoke.

While Kennet’s face was its usual mask, it didn’t seem to be a pleasant conversation, judging from Adena’s growing consternation.

Adena placed her hand lightly on Nic’s forearm, and he looked down at her, his stern face softening.

Maybe he really did get all soft and squishy around her, Sasha realized.

Eww.

“Now that we’re all here, shall we begin?” Adena said mildly. And everyone took their seats, then began passing platters and bowls around.

Dinner went smoothly, despite the heavy atmosphere of the room.

Sasha couldn’t help but wonder how much of the starmen’s usual fare Rhela and Adena had transformed with their knowledge of local herbs.

The meal was good. It was always good. That was one benefit of having someone else do the cooking, even if that someone else was one of the magical machines that ran the castle.

Not that she really had much to compare things to.

Not after the slops and crusts she’d been fed for years in the cage.

She must’ve faded away, lost in her own thoughts, because when Nettie reached for her hand, she jumped.

As usual, Nettie was silent, but her single dark blue eye was filled with questions.

“I’m all right,” Sasha whispered, glad for the clatter of conversations all around them. “I promise.”

Nettie turned, and Sasha couldn’t help but notice how intently she stared at the newcomer.

She didn’t think it was because of the blue skin.

Sasha didn’t have Nettie’s Gift of foresight, but the room felt off, tense, like the air before a storm rolled in.

Maybe the stupid cat was right.

Thinking about Coracle, Sasha frowned.

“Where’s the cat?” she whispered to Nettie.

Usually Coracle managed to rearrange rooms, furniture, and people for his comfort and convenience, but now he was nowhere to be found.

The corner of Nettie’s mouth quirked up as her eyes flicked downwards.

Sasha leaned slightly to the left until she saw a glaring black and white furred bundle underneath Nettie’s chair.

She sat upright, fighting a grin.

It was probably terrible of her, but anything that unsettled the cat was kind of a win in her books.

As the soup was cleared away, she leaned toward Esme, who’d been watching the table with narrowed eyes.

“What do you think of him?”

Esme shook her head slightly. “I don’t know. I keep trying to get a read on him, but it’s too different, too strange.”

She didn’t sound happy about it.

Throughout the meal, it seemed that every time GeneTech Sonoda wasn’t speaking to Kennet, he was staring across the table at Merren. Sometimes even when he spoke to other people, his ice white eyes couldn’t help but stray.

But Merren didn’t seem to be equally excited.

He sat stonily between Kennet and Gavin, ate what was brought from the replicator with an almost mechanical motion.

He looked like a man who’d gone deep inside himself.

If Sasha didn’t know better, she would almost think he was scared.

Scared of this little blue man?

Nonsense.

In either form, Merren would mop the floor with him.

Then what was the problem?

A thin sliver of ice wrapped around her spine.

She didn’t know what was wrong, but somehow the introduction of this squat, excitable person was a threat.

And despite what she had said to Coracle in the entry hall, that had quite a bit to do with her.

This was her home now, these were her people.

She looked around the table and saw that everyone was tense behind their smiles.

Conversation quieted enough for her to catch the end of Sonoda’s sentence.

“And we’ll begin the treatment tonight.”

But she wasn’t watching him, she was watching Merren.

If she hadn’t been, she might’ve missed the spark of lightning in his eyes.

***

After dinner, the atmosphere had lightened somewhat. The men disappeared for their regular nightly rounds, while Rhela and Adena went up to the still room to tinker with another concoction.

Nettie wandered off with the disturbingly silent Coracle in her arms, and Esme was talking about the next trip she had planned.

“I’m going to get some more target practice in,” Sasha decided, surprising herself even as the words left her lips. “Want to come along?”

Zuri nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

They passed through the halls, down toward the terrace.

“Kennet’s not happy. None of them are,” Zuri added after long minutes. “He says that while Sonoda has requested the use of his lab, it wasn’t exactly asking. And Kennet can’t be around for the treatment.”

Sasha paused at the door to the terrace. “But shouldn’t Kennet know what’s going on? Who else around here does he think is going to understand any of this?”

“Exactly,” Zuri nodded. “But we need to remember that as far as the Alliance is concerned, our guys are just a bunch of soldiers. Following orders is what they do.” She grimaced, raised the small silver blaster to the target as it materialized. “What they were created to do.”

Zuri’s words echoed in Sasha’s ears hours later.

Hard to think that although the starmen were strange, powerful beings when it came to the technology-starved inhabitants of Crucible, to the rest of the Alliance, they were nothing more than soldiers.

Expendable.

Replaceable.

Weapons of war to be tinkered with, adjusted as needed.

The idea left a bitter taste in her mouth.

She stepped into the elevator and tapped the bracelet on her wrist.

“Take me someplace new, please,” she asked the empty air.

The delicate filigree decorating the door slid shut.

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

“I’ve told you before, stop calling me lady.”

“Yes, Lady Sasha.”

She rolled her eyes, but there was no point arguing with Ship. The spirits that ran Ship were more polite than their more mobile avatar, Coracle, but just as stubborn.

She looked at the dimly lit wood-paneled corridor that appeared as the filigree opened.

Through the weeks since she had been brought here, she’d spent the nights exploring rather than sleeping.

Sleep had far too many dreams.

And here, where every corridor looked the same, she continually discovered new surprises.

Three nights ago, Ship had brought her to a vast warehouse filled with metal carts of all types. The airsleds she’d seen the warriors use and more, stretching out into the darkness, filled with more frightening, alien things.

She wondered what she would find here.

A strange humming sound echoed down the corridor, drawing her closer.

The whirr of machinery and soft beeps punctuated the drone.

And then a voice.

“Tell me what you remember,” it demanded angrily.

No answer came other than a low groan of pain.

“Tell me!”

“The fire…”

Sasha froze.

That was Merren.

She should stop, go back, go to her room, try to sleep, and explore somewhere else.

Whatever was wrong with him, whatever had been done to him when he was a prisoner, this was personal.

“Fine, we’ll just have to go deeper.”

That other voice must be Sonoda.

And while it was possible that all people of his species just sounded that way, to her it seemed like there was menace coiled within his words.

Maybe she was jumping to conclusions, but she didn’t think so.

A sharp zap cracked through the air and Merren gasped.

Slowly, Sasha moved closer.

Whatever this treatment was, she was sure she didn’t approve.

This didn’t sound like someone here to help Merren.

This sounded far too much like the cries of Braydon’s victims, tortured and tormented as he pried through their minds, digging to find out what made their Gifts work.

She was almost at the door when she stopped again.

How could she be sure that whatever was going on was wrong?

What if she was just overlaying her memories of the past, those years in the cages, onto something that was perfectly normal?

Another crack cut through the air.

Merren began to scream.

That was it.

Normal or not, this was going to stop.

Wanted by the Rakian Warrior: Chapter Two

Merren

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing with that thing?” Merren asked, eyeing with suspicion the newly designed scanner Kennet held as it ran down his own left arm, the constant whirrs and beeps that came from all corners of the lab not comforting in the least.

“I am uncertain why you ask such questions,” Kennet responded mildly. “You were here when I designed it. You are perfectly aware that…”

Merren rolled his eyes and held his hands up in surrender. “It’s good to know you haven’t changed at all while I was gone.”

Kennet froze, his eyebrows arching slightly.

On anyone else it was the equivalent of their jaw hanging to the floor.

“Do not think I was unaffected by your absence.” Kennet moved to the scanner again, running it down Merren’s right arm this time. “We all were.”

Shit.

Merren closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “I’m sorry.”

Every day it was like walking on a knife’s edge. So much had changed while he was gone.

Hell, he had changed.

Been changed.

“So, does that contraption give us any magical news that will get me fixed up?” he offered. Changing the subject was easier than apologizing, for both him and Kennet.

“For the fourth time, not yet. The regeneration chamber should have fixed whatever was done to you,” Kennet muttered. “And yet, it does not seem to be able to restore your body’s base programming.”

Yeah. In the four weeks since Merren had woken up back here, back home, nothing had done that.

And right now, it didn’t look as if anything ever would.

Kennet put the scanner down on the table and leaned against the far wall, his gray and charcoal-striped arms folded over his chest.

“How are the pills working? You’re not trying to take more than one in a day, are you?”

Merren shrugged. “I’m less likely to randomly shift, so that’s a plus.”

The pills also made him edgy, unsettled, as if half of himself were being smothered.

Probably because that’s exactly what the damn things were doing.

“If there are other side effects, we should discontinue them.”

Dammit. Kennet was always more perceptive than Merren had given him credit for.

“Not a chance. I like being able to stay in one shape.” Merren ran his hand over the flattened cylinder secreted in his vest pocket. “All I gotta do is keep my temper, right?”

“That’s not exactly all there is to the procedure.”

But whatever else Kennet was going to say was cut off when Nic strode into the lab, his hard face twisted into a scowl that only deepened when he met Merren’s glance.

Well. That didn’t bode well.

“We just received a communication from Central Command. While they appreciate our analyst’s efforts, they’ve decided to send a GeneTech to see if they can figure out what happened to you.”

Merren stood quickly, a wild rush of anger washing over him. “Nobody’s poking into me.” He pointed at Kennet. “You’re bad enough. And I know you. Trust you. Someone else? I think enough people have played around with my genome. Not happening.”

Nic’s jaw tightened. “You don’t have a choice. None of us do. It came through as a direct order.”

Just breathe in, right?

Kennet kept saying that would make the rage better, bring him back to an even keel.

Ha!

Breathing was doing a crappy job.

“Fine,” Merren growled. “When is our honored guest supposed to get here?”

Nic’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t challenge Merren’s tone of voice. Apparently, he was pretty pissed about this too.

“I suspect Central Command knew how we would react. They didn’t give us any lead time. GeneTech Nevyn Sonoda is requesting that we lower our shields to allow him to land now.”

And the flimsy dam Merren had painstakingly built up gave way against the force of his anger. “That’s it,” he snapped. “I’m going for a walk. If whoever-the-hell-he-is wants to see me, it’ll have to be when I get back.”

The last of his control wavered but he held firm, fighting back the change even as lightning sparkled through his body.

He headed for the door, and Nic wisely stepped away.

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