Intergalactic Agency Space Liner: The Orion
“What the hell just happened?”
Mel picked herself up off the floor and put her hand to her head. It came away wet. She stared at the blood on her fingers before glancing around the cell. Darla was already on her feet. Leila was sitting up; she appeared dazed but otherwise unharmed.
Crouching down in front of her, Mel brushed a strand of pale blond hair from Leila’s face. “Hey, sweetheart, are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I think.” Leila blinked a couple of times, rubbing her forehead. “I felt something strange. There was someone….” She frowned. “No, they’re gone. What happened?”
Mel cocked her head, listening. Silence, where before the ship had hummed with life. “I’m not sure, but a wild guess is we’ve crashed.”
“I’ve never heard of an Agency Space Liner crashing before,” Darla said.
“Me neither.” Mel straightened and peered out of the small rectangle of glass in the cell door. “One of our guards is down, the other gone.” She turned to Darla. “Can you do something with the locks?”
Darla grinned. “I’ve been itching for the chance.”
It took her only minutes. Once the door slid open, Mel searched the area. Nothing moved, and she stepped over to the fallen guard and took his blaster. “Okay, let’s see if we can find a way off this thing.”
Mel let Darla lead the way; she’d travelled on one of the huge Space Liners before and knew the layout. Leila followed with Mel close behind, covering the other two. The main power was down, and the emergency lights cast only a sullen red glow. Breathing in, Mel caught the faint tang of burning metal hanging in the air. Her heart pounded in her chest, her whole body tense, ready to run. But they encountered no one. The liner appeared deserted, eerily silent.
Darla finally brought them out onto the cavernous freight deck. Mel came to a sudden standstill, her eyes widening. A battleship stood on the deck—black, sleek, and beautiful. Her name written on her side in gold: The Valiant. It was love at first sight, and Mel coveted her with every bone in her body. She could be free with a ship like that. Go anywhere in the Universe.
She nudged Darla. “Over there. That’s the one we want. If we get her, can you fly her?”
“Either that, or I’ll die trying.”
Mel looked at her curiously. The three of them were all being shipped from the space brothel to the asteroid mines and a slow and certain death. She knew why Leila and herself were there. Despite her pretty face, Leila had had a certain way of making the customers feel uncomfortable. And Mel had earned her place by killing a man. She didn’t regret it—he’d deserved to die, and besides, she’d rather be in the mines than chained to a bed in that stinking brothel. But she had no clue what Darla had done to deserve the death sentence. Or what the other woman had been before she’d found herself an unwilling guest in the brothel.
“Where did you learn all this tech stuff?” she asked.
“My dad had a ship. He taught me everything I know. How to keep them running, short cuts when the money was low, how to steal them.” She grinned. “My dad wasn’t exactly legit. It’s how I ended up at the brothel—a job gone wrong. They killed him and took me in lieu of bad debts.”
“Bastards. What was your dad, some sort of smuggler?”
“He preferred to call himself a pirate.”
Mel smiled. “Hmm, pirates. I like the sound of that.”
Leila tapped her on the arm. “There’s someone on board.”
They all ducked behind cover and watched as a man emerged from the open hatchway; tall, broad at the shoulder, lean at the hips with short hair, streaked black and gold to match his ship. He wore the uniform of an army captain, fitted to his figure like skin.
“Who is he?” Mel asked.
Leila closed her eyes. “His name’s Captain Zachary Knight. The Valiant is his ship.”
“No,” Mel said, “actually, she’s our ship.”
“Can we kill him?” Leila asked.
Mel shook her head. “At least not yet. I’ve got a plan.”
A few minutes later, she stood back and inspected Leila. “Okay, make it realistic.”
Leila grinned. Then the grin faded and pain etched her features. “Like this?”
“Yes, just one thing.” Mel leant across and tore Leila’s shift baring her shoulder and the curve of her breast. “There, a perfect damsel in distress. Off you go.”
Leila limped across the freight deck. She looked so small and helpless, even younger than her sixteen years, her fine blonde hair loose around her shoulders. The soldier glanced up, caught sight of Leila, and came running toward her.
“Help me,” Leila whimpered. She stumbled and collapsed at his feet. Limpid blue eyes blinked up at him. He crouched down beside her, his expression still wary. “Please, Zachary, help me.”
Leila’s voice was like liquid honey, and Mel watched as his face softened. Then he frowned.
“How did you know my name?”
“A good guess?” Mel said, stepping up behind him. She placed the blaster against the back of his neck. “Stand up slowly.”
He straightened and turned toward her, towering over her, and Mel had to force herself to hold her ground. She stood firm and stared up, straight into the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen. They were a clear greeny-gold, slanted like a cat’s as they flicked from her to Leila and back again.
“What do you want?” he asked.
His brows drew together. “You’re joking, right?”
“Believe me,” Mel said, “I have absolutely no sense of humor.”
He shrugged. “You’ll never get her off the ground.”
“Darla, what do we need?”
“The access codes would be good. They’re an eight-digit sequence. I might manage without them, but they would make things easier.”
Leila lowered her lids. When she opened them, she was smiling. “Got them. Can we kill him now?”
“He’ll come after us,” Leila said. “And he won’t stop until he catches us.”
He stared at her, his gaze unwavering. “She’s right.”
Mel had killed before. She knew it was the sensible thing to do now. But somehow, she couldn’t make herself pull the trigger. She switched the blaster to stun and shot him.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
As she led them up the ramp into their new ship, she couldn’t resist smoothing her fingers down the sleek side. “I’m going to rename her The Revenge.” She grinned. For the first time in her twenty-one years, the future did not look bleak. “Hey, you two, we’re going to be pirates.”
Darla grinned back. “Rob from the rich and…”
“Keep it ourselves.”
“Do we get to kill people?” Leila asked.
“Yes,” Mel replied, “but only if we don’t like them.”
10 years later
Mel dodged a blaster beam and dived for cover.
She peered out into the main room. The fighting was over. The crew of the transport ship were either down or huddled in the corner trying to avoid being hit by the random shots that still bounced off the walls. Another blast nearly blew her head off, and she ducked.
“Goddamn it,” she yelled, “they’ve surrendered! Stop shooting.”
She was going to be seriously pissed if she got shot by one of her own trigger-happy crew.
It took a few more minutes, but finally the room fell silent. “Thank you.”
Mel stood up, brushed herself down, and noticed the large solid object she had taken refuge behind. “Shit!”
She swung around to stare at her crew. “Okay, which one of you morons shot the goddamn cryotube?” No one answered. “Did I not make myself very, very clear? Did I not say, ‘do not shoot the cryotube’?”
“Sorry, Mel,” someone muttered.
Leila swaggered across the room, holstering her pistol. She came to a halt in front of Mel and looked down at the coffin-shaped container.
Wisps of liquid nitrogen were already seeping from the broken seals, and a film of ice crystals covered the glass front. “Is it a problem?” she asked.
Mel rolled her eyes. “Read my mind. Of course it’s a goddamn problem. The client’s orders stipulated one intact cryotube plus contents, untouched and definitely not shot to bits.”
“I still don’t see that there’s a real problem.” Leila nodded at the cryotube. “You know Sanderson wants him dead. We just did that part for him.”
“Yeah, right,” Mel replied, making no attempt to hide her sarcasm. “Perhaps you should ask him for a bonus. The problem is, I think he wants to do the killing himself.”
“Well, I can understand that. All the same, he still gets what he wants.”
“But not what he paid for. I have a reputation to think about you know.”
“Actually, Mel, your reputation sucks.”
Leila had a point. Mel always prided herself on completing her missions, but lately things seemed to be going a little haywire. Not her fault, merely a run of bad luck. Which she should have broken with this job.
But maybe all wasn’t lost. Maybe this wasn’t him. Maybe there was another, unbroken cryotube hiding somewhere. The one she really wanted.
“Are we sure it’s him?” Leila asked, echoing her own thoughts.
Mel moved closer and used the sleeve of her jacket to wipe the frosting from the glass. For a moment, she could see nothing but the swirl of white mist. It cleared slightly, and a face appeared. She stared at it, stepped back, and gestured to Leila to look. She peered in. “Oh yeah, it’s him.” She grinned. “Who would have thought it? Captain Zachary Knight, aka ‘The Tiger of Talmare’. How the mighty have fallen.”
“Well, he’s going to be the dead Tiger of Talmare if we don’t revive him fast. Come on, let’s get him back to The Revenge and wake him up.”
Leila didn’t move. “You know we’re stuck with him once he’s awake. The Cryo unit of The Revenge is broken. Again. And Darla doesn’t have the stuff to fix it.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Mel grumbled.
“Anyway, my point is, wouldn’t it be much easier to let him freeze? We could always pretend we didn’t notice.”
Mel glanced at the blaster burns that crisscrossed the cryotube. “Somehow I don’t think that’s an option.”
She forced herself to think rationally about Leila’s suggestion. Should they do nothing and let him die in the tube? She nibbled on her lower lip. It was important to get this right; she couldn’t afford not to get paid for this job. But what would Sanderson prefer? A dead and definitely unconscious Tiger of Talmare, or an alive and wide awake one? The mist shifted again, revealing his face, and she made up her mind. “No, we’ll take him back to The Revenge and wake him up.”
Leila didn’t budge. “Remember, he’s dangerous, and he doesn’t like you.”
“I’m sure he would if he knew me better.”
“Well, we’ll just have to put him in restraints. Look,” she snapped when Leila still looked dubious, “who’s captain here?”
“You’re the captain, Mel. But I still think you’ll live to regret this. So, if we can’t kill Tiger, can we shoot them?” She nodded in the direction of the transporter crew who were still huddled under the watchful eyes of Angie and Grace.
“No, we can’t shoot them.” Mel shook her head; it was a source of constant amazement to her how someone as sweet and innocent appearing as Leila could have such homicidal tendencies.
Leila pouted. “You never let us have any fun.”
“Okay, you can stun them, but only for a few hours. We need a head start. Not that I think they’ll come after us. He’s”—she waved in the direction of the cryotube—”such an embarrassment to the administration, they’ll probably welcome his disappearance.”
The Revenge was equipped with a cell, even if it had never held a prisoner. At the moment, it was used as extra storage space for anything they couldn’t offload. Plunder, Mel called it, rubbish according to everyone else. It took a few seconds to kick stuff aside and make enough space for them to put the cryotube down and still be able to close the door.
“Can you send Darla down?” she asked Leila, as she left. “The intercom’s not working.”
“What is on this pile of junk?” Leila muttered.
Mel cleared some more things from the small cot, sat down, and waited. She didn’t dare touch the tube herself; tech stuff wasn’t her strong point. She heard the rumble as The Revenge’s engines fired up and held her breath, but they made the jump smoothly, and a few minutes later, Darla appeared. She stood in the doorway wiping her hands on a piece of rag. “I heard it didn’t go exactly as planned.”
“When does it ever?” Mel nodded at the tube. “Can you wake him?”
“Probably, but you know, Leila might be right. Maybe you should just let him die.”
“Leila’s a bloodthirsty bitch.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily make her wrong. She thinks you won’t because of who he is.”
“Who he is?”
“She thinks you’ve got a soft spot for him. You’re not thinking straight.”
“Soft spot? You’ve got to be joking! The man’s been a pain in my butt for the last ten years. So I humiliated him. I stole his ship. It wasn’t as though it was personal.” She thought for a moment. “And what do you mean ‘Leila thinks’? She hasn’t been reading me, has she?”
“No, you know she promised not to, but she can’t help but get a sense of what you’re thinking.”
“Well, this time her ‘sense’ is all screwed up. I feel absolutely nothing for Tiger over there, except glad he’s finally off my back. I’d kill him just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “But it just so happens, I’ve carefully considered what’s best for the client. And what’s best is we hand him over alive.”
“Of course you have.”
Mel stared at her with narrowed eyes. Why did she get the impression that she hadn’t convinced Darla? “Just wake him up.”
“Let’s have a quick look first. Maybe we can fix it.” Darla stood over the tube. She twiddled a few knobs. “And then again, maybe we can’t.”
Mel scowled. “If they’d been aiming for it, they couldn’t have done a better job.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll wake him up.” Darla pressed a few buttons and banged the side with her fist. “There, done.”
“How long will it take?”
“I’m not sure—could be a few minutes, could be hours. It affects people differently. But he’s a big one, so probably more rather than less.” She dug into the pocket of her overalls. “Here, you might want to get these on him before he wakes.” She handed a couple of bracelets to Mel.
“Restraints?” Mel asked.
Darla nodded. “Better to be safe. You’ve heard the stories coming out of Talmare. He massacred hundreds, mostly women and children. Some say he ate their flesh.”
“Of course he did. Was that before or after he raped them all and made necklaces out of their eyeballs? You know, you really shouldn’t believe everything you see on the waves.”
“Okay, maybe not. But he is dangerous. There’s no point in taking risks.”
Mel sighed. “You’re right. How do these things work?”
“Here’s the activator.” She handed a small box to Mel. “Slip the cuffs on his wrists. When you want him restrained, press the green button. It affects the nervous system, instant paralysis from the neck down. Press the red button and he’s released. Okay?”
Mel nodded. She stuffed the bracelets into her pocket and put the activator on the small table by the cot.
“Well, then,” Darla said, “I’d better get back to nursing my engine, otherwise we’ll never make the rendezvous point. You know, perhaps you might consider buying me a few spare parts if you actually get paid for this job.”
“Sure,” Mel said absently. “Spares—they’re top of my shopping list.” She was looking at the cryotube. The mist of liquid nitrogen was draining away, the ice crystals melting, revealing the body inside.
Darla shook her head and left the room.
Mel waited until the door shut behind her then moved to stand over the tube. She depressed the door button and the top slid open. Cold air flooded out of the container, and she shivered. It took a few minutes to clear.
“Oh my,” she murmured.
He was naked. And he was huge.
Even unconscious he radiated power, and a ripple of apprehension ran through her. She picked up his wrist. His flesh was icy cold as she slipped one of the bracelets over his hand before snapping it shut. She repeated with the other arm, breathing a sigh of relief once the restraints were in place.
Her eyes flicked up to his face, but he was still deep under, and she allowed herself to examine him. This man had been part of her life for the last ten years, never present, but still shaping her every action with his constant pursuit. Now he would never pursue her again.
She knew Sanderson meant to kill him. And he deserved to die if half the stories coming out of Talmare were true. Even so, she felt a strange sense of regret, as though a part of her life was coming to an end.
He was a hybrid, part of the Soldier Guild’s breeding program. A program she knew had been discontinued when the results turned out to be too dangerous and too hard to control. It was ironic that Zachary Knight had been their one success story. Their poster boy, proof that the breeding program did work. She reckoned the Guild must have been really pissed when he lost it and ended up massacring half of Talmare.
She’d never seen a tiger hybrid close up. In fact, he was the only one she had ever seen at all, and ten years ago, fully clothed, his mixed heritage hadn’t been so apparent. Now she could clearly see the signs.
The skin of his arms and legs was marked with faint black tiger stripes. The stripes could also be seen curling around from his back, fading into the creamy gold of his flat belly.
She picked up his hand again. It was huge but otherwise appeared normal, until she pressed the pad of one finger and a vicious claw emerged.
Retractable claws, how cool is that?
For a few moments she played, fascinated as the claws emerged and disappeared. She touched one, drawing a bead of crimson from her fingertip. She put the finger to her mouth and licked the blood clean.
What else? His thick hair was down to his shoulders, a tangled medley of black interwoven with gold, but there were no stripes on his face.
He was strikingly handsome with a hard masculine beauty that even she couldn’t deny. Above his high cheekbones his eyes were closed, but she remembered them perfectly, greeny-gold, cat’s eyes. His mouth was full, and with a sense of daring, she touched her finger to his icy-cold upper lip then lightly drew it back revealing long, elongated incisors. His breath was warm, and she snatched her finger away as she realized he was breathing again.
Her gaze drifted lower. His body was heavily muscled but sleek, like a jungle animal. His belly was hard and flat, lightly furred, the silky blond hair running down to his groin.
She whistled. She’d seen a few men in her time in the space brothel, and by any account, Zachary Knight was pretty impressive. If you were the type of person to be impressed by that sort of thing. Which obviously, she wasn’t.
Forcing herself to look away, she caught a flicker of movement, and she placed a hand flat on his chest. His skin was cool but no longer icy, and beneath her palm, she felt the slight thud of his heart. Not long now.
She made to straighten up, but suddenly he shifted. One of those huge hands snaked behind the back of her neck and dragged her down toward him. Their eyes met, his slightly unfocused, the pupils huge and dilated, but the clear green-gold of her memory. His lips curled slightly. He pulled her forward. Then he kissed her.
It was so unexpected that, for a moment, she was transfixed in place.
His lips were cool and firm against hers. Her hands came up; she pushed them flat against his chest to shove him away. Instead, they slid over his satin skin. She opened her mouth to protest, but before she could get a word out, his warm tongue thrust inside.
She waited for the revulsion. It never came. Surprise held her for minutes longer as he kissed her almost languidly, filling her senses with the slow, erotic glide of his tongue. The hand at her neck slid down, drawing her even closer, until she pressed against him. The coolness of his skin brought her to her senses.
This was so not happening.
She yanked free and stepped back. Her heart was beating hard and fast, and she took long, slow breaths, keeping her gaze locked on the huge naked man who had just kissed her.
He shook his head and pushed himself up, swinging his legs over the side of the cryotube. The action seemed to exhaust him, and he sat, eyes closed, breathing deeply. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and studied her, a puzzled scowl on his face as he searched her features.
She saw the exact moment when the recognition flared in his face. Followed quickly by disbelief.
“Shit,” he growled. “Melissa Stark. What the hell are you doing here?” He frowned, his gaze flicking from her face to their surroundings. “For that matter, where exactly is here?”
Mel licked her lips and forced herself to hold her position. Show no fear. “You’re on The Revenge.”
“The Revenge?” He pursed his lips. “Don’t you mean The Valiant?”
“No,” she snapped, “I mean The Revenge.”
He ran a hand through his thick hair. Mel could see a slight tremble in his fingers; he wasn’t fully recovered from the cryo yet. Still, she watched him warily, her gaze straying to where the activator panel for his restraints lay on the table. She inched toward it.
“So, I’m a prisoner on my own ship,” he said.
“It’s my ship.”
“You stole it from me.”
Mel rolled her eyes. “Oh, get a life. That was ten years ago. Get over it, move on.” Then she smirked. “Oh, I forgot, that’s not really an option for you anymore, is it, Tiger?”
He was watching her, his expression guarded. “So are you going to tell me what I’m doing here?”
Mel took a final step to the table and picked up the activator, the tension oozing out of her muscles once the device was safely in her hands.
She lifted one shoulder. “I don’t see why not. Your friend Sanderson employed me to hijack the transporter taking you back to Earth. For some reason he thinks you might have wrangled your way out of the death penalty and avoided getting what you deserve.”
“So, you’re taking me to Sanderson?”
He sat, head thrown back, obviously processing what she had told him. “I bet he told you not to wake me up.”
“He might have.”
“So why am I awake?”
“Your cryotube was damaged in the attack. It was wake you or let you freeze to death.”
“So why not let me freeze to death?”
“Believe me, that would have been my choice. But Sanderson paid for you alive. He obviously wants the pleasure of killing you himself.” She paused. “I can see his point.”
He studied her, his gaze wandering over her features. “Is that why you kissed me?”
A wave of irritation ran through her. “Actually,” she said, “you kissed me.”
“Yeah, well, I woke up to find some strange woman pawing my body, it was an automatic response. And anyway, you kissed me back.”
Mel scowled. “Did not!”
“Very intelligent reply.”
They were silent for a moment.
“You’re not really going to hand me over to Sanderson, are you?”
She frowned. “Of course I am. He’s paid me. I’m honor-bound to hand you over.”
Mel’s muscles locked rigid at the sarcasm in his voice.
“You’re a thief,” he continued. “What the hell has honor got to do with this?”
“I’m not a thief. I’m a pirate. We have a code.”
“You’re a pirate? Jesus, save me,” he muttered.
She could see his eyes looking her over, taking in her “pirate” outfit—the tight pants, the long boots, and the red scarf tied at her waist.
He shook his head. “How about I pay you more?”
“You can’t, it’s against the code. Besides, all your possessions were confiscated when you were arrested. You don’t have anything to pay me with.”
“They’ll give everything back once I’ve cleared my name.”
“Cleared your name,” she scoffed. “You’re not actually going to try and get me to believe you’re innocent? Very funny. Ha, ha, ha.”
She knew she’d scored a point when his expression tightened.
“Why do you think Sanderson wants to stop me getting to trial? Why do you think he made sure I was in Cryo for the trip? So I can’t talk to anybody. That’s why.”
“Oh, really, this is so pathetic. So now you’re innocent.”
“Yeah, I’m innocent. And you’re a thief and a convicted murderer.”
Mel frowned. “Have you been investigating me?”
“Did you think I wouldn’t check up on the woman who stole my ship? I saw your records. You murdered an innocent woman.”
“Yeah, well, at least I didn’t eat her flesh afterward.”
Mel could almost hear the grinding of his teeth. Another point for her.
“I did not eat anybody’s flesh.”
“That’s not what the waves say. The Tiger of Talmare, they’re calling you. From hero to monster. Not that I ever considered you a hero, of course.”
“Ever heard of ‘innocent until proven guilty’?” he snarled.
“Ever heard of ‘no smoke without fire’?” she countered.
He ignored the comment. “You, on the other hand, were proved very guilty.”
Mel shrugged as if bored. “So perhaps I’m a psychopathic killer. In which case, it’s probably best if you don’t wind me up.”
“Am I winding you up?”
“You’re mildly irritating me. But that can easily be solved.”
She swung around and took a step toward the door.
“Hey, where the hell are you going?” She took another step. “Get the hell back here. We need to talk about this.”
“What is there to talk about?” She peered over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised in query. “I’m going to set off for the rendezvous with Sanderson now. We don’t want to be late.”
He jumped to his feet. She paused and watched as, almost in slow motion, his knees buckled. He managed one shaky step toward her, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. For a moment, they swayed together, then his legs gave out completely, and he tumbled to the floor dragging her with him. Mel ended up on the bottom, and the breath left her in a whoosh as his considerable weight landed on top of her. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
Finally, she managed to draw some air into her lungs. “Get off me, you lump.”
She wriggled her hand between them and pushed. He didn’t move, just raised his head, and stared down at her, his expression blank.
“Make me,” he said.