Border Planet Region – Planet Talin
Death shadowed him. He wouldn’t get off this planet alive. Luke Ryan knew the truth with every instinct he possessed. Mentally ticking off everything he would have to do, he walked as swiftly as he dared. They were behind and possibly around him, the one reason he didn’t allow himself to run and reveal he knew they were coming to take him. What they didn’t know was what he held in his possession. The one item that would allow his people a chance at taking the aliens down. If they knew he had it, he wouldn’t have made it to the docking yard.
Now, he just had to get to his ship and send the information he’d obtained to O’Neal. That was the mental checklist he was going through. There were ways to intercept a coded message before it reached its recipient. He had to make sure the message wasn’t intercepted or all hope would be lost. They were too cunning and strong.
Once he’d insured the information’s safety, he’d attempt to get his ship off this rock, but he wasn’t fooling himself on his chances. He grimaced as he judged how much farther he’d have to pretend he wasn’t being chased. Of course, he’d landed the Marauder on the opposite end of the docking zone when he arrived on Talin something he preferred as the docking authority tended to turn a blind eye on that zone.
Cursing under his breath, Luke forced himself to keep the same even stride as he passed numerous ships and their busy crews. He ignored the few people who sidled up to him to try to make a deal. As he drew near the Marauder, he unconsciously glanced over his shoulder before catching himself and focusing back on his destination. His fingers twitched in the remembered sequence to unlock the hatch. If he could get in and lock it down, he might buy himself some time.
There was no chance he’d escape this hellish planet. Not with what he was carrying on him, but he could get the information out. Warn the one person he cared about in the galaxy. He wound around several stacks of packing crates before he could finally see the hatch. His shoulders itched with the urge to look behind him.
He smacked the hatch and the coded panel slid back with a beep. His fingers punched in the code in less than three seconds and the hatch clicked and soundlessly slid open. He finally allowed himself to run and jumped aboard. He spun and keyed the door shut, entering in a complicated series to lock the entire ship down. If only he’d finished the upgrades so he could run the Marauder as a one-man ship, but he’d never considered the possibility he’d have no crew to run her or a crew he couldn’t trust.
“Computer, who’s on the ship?” Luke pushed a button on a display as he asked the question.
“Captain Luke Ryan detected.” The computer hummed for half a second. “No other life forms detected onboard.”
Satisfied he didn’t have to watch his back, he ran down to his own quarters where the only secure computer was housed. He shut the door and entered in another complicated sequence to lock the door down. He didn’t know who in his crew had been killed and who had been compromised so he had to change each lock sequence.
He moved away from the door to his small desk in the cluttered quarters. When you’d lived the last thirty years in a ship your space tended to fill up with the small items too painful or valuable to part with. The monitor lit up as it sensed him and he leaned over the desk to call up the communication array. It blinked and he pulled a small data disc out of his pocket and inserted it into the slot.
“O’Neal,” Luke said as the array recorded and transmitted on multiple secured frequencies. “I’ve been compromised. My crew’s disappeared.” Saying the words made his gut clench and he paced away from his desk to get the rage under control. Leaning back over the computer, he continued. “I found something. Could be what we’ve been looking for.” He was positive it was exactly what they had been looking for. “The data’s attached to this message. I won’t be making it off planet.” He took a deep breath. “I know there won’t be a SAR.
“We’ve got to know more about them if we’re going to save ourselves. You’ll need to find someone better than me to finish the mission.” He looked to one of the shelves with a digital frame of his one and only living breathing relative. He hadn’t spoken to his daughter in over a year. He hadn’t been able to bridge the gap between them. The one thing he regretted. “Look close to home. My home.”
His perimeter alarms blared. Someone was trying to force themselves on his ship. He snarled as he shut his computer down. He wouldn’t let them take him alive. He knew too much about O’Neal’s operation to allow them to use him, but he wasn’t willing to take his own life. He would make them take him out and hopefully take a few of the bastards with him. He pulled several weapons out from under his bed and ran out of his quarters to the bridge.
He had to at least try to get the Marauder up and flying. The sounds of metal sparking greeted him and he cursed. They were cutting his hatch to pieces with a torch. He’d almost made it to the bridge when he heard the unmistakable sound of metal ripping and a huge crash. They’d gained entry.
There was a second of silence as he spun to face the new threat. He hesitated and lost his chance to get to the bridge as a shadow moved in the opening. It would take a full minute to warm up the Marauder’s engines. He opened one of his crew’s quarters and placed himself in the doorway on one knee raising the rifle to his shoulder and waiting for the first one to come through the door.
Somewhere in the Border Planet Region – 36 hours later
Kristy Ryan hated to cry. It wasn’t just the outward sign of weakness that bothered her, but the crying hangover always put her in a foul mood. She’d woken with tear tracks running down her cheeks and had tried to hide them. But Andrew Bennet was just a little too observant. He had that “you’re going to tell me what’s going on” look on his face.
She grimaced at her own face in the small head as she pulled her brown hair back into a tight pony tail. She’d washed away all signs of the crying jag. Why the heck had she been crying in her sleep again?
She puttered around the small space trying to see if she could out wait Andrew. After a
couple more minutes, she cracked the door and groaned. He was sitting on her bed waiting for her. The look still in place on his too handsome face. If he wasn’t so cute, she would have booted him off her ship a long time ago.
“Talk,” he demanded.
“We’re on schedule to make the delivery.” She pulled her jumpsuit out of its cubby and stepped into it with quick efficiency. The sooner she got dressed, the sooner she could escape the interrogation.
“You were crying.”
“I don’t cry.”
“What’s bothering you?” he asked, abandoning the old crying argument.
“Nothing,” she said which was half true since she didn’t know what was bothering her.
“Kristy.” He sighed as he stood up and walked her into a corner. “We can go back and forth like this ‘til I wear you down or we can cut to the chase and you can tell me why you’ve been crying in your sleep again. Dreams?”
She didn’t talk about the dreams from her childhood. “No.”
He tilted her chin up, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You need to let it out.”
“I don’t have to let anything out.” She jerked away and ducked around him.
“You know,” he drawled and her shoulder’s hunched in response to his sardonic tone. “One day you’ll get your wish and I’ll get sick and tired of all your crap.”
“My crap.” She spun around. “Don’t put your issues on me. I’m fine. You’re the one who always wants to talk.”
“Pardon me for wanting more than a quick screw here and there.”
She slammed out the door and headed for the common room. She had no intention of being drawn into the old relationship argument. Though her ship was equipped with state of the art long range engines the Unicorn really didn’t have a lot of space to escape from people who were annoying you. When she saw the single feline of her crew, Wilhelmina, in the common room she nearly turned around and headed back to her room.
“Something wrong?” Wilhelmina purred, her Aryehen accent deepening with concern.
Kristy gave up on the thought of turning around and perched on one of the stools. She might as well get it over with. Wilhelmina always treated her as if she was one of her cubs and not her captain. Probably came from knowing Kristy since she was a child.
Kristy forced a smile. “A small disagreement.” This was what she hated about the confinement of space. There was way too much time to talk.
“The two of you have been having a lot of disagreements lately,” Wilhelmina purred, her emerald green eyes narrowing.
Long practice taught her she couldn’t outright lie to Wilhelmina. She didn’t know if the lie detection was something all Aryeh could do since Wilhelmina was the only one she knew. In fact, normally she enjoyed having the Aryeh’s skills when they were focused on her opponents. She was less thrilled when they were one hundred percent focused on her. “Your point?”
“You would think you two would have gotten to the bottom of what’s wrong by now.”
“You’d think so,” Andrew drawled from the hallway.
Kristy spun to glare at him, his comment still stinging. He smiled cockily. She refrained from launching herself up and physically attacking him. It was what he expected and probably what he wanted so she turned her back on him and fumed.
“It isn’t good for morale when you two are fighting,” Wilhelmina scolded.
Her fuming took a back seat to amusement at the image of her crew worrying about her and Andrew. “I doubt a bunch of pirates really give a damn.”
“I want you two to make up.” Wilhelmina frowned at her as if Kristy could miss the disapproval radiating off the cat in waves. She really hated it when her cubs didn’t do as she saw fit.
Andrew snorted in laughter, but quickly swallowed it when Wilhelmina turned her frown on him. Kristy didn’t bother protesting Wilhelmina’s demand. She would keep hounding them until she got what she wanted.
Andrew controlled his laughter and turned to Kristy with mock seriousness. “Sorry, Captain.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You should be.”
Wilhelmina clucked in displeasure. “Kristy, I’m not letting either of you out of here until you apologize.”
“Fine.” She turned to him with an overly sweet smile. “I apologize.”
“That’s better,” Wilhelmina purred. “Don’t you both feel better now?”
Kristy was given a reprieve when the comm beeped. Glenn Cadoc’s voice came over the speakers. “Kristy to the bridge.”
She jumped up and headed out the opposite door more eagerly than she would have normally to see what Glenn wanted. Anything to escape the touchy-feely session Wilhelmina was gearing up for.
Andrew watched Kristy practically run down the short hallway before she turned out of sight. Wilhelmina’s gaze on him was like having laser sights on his back. He turned and flashed her a grin hoping to divert whatever was on her mind.
“Why did you pick a fight?” she asked.
Looks like she wasn’t diverted, he dropped his grin. “Who says I did?” He shrugged in irritation when she continued to keep him under her laser stare. “Something’s bothering her and she won’t talk about it.”
“You could always try asking her what’s wrong.”
He almost rolled his eyes. How many times had he had similar conversations like this with Wilhelmina? “Kristy doesn’t do direct.”
“You know that about her.”
He sighed, but held back the tiredness he felt at constantly banging against her walls. “Maybe I’m sick of playing the game.”
She stood up and walked to where he stood. “You knew what she was like when you followed her off her father’s ship.”
He straightened from his slouched position, not appreciating the guilt trip. “Sure, but I didn’t think she’d be this careful forever. How long will it take for me to prove myself to her?”
“You worked for her father. She built those walls so she could survive. Survival is the strongest force out here and that very act defined her”
He dropped her piercing gaze and scuffed his foot. “So Luke wasn’t the most loving father, but he wasn’t a monster either. She got away didn’t she.” He looked back up at her and motioned around them. “She’s got her own ship and proved she didn’t need him to survive. I’ve waited for nearly seven years. Maybe I’m tired of waiting for something that’s never going to happen.”
“She loves you,” she protested. “You know that.”
Kristy leaned over Glenn’s shoulder to look at the monitor he was tapping. He hadn’t vacated the pilot’s seat when she joined him so she perched on the descrambler box behind him. There wasn’t a lot of maneuvering room in the bridge. It had been designed for function not comfort.
”What’ve we got?” Kristy asked.
“MSA on our tail,” he said, his words terse, his hatred for anything related to the Military Space Alliance clear in his tone. “They shifted course to intercept us as soon as they dropped out of hyperspace.”
“Have they contacted us?” She tapped the screen herself to enlarge the image of the large silver fighter class ship.
“Nope, but they will. They’ve pinged us to confirm identity.”
“Patrol ship?” She frowned over the unfamiliar looking ship.
“Too large to be patrol; I could ping it.”
“Then they’d know we see them. Warship?”
“Too small to be a warship,” he countered.
The arrival of an unknown MSA ship was going to put a serious crimp in her schedule. Her cargo wasn’t exactly legal and she couldn’t afford to have them search her cargo bay. “You’re sure they’re tracking us?”
Glenn shrugged. “It makes me antsy that they changed course as soon as they got close enough to ping us.”
“Command ship?” She frowned over the monitor and wondered briefly if it had been built the same time her Unicorn had been. She hit the magnification again. The lines were similar though the Unicorn looked like a shuttle next to this mammoth.
“Possibly. I’ve never seen anything like it and don’t really recommend sitting around to confirm what it is.”
She weighed her options. She leaned on the same side as Glenn. Avoiding the MSA at all costs was a huge part of her job. Especially in the Border Planet Region. This wasn’t the MSA’s normal territory which meant they had a purpose to be out here. On the other hand, she didn’t like not knowing why an MSA ship would be interested in them. The Unicorn looked innocent enough on paper and from afar. They shouldn’t have attracted their attention enough for them to alter their course.
Andrew appeared just outside the bridge doorway. She frowned at his reflection in the front view window more in thought than in anger. If things got sticky she wanted Andrew at the helm. Glenn was a satisfactory pilot, but he didn’t have Andrew’s instincts.
“Glenn, Andrew’s taking over,” she said.
Glenn glanced at her in protest, but swallowed it and climbed out of the pilot’s seat to squeeze into the communications seat behind the co-pilot’s seat as Kristy perched on the descrambler box to give Andrew room to take over his domain.
She rested her chin on his shoulder. Their argument momentarily forgotten while she focused on the problem at hand. “We’ve got an MSA ship up ahead that needs to be avoided. What would you suggest?”
His face lit up and his lips curved into a grin. “I’ll get us out of here.” His fingers flew over the console as the Unicorn’s hum increased and she started to curve away from the MSA ship. “They’ve shifted their course to match ours. I can lose ‘em.”
She frowned at the monitor as the MSA ship’s course altered again to match Andrew’s course correction. “Still following.”
“Time for a hyper.” He pulled several huge levers, causing the Unicorn to shake slightly. The engines changed pitch as they switched from regular fire in preparation for the hyper.
She slid into the co-pilot’s seat and hit the warning to let Wilhelmina and Felicity Imrich, her engineer, know a hyperspace jump was eminent.
The communication panel beeped an incoming message and Glenn pulled it up. “MSA ship calling. Demanding we cease and desist.”
She shook her head at Andrew’s raised eyebrow. “What do they want?”
“An audience with Captain Ryan,” Glenn said.
“They asked for me by name?” she asked in surprise. The ping shouldn’t have pulled up her identity which meant they knew the ping was tagged with an alias she’d programmed just a month ago.
“We could still go,” Andrew offered eagerly.
“We don’t need our description broadcasted to every MSA ship in the system.” She shook her head and sighed. “Let’s find out what they want.”
Glenn hit a switch and the monitor in front of the co-pilot’s seat flickered to life revealing the sleek military bridge with its efficient crew working in the background. The captain of the ship took up the bulk of the image, his expression and posture screamed career military.
“How can I help you, Captain?” she said in her overly polite and slightly sarcastic tone which she reserved for those in authority.
“Captain Ryan.” He inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Captain James O’Neal. I’ve a matter to discuss with you if you’d come aboard the Atlantis.”
“Sorry, Captain O’Neal.” She showed her teeth in what wasn’t quite a smile. “But I’ve a schedule to keep and can’t afford the delay.”
“This is more than a request,” he said with his own smile.
“I’m not military. You can’t detain me without cause.”
“I can provide cause, Captain Ryan, but I’d prefer not to.” O’Neal paused letting the threat hang between them. “How soon can you come aboard?”
She shot a glance at Glenn. Having made it to lieutenant before he was dishonorably discharged ten years ago he was Kristy’s encyclopedia on what to expect and how to deal with the MSA. He shrugged. No help there.
“I’d be happy to come right now.” She scissored her fingers signaling Glenn to cut the call.
He hit a key and the screen went dark.
“Coordinates still set,” Andrew said in a soft voice.
Kristy hesitated. She was tempted to run. Andrew would be able to drop them into hyperspace without any shots fired. The problem wasn’t in escaping. It was why the MSA was interested in her. It could be something minor they’d drop as soon as the Unicorn disappeared, but it could be something else.
“It’s too risky to run now. I need to know why they put this much effort into finding me.” She spun to glare at Glenn. “A little input would have been appreciated.”
“This is completely outside my understanding of the regs,” he answered, leaning back in his chair. “Something’s up.”
“We should go,” Andrew said. “They could arrest you as soon as you board the ship and then what are we supposed to do.”
“You leave, of course,” she said with a smirk. “Have a happy life without me.” Kristy dropped her smirk at his glare. “Look on the bright side, it could be nothing.”
“They wouldn’t be asking you to board the Atlantis if it was nothing,” Andrew said through clenched teeth. “It isn’t safe for you to go alone. I’ll go with you.”
She shook her head. Her stomach clenched at the thought of Andrew being arrested. “I need you at the helm.” She cut him off when he opened his mouth to protest. “If something happens, it’s your responsibility to make sure the Unicorn doesn’t fall under enemy hands.”
He cocked his head, obviously unhappy with her decision. “Take Glenn with you.”
Glenn grinned and she rolled her eyes.
“He’d be more hindrance than help.” She slid out of the co-pilots seat and trailed her fingers over Andrew’s shoulder. His eyes were narrowed as she stepped away from him. Public displays of affection wasn’t really her thing. “Make sure the cargo won’t be found.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” Andrew said with a mock salute as she exited the bridge.
She barely refrained from sticking her tongue out at his tone. Walking down the brightly lit white hallways, she headed for the freight bay which housed her small shuttle, the Gryphon. Thankfully she hadn’t passed Felicity or Wilhelmina on the short walk. She was alone in the hangar as she preferred. The only problem was the silence made it easier for her to worry.