After nearly ten years at the same job, Joy had moments when she thought she’d seen it all. The universe invariably took that as a challenge and threw something even stranger her way, but this time the universe had outdone itself.
The entire cruise had been one what-the-hells moment after another. Several of the guests had gotten into a brawl while vying for the attentions of one particularly wealthy male looking for a match. The attention-grabbing and undignified display had resulted in the male raska-shi choosing to contract with all three women, though they didn’t discover that fact until after the mating contracts were signed.
That was why she encouraged their guests to carefully consider any offer before signing. She even gave a seminar on mating contracts and volunteered to act as an advisor, but rarely did anyone take her up on the offer. These women all wanted to escape their current lives and had convinced themselves that anything else was an improvement.
These days, most of them were simply trading one set of hardships for another. It hadn’t always been this way. When Joy had first joined Captain Perez and the crew of the Bountiful Harvest, their galactic matchmaking cruises had been exactly that—a chance for unattached males of various species to meet and mingle with human women. Sparks flew, romances blossomed, and while not every match was perfect, each cruise produced multiple success stories. As the ship’s event coordinator and matchmaker, Joy took pride in every match she helped to make.
As the years passed, though, things changed. Instead of life-mates, the males attending the events wanted breeders or concubines. Mating contracts that protected all the parties had morphed into cold-hearted business arrangements. Some bordered on conditions that resembled slavery more than anything remotely romantic.
“Captain, I think our event coordinator is broken,” First Officer Mika Hooper’s comment pulled Joy out of her dark thoughts and back to the present.
“What? Why?” She raised her head and looked over to the first officer’s workstation. It wasn’t necessary since Joy saw her environment through sensors and not with her eyes, but people reacted better if she made an effort to face their direction when conversing.
“I’ve never seen you make that face before.” Mika had scrunched her face up like she’d bitten into something sour. “In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without a smile. You usually have one plastered onto your face no matter what’s happening. I actually thought your face was frozen that way, you know, after the accident.”
Joy didn’t react to Mika’s goading. The woman took a perverse sort of pleasure in needling people, and Joy had learned to stay quiet and let the captain deal with it.
“Hooper.” Captain Jodi Perez’s tone was as cold as the void outside. “I’m not going to tell you again. You want to be a jerk, do it inside your own head. The rest of us don’t need to hear it.”
“What?” Hooper shrugged in a half-hearted attempt to look innocent. “She’s a smiler. That’s all I was saying.”
Joy returned to work. Space on the Harvest was limited, so she didn’t have an office. Instead, she used one of auxiliary workstations on the bridge, even though she wasn’t designated bridge crew. The close proximity also made it easy to keep the captain up to date with event scheduling and any problems that cropped up among their guests.
It was her job to keep the guests entertained and happy for the whole cruise, whether they were docked or in transit. At the beginning of each trip that was easy enough. All the passengers were hopeful and full of enthusiasm. They were in the final leg of the journey now, though, which meant the handful of guests still on board were dealing with rejection and self-doubt.
She understood exactly what they were going through. There’d been a time she’d had so many hopes and dreams for her own life… but that was long ago. Before the accident that took her sight and left her scarred and broken.
That’s why she poured her heart and soul into finding matches for the women who signed up for these matchmaking cruises. She wanted them to find the love and happiness she’d never have.
“Bashir. Do you have a few minutes?” Captain Perez asked.
“Of course, Captain. Out here or in your ready room?”
Jodi cocked her head to the side and then laughed. “You’re hoping for a coffee made from my personal stash. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” Joy admitted without a trace of guilt. Everyone on board knew the captain’s coffee was the best. No one had any idea where she got it from or what magical process made it so damned good.
“You caught me in a generous mood. Hooper, you have the bridge.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hooper acknowledged.
Joy followed the captain off the bridge and into her office. It was barely bigger than a closet, but it provided the most valuable commodity on the ship—a chance to converse in private.
The moment the door closed, Jodi pointed back toward the bridge. “I wanted you to hear it first. That was Hooper’s final mistake. I intend to fire her the moment this trip is over.”
Joy nodded and exhaled in relief. “Thank you. She’s been… challenging to work with.”
Jodi snorted. “You mean she’s a bitch and a bully.”
“I did, but in my line of work, it pays to be diplomatic at all times.” If she filtered everything she said, it became easier to avoid slipping up and saying something harsh to a paying guest.
“I’d last about thirty seconds if I had to do your job.” Jodi sat down behind her small desk and gestured for Joy to do the same. “Speaking of which, anything I need to know? How are the remaining guests coping?”
“The usual issues. I’m concerned that some of them are desperate enough to be vulnerable to the predators who will be waiting to pounce at our next stop.”
“Have you told Maddison about that issue, yet?” Jodi asked while tapping a request for two coffees into the dispenser behind her.
Maddison Summers was the new owner of the Harvest. She’d come on board at their last stop and would travel with them for a time to get to know the ship and her crew. No one knew much about her other than the fact she’d gotten ownership of the ship and the matchmaking cruise business as part of her divorce settlement with the previous owner.
“Not yet. I have a meeting scheduled with her this afternoon, and I’ll explain the problem then. That way she can see it for herself when we reach our next destination.”
Jodi grimaced. “I can’t stand watching it happen and knowing we can do nothing to stop it.”
“Me either. Hopefully Maddison will hate it just as much, and we can convince her to make some changes.”
The conversation paused while the captain turned to retrieve two steaming mugs of coffee from the dispenser. She pushed one across the desk to Joy… and then all hell broke loose.
The deck beneath her bucked and shuddered hard enough her cup of coffee spilled and rolled off the table.
Jodi jumped to her feet with her cup still in her hand. “Shit! Back to your station.”
They rushed back onto the bridge.
“Report! And someone mute those alarms already.” The captain’s voice was almost drowned out by a deep, metallic groan followed by several creaks that sounded like they came from the hull.
Joy had never heard anything like it, but she knew it wasn’t a good sound. She hurried back to her station and strapped in. She’d gone over emergency procedures with the passengers so many times they should know what to do, but experience had taught her that at least some of them would panic. You can’t do anything about that right now, she reminded herself. The captain had ordered her to her station, so that’s where she’d stay.
“Hyperdrive engine two is offline, Captain. We’ve fallen back into normal space,” Hooper reported.
“Dammit! Get me engineering. They promised me their repairs would hold until we made port,” Jodi barked and then turned toward the ship’s helmsman. Where are we right now? Whose territory are we in?”
Because she wasn’t bridge crew, Joy had nothing to do but listen. What she heard next made the hairs on the back of her neck rise as a chill chased down her spine.
“We’re in… shit. I don’t understand how this happened, ma’am.” The helm officer stared at her monitor in obvious confusion. “According to the nav system, we’re in verexi space.”
That shouldn’t be possible. The verexi weren’t classified as a hostile race, but they were fiercely territorial, xenophobic, and a generally unpleasant species. They also considered humans to be lesser beings and refused to have anything to do with them. If they learned the Harvest was in their territory, they’d be more likely to attack than to offer assistance. She just had to hope they got out of here before that happened.
Judging by the captain’s stormy expression, her conversation with engineering wasn’t going well, though so many technical terms were flying around Joy couldn’t understand the details. Not that she needed to. Her job was to manage the guests, not the ship.
“Captain, we’ve got incoming fire,” Hooper almost shouted, her voice cracking slightly.
“Son of a bitch. Brace!” Jodi ordered. “Who fired? From where?”
More alarms sounded. The captain looked grim as she activated the ship-wide comms and called all off-duty personnel to the bridge.
The bridge door slid open a few seconds later, allowing Maddison Summers with her personal assistant—and sometimes bodyguard—Loris, to join them.
“What’s happening?” Maddison asked. Her complexion was ashen and she had the look of someone fighting back panic.
Jodi didn’t answer. Instead, she pointed to an empty chair. “Sit down, strap in, and shut up. I’ll explain if we live through the next few minutes.”
To her credit, Maddison didn’t protest. She just did as she was told.
The deck bucked again, and this time the lights flickered and died. The emergency lighting kicked in almost immediately, bathing the bridge in a reddish glow that did nothing to improve their situation.
Joy activated a feature of her coronet she rarely used while on the bridge and zoomed in to see what was showing on the captain’s display. Damage reports filled the screen. It only took a brief look to know the Harvest was in trouble. Now she understood why none of the off-duty staff had made it to the bridge. Multiple hull breeches had exposed parts of the ship to vacuum, making it almost impossible to reach their area. Maddison and Loris had only made it because the captain had given them her cabin, which was right next to the bridge.
Were her friends and coworkers alright? What about the passengers? No doubt they’d be losing their minds by now. “How many escape pods deployed?” Jodi asked.
“Six deployed. But those bastards have shot down three of them.” Hooper slammed her hands down on her console. We’re sitting ducks out here! We’re going to die.”
“Keep it together, Hooper. We’re not dead yet.”
“Ma’am, we have another problem,” the pilot called out over the din. “We’re falling into the gravity well of a planet, and we only have partial power to our normal engines.”
“Fuck!” Jodi swore, her composure cracking for a second. Then the captain schooled her features and got back to work.
“Joy, get me everything you can about that planet. Atmosphere, survivability. Can we breathe the air if we go down?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Joy called up the data and sent the pertinent information to the captain’s monitor. Everything she saw looked promising. The planet was uninhabited but had everything they’d need to survive until rescue.
The hull groaned, and the deck twisted and rippled as they dropped deeper into the planet’s gravity well.
The captain bowed her head in defeat as she opened the ship-wide comms again. “This is the captain. I’m ordering everyone to abandon ship. I repeat. Abandon ship.”
She turned toward Maddison and Loris. “That includes the two of you.”
“I should stay,” Maddison argued.
“No, ma’am. You need to board the command shuttle. Once we’re inside the atmosphere, the autopilot can handle the descent and landing on its own.”
“Where do we go?” Loris asked.
“That hatch over there,” Jodi pointed and then spun to face Joy. “Bashir, you go with them and see to their safety. I’m counting on you.”
Joy nodded and unclipped her harness.
“What the hell, Captain? You’re sending the blind party planner? What the hell can she do to protect the VIPs?” Hooper rose from her chair, her face flushed and eyes wild. “I’ll do it.”
“Hooper! You will sit your ass down right now. Your place is here, ensuring we do everything possible to bring this ship down intact.”
Joy moved quietly, trying to join Maddison and Loris and escort them to the access hatch without Hooper noticing.
It didn’t work.
The first officer uttered a deranged howl and hurled herself at Joy. One second she was on her feet, and the next she was flying through the air, and the floor was rising up to meet her. Then everything went black.
Ready for more? Marked For Risk releases April 11, 2023