Tianna loved the freedom of traveling. It was one of the few times in her life she could relax and be herself. Given the magnitude of her new assignment, this trip to the Drift might be the last time she could relax for quite a while. Knowing that, she’d requested as small a crew as possible – a flight team and two members of Astek’s private security force. Ideally, she would have managed the trip solo, but there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in a supernova her father would allow it. Things were too unsettled, too dangerous. The corporations were on uneasy footing. Old alliances were being questioned, the body count was rising, and trust was in short supply.
According to her father, trust was the reason she was headed to the edge of known space to take control of Astek Station. Cornelius Astor might doubt his daughter would ever be ready to take over his beloved business, but her loyalty was unquestionable.
She set aside her mug of tea and stood, indulging in a slow stretch to ease the knots in her neck and shoulders. She’d spent the better part of the day in her quarters, reading everything she could about her new home – Astek Station. By the time she arrived, she intended to know everything she could about the station, the people who worked for her, and the ones who might be plotting against her, her father, and the family business.
“Tink, please send a request for a new set of blueprints of Astek space station to be drawn up and finalized before I arrive. The ones on file are more than two years out of date.”
“Sending request to executive services, Astek station.” The cheerful, airy voice of her virtual assistant replied.
“Thank you, Tink.” It drove her father to distraction that she had named her digital assistant after a character in an ancient children’s story. It made him even more cross-eyed that she spoke to Tink like it was a sentient being.
“Is there anything else, Tianna? You have worked through your usual mealtime. Shall I order a meal to be delivered to your quarters?”
“That sounds perfect. I’ll have my usual, but with a double slice of cherry pie.”
“I believe the food dispenser is out of cherry pie. Would you like to substitute apple, instead?”
Tianna wrinkled her nose. “I’m going to be very grumpy if there’s no cherry pie until we get to the Drift.”
“Noted. Checking inventory now.” There was a momentary silence. “I’m sorry, Tianna, because of the change in departure times, some supplies did not make it aboard on time.”
She sighed. “Apple pie will be fine, thanks. And you have nothing to apologize for. I’m the one who changed our departure time. My father’s paranoia made it seem like a good idea. He even had the pilot file a false destination so no one would know where we were headed.” He’d said he was worried about her safety, which was hard to believe. He rarely worried about anything. Her father was always calm, controlled, and deliberate. The only time she’d seen him show any signs of emotional distress was the first time she woke up after her accident. He’d been there, sitting by her bed in a rumpled suit, haggard with worry.
There’d been an echo of that same concern in his eyes when he’d called her in to give her this assignment. “This is going to be dangerous, Tianna. If I could keep you here, I would, but there’s too much at risk. I need someone I can trust overseeing things there.”
And according to her father’s first rule, family were the only ones you could trust. That’s why she was headed to the far side of the galaxy. He made it clear every day that he didn’t believe she was ready to take over Astek, but all this instability gave her a rare chance to prove herself.
Her father might not love her – she didn’t think he was even capable of that emotion. But he did care for her in his own way. She knew that. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have risked everything he’d built to keep her alive after the accident.
Recollections of the battle she’d waged to recover from the crash made her body ache with remembered pain. “Tink, run a shower for me, will you? I should have time before my meal gets here.”
“Your shower is now running. Your meal will be ready in fifteen minutes. Would you like me to inform you when it has arrived?”
“I would. Thanks, Tink.”
Tianna stripped off her clothes as she walked, dropping them on the floor just for the amusement of watching the housekeeping bots scuttle out of their charging stations to tidy up the trail of abandoned clothing.
The moment she opened the door to the sanitation room she was enveloped in a cloud of fragrant steam. Oranges, she guessed, with a hint of something spicy underneath. Tink selected the scents using its database of aromatherapy information, and always seemed to find the right fragrance to suit her mood.
She stepped under the stream of hot water, letting the heat penetrate her body. There was always a strange moment when her artificial parts took a few extra moments to warm up, and she could feel the difference, a slight chill in her limbs and at the back of her skull. The sensation passed quickly, but it served as a daily reminder of how close she’d come to death. She was more, and less, than human now. A medical miracle with no legal right to exist.
Cybernetic limb replacement was legal, but what was done to her was so much more than that. She didn’t even know exactly what they’d done to her. All records of her surgeries were faked to protect everyone involved, and her father had locked the real files away. For all she knew, they’d been destroyed. If anyone learned what had been done to her, her father would go to jail, and so would everyone who had rebuilt her, using illegal methods and banned technology to save her life and turn her into something unique, and less than human.
She ran a sudsy hand down her body, doing a silent inventory of her injuries. The surgeons had done immaculate work, leaving her skin with barely a scar or blemish. The real changes were invisible from the outside. Her bones had been shattered. Her organs ruptured, her limbs crushed and mangled beyond recognition. The skimmer crash had left her with catastrophic injuries.
Unsurvivable. That’s what they’d told her father when she’d been brought in. But she had survived. All it took was money, connections, and a corporate tycoon who would rather break galactic law, as well as the laws of nature, than lose his only heir. What she might have wanted had never even been a factor.
When the first explosion tore through the ship, she thought she was having a flashback to the crash. The impression only lasted a split second. When the second, larger explosion hit, she was tossed around the tiny shower space, slamming into the walls several times before crashing to the floor. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but she experienced every moment in slow-motion. She was airborne. The lights flickered. Impact. Airborne again. The lights went out. Warning alarms screamed. A flash of red. Impact again. Pain. Fear. Another moment of flight. She tumbled again, crashing headlong into something. The tumbling stopped. There was silence.
When Tianna came to, she was floating. Disoriented and dazed, she reached out wildly, trying to find something to connect with in the dark. Her hand hit a wall, still warm and slick from her shower. Shower. She’d been showering when…something happened. Something big and explode-y.
“Fraxx,” she swore, her voice a welcome break in the silence. “Tink, if you’re there, I could use a status report.”
The braided gold band on her left wrist buzzed slightly, confirming Tink’s presence. “I am here, though in a diminished capacity. The ship’s AI is offline. I am operating on backup power and have limited abilities. I am unable to give you a full assessment at this time.”
“Forget the full assessment. Tell me what you know. How bad is it?” Tianna felt her way out of the shower, no easy task when there was no gravity or light source.
“The ship is adrift. I am unable to detect any energy output on any deck.”
“Scanning.” Tink was silent for several long, terrible seconds. “I am unable to locate any other life signs in the immediate vicinity. My sensor range is minimal, however. It is possible…”
“We both know that’s not likely.” The crew was gone. Killed by whatever had taken out her ship and left her adrift in a crippled wreck.
“What happened?” Something brushed by her face in the dark, and she flinched, swatting it away out of instinct. When her hand touched soft fabric, she realized it was only a towel and grabbed it. She couldn’t do much at the moment, but she could get herself dried off.
“I have limited data, but it is eighty-nine percent likely that the ship experienced multiple explosive decompressions in a short time period.”
“You mean the ship blew up. How did it happen? No, scratch that. It doesn’t matter right now. How long can I survive given the current situation?”
“I do not have enough data to make an accurate calculation.”
“Dammit, Tink. Give me your best guess. How long do I have?”
“You have less than twenty hours’ worth of breathable atmosphere. Life support is offline, but it will take some time for the temperature to drop to dangerous levels.”
Fraxx. “Has a distress beacon been activated?”
“Affirmative. The beacon is automated and functioning normally.”
“Then I guess we better hope someone answers that beacon before I run out of air or freeze to death.” Her father’s choices might have saved her life, again. A normal human would die when the temperature dropped too far or the carbon dioxide rose too high. She wasn’t human, though. Not anymore. She was a cyborg with a body loaded with military grade nanotech whose only purpose was to keep her alive.
In the years since the crash, she’d always played it safe. No more risks. No adventures. She hadn’t tested her medi-bots against anything more dangerous than the occasional flu virus. Today, they’d have their work cut out for them. And if she lived, she was going to have to thank her father for saving her life, again.
Royan Watson leaned back in his seat and uttered a sigh of contentment. This was where he was happiest: in the cockpit of the Sun Sprite with all of space stretched out in front of him. He had almost everything he wanted. A fast ship, the galaxy to play in – now if he could convince Owen that they were meant to be together, life would be perfect.
His new security officer’s footfalls rang out on the bare metal deck, announcing his return.
“Everything is quiet and secure back in the cargo bay,” Owen announced.
“I should hope so. Our entire cargo is livestock embryos in cryo-stasis. If things weren’t quiet back there, we’d have a lot of explaining to do to the colonists waiting on this shipment.”
“And a lot of mess to clean up.” Owen’s placed a hand on Royan’s shoulder, his thumb brushing the back of his neck in a brief caress. “Just so we’re clear, my shiny new contract does not include cleaning duties. I’m here to protect the ship, its cargo, and you, in that order.”
Royan uttered a dramatic sigh. “This is what happens when I leave employee contract negotiations to my sister. I am clearly the most valuable asset on this ship and should be at the top of that list.”
Owen chuckled. “Last time I looked, Zura owned this company. We just work for her, remember? And while it’s not in my contract, she made it pretty damned clear that keeping you in one piece was high on her list of priorities. Apparently, she doesn’t have much faith in your ability to stay out of trouble.”
Royan considered protesting, but there wasn’t much point. Given a choice, he’d fly straight into trouble nine times out of ten, and they both knew it. “I don’t care why she lured you away from working security at the Nova, I’m just glad you’re here.”
Owen squeezed his shoulder, released it, and moved back. It was a dance they’d been doing since they’d left Astek station for a series of deliveries that had kept them moving for the better part of three weeks. They’d have a moment. A look, a touch, or a whispered word, and then Owen would move away again. It was making Royan crazy. “You admitting you need help staying out of trouble?” he asked.
Royan spun the chair around to look over at his friend and one-time lover. After their one night together, Owen had retreated. Their friendship was still intact, and the attraction was still there, too. Fraxx, the attraction between them was enough to rival a black hole, and it had only gotten stronger since they’d fallen into bed. The problem was, Owen didn’t trust him. Fair enough. But how could he prove he could do better if he didn’t get the chance to show it?
“Me admit to needing help? Never. But flying solo gets old. I like having you around. You’re a lot more fun to talk to than the ship. No insult intended, Sprite.”
The ship’s AI responded in the low, sultry female voice Royan had programmed into the system the moment he’d taken possession of the Sun Sprite. “I understand. I am not programmed for recreational activities, including conversation.”
He patted the wall closest to him. “I know, sweetheart. But you’re still the best ship I’ve ever flown.”
Owen cocked a brow and sighed. “You really can’t help yourself, can you? You have to flirt with anything that shows the slightest sign of sentience.”
“It’s part of my charm.” Royan stood and walked over to Owen. “It works, too. On everyone but you.”
“That’s not true.” Owen’s blue-gray eyes darkened as he locked gazes with Royan. “You know that’s not true.”
“Then why are you sleeping in the crew quarters instead of with me?” And there it was, the topic they’d been dancing around since the day Owen had walked onto the Sprite as a member of the crew.
“Because that’s not where we are.”
Royan grabbed the collar of Owen’s shirt and pulled him in close. “Then where the fraxx are we?” This was the closest he’d been to Owen in weeks, and it wasn’t close enough.
“I don’t know. But I do know that one night of drunken sex does not make us live-in lovers.”
“It was amazing drunken sex, though.” Royan threw caution to the cosmos and closed the last inch between them to brush his mouth across Owen’s. “Come on, admit that much.”
Owen groaned. “You and me are not a good idea. We’re too different.”
“Opposites attract,” he retorted, desperate enough to cling to clichés.”
Owen put his hand on Royan’s but didn’t push him away. “And mixing volatile chemicals can make things go boom in a very bad way.”
“Or very good ways. Come on, admit it, baby. That night we had was amazing.”
Owen sighed, and Royan knew he’d won. “Everything with you is amazing, you lunatic.”
“Asshole.” Owen kissed him, his mouth slanting across his with a fire that made Royan’s head spin.
Lips locked, hands fisted in each other’s shirts, the taste of coffee and cinnamon teased his tongue. He was rock hard in seconds as Owen let down his guard and let Royan get another glimpse of the wild side his best friend kept locked down most of the time.
He’d only seen that side of Owen once, the night of Zale’s wake. The celebration of Zale’s life had been so loud the big guy must have heard it in the afterlife. The booze had flowed, along with laughter, tears, and stories from everyone who had ever known him. It was a hell of a night, the mix of liquor and grief erasing every line Owen had drawn in their friendship. They’d crossed them all, and now… Now, he had no fraxxing idea what they were. Because while they hadn’t been lovers since that night, they were a hell of a lot more than friends.
Owen tore his mouth from his. “We need to stop.”
“That’s a terrible idea. What we need to do is—” his suggestion they put the ship on autopilot and get naked was cut off by the ship’s AI.
“Captain, I’m receiving a distress beacon.”
That news was probably the only thing short of a comet strike that could make him change trajectories right now. “So we’re clear, I’m not stopping because you thought we should. I’m stopping because someone out there is in trouble.”
They let go of each other and Royan turned toward the console. “Play the message, Sprite.”
“There’s no message. Only an automated beacon.”
Odd. Normally there was some sort of message identifying the craft and what the problem was. “Show me the location of the beacon.”
A star map shimmered into existence in the air over his chair. Their current position was marked in red, and the beacon showed as a blip of strobing yellow.
“How long would it take to reach the location of the beacon?”
“Thirteen hours, forty-eight minutes.” By the standards of space travel, that was no time at all, but for whoever had sent the distress call, it would feel like a lifetime.
“Make the calculations. I’ll deactivate the FTL drive and restart the engines with our new coordinates.”
Owen cleared his throat. “You don’t even know who we’re going to help, or what happened to them. That’s a big risk to take for a stranger.”
“Are you saying we shouldn’t respond?”
“I’m saying it’s a risk, and it’s my job to make sure we avoid as many of those as we can. We have no idea who or what is out there. For all we know, this is a trap.”
“It might be, but I doubt it. Space is too big to just randomly set off a distress signal and hope someone is close enough to reach you in a reasonable amount of time. There are better ways to set an ambush.” He pointed to the flashing circle of yellow. “They’re alone out here. If we don’t help them, they’re going to die out here. I’m not going to let that happen.”
Owen’s jaw flexed as he clenched it in obvious frustration. “Can’t anyone else help?”
“Who?” He gestured to the map. “Sprite, are there any other ships in the area?”
“Can you be sure of that, Sprite?” Owen asked.
“There is an eighty-one percent chance this area is empty. I cannot be one hundred percent sure.”
“Which means there’s a one-in-five chance we’re not alone out here.” Owen pointed to the yellow beacon. “Just tell me you accept the possibility it might be a trap.”
His gut told him this was the real thing, but having finally made some progress with Owen, Royan didn’t want to blow it by fighting. “Alright. It’s possible. We’re still going, though.”
“Only if you agree to do this my way.”
Royan’s cock twitched at the tone of command in Owen’s voice. Hell, if he uses that tone of voice, I’ll do whatever he wants. “I can do that.”
“How the fraxx do you do that?”
“Make anything, and everything sound like foreplay.”
Royan deliberately bit his lower lip. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”
Owen growled low in his throat. “Quit it. If we’re doing this, then we do it slow and smart.”
Royan wasn’t sure what they were talking about anymore, but he hoped it wasn’t just the rescue. Slow wasn’t his preferred speed, but if that’s what Owen wanted, he could throttle back a little – For now.
“Okay. You want it slow, we’ll do slow. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
“We’ll go check out this distress beacon, but we will approach it cautiously and make sure we know what we’re getting ourselves into. One more thing. Once we’re there, your ass stays on the Sun Sprite.”
“Fine. No risking my cute ass. I’m good with that, but I’ve got a rule of my own.”
“Your fine ass comes back in one piece, too. And before you get all twitchy, there’s nothing sentimental about it. If you get hurt, Zura will take it out of my hide.”
Owen snorted with laughter. “Duly noted. I’ll try and come back in one piece…for your sake.”
“I’m going to run a full diagnostic on the weapons systems. I won’t be long.” Owen left, and Royan turned his chair back toward the console to start the process of taking the ship back into normal space. It would take a few minutes to recalibrate the FTL drive with the new coordinates, and then they’d be on their way again.
He checked the new course and sent the information to his sister, back on the Drift. She wouldn’t be happy he’d be late with his delivery, but she’d been a pilot, too. She knew the code. When someone called for help, you answered, because the next time someone sent out a distress call, you might be the one in trouble.
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