Authors: Janelle Taylor
Tags: #Fantasy fiction
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
To my friend and an excellent "Jana,
to my friend
Digitized by tine Internet Arciiive in 2010
"Moig ... we have a complication down here," Starla reported to her teammate on the transporter's upper deck via a wrist communicator. Winded from a struggle with a tall and muscular man moments ago, she explained between gasps for air, "There was an intruder in the last bay. He's human . . . still stoked from his fierce glare . . . but I have him subdued. Do I leave him unconscious or take hrni with us?"
"No, Vedris, kill him!"
To prevent a surprise attack, Starla Vedris remained on alert at a safe distance, a laser weapon aimed at the center of the auslander's broad chest. She was dismayed by her companion's swift and deadly response, as they tried to avoid trouble during their criminal raids on other spaceships. Her heart pounded in dread and from physical exertions, though she kept her expression impassive. She gazed at the man on his knees, his palms resting on sleek thighs and still breathing hard. A look of astonishment in his dark-blue eyes at being bested in a fight by a female who now had him groveling before her changed to one of anger as he overheard the icy extermination order. She lifted her left arm and spoke into her communication device. "Moig, did you say, 'kill him'?"
"Yes, we can't leave behind an open mouth to speak into the wrong ears about us. He's seen your face and knows our names, so get rid of him. We were told only one android
would be aboard this vessel, but our talker was wrong. Somebody's going to catch Karlee for this mistake."
"Should we make this crucial decision on our own? You know the penalty for life-taking during a theft: disintegration in an annihilator unit."
"Do it, Vedris, or Til come send him into oblivion myself! If I have to do your job for you, that'll prove you aren't as brave and loyal as our leader thinks and you'll be out of his hire. Blast him to Karlee or he could be the death of us later. Don't forget, I'm in charge. Zap him, Vedris, now!"
Starla took a deep breath and scowled. "Don't zone out, Moig. I'll get rid of him, but this is the only time I'm taking such an order from anybody. I didn't agree to have life-taking charges added to my record, which is already too long and grim for comfort."
"It's for self-defense, woman, to save all of our skins!"
"I said I would do it. Vedris out," she told Moig, ending their talk. She said to her android, who was aboard her ship nearby, "Cypher-T, I'm fine. Thanks for the warning and keep alert for more trouble. No reply needed."
The man stared at the armed and beautiful space pirate who was clad in a snug bronze jumpsuit that covered a shapely figure from slender neck to small wrists and black-booted feet. Long and lustrous brovm tresses tumbled over her shoulders in thick waves. Green eyes examined him with what appeared to be a mixture of professional and personal interest. Her tawny complexion was flawless and glowed with good health. Her features were perfect, exquisite, arousing even now in this vexing situation. Her stance and posture exhibited confidence, and implied a dash of arrogance. The way she held her weapon told him she knew how to use it. She had proven she was skilled in hand-to-hand combat. He was amazed—under those grim circumstances and following an embarrassing defeat—that he noticed so much about her, but his perceptions came easily
and from an instinct borne of necessity. Was she, he mused, a hazard, even if her lovely features were set in resignation of obedience? Yes, he decided, but he had gotten out of worse predicaments in the past, so he watched for an opening.
Starla knew if she refused to kill him Moig would do so without remorse, and she would be ejected from Tochar's band. She realized there was only one thing she could do to protect herself and her plans. She gave a loud sigh and shrugged. "Sorry, handsome, but you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. You've made your last error in this time phase."
As he started to rise and argue, Starla warned, "Don't be reckless; this weapon isn't set on stun. I can put you down forever before you get to your feet, much less reach me. You may be the best-looking specimen I've ever seen, but I still have my wits and orders. You won't suffer."
"You don't want to do this, Vedris. If you obey him, you'll be in deep trouble. Killing me isn't worth a visit to a disintegration unit or permanent habitation on a penal colony on some barren planetoid. That's no place for a beautiful young woman. If you'll spare my life, I'll—"
"Silence!" she ordered as he fingered his mussed black hair. Don't let him distract or sway you. "To fail my leader offers more of a threat than your words coming true. If I betrayed him, there would be no place for me to hide in the entire Microcosm. Too bad, handsome; you would've made a valuable captive on the slave market if I had time to be troubled with you. With your looks and spirit, I bet you'd be an excellent breeder, highly skilled on a sleeper." Time was limited. Starla's finger pressed a button on her weapon to fire a beam into his broad chest before the grinning male could respond. A buzzing sound filled the area and a dazzling shai^ of light illuminated it. The stranger fell backward and didn't move again.
She lifted her left arm and said, "It's done, Moig. Let's
get this cargo loaded and blast off before any parsec jumpers show their unwanted faces. I'm not in a mood to challenge an I-GAFqt"' The last thing she needed was to be confronted by anyone from the Inter-Galactic Alliance Force! Each of those space rangers was extremely hazardous, and facing more than one meant certain capture or death to villites! She knew that I-GAFqts —often called "parsec jumpers"—were almost a law unto themselves, elite agents who roamed the five united galaxies of the UFG investigating and solving multijurisdictional crimes. No, she didn't want to be thrust into conflict with men of such awesome power and authority; that would ruin or imperil everything she had worked for since leaving her world of Maffei. Thankfiilly, the Free-Zone was beyond I-GAFqt reach so its members couldn't interfere with the completion of her crucial goal—if she could make it back there alive. Starla frowned, as the auslander's intrusion struck her as being a bad omen.
"Do you need any help down there?" Moig asked.
"No, I'll be up in ^preon; I'm finished here. Vedris out," she said, using her alleged last name as was Moig's unusual custom.
Starla switched off the communication link to Moig to complete her task in a hurry, but the one with Cypher—her android—always remained open. She took a last look at the attractive male, then grabbed a tan sack of thin material, dumped its contents, and covered his face before giving him a necessary injection from a phial in her belt holder. She gathered the items she had been sent after and headed for the passageway.
Before she reached the exit, the door swished open and Moig entered the vessel's smallest compartment. "Why did you come down?" Starla asked. "I said I was on my way up. I took care of the problem, and I have the sunbursts. We need to shove off fast; we've taken too long. Even if
I-GAFqts aren't in this quadrant, Sekis might be; this is Kalfan space."
"This won't delay us much, and your android will warn us if any space rangers appear on his sensors." Moig walked past his vexed companion to where the male was lying as he must have fallen, almost on his stomach. He noticed the sack on the man's head and assumed she hadn't wanted to look her victim in the eye while slaying him. Wisely, he did not tease her about that action. Moig squatted and placed several fingers on the man's jugular vein, waited a few moments, then pressed his ear to the center of the man's back; he felt no pulse and heard no heartbeat and was pleased.
"Your actions say you don't trust me," Starla accused in a chilly tone.
Moig looked at the brown-haired beauty with the annoyed gleam in her green eyes and he grinned. "Just being sure you didn't make a mistake that could endanger us later. You're tougher and stronger than I imagined. Good work, Vedris. Tochar will be pleased with your obedience and with these weapons. We're in for a nice cut of this deal. Let's finish loading our haul and blast off. I'm ready to spend a lot of time at the drinker,"
The sooner we get out of here the better, you reality-impaired Icarian! her mind fumed. "Let's do it," she concurred aloud.
As the last crate of weapons was passed through the jerri hatch connection to Starla's ship and the two pirates went aboard, Moig asked, "Why are you so stoked? Your jaw is clenched and your eyes are stormy."
The woman stood after securing the hatch and looked at the man with small dark eyes and a short golden beard, as all Icarians had various shades of blond hair and black eyes. "Blast it all, Moig! I'm tired of being tested! Surely by now, you and Tochar and the others know I can be trusted without me having to prove myself again and again. I'm
beginning to think I shouldn't close my eyes or turn my back if I ever make a mistake. That puts me on edge."
"We trust you, Vedris, or you wouldn't be working with us."
"If that's true, why am I never told where we're heading or when we'll depart until the last preon? Our destination is kept secret until we take off, and so is our target until after we reach its location. Since we use my ship part of the time, I need those facts to make certain I have enough energy for my warp drive and enough supplies for the trek. I need to plan the best and easiest way to reach our destination, and plot several escape paths in case of trouble. If I'm trustworthy, why that secrecy?"
"Tochar doesn't trust anybody with such facts except me, Auken, and Sach. That way, there's no problem with loose lips."
Starla knew the names of Tochar's other top hirelings and friends, Icarians like himself. "I've never suffered from that condition, by accident or intention. I'm loyal to whomever hires me. My record speaks for itself, and Tochar checked me out in every way, including the use of truth serum."
"Be patient, Vedris, and you'll eventually enter the upper ranks with us. Now, let's blast off. I won't relax until we're on the other side of that stargate, out of this parsec, and back in Tochara."
"Cypher-T knows to get us under way as soon as the Jerri hatch is sealed. By now, he's already disengaged our connection, cloaked the Liska, and we're leaving this vector before another ship can reach it. You did set the transporter's auto-pilot to take it in the opposite direction?"
"Yes," Moig confirmed, "but I don't want to be near that vessel when it's sighted, boarded, and checked, and the body is found. I wonder who he was?"
"Since he was hiding below, probably a free-rider on the run. I didn't ask him any questions and he didn't volunteer any information."
"You don't think he was a Seki or cargo protector or ranger, do you?"
"No, his hand didn't bear any of those authority symbols and he wasn't in a uniform, just an ordinary jumpsuit. He didn't seem to be there to trap any possible raiders. He wasn't even armed. I doubt he realized he was traveling on a ship transporting weapons or he would have broken into one of those crates earlier and been able to defend himself against me."
"That's impaired-reality after being aboard for so long."
"Not if he was on the run," Starla explained. "Any tampering with those crates would have exposed him to the android pilot/guard when it patrolled the ship."
Moig continued to dissect the situation. "He could have disabled the robot if he got his hands on a weapon."
"Then, who would have piloted the vessel to its next port?" she countered. "If he lacked the skill to take over, he would have drifted in space until he died or the ship was tracked and boarded and he was captured." She saw Moig shrug and frown for not reasoning out those points himself
"How did you overpower such a big and strong male?" This fascinated him.
Since her ship was cloaked and was en route to their base, they both could relax, and in the process she might learn something valuable. "Since the transporter is piloted by an android, there probably isn't any food or drink aboard, so he could have been weakened from a lack of them," Starla suggested. "And, like most men, he no doubt assumed a mere female wasn't a serious threat or any real competition in a hand-to-hand fight; I tricked him and, as you noticed, won."
Moig chuckled and stroked his fuzzy beard. "Perhaps Tochar should keep a sharp eye and ear on you; with your skills and intelligence, you could replace him as our leader if you had a mind to challenge him."
"I have no interest in becoming a leader. Serving Tochar suits me just fine, so he doesn't have to worry about a challenge from me, as if a takeover were possible by anyone!"
"Good, because Auken and Sach would slay anybody who harmed him."
"Do you envy or covet Tochar's rank?" Starla queried in a calm tone.
"No, he*s my friend and he pays me well, pays all of us well."
"True. I'm tense after my struggle with that intruder, so I'm going to refresh myself; then I'll join you and Cypher-T on the bridge." She did not have to worry about Moig following her to her quarters and trying to seduce her; though she perceived his lust for her, the ahen lacked the courage to do anything to displease Tochar or to provoke his leader's wrath. She detested the man and his presence on her ship, her home when away from her galaxy, but she had to pretend to like and accept him.
"You talk to and about your android as if he's alive," Moig teased.
"To me, he is. He's my best friend, my family. We've been together for yings. He's saved my life and gotten me out of danger countless times."
"Is that why you keep communications open to him when we use your ship, so he can warn you and protect you?"
"Yes, and that's why I'm sometimes nervous when we're using Auken's ship and Cypher-T isn't around to guard me or alert me to danger. I don't understand why we can't use my ship during every raid; it's faster, better equipped, and my cloaking device is newer. Some forces have the capability of penetrating Auken's old style, so we could be detected and attacked."