Lucky Strike - Inventory Clearance Paperback!
Death’s a heartbeat away, but love is even closer.
Flying a traveler to Leap celebrations on the luxury planet Crestal is no problem for intrepid partners Jake and Rill, even if they have to navigate a deadly meteor shower to get there. But their fresh-faced, privileged passenger is carrying more than Leap gifts: Lian has a message to deliver, treachery and murder to avenge, and a killer close on his heels.
Lian thought he was ready for independence from his overbearing extended family, but his first solo trip off-planet has landed him in a nightmare of deadly intrigue. Though he’s devastated by betrayal, and no longer able to tell friend from foe, he’s fascinated by the gruff pilot and scorchingly handsome first mate who’ve become his reluctant rescuers.
With a dazzling fortune at stake and the fate of the United Protectorate of Planets in their hands, there’s no time for the three men to fall in love. But with their future measured in hours, crew and passenger may have just enough time to discover that three can become one, and that together they are strong enough to beat any odds.
We're clearing out old inventory to make room for new, and this means MASSIVE SAVINGS for you! Pick up new paperbacks for as much as 70% off, with free shipping included to the Continental US! (If you're outside the Continental US, please email us for a shipping quote before placing an order.) But hurry--supplies are limited, and when they're gone, they're gone!
Note: Clearance Paperbacks will ship via Media Mail
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:dubious consent, explicit violence, non-consent
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), disability / disfigurement, family, first love, first time, holiday, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, prostitution, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Crestal is a circumbinary planet orbiting the suns of Rane and Aura. Originally independent, it was subsequently claimed by both solar systems after the discovery of vast deposits of kharite, the driving force behind the second human diaspora. Following a prolonged period of war, the United Protectorate claimed the planet and restored autonomy after striking a deal some have called draconian, others pragmatic. Kharite continues to be mined and sold, but at a Protectorate-regulated price, and the cost of the crystals, or more correctly the price of leap fuel, regulate the worth of the universal credits (unicreds/credits) that have become the dominant currency.
[Tourist Guide to Crestal, Vol 1]
The alley behind the bar stank of piss and rotting food. The stench was enough to stop Jake after a step or two, as his last meal threatened to revisit his mouth. As Amabale’s main city, Landon had plenty of decent bars to choose from, so why did he always finish the night in a dive? His mother would say trash called to trash, but Jake didn’t believe that. And if it were true, well, he’d made something of himself and proved her wrong. Captain of a ship, his account flush with enough unicreds to buy drinks for everyone in that fleapit—if he’d been inclined to waste his money, which he wasn’t—Jake felt justifiably proud of his achievements.
Even if he’d won his ship in a card game and buying the round would leave his account hovering close to zero.
Head swimming from too much brandy, Jake shrugged and carried on down the alley, conquering his queasiness by breathing through his mouth. It was a shortcut back to the spaceport and after six weeks on board the Mama Rose, sniffing resyked air, stale and dead, the ripe organic stink made a change at least. In other cities, a dark alley would be a risky route to take, but Landon was peaceful on the whole and this close to the port, security patrols were frequent. Given the exorbitant fees for a docking space, that was no more than fair, though the residents complained the port’s guards were overly zealous when it came to protecting visitors.
Jake didn’t care. Drunk or sober, he could look after himself and in his experience dirt-grippers always had a bone to gnaw.
As he neared the end of the alley, two figures appeared, blocking the exit and arguing loudly. Not waiting to rob him then. Too noisy for that. Curious, he moved closer, sticking to the shadows, though it meant he stepped in some dubious puddles. Rill would order him to take off his boots before opening the airlock. Or make him strip. The thought of boarding naked, watched by a tight-lipped Rill in a pissy mood made Jake grin. Easy enough to get Rill smiling again.
The taller of the two, a woman, said, “A week and you can hire the whole fucking ship to go to wherever in the sector you like, but no one’s lifting now. No one.”
“I appreciate the difficulties caused by the shower, and I don’t wish to contradict you, but if we lift now and navigate around it, we’ll be safe enough, I’d think,” a man answered, tension sharpening his words.
The first voice was familiar. That husky rasp of a voice ruined by overindulgence in vestin dust had murmured encouraging obscenities in Jake’s ear once, though as a rule he shared his bed with men, not women. Sharla had been willing to make room for a man to rouse Jake when he’d flagged, exhausted by her demands, and the night had been memorable if only for the hangover the next day and the discovery of two tattoos, one on each ass cheek, scoring his performance.
They’d washed off, so he didn’t hold a grudge over the six out of ten she’d given him.
The man she was arguing with was a stranger, his accent putting him in the stratosphere of Crestal society. Crestal. Jake had been there once or twice and hated the place. There was no middle ground. You were rich or dirt-poor. He didn’t fit in either category.
“Safe enough breathing space and choking on blood?” Sharla demanded.
“Shields stop dust and small fragments of debris. Small.” Sharla sounded testy. Time for a wise man to shut the fuck up. “The Sentar shower is a million chunks of rock held together by a comet ten times larger than my ship.”
Someone didn’t know when to bow out of a discussion with his hide intact. “If it would help, I have access to the latest research on cometary peregrinations. I could upload it to your navcom, and I’m sure we’d find a way to make the trip safely.”
Jake moved out of the shadows, not bothering to clear his throat. Sharla would’ve seen him, recognized him, and dismissed him as a threat the moment he’d hugged the wall. The possibility of enhanced senses had lured her into trying vestin dust, and if it’d cost her more than her voice by shaving a decade or so off her life span, the senses had saved her ass more than once, so it evened out.
In Jake’s opinion, most things did if you lived long enough.
Mocking a pampered little gembaby wasn’t his idea of fun, but if the gembaby in question was bent on suicide, he felt obliged to step in, if only to save Sharla from the consequences of ripping the man’s tongue out and choking him to death with it when she got bored with his polite stubbornness.
“Peregrinations? I had them once, but the medic sold me a pill that made the itching stop.”
“Jake.” Sharla’s greeting held no warmth. “Heard you’d docked.”
“No need to make it sound like the Mama Rose is lowering the tone.” Jake gave her a bow that would’ve been courtly as hell if the brandy hadn’t made him stagger on the way back up. “Looking elegant as always.”
Not a lie. The wig she wore landside was a tall spiral of gold and silver, defying gravity, and enough resso silk swathed her lean frame to carpet the alley behind him. Sharla was dressed to party and at this time of the night, with Leap Week about to start, she was most likely on her way to somewhere discreetly expensive to pick out a bedmate.
“And you’re looking cheap. I’ll upgrade that to moderately presentable if you bring Rill by the Centarian. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the boy.”
Jake disguised a wince as a cough. Sharla’s attempts to bed Rill had ended when Rill abandoned polite hints and told her flatly he wasn’t interested, but she’d retained a fondness for him verging on maternal.
Rill didn’t take kindly to being mothered.
“I’ll be sure to pass on your invitation.”
Sharla poked at her wig, probably checking a weapon buried in there. Jake hoped it wasn’t anything with a pulse. The rumor that she kept a Drekkan lizard in her hair, packing enough venom in one flick of its tongue to turn a man blue and stiff in seconds, had to be false, but with Sharla, who knew? “It doesn’t include you, just so we’re clear.”
Now that was unmannerly. Or a lucky escape. Either way, he didn’t plan to argue, beg, or glare.
“Excuse me, sir, but I really need to arrange passage on this lady’s ship. I don’t wish to interrupt, but it’s vital I leave now.” The kid swallowed audibly and murmured, “Vital,” as if he were talking to himself.
Nice manners, but Jake judged people by their actions, not their words. Still, it was a point in the Crestallian’s favor. Jake studied him, taking in height without bulk and a stiff spring of dark hair coated in sculpting spray. The kid was no looker, not with that beak of a nose dominating his face, but it was most likely the Family Nose and worn as a badge of pride. A commoner would’ve gotten it fixed up a bit so it faded into the background. Jake had never changed his appearance, but that was because he’d been born handsome. If anyone disagreed, he took it as proof they were stupid.
For the diversion, Jake was willing to hurt the Crestallian’s feelings. He snickered, gesturing at the kid’s red-and-green pleated pants as they billowed out in the brisk breeze that’d sprung up. “Don’t know your name, kid, but sweet stars, you look a fool in those pants.”
The man flinched as if being insulted came as a shock, then glanced down, confirming his lack of a functioning survival instinct. Jake was an unknown quantity, Sharla hostile, and the kid should’ve stepped back so he could keep both of them in view. In a fight, a slip like that could’ve robbed him of a future or at best made it a painful one. If Jake had been the kind of man who stamped on bugs for the squish—which he wasn’t—he could’ve shoved his blade deep into flesh, twisted the hilt, and robbed the kid with his anguished screams providing background music. Jake’s knife had a synth-steel metal blade, old-fashioned but reliable, and it felt right in his hand. A woman had offered him the latest plasteel vibroblade earlier for an eye-watering amount of creds, and he’d turned her down without hesitation. They tore a body up, sure, but the cheap knockoffs—and the one in the bar most certainly wasn’t a genuine Nexon—vibrated so fast the user often dropped it.
He’d heard of that happening to a man who lost the top of his foot when it landed, then his fingers when he grabbed it by the blade to shut it off. Probably true. People were idiots.
“Really? They’re the latest fashion. Over thirty thousand pairs have been sold in this city alone in the last month. Everyone’s wearing them.” The Crestallian wrinkled his eyebrows, shaped by a styling wand into a precise, thin curve, his bemusement as plain as his embarrassment. “But you don’t seem like a man interested in clothes, so why comment on mine?”
Valid point, even if it’d been phrased in a way a man could take exception to if he was so inclined, followed as it was by Sharla’s derisive snort of laughter. The boy needed to watch his words or hire a bodyguard. By now a sensible man would’ve been babbling apologies for wearing something Jake didn’t like, and promising to burn them at the first opportunity. Men like that lived longer.
Of course, that was men who’d seen him in a fight, and so far the boy had only seen him insulted by Sharla and too drunk to stand without wobbling. He wasn’t making the best first impression.
Jake sketched a dismissive gesture. “Forget I spoke. They’re divine. Transcendent. And they don’t make you look like a man who shit himself repeatedly, I swear it.”
The Crestallian gave him an uncertain glance, as if at a loss to understand why Jake wasn’t rushing out to buy a pair of his own now he knew they were fashionable, before focusing his attention on Sharla. Yeah, in a bar fight, he’d be the first body hitting the floor, no doubt about it. Jake rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall. He was tired. Let Sharla educate the boy. Might be entertaining, and if it got sticky, she’d need someone to give her an alibi. Wouldn’t hurt to get her smiling at him for once. Hell, he wasn’t sure why she’d stopped. He’d asked around and gotten vague references to a business matter, but that made no sense at all. The Mama Rose ferried small parties around the system and sometimes cargo. Jake offered adequate, not fancy, accommodations and food. The Centarian was bigger, more luxurious, and faster. They weren’t in competition.
“Please say you’ll give me passage to Crestal.” The man lowered his voice as if that gave his words more urgency. Or maybe he was dropping a hint that the conversation was none of Jake’s business.
Jake grinned. He recognized hints. Didn’t mean he had to say “hello” and “how are you?” to them.
“You need to learn how to wait, Mr. Paradine.” Sharla didn’t trouble to lower her voice. “Don’t tell me it’s a matter of life and death either. It’d be my life and death. I won’t do it. I don’t need your money. Credits don’t buy you ice water in hell, and if that’s where I’m heading, I’d prefer to postpone the trip for as long as possible.” She jerked a thumb heavy with rings at Jake. “Ask him for a ride. The system knows Jake Slant will give anyone a seat in his ship for a price. Even a child-murdering piece of shit desperate to get off-world and escape justice.”
“O’Neill?” Jake demanded, pushing away from the wall, anger clearing his head as a few things clicked into place. “That’s why you turned on me? He shipped out with a new name and face. How the fuck was I supposed to recognize him? And I spaced him as soon as word reached me.”
It hadn’t been pleasant. O’Neill had denied everything, then threatened them, then pleaded. With an execution order playing out in sound and visual on the screen in the corner of the room—giving Jake, as captain, full authority to dispense justice and a bounty for a verified death—Jake hadn’t hesitated.
Well, only long enough to punch O’Neill hard, but not hard enough to knock him out. When the bastard took his first sip of vacuum, Jake had wanted O’Neill to be awake to savor the taste. Tied to the inside of an airlock under the impersonal gaze of a securi-cam, he’d died with Jake and Rill watching along with the police force on the planet. The bounty had taken its own sweet time arriving; Jake, a superstitious itch warning him not to spend it on overhauling the Mama Rose, had frittered it away in a week on the closest space station, spoiling Rill and tipping lavishly. No matter how much he drank, he still saw O’Neill’s eyes popping out, mouth opening in a final, pointless scream.
“If you’d run security checks like the rest of us do, you would’ve known. But you trust your gut to tell you when someone’s dicey, don’t you, Jake? Not sure why when it’s full of shit.”
Sucking in a breath, ready to defend himself, Jake expelled it a moment later when she drove her fist into his belly. He spat out a mouthful of bile without losing the acid taste. Nasty. Though on reflection, the brandy tasted better after an hour in his stomach than when he’d drunk it.
“What’s your gut telling you now?” she asked as he rubbed away the ache. “That I don’t like you? It’s gotten one thing right after all.”
With the wig, she was six inches taller than he was, but he stood like a man who could meet her gaze squarely. Head up, shoulders back, and watching for a weak spot. His knife was warm against his forearm, waiting to slip free and bite deep. Like Sharla, he had other weapons hidden, as well as the two at the end of his arms. “Sharla, I’m not your enemy. Not yet. Don’t push me to a place where I’ve got no choice but to act the part. Not over a mistake I made and corrected as soon as I could.”
A lip painted gold and purple curled derisively. “You want to wipe it out? Make things right between us?”
Not really. “I’d settle for us never talking again and you keeping your fists to yourself.”
A drunk lurched past them, jostling Sharla and treading on Paradine’s foot. Pickpockets weren’t common these days when every transaction, no matter how small, was accomplished by a fingerprint tap; but just because people no longer kept money in their pockets, it didn’t mean those pockets were empty.
“I’m sorry,” Paradine called after the man who’d left him wincing. “My fault.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Jake took three strides and grabbed the drunk. “You. Apologize to the—to her, and give him back whatever you lifted.”
Bleary eyes gazed up at him from a puffy face. “Didn’t lift anything. You let me go or I’ll call the cops. Blocking the street so decent people can’t walk where they’ve a mind to.”
“I’ll block it with your corpse if you’ve creased this silk.” Sharla examined her sleeve, eyes narrowed.
Ignoring Paradine’s murmured protests that really, he was fine and no, nothing had been stolen, Jake patted the drunk down and found nothing but a ripe stink wafting from his clothes and an assortment of junk. On a hunch, he pushed back the sleeves of the man’s coat to check his wrists and saw the gleam of precious metal on the right one.
“This yours?” he asked Paradine. “Because it really doesn’t go with what he’s wearing.”
Clasping his wrist as if he expected to find the bracelet still there, Paradine nodded, mouth slack with surprise. “I didn’t feel him take it.”
“That’s because I didn’t! It fell off, and I picked it up.” The drunk sniffed wetly. “You can’t prove anything.”
“Yeah, you’re a fine, upstanding citizen. An example to us all.” Jake yanked the bracelet free, then sent him on his way with a shove and a kick.
Paradine took the bracelet from him with a warm smile. “That was kind of you.”
“Was it?” Jake scratched his head, then thought better of it given what he’d just touched. He wiped his hand on his jacket. “Seemed like nothing much to me, but I won’t argue. I’m a hero. Give me a medal.”
“I’ll give you or anyone else in the city far more than that for taking me home.”
“I told you.” Sharla tossed her head, making her wig sway dangerously. “No one is lifting. No one.”
Paradine didn’t look at her. His gaze was on Jake, pleading, expectant. “Please,” he said softly, making the word matter. “I could buy a ship and fly the shower solo, but I know I wouldn’t make it. You have a ship. It’s capable of making the journey in time.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know your name. That was all I needed.” Paradine raised his hand, showing Jake the inside of his wrist. Too dark to see more than a glimmer of silver under the skin, but it could only be one thing: a tektat. Jake had never seen one in person. It couldn’t be true they let the user read minds. That was a rumor spread by gullible idiots, nothing more, but they did enable access to every scrap of information out there, trivial to world-toppling, the data fed directly into the brain. Paradine would never hear an unfamiliar word—because the tektat would define and translate it instantly—never search for a forgotten fact, fail to recall a name, get lost, or find someone willing to play a game of cards with him. Dark stars and spacedust, the kid had a tektat. Did he shit gold too?
Curiosity burned away some of the buzz from the brandy. Tektat owners didn’t wander the streets begging for a ride from every passing stranger. They had entourages, private cruisers, bodyguards surrounding them. They were protected, safe. Paradine was a walking target.
Split-second decisions had saved Jake’s life in the past and gotten him into trouble just as often. He made another now, based on that curiosity and a reluctance to wipe the hope from Paradine’s dark eyes.
“You’re looking for a ride? I’ll get you to Crestal. It’ll cost you, but I’ll get you there.”
Surprise, disbelief . . . but they only lasted a moment. The emotion that remained was relief, with the man swaying as if caught in a high wind, before steadying himself. Not drunk. Tired, maybe? Jake dismissed the question as irrelevant. Paradine didn’t look sick and that was all that mattered.
Sharla snorted. “You’re a fool. And if you risk Rill’s neck to make me look foolish, you’re proving what I already knew: you don’t love him the way you claim. Never thought you did. You’re not capable of loving anything but yourself.”
With a snarl, Jake rounded on her. “Rill means as much to me as my ship, and she means everything. I won’t risk either of them. Your business with this man is done and you and me, we’re done too, so put one foot ahead of the other and don’t stop until you walk off the edge of the fucking planet.”
She compressed her lips until they formed a tight, straight line, then relaxed them, murmuring, “When I get to hell, if they put you anywhere near me, I’ll save them the trouble of assigning a demon to torture you by volunteering for the job.”
With a contemptuous pat to his cheek that came close to being a slap, and a cursory nod to Paradine, she stalked away, the folds of her silk robe wrapping around her long legs. Jake watched until she was out of sight, then sighed. Being at odds with anyone didn’t make him happy, but sometimes it was inevitable.
“I’ll buy your ship, if you like. That way any damage it sustains will be for me to deal with,” Paradine said, diverting Jake’s attention to him.
“No one owns the Mama Rose but me,” Jake growled. The idea of losing her made his belly lurch worse than the brandy or the punch. “She’s berthed in the northern quadrant, sector three, slot nine. Be there in the morning with your gear, and we’ll—”
“I have to leave tonight, and my gear is in storage at the port.” Paradine shrugged, absently rubbing the tektat interface on his wrist. “I don’t have much.”
“If it fits in your cabin, it’s covered in the ticket. If it needs storing, you pay extra.” He was regretting his promise already.
“That seems fair.” Paradine’s gaze was unfocused, attention mostly on the voice in his head by the look of it.
“Don’t care how it seems,” Jake told him with a snap of his fingers to bring Paradine out of his trance. “That’s the way it is.”
Paradine pursed his lips. “You really spaced a man?”
More than one, but let’s not scare you. “Really did.”
“Interesting.” The hesitation before the word robbed it of any sincerity. Or maybe Paradine was a freak who found men prepared to inflict violent death worthy of attention.
Paradine . . . Why did he know that name? Through the headache pounding its way out of his skull, he groped for the link, but he didn’t have a tektat feeding him data.
He pushed the question aside. “Yeah, I’m a fascinating man. Now if you can walk in those pants, prove it. My head’s aching and the cure’s lying in bed wondering why a ten-minute stroll from the bar is taking me thirty.”
Flicking at his sleeve, where a bug had dared to land, Paradine yawned. It wasn’t an affectation but a jaw-cracking gape. The man looked exhausted now he’d gotten his way, as if anxiety had been all that was keeping him awake. “When he realizes my fee will compensate for the credits you lost on your last two runs plus a profit of nine hundred and sixty-four credits after expenses, he’ll probably excuse your lateness. We’ll be leaving tonight, yes?”
Jake sucked in an outraged breath, then released it. Paradine was a client. Didn’t mean shit once they were in space with Jake’s word the last, final, and only word, but while their feet were on dirt and the ticket money only theoretically in his pocket, it might be wise to be tactful. Polite even. “One, stay out of my fucking accounts. They’re private and so are my passengers. Two, do it again and I’ll rip your arm off and we’ll see if the tektat still works. If it does, I’ll beat you around the head with your arm until it doesn’t. Three . . . tonight? Hmm.” Jake considered it. The Mama Rose had been refueled, overhauled, and restocked with food. Plotting a route would take a few hours with the complication of the shower and his fuzzy head, but with Rill checking his work, and some luck, they should avoid flying into a rock.
“I didn’t mean to pry.” Paradine reached out tentatively, then pulled his hand back when Jake glared at him. “It’s a matter of open record. You can add twenty percent to my fee to compensate for the rush.”
“Happy to relieve you of any credits you won’t miss, but something tells me this voyage is going to end up costing me more than it costs you.”
Paradine stared at him as if he were space-crazy. Not the first time he’d seen that look in someone’s eyes, and it wouldn’t be the last. When Rill opened the airlock for them thirty minutes later and got an eyeful of Paradine and his luggage, there it was again.
Forestalling any questions, Jake pushed past Rill, taking a moment to appreciate the whiff of fresh air. Rill had flushed out the system, replacing ship atmo with planet air. The swamps surrounding Landon had been drained a century ago and turned into farmland, but there was still a faint, organic tang to every breath taken in the city, as if the silty water had sunk deep into the earth.
“He’s a passenger. He’s paying more than usual.” Jake tried to work out the fee. An extra twenty percent, then there was the storage fee, because with three gravtrunks as big as their owner and two smaller ones floating beside them, Paradine was going to need to store his belongings outside his cabin if he wanted to use the bed. Traveling light clearly meant something else on Crestal. Plus danger money and a charge for the early launch . . . “Let’s call it double the usual rate to Crestal. Should cover it.”
Rill cleared his throat. Not to draw Paradine’s attention. The man was already staring at him, lips parted, eyes wide, drinking in the perfect face and body. Rill had that effect on most people. “Double?”
“I’ll pay you half now,” Paradine said with commendable promptness, “the balance when we land. In fact, if you check your account, you’ll see the credits are already there.”
“We can get you to Crestal.” Rill’s husky voice still did wicked things to Jake after six years of being with the man every which way two bodies could fit. “Settle in. No rush. We can’t lift until the shower passes.”
“About that,” Jake said before Paradine started to deduct zeroes from his bill for even mentioning a delay. “We’re lifting tonight. Show Paradine to his cabin and then meet me in the control room.”
He didn’t expect an argument. Not in front of a passenger. Once they were alone, it would be different. Rill paid public lip service to the idea that a captain’s word was law, and in an emergency, he was as quick to obey as the situation demanded, but day-to-day, the two of them formed a partnership more than a chain of command.
Explaining to Rill he’d made a rash decision to risk the ship and their lives for a fee they didn’t need wouldn’t be difficult. Rill knew him. He wouldn’t be surprised by how events had unfolded.
Convincing Rill to honor the contract would be the tricky part. If Rill walked off the Mama Rose to save his skin, no one would blame him and he’d have a line forming to offer him a berth on another ship, with Sharla at the head. And Jake couldn’t tell Rill that if he left, they were done. He’d have Rill back anytime, and Rill knew it.
He was playing a crappy hand with all his cards facing up and his last credit in the pot. Jake shrugged as he slapped the lockpad to the control room. Nothing new about that.
Nova: 1. a star that dramatically increases its light output and then fades away
- a genetically engineered human, produced to client specifications in laboratory conditions using donated ova and sperm [slang: orig. derogatory now common usage. See also: designer baby]
[Galactiva Dictionary, nineteenth edition]
“So is there anyone else on the crew or is it just the two of you?” Paradine asked, poking the mattress on his bed as if he’d never seen one without comfort settings before. Rill and Jake’s bed was luxurious enough, customized to their requirements—soft for Rill, firm for Jake—and temperature controlled, but passengers got the basics. Pampering them led to raised expectations.
Questions about the ship made Rill wary. He decided to visit the hold and search Paradine’s gravtrunks for weapons before meeting up with Jake. Couldn’t hurt. “Why? Looking for a job?”
Paradine hunched his shoulders. “No. Just curious. It’s a big ship for two to handle. The minimum crew recommended for a ship rated for twelve passengers is four.”
Tektat junkie. Always ready with a fact or figure fed into their skull by a machine. Rill wouldn’t take the implant if he were offered it for free. Not that it was likely.
“We manage fine. Settle in. If you want something—”
Paradine raised his hand, turning it to show the silver lines etched across his inner wrist, carved into fragile skin. Kissing and licking that sensitive spot, thirsty for attention, was one of Rill’s favorite ways to get an appreciative moan from Jake. The thought of finding cold metal against his lips didn’t appeal. “I can link into your comm system and—”
Jake’s reaction to that intrusion would be something to see. Rill shook his head. “Open your door and yell. We’ll hear you. And keep your fingers out of the ship’s systems unless you want to send us spiraling into the nearest star. The Mama Rose doesn’t take well to strangers prying into her secrets. Neither do the captain and I.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” Paradine studied him, something Rill was too used to for the interest to be irritating or flattering, then dropped his gaze, color rising in his face. Probably not all that was rising, but Rill didn’t bother checking for a visible erection. No point when it wasn’t his job to reduce the swelling. Not anymore.
He knew what the next question would be. Curiosity wasn’t a crime, but Rill didn’t see why he couldn’t reclassify it when it came to his origins. He was a nova. A face and body like his, perfect, an insult to the average humans around him, was rarely achieved by a random shuffle of the genetic deck. His maker had cheated. Why did people ask with the answer in front of them?
“Aunt Helen told me she wasn’t sure if it was worse when people asked about it or when they didn’t, but she hated the staring.” Paradine’s gaze flicked up, hungry, admiring, before he looked away. “I’m trying not to, but you’re very beautiful. Forgive my rudeness.”
Rill’s throat constricted to the point where swallowing became an effort. No one had ever apologized to him for staring. Ever. They’d laughed it off, or become angry at their body’s involuntary response and taken it out on him, but an apology was new. The pressure of his emotions built, resentment and gratitude filling his head with a roar he silenced by pulling up a happy memory, the way a therapist had taught him. He’d paid for the knowledge by allowing the man to hurt him in a way that left marks. It’d gotten him into trouble with the pleasure house owner, but it’d been worth it. Now, he recalled Jake welcoming him on board that first time, offering the Mama Rose as a haven. That would do. He ground out a terse, mostly sincere, “Forgiven,” and saw relief wash the concern from Paradine’s face.
“Thank you.” Paradine held out his hand, palm up, curling his fingers closed, then spreading them wide, the universal sign for a debt owed.
“Forgiving me so quickly.” Paradine met his gaze, but naturally now, the way Jake looked at him, as if a spell had been broken. “I appreciate it.”
Aggravation fading, Rill gestured at Paradine’s pants, hiding his envy. “Love them, but they’re last year’s colors.”
“No. Last year, they would’ve been cherry and mint. These are dark rose and lime.”
“Sorry. It’s hard to tell in this light. They’re by Jacob D., right? No one does pleats like him. I’m a fan.”
Paradine smiled ruefully. “Your captain isn’t. I think he’d prefer it if I dropped them in the resyk.”
“You and Jake talked fashion?” Rill asked, trying and failing to picture that particular conversation without a grin rising.
Color stained Paradine’s face. “In a way. He said they made me look like I’d—that they were too baggy.”
“Turn around,” Rill demanded, avidly taking in every detail when Paradine spun slowly on his heel. “They don’t.”
Paradine gave him a pleased, shy smile. “Thank you. Maybe when we arrive at Crestal you’d like to see Jacob’s workroom? He’s based in Crestal City, and I could introduce you.”
Recalled to his duties by the reminder of their destination, Rill shook his head. “Yeah, I don’t think there’ll be time for that, but thanks. I’d better go. Jake needs me.”
He stepped back into the narrow corridor and let the door slide shut between them before Paradine could answer.
Paradine seemed as harmless as a kitten, but Rill didn’t skip the search. He knew better than most that looks could deceive and fooling people was easy as breathing. A lock sealed each gravtrunk, but Rill dragged them one by one to a scanplate set into the floor and took a peek inside the easy way. Nothing to worry about. The two handguns tucked into a corner of the largest trunk were so low on charge they’d be more effective as clubs or missiles.
The man had a lot of clothes. Rill allowed himself a sigh of delight as he noticed leather pants that looked as supple as a Fellorian spirit dancer. He’d look good in them for the thirty seconds before Jake would suggest he remove them and bend over. Boots, shoes, jewelry, bags . . . But Paradine had a trunk of gift-wrapped boxes, and some of the clothing wasn’t for him: the pink sparkly dress, its stiff skirts so voluminous it had a gravtrunk to itself, would fit a five- or six-year-old. Paradine was going home loaded with gifts like the Leapster.
Rill put the gravtrunks back where Paradine had seen them stowed. He took the stairs up to the main level with his steps dragging. He hated arguing with Jake. Hated it. And an argument was inevitable as soon as he walked into the control room and Jake opened his mouth.
Up ship tonight? Into the oncoming shower? Double the fare to Crestal was a sizable chunk of credits, but only if every cabin was full and every passenger matching Paradine’s offer. With only Paradine traveling, they would barely break even on the cost of the lift juice. What was driving Jake this time? He didn’t keep secrets from Rill, but knowing Jake’s motivations didn’t mean Rill understood them. The time Jake had taken them the long way around on a run, burning leap unnecessarily and annoying his passengers, had been to avoid refueling at the planet where Rill was grown. Like Rill cared. He didn’t remember the lab, and it wasn’t as if they’d have swung by for a visit. But Sila V was off-limits as far as Jake was concerned, and that was that.
Controlling his curiosity and emotional disturbance was second nature after his training but even when a glance in a mirror would show him smiling pleasantly, no tension in his mouth or around his eyes, Jake had a way of seeing past the mask.
So Rill walked up to him, wrapped his arms around the wide chest he used as a pillow most nights, and took Jake’s lips with a kiss before a single word passed them.
Jake hummed deep in his throat and let him spin the kiss out for a while before pulling back, his lips shiny from the pass of Rill’s tongue. He stroked Rill’s jaw with a fingertip, drawing it slowly from the sensitive hollow behind Rill’s ear to the point of his chin. Rill had taught Jake a lot about sex, but that move was all Jake’s and it made Rill melt against him, swoony as a virgin.
“Why the kiss?”
Rill sniffed, getting a whiff of brandy overlaid with the stink of the city. He wrinkled his nose. Laundry time. “Since when don’t you get a kiss when you come back on board?”
“Hmm.” Jake captured Rill’s hand and raised it, running his thumb over the knuckles. “What’s wrong?”
Lying wasn’t an option. Rill and Jake hadn’t exchanged vows of fidelity and probably never would, but they’d promised to be honest with each other. As much as any human could be sure of another, Rill was certain Jake had kept that promise. He freed his hand and tried a half truth.
“The passenger brought up me being a nova. He apologized. It’s done.”
Jake’s eyes widened. Storm eyes, Rill called them when he was fanciful, irises of dark and light gray, colors shoaling like the ocean under a cloudy sky. And surrounded now by bloodshot whites from too little sleep and too many shots of brandy. “He insulted you? Do I need to get involved?”
It was an easy solution to the problem. Jake was protective of three things in life: his ship, Rill, and his balls. If Rill told Jake he felt uncomfortable around a passenger, Jake would kick that passenger off the Mama Rose and watch them bounce. It wouldn’t even be a lie. Paradine’s shy sweetness appealed to Rill as much as his fashion sense, but it was so outside his usual diet, he wasn’t sure about taking a bite. And it didn’t change the fact Paradine wanted them to lift into the shower. No, uncomfortable wouldn’t be a lie.
But it came close enough to one that Rill would feel smudged and grubby so he shook his head. “It’s done,” he repeated. “No insult. I like him. And I love his pants. Now tell me why you’re so tired of life that we’re lifting into the Sentar shower without a profit involved.”
Jake rubbed his chin. “About that. I was walking down an alley when I met Sharla—”
“Fuck.” He didn’t like Sharla one little bit. She’d ruffled his fucking hair once. He’d had a client who wanted him to pretend to be seven or eight years old and that’d been his way of ending the session. Made Rill’s skin crawl. He’d been thirteen. Acting like a baby wasn’t his idea of fun.
Jake exhaled, a long stream of breath hissing through pursed lips. “Yeah. It went skewed six ways to leap after that.”
“It always does. Why don’t you stay away from her?”
“Alley. She was at the end of it. Short of turning around and looking like a fool, there wasn’t much I could do. And the boy was, well, you’ve seen him. Leaving him out there, wandering around asking if there was a ship he could buy . . . I’d have felt less guilty about cutting his throat. At least that would’ve been a quick death.”
“You like saving us waifs and strays, don’t you?” He kept his voice light, amused, but Jake wasn’t fooled.
“He’s a passenger, that’s it. Nothing like you. But he’s safe with us, and I’ll sleep better knowing it.”
“No, he’s not.” Rill punched Jake’s shoulder, a gesture, no more, though his knuckles stung so maybe he’d put more muscle behind it than he’d intended. “You’re flying us into the Sentar shower! How is that keeping any of us safe?”
Jake didn’t have an answer. Rill stuck his bruised knuckle into his mouth and glared until Jake had the decency to look abashed.
Flying the shower. Of all the ways Rill had imagined his death, suicide by rock wasn’t one of them.
Marking the discovery of kharite on Crestal, though at the time the gem was considered worthless, Leap Day has become a seven-day celebration with festivities beginning on the birthday of Dr. Susan Jackson, the scientist who first recognized kharite’s unique properties. She was buried at the site of the first mine, now depleted and a recognized historical monument. Each of the days has its rituals, varying from planet to planet, but on Crestal itself, the final day is marked by an exchange of gifts between family and friends, as well as the announcement of the bonus for everyone involved in the mining of the crystal.
Visitors to Dr. Jackson’s grave reach such numbers during Leap it’s said, with some truth, they outnumber the population.
[Tourist Guide to Crestal, Vol 1]
Lian finished examining his quarters, the need to assure himself he was safe overriding his need for sleep. He awarded himself a point for making the inspection last for two minutes when one would’ve been ample. Cramped, basic, but free of monitoring devices and clean. It would do.
After traveling in luxury all his life, the Mama Rose was a lesson in contrasts. On board the Sullivan Star during a recent family vacation, he’d had a bed that would have filled this cabin. He’d programmed a view screen taking up one wall to give the illusion his cabin was open to the sky, the ruddy mass of a planet shouldering a scatter of stars aside, triple rings adorning it. When he’d conquered the sensation of teetering on the edge of the void, he’d allowed himself to change it to a less stressful empty beach, white sand edged with placid blue water, not a person in sight. Cousin Palan had laughed at his choice and offered to show him how to access the adult-only selections, as if he weren’t old enough to have his tektat do it for him. Palan always treated him like a child, teasing him, torturing—he set his jaw and concentrated, shunting the random thought to the side, labeling it unwanted. The tektat couldn’t control his thoughts, but it could filter them to a certain extent if asked, snipping a thought thread before it knotted by distracting him. He experienced it as an inaudible click, as if someone inside his head had snapped their fingers. Training had taught him to ignore the click and trust he’d known what he was doing when he’d given the instruction. The clicks came so frequently now they’d become a regular beat in his head, maddeningly predictable.
His bed was little more than a padded narrow platform, and the tiny view screen was too old for his tektat to acknowledge as compatible. He opened the door to the washroom and reminded himself austerity was character building. Doing without a body-buffer facility wouldn’t have lasting ill effects, and he’d expected the shower to be waterless, so that wasn’t a surprise at all. A dryer tube with three settings—hot, warm, and cool—was preferable to a system that promised him any temperature he desired without fulfilling that promise.
He’d never been spoiled or encouraged to pamper himself, but insisting on the best when it was available wasn’t the same as whining when it wasn’t. He wouldn’t let a word of criticism pass his lips about the conditions on board. They couldn’t be changed or improved, and he didn’t want to imply the Mama Rose was substandard when the captain seemed so proud of her.
Though he might suggest they send the robosweep around more often. That wouldn’t be hurtful, would it?
Deciding it was too late to explore the ship, exhaustion sapping his strength, physical and mental, he made use of the washroom, stripped, and slid naked into the bed, a whiff of sanitizer reassuring, if pungent. The coverlet molded to him, diffusing mild warmth, and for the first time in days, muscles cramped with tension loosened a fraction. He was on the final leg of his journey home. Soon he could share the burden he carried with his family, and until then, he was safe. No one would guess a Paradine was on board this tiny ship, manned by a ragtag crew. He’d paid for his berth using a business account, not a personal one. No one could hurt him now.
Yet again he tormented himself, prodding at the raw wound of his loss, testing its power to close his throat with grief. It was the only way he could be certain it’d happened, because surely he’d dreamed it all? Except nothing that wasn’t real could rip at his heart this way. Loss, yes, but the betrayal was even worse. He ran his fingers across his throat and shuddered even as the insistent click of the tektat warned him away. Distraction came in the form of the overhead light. It dazzled his eyes, a minor annoyance, easily solved.
“Lights off.” They brightened to a pupil-searing blaze. He yelped and shielded his eyes. “Off! Off!”
Nothing. Lian pressed his lips together and calmed his nerves by accessing recent stock prices of the Paradine Mining Company for the third time in the last hour. He had to stop doing that. Discovering the prices were holding steady reassured him, but not for long. He’d set up protocols to alert him if the stock rose or dropped dramatically, but a slow drift in either direction might be missed, and he couldn’t afford that.
Kharite was still the most sought-after commodity in existence. Without it, humanity would be trapped on planets and moons scattered too far apart for trade to be possible, or swift communication of ideas. Regression would follow isolation.
That had happened before. Not in generations, but Lian’s history lessons had covered the Silent Years with portentous weight given to every misstep. The discovery of kharite on Crestal, a substitute for the dangerously unstable fuel used before, had freed humanity for a second time, but eventually it would need rescuing again.
Two centuries before, Crestallian farmers scraping at thin, rocky soil had become mine owners with their hands around the throat of the galaxy with the discovery of kharite on their land.
Lian’s ancestors had put up with a lot before their luck had changed dramatically. Droughts, sand snakes, twisters, and blight, if the records were accurate. None of them would’ve considered a light that wouldn’t turn off to be more than a passing inconvenience, but they’d had oil candles, easy to snuff out, not lighting panels energized by a weak solution of kharite.
Naked, raw nerves making the mild irritant unbearable, Lian stalked across to the control panel on the wall, the shadows haunting his thoughts temporarily brushed aside. The panel was flush with the wall and promised him the ability to adjust light, temperature, and humidity with voice or touch. It lied. No matter how hard he prodded it, the lights remained on full and the temperature on the cool side. His tektat examined it and sent an error message as blandly unhelpful as the panel itself.
A flash of temper swept through him. He raised his hand to strike the device and snatched it back, breath uneven, sweat drenching him as he remembered another hand sweeping through the air, a spray of blood, garish, messy. The tektat swaddled the memory, storing it safely, and he drew in a slow breath, calm returning. The light was broken. The light needed fixing. He was tired and he wanted to sleep, but the light was broken and the light needed—
Grabbing a robe in case the crew had issues with nudity, Lian made his way to the control room, his tektat providing a plan of the ship. It would be accurate if the captain hadn’t made too many modifications to this particular Comet series. The 390 version had been out of production for thirty years because it was too large for a family and too small for profitable haulage of goods or people. He wondered how the captain survived. Smuggling? Another source of income? Or was he funded by Rill? Novae often acquired considerable wealth, and though Rill appeared too young for that, it was possible he was older than the captain and Lian combined. Aunt Helen was sixty and looked half that age.
The control room was at the center of the ship, shielded, protected, with at least one direct passage to the airlock for the emergency shuttle. Lian glanced at the galley as he went by, pleased it looked and smelled clean, but concentrated on his objective. For the last four days, his goal had been simple: go home. This short walk was a part of that journey.
The control room was locked with no visible commplate. Lian clicked his tongue against his teeth, a habit picked up from his grandmother, who conveyed profound disenchantment that way, and hammered on the smooth gray surface of the door. Thick though it probably was, some sound should get through to the room behind.
When his fist was sore, he resorted to his tektat. The lockpad was basic and overriding it, though a breach of etiquette, was easy. He squashed a pang of guilt. He had every right to complain about the malfunctioning light, and confirm the departure time.
The door slid open without a judder or squeak, and he stepped inside the room. The curved sweep of the floor-to-ceiling view screen made the space seem larger, though the image transmitted by the sensors was of plascrete stretching into the distance, dotted here and there by ships. Impatience made his skin itch like heat rash. It would take time to prep for takeoff, but he wanted to be on his way now, desired it with the fervor of a lover for a kiss. Home waited at the end of the journey. Home and family. He was so isolated now, and it terrified him. No one to consult, no one to advise him on correct procedure . . . His background and training had carried him along to a certain extent, but had he drifted off course without realizing it? There was no way to tell, no one to trust but himself, with the bitter taste of treachery clogging his throat.
A moan, a thud—he jerked his head to the left and found captain and crew member engaged in an activity that was doing nothing to get the ship off the plascrete and into space.
He had a moment to appreciate the unstudied eroticism of the view. Rill was naked, kneeling on his discarded clothing, hands on Slant’s thighs. Slant leaned against a wall, pants shoved down enough to allow Rill full access to his cock and balls. Then Slant saw him and with a flicker of movement, hand to shoulder holster, armed himself. For the first time in his life, Lian was the target for a weapon, backing away from a gun pointed at his head. The barrel didn’t waver, but Lian, eyes wide, unblinking, watched it expand to fill his vision, a black hole ready to swallow him. He would not pass out. He would not shame himself. Meditating was as impossible as levitation, but he tried to draw air into his lungs in a controlled fashion, not the gasping, shallow gulps that were all he seemed capable of.
“The hell are you doing here?” Slant demanded, lowering his weapon after an appraisal lingering on Lian’s empty, raised hands. His erection jutted out, flushed and spit-shined, but when he moved his free hand, it was to block Lian’s view of Rill’s well-used mouth.
Something in that protective gesture calmed the frantic beat of Lian’s pulse, leaving him tasting envy, not panic. He’d grown up surrounded by bodyguards paid to die for him, and a fond, if sometimes preoccupied family, but romance had never touched his life beyond a few bouts of infatuation and adolescent lust. It didn’t matter. At some point, he’d find a suitable life partner and enjoy the same quiet happiness as his parents, he knew it. And then he’d have someone ready to protect him out of love, not duty. Someone he could protect in turn, be strong for.
“I— The light in my cabin . . .” His words dwindled to a mutter, embarrassment driving the blood to his face. His ears were hot, a far-from-enjoyable sensation.
He’d traveled from system to system with his parents, experiencing different cultures from a distance and visiting every Paradine-owned business out there, but never, not once, had he found himself in a situation this fraught with awkwardness, with the blame all his. He’d made a mistake, a serious one, and he searched frantically for the perfect words of apology and appeasement.
“The light isn’t working, so you overrode a lock into a secure area of the shop, off-limits to passengers, to make sure we knew about it?” Slant shook his head before sliding his gun into a holster under his jacket and fastening his pants. “Appreciate it more than I can say.”
Rill reclined against the wall, at ease with his nudity and the evidence of his arousal. His visible annoyance had faded, replaced by speculation as he eyed Lian. He was unarmed, but with his face and body, he was never without a weapon of sorts. Flawless and stunning didn’t come close to describing him. “Maybe he wants to make sure we’re doing our job, Captain.”
“Well, yes,” Lian admitted, snatching at a less frivolous reason for trespassing and trying not to stare at either of them. Truthfully, Rill’s beauty of sculpted features, framed by a thick froth of dark hair falling to his shoulders, was intimidating; Slant’s raw masculinity appealed to him more. Contrition forgotten in his desire to begin the trip, he asked, “How long before we lift?”
Slant took a step forward, then another, his faint smile not in the least reassuring. Lian held his ground. It wasn’t as if he was in any physical danger. Slant wouldn’t strike him. He was a Paradine and a passenger.
When Slant was close enough that every breath Lian took brought him the reek of brandy, he tapped Lian’s cheek with his finger. “You got something to say to me?”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you.” He was sorry for so much that this small breach shouldn’t matter, didn’t matter, but he apologized anyway. These two weren’t family. He couldn’t share with them, and it made being with them agony, secrets and grief swelling inside him, making his skin feel tight, itchy. Solitude and sleep were all he desired and the malfunctioning light had changed from a simple problem to an insurmountable obstacle. He struggled to sound calm. “I’m tired and not being able to turn off the lights to get some sleep irritated me. I know the journey will be hazardous and I need to rest, but—”
“Having second thoughts?”
“No.” Yes. “I need to be home for Leap Day. It’s imperative.”
“Everybody likes being home for Leap.” Rill was dressing as if donning each garment was a sensual delight to be prolonged as much as possible. He tugged on thin leather ankle boots, elegantly cuffed, then moved to the replacement of the dozen necklaces drawing attention to the cup of his throat and the swell of his Adam’s apple. Lian grew fascinated by the swing of a silver chain dotted by what must be fake sparines given their size, though the leaf-green shimmer was difficult to mimic. He pictured it unfastened, wrapped around Rill’s waist and tied like a rope, the ends dangling low enough to brush the head of Rill’s cock when it was hard, teasing it to yield—
A light slap delivered to the back of his head broke the trance. “Eyes off him and on me, Paradine. You bought passage on my ship, not use of my companion’s body. He’s not for sale.”
“Not these days, anyway,” Rill murmured and gave Lian a dazzling smile. “And when I was, you’d have been too young to know what to do with me.”
Well aware that held true even now, Lian stood his ground. The discovery Rill had been a pleasure worker didn’t shock him. It was a common career for a nova. They commanded insanely high prices and could usually retire in five or so years if they invested wisely. “I need to get to Crestal.”
“So you’ve said. Often.” Slant shrugged. “It’s the first day of Leap tomorrow so you’ll miss some of it, but when the shower clears, one of the faster ships available might get you there before Leap ends. So now I’m sober and not being pushed around by my dick—”
“And ego,” Rill remarked to no one in particular.
“Another word from you and you’re confined to quarters.” Slant spoke without anger heating his words, but Rill lowered his gaze and projected abject penitence with curved shoulders and a dip of his head.
After a pause, Slant continued. “Now I’m wondering why I agreed to this. Getting you home so you can hand out your Leap gifts doesn’t seem worth the risk. You arrive a day or two late; there’s always next year. I haven’t been home for Leap in a decade, and I’ve survived.”
“I appreciate your position, but it’s vital I return home.” He kept saying that; why couldn’t they hear the desperation in his voice and agree to help? “Leap itself isn’t the reason. I’m not a child, counting the days and wondering what the Leapster will bring me.”
Rill finished dressing, completing the task with an economy of motion and no attempts to seduce. He stood and walked to flank Lian, standing far enough away from Slant that Lian’s vision couldn’t encompass both of them.
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.” Slant drew his thumb across his jaw, repeating the gesture absently. Lian had seen a hunter test a blade’s sharpness that way. “What’s important enough to you that you’re willing to die trying to doing it? I don’t expect you to care about us, seeing as we’re strangers, but you have to be fond of your skin.”
Traveling alone for the first time, Lian had been forced to make decisions in fraught situations, supported by his instincts, training, and the data his tektat fed him. It hadn’t been enough. He wanted to draw directly on his father’s quiet strength; the brilliance of his mother’s insights; the stored accumulation of wisdom his family possessed that even his tektat couldn’t match.
Homecoming was another ordeal to face. He’d be triggering an explosion within the family, ripping it apart. Keeping silent was impossible. The only hope of salvaging something was to share what he knew. His family could act, then. But to do that, he needed to go home.
And he couldn’t tell Slant any of that. It was Paradine business. Private.
Exhausted, anxious, seeing his final chance to get there in time disappearing, his control shattered, glass struck by a stone. Recent memories the tektat had held at bay broke free, swarming around him, tiny biting creatures, too small to swat, vicious, poisonous. “You said you’d take me! If you don’t hold to your word, sell me your ship. I’ll fly her home myself and send her back to you crammed full of kharite, but with you or without you, I’m going home. Now. Tonight. Are you listening? Do you hear me? I’m Lian Paradine of the family Paradine, and I need to go home.”
Word Count: 62,000
Page Count: 203
Cover By: L.C. Chase