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Empire of Dust: A Psi-Tech Novel
     

Empire of Dust: A Psi-Tech Novel

3.7 3
by Jacey Bedford
 

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Mega corporations, more powerful than any one planetary government, use their agents to race each other for resources across the galaxy. The agents, or psi-techs, are implanted with telepath technology. The psi-techs are bound to the mega-corps -- that is, if they want to retain their sanity.

Cara Carlinni is an impossible thing – a runaway psi-tech. She knows

Overview

Mega corporations, more powerful than any one planetary government, use their agents to race each other for resources across the galaxy. The agents, or psi-techs, are implanted with telepath technology. The psi-techs are bound to the mega-corps -- that is, if they want to retain their sanity.

Cara Carlinni is an impossible thing – a runaway psi-tech. She knows Alphacorp can find its implant-augmented telepaths, anywhere, anytime, mind-to-mind. So even though it’s driving her half-crazy, she's powered down and has been surviving on tranqs and willpower. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.

She’s on the run from Ari van Blaiden, a powerful executive, after discovering massive corruption in Alphacorp. Cara barely escapes his forces, yet again, on a backwater planet, and gets out just in time due to the help of straight-laced Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest company rival.

Cara and Ben struggle to survive a star-spanning manhunt, black-ops raids, and fleets of resource-hungry raiders. Betrayal follows betrayal, and friends become enemies. Suddenly the most important skill is knowing whom to trust.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/29/2014
Bedford mixes romance and intrigue in this promising debut, which opens the Psi-Tech space opera series. Like other psi-techs, long-range telepath Cara Carlinni has a brain implant that enhances her powers. It also leaves her indentured to Alphacorp, the company that paid for the implant. On the run with data that links her ruthless former boss and lover, Ari van Blaiden, to a deadly pirate attack on a colony world, Cara convinces navigator Reska “Ben” Benjamin to add her to his team of psi-tech troubleshooters. They’ve been contracted to help the fundamentalist back-to-basics Ecolibrians establish a colony on the planet Olyanda, but it won’t be easy. Hardcore Ecolibrians hate psi-techs and punish “fraternization” brutally. Worse yet, Ben discovers mineral deposits on Olyanda that make the planet a target for pirates—just like a previous colony-building job whose failure still haunts him. Bedford builds a taut story around the dangers of a new world, the Ecolibrians’ distrust, and treachery from Ari and Ben’s home office. Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
Praise for the Psi-Tech novels:

"Space opera isn't dead; instead, delightfully, it has grown up.... A fine example of a novel which has its roots in the subgenre but grows beyond it." —Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels 

"Bedford mixes romance and intrigue in this promising debut, which opens the Psi-Tech space opera series.... Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future." —Publishers Weekly

"A nostalgic space opera.... Bedford's prose is brisk and carries the reader quite sufficiently along." —Tor.com

"A well-defined and intriguing tale set in the not-too-distant future.... Everything is undeniably creative and colorful, from the technology to foreign planets to the human (and humanoid) characters. Author Bedford's worldbuilding feels very complete and believable, with excellent descriptions bringing it all to life." —RT Reviews

"I'm very, very excited to see where this series goes next. The foundation that Bedford has laid has so much potential and promise. This is an author I will watch." —Bookworm Blues

"The first of a new space opera series that delivers the goods and holds lots of promise of things to come." —SF Signal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780756410162
Publisher:
DAW
Publication date:
11/04/2014
Series:
A Psi-Tech Novel Series , #1
Pages:
544
Sales rank:
570,020
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES —MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.

PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.

Acknowledgments

Chapter One

FLIGHT

I’m dead if I don’t get out of here.

Cara Carlinni stared at the display on the public terminal. She gripped the edge of the console, feeling dizzy and sick. Too many cups of caff, not enough food.

Her fellow workers erupted from Devantec’s packing plant, one or two trying the other terminals in the bay just off the main walkway, and discovering, as she had when she first took the dead-end job, that this was the only functioning link.

She’d scooted out ahead of the crowd to grab it.

Good that she had. At least she was forewarned. What the hell was an Alphacorp ship doing here if not looking for something, or someone? What were the odds that someone was her?

She’d been barely one jump ahead of them on El Arish, and on Shalla colony she’d spotted wanted posters and moved on quickly, thankful that she’d ducked port immigration by hitching a flight with a smuggler.

She’d spoken to a man on Shalla who’d once been a low-grade Psi-Mech for the Rowan Corporation, and who was now living off the grid, with a new identity furnished by an organization that was definitely not the right side of legal. On his advice she’d come all the way out to Station Mirrimar-14 chasing rumors of a breakaway group of psi-techs, but she hadn’t found them. If they were here, they were well-hidden and well-shielded.

She swallowed bile and checked the screen again, focusing on the immediate problem—a light passenger transport—a ship design she recognized as an unmarked Alphacorp Scout. It threaded along the flight corridor toward the passenger terminal, past the heavy freighters lined up for docking in the space station’s commercial bays.

“Hey, Carlinni, you coming to Sam’s with the rest of us?” Jussaro, her packing line partner, broke his stride.

He was always friendly, but she kept her distance outside of working hours. A purple-black-skinned, genetically engineered exotic from the Hollands System, he’d once been a high-grade Telepath until being busted for some misdemeanor he wouldn’t admit to.

They’d killed his implant. He was alone and silent.

Permanently.

He was the thing she most dreaded becoming.

She’d stepped out of line, bigtime, but they hadn’t caught her yet. If they did, she’d be damn lucky to end up like Jussaro. More than likely they’d just fry her brain from the inside out and have done with it.

“Not tonight.” She forced a smile and edged in front of the screen so Jussaro couldn’t see what she was checking.

“Why not? Got a hot date?”

“Maybe.”

“Ha!” His laugh was more like a bark. Then he frowned, the hooded ridges above his eyes drawing together in a serious case of monobrow. “You in trouble, Carlinni?” He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “You are!”

Your average decommissioned psi-tech went nuts, but Jussaro was a rare survivor. Had he managed to retain his underlying telepathy? If so, that was a minor miracle in itself. Tonight he was entirely too quick on the uptake.

She curbed the need to switch on her implant. They could trace her as soon as she used it. Keep it powered down. She was so integrated with her tech that whatever natural talent she’d started out with had been subsumed. It might still be there, but she hoped she’d never have to find out the hard way.

“Quit my case, Jussaro. You’re not my dad.”

“Maybe I should have been, and then you wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.”

“I told you, I’m not . . . I . . . Look, I can handle it. All right?”

“All right. All right. I get it. Keep my nose out.” He stepped away, both hands up in a gesture of surrender.

She shrugged. “Look, Jussaro, if ever I need a dad, I’ll adopt you, okay?”

“It’s a deal. Don’t forget.” He waved at her as he rejoined the flow of workers.

She returned her attention to the screen. The Scout had joined the docking tailback. That gave her a couple of hours at most. The temptation to pop a tranq prickled her scalp while she waited for the passenger manifest to load into the system. It flashed, and she pulled up the information. Rosen, Forrest, and Byrne—three names she didn’t recognize, listed as businessmen. She checked the crew. The pilot was Robert Craike.

Shit!

Her heart began to race, and her skin turned clammy. To hell with it! She popped a tranq anyway, and felt it buffer the hunger to connect with her implant.

Shit! Shit! Shit!

She fought down panic. Avoiding Alphacorp’s regular security was one thing, but Craike was a psi-tech Finder.

There had to be a way out. Think!

“You finished with that terminal or do you want to marry it?” A dumpy woman in a red coverall had come up behind her.

“Finished. It’s yours.” Cara eased up on her death grip, blanked the screen, and turned toward the go-flow station, her thoughts firing in several different directions at once.

Craike was the brawn to Ari van Blaiden’s brain. Going up against him would be almost as bad as facing Ari himself. What were his orders? Would he be trying to kill her on-station, or would he be trying to take her back?

She had history with Craike—bad history. Torrence had called him a dangerous crazy, but that wasn’t the half of it. He might well be psychotic, but he certainly wasn’t stupid. If Ari had sent Robert Craike, she’d never get a fair trial.

Craike was bad news.

Had always been bad news.

She got his attraction to Ari. The emotions he thought he hid so carefully behind a tough scowl and a clenched jaw might fool most deadheads, but even though she barely scored on the empathy scale, she could read Craike. Most times she wished she couldn’t.

His jealousy had piled a personal grudge on top of everything else when she’d challenged his authority on Felcon.

If she closed her eyes, she could still smell the hot sand, taste the planet’s salt-caked air, feel its oven-intense heat through the sunblock on her face. Her rebellion had killed five people as surely as if she’d put a bolt gun to their heads herself, but she hadn’t known, then, how far Craike would go. The memory came back, vivid and painful. Torrence choking his life out, lungs all shot to hell.

Her fault. Her fault!

Craike pulled the trigger, but if it hadn’t been for her . . .

Don’t go there.

Was it the memory of Felcon that made her blood pound in her ears, or the thought of what was to come? The last time she’d seen Craike was down the barrel of a bolt gun. Now he was here on-station.

As she waited in line for the go-flow behind an elderly man in a technician’s coverall, her right hand closed involuntarily over the handpad on her left. If she wasn’t careful, the small, flexible sheet of film held her life—and possibly her death—within its memory. Ari’s files were as dangerous as a bomb on a short fuse. She’d had the opportunity and had grabbed them without thinking it through. If it had just been her, he might have let her slip away, but he’d never let her keep the files.

She rubbed her forehead to ease the headache and breathed away the faint feeling of dizziness. She’d rather not think about the files right now. She had them; she daren’t use them. Part of her didn’t even want to.

When she’d started to try and make sense of them, she’d realized that Ari was into all kinds of nastiness, but collating the data would be a massive undertaking. She had, however, found her own name on a red file. That had shocked her beyond measure. She’d seen that he’d personally scheduled her for Neural Readjustment on Sentier-4. She was lucky she got out before they’d taken her mind to pieces.

The man in front of her reached the head of the lineup, and with grace that showed he’d not slowed down with age, he hopped onto the last individual transfer raft. That left her no option but to climb into a transit pod with seven strangers. She eyed them suspiciously, but they all had the pale skin of long-term space-station residents, and the jaded air of tired workers heading home. As the pod carried them all toward the residential sector, she took a deep breath and considered her options. Going up against Craike, one on one, was suicide. She’d have to run, abandon the search for renegade psi-techs like herself, and find a flight. Any flight.

Destination? Away from here.

It should be possible. Security was patchy. Mirrimar-14 was big enough to have cracks that a desperate person could slip through, at least as far as the docks.

Space stations came in all shapes and sizes. Mirrimar-14, run by Eastin-Heigle, serviced only three jump gates and was happy to embrace any traffic that could pay the docking fees. That meant there would be independent captains she might bribe. Time to go to the transients’ quarter and see if she could find someone who was ready to ship out, someone who might take an unlisted passenger in exchange for credits or—she gritted her teeth—sex.

• • •

Ben Benjamin let the comm-link drop. Crowder was pissed with him again, but there wasn’t much either of them could do about the delay. Ben hadn’t been expecting to be recalled to take over the Olyanda mission. It would take at least four days to get back to Chenon, even presuming he could negotiate the inner system gates without getting stuck in a tailback. You’d think the vast deeps of space would be big enough to avoid traffic jams, but since everything funneled through jump gates, they were still inevitable.

It was a babysitting job for a new colony of back-to-basics Ecolibrians—hard-core separatists. Mixing psi-techs and fundies was a disaster waiting to happen. It had taken long enough for Ben to regain his commander’s pin. Refusing this job would sideline him, and failing would finish his career completely.

Rock, meet hard place. Hard place, meet rock. Was someone on the Board setting him up to fail? Could be. Better not fail, then.

The comm booth felt stuffy. He needed air, even space-station recycled would do. He leaned forward and swiped his handpad through the reader to register the transaction.

He’d trampled on some sensitive toes after Hera-3, probably enough to get himself retconned, or just plain killed, except for the fact he’d let it be known that he’d filed all his evidence with a certain body on Crossways which was virtually untouchable by any legitimate government or megacorp—at least not without a full-scale war. That evidence, mostly hearsay, might not be sufficient for a court of law, but it would be enough to spark inconvenient questions of people with reputations to protect.

For the past two years he’d lived with the possibility of someone high up in the Trust deciding he was too much of a liability. He could have walked away at any time, of course, but if he did that, he’d never find the bastards responsible. Crowder had stood by him, kept him on payroll. Without Crowder, he’d have been on the outside looking in. With so many of his regular crew dead and the survivors scattered to other teams, Crowder was the only constant in his life: boss, best friend, and sometimes stand-in for the father he’d lost so many years ago.

Musing on the value of friendship, Ben stepped out of the booth into the bland foyer of the visitor center and nodded to the desk clerk. Nice to see a real person in the job, not just a machine. He collected a hotchoc from the barista-bot and sipped it. It was thin and weak, almost tasteless except for the sugar, but at least it was warm and wet. He clipped a lid on the drink, grasped a handloop, and pushed off into the rising stream of the antigrav tube, balancing the cup expertly. He exited at the right floor, gaining weight again as his feet hit the hallway ceramic. He popped the top and sipped the hot liquid again as he walked along to the dining hall.

It was early. The room was a sea of emptiness with only two tables occupied. A group of four earnest young men sat at one and the other held the redhead who’d brought her courier vessel into port just after him, and had pushed in between him and the port controller as he tried to secure a next-day systems check. He’d been left fuming as she played the old buddies card and waltzed through the formalities, leaving him standing. She looked up, smiled broadly, and indicated the empty place by her side. No way. He retreated. Maybe he’d have a snack in Gordano’s. His belly rumbled. Two snacks.

• • •

Back in her cramped quarters Cara made another caff for herself, extra strong so she could almost pretend it was made with real coffee beans. Her hands shook as they clasped the mug. Of all the bloody stupid things, heading for the transients’ quarter desperate enough to latch onto the first captain of the worst bucket-of-bolts mining barge was barely one step up from suicide.

But staying was suicide.

Sex with a stranger might be the fastest way to get a favor, but she couldn’t stop her thoughts from turning in circles. There hadn’t been anyone since Ari.

It had been good once.

She’d met him just after she’d been promoted to Special Ops and recalled to Earth, to Alphacorp’s facility outside the ancient city of York. Now second in command of a Spearhead Team, she was so proud that she’d broken her self-imposed silence and called her mom, only to be rewarded by nothing more than a vague that’s-nice-dear reaction. So much for trying to rebuild bridges. Dammit, it was a big deal for a twenty-three-year-old. Spearhead Teams were the first into a potential colony world and, when necessary, Alphacorp’s troubleshooters.

She’d gone out and celebrated alone, but hadn’t stayed alone for long. She couldn’t even remember his name, now. He’d been keen, but she’d crept out of his apartment early in the morning without waking him. Relationships didn’t usually last beyond the next job, and she’d be leaving soon for Eritropea. Two months away for her, biological time, would be eight months for anyone left behind since this trip involved three months each way in cryo with the lumbering colony convoy taking forever to reach the outer system gates that handled the mass of an ark vessel.

She’d not been intending to hook up with anyone else, least of all her boss. . . .

Cara took a shuddering breath and tried to relax away the adrenaline spike. She closed her mind to the past and concentrated on trying to make herself look good; bait the hook to catch a big fish. If she didn’t find a ride out of here tonight, she was dead or worse.

She swallowed hard and tried to ignore the churning in her gut, but it was no good . . . Halfway through applying blusher to her cheekbones she dashed to the sluice, hurling bile into the can and ruining her makeup.

She rinsed her mouth, cleaned her teeth and started again.

Despite everything, she didn’t want anyone except Ari. Been there, tried that, still hurt. She knew now why he had a neural blocker. He might look like an angel, but Ari scared her spitless. Even so, she couldn’t deny that she still felt . . . something. She couldn’t even name the emotion.

• • •

Crews couldn’t drink during flights and tended to let rip once they hit a station on shore leave. They wanted intoxication, entertainment, and sex, and Gordano’s catered to all three in equal measure.

Ben leaned against the bar in the time-honored way of travelers, squashed between a woman with Militaire veteran’s tattoos and a young man with the scaly skin of an exotic from the water world of Aqua Neriffe. His high-neck buddysuit almost, but not quite, covered his gill slits.

Wayside inn on a colony planet, or staging post at the arse-end of the galaxy, the routine was always the same. Gordano’s menu offered whatever could be imported cheaply or grown in hydroponics or a vat—standard space station fare.

The smoky blue walls, subtle lighting, and the mist effect made the perfectly clean atmosphere in the crowded bar look thick enough for privacy. They’d tried to make it seem like a dirtside roadhouse, but they couldn’t hide what it was.

A honey blonde in a blue dress that clung from throat to hip and then swung to mid-calf eyed him. She wasn’t showing everything that was on offer, so she was probably not one of Gordano’s girls. He nodded politely and turned back to the bar. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her slide into a booth and begin to check the screen built into the table. She drew his gaze. He took another sideways look and saw that she was just looking away. Pity he was only passing through.

He turned to the bar and ordered the house gold, expecting it would be as tasteless as speed-ale usually was. When it came, it was better than he’d been expecting and he took a second pull.

An argument was brewing at one of the tables. Angry voices cut through the general hubbub, but Ben couldn’t make out the words. Maybe some long-term shipboard resentment fueled by a fresh infusion of alcohol. He didn’t worry about it. Places like this always had their own security to damp down arguments before they got out of hand.

Or maybe not.

The row erupted. Chairs crashed backward. Two men, one at least a decade younger than the other, launched into each other across a table and crashed to the floor, kicking and punching. A space grew around them, penning them inside a ring of onlookers. Though the older guy had at least ten kilos on the younger one, the fight looked about even, one with a split lip, the other with a bloody nose. Two of Gordano’s bouncers closed in on the wrestling pair.

The situation nose-dived when the younger of the two brawlers, Split Lip, flashed a knife. How the hell had he managed to get that onto the station? Only licensed enforcers carried weapons legally, and security was tight. From this distance Ben couldn’t tell whether it was a handspan of carbon-steel or a power-enhanced parrimer blade, but it took less than half a second to become obvious. The man took a wide swing at his opponent, missed, and instead sliced across the belly of the nearest bouncer who went down in a spray of blood and a whiff of burned meat.

The second bouncer pulled a sidearm and the onlookers, intensely aware that they’d turned from voyeurs into potential victims, began to scatter. Ben found himself in the front row and noticed the blonde in the blue dress hadn’t moved away either. She was now standing, half-hidden from the combatants, by the booth back.

Briefly surprised that his weapon had connected, Split Lip hesitated for long enough to give Bloody Nose the opportunity to grab the blade and they rolled together, leaving the bouncer no clear target.

Ben curled his fingers to stop them twitching toward where his own sidearm wasn’t. He would have taken out Bloody Nose, the man currently with the knife, not Split Lip, but the bouncer was indecisive. The two scrappers broke apart. Bloody Nose staggered to his feet barely an arm’s length in front of Ben. Seeing the bouncer take aim and not wanting to get caught by a wide shot, Ben stepped in close, grabbed Bloody Nose’s knife hand, twisted hard, and immobilized him, making sure he kept the man between himself and the bouncer.

It was over in a moment.

The bouncer grabbed Split Lip, slapped ferraflex restraints on him, and then came to relieve Ben of his prisoner.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Ben turned to the fallen man, but the woman in the blue dress was already down on her knees beside him. She had the man’s own emergency pack from his belt and was holding the wound closed with a clean dressing.

“Your crew?” Ben asked, peering at what she was doing and noting that she was following battle-wound procedure like a veteran.

She shook her head and looked up. “Yours?” She had stunning gray-blue eyes fringed with long dark lashes despite the blonde hair.

“If I had crew, they wouldn’t be so stupid.”

A siren outside announced the imminent arrival of medics and the law. She glanced around as if sizing up the exits.

“Looking for a back way out?” he asked.

“Imagine the hours of interviews and incident sheets to write up,” she said.

“Civic duty?” He wondered just how badly she needed to get out before the law arrived.

“I doubt they’ll lay on a decent meal, and I haven’t eaten yet.”

“Point taken. We can always volunteer our services tomorrow.”

“Of course,” she said, her voice completely lacking sincerity.

“Come on, then, I’ll buy you dinner.”

As the crash team hustled a gurney through the front door of Gordano’s, Ben exited the back with the honey blonde.

Chapter Two

OPPORTUNITY

Damn. Cara had spoiled the effect of her best dress—her only dress—with blood. Good job she’d paid a bit more for self-cleaning fabric. It was a good dress, an investment, not overtly showy or loud, but subtly sensual, elegant without being an obvious come-on. She didn’t want to get too deep into anything she couldn’t get out of.

They took a couple of turns through service corridors. Good, a staff washroom.

“This’ll only take a minute,” she said, pushing open the door. “Will you wait?”

The man nodded, and she noted with approval that he stepped back into a doorway, out of range of the surveillance eye on the wall.

In the washroom she checked that the cleaning cycle had activated itself. While the fabric digested the blood, she washed her hands clean and checked there were no more obvious stains. She didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.

She took several deep breaths to steady herself. If she’d been wearing a buddysuit, it would probably have told her that she still had elevated levels of adrenaline. She hadn’t expected that kind of trouble while cruising the bars for a likely captain or cargomeister.

She’d had her eye on the tall, lean man in the bar even before the fight—first his Trust uniform and then the Colony Survey pin on his collar. His dark hair, high at the temples, was long and tied back into a tight braid at the back of his neck. He might be in his mid-thirties, with warm brown skin and strong, even features.

She’d looked for him on the immigration list, skimming the photo IDs.

His name had jumped out at her, Benjamin. How common was the name? There was a Benjamin in Ari’s red file. Anyone who could piss off Ari as much as that Benjamin had was all right by her. He might be a good bet.

Even that brief thought of Ari’s files started a stabbing pain somewhere behind her eyes. Forget about Ari. Concentrate on the business at hand. Even if he wasn’t the same Benjamin, he worked for the Trust, so he was a natural rival of all things Alphacorp. She checked his details. He was flying solo in a ship big enough to take a passenger. Yes!

So now she was leaving Gordano’s with him, but not in any circumstances that she might have expected. When the fight had broken out, he’d handled himself well. The very fact that he’d skipped the scene without offering witness testimony was a hopeful sign that he wasn’t a by-the-book man. She needed someone with a little flexibility when it came to rules.

He was waiting for her outside the washroom. Good, he hadn’t changed his mind.

She led the way, and they emerged on the public thoroughfare just as the medics hustled the gurney into an antigrav transport.

“How badly was he injured?” Benjamin asked as the transport began to move through the curious crowd.

“From the smell they’ll be doing a bowel resection, but I guess he’ll survive if they can get him stabilized quickly.”

He nodded. “You handled yourself well in there.”

She shrugged, not wanting to give anything away. “Cara Carlinni.” She held out her hand.

“Benjamin.” He took it, but didn’t hold onto it for long.

“Just Benjamin?”

“Reska Benjamin.” He smiled. “Ben will do. Only my grandmother calls me Reska.”

“All right.” She nodded. “Dinner. Where do you want to go?”

“I’m sick of the transients’ places. Take me somewhere local.” He raised one eyebrow, and she let herself smile.

“Sam’s Bar, then.” She checked the time. Jussaro and her fellow packers would be long gone by now. “Yeah, I know, there’s a Sam’s on every station from Earth to the Rim, but this one’s not bad. The guy who runs it really is a Sam.” She kept her voice light. It was a long time since she’d flirted with anyone, but Benjamin didn’t seem so bad. At least he wasn’t repulsive or leery.

They crossed the wide, straight arcade that bisected the space station’s downtown pedestrian plaza and stepped over the threshold of Sam’s. She checked out the diners already seated. No obvious threat. For the hundredth time that day she flicked her tongue over her implant controls. Yes, it was still powered down. Craike was a psi-tech Finder, so she mustn’t give him anything to latch on to.

She headed for a table in the far corner, edging Ben out so she could sit facing the door. The other chair had its back to the open floor of the diner, but she noticed that Ben angled it slightly so that he could see the room reflected in the decorative mirror on the wall behind Cara’s left shoulder. Was he always this careful? Was it many years of habit, or was he expecting trouble tonight? He handled himself like someone who’d dealt with his fair share of trouble.

Having thrown up earlier she wasn’t really hungry, so she barely glanced at the menu on the table screen, selecting almost at random. She needed time to work out whether she’d hooked the right fish. If not, she could still throw him back and return to Gordano’s or maybe try Jimmy’s.

They made small talk, waiting for the food to arrive on the conveyor, establishing the where-are-you-froms and the-what-do-you-dos. There wasn’t much point in lying when her whole life was mapped out on her handpad, so she told him she was from Earth, though he raised one eyebrow when she said she worked on a packing line.

“I didn’t say I’d always worked on packing lines,” she said. “I said that’s what I do now. It’s convenient and it keeps me fed.” She didn’t elaborate. “What about you?”

“Brought up on a farm on Chenon, and I run surveys for the Trust.”

“Chenon’s the main headquarters of the Trust’s Colony Division.”

“That’s where I’m based, but I don’t get to spend much time there.”

The food arrived, and they lapsed into silence while they took the first few bites. Cara watched Benjamin guardedly across her steaming bowl of razorfin. It was succulent, but she could have been chewing sawdust for all the notice she took of it.

Benjamin worked for the Trust, so it was likely he had an implant, but she couldn’t pin him down without activating her own. She rested her fork in her dish and tapped her fingers on the table.

“All right, Ben, I give up. I know you’re a psi-tech, but what are you? What’s your specialty? Mechanics?”

He shook his head.

She could sense that she’d kindled his interest. “You’re a Finder? A Dowser?” She guessed again. “A Healer?”

“No. You’re way off the mark.” He pushed his plate away.

“You’re not a Clairvoyant, are you?”

“A spook? No. Do you really believe they exist?” He grinned, his eyes crinkling in genuine amusement.

She shrugged. “I never met one. I’m glad you’re not the first. I have enough trouble with the past without worrying about the future.”

She wondered whether to try and finish the fish. No, she’d only throw it up. She smiled, trying to make the expression reach her eyes. “It’s no good, you’ll have to tell me. You’re not a Telepath, are you?”

“I have difficulty throwing a thought from here to the table. I’m a Navigator, Psi-1.”

She was impressed. That meant he could align his implant with the tides of the universe and at any time know where he was and what direction he was going in. She’d tested almost zilch for navigation.

“Flyboy or dirtsider?”

“I’ve done both. Prefer new colony work.”

“But you’re not doing that now, are you? You said you were running surveys.” His mouth compressed into a tight line. “Long story.”

And he obviously didn’t want to tell it.

“You didn’t get that faded tan on a way station like this. Or on a packing line,” he said. “Psi-tech, yes?”

She was taking a risk. This close up he had to feel the pull of her implant, even powered down. If she’d been good at flirting, she could have distracted him with a pout and a come-hither look. She wasn’t good at flirting. When she realized she’d focused on her half-eaten meal, she forced herself to look back at Benjamin’s eyes.

“You slapped on that field bandage like a pro,” he said.

Cara had a brief moment of panic. She wanted to gabble an apology and run out of the diner, but instead she forced herself to smile, trying not to give too much away, hoping it looked enigmatic rather than vapid. She didn’t want to tell him too much.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“That’s no question to ask a lady.”

“I’m curious. I’ve got a hunch you’ve done regular cryo.”

“Very astute, Mr. Benjamin. I’ve notched up eight years in the freezer, mostly in smallish chunks.” She held out her hand, wondering how much to tell. In its default state, her handpad recorded three timelines, biological, Earth standard, and local.

“Is that an Alphacorp issue pad?”

Shit! She’d had it for so long she’d forgotten how recognizable it was.

“So why are you here? This isn’t an Alphacorp station.” He suddenly looked wary. “You’ve not done NR, have you?”

“Neural Readjustment? Me? No. No way.” The edge of her vision clouded. She rocked back in her chair. Her throat clenched. “And I don’t like it when you talk dirty.”

“Relax. You’re attracting attention.” He looked at her as if trying to read her.

She pushed her hair back behind one ear.

Was he leading her on? Playing with her? She took a deep breath. “I made a wrong career move.”

“Hmm. Bad deal. I know how that goes.”

I bet you don’t. She suddenly checked herself, hoping she hadn’t broadcast that thought. No; all right, then. So far, so good. Breathe.

He took the hint and changed the subject. “Mirrimar-14 seems a little limited, culturally speaking. What do you do for fun?”

“Watch my fingernails grow.”

He inclined his head, inviting more.

“All right, let’s see, if you want a tourist guide answer, there’s the dome—that’s the usual sort of entertainment complex—and various gyms with tax bonuses for working out. They like to keep their workers healthy.”

“And you work out?” he asked.

“I’m not going to arm wrestle you to prove it.”

“It might be worth it.” He smiled and glanced around the bar. “Where to now?” Sam’s wasn’t a place where they liked you to linger all night and there was already a line at the door for tables.

She thought he might make assumptions, but he didn’t. Maybe she hadn’t worn the right dress. Maybe he wasn’t the kind of man who made assumptions. She found herself liking him for that.

He paid the bill, and she led the way to the go-flow tunnel, checking casually behind to make sure they weren’t being followed. Soon they were strap-hanging in the evening crowds, while their antigrav raft hit the accelerator lane and matched speed with the swift-moving continuous loop transporter. She leaned close to Ben on the pretext of maintaining balance above the trolley’s center of gravity. Her fingers twined with his as she reached up for the dismount button on the hanging strap and the raft neatly flipped across and slowed to a smooth stop on the platform by the leisure dome.

She led him toward the main courtyard where all the different areas converged. “How about the forest bubble?” she asked.

“It’s not like the real thing, is it?”

They passed the entrance, but then Ben hovered by the elevator to the theater. Cara grabbed his arm to guide him past. As she did so, something prickled at the back of her neck.

She glanced sideways. Shit! One of the businessmen—if that’s what they were—from Craike’s ship was walking down the concourse toward her. She didn’t think he’d seen her yet. She hurriedly double-checked her implant and imagined a blank wall of psi-tech nothing around herself. Blend in with the background. Blend. Blend. She pressed closer to Ben, turning her face into his shoulder, trying to slow her racing heart by willpower alone, imagining herself to be no different from anyone else in the plaza.

The man moved like a dancer, free and light, almost as if he could walk on dust without leaving footprints. She turned her face completely away from him, excising him from her mind to sever any lingering mental connections, though she could almost taste his presence as he got closer.

Closer.

And finally past.

Ben had stiffened and didn’t relax until she breathed out again. She wondered if he was going to ask any questions, but he didn’t. Once the man was safely out of sight, she tugged at Ben’s arm and dragged him in the opposite direction.

“Snow slopes?” Ben asked, walking past without slowing.

“Yeah, sorry, I wasn’t thinking. That’s not very date-like, is it?”

Ben laughed. “Are we on a date? Well, in that case, maybe we could try a little home entertainment.”

About time. She’d given him enough opportunities. It was such a cliché, but attempting to keep her voice smooth, she said, “My place or yours?”

“Mine.”

She’d hoped he’d say that. Hers was hardly big enough, and anyway, she wasn’t altogether sure it was safe anymore. She shivered involuntarily and pushed that thought away. Concentrate on one thing at a time.

“Come on, then, back to the go-flow.”

He took her cold hand in his warm, dry one and they headed back to the tunnels.

• • •

Ben swiped his handpad across the door lock and moved aside to let Cara enter first.

“You keep your place tidier than I do.” She examined the room carefully before stepping over the threshold.

“It’s easy when you live out of a mission pack. I could spread all my belongings over the floor, and it would still look tidy.”

“Washroom?” she asked, and headed for the door he pointed to.

Once the washroom door had closed behind her, Ben pulled a chair up to the station’s matrix terminal and swiped his clearance chip. “Access station staff files,” he said. “Cara Carlinni.”

The files lined up neatly on his screen. A quick glance was enough to tell him her bio was a fake. He’d seen enough of them to know one when he saw one. Usually, second-raters fudged their employment history to get a better job, but in this case her résumé was bland and she was drawing minimum wage on an assembly line. There was no mention of her being a psi-tech at all, yet he was sure she was even though she hadn’t admitted it in so many words. Her reaction to his mention of Neural Readjustment had been pretty typical of any psi-tech. Neural was the end of the line for the rebels, the careless, the criminal, and the unlucky.

They certainly weren’t paying her psi-tech rates. Maybe she’d been through Neural or—he thought with distaste—had had her implant decommissioned altogether. She was either mentally unstable, which she didn’t seem to be; socially inept, which she certainly wasn’t despite being a little awkward at times; or she was hiding from someone or something.

Or she’d been sent by certain members of the Trust’s Board of Directors. All of the possibilities were bad news.

He should kick her out and take himself straight to bed, but she looked stunning in that dress, and he had a mind to see what she looked like out of it. He was pretty sure that was what she had in mind, but not at all sure of the reason.

• • •

Cara flicked her fingers over her dress where the bloodstain had been. The last traces had gone. Good. She splashed water on her face, checked her breath after eating fish, and emerged from the washroom with a bright smile. Ben had ordered Muscat brandy from room service. It arrived within seconds, and he took it from the hatch along with a couple of glasses.

In another life Cara might have found Ben Benjamin attractive, but she wasn’t ready to look at men again yet. He mustn’t know that.

She couldn’t think of anyone but Ari.

Why now?

Maybe she could close her eyes and make believe Ben was Ari.

No, Ben was unlikely to be anything like Ari in bed.

Sometimes, especially toward the end, their bouts of sex had been gladiatorial, often fierce, always draining. Her feelings for Ari were unlike anything she’d ever had for anyone before. He was manipulative and devious, and—she felt a soft adrenaline bump in the pit of her stomach—she was still tied to him, even though he’d doubtless sent Craike after her. Was it love? Had it ever been love? Whatever it was, it was dangerous.

Ben. Concentrate on Ben.

She hoped she’d judged this right. She wondered whether she was that good an actress, but it was probably too late for doubts. She smiled and whirled around so that her skirt flared out. Ben watched her appreciatively.

Who are you? What do you want?

She wasn’t sure whether he’d spoken that aloud or whether she’d picked it up out of his head. A sudden rush of heat to her cheeks threatened to give her away. She didn’t answer.

He poured her a generous drink and himself a small one. She downed hers in one, but didn’t touch the glass again when he refilled it. A shy teenager on her first date couldn’t have been more nervous. Her heart was pounding, but the drink scoured the back of her throat and steadied her. Get a grip, Carlinni.

Ben invited her up close, and she didn’t resist. She had a vague sense of detachment, a brief moment of awkwardness, then she slid her arms around his neck and pressed against him, raising her face, finding his lips with hers. Ari never kissed her on the mouth, so this was different. It was a good first kiss, not too hard, not too wet, gentle but warm. He was testing to see whether she really meant it. She was grateful for that.

The drink blunted the edge of her inhibitions. She opened her lips to his and the kiss deepened. She could feel the warmth of his hand against the small of her back pulling her close. A heady wave of anticipation combined with nervousness started somewhere in the pit of her belly and washed through her, leaving her dizzy and breathless. She let it take over, hoping she could use it to replace passion. Too late to turn back now.

• • •

Whore!

The word formed a cold, stony knot in the center of her body, and she felt chilled, even lying in the shadow of Ben’s warm body. Ben had been skilled and generous and she’d been . . . uninvolved. Pliant, but disconnected. Whore wasn’t the right word. A whore would have given much better value. She closed her eyes tight to lock in the tears and took slow, even breaths.

Ari was still in her head.

She’d tried to leave him when she’d found out what he was up to, but he wasn’t ready to let her go. He’d threatened her, obliquely but undeniably, if she tried to back out. Craike handles severances, he’d said.

She tried to block out the rest of that painful memory.

She shivered.

Ben pulled the sheet up over her, his hand brushing against her breast in the shroud-darkness of the room. It cut into her thoughts, and before she could stop herself, she flinched. Damn, she shouldn’t have done that.

“Did I hurt you?” He hitched himself up on one elbow, voice full of concern.

“No. You were wonderful.”

“Cut the crap. I don’t need it.” He reached over and turned the lamp up to a dim glimmer. “Did I hurt you?”

“No. Truly.”

She turned her head toward him, saw the look on his face, and half-smiled what she hoped was reassurance. She couldn’t read his expression.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why what?”

“The playacting, the sex. Why me? Did the Board send you? What do you want?”

“Board? What board? Who says I want anything?” She rolled to get up. “This was a bad idea.”

He didn’t try to stop her. Instead he followed her and draped the fallen sheet over her shoulders.

“Sorry if I seem to be paranoid,” he said. “It’s been a strange day. I almost got bounced into infinity crossing the Folds and had to argue with a petty official to get a next-day systems check that’s costing me double rate. I was figuring on nothing more than eating some real food and sleeping in a real bed.” He breathed out sharply. “Then I hook up with a gorgeous woman!” He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his pants. “A man doesn’t generally get that lucky without a good reason. I might not even score on the empathy scale, but I know you want something.”

“Then why did you go along with me?” She twined the sheet around herself.

He raised one eyebrow. “Have you taken a look in the mirror lately?”

“Just sex?”

“Were you offering anything else?”

“Maybe.” She pulled the sheet a little closer.

“You’re good. You make all the right moves, but your body’s too honest. You don’t do this very often, do you? What do you want?” he asked.

There was an uncomfortable pause. “I need to get out of here,” she said.

“There’s the door.” There was a new wariness in his voice.

“I mean off Mirrimar-14. I need to get away quickly and quietly.”

“Why?”

“Before I came here, I made an enemy. I had to drop everything and run. This is as far as I got before my credits and my luck ran out. I hoped I’d be safe here. I’d heard about people who help people like me. I thought if I could make the right connection, I could stop for a while.”

“Who are you running from?”

Cara rubbed her temples to ease the incipient headache. “You’ll probably be safer if I don’t tell you. Let’s just say I didn’t realize what I was getting into. He’s a dangerous man to cross and he’s got a lot of connections. A ship arrived earlier today and, well, I’ve got to get out or I’m a sitting target.”

“The man near the snow slopes?”

“One of . . . his.” She closed her mouth on Ari’s name.

“Are you saying he’d kill you?”

“Yes, or hurt me a lot, or probably both, but not in that order. I told you. He’s got influence and he’s really pissed with me.”

“Has he got a right to be?”

“He thinks so. It’s complicated. Look, I haven’t done anything bad. In fact . . . Oh, please just take my word . . . It’s more than complicated.”

She’d made a complete mess of that! She wondered whether to tell Ben everything. Her temples pounded and she wasn’t even sure she could face going through the whole story. Besides, knowing how dangerous Ari was might frighten Ben off, even though he didn’t look like he’d scare easily.

Ben stared at her as if he was weighing her on some internal balance. “What do you know about Olyanda?”

“It doesn’t ring any bells. Person or place?”

“Planet in the Taloga System.”

She shrugged. “Not one I’ve been to.”

“No one has. It’s a new colony. My next assignment. Babysitting a fundamentalist sect setting up their utopia. I thought . . . oh, never mind.” Ben frowned. “Don’t you need an exit permit to get out of here?”

“I can’t leave openly. You’re flying private. I can get on board without going through official channels.”

“Too risky. First, you’ll never make it through the port, and second, I’ll be up to my armpits in shit when you don’t. It’s too much of a risk.”

Earlier that evening she’d seen him step in range of a parrimer blade with a dithering enforcer pointing a shaky sidearm in his direction, and now he thought she was too much of a risk. “It’s not impossible,” she said. “Devantec, that’s the firm I work for, runs a courier service. I’ve been checking their schedules, waiting for the right opportunity.”

“Is that all I am, an opportunity?”

“You’re probably an expensive opportunity. I can pay—something—not much, but . . .”

Or was he going to want payment in kind? She swallowed hard, activated her handpad and pulled up her credit rating.

“I’ve saved every spare credit I’ve earned since I got here. That’s what I’ve got. I’ll pay—do—whatever it takes.”

“I’m not for sale.”

Cara suddenly saw Ari’s fair features overlaid on Ben’s dark ones and had a momentary panic. If Ben was Ari’s agent, she’d played right into his hands. There was no way she could tell unless he’d let her do a mind-scan. Without that, she’d have to trust to her instincts and—hell—they’d been wrong before. She was running out of options.

“How about Olyanda? Every expedition needs more long-range Telepaths. I’m a Psi-1.”

“And you’re on the packing line at Devantec on minimum wage? Right.”

“I’ve . . . I’ve been powered down for . . . months. They can find me by . . .”

“You’ve been completely powered down?” He cursed under his breath, and she could have sworn that was concern in his voice. “How long?”

She swallowed and glanced at the timeline on her handpad. “Eleven months and thirteen days.”

The look in his eyes said he didn’t believe her, so she pulled out a tranq, held it up for him to see, and popped it. “With a little help.” She swallowed the capsule and let her desperation show in her voice. “Look, I’m way out on a limb and someone’s sawing down my tree. Will you help or not?”

She watched for Ben’s reaction. There was an undercurrent of something she didn’t quite follow, something he was preoccupied with. She was so full of her own troubles that she hadn’t stopped to think he might have some of his own.

“You know, if you’re putting all that on just to spin me a line,” he said, “you’re very good at it. I think I believe you, but I don’t know if I’m thinking with my brain or my balls. I must be slipping.” He held her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes, then shook his head. “It’s too risky. I’m on the emergency overhaul pad in the Aloha dock. It’s the busiest part of the whole port and I won’t be cleared to leave until 1500. You’ll never make it through the security checks. If I get one more black mark on my record, I lose my job, and I can’t risk that. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” she said.

“There’s more at stake than just a job. Other things . . . going on.”

“I get it. You can’t take me.” She bit down on her back teeth to stop herself from saying more.

“I’m leaving.” She stood up.

“You’re welcome to stay until morning.”

“What’s the point?”

As she dropped into the antigrav shaft, she realized that despite his refusal she now knew the location of his ship and his time of departure. Had he meant to tell her that?

Oh . . .

She began to grin.

Chapter Three

EGRESS

Cara didn’t dare go back to her own apartment, but there was nothing there that she couldn’t walk away from. She’d lost all those little keepsakes of her childhood when she’d escaped from Sentier-4 with only her prison gown under a stolen buddysuit.

Where to go until it was time to make her move?

Jussaro’s.

He’d always said if she needed a friend she could call, but she’d backed off as soon as she realized what he was—what he’d been.

No time to get squeamish now.

She hopped the go-flow and dismounted at Accommodation Section Four. Once away from the platform the corridors looked identical to her own neighborhood, numbered medonite doors set in gray walls, most decorated with individual designs showing the personality of their owner. She’d never touched hers, but the previous resident had seared it with the orange hues of an Earth sunset, just a little off-kilter in its colors, as if he longed for something he’d heard about but never seen firsthand.

Jussaro’s door, however, was resolutely gray like the walls, decorated only by an apartment number.

It was late. She glanced at her handpad, hoping he was a light sleeper, and pressed the buzzer. He answered almost immediately, still fully dressed.

“Carlinni!” His purple-black face creased along laugh lines, his eyes almost disappearing entirely behind his nictating inner eyelid and prominent brow ridges.

“You know you said if I ever needed a friend . . . ?”

Unquestioning, he stepped back to let her in. His slightly lopsided grin chilled her. She could have been like him if she hadn’t got out when she did. Half his memories had been destroyed, and he claimed the other half were unreliable. Neural Readjustment could do that to a person. Routine work was all he was considered fit for. It was a wonder he wasn’t insane—or maybe he was, but he hid it well.

Squat and muscular, Jussaro was an exotic, genetically engineered to withstand the heavy gravity and high levels of radiation dousing the second planet of the Hollands System. Altered humans had settled there three hundred years ago to mine the rich deposits of platinum vital to the jump gates. Even though the mines had given up the best of their resources many years ago, seeing Hollanders off-world was rare.

Jussaro kept very close-mouthed about what he’d done to earn his trip to Neural. Whatever it was, it didn’t necessarily make him a bad person. She didn’t consider herself a bad person. Yet for what she’d done, she’d end up in Neural, too, presuming Craike didn’t kill her first. She felt her jaw clench and the back of her neck prickle. Knowing Ari’s propensity for revenge, he’d have her implant decommissioned without an anesthetic, wait until she’d gone screaming nuts, and then let Craike kill her.

Slowly.

She shuddered.

“What do you want, Carlinni? If it’s my body, you’re out of luck.” Jussaro pointed her to the single soft chair in his tiny apartment and dragged the blanket from the arm before she sat in it. The cushions were still warm. He must have been sleeping there.

“A million credits, a fast cruiser, and a pony.”

“Yeah, right. Let’s start again. What do you want to drink?” He turned to his countertop and waved at the hot- and cold-water spigots.

“Spoilsport.”

His face lit up, crow’s feet crinkling. “I’m having caff.”

She spotted three empty caff cartons on the table.

“No wonder you never sleep properly.”

He wrenched the top off a carton and shoved it under the hot spigot, but then reached for a glass, filled it from the cold and handed it to her.

She sipped cautiously. “Water?”

“I saw you pop a tranq earlier today. Figured that might be safest.”

She colored.

“Thought you could fool me, huh?”

Maybe Jussaro wasn’t that far gone.

“Just ’cause I’m . . .” He circled his index finger to his temple. “It doesn’t mean to say I don’t see things. See things and know things.”

She gaped at him now, wondering just how insane he might be.

“Oh, I know, anyone who’s been through Neural isn’t supposed to recall much. When the shrinks ask—and they do ask—I can’t remember a fucking thing about life before being a half-wit, but let me tell you there’s only so much they can do if you’re determined not to lose it all. There’s your underlying ability. They can’t take that away.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“You’re a psi-tech. You’re out on your own . . . and you’ve got problems.”

“Me? No.”

He snorted. “It’s the middle of the night, Carlinni, and you’re on my doorstep looking like you’ve had sex. You’re either on a deep-cover job, or you’re on the run. You’re popping tranqs because your implant is powered down. That means someone is looking for you.”

She gaped at him.

“Yeah, I’m not as fried as they think I am.”

For a second she wondered if she’d been transmitting and him receiving, but that was impossible. Doubly impossible.

He sipped the carton of caff. “Well, maybe I am . . . fried, I mean, but I had an implant for twenty-four years before I . . . well, let’s not go there. Short of taking my brain apart, synapse by synapse, they can’t cut me off from it completely.”

He leaned back against the countertop. “Ever wonder what life would have been like if you hadn’t tested positive for psi-skills?”

Sometimes she wished she’d never been tested, but it was a fast track to a fully funded education and offered an irresistible opportunity to be completely independent of her mother and to see the galaxy. At the age of fourteen she hadn’t appreciated that the guaranteed job for life was part of the deal whether you wanted it or not. If the company paid for your implant and trained you, then the company owned you. Sure, the leash was diamond-studded, but it was still a leash. Step out of line, and they could choke you with it.

When she didn’t answer, Jussaro went on. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a veterinarian, then I got tested and it turned out I was too valuable a resource to let me have my own way. It’s supposed to be a grand thing. Free education, dream job, but look what we lose. What price freedom, Carlinni?”

“I knew, even before they tested me. I wanted it. Seemed so much better than the alternative. My mom was . . . well, let’s just say we didn’t get on.”

“I knew, too. I tried to hide it, but they got me anyway. And look what trouble it brought. I never wanted it and now I can’t live without it. And you . . . you got big trouble.”

“Who says I’m in trouble?” She took a pull at her water, hoping it would hide the fact that she wanted to heave at the notion of anyone playing with her brain.

“You’ve been in trouble since the day you arrived.”

“How do you know?”

He laughed, a strange barking sound. “We know our own, don’t we?”

She had a sudden urge to ’fess up. It would be a relief. Troubles shared, troubles halved. Ha! If only. Anyone she talked to would end up on Ari’s hit list, too.

“You ever been in NR?” Jussaro asked.

“Neural Readjustment? Me? No. No way.” The edge of her vision clouded. She stood up so fast the glass bounced across the tiles and the armchair skidded backward. Her heart pounded. Her pulse thudded in her ears. She felt her throat constrict and heard her voice rise in pitch. “And I don’t like it when you talk dirty.”

“Sit down, Carlinni. There’s only me here. No one to impress.” He picked up the glass and looked at her from under his heavy brows as if trying to read her. “Believe me, I’m no one.”

She dropped back into the chair, palms flat on the arms for stability, eyes down. Eventually, she dragged her gaze away from the floor and stared at him, still trying to get her breathing under control. Like all psi-techs, Neural Readjustment was her most deep-seated dread. She’d escaped it so narrowly. . . .

• • •

She’s waking from cryo. It’s that moment of seeing everything in a kaleidoscope of scents, hearing everything in color, smelling sounds, and tasting the feel of the restraints. The medic’s light is blinding and smells like lemon. As they pull out the catheter and unplumb her, there’s salt on her tongue. Even experienced travelers panic. Some go mad, start screaming and never stop; others just die. Once her brain starts working again, she realizes that it’s not her screaming. She’s not one of the acceptable 0.3% of losses, three in a thousand. This time, anyway.

Then she wants to scream because she realizes that she’s not back home on Earth. This isn’t Alphacorp’s resuscitation wing. Alarms sound in her head. The Felcon mission has been a fucking fiasco. It should be over.

But it isn’t.

This is the aftermath.

She reads the label on the med-tech’s coverall and adrenaline surges, but she’s strapped down and can’t go anywhere. She’s in Facility 197, Alphacorp’s Neural Readjustment Center on Sentier-4. The fear factor kicks in, right as it’s meant to do. ’Course it does. Donida McLellan and Facility 197 are notorious among psi-techs.

• • •

Jussaro was still talking. He didn’t seem to notice she’d been elsewhere for a moment. “You really can tell me, Carlinni. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. The first time they figured they’d fixed me, brought me back into the fold. The second time . . . that’s when they killed the implant. Permanently.”

Shit! That was heavy. Bearing in mind how many times decommissioning resulted in suicide or, at best, a lifetime in an institution, Jussaro must have been—and probably still was—heroically determined not to lose himself.

“But they didn’t factor in my natural psi talent. I don’t know how much others have retained, but I can still receive.” He raised one eyebrow and gave her a lopsided grin. “It’s not easy, but I can. So, come on, tell me. Have you ever done Neural?”

“Quit pushing, Jussaro, I’ve never done Neural, right? Never. Ever. Do I seem like a nut?” Her mouth seemed to say the words of its own accord. That wasn’t very tactful. She saw the look on his face. She scrubbed at her eyes with her hand to cover her confusion. “Sorry. I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .”

“No, that’s all right. I just thought—you know—maybe you had and you needed to talk. Why else come here at this hour?”

Cara found herself shaking. She’d powered down her implant because she was scared that they’d use it to track her down. She was like Jussaro—a psi-tech disconnected from that enormous sense of belonging—of family. But it had been her choice. Her choice! It was only temporary, dammit. Temporary!

She took a deep breath. “You’re way off target, Jussaro, but thanks anyway.”

“So how do you need my help?”

“I need a place to stay for a few hours, and a red company coverall. And if anyone comes sniffing around, you haven’t seen me, right?”

“Right. You’re getting out?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. Have you got somewhere to go?”

“Maybe.”

“Time was I could have helped with that.” He shrugged and touched his forehead.

“I came to Mirrimar looking for help.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Time was I could have helped with that, too.”

“You could? All this time and it was right under my nose?”

“Was.” Jussaro shrugged again. “Whatever we had is long gone. What do you think got me busted?”

“I hoped . . .”

“What? That there was a place where the corporations couldn’t get you? Ha! Nice thought, but no. There were a few small cells hiding in plain sight, not even connected. If one cell was taken, they couldn’t betray anyone beyond their own small group. That was the theory anyway. The day they came for us, they took out a dozen groups like ours—or maybe that’s what they wanted us to believe. Anyhow, my contacts all disappeared at the same time.”

“What were you doing to attract so much attention?”

“Just being. No one likes the idea of rogue psi-techs.”

“Oh, I so needed that place to be real.”

“Your head’s your own, Carlinni. The megacorps may try, but they don’t have the power to control you unless you let them. There are plenty of places a psi-tech can find to call home. All you have to do is look. There are more than you think living off the grid.”

She resisted the temptation to get up and drop a kiss on top of his bald head.

• • •

Once away from Jussaro’s place, Cara changed in the washroom on the edge of the go-flow concourse and with a sigh of regret dropped her dress into the recycler. Then she excised the station tracer chip from her handpad and stuck it to a tiny piece of tape from her carryall, now strapped round her middle.

That done, she stepped out into the throng of busy people.

They stank of stress. It wasn’t an aroma, it was a state of being. Shift change on Mirrimar-14 was always the worst; bodies crammed together in featureless gray walkways not designed to cope with a rush hour. This time, though, the chaos should prove useful.

The go-flow buzzed like a hive with the noise of conversation, the accumulated whirr of flow-ways, and the whine of antigravs. Too many bodies and not enough air. Cara was surprised no one choked.

People shouldered her out of the way for seats on the trolleys, and eager hands snatched up the one-man rafts as soon as they became vacant. In the crush to get one, Cara stumbled against a blonde woman, close to her own build and age. She apologized, putting out her hands to prevent the woman from falling and, as she did so, stuck the tracer chip neatly to the sleeve of the woman’s standard-issue red coverall. That should keep security occupied for a while if anyone put out a call on her.

Mumbled apologies over, they separated again. Cara’s look-alike claimed a raft and flipped neatly into the stream of traffic, leaving her behind. By edging out a young Monitor cadet, Cara grabbed a ride and made for the fast lane, heartbeat thumping in her ears. So far, so good.

Without the tracer chip, she couldn’t pass through any regular checkpoints, but she wouldn’t need to if everything went according to plan. She’d face getting through the last security gate when she came to it.

The distinctive rhythm of the go-flow etched itself in Cara’s brain, as she dipped into a series of underpasses close to the interchange for the port. The acoustic baffles sliced through the noise as she passed through compartments of sound. Whoosh. Shift. Whoosh. Shift. She wove between lanes, keeping her head down. This was her best chance, before anyone realized that her tracer chip was tagged to a decoy.

She turned onto the slipway for the port, irritated by the traffic delays through the go-flow that connected the two halves of the dumbbell-shaped way station. At the other end she emerged briefly into the open again, this time into an area of warehousing and commerce, its uniform gray broken only by garish logos. She avoided the heavily guarded access road to the platinum vaults and took the throughway. When the next tunnel swallowed her, she dropped her raft down, almost to dismounting speed. Better not break an ankle. She breathed deeply, checked the position of the traffic eyes, punched the auto, and leaped off, letting the raft go on by itself. Her legs impacted on the floor with jarring suddenness. Fuck! That hurt! She straightened both legs and tested her full weight on each in turn, but there was no damage done.

So far, so good. She had to keep going.

Away from the traffic, the sounds receded eerily. Ducking into a maintenance refuge, she retrieved a small multipurpose tool from her belt pouch and forced the catch on the door leading to an access corridor. A broad-shouldered man would have to walk sideways, but she was able to walk forward, taking care not to catch her head on the conduit that ran above. Third right, second left, through the access hatch, down the ladder. She’d checked the schematics, knew where she was going, followed the cryptic guides that prevented the maintenance crew from losing themselves in the maze. The wall itself sensed her presence and glowed as she passed, giving her a working light.

But the heavy silence ate at her nerves.

Did Ari already have operatives on Mirrimar-14? Maybe Craike’s passengers had connected with someone local. She was pretty sure Alphacorp had operatives, sleepers mostly, spread all over the galaxy—as fast as colonies sprang up and hub stations deployed, they sent in fact finders—but she didn’t know to what extent Ari could call on the whole of Alphacorp’s network. How complicit was the Alphacorp hierarchy in Ari’s unsavory activity?

Something snatched at her sleeve and she half-turned, ready to lash out, but it was only a loose cable-tie. She hissed a curse under her breath. She had the jitters. Confined spaces could play nasty tricks on otherwise perfectly normal minds. . . .

Confinement.

The memory of the abortive final mission on Felcon flooded back: waking from cryo in Facility 197, Alphacorp’s Neural Readjustment Center, knowing it would be her word against Craike’s.

She tasted the terror once again.

But despite her fears, they’d left her alone—completely alone—for weeks, her brain so fogged with Reisercaine that she couldn’t access her implant. They did her one favor, though; they taught her that it was possible to exist cut off from the thought buzz of everyday living.

She mustn’t let herself think about that now.

She stopped. Was that a sound behind? She listened hard, butterflies in her stomach.

Nothing. It was just her overwrought imagination. Breathe. Keep going.

She counted the hatches as she passed. Eight; this was it. It swung open silently, and she stepped through into a broad cargo tunnel. There was the usual security camera system with an eye directly above this door and she needed to put it out of action before she could move out of its blind spot. She’d requisitioned a reel of thin trilene line from stores and had picked up a pebble from one of the precious plant tubs in the concourse. The pebble’s weight was enough to give the end of the line some stability. She threw it above the eye-mounting and the line snaked over the top of the flexible stalk. Then holding both ends of the line, she swung on it and bent the stalk so that the lens pointed at the wall. An eye out of place was less noticeable than one malfunctioning.

She freed it with a shake, coiled the line and pebble and pushed it into her pocket, then turned and padded off in the direction of the port, surrounded by silence. Far ahead, she could hear the dull noise of the cargo go-flow, but behind, it was as quiet as a tomb. She could hear nothing . . . or could she?

She turned at the sound of metal scraping behind her. Light as a cat, a gray-suited figure emerged from the hatch. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were cold. He was the one from the concourse. Oh, shit. The butterflies turned into snakes roiling in her belly.

He stepped forward, menace in every line of his body, eyes narrowed.

“Thought you’d fooled me, huh?”

“Obviously not.”

He was a talker. Keep him talking.

“You’re worth a lot of credits.”

“Sharing them with Craike and your friends?”

The flicker in his eyes told her he wasn’t. Hopefully that meant he was working alone.

“Craike, pah!” He made a spitting gesture. “Amateur.”

Fucketty fuck!

“I can pay more.” Lie. Say anything.

This guy had a fighter’s stance, and he thought Craike was an amateur. She’d never been able to beat Craike in a training session and had carried the bruises to prove it.

The man didn’t waste any more time. He came in hard and fast.

Adrenaline surged. She dropped, pushed sideways and slid, lashing out toward him in a move that should break his kneecap, except he wasn’t there. He was a pace away, coming in on her blind spot. He struck like a snake. She rolled to her feet and skipped out of reach, barely avoiding contact. They circled. The bare corridor offered nothing she could use as a weapon and no getaway route. If she ran, she’d be betting she was faster than him. Plus, it would put them both into the camera zone, and security would be here to grab the winner. That was no consolation either way.

Breathe. Think!

He was taller and heavier than she was, but she was light, fast, and supple.

At least he hadn’t pulled a weapon. Maybe he was confident that he wouldn’t need one. Think again, bastard! A surge of anger subdued the snakes a little.

“Craike’s an amateur, is he?” She tried to distract him. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

His mouth twitched in disdain, but he didn’t waste words.

“Better than you,” she said.

No reaction. A pro. She was in real trouble.

Who was she kidding? She was in real trouble anyway.

They circled, each waiting for an opening. She watched closely for a flicker of intent. There! They both moved at the same time. She darted in, twisting away from a disabling kick and striking toward the exposed area of his crotch. Her stiff fingers connected with a light box protector and jarred her knuckles. She whirled away and took half the force of the blow intended for her throat on her left shoulder before they spun apart again.

That was going to hurt—but not for a while. If she couldn’t finish this fast, he would. She flexed her arm to test for damage, finding nothing torn or broken. For a split-second they stood motionless, facing each other, breathing hard, assessing, adjusting, reasoning. She didn’t let her eyes be drawn to the man’s wickedly fast feet, instead she watched his face, but he wasn’t giving much away.

She needed an advantage. Think, woman! Her brain sorted through ideas, rejected even as they were being formed. She wasn’t carrying a weapon . . . or was she?

He came in fast, but in her mind the scene played in slowmo. This wouldn’t be a long encounter; he couldn’t afford the luxury of playing cat and mouse. He’d already discovered that weaponless didn’t mean she was unarmed.

He feinted right and turned impossibly at the last nanosecond. She flung herself left. His right foot lashed out again, double-time. Fuck! Already unbalanced, she curved away from it, but couldn’t avoid it completely.

At the end of its arc, where the energy had almost dissipated, his toe caught the side of her head, just above her ear, with a crunch that she heard as well as felt. Starbursts danced on the edge of her vision. She was in big trouble. Her red cap flew off, but she didn’t let it distract her. A quick jab with her left. She caught his extended leg a glancing blow, elbow to knee. It wasn’t enough to permanently disable him, but it gave her a breathing space. It was now or never.

Willing herself to keep gray nausea at bay, she ran backward, trusting that the corridor floor was flat and empty. Her hand went to her pocket and her fingers found the pebble and the trilene line. She didn’t even have time to unravel them, she just hurled the lot, hard, from the shoulder, putting all her strength behind the throw. And then she followed it. She wouldn’t get a second chance.

The line began to unravel as it flew. Damn! She’d be lucky if it even hit him.

He saw it coming and instinct snapped his head back. His eyes widened. Maybe the tail of the trilene line confused his perception for a moment. Whatever. It was enough. She had her opening. She smacked the heel of her right hand into his nose with all the force of her shoulder behind it.

His gargled yelp ended in the middle as the impact broke his nose and dropped him at her feet. It had taken less than a minute.

“Bastard!”

She kicked him in the ribs to be sure, but he didn’t move.

Fear clamped, and running purely on automatic, she knelt beside him. He was still breathing. Was she pleased about that or not? How long did she have before he came to? She didn’t need long to get far enough ahead of him, and she didn’t think he’d admit to Craike that he’d tried to take the reward for himself, though his broken nose would take some explaining.

The nausea that had threatened before rolled over her now and she heaved up Jussaro’s idea of breakfast over the unconscious man’s left sleeve, fighting off the urge to lie down next to him and close her eyes. Her ears rang with the weird-shit sound of church bells underwater.

Concentrating hard on every movement, she picked up his limp left hand and excised the chip from his handpad, taking both his ident and his security chip. A businessman wouldn’t be entitled to security clearance, but Ari’s operative might.

She looked at the man’s face and shuddered.

There was no time for pondering. He might come round at any moment. Quickly, she ripped off his handpad, leaving blood oozing from severed connections, and ground it under the heel of her boot. Then she dragged him to the service door and dumped him inside, using up almost all her reserves of strength. Bending to pick up her cap sent her to her knees under a wave of dizziness. She staggered upright and stood very still, breathing steadily, eyes closed, trying to find her center. Carefully, she jammed the cap over her bunched-up hair, avoiding the tender swelling above her ear, and walked slowly in the direction of the cargo go-flow, trailing the fingers of her right hand across the wall to keep contact with reality and remind herself which way was up.

Smooth-sided containers trundled by slowly, defying gravity on the moving lanes. Going through the cargo area would be the trickiest part, but the red coverall was standard-issue for all Devantec personnel, from engineers to package couriers, and perhaps these would help. She fingered the stolen chips, hoping that they’d get her through the checkpoint that she’d planned to bluff her way through as a Devantec employee.

Her head pounded like a pile driver. She tucked a stray strand of hair under her red cap, pulled the peak well down over her forehead, and eyed the moving trucks.

There. That was what she had been waiting for! An open mail truck of smaller packages trundled slowly by. She swallowed hard, bit down on her teeth, and took three quick strides to match speed. She grabbed the rim and stepped on to the casing, causing it to sway wildly on its antigravs before stabilizing and letting her find a safe riding position. Nausea threatened. She breathed it away. It was illegal, of course, for employees to ride the bucket, but everyone did it, and no one would haul her off unless she got a real stickler on the checkpoint.

She didn’t. The checker even waved as she went through. Approaching the cargo area, she hopped off again, but this time with a random package held in front of her. It was heavier than she’d expected it to be for its size. She stumbled as she landed, feeling her balance falter, but sidestepped and found her feet again without going all the way down.

At the automatic security gate she popped the graysuit’s access chip under the scanner and waited. The barrier opened, and it wasn’t until she sucked in a lungful of air that she realized she’d been holding her breath.

Once through, she headed for the docking bays, finding it hard to read the signs through blurred vision. She screwed up her face, squinted at the numbers, and found the Aloha dock. She’d checked. Number seven was the emergency overhaul pad. The gate guard gave her a searching look, but she clutched the package to her chest to mask both her gender and the missing insignia on her suit, and muttered, “Delivery for bay seven.”

She held her breath, waiting for him to say that the bay had cleared and gone, but he just grunted.

“Is that what the holdup’s about?” he said. “The bay’s been tied up all afternoon, and I’ve got eight craft piling up in dispatch. Get in there quick.”

She started to reach for the stolen ident, but the guard was building up a head of steam. “Fuck that, just get on with it!” He waved her through.

She got on with it.

Rehearsing what she was going to say, she was surprised to find the wing-step still down. Ben offered her his hand as she climbed onboard the Dixie Flyer. He took the package and dropped it to one side of the cabin, its useful purpose ended.

“You made it.”

“You were expecting me?”

“Figured you were the type who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“But you had yourself covered just in case I got caught.”

“They might have caught you. Under interrogation, you could only tell the truth—that I refused you passage. Any trouble?” he asked.

“Tell you later.”

He nodded. “Take that couch.”

She slid into the copilot’s couch and adjusted her harness. Even through her fogged brain she could tell that the Dixie didn’t shine anymore, but it was well-maintained. It felt right, like a good working flyer should.

The couch molded to her body shape and the five-point restraints snaked over her shoulders, round her waist, and between her legs to meet in the middle and lock with a satisfying click.

Ben sat in the pilot’s seat beside her and clipped on the lightweight headset that connected him to the ship’s systems and left both hands free. The computer handled the donkeywork, but there was still a considerable amount of individual skill involved.

“Benjamin 4468, pad seven. Ready for air lock procedure,” he said.

“Pad seven, running your clearance again,” the speaker announced.

“Damn! I thought they’d be so glad to see me gone they’d release straight away,” he said under his breath.

“Pad seven, you’re overweight.”

“Just taken a new systems unit on board.”

“That’s a heavy unit.”

“Yes. Taking the old one back for refurb as well.”

“Okay, pad seven. You’re cleared.”

Cara felt the hum of the boosters rise to a throb of energy as Ben ran final checks and completed his log.

“Delay, pad seven.” The harsh voice of the controller cut in.

Ben flicked the controls to manual.

“Pad seven, delay. Your delivery boy hasn’t cleared the inward gate yet.”

Cara held her breath.

Ben made no answer, but he released the lock on the mooring gear. His jaw was set tight and there was a little pulse beating at his temple.

“Pad seven, stand down. Terminate exit procedure.”

For a moment Cara thought he was going to risk running the bay air lock without clearance.

“The guard didn’t check me in properly—he might not know whether he’s checked me out.”

“4468 to Control. Check your access files in and out please.”

There was a pause. “Control to 4468. We’ve no records in or out for your delivery boy.”

“Well, I certainly got my spares. Suggest you check the efficiency of your gate security. Damn sloppy system, Mirrimar-14. Can you tighten it up, or shall I have a word on your behalf when I get back to civilization?”

“Thank you, Commander Benjamin, we can handle it. Instigating air lock procedure now.”

“Thank you, Control.”

Chapter Four

BETRAYAL

Cara gripped the arms of her seat as the Dixie Flyer rose on antigravs into the air lock, and the double doors slid shut behind them. The outer doors opened. Ben engaged the drive and eased out into the stark beauty of space. Cara’s weight fell away. She bounced gently against her restraints. Stars glinted brightly through the radiation-proof forward bubble. On the rear viewscreen the dumbbell-shaped way station rotated gently against pinpricks of light.

Tears prickled behind her eyelids, and she blinked them away. It was over. She was leaving Craike and his crew behind. They hadn’t got her yet.

Feeling slightly disconnected from reality, she watched the incoming and outgoing traffic from the station. Mirrimar-14 sat at the confluence of three jump gates, two taking traffic to and from colonies on the rim and one leading toward Earth and the inner systems. At that moment she had the Rimward-B jump gate on her screen in the far distance. The gate itself was nothing, a disk of pure black emptiness, a hole where stars should be and weren’t. On either side of that were two modules: the larger unit combined crew quarters and control functions, while the smaller one housed the gate impeller.

As she watched, the black disk winked out and the stars behind it sprang into being.

“No!” She gasped. “The gate . . .” Could Craike order them to shut down the gates? Heart pounding, she looked for the other gates on the viewscreen.

“Relax. It’s off line for maintenance. It’ll be active by the time we get there.”

Relief flooded through her.

They must be relining the rods. Ah,yes. There it was, the platinum fleet, one drone and its escorts, all armed to the teeth. Once the platinum was installed in the rods, it couldn’t be reclaimed, but it was vulnerable in transit. They had five runs every thirty days, too many chances to lose several million credits’ worth of the precious metal that leeched out into the Folds with every jump made. No wonder they were twitchy.

She concentrated on the platinum convoy, using it to hold onto her senses until it slid off the edge of the screen. For fully thirty minutes they seemed to drift steadily, though Cara knew they were gradually picking up speed.

Ben removed his headset. “Two hours to our time slot for the gate. You look like a corpse. Are you all right?”

“A bit nauseous. May just be the null-G.”

“I can give us quarter-grav. It should help.”

She felt a slight shudder and gradually she regained weight. She unclipped her harness and winced as she tried to move her left arm.

“You did run into trouble.”

“A heavy. I managed to leave him out cold, but he caught me with a couple of smart smacks before I found a way to distract him.”

“Are you always this calm when you’ve just dealt with a hit man?”

“It’s not as if I make a habit of it.”

Ben left the Dixie on automatic. He crossed to a locker in the aft bulkhead, pulled out a sliding table, and opened up a comprehensive med kit.

“Here.”

He gave her a cool gel compress to hold to the soft swelling on her temple. She wanted to close her eyes and sleep, but he shone a light in them and wouldn’t let her. Mean bastard.

“Talk to me,” he said.

“What about?”

“Anything. Everything. Keep talking. I want to know if you’re about to go into a coma.”

“Such optimism. Should I be reassured?” She slurred the words slightly, like a drunk and had to repeat “reassured” twice before she was satisfied with her pronunciation.

He helped her to peel the red suit from her left shoulder. Her skin was already turning a deep shade of midnight and burgundy.

“It looked prettier last night,” he said, as he packed a fresh gel compress on the bruise.

“Don’t remind me. I’m sorry about last night.”

“Whatever you say.” He turned back to the med kit.

She wished she could wipe the memory of sex with Ben Benjamin from both their minds. He touched her arm again, and she almost leaped out of her skin, but he was only slapping on a blast pack of painkiller.

“Relax. I’m not going to jump on you without an invitation. How’s that?”

“Easier, thanks.”

“Don’t worry.”

“What?”

“That was a good act you put on last night, but I know it wasn’t for real.”

She blushed. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. At least you had the grace not to fake an orgasm.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Ah, now that sounds like the truth. That works for me.”

“Me, too.” She tried to smile, but her head was pounding and it turned into a grimace. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He nodded. “I need to talk to Crowder on Chenon. I may have to pull in a few favors to get clearance for you to land.”

“Wait. I’m dead meat if my name goes on the port immigration list.”

“That’s why we need Crowder.”

“Crowder works for the Trust, right? He’s a company man?”

“But he’s also a friend. If anyone can find a back door for you, he can.” Ben swapped the gel compress for a fresh one and put the first to cool again. “As soon as we clear Mirrimar-14, I’ll send a message via the gate Telepath. We’ll have to wait for the reply before we can jump the Homeward Gate.”

“I can sustain a triad.”

“Not with a roaring concussion. Besides, you’ve powered down your implant.”

“No reason to keep it powered down. We’ll be in the Folds soon, and they can’t track it then.”

She tongued the tiny control built into her jawbone.

Her mind exploded with pleasure. The blank emptiness opened up, and she could hear the background hum that meant she was no longer alone and silent. She even got a buzz from Jussaro back on station as he started his shift and wondered where she was.

But standing way out in front of the background hum was Ben. Not a Telepath, he’d said, but a Psi-1 Navigator able to receive.

*Benjamin!*

She connected, maybe a little too enthusiastically, like a junkie taking the first hit for months.

He jerked. *Whoa.*

*Sorry. Just so glad to be connected again.*

*So I see. You really are a Psi-1 Telepath?*

*I really am.*

She didn’t mention her minimal ability as an Empath. She barely registered on the scale and, anyway, some people, even other psi-techs, got twitchy around Empaths. Besides, she didn’t want to know what Benjamin’s feelings toward her were. She hadn’t let herself become emotionally entangled last night. If Ben had, she was sorry.

*So you need Psi-1s on this Olyanda mission?*

*We’ll talk about that later.*

She sighed. “Implant’s all better now.”

“Yes, but you took a ferocious knock.”

He cradled her head with both hands and let his fingers gently probe her skull.

“Owww!”

“See what I mean?”

She couldn’t keep her voice steady. “Are you a trained medic?”

“No, but I’ve done my fair share of fixing up.”

“Where did you learn that?” she asked.

“I grew up on a farm on Chenon. It was pretty remote. We had to fend for ourselves most of the time. I can shoe a horse, too, and strip and assemble a K46 drive for a tractor.”

“How long have you been in the Trust?”

He looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Curious, aren’t you?”

“No more than you are. I’m just trying to make conversation. You said I should talk to you.”

“So I did. All right. Six years active, eight including cryo. And before you ask, I was brought up by my grandmother; I have one older brother called Rion; I have no allergies. I eat meat, and I’m divorced. I don’t suppose there’s the remotest chance that you would answer some of my questions?”

“Probably not. I was born on Earth. I still think of it as home, but before my first birthday I was hauled off to the arse-end of the galaxy. My parents worked the frontier planets. Mom was—still is—a marine biologist and Dad was a hydro-engineer, but we traveled a lot. I have no brothers or sisters. My folks split up, and I shuttled between them, racked up some cryo.” She sighed. “Dad died, but I couldn’t go back to Mom. We never really . . . Oh, that hardly matters, now. She’s halfway across the galaxy with her latest lover. I went back to Earth, spent almost a year with my grandfather in Cornwall before going to school. He was an old, old man, but he’d been a professor. His house was full of books, real books, old ones, too.”

She could have lost herself in her grandfather’s library. Perhaps she should have.

“And your enemy is?”

Her head began to ache even more and she frowned.

“Someone you’d better not tangle with.”

She was thankful he left it at that.

• • •

Cara insisted she could hold a triad with Crowder, so Ben figured the fastest way to get her to give in and rest was to let her try. If she couldn’t hack it as a Psi-1, it was better to find out now rather than later. Of course, he didn’t really know her, so if she was a crank, then letting her inside his head was going to be a big mistake, but even though he might be on the very low end of the telepathic scale, he had a strong grasp of mental shielding, and he was fairly sure he could shut her out if he needed to.

He sat in the pilot’s seat again and let down his shields, then nodded. He felt her flow into his mind with no hint of the trauma she must be feeling. Her gentle self-assurance took him by surprise. Their touch, mind to mind, rocked him to his core. He connected with her in a way that he hadn’t before, even when they’d made love—had sex. He corrected his opinion of their coupling. She’d been lovely, but her heart hadn’t been in it. He felt her mind float through his. It wasn’t that she was rifling through memories; those things he wanted to keep private were still behind barriers, but the connection stripped away a layer of reserve, and there was only painful honesty between them.

He suddenly knew her without knowing anything about her, and by the look in her eyes that knowing had surprised her, too. Maybe it was the developing concussion that had caused the deeper contact, but this was way more of an exchange than professional comm demanded.

Whatever she was running from, she was honest—he was suddenly sure of that. He recognized integrity when he felt it.

*All right?* he asked.

She nodded.

*Then connect me to Gabrius Crowder, on Chenon.*

He felt her lift Crowder’s contact ID delicately from his mind and hold onto it until it became part of her. Brain and implant meshed. The boundary blurred. She aimed her thought into the blackness of space, across vast distances, through the weirdness of the Folds and into the atmosphere of an inhabited planet, mingling with the backwash transmissions of hundreds of psi-techs. She sought just one specific implant and he followed her, mind to mind. It was like riding the wind.

Most execs had implants as an expensive courtesy. They came with the job along with health and dental plans and—for the lucky—a pension, but there was as much difference between a passive and a real psi-tech as there was between a deadhead and a passive. Passives were basic receivers without any of the true psi-tech skills. Money could buy an implant for receiving communications, but it couldn’t give the skills to use it actively.

The skill to use an implant to transmit at Cara’s level was rare; more art than science, more aptitude than training. Ben knew instantly that she was a Psi-1.

Her thought found its mark. Ben felt the slight hesitation as her implant offered Crowder’s a virtual handshake, and then he was in Crowder’s head with Cara holding the triad steady. Words and meanings flowed through her neural pathways.

*Benjamin?* Crowder sounded exasperated. *Are you on your way back yet?*

*Yes. Take it easy. Just hit a minor problem.* Ben flashed his location. *I need a favor. I need to bring in someone without going through official channels.*

*If I asked why, would you tell me? It’s not one of your waifs and strays again, is it?*

*She’s a Psi-1. Aren’t we short of Psi-1s for the Olyanda mission?*

*We might be.* Crowder continued, *But I can’t circumvent Immigration, even for a Psi-1, even for the Olyanda mission. You’ve got all your old team, like I promised.*

*What’s left of them.*

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and Ben felt Cara’s half-question. A comm Telepath wasn’t supposed to listen to the conversation she facilitated, but the no eavesdropping rule had been made up by deadheads. It wasn’t that Telepaths couldn’t hear, it was mostly that they chose not to listen.

He felt her pull back from interrupting, and the silence dropped between the two men like there was an elephant in the room. He suppressed a flare of bitterness.

*Do your settlers know about Hera-3?* he asked.

*Let’s not drag out all that again, Ben, not now. The investigation’s been shelved. Let it lie until a better time. Meanwhile I’ve got the Five Power Alliance screaming at me for a status report on Olyanda, and we need . . . you need . . . to move forward. You need to stay in the system because it’s the only way you’ll get to those responsible for Hera-3.*

*Am I that transparent?*

*Only to me. You know I’ll back you if you can find any more hard evidence. Trust me.*

*Appreciated.*

*I’ll see you here in four days.*

*Four days, with or without a Psi-1 for the team.*

*Don’t do anything stupid, Ben.*

*As if . . . *

“You heard all of that, I guess.” Ben turned to Cara, noting her eyes were slightly glassy.

“You expected me not to listen?”

“Of course not. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit. I just want to go to sleep.”

“I know you do. Try and stay awake for a bit longer. I want to be sure that when you sleep you are sleeping, not unconscious.”

“Tell me about Hera-3.”

“A straightforward colony setup mission, but we were hit by raiders. I lost a colony.”

“Why?”

“We had something they wanted.”

He suspected that his regular reports to HQ had been leaked. The planet was lousy with platinum. Maybe it was his fault, maybe not. It made little difference to the weight of the dead he carried. He’d only brought home fifty-seven of his two-hundred-strong crew. The rest had either died in the first wave of airborne attacks or been killed trying to protect the surviving settlers. In the end he’d managed to lift fifteen hundred settlers off planet to safety—just fifteen hundred out of six thousand.

“The Trust closed the case. I lost my rank, but Crowder kept me on in Special Ops, running surveys, checking on colonies.”

“Crowder—do you trust him?”

Ben didn’t even need to think about it. “Of course. He brought me into the Trust. He kept me in when things got rough. I’ve worked my way through the shit. Olyanda’s my first colony command since Hera-3.”

“You’ve not closed the case, have you?”

He shook his head. “Too many lives lost on my watch.”

She subsided into silence. What was she thinking?

At length she said, “Does it make you feel better?”

“What?”

“Hoarding all that guilt for yourself.”

He was about to deny it, but then he just shrugged. “It reminds me that it’s not over yet.”

“Fair enough.” She nodded. “Tell me about Olyanda.”

“It’s an Earth-type exoplanet orbiting a Population 1 star—an active star, subject to unpredictable electromagnetic storms, so poor-to-zilch reliable radio communication, hence a full psi-tech crew for the setup.”

“So, it’s cheap real estate, marginal subsistence possibilities with little chance of future tech development beyond, say, late industrial revolution level. Great! With a little luck the poor sods can reinvent the steam engine within just a few centuries.”

“That’s about it. Let’s not forget they chose it. The settlers are Ecolibrian. They’re looking for a back-to-basics lifestyle. Horse-drawn vehicles and everything made by hand.”

“Aren’t the Ecolibrians politically active, too?”

He nodded. “The FPA wants them out of the political arena before the next election—at any price—and as for them, they’re eager to be gone to a world of their own.”

“I get the idea.”

“You want in or out?”

“I thought Crowder said there was no way into Chenon without going through official channels.”

He raised one eyebrow. “I’m not out of ideas yet. There’s always Crossways.”

• • •

Gabrius Crowder sat up in bed and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. He hated telepathic communications. They could—and often did—catch him at inconvenient times. This one had left him with a lingering headache, though he didn’t know whether that was a direct result of his implant or from trying to keep secrets. Even though he’d been assured that his receiving implant couldn’t breach his privacy, he always worried about letting something slip.

Gods, he wished he didn’t have so much to hide.

But he did—and having Ben Benjamin around was proving to be a liability. He’d kept him working away from Chenon, given him every long-distance survey job that came up, minimized his time at HQ, but whenever he came back, Ben was digging into files, checking suspects. Damn! He’d thought the man’s persistence would fade with time when he failed to find anything, but he was relentless in his determination to discover who’d been behind the Hera-3 attack. It was unfortunate that Ben’s goals and Crowder’s had set them on an inevitable collision course.

It was time to find a permanent solution.

The Olyanda mission would take two and a half years: nine months’ journey time each way, in cryo, and a year on the planet. He could arrange to waylay the cryo pods of the Hera-3 survivors on the return journey. There was a warehouse facility where such things could be stored long-term. Fifty years would do the trick, or maybe a hundred. Ben would be somebody else’s problem then.

Hera-3 had been a bloody disaster. Ben and his team were supposed to be off planet long before the black-ops fleet moved in, but Ari van Blaiden’s man, Craike, had mistimed the attack. Ben had not only managed to get himself and fifty-seven of his team off planet, under fire, but he’d brought all fifteen hundred surviving settlers home, too—witnesses who had needed relocating at the far end of nowhere, with a handsome payoff, to make the rest of their lives too easy for recriminations.

Crowder had split up Ben’s team, but with the chance to deal with them all in one go he’d managed to gather them together again—no small achievement in itself.

Luckily, none of them had close family. Crowder would have been surprised if they had. Psi-techs tended to work in pairs if they were inclined to have lovers, but those they left behind, families and old friends, became separated by time and a growing age differential. And, deep down, deadheads tended to distrust them. Dammit, Crowder distrusted them, too, and he had an implant, though there was a world of difference between having a simple receiving implant and being a true psi-tech. Crowder had once been bitterly disappointed when he’d tested negative for psi abilities, but psi-techs, for all their apparent glamour and want-for-nothing salaries, were used by the megacorps; they rarely ran them.

Crowder sighed and swung his legs out of bed. It was no good. He wasn’t going to get back to sleep again, so he might as well go into the office. No one would be surprised to see him so early. He often spent the whole night there. The Trust was his life. He was a whisker away from a seat on the board, presuming Ben didn’t spoil everything.

He’d been putting off dealing with Ben. Dammit, Ben had saved his life at Londrissi, and he genuinely liked the man. Even on Hera-3, Ben had only done what he did best—risen to the occasion. It hardly seemed fair that he should end up as collateral damage. Crowder shied away from the obvious solution. He owed the man something for saving his life—even if it was only a one-way trip to the future. Long-term storage was a humane option.

Crowder recognized the irony of the situation. He hadn’t hesitated to encourage Ari van Blaiden to attack a whole colony though, in truth, he had been surprised by the ferocity of the attack and the subsequent loss of life. Ari had scooped up millions of credits in loose platinum, and the Trust, according to plan, had swept in afterward and taken over the administration of the remaining resources. It was almost fair. The Trust needed the platinum, and the colonists were being obstinate. He could almost classify it as an expedient political takeover. Disposing of Ben, however, would be murder and despite everything, Crowder had to draw the line somewhere. He’d never met the colonists, but Ben was his friend.

Was it all worth it?

Yes, it was. In Hera-3 he’d gained a huge platinum resource for the Trust, a big deal even after all the payoffs and Ari’s personal take. He’d do it again in a heartbeat because the Trust needed the platinum to feed its growing network of productive colonies.

Once he got his seat on the board . . .

He thought about the current board. No imagination. No willingness to take risks. Moribund. They needed him if the Trust was to keep its lead over Alphacorp. Anne di Doren, who had reinvented the Trust in the aftermath of the meteor strike on Earth in the twenty-fourth century, was his many times great-grandmother. He had di Doren blood in his veins; he could lead the Trust to even greater heights, leave Alphacorp eating dust.

Yes, he could.

• • •

Victor Lorient closed his personal flight case and set it down on the floor. Even as director of their new colony, his luggage allowance was no bigger than anyone else’s. He wondered whether he could sneak anything into the admin crate, but that didn’t seem fair. Besides, Jack Mario would notice. Jack noticed everything. That’s what made him such a great administrator.

“It’s done. How about you?” Victor looked across the bed to his wife, Rena.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Bedford mixes romance and intrigue in this promising debut, which opens the Psi-tech space opera series.... Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future." —Publishers Weekly

"A well-defined and intriguing tale set in the not-too-distant future.... Everything is undeniably creative and colorful, from the technology to foreign planets to the human (and humanoid) characters. Author Bedford’s world-building feels very complete and believable, with excellent descriptions bringing it all to life." —RT Reviews

"A nostalgic space opera.... Bedford’s prose is brisk and carries the reader quite sufficiently along." —Tor.com

“Space opera isn’t dead; instead, delightfully, it has grown up.... A fine example of a novel which has its roots in the subgenre but grows beyond it.” —Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels

"I’m very, very excited to see where this series goes next. The foundation that Bedford has laid has so much potential and promise. This is an author I will watch." —Bookworm Blues

Meet the Author

Jacey Bedford has a string of short story publication credits on both sides of the Atlantic. She lives a thouand feet up on the edge of the Yorkshire Pennines in a two hundred year stone house. She has been a librarian, postmistress, rag-doll maker, and a folk singer in an a cappella trio. She can be found at jaceybedford.co.uk or on Twitter at @JaceyBedford.

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