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Riding the Odds
By Lynda K. Scott, Gwen Hayes
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Lynda K. Scott
All rights reserved.
"Full house," Tara Rowan purred, fanning her cards face up on the table. Three glorious kings and two queens grinned at her opponents. So did Tara. "Pretty, aren't they?"
The boisterous chorus of disgust and growls from the other players nearly drowned out the syrupy background music. Around them, the bar patrons, both couples and lone boozers, added their own catcalls and jeers. On Empyrea, the planet below, religious restrictions made drinking and gambling illegal, but on Heavensgate Space Station, especially at Mean Joe's Tavern, beer and poker were community sports.
Raking the pot toward her, Tara nodded happily to the crowd. After five weeks in deep space, the raucous sounds of other human voices, the yeasty smell of beer, and the aroma of crispy fried foods filled the empty places inside her. Mean Joe's, with its dim, smoke-filled interior and giant holovision display in the far corner, topped her list of places to be.
Zie, her Rider—a skiff of organic cells that formed the image of a dragon on Tara's skin—fluttered, her wings sending a trill of sensation around Tara's throat, chest, and down into her spine. The Rider asked, Tweenies?
Money was tight, but since she was always lucky at cards, Tara had used her last ten creds to stake herself to the game. No one used a cred tab, a digital money account, for cards or some of the less savory entertainments. Those like Tara would exchange them for ducats that could be used in other interstellar nations. She wasn't sure what the men at her table would do with theirs and didn't really care.
She placed half the winnings in her belt pouch and decided she could afford to get Zie her favorite treat. Sure.
The little Rider swirled over her face and around her head in gleeful anticipation, and lashed her long serpentine tail. This, of course, fanned an itchy, prickly sensation between Tara's shoulder blades, a spot Tara could never reach. Hey! Cut that out.
"Shit, Rowan. Does that thing have to do that? Makes me dizzy," Andy Mazaheri, with more curly black hair on his chin than his head, complained. She'd been surprised by that facial hair. Most cargo handlers kept a clean face. Easier to deal with E-suits and harnesses when you didn't have hair getting in the helmet's control pots. It made her glad she wasn't a man. Her below-the-shoulder length hair was enough of a trial, but Zie liked it. Zie also liked the single, dangling, starburst earring Tara wore on her left ear, with its matching cuff-style bracelet on her right hand. Queen Riders had their own sense of femininity.
Andy studied her. "It got to take a dump or somethin'?"
"Riders don't dump," she said, trying to ease the ongoing itch against the back of her chair. Zie settled down, taking up her favorite position with her head on Tara's left cheek.
Things were looking up. She had enough creds for tweenies and, maybe, enough to pay dock charges for an extra day. After three days of trolling for a cargo at the Freight Commission, it looked like she'd need that extra day.
Tara sent Zie an image of a canine voiding its bodily waste. Zie's head moved to angle a glare at Andy. Tara didn't need a mirror to know that Zie's fanged jaw had dropped open and her pink tongue had stuck out in disgust.
"I know you Traders are used to those things but, shee-it, my skin crawls just watchin' 'em," Andy added.
"Yeah." The thin, weasel-faced young man who'd been trying to play footsie with her nodded vigorously. "Don't it hurt? Looks like a freaking live tattoo."
Not hurt Tara, Zie protested. Never.
"Tickles some." Reluctant to divulge Rider-lore to these outsiders, Tara kept her answer simple. "Itches occasionally."
Tickle good. To prove it, Zie swirled over Tara's face, a dizzying swath of blue, green, and violet that set her nose to itching. The men watched in abject fascination. Tickle fun.
Tara rubbed her nose. You'll make me sneeze.
"Not many Independents got Riders, do they?" Andy asked. "Where'd you get yours?"
The lie, after all these years, came without thinking. "She's a cull. Out of the Rexin branch."
Beside her, big, burly Eamon Stokes, a member of Andy's crew, swigged his beer in a long gulp and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Heard one time ... a bunch of kids, orphans, see? From that Risien Plague? Got stranded on Eridani Prime. Linked up with wild Riders, you know?"
For an infinitesimal second, Tara froze. Her heart and stomach lurched as if she'd leaped into the Zone. Without Zie or her ship, the Rowanhawk.
Weasel Face gathered the cards, shuffled, and dealt another round. The other players leaned back in their chairs, waiting for the story, and the cards, to unfold.
"Yeah, well, the pilot and church people died in the crash. Bunch of kids did, too." He looked around, his beetled eyebrows forming a single dark line over even darker eyes. "The oldest kid was a ratter, you know? Jack Brown was his name. Been on the wrong side of the law since he could walk. He took charge. Wasn't hard to do, see, since the kids was mostly younger than him." He motioned for the waitress to bring another beer. "Didn't have much food. Wasn't supposed to be a long haul. So Jack, he made 'em ration what they had. Smart. Gotta give him credit for that. Gave 'em a chance to wait for rescue." He shook his massive head. "Only it never came."
Of their own accord, Tara's fingers inched toward the knife sheathed in the thigh pocket of her one-piece. Her breath grew shallow, and it took all her control to keep her gaze from flitting about the room, looking for escape. Zie stilled, aware of Tara's distress.
"Then ... Jack, he caught a wild Rider. Now, the wild ones, they ain't like your typical Riders, like that one you got there." He jerked his chin at Tara. "They're strong. Smart. Got to be to survive. Eridani Prime's a hellish place, see? Been outlawed for what? Eighty years?"
"Longer than that," Andy rumbled from his side of the table. "The planet's been under lockdown since the Holy Wars when old Revered Pope Ferdinand decided the wild Riders were a threat to humans." He turned a jaundiced eye on Tara and held up his hand, thumb and first finger almost touching. "Came that close to banning all Riders until the cartels promised to breed them tame."
Eamon shot him a peeved glare and, raising his voice, said, "I was saying this Rider, the one Jack Brown caught, it sees him wastin' away. Turning skin and bones. It wants ta live. But the boy, Jack, is getting weak without food. He's gonna die. And if he dies, then the Rider dies, see? 'Cause that's how Riders get their nourishment. From their hosts. So ... it makes the boy eat."
Tara fought the crushing sense of grief and resentment. These men didn't understand. No one did. And she couldn't explain the horror, the desperation, of Eridani to them. If they knew or even suspected ...
Zie crooned, a sound meant to comfort and reassure. The little Rider was her best friend and only true companion since she'd left Jackson and the others so many years ago.
Weasel Face leaned forward, morbid eagerness in his pale eyes. "Thought they didn't have no food."
"Didn't." Eamon shook his head. "And what little they had, the boy ate, see? When it ran out ..."
He surveyed his audience for a long moment, letting the tension build. "He killed and ate the smallest kids. Said as how they were gonna die anyway. Just meat, you know?"
A silence as deep as space settled over the table.
Fight? Zie positioned herself over Tara's eyes, strengthening the link that gave her control of Tara's body. Smells came stronger, sounds louder. Tara could see the slow, steady pulse of Eamon's blood, smell the excitement rolling off Weasel Face, and hear the rapid beat of Andy's heart.
No. Relax. She forced her fingers off the knife, used that hand to lift her beer to her mouth, glad to see it was steady. She barely wet her lips on the now warm brew.
"I remember that. About fifteen years ago, wasn't it? Scout ship coming back from Horsehead caught the distress signal." Andy looked around the table. His gaze settled on Tara. "Whatever happened to him and the other kids?"
"Big stink about that." Eamon wasn't ready to give up the limelight. "The scout, he called for rescue, see? But Jack, he knows what's gonna happen. Been on the outs with the law enough. Knows the Church takes a dim view of murder, that the Holy Knights are gonna come after him and the other kids as got Riders. Somehow, he gets control of the scout ship, see? Does a one-eighty outta there. Gets clean away. Slick as snot and him only sixteen years old. But"—Eamon paused and looked over his shoulder as if to make sure he wasn't overheard—"they say he's a big crime lord now, see? Took over Santiago's operation. Drug running. Smuggling. Even kidnapping, see? Heard tell the Shields think he's got HRM Anthony's daughter, the Princess Katerina."
Tara's resentment turned to anger. From here to the other side of the galaxy, if something went wrong, they blamed Jackson. She snatched her cards up, stared at them unseeing.
"You're full of it. She's off on vacation. Said so on the news." Andy picked up his cards, looked at them, and grimaced.
"They want him. Just haven't found him yet is all." Eamon glowered. "Old Jack is smart, smarter than them anyways. He knows how to hide."
"You sound like you admire him. I sure ain't got no use for him and his pack. They're the reason the Church cracked down on all of us. They'd like to close the ports, make us all into little goody two shoes who have to ask permission to take a dump." Andy nodded toward Tara. "Only reason they haven't yet is you Outlanders and the money you bring in." He looked at his cards again. "Who dealt this sludge anyway?"
"He's probably sitting on a royal flush." Weasel Face giggled. Nervously. His eyes darted around the table.
"Damn Church is going to control us all. Mark my words."
Andy glanced at Eamon. "You're too right. And if they let loose those motherless sons of Bittersweet whores, the Holy Knights, we're all gonna be in pain."
For the second time, Tara froze. Her heart skipped a beat, her mouth went dry. She couldn't stop a rapid scan of the bar; this time just to make sure there wasn't an HK present.
Andy leaned forward, dropping his voice. "You want to keep it down. I heard Sinclair is on station."
"The Executioner?" Weasel Face's voice went up a whole octave.
"Piss off," Eamon said without heat, taking his cards in a large fist, but he was noticeably quieter. "The day a man can't say what he wants is the day I head out to the Far Side."
"That could be sooner than you think, the way things are going." Andy arranged his cards in his hand, then looked up. "Hey, what's with the dragon face?" He cocked his head at Tara as a sly smile settled on his mouth. "That's a fighting posture, ain't it?"
Tara quirked her stiff lips. Breathing softly and slowly, she released the pent up tension in her body. She gestured with her head at a Trader across the room. The man's Rider, a fox, masked his face, glaring at her and Zie. "Territorial. She doesn't like Mosley."
"Who does? Never a decent word for us dock monkeys." Andy cast a dark look at the Trader. "That sludge accuses us of cheating him." He finished off his beer. "Me and him, we're gonna go a couple rounds yet. Wait and see."
As the conversation turned to other, safer, subjects and the game continued, Tara relaxed. She'd been wise to stay calm, to not run or blast a defense for what had happened on Eridani. She had nothing to hide. Rather, she had nothing to hide that they'd ever be able to find. She wanted desperately to leave, to return to the safety of the Rowanhawk, but she feared if she left so quickly after the story, the four men would start to speculate. She didn't need that. She, Jackson, and the others were innocent, but no one would ever believe them. Not then, and not now.
"Well, I got to visit the dooley. Back in a few." The man on her left pushed away from the table as Andy won the round, and headed to the men's lavatory. Across the dark, smoky room, the bartender tuned the holovision to the planetary news.
Andy waved a beefy hand at a waitress. "Gimme another Red, sweetheart."
"Me, too. Want a fresh one, Tara?" Weasel Face put a sweaty hand on her shoulder. "I'm buying."
She recognized the glint in his eye, the too-friendly smile that said, You wanna? She didn't, so she leaned slightly away until his hand fell, and then said, "No, thanks. I'm still working on this one."
Tara glanced up, scanning the crowd. Two licensed companions, a male and a female, lounged at the bar, sipping layered drinks of blue, yellow, and white. Pretty, from Zie, could mean anything from the dangling, sparkling earrings the male wore to the sleek white and red uniforms on the Jack-sliders on the news. It could mean the band of neon blue light arcing around the bar. Or—Tara tried to follow the direction of Zie's thoughts—it could mean the shadowy form of a man in the far booth.
Tweenies? Zie shifted subjects, impatient now.
Tomorrow. Tara studied the man in the shadows for a moment longer. He appeared to be watching her table, though from this distance, and without Zie's help, she couldn't be sure.
The talk turned to gossip about the station and the dearth of good union jobs, about Empyrea, the planet below, and the political shift to the far right. Only half listening, Tara covertly studied the shadowy man. Something about him ...
Light glimmered off the data port just behind his ear. His clothing and hair were dark, making his face a shadowed oval in the dark booth. Those same shadows delineated features both noble and arrogant and she—
Now, now, now, Zie moaned. Want.
Tomorrow, Tara repeated firmly. The man's teeth flashed, briefly, acknowledging her attention. Her own mouth curved, reflexively, and she made a decision. "Well, it's been a long day, guys. I'm out. Maybe I'll catch up with you tomorrow—if I don't snag a cargo."
After scooping up her credits, Tara dropped them into her belt pouch with the others and stood, the creds a comfortable weight against her hip. She was sure there was enough to pay a day's dock charges. Maybe two days. The thought added a sparkle to her grin. Tara raised her beer with a graceful salute to the men and drained it. "Always a pleasure taking your money, boys."
"Sure, take our money and run," Andy rumbled. He angled his head around to address the bar at large. "Need another player."
A balding man she didn't recognize hastily leaped up, almost upsetting his table in the process. "I'm in."
She sidled around the table. Her gaze connected with the shadowy man's again. Then the female companion sauntered up and leaned a svelte hip against his booth. As Tara walked past, the woman slid onto the bench beside him.
Tara sighed. Lucky in cards, unlucky in love.
* * *
"Come on, Blake," Tara urged, trying not to sound desperate. For the fourth morning in a row, she stood in the Freight Commission office, begging for a cargo. "There has to be a shipment going out of here."
"Look, Rowan." The flustered man shot her an aggrieved look. "The only real cargo leaving in the next week has been given to the big boys. Pierson. Rouliard. Hasek. Laronge. Those family ships got contracts. You don't. And I've told you every time you've come in here, there's nothing on the books for you."
She pressed her lips together. Then, despising the necessity, she leaned close, letting him take in the full extent of her cleavage. When his pale blue eyes fell on the opening at her neck, a tiny little victory dance jiggled in her stomach. She gave him a flirtatious moue, then cajoled, "Nothing? Not even a live cargo?"
Blake's gaze turned speculative; his tongue swept his lips, leaving them wet and glossy.
Tara continued quickly, "I can deal with the mess. You know I can. I've got a fast ship. I can get live cargo anywhere—"
Excerpted from Riding the Odds by Lynda K. Scott, Gwen Hayes. Copyright © 2015 Lynda K. Scott. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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