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Union standard year 3175 A.D.
"Is everything ready?" Though Tia Sen whispered into the com, her question seemed to echo over the hum of the spaceship's massive engines.
She spared a look over her shoulder, scanning the dim rows of lifeless ships once again to be positive she was alone. Meager safety lighting exposed parts of the vehicles and shadowed others, making them look like monuments in some alien cemetery. She shoved away the macabre thought.
"Good to go, but..." The crackling distortion typical of a scrambled communication couldn't hide the uncharacteristic worry in Kaber's low, feminine voice.
Tia took a deep breath. The last thing she needed from her partner was doubt. "But?"
"Maybe we should let this one go. It's too soon."
Too soon. On the contrary, it seemed too late.
The image of a man struggling as he suffocated in the black, icy arms of space flashed into her mind. Far too late. She closed her eyes, attempting to banish the horrifying vision and the sick, hopeless feeling of failure and loss it engendered. It was ludicrous anyway. She hadn't witnessed the spacing, and dwelling on it served no purpose.
The com hissed as the tense voice on the other end continued. "This is the biggest thing we've ever done. Your father--"
Tia didn't have to be reminded of the penalty should her father discover even the least of her activities. "Can only kill us once."
Union standard year 3175 A.D.
Rork Al'Ren sat bolt upright in his narrow bunk, the cool white linens pooling at his waist. An alarm assaulted his ears. The potent tone seemed to color the air in surging wavesof violent red and purple. "Computer, report," he said into the pulsing air.
There was no response, only the continued tortuous repeat of the same throbbing resonance, shredding nerve endings and echoing in the marrow of his bones.
His mind superimposed the Spartan but elegant lines of his quarters on the Courageous, his own ship, on top of the cramped confines of the utilitarian cabin allotted mechanics on the Coia. He squinted against the brightness of the white ceiling light triggered by the alarm and the illusion dissolved.
Memory flooded back. He vaulted from the bed and shrugged on his dun coveralls. Zipping them up, he reached for his duffle bag and snatched the small handheld holodisplay he'd requisitioned.
He held it in front of his face. "Grale," he said to commence transmitting.
"Rork." Grale's familiar features rose from the matrix. Rork's face had been altered slightly--as it always was when he worked undercover--but Grale Singre, President of the Union of Planets, Rork's boss and best friend, apparently had no trouble recognizing him.
It was the middle of the night on Rijya, but Grale's unrumpled condition revealed he hadn't been to bed. "Report."
Rork pitched his voice above the strident shriek of the alarm. "It's started. The pirates are using fire as a diversion, just as John said they would."
Grale's eyes narrowed, his mouth thinned. "Finally." He sighed, lines of worry etched into his forehead. "Be careful. I don't want to lose you too."
Rork nodded. He would never forget the sight of John Borlin's corpse. The cold, dry vacuum of space had preserved his old friend perfectly, but the lines of his face had been barely recognizable. His once-hazel eyes had been scorched in their sockets, his craggy face scourged with a laserblade.
He had been tortured before he'd been spaced.
Rork had to swallow the rage clogging his throat before he could answer. "Don't worry. I'm going to get these bastards."
The expression in Grale's blue Rijyan eyes was grave. "Remember, John already gave us the evidence we need to bring down Captain Sen and the crew of the Tiger, all you have to do is plant the tracking device and we'll come and intercept you. No heroics."
Rork nodded, impatient to be off.
Grale ran a large hand through his short black hair. "Remind me again why I'm letting my new Head of Defense do this?"
"Because John was like a father to me." And I've already lost far too much to scum like this.
He didn't say the last words out loud, but they hung in the air as if he had.
Grale shook his head. "Rork, Khushbu wouldn't want--"
"Want what? Revenge?" Grief pressed down on him like gravity after zero-g. "This isn't about that. The pirates that killed her are dead."
"But it doesn't help, does it?"
His friend ran another hasty hand though his hair. "Two days, that's all I'm giving you. Two days, if we don't get the signal by then, I'm coming after you. Grale out."
The hologram vanished, leaving Rork looking at empty air.
A sigh escaped his lungs. Who knew what his wife would have wanted? She was dead and his mission was all he had left.
He took the tiny holodisplay and placed it on the floor. Seconds later it was a pile of worthless bits.
If only he could dismantle thoughts of Khushbu so easily.
After he'd disposed of the fragments, Rork took out the tracking device he would plant on his target and inserted it in its hiding place, a small pouch of fake skin on the back of his thigh.
It was time to get to work.
He closed his eyes and reached inside to bury the emotions threatening to swamp him. John's death had reawakened the old rage, and his anger was, once again, too raw, too new and far too close to the surface.
Calm at last, he gingerly touched the polished surface of the door with a palm. Though both his instincts and his information told him the alarm was merely a ploy, he couldn't ignore the very real danger of a fire on ship. Finding the door cool, he took a deep breath, ripped it open and edged into the darkened corridor.
A faint smoky haze hugged the ceiling, but otherwise the air seemed clear.
Men, women and children of almost every race in the galaxy crowded the narrow passage. Flashing red lights skewed the scene into a nightmare--faces caricatures of fear, distances distorted.
The babble of languages became an eerie song as Rork, staying low, swam through the throng, using his hands to propel his large body through the densely packed corridor.
The mass of humanity heated the hall. Rork wiped the sweat from his eyes with a forearm. The bitter smell of smoke barely dented the stench of so many living beings in distress, so close together.
Amalans had very acute senses and the offensive odor was almost painful to Rork. He fought the urge to hold his breath. His body required oxygen, no matter what his rolling stomach said.
He didn't need to follow the signs to find the landing bay and escape-pod station. He'd memorized its location nearly a week earlier, the first day he'd joined the ship as a third-class mechanic.
As he neared the station, the crowd acted like a tide, sweeping him along with them. The sight of the escape pods, lined up like a string of chunky, gray metal beads, hatches open, was welcome. The crew of the liner held scanners and checked off the names of passengers as they boarded the pods.
Rork's heart slowed. The landing bay was cooler and the odor that had tormented him dulled to a tolerable level. He swept the bay with his gaze. At first glance, everything appeared to be under control.
All John had been able to tell them before he'd been killed was the pirates were planning to use a fire to take the space liner, Coia. Rork had no idea when and how they would make their move.
Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he entered the closest line.
When he got to the officer in charge, a rather rat-faced human with tiny dark eyes, and gave him his name, the man shook his head.
"This escape pod is only for families with children."
Rork's eyebrows flew up. A warning light went off in his head. He hadn't heard anything during the drills about separate ships for people with families. He smiled at the officer, covering his suspicion. "Which pod should I go to?"
The man pointed at a line several yards away.
"Thanks." Before he moved to the other line, Rork discreetly sniffed the air. The telltale smell of blaster residue met his nose.
As he moved on, he examined the rest of the crewmembers. A closer eye now revealed pants that were too short or puddled over shoes, tunics that hung from skinny shoulders or stretched against barrel-like chests.
The pirates had taken over and no one had suspected a thing.
Fury rose sharp and wild in his chest, urging him to action. His hands fisted. Primordial rage sang in his veins, warring with reason.
He forced his anger away. Stay calm. Focus, Al'Ren. So far everything proceeded as planned. If Union forces were going to catch Captain Sen and his crew, he needed to locate the bastards. The tracking device he carried would lead Union troops directly to their quarry.
As Rork approached the young, tree-sized Targon at the end of his line, a bolt of blue fire shot into the bay and struck the man. He toppled.
Rork hit the deck. His hands stung from slapping the grating. He braced them on the cold metal, ready to move at a moment's notice, and rested his cheek on his hand as he watched the action.
An older man Rork recognized as the Coia's first mate stuck his head into the bay and fired off another shot, striking a lanky pirate several yards away.
The captain, a tiny redheaded human woman with hair as curly as Teilian wool, charged into the bay, followed by several of the Coia's crew, all wearing only the skin-tight, sleeveless black undersuits customary for a ship's crew, civilian or military.
The pirates who were still standing ducked around the sleek bulkheads of the ships for cover. They began returning fire at the crew.
The captain and her people advanced, dodging and weaving to avoid the blaster fire zinging toward them. Shouts and footsteps bounced off the walls of the bay as the crew yelled instructions to each other and took cover behind the plasteel columns hiding the emergency doors which would open if the bulkhead were breached.
Another pirate fell and then the captain of the liner was hit. She collapsed to the floor without a sound, her freckled face pale and still. The sight of her staring brown eyes brought to mind another, dearer pair of eyes. For a moment it was Khushbu, his wife, falling again as she had that day on Space Station Seven, never to rise again.
The rage he'd tamped down until it was nothing more than smoldering coals flared into an inferno in his chest.
Mere handspans away, the captain's blaster tantalized. To hell with the law. He would kill the bastards, every one.
Before he could flush his mission down the waste-disposal unit, two pirates, a wiry human man and a towering Targon woman with her people's typical brown-spotted skin, stormed into the landing bay, blasters blazing.
They exchanged fire with the tall, slim female crewmember pinned down behind the center column. She leaned out to shoot, stiffened and pitched to the floor, the victim of a well-timed blaster bolt, and the defense of the Coia ended.
For a moment, he imagined attacking the pirates, going down in a lightning storm of blaster fire, but he wasn't alone in this. He had to live to fight another day.
"What are you looking at, Amalan?" The wiry pirate smirked, eyes alight with cold triumph. It was all Rork could do to stop himself from jumping the man.
The pirate who appeared to be in charge looked him up and down, noting the coveralls Rork wore. "What are you, a mechanic?"
"Yeah." Rork stood slowly, standing with his feet spread apart, hands fisted at his sides.
The man smiled, though it was more of a grimace. His eyes were intense. Black as space and as dead as Rork's hope.
"I don't like the way this mechanic is looking at me, Kaber." The man's voice was low and soft, with a vicious edge. He spat the word mechanic as if it made him sick to even say it. "I think he's gonna be trouble."
The Targon woman's mouth tightened. "Jeb--"
He raised a hand, cutting her off, and smiled again. The woman's brown eyebrows pulled together, but she didn't speak.
Jeb gestured to two pirates, an older Targon man and an Orein, with the Siamese cat elongation of his kind. The men circled around behind Rork and seized him by the arms, their fingers digging into his flesh with bruising force.
The wiry pirate reached into his pocket and took out a pair of ancient brass knuckles, dark with tarnish perhaps, or something more sinister than oxidation. He slipped them on, grinning, his small eyes gleaming with malevolent intent. Rork prayed he hadn't traded death by blaster for being beaten to death. He'd much rather be shot.
Those were his last thoughts before the man's fist buried itself in Rork's stomach and the world became a seething ocean of pain.
Each blow found the spot where it would do the most damage. Sharp, white-hot pokers of agony metamorphosed into sickening waves after each initial impact. Jeb took his time at first, then seemed to go insane.
Rork was barely aware of the shouts of encouragement coming from the other pirates as the man pummeled him savagely, pounding Rork's head and body with his fists, kicking him maliciously in the genitals.
At first Rork struggled in the pirates' iron grips, then the pain became overwhelming and he sagged, forcing them to hold him up. Blood stung his eyes, blinding him. He could taste it on his lip as well. The coppery flavor combined with the terrible unrelenting pain made him nauseous. Rork gagged and fought the urge to throw up, striving to maintain some shred of dignity.
"What is this?"
The woman's voice was soft and husky, smooth as velvet, but an underlying hint of steel clearly identified her displeasure. Her words pierced the fog of rage and pain that engulfed Rork, making him bitterly aware of the vulnerability of his position--on his knees supported on either side by two rancid-smelling space pirates. Only the grubby fingers digging into the muscles of his arms kept him from slumping to the metal deck of the Coia. Bile burned his throat.
The other passengers lay facedown on the floor like freshly scythed grass. Faint sobs could be heard through the cavernous landing bay of the space liner as the survivors reacted to the terror of the last few minutes.
Rork blinked rapidly, trying to clear his cloudy vision. Something warm and sticky stung his eyes. His head felt too heavy to lift. He peered up at the newcomer through the sweat-soaked strands of his hair.
As the pirates swung around to part for the woman, he noticed she wore the uniform of the space liner pilot. The stolen outfit fit her like a glove, outlining every curve and hollow. Her blaster was holstered at her hip. Her hair, plaited into hundreds of tiny braids, fell long and golden down her back. Its color reminded Rork of the women of his home planet, Amala.
As the woman drew closer, he could see her eyes were blue, not golden as an Amalan's would be. So she was human. Not that it mattered.
She sauntered closer. Her elegant fingers stroked back the damp hair he'd allowed to grow long as part of his disguise. Then she grasped a handful near the roots, yanked his head back and examined his face.
For a fleeting second pain receded, the fury burning in his chest eased, and he found himself drinking in the exotic depths of her eyes. He caught his breath, reminded of something, someone perhaps, but he couldn't grasp who.
She let go and Rork's head fell back into a bowed position. Without the analgesic of her gaze, pain and fury enshrouded him, and he heard the pirates' next exchange as if from a great distance.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Jeb? Don't damage the merchandise." She enunciated each word like she spoke to a small, rather thick child, instead of to the short, muscular man who stood in front of her.
"Tia--" Jeb began, his voice mutinous, but she cut him off.
"I'm the first mate and leader of this mission." Her voice exuded authority. "I and only I, decide who lives and who dies. And I get first choice of any booty we take. That includes slaves."
"Aye," Jeb gritted out.
"Look at him," she said, her tone deceptively gentle. "This is an Amalan. You know very well he's worth more than any other race in the galaxy, even a Targon. He's young and strong. It's hard to tell, considering what you've done to his face, but I'd wager he's handsome, raising his price even higher. And look at this..."