Read an Excerpt
By C.J. Barry
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
"Engine core meltdown in thirty-two minutes," the ship's
computer said in a synthetic female voice.
"Words every captain wants to hear first thing in the
morning," Torrie muttered. Laying on her back, she yanked on
the panel door above her and tossed it aside. The primary
circuits flashed furiously inside the cabinet. No wonder it
wasn't responding; the entire system was overloaded. She'd
never be able to circumvent it from here. Torrie swung out
from under the engine banks, and hit the deck running. As she
sped through the empty corridors of her dying ship, she
pressed her personal comm unit, "Howser, where are you?"
Her first mate responded. "In the shuttle bay loading the
crew into the transport ship. When are you getting here?"
"I'm not." She leapt onto the third rung of the gangway
ladder and climbed to the upper level.
"What? The ship is going to blow up in ..."
"Thirty minutes, I know," she finished, pulling herself up to
the main deck. She ran past the flashing alarm lights toward
the bridge. "You take the crew and get the hell out of here."
"If you're staying, so am I," Howser replied. "Your brother
didn't put me on your maiden voyage to skip out when things
She jumped through the bridge hatchway. "And Carmon didn't
make you captain on this freighter either. Soget your ass in
that ship and take care of my crew, or I'll jettison the lot
of you whether you're inside or out. And don't even think
about staying behind. I already sealed the air lock."
She shimmied into the command chair. "You better move before
you lose the force field barrier. I don't need to tell you
what happens to an unprotected body in deep space."
She punched the systems up, but they responded sluggishly.
For some unknown reason, the engine core temperature was still
rising steadily into the red zone, and nothing she'd tried so
far could stop a slow march to detonation.
"We are launched," Howser said over her comm. The shuttle bay
holocam confirmed the small transport carrying Howser and the
rest of her five-man crew pulling away from Ventura. She
closed the shuttle bay doors in case Howser decided to play
"Jump to hyperspace now. I want you as far away as possible."
He grumbled something that she didn't quite catch and probably
didn't want to hear anyway, but her scanners verified the
transport's jump-out of visual and out of danger if she
failed. Then she remembered something and glanced around the
bridge. "Do you have Nod with you?"
"Yes, of course," Howser griped. "He's flying around here,
asking everyone if he can help. Really, can we reprogram him?
Doesn't he have another line?"
Despite the dire situation, she smiled. "If we ever get out
of this mess, I'll try again." Then she added a heartfelt,
"Thank you, Howser."
"Don't thank me. I'm the one who's going to have to tell your
mother and the rest of the family that you went down with the
ship for no good reason."
The lights on the bridge flickered off, leaving only the
control console lit. Wonderful. She decided not to tell
"I don't plan on letting my ship explode. There has to be a
way to cool the core." She tried manual shutdown of the
engine drives, but they wouldn't obey. Tried rerouting all
activity through the primary channel so she could cram a
shutdown command through the secondary systems. No go.
Frustrated, she repeated an earlier order, hoping it would get
through this time. "Computer, Priority One command: Shutdown
"Unable to comply," it responded as it had to all her previous
She banged on the console. "Why the hell not?"
"Last command unclear. Please re-phrase question."
Torrie gritted her teeth. "Computer," she began with all the
self-control she could muster, "Why can't you comply to
Priority One shutdown?"
"All previous commands are in wait queue."
"Then move my commands up in the queue," she told it.
"Unable to comply," Torrie mimicked the computer's patent
response. "Computer, if you can't multi-task, I'm changing
you to a male." She pushed a tangle of hair out of her face
and hit her personal comm. "This doesn't make sense, Howser.
It's like they are all overloading at once. The more I try to
clear a channel, the more locked out they become."
"We did get that strong energy surge right before the circuits
went crazy," Howser noted.
"Core meltdown in twenty-three minutes," the computer recited.
"Computer, you can shut up now."
Torrie leaned forward and worked the controls again, trying
everything her years of practicing in emergency simulation
exercises had taught her. Systems were freezing up, leaving
her with fewer and fewer options. In the back of her mind,
she began to wonder if maybe Howser was right. If she
couldn't find a way to gain control of the core, she'd be
vaporized with the rest of the ship.
"All systems are now offline. Onboard computer shutdown
imminent," the computer said. Torrie watched helplessly as
the entire control panel went dark, plunging her into the
pitch black of the deep space surrounding her. Outside of the
panoramic viewport, a billion stars pierced the endless
universe. The silence was painful.
"What happened?" Howser asked.
Torrie closed her eyes and accepted her fate. "We're dead."
"That's it, I'm coming back for you."
"You know it's too dangerous to drop out of hyperspace
prematurely. Besides, I have no power. I can't open the
shuttle bay door."
"What about the manual air locks? You could put a suit on and
"And then what?" she interrupted. "I couldn't get far enough
away from the ship to make a difference. And even if by some
miracle I could, you don't have an air lock on the transport
to bring me aboard."
"We could hail a nearby ship," Howser pressed.
"You know there isn't another ship in the vicinity. And even
if you found one, do you want to inform them we're going to
blow into a billion pieces shortly?"
For once, Howser was silent. He knew she was right. She
rubbed her arms, her tank top offering little protection as
the bridge grew markedly colder. She should grab a jacket,
but what was the point? How long did she have? Twenty
minutes? Not much time to tie up one's life.
"I guess you were right after all," she admitted. "Wasn't one
of my better ideas."
It took a few moments before he replied, and he sounded choked
up. "I'm going to stay with you until the end, Torrie."
She smiled sadly. She knew he would too. Howser had always
been there for her, teaching her, encouraging her. He'd
worked for her family's merchant shipping business for as long
as she could remember. His confidence in her abilities was
one of the reasons Carmon had let her have her own run-a run
she'd fought for her entire life and finally won. And now
She stared into the stars, and her heart ached in her chest.
This is where she belonged. Among the vastness of space, free
to spread her wings and fly. Her family called her the wild
one, but she knew exactly where she was going. Even if the
journey ended up killing her.
She pushed fear aside, blocking it from her mind. She wasn't
going to spend the last minutes of her life feeling sorry for
herself. If she had a choice on how to die, this would be
it-quick, painlessly and with her ship.
Howser interrupted her thoughts. "You can record a message
over the comm, and I'll deliver it to whoever you want."
She swallowed. "Good idea." She should leave her family a
message. Torrie gathered her thick, disheveled hair in her
hands and began to braid it blindly, trying to decide what to
say to her mother. After watching her father die just a few
short months ago, Nevica Masters would be devastated with
another loss, especially her only daughter.
Torrie recalled their last conversation, and her final
agreement with her mother. If this run doesn't work out, I
promise I'll stay on Dun Gali, and help run the business. She
never once expected that she wouldn't succeed. Well, at least
she wouldn't be stuck in the office for the rest of her life.
Or worse, married to some money hungry man her family thought
would keep her safe and dormant and out of trouble.
And she wouldn't have to listen to six older brothers gloating
that they were right all these year-she couldn't handle her
own run. She preferred death to that-
Her fingers stilled in hair that felt heavy. Hope flickered.
She stood up in the silence of her lifeless ship, and took a
few tentative steps around the bridge.
"Howser, if we power-out, shouldn't the artificial grav be
"It's not. And the stabilizers are still functioning.
Otherwise, I'd be listing by now." She moved around the
bridge, blindly accessing anything she could get her hands on.
"Something's not right. Computer, are you there?"
Howser asked, "Can you tell if the core is still roasting?"
"No. None of the monitors are functioning." She stared at a
pinprick of light on the wall panel in front of her. "But we
have juice somewhere."
"Auxiliary?" Howser asked.
"If auxiliary were on, I'd at least have computer access. It
should be the last system to go."
A whisper of movement outside her viewport caught her
attention. She looked up, and concentrated on the spot where
she thought she'd seen it. Nothing, but black, black and more
black. That's when she noticed the billions of stars were
gone. A shadow passed in front of her. A ship. Impossible.
Her scans would have picked up a vessel this close.
"Tor-" Howser's message was cut off in a blast of static
through her comm. "... Nod detects ... activity near ..."
More static. She turned down the volume. The transmission
wasn't getting through: someone was blocking it.
The ship's consoles suddenly came to life. She reached out
and accessed the closest one.
"Systems locked out," the computer said, startling her. When
did the computer come back up?
"Locked out by who?" Torrie asked.
"Security override. Voice confirmation: Torrie Masters," she
told the computer.
"I'm definitely changing you to a male," Torrie muttered and
checked the ship's stats. The engine core temp was within the
normal range. In fact, all her systems were normal. They
just were no longer under her control.
She knelt under the main console and started loosening the
fasteners on the panel. If she couldn't get in the easy way ...
"Shuttle bay door activated," the computer announced.
Torrie raised her head over the console, and watched in
disbelief as the shuttle bay holocam showed a mid-sized ship
entering and setting down. And it wasn't Howser.
"Pirates," she whispered in loathing. It all made sense-the
power surge, the mysterious systems malfunctions, and false
core burn. They set it up so the crew would have no choice
but to abandon ship. Then they'd steal the ship, register it
under a new ID, and sell it for whatever they could get.
Her family had lost hundreds of freighters to ruthless
pirates. But not this one. Not this time. They might have
taken control of her systems, but there was no way she was
giving up her ship to a band of cowards and thieves without a
fight. She turned, and sprinted down the main corridor.
They'd head for the bridge first, and there were only two
ways-the access ramp to the cargo bays and the gangway ladder
she'd just come up from the engines. Unfortunately, they were
located at opposite ends of the freighter. She could cover
one, but not both.
As Torrie approached the gangway hatch, she drew her twin
pistols and slowed, silencing her footsteps. After a few
seconds, she detected no sounds or movement on the ladder
below. They must be coming up the back ramp.
She moved stealthily toward the rear of the freighter and
heard voices. At the top of the long ramp, she pressed
against the wall and listened over her pounding heart. Two
voices, maybe three-all male and moving closer. She'd fire
the first round over their heads. Hopefully, they'd get the
hint and leave. If not, she'd shoot to kill. She'd heard her
brothers stories. Pirates could be vicious and bloodthirsty
with their victims, and she had no intention of becoming
She raised her pistols and drew a deep breath. Then she
rolled around the corner and unloaded a barrage of laser fire
over three shocked men's heads. They shouted and scattered
for cover of the ramp's structural ribs.
She ducked back as return fire pelted the wall behind her. So
much for getting the hint.
"Okay, boys," she whispered. "Playtime is over."
Torrie came out blasting both pistols, pinning the three men
to their cover. Laser shots sprayed the ramp like a veritable
light show. The intruders returned a torrent of shots, and
she was once again forced behind cover. Gunfire stopped, and
she peered around the corner just in time to see two of the
three moving up the corridor from rib to rib. Eventually,
they would reach her. She'd need to retreat to a more secure
location. Then she felt the poke of metal in her back.
"Drop them, lady." The voice was soft and husky, but dead
serious. Damn, he must have come up through the engine room.
She gripped the handles, and felt the gun tip jam in her back.
She let the pistols fall, just as the first of the men rounded
the corner to face her. He was wearing a black wrap around
his face with only his eyes visible. With arms the size of
turret cannons, he looked like a giant. He would be the
muscle of the group.
His thick eyebrows rose. "Nice little surprise," he said over
her head. The two others came up behind him, all wearing
masks. They were smaller and rougher looking-the freight
Torrie twisted to look at the man with the gun barrel in her
back. Quick-silver eyes watched her through a black slit in
his head covering. A shiver ran down her spine at the
intensity and sheer concentration in those eyes. Calm,
serious and deadly-this one was the leader.
Slowly, she turned her head back to face the giant. He'd
holstered his weapon, as had the other two who had moved to
either side of her. That left one rifle. She could see the
collective amusement in their eyes. Apparently, they didn't
view her as a serious threat. Bad move, boys.
Without warning, she spun around, kicking the rifle to the
side with her boot. She one-stepped forward and caught the
pirate with a direct hit to his unprotected solar plexus with
her other boot. He gave an oomph and doubled over.
The pirate on the right made the first move, and she took him
out with straight jab to the nose, dropping him in his tracks.
The one on the left made a grab for her. She blocked his
attack and delivered quick succession of strikes to his head.
He howled and clutched his face beneath the covering.
She sensed the giant close in behind her, turned and nailed
him with an old-fashioned hard upper-cut to his jaw. His head
snapped up, but his feet didn't even move. Pain stung her
arm, and she watched in disbelief as his head lowered, his
angry gaze drilling into her. Moving faster than she thought
possible, he lashed out and cuffed her bicep with a steel
grip. She wrenched her body around, but not quickly enough.
He grabbed her other arm and twisted her to face the man with
the rifle, which had been recovered and aimed at her again.
She tried to reach the giant's groin with her heel, but he was
too tall. When she went for his knee-cap, he squeezed her
arms together behind her until they felt like they'd break.
As the two other pirates shook off their injuries, the leader
watched her. He was dressed in black, from his well-worn
boots to loose pants that wrapped narrow hips and cinched a
flat torso. His shirt shimmered as it moved around broad
shoulders and rolled over pronounced biceps.
He stepped up to her, his eyes hard-the silver in them coming
alive like metal shards glinting in the light. His singular
focus riveted her mind for a split second as an uninvited
awareness thundered through her. She squelched it with
visions of him laying dead on the floor with a laser hole in
She raised her chin, challenging him even though she knew she
was essentially helpless.
"You will never get away with this, you filthy pirate," she
Excerpted from Unmasked
by C.J. Barry
Copyright © 2005 by C.J. Barry.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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