You can only put the past away for so long.
This had never been truer for the crew of Matt’s ship, the Lady Lisa. Even as their engine suffers a critical malfunction and Matt scrambles to fund the costly repairs, Val, the ship’s reticent engineer, unexpectedly comes face-to-face with a deadly ghost from his past. Now it’s up to Matt, Ryce, and Tony to rescue him, even if it means breaking the law and striking an uneasy bargain with a local black-market kingpin—but what if this time their best efforts simply aren’t good enough?
And it might be that Val isn’t the only crew member Matt risks losing when his budding relationship with Ryce unexpectedly runs aground. With their love and commitment put to the test, Matt and Ryce must rally to save their friend and to keep their ship afloat, but in a race so desperate there might not be any real winners.
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"THAT'S IT," MATT said. "It's over."
The three of them stood around the gutted engine of the Lady Lisa. Well, Matt stood, while Val and Ryce crouched beside it amid piles of discarded parts, wires, and pieces of electronics. Both of them were covered in smudges of grease and looking up at Matt with expressions bordering on horror, as if unable to accept the pronouncement of judgment. It would have been quite comical, really, except there was nothing remotely funny about the situation.
Usually, it was Matt who was unwilling to acknowledge a problem he wasn't prepared to deal with, but after watching his engineer and pilot tinker with the thing for hours with absolutely nothing to show for it, even he had to grudgingly admit it was a lost cause. If two geniuses put together couldn't fix the damn engine, then it was beyond fixing.
"We need a new power converter," Val said tiredly and wiped his face, smearing the grease even further. "There's not much we can do without it."
"We're afraid the fission chamber would explode if we try to bypass it," Ryce said apologetically, as if it was his fault the engine worked the way it did. Or didn't, as the case was.
"Yeah, don't try that," Matt said. The last thing he needed was his ship exploding, taking all the crew and half the landing dock with it.
And he definitely didn't need his ship breaking down. Luckily, the engine decided to give out while they were still safely docked at the Freeport 73 station, and not in the middle of a run. Otherwise, they'd have been stranded in space, drifting with the rest of the human-made junk that orbited Elysium until somebody deigned to answer their distress call.
"Okay," Matt said, turning his mind back to the problem at hand, searching for some sort of a quick solution. They'd have to cancel the job Matt had contracted yesterday (geological survey equipment delivery to one of the moons of Elysium-4), and every day they spent docked at the station meant more fees. They couldn't afford to tarry without any immediate sources of income.
"Can you get a new power converter?" he asked Val.
"Yes," Val said, getting up. Looming at six feet five inches and built of solid muscle, some would call Valeriy Sokolov intimidating. The buzz cut and the perpetually grim expression did nothing to soften his appearance. He was also one of the smartest people Matt had ever known, and with Ryce in the same room, that was saying a lot.
"I'm sensing a 'but' coming," Matt said.
"A brand new converter would set us back fifteen grand," Val said. "I might be able to find a used one for about five thousand creds, but there's no telling how long it'll hold. Could be just a waste of money."
Matt had had a feeling he wasn't going to like it, and his hunch proved to be correct. Unfortunately, they always did.
"Shit." He stared at the discarded parts as if they could somehow magically transform into Federal credits. He wasn't prepared for it being quite so large a sum. "Shit, shit, shit."
"I'll clean up in here." Val's tone clearly suggested he wanted everybody else to leave the engine room.
"Come on." Ryce got up and took Matt by the arm, steering him toward the exit and into the narrow corridor.
Ryce's touch was comforting, and Matt instinctively leaned into it. He still couldn't quite believe they were together. As in a real relationship. Ryce was way out of Matt's league — a brilliant mind, a former Fleet combat pilot, a war hero. Not to mention hot as hell, and scrupulous to a fault — an admirable trait, but one which, at times, made their lives somewhat difficult.
As the captain of the small cargo ship Lady Lisa, Matt Spears was a runner, an independent contractor living off odd jobs hauling goods between the various planets and outposts in the Elysium system. While Matt was not averse to bending the rules regarding the legality of his cargo or passengers every now and then, Ryce was firmly against illicit smuggling in any shape or form. Had it been any other person, Matt would have told him to bugger off, or at least keep quiet about the nature of his contracts, but he couldn't bring himself to lie or argue with Ryce on points of honor.
Over seven months ago, Ryce had been involved in one man's covert scheme that had led to him and Matt crossing paths — but which had also cost Ryce everything. A brilliant Fleet officer with a promising career, he had been discharged under questionable circumstances and cast adrift with no remaining family to fall back on and no home to call his own.
Still, a man of Ryce's capabilities could've easily found himself a job with one of the larger transport companies in the private sector, or pursued an academic career, as his late adoptive parents had always wanted. But instead, he'd chosen to cast his lot with Matt and his crew — a position that held no prospects other than bare survival and presented no challenge for his superior skills.
And now, even this paltry job was at jeopardy. The problem was, with business having been slow lately, Matt didn't have enough money to buy a new power converter. And without a running engine, they were effectively grounded and couldn't take on jobs that would earn them the money needed for repairs. It was a vicious circle, and right now, Matt could see no way out of it.
"I don't know what to do," Matt confessed once they reached the bridge and he plopped down in the copilot seat. The huge canopy window screen was shut off, a black backdrop for the silence. Outside was the bustle of a busy dock, but here, they were shielded against the noise and nonstop activity of the station.
"We'll think of something," Ryce said. "You always find a solution, and there's still no cause for panic."
He sat beside him in the pilot's chair. When Ryce first joined the crew, after his final decommission from the military three weeks ago, they did the awkward dance around the precedence of piloting the ship, taking turns and being painstakingly polite with each other. But Matt quickly gave up on that. Ryce was an ace pilot. It was only logical to let the man do what he did best — not that piloting a small hauler around a sparsely populated solar system took much effort. This arrangement left Matt with not all that much to do around the ship, other than taking care of the business side of things and making sure everything was running smoothly. Which, at present, proved rather difficult.
Matt ran a hand through his unruly auburn hair. Ryce was right; stressing about it wasn't helpful. He'd just have to calm down and consider the situation rationally.
"I might be able to scrape up about three or four thousand," he said, crunching the numbers in his head. "There is a bit left in my account from our Ghorra job, and I could sell the new heater core Val bought last week. We could do with the old one a little while longer."
"It's not much, but it's something," Ryce said.
"Yes, but we'd still be at least ten grand short. And with the docking fees adding up ..."
"Can someone loan you the money?" Ryce asked carefully.
For Matt, this had always been a touchy subject. He came from a very wealthy, very respectable family. His father was no other than the renowned Fleet Admiral Thomas Cummings, while his older sister Nora was a Major and commanded her own ship. Seven months ago, she'd been the one to pull him (indeed, all of them) out of hot water after Matt had become an unwitting accessory to high treason and multiple counts of Federal offenses. But his relationship with his family had been strained for years, their difficulties further enhanced by Matt's continued refusal to keep in touch. After the death of his mother, there was no closing that gap. Despite Nora coming to his rescue, their renewed bond was still too tenuous, and Matt didn't want to have to run to his sister every time he got into trouble. Perhaps this stance was childish, but he didn't need his family being more disappointed with him than they already were.
The only other solution was borrowing money from some of his shadier business acquaintances. No proper bank would give him a loan, but people on the gray market would happily supply him with cash — at a killer interest, of course. He just wasn't sure he wanted to get involved with a loan shark, the way his luck had been going lately.
"We'll see," he said finally. The money had to come from somewhere, that much was certain. "Let's keep this option as a last resort, for now."
"I should go help Val patch things up in there," Ryce said, getting up. He hesitated a fraction of a second before planting a kiss on Matt's forehead.
Matt grinned and reached to wipe a tiny spot of grease off Ryce's cheek.
"Sorry. I'm getting dirt all over you," Ryce said, returning his smile.
Seeing Ryce smile at him never failed to make Matt's heart beat faster. They were both still learning to navigate the sometimes-tricky path of their fledgling relationship, having spent more than six months apart with little contact during Ryce's prolonged inquiry, but these little moments of quiet affection made the long wait worth it.
"I don't mind. You can get me as dirty as you want."
Ryce snickered, a tinge of blush creeping up his cheeks, and left the bridge. When the sliding door closed behind him, Matt sighed and swiveled in his chair. His faint reflection in the darkened window turned with him.
He wished he could see the stars in live view now. Seeing them so close always made him feel as though all these new worlds were within his reach, as though anything was possible if he only tried hard enough. Sometimes it was true, sometimes it wasn't. All he knew was that if he didn't fix this problem somehow, and soon, there would be no more chasing stars for him.
For the first time in months, Matt found himself badly needing a drink.
THE LIQUOR CABINET — which Matt surreptitiously kept stocked — was located in the rec room. He poured himself a glass of whiskey and sat on the battered sofa. Now, when he was able to think things through calmly, he had to concede that while the situation was certainly difficult, they had seen worse. Being short a couple of grand was infinitely preferable to being chased by hostile aliens or threatened by pirates. If he and his crew had survived that, they could take on anything.
Having finished the drink, Matt headed to the galley in much higher spirits than an hour ago. He was greeted by the din of conversation, clinking of dishes, and the heartwarming smell of Tony's cooking.
It was easy to lose track of time on a spaceship that was by no means run with military precision, but lunch hour was studiously observed by everybody. They all took turns cooking meals and cleaning up, but out of the four of them, Tony was the only one who could whip up anything worth eating. Matt and Val's idea of fixing lunch was heating up a can of soup, and while Ryce put much more effort into diversifying the menu, his food usually ended up under- or overcooked to a degree Matt had never thought possible in a fully digitalized kitchen.
The entire crew was already gathered around the table, and they all looked up expectantly when he entered. Matt offered them as cheerful a smile as he could manage under the circumstances, and took a seat.
"So, folks. I'm sure you all already know about our predicament, and I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Until we come up with the cash to fix the engine, we're basically dead in the water. Or stuck ashore, as the case is."
Tony, his first mate and Lady Lisa's makeshift medic, tugged at her braid thoughtfully. "This means we don't actually have the cash."
"Not enough to cover all the expenses." It wasn't something Matt was proud to be telling his crew, but he'd done his best to manage the finances frugally. It was just that regular maintenance was damn expensive.
"It's my responsibility, and I'll find a way to get us through it," he continued. "In the meantime, I won't hold anyone to their contract, if any of you decide to leave. I know the pay is hardly what you deserve ..."
Matt trailed off as Tony made a face at him and Val shook his head. Ryce merely leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest.
"Don't be a fool." For all her petite stature, Tony could certainly sound intimidating when she wanted to. "Nobody's leaving. It's not the first time we've been in a jam together, and it sure as hell won't be the last."
"I might have to sell my body at the Freeport canteen just to pay for our meals," Matt said mournfully. It was easier to turn this into a joke than acknowledge the lump suddenly lodged at the back of his throat.
"How much do you think your body might be worth?" Ryce asked.
"With all the crap he puts in it?" Tony scooped a generous portion of the stew from the steaming pot and plopped it on her plate. "I doubt it would buy us as much as a protein bar."
"It's not crap," Matt said defensively. "It's the highest quality caffeine and alcohol the black market has to offer."
"Actually, the canteen is not a bad idea," Val said in that quietly rumbling voice of his. He shrugged when everybody looked over at him in surprise. "It's as good a place as any to scout for jobs. It's true we're not going anywhere, but if Captain can work out a down payment with a prospective client, we can buy what is needed and still make the run."
It all sounded simple enough. A sufficient advance on their fee would solve their problem without the customer even knowing there was one. The trouble was finding someone to hire them before word got out about their situation. News and gossip traveled fast on Freeports, despite the stations' impressive size. Their scoping for engine parts would definitely raise questions. Nobody wanted to entrust their cargo to a faulty ship, or risk getting scammed altogether if said ship was, in fact, out of service.
"Good idea," Matt said, getting up. "I might as well get on it."
"Great," Ryce said, though for some reason, he didn't sound too enthusiastic.
Was he afraid Matt might seek out more than clients in a crowded bar? If so, he had no reason to worry. Matt was a lot of things, but he wasn't a cheater — at least where relationships were concerned. While it was true that in the past he'd been less than discerning when it came to casual dating (if a string of random one-night stands on various stations and outposts could be called dating), he hadn't been interested in anybody else ever since he and Ryce had shared their first kiss all those months ago aboard the pirate ship. Ryce had to know that, right?
"Captain, a moment," Tony said before he could leave. She nodded to the corridor, indicating she'd like to speak with him in private.
"What is it?" he asked once they were out of earshot of the galley. Tony seemed hesitant, and he wasn't used to seeing her like this.
Tony took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for what she was about to say.
"You remember I used to work for the Interstellar Medical Aid network, right?"
"Sure," Matt said, wondering where this was going. Tony had been a clinical trial coordinator for the IMA for ten years before she was accused of embezzlement and theft of expensive experimental medication. She was convicted but lucky to be sentenced to a shortened prison term due to extenuating circumstances. The court had been lenient because Tony had risked her career and freedom to help a complete stranger get the potentially lifesaving drug he couldn't otherwise afford. But the aftermath had ruined her life just the same. The conviction gave her ex-husband the leverage he needed to get sole custody of their only child, and she was blacklisted by all Federal health-care providers and large pharmaceutical companies.
"The IMA has a branch here on Freeport 73," Tony said. "It's a decent-sized operation. They might have short-term contracts available for small-time runners — there are always emergency shipments round the system. It's rarely worth the trouble for larger delivery companies to pick those up."
"Do you think they might consider hiring us?" Matt perked up a little at the thought. A contract with the IMA, even a temporary one, would do a lot to boost their ratings with other clients.
"I don't know. I guess I can ask around. I know some people who work here, but ..." she trailed off, but Matt understood her meaning. Not everybody would be willing to talk to a disgraced ex-colleague.
"If you could put some feelers out, that'd be great," he said. "But if it doesn't pan out, it's okay. No pressure. There's always something else waiting in line."
Tony nodded, but Matt could still sense her apprehension. He couldn't blame her for her reluctance to call on favors that were long past their expiration date. He couldn't bring himself to do the same, after all.
He patted her on the arm. "Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it. And if any of them are giving you trouble, I'll whip their snooty asses."
"Be careful, or you'll make Ryce jealous," she said with a wry smile. "And good luck at the bar. You might pick up on something before I do."
Matt grinned back at her and headed toward the exit but found his way blocked by Val, who was waiting for him by the main hatch.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ashore"
Copyright © 2019 Isabelle Adler.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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