Trying to escape his tortured past, Sergeant Liam Jacks travels aboard the transport vessel, the Santa Claus, as the security chief alongside his best friend and captain, Marc Danverse. Having survived the Civil War, they shuttle amongst the Proxima Centauri planetary cluster, trying to find some modicum of peace. Something of which Liam is in short supply.
During a stopover on the planet Luxoria, they take on a mysterious passenger. Hadrian Jamison’s history is questionable and his effect on Liam is undeniable. The more they learn, the more questions they have. As they are drawn together, Hadrian’s presence threatens to disrupt the quiet.
When Hadrian’s past catches up to claim him, the ensuing conflict is more than any of them expected.
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"HAVE YOU FOUND him yet?"
"We're looking ..."
"Hurry! We don't have much time!"
"Scanner picked up the target in the crowd."
"I have him in my sights."
"Sergeant, terminate with extreme prejudice!"
"I ... I can't. You can't ask me ..."
"Take the shot! That's an order!"
"Captain, you can't be serious."
"Pull the trigger, damn it, or we all die!"
"Oh God, forgive me ..."
Cold sweat rolled off Liam's body as he sat upright in bed, sheets tangled around his legs. His deafening pulse drowned out the soft whir of the environmental systems and the mechanical hum of the ship's movement. There was a hollow quality to the titanium hull of his private quarters that seemed to amplify the resonance of the dream.
"Pull it together, Marine. You're not a child." The horror refused to recede even now that he was awake.
Liam looked around his room as his reality began to settle. The windowless space was nearly pitch-black; the only illumination came from the data screen on the wall, its soft cyber-green time code proof that he was not lost in the abyss. Yes, he was aboard the cargo vessel the Santa Claus. Yes, they were en route to Luxoria from Alpha Centauri Prime for a supply delivery and pickup. Yes, he was the security chief of the thirty or so men employed on the ship. Yes, the dream was of a harsh memory, but still just a dream.
"Mrs. Claus. Status report please." Liam spoke in quiet, shaken tones while threading his unsteady hands through his hair. A synthetic voice, sounding like a middle-aged woman, hummed back in response.
"It is zero three seventeen, Sergeant Jacks. We will be docking at Luxoria Spaceport Alpha at approximately eleven fifteen. System sync to the Luxorian environment is in progress and will be complete in two hours and twenty-five minutes. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No." His reply was brusque, but Mrs. Claus's feelings couldn't be hurt; she was artificial, after all. Normally, Liam found Captain Danverse's penchant for ancient Earth history — including the ship's name and the computer's voice identity — endearing. Marc was his best friend, after all. But that night, there was no comfort in it.
Even without the nightmares, it was hard to sleep well when forced to acclimate to a new planet's environment and timeline every time you came into port. The ship's systems were designed to gradually shift the sleep cycles of everyone on board to match up to the active hours for each destination. Add the dreams into the equation, and his rest was as fractured as his self-esteem.
"Lights. Low." Twin light panels on opposite sides of the small room began to glow. The undecorated metal walls were nothing more than panels hiding the storage spaces within. The large bed looked out of place in the three-by-four-meter space but at his size was required for any chance of a comfortable night's sleep. Not that he'd seen many of those in a long time. A lone desk sat in the corner with a basic chair on wheels covered in dirty clothes. Several recessed shelves held stacks of paperwork, but the entire room was devoid of anything personal.
Liam peeled himself from the dampened sheets, the fabric refusing to release due to the tackiness of his salty skin. He knew he couldn't sleep anymore, even if the bed weren't already cooling and saturated. The ship ran warm, but he couldn't suppress a slight shiver as the air hit his bare body. Even the dense pelt of hair that covered his chest, arms, and legs provided little warmth at the moment. He slid into a pair of cargo shorts and sleeveless shirt that were piled in the corner, too shaken to care if they were clean enough to wear. A pair of thick-soled sandals waited for him in front of the room's exit. Out of habit, he picked up his communicator from the random pile on the desk and put it in his ear.
He placed his hand on the plexiglass palm reader embedded in the hull and the door slid open with a loud hiss. From the outside, he slapped the matching panel to close the door and trudged out into the hallway.
His footsteps gave a soft metal echo as he wandered in no particular direction through the dimly lit tunnel. This was no luxury liner; a subtle vibration could be felt at all times from the tech and mechanicals hidden behind the scuffed and weathered walls. The Santa Claus was sturdy, but not designed for creature comforts. Captain Danverse had purchased the decommissioned cargo ship nearly a decade ago and offered Liam a job when the pair had left the military following the Centauri Prime civil war.
Intelligently, Danverse had populated the Santa Claus with a crew of men who could stand the long distance between stops and appreciate the company of their fellow men. Ports were few and far between, and it was a small world to live in for an extended span.
The planetary cluster of Alpha Centauri's binary star hosted an unparalleled fifteen or more planets that were capable of sustaining life, but travel between them could take weeks or months, depending on the quality of the ship engines. Faster-than-light capability was restricted to military-class vehicles. Subspace Link kept the information systems of every planet connected, and a space station-sized hub kept the entire cluster in range and part of a vast system of cultures and technologies. The current run to Luxoria had taken weeks, and they would only be docked for one twenty-four-hour cycle to load and refuel before making a return trip to Centauri Prime.
Danverse had chosen this way of life because, after the civil war, he had lost interest in planetary life, with its conflicting politics and the reminders of all the wasted lives. Liam had similar incentives to live off planet, bearing the invisible scars of a wartime job well done. He lived on the transport ship in an attempt to bury the memories, but the dreams always returned to reignite the guilt in his breast.
And he was remembering it oh so acutely at this late hour.
Liam knew the blueprint of the Santa Claus like it was imprinted in his brain, but that night, he wandered without recognizing what deck he was on or what passageway he was in. A strange sadness filled him, weighing him down as the confusion thickened. He knew he had ridden a lift and walked down several corridors, but he was damned if he was aware of where he was as he rounded a corner.
"Boss? You look like shit." Mac knelt in front of an open access panel, various tools around his feet and hanging from his utility belt.
"Mac? What are you doing up?" Liam straightened to hide his fragile frame of mind. Even now, his military training was too ingrained to stop maintaining the illusion of rank.
Mac was a rugged, dark-haired man with a sturdy body under the dirty coveralls he wore as the ship's head tech mechanic. Short and thick, with rounded muscles, Mac was smaller and less defined than Liam, but no less powerful. Dark hair covered his forearms and could be seen on his chest through where his zipper lay open. His youthful complexion was stained with machine oil and other occupational hazards — and too many hours on the job. Mac was the youngest man on the crew but made up for it in his diligence to his profession.
"Look who's talking. I'm giving the systems a few checkups and prepping the environments on Beta deck. We're going to have a couple guests taking the cruise."
"Why don't you let Mrs. Claus run the diagnostics and environmental presets and get some sleep?"
"First, I didn't get this good by letting the tech take care of itself. Second, I don't live on this boat because I trust anything to do my job, boss. That's kind of the same thing, but that's beside the point. Synthetic or not, if she strokes out on us, I'll be the one who gets blamed when we all start screaming 'Oh God, oh God, we're all going to die.'"
Usually Mac's crass sense of humor was infectious, but Liam was having difficulty holding himself together. A tremor was building, making it hard to stand still. Mac's brow flattened, and his scrutiny only made Liam's nerves worse. He could imagine the calculations going on in the tech's mind; he couldn't hide how disturbed he was. Mac couldn't know the cause, but he had to see the damage as Liam's facade started to erode.
"You okay, boss?" Mac's genuine concern was clear. Still, Liam was not about to share his past.
"I'm fine." He shifted his feet as he searched for a polite excuse to step away. The rising awkwardness only amplified his tension and made him pause when the ideas wouldn't form.
"The gym's always open. I bet no one else is up." Mac picked up a small tool and began making adjustments to the open logic boards.
"Thanks, Mac. That's not a bad idea." Liam was relieved Mac let the matter drop. "Don't take too long with that. We need you during the docking."
"Don't worry. I'm almost done. Besides, I only sleep about four hours a cycle anyway. My brain rarely shuts down enough. Too much nervous energy, I guess."
"Sounds like you could use a workout, too."
"How do you think I get the four hours in the first place?" Mac nodded down the hall. "Go on, boss. I have to get this finished, and you're distracting me."
Liam called out over his shoulder as he turned away. "All right. I'll see you before we get to port. You do good work, Mac."
"Go away, boss."
It took a few moments for Liam to process his location and head toward the gym, a large section of Beta deck housing a sizable exercise room, connected with lockers, lavatories, and an open shower room for the entire crew and possible passengers. Since the Santa Claus was a former military vessel, most quarters did not contain private baths. The communal bathroom for thirty men was maintained in a near-pristine condition. Mac was obsessed with the sanitary and recycling systems working at optimal efficiency.
Liam stepped off the lift and rounded the corner, stopping in front of Captain Danverse's quarters. Still haunted and fidgeting, he stared at the plaque engraved on the door. He knew he should go to the gym.
Fists tight, he resisted the urge to ring the door com. He should not be there. Not like this. It wasn't fair to everyone concerned. He spun away, took one step, and stopped.
"Mrs. Claus, is Captain Danverse in his quarters?" He rubbed his weary brow with an unsteady hand.
"Yes, Sergeant. The captain's status is marked as In and Do Not Disturb. Would you like me to contact him?"
"No, Mrs. Claus."
He stood unmoving for countless minutes, admonishing himself over and over. The dream had left him so anxious he could feel his skin crawling. Muscles twitched in uncomfortable patterns as he barely held himself still. In the end, desperation and need won out.
Hands shaking, he turned and pressed the door chime. With his gaze to the floor, he waited the endless seconds for the door to be answered, his guilty conscience overwhelming his senses.
CAPTAIN DANVERSE AWOKE with a start. The last three cycles had been long, with little sleep, so he had marked himself out to get some rest before they landed on Luxoria. A chime rang in the room, making him growl. Someone was at his door. Can no one here read? He took a quick look at the clock. Son of a bitch!
Throwing back the light covering, he stepped out of the bed, wearing a pair of lightweight sleeping shorts. He only wore them when he was alone in bed, and lately that happened more often than he'd care to admit. Just another thing to be annoyed at tonight. After commanding the lights on low, he stalked to the door and struck the control panel with a closed fist.
"Who the fuck doesn't know what Do Not Disturb means? This place better fucking be on fire." Whatever fool was idiot enough to wake him was in serious trouble. The heavy door shifted open. Even clad in his shorts, he knew he exuded authority. Upon recognizing his security chief, Danverse threw out his chest and stretched up tall. The dominance display was so practiced he barely realized he'd done it.
"Liam? What's going on? Do you know what time it is?"
Liam began to stammer. "I ... I'm sorry. I shouldn't be here."
Hearing the fracture in Liam's voice and seeing the tremor in his stance, Danverse tamped down his intensity, his tone becoming one of quiet concern. "Are you all right, Liam?"
"I shouldn't be here. It's not fair. I just don't know how to handle it, sir." Liam's hazel eyes were shining, rimmed in red, and he refused to look at Danverse. The sergeant's breathing hitched, the ragged swell of his chest giving away the emotion about to crest over his defenses. Danverse knew what Liam was asking for.
Don't do it. It wasn't the first time Liam had come to his door. No matter how bad the idea was, his inner animal screamed to be let loose even as he tried to tell himself to send Liam away. But the hedonistic need wouldn't stop its relentless pleading. So he gave in to it.
Standing up tall, he summoned an air of command.
"Get inside, boy." Danverse placed a strong hand on the back of Liam's neck. "I know what you need."
A subtle pressure led Liam inside as Danverse reached out with his other hand and tapped the panel to slide the door closed. Liam made no effort to resist as Danverse held him in place, his authority well established.
"Mrs. Claus, captain's privilege. Privacy mode on."
"Yes, Captain. Door lock established. Soundproofing field on. Subspace Link firewall on. Surveillance scrambling field on." Mrs. Claus listed the security protocols as they were established. No one could see or hear anything that took place within the room's confines now.
The captain's quarters were the largest on the ship and included a private bathroom and living space. The general architecture was identical throughout the ship, but Danverse made a point to make a home out of his room. A vid-screen lined the wall under a small seating area with a fabric-upholstered chair and matching settee. Artwork from his private collection decorated the space, immaculate and ordered the way he liked it. The light panels were already on low as Danverse looked at his charge and uttered a simple command.
With his head down, Liam removed his few effects, folding each, and leaving them with his communicator in a careful pile near the door. Once his immense form stood naked and vulnerable before the captain, his breathing began to center itself. Danverse looked over the powerful man, admiring the swells of furred muscle and gruff good looks that made him popular with the crew. The sergeant's sleeping cock lay nestled in a thatch of hair between a pair of chiseled thighs. Everything about the man was impressive. With Liam perfectly posed with downcast eyes and hands behind him, Danverse welcomed the surge filling his cock.
Danverse walked over to one of the storage panels on the wall by the sleeping area and tapped a combination code on its keypad to open it. Reaching inside, he pulled out a series of leather straps and lengths of heavy metal chain. Liam didn't even raise his head as Danverse buckled the thick collar around his neck. The collar bit into his skin; Liam's eyes fluttered closed and a soft gasp escaped his lips.
Danverse spoke softly. "There are so many tech devices that can do the same thing, but I think the more archaic designs have a certain atmosphere." He fastened additional straps with sturdy, built-in rings around both of Liam's wrists. "The concept's ancient, but the leather's new. I had them made on our last run to Datham. They really outdid themselves."
Danverse clipped the chains from each wrist to rings mounted into either side of the collar before adding additional lengths extending from the manacles like dual leashes. Carefully, he stepped up onto the chair from the seating area and removed a painting from the wall above it, revealing a large metal hook welded into the hull.
Pulling on the length of chain, he led the supplicant Liam to the wall. He stroked Liam's high-and-tight auburn hair and around the back of his neck before raising the chain over his head and fastening it to the hook. Liam's muscles stretched taut as he dangled, supporting his weight on the balls of his feet, arms raised like some obscene piece of art for Danverse's amusement. Once Danverse was satisfied that Liam was secure, he moved the chair well out of the way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Luxorian Fugitive"
Copyright © 2018 J. Alan Veerkamp.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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