The Quest

The Quest

Susan Kearney

September 2013 $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-61194-324-5

Book 4 of The Rystani Warrior Series


 

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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In THE ULTIMATUM, he was a sex slave.

Now Kirek's a full-grown Rystani warrior with the most powerful mind in the galaxy. During his previous mission, Kirek learned the Zin, an ancient enemy, are about to decimate the Federation. To stop them, he must sneak into enemy territory—and he's targeted just the right woman to help him.

When Captain Angel Taylor "finds” the ultra sexy psi-warrior stowed away on her space salvage—and he claims he needs her help—she's cautious. Angel's a self-made captain and barely scraping by with her antiquated ship. But after Kirek promises her sole access to the galaxy's richest salvage haul, she's drawn into his reckless mission.

It doesn't hurt that she finds Kirek devastatingly attractive. Charming. A man who knows how to play every sexual game. He's the perfect candidate for a fling. Too bad he keeps insisting that fate has brought them together, that they are destined to be life-mates, and that her psi is as all-powerful as his own.

However sexy Angel finds the Rystani warrior, she isn't about to give up her skepticism, her independence, or her heart. So while they make an unlikely team, their battle of wills quickly escalates into a game of seduction.

But once they're deep in enemy territory, Kirek risks everything—to save the Federation and to win Angel's everlasting love.


Reviews

"With absorbing descriptions, tense dialogue and great, in-depth characters, Ms. Kearney has another successful story on her hands. The Quest shouldn’t be missed!”— Road to Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

"CAPTAIN, WE aren’t alone.”

Angel Taylor peered at the Raven’s viewscreen and frowned. Another starship had just exited hyperspace, heading straight toward the Vogan ship Angel was after.

Oh, no you don’t. This was her salvage. No other scavenger ship was going to beat Angel to the prize. "Raise engine speed ten percent.”

"We’re already redlining,” Petroy, her first officer, informed her, but just as she knew he would, he increased their speed.

TheRaven’s engines vibrated up from engineering, pulsed through the deck of the bridge beneath Angel’s feet, reverberated through her bones. Ignoring the assorted rattles and moans of her equipment, Angel gritted her teeth and peered at the viewport where a panorama of stars served as a backdrop for the asteroid belt that had trapped the abandoned ship.

"Just once, I wish the information we purchased could be both accurate and confidential.

Despite the competition, she had to secure the Vogan ship first. Losing the salvage to a rival wasn’t an option. Due to lack of funds, her ship’s safety inspection was five months overdue. In fact, the Raven’s engines needed a complete overhaul, and if Angel failed to procure the derelict ship, she faced the humiliation of being grounded—a fate she’d avoided for the last eight years, ever since she’d won the Raven in agambling joint back on Earth.

When she’d first acquired the Raven, it hadn’t been safe to fly out of orbit, but Angel had patched the holes in the hull and reprogrammed the computer systems herself. She’d lucked out on her first run, finding and securing the salvage rights to a wrecked Venus-to-Earth transport ship, which she’d sold back to the mining company that had built her, earning enough profit to take on a crew and enough fuel to leave the solar system. Since then, Angel had never looked back, roaming the galaxy in search of abandoned space vessels in hopes of one day finding the mother lode, a haul so rich she could afford to buy a ship that wasn’t older than Petroy. Meanwhile, she enjoyed the hunt. The freedom of space and being her own boss suited her—even when her ship’s system was falling apart around her.

Leaning eagerly over the computer vidscreen, Angel increased the magnification. The abandoned ship ahead tumbled like a glinting piece of quartz among lumps of coal. She wasn’t the mother lode, but was still a prize all right, rotating end over end in space, her once shiny hull now pitted and partially charred at the stern. The bow appeared undamaged and perfect for salvage. Angel could scrap the hull for metal and the tonnage alone would keep the Raven infuel for several months. If she was lucky, the hulk would still possess its old engine intact, and there would be electronics in the bow section that might bring enough to pay her small crew their back wages too.

But the other ship surged forward across the starscape in a streaming ribbon of light, making a beeline for Angel’s prize. Space laws were clear, albeit not always obeyed in the vast reaches between civilized worlds where enforcement tended to be sketchy. Yet, according to Federation law, the first salvage operator who attached their clutch beam to the hull possessed retrieval rights.

"Turn on recorders to verify the clutch and grab.” Angel was too experienced to risk arriving first on the scene, only to later lose a court battle.

"Recorders activated.”

The Raven had to secure the other ship—or Angel and her crew might end up dirtside slinging hash to keep their bellies full. If only she could have afforded to purchase those new hyperdrive engines she’d seen on Starbase Ten. But due to her perennial lack of funds, she’d had to settle for a retrofitting instead of a complete overhaul.

"They still have the edge, Captain.” Petroy spoke crisply. "At current speed, they’ll beat us to the Vogan ship.”

"No, they won’t. Inject the booster fuel into the engines.”

Petroy’s squat body shuddered, and his sturdy shoulders shrugged. "Captain—”

"You want to spend the next year dirtside?”

"Better to live on a planet than blast ourselves into the ever after.”

"That’s where we disagree.” She’d spent the first twenty years of life on Earth and had had enough of their perfect society to last a lifetime. Angel’s father had abandoned her mother before she’d been born, and her mother had been too sick to work, leaving them at the mercy of her mother’s family. She’d learned early that charity from her aunts and uncles came attached with strings, like obeying every societal rule. Not only had the necessity of depending on others depleted her mother’s self-esteem, it had sapped her will to live. After her death, Angel felt as though she couldn’t breathe on Earth without violating some ordinance or other. Stars, she couldn’t even listen to the music she liked without some botcop knocking on her door and handing her a ticket for a noise control violation.

"I’d prefer to live another five hundred years,” Petroy spoke dryly.

She ignored his sarcasm. During her childhood on Earth, Angel had learned that money could be made from what she’d found tossed in the garbage. Over the years she’d retrieved books, restored furniture, and repaired a bicycle. Broken toys often needed just a bit of glue to fix and those she couldn’t sell, she’d donated to a nearby orphanage—the scary facility where her relatives had threatened to send her if she’d caused trouble. As much as she’d hated obeying rules and depending on the charity of family, she’d seen firsthand that life in the orphanage was to be avoided. Space salvage had been a natural extension of her childhood scavenging, and now her fingers danced over the console to check on the condition of a volatile mixture of fuel she’d found on a dead space station last year and had saved for an emergency. "The booster fuel should get us there first.”

"But its chemical formula has destabilized. Will we still be in one piece after you—”

She didn’t have time to argue. With a quick flick of her hand, she coded in the sequence that would open a valve to mix the dangerous propellant with their normal fuel.

"Captain, I must protest.”

"Sorry, Petroy.” She spoke cheerfully, thoroughly enjoying the race. "If you don’t want to stay, eject in the shuttle pod, and I’ll pick you up on the return.”

Petroy showed all his teeth, the Juvanian attempt at a smile. "I wouldn’t miss the ride, Captain. I only felt it my duty to—”

With the booster fuel in her tanks, the Raven burst forward like a junkie with a fix, her renewed energy increasing their speed to a level that would have flattened Angel if she hadn’t been wearing her suit. Every Federation citizen wore a suit, made by machinery left by an ancient race called the Perceptive Ones. Directed by psi power, the suit protected her from high acceleration, filtered her air, clothed her, bathed her, took care of all her wastes, and translated the many different Federation languages. Her suit allowed her to move, in short bursts, at the speed of thought and could induce a state of null grav.

When the Raven accelerated, Angel automatically used her psi to adjust her suit. The soles of her boots locked onto the deck. She also strengthened the shielding against the tremendous g-forces.

The Raven’s hull rumbled in protest. The deck plating arched below her feet until she feared it might buckle. The viewports moaned and vibrated.

She held her breath and clenched the console. "We’re gaining on them.”

"Preparing to engage clutch beam.” Petroy laughed a high-pitched sound that had once grated on her nerves but now she’d learned to enjoy. Petroy was an acquired taste—he usually appeared all staid and severe, but at heart he loved taking risks, although he’d never admit it.

She tensed. "On my mark.”

It was going to be close. But in her heart, she knew this salvage was hers. The abandoned ship was calling to her like a first lover bent on a reunion.

Timing would be critical. If she waited too long to activate the beam, the delay could cost her the prize and the other ship would beat them to it. But if she deployed too soon, the beam would disperse, lose power, and fail to grab the spinning hull.

Her computer could calculate the particle density of the asteroid belt, the ship’s speed, and the vectors, but no computer could estimate her competitor’s accuracy without knowing the individual captain, the make and model of the other starship, or how much risk they were willing to take to capture the hulk themselves. Angel used her instincts, instincts that had won her the Raven with a pair of fours when she sensed her opponent across the card table was bluffing, instincts that had told her to help a stowaway Terran singer instead of turning her over to the men hunting her during her last run, instincts that told her that the Vogan ship was meant to be hers.

"Captain?” Petroy prodded.

"Not yet. The Vogan ship is heavy. She’s spinning at the outermost reach of the clutch beam.”

"The other ship just deployed their beam.”

Angel bit back a curse. Her competitor’s beam flashed across space like skimmer headlights in a foggy storm. But just like in fog that dimmed, distance scattered the clutch beam’s power. The derelict ship kept tumbling.

"Stay ready. They don’t have her locked in, yet.”

Angel held her breath, searching for signs the spin was slowing. But like an out-of-control top, the hulk kept tumbling. "They’re losing her.”

"Now?”

"Wait.” Her competitor would have to recharge their beam, which would buy the Raven extra time. At their speed, every extra second narrowed the distance by thousands of miles. "Load the beam.”

"Beam loaded.”

"Lock on target.”

"Locked.”

"Steady. Steady. Now.”

Their clutch beam shined through space, a bright beacon of good timing and skill. TheRaven’s force field captured the spinning ship and slowed the wild rotations.

"Got her. She’s locked and latched.”

As her competition jumped into hyperspace and departed, leaving the prize to Angel, satisfaction flowed through her like sweet frelle, the rare spice manufactured on only one world in the galaxy. Now she looked forward to her favorite part of her work, boarding her prize to see exactly what she’d taken.

"YOU SHOULD WAIT to make sure our competition has truly left for good before venturing out of the Raven.” Petroy’s warning had come over the coin system as Angel headed to the shuttle bay, but she could hear the excitement in his tone and knew he’d trade places with her in a heartbeat if given the chance.

"You keep watch,” she muttered.

"Yes, Captain.”

"You can take the next one,” she promised.

As captain, she sometimes allowed him the first right of inspection. But this time, she wanted to go herself. The tight race had fired her imagination, and the urge to board her prize was so strong that her blood hummed with excitement. She climbed into the shuttle and ignited her engine, shooting away from the Raven, pleased to see the Vogan ship caught in their clutch beam like a macro fly in a Debubian spider web.

Her second team, Frie and Leval, still slept but would awaken soon and take over for her and Petroy on the next shift. But first she intended to take an inventory of their catch. Angel loved the adventure of space. She adored not knowing what waited around the next bend or on the next planet. As a child at her mother’s sickbed, she’d read many books about space and had always dreamed of escape. Life on the Raven suited her.

"How’s she looking?” Petroy pretended to be worried, but his tone of impatience told her he was as eager to hear good news as she was to give it.

"Good. The metal alone should keep the Raven flying for a few more months.” Even better, when Angel hauled the salvaged ship into Dakmar, a moon orbiting a gaseous planet with no life forms, she doubted the former owners would quibble over ownership, and she would be able to sell it immediately. Back in the Central Federation, she’d have to fill out endless computer forms and wait for the authorities to track down the original owners to ensure she hadn’t attacked the ship just to gain salvage rights. But Dakmar existed in a less-traveled region of the Federation, where the laws encouraged free enterprise. The strongest and the fittest and the smartest ran Dakmar—an efficient system that would allow Angel to turn a tidy profit without a long wait for authentication of salvage rights. She might eventually earn more on a Federation world, but the downtime would erode the extra profit.

"And?” he prodded.

She flew a slow perimeter check. "From the char marks, it looks as if an explosion took out the stern. Perhaps they lost shielding and collided with an asteroid.”

"What’s wrong?” Petroy asked, perhaps sensing her tone wasn’t as jubilant as he’d expected. Or perhaps he just knew how to read her better than she wanted to acknowledge.

Although the evidence showed the disaster had occurred a long time ago and likely the ship had been tumbling for years, she still hoped the Vogans had escaped unharmed. The ship had obviously been abandoned, yet the hair on her arms prickled, as if in warning of danger.

"Any sign of our competition?” she asked.

"None. But it’s possible a small ship could be hiding from our sensors behind some of the local asteroids.”

"Are sensors picking up any contaminants on board?”

"She’s as clean as a hyperdrive engine.”

"Re-check.”

"Nothing. There’s not so much as a nano enzyme clinging to the food processors. Why?”

She tried to shrug away the tightness between her shoulder blades. "I don’t know. But I feel...”

"Go on.”

". . . As if something’s waiting for me in there.”

"Then don’t go in.”

She appreciated his concern, but they both knew she wouldn’t turn back now. Luckily she was the captain and no one could order her to turn back. Even though adrenaline had kicked in and she could taste sweet success, she remained wary. "I’m armed. The sensors are well calibrated.”

"Machines can make mistakes.”

"My instincts might be wrong,” she countered.

"When was the last time you were wrong?”

"Point taken.” Angel was rarely incorrect about recognizing trouble, except when it came in the form of the opposite sex. Twice married, twice divorced, of late, she’d kept her relationships short, her expectations confined to sating her physical appetites. She now looked for men who fit her lifestyle, those who wanted no more than good company for a short time and who didn’t mind when she left without a backward glance.

Angel flew under the belly, taking extra care to look for any details that appeared out of place. Giant mawing holes in the hull and ports gaped where the crew had popped safety pods to abandon ship, a sign they’d safely escaped. Most damage had probably occurred after they’d left when tiny asteroids had collided with the hull.

While inspecting every exterior inch, she tried to calm her racing pulse. Her instincts were extraordinary. She had a knack for finding trouble, of being in the exact right place at the right time—where things happened. If she’d been into sports, she would have been the star player, the one who always seemed to be around the ball during a critical play. If she’d been in the military, she would have been the general on the front, in the exact location where the enemy attacked. As a scavenger, her success rate was phenomenal, considering the equipment she had to work with.

However, when her scalp prickled and anticipation rolled in her gut, when her fingers itched on her blaster trigger for no damn reason that she could discern—like right now—she’d learned to be extra careful. Angel had even read up on the phenomena. Supposedly, her subconscious picked up signals her brain couldn’t interpret—tiny signals that her conscious mind didn’t see or hear or notice, but ones that could still broadcast loud and clear to her subconscious.

"Talk to me.” Petroy’s voice pulled her from her thoughts.

"I’m taking the flitter through a blast hole in the fuselage.” She came through the damaged hull in a cloud of dust. Her exterior landing lights revealed an empty dock, and she set down with no problems.

"I’ve landed, and the shuttle bay is full of wreckage.”

She’d expected no less. Still, she couldn’t keep the disappointment from her tone. It would have been wonderful to find a stash of cargo, starfire gemstones from Kenderon IV or ice crystals from Ellas Prime or even a case of Zenonite brandy. But the bay had either been picked clean a long time ago, or the Vogan ship had flown empty.

Angel kept her blaster handy and popped her hatch. "I’m going for a look,” she said. "Engaging vidcamera.”

Now Petroy could see what she saw, which wasn’t much. Lots of twisted gray bendar,a metal manufactured to protect starships against hyperdrive forces. She placed a portable light on her head, another on her wrist.

As well as clothing her, her suit allowed her to breathe in space, kept her boots on the deck with artificial gravity, and encased her body in normal pressure. She didn’t have to worry about solar radiation, but the possibility of her competitors returning was always a concern. While Petroy would notify her if they reappeared and she should have plenty of time to fly back to the Raven,she sensed the danger was coming from within, not outside.

Straining to listen for any strange noises, she forced air into her lungs. Absolute silence closed around her like a tomb. She couldn’t open her suit to sniff the air, but from the charred hull, she imagined the odor of old dust and the lingering scent of burnt metal.

Reaching an interior hatch, she popped the handle. The massive door creaked open. She shined her light into a corridor, expecting more wreckage. But it was empty, the only sign of problems a buckled floor.

Advancing with care, she passed by the empty galley and crew quarters and, in search of electronics, turned toward where she estimated the bridge to be. Along the way she admired the heavy metal plating of the interior walls, which would bring a tidy profit on Dakmar. The cargo ship had been built like a fortress, and she suspected only a total systems failure could have left her so vulnerable to disaster.

A flicker of movement in the corner of her eye, a shade or shape that didn’t belong, caught her attention. Instantly, she shined her light, raised her blaster, and peered into the gloom but saw nothing, not even a shadow.

Her mouth went dry as moon dust. "Who’s there?”

Petroy’s tone lowered in concern. "No one’s on the vidscreen. Sensors aren’t picking up any sign of life, but be careful.”

She appreciated that he didn’t think she’d lost her mind and that he’d fed her data that should be useful. Although Angel had boarded dozens of ships, never before had she felt as though she was being watched and judged.

Angel squinted past the reach of her lights and saw a dark gray shadow move in the blackness beyond. A very large, very humanoid shadow.

"Come out. Now. Or I’ll shoot.” She assumed the intruder’s suit would translate her words.

The shadow moved and advanced into her light.

"Keep your hands where I can see them.”

He was tall, very tall, broad-shouldered and bronze-skinned with bright blue eyes and dark hair. But it was his carved cheekbones and full lips that curved into a confident and easy smile that made her think of a Viking warrior, one of Earth’s ancient races. No, not Viking—a Rystani. She hadn’t ever met any Rystani, the infamous battle-driven warriors from the planet Rystan, but she’d seen holopics. However, the holopics couldn’t convey this man’s massive size or his casual, self-assured attitude that would have been sexy under different circumstances.

"How did you know I was here?” he asked, ignoring the blaster that she aimed at his chest.

"Captain,” Petroy spoke over the com, "a Rystani just showed up on our sensors.”

"No kidding.” She scowled at the man standing before her. "Since this is my ship, I’ll be the one asking the questions. Why didn’t our sensors pick you up?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Perhaps your systems are faulty.”

The stranger’s deep voice matched his powerful chest, and the sound lapped against her like waves on a white sand beach—solid, gentle, all encompassing. He wore his masculinity with the same ease as he wore his smile, as if it were so much a part of him that he had nothing to prove.

He intrigued her, but she wasn’t taking his word, especially when their sensors had been working perfectly when she’d left the Raven. She invoked privacy mode in the com so the stranger couldn’t hear her or Petroy’s replies. "Petroy, have the computer run a self-diagnostic.”

"Already did, Captain. We have one hundred percent efficiency.”

She kept the Rystani in her blaster sights. "There are no computer malfunctions. So, what’s your story? Why are you here?”

Just because he didn’t appear to have a weapon didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. On muscle size alone, he could overpower her. Since one generally had to work out regularly to sport such a toned physique, she assumed he could also best her in a hand-to-hand fight. Her advantage was her drawn weapon, and she kept it front and centered.

"I’m Kirek of Rystan. Take me to your captain,” he demanded.

Kirek hadn’t tried to lie about his planet and every word sounded sincere, though aristocratically arrogant, but he also evaded her questions about how he’d avoided their sensors and why he was here. Instead, he was acting as if he hadn’t expected her to find him. Interesting.

"I’m Angel Taylor, captain of the Raven. From Earth. Now, what are you doing here?”

At her announcement of her rank, Kirek’s facial muscles didn’t move, but flickers of purple darkened his eyes. "I’m looking for transport to Dakmar.”

She arched a brow and kept her trigger finger poised to shoot. Obviously, he didn’t think the derelict ship would take him to Dakmar, so he knew her plans. "Who said I was going to Dakmar?”

"Any salvager worth their oxygen would sell this wreck on Dakmar.” His tone remained confident and easy, just short of charming. But she noted he kept his hands away from his body and didn’t make any sudden moves that would risk drawing her blaster fire.

"TheRaven is not a civilian transport ship.”

"I will stay right here.” Kirek’s tone remained patient, confident, as if he were very accustomed to giving orders. "You should pretend you do not know of my existence—”

"—Like you planned?” she guessed. If she’d depended only on her sensors, she wouldn’t have found him stowing away on the derelict. But no way in hell was she sneaking Kirek onto Dakmar. Those folks were quite particular about who boarded their moon. She did too much business there to risk bringing in a stranger and being banned because he wanted a free ride.

"I do not wish to cause trouble.” Kirek’s casual tone implied truth. Yet, his bold stance suggested that he was a man accustomed to handling whatever came his way.

"You’ve already caused trouble. And I want answers. Who dropped you off? How did you know—”

"Captain,” Petroy interrupted. "The other ship has returned, and the captain is demanding that we turn over Kirek or prepare to be blasted from space.”

The other captain had asked for Kirek by name.

She narrowed her eyes on the Rystani. "Who are they? Why do they want you? How do they know your name?”

Kirek rubbed his square jaw. "My calculations seem to have gone awry. I’ll have to think about...”

He seemed genuinely puzzled, but she wasn’t buying his innocent act. Yet she didn’t have time to interrogate him, nor did she bother using privacy mode, allowing Kirek to hear her conversation. "Petroy, is the other ship in weapons range?”

"Not yet.”

"Do we have time to return to the Raven before they can shoot us?”

"Maybe.”

"Stall negotiations until I return. Tell them I haven’t found anyone named Kirek. Yet.”

"And then?”

"Ask what they’re willing to pay for this Kirek, if I find him.”

"Aye, Captain.”

Kirek’s eyes flared with a heat that burned hotter than a solar flare. "You trade in slaves?”

Her instruction to Petroy had been automatic. But she’d obviously touched a sore point, and maybe it would make Kirek more agreeable to answering her questions. While she’d never deal in the slave trade, he needn’t know that right away.

She intended to drop the Rystani off on the nearest habitable planet—but she also wanted to know how he’d avoided her sensors and how he’d learned her destination. She told herself she would have made the same decision not to turn him over to her competition if she’d found a slimy, eight-tentacled Osarian aboard, instead of the finest male specimen she’d seen this side of a holovid screen.

"You.” She waved her blaster at Kirek. "Come with me.”

He planted his feet, crossed his arms over his massive chest, and spoke with calm contempt. "I will never again be a slave.”

Kirek presented one awesome picture of Rystani stubbornness, and she realized he’d called her bluff. This proud warrior would clearly rather die than give up his freedom. She couldn’t imagine him ever having been anyone’s slave.

From the rock-hard tension in his muscles to the angry heat in his glaring eyes, she knew he was a man bent on dying before he yielded his will to anyone. Oddly, she didn’t feel threatened, but sympathetic. "I do not buy, sell, or keep slaves. Not ever.” She cocked her head to one side. "But if you want to live, I suggest you answer my questions. Who’s after you?”

Chapter Two

"IF YOU DON’T SELL slaves, why did you ask what price I’d bring?” Kirek didn’t budge from his stance or his determination to remain free.

Some issues weren’t debatable and slavery was one of them. Seven years ago, at the mention of anyone selling him, he wouldn’t have been able to restrain his seething temper. But after a good part of a decade spent traveling through the galaxy, he’d healed from his time spent on Endeki, where he’d been a hostage and suffered at the hands of a woman with an unusual taste for cruelty.

While Captain Angel Taylor might be space-hardened, she didn’t emit a cruel psi, at least from what his own blast-damaged one could pick up. Kirek found his new handicap tiresome and limiting but reminded himself that until the last century, most of humanity never had more to go on than he did right now—his instincts.

Angel stared hard at him, and while her tone had an edge, it was cut with understanding. "I asked what they would pay for you to learn your value to them. And,” she continued, grinning, "to see if my threat would make you answer my question.”

He couldn’t help admiring the way she thought. A good brain always attracted him as much as a pleasing face and a toned body. Angel seemed to have both. Taller than Tessa, a Terran woman who lived with his family on Mystique, their new home world, Angel’s slender frame still showed enough curves in her dark green suit to make him appreciate that he was back in his body, even if he was damaged.

Eight years ago, while astral projecting, Kirek had been caught in a wormhole explosion. His mind had been blasted out the far end of the wormhole, all the way into the Zin Galaxy. It had taken him seven years to return—eight, if he counted the reintegration of his mind with the body machines had meticulously kept alive, thanks to huge efforts from family and friends.

After his reintegration, doctors had warned repeatedly that his psi remained fragile and told him that his body couldn’t handle astral extension again anytime soon without risking his life. So his injured psi, which had once been one of the most powerful in the Federation, had been reduced to what others considered a normal level. While he still had the unique ability to prevent scans of his body from registering on machines, he hadn’t been able to hide from Angel, and he didn’t know why. She shouldn’t have known he was there, waiting for her or another scavenger ship to transport him to Dakmar undercover.

Her finding him necessitated a change in plans. During Kirek’s astral extension into the Andromeda Galaxy, he’d found the Zin home world, the beings who had tried to wipe out the Federation with a virus. With his powerful psi, Kirek had learned the Zin still planned to invade. Unfortunately, his psi touch had made the Zin aware of his presence. So he’d stayed away from Mystique and those who could help him in fear that the Zin would find him.

But the Zin were probably now hunting him through other races. His cover was blown. In order to continue his mission, he needed to meet his contact on Dakmar and disappear again.

Now, Angel had found him. Without his extraordinary powers, he had to rely on his eyes and his ears and his intellect to convince her to give him a ride.

What he’d seen so far of Captain Angel Taylor pleased him. He liked her risk-taking attitude mixed with a cautious practicality. He liked that after she’d realized she’d touched a nerve, she’d admitted her threat to sell him had been a bluff. He liked her smarts. He most decidedly liked her intelligent green eyes that set off her straight nose and full lips to perfection. She also attracted him, which was not unusual for a man who hadn’t had sex in almost a decade.

"I don’t know who is after me.” He told her the truth.

"Captain, the other ship is closing,” her officer informed her.

Angel eyed Kirek warily. "Start walking. Why do they want you? Why are you valuable?”

"Good questions. I can only guess at the answers.” Since Kirek could no longer steal into Dakmar without her help, he assessed his options with hyperdrive efficiency. He could make up a cover on the spot, but any decent computer would poke credibility holes in his story, and if she caught him in a lie, it would be difficult to regain her trust. He could refuse to speak but sensed that wouldn’t win him her assistance, either. Besides, he did require help. It would be useful to have an ally on Dakmar. The moon housed the thickest base of thieves, murderers, traders, and blackmailers this side of the galaxy, intermixed with legitimate businesses. As a salvage captain, Angel likely knew her way around and could introduce him to the right beings, putting him on a fast warp in the right direction—if he could gain her cooperation.

So the truth not only might work best, the truth worked with his morals. Kirek didn’t like lying. Although, for the greater good, he could override his inbred Rystani morality, but he preferred to operate on the sunny side of the truth.

"What’s your best guess?” she asked.

He scratched his cheek and gazed over his shoulder at her but kept his feet moving. "You won’t believe me.”

"Start talking.” Gesturing with the blaster toward the shuttle bay, she scowled as if expecting lies.

He could probably take away her weapon before she fired a shot, but he wouldn’t risk losing whatever goodwill she might have. But his story was long and complex and the best place to start was at the beginning.

"Twenty-eight years ago,” he began, speaking as if telling a story to a favorite child as he headed toward the shuttle bay, "I was born in hyperspace.”

"Stars,” she swore without rancor. "I’m beyond the age of fairy tales. Birth in hyperspace is impossible.”

"There’s no point telling you all my secrets,” he teased, "if you refuse to keep an open mind.”

"Fine.” Sarcasm dripped from her tone. "You were born in hyperspace. Do you think we could skip to the present?”

He refused to let her skepticism throw him. Instead, he enjoyed pushing her over the edge of incredulity. "When I was four, I traveled to a planet halfway to the galaxy’s rim, and the Kwadii proclaimed me their Oracle.”

"Right.” She snorted, and he turned to catch her rolling her eyes in a Terran gesture so like Tessa’s he had to restrain a chuckle. "Forgive me if I don’t think you look holy.” She eyed him with wary cynicism. "Perhaps you’ve spent too much alone-time on this abandoned ship.”

"Actually, I’m in a mood to enjoy the right kind of company,” he flirted back. "You arrived right on time. It’s only been a few days since I put out word about the Vogan ship.”

"You set me up? You were expecting me?”

"You or another salvage ship. I needed a ride to Dakmar.”

"Undercover?” she guessed.

He nodded.

"So, the other ship out there wants to stop you from going to Dakmar because...”

He shrugged. That others seemed to know his mission was of great concern, but Kirek had lived through many dangerous situations. When he’d been a child, he’d been alone on Kwadii, totally separated from the adults who’d been captured. Even though he’d been terrified, he’d still managed to make new friends. He’d found other children and played computer games to earn credits to buy what he’d needed. Later, as a sexual hostage on Endeki, he’d often managed to enjoy himself under dire conditions. So even under the most trying circumstances, he’d learned to enjoy life. "My years have been eventful.”

"Whose haven’t? Get to the point.” When Kirek didn’t immediately respond, Angel prodded him lightly with the blaster. "Now.”

"When I was eighteen, the Endekian leader’s wife took me into her confidence and—”

"Even I know the Rystani and Endekians are enemies.” She gestured again with the blaster, urging him through the shuttle bay.

Petroy interrupted. "Captain, the other ship is Kraj. Ever heard of them?”

"No.”

"I have,” Kirek admitted. "A most unpleasant race. Narrow-minded, intense, warlike.”

"Several Kraj just showed up on our sensors.” Petroy’s tone turned sharp. "They are inside the Vogan ship.”

"Stars. How close?” Angel asked.

"Right above you.”

Kirek craned his head back. The Kraj must have hidden behind the warp engine’s shielding. If his psi had been healed, he would have known they were there. But he hadn’t felt their presence and obviously the Raven’s sensors were antiquated or malfunctioning.

Without hesitation he snagged the weapon he had hidden in the fold of his suit and reached out to grab Angel to pull her behind the cover of a column. But she’d already dived, rolled, and hidden behind twisted bendar hull–plating right before four Kraj dropped through the ceiling panels.

Kirek swore under his breath. Did she have to pick the worst spot in the entire cargo bay to hide? The Kraj practically descended right on top of her. Big, ugly, gray creatures, twice Angel’s mass, they attacked at the speed of thought, using their psi suits to strike in formation. But as Angel fell to her back and fired her weapon into their midst, taking out one Kraj almost immediately, Kirek noted she also had the perfect counterattack spot.

From his position, he didn’t have a direct shot. Hampered by his injured psi, he couldn’t move faster than his opponents. Kirek lunged toward Angel, firing his weapon, but his blaster shot had no effect.

"They have a jamming device,” he warned Angel, but she had figured it out as quickly as he had and holstered her blaster and pulled another weapon. Using her psi, she lunged at a forty-five-degree angle to avoid being crushed between two oncoming Kraj.

At his words, two Kraj turned on him. But he fretted about the one still after Angel.

Before he could come to her aid, he first had to dispatch his own attackers. The two Kraj attacked together, coming in fast and hard. One punched his face—the other slammed a foot into his kidney. Despite strengthening his shield, part of the force came through. Pain radiated down his back and across his jaw.

Countering with a swift round kick to the head, Kirek knocked out one Kraj. But the other took the opportunity to choke him from behind, wrapping an arm about his throat.

Kirek shifted his hips, twisted a wrist, and flung the Kraj into a bulkhead. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Angel duck behind a crate then bash the metal cage into her opponent’s face. The Kraj let out a roar and came after her with such force and speed that Kirek’s heart marched up his throat.

He lost sight of her again as his own opponent attacked with a metal bar. The Kraj swung at Kirek, and he jerked back, watching the Kraj’s eyes for an opening. The two danced forward, back, to the side, each searching for a weakness. When they edged toward a bulkhead, Kirek used his suit’s null grav to kick against the wall, come in at an angle.

The Kraj raised the metal bar, but Kirek slammed the knife-edge of his hand against the other’s throat. Letting out a pained croak, the Kraj dropped to the deck.

Angel cursed. Kirek turned in time to see her take a blow to the shoulder, shift, and ram a knife into the Kraj’s chest. He slumped, unconscious, maybe dead.

"You okay?” he asked, breathing hard, more out of fear for her than the exercise.

"Yes. You?” She placed her foot on the Kraj’s chest, jerked out her knife, wiped off the blood on his suit, then stuffed it back up her sleeve.

"Let’s get out of here.” He motioned toward the shuttle.

"I want that jammer.” She used null grav to lift herself through the ceiling panels.

Frustrated that she was wasting time, he tried to hide his irritation. "You can retrieve it later.”

"When we tow the ship, the jammer might come loose and float out the damaged hull.”

"The Kraj ship is coming,” he reminded her.

She didn’t stop, stubbornly lifting into the ceiling, giving him no choice but to follow. "It will only take a sec—”

Without air to convey sound, he could hear nothing except through the com. She’d gone silent.

"Angel?” When she didn’t answer, Kirek’s mouth went dry. Instead of entering through one of the open panels, he chose an unbroken one to burst through, hoping to take whoever was up there by surprise.

Obviously another Kraj had been working the jammer, and he’d silenced Angel. The shielding in this section was so thick, Kirek’s damaged psi hadn’t felt him and neither had the sensors on Angel’s ship. Now the Kraj had Angel.

Praying she wasn’t dead, Kirek rocketed through the panel and into the ceiling.

A Kraj turned, holding Angel across his chest and in front of him like a shield. Angel slumped in the man’s arms, her head drooping, shoulders sagging, limp and either unconscious or dead.

"Move on me and I’ll snap her neck,” the Kraj warned, his words giving Kirek hope that she still breathed.

"If you want this ship, you can have it,” Kirek replied, stalling, knowing full well the Kraj didn’t want the ship, but him. If the Kraj had had a weapon in his hand, Kirek and Angel would both be dead. But with his mothership bearing down, he need only hold out until help arrived.

"Let her go and I can make you a wealthy man,” spoke Kirek, edging his feet slowly, changing his angle to attack.

The Kraj’s eyes narrowed as if considering Kirek’s words.

Angel chose that moment to slam her head back against the bridge of his nose.

Roaring in pain, the Kraj loosened his grip but didn’t let her go. Angel kicked her heel into his shin, and Kirek launched his body into them. The three collided, lifting them into empty space. Kirek used the collision to hammer his fist against the Kraj’s temple. The big gray alien flew one way, Kirek and Angel the other.

They landed against a wall, and he took the brunt of the crash, twisting to absorb the shock. She slammed into him, and he cradled her. For one second her body pressed against his, her soft curves, her toned flesh, her fresh-scented hair reminding him that she might fight like a warrior but was very female. Then she shoved back, pulled the jammer that she’d somehow wrested from the Kraj from her pocket, and turned it off.

She gestured to Kirek’s holstered blaster and the Kraj. "Shoot him.”

Kirek nudged the unconscious man with his boot. "There’s no need. He can’t harm us now. Let’s go before his ship arrives.”

Angel scowled at him. Kirek suspected if she still had her weapons, she wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot. However, he never killed unless in self-defense or to save a life.

Angel raised an eyebrow at his reluctance but said no more as they hurried back to the shuttle. Kirek was pleased to learn Angel was not only intelligent, but could defend herself so well. But he wished she had better equipment. The pared-down shuttle gave him a bit of trepidation, and he wished he had the former use of his psi that would have spotted faulty circuits, a weak hull, or the enemy that had been hiding in the shuttle bay ceiling.

"Captain.” Petroy’s voice crackled over the com.

"Go ahead.”

"The Kraj captain says he is done negotiating. They say that if we don’t hand over the Rystani warrior, Kirek, they’ll fire upon us, and from their ferocity of tone, I tend to believe them.”

"Understood. Are they in clutch beam range?”

"Not yet.”

"Tell them we left several Kraj alive. They are free to retrieve them. That should slow them down.”

"Aye, Captain.”

With Angel away from the Raven, Petroy appeared comfortable in charge. He remained calm in spite of the crisis.

Impressed that she didn’t give many specific orders to Petroy but just the main plan, trusting her officer to handle the crisis, Kirek focused his gaze on Angel. She flew the ship asif it were second nature, her only concession to the fight they’d just been through or the warning just given, a flick of a switch to raise their shields.

Outdated, with limited computerization, the bare-wired but functional shuttle had been an antique before he’d been born. Reminding himself that not everyone in the galaxy had the credits to buy the latest technological engineering, he refrained from commenting about her superior flying or the ancient gear. Instead, he peered out the spotless screen for her mothership.

As they neared, he scrutinized her lines. Above and to starboard the Raven’s hull, shimmering gray bendar against the blackness of space looked like a winged beast of prey. The silhouette jarred Kirek’s memory, a faint vision in a long-forgotten dream suddenly sharpened.

His psi might be damaged, but he still had memories of when it had worked. He’d had a vision of this moment, this ship, this woman.

Stars. He understood he was exactly where he was supposed to be. The Raven and Angel were his fate.

During his lifetime, Kirek had always been haunted by flashes, visions of what should be. As a fetus in Miri’s womb, he’d reached out with his psi in a healing circle, already aware that destiny would set him apart. Those instincts hadn’t left him during his stays on Kwadii and Endeki or even during the long years of astral travel. Never had he envisioned a partner in his quest, but at the sight of the Raven, he understood that Angel would be important to his future.

If he’d had access to his psi, he might have known exactly how she was important. But now, he figured that the only way he had to find out what role they were supposed to fulfill in each other’s lives was to spend time with her, to develop a relationship with her.

So he tried to explain his quest, a course that had driven him almost since his first moment of consciousness. "Perhaps you’ve heard of a wormhole that opened between Earth and invaders from another galaxy?”

"The Zin? Of course, I’ve heard of the Zin.” She slammed into overdrive, and the engine purred. "Every Federation child learns in school how the Zin want to invade our galaxy, but the ancient Sentinels keep us safe.”

The Sentinels were fantastic machines built by The Perceptive Ones, the same race that had left behind the machinery that manufactured Federation citizens’ suits. Kirek had once been inside a Sentinel and had met two Perceptive Ones, but Angel wasn’t ready to hear that story yet.

"Captain,” said Petroy, injecting himself into the conversation, "the Kraj are closing fast. If they lock a clutch beam on your shuttle—”

"Feel free to fire on them if they attack, but I’m hoping that if they stop to pick up their injured it will delay them long enough for our return. We’re almost in. Open bay doors.”

"Doors open.”

Kirek took heart that although her stripped-down shuttle was ancient, she kept it spotless, and the engine hummed with well-maintained efficiency. Deciding to come clean about his mission, he leaned forward to peer around her lovely neck to catch her expression and placed absolute conviction into his tone. "The Zin are planning another attack.”

"Really?” Her tone remained skeptical as she dodged an asteroid with smooth skill, flew around debris as if it were second nature, and simultaneously carried on the conversation. "No one has ever even seen the Zin and yet you proclaim to know their plans.”

"It’s my quest to stop the Zin invasion.”

Her tone challenged him. "Because you were born in hyperspace? Because you’re an Oracle?”

His soul might be older than his years, but he still enjoyed interacting with a woman like Angel Taylor. She could handle herself and her ship, and her independent spirit radiated through her conversation with the brightness of a star gone nova. Already he relished her banter, her skill, and her feminine profile. He’d carried on alone for so long for so many years as he’d made his way back to the Milky Way Galaxy that he’d forgotten how uplifting it could be to converse with a woman with such an individualistic spirit. But even as he recognized his attraction to Angel, he understood that preventing the Zin invasion came before any personal considerations. "I will stop the Zin... because I can.”

"THE KRAJ HAVE recovered their people and are warming up their weapons, Captain.” Petroy greeted Angel on the bridge, gave up the command seat, and moved to his copilot’s position.

"Ready the hyperdrive engines,” she ordered, slipping behind her console with the ease of long practice.

"Done.”

She nodded thanks at the ever-efficient Petroy and frowned at the vidscreen, fully aware Kirek had trailed behind her onto the bridge and was looking around with keen interest. Although all four of the crew could fit in here at one time, it only took two to run all the systems, and her tiny bridge seemed crowded with the big Rystani aboard.

He’d told her one unusual story. She’d heard enough rumors to know it could be true... or a total fabrication. She hadn’t decided yet whether he was trustworthy. Although he’d helped save her during the Kraj attack, saving her had saved himself.

But damn, the man could fight. He’d moved like some kind of vidscreen hero, his skill evident in his fearless attacks that took down his enemies almost faster than the eye could follow. He’d proved he was dangerous—but to whom?

Even if she’d been so inclined, locking him up on the Raven wasn’t an option, unless she wanted to give up her quarters, and she didn’t. She figured as long as the Kraj were after Kirek and she protected him, he likely wouldn’t interfere with the Raven’s operations.

Angel drummed her fingers on her console and glared at Kirek. What secret was he keeping? She thought it odd he’d admitted knowledge of the aliens but then refused to say why they wanted him. She hoped she wasn’t harboring a murderer, but despite Kirek’s muscles, despite his fight with the Kraj and his words about taking out the Zin, he seemed contradictorily, a warrior who didn’t kill like most Rystani warriors she’d heard of.

Although advanced computers could have given her a complete rundown on Kirek’s background, her antiquated system didn’t have enough memory to carry extraneous data about Federation history. So she had no way to check out his story until they reached Dakmar. She just prayed that he hadn’t refused to kill the Kraj because they were working together in an elaborate ruse to steal her prize and the Raven.

So while she appeared to give the Rystani free rein of her ship, she keyed in a command code that locked out any orders that came from anyone other than her and her crew. Since she’d been careful to keep her body between his gaze and her fingers, Kirek couldn’t possibly have seen her fingers move over the console, yet when she caught his amused gaze on her, she could have sworn he knew.

Impossible. She shook off her wild imagination and hailed the Kraj through the com. "This is Captain Angel Taylor of the Raven. According to Federation laws, our salvage is locked and loaded in our clutch beam. We have lawful possession and any attempt to take—”

"We have no interest in salvage.” The Kraj’s voice was rough and hostile. His sallow gray skin hung in loose folds over a flat, humanoid face devoid of expression, with a dominating brow and a bulbous nose. The Kraj’s mouth parted to reveal sharp, pointy teeth. "We have held our fire, showing our good intentions.”

"Now that’s a matter of opinion,” Angel muttered, her voice too low for the Kraj to hear. To the aliens, she remained polite, but she hadn’t forgotten or forgiven their attack on the Vogan ship. "Perhaps we can do business on Landolin. Angel out.”

"Now?” Petroy asked.

"Now,” Angel agreed and jumped into hyperspace.

At her command, webbing dropped from the ceiling to protect them during the high acceleration. Kirek started as if surprised, then accepted the web-in like a pro. While his adjustment revealed he was accustomed to space travel, he apparently hadn’t seen antiquated equipment like hers. Interesting. Apparently he’d only traveled on the Federation’s newest ships, the expensive ones that only the wealthiest citizens on the central planets could afford.

Angel didn’t know what to think about Kirek. She was beginning to wonder if she’d ever know more than he wanted her to know. If even half the entire story he’d told her was true, he was one of the ten wonders of the Federation. Yet, he was far too real, far too male, for her to think of him as some holy oracle.

Kirek had the demeanor of a commander and muscle to match. With a face like his, women would dream of having him in their arms. Herself included. If she’d met him during other circumstances, Angel wouldn’t mind enjoying his magnificent body herself. But right now, she didn’t trust him.

He carried himself with an easy self-control and poise, asif he’d been battle-tested and had come out the victor many times. What was he? Who was he, really? And was she risking her ship and possibly the lives of her crew by refusing to hand him over to the Kraj?

Hyperspace always enhanced her senses. Lights brightened. Sounds sharpened. Kirek’s gaze drilled her with curiosity as the webbing retracted.

"Landolin?” Kirek’s tone remained mild, but a muscle in his jaw clenched. "I thought we were going to Dakmar?”

She shrugged and allowed herself a pleased grin. "I saw no reason to advertise our destination.”

"Thank you.” He nodded, his sincere gaze showering her with approval.

She didn’t need his damn approval.

Angel turned to navigation, but she couldn’t stop the glow of warmth he’d set off from making her stomach tighten—or from preventing her curiosity about the Rystani from escalating.

 

 

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