Solar Heat

Solar  Heat

Susan Kearney

November 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-370-2

If she saves his life, he’ll be her enemy forever.


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When intersolar mining boss Derrek Archer rescues a beautiful stranger named Azsla from her emergency sleeping pod, the desire between them flares to dangerous heights.

Azsla, a member of the ruling elite, has powers that can save Derrek’s planet from an approaching asteroid, but if she reveals those powers, he’ll learn that she’s not only a spy, but also a slave mistress capable of controlling him and destroying everything he holds dear.

Mastering the hot-blooded miner seems impossible as sexual conquest becomes a battle neither of them can win.

If they and the planet are to survive, they’ll have to rely on one another, trust one another, because love may not be enough.



Coming soon!




"CAPTAIN, THE starboard stabilizers are malfunctioning,” Rak, Azsla’s second in command, reported.

As captain of her brand new crew, Azsla habitually double-checked status reports. Especially critical ones. She leaned over the con, and her pulse ratcheted up a notch. Unfortunately, this time Rak was correct.

Azsla turned to Kali, her worried co-pilot and chief engineer. "Fix the stabilizer.”

"I’m on it, Captain.” The giant, gentle man narrowed his thoughtful brown eyes with uncertainty.

Azsla restrained a sigh. For the thousandth time, she reminded herself to have patience. After all, she’d volunteered for this mission, agreeing to work with this crew of ex-slaves, in order to go to Zor as a spy.

Her mission—to prevent further uprisings and retaliation from the slaves on Zor—was critical.

A loud bang, followed by the ship’s shudder shot them into a spin.

Azsla swore and fought the controls. Talk about unlucky missions.

Alarms wailed.

"We have engine failure,” Rak shouted to be heard above the sirens.

Kali’s fingers flew over his console. "Repair bots aren’t responding.”

"Reboot the bots,” Azsla ordered.

"Power is fluctuating,” Kali complained. "I can’t fix them.”

Everything that could go wrong had. One moment Azsla and her crew of four "fugitive” slaves had been on course for Zor, the next every damn system in the ship was on the fritz.

The vessel jolted. Lights flickered, and the bridge went dark except for emergency lights.

"Quark,” Azsla swore at her dead controls as she floated and hung onto her seat. Gravity was down. Life support was down. The emergency generators had failed to kick in.

In the weak yellow backup lighting, Azsla spied Kali floating by the ceiling. Rak bumped into a bulkhead. Both looked unconscious. Neither man had Azsla’s superior reflexes and had failed to grab on when the gravity had failed.

The cosmic whammy had dealt them one hell of a beating, but even as Azsla assessed their predicament, she thanked Holy Vigo that as a First of Rama, she had been entitled to all the strength-building salt she could swallow. So her reflexes were faster than the escaped slaves that made up her crew, but she didn’t have much time to save them.

With the ship currently powerless and spinning out of control toward the portal that was supposed to have transported them to Zor and freedom, Azsla snapped a toggle, cutting the blaring alarm. She didn’t need a news flash to know that unless she altered her damaged ship’s course, the forces sucking them into the black maw would squash them flatter than a neutron particle.

Why the hell hadn’t the automatic backup system fired up? With an agile spin to port, Azsla flipped open the auxiliary engine panel. Twisting the manual override, she thrust the handle to starboard.

And swore.

The reboot mechanism was fried.

Licks of alarm shot down Azsla’s back. Mother of Salt—a double cosmic whammy.

Keep it together.

She’d drilled for emergency situations. Only this was no drill. They were in trouble. Bad trouble. And fear ignited in the pit of her gut like a retrorocket on nitro.

She checked her watch, then estimated the triple threat of time, distance, and mass. At the inescapable result—certain death—her scalp broke into a sweat.

She’d always thought she’d understood the risk of covert operations. When her superiors had cooked up this mission, she’d volunteered. The decision hadn’t been a hard one. Fifteen years ago when she’d been in her early teens, a slave uprising on Rama had killed her parents and ruined her home. Some 200,000 slaves had escaped her world and resettled on the planet Zor. Eventually the Firsts had regrouped and regained control, but life as Azsla had known it was over.

After losing everything, her existence had gone from street orphan to ward of the state. When the Corps offered to train her as a weapons specialist and promised her a shot at stopping any chance of another slave rebellion, they hadn’t had to ask twice. As a First she’d understood, even as a teenager, that as long as Zor offered safe haven to slaves, all Ramans stood in peril, their way of life threatened.

It had been surprisingly easy to leave behind her regimented, friendless existence. But to become an effective spy, Azsla had been asked to accomplish what no other Raman had ever done: suppress her Quait, a First’s ability to dominate. She’d accepted she might never succeed—but after years of training she had achieved the impossible. Sort of. As long as she kept her emotions in check, her Quait didn’t take over, and Azsla could prevent herself from overpowering the will of her crew and outing herself. By reining herself in tight, she could now pass as one of them.

She’d never considered that engine failure might kill her in this tin can before she’d even landed on Zor.

If her crew ever sniffed out her real role, they’d sabotage the journey to Zor. Slaves might be weak, but they were fanatical. Dangerous. They placed little value on life, even their own. To find out what the Zorans were up to, Azsla had to be just as ruthless. Knowing any one of them would turn on a First to keep her from landing on Zor reminded her to keep up her guard. Always.

Getting to Zor, at this point, was secondary to staying alive. The air grew stale. It was already freezing cold, as if the heat hadn’t been on since liftoff three days ago.

Azsla gripped the command console to maintain her position at her station and ignored the white vapor puffing from her mouth, the prickly bumps rising over her flesh, her body-racking shivers.

Her crewmen floated still unconscious, and although she shouldn’t care about their welfare, she couldn’t squelch the sparks of sorrow over their plight.

During the long months of training for this mission, she’d come to know her crew and, to her surprise, respect them. Now, she couldn’t remember when she’d stopped thinking of them as slaves and started thinking of them as people.

"Anyone awake?”

Rak drew in choked breaths. Kali flailed on the ceiling, seeking leverage to alter his attitude.

Knowing she had mere moments to divert the ship, Azsla stayed put. If she couldn’t change their course, the wormhole would devour the ship, leaving nothing, not even scattered debris, to mark their passing.

"Report,” she insisted, her voice lowering an octave as if ashes filled her mouth, her cold-numbed fingers flicking the damaged control toggles, frantic to restart the engines.

Surely Jadlan or Micoo, her two additional crew, in the sleepers had been jarred awake? Or had they ditched protocol, abandoned their posts, and ejected in their escape pods? Azsla had no way of knowing, not with her instruments off line, but as always, she cut her crew some slack, all too aware that none of them had her superior intellect or physical strength.

Rak pulled himself toward his console. "Captain, the stabilizer damaged the hull.”

"Tell me something I don’t know,” she snapped, her voice firm.

"We’re spiraling end over end. If we don’t regain control, our hull’s going to be crushed within minutes.”

She knew that, too. Azsla ripped open a panel’s cover to examine the wiring. The reek of burning plastic singed her nostrils. Smoke filtered into the cabin, and fear scratched along her skin like claws, ripping and shredding, threatening to tap out her last reserve of Quait control.

Kali, her engineer, should be doing this job. But he was weak.

She vibrated with the need to use her Quait—to force Kali to wake up and help her.

Her fingers trembled, and she loathed her own weakness. With her gut doing a slow spin job, she battled fresh panic.

Easy. She could do this. She could beat the brutality of space.

Never had she missed Rama so much. She yearned for fresh air, a cool breeze, dirt under her feet.

Sweet Vigo, people were supposed to live on planets where they didn’t have to breathe recycled air, where every little mechanical failure wasn’t life threatening, where a stray piece of dust didn’t create lethal havoc with her ship’s systems.

Trying to buy herself a little relief from pounding panic, Azsla dialed down her emotion. She cornered it, squashed it. Beat it into submission.

Pretend it’s just another drill. Pretend no one else is here.

She could fix the ship without their help. Without using her Quait.

After ten years of keeping her cool and suppressing her Quait, her spontaneous instinct to dominate should have been under control... yet, as the port fuel tank exploded, her natural inclinations to overpower kicked in.

Every cell in her body ached to reach out and make the crew work as one. But if she reverted to instinct and used her Quait to save all their lives by forcing them to fix the ship, her crew would then learn that she wasn’t one of them. If they didn’t kill her, she would wind up returning home in defeat. Sure, mind scrubbers could erase her crew’s memories, but the Corps didn’t accept failure. Azsla would never get another shot at returning to Zor.

But the aching instinct to survive at any cost began to burn. Sizzle. Her blood boiled with the need to take charge... for the sake of self-preservation.

She was about to lose it and take over the will of every underfirst on board.

With no time to talk herself down slowly, she popped a tranq, swallowing the pill without water. Immediately, the fire eased. The seething boil cut to a manageable simmer.

Of course, later, if she lived that long, she’d pay for relying on the tranq. If her superiors ever discovered she’d resorted to artificial tactics, it would put them off—enough to shut her down, boot her from the Corps.

But with the metal hull groaning, official consequences were the least of her problems.

Rak shouted, "The portal is sucking us in.”

Praying to save the ship from annihilation, Azsla struggled to route the last remaining battery power into the bow thrusters.

Behind her, she heard Kali groan, shove off the ceiling, and buckle into his seat.

Her fingers manually keyed in instructions, and she regained her normal tone of voice. "Kali. Report.”

Kali slapped a flickering monitor. "Navigation’s a bust. Hyperdrive’s nonoperational. Engineering’s off line. Life support’s nonfunctional. Time to bail?”

Unless she could alter their direction, they’d have to abandon ship or be crushed four ways to summer solstice.

"The portal will draw us into the sleeping pods,” Rak told Kali.

"Correct,” Azsla agreed. "But, as long as the emergency batteries maintain the pods’ shielding, they’ll shoot us straight through the portal to Zor.”

Kali’s face brightened with hope. "And someone at the other end will pick up our automated distress signals.”

"That’s the plan,” Azsla straightened. And if the plan failed, they would drift in space, frozen. Forever.

She jerked her thumb toward the escape pods. "Hit the airlock.”

Although her crew often disappointed, not quite living up to her standards, they tried hard. And she wasn’t cruel enough to dash their hopes and reveal they had little chance of survival, never mind escape. Of course, the Corps never intended for her crew to achieve the freedom they sought. Even if they reached Zor, they’d be rounded up by other spies and sent back to Rama in chains as an example of what happened to slaves who attempted escape from the mother world.

Rak swam and snaked his way from the bridge.

Kali unsnapped his safety harness and floated toward the rear. "Captain, you coming?”

"Just messing with the bow thrusters.” She didn’t exactly lie. Although she had little hope of cranking out a course alteration, she used the excuse to stay at the helm to secretly shoot the logs and a report of the disaster back to Rama, a last-ditch effort to inform the Corps of their predicament.

Notifying home was a calculated risk. Her crew believed they’d escaped Rama, when in actuality the government had allowed them to leave in order to insert Azsla into their midst. If any of them caught a whiff of what they’d consider betrayal, there was no telling if she could handle them after swallowing that tranq.


At Kali’s sharp tone, Azsla stiffened. She hadn’t expected him to return for her. Had he seen her dispatch the log? Despite the tranq, she couldn’t conceal the edge to her voice. "Yes?”

"Ship temperature’s approaching freezing. The hull’s breached. Shields are failing. We need to leave, now.”

Relieved her cover remained intact, Azsla skimmed her hands over the keys, robbing the remaining power from every system except the pods. "I’m right behind you.”

Kali soared through the control cabin toward the ship’s bowels. She heard him pop open the pods and the terrified voices of her crew. So the others had awakened. Good.

No, not good. She shouldn’t be thinking about them. Slaves were easily replaced. Weak. A waste of salt.

Yet... this crew had trained hard. Not as hard as she had. But then they didn’t have her abilities. Still, they’d done what they could with what they had.

With her remote, she shunted the last of the power into the boosters.


As the last shields began to fail, the injured hull squealed in agony, the tearing of metal a death knell.

The crew scrambled into their escape pods.

Diving for safety, Azsla overshot her mark.

Kali snatched her by the ankle, saving her from a painful smack into the bulkhead.

"Thanks.” She seized a handhold and righted herself. The big man had already stuffed Jadlan, Micoo, and Rak into the pods and ejected them through the airlock.

Kali slid into the last remaining pod. "Ready to bounce?”

"Let’s do it.” Azsla slapped the button to open her sleeper. Only her pod didn’t open.

"What’s wrong?” Kali asked as he climbed out of his pod.

"Don’t know.” She nailed the button mechanism with her fist. All hell was about to come down on the ship.

And got zip. Zero. Zilch. The canopy refused to budge. Her high-pitched gasp shamed her, and she hoped Kali put it down to the cold that seemed to have frozen her bones.

This was insane. Surely every freaking system on the ship couldn’t fail... unless someone had sabotaged the mission. But who? If the slaves had known about her subterfuge, they would have killed her, or died trying.

The delay didn’t seem to faze Kali. Instead of ejecting, he picked up a wrench and slapped the release button. "Let me.”

Azsla shook her head. "It’s no good.” She pointed to the hull that had caved, crushing her pod, and the metal cross that kept her release mechanism from tripping properly.

The hull howled like a wild beast, the last of the shields failing. From the ship’s bowels, the engines rumbled like a volcano about to erupt.

The ship shook and Azsla stumbled and pain slammed her head. Hard.

Her vision narrowed. Everything went black.

Seconds later, she came to inside a pod, the canopy closed. Kali must have fixed it.

Groggy, she peered through the faceplate. Sweet Vigo. Kali had slipped her into hispod.

At the realization that he’d given up his life to save her, he ejected her pod.

Her last sight of him floored her. Eyes closed, his lips moving, he’d appeared to be praying. But slaves didn’t pray.

He seemed at peace with his decision, but the pain of losing him clawed at her.

She shot into space, a rush of emotions flooding over her tranqed emotions. Relief. Hope. Astonishment. Sorrow.

Kali had given up his chance to live. For her.

She hadn’t even used her Quait. She closed her fingers into fists. Kali had meant nothing to her. Slaves were easily replaceable. Unworthy. Yet, she’d spent enough time with her second in command to know Kali’s life had meant everything to him. He’d planned to begin anew on Zor. Marry. Have children. His dreams would never have happened because of her mission... but Kali hadn’t known that.

Turning, she watched the ship implode and vanish into the portal. Kali was dead, his body relegated to tactonic dust.

She shouldn’t have cared. Cold from the sleep capsule spread over her skin like guilt. She told herself slaves died every day. So what?

But if Kali’s selfless sacrifice didn’t matter, then why was her vision blurred? Why did her heart ache? And why were tears freezing on her cheeks?




DERREK ARCHER tunneled through his sash drawer in search of sleek and elegant, finding rumpled silk instead. Apparently disheveled was the current fashion. While the sash looked frumpy and silly to him, he didn’t keep up with planetside fashions.

He didn’t need to.

Before Derrek’s ship, Beta Five, hit Zor’s gravity well, his tailor Egan had downloaded the current style statement to his com system in the aft section of Derrek’s new spaceship. She’d worked him up this jazzy new wardrobe, and the tech knew her stuff. When Derrek debarked, he’d be good to meet or retreat with businessmen and manufacturers or to smartly hover off to sporting games. While he’d never been the least concerned with his appearance, he’d learned that dressing the part allowed him to win more concessions for his workers, tax breaks they badly needed in order to continue to bring the precious salt back to Zor. After his visit planetside was done, he’d happily give up making fashion statements and return to his home in the asteroid salt mines, which couldn’t be soon enough for his taste.

His com unit vibrated. "Derrek here.”

"Hi, boss. Sir, is this a good time?” Haywar, one of Derrek’s five assistants back home on Alpha One, spoke warmly, his voice crisp and clear, as if he stood alongside Derrek in the ship’s master cabin, not hundreds of thousands of miles away in the asteroid belt.

"What’s doing?” Derrek always made time for Haywar. The man stayed on top of things, and he appreciated not only his efficiency but his loyalty.

In preparation for landing on Zor, Derrek armed up. He slid a knife into the band at his ankle, a stunner into the holster at the small of his back, and hid extra credit chips in a pocket in his belt. Not that he expected trouble, but he never went out without arms. A decade of salt had strengthened all the former slaves’ Quait, but with their new strengths came new problems. Occasionally they settled disagreements with violence. As a wealthy spacer, Derrek was a target. It was all too likely he might link up with some nut job who’d injected more salt into his system than his legal allotment. Most slaves wanted nothing to do with the powers salt could give them—a power to dominate others who’d ingested less salt. But a few renegades were on a power trip and had yet to realize it wasn’t right to dominate others simply because one could.

"IsBeta Five tricked up the way you wanted, boss?”

"Oh, yeah. Double. Yeah. This prototype has given us one sweet ride.” Derrek hadn’t been so hyped about a new project in years. This ship’s technology would give his people more options, letting them explore farther for precious salt than ever before. "The ship’s moves are smooth, but navigation needs an upgrade.”

"Just don’t get lost,” Haywar teased.

"You won’t get rid of me that easy. Besides, if I let anything happen to Taylo’s new design, he’d jettison my hide out the nearest airlock.”

Beta Five might need tweaking, but she was a thing of pure beauty. Now she could really go fast. Really far. Maybe buy all Zorans freedom from the ever-present fear of recapture from their former masters who lived back on planet Rama. And it was all thanks to Taylo Misa, a brilliant engineer Derrek had hired.

Five years ago Taylo had discovered a way to open a portal for sound waves, allowing for instant intersolar communication. Derrek had paid Taylo a small fortune to give up tinkering in his garage to work for him. He’d tricked out a lab with the latest and most esoteric equipment he could buy. The payoff had been worth the enormous expense. Taylo had taken the same sound wave principles he’d discovered and applied them to moving mass through space—inventing the hyperdrive for Derrek’s newest spaceship. But Derrek wouldn’t say more over an open com. Not when he didn’t trust his scrambler to keep his business private. Not when he didn’t know who might be spying this close to Zor’s atmosphere.

Last time he’d been dirtside, some grifter had planted a bug on his com unit, broadcasting Derrek’s conversations to the highest bidder. He wouldn’t get nailed again. As a target he had to stay one step ahead of the pack nipping at his heels. That meant planning. Using his head. Never taking anyone or anything for granted. He owed it to Taylo and his team to make sure their hard work wasn’t stolen.

Currently Derrek’s company ferried salt through a stationary portal, but the journey still required expensive fuel and skilled man hours to transport the salt to and from the portal. The mind-blowing possibility of using Taylo’s technology to open a portal whenever and wherever it was needed, of shooting salt directly through hyperspace with no spaceship required, had Derrek charged. Soon there might be enough salt to increase the planetary population threefold. The beauty of a point-to-point delivery system was an idea he couldn’t let drop—even if the research cost him a fortune in salt. Success would open up space travel like never before possible. And it would ensure their children, who wouldn’t have to spend months in space, grew up with strong bones and muscles as well as clever minds.

"Sir, can you hear me?”

"Like you’re planetside.” The question drew Derrek from his plans back to this awesome ship. Once he’d mined enough light metal to mass produce the craft, her sweet design would revolutionize space travel for the masses. Well, maybe not the masses but for the salt miners and the military and the unstable Zoran government. Not even the home planet of Rama had this kind of technology. And with the Zorans gaining technological superiority, they could remain free. Finally he could make a lick of difference. A fleet of these ships could be the answer to freeing the rest of the slaves on Rama—especially if the spaceships came blasting through hyperspace with high-tactonic weapons.

Knowing Haywar wouldn’t have linked just to chat about Beta Five, Derrek asked again, "What’s up?”

"The drill bit on Asa Major cranked out. Until we replace the diamondite heads, we’re shut down.”

Derrek’s eyes narrowed. Any stoppage in the salt supply had serious consequences attached. He wasn’t just thinking about company profits, but the strength and well-being of all Zoran citizens. For them to stay healthy, the salt supply had to remain steady. "When can Vanguard Mining send us a replacement?”

"There’s a waiting list.”

So what else was new? Resources on Zor were scarce. They needed more labor to keep up with the high demand for manufactured equipment, but Rama refused to release any slaves. And none were escaping—not since the mass revolution a decade ago. Now Rama was locked down tight, preventing the other slaves from leaving. And the birth rate on Zor wasn’t growing fast enough, either—due to lack of salt.

Taking advantage of the new technology that could open a window anywhere on the hull’s surface, Derrek widened the view port to the planet below. The greenery looked... messy. As they hovered, waiting for permission to dock, he zoomed in on his estate, pleased with Beta Five’s magnification upgrades. Every blade of grass had been neatly clipped, edged, and manicured, but already Derrek missed the sharp edges of home. Green didn’t impress him. Space where a man had room to grow was more to his taste. Back home, his house looked out on spectacular vistas of Alpha One’s twirling water crystals and the three blue spectrum moons that revolved and cast an array of changing hues over the pristine granitite face of Mount Crion. On Alpha One, the air was filtered and pure, not clogged with the reek of Zor that awaited him below.

He drummed his fingers on the view port. "Simon owes me a favor, I’ll look him up after I’m dirtside.”

"Thanks, boss. The sooner the better.”

"Understood. Make sure to send Simon a case of salt. Use express shuttle.”

"Got it. Have fun, boss man.”

Like that was going to happen. Derrek didn’t do fun. He stuck to what he was good at. Business. And bribes were standard operating procedure. A little extra salt went a long way toward easing a lot of headaches.

Spending most of the last decade building Archer Intersolar Mining from a four-bit operation into a mega-corporation that employed thousands had its perks. He spent most of his time where he wished. In space. Yet, business occasionally required Zor-side networking and his personal touch. So he made a trip in-system every few cycles.

Once he landed, he had meetings set up to fill every waking hour. But like a little kid who didn’t want to leave his new toy, he wished he could stay aboard, really rag her out. He reminded himself this was a shakedown cruise, and he wasn’t a test pilot. But Holy Vigo, he ached to see what she could do in a flat-out race for the stars...

Truth be told, meetings with government diplomats were more his brother’s thing. But with Cade off on a second honeymoon and incommunicado, Derrek couldn’t ask him to stand in for him—especially with President Laurie.

He’d best finish dressing, or he’d miss the landing. He shot firestone links through his cuffs, a gift to himself on his thirty-fourth birthday last year. He’d mined the precious stones while prospecting for salt, and the flashing magenta and sapphire hues reminded him of who he was and how far he’d come—from former slave to salt miner to influential and wealthy entrepreneur. He donned a jacket, its severe style tightly fitted to his chest and shoulders, and suppressed a shrug. It wouldn’t kill him to link face-to-face with the current president. As always, he’d keep the visit short.

Derrek didn’t belong dirtside. Never had. Civilization and Zor reminded him of... Poli, his ex-wife. And his children.

While resigned to the fact that the only family he’d ever loved didn’t flipping want him in their lives, he’d nevertheless used his influence to ensure they’d escaped Rama during the first wave of colonization. He’d even allowed the new husband to accompany his family. Reports said they were happy, happy, happy. But their wellbeing didn’t stop the pain of losing his wife and children from stabbing like an ice pick in his heart.

He still resented the fact that they neither needed nor wanted him. So maybe it was better he was in full-avoidance mode. While his blood pressure still soared during his perusal of the weekly reports about his former family, at least afterwards he no longer had to toss back a whisky to score bunk time. That was progress. Sometimes he even squeaked by with a few hours of sleep. Yeah. He was fine. In another decade or so he might not even care they’d shut him out.

"President Laurie’s tough to read.” Sauren Kalow, his friend, a straight-shooter and Derrek’s VP of Archer Intersolar Mining, ducked through the bulkhead door into his cabin. With his lips curving into a smile, his eyes twinkling, he plucked out of the drawer a wrinkled white sash with tiny sparkles on the edges and offered it up. Sauren, stunted by a severe lack of salt at birth, made up for his diminutive stature with a positive attitude and fierce determination. He knew his way around Derrek’s dirtside estate quite well, probably better than Derrek did—since he stayed there more often—but this journey through hyperspace had faded his bronzed skin to a puckish green. Finally, last shift, he’d kicked the nausea, and the healthy glow was back. "Any idea what the pres wants from you?”

"He’s got his hands full, I’ll give him that. I’m guessing he requires money, salt, or advice.”

Sauren snorted. "Too bad you can’t give him some common sense about taxing miners.”

Derrek pinned the sash to his shirt’s shoulder, then ignored the silly flash. Although he’d contributed heavily to Laurie’s campaign, Derrek had also funded the other side. He found it valuable to be connected, no matter who was in power. "Our president won’t be effective until he stops trying to gain a consensus. He talks out of both sides—”

"He’s a politician.” Sauren rolled his eyes in disgust. He wouldn’t have been Derrek’s second in command if he hadn’t known how to get things done, and the current political mess annoyed him almost as much as it did Derrek. "Politicians negotiate. That’s who they are. What they do.”

"They get nothing done.” Derrek had no time or patience for the eternal squabbles over how much salt each person should consume. Some slaves argued they should strengthen themselves until they were as strong as the Firsts on Rama. Other recalled that the ability to dominate and steal the will of others had a way of making good people go bad. After thousands of years of slavery, freedom and Quait didn’t solve every problem. Zorans had real issues to deal with. Hard problems to solve. And most citizens wanted a say in how Zor should be run. So instead of consensus, controversy was the norm... and no one decided, never mind accomplished anything. As a result, the planet’s defense was a mess. The economy verged on catastrophe. They needed a larger labor force. If only they could free the rest of their people still on Rama, these problems would be solved, but since everyone feared incurring the wrath of their former homeworld, the matter had been put off.

The Zoran government lacked balls. They acted as if they believed if they hid from the Firsts on Rama, the Firsts would forget them. But that wouldn’t happen.

That’s why Derrek was making plans. Long-term plans to free the people still enslaved on Rama. He didn’t mind depleting his fortune to construct the hyperdrive engines as well as a self-sufficient city in space—another one of his ongoing and expensive projects—if it would eventually lead to freeing all his people. And he didn’t have time for tax debates—

As if reading his thoughts, Sauren interrupted. "Not even you can ignore a presidential invite.”

"I could if I had the right excuse.” Derrek allowed himself a tight smile, then adjusted the sash over his dark emerald suit and slipped his feet into boots of soft leather. Thank you, Vigo, the heels that had been so popular during his last visit were now history.

With that thought, Derrek altered the material’s light refraction until the boots’ color exactly matched his fitted trousers, tailored jacket, and his deep-set eyes. This moon cycle on Zor, monochromatic color symbolized power, and his tailor had smartly capitalized on his assets. More than once, Egan had told him that his eyes were his best feature.

Derrek knew better. Women were attracted to his salt stash. Without his showing an iota of encouragement, women hit on him. Often. But he’d kept his nose in the salt dust, where life was simple. The more salt he mined, the more people he helped. After growing up with nothing, life was... good. Excellent, really.

Still... he wondered if the pres would be insulted if he didn’t accept the invite. Likely—the answer was yes. So although he had a dozen links to make, he went to the bridge to take the president’s message, fully expecting that the busy politician might have had to reschedule or cancel the invite to the mansion.

With one last image-check in the mirror, he raked his fingers through his collar-length black hair. Although the most successful salt miner on Rama could get by with eccentric, Derrek had never been interested in merely getting by. After he’d figured out that information was the key to getting ahead, he’d worked on having more information, getting it faster, and jumping on it more quickly than anyone else. To acquire that information, he had to network. And to network to best advantage, he had made himself fit in. The formula was simple and one he adhered to religiously since it had always served him well.

Almost always. If one discounted the total memory scrub that had cost him his family.

Shove it.

It had taken one brutal year of pushing himself to the max to learn to walk and talk again. But that determination had helped him to build an empire. Later he’d done as much as any man to help his people free themselves from slavery and salt deprivation. He had friends. Success. For him the payoff for years of hard work had been millions of tons of life-giving salt—and the satisfaction that neither he nor his people would ever be kept down again. This was his life.

It was enough.

He and Sauren stepped through the corridor to the bridge, where Derrek got a bead on his crew. Adain squawked on the com with flight control, but that didn’t stop him from whistling when he spied Derrek’s new duds. "Damn. If that’s the style, I may not get off Beta Five.”

"Your choice.” Derrek raised a brow. "But I thought you had a hot date?”

Adain flushed and suddenly busied himself with his controls.

Their shipboard computer genius, Benet, was eyeing Derrek with a jealous gleam. The youngest of the crew, he was also the largest. He’d still been a child when he’d left Rama, and the extra rations of salt during his growing years had made him taller and stronger than his elders. "Think Egan can make me a set of those—”

"No problem. I’ll even advance you the credit.” Derrek waved Sauren to a seat at the science station. His crew had worked long and hard on this project and deserved to blow off some steam.

Benet looked up from engineering. "Don’t waste the credit, Adain. Clothes ain’t fooling the ladies none into thinking you’re a dirt lover.”

They’d all spent so much time in space that anyone with eyes could tell from their rolling gaits that they were accustomed to low grav. Although the doc required the crew to build muscle in anticipation of landfall, their spaceman stride was unmistakable. Unfortunately for his crew, women wanted men who stayed home with them and the kids, not ones who left for months at a time. Of course, there were a few women who didn’t mind the loneliness out in the asteroids and who didn’t miss the amenities—but not enough. The chance that these men might find a mate who wanted to live in the asteroid belt was poor, and those few females who were out there... tended to be independent. Eccentric.

The crew settled. Benet pivoted back to his electrical impulse console, reducing feedback from the engines in a never-ending tune-up. Cavin, an average-sized, chestnut-haired man with excellent skills was busy monitoring nav and life support.

The picture of smooth efficiency and sleek, black, modern design, Beta Fivesported crew stations along the perimeter of a circular bridge—with command control at the center console. Above the crew’s heads, they all had a 360 degree view outside. But from command, the panorama was nothing short of spectacular.

At the moment, Zor’s three continents and four oceans dominated the lower section, and beyond, the ebbing moon cast a soft crescent shadow as it ascended into eclipse. Derrek hit the privacy mode to prevent his conversation from distracting his people. Although he and his crew were tight, he was careful by nature. He shared high-level conversations only on a need-to-know basis.

From the Zoran capital below, President Laurie strode toward his own monitor and greeted Derrek with a stiff bow. "Good to see you again.”

Derrek bowed in return. "The pleasure is mine.”

"In a hurry to land?” Laurie raised an eyebrow.

"Why do you ask?”

"We spotted something interesting in space. At first we feared Rama had sent a ship through the portal, but instead, we now believe we’re picking up several escape pods.”

Interesting. Although rumors always abounded that more slaves would follow them to Zor, none ever had. When the portal had opened several years ago, Zorans prepared for attack. They monitored that section of space closely, but no one had ever come through the portal... until now. "How many pods?”



President Laurie didn’t answer his question. "I heard you always travel with a doctor.”

"Doc Falcon is aboard.”

"Perhaps you could check out the pods for us? We don’t have a ship in the sector large enough to handle the load of four pods.”

More likely there were political implications, and Laurie wanted to distance himself from the fallout. Derrek weighed the choice of satisfying his curiosity and possibly saving lives against the nuisance of rescheduling his meetings.

"I’d be happy to do the honors. If we find survivors...”

"Do what you wish. We never had this conversation.”

Derrek frowned. What the hell was going on? He didn’t need to step into secret political crap. "I don’t understand.”

Laurie eyed him, his eyes pleading. "I’m in a difficult position.” Clearly he didn’t feel free to say more.

"Fine. You owe me.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to beg to get rid of the miner’s tax.

Laurie nodded. "I’ll remember.” Then he ended the com with a click.

Weird. The entire conversation had given off deadly vibes. Derrek felt as though he were feeling his way through a mine field, without having a clue to what might trigger a blast.

Derrek punched in the coordinates to Adain. When the numbers hit his console, the pilot shot a piercing look at his captain. A good man, he didn’t ask questions, just rerouted Beta Five back into space, banking and rolling into a 160-degree turn. "Sir, you want the helm?”

Derrek shook his head. Although his fingers itched to take the controls, he needed his mind free of piloting duties to oversee the op.

"New coordinates laid in, Captain.” Adain swung around in his swivel chair. "Cavin, get me a nav check.”

"Nav check is...” Cavin hunched over his screen and frowned.

"I’m picking up four emergency signals.” Benet peered at his instrument panel.

"There are four vessels out there.”

"Escape pods. Let’s pick them up, boys.” Derrek leaned forward and upped the magnification. At the same time he peered at the pods, four tiny dots floating in the vastness of space, he switched on the com. "Doctor Falcon, please report to the cargo bay.”

DERREK WIPED THE pod’s space shield free of condensation with a rag and stared at the sleeping woman. She was tall for a slave. But was she too tall? Since the portal had opened three years ago, no one from Rama had come through it. No Firsts. No underfirsts. No one.

Rumors had flown like crazy. Rumors that the Firsts of Rama were waiting to use the portal to stage a full-fledged invasion. Rumors that the portal was haunted, and anyone who went through would be cursed for eternity. Rumors that the Firsts had found a way to cloak their ships, that they were already on Zor, fully tranqed to disguise their Quait, enabling them to spy on the Zorans.

Derrek didn’t believe rumors. However, he couldn’t discount that rumors were often grounded in truth. And the woman frozen in her pod was tall for a slave.

Salt deprivation during the formative years didn’t only stunt Quait, it stunted physical growth, strength, and stamina. On Rama the Firsts weren’t just taller and stronger, they radiated vitality and arrogance. The privileged Firsts had straighter spines. They held their heads higher; their shoulders were squared. Slaves pretty much were the opposite. Slouched, heads bowed, shoulders sagging, their lives of toil wore them down physically and emotionally.

Since the escape to Zor, the freed slaves had had access to more salt. Although the adults could no longer regain their lost height, their muscles and bones had strengthened. Their Quait increased—although it was against the law to ingest enough to be able to dominate the will of others. Obedience was voluntary, with most freed slaves having no wish to turn into the cruel and freakish Firsts they’d left behind.

Anyone caught breaking the law was severely punished.

The three other males were smaller, in poor physical condition, much like Derrek had been after his escape. But for this woman in the pod to display such height spiked Derrek’s suspicions as much as his curiosity.

She was an anomaly. As he leaned forward and smoothed away the condensation on the canopy, he read her name on her flight suit. Azsla.

A beautiful name for an extraordinary woman. Not only did she appear exceptionally healthy, her skin flawless, her teeth good—at least what he could see of them through her slightly parted lips, she was stunning with silky dark hair that brushed her shoulders in a ragged cut that emphasized the delicacy of her features. Looking at her didn’t just make him catch his breath. His breath left his lungs with a taste of wonder. His skin tingled. Blood surged south.

Every primal instinct urged him to pop the canopy. Take her into his arms. Warm her with his own body heat. It was such a ridiculous notion that he had to clutch the pod’s space shield to remain standing. What was the matter with him? Waking someone from a sleep pod was a delicate process that took careful monitoring of temperature control, and if he tried to hasten the process, he could cause her serious damage, even death. Doc Falcon would handle her awakening. But, it was taking every micro unit of willpower to step back. And when he could no longer see the woman’s face, his sense of loss was nothing short of staggering. His heart beat hard. His chest grew tight, and he found himself leaning forward, eager to catch another glimpse.

His reaction was way out of whack.

He liked women. He did. Although, Vigo knew he probably hadn’t had his share. After his mind wipe, he’d had a dry spell in the female department. He’d spent so much time recuperating, then escaping and establishing a new life, he’d neglected his social life. Actually he didn’t have a personal life. Not if he discounted business relationships.

So why were his hands shaking? Why did he feel as if every second it took for the pod to recycle and for Azsla to wake up was an eternity? It made no sense. Deeply disturbed by his unexplainable reaction, he was suspicious as hell.

Had he inhaled some kind of drug on the pod? One that affected him physiologically? Was she some kind of secret weapon? Because she sure as hell didn’t look like a Raman slave—unless she was one of the women Firsts used for pleasure. But that couldn’t be right, either. Not only was she gorgeous, she was physically fit. And slaves didn’t eat enough salt to be in her kind of shape.

So why had he reacted to her as if she’d been created especially for him? His body might be craving her, but his brain told him to back off. Fast.

So what if she was incredibly lovely. This sure wasn’t his normal reaction. As a wealthy man, Derrek had women hit on him all the time. Many of them were attractive. Compared feature to feature, some were even more beautiful. But none of them had made his heart beat triple time. None of them had him sexed up as if they were a total package of feminine heat.

What the hell was wrong with him? He shook off the personal interest and glanced at Sauren. He, too, was staring at Azsla, but had she affected him the same way? Was she some new kind of First? When Firsts used their Quait, they forced slaves to submit to their will. But the slaves remained fully aware of the mental manipulation. The slaves might not want to do a task, but while they had no choice, they understood their muscles obeyed a different master, and that knowledge was part of the horror. They knew exactly what they did—but had no control over themselves.

Terror that the Firsts might have learned to manipulate emotions helped beat down his attraction to her. Derrek took a fast step backward from the pod in his cargo bay. "Sauren, is she weirding you out?”

"Huh?” Sauren leaned closer, peering through the canopy. Then he straightened and joined Derrek. "What’s wrong?”

Like he was going to admit that the sleeping woman had set his heart racing? Just because he’d looked at her? Such a strong physical reaction to her didn’t make sense. He needed to know if she affected other people that way... or just him. "Sauren. Think hard. What were your exact thoughts when you looked into her face?”

"Pity at what she must have suffered.” Sauren shot him a puzzled look. "Frustration over the sad fact that all our people still aren’t free. Relief that she made it. Hope that more slaves will arrive soon.”

Sauren didn’t mention lust. Or even attraction. And that made Derrek even more suspicious. "What about her looks?”

"She’s well formed.”

Well formed? Could he have been more insulting? She was fripping awesome. Before Derrek realized his mind had ordered his feet forward, he was back at her pod, staring into her face. As the unit warmed, color returned to her cheeks, turning them a soft golden hue. Her full lips turned pink.

Damn, she looked good. Too good.

Even as his palms turned damp and his pulse raced, he recognized his attraction to her as dangerous. While he had no idea what was going on, he did know his reaction wasn’t normal. As her lungs expanded, she began to breathe, her chest rising and falling in an enticing rhythm. He didn’t think he’d ever seen anything so beautiful.

He was losing his mind.

Or she was influencing him in a way he didn’t understand. Derrek didn’t pretend to like or understand his reaction. Since he wasn’t a man to turn his back and run, he leaned closer, annoyed that she could put him off-kilter. Angry the Firsts of Rama might be tricking him.

He might be jacked up about her. But he wasn’t stupid. And if talking to her meant getting answers, then that was exactly what he would do. Derrek was good at plans. He was about to put this one into action.

"Wake her up, Doc.”

Doctor Falcon looked up from the pod’s instrument panel. "She’ll be groggy if I wake her now.”

Groggy was good. Derrek allowed himself a small grunt that almost sounded like a snarl. "Groggy works for me. Do it.”



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