Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
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.
THE starboard stabilizers are malfunctioning,” Rak, Azsla’s second in command,
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.
turned to Kali, her worried co-pilot and chief engineer. "Fix the stabilizer.”
on it, Captain.” The giant, gentle man narrowed his thoughtful brown eyes with
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.
mission—to prevent further uprisings and retaliation from the slaves on Zor—was
loud bang, followed by the ship’s shudder shot them into a spin.
swore and fought the controls. Talk about unlucky missions.
have engine failure,” Rak shouted to be heard above the sirens.
fingers flew over his console. "Repair bots aren’t responding.”
the bots,” Azsla ordered.
is fluctuating,” Kali complained. "I can’t fix them.”
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.
vessel jolted. Lights flickered, and the bridge went dark except for emergency
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
reboot mechanism was fried.
of alarm shot down Azsla’s back. Mother of Salt—a double cosmic whammy.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
never considered that engine failure might kill her in this tin can before
she’d even landed on Zor.
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.
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
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.
crewmen floated still unconscious, and although she shouldn’t care about their
welfare, she couldn’t squelch the sparks of sorrow over their plight.
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.
drew in choked breaths. Kali flailed on the ceiling, seeking leverage to alter
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.
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
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.
pulled himself toward his console. "Captain, the stabilizer damaged the hull.”
me something I don’t know,” she snapped, her voice firm.
spiraling end over end. If we don’t regain control, our hull’s going to be
crushed within minutes.”
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.
her engineer, should be doing this job. But he was weak.
vibrated with the need to use her Quait—to force Kali to wake up and help her.
fingers trembled, and she loathed her own weakness. With her gut doing a slow
spin job, she battled fresh panic.
She could do this. She could beat the brutality of space.
had she missed Rama so much. She yearned for fresh air, a cool breeze, dirt
under her feet.
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.
to buy herself a little relief from pounding panic, Azsla dialed down her
emotion. She cornered it, squashed it. Beat it into submission.
it’s just another drill. Pretend no one else is here.
could fix the ship without their help. Without using her Quait.
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
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.
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
was about to lose it and take over the will of every underfirst on board.
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
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.
with the metal hull groaning, official consequences were the least of her
shouted, "The portal is sucking us in.”
to save the ship from annihilation, Azsla struggled to route the last remaining
battery power into the bow thrusters.
her, she heard Kali groan, shove off the ceiling, and buckle into his seat.
fingers manually keyed in instructions, and she regained her normal tone of voice.
slapped a flickering monitor. "Navigation’s a bust. Hyperdrive’s
nonoperational. Engineering’s off line. Life support’s nonfunctional. Time to
she could alter their direction, they’d have to abandon ship or be crushed four
ways to summer solstice.
portal will draw us into the sleeping pods,” Rak told Kali.
Azsla agreed. "But, as long as the emergency batteries maintain the pods’
shielding, they’ll shoot us straight through the portal to Zor.”
face brightened with hope. "And someone at the other end will pick up our
automated distress signals.”
the plan,” Azsla straightened. And if the plan failed, they would drift in
space, frozen. Forever.
jerked her thumb toward the escape pods. "Hit the airlock.”
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.
swam and snaked his way from the bridge.
unsnapped his safety harness and floated toward the rear. "Captain, you
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.
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
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?”
temperature’s approaching freezing. The hull’s breached. Shields are failing.
We need to leave, now.”
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.”
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.
not good. She shouldn’t be thinking about them. Slaves were easily replaced.
Weak. A waste of salt.
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.
her remote, she shunted the last of the power into the boosters.
the last shields began to fail, the injured hull squealed in agony, the tearing
of metal a death knell.
crew scrambled into their escape pods.
for safety, Azsla overshot her mark.
snatched her by the ankle, saving her from a painful smack into the bulkhead.
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.
slid into the last remaining pod. "Ready to bounce?”
do it.” Azsla slapped the button to open her sleeper. Only her pod didn’t open.
wrong?” Kali asked as he climbed out of his pod.
know.” She nailed the button mechanism with her fist. All hell was about to
come down on the ship.
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
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
delay didn’t seem to faze Kali. Instead of ejecting, he picked up a wrench and
slapped the release button. "Let me.”
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
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.
ship shook and Azsla stumbled and pain slammed her head. Hard.
vision narrowed. Everything went black.
later, she came to inside a pod, the canopy closed. Kali must have fixed it.
she peered through the faceplate. Sweet Vigo. Kali had slipped her into hispod.
the realization that he’d given up his life to save her, he ejected her pod.
last sight of him floored her. Eyes closed, his lips moving, he’d appeared to
be praying. But slaves didn’t pray.
seemed at peace with his decision, but the pain of losing him clawed at her.
shot into space, a rush of emotions flooding over her tranqed emotions. Relief.
Hope. Astonishment. Sorrow.
had given up his chance to live. For her.
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.
she watched the ship implode and vanish into the portal. Kali was dead, his
body relegated to tactonic dust.
shouldn’t have cared. Cold from the sleep capsule spread over her skin like
guilt. She told herself slaves died every day. So what?
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?
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
didn’t need to.
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.
com unit vibrated. "Derrek here.”
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.
doing?” Derrek always made time for Haywar. The man stayed on top of things,
and he appreciated not only his efficiency but his loyalty.
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?”
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.”
don’t get lost,” Haywar teased.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
can you hear me?”
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.
Haywar wouldn’t have linked just to chat about Beta Five, Derrek asked
again, "What’s up?”
drill bit on Asa Major cranked out. Until we replace the diamondite heads,
we’re shut down.”
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?”
a waiting list.”
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.
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.
drummed his fingers on the view port. "Simon owes me a favor, I’ll look him up
after I’m dirtside.”
boss. The sooner the better.”
Make sure to send Simon a case of salt. Use express shuttle.”
it. Have fun, boss man.”
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
didn’t belong dirtside. Never had. Civilization and Zor reminded him
of... Poli, his ex-wife. And his children.
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.
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.
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
got his hands full, I’ll give him that. I’m guessing he requires money, salt,
snorted. "Too bad you can’t give him some common sense about taxing miners.”
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—”
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.”
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.
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.
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—
if reading his thoughts, Sauren interrupted. "Not even you can ignore a
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
always. If one discounted the total memory scrub that had cost him his family.
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
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.”
choice.” Derrek raised a brow. "But I thought you had a hot date?”
flushed and suddenly busied himself with his controls.
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
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.
looked up from engineering. "Don’t waste the credit, Adain. Clothes ain’t
fooling the ladies none into thinking you’re a dirt lover.”
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.
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
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.
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.
the Zoran capital below, President Laurie strode toward his own monitor and
greeted Derrek with a stiff bow. "Good to see you again.”
bowed in return. "The pleasure is mine.”
a hurry to land?” Laurie raised an eyebrow.
do you ask?”
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
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?”
Laurie didn’t answer his question. "I heard you always travel with a doctor.”
Falcon is aboard.”
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.”
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.
be happy to do the honors. If we find survivors...”
what you wish. We never had this conversation.”
frowned. What the hell was going on? He didn’t need to step into secret
political crap. "I don’t understand.”
eyed him, his eyes pleading. "I’m in a difficult position.” Clearly he didn’t
feel free to say more.
You owe me.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to beg to get rid of the miner’s tax.
nodded. "I’ll remember.” Then he ended the com with a click.
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.
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?”
shook his head. Although his fingers itched to take the controls, he needed his
mind free of piloting duties to oversee the op.
coordinates laid in, Captain.” Adain swung around in his swivel chair. "Cavin,
get me a nav check.”
check is...” Cavin hunched over his screen and frowned.
picking up four emergency signals.” Benet peered at his instrument panel.
are four vessels out there.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
caught breaking the law was severely punished.
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.
was an anomaly. As he leaned forward and smoothed away the condensation on the
canopy, he read her name on her flight suit. Azsla.
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.
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.
reaction was way out of whack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
Sauren leaned closer, peering through the canopy. Then he straightened and
joined Derrek. "What’s wrong?”
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?”
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.”
didn’t mention lust. Or even attraction. And that made Derrek even more
suspicious. "What about her looks?”
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
she looked good. Too good.
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.
was losing his mind.
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.
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.
her up, Doc.”
Falcon looked up from the pod’s instrument panel. "She’ll be groggy if I wake
was good. Derrek allowed himself a small grunt that almost sounded like a
snarl. "Groggy works for me. Do it.”