Gabriel's Ghost (novel excerpt)
By: Megan Sybil Baker, Artwork by Linnea Sinclair (aka Megan Sybil Baker) 
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Contact Information: art@shadowkeepzine.com - From ShadowKeep's artist, award-winning novelist Linnea Sinclair gives us a peek into another world that none of us could have imagined thus far - or perhaps we just wouldn't...

(May contains strong language and situations)

SK Note:  This is an excerpt of  Megan Sybil Baker's newest novel, Gabriel's Ghost.  All copying, posting, or other retrieval  and/or storage is strictly forbidden.  Please see the bottom of the page for release date.  Special thanks to Ms. Baker (Da Babe) for allowing us to bring you this fantastic beginning...

 

Gabriel’s Ghost

By Megan Sybil Baker

Nothing to fear… or is there?

Imperial patrolship captain Chaz Bergren has more trouble than she needs. Stripped of command and sent to the harsh prison world of Moabar, her life can’t possibly get any worse.

Until she falls in love with a dead man with a mission: Gabriel Ross Sullivan. Mercenary, smuggler and ghost with a deadly secret. A secret Chaz was trained to hate; one she may have to risk her life to protect.

ISBN 1-55316-559-4 trade paperback

Release Date: April 2002

Published by LTDBooks

http://www.ltdbooks.com

Unedited Advanced Review Copy - Not For Sale

Copyright 2001 by Linnea Sinclair-Bernadino

Published in Canada by LTDBooks, 200 North Service Road West, Unit 1, Suite 301, Oakville, ON L6M 2Y1

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publisher is an infringement of the copyright law.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Baker, Megan Sybil, 1954-

Gabriel’s Ghost

ISBN 1-55316-559-4

 

CHAPTER ONE

MOABAR

Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears. Light from the setting sun filtered down through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka’s coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.

"Shit!" I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn’t as if I’d never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. Then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.

This time it was pure survival.

It took me a few minutes to find my blade wedged in between the moss-covered rocks. After more than a decade on interstellar patrol ships, my eyes had problems adjusting to variations in natural light. Shades of grays and greens, muddied by Moabar’s twilight sky, merged into seamless shadows. I’d never have found my only weapon if I hadn’t pricked my fingers on the point. Red human blood mingled with Takan gold. I wiped the blade against my pants before letting it mold itself back around my wrist. It flowed into the form of a simple silver bracelet.

"A Grizni dagger, is it?"

I spun into a half-crouch, my right hand grasping the bracelet. Quickly it uncoiled again; almost as quickly as I’d sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. The distinctly masculine voice had come from the thick stand of trees directly in front of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could be anywhere now. It looked like tonight’s agenda held a second attempt at rape and murder.

I tuned out my own breathing; listened to the hushed rustle of the thick forest around me and farther away, the guttural roar of a shuttle departing the prison’s spaceport. I watched for movement. Murky shadows, black-edged yet ill defined, taunted me. I’d have sold my soul then and there for a nightscope and a fully-charged laser pistol.

But I had neither of those. Just a sloppily manipulated court martial and a life sentence without parole. And, of course, a smuggled Grizni dagger that the Takan guard had discovered a bit too late to report.

My newest assailant, unfortunately, was already forewarned.

"Let’s not cause any more trouble, okay?" My voice sounded thin in the encroaching darkness. I wondered what had happened to that ‘tone of command’ Fleet regs had insisted we adopt. It had obviously taken one look at the harsh prison world of Moabar and decided it preferred to reside elsewhere. I didn’t blame it. I only wished I’d had the same choice.

I drew a deep breath. "If I’m on your grid, look, I’m leaving. Wasn’t my intention to be here," I added, feeling that was probably the understatement of the century. "And if he," I said with a nod to the large body sprawled to my right, "was your partner, then I’m sorry. But I wasn’t in the mood."

A brittle snapping sound started my heart pounding again. My hand felt as slick against the smooth metal of the dagger as if the Taka’s blood still ran down its surface. The sound was on my right, beyond where the Taka lay. Only a fool would try to take me over the lifeless barrier at my feet. A fool, or someone not intent on harming me. At least, not right away.

The first of Moabar’s three moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement, saw him step out of the shadows just as the clouds cleared away from the moon. His face was hidden, distorted. But I clearly saw the distinct shape of a short-barreled rifle propped against his shoulder. That, and the fact that he appeared humanoid, told me he wasn’t a prison guard. Energy weapons were banned on Moabar. Most eight-foot tall Takas didn’t need them, anyway.

The man before me was tall, but not eight feet tall. Possession of the rifle meant he had off-world sources, and probably wielded some power among the other convicts as well.

I took a step back as he approached. His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll. He prodded the dead guard with the tip of the rifle. "Perhaps I should’ve warned him about you. Captain Chasidah Bergren. Pride of the Sixth Fleet. One dangerous woman. But, oh, I forgot. You’re not a captain anymore."

With a chill I recognized the mocking tone, the cultured voice. And suddenly knew the dead guard and the rifle were the least of my problems. I breathed a name in disbelief. "Sullivan. This is impossible. You’re dead—"

"Well, if I’m dead, then so are you." His mirthless laugh was as soft as quiet footsteps on a grave. "Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell."

~ ~ ~

We found two fallen trees, hunkered down and stared at each other, each waiting for the other to make a move. It was like old times. Except there was the harsh glow of his lightbar between us, and not the blackness of space.

"I never pegged you for an easy kill," I told him. Which was true. The reports of his death two years ago had actually surprised me more than his reappearance just now. That simply disturbed me. I balanced the dagger in my hand, not yet content to let it wrap itself around my wrist. "When I heard what happened at Garno it sounded too easy. I didn’t buy it." I shrugged and pushed aside what else I’d thought, and felt, when I’d heard the news. My opinions and feelings about the death of a known mercenary and smuggler mattered little anymore.

He seemed to hear my unspoken comment. "It wasn’t planned to fool anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Only the government. And, of course, their news-hounds. But tell me the news of my passing pained you," he continued, dropping his voice to a well-remembered low rumble, "and I’ll do my best to assuage your fears."

A muted boom sounded in the distance, rattling through the forest. Another shuttle arriving, breaking the sound barrier on descent. He turned towards it, so I was spared answering what I knew to be a jibe. Regardless, I had no intention of telling him about my pain.

Patches of light and shadow moved over his face. Sullivan’s profile had always been strong, aristocratic, dominating the Imperial police bulletins and Fleet patrol advisories. He had his father’s lean jaw line, his mother’s thick dark hair. Both were more than famous in their own right, but not for the same reasons as Sully. They were members of the Empire’s elite; he was simply elusive.

The lightbar reached full power. It was almost like shiplight, crisp and clear. He turned back to me, his lips curved in a wry smile, as if he knew I’d been studying him.

He’d aged since I last saw him, about six months before his highly publicized demise. The thick, short-cropped black hair was sprinkled with silver. The dark eyes had more lines at the corners. The mouth still claimed its share of arrogance, though, as if he knew he’d always be one handsome bastard.

However, something else had changed, something deeper inside him. It was nothing I could see, sitting there under the canopy of the forest. It was something I knew. Because I was sitting there with Gabriel Ross Sullivan and I was still alive.

All the more reason to ignore his attempt at taunting me. His existence had been far more troublesome in my life than his purported passing. "What went down on Garno? You cut a deal?" Moabar or death had been offered to a lot of people, though not me. Most chose death. I hadn’t had that luxury.

He snorted. It was a disdainful sound I remembered well. He shoved the rifle almost to my nose. "What’s this look like? How long have you been here, three weeks?"

I knew what it was. A rifle. Illegal. Damn difficult to come by. They didn’t wrap around your wrist like my dagger, or fit in the sole of a boot.

A thought chilled me. Maybe the Taka weren’t the only guards the prison authorities used.

"Yeah, three weeks, two days and seventeen hours. You know what they say about how time flies." I held his gaze evenly. His eyes were dark, like pieces of obsidian, unreadable. "That’s a rifle. Norlack 473, Sniper model. Modified, it appears, to handle illegal wide load slash charges."

He laughed. "On point as ever, Bergren. Dedicated captain of a peashooter squad out in no man’s land. Keeping those freighters safe from dangerous pirates like me. Then they damn you, ship you here and still every inch of you belongs to Fleet Ops." He shook his head. "Your mama wore army boots and so do you."

"What do you want, Sully?" I jerked my chin towards the dead Taka far to the right of us in the clearing. "You cleaning up after him? Or finishing what he didn’t?"

He turned the rifle in his hands. "This isn’t Fleet issue. Or prison stock. This is mine. Contraband, wasn’t that how your orders phrased it? Stolen. Modified." He paused and pinned me intently with his obsidian gaze. "Mine."

We’d had conversations like this before, most often with me on the bridge of my small patrol ship, in the captain’s sling. He’d be on the bridge of whatever fast vessel suited his fancy that week, his pilot and bridge crew flickering in and out of the shadows behind him. He rarely answered anything directly. He threw words at you, phrases, like hints to a puzzle he’d taunt you to solve. Or like free-form poetry, the kind that always sounded better after a few beers. I’d heard he used to write poetry, had won awards for his verse. He loved to play with words.

I didn’t. "Okay. So no deal was cut and you’re not working for the Ministry of Corrections. Don’t tell me you’ve added Moabar to your vacation plans?"

He laughed again, more easily this time. But not easily enough for me to put my dagger back around my wrist.

"A resort for the suicidal, but faint at heart? Don’t bother to slit your own throat, we’ll do it for you." He gestured theatrically. "It could work. If I couldn’t market it, Hell, no one could."

"Not a lot of repeat business." I couldn’t help myself. I had to say it.

"Ah, but that is the operative word. Business."

"Is it? What are you funding here, prison breaks?" If he wasn’t with the M.O.C., then he had to be working against them. But I’d never heard of any successful escapes from Moabar. There was no prison, per se. No formal structure. Just an inhospitable, barely habitable world of long frigid winters that brought airborne viruses, and bleak, chilled summers. Like now. I was lucky my sentence started when it did. I’d have time to acclimate. Others, dumped dirtside in the midst of a blizzard, often died within hours.

"If I’m funding anything, it’s freedom for a cause. I’ve found, since my untimely but useful demise, that this place can provide me with a source of cheap, willing labor."

"Willing being the operative word, I take it?"

"Willing being the operative word, yes."

"Doing what?" I knew many of Sully’s operations before Garno: stolen cargo, weapons, illegal drugs, ships and everything that fell in-between.

I just couldn’t see why he’d chosen to seek me out. My expertise lay in none of those areas. Unless he’d lost his pilot, needed someone to captain a ship for him. But why come to me? He could have his pick from those who lined the barstools in any spaceport pub.

But then, I’d ignored his all-important earlier comment. My mother wore army boots.

"You know the system," he told me. "You were born and raised in it. Your parents, and your parents’ parents were. I know your personnel file. Captain Chasidah ‘Chaz’ Bergren. Daughter of Engineering Specialist Amaris Deirdre Bergren and Lt. Commander Lars Bergren. Sister of Commander Thaddeus Bergren, currently second in command at the Marker Shipyards. Granddaughter of Lieutenant—"

I held up my hand. "I know who I am."

"So do I."

"Good. Then you know my mother’s been dead for almost twenty years, I haven’t spoken to my father in over ten. And my brother, since the trial, won’t permit my name to be mentioned within earshot. What’s the point?"

"The point, my lovely angel, and no, don’t look so skeptical. Though I may be a veritable walking list of negative personality traits, the one thing I am not, and never have been, is a liar. It’s my great downfall, Chaz. So if I say you’re lovely—" He reached as if to touch my chin with his fingertips. I jerked back, almost fell off my log. I dragged my boot heel in the dirt to keep my balance.

"Don’t tumble for me yet, darlin’. We have business to attend to first. As I was saying, the point is death has afforded me a new perspective. A new maturity, if you will. While my goals haven’t changed, my methodology had to. That’s where you come in."

"A mere captain of a pea shooter squadron?"

"That’s Fleet’s appraisal of your talents. Not mine."

"No, you always called me an interfering bitch."

"If you must quote me, please be accurate. A beautiful interfering bitch."

"Get to the point."

"Gladly. I find I’m in need of one particular beautiful, interfering bitch. Can’t think of one better. So tell me, my angel, are you ready to leave this veritable paradise and make a pact with the ghost from Hell?"

I turned the dagger in my hand, watched the light play over the blade. I’d been willing to sell my soul earlier for a nightscope and a laser pistol. On Moabar, that would guarantee survival.

Sully was offering me more. He was offering me a way off Moabar. Freedom. On Hell’s terms, but freedom nonetheless.

I nodded, stuck my hand out. "Officer’s agreement."

He clasped my hand firmly, then went down on one knee and brought it to his lips.

I pulled my fingers away from his mouth, angry at the invisible firemoths that seemed to dance across my skin at his touch. "This is a business deal, Sullivan."

He sat back on his heel, grinning. "Whatever you say."

"Damn straight." I pushed myself to my feet, transferred the dagger to my right hand and started to let it wrap around my left wrist. Then stopped. He’d retrieved the rifle and now stood towering over me, his dark eyes glinting brightly from the lightbar in his hand.

I let my fingers close around the hilt of the dagger, kept it between us as I followed him into the forest. Maybe I’d hold onto it this way, for a while. Just in case my ghost’s good humor dissolved like mist from the moons.

~ ~ ~

Sully tabbed the lightbar down to half-power, just enough to guide us over fallen logs and rock-filled ditches. He held it lowered, our bodies blocking its telltale glow. I lengthened my strides to match his.

The only sounds were our footsteps crunching against the carpet of brittle twigs, the occasional slap of a branch against our jackets. His, like mine, was black, spacer-issue plain.

We slipped like shadows between the shaggy trees. It was as if I were twenty-two years old again, back in basic training, on a dirtside recon exercise. Sully moved that way too, with a cautious grace. A bright patch of moonlight cascaded through an opening in the forest canopy. As one, we edged around it.

I caught a wry, half-smile on his face. He angled his mouth down to my ear, echoed my thoughts. "Feels like boot camp."

I hated boot camp, thirteen years ago. But it had taught me some invaluable lessons. Apparently, Sully had learned them as well, though I couldn’t remember any stint in the military on his dossier. I was about to ask where he’d trained when something glinted ahead of us, far off to the right.

Instinctively I flattened against a tree. My fingers tightened on the dagger. The lightbar blinked out as my heart rate picked up. Then my face was in Sully’s chest as he clasped me in a protective move. I flinched back involuntarily, surprised, not only by his action, but by a rush of heat that seemed to encompass me. Then it was gone and I tagged it as nothing more than adrenaline fighting against a severe lack of sleep. He pushed me to my knees, crouched down with me. He flicked the safety off the rifle, angled it up.

His left hand cupped the back of my head, drew my face against his shoulder again. "Damned redhead," he whispered. "You glow like a jumpgate beacon. Now, hush. Be still for a moment."

A rush of wind rattled the leaves around us. I ducked my head further down, even though I knew my hair wasn’t that red. It was dark auburn and, after three weeks on Moabar, far from glowed. I doubted the color was Sully’s real reason now. I didn’t know if there were something out there he didn’t want me to see — or he was simply feeding his ego by playing hero. Either way, I wasn’t about to argue. My strange lightheadedness had returned. I needed a moment to steady myself, find focus.

His breathing was deep and even. He turned away from me, his gaze locked on something on the right. As I was hunkered down between him and the large tree, I could only see the outline of his hand on the rifle and the dark, skewed shadows of the forest floor.

"What is it?" I asked as quietly as I could. His fingers threaded into my braid as if he wanted to unravel it. Or, I realized with a blinding flash of stupidity, as if he searched for a way to get a strong and painful grip on me.

I remembered what had been on that Takan guard’s agenda. I tried to jerk my head back. Then I heard it.

A wheezing noise. A crackling. The sound that tissue paper would make if it were composed of glass. And another rush of wind, air pushing past me.

My mouth suddenly went dry.

Sully shifted his weight, slowly brought the rifle up to eye level. The faint greenish glow of the nightscope reflected back on his face.

The crackling stopped.

I smelled something foul. My stomach clenched in response. A jukor. A vicious, fanged mutant beast with the distinctive scent of rotting garbage. A breeding experiment by the M.O.C., jukors were a distorted, hideous version of ancient, imaginary soul-stealers. They’d been bred to combat the more current, very real telepathic Stolorth Ragkirils. The government halted the jukor experiment ten years ago, when it had become apparent the creatures couldn’t be controlled. Not like Takas.

I knew the smell because I’d had escort duty with a ship hauling a pack of jukors to be destroyed. It was a smell I’d never forget.

It was one I knew I shouldn’t be remembering now.

A long wheeze, closer. My heart thudded at the sound. It was scenting for something. Us, most likely. Or its mate. Either option was a bad one. If it chose us as prey, its powerful hind legs and winged upper forearms would make it damn near impossible to evade.

If it were scenting for a mate, it would kill any other creature in its path in its lust.

A frightening thought. If it were scenting for a mate, that meant jukors were alive, breeding again, for M.O.C. purposes. Perhaps even new and improved? There might be another new and improved one around in the forest, somewhere.

Either way, we were dead unless Sully killed it first. My dagger would barely be able to pierce its hide.

Fingers tugged at my scalp. He was unraveling my braid. I mentally questioned my ghost’s sanity and jerked my head away, frowning.

He yanked it back. His breath was hot against my ear. "Your hair wrap. I need it. Now."

Hair wrap? I swore silently, slapped the dagger back around my wrist then as quickly, and as quietly, as possible, unraveled the leather and fabric laces. My hair fell almost to my waist, drifting over my arms as I shoved the cords into his outstretched hand. My mind still questioned his sanity.

He thrust the rifle at me. "Keep a lock on it."

As I brought the nightscope to my eye I caught a glimpse of Sully grabbing a stout, broken tree limb from the ground.

Two moons dotted the night sky, adding their light. The jagged form of the jukor almost jumped through the eyepiece at me. It was twenty-five feet from us. Upwind. Its long snout moved slowly side to side. I heard the crackling again as it flexed one wing. Barbed tips, like tiny razors, glinted sharp and cruel.

Its lower arms and legs were furred A hide formed of rock-hard scales covered its chest and back. Only the base of its throat was vulnerable. A soft spot, unprotected.

Damned small.

I moved the rifle slightly as it moved its head.

Damned small.

Sully’s hand covered mine, traded rifle for a leather and fabric-wrapped tree branch.

"It will see it, scent it." He put the eyepiece to his eye again, the greenish glow like a small alien moon on his face.

I understood. The leather and fabric held my scent.

"Beer toss," he said.

I understood that, too. Wasn’t a station brat in civilized space who didn’t. Old pub game.

"On three." He adjusted his balance slightly. He’d have to move the moment the jukor sprang.

"One." The word was a soft rustle of leaves.

I rose slowly, becoming part of the tree on my left.

"Two."

I started my windup.

"Three."

I hurled the branch high, arcing it upwards in the clear moonslight. The dark form lunged. Powerful wings snapped out, pushed downwards. An unbearable stench rolled towards me just as three flashes of light erupted on my right.

Sully, springing, moving, firing.

The dagger snapped into my hand. If he missed, or only wounded it, it would be here in seconds.

A roaring sound. An enormous blot of darkness descending from the air at an unbelievable rate of speed. Wings beating, fingered forelimbs yanking itself through the trees at us.

Sully, firing. "Run!"

He hadn’t hit the jukor’s throat.

I bolted sideways, headed for the thickest brush, hoping it would snag a wing, entangle an arm.

Branches whipped at my face. But the only pounding footsteps I heard were mine.

I stopped, spun about. Saw Sully drop to the ground, roll, come up firing again as the jukor’s barbed wing slashed inches from his body.

Shit! I plunged back through the trees just as the jukor roared and slammed Sully to the ground.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

The hideous body of the jukor reared back, then flailed sideways. It landed almost at my feet, a tangle of wings and limbs. Its long head lolled to one side. In the bright light of the moons I could see a sizable hole in the charred flesh of its soft throat.

I heard Sully cough, gag. "Hell’s ass! That thing stinks!"

I jumped over the beast’s hindquarters, fell to my knees on the hard ground beside him. "You okay?"

He grasped my arm. I helped him into a sitting position. He was breathing hard. He wiped one hand over his face then grimaced. No doubt the jukor’s oily scent was on his skin as well.

"Hell’s ass," he said again. The poet, never at a loss for words, repeating himself.

"You missed the first time."

He nodded, still gasping for air. "You noticed."

"I’ve never bagged one. Not even in the old sims." There were no jukors in the new training sims since there were, we were told, no living jukors. Why learn to kill something that no longer exists? We had to be content to hone our hand-to-hand combat skills on simmed mind-sucking Stolorths and giant Takas. Plus the usual crazed human scenarios.

Sully struggled to his feet. I grabbed his elbow, stood up with him. He leaned one hand on my shoulder for a moment. "This is not," he said, looking down at me, "a fortuitous turn of events."

"Maybe it’s time you tell me just what in Hell is going on."

"I will. But I think it best we keep moving." He stepped back towards the barely discernible path we’d followed. Turned, probably because he didn’t hear my footsteps.

I was wrestling to braid my thick, wavy, now totally disheveled hair. Stupid, but all I could think of was the debris and leaves that would attach themselves to me if I didn’t. I hurried up to him, arms angled awkwardly behind my neck.

"I prefer it down." He reached to smooth the wild strands from my forehead. "I’ve told you that before. Remember?"

I ducked away. "Too bad." Yes, I remembered. Even though it’d been almost four years. I was glad he couldn’t see the flush of color on my cheeks. I brought the braid over my shoulder, fished in my pants pocket for a small tie. With hair like mine, it’s S.O.P. to carry extras.

We picked up our pace. The moonslight was bright, the lightbar no longer needed. I kept a vigilant watch ahead, and to the left. Sully did the same, to the right. From behind we were vulnerable.

Nobody’s perfect.

But that night, four years ago almost could have been. If Sully hadn’t been perpetually on the wrong side of the law. If I hadn’t been shaken back to my senses by my shipbadge pinging an incoming transmit advisory that had interrupted kisses far more passionate than I’d ever experienced. It had left a lot of questions unanswered. But it had soothed a deep ache in my heart, if only for a little while.

It had been strictly a physical attraction, aided by one too many pitchers of the Empire’s finest ale. But that night I’d desperately needed to know that I was attractive.

He’d confirmed that, in a dark little bar in Port Chalo where Fleet captains and known smugglers could leave their reputations and vocations outside the doors for a while. Then my shipbadge had pinged, saving me from making a fool of myself. Doing yet another thing that would have shocked and puzzled my ever-righteous brother.

Though not quite as much as the appearance of the jukor shocked and puzzled me right now. I shoved the troublesome memory away, returned to my productive habit of analyzing my situation, gathering facts. Sully hadn’t seemed to be surprised by the creature’s appearance. Had he heard that the Empire was resurrecting the project? That was one of the many questions plaguing my mind as we walked. Questions that had been stilled by a need for silence, for stealth.

But after Sully’s firing of his rifle, any pretense of a silent approach on our part was just that: pretense. Plus, my need for answers was growing. "Where’re we going?"

He pointed over the treetops, past the higher moon, into the star-filled sky. "Second star to the right—"

"—and straight on ‘til morning? Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Lit of the Ancient Homeworlds, 101. Where are we going, Sully?"

"Most immediately, to a secure dwelling, within a fifteen minute walk from the spaceport. Eventually, to the spaceport itself."

I threw him a questioning glance. "You are suicidal." The spaceport was M.O.C. controlled. More Takans to the square inch than anywhere else on Moabar, save perhaps for the Temple on Solstice-Day.

"Most definitely not. I assure you I have a lusty—" he leered down at me "—interest in life."

The path curved, narrowing. We were shoulder to shoulder, or rather, my shoulder to his arm. He smelled more than faintly of jukor. "I hope this secure dwelling of yours has a bathtub."

"That bad?"

I shrugged. "Unique."

"It has. As well as a change of clothing. Which is required for us to access the spaceport. Our shuttle leaves in about two hours."

It occurred to me, not for the first time during our trek, that this might all be a setup. Sully could be an Imperial agent for the M.O.C. or any of the numerous ministries. They were trapping me, testing me, baiting me. I couldn’t figure a reason but then, I’d never known a government to require reasons to act.

However, there were far more politically important and dangerous prisoners on Moabar. I was a mere pebble in the asteroid field of personalities on the prison world.

It also occurred to me that my brother could’ve hired Sully to kill me. Or to put me in a position where the M.O.C. would. That would nicely clear up for Thaddeus — not my half-brother Willym, who’s only nine — the stain I’d placed on the family name.

Sully increased his pace, seemed disinclined to further conversation. That gave me time to think, as well. When we approached the edge of the forest, twenty minutes later, my dagger was back in my hand. He kept just inside the line of trees, paralleling a narrow, graveled road. Behind me, it went to the spaceport. Every few minutes, lights from the tower beacons strafed our path.

At a curve in the road, he took my arm, hesitating when he saw the dagger in my hand. "Still don’t trust me, Chaz?"

"You noticed."

"Wait for the tower lights to pass again. We’ve got to cross the road, pick up the path over there." He pointed to the thick trees. "Wish our nocturnal luminaries weren’t so enthusiastic this evening. But then again, it is definitely romantic." He let his voice drop to a sexy drawl.

"Your fragrance, Sully. I can’t tell you how it makes me feel."

He chuckled. The lights approached, flared. We ran just behind them.

The woods closed around us again. He resumed his dogged pace. I quickened my stride. "How are we getting on a shuttle? Without the M.O.C. noticing us, that is."

"With M.O.C. permission, of course."

And M.O.C. rifles pointed at me as I tried to board? I grabbed a handful of his jacket with my left hand, yanked. "Damn it, Sullivan!"

He stumbled, stopped and glared at me with obsidian eyes.

I glared back. "How much did Thad pay you?"

"Thad?"

"Thaddeus. Commander Thaddeus Bergren. Second in command at Marker. Firstborn of the Bergrens. What did he pay you to set me up?"

His gaze flicked down to the dagger I held between us. His rifle was slung over his back. Foolish move on his part. If he’d studied my dossier as he’d claimed, he knew I ranked consistently high in my division in small weapon, hand-to-hand combat competition. And not just in sims. I didn’t care that he was at least ten inches taller than me, outweighed me by probably eighty or more pounds. He’d have to swing the rifle around to flick off the safety, turn it on me.

I’d have the dagger in his chest, or his throat, by then.

"Problems with sibling rivalry, Chaz?"

"Sullivan!" My warning tone was clear.

"Think, Chasidah Bergren. Think. Who am I? Who is your esteemed brother? Spit and polish company man, all the way. Him, not me. I’m the antithesis. The anti-hero to his hero. Even in the abstract we could not coexist.

"In the flesh, he resents my family’s wealth, where yours had none. I’m the wastrel. He finds that appalling." He shook his head. "I don’t know which pains me more, my angel. That you think so low of me that you believe I’d accept employment as a common assassin. Or that you see me not only to be a vulgar cad, but one who’d work for your supercilious ass of a brother as well."

He’d obviously met Thad at some point. The description was accurate.

But he was right. Thad might wish me dead, daily. But there were light-years between him and Sully, in more ways than one. And I was on Moabar. That was the same as being dead. For Thad to have me killed would only be redundant.

I let go of his jacket. "I need answers. I don’t like walking into things blind. What you’ve told me so far sounds too easy, too convenient. If getting off Moabar is a simple as a change of clothes and boarding the shuttle, why isn’t everyone doing it?"

He grinned and in spite of his pungent odor, still managed to exude a rakish charm. "Because they don’t have me to help them. Come on. Drogue’s waiting for us. And I’ve got to evict Ren from the bathtub."

~ ~ ~

Moabar hadn’t always been a prison world. It was the only human-habitable world in Quadrant E-5, a region so remote it didn’t even warrant a name, like the inner quadrants of Aldan or Baris. A region otherwise worthless to an Empire thriving on galactic trade and the conquest of neighboring systems.

History vids said Moabar had been acquired as the result of the spoils of victory. Reality said Moabar was part of the Empire because no one else wanted it.

The Empire tried colonizing it, farming it. But the soils that produced lush, thick forests in abandon were caustic to edible plants. They withered, died. Colonists fled.

A scientific research team moved in next. But the atmosphere corroded their equipment. And the winters brought a strange plague-virus. Most died. Those that could make it to the shuttles, fled.

So the Empire decreed it a penal colony. Well-being of lifers was not their concern. Survival of one winter’s frigid temperatures and plague-filled storms was luck. Survival of two was a miracle. Three guaranteed an immunity to the virus, but never the cold.

Yet, Takas thrived on it. I thought of all this as I stared at the ‘secure dwelling’. Sully’s secret.

A Takan monastery.

A low, sprawling stone structure that appeared suddenly as the forest thinned. Lights from the spaceport stroked its mottled surface, flared in its tall windows. We were closer to the port here than we were on the graveled road.

Englarian religious symbols were carved into the wood-planked gate; the arch-and-stave chiseled over the doorway. The Taka had had no religion until Jared Eng had preached to them, some three centuries past. We had vids on that, too, in the Academy’s required Non-Human Cultures class.

I followed Sully through a back door that opened at his code. Evidently we were expected.

I stepped cautiously into a large communal room, a kitchen, replete with the aroma of a meal recently finished. Something salty, tangy hung in the air. Three long wooden tables were on my left, with benches. One round table on my right, with six high backed wooden chairs. Behind that, a long cook top and the matte metallic doors that fronted most refrigeration units.

A thick clear coating covered the flagstone floor. Our footsteps echoed to the high ceiling, left smudgy marks, forest mementos, behind.

"Brother Sudral? That you?" A voice called out from a hallway adjacent to the kitchen.

Sudral?

"Aye," said Sully.

Brother Sudral? I shot him a glance. He winked.

A squat man, human, bustled through the arched doorway. Englarian monks were usually human, though I’d heard they recently were accepting Takas to their ranks. All were, however, devoted to the care and spiritual enlightenment of Takas.

The man wore the traditional monk’s garb of wide-legged pants and high-necked over-tunic in a coarse, grayish-tan fabric. Thick-soled brown boots explained his otherwise silent approach.

"Blessings of the hour, Guardian Drogue."

"Blessing of the hour upon you, Brother Sudral." Drogue steepled his hands in front of his face, bowed.

I’d seen Drogue before, perhaps once or twice. The rank of Guardian granted him access to all M.O.C. buildings on Moabar. Just as it would in any Imperial station or port. I thought I remembered seeing his round, almost cherubic face when I’d picked up my allotted supplies — two blankets, a folder of ration chips and the ubiquitous and useless pamphlet of M.O.C. Rules and Regulations — when I’d arrived dirtside, and perhaps another time after that. But Englarian monks were the least of my concerns. Sanctioned by the Empire, they were in no position to make a difference in the life of a disgraced Fleet captain, wrongly convicted or not.

Drogue’s bright-eyed gaze ran up and down my length, or lack of. "Captain Chasidah Bergren. Yes." He stuck out his hand.

I accepted it.

"You are well?" he asked.

I tried to place his accent. South system, Dafir? Possibly. "All things considered, yes." Some of my wariness returned. The Englarians were invariably cooperative with the government. I still had visions of a firing squad as a reception committee, Sully’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

"Considering we had an intimate encounter with a jukor." Sully clapped Drogue on the back then hesitated, holding his arm near the man’s nose.

Drogue’s head jerked backwards. "Praise the stars! Yet you live."

"I’m a stubborn son of a bitch. Where’s Ren? Soaking?"

The bathtub. I remembered Sully’s earlier comments. Could water immersion be a little known Englarian ritual?

"He left the hydro not ten minutes ago. He should be down shortly. He knows time is a factor tonight."

Sully pushed up the sleeve of his black jacket, glanced at his wrist. "Hour forty-five. You’ll be ready? I need to soak this stench off me first. Feed her some tea, will you?" He jerked his thumb at me.

His abrupt dismissal rankled me. Especially as I’d been thinking so kindly of his kisses earlier. "Sullivan—"

If was as if he’d heard my thoughts. The fingers that moments ago pointed at me grabbed my hand. He planted a long kiss against the inside of my wrist before I could jerk back. "I won’t be long, my angel. Every second we’re apart pains me. I promise I’ll return to your side with all due speed."

"You stink. Go wash, or whatever it is you’re going to do."

"Come bathe me. The touch of your hands could restore my weakened form."

My hands wanted to smack him a good right cross on the side of his jaw. He appeared anything but weak. His wide shoulders filled out his jacket only too well. There was any number of derogatory appraisals of Gabriel Ross Sullivan over the years. But none of them ever suggested he was anything less than extremely pleasant to look at.

Why were all the handsome ones always such bastards?

I smiled at Drogue. "I’d love a cup of hot tea."

The short man grinned affably, motioned to the round table. "Sit, please, sit! I will make a cup. I’m sure Ren will join us, momentarily. You too, Brother Sudral, when you have finished your ablutions."

"Tea’s about all we’ll have time for." He strode for the arched doorway, turned. "She’ll need more time than you think to get changed, Drogue. Likes to fuss with her hair. So get her moving, as soon as possible." His footsteps echoed down the hallway.

Kettle in hand, Drogue watched Sully’s retreating form. I caught his eye before he turned back to the cook top. "Would you please explain to me what’s going on?"

He put the kettle on the thermal grid, tabbed it on. "Brother Sudral’s said little?"

"Brother Sudral talks in circles."

"For security purposes, I’m sure. Should we be captured prior to departure, none of us would be able to place the mission at risk.

Mission? Involving Englarian monks and the ghost of a poet turned mercenary? All suppositions. I stuck to what I did know.

"You don’t seem surprised we ran into a jukor."

He placed a steaming cup of fragrant tea in front of me. His smile was still pleasant, but something flickered in his eyes, something tense laced his words. "Little surprises me at my age, captain."

He wasn’t, in spite of his bald head, that old. Fifties at most. My father was older. "It’s Chasidah. Or Chaz. Jukors were banned. Exterminated."

"I’m a theologian, not a scientist."

He was also frequently at the spaceport.

"You saw them off-load a shipment, didn’t you?" Live cargo, other than prisoners, didn’t come into Moabar. Someone would have noticed. It wasn’t unlikely that it would be Drogue.

"Do you not like your tea?"

I hadn’t sipped it. It didn’t interest me as much as things I couldn’t explain. Things that hinted of something more wrong than my travesty of a court-martial for dereliction of duty in the face of a direct order. A dereliction that resulted in the deaths of fourteen officers and crew in the Imperial Sixth Fleet.

An order the court said I’d acknowledged, then ignored.

An order I swore on all I held holy I’d never received. My ship’s logs showed otherwise. Forgery, the court said, was impossible.

As impossible as jukors, alive, prowling the forests of Moabar.

I saw one. Sully had killed one.

I sipped my tea, listened to my brain argue with itself and engage in a familiar litany.

This was Moabar. Why should I give a damn what happened here? Jukors or Takans. Illegal or legal. If the Empire needed more devils for its Hell, this was the place to grow them.

It wasn’t my concern. I was neither scientist nor theologian. I was alive — praise the stars — and an hour from freedom.

"Tea’s fine," I told Drogue. I meant it. Time to focus on what’s now, not what should be. What could have been.

At a soft sound in the archway, I turned, expecting Sully.

For two seconds I froze in my seat. It was as if one of the old training sims had come, horribly, to life. The dagger snapped flat into my hand. My chair fell backwards, crashed to the floor. I was almost to the door when Drogue’s voice stopped me.

"Leave now, captain, and you will surely die."

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

 

"Chaz! He won’t hurt you."

This time I did see Sully, freshly scrubbed, his hair still damp and glistening. And in a monk’s uniform, its pale sand-like colors contrasting sharply with his dark hair and eyes.

His humanness contrasted sharply with the Stolorth filling the archway. Sully squeezed by the tall, humanoid form and strode towards me, hand outstretched.

I backed up a step. If he thought I’d give him my dagger he was wrong. Dead wrong. But I did take my hand off the door leading outside. I did lower the dagger. "Explain."

He stopped, two dagger lengths away, and glanced over his shoulder. The Stolorth hadn’t moved, save to lean a little to its left on a cane it held in its six-fingered left hand.

His hand. The Stolorth was definitely male. Like Sully, he wore the pale sand-gray pants and tunic of a monk. But his biceps and thighs strained the fabric. He topped Sully’s height by four, five inches.

He could almost pass, if you didn’t see the gill slits on his neck, for human. Could almost pass, if you didn’t notice the thick silvery-blue hair plaited in a braid not unlike my own, for human. Could almost pass, if you didn’t see the webbing between the fingers, for human.

Now I understood the role of the bathtub.

"I’m sorry." The Stolorth spoke. His voice was deep, surprisingly soft. In it, I heard waves echoing on a shore I’d never visited. "I thought she knew."

Sully had the good grace to look sheepish. "I was going to tell her. I fell asleep in the tub."

The Stolorth angled his face towards me. "Captain Bergren, it wasn’t my intention to startle you."

Startle me? No, when a Stolorth Ragkiril was finished with a human mind, there was nothing left to startle. Nothing left at all.

Sully took a half step closer. I could smell the soap on his skin. A small drop of water lost its grasp on his tousled hair, made a rivulet around the edge of a thick eyebrow, trickled down the right side of his face. "It’s okay, Chaz. Trust me."

I could think of a dozen reasons not to. They didn’t matter as reality dictated I had no choice, and nothing to go back to. If I died on Moabar, death would be slow, painful. At least with a Stolorth, he could plant pleasant memories as he ripped my mind to shreds.

"He’s blind, Chaz. He can’t hurt you."

Blind? "That’s impossible. They kill their—" But even from across the kitchen I could see the film over his silver eyes, dulling them.

By all I held holy. A blind Stolorth in an Englarian monastery. And a full-grown male at that. We were told Stolorths killed defective young, and weak elders for that matter. Blindness was especially heinous to them. Their telepathy, their Ragkiril mind talents, depended on eye contact with their victims. With their own kind, it was their primary means of communication.

I saw the cane, grasped by six fingers. And let the dagger wrap itself around my wrist. He couldn’t hurt me. He own kind wanted him dead. Oddly, I felt a small pang of kinship with him. I knew what it was like to be rejected by people who were supposed to love you.

"We were just having a nice cup of tea." Drogue sounded immensely relieved. "Please, all, sit and join us?"

I noticed, not for the first time, the spotlessness of his kitchen. The blood bath my dagger could have created would have been Hell to clean up.

~ ~ ~

His name was Frayne Ackravaro Ren Elt. Sully performed the introduction. Ren was his birth name, Elt the name of his grandmother. Frayne, his mother and Ackravaro, his clan-of-region.

He answered to Ren.

In spite of his size, and his blindness, he moved gracefully to the round table, selected a chair, sat. Drogue handed out fresh cups of tea.

I sat across from him, with Sully on my left, and tried to make sense of this. I’d never known Englarians to associate with Stolorths. They were even more fanatically opposed to telepaths than the Empire was.

"Again, I apologize, Captain Bergren. I sensed no disquiet in your presence—"

"How can you sense if you’re blind?" My caution resurfaced. My Non-Human Cultures class had been known to be wrong.

"My blindness negates those aspects you fear, my mind-speech with my people. As well as any threat you may feel I present to yours. But my empathic abilities remain."

"And are put to use through prayer and meditation, as taught by Abbot Eng," Drogue added. "Brother Ren is a fine example of the results of studying the purity of thought. His blindness, through the grace of the Abbot, has become a gift."

My academy class was very wrong. Englarians didn’t view all Stolorths as soul-stealers. And blind Stolorths did survive to adulthood.

"So you sensed my presence? As, what?"

"Human female, inquisitive variety." Sully raised his cup as if in mock salute. "Drink up. We have a shuttle to catch."

"We?" I wasn’t questioning Sully’s participation. I realized for the first time there were to be two more: Drogue and Ren. The latter still worried me but I understood the pressures of a flight schedule.

"We." Sully laid a stack of ID cards on the table, spread them with the flair of a dealer in a casino.

Apt, I thought. We were placing bets with our lives.

Four cards, all bearing the crossed arch symbol of the Englarian clergy. Drogue picked them up, one by one, examined them.

I finished my tea and stood, damning Sully for not telling me of his plans.

Drogue ushered me to a back room, complete with a lavatory and a wide couch. A wooden-fronted closet was half open. Tan-gray tunics and robes filled it. I had a feeling I was to be Brother Chaz.

"We have you logged as Sister Berri." Drogue rifled through the closet, pulled out a cowled robe, and held it up against me. If I had to run for it, I’d trip, fall on my face. But other than that, it was fine.

A shift-like gown went underneath. My boots I could keep. My clothing and jacket Drogue said to leave on the couch. It would be bundled with the luggage on the shuttle.

I found a wide-toothed comb on a dresser, ran it briskly through my hair while I stood in front of a large mirror. The room stared back at me, in reverse. The arched doorway, directly behind me. On one wall, a wooden replica of the arch-and-stave. On the other was an artist’s rendering of Abbot Eng, stave raised, about to kill a soul-stealer. It was one of the more common depictions, showing the imaginary demon in its true form, wings splayed wide. Legends claimed that soul-stealers were not only telepaths, but shape-shifters; could hide their true form and masquerade as humans. The winged man’s mouth was open in a scream. Lovely decor.

The bathroom was small but had nice thick towels on the rack. I splashed water on my face. I longed for the bath, but there was neither time nor inclination. I was traveling with a Stolorth, an aquatic humanoid that could gut a mind as easily as my dagger could gut a fish. Things deep and watery were best avoided, for now.

I donned the shift, then the robe and was securing the wide, fabric belt when a knock sounded on the door.

"Come." It took me a moment to remember certain technologies couldn’t exist on Moabar. I had to walk to the door and manually open it.

Sully was on the other side, grinning that disarming grin.

And no doubt was also impatient. I hadn’t been ten minutes. "I’m ready."

He grabbed my shoulders, turned me around. I glimpsed something in his right hand. He waddle-marched me towards the long mirror on the wall.

"Not yet." He snatched the comb from the dresser on his right.

"What do you think you’re—?"

"Hush."

He sunk his hands into the long mass of hair I’d half-braided and tucked down the back of my robe. He began unraveling my braid. In the mirror I saw a length of corded leather, dotted with shiny silver beads, dangling from his fingers.

"We don’t have time—"

"Hush!" His grin faded, his brows slanting down. Concentrating. Braiding my hair, weaving in the beads and leather.

Making amends for my hair wrap I’d tossed to the jukor? Or remembering that night in Port Chalo? I’m sure it had meant nothing to him. Or maybe he thought a few kisses had earned him the right to taunt me now.

I wasn’t in the mood to be teased. "I can do that a lot faster than you."

"Hush, hush, hush." Softly. His voice was not much more than a deep rumble in his throat. His hands were firm, yet more gentle than I would have thought he could be. And warm. A whisper of soft heat played down my neck where his fingers brushed against my skin. I didn’t pull away when they stroked my hair, my scalp, the back of my neck.

I let myself sink into the sensations, bargaining with myself as I did so. Just a few seconds. It’d been so long. What harm was there in letting him braid my hair for me?

My eyes wanted to close. I’d fought exhaustion for hours now. He was so warm. His knuckles brushed my jaw. Fingers traced my lips…

His intimate caress jolted my brain awake. I lurched forward, my hands splaying against the rough-hewn mirror frame. I caught a glimpse of his face, his obsidian eyes half-hooded, molten.

I felt my own face flame with heat. I didn’t look back in the mirror for fear of confronting a fool I knew only too well. I turned. My braid swung heavily against my back. The beads on the leather cord tinkled lightly against the glass of the mirror.

"Business deal, Sully. Strictly business." I sounded far more breathy than I wanted to.

He still watched me through hooded eyes, though the sensual curve on his lips was gone. We were almost toe-to-toe. But my hand already encircled the bracelet on my wrist, fingers on its spring-points.

He let out a long, slow sigh. "Chasid—"

"Brother Sudral? Sister Berri?" Drogue rapped on the door, walked in. And seemed totally oblivious to what was going on. Or else, with Sully, he was used to it. "We must be going."

Sully spun around, reached for the short, stocky man and clapped him on the shoulder. "I was ready an hour ago. It’s this one." He jerked his hand back in my direction, but didn’t turn. "Has to fuss with her hair."

Why are all the handsome ones always such bastards?

~ ~ ~

We walked down the graveled road towards the spaceport, four robed figures of divergent sizes. An anti-grav pallet with our meager luggage trailed behind.

Anti-gravs and thermal grids worked on Moabar. Auto-doors, medi-stats and a long list of other technological necessities didn’t.

Humans fared only marginally better. Winter was approaching, with its recurring plague. Abbot Eng’s followers were devoted, but not stupid.

"Our replacements will be on station already," Drogue told me as we walked in the bright moonslight. No need to hide, to dart though the trees. "They’ve shown an immunity to the plagues. They’ll run the monastery, sit devotions with the Takas, lead the festivals until spring. I’ll return then."

Sully had said we were going to Moabar Station to intercept an outgoing freighter, bound in-system. Step Two in freedom for Chasidah Bergren. I had to live through Step One, first.

"You’re not coming in-system with us?"

"Oh, no, Sister. We have a very active temple on station. And it’s Peyhar’s Week, don’t you know?" His round face poked out from under his hood. "Oh, perhaps not. We haven’t quite made the inroads in our missionary work with the military as we have in other arenas."

As far as I knew, the Takans were the only ones they’d made inroads with. But I wasn’t going to deflate his attempt at proselytizing.

"The M.O.C. isn’t going to question my presence in the group? Or Ren’s?"

Another negative from Drogue. "Brother Ren Ackravaro has visited Moabar Monastery several times on retreat."

"But I haven’t."

"Neither has the real Sister Berri. But her reputation will do you well. She’s a much-lauded missionary, known for her tireless works. Her ID, your ID bears the arch-and-stave. As Guardian, I vouch for your veracity."

Why? What had caused this gentle man to align himself with the ghost from Hell? Was there a financial gain? "You’re taking quite a risk."

He sighed. "More at risk if I do not, Sister."

The mission. And in Sullivan, a different kind of missionary.

"Brother Sudral is still being vague about that."

Sully fell into step with us. He’d lagged behind, talking to Ren who walked with one hand on the pallet, the other on his cane. "For good reason. Curiosity tends to be an overrated trait. I’m sure the Empire taught you that at some point. At the moment, your overwhelming gratitude towards me is best expressed through silence. There’s nothing you can contribute at this point, but there’s much to be lost by being premature."

His sudden formal phrasing irked me. Sully the mercenary. Sully the poet. And now Sully the pedant. "I’m glad to know you think so highly of me."

He slanted me a glance. "Highly enough to risk my life to save yours. I was outvoted, you know. Fortunately I rarely listen to my advisors."

"Really? I’d never have guessed." Nor could I picture him having advisors. In all the years I’d known him, he’d always been the one in command, pilots and techs following his orders.

Sully dropped back, picked up his conversation with the Stolorth.

Drogue and I walked on in silence. We were close enough to the spaceport that I could hear the distant clank and clatter from the cargo hangars. The occasional shout of human voices, the rougher call of the Takan guards. It was a chilly night when we started but now my body felt warm under the robes. I could feel small wisps of hair starting to curl around my face.

Thoughts, equally as annoying, coiled and uncoiled in my mind. You know the system, Sully had said, sitting across from me in the clearing, lightbar between us and a dead Taka at his back. Therefore he needed access to military information, military procedures.

He’d recited my pedigree.

Access to military personnel.

Why? My simplistic early assumptions revolved around money, even a heist of a Fleet payroll ship. Then I saw Ren.

During the Boundary Wars, twenty years ago, Stolorth Ragkirils had excelled at interrogating prisoners. Torturing them. I’d seen vids on the results of their handiwork. Or mind work, actually. That’s why seeing one on Moabar so frightened me. Perhaps the Empire had finally realized that more than inmates died on this prison world. Their secrets — co-conspirators, sources — died with them as well.

Reason, and a Non-Human Cultures class I was beginning to doubt, told me a Stolorth wouldn’t adapt well to Moabar’s climate. Ren wore a close-fitting shirt under his tunic. Thermal, probably. I‘d seen the edge of the sleeve as he’d sipped his tea.

And the ponds here were all poisonous. At least, poisonous to humans.

Ren might not belong here, but the jukor fit only too well. The Stolorth would best survive on Moabar Station, providing there were no others of his kind. Because a Stolorth Ragkiril, sensing Ren’s handicap, would be duty-bound to kill him. That much I did believe, Non-Human Cultures class and all.

We were near the main gate. Drogue touched my arm, passed me the slim ID card. I tucked it into the slit in the front of my belt.

"And your name, Sister?" he prompted.

"Berri Solaria, Sister of Mercy in the Order of Abbot Eng the Merciful." I rattled off my ID number, my home convent and the date of my fictitious arrival at the Moabar Monastery. It was nothing compared to what Fleet had me memorize over the years, just to requisition a med-kit kit. Or to retrieve my personal transmits.

But the consequences of an error in this recitation were vastly more serious. I tried not to think about that, nor about the nervous flutterings in my stomach.

I ended the recitation with the ritual, "Praise the stars."

Drogue’s face relaxed into a smile.

We climbed a steep rampway. I glanced back. Sully flanked Ren, the ramp not wide enough to accommodate the Stolorth and the pallet. I remember how he’d shielded me in the forest, when we’d first seen the jukor.

No, he’d seen it. And put himself between the creature and me.

Had it been about to spring, then?

With his back to it, Sully would have been killed, immediately.

But his rifle would have fallen into my hands. And in the time it would have taken the jukor to rip Sully apart, I could’ve killed it. I would’ve survived because of Sully’s sacrifice.

The thought chilled me. I almost bumped into a Takan guard who stepped in my path.

"Restricted. Present ID." The Taka’s voice was harsh and choppy, like most of his kind. I kept my head bowed, folded my hands at my waist. My fingers drifted lightly over the Grizni bracelet under my sleeve.

"Blessings of the hour upon you, my friend." Drogue beamed a smile that was completely genuine. "Truvgrol, isn’t it?"

The guard’s small eyes darted rapidly as he assessed our group. "Guardian! Blessings. Travel up?"

"It’s time for me to commune with my brothers on station, help in temple matters there. We have a wonderful Peyhar’s Week festival planned. One in the temple here, as well. Brother Frannard will be leading you."

"Frannard, yes!" The Takan’s shaggy head nodded. Evidently Frannard was a popular figure.

"Will you require our ID passes? You know Brother Sudral, Brother Ren Ackravaro. Sister Berri Solaria… I do apologize. Have you not met Sister Berri?"

I could almost feel the Taka’s gaze on me. My heart pounded in my ears. I steepled my hands in front of my face, bowed low. To a Taka. A few hours ago, I’d killed one.

Truvgrol mimicked my gesture. "Blessings," he growled out.

"Praise to the stars in the Abbot’s holy name. May fortune smile upon you this week, brother Truvgrol." I raised my head slightly, handed him my card. He passed it through the scanner, barely looking at it.

"Good journey, good journey." He waved us on.

I quietly let out a small sigh of relief.

We were similarly waved through three more checkpoints before we were admitted to the spaceport itself.

I pulled the hood of my robe closer. Even Drogue’s presence wasn’t completely reassuring now that I was in a closed building, with M.O.C. personnel hurrying back and forth through the gray-walled main terminal. Drogue nodded at faces I would only glimpse at, nodding as well.

"Praise the stars. Blessings of the hour." I kept my voice bland, uninteresting.

Sully had booked passage on one of the Chalford fleet supply ships, a squat short-hauler contracted to M.O.C. service. The ship had come in a few hours before; might even be the one that had punctuated my first conversation with Sully with its booming entry. The ship was berthed at Cargo Dock One.

Moabar Prison Spaceport had three docks; one passenger, two cargo. Dock One was down a short corridor the jutted off to the right. A solitary window just before the rampway afforded me my first view of the ship.

Chalford’s Lucky Seven was a B10-Class ‘load-up-and-go’, or ‘lugger’ as they were called in the freighter trade. Compact ships with dirtside capabilities, which the larger starfreighters lacked. What wasn’t cargo holds were engines; heavy-air and sub-light. Luggers had no jump drives.

And no passenger cabins. A ruddy-faced crewmember escorted us to the lounge. His suitpatch said Chalford Cargo Services. Wilard, P.— Navigation.

"Bulkhead seats got harnesses." He pointed to three pairs of fold-downs. "Don’t unstrap ‘til you hear the all-clear from the bridge."

I watched him leave. This is too easy. Much too easy. Pull a robe over my head, flash an ID card with a religious symbol, walk off Moabar and into freedom.

This is too easy. I chose a seat from the pair nearest the exit out of habit, folded down the armrests. My throat suddenly seemed dry, my hands cold.

This is too easy. I tried to think about what P. Wilard was doing on the bridge at nav. The captain would be running through his or her preflight, doing a last minute systems check. I knew the routine well.

But that little voice in the back of my mind wouldn’t shut up. This is too easy.

Sully unfolded the seat next to mine. "You’re frowning, Sister. Don’t tell me flying makes you nervous."

I was about to remind him of all the hours I’d logged at the helm when I realized our conversations might well be heard on the bridge. I answered as I hoped Sister Berri would. "I was trying to decide which of the Twelve Blessings I’d recite for our departure. Perhaps you have a suggestion, Brother Sudral?"

I snapped the harness across my chest. Sully glanced at Drogue and Ren on his right. Bright orange straps crisscrossed the front of their pale robes.

"I’m fine," Ren said.

Sully hadn’t asked. Ren must be used to Sully’s almost protective attitude by now, anticipated it. He stared straight ahead, one hand resting lightly on his cane tucked through the straps.

"I always enjoy the Blessing for Good Fortune through Purity of Effort," Drogue said. "Permit me to lead."

"That was about to be my suggestion as well." Sully turned back to me, dropped his voice to a low rasp. "However, perhaps later we could perform the lesser known Invocation for the Convergence of the Male and Female Physical Essences—"

Intraship chimed twice. It was followed by a man’s voice, sounding bored. "This is Captain Newlin. We’ve got clearance. Push-back coming up."

I closed my eyes, leaned my head back against the padding of the seat, waited for the jerk-and-thump as we were towed to the taxiway.

All hatches were sealed. Ship was secure. I was either headed for freedom or into a trap. Either way, there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it right now.

I listened to Drogue recite the blessing. Purity of Effort. I guess the road to — and from — Hell was paved with good intentions.

The tow disengaged from us at the taxiway with a final shimmy. The heavy-airs, which had been idling, were thrown to full. A muted roaring rumbled through the ship.

Then we were moving, rising, my back flattening into the seat.

I was free. Or I was dead…

 

 

 

GABRIEL’S GHOST will be released in paperback and ebook April 2002 from LTDBooks

www.ltdbooks.com

 

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