Nothing can stop freelance thief Sasha Smirnov from saving her planet—except the gorgeous ambassador with polychrome eyes. Is it lust or designer pheromones? He is hot, too hot to resist—or forget.
No day was a good day to die. Today was no exception.
Footfalls of Pinkerton security forces echoed ever louder in the spaceport’s sterile, wide passageway, converging on S
Sasha. She sprinted faster, lungs and leg muscles burning with the effort in her mad race to outrun them. Dammit—dammit all to hell. Damn the scientist who’d walked in while she was downloading the retrovirus model from Centor’s main computer. She forced back the mounting panic that twisted her stomach. He’d sounded the alarm before she could knock him unconscious. That was the one piece of bad luck that might get her killed on this mission.
A doorway materialized on the right. She plunged through it onto an open catwalk high above empty space. A bone-vibrating hum ripped through her. Sasha slowed, the gecko-grip soles of her boots making a snicking sound as she stutter-stepped to a jog. A roar filled her ears and she winced at the throb that pounded in her head in sync with the wild beat of her heart. She shook her head against a sense of light-headedness, and her surroundings snapped into focus.
No railing bordered the ribbon-like walkway, which spanned a room that stretched almost to infinity. What was this place? On each side of the catwalk, dim light emanated from a dozen giant warp generators made of pulsing blue rods. Surrounded by coils of opalescent crystal, the rods rose like huge springs from the dim depths below and disappeared out of sight.
She veered left and peered over the edge into a bottomless gray abyss. She slowed even more. Infinite space inside a spaceport? Impossible. Her pulse jumped. She stopped and stared. It couldn’t be. Sasha slid her gaze up the rods until they disappeared into the infinite space above. Yet it was. Excitement flared in the pit of her stomach.
This was the heart of the star-drive she’d broken half a dozen galactic laws to find. She gazed around in astonishment. All along, it had been right here at the center of the spaceport.
A laser pulse sizzled past and hit the platform inches ahead of her, kicking up a shower of sparks. Sasha spun and dropped, yanking the Omegatron from her hip holster as she landed on her belly facing the direction the shots had been fired. Three Pinkertons in battle armor piled through the opening. They fired, their shots going wide.
She aimed. Zot. Zot. Zot. Three quick shots, three recoils from the Omegatron, and three Pinkertons collapsed onto the walkway. More would follow, and soon, now that they’d pinpointed her location. She had to get video of the warp drive and get off Centor. Sasha pushed to her feet and, touching a stud on her weapon, activated the record feature of its built-in camera.
Winded and still shaky, she raised the Omegatron and pointed the camera at the rods. “I hope you get all this, Newton.” She darted a glance at the empty doorway, then ran the Omegatron’s aim-point up and down the power rods.
Hope—the first she’d felt since news broke that the sun her homeworld, Magnus 3, orbited was going unstable—rose in a sudden rush that tightened her chest. She snorted a laugh. All her hard work and planning, yet dumb luck had thrown her into a room she hadn’t known existed. Talk about lucky. Damn, incredibly lucky. Warp-field coils this big weren’t thought to exist. Technology imbued in a warp generator that huge could save Magnus.
Sasha terminated the recording and reholstered the weapon as she sprinted toward what she prayed was an exit on the far side of the walkway. If this wasn’t a way out, she and her planet were finished.
As if she were running on a moving walkway, the catwalk zipped under her feet at unbelievable speed. No sense of acceleration weighed against her body, but the far end zoomed closer. She came to an abrupt halt a meter from the opening.
She glanced back, startled to see that the other end looked a kilometer or more away, ten times farther than she had run. As with all warp fields, this one disrupted perception, but on a monumental scale. Unexpected tears stung the corners of her eyes. Magnus 3 stood a real chance at survival—if she got out with the video intact.
More Pinkertons appeared in the far end doorway. Two scrambled over the bodies of the three unconscious Pinks and fell flat, while two more halted behind them, holding their fire. She couldn’t help a condescending laugh. They feared hitting the coils and didn’t want her to return fire.
Sasha drew and fired twice: Zot. Zot. Bolts sizzled across the expanse as she holstered the weapon and sped through the opening into a shiny metal corridor. She skidded to a halt, glanced left, then right. The empty corridor curved out of sight in both directions, as if wrapping around the generator room she had just crossed.
Which way? Which way? Her gut said left. She turned right. Nothing had gone as planned on this mission. Sasha slowed to a quick stride as if late for a meeting, but anyone who recognized the Omegatron strapped to her thigh wouldn’t be fooled. This was what she got for carrying a weapon that wasn’t standard issue on any planet in the empire. Omega radiation was the cutting edge of weaponry. She’d won the oversize pistol with the lucky draw of a straight flush instead of sitting on a pair of aces. That was the kind of luck someone like her needed. But she believed in making her own luck.
Sasha slid the zipper on her bodysuit down and exposed enough cleavage so that a man would stair at her chest and wouldn’t pay attention to her gun. Upsizing her breasts to double-Ds might have been the smartest move she’d made on this mission.
Numerous footfalls running in double time echoed from around the curve behind her. She glanced back and startled at sight of a woman dressed much like her, standing in front of a door and staring in the direction of the commotion. The door in front of the woman swished open and Sasha quickened her pace around the curve before the woman could face forward and see her.
A man waiting for an elevator came into view up ahead. Sasha slowed. A nervous flutter closed around her heart. If the Pinks got too close, she might be able to use this man. His golden hair cut precisely at the nape of his neck gave him a surgical look that didn’t—couldn’t—detract from broad shoulders emphasized by the fashionable lime green Nauru jacket he wore. He stood a head taller than her one and three-quarter meters. A triwheeled robot like those ambassadors used as aides waited two paces behind him.
The man shifted and Sasha slid the bodysuit zipper down another fraction of an inch as he turned. The bot followed suit, stupidly mimicking the movement. The man’s gaze met hers and her breath caught. The ambassador either wore contacts or had surgically implanted chrome irises, but the polychrome eyes that followed her approach didn’t disguise the intense stare. Despite the fact her breasts strained against her suit, his gaze never wavered from her face. Damn her luck. She’d encountered the only male on Centor who had morals.
The footfalls of the Pinkertons behind her grew louder and more footfalls sounded from around the curve ahead. She flicked a glance down the corridor. No doors or branching hallways were visible, only the elevator that hadn’t yet arrived. Her pulse spiked. Trapped.
Sasha slowed to a stroll, the ambassador’s gaze still fastened on her. She could almost see herself in his eyes. Centorians were known for being loose. She was about to test just how loose. Sasha stepped up to him, seized his lapel-less jacket, and pulled him down so they were face-to-face. If nothing else, she was an opportunist.
Lips crashed onto lips. His were firm, hers demanding. She pressed closer, her pistol nestled out of sight of any passer-bys, and drove him back against the intersection between the elevator and the wall. His tongue touched the seam of her lips. She startled. Well, well, her savior was an opportunist too, and not so moral after all. She thrust her tongue into his mouth. Moist warmth tasted faintly of anise and green tea. Desire rippled through her.
A low groan rolled from his chest and straight into her sex. His erection stirred against her belly. Oh yes. She rose on tiptoes, and he bent. Undulating her hips, she envisioned his solid cock sliding between her legs. Firm hands cupped her ass, and her breath caught when he lifted her more intimately against the promised goods. Lust pooled in her belly.
A formation of ten uniformed Pinkertons rounded the curve as five more came running around the other side. Watching the reflection in the ambassador’s chrome irises of the scene behind her, Sasha saw none of them wore battle armor. They weren’t the ones looking for her, but were probably running to some other emergency. They rushed past without giving her and the ambassador—Hey! The ambassador was staring back at her.
She narrowed her eyes, not breaking the kiss. He clenched her ass and pulled her tighter. The feel of his hard cock sent waves of warmth pooling between her legs. Gods, he knew how to kiss. She pressed closer. The Pinkertons passed out of sight an instant before he closed his eyes, and another moan reverberated through his chest. That was more like it. Now if she could just keep him busy until—
The elevator dinged. The ambassador released one hand but kept a tight hold on her with the other. The elevator doors began their slide open, wedging her body deeper into the corner between the door and the wall. Sasha ripped away from his grasp, her breath coming in heavy gasps. He jerked upright, her gun gripped in his right hand. The elevator doors slid open to reveal an empty interior. They were alone, and he had her Omegatron leveled on her, his mirror eyes expressionless.
Sasha stared. How had he taken the weapon so smoothly? Panic flushed her body warm. The recording of the coils was on the gun. Without the data Newton couldn’t—she shoved aside the fear and reached forward. He remained motionless as a statue when she pressed a palm against the bulge in his pants. For an instant, she thought she’d miscalculated, then he pulsed beneath her hand.
Eyes locked with his, she stroked his rigid tool. A tick jumped in his jaw and she went in for the kill and traced a steady finger around the mushroom tip. “We weren’t finished, were we?”
He gave a tiny shudder. She grabbed the pistol’s barrel, twisted it from his hand, and sidestepped into the elevator, the weapon now trained on the spot where her hand had just rested. Gaze glued to those mirrored eyes, she slapped the top-floor button, then the Door Close button. The man stood frozen as she eased back until shoulder met wall. Her unwilling knight disappeared behind the closing doors, and she released a very very slow breath.
The elevator accelerated upward, adding a sinking feeling to the quiver in her belly. Sasha tightened her grip on the Omegatron as the elevator spoke in Centorian what she assumed were the floor numbers. A ghostly sensation of his erection still pressed against her hip made her feel woozy. Of all the things gone wrong on this mission that was the thing making her legs wobbly? Sasha ran the back of her free hand across her forehead. She was flushed. Was the ambassador wearing some kind of pheromone cologne? His taste, the faint tang of anise, still lingered on her tongue. She’d never experienced such an intense reaction. Had to be designer pheromones, which would explain how he’d gotten his hands on her Omegatron.
She looked at the weapon. Had she gotten enough of a recording for Newton? She was a mercenary, fetching information for the highest bidder, and didn’t know a neutron from a quark, but Newton did. His degree in quantum mechanics would enable him to translate the recording into something the scientists on Magnus 3 could work with. A warp field like the giants she’d just discovered would shield the entire planet. The thought almost made her giddy with excitement. No more hard radiation reaching the surface of Magnus. No more Aurora Borealis almost as bright as the midday sun in winter. The planet would be saved for at least a few more generations. The technology would bring the government’s plan for evacuation to an end.
Panic rose as it first had upon learning of the purported evacuations. Millions of women and children would go first, reassigned to class-three planets, where they would remain as refugees until they could find planets willing to allow immigration. The elderly and infirm were next. Her father would be on one of those transports, which meant he’d lose his sanity within a year. Until someone found a cure for the disease that kept the chemical balance of his brain reliant upon the magnetic environment of Magnus 3, she had to be sure he stayed there.
But she’d found the answer. Sasha released another slow breath. Hard to believe, but that scientist sounding the alarm was the best piece of luck she’d ever had in her life. Without the Pinks chasing her, she wouldn’t have ducked into that room. Theories about what protected Centor from its sun ranged from naturally occurring isotopes in the planet’s core to more exotic dark-energy projectors.
Her hand fisted before she realized the anger had surfaced. All along, the answer had been technology that could save at least a dozen planets in this sector alone, and the Centorians had kept it a secret. Her stomach tensed. The Centorians wouldn’t be punished for hiding lifesaving technology, while she would be branded an outlaw for stealing the retrovirus model.
Sasha slipped a finger inside her cleavage, felt the thumbnail-size memory chip with the file she’d stolen nestled inside her bra, and zipped her suit back up to the neck. Lose that, and her ass belonged to Orson. For five years, he’d tried to get a piece of her ass—literally. The fifty percent advance he’d given her was gone, spent on the ship, bribes, and her father’s medical bills. Returning empty-handed would give Orson the chance to fuck her every which way he could. She’d rather die first. But that option still left her father and her planet doomed.
The elevator eased to a stop. The guard on duty at every elevator was real and armed. As the doors slid open, she held her weapon at ready and flattened against the narrow section of wall in front of the buttons. Sounds of moving equipment, the hiss of high-pressure hoses, workmen’s shouts, and tools clanging indicated she had reached the docks. Two heavy footsteps moved toward the elevator. She held her breath and sent up a prayer that no one would enter to investigate and force her to blast them into the next world.
No one entered and, with her free hand, Sasha reached behind her back and pressed the Door Open button to keep the door from automatically shutting. She edged forward until she could peer around the opening edge. Fifteen feet to the right, a guard stood beside a barrel being wheeled by a three-legged species of reptile—a Dacktorian, judging from the red crest of skin it wore pulled back into a ponytail.
The two were arguing about some object the guard held that looked like a chainsaw on an articulating arm. Their backs faced her, though that didn’t mean the Dacktorian couldn’t see her if it tilted its head. The skin-ponytail covered a third eye set in the back of its head, a style in deference to humans who populated most of this sector of the galaxy.
She glanced around the dock, saw no one was paying attention to the open elevator, then sidled through the door and ducked behind a Poly-tech crate big enough to hide her and five other people, yet low enough to peer over.
The loading dock extended several hundred meters in three directions. A destroyer, two cruisers, a space barge, various tugs, and a dozen pleasure vehicles, including hers, crowded the spaceport’s massive floor.
Sasha inched to the far side of the crate. Her deathtrap of a ship sat between two cruisers fifty meters to the left. The Pinks were sure to have alerted the dock to her presence and no ships would get off Centor without full clearance—which meant her ship was useless. However, she would bet the ship sitting nearest her to the left was another story. The late-model Dasinger-Wong M-type runabout was a fine looking ship; squat and pointy in the front, rounded in the rear, and shaped like a giant watermelon seed. She had crewed on a similar model a few years ago.
Originally designed to be piloted by three or four people, the M-type had two matrix-drive pods slung from the underbelly like two pontoons, and the owner had added a warp coil to the roof that was almost as big as the ship. With pods and coil, that ship could travel the shipping lanes of the matrix or go deep space like a Dolphinious Rexon that could fly above the clouds or dive five miles to the ocean floor. The Dasinger-Wong was a top-of-the-line ship, and the
open ramp meant they were preparing for take off. That was an invitation Sasha couldn’t refuse.
Recharge conduits snaked from outlets in an open deck hatch to the ship’s underbelly, indicating the ship was preparing to get underway, but she couldn’t simply waltz from behind the crate and onto the ship. Many of the dock workers carried weapons, so the Omegatron slung low in its hip holster would fit in just fine—but her formfitting suit would get her unwanted attention.
She scanned the dock and spotted an alcove in the shadows next to the elevator with white antistatic coveralls hanging from hooks. The elevator on the opposite wall opened and the woman Sasha had seen earlier stepped onto the dock. She turned right and started toward a small cruiser that sat in the far corner. Sasha’s mind snapped to attention. Earlier, Sasha had glimpsed her for little more than an instant and hadn’t given her any thought. Now, however, Sasha was sure the woman wasn’t as relaxed as her leisurely pace indicated.
She reached the cruiser and sauntered up the gangplank—just as Sasha planned to do on the Dasinger. Then the woman cast a covert glance cast in the guard’s direction. What was she hiding from? The voice of the Dacktorian rose to a screech. Sasha yanked her gaze back to him. He was pointing furiously at a document he held in front of the guard’s face. The guard shifted, his back to the Dacktorian as he rifled through the contents of the barrel, and shook his head.
Now was the time. Forget the woman, forget everything but getting off Centor. Sasha whirled toward the alcove and ducked inside, pulling a pair of overalls off their hook as she went. She quickly unstrapped the Omegatron, then slid her legs into the overalls and pulled them up and over her body. A second later, she restrapped the weapon to her hip and stepped from the alcove looking like any other dock workers about to dig inside a ship’s core computer system or sensor electronics.
She strolled toward the runabout. The ramp was ten meters away when Mr. Slick Dick emerged with another man from an elevator to the right of the ship. Her heart rate kicked into warp drive. This was it. She was caught. Sasha shifted her hand onto the Omegatron.
Still in conversation with his companion, the man shifted slightly as if looking in her direction. Polychrome eyes seemed to stare through and beyond her. He moved alongside the other man and didn’t break his stride. Sasha reached the Dasinger’s ramp and continued up with a promise to give up at least one vice if fortune would grant the wish that no one be aboard the ship.
She stepped onto the Dasinger and glanced over her shoulder to see Mr. Slick Dick had stopped and was in conversation with the other man and a dock worker. His chrome stare looked through the man he spoke with. Those damned eyes had fooled her. He hadn’t seen her after all. Maybe one of the gods of fortune had taken pity on her after all.
Inside, the entryway split left and right. Both hallways would meet at the ship’s bridge up front. She headed right. A door came into view ahead on the right. Coming abreast of the door, she glanced both ways down the hall. Then, right hand on the holstered Omegatron, she pressed the button on the right side of the door.
The door slid open and the light switched on as Sasha stepped inside. Pieces of equipment including boarding hooks, two spacesuits, a toolbox, magnetic grapples, compressed-air canisters, and a spark arrester hung on the walls or sat on a workbench lining the back wall. An equipment locker stood where the repair shop had been on the M-type she’d been on.
Sasha peered out the door, glanced left, then right, and headed back down the hallway to a second door. She stopped in front of what she figured was another storage room, then grasped the butt of the Omegatron and jabbed the button on the wall. The doors swooshed open in unison with the light flaring to life. She ducked inside. Lining the room from floor to ceiling were more cabinets and sealed, marked containers that held coffee, sugar, spices, dried meat, instant drinks, napkins, mixes, PFRT—whatever that was—and various other dry goods.
She hesitated. No one was likely to enter this room until after takeoff. If she hid here until the ship was underway, she could guarantee getting off Centor. With any luck, the ship would take off soon. Once out of Centor’s system, she would find out what she was up against.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Sasha rose from the metal container she’d been sitting on and headed for the door. Too much time had passed with no sense of movement. If Centor had stopped all departures, they might start searching ships. Though more likely, the ship’s owners would enter the storeroom to inventory the goods.
She pulled the Omegatron from its holster and pushed the button to open the door. Silence reigned from the other side. She leaned forward and scanned the hallway. Empty. She hurried from the room. Another door came into view up ahead on the left. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Things were too quiet. She reached the door and pressed the button.
As expected, the door opened into a stateroom. Sasha ducked inside. The room contained a double bed with covers tucked so tight and sharp, the mattress looked like it had never been slept on. Beside the door sat a built-in dresser and mirror. She opened the drawers and found them empty.
A small storage closet sat in the far left corner beside a compact bathroom with a zero-G shower, sink, and toilet. In one corner of the bathroom was a fold-up desk and computer terminal, which she manually powered down so it couldn’t be activated remotely. She found no clothes, toiletry items, hair, scales, or feathers, and no hidden cameras. By all indications, the room had never been used.
Distant mechanical and metal-on-metal sounds jerked her attention toward the door. She stared for a long moment, the sudden pounding of her heart the only thing she heard, then blew out a breath. About time. With any luck, the ship would be leaving soon or was already underway. She glanced around the room. What could be more perfect than to stowaway in an unused stateroom? This beat sitting on that hard crate in the storage room.
Sasha locked the door, then stripped off the coveralls and drew the zipper of her bodysuit down to her navel. The skintight suit’s millipore fabric made it breathe like skin, allowed perfect freedom of movement, and made her look damn good, but it had no pockets and constricted her breasts. She stepped into the bathroom, stopped in front of the mirror, and ran her fingers through her short hair, fluffing up what she could, given the weighty coating of dried perspiration. Maybe she would keep the shade of mahogany once the mission was over. The highlights went well with the opal, almost colorless sheen of the suit. The dark red in her hair even complemented the little pink rose that hid the catch between bra cups.
A low vibration, like a subsonic hum she didn’t recognize, began. Sasha paused and concentrated on the sound. Feedback between two different types of engines, maybe? She left the bathroom, crossed to the door, and checked the lockout code. Still sealed. A plane of force, like a plate of glass with green swirling lights, emerged from the wall by the door.
She jumped back, then took several more paces back as the wall of green inched toward her. What the hell was the thing? A disintegrator field to kill rats and other vermin? Maybe a sterilizer against alien microbes and bugs? Either one would kill stowaways. Her pulse spiked. The damn thing was between her and the only exit.
She backed away as the death wall inched forward. It extended from floor to ceiling and both walls, effortlessly formed itself around obstructions, then snapped back into place. Her calves contacted with the bed. The plane of force penetrated into every nook and cranny.
Sasha darted a glance at the door on the other side of the green wall. Sweat broke out across her forehead. Maybe she could short it out or open a hole. She drew the Omegatron and fired at the wall’s glowing center. The pulse hit, then vanished. No sparks, no sound. The green swirls remained unchanged. Her heart pounded. What kind of force field could do that to Omega radiation?
Fighting panic, she sidled around the bed and backed up until her shoulder blades met the wall. The thing advanced, swept through the bed, closer…closer. Blood roared in her ears as she pressed against the wall. The force field couldn’t be deadly, could it? No warning or alarm had been given before the scan began. That was a law, wasn’t it? An alarm always had to sound when a deadly field was triggered?
The force field closed in.
Sasha turned her head to the side, cheek pressed to the wall. She choked back tears. Centor’s secret of warp-field technology would die with her. Dad.
The green field made contact.