Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0765358441
Publisher: Tor Romantic Suspense
Pub. Date: February 5, 2008

Chapter One

Talk about unlucky missions. Everything that could go wrong had. One moment Azsla and her crew of four "fugitive" slaves had been on course for Zor, the next the starboard engine had thrown a rod through the hull. The spaceship had jolted, causing mechanical failure and damage, turning their systems inside out, slamming her crew into unconsciousness. The cosmic whammy had dealt them one hell of a beating, and she thanked Holy Vigo for the lifelong supply of salt that gave her strength and enabled her to remain alert.

The ship was currently powerless and drifting toward the portal that was supposed to have transported them to Zor and freedom. The lights flickered. With a snap of a toggle, Azsla cut 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 portal would now squash them flatter than a neutron particle.

By now, the backup system should have come on line automatically. Azsla initiated emergency procedures and flipped open the auxiliary engine panel. Twisting the manual override, she thrust the handle to starboard. But the reboot mechanism was also on the fritz. When no lights or controls lit up, licks of alarm shot down Azsla's back. Mother of Salt—a double cosmic whammy.

Keep it together. She'd drilled for emergency situations. Only this was no drill. They were in trouble. Bad trouble. And fear ignited in the pit of her gut like a retro rocket on nitro.

She checked her watch, then estimated the triple threat of time, distance, and mass. At the inescapable result—certain death—her scalp broke into a sweat. As a First of Rama, Azsla had been entitled to a life of privilege and all the strength-building salt she could swallow. But what should have been a life of luxury on Rama had been destroyed by a slave rebellion that had led to hundreds of thousands of slaves escaping their world to Zor, a planet in another solar system. To prevent further uprisings and retaliation from the slaves, she'd agreed to go to Zor to spy on them. She'd always known her mission required sacrifice and she'd accepted the danger of pretending to be an underfirst, a lowly slave, in order to assess what kind of weapons Zor was developing against Rama. But to succeed, she had to get to Zor.

Right now, that didn't seem likely. Or even possible. She glanced around at her still unconscious crew. She'd always thought she'd understood the risk of covert operations. When her superiors had cooked up this mission, she'd volunteered. After training for over half her life, the decision hadn't been a hard one. Fifteen years ago when she'd been thirteen, 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 knew it was over.

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

Aware that no Raman had ever succeeded in totally suppressing Quait, a First's ability to dominate, she'd undergone grueling years of training. She'd accepted she might never succeed—but 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. Reining herself in tight, she could now pass as one of them.

If her crew 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. And knowing any one of them would turn on a First to keep her away from Zor reminded her to keep up her guard. Always. While it had been surprisingly easy to leave behind her regimented existence where no one would miss her, she'd never considered that engine failure might kill her in this tin can before she'd even landed on Zor.

One by one, the systems went down. Artificial gravity failed. The air grew stale. And it was freezing cold, as if the heat wasn't just turned off in the past few moments but hadn't been on since liftoff three days ago. Azsla gripped the command console to maintain her position at her station and ignored the white air puffing from her mouth, the prickly bumps rising over her flesh, her body-racking shivers. Her unconscious crewmen floated away from their stations as the ship lost gravity.

"Anyone awake?"

Frozen, shocked, possibly injured, none of her crew answered. Apparently, they'd all stalled out on her. Yet, they weren't dead. Rak, her second in command, drew in choked breaths. Kali, the copilot and chief engineer, flailed on the ceiling, seeking leverage to alter his altitude.

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

"Report," she repeated, her voice lowering an octave as if ashes filled her mouth, her cold-numbed fingers flicking the damaged control toggles, frantic to restart the engines. Surely Jadlan or Micoo 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. After all, they were slaves.

Taking stock, she assessed their predicament with as much presence of mind as she could summon. Instant depressurization had collapsed the aft stabilizer. Her damage-weakened ship now spiraled end over end—straight toward hull-crushing forces that would terminate her mission—unless she found some miraculous way to steer clear.

Azsla ripped open the 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. Damn her crew. They should have responded by now.

Not that she was even close to normal. Her fingers trembled and she loathed her own weakness as much as that of the underfirsts who hadn't responded to her plea for information. Trying to fight down the fear, and with her gut doing a slow churn job, she battled fresh panic.

Easy. She was beginning to hate the empty brutality of space. Not that she was bitter. Sweet Vigo, people were supposed to live on planets where they didn't have to breathe recycled air, where every little mechanical failure wasn't life threatening, where a stray piece of dust didn't create lethal havoc with her ship's systems.

Trying to buy herself a little relief from pounding panic, Azsla attempted to dial down her emotion. She cornered it, squashed it. Beat it into submission. Pretend it's just another drill. After ten years of keeping her cool and suppressing her Quait, her spontaneous instinct to dominate should have been under control . . . yet, as the port fuel tank exploded, her natural inclinations to overpower kicked in. Hard. Every cell in her body ached to reach out and make the crew work as one. But even if she reverted to instinct and used her Quait to save all their lives by forcing them to fix the ship, her crew would then learn that she wasn't one of them. If they didn't kill her, she would wind up returning home in defeat. Sure, mind scrubbers could erase her crew's memories, but the corps didn't accept failure. Azsla would never get another shot at returning to Zor.

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

She was about to lose it and take over the will of every underfirst on board. With no time to talk herself down slowly, she popped a tranq, swallowing the pill without water. Immediately, the fire eased. The seething boil cut to a manageable simmer—thank you, Vigo. Of course, later, if she lived that long, she'd pay for relying on the tranq. If her superiors ever discovered she'd resorted to artificial tactics, it would put them off—enough to shut her down, boot her from the corps. But with the metal hull groaning, official consequences were the least of her problems.

The portal was sucking them in. Thanks to the tranq, her Quait settled and the need to dominate abated. Finally, praying to save the ship from annihilation, she struggled to route the last remaining battery power into the bow thrusters.

Her fingers manually keyed in instructions, and she regained her normal tone of voice. "Kali. What's doing?"

Kali groaned, opened his eyes, shoved off the ceiling and buckled into the copilot's seat. He slapped his flickering monitor. "Navigation's a bust. Hyperdrive's nonoperational. Engineering's off line. Life support's nonfunctional. Time to bail?"

Unless she could alter their direction, they'd have to abandon ship or be crushed four ways to summer solstice. However, the portal would draw in the sleeping pods, where, as long as the emergency batteries maintained the pods' shielding, they'd shoot straight through to Zor. Hopefully someone at the other end would pick up an automated distress signal—if not, they would drift in space, frozen. Forever. Not an appealing option, but neither was instant death.

Azsla jerked her thumb toward the safety pod. "Hit the air lock."

Although her crew often disappointed, not quite living up to her standards, they tried hard. And she wasn't cruel enough to dash their hopes and reveal they had little chance of survival, never mind escape. Of course, the corps never intended for her crew to achieve the freedom they sought. On 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 motherworld.

Kali unsnapped his safety harness, snagged Rak off the ceiling, and swam toward the rear. "Captain, you coming?"

"Just messing with the bow thrusters." She didn't exactly lie. Although she had little hope of cranking out a course alteration with the bow thrusters, she used the excuse to stay at the helm to secretly shoot the logs and a report of the disaster back to Rama, a last-ditch effort to inform the corps of their predicament. Notifying home was a calculated risk. Her crew believed they'd escaped Rama, when in actuality the government had allowed them to leave in order to insert Azsla into their midst. If any of them caught a whiff of what they'd consider betrayal, there was no telling if she could handle them after swallowing that tranq.


At Kali's sharp tone, Azsla stiffened. Had he seen her dispatch the log? Despite the tranq, she couldn't conceal the edge to her voice. "Yes?"

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

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

Kali soared through the control cabin into the ship's bowels. She heard him pop open the pods along with the terrified voices of her crew. So the others had awakened. She shouldn't be thinking about them. Slaves were easily replaced. Weak. A waste of salt.

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

Finally, she shunted the last of the power into the boosters.

Done. She turned and shields began to go down. The injured hull squealed in agony, the tearing of metal a death knell. Diving for the escape pod, she overshot her mark. Kali snatched her by the ankle, saving her from a painful smack into the bulkhead.

"Thanks." She seized a handhold and righted herself. He'd already stuffed Jadlan, Micoo, and Rak into the pods and ejected them through the air lock.

"Ready to bounce?"

"Absolutely." Totally on board with the plan, she slapped the button to open her sleeper. Kali slid into the last remaining pod.

She tensed her muscles to do the same. Only her pod didn't open. "What the frip?" she swore. All hell was about to come down on the ship and she nailed the button mechanism again with her fist.

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

This was insane. Surely every freaking system on the ship couldn't fail . . . unless someone had sabotaged the mission. But who? If the slaves had known about her subterfuge, they would have killed her, or died trying. Not even they would have vandalized the entire ship. And she had no other enemy. The corps wanted her to succeed.

The delay didn't seem to faze Kali. Instead of ejecting, he moved smoothly, climbing from his pod. "Let me." Picking up a wrench, he slapped the release button.

"It's no good." She pointed to the hull that had caved, crushing her pod, the metal cross brace obstructing the release mechanism from firing properly.

The hull howled like a wild beast, the last of the shields failing. From the ship's bowels, the engines rumbled like a volcano about to erupt. Before she could issue an order, Kali picked her up, slipped her into his pod, and closed the canopy with a click of finality. Hit the eject button.

Her last sight of him floored her. He seemed at peace. Eyes closed, his lips moved, and if she hadn't known better, he'd appeared to be praying. At peace with his death.

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

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

And she hadn't even used her Quait. She closed her fingers into fists. Kali had meant nothing to her. His saving her had been the right thing to do, of course. There were millions of slaves. Only a few thousand Firsts. 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 a new life on Zor. Marry. Have children. His dreams would never have happened because of her mission . . . but Kali hadn't known that.

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

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

But if Kali's selfless sacrifice didn't matter, then why was her vision blurred? Why were tears freezing on her cheeks?