"Captain, we aren't alone."
Angel Taylor peered at the Raven's viewscreen and frowned. Another starship had just exited hyperspace, their heading a straight vector toward the Vagan ship she was after. Apparently, the Raven wasn't the only scavenger ship on a salvage foray. "Raise engine speed ten percent."
"We're already redlining," Petroy, her first officer informed her, but just as she knew he would, he increased their speed. The Raven's engines vibrated up from engineering, pulsed through the deck of the bridge beneath Angel's feet, reverberated through her bones.
Ignoring the assorted rattles and moans of her equipment, Angel gritted her teeth and peered at the viewscreen where a panorama of stars served as a backdrop for the asteroid belt that had trapped the abandoned ship she intended to salvage. "Just once, I wish the information we purchased could be both accurate and confidential."
Yet, despite the competition, she had to secure the Vagan ship first. Losing the salvage to a rival wasn't an option. Due to lack of funds, her ship's safety inspection was five months overdue. In fact, the Raven's engines needed a complete overhaul, and if Angel failed to procure the derelict ship, she faced the humiliation of being groundeda fate she'd avoided for the last eight years since she'd won the Raven in a gambling joint back on Earth.
When she'd first acquired the Raven, it hadn't been safe to fly out of orbit, but Angel had rewelded the hull and reprogrammed the computer systems herself. She'd lucked out on her first run, finding and securing the salvage rights to a wrecked Venus-to-Earth transport ship, which she'd sold back to the mining company that had built her, earning enough profit to take on a crew and enough fuel to leave the solar system. Since then, Angel had never looked back, roaming the galaxy in search of abandoned space vessels, in hopes of one day finding the mother lode, a haul so rich she could afford to buy a ship that wasn't older than Petroy. Meanwhile, she enjoyed the hunt. The freedom of space and being her own boss suited hereven when her ship's system fell apart around her.
Leaning eagerly over the vidscreen, Angel increased the magnification. The abandoned ship ahead tumbled like a glinting piece of quartz among lumps of coal. She wasn't the mother lode, but was still a prize all right, rotating end over end in space, its once shiny hull now pitted and partially charred at the stern. The bow appeared undamaged and perfect for salvage. Angel could scrap the hull for metal and the tonnage alone would keep the Raven in fuel for several months. If she got lucky, the hulk still possessed its old engine intact and electronics in the bow section that might bring enough to pay her small crew their back wages, too.
But her competition surged forward across the starscape in a streaming ribbon of light, making a beeline for her prize. Space laws were clear, albeit not always obeyed in the vast reaches between civilized worlds where enforcement tended to be sketchy. Yet, according to Federation law, the first salvage operator who attached their clutch beam to the hull possessed retrieval rights.
"Turn on recorders to verify the clutch and grab." Angel didn't want to risk arriving first on the scene, only to later lose a court battle.
The Raven had to secure the other shipor Angel and her crew might end up dirtside slinging hash to keep their bellies full. If only she could have afforded to purchase those new hyper drive engines she'd seen on starbase ten, she'd be assured of arriving first and securing salvage rights. But due to her perennial lack of funds, she'd had to settle for a retro fitting instead of a complete overhaul.
"They still have the edge, Captain. At current speed," Petroy her first officer spoke crisply, "they'll beat us to the Vagan ship."
"No, they won't. Inject the booster fuel into the engines."
Petroy's squat body shuddered and his sturdy shoulders shrugged. "Captain"
"You want to spend the next year dirtside?"
"Better to live on a planet than blast ourselves into the ever after."
"That's where we disagree." She'd spent the first twenty years of life on Earth and had had enough of their perfect society to last a lifetime. She couldn't breathe on Earth without violating some ordinance or other. Stars, she couldn't even listen to the music she liked without some botcop knocking on her door and handing her a ticket for violation of noise control.
"I'd prefer to live another five hundred years," Petroy spoke dryly.
She ignored his sarcasm. Her fingers danced over the console to check on the condition of a volatile mixture of fuel she'd found on a dead space station last year and had saved for an emergency. "The booster fuel should get us there first."
"Yeah, but its chemical formula has destabilized. Will we still be in one piece after you"
She didn't have time to argue. With a quick flick of her hand, she coded in the sequence that would open a valve and mix the dangerous propellant with their normal fuel.
"Captain, I must protest."
"Sorry, Petroy." She spoke cheerfully, thoroughly enjoying the race. "If you don't want to stay, eject in the shuttle pod and I'll pick you up on the return."
Petroy showed all his teeth, the Juvanian attempt at a smile. "I wouldn't miss the ride, Captain. I only felt it my duty to"
She injected the fuel and like a junky with a fix, the Raven burst forward with renewed energy and a speed that would have flattened her if she hadn't been wearing her suit. Every Federation citizen wore a suit, made by machinery left by an ancient race called the Perceptive Ones. Directed by psi power, the suit protected her from high acceleration, filtered her air, clothed her, bathed her and took care of all wastes. It allowed her to move, in short bursts, at the speed of thought and could induce a state of null grav.
When the Raven accelerated, Angel automatically used her psi to adjust her suit. The soles of her boots locked onto the deck. She also strengthened the shielding against the tremendous G forces.
The Raven's hull rumbled in protest. The deck plating arched below her feet until she feared it might buckle. The viewscreens moaned and vibrated.
She held her breath and clenched the console. "We're gaining on them."
"Preparing to engage clutch beam." Petroy laughed, a high-pitched sound that had once grated on her nerves but now she'd learned to enjoy. Petroy was an acquired taste, usually appearing all staid and severe but at heart, he loved taking risks, although he'd never admit it.
She tensed. "On my mark."
It was going to be close. But in her heart, she knew this salvage was hers. The abandoned ship was calling to her like a first lover bent on a reunion.
Timing would be critical. If she waited too long to activate the beam, the delay could cost her the prize and the other ship would beat them to it. But if she deployed too soon, the beam would disperse, lose power and fail to grab the spinning hull.
Her computer could calculate the particle density of the asteroid belt, the ships' speed and the vectors, but no computer could estimate her competitor's accuracy without knowing the individual captain, the make and model of the other starship or how much risk they were willing to take to capture the hulk themselves. Angel used her instincts, instincts that had won her the Raven with a pair of fours when she sensed her opponent across the card table was bluffing, instincts that had told her to help a stowaway Terran singer instead of turning her over to the men hunting her during her last run, instincts that told her that the Vagan ship was meant to be hers.
"Captain?" Petroy prodded.
"Not yet. The Vagan ship is heavy. She's spinning. And we're still at the outermost reach of the clutch beam."
"The other ship just deployed their beam. They locked on target."
Angel bit back a curse. Her competitor's beam flashed across space like skimmer headlights in a foggy storm. And just like a fog that dimmed, distance scattered the clutch beam's power. The derelict ship kept tumbling.
"Stay ready. They don't have her locked in, yet."
Angel held her breath, searching for signs the spin was slowing. But like an out-of-control top, the hulk kept tumbling. "They're losing her."
"Wait." Her competitor would have to recharge their beam, which would buy the Raven could buy extra time. And at their speed, every extra second narrowed the distance by thousands of miles. "Load the beam."
"Lock on target."
"Steady. Steady. Now."
Their clutch beam shined through space, a bright beacon of good timing and skill. The Raven's force field captured the spinning ship and slowed the wild rotations.
"Got her. She's locked and latched."
Satisfaction flowed through Angel like sweet Frelle, a rare spice manufactured on only one world in the galaxy. And now she looked forward to her favorite part of her work, boarding her prize to see exactly what she'd taken.
"YOU SHOULD WAIT to make sure our competition has left for good before venturing out of the Raven." Petroy's warning had come over the com system as she'd headed to the shuttle bay, but she could hear the excitement in his tone and knew he'd trade places with her in a heartbeat.
As captain, she sometimes allowed him first right of inspection. But this time, she wanted to go herself. The tight race had fired her imagination, the urge to board her prize so strong that her blood hummed with excitement. She climbed into the shuttle and ignited her engine, shooting away from the Raven, pleased to see the Vagan ship caught in their clutch beam like a macro fly in a Debubian spider web.
Her second team, Frie and Leval, still slept through the shift, but would awaken soon and take over for her and Petroy. But first she intended to take an inventory of their catch.
"How's she look?" Petroy pretended to be worried but his tone of impatience told her he was as eager to hear good news as she was to give it.
"Good. The metal alone should keep the Raven flying for a few more months."
"And," he prodded.
She flew a slow perimeter check. "From the char marks, it looks as if an explosion took out the stern. Perhaps they lost shielding and collided with an asteroid."
"What's wrong?" Petroy asked, perhaps sensing her tone wasn't as jubilant as he'd expected. Or perhaps he just knew how to read her better than she wanted to acknowledge.
Although the evidence of disaster had occurred a long time ago and she didn't even know what race of beings had been on board, she still hoped they'd escaped unharmed. The ship had likely been tumbling for years. Yet the hair on her arms prickled, as if in warning of danger.
"Are sensors picking up any contaminants on board?"
"She's as clean as a hyperdrive engine."
"Nothing. There's not so much as a nano enzyme clinging to the food processors. Why?"
She tried to shrug away the tightness between her shoulder blades. "I don't know. But I feel . . ."
". . . as if something's waiting for me in there."
"Then don't go in."
She appreciated his concern, but they both knew she wouldn't turn back now. "I'm armed. And the sensors are well calibrated."
"Machines can make mistakes."
"My instincts might be wrong," she countered.
"And when was the last time you were wrong?"
Angel flew under the belly, taking extra care to look for any details that appeared out of place. Giant mawing holes in the hull and ports gaped where the crew had popped safety pods and abandoned ship, a sign they'd safely escaped. Most of the damage had probably occurred after they'd left and when tiny asteroids had collided with the hull.
While inspecting every exterior inch, she tried to calm her racing pulse. Her instincts were extraordinary. She had a knack for finding trouble. Of being in the exact right place at the right timewhere things happened. If she'd been into sports, she would have been the star player, the one who always seemed to be around the ball during a critical play. If she'd been in the military, she would have been the general on the front, in the exact location where the enemy attacked. And as a scavenger, her success rate was phenomenal, considering the equipment she had to work with.
However, when her scalp prickled and anticipation rolled in her gut, when her fingers itched on her blaster trigger for no damn reason that she could discern, like right now, she'd learned to be extra careful. Angel had even read up on the phenomena. Supposedly her subconscious picked up signals her brain couldn't specifytiny signals that her conscious mind couldn't see or hear or notice, but ones that could still broadcast loud and clear to her subconscious.
Thousands of tiny pockmarks indicated the ship had been out here and subjected to asteroid debris and solar dust for many years. When she hauled the salvaged ship into Dakmar, a moon orbiting a gaseous planet with no life forms, she doubted the recent owners would quibble over ownership. Back in the central Federation, she'd have to fill out endless computer forms and wait for the authorities to track down the original owners to ensure she hadn't attacked the ship just to gain salvage rights. But Dakmar existed in a less traveled region of the Federation, where laws weren't as stringent. The strongest and the fittest and the smartest ran Dakmaran efficient system that would allow her to turn a tidy profit without a long wait for authentication of salvage rights. She might eventually earn more on a Federation world, but the down time would erode the extra profit.
"Talk to me." Petroy's voice pulled her from her thoughts.
"I'm taking the flitter through a blast hole in the belly." She came through the damaged hull in a cloud of dust. Her exterior landing lights revealed an empty dock and she set down with no problems.
"Shuttle bay appears empty."
She'd expected no less. Still she couldn't keep the disappointment from her tone. It would have been wonderful to find a stash of cargo, starfire gemstones from Kenderon IV or ice crystals from Ellas Prime or even a case of Zenonite brandy. But the bay had either been picked clean a long time ago or the Vagan ship flown empty.
Angel kept her blaster handy and popped her hatch. "I'm going for a look. "Engaging vidcamera."
Now Petroy could see what she saw, which wasn't much. Lots of twisted gray bendar, a metal manufactured to protect starships against hyperdrive forces. She placed a portable light on her head, another on her wrist.
As well as clothing her, her suit allowed her to breathe in space, kept her boots on the deck with artificial gravity and encased her body in normal pressure. She didn't have to worry about solar radiation, but the possibility of her competitors returning was always a concern. While Petroy would notify her if they reappeared and then she should have plenty of time to fly back to the Raven, she sensed the danger coming from within, not outside.
Straining to listen for any strange noises, she forced air into her lungs. Absolute silence closed around her like a tomb. She couldn't open her suit to sniff the air, but from the charred hull, she imagined the odor of old dust and the lingering scent of burnt metal.
Reaching a hatch, she popped the handle. The door creaked open. She shined her light into a corridor, expecting dead bodies or more wreckage. But it was empty.
She passed quickly by the galley and crew quarters and, in search of electronics, turned toward where she estimated the bridge to be. Along the way she admired the heavy metal plating of the interior walls that would bring a tidy profit on Dakmar. The cargo ship had been built like a fortress, and she suspected only a total systems failure could have left her so vulnerable to whatever disaster had befallen them.
She caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye, a shade or shape that didn't belong. Instantly, she raised her blaster and peered into the gloom, but saw nothing, not even a shadow.
Her mouth went dry as moon dust. "Who's there?"
Petroy's tone lowered in concern. "No one's on the vidscreen. Sensors aren't picking up any sign of life, but be careful."
She appreciated that he didn't think she'd lost her mind and fed her data that should have been useful. Although Angel had boarded dozens of ships, never before had she felt as though she was being watched and judged.
Angel squinted past the reach of her lights. She could have sworn a dark gray shadow was separating itself from the blackness beyond. A very large, very humanoid shadow.
"Come out. Now." Her suit translated her words.
And the shadow advanced into her light. He was tall, very tall, broad-shouldered and bronze skinned with bright blue eyes and dark hair. But it was his carved cheekbones and full lips that curved into a confident and easy smile that made her think Viking warrior. No, Rystani warrior. She hadn't met any Rystani but she'd seen holopics. However the holopics couldn't convey his massive size or his casual, self-assured attitude that would have been sexy under different circumstances.
"How did you know I was here?" he asked, ignoring the blaster that she aimed at his chest.
"Captain," Petroy spoke over the con, "a Rystani just showed up on our sensors."
"No kidding." She scowled at the man standing before her. "Since this is my ship, I'll be the one asking the questions. Why didn't our sensors pick you up?"
He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Perhaps your systems are faulty."
The stranger's deep voice matched his powerful chest and the sound lapped against her like waves on a white sand beach, solid, gentle, all encompassing. He wore his masculinity with the same ease as he wore his smile, as if it were so much a part of him that he had nothing to prove.
He might intrigue her, but she wasn't taking his word, especially when their sensors had been working perfectly when she'd left the Raven. She invoked privacy mode in the comm so the stranger couldn't hear her or Petroy's replies. "Petroy, have the computer run a self-diagnostic."
"Already did, Captain. And we have hundred percent efficiency."
She kept the Rystani in her blaster sights. "There are no computer malfunctions. So, what's your story?"
Just because he didn't appear to have a weapon didn't mean he wasn't dangerous. On muscle-size alone, he could overpower her. Since one generally had to work out regularly to sport such a toned physique, she assumed he could also best her in a hand-to-hand fight. Her advantage was her weapon and she kept it front and centered.
"I'm Kirek from Rystan. Take me to your captain," he demanded.
Kirek hadn't tried to lie about his planet and every word sounded sincere, aristocratically arrogant, but he also evaded her question about how he'd avoided their sensors. Instead, he acted as if he hadn't expected her to find him. Interesting.
"I'm Angel Taylor, captain of the Raven. From Earth. Now, what are you doing here?"
At her announcement of her rank, Kirek's facial muscles didn't move, but flickers of purple darkened his eyes. "I'm hoping for a ride to Dakmar."
She arched a brow and kept her trigger finger poised to shoot. How had Kirek known her plans? "And who said I was going to Dakmar?"
"Any salvager worth their oxygen would sell this wreck of a ship on Dakmar." His tone remained confident and easy, just short of charming. But she noted he was careful not to make any sudden moves and risk drawing her blaster fire.
"The Raven is not a civilian transport ship."
"I will stay right here." Kirek's tone remained patient, confident, as if he were very accustomed to giving orders. "You should pretend you do not know of my existence"
"like you planned?" she guessed. If she'd depended only on her sensors, she wouldn't have found him stowing away on the derelict. But no way in hell was she sneaking Kirek onto Dakmar. Those folks were quite particular who boarded their moon. She did too much business there to risk bringing in a stranger and being banned because he wanted a free ride.
"I do not wish to cause trouble." Kirek's casual tone implied truth. Yet, his bold stance suggested that he was a man accustomed to handling whatever came his way.
"You already have caused trouble. And I want answers. Who dropped you off? How did you know"
"Captain," Petroy interrupted. "The other ship has returned and the captain is demanding that we turn over Kirek or prepare to be blasted from space."
The other captain had asked for Kirek by name.
She narrowed her eyes on the Rystani. "Who are they? Why do they want you? How do they know your name?"
Kirek rubbed his square jaw. "My calculations seem to have gone awry. I'll have to think about . . ." He seemed genuinely puzzled, but she wasn't buying his innocent act.
Yet she didn't have time to interrogate him. "Petroy, stall negotiations until I return to the Raven."
"Ask what they're willing to pay for Kirek."
"You trade in slaves?" Kirek's tone hardened and his eyes flared with a heat that burned hotter than a solar flare.
Her answer had been automatic, but she'd obviously touched a sore point. Maybe it would make him more agreeable to answering her questions. While she'd never deal in the slave trade, he needn't know that right away.
She intended to drop the Rystani off on the nearest habitable planetbut she also wanted to know how he'd avoided her sensors and how he'd learned her destination. She told herself she would have made the same decision not to turn him over to her competition if she'd found a slimy, eight-tentacled Osarian aboard, instead of the best male specimen she'd seen this side of a holovid screen.
"You," she waved her blaster at Kirek. "Come with me."
He planted his feet, crossed his arms over his massive chest and spoke with calm contempt. "I will never again be a slave."
Kirek presented one awesome picture of Rystani stubbornness, and she realized he'd called her bluff. This proud warrior would clearly rather die than give up his freedom again. She couldn't imagine him ever having been anyone's slave and regretted her threat since she could most definitely sympathize with his principles.
From the rock hard tension in his muscles, from the angry heat in his glaring eyes, he was a man bent on dying before he yielded his will to anyone. Oddly, she didn't feel threatened but sympathetic and admitted, "I do not buy, sell or keep slaves. Not ever." She cocked her head to one side. "But if you want to live, I suggest you answer my questions. Who's after you?"