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,
my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. Light from
the setting sun filtered 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. And 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 in front
of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could
be anywhere. It looked like tonight’s agenda held a second
attempt at rape and murder. Or completion of the first. That would
make more sense. Takan violence against humans was rare enough that
the guard’s aggression had taken me—almost—by
surprise. But if a human prison official had ordered him…
that, given Moabar’s reputation, would fit only too well.
I tuned out my own breathing. Instead,
I 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 had the
I drew a deep breath. “If
I’m on your grid, 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 snap 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.
The first of Moabar’s three
moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement,
then 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 of the eight-foot tall Takas didn’t need them,
The man before me was tall, but
not eight feet. Nor did his dark jacket glisten with official prison
insignia. Another con, then. Possession of the rifle meant he had
off- world sources.
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
then squatted down, and ran one hand over the guard’s work
vest as if checking for a weapon, or perhaps life signs. I could
have told him the guard had neither. “Perhaps I should’ve
warned him about you,” he said, rising. “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 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 footsteps
on a grave. “Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell...”
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