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BEHIND ENEMY LINES.
This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions of any third-party publishers.
Rogue Hunter: Longshot
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2015 Kevis Hendrickson
Cover art by Midnight Whimsy Designs - www.midnightwhimsydesigns.com. All rights reserved – used with permission. © 2015 Kevis Hendrickson
This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
I’d like to start by thanking everyone who had kind words of encouragement for me during some difficult times in this business. I want to give an extra special thanks to the reviewers who’ve made it something of a crusade to help get the word out about this series. With the vast sea of new books out there, it helps to have friends in high places. My beta readers also deserve thanks for keeping me honest. My editor, Laura Kingsley, also deserves a big shout out. Many thanks to Annette Tremblay for the amazing cover art. To everyone else I neglected to mention here, Zyra and I salute you.
Fans of this series have waited with great anticipation to see our beloved Zyra revert back to form. With this book, I’m proud to say Rogue Hunter is back in all its glory. All the fun, action, and adventure that was a staple of the early books is now in full bloom. Please enjoy Zyra’s latest adventure and make sure to stay tuned for future installments in the series, including the all-new Rogue Hunter Adventures books.
“What do you mean it’s expired?”
Zyra gnashed her teeth to keep from spewing a reckless oath. She stared laser bolts at the man reclining in his chair across from her. The blasé look he gave her made her stew.
“Paxton’s bounty expired six months ago.”
Smug bastard. Zyra watched Captain Dillan Murray reach for the tray of mints on his desk before popping a handful of them into his mouth. He chewed the mints greedily and pushed the tray forward. Zyra ignored the gesture. She wasn’t interested in treats. “That’s not what it says on the Wanted list.”
Murray brushed mint residue from his badge and dragged the candy tray back toward him so he could go for seconds. “It’s a glitch,” he said before tossing a few more mints into his mouth.
Zyra was fresh out of patience. On the back of a long and difficult trip that saw her blasting her way through an entire sector of pirate-infested space, she was in no mood for games and wanted Murray to know it.
“So you’re telling me I wasted two months of my life hunting this creep?”
The threatening quiver in Zyra’s voice failed to draw the desired reaction from Murray.
“You busted a scum bag. Think of the women who can sleep in peace tonight without having to worry if a strange man is going to crawl into their beds.”
Zyra’s frown grew deeper at the smirk on his face.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Murray continued, “you were doing your civic duty. That’s worth at least a line or two in the intergalactic news feed.”
White knuckles pressed into the desk to keep Zyra’s fingers from locking around Murray’s neck. “I’m not in this business so people can call me a hero.” It was an unnecessary pronouncement and one Zyra knew wasn’t going to advance her cause. What did Murray care why she hunted? What mattered was she wanted her due.
“No,” Murray spat. “You hunt fugitives to make money. If the public is safer because of it, that’s no real consequence to a greedy, blood-sucking bounty hunter like you, is it?”
Zyra’s lips twisted into a mock grin. “Well, if the shoe fits...”
“You and your kind are an insult to this profession.”
“Maybe, but we get the job done.” It was the honest truth. Zyra excelled at her craft. The business of bounty hunting was an art form to her. Murray should be the one begging for her services, not the other way around.
“So you finally managed to bring a prisoner back alive. Now you want a medal?”
Murray was pushing his luck. Trying to diminish her achievements with a thinly disguised insult wasn’t going to make her back off. To the contrary, she was coming close to losing control.
“Keep the medal and the press release. I want cold hard credits!”
“Well, you’re not getting it. Unlike you, I play by the rules.” Murray shifted his gaze from Zyra to the reader on his desk. He leaned forward in his chair to read the data scrolling down the screen.
“Screw the rules, Murray! You can fix this if you want to.”
“Give me one reason why I should bend over backwards to help you, Zanr.”
“Because without me, your days of barking commands from behind that desk is history.” Zyra held her ground as Murray’s eyes bore into her.
“It’s an election year. Lots of high level government jobs are going to be lost if the IGP doesn’t get things under control.”
“We’re doing the best we can.”
Zyra could tell by the growl in Murray’s voice she had struck a nerve. “Are you? It’s a war zone out there! They’re scraping up bodies everyday off of Taldis Prime and Oon. If it gets any worse, President Upshaw’s going to have to declare martial law.”
“My point is this galaxy is a powder keg ready to explode. Me and my kind are the only ones keeping the Alliance from falling into the abyss. The least you can do is pay us for our time.”
Murray sat up in his chair and leveled his shoulders. “If you’re done preaching from your soapbox, you can leave my office.”
“Damn Skippy. I’m done having this conversation with you. I’ve been mopping up after you since you started hunting. Consider your loss payment an overdue fee for services rendered.” Murray laced his fingers together. “Good day, Ms. Zanr.”
Zyra’s face darkened as she glared at Murray. She spun around and bolted out of the room.
When the elevator door opened, Zyra shoved her way past the pair of officers standing outside and ignored the oaths they shouted after her. She stormed across the hallway toward the observatory window just outside the cafe on the tenth level of the space station. She didn’t have to see her reflection in the transisteel pane to know she was red as a lobster. She bashed her fist against the pane, wishing it were Captain Murray’s face.
“You don’t look happy.”
Zyra turned around to see if the face matched the familiar voice. “Zoe? Zoe Moon?”
“In the flesh!”
Zyra embraced the other woman with a grin while observing the black forelock of hair that fell across her heart-shaped face.
“Still in one piece, I see,” Zoe said.
“I’m lucky is all,” Zyra replied as she released Zoe.
“Just got out of processing. Heard you snagged The Snake.”
Zyra’s grin was replaced with a frown. “Yeah. I’m a regular girl scout.”
“Why so upset? Paxton’s a monster.”
“Guess you didn’t hear. His bounty was revoked. IGP wanted his capture to be in-house. Too bad they didn’t tell the rest of us.”
“You do the heavy lifting and they’re holding out on you? Now that’s dirty!”
“I asked Murray to make it right. Bastard gave me the finger.”
“If Murray ever pulls something like that with me, they’ll be picking his guts up off of the floor. Why do I get the feeling he’s been waiting for the chance to screw you?”
“No good deed goes unpunished, right?”
“No love loss between you and the IGP, Zyra. They hate the rest of us, too. But they really can’t stand you.”
Zyra let out a sigh and folded her arms. “I’m not looking to make fans, just some quick money. Is that a crime?”
“I’ll get over it.”
Zyra turned around to face the observatory window. She rested her palm against the pane and studied the stars that dusted the blackness of space.
“What’ve you been up to anyway, Zyra? I haven’t seen you since you took out Wheeler’s gang on Satari Prime.”
“Been on the wrong side of the galaxy getting my hands dirty.”
It was the truth, but a gross understatement. The fact was Zyra had been on a warpath, leaving a trail of bodies across the cosmos in pursuit of the biggest bounty there was.
“That sounds like you all right. But what’s got you in a knot?”
“I’m bleeding credits.”
“Did a job for the High Command but I never delivered. Bastards wanted to get back at me so they sucked my credits dry. Had to take out an IOU to get the Helship-II out of the VAULT. Now I owe the wrong kind of people money and they’re looking to collect.”
“Couldn’t you ask for an extension?”
“These aren’t the kind of people that give extensions.”
Zyra shifted her gaze from Zoe to keep her from seeing the fear in her eyes.
“Look, I’m about to do a job for Mac. I can talk to him for you. Maybe he’ll let you tag along. It’s not a big job. But it’s a quickie. Get you some credits faster than you can say Ganymede.”
“You know I always work alone.”
“It won’t kill you to have a partner for once. ‘Sides, Mac’s been dying to have you join the squad.”
“I don’t know, Zoe. It’s not the way I do things. If something goes wrong—”
“This is a one-time only offer. Best part is Mac pays his people well.”
“I’d be asking for trouble.”
“You worry too much. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to. But if you change your mind, let me know.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Look, I’ve got to get back to my ship. My team is waiting for me. But if you’re ever in my neck of the woods and need some company, look me up, okay?”
After a quick embrace, the women parted. Zyra watched Zoe disappear into the swell of stragglers wandering back and forth in the hallway to conduct their business. She turned back around to look at the stars outside the window. Somewhere out there, her enemies were looking for her. The temporary truce between the InterGalactic Alliance and the Legion of Worlds hadn’t changed a thing. Eventually, they would resume their war and her enemies would come knocking.
In the end, nothing changed. Life went on and death continued to claim its victims. The only thing that changed was the players. It was just a matter of time before it was her turn to go off into the dark of night.
A soft glow smeared Zyra’s face with splashes of chartreuse as she sat in the dark—a silent, morbid figure, entranced with the moving images on the backlit screen of her handheld. Eyelids weighted with grief remained unblinking as she watched a familiar pair of embracing figures laughing and waving at her. The woman on the left side of the screen was as happy as she had ever seen her, appearing as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Golden locks framed her white face, reflecting her own visage. The other figure stared back at her with eyes that radiated warmth and affection. Chestnut brown hair strayed past her shoulders, complimenting her misty gray eyes. Gloss traced her perfectly shaped mouth, making her red lips appear wet. Zyra’s heart fluttered when the two young women turned to plant a kiss on the other’s lips. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she ran a thumb across the smooth surface of the screen.
It seemed like only yesterday when she had posed for the vid with Mikaela Darr during a late night romp in the entertainment district at Venus City. They had met a few days before while Zyra transferred custody of a fugitive to the prison where Mikaela worked as a guard. Zyra had never believed in love at first sight. But it was obvious from the moment she laid eyes on Mikaela, they were a pair.
She paused the image, fixing her gaze on the other woman. Mikaela—or Mika—as she affectionately called her, was more than just her friend and lover. She was the sole pinpoint of light in a cruel and uncaring universe. But tragedy had struck and took her away from Zyra. All that remained of Mikaela were her memories of her.
Zyra shut off the handheld. She tried to swallow but only felt a dull ache when her body failed to cooperate. Her chest grew heavy, the steady beating of her heart succumbing to a violent tremor. She knew giving in to her tears would not make her feel any better. But she didn’t care. Were it not for her actions, Mikaela would be alive now and safe. Her attempts to move on and find a new lover had ended in disaster. Why not? She didn’t deserve to be happy. Not after what she had done to Mikaela.
Zyra batted her lashes, feeling them drip with the tears they pushed out of her eyes. A warm moistness streaked down her face, past her cheeks and hung at the edge of her chin. Her stomach churned, felt as if it were stuffed with hot coals. She hadn’t eaten a bite all day. She wondered how long she would continue to punish herself for Mikaela’s death. Mikaela would not approve of her self-abuse. The last thing Mikaela would accept was Zyra being hurt. Yet, Zyra knew it would be worse to hold her feelings in. She needed to mourn but she hadn’t yet allowed herself to. Her shame prevented it.
She wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed, knowing it was pointless to resist. Only her tears would bring her peace. Only her sorrow would bring her forgiveness. She sucked in a shuddered breath and closed her eyes.
You can’t go on like this. She wouldn’t want to see you suffer this way.
Zyra was on the verge of crying when a musical chime filled the air. She opened her eyes and gazed across her bedroom to the screen mounted on the wall. She didn’t know whether to be annoyed or thankful for the flickering yellow button alongside the screen controls. The chime rang again. Zyra pushed the air out of her lungs and ran the back of her hand across her face to remove her tears. Afterwards, she reluctantly got up from the bed and walked over to the wall where she pressed a button on the controls to activate the screen. She kept her gaze low, refusing to look at the person who appeared there as she stole another moment to get her bearings.
Hair stood up on the back of Zyra’s neck. “Mac?” She raised her stare to the screen to look at her old acquaintance.
“Guess I should consider myself lucky. I wasn’t sure you’d answer.”
“I’m just full of surprises.” Zyra bubbled with venom. Just the sound of Randall McGovern’s voice was enough to get her up in arms.
“You don’t look well. If this is a bad time—”
“It’s always a bad time.”
Mac wasn’t fazed by Zyra’s unfriendliness and droned on in an appeasing tone. “In that case, I’ll make this quick. Zoe told me you were looking for work. I’ve got a job that pays mightily. If you’re up for a little hunting, maybe you should see me.”
“You know I don’t work with other people.”
“Maybe you should. I know it’s not your thing, but the buddy system does have its advantages.”
Zyra felt a sickening knot in her stomach and dug her nails into her palm. “Tell that to Ace.”
“Let’s leave the past behind us, shall we?”
The way Mac brushed aside Zyra’s concerns only irritated her more. “I’m a lone wolf, Mac. That isn’t going to change because you wave a few credits in front of me.”
Mac maintained his friendly mien but Zyra wasn’t buying it. The man was up to something.
“You’ve always been a tough nut to crack, Zyra. Listen, drop by my office and let’s have a chat. No strings attached. Just listen to what I have to say. If you don’t like it, you can go back to business-as-usual. But I think you’ll like what I have to offer.”
Zyra didn’t answer.
“Alright. I’ll come, but don’t make any plans.”
“That’s fine by me.” Mac offered Zyra a parting grin. “I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”
Zyra looked at the dark screen and frowned. She should have her head examined for even considering doing a job for Mac. But she really needed some credits. If Mac made the right offer, she might break her rules about working with other bounty hunters just this once. All things considered, she didn’t really have an alternative. Who knew? Maybe getting some action might just be the thing to help cure the blues.
Zyra strode across the lengthy boarding tube toward the woman who waited by the door on the other side. Even from a distance, her beauty was obvious. Her pale face glowed, making her appear angelic. The woman greeted her with a grin.
“Welcome to Cygnus. I’m Maria, Mr. McGovern’s personal aide. He is waiting for you in his office. If you will follow me, I’ll show you the way.”
Zyra gave the woman a nod and fell in step behind her. She looked about her surroundings, taking in the soft glare of the lights of the empty corridors they passed through.
“If you’re wondering if we’re alone, you’ll be happy to know the others will be joining us shortly.”
“Mac’s team. They’re on their way back from a mission. But they’ll be here in a couple of hours.”
“Mac has been saying great things about you. He says you used to be good friends.”
“Yeah,” Zyra said with chagrin. “Something like that.”
“He even mentioned that you were once partners. I’ve asked a number of times, but he won’t tell me why you left. I wonder, was it due to a grievance?”
Zyra wished Maria would drop the subject. “It’s not worth discussing.”
“I see. Perhaps you will tell me some other time.”
“I don’t think so.”
Maria stopped and turned to look at Zyra. “Have I upset you?”
“No. I don’t like talking about the past.”
“I understand. I won’t bring it up again.” Maria resumed her smooth gait. “Ah. Here we are.”
Maria swept into another room with Zyra trailing closely behind her. A man sat across from them at the head of a long conference table on the far side of the room. Zyra had only to glance at him before he looked up from his reader and stood up to greet her. He circled the table and extended a hand with a grandfatherly smile on his face.
“My dear, Zyra. It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Hello, Mac.” Zyra forced a smile when Mac shook her hand but had to keep herself from throwing up. This was the last place in the galaxy she wanted to be. She had to remind herself this meeting was strictly business. Being cordial was the right thing to do.
At least that’s what she kept telling herself.
“Will you excuse us, Maria?” Mac was being genteel, but also made it clear he wanted to be alone with Zyra. If Zyra had reservations of being here now, she couldn’t ignore the alarms going off in her head anymore.
“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Zanr.” Maria parted company from Zyra and Mac with a smile. The door shut close quietly behind her.
Mac hadn’t yet released Zyra’s hand. She tried to pull free, but he didn’t let go. Zyra kept her shoulders leveled as Mac assessed her features. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but she didn’t like the intense look he gave her. Mac’s wizened stare was thoughtful, but intimidating. It was the same expression a commoner might receive when meeting an Emperor who was about to order her execution. She was in his domain and needed to tread lightly.
Mac relaxed his grin, assumed a contemplative look. Zyra wasn’t sure, but she could sense sadness in him, as if some old regret haunted him. As quickly as the expression appeared, it disappeared. The uncomfortable silence came to an end when, as if realizing all of a sudden that he was being rude, Mac raised his hand to the chair across from his desk.
“Would you care to have a seat?”
Zyra took him up on his offer and sat down where he directed her. Mac walked back down nearly the full length of the room then circled back so he could sit across from her. The lines in his face softened as he increased his smile. Zyra imagined a set of shark teeth concealed beneath his grin.
“Can I offer you some refreshment? Something to drink perhaps?”
“No, thank you.”
Zyra watched Mac grab a pair of glasses from the table behind him and place them on his desk. He removed the lid from a decanter and poured brandy into them. He pushed one of the glasses toward Zyra. She knew better than to partake of Mac’s charity. The last thing she wanted him to think was she owed him something. But she didn’t trust he hadn’t put something in her drink either.
“Really, I’m fine.”
“It’s good stuff.”
Zyra forced another smile. “I’m sure.”
If Mac was disappointed by Zyra’s rejection of his patronage, he didn’t show it. He pushed her glass to the side, then took a sip of his drink. After he lay his glass back down, he sat straight in his chair to give her his undivided attention.
“How have you been?”
“Aren’t you always?”
The corners of Zyra’s lips were stretched to their limits. Her face hurt how hard she had to work to keep up a false front. She relaxed her grin, didn’t even care anymore if Mac could see through her act.
“Well, you certainly didn’t make the long trip here to catch up on old times. So I’ll get right to it.” Mac shoved his reader across the table to Zyra. “Do you know this man?”
Zyra winced, her gaze hardening as she observed the face of the man on the screen. A pair of intelligent, but cold eyes peeked out of his lean, angular face. Stubbles of blond hair dusted his closely shaven head. What looked like a vicious knife-cut left a deep scar along his jaw. The no-nonsense look he bore was indicative of what kind of life the man lived. He looked as though he’d plunge a blade right through his own mother’s chest.
“It’s Hal Keller, second-in-command of the Mutant Liberation Order.”
“No one can ever say you aren’t on top of things.”
Zyra didn’t need to look at Mac to recognize how much pleasure he took in hearing her identify the criminal on the screen.
“Yes, that’s Keller. He’s a slippery snake. Been dodging the InterGalactic Police and the Alliance Bureau of Investigation for years. They’ve got their best people looking for him, but no one has been able to get their paws on him, which is quite impressive considering there’s a sizeable bounty for his capture. What if I told you a little bird has provided me with his whereabouts, and that I was planning on sending my crew after him?”
“I’d say from the look of things, you’re short a set of brand new coffins. I hear they’re going at discount rates nowadays. So you should be able to get a good deal on a few.”
In spite of her sarcasm, Zyra’s sobering tone wasn’t lost on Mac.
“You think my people will get pasted going after him?”
“You send them after Keller and they’re as good as dead.”
Mac frowned. “Care to explain?”
Zyra studied Mac’s face but was unable to determine his thoughts. She considered if it was even worth it to try to get Mac to listen to reason, but she didn’t like the idea of Zoe being sent to her death.
“I tried to get Keller a couple years back. Tracked him to seven different systems and a dozen worlds. Every time I got close to him, he got away. Don’t know how he did it, except I know he had help. I thought I was going to capture him on Tarees, but I got ambushed by his people. I barely made it out of there alive. Keller never travels alone and the MLO won’t let anything happen to him. If you go after him, it won’t end well.”
“Don’t worry. I did my homework. Keller’s well-protected as you say. I also know about your run-in with him. Truth is, no one got closer to bagging that mutant loving son-of-a-bitch than you did. It’s why I want you for this job. My people could use the extra help.”
“I don’t know,” Zyra said, shaking her head. “Getting mixed up with the MLO is bad business. There’s a reason why Keller’s still free. Everyone who goes after him ends up dead.”
Mac’s attempt to flatter Zyra failed to impress her.
“You’re kidding yourself if you think this job will be easy, or that I’m anxious to get mixed up with anything you’re cooking up.”
“If it makes any difference to you, the pay’s good.”
Zyra felt a flutter in her belly and arched an eyebrow. “How good?”
“Six hundred and fifty thousand. And that’s just your cut.”
“Don’t try to pull a fast one on me, Mac. You’re not the only one who checks the Wanted lists. Keller’s bounty is in the low millions. And you’ve got what five or six people on your payroll? Your math doesn’t add up.”
“I’ve got seven on my roster. Would be eight if you choose to join me. But I’m the one paying your cut.”
“Let’s just say procuring your services is worth the money.”
Zyra furrowed her brow and chewed her bottom lip. Mac’s offer was no small change. There was no telling when she’d ever have another chance to grab so much money at once. Everything inside her told her to say, no. But…
“I don’t know. This sounds messy.”
Mac dropped any pretense of trying to play softball. He pressed his knuckles together while leveling his elbows on the desk and leaned toward Zyra.
“Here’s the score. My people are the best damn bounty hunters that money can buy. But you’re the best bounty hunter there is. Period.”
Zyra raised a suspicious eyebrow again. “And?”
“And I know about that business between you and the mobsters. How’s this? I’ll give you one million credits. That will settle your debt and leave plenty to spare.”
One million? Zyra couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Blood pounded in her ears as she tried to make sense of Mac’s offer. Before she could decide what to do, Mac upped the ante.
“Two million. Final offer.”
Zyra fought to keep her mouth from hanging agape. Mac was trying too hard to get her to say yes. All the alarms went off in her head.
“So I’m a charity case now, am I?”
“No, you’re an investment.”
Zyra flushed dark and used the heel of her foot to push herself back from the desk. “I’m not going to be your show horse, Mac. There isn’t enough money in the ‘verse to make me stick around.”
“Maybe your price isn’t money.”
“I can’t be bought.”
“Oh, everyone can be bought,” Mac said while lacing his fingers together. “No one should know that better than you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Captain Murray drove a hard bargain. But in the end, I found him to be quite agreeable after I put in a good word for him with the President. I hear he’s on the fast track to become the new Commissioner of the IGP.”
“Stop beating around the bush. Come out and say it.”
Mac flashed his teeth again but he was all business. “I’m the one who told Murray not to pay your bounty. Come hell or high water, no IGP official will sign off on any bounties where you’re concerned.”
“You had me blacklisted?”
Mac reclined in his chair while rubbing the pads of his thumbs together. “Blacklisted is such a harsh word. I prefer to think I closed one door for you and opened another.”
“I take it my meeting Zoe wasn’t an accident either.”
“Now, now, don’t go blaming poor Zoe. She played her part like a good girl, but she had no idea I arranged for her to arrive at the IGP station when you did.”
Zyra’s face was molten red. She clenched her hands into fists in her lap as the full weight of Mac’s words pressed on her. “So all of this is just to get me on your team?”
“Not all of it.”
“Thanks for nothing,” Zyra said and shot up from her chair.
“You’re leaving? What about the mob? I don’t think they’ll be happy about you not paying off your debt.”
“That’s my problem.”
Zyra turned around and marched to the exit. The door didn’t open.
“You didn’t think I was actually going to let you say no.”
Zyra spun around with her gun in hand and pointed it at Mac. “If you don’t open this door, losing Keller will be the least of your problems.”
Mac stood up and walked over to Zyra. She held her gun toward his face.
“What is killing me going to solve? You still won’t be able to leave this room.”
“I’ll find a way out.”
“Looks as though you haven’t changed. Still the same angry young woman I met years ago,” Mac said with a slight grin before he reached into his coat pocket to withdraw a small metal device. It made a soft buzz when he pressed it.
“The door is open. You may leave now if you like.”
Zyra hesitated and kept her weapon poised ready to fire. The temperature in the room went up several degrees as she glared at Mac. A moment passed before her pistol was lowered. She turned around and stormed through the door.
“We leave for Keller at 0800 hours,” Mac called out after her. “If you decide to change your mind, my offer still stands.”
The door shut behind Zyra.
Zyra marched angrily down the main corridor of her ship. She stopped and overturned a worktable where the scattered pieces of her N-suit lay. A swear left her lips before she kicked the N-suit helmet like a ball, ignoring the loud bang it made when it ricocheted down the corridor. Zyra lay back against the wall and cursed again, this time at herself. She should have known better than to come here. Mac would never stop trying to get her to sell her soul to him. She had refused to join him so many times it was becoming a ritual.
She was at her wit’s end. She needed money, but didn’t want to make a deal with the devil. However innocent Mac tried to make it seem, joining his team required certain concessions she refused to make. She doubted Zoe or the other bounty hunters in his employ knew the truth. Once you signed up to be one of ‘Mac’s people’, you couldn’t unsign.
She remembered how it was when she first started hunting. Hungry and desperate for work, she did a few jobs for Mac. In turn, he wanted favors. Favors she had no interest in giving. On the exterior, Mac looked like the charming grandfather. But as far as she was concerned, he was the devil and wanted to keep him as far away from her as possible. Innocent lives had been lost in the pursuit of making Mac happy. Zyra would never forgive him for it.
When Zyra walked into the conference room, a sharp brilliance from the far side of the room filled her vision, making her squint. The silhouettes of seated figures stood out against the relief of moving images on the holo-screen. She didn’t bother to make an introduction and listened to the drone of Mac’s voice. When he suddenly interrupted his speech to look at her, all eyes turned in her direction as well.
“Welcome, Ms. Zanr. We’re happy you could join us.”
The familiar shark-toothed smile she received from Mac did little to reassure her. Her decision to take him up on his offer wasn’t one she made lightly. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t officially said yes. Mac had one shot at getting her to stay around. One slip up and she’d turn tail and forget this whole messy business with Hal Keller.
“The briefing has already started,” Mac said while stretching his hand toward an empty chair. “If you’ll please have a seat, we can fill you in on whatever details you missed later.”
Zyra ignored the curious looks of the other bounty hunters and sat down next to Zoe.
“You okay?” Zoe’s face was drawn tight from concern.
Zyra maintained her blank expression. “Yeah.”
“Mac told me he had a fight with you. I didn’t think you were coming.”
“That makes two of us.”
Zyra followed Zoe’s eyes back to the front of the conference room where Mac was standing next to a holographic display.
“You are all aware of the dangers of this assignment. Interfering with the affairs of the Mutant Liberation Order is the equivalent of signing your own death warrant. Their organization prides itself on how much pain they can inflict on their enemies. Make no mistake, if you proceed with this mission, you’ll be at the top of their hit list. Expect some form of retaliation when this is over.”
“You’re assuming we’re going to survive this mission,” a woman sitting across from Zyra said. She was twisting the end of her black ponytail and staring at Mac.
“I don’t assume anything, Ms. Rodriguez, least of all that any of you will survive this mission. I do, however, expect you’ll do your job.”
“Long as the money’s right, I’m in, hit list or no hit list,” the scruffy looking man sitting at the end of the table said.
“We’ll discuss your pay when the briefing’s over, Mr. Lamb. But I suggest you pay close attention. To complete this mission, you’ll have to travel through Legion occupied space.” Zyra noticed the room grow deadly silent as the bounty hunters rolled their eyes and shook their heads. “If you can get past the military blockade near the Sequitar system, you’ll have to navigate a cluster of neutron stars, which I might add, is probably the most dangerous part of your mission. Parros, Meyarr, Tamari, and Lotar all have gravitational forces that have sent many ships to a fiery death. Next, you’ll have to land unnoticed on a moon called Bris where a well-armed and lethal force of MLO operatives are. That’s where you’ll find your Marks.”
“Marks? I thought we were going after Keller,” Rodriguez said.
“I apologize if I have mislead any of you. But you will most certainly not be going after Hal Keller.”
Confused looks were traded around the table.
“What?” Zoe asked.
Mac pointed to the slide show of figures appearing on the holoscreen. “The gentleman you see before you is Dr. Emanuel Russo, a celebrated astrophysicist. The others are Doctors Susana Evanovich, Vilmos Ambrus, Lisa Cho and William Bender. Russo and his team were conducting research at their laboratory in a retired underground military bunker when Hal Keller and his associates seized control of it. Dr. Russo and his team are currently under the protection of their private security force, but they are trapped and don’t know how long they can avoid Keller’s detection. Your mission is to infiltrate the bunker, meet up with the security force and extract Russo and his team off of Bris before the enemy knows you’re there. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?”
“Sounds like a job for bodyguards,” Lamb grumbled.
“Or a taxi service,” Rodriguez scoffed.
“I understand your concern. We don’t normally do jobs like this. But I wouldn’t be sending you off into the lion’s den if I didn’t think you could do the job. Besides, we’re being paid quite well to bring Russo back alive. That means we go in.”
“We trust you, Mac. Just got a bad case of the jitters. Too much coffee and not enough sleep,” the man sitting closest to Mac said. Unlike the others had who spoken up so far, he sounded the most calm.
Mac nodded. “I appreciate your vote of confidence, Mr. Austin. Now, that that’s settled, are there any questions?”
“How large is Keller’s force?” Zyra asked. Everyone looked at her strangely, taken aback by the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
“My informers tell me anywhere between two or three hundred guns.”
“What the—? How the hell are we supposed to get Russo out without getting our guts splattered across that bunker?” Rodriguez asked.
“You’ll be using a specially designed jammer that you’ll wear on your person at all times. It will help mask your movements against motion and heat detection sensors so you can get close to the bunker without anyone noticing. If all goes well, this will be a simple extraction.”
“I don’t know, Mac. This sounds like a suicide run.”
Zyra observed the woman who spoke, noticing she was younger than the other bounty hunters and not much older than she was. The way her ebony skin glistened under the glare from the holoscreen, offered a stark contrast to her own paler complexion.
“What’re you scared of, Cody? We all gotta die sometime,” the scruffy man, Lamb said.
“You keep popping your lip and you can die right now,” Cody replied angrily.
“That’s enough, Ms. Dawes. I told you I’d find a way to get you in that bunker safely,” Mac said, trying to ease the tension in the room.
“How?” Cody asked.
“Our friend, Ms. Zanr is a master locksmith. She’s going to use her expertise with plastic explosives to ‘open’ a few holes for you.”
“We don’t need her help. She’s a psycho who kills everything that comes within ten feet of her.”
Zyra snapped her eyes over to the woman with the dark ponytail.
“I invited her here, Ms. Rodriguez. If you don’t like it, you can stay. Now if you’re done, an official introduction is in order. Everyone meet Zyra. Zyra I’d like you to meet our team leader Andre Austin, he won’t win any awards for giving speeches, but he’s cool under fire.”
Zyra received a nod from Austin and returned one of her own. Now that the lights to the room were restored, she could make out his features clearly. Austin was quite muscular with long, powerful arms and legs. He looked like a younger and taller version of Mac, but had the steely look of someone who had a military background. She wasn’t afraid to admit that Austin was also quite easy on the eyes.
“Next up,” Mac continued, “our spirited, but lovely gangbuster, Rachel Rodriguez.”
Rodriguez didn’t hide her disdain for Zyra and sneered at her. Zyra didn’t back down and matched her glower. Mac must’ve noticed the bad blood growing between them because he marched into their center and introduced the next person on his list.
“Lex Lamb is our resident weapons expert and has seen two tours against the Lornmites. If you get caught in a firefight, you’ll want him on your side.
Zyra acknowledged Lamb, but just as quickly wished she hadn’t given him the time of day. Lamb didn’t have the same athletic features of the other males in the group. But judging by his scuffed up knuckles and fierce looks, there was no doubt the man was a fighter. Closely cropped hair on his head matched the dark stubbles poking out of his chin. The deep scar on his square jaw and rounded middle gave him the mien of a man who spent too much time in sleazy bars. Zyra shifted her shoulders uncomfortably from the lecherous look Lamb gave her. In response, Zoe jabbed him roughly in the ribs, drawing his ire.
“You already know our linguistics expert Zoe Moon,” Mac said.
“Welcome aboard,” Zoe said, offering Zyra a warm smile.
“Cody Dawes is our resident tech master but is quite handy in a dust up.”
Cody had her poker face on. Zyra didn’t waste time trying to figure if the woman was friend or foe.
“When he’s not unloading .50 caliber rounds on the Sniper’s range, Josiah Ingram spends his days reading sonnets. He is also known, on occasion, to whip up a delicious eggnog.”
Zyra received a friendly military salute from Ingram. His uncharacteristic playfulness earned him her smile. Ingram’s bookworm appearance gave off the vibe of a man who’d much rather spend his days giving a lecture at a university than practicing at the shooting range, but she’d been around killers long enough to recognize Ingram could take a man’s life without blinking an eye.
“Last, but not least,” Mac said as he pointed to the woman standing closest to him. “Navya Shah, our team medic and sometimes spiritual guide.”
Zyra observed Shah and was impressed by her looks. She was extraordinarily attractive with smooth, flawless skin. Her hair was bound in a single, thick black braid that complimented her soft looks. The bindi gracing her forehead gave a clue to the woman’s Indian ancestry. Shah looked at Zyra with suspicion but if she had any hostility toward her, she couldn’t tell. Not that it mattered. Zyra hadn’t come to make friends.
“Now that everyone has been properly introduced,” Mac concluded, “we can get down to the business of loading up our gear.”
Zyra dropped her heavy bag on the floor and waited for Navya and Ingram to finish placing their luggage into the cargo hold door. Her crossed arms and tapping feet drew worry lines on Zoe’s face.
“I’m glad you’re coming with us,” she said.
Rodriguez pushed past Zyra with a hard bump to her shoulder and skipped ahead of her to secure her luggage.
“Wish I could say the same,” Zyra replied dryly.
Zoe sighed at Rodriguez’s rude behavior. “Don’t worry. We’re a rowdy bunch, but we do our job.”
“I hope so. I’m not in the mood for any horseshit.”
“It’ll get better once we’ve set off for Bris.”
Zyra ignored the nasty look she received from Rodriguez when she walked past her out of the shuttle. With a scowl, she shoved her bag into the cramp hold and slammed the door shut.
“Calm down, Zyra. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Zyra took an angry step away from Zoe, then spun back around and grabbed her head. “Everything. I shouldn’t be here.”
“Why don’t you tell me what’s eating you?”
“Something isn’t right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mac’s keeping something from us.”
Zoe scrunched her brow. “I sensed he wasn’t telling us everything he knows but we can still do our job.”
“Mac’s using me for something but I can’t figure out what.”
“Why would he go through all of this just to get you to join the team?”
“I don’t know. But he’s lying to us. You know I’m right.”
“Zyra, if you’re having second thoughts about going—”
“I just want to get this mission over with.”
Zyra started hiking down the ramp that led from the shuttle. This wasn’t the time or place to get into a discussion about her problems.
“You’ve changed,” Zoe said as she fell in stride beside Zyra.
“It’s just tough sometimes.”
Zoe pressed a hand to Zyra’s shoulder, nudging her away from the shuttle. The women crossed the distance of the dock and stood next to a stack of empty storage crates that had recently been unloaded. They watched in silence as the others gathered in a circle near the ship. With Zyra out of the way, the bounty hunters seemed to conduct themselves orderly. Rodriguez, however, didn’t seem to be operating by the same playbook. She was having an animated conversation with Austin and kept jabbing her finger angrily toward Zyra. Austin allowed her to have her say before laying into her. Her ponytail swung wildly when she turned her back to Austin and crossed her arms. Whatever it was she was trying to accomplish didn’t have the intended effect.
“What crawled up her butt?” Zyra asked.
“You’re an acquired taste. Just give Ray some time to get to know you.”
“You’re assuming I won’t strangle her first.”
Zoe laughed. “I hope it won’t come to that. Last thing I want to see is you two hard-heads exchanging blows.”
Zyra cracked a grin. “Me too.”
Zoe turned to look at her and noticed the pink lines starting to form under Zyra’s eyes. “You don’t look like you got much sleep last night.”
Zyra rubbed a knuckle into her eye. “I didn’t.”
“Me neither. This mission’s been bugging me.”
Zyra found it strange Zoe had the same reservations about this mission she did and frowned. “You too?”
“Yep. But now that you’re here, I feel better having you watch my six.”
“Don’t get used to having me around.”
“Tell that to Mac. He seems to be operating under the impression that you’ve joined Black Lotus.”
“Mac’s off his rocker. Soon as we bag Russo, I’m out of here.”
“Understood.” Zoe noticed her teammates ascending the ramp of the ship. “Let’s go buckle up. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Zyra shook in her seat, trying not to let her fear of being sucked into the gravity well of the nearby star get the best of her. The shuttle’s proximity to Lotarr gave her goosebumps. She hoped the shuttle’s navigational systems had been programmed with the right coordinates. One decimal point out of place, and they’d be cooked at over 25 million degrees Kelvin. The shuttle was caught in between the gravitational forces of its neighboring star Tamarii, adding to her agitation. The others in the shuttle were being bounced about as well. But she could tell, in spite of their feigned indifference, they were as equally troubled as she was.
Struggling to keep her mind off of the dangerous journey, Zyra dropped her stare to her electronic reader, observing the cross pattern of numbered lines marking the misshapen lump of rock astronomers had named Bris. The second farthest moon from Platos-1, Bris was as unimpressive as it was remote. The side of Bris that was perpetually exposed to its too-close suns was the lighter shade of tan, while the brackish color of its dark side reminded her of the insides of an unflushed toilet. She almost retched just looking at it.
She tapped the corner of the screen with her thumbnail and called up an entry on the history of Bris. A slide show began to play accompanied by the voice of a narrator who droned on in the most annoying nasally voice about the former inhabitants of Bris. A mysterious and extinct species that once roamed the stars had left behind only ancient ruins as a testament to their once flourishing civilization. There wasn’t even a record of what the Brissi looked like. Zyra wondered if Detective Murray was a long lost descendant of the Brissi. No one could convince her the man was human. He’d fit right in with the reptilian spawn that infested the subterranean mines the Brissi had left behind.
Zyra’s stomach went up into her chest when the shuttle was struck, almost making her lose her grip on her reader. Another violent burst of radiation from Lotarr knocked Zyra forward in her seat so hard her teeth hurt. She pulled out her earbuds, shut her reader off and shoved it into the crack of her seat. She’d do anything to be on board the Helship-II, preferably anywhere in the galaxy but here. The cosmic storm didn’t show any signs of letting up. Zyra looked over at the bench across from her to see Lamb giving her a close inspection.
“Cut it out,” Zoe said.
Lamb brushed off Zoe’s warning and conjured up a smirk. “Just checking out the goods.”
Rodriguez shook her head. “You’re wasting your time, you know. You’re not her type.”
Lamb cocked an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Rodriguez spread her index and middle fingers, stuck her tongue between them, and made a licking motion.
Lamb’s frown turned into a lopsided grin. “Now I’m really in love.”
Ingram looked up from his reader and shoved his glasses back up his face. “You heard Mac. If anyone gives Zanr a hard time, it comes out of your pay.”
“We’re supposed to be professionals. Try acting like it,” Zoe chided.
Cody decided to add her bit. “She’s right. These aren’t two-bit thugs we’re dealing with. For all we know, this might be a one-way trip.”
“Stuff it, Cody,” Lamb snapped. “Anyone on this shuttle who don’t know what’s waiting on the other end of the nebula oughta have their head examined.”
“Just lay off. Zyra hasn’t joined us yet,” Zoe said.
“Damn sure looks the part though.” Ingram gave Zyra a friendly wink. Other than Zoe, he was the only one who hadn’t given her any trouble. Unfortunately, Rodriguez wasn’t having any of it.
“Gonna take more than playing dress up to make her one of us.”
Zyra gave Rodriguez a cross look.
“She ain’t one of us. And she ain’t never gonna be either.” Lamb flashed a full set of white teeth and grabbed his crotch. “But if she wants to suck me off while she’s waiting to get the point…”
Zyra had heard enough. She unhooked the seatbelt from over her shoulder and shot up from her chair. The floor shook beneath her causing her to grab onto the bulkhead to keep from falling. She marched toward the back of the shuttle to get away from Mac’s crew. If the shuttle got incinerated on its way to Bris, at least she’d die in peace.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Lamb said with a grin as Zyra walked by him. “Just popping your cherry.”
He slapped her hard on the backside. Zyra’s RISK blade came to life as she spun around, bringing everyone to their feet. She grabbed Lamb by the shirt and slammed him against the wall. A red glare lit up his face when she brought the spear of her RISK blade toward him. Her glower matched that of her weapon.
A moment later, she heard the click of the safety being removed from a gun behind her head.
“Let…him…go.” When Zyra didn’t respond, Rodriguez shoved the weapon into her head. “Now.”
Zyra’s eyes blazed like a raging fire. Fear gripped the faces of the bounty hunters when they realized she was going to kill Lamb.
“I will blow your fucking head off if you don’t let him go.”
Zyra didn’t lower her weapon. Lamb had crossed the line when he put his hands on her and she was ready to teach him the error of his ways. The tension in the air increased when it became clear Zyra was not going to back down.
“No, Zyra,” Zoe pleaded.
Lamb’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. He couldn’t believe he was going to die for a simple joke. “You don’t gotta do this,” he mumbled.
Zyra’s gaze was hotter than molten steel. She seemed unaware of anything going on around her except the violent hum of her RISK blade and the fear in Lamb’s eyes.
“Don’t do it, Zyra. You’re better than this.”
Zyra’s harsh expression softened when Zoe’s words wrested her out of her trance. She blinked her eyes twice, then relaxed her left hand before mentally shutting off her weapon. She released Lamb and stormed past Zoe toward the rear of the shuttle.
As soon as she had disappeared from view, Rodriguez let out an angry swear. “She’s fucking crazy!”
Lamb wiped sweat from his brow. “She was going to kill me!”
“Might have done us all a favor if she had,” Cody said, her face twisted in disbelief at his outrageous behavior. “Poke a bear in the ribs long enough, it’ll turn around and bite your head off.”
“It ain’t right what she did,” Lamb said, still trying to elicit sympathy from his teammates.
“Goddamn Mac for sending that maniac with us,” Rodriguez snapped.
“We need to calm down. No way we survive what’s coming up if we’re at each other’s throats,” Ingram said.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Rodriguez asked.
“We carry out the mission, that’s what,” Cody said.
“I’m not setting a foot down on that moon if psycho bitch is coming with us,” Rodriguez said.
Cody’s voice dropped an octave. “You’ll do what you’re paid to do. All of you.”
Rodriguez slammed her fist into the bulkhead. “To hell with that!”
Zoe glared at the entire crew. “I can’t believe this. None of you get it, do you? Mac wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of bringing Zyra on board if he didn’t see the importance. Face it. We need her.”
“Need her my ass!” Rodriguez said.
Zoe assumed a defensive tone. “Zyra’s got a chip on her shoulder, I’ll grant you that much—”
“More like a boulder,” Lamb said.
“But she’s the best in the business,” Zoe continued. “We’re going to need her before this is over. You’ll see.”
“If she can’t take a few jokes, don’t see how she’s going to cut it hanging with this bunch,” Lamb challenged.
“Don’t you worry. Zyra’s as tough as they come,” Zoe said.
“Her running away like that don’t say tough to me. More like PMS crazy,” Lamb said.
“You’re a jackass,” Zoe said.
“Proud of it too.”
“Why am I wasting my time?” Fed up with the antics of her teammates, Zoe threw up her hands in defeat and retreated to the storage compartment.
Zyra heard the door to the storage compartment open, quietly announcing she had a visitor. She didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. Zoe had always cared for her. Not even threatening the life of one of Zoe’s teammates could change that.
Zyra’s face turned the brighter shade of green when she moved toward a corner in the back of the storage compartment. Lights blinked on and off on the wall, but she knew they failed to provide enough illumination for Zoe to get a good glimpse at her face. She didn’t want Zoe to see her now.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Zoe continued to say as she approached Zyra. “They’re just busting your chops. It’s been a while since they got a chance to haze a new member and they think you’re fresh meat.”
Zyra’s voice shook. “I shouldn’t have come.”