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Rogue Hunter: Valor
BOOKS IN THE SERIES
I | DEBTS UNPAID
II | SHORT-CIRCUIT
III | WHISKEY SOUR
IV | LONG DISTANCE
V | THE HUNTER
VI | BREAKOUT
VII | GIVE OR TAKE
VIII | BOUGHT AND PAID FOR
VIX | MIX AND MATCH
X | ENTERPRISE
XI | ONE-EYED BANDIT
XII | DOCTOR VISIT
XIII | CONFESSIONS
XIV | HIDE AND GO SEEK
XV | KRAX
XVI | SURPRISE PACKAGE
XVII | SECRETS
XVIII | REDIRECT
XIX | PERFECT STRANGER
XX | SQUARE PEG
XXI | POLAR OPPOSITES
XXII | REGRETS
XXIII | PREMONITIONS
XXIV | COLD BLOODED
XXV | DARK TEMPLE
XXVI | TOOLS OF THE TRADE
XXVII | LEVIATHAN
XXVIII | RIDDLES
XXIX | ANGUISH
XXX | ESCAPE
XXXI | FIGHT OR FLIGHT
XXXII | A BAD PLACE
XXXIII | REDUX
XXXIV | ALL THE KING’S MEN
XXXV | TO SKIN A CAT
XXXVI | PRELUDE TO APOCALYPSE
XXXVII | SPECIAL DELIVERY
XXXVIII | STRAIGHT SHOOTER
XXXIX | SU CASA, MI CASA.
XL | HIGH ROAD
XLI | LOST AND FOUND
XLII | GUILT
XLIII | FULL BURN
XLIV | ILLUSIONS
XLV | CLUELESS
XLVI | CONSPIRACY
XLVII | CONSEQUENCE
XLVIII | VIOLATOR OF WORLDS
XLIX | WORMHOLES
L | ARISE, UNLEASH
LI | FATHERLESS TEARS
LII | PROPHECY
LIII | CONVERGENCE
LIV | RETURN OF HOPE
LV | RECKONING
LVI | THE PLAN
LVII | SEDUCER
LVIII | SKIN DEEP
LIX | BETRAYAL
LX | FIRE AND LIGHTNING
LXI | LETHAL INTENT
LXII | BATTLE IN THE STARS
LXIII | WARGAMES
LXIV | REUNION
LXV | MASS ATTACK
LXVI | NEXUS
LXVII | THE HAMMER AND THE ANVIL
LXVIII | NEXUS
LXVIX | EDGE OF SPACE
LXXX | HEART OF DARKNESS
LXXXI | FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
LXXXII | GATES OF ETERNITY
LXXXIII | EPIPHANY
LXXXIV | SLOW BURN
LXXXV | A PAIR OF ACES
PREVIEW OF ROGUE HUNTER: DEATH MOON
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SOME SECRETS SHOULD NEVER BE TOLD.
Forced to repay the vengeful crime boss she owes, Zyra takes a dangerous assignment that will pit her against both friend and foe alike. Unbeknownst to her, the bounty she seeks is a trap door, drawing her into a world of intrigue and mysticism.
Zyra’s only hope to survive this new threat depends on a young pirate and the dark secret she is carrying: a secret so powerful, it could shatter the very foundations of the galaxy.
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: Valor
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2015 Kevis Hendrickson
Cover art by Midnight Whimsy Designs - www.midnightwhimsydesigns.com. All rights reserved. © 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.
Read the Entire Series!
To everyone who dreams of reaching the stars...
Zyra’s story is one that’s been a long time in the telling. I’m ever grateful to everyone who has had a hand in helping me to bring her story to life. I want to thank my wonderful beta readers, Darlene Suber and Kelly Crist, who have worked with me through the various entries in this series, including this very special book, by lending me their thoughtful insight when I needed it most. My editor Laura Kingsley has done a wonderful job making this book read like a dream. I owe my gratitude to her as well. My cover designer Annette Tremblay continues to wow with amazing cover art. Of course, the fans who keep coming back to read Zyra’s adventures is without a doubt worthy of mention. Without your support, this series would be nothing more than one author’s pipe dream.
Thanks everyone. I salute you all.
Dear reader, it is with great pleasure I present this book to you. With this entry in the Rogue Hunter series, I am happy to announce that the long awaited return of Zyra Zanr, as she was originally conceived, has arrived.
Over the course of the series, Zyra has been slowly evolving from a tough, but vulnerable young woman into a confident and heroic space adventurer. She has suffered greatly and overcome many challenges. Her life experiences have shaped, and continues to shape her as she moves toward her ultimate destiny.
As you read this book, you’ll see why Zyra holds such a dear place to me. For even when she is at her lowest, she finds a way to let her humanity shine, making her a wonderful testament to the innate beauty and undeniable power of the human spirit.
Zyra withheld a cry when her head was slammed onto the flat surface of a desk. The blood in her head pounded, a deafening steady thrum, driving her mad. Stars filled her vision as the world reeled about her, a sickening blur of indecipherable sound and color. She was writhing, fighting tooth and claw to break the iron grip on her arms. Her efforts were wasted. Spittle wet her quivering lips as the awesome weight of the many bodies piled up on her increased, pushing the air from her lungs.
Zyra managed a huff. The sharp edge of the desk dug into her face, threatening to cut skin. She gasped when her face was pushed harder. She felt skin tear as a hot liquid gushed from the fresh wound. Her face was already swollen and painted slick red with her blood. Unfortunately, her injuries were the least of her worries. She faced a far greater threat than a few cuts and bruises because she knew the next breath she took might be her last.
“Sojo. The New Eden. That’s what they call it.”
Zyra recognized the calm, but brooding masculine voice. It was the voice that had haunted her every step.
“When I first came here fifteen years ago, this place was anything but a paradise,” the man’s voice continued. “It was a crime-ridden cesspool full of whores, thieves and murderers. It still is, but you’d never know it unless you looked beyond the surface.”
Zyra was unable to ease the tension in her chest. The fear within her was building, making her sick to her very core. Just the sound of the man’s voice was enough to make her shudder.
“I made this place what it is. In a few short years, I transformed a den of vipers into the shining jewel of the InterGalactic Alliance. All it took was a great deal of money and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Trust me, I’ve spent a great deal of all three.”
The man’s veiled threat sent shivers down Zyra’s spine. Violence was how he settled things. Even now, he used his silence as a weapon against her. It was a cudgel that smashed through any pretense of courage. Her usual steely resolve had melted away, leaving behind only the husk of a defeated woman. Not knowing what would happen next caused her fear to mount.
She felt pressure along her cheekbone as her face was driven harder into the desk, sending sharp bursts of pain to her temple. More blood seeped from the wound on her face as her captors took delight in punishing her. Zyra pulled at the fingers grasping her arms, struggling to get free. But her arms were caught in a vice that threatened to leave her permanently injured. She let out a cry when her left arm was yanked backwards and twisted to its snapping point.
As if pitying her, the man called off his dogs. “Let her up.”
The pile of feminine bodies keeping Zyra in place finally removed their weight, lifting her roughly to an erect position. She squinted from the burning sensation of hot blood flowing into her eyes. But she was able to clearly see the tall, powerful man who stood before her.
Though dressed in the finest hand-tailored suit, his pale, hardened features were those of a man who had lived a violent life. He would have been out of place in a boardroom, but at home wielding a pistol in a paper bag on the streets looking for prey.
His eyes told his story. Eyes that had seen death up close and personal. There was a face to go with those eyes. But Zyra couldn’t see it.
His eyes bore into her with cool hatred.
“You didn’t really think you could escape me, did you?”
Zyra kept silent, but maintained a steady gaze. She couldn’t let this man see her fear. Not here. Not now.
“I’ve committed a considerable amount of resources to ensuring we could have this...chat. There was a crew of bounty hunters I’d sent after you led by a man named Drake. Whatever happened to them?”
Zyra didn’t reply, felt her stomach clench. Her run-in with the aforementioned bounty hunters had almost cost her her life. It had ended with them losing their lives instead.
“I suppose I already know the answer. You’ve killed them, just as you’ve killed everyone else I sent after you. Still, for all your efforts, all you did was to delay the inevitable.”
Zyra was sick from the many emotions going through her. Fear, anger, regret, and sadness. It pulled her in several places at once. All her efforts to avoid this day had failed. It had come upon her with frightening speed that she could neither plan for or expect. But she had always known the dark truth. How could the situation have turned out otherwise? Lawrence Murphy had sworn to hunt her to the very edge of space. He had finally kept his word and she would pay dearly for it.
“I’ve been in this business a very long time. For the life of me, I can’t recall the last time anyone has dared to do what you did to me.” Murphy’s face darkened to match his graying, but still dark hair. “Of all the people who dared to challenge me, I never envisioned that a lone young woman would think to cheat me of what she owed me. Me, the man who attempted to give her life back to her.”
“I wanted to pay you back. I didn’t have the money.” Zyra’s voice lacked body as the words came tumbling out of her mouth. Neither her sincerity or truthfulness would save her today.
“You have misunderstood the situation. I couldn’t care less about the money.” Murphy swiveled on his hips and extended an arm toward the circular window behind his desk. A tableau of lights and steel spires ran across the horizon. Glowing streaks from the headlights of hover cars racing to and fro reflected off of the glass pane. Against the backdrop of skyscrapers and crisscrossing beacon lights, the constant traffic of aircraft navigating the evening sky made Zyra squint. She was already dizzy from the abuse she had suffered. The dazzling lights only increased her nausea.
“See what’s there? All those many pretty lights? Each light is a dream I gave life to. Sojo is a world of dreams. Dreams I made come true. I offered to help make your dreams come true, Ms. Zanr. Didn’t I?”
“I need some time to get you your money.” Zyra didn’t attempt to hide the desperation from her voice.
“I told you, the money doesn’t matter. Look outside the window again. Does it look like I need the money? I own this world. I own the people of this world. The money I lent you is a paltry line on my bank ledger. I’m a very understanding man when I choose to be. I could almost appreciate you may have had some difficulties. Bounty hunting isn’t an inexpensive occupation. But the one thing I do not tolerate is someone who goes back on their word. Ever.”
Murphy circled his desk and approached Zyra slowly. Each motion of his arm and legs was like the beating wings of a raptor soaring over carrion as it prepared to feast. Zyra fell back on a heel, but the women crowding her held her in place.
Murphy’s glower seemed to burn bright like torches as he looked Zyra directly in the eyes. His voice was a near whisper. “I’ve spent many sleepless days and nights wondering what I would do to you when I saw you again. It might surprise you that in spite of my very vivid imagination, I couldn’t come up with a suitable punishment for you.” He looked at the women holding Zyra. “The ladies here, they gave me some very colorful suggestions. To be honest, you’d lose your lunch if I told you what they wanted to have done to you.” His lips thinned into a feigned grin. “Venusian women can be so cruel when properly motivated,” he tacked on as if an afterthought.
“Killing you would be child’s play. Torturing you gets a little more interesting.” He wagged his finger. “But you’re a legend in our world, Ms. Zanr. Your suffering should be legendary as well.”
Murphy turned his back to Zyra and started pacing. “I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, an old friend of yours called in a favor. Yes, the same friend who called in a favor for you the last time you’d gotten on my bad side. Just as it did then, it took some persuading to get me to see things from his point of view. I’ll admit, Randall McGovern is quite the negotiator, especially when the business at hand involves you.”
Was it possible? Had Mac convinced Murphy to spare her life?
“After some deliberation, we have come to an agreement on how matters should play out.” Murphy glanced at his female bodyguards. “Lay her on the desk.”
Murphy’s female thugs shoved Zyra forward and threw her onto Murphy’s desk. Zyra struggled against them, dreading what was going to happen if she didn’t get free. But the Venusians’ fingers bit deeply into her flesh as they clamped down harder on her. They all bore the same horrible scowl. Their once beautiful faces now made hideous and Gorgon-like by their viciousness. Zyra watched with wide, frightened eyes as Murphy opened a drawer in his desk and withdrew an object from it. His constricted pupils made him appear even more monstrous than the women restraining her. Her irregular breaths turned into a mad pant when she saw the syringe in his hand. The needle in the syringe was the full length of her arm, making it appear as though it had come right out of her nightmares.
With the same carefree look one made when unwrapping meat from the butcher, Murphy grabbed the bottom of Zyra’s shirt and yanked it up to her chest, uncovering the pale, smooth skin beneath. Then, without hesitation—or pity—he fisted the syringe and slammed the needle into her stomach. Zyra let out a horrible scream that reverberated throughout the room. Even the Venusians seemed taken aback by the intensity of her howl. Blood pooled on her navel where the needle had broke skin. Tears crept down the corner of her eyes as Murphy held the syringe in place with such pressure she thought the needle would snap inside her. Only after he’d gotten his fill of watching her suffer, he eased off a bit, then used the pad of his thumb to inject the contents of the syringe into Zyra’s stomach.
“Do you remember the first time we met? No one had even heard of you. You were a nobody, just an upstart with grand ambition of being more than just the new kid on the block. Somehow, you got the idea that you could make a name for yourself by taking out one of the most feared men in the galaxy. Only a fool with a death wish would have attempted to come after me. But you were good, much better than I’d have ever given you credit for. You got close. Close enough to be noticed by my people and brought to my attention.
“When they told me a bounty hunter was taking aim at me, I expected it was some overzealous 300 pound hotshot with a gruff voice who spent his days knocking off second rate thugs in dark alleys while smoking a cigar. You couldn’t have been older than my youngest daughter. You hadn’t a clue what I was going to do to you when my people brought you to me. Just the thought that a mere brat had tried to destroy my organization was enough to sign your death warrant.
“You would have died horribly that day if McGovern hadn’t interfered on your behalf. He truly is your guardian angel. Were it not for him, we’d be having a very different conversation.” Murphy’s voice lowered as the plunger in the syringe dropped further. “He convinced me that it was in our mutual interest to allow you to have a chance to pay off your debt. So, as a businessman who understands how to make a profit, I am granting you an extension.”
Murphy grew silent and didn’t speak again until the syringe was almost empty. “As you may have guessed, Ms. Zanr, there is one stipulation. To ensure that there will not be a repeat of the recent past, I am now pumping you full of nanites. These are designer nanites, made to my exact specifications. Even as I speak, they are attaching themselves to the walls of your stomach and inner lining of your intestines where they will remain for the foreseeable future.
“These nanites will allow me, and by default, my associates, to track you wherever you go. Don’t you dare entertain the thought of having them removed. If you attempt to do so without the special coding needed to deactivate them, the nanites will detonate and explode, killing you instantly.”
Murphy grew rigid as he looked into Zyra’s tear-filled eyes.
“You have exactly ninety days to get my money. At the end of those ninety days, if you don’t return my money, the nanites inside you will secrete a very toxic acid that will dissolve your intestinal tract and burn a hole the size of my fist right through your stomach.
Zyra yelped when Murphy violently withdrew the syringe from her stomach. He calmly taped a gauze to the bleeding wound before gesturing for his female bodyguards to lift her up. Zyra was hunched over and trembling, no longer able to hide her fear.
“I know you must be quite anxious to leave so I’ll have my friends here return you to your ship. Oh, the terms of me granting you an extension is that instead of paying me five million credits, you now have to pay me ten. I would suggest you don’t be late with your payment.”
Zyra didn’t know how long she had been lying on the floor of her ship. Only that the floor beneath her was slick with her blood. Murphy’s Venusian bodyguards had left her with a parting gift. Her entire body hurt from the savage beating they’d given her. She ran her fingers across her thigh, tried to stop the twitching leg muscles that had been damaged during the assault. She could barely move her fingers, they were swollen so much. She hoped they hadn’t been broken. All things considered, it could have been worse. She was just glad she didn’t have to listen to the Venusians sing their national anthem. That really would have been the final straw.
Zyra’s attempted jest didn’t have the intended effect. Instead, it broke the dam of tears in her eyes as she started crying. An entire year on the run, narrowly escaping one danger after the next. And for what? Just so that one man could have his revenge?
She regretted the day she had ever heard the name of Lawrence Murphy. Keeping her fledgling bounty hunting operation alive was not worth the sacrifice she had made. She should have known better than to make a deal with a monster like Murphy. Now she had no choice but to do what he wanted or suffer the consequences of reneging on their agreement.
Even Mac’s attempt to bribe Murphy was not enough to save the day. There was no way she could conceivably repay the money she had borrowed from Murphy. She couldn’t even make half that amount in the allotted timeframe if she traded in her ship. Ten million was downright impossible.
Even if she was crazy enough to think she could make the money, she would have to take the most horrible jobs to acquire even a portion of that amount. Contrary to popular belief, collecting bounties wasn’t something hunters did often or quickly. The greater the bounty, the more difficult and dangerous the job. Those were the jobs that required more planning and time to pull off. Traveling from one side of the galaxy to the next in pursuit of multiple fugitives would consume most of her time. Ninety solar days wasn’t enough to get the money.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have much choice other than to make a mad scramble to do the impossible. She was likely to die attempting to go after the bigger fish out there. But she’d surely die if she didn’t square things away with Murphy.
Zyra removed her hand from her injured leg and folded her arms around her head. Mac had saved her life. Again. But he’d used up the last of whatever sway he had with Murphy. There was no one coming to her rescue now. She couldn’t believe that after all she had suffered, she was going to die at the hands of a thug. She wished it had never come to this.
Zyra remained in the fetal position, shaking uncontrollably, wishing she could fade away into the darkness of her ship. She didn’t stop crying until sleep mercifully took her into its embrace.
Zyra yawned and stretched her arms as she traveled the corridors of the Helship-II. Her movements were stiff and clumsy, lacking her usual grace. She had an ache in her side from sleeping in a bad position and her stomach was rumbling from the bad tuna she’d wolfed down a few minutes earlier. Even a hot shower did little to improve her mood. It’s going to be a long day, she thought.
She had a long list of things to do, not the least of which was to drop off her latest prisoner at the nearest IGP station. Jape Vimoon was a petty thief and not worth a whole lot of money. But he was an easy catch. She needed the money and wouldn’t turn her nose up to any credits that came her way. Vimoon had been holed up in the brig for a few days now. Her payment for his capture had been delayed when Murphy’s people came after her. Now that she was back on board her ship, she could finish what she started.
When Zyra let out another yawn, she knew she was going to regret skipping her morning coffee. She’d have to get by the best she could until she could catch up with her work. A third yawn escaped her mouth. On second thought, I really need that coffee. Zyra was about to make a U-turn back to her office when she noticed an entire section of the wall was missing the usual procession of blinking lights that decorated the rest of the corridor. It was impossible to miss considering how dark it was on board her ship.
“I just fixed this,” she groaned. Turning angrily toward the interface, she flipped open the grease-stained circuit box beside it. The knot of scorched wires inside invoked a scowl from her. She tried to pull apart the wires with her fingers, but drew back her hand when a spark flew out. Sucking on her burnt pinky finger cooled it, but Zyra was fuming. She yanked the digit out and glared. “I am so tired of your nonsense. I should have sent you to the scrap heap long ago.”
Zyra didn’t want to antagonize the situation, but she was too angry to care. The Helship-II had never been the same after nearly being blown to bits a few months earlier. A single photon torpedo slamming against her battered shields had turned her vaunted super ship into a heap of junk. But she was past the point of being diplomatic with her misbehaving ship. Her eyes rolled in protest of the loud electronic warble that accosted her. The ship computer’s voice system didn’t work outside of the cockpit, so she couldn’t figure out what it was trying to tell her. But it didn’t matter. She wasn’t in the mood to listen to her ship give her any lip.
Her nose twitched at the burnt, coppery smell coming from the interface as she went to work on it again. It took her a few seconds to sort through the wires and reconnect them to the circuit board. She closed the circuit box door, but the interface remained lifeless. Her face went dark. “Why can’t anything be easy with you?”
The interface suddenly lit up, but Zyra wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. The day had already gotten off to a rotten start and she needed to attend other business. She had barely taken a step away from the interface when it went dark again. Angrily, she spun back around and smashed her fist against the circuit box door. A soft glow painted her face a slurry of colors when the lights on the interface came back to life.
“You’re pushing your luck!”
Zyra was too angry to bother with coffee anymore, so she stormed back down the corridor, but not without first making a passing glance behind her to see if the interface still worked. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw that it was operational. She maintained an even gait and approached the cockpit, but she almost collided into the cockpit door when it failed to open. She backed up and smashed her palm against the door control panel.
“If you don’t open this door, I swear I’m going to melt you down for parts.”
Having made her threat, the door finally opened. Zyra shook her head in annoyance of the Helship-II’s antics and entered the cockpit. She half-expected the ship to continue throwing a tantrum, but she (surprisingly) made it all the way to her chair unmolested. Zyra dropped down into the soft cushion of the chair and winced at the row of winking service lights on the instrument console.
“Computer, run a full diagnostics test of ship’s systems.”
“Running diagnostics test,” the ship repeated.
Zyra scanned the instrument console, observing the many buttons, switches, dials, navigational instruments and display monitors. Most ships used dedicated logic circuits and sensors to achieve synergy throughout its operational system. But she had spent years using mismatching technologies to transform her aging vessel into a supped-up starship, sacrificing efficiency for superior performance. As a result, the Helship-II was one of the most advanced ships in the galaxy. But it was also a mechanical Frankenstein’s monster whose multi-tiered systems often clashed more than they worked together. As was the case now—and the reason why half of the ship’s systems were malfunctioning.
Zyra groaned, knowing it would take weeks to get her ship back up to specs. She decided to get on with the rest of her business.
“While you’re at it, connect me with the IGP Most Wanted lists feed.”
“InterGalactic Police Fugitive Recovery Lists Feed Initiated.”
Images from the Most Wanted feed database appeared on the secondary viewscreen. Zyra touched the holographic display in the air and flicked her finger to scroll through the list of fugitives. Her face lit up when she recognized the face of the young woman on her screen. Her long white-blonde hair perfectly complimented her brilliantly pale blue eyes. She mirrored Zyra’s own looks in many ways and resembled a slightly younger, more fairy-esque version of herself.
“Hmm. That’s interesting.”
IGP Criminal Profile: Jaxa Claire Breanna Finnegan.
Blood type: A+
Affiliates: J-Sector Corsairs
SUSPECT WANTED ALIVE for the crime of TREASON against the government of the InterGalactic Alliance. Amount of reward for information leading to arrest of suspect is subject to sensitivity of information. The reward for the physical capture of suspect is currently set at 20,000,000 I.S.C.’s.
Zyra’s eyes bulged at Jaxa’s bounty. Once she’d calmed herself down, she ran her eyes down the rest of the screen.
Suspect was last seen in the Lygar sector near Phizar moon base.
“So, Jaxa. What are you doing in this sector?”
Zyra could never forget the angelic face of Jaxa Finnegan. She hadn’t met her in person, but her grandfather, Jack, used to talk about her. It had been a while since she’d last crossed paths with the old freighter pilot. If anyone knew where Jaxa was, it would be Jack.
Good old Jack.
He had took her under his protection and saved her life when others would have turned their back on her. Going after Jaxa would complicate things. But Zyra was out of options. She needed some fast money and collecting Jaxa’s bounty would solve a lot of her problems. Maybe it’s time to pay an old friend a visit.
Even from a distance, Zyra could tell that Jack wasn’t in a good mood. In fact, he looked downright miserable. He was slumped over the table, disinterested in the food and drink arrayed before him. She navigated the busy bar and made her way over to him.
“Hope you’re saving that seat for me,” Zyra said.
Jack woke up from his spell and looked up to see her. “What? Oh. Yeah. Zyra? Zyra!”
Jack leapt up from his chair and gave Zyra a crushing bear hug. She felt all the air go whooshing out of her lungs, but maintained the awkward grin on her face to keep Jack from noticing that he was killing her.
“I missed ya, darlin’!”
“I missed you too, Jack,” Zyra squawked.
Jack realized he was crushing Zyra to death and released her. “Sorry. Just real excited to see you is all.”
Zyra laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m tougher than I look.”
“I know you ain’t no fragile lil’ blossom, but I like seein’ you in one piece just the same.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Jack guffawed. “Just showin’ my good manners.” He raised a hand to the table. “Take a load off, sweetheart.”
Zyra drew back a chair and sat down across from Jack. She observed the neatly trimmed white mustache and beard that framed his rosy cheeks. Zyra had forgotten how dashing he looked even at his age. Her stomach broiled at the thought of ever hurting this gentle giant.
Jack pressed a set of fat knuckles into his face and grinned. “It’s been right quiet from yer side of the ‘verse. What’ve you been up to?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Zyra said while twirling a lock of golden hair around her finger. “Just getting in and out of trouble.”
“I bet. Every time I see you, I feel it won’t hurt to carry a few bottles of aspirin and bandages around.”
Zyra’s face relaxed. Jack had a way with words that always impressed her. He was able to make light of a bad time in her life in a way that brought a smile to her lips. The smile didn’t last. Considering what she was about to do to him, it was a counterfeit gesture. Zyra suppressed a sigh. She knew she was being hasty, but she wanted to get the conversation moving along in a much more constructive direction.
“What about you, Jack? You looked upset before I arrived.”
“Long week,” Jack said dismissively. “Wanna drink?”
Zyra wasn’t surprised that Jack didn’t want to entertain her about his problems especially since she was sure she knew what was at the root of them. Still, she couldn’t let him off of the hook that easily.
“Sure. Vodka with Soda.”
Jack waved over a bar-back and repeated her order.
“Didn’t think I’d see you no time soon. You weren’t feelin’ well over on Phoenix and I’ve been catchin’ up on orders. The war’s been keeping me real busy.”
Tensions were high between the InterGalactic Alliance and the Legion of Worlds. It seemed any day now the fragile peace would break and war would ensue again. All the tinder box needed was a spark. She was glad to hear that things were somewhat normal for Jack, problems with his granddaughter aside.
“I needed some time to think,” Zyra said, continuing the back and forth volley with Jack of neither of them wanting to discuss their personal problems.
“Good for you. No good tryin’ to make things look prettier than they are. Feelin’ any better?”
“Yeah.” It was a lie. But what else could Zyra say? That not much had changed for her since she last saw Jack? That cold-blooded killers were still threatening her life?
Or better yet, she had made the long journey to see Jack so that she could take his granddaughter away?
“Heard from the kid?”
“You mean Logos?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah, that kid.”
“He sends me beams every now and then to let me know how he’s doing, but I haven’t spoken to him in a while.”
It had been several months since Zyra last saw Logos in person. She’d rescued him from a crew of bounty hunters that had press-ganged him into their service. The boy had suffered in his time with them. She was glad to know he was safe.
“He’s real fond of you, that boy. I think he’s soft on you.”
“I know,” Zyra forced another smile when she thought of the boy’s cheerful smile. She really did care for Logos but didn’t want to get distracted. “You find any work?”
Zyra had tossed the ball back into Jack’s court. She hoped he’d start giving her some information she could use. Jack had his poker face on. He was trying too hard to keep her from reading him. But if he was willing to talk, she was all ears.
Jack raised his glass of whiskey to his mouth and took a sip. “Got a couple of offers from some corporate types. Money’s good, but didn’t like the smell of ’em. Real slick greasy types. The kind that’ll knife you in the back after sellin’ you a box o’ dead worms.” He took another sip, finally looking interested in his drink now that he had some company. “Wanted me to haul some lab equipment to some world far out past the frontier. When I asked what it was I’d be carryin’, they got real quiet. Told ‘em I’d think about it, but I’d need to have my head examined for takin’ the job. Could’ve use the money though.”
Zyra didn’t know what had scared Jack about the job. It wasn’t unheard of for clients to want to keep the details of whatever they were shipping hush-hush in spite of full disclosure merchant trade laws. Shipping manifests were often falsified in order to keep what freighters carried during their long distance hauls secret. It didn’t really matter much to her. She had more important matters to deal with.
“Probably for the best,” Zyra said. She watched the bar-back place her drink on the table.
“Maybe,” Jack explained. “Don’t need no trouble. Got enough as it is.”
Zyra raised a brow. Was Jack referring to Jaxa? She needed to keep picking his brain. “Is something wrong?”
Jack lowered his head. The color faded from his face as he brought his bushy white eyebrows together. “Yeah. But no good bringing it up.”
“Is it Jaxa?”
Zyra knew she was playing with fire by being so direct and wanted to kick herself for not being more careful. But the bait had been set. She wondered if Jack would bite.
Jack raised his gaze to Zyra, gave her a suspicious look. “She’s in trouble. Alliance is after her. Wants me to help her out.”
Jack’s tone was dry and robotic. He was obviously not comfortable talking to her about Jaxa. He had his guard up.
Zyra would play along and hope Jack didn’t notice what she was up to. “It’s not good having the IGP on your tail.”
“It ain’t the IGP that’s lookin’ for her. It’s Investigations.”
Zyra arched a brow. This was starting to get interesting. “The Bureau of Investigations? Why?”
“Got caught with her hands in the cookie jar,” Jack said while balling his hands into fists on the table. “Only whatever she took this time’s got them Alliance weasels all riled up. They’ve sent everything they got after her and they ain’t lookin’ to hold hands.”
“What did she steal?”
“Won’t tell me. Only that they’re goin’ to kill her fer takin’ it. Been warnin’ her wayward ass to straighten up for years. I’m tempted to leave her high and dry fer not listenin’ to me. But she’s got no one else.”
Zyra placed her hand on Jack’s forearm. In spite of his attempt to hide it, he was terrified for Jaxa. The worry lines in his brow dug deep into his skin, making him appear many years older. “You could get into serious trouble for interfering with an Alliance Investigation.”
“Think I don’t know that? But she’s my blood.”
Zyra grew quiet and watched Jack drain his glass. This was the moment she had been waiting for. The last thing she wanted to do was to upset Jack, especially now. But she’d finally got him to open up and she knew if she let this moment pass, her trip to Xygus would be for nothing. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Jack’s face suddenly went dark. “What kind o’ question is that? Don’t make no sense you gettin’ snared in some nasty business that don’t concern you.”
“Believe it or not, I’m handy in a jam.”
“I bet you are.” Jack’s voice lost its friendliness and took a threatening tone..
Zyra hadn’t expected such a strong reaction from Jack. She needed to calm him down. “You’re taking this the wrong way.”
“Who are you anyway? You ain’t tell me what it is you do. And don’t try tellin’ me you’re a tour guide. I know when someone’s keepin’ a secret from me.”
Zyra swallowed. She had hoped to avoid this moment as it would be an admission of why she had come to see Jack. She knew he wouldn’t take the news well, but couldn’t wiggle her way out of telling the truth. “I’m a bounty hunter.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed, grew sharp. “Bounty hunter? Should’ve figured. You got that look in yer eye like you done killed somebody.”
“I’m not going to hurt Jaxa. I just want to offer my help if you need it.”
“Jaxa don’t need no help from you. Better drop this matter now before I find myself adding you to my hog shit list.”
Jack stood up from the table, his massive arms drawn close to his powerful frame. Zyra rose up after him.
“Jack, I didn’t mean to—”
“Sure you didn’t. Ya just happened to show up unannounced cause ya wanted a drink.”
“Maybe I did.”
“Yer glass is still full.”
Zyra glanced down at her untouched Vodka, realizing it was pointless to argue with Jack anymore. He had seen right through her.
“I’m gonna pretend like we’re still good people and go my way. Ya ever need a ride, honk yer horn. But if I ever see you nosin’ around my ship or askin’ about Jaxa, you can forget you ever knew me. I’m only so friendly.”
Zyra watched in silence as Jack walked away.
Friendship was a strange thing. At times, it seemed like a relationship based on convenience and mutual trust. At others, it felt like an arrangement created for the sole purpose of exploitation. Zyra hated having to betray Jack, especially since the number of friends she had could be counted on one hand (and apparently was growing smaller every day). Jaxa was, no doubt, the most precious thing in the universe to him. But Jaxa was also Public Enemy #1 and that meant a huge payday for whomever could get their hands on her. Jaxa had to be on Xygus. Zyra was willing to bet her life on it. Better still, without even realizing it, in his righteous anger, Jack had pretty much told her exactly where Jaxa was hiding.
Zyra kept her head down as she walked through the lane of crates that were waiting to be loaded onto ships. It was late at night when the hanger bay was at its least busiest. With the exception of a few stray pilots finalizing their shipments and flight schedules and the meager hanger bay work crew who attended the ships for maintenance and refueling, there wasn’t much activity. It made sneaking around the hanger bay much easier.
Zyra stopped suddenly and swore under her breath. Not far from where she stood, Jack was giving instructions to the hanger bay director. He looked occupied, but she couldn’t be sure what his intentions were.
She raised her head just enough to peer over one of the large crates and observed The Ole Willy. Jack’s ship was on the other side of the hanger bay. She wondered if she had time to get in and out of his ship before he returned to it. Zyra rolled her eyes and sighed. She hadn’t come this far just to give up. She had already thrown caution to the wind. She couldn’t be less cautious than she was now.
I don’t care what anyone says. This job is for the birds.
She nibbled on her bottom lip and moved carefully to the side of the crate, watching as Jack followed the director across the hanger bay to his work station. If Jack could stay away for a few minutes, she might actually pull this off. She moved to the opposite side of the crate and counted to three before leaving her hiding place and sprinting in the direction of The Ole Willy. In her rear, the Helship-II stood like a sentry: a silent, mechanical witness to Zyra’s bravery—or act of self-destruction.
Getting inside The Ole Willy proved to be a lot easier than expected. The ship’s security systems were absurdly outdated. The ship practically rolled out the red carpet for her. Not that Zyra was complaining. She had completed half of the mission. Now the hard part began.
Navigating The Ole Willy wasn’t difficult. It was an antique. Boxed-shaped and clunky with a pair of large, sturdy engines at the rear, the Willy wasn’t all that impressive to look at. It was a standard aging freighter that had been modified to host bulk-plate armor and a triple-barreled plasma cannon on top of the main cabin (a handy tool for staving off the unwanted advances of pirates during deep space travel). The simplicity of its pedestrian design suited what it was used for, which was hauling cargo through space. Her own ship could trace its design to The Ole Willy, since it was the predecessor to ships in its class. She’d also spent several days on board and had no problems finding her way around even in the darkness.
However, the glare from the many blinking lights throughout the ship was distracting. It made detecting movement nearly impossible. If Jaxa decided to show up unannounced and make a move at her, she wouldn’t see her coming. The last thing she wanted was to get into a scrap with Jaxa. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Zyra would avoid hurting Jaxa if possible, but she had no delusions Jaxa would come quietly. She had her gun set to stun to ensure she did.
At this late hour, Jaxa should be sleeping soundly. Zyra made her approach to the sleeping quarters as quietly as possible. She slowed her trot until it looked as if she were moving in slow motion. Her footfalls grew lighter. Other than the sound of air coming from the vents, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
Zyra pressed her back to the wall outside of the door that led to the sleeping quarters and froze. She listened carefully for any sound that would warn her of trouble. She moved sideways and inched closer to the door. Very slowly, she leaned into the doorway to see if anyone was lying in the bed.
She said a mental swear and turned back around. Jaxa wasn’t in the bed. That meant she was probably walking around the ship somewhere.
This was not good.
Zyra was counting on catching Jaxa at unawares, preferably when she was resting up for the day. She had to search the rest of the ship to find her, but knew she didn’t have long. Jack would be back at any moment.
Zyra continued to explore her surroundings. The ship was in sleep mode, making it more difficult to avoid tripping any kind of security alarms that may have been set up for intruders. She made sure to observe every inch of corridor, looking for traps. So far, so good.
She hadn’t tripped any alarms and she had managed to avoid Jack’s android Vera whom she hoped was somewhere recharging. When she’d finished inspecting the engine room without success for the elusive pirate-on-the-run, Zyra decided that, perhaps, Jaxa had gone to get herself a late-night snack. So she made a U-turn and headed for the lounge where the snack dispenser was. Zyra hadn’t gotten far when she heard someone humming a tune.
Zyra backtracked her steps and ducked into a nook in the wall. She didn’t recognize the song—or the voice. But she knew a woman when she heard one. Zyra’s breath hitched in her throat as she grabbed her pistol and made herself as small as possible. She couldn’t let Jaxa see her.
Zyra noticed the svelte blonde walk past her vision still humming her song. To her surprise, instead of passing by her, Jaxa stopped right in front of where she was hiding and activated the communicator on the wall directly across from her. Zyra couldn’t get a good look at who appeared on the communicator.
“I’ve missed you,” Jaxa said, her deep Southern accent inflecting every syllable.
“You’ve been gone too long,” the voice on the communicator said.
Zyra suddenly went rigid. The deep, basso tone registered immediately. She gripped her pistol tighter.
“I wish I was there with you.” Jaxa’s voice was soft and tender, but full of fear.
“I’ll destroy heaven and hell if I must, but I won’t let any harm come to you.”
“You can’t help me, Rador.”
Zyra’s face flushed dark with anger. She had crossed paths with Captain Rador many times and had nearly been killed by him in every encounter. Rador was the most ruthless pirate alive. She couldn’t believe Jaxa was exchanging sweet nothings with a man who spent his days butchering innocent people. Guilt welled up inside her when she remembered that she, too, had loved a similar man once. A man who died at her hands after killing the woman she loved even more.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“I have to go. I’ll talk to you soon.”
The communicator went dark when Jaxa shut it off. Zyra watched the other woman turn around looking sad and contemplative. Her youthful face was torn with fear and grief. Whatever was going on with Jaxa and Rador wasn’t her problem. She had a job to do and was going to see it through to the end.
Before Zyra could move into action, Jaxa noticed her out of the corner of her eye and turned to face her. As if sharing the same mind, both women drew their pistols on the other. Jaxa unholstered her weapon just as fast as Zyra raised hers. A bright flash exploded from their respective nozzles. A second and third flash erupted in the air when both weapons went flying out of the other’s hand. In their haste to open fire on the other, they had carelessly shot the other’s weapon, leaving them both disarmed.
Zyra didn’t waste any time going on the offensive. She lunged at Jaxa and slammed into her, knocking her hard into the wall behind. Jaxa locked her fingers together and slammed her fists onto Zyra’s back. Even though she was slightly younger and more willowy, Jaxa matched Zyra’s physical dimensions closely. She was able to deliver a blow that knocked Zyra down to one knee. Jaxa followed the move up with a wide hook. If the blow connected, it would be lights out for Zyra. But Zyra could see the move coming a mile away.
She hooked her legs into Jaxa’s and rolled, cutting her down immediately. Jaxa hit the metal floor hard. Zyra locked her arms around Jaxa’s body and wrestled her. Jaxa put up a valiant fight, but she was a scrapper—a woman who had learned how to defend herself by mixing it up in the street with brawlers.
Zyra, on the other hand, was a prodigious fighter with skills even the most elite soldier didn’t possess. She bent Jaxa’s arm into an arm lock and forced it to the point of snapping. Jaxa screamed, but kept fighting through the pain to get free.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a bounty hunter.”
Zyra stood up from the floor with Jaxa in tow. She reached behind her back and slipped another pistol from under her jacket. “This one’s set to kill, so I wouldn’t try anything stupid if I were you.”
“You don’t know who you’re messin’ with.”
“Frankly, I don’t give a crap. Let’s get moving.”
It took a moment for Wolf’s eyes to adjust to the darkness of the hanger bay. The flashing lights of mechanical lifts raising and lowering ships proved a poor substitute for proper lighting. Fortunately, he’d had optics surgically implanted into his eyes allowing him to see all the spectrums of light, including infrared. Just the tool he needed to detect life forms that could not be seen by the naked eye.
He surveyed his surroundings carefully, not allowing even the smallest detail to escape his notice. His eyes flicked left and right, observing the service bots that slavishly went about their duties while the stray human service operator passed by him with little regard. Wolf didn’t want to draw any more attention than necessary, so he ventured deeper into the hanger bay. With shrewd, subtle movements, he walked beneath the observation bridge that winded around the exterior of the hanger bay, purposely remaining in the shadows to make himself as invisible as possible. His already dark face grew darker when he stopped suddenly to track the movement of a pair of figures in the distance.
It seemed he had arrived just in time.
Wolf’s sharp, perceptive eyes became slits when he was greeted by a soft hum. It was nothing anyone else could notice. But he had been expecting it. Wolf glanced left to acknowledge the metal box hovering in the air beside him. A collection of mismatching electronic parts appearing hastily slapped together always made Grendel look like a child’s science fair project gone wrong. But that was by design. No one would give much thought to a harmless looking steel contraption. But in truth, Grendel was a mechanical terror that had ended the lives of thousands of people on countless worlds.
The barely audible hum became a steady drone, making Wolf lift a brow.
“No, Grendel. She will not escape us this time.”
Zyra had to bite her tongue to keep from cursing. Jaxa was proving herself to be a real pain to deal with. She was doing everything in her power to make Zyra lose her cool. However, that wouldn’t work out well for either of them considering her gun was set to kill.
“I said move!”
Zyra shoved Jaxa in the back to get her to walk forward, but she wasn’t cooperating.
It was obvious Jaxa wanted to play hardball. Zyra wasn’t having any of it. She pushed the nozzle of her gun into Jaxa’s head, reminding her who was in charge. “You must think you’re laser proof.”
“I really hate bounty hunters,” Jaxa replied.
“And you’re starting to piss me off. Now walk.”
Jaxa didn’t move so Zyra shoved her again. This time, Jaxa begrudgingly went along with the program and fell into stride. Zyra took sure, steady steps down The Ole Willy’s landing platform behind Jaxa and had to duck to keep from hitting her head on the too-low hull.
Zyra had to suppress a sigh. She didn’t know why criminals always thought they could refuse her orders. Maybe she needed to wear war paint on her face to make herself look more threatening. Or maybe I need to lose an eye. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. She was never fond of Captain Rador’s eye-patch and didn’t think it would look good on her. Either way, she was fresh out of patience with Jaxa.
Zyra hooked left past a line of freighters that were suspended in the air on hydraulic racks and nudged Jaxa with a palm in the direction of the Helship-II.
Jaxa threw a backwards glance without breaking stride. “Did I mention I hate bounty hunters?”
“Well, I really don’t like you.”
“I hate pirates. Now we’re even,” Zyra replied.
Jaxa sneered at Zyra then turned back around to gaze ahead.
Zyra kept her gun pointed at Jaxa, but was attentive to the goings on around her. There was no sign of Jack. Good. The last thing she needed right now was to have him show up to spoil her party, especially when her ship was within spitting distance.
Hang on, girl. We’re almost off of this rock.
The Helship-II couldn’t hear her of course. But somehow Zyra felt her ship would have appreciated the thought. They’d survived many adventures together and she had no intentions of having this one end any differently. If things worked out as planned, Zyra would be able to give her ship a necessary upgrade (if she didn’t put the poor thing out to pasture first). It was creaking at the seams and needed much more than a fresh coat of paint to hide its warts. It was a miracle her ship hadn’t simply come apart while she was hurtling through the cosmos from one world to the next. The Helship-II had logged more flight time than any respectable ship ought to. The grueling demands of space travel and frantic dogfights with marauding pirate ships had left the modified stock freighter in a permanent state of disrepair. Her ship wouldn’t take much more abuse before finally giving out and ending her life along with it in a sudden, fiery blaze.
With an embarrassed wince, Zyra focused her gaze on the pearl white finish of the Helship-II’s