Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Also by Charley Marsh
About the Author
Margarita King stood in the clear nose-cone of her ship, The Junkyard Dog, and eyed the rapidly nearing planet named Fagan II with a mixture of interest and dread.
Would she run into any members of her old crew here? And if she did, would they recognize her? According to Kincaid, a rogue Red Baron she had met on the planet Weegan, the Red Barons had held a ceremony honoring Rita after her presumed death.
It was imperative that they continue to believe her dead, at least for the time being. At least until she figured out who had tried to kill her and destroy her ship.
Rita’s black hair, usually worn ultra-short and spiky, had grown over the last few months. It now lay in a soft, thick cap around her narrow face framing her long, whiskey-colored eyes and strong, straight nose.
Soon she would have to wake the others, but for now she would enjoy the quiet. She turned away from the approaching planet, stretched upward, then bent to place her palms flat on the deck. The muscles of her six foot two frame protested at first, but quickly regained their flexibility.
Rita had years of dance and martial arts studies to thank for her athleticism and grace. Her mother had insisted on the dance, and Rita had continued the studies even after her mother’s untimely death.
Her father had suggested the martial arts during one of their frequent trips to Old Earth. An archaeologist specializing in Old Earth history, he preferred to dig alone and often left Rita with others after her mother died.
This time he had left her at a private dojo while he conducted a nearby dig. Although at the time she had resented being dumped, by the time her father returned Rita had been hooked on the ancient discipline.
She moved smoothly into the familiar dance of precise moves until she felt centered and at peace.
Putting space travelers to sleep for the twisted journey through the fabric of space/time had become standard procedure once man ventured beyond Earth’s solar system. Considered a safe alternative to the unusual effects warp travel had on the human body, the Time-Eze drug had the added benefit of slowing the metabolic processes in the human body, thus stretching the life span.
Unfortunately muscles had a tendency to weaken when unused, so Rita always worked out as soon as she awoke.
She finished her routine, showered, and pulled on her dull brown spider silk suit. Stronger than steel yet weighing next to nothing, the suit protected her body from anything short of a fusion bomb.
And it could possibly withstand that, Rita mused as she pulled on her calf-length boots made from an impenetrable blend of sharkskin and kevlar, but she had no wish to test it.
She strode half the length of the long, narrow cabin and stopped beside a section of shallow berths. The interior of the Dog was designed after the Old Earth sailing ships from the ancient world. Every nook and cranny had been put to use, not a cubic millimeter wasted.
She hit the control cleverly designed as a knothole and a door slid open soundlessly. Two occupants slept in the lower berth. Darwin, a rare, telepathic shadow-creature, had joined Rita when her ship had been sabotaged and she’d been forced to crash land on an uninhabited planet. While she had saved him from certain death at the time, he had repaid the favor more than once since.
Rita ran her hand over the gray, wiry fur that covered Darwin’s thick, chunky dog’s body. She smiled at the gem-studded ivory collar that had been a gift from his bunkmate.
Pressing Darwin’s chest between his front legs gently, she waited for his heart rate to increase. Within moments round amber eyes popped open in his triangular face, a face that reminded her of the giant cats on Old Earth—a lion, or a tiger perhaps.
Hello, Ree. Lexa?
“She’s next. Not to worry.”
Rita turned her attention to the small, blue-skinned Weegan lying next to Darwin. Lexa’s presence had been unplanned, but Rita hadn’t been able to refuse the young woman when Lexa had begged Rita to take her with her.
A female blue-skin living in a village of greens, Lexa had never felt entirely comfortable, even though she knew her family loved her. On the planet Weegan, skin color was determined by birth location: those living in the jungle had green skin, those in the desert had orange, and those next to the water were blue. They lived their entire lives with their close-knit families in the villages of their birth.
It had been Lexa’s bad luck to be born next to the water while her parents traveled.
The cheerful Weegans were diagnostic specialists. Small in stature, (Lexa’s head barely reached the top of Rita’s thigh), with long, slim fingers and toes, they could squeeze their bodies into unbelievably small spaces and fix anything mechanical.
Having a Weegan onboard a ship was unheard of—they were fierce homebodies and never left their planet. They had a lucrative business with ships from the entire galaxy coming to them for repairs.
The first of their people to travel into space, Lexa was writing new history.
And now she was Rita’s responsibility. Rita prayed she hadn’t made a mistake by agreeing to take the young female on board the Dog. She ran her hand gently down Lexa’s arm.
Lexa’s amber eyes opened. Confusion showed in them until she spied Darwin.
“Darwin!” Lexa pulled the shadow-creature in for a hug, then sat up. “Are we there yet? Are we?”
“Almost.” Rita smiled at Lexa’s enthusiasm. She had been foolish to worry that Lexa would feel homesick. Her young ward had taken to space travel as if she’d been born to it.
The pair scrambled out of their bunk and ran to the ship’s nose to watch the approaching planet.
“What’s Fagan II like?” Lexa asked, her flat nose pressed to the clear Kristal window.
“Why don’t we wake Slade and ask him?” Rita suggested. She walked back to the still closed bunk that held her guest, a Special Independent Agent trying to track down a stolen ship full of trobium.
Trobium, the most valuable element in the galaxy, had nearly cost Rita her life recently—twice.
She hit the button to the left of the bunk and it slid open. Moments later Slade’s green-gold eyes opened and focused on her.
“We there?” His deep, smooth voice rumbled as he sat up and quickly tied back his shoulder length black hair with a leather thong.
“Just about. Lexa wants to know about Fagan II. I thought you could tell us what you know while we all have something to eat.”
“Sounds good to me. I’m famished.” Slade stood next to Rita. He was taller than her by four inches, broad-shouldered, handsome in a rogue, bad boy way that made her pulse quicken.
And judging by the wink he gave her, he knew it.
She scowled and moved away and focused on putting a meal together. Fortunately they all liked to eat the same stuff. She programmed the Redi-Meal for breakfast and pulled the tabletop from its slot in the wall.
Within minutes they sat together chowing down on omelettes and pickled fish, an item Lexa’s mother had insisted Rita stock for her daughter.
Darwin ate from his dish on the deck. While Rita knew he preferred his fish fried, he ate the pickled variety without complaint.
“So, tell us about Fagan II,” Rita prompted when they had eaten enough to take the edge off.
Lexa’s bright eyes focused on Slade. “Is it as pretty as Weegan?” she asked.
“No planet is as pretty as Weegan, Lexa. You had the good fortune to be born on the most colorful planet in the galaxy.”
Lexa beamed at Slade. She might not have felt like she belonged there, but she loved her home planet, Rita knew.
“Fagan II isn’t what I call a pretty planet, but it has some interesting areas,” Slade continued. “Not where I’m going though. Bugsy is a city full of mercenaries, cutthroats, and wheeler-dealers. You should avoid it. It’s not a nice place and it’s easy to find trouble there.”
“Then why are you going?” Lexa asked. She finished her meal and patted her lap. Darwin leaped into it and curled into a ball.
Rita eyed the two as Lexa stroked Darwin’s fur while she waited for Slade to answer her question. Rita was glad to see that Darwin had taken to Lexa. Having a friend made the young Weegan’s life less lonely.
“My ship is berthed there, or I wouldn’t go back to Bugsy,” Slade explained. “I’m chasing some bad guys and I need my ship.”
Lexa’s eyes rounded. “Are those the same bad guys who tried to blow up Weegan?”
Slade nodded. “Yes. Now I need to follow them again because I couldn’t stop them before. But that’s not your concern. I think that while you are on Fagan II Rita should take you to visit the Ruby City. It’s very beautiful and located on a different continent from Bugsy.”
“Is it safe?” Rita asked. “Does the Ruby City welcome strangers?” The last thing she wanted to do was expose Lexa to danger. Sooner or later they would run into a dangerous situation—that was a given with space travel—but she’d like to avoid trouble until Lexa grew more used to her new life.
“Tourism is their main business,” Slade assured her. “They’ll welcome you with open arms.”
Ruby City. The name was an obvious one. Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains of red sandstone iced with layers of white limestone, the buildings gleamed like red jewels in the sun.
After breakfast they had dropped Slade off without incident and circled the planet to the continent Typhren. Rita had located a secure berth for her ship and now the three travelers stood in front of the entrance gate to the famed Ruby City.
Seemingly carved from a single stone, the ruby-colored arched gate soared over their heads. A multitude of carvings winked and gleamed on its surface in the sunlight, making the gate pulse with motion as they drew closer.
Beyond the gate stretched a collection of towers, spires, and buildings, all completely surrounded by a tall crenellated wall that circled the city. Everything was constructed from the same, translucent red stone.
Before they could step through the gate, a tall, thin, creature, more wraith than solid form, held out a long arm and spoke to them.
“Darwin, do you understand what it wants?” Rita asked.
No. I cannot access the sentry’s thoughts. It is . . . blank.
“Well, Slade neglected to tell us we’d need a translator to enter the city. Any suggestions?”
“My sensors tell me you speak Anglish,” the wraith said. “Very good. I am programmed for Anglish along with thousands of other language bytes.”
“I think the sentry is a computer, Rita,” Lexa said. “That’s why Darwin doesn’t pick up any thoughts.”
She reached out a hand to touch the creature but her hand passed right through it. “It must be inside the gate and it projects this holographic image when visitors approach. That’s ice.”
Rita smiled at Lexa’s enthusiasm and addressed the wraith. “We would like to visit your beautiful city. May we enter?”
“Please identify yourselves for the log.”