Chapters:

Book One

Episode One: Realm

Dark Trilogy

Aeon Shadow and Danae Ayusso

Copyright © 2015 Danae Ayusso All Rights Reserved

A Geeks on Ink Publishing Author Collaboration

Edited by Emily Oakes

This story is copyrighted and property rights of Danae Ayusso and Geeks on Ink. This is for personal entertainment use only, any reselling, redistribution or online publishing is strictly prohibited by law. This story may not be reproduced, distributed, modified or reposted to other websites.

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Stand License Statement
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 reader. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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All characters and situations are fictional. Any similarities to an actual person or persons and situations are purely coincidental and rather impressive.

SCI-FI SPACE PIRATES ACTION ADVENTURE W/ CLOCKWORK ELEMENTS

For more information about the series and the authors please check out

www.aeonshadow.com www.danaeayusso.com

www.geeks-on-ink.com

Cover Art By:

Font : Justin Callaghan

Ship : Alperium

Coloring : Tom Burns

Our ode to Firefly

PROLOGUE

When I was a child, the world around me was small and contained. My village was quaint, peaceful, and it was home. Everything I needed was within reach of my short arms and tiny hands. My brothers and sisters were smiling and happy, my parents looked at me with adoring eyes, and I was safe and loved.

But as with everything in Realm, nothing lasts forever.

When I was four years of age, I was awoken by explosions which were so loud, silence fell after the first thunderous assault on my small ears. The night sky was illuminated as bright as day, the ground violently shook under me, and I was scared…

For the first, and only, time in my life I was terrified.

My mother pulled me off the floor and held me tight to her chest. Her lips moved as she frantically told me something. However, I could not hear the words. She rushed to the door, stumbling from side to side as the ground shook, and when she pushed it open my eyes widened.

Our small village was ablaze. The homes and temples were burning and crumbling all around us. The sky was filled with charcoal clouds that illuminated with flashes of light, partially revealing the shapes of the demon vessels hiding within before their powerful weapons slammed into the planet’s surface again and again. Bodies littered the ground, some lay in thick, swirling pools of molten silver that covered as far as my wide eyes could see. With speed and fearless determination, Mother carried me through the carnage and away from our village and home, away from our family and friends, and away from the only place I had ever known.

When only the angry orange glow and billows of thick, black smoke were visible in the distance, she slowed, struggling to catch her breath. Carefully Mother set me on my feet and took my face between her long, slender hands. Tenderly she kissed my forehead, caressing my blue hair back from my face. Her full lips continued to move and I struggled to understand, to hear her words, to make sense of what was happening and why, but I could not.

I started to open my mouth, to tell her that I could not hear, to ask what was going on and why, but the questions never left my lips. The words caught in my throat as a dark figure appeared behind her and I was suddenly covered in warm molten silver.

Mother fell forward on top of me, pinning me to the ground under her tall, slender form. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry out. I wanted to kill the monster that killed my mother.

However, I could not.

I was a Draconian, a being of peace and serenity...a mere Draconian child at that.

Anger and bloodlust, hatred and malice, rage and vengeance were unknown and foreign concepts to me, and each eluded my cognize. A Draconian never cried. According to lore, they were not capable of crying. Screaming was not an option because the only thing hiding me, concealing my tiny, lithe body, was my mother’s rapidly cooling corpse.

As still as death I laid there, attempting to hold my breath, biting my trembling bottom lip, waiting for the monster to get me as well. The sound of soft footfalls heading towards us caused my breathing to increase and I struggled to keep the whimper building in my chest from breaking past my lips. The tangle of blue and purple hair veiling me started to fade from vibrant shades to black of death.

Through that thin veil, I saw him.

The darkened monster stopped next to us, its bulbous head tilting to the side as he reveled in his kill. I was prepared to die. I knew the Light awaited me, and there, I would be reunited with my family, and once again find myself in Mother’s arms.

However, the end and the Light, much like my family and people, were taken from me.

When the monster started to reach for me, he staggered back then collapsed to the ground with most of his head missing, replaced by a gaping hole that spewed blackened blood across the ground.

Unfamiliar creatures wearing gray uniforms dropped from the sky, surrounding us with weapons in hand. They looked between Mother and the distance where smoke continued to blemish the amethyst sky as if waiting for something. Overhead, gleaming ships shot across the sky like vengeful darts seeking atonement. From the distance, a tall figure appeared, each of his strides long and purposeful and the others saluted when he joined them. The menacing creature crouched down and carefully rolled Mother over. I grabbed onto her, desperately trying to hold onto Mother, to keep her safe as she had kept me, to never let go, but it was futile.

The soldier nodded his understanding and tenderly caressed the bloody hair from my face. Never had I seen a creature like him. His skin was not pale, instead it was dark and wrinkled with age, and the scar running from his temple to his chin on the left side made him monstrous to my young eyes. His face was hard and as unreadable as stone, but his small, gray eyes were warm and filled with sadness and compassion. He pulled me away from Mother and into his arms and held me to his chest. He turned and walked away from Mother, from my home, from my family and planet to his waiting ship. I watched from over his shoulder as everything I had ever known and loved disappeared into the smoke-filled horizon.

And that is where my story begins.

I suppose as with everything, nothing can last forever, and just as Realm once had hundreds of thousands of Draconians littered throughout the collective of planets and worlds that encompassed her, it was bound to end. Never did the stars foretell that it would be a race of blood-crazed beasts that stemmed from the darkest recesses of Realm’s womb, and that decided to encroach on the Light. When the wave of darkness receded, there was only one Draconian left.

Me.

-A. West

Today...

The alerts from the control panel blared through the intercom system and echoed throughout the still Dust Jumper. The flashing red and yellow warning lights were an ominous reminder of the predicament that the motley crew of Whisper was truly in. The aged vessel was starting to lose cabin pressure, engines were running on fumes, natural life support systems were unable to compensate for the rapid loss, backup systems had been targeted and taken out, and they were sitting space ducks.

“You’re surrounded,” a gravelly voice said with ill-concealed superiority, his voice breaking up in a static-laced blare as it poured through the ancient speaker on the control panel. “You’re running on empty. Your systems are failing. You will surrender, West. Prepare to be boarded.”

The options were limited and the few they had were rapidly disappearing with each second that ticked away.

With the cool confidence of a veteran Resistance Fighter Pilot, George sat in the pilot’s chair, fingers tapping against the control wheel and awaited orders. The four Central Empire tracker vessels surrounding them were nothing more than an inconvenience and a waste of perfectly good cruising time in George’s opinion.

Behind the pilot stood the Captain and the First Lieutenant of Whisper, their eyes trained on the grim scene out the bay of windows.

In the distance, just beyond the polished silver and white tracker vessels blocking their path, was their destination. The planet’s surface swirled with orange and black gases. Its massive form was wrapped in pulsating ribbons of electrically charged light that painted the darkness with an aurora of tranquility that would block even the Empire’s best tracking systems. The planet, Summit One as it was called, was just within reach, but the crew of Whisper would never reach it. The tracker vessels powering up their weapons would make sure of it.

For weeks, the Authority had been on their trail. Captain West had hoped they dusted their tracks well enough on their last drop at Allegra Outpost Three, but she had suspected that they’d have company before too long. West hadn’t questioned why they were being tracked across Realm. In her experience, you don’t ask unless you’re ready to answer those questions yourself, but if they survived, she would be demanding answers from the new addition to her crew.

“Orders, Captain?” Jax asked in a clipped tone, pushing her thick auburn locks back with one hand—a nervous habit and the only tell the stone-faced female had—then cracked her knuckles.

The metallic clicking coming from the pocket watch in the partially gloved hand of Captain West as it flipped open echoed throughout the bridge. Each time the brass cover opened, it revealed the mother of pearl inlay face, enamel moon and sundials, and polished silver numbers. For that fraction of a moment it was a beacon of otherworld refinement and excess that was a staple of the Captain’s taste. But just as quickly as it opened, the polished brass cover was snapped shut again, only to have the cycle repeat.

It wasn’t the first time that the crew of Whisper had found themselves in that exact situation, and if they survived, they knew it wouldn’t be the last. But it didn’t make it any easier. Being on the run from the Authority of Realm and their seemingly endless reach and clandestine means, and corrupt Central Empire bounty hunters had become second nature to Whisper’s motley crew. Some, like Captain West, were on the run from the Authority. Others, like Spit and Sparks, just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time. But not one of them deserved to die, in West’s opinion, and yet they would stand by their captain and follow her orders to the death. In a ridiculously nonsensical way, they were the dysfunctional family that West never had and really didn’t want, but she’d die to protect them.

“Orders, Captain?” Jax repeated through clenched teeth.

West snapped her pocket watch shut then carefully slid it back into her vest pocket, the attached delicate chain expertly draped against the fabric, securely anchoring the precious token of old world sophistication to her person. She leaned forward and pressed the intercom button with a long, slender, pale finger, silencing the gravelly demands coming through the aged speaker, giving her an audience with the crew.

Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once,” West said, her husky voice carrying throughout the stilled Dust Jumper, pulling the attention of each crewmember to the nearest speaker in their vicinity. “As Shakespearian as our time together has sometimes been, I could not have asked for a better crew to taste Death with, to embrace Her cold, unyielding embrace with, and for that I thank each of you.”

George sighed and started looking for the perfect music for this final battle from the impressive collection the young pilot had acquired over the years.

Jax nodded once and pulled her shoulders back, held her head high, and pushed her corset-covered chest out with pride and acceptance of the end.

In the cargo bay, Sparks expertly spun daggers around in his hands as he paced the metal grate catwalk along the back wall. His narrow, almond-shaped violet eyes never leaving the cargo doors: the point of the impending breach.

Jhannie hurried around the cargo bay, securing the cargo and stashing the contraband in the various hidden compartments and the false floor in case they survived.

Nero sat at the table in the galley. Instead of its metal surface being covered with plates of food, a wide assortment of guns filled its top. His dark brown fingers moved quickly but with steady purpose as he loaded each metal clip with the boxed ammunition next to him.

Naveen lounged in his private jumper without worry or concern as he flipped through the electronic display in his skilled hands, organizing his next appointments.

Cynda was on the floor of the stardeck, sitting with her eyes closed, hands resting on her knees, her aged appendages upright, pinkies pressed against her thumbs. In the flickering overhead light, she looked ancient and frail. However, she was anything but. Her weathered face was a roadmap of her life. The lines and wrinkles cut into her dark skin were testament to her experience in Realm. The small white scars that littered her skin, breaking up the wrinkled canvas, silently conveyed that she had overcome more in her life than those three times her age would ever see in theirs. The vibrancy in her milky white eyes burned into the souls of all those brave enough to gaze upon them. Her silver and white hair hung over her shoulder in a long, thick braid that went to her waist and she hummed with an aura of power that even those on the Tracker vessels could sense if they wanted.

“The end is near,” Cynda whispered, her thin lips barely moving as the words left them. “But whose end is the question?” she purred with a mischievous smirk.

Back on the bridge, Captain West shook her head in self-disappointment; the blue hair in front that was tucked behind her ears fell into her face from the rarely seen motion of defeat.

How could she have permitted this to happen?

Why didn’t she listen to her gut and put a bullet in his head when she first laid eyes on the tall beacon for trouble?

“This is entirely my fault,” she whispered, closing her eyes then licked her lips.

Deep in the belly of Whisper, the ‘beacon for trouble’ and Spit, the young girl of barely fifteen-years-old, were busy running from one end of the engine room to the other and back again. They were frantically trying to get the engines running, attempting to restore the backup life support system, but most importantly, desperately struggling to ignore the ominous words of courage from their Captain. Spit knew it was futile but she wasn’t complaining about dying next to, and if she was lucky, in the arms of the mysterious male who was seemingly the root of their current predicament.

Dagan Dark was off limits by orders of the Captain. Usually Spit was never a girl to follow the rules, but she feared Captain West just as every other creature that called Realm home did. However, since they were going to die and all, most likely from lack of oxygen before the Authority boards the ship, it would be an excellent way to go in the young mechanic’s opinion.

“Try it now,” Dagan called out as he twisted the bare wires between his oily fingers together.

Spit slid across the oil and solidified steam covered walkway, and smashed into the wall, reaching for the red ignition bypass button as she did and punched it as hard as she could.

The lights overhead flickered. The snapping of electrical currents connecting, completing their circuits, filled the air. The gentle rumbling of turbines struggling to turn shook the floor as they groaned in protest. And the suffocating stickiness that was thoroughly saturating the air became even more asphyxiating.

“Goddamn it all to hell and back,” Spit huffed, and Dagan looked over at the swaying girl and his heart sank. Her normally rose tinted lips were blue, the whites of her eyes were spidered with red, the intense amber and black coloring had started to cloud over, and her warm beige complexion looked ghostly white; all the telltale signs of hypercapnia.

“Cào!” Dagan hissed, pulling his hands over his face, wiping away the solidified steam that was stinging his eyes. “Think, think!” he berated himself, bashing the butt of his palm against his forehead. When he did, the black beads wrapped around his wrist slid down his arm, leaving a cool sensation with a subtle hum of energy against his hot skin. His eyes widened as they went to the bracelet, and the light sea green swirled like molten metal.

“I am a genius!” he exclaimed, scrambling to his feet.

On the bridge, Jax looked to Captain West, waiting for orders.

“Sir,” she started, tired of the silence, “we can lure them into us and initiate the self-destruct and take as many with us as possible.”

West nodded. “We could,” she agreed.

Jax softly snarled, her light blue eyes narrowing. “But we aren’t going to,” she surmised.

“We are not,” West agreed. “There is no honor in suicide.”

“There is no honor in dying at the hands of the enemy either!” Jax snapped.

“They are not our enemy, for we are no longer at war. They are merely mercenaries trying to make a name for themselves like all the others.”

Jax softly growled under her breath; it was an argument they have had many times, and she had yet to win it. “How many years have I blindly followed you without question or complaint?”

“Eleven. However, I would not say that they were without question nor complaint,” West reminded her.

“It was rhetorical!” Jax snarled and the corners of West’s full, pale lavender lips twitched, fighting a smirk; she was well aware of that. “I warned you that he was nothing but trouble, but you did it anyway. You put all of us at risk! And now you’re just going to let us die alone, when we have the opportunity to take out at least one of their ships? But you say nay! That is not the actions of the fearless Captain I have dedicatedly followed for years without question. The Captain West I know would go down with guns blazing before taking out as many of their pretty, shiny ships as possible. You’re weak,” she sneered, getting in West’s face. “I’m taking control of Whisper since you are obviously unfit to command her any longer.”

West continued to look out the bay of windows, paying Jax no attention. The situation was dire, that she knew, and everyone within the still Dust Jumper knew it as well. Hell, even those eavesdropping on the communication frequency knew that they had most likely seen and heard the last of Captain West and the motley crew of Whisper. However, Captain West was desperately trying to keep a slim glimmer of hope in her heart that it wasn’t the end. If she was religious she would have been praying that there would be another, as Spit would say, rodeo in their future. But most importantly, she was hoping that Dagan Dark wasn’t lying when he told her that he’d get them out of this.

Never had the proud and strong Draconian, the former Commander of the ground forces for the Anarchic Authority of Realm, trusted someone before. She didn’t even trust her own crew most of the time, but without question she trusted the Foolish Boy. Dagan was someone that she’d known for only days, that ended up on her doorstep, in a matter of speaking, and who convinced her, without much effort, to let him aboard her ship and into her engine room. West had questioned it many times, especially when she first caught the scent of Central Empire vessels on their trail only days after allowing him on board. However, not once had she contemplated leaving him on some deserted planet. She didn’t contemplate turning him over herself to the bounty hunters for the purse that was obviously on his head, most likely one that was higher than the one on hers. That, in itself, had left her disquieted. Every time she opened her mouth to ask, to throw an accusation at him, Dagan Dark would look up at her through those thick black lashes of his that cast shadows on his high cheekbones, and his light sea-green eyes would swirl like molten metal and seemingly burn into hers with so much intensity and intention-less emotion that it silenced the pernicious accusations dancing upon her tongue.

The male was a demon in her opinion; one that she just might slay or have exorcised if they got out of this alive.

West sighed in resignation. “Prepare to be boarded,” she whispered then turned and started for the door.

“Qù nǐde!” Jax grabbed her arm and spun her around to face her. “What did you just say?” she hissed, getting in West’s face.

“Oh, this is just lovely,” George groaned.

West cocked a black eyebrow, her teal eyes moving over Jax’s face many times. “If you ever question my command again,” she started, and suddenly a small, silver gun was pressed against the underside of Jax’s chin, forcing her head up, “I will kill you. Prepare to be boarded,” she repeated with a smirk.

Jax removed her hand, the smartest thing she’d done in weeks, and stepped back. “Of course, Captain,” she sneered then turned and hurried from the bridge.

“She’s going to kill you one of these days,” George teasingly sang.

“I am well aware of that,” West said, moving her hand slightly and the gun slid back into the bracer on her right wrist, being concealed by the leather and lace covered mechanism.

George looked over at her. “You’re going to try to take their ship when they board, aren’t you?”

“Maybe,” West said, the corners of her mouth pulling up into a smirk. “The thought had crossed my mind. They want him alive. That is the only reason why we are still breathing...for the most part,” she added the latter, noting the beads of sweat dotting George’s soft, golden caramel colored skin. “It is getting difficult to breathe?” she surmised, not feeling the effects of the lack of oxygen in the ship herself just yet.

George nodded with a shrug. “It’s been that way for an hour now. It’s not so bad, it’s better than being sucked out into space through a hole in the hull,” she admitted; it’s the young pilot’s worst fear.

“True, perhaps next time,” West said with a wink.

“Do you regret it?” George asked, selecting a record from the metal case secured to the side of her chair.

That, West didn’t have to think about. “Not at all,” she said, forcing a smile. “It was an honor, my young friend.”

George snorted and pressed on the portion of the dash concealing her prized possession, and placed the record on the turntable then flicked the switch. Slowly the turntable started to spin and the automatic arm picked up then lowered itself on the edge of the spinning black vinyl disc.

“We aren’t dead yet,” George reminded her, looking over at West.

West nodded and pressed the intercom button. “This is the Captain speaking. Prepare to be boarded,” she announced but it was quickly answered by the engine room.

“I strongly advise against that course of action, Captain,” Dagan’s voice filled the bridge and it sent a chill down West’s spine; she really hated the annoying creature.

Never one to allow any creature to tell her what to do, especially a troublesome specimen such as Dagan Dark, she pushed the button. “And why not? We are nearly dead. They are closing in on us. The planet we might have had a chance to hide in is too far away, and if we do not do something soon, we will suffocate.”

She didn’t need to see the male to know that he was smirking and his tone and words confirmed it.

“All excellent points, Captain,” Dagan agreed.

The rest of the crew were listening to the bantering that had been a constant since Dagan stepped foot in Whisper. They didn’t know why the Captain and Dagan didn’t have sex to get it out of their systems. If they did, they could get back to a semi-functional working relationship.

Not that they ever had one, but the crew was hoping.

“I am giving them you and will take my chances,” West hissed even though everyone, including Dagan, knew it was a hollow threat.

“Let us leave that as option X or Zed either way,” Dagan said with a chuckle. “Do whatever you can to get their ships closer to us and have George ready to drive like mad when you see the sign.”

West’s head tilted to the side, her mind scrambling to figure out what Dagan was up to. That, was one thing about him that drove her mad: mentally or with desire she hadn’t yet decided, but she was leaning towards homicidal. In her gut she knew that whatever he was up to might just work. The Foolish Boy was surprisingly resourceful. She looked over at George and the young pilot nodded, and buckled the harnesses around her thin body, then started flipping switches and tested the rudder and flaps.

“If you get us killed, I will kill you,” West warned.

“Aye, aye Captain,” Dagan barked out before laughing. “And if I do not, you owe me dinner and a drink.”

George laughed when West’s fist slammed into the speaker, breaking it.

“That creature is something else,” George chuckled, quickly switching out the record now that the soundtrack had changed in her mind.

“Do not remind me,” West hissed and took her place in the seat next to George and got buckled in.

George smiled, enjoying the bizarre non-relationship relationship between the stowaway-turned-mechanic and the seasoned, closed off, Captain. There was so much sexual tension between them that a bystander could get off just from being in the same room with them when they were verbally going at it, much like now.

“Is there enough power in the reserve cells to raise the sails?” West asked, tapping on the gauges, trying to get them to light up so she could read them.

“Only one way to find out,” George said and reached into the console between them and flipped the hidden latch inside; a pump lever rose from the compartment. “It’s been a while since we’ve done it manually,” she said. After wrapping her hand around the handle, she started pumping it; pushing down, pulling it up, repeating until the young pilot was lathered in sweat, her arm burned and muscles strained.

West took over and pumped even harder and faster while George pumped the foot pedals as fast as the pilot’s short legs could.

Each push and pull of the lever forced the metal masts that ran the length of the Dust Jumper’s body, just above the wings, to pull away. Thin sheets of shimmering bronze colored metal fabric stretched as the masts pulled away from the body and flared outward to catch the solar winds that were common in the vicinity of noxious gas planets. Each push of the foot pedals caused the fin sail to lower into place, the thin metal, shimmering-bronze sail extending, offering the only sense of steering control the vulnerable ship had.

“Sails and fin at the ready,” George panted, using a bandanna to wipe away the sweat blurring her vision. “Manual controls engaged, rudder’s loose and under pilot control.” She pressed the call button down the control panel. “Engine room, awaiting your signal,” she said. She tapped the manual compass bobbing on the control panel, one that had been tinkered with to pick up gravitational pulls from solar and planetary winds, and other anomalies overlooked by most that travel the stars. “Solar wind starboard, pulling into the planet at three knots, we’re catching some, but the Tracker vessels are blocking most of it.”

West looked over at her and cocked an eyebrow.

George shrugged. “What?” she asked innocently, releasing the button. “You would have just repeated what I said anyway, what’s the big deal about cutting out the middleman?”

“You are grounded,” West informed her.

George stuck her short, pink tongue out at her and wrinkled her small, sculpted nose.

“Attractive,” West said and motioned for her to press the call button. “This is the, Captain. Secure the hanger, jumpers, outbounder, and all essential freight. Call in when cleared and secured. Let us do some belated cleaning,” she purred the latter. West looked over at George and smirked. “I might as well add littering to the long list of offenses I have perpetrated in the eyes of the Authority.”

“We,” George corrected with a smile. “We are family after all,” she smugly reminded her.

“Do not remind me,” West groaned. “Three klicks,” she said, looking out the window, gauging the distance between the Tracker vessels and Whisper, and the slight distance they had moved since deploying the sails.

“Not bad.”

“Only thousands more to the planet with two ships in front of us less than a hundred klicks and closing. Yes, not bad,” West agreed, pulling her harness tight.

“Always the pessimist,” George mumbled, eying the flashing gauge on the console reading that lethal carbon dioxide levels had been reached.

“Hanger’s clear,” Jhannie panted through the intercom. “Get us home, Baby!”

West looked to George and the young girl smiled wide, her gaped white smile appearing like neon against her sweat-lathered skin and trembling blue lips. Absently, West nodded and slid a reserve oxygen mask that was tucked behind her chair on the young pilot’s face. “Crew, retire to the jumpers, Naveen share, and strap in and hang on. It was a pleasure,” she said and George released the button.

The soft crackling from the metal needle vibrating against the grooves in the vinyl record had echoed throughout the still Dust Jumper before guitar riffs filled the air.

“All our times have come.

Here, but now there, gone.

Seasons don’t fear the reaper.

Nor do the wind, the sun or rain…” Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser sang.

With one last look at the barely conscious pilot next to her, West’s resolve began to waiver. George’s light hazel eyes had started to cloud over from lack of oxygen, and her body was showing signs of carbon dioxide poisoning. That stolen moment, that appraisal of the young pilot, who had been with West for more than five years, a young female that was barely twenty-years-old, was dying and it was solely her fault.

“Not on my command,” West snarled and slammed her fist into the thin glass cover on the emergency release for the cargo bay doors then wrapped her hand around the red metal handle. “Dark, I sure hope you know what you are doing,” she whispered and pulled the handle.

Flashing lights filled the vessel, painting it in dancing red, the warning that the hull had been breached. The remaining oxygen in Whisper was being sucked out into space, and in less than ninety seconds they’d all be dead.

West looked up, glaring at the ships in front of them, the air being pulled from her lungs despite fighting the urge to breathe.

The weapons on the Tracker vessels powered up. Blue flared along the sides of the white and silver thin-bodied ships, the lambent light in their engines dimming slightly, the warning sign that the weapons systems were pulling power from the engines.

“Forgive me,” West mouthed as bright light exploded all around them.

Four Weeks Ago.....

“It only took twelve weeks,” Spit said from the second-story catwalk where she was dangerously hanging upside down from the railing, watching the short male below with the lethal aim.

Sparks nodded and hurled another knife across the cargo bay. It slammed into the target board set up against the bay doors, the demonically sharp blade splitting two of the other knives already sticking out from the narrow bull’s eye.

“Twelve of da longest damn weeks of my life,” she continued, well aware that the deadly, enigmatic creature wouldn’t contribute to the conversation.

In fact, he never talked.

In the time Sparks had travelled Realm with the crew of Whisper, only Captain West had heard him speak, but that was purely conjecture. The silent male kept to himself, and seemingly appeared and disappeared at whim. No one knew his given name. Spit started calling him Sparks because when he sharpens his blades it creates little sparks from the friction, prior to that no one really paid him much attention in general and that was how he wanted it. When Sparks ventured from the ship, no one dared to asked what he was doing or if he’d be returning. What he did was a mystery, much like the creature in general.

“I reckon it’ll be a reprieve,” Spit continued. “I mean, finally gettin’ out of dese walls. Dun get me wrong, I love Whisper, but sometimes I feel like I’m bein’ suffocated or somethang, y’know? When I was a little girl, our farm was surrounded by tall fields of swayin’ grass dat me and my brothas used to play in. My brotha, Wheat, ain’t...wasn’t much olda’ den me so we’d always play togetha’, dat way our bigga brothas couldn’t pick on us ‘cause we were so small compared to dem. Anyhoo, in da middle of da widest field, was a tall tree. I swear its canopy was bigga’ den Whisper, and when da wind blew, da green swayed from side to side like a big ol’ green cloud dat I could actually touch.

“Ya see, I always wanted to be up in da stars,” she smugly informed him. “Mama said dat girls ain’t fit to be in da stars like boys. She said dat I was meant to play on da ground, to play in da mud and get dirty, and to experience da world at dirt level. I reckon Mama didn’t mind bein’ a farmer’s wife, she loved da ground and every damn thang dat popped up out of it. Dat’s why she named me afta a flowa’ and all of my brothas afta shit dat popped outta da ground.” Softly she sighed. “I wish we’d land on a rock like dat. I miss watchin’ swayin’ green and gold in da evenin’ sun. Dere’s truly no way to describe da...serenity...I think dat’s da word, for it.”

Sparks nodded that it was the correct word; Spit wasn’t educated, and West and Nero had been working with the young mechanic, teaching her to read and write.

“Sparks, is it wrong dat I sometimes feel guilty ‘bout not followin’ in Mama’s footsteps? Dat I ain’t findin’ me some farm boy to marry and have babies wif?” she asked, her intense amber and black eyes burning into his.

Sparks had to break eye contact with her then shook his head and retrieved his blades, minding to keep his back to her.

“I reckon I’m askin’ ‘cause I sometimes miss da feelin’ of grass unda’ my toes. Have ya been to Awesh?” she asked, rubbing her hand over the new growth of blonde hair covering her head; it was nearly time for a trim.

Sparks nodded.

“I ain’t eva been,” Spit informed him. “Will ya’ tell me ‘bout it?” she baited, batting her lashes at him with a smile.

Sparks shrugged and looked over his shoulder at her, his violet eyes moving over the young mechanic’s face many times.

“Dat’s really frustratin’, Y’know,” she complained and he nodded, already well aware of that. “Ugh! Silly boy! One of dese days ya gonna talk to me, like it or not,” she sternly warned.

Again, he nodded and turned away from her to hide the small smile tugging at the corners of his pouty lips.

“Don’t mind him, Little Girl,” Gerald said, joining them.

Instantly Sparks’ eyes narrowed and he resumed hurling his knives across the cargo bay with vigor.

“That little bastard ain’t got people skills,” Gerald continued before taking a swig from the silver flask in his hand. “Are you excited to get out of this metal can?”

“Yup,” Spit said, flipping around so she was sitting up, splitting her attention between the streaks of silver sailing across the cargo bay and the old pervert leaning against the railing next to her. “I reckon it’ll be nice to get out and stretch my legs. Whata’bout ya? What’cha gonna do?”

Gerald chuckled. “There’s many places to play in this hole that cater to those with my taste. The delicate bit of the young girls inside are just waiting for Gerald to play with them, and I will play and play and play until I can’t feel my cock. Can’t you hear them, Little Girl?” he asked in a whisper. “Gerald, come to us. Play with our tits,” he teasingly called out in a whisper. “Y’know,” he said thoughtfully, looking down at her. “If you cleaned up, took a bath and grew out your hair, cleaned the grease from under your nails… And stopped biting them so they don’t look like the nails you’d find on a little boy, you could make some coin on amateur night. Naveen might be able to arrange something with one of his clients,” he suggested, his mind already plotting a way to get the young girl to do just that. “There has to be something of use in that Companion’s appointment book that’d be interested in a little boy lookin’ girl.”

Spit rolled her eyes and Gerald yelped when a streak of silver sliced across his cheek before it slammed into the hull of the ship and fell, clanking against the metal grate floor.

“You’re gonna regret that, you little bastard,” Gerald growled, wiping away the thin line of blood blemishing his wrinkled cheek.

“I’d pay good coin to see dat,” Spit chuckled, discreetly tucking the knife on the floor into the palm of her hand.

Gerald was an acquired taste, one that Spit didn’t have, and very few tolerated. It was hard working with the creepy old pervert, more often than not he was trying to convince the young female to help him in one of his get paid quick schemes, but she always declined. Thankfully, he never laid a finger on Spit out of fear of Captain West finding out. But what he really should have been afraid of was Sparks getting a hold of him before the Captain could.

Sparks ran towards them, his short legs moving him with such fluidity that he appeared to be floating as he went. He stepped up on one of the crates and repeated with the next and the next until he effortlessly reached the second-story catwalk. Sparks flipped over the railing so he was standing between Gerald and Spit, two knives in his skilled hands, just waiting for Gerald to make a move. It only took seconds for him to appear between them, and Spit sighed contently as she watched; there was something beautiful about the way the lethal creature moved.

“Still wanna run yer mouth, Old Perv?” Spit taunted then headed the opposite direction of the men; she may not know much, but she knew enough to know not to get in the middle of a Sparks-Gerald pissing contest. A small part of her wished that Sparks would just kill him already, she’d even help hide the body! Sadly, both were warned against it by the Captain since it was difficult to find a mechanic that’d work for only board, sometimes no pay, that’d overlook that there were bounties on the heads of most of the crew, and a meal.

Spit ducked into the galley and found Nero finishing up his inventory.

“How goes it, Little Grease Monkey?” Nero asked without looking up from his clipboard.

She shrugged, leaning against the doorway and fiddled with the knife she wanted to keep, but wouldn’t. Sparks always retrieved his knives regardless of how much blood was staining them or how far he had to go to get the weapon back. “Sparks is gonna kill Gerald one of dese days.”

Nero chuckled, nodding his agreement. “Let me guess, a certain old, creepy drunk made a rude comment that was beyond inappropriate, especially considering how we procured you, and Sparks addressed it in his silently lethal way?”

“Pretty much,” she said. “I wish he’d show me how to use one of dese,” she commented, using the knife to clean the grease from under her short, stubby nails.

“You’re a lover, not a fighter...a mechanic, not a fighter,” he instantly corrected with a chuckle.

Spit stuck her tongue out at him.

“Remember, Little Grease Monkey,” Nero continued, “males, even the short, silent, lethal ones, have a means to their madness. And sometimes it isn’t meant for us to know but to eventually find out at the most inopportune time.”

She looked up at him, cocking a thick and overly full blonde eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Never mind,” he said and closed the last cabinet door, securing it. “It’ll make sense when you’re ready. Are you excited to get out of this can and to play in the sticky humidity?”

Spit groaned. “Goddamn it. Da rock is humid?”

He nodded.

“Damn it all to hell and back,” she grumbled. “It ain’t like I dun get enough sticky heat in da engine room! I try to find a remedy and it’s da damn same.”

Nero chuckled, shaking his head. “Reprieve, not remedy,” he corrected.

“Whateva,” she sneered, making a face at him and he laughed. “Just once I’d like to land Whisper on ice and snow...I ain’t eva seen snow ‘fore, and I hear it’s cold and not at all humid or sticky. Dat’d be a nice reprieve.

He shook his head in amusement. “Go change into something more for the heat, but something that won’t cause a war between all those wielding the power of a penis between their legs. And I’ll join you on the outbounder once it’s loaded. Okay?”

Spit made a mocking face and continued cleaning her nails. “Ya eva get a feelin’ dat somethang bad’s gonna happen?” she asked.

That stole the mirth from him. “What are you feeling?” Nero asked.

Again, she made a face. “Dat somethan’ dark is comin’. Dat’s all.”

“That’s all?” he asked with a chuckle. “It sounds very ominous.”

Spit looked up at him. “Huh? Do ya’ need ‘nother reminda dat I ain’t an educated girl...female, and I ain’t from a Class A planet like ya’ll? Class E, got it?”

Nero nodded and watched her leave the galley. “Please tell me she has gas or indigestion,” he said under his breath.

A raspy choked laugh rolled from around the corner before the source, a tall, frail-looking female, followed. Her milky white eyes moved over the dark skinned cook many times before the corners of her thin, aged lips pulled up on one side. “Not gas, but not dread either,” she said, taking a seat at the table that marked the center of the galley.

Nero sat across from her, his light honey colored eyes moving over her face many times. “What have you seen?” he whispered, purposely keeping his deep voice low.

Cynda tapped her long, aged finger against the metal table before drawing out some runes on its surface and they softly illuminated. “Change is coming, but it is not a change to be fearful of...at least we have nothing to be fearful of. However, I cannot say the same for the one that fear evades.”

Nero cocked a thick, black eyebrow. “You don’t say,” he said with a smirk.

“I do.”

“Who are we bidding adieu to?” he asked.

Cynda snorted, swiping her hand across the surface of the table and the runes vanished. “One guess. It will solely be at the hands of the quiet one.”

Nero nodded his understanding. “I’ll pack his things before the others return with the news.”

“Excellent suggestion, Doctor. Prepare it for company,” Cynda said. “Keep George and Spit in, I fear a hasty departure is in our near future.”

“Will do,” he said then hurried from the galley to tell his sister and the soon-to-be new head mechanic that they’ve been grounded.

“You can stop eavesdropping and ask your questions,” Cynda said in a conversational tone, folding her hands together in front of her.

From around the corner Captain West appeared. “Who is being retired and is there anything I should be concerned with?” she asked.

Cynda smirked. “You know of whom I speak, and concerned? Indubitably.”

West cocked an eyebrow. “Riddles I do not have time for, Seer,” she warned. “Will there be a complication with this drop and receipt of payment?”

Cynda shook her head. “A splitting of the shipment will resolve all,” the Seer said. “A hasty recovery of all will prove to save which you cannot stand to be without.”

West nodded. “Then there truly is nothing to be concerned with,” she informed her in a level tone and turned from the room.

Cynda continued to sit there, her milky white eyes staring across the room, focusing on nothing which was in front of her. Rather, they were looking into the future and the darkness that will accompany it. The Light, which will illuminate Realm, and possibly bring down all that has been built and established throughout the centuries, was starting to grow within its vessel. It was a beautiful, and amusing thing to behold in the Seer’s opinion. But more importantly than the Light, the consummation of an ancient foretelling, which had brought the Darkness to the Light and had swarmed all worlds like a wave of death, will finally play out.

“Nothing to fear at all,” Cynda mused under her breath.

Chapter two

“As always, it was a pleasure doing business with you,” West said with a slight nod of her head.

“West, my pet!” Jankoff beamed, pouring her a glass of wine. “There is no need for formalities. We are all friends here,” he reminded her, motioning towards the wine.

Jax pushed her falling auburn locks back with her free hand.

West cocked an eyebrow. “Friends do not engage in business together,” she reminded him, taking the bag Jax was holding from her. “Nor do friends short ten-thousand credits either,” she hissed and tossed the bag on the table.

Jankoff’s smile fell.

“Nor do friends try to cheat each other,” West continued. “You have sixty-seconds to produce full payment or else the Authority and Customs will get an anonymous tip regarding the thirty crates of Thausertian wine sitting just outside their docks.”

“It was sixty,” Jankoff reminded her.

West smirked.

One of Jankoff’s men pushed his way through the gathered henchmen and whispered in his boss’s ear.

Instantly Jankoff was snarling. “I see,” he said in a clipped tone then pulled a gun from the inside of his jacket and shot the young henchman in the head, dropping him where he stood.

“Forty-seconds,” West warned.

“Good, educated help is so hard to find in this day and age, wouldn’t you agree?” he asked, holstering his gun. “Now, where were we?”

“You were going to repeat that little cock wielding display of power with your accountant since he apparently can’t count either,” Jax reminded him, her hands resting on the guns at her hips.

“Indeed,” Jankoff sneered and motioned with his chin for his second in command to take care of it. “I want my goddamn crates,” he hissed.

“And I want my payment,” West countered. “An Anterian warmonger hiding on a cesspool G-Class planet such as Awesh, should know that trying to rip me off will only end badly for you. That is the second time you have attempted to short me, and this is the second time I have caught you. There will not be a third,” she said in a level voice and he leaned back. “Our business relationship and future ventures are terminated as of this moment.”

West took the bag Jankoff’s second in command was offering her and she handed it to Jax.

The smug redhead quickly counted, her long, slender fingers flipping through the thin bars of miridium. She looked up at West and cocked an eyebrow then carefully pulled a small incendiary device from between two bars and tossed it on the table.

“And we are done here,” West said in a cold, detached tone.

“I will be the one telling you when we’re done,” Jankoff snarled, and his words were choked out in a gurgle of blood.

Each of his men dropped to their knees in unison, holding their throats in a feeble attempt to stem the blood seeping from between their fingers.

Sparks appeared in between the women then nodded to Captain West.

“Excellent timing as always,” West commented and leaned across the table and relieved Jankoff of his guns and tucked them in the back of her pants. “It would be a shame to leave something of such value,” she commented, removing the rest of his valuable possessions then handed them back to Jax.

Jax dropped them in the bag with the payment.

“Return to the ship and prepare to leave...after recovering all of our crates of Thausertian wine.”

Jax nodded then hurried from the private room and slipped into the crowded cantina without a sound, the door silently closing behind her.

West looked to Sparks, but he wouldn’t make eye contact with her. “You retired him?” she surmised.

Sparks nodded once.

“He never touched her,” she assured him.

Again, he nodded, well aware of that.

West sighed. “I will take care of it,” she said. “Return to the ship and we will disembark once I lighten my load.”

Sparks nodded and stepped back into the shadows, disappearing entirely.

West turned her attention to the choking, gasping, dying male in front of her. “You were warned not to cross me, and yet you did multiple times. You can only blame yourself for your demise and that of your men.”

Jankoff opened his mouth to tell her off, but only blood came out.

“It is most regrettable that our profitable business relationship has come to an abrupt end,” she said, placing her hands on the sides of his head. “However, you should not have made the mistake of thinking that you could cross me, let alone cross me more than once,” she hissed then twisted his head to the side, snapping his neck.

Chapter Three

It was easy for one on the run to get lost amongst the crowd flooding the docks of Awesh. The area was a mixture of visitors, ruffians, locals with less than reputable means, whores and criminals working the crowds, and those, much like West, who were hiding from the constabulary.

Captain West moved through the crowd with purpose, her long strides easily outdistancing those shadowing her, and those that were seemingly sensing an easy target. The pale-skinned female always carried her head high and shoulders back and with an air of inarguable pride about her. West’s attire was that of Realm, a mixture of many planets and her time with the Anarchic Authority, and to anyone with a sliver of common sense, it was a warning to stay away. The only Pirates who wore the garb of the Authority are those that have taken the clothing from the bodies of those they’ve killed.

Brown leather pants hung low on her hips and sinuously hugged her curves, a leather utility belt, and thigh holster held a revolver and various pouches containing coins, ammo, and an arsenal comprised of many worlds. The matching Officer’s under-bust corset pushed her smaller breasts up and lengthened her already long, slender waist. The brown leather and lace brassiere made her breasts appear fuller and pulled the attention of those at eye-level. Long, thick canvas sleeves connected between her shoulder blades by leather and metal buckles, and flared down around her fingertips, concealing the bracers around her wrists that housed additional weapons. Tall Ranger boots cut off just below her knees and gave West an additional two inches of height to her already towering Draconian frame. The lace and leather choker encompassing the entire length of her neck made her look regal yet menacing, and undeniably feminine.

Nearly everyone she passed was lathered with sweat from the sweltering heat, yet West was unaffected by it. The body of a Draconian naturally negated hot and cold, a design that made them unique on a genetic level. West welcomed the stuffiness of the humidity. A small part of her welcomed the muskiness of the air and the stomach-turning taste that accompanied the crowded area. It was a reminder that there was more to life than just living for the next payout, for the next job, and for the moment. It was an unpleasant reminder that there was still something worth living and fighting for, even if it was a cesspool G-Class planet like Awesh.

At the moment, what West was fighting was to get through the crowd so she could retrieve a parcel. Then she needed to get back to Whisper so they could get off of Awesh before the rest of Jankoff’s men found them.

After ducking down four seedy alleys, and passing through a House of Companionship, her destination was in sight.

The aged building didn’t appear as much to the untrained eye, but to Captain West, it was a glowing beacon of refinement in the darkness that the worst of Realm had to offer. Stained glass windows covered the front of the building and marked the single door entrance in the corner. The other three walls were brick covered reinforced steel that insulated and protected the delicate items inside from the relentless heat and humidity.

When West walked through the door, the bell above it jingled, signaling her arrival. And like all of the other times that West had been to one of the Curator’s shops, she locked the door behind her for privacy.

From behind the glass counter at the back of the store, a short male appeared, his image flickering as his hologram passed through the glass display cases to greet her. “Welcome, Captain,” he called out, his voice echoing around the room.

“Sig,” West greeted as she headed towards the display cases.

The store was filled with trinkets and bobbles from all worlds. Some were breathtakingly beautiful with their precious stones and rare, shiny metals that reflected the sun. And others were functional—guns and daggers, weapons of the old world and the planets that were last to join the collective known as Realm—but none of them was why West ventured there.

“Do you have it?” she asked, setting a velvet bag with payment on the counter, never taking her hand off of it.

Sig nodded then disappeared.

Impatient, West drummed her fingers on the glass display case. She was on a tight schedule and shouldn’t have taken a detour to the far side of the docks for selfish reasons. Very rarely did the Captain do something that could put her crew’s lives in jeopardy, but no longer could she deny her selfish longing. As she waited, West slipped out of her sleeves and carefully laid them on the counter, and then unbuckled the leather and metal straps anchoring each bracer to her forearms and removed them, setting each device next to her sleeves.

Something pulled her attention, a feeling that she learned long ago never to disregard, and her head tilted to the side while her eyes moved over the back wall. The tick and tock of each clock lining the wall effectively masked the heartbeat and breathing of any unannounced visitor. Studiously her large, teal eyes followed each polished metal pendulum as it swung back and forth, presenting her a semi-clear, and inverted glimpse around the area behind her.

Rows upon rows of knickknacks littered each of the shelves filling the tiny shop. Outside, lingering whores hurried away, well aware that the Curator inside had nothing against leaving a body for creating a low-class ambiance to his shop by merely standing too close to his door. After many moments, there appeared to be nothing out of place but West couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.

“Show yourself,” she said under her breath. “I can sense you.”

Movement from the corner of her eye had her jumping over the counter. In the same fluid action, she pulled the recently procured guns from the back of her pants and crouched down, using the display case as a shield.

“I will not warn you again,” she said.

“In all fairness, you did not warn me the first time,” a slightly amused voice called out from between two of the racks on the left and he slowly moved down them.

West followed his movements through the racking. The interloper didn’t appear to be of the Authority, and he didn’t wear the garb of the Empire either. He wasn’t one of Jankoff’s men, she knew, and there was no denying he didn’t belong on a Class G planet, especially a cesspit like Awesh.

“I am unarmed,” he said, sticking his hands out from the narrow walkway he was hiding in and wiggled his fingers at her. “Do not shoot.”

“I will take it under advisement,” West said, not once entertaining the idea of lowering her weapons.

When he stepped out from the row, he erected himself, keeping his hands up.

West’s head tilted to the side, causing the blue hair framing her face to fall into her eyes as she accessed the potential threat that was much closer than she would have liked. She could easily take him out if needed, but the Curator would not look too kindly if she damaged any of his inventory.

The annoying creature was fickle when it came to who was worthy enough to enter his shops, and if you did something to lose that invitation there would be no getting it back. How heavy the purse was inconsequential in comparison to reputation and appearances in the Curator’s opinion.

The interloper was tall, his shoulders broad, waist lean, and legs long, their definition expertly presented in the leather and canvas britches he wore. Black and navy hair hung in his eyes but was cropped short around the back and sides—a style of A and B Class planets—and his light sea-green eyes that were clearer than the waters along the white sand islands of the Duene System. There was something strangely familiar about the way the corners of his mouth twitched as he struggled to contain his apparent amusement. Those twitching muscles caused his full lips to go taut, the top losing its contouring in the process, and it registered with her, teasing at a memory of a life she had struggled to forget, but she couldn’t be sure what it entailed.

“Do I know you?” West whispered before she could stop herself, and navigated from around the display case.

He watched the way she moved, admiring her grace and what it expertly guised. “I would not remember,” he answered honestly when she stopped. “May I put my hands down or are you still contemplating shooting me?”

“The latter,” she said and he smiled wide.

“Well, that is no fun,” he hollowly complained with a wink.

“For you perhaps,” she retorted.

“Captain, stop threatening to shoot my patrons,” Sig scolded, appearing from the backroom with two boxes in hand. The small Curator walked through the holographic image of himself, causing it to flicker wildly before solidifying once more.

“One his age should know not to sneak up on people,” West retorted, guns still poised at the ready. “Especially those that are heavily armed. And I have not shot him...yet,” she added, cocking an eyebrow. “Leave.”

“No,” the interloper said and headed towards her, hands still up, and stepped around the irritated female; Captain West was not used to people telling her no. “I was here first,” he said teasingly, setting his hands down on the counter. “I do not have much time so I would like to get going.”

West joined them and set her guns on the counter, not so covertly pointing both at the annoying interloper. “I am on a schedule,” she coldly informed them, her eyes moving between the two. “There will soon be an uprising in the underground along the docks and I do not wish to be here when it does.”

The Curator wasn’t intimidated in the least. “You will both wait your turns,” he scolded.

As if they were twins separated at birth, the two looked at him apathetically, their faces slated expressionless.

“Now, as I was saying,” Sig said then set a small wooden box on the counter in front of the stranger. He repeated by placing a thin, rectangular black box with a delicate white velvet bow down in front of the Captain. “Patience is a virtue which neither of you apparently possess. I expect payment in full, no refunds or exchanges, and you have no cognize of where you acquired them. Do you accept the terms and conditions of the exchange?”

They nodded and Sig removed his hands from the boxes and relinquished them to their eagerly awaiting new owners.

West tossed the purse with payment on the counter then immediately reached for the box.

“But,” Sig quickly added, sliding the small parcel away from her, “you might be interested in something else.”

“I have waited more than ten years for those,” she reminded him, in case he had a sudden lapse in memory.

Sig gave her a look. “You’re ridiculous,” he informed her.

West spun one of her guns on the glass and pointed it at him.

“As hollow as the feeling in your heart, Captain,” Sig informed her.

She scowled, and it pulled the stranger’s attention.

“Your pilot might be interested in these,” Sig said and ducked under the counter, quickly returning with five thin paper sleeves. “If I recall correctly, George has been searching for these for years: Little Richard, Louie Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, and Chuck Berry. Get all four and I’ll throw in James Brown for free.”

The smirk that pulled at the corner of Sig’s mouth made West want to shoot him in the head purely for the principle of the matter.

Her eyes went from the records to the box which contained something she’d had her eyes on for years.

“I’ll sweeten the deal with Ray Charles,” Sig taunted, holding up the additional album.

Instantly the Captain was torn between honor and selfishness. Wavering between what was right and what was expected of her merely because she was called a Pirate.

The pilot, George, was a simple girl that never asked for anything from anyone, never complained or questioned anything, and a smile was ever presence on her face. Her brother, Nero, had forsaken everything for his baby sister when she killed one of superior stature on their home planet. Guilt had plagued George, not because she killed someone, rather because Nero gave up everything he was working so very hard toward and left it behind, all to protect his baby sister. And it was that guilt that kept George from asking for anything or complaining.

On more than one occasion, George’s quick thinking and legendary piloting skill had saved Captain West and the ship and crew. She didn’t ask for much, not even a cut of the take on the many jobs the Captain took to keep them moving, or even a thank you. And, once again, George, without question, had stayed on the ship because the Captain asked her to keep the engines running because of something a Seer might or might not have seen.

West was being selfish, something she had never been, and it left her disquieted.

The seemingly all-knowing Curator was tugging at her purse strings without realizing the strings he was trying to pull were already back on the ship.

“Tā māde niǎo,” she hissed and relinquished the box then took the albums. “I expect you to keep that in inventory for when I grace one of your shops again.”

Sig’s smirk never faltered, but he now realized that he erred greatly. The Captain didn’t come with her take from her latest haul, not that she ever did, but he had hoped she was rushed from the meeting, as an ordinary person would have been, and brought it with her.

“I cannot make promises,” Sig regrettably informed her. “I am a creature of business for profit after all.”

West’s eyes had narrowed for a fraction of second before her expression relaxed and she nodded; she couldn’t argue his reasoning since she was in business for profit as well. “A friendly word of warning, from one stranger passing to another,” she said to the interloper next to her without taking her eyes off Sig. “Take your parcel and run before the darkened imp tries to trade your gold for magical beans and an empty promise.”

With that warning, West quickly fastened the bracers to her forearms, her eyes never once leaving Sig’s, and slipped into her sleeves. Once rearmed, she bundled up the records and hurried to the door, throwing it open with much more force than needed then disappeared down the alley.

“It is Dagan, not stranger!” he called out, but West was already lost in the crowd.

Chapter Four

“Magical beans?” Dagan asked, confused.

“It is a tale of Nutune,” Sig explained. “Rwaddi trying to trade your miridium for Sozarian pomes,” he translated.

“Ooh, that is rather amusing. Your service artistry is nearly as legendary as it is criminal,” Dagan commented, looking at the door the strangely level, considering the situation and that she left without what she had come for, female had disappeared out.

Sig rolled his solid brown eyes. “Yes and no,” he agreed to disagree. “Having her here was dangerous, especially with your parcel being at hand. You are late as usual.”

Dagan shook his head and opened the small wooden box in front of him. “Late in your mind is nearly on time in mine. Besides, the only danger was invoking the wrath of an impressively armed female as you tried to loosen the purse strings for her hard-earned miridium. She carried herself with a heightened sense of refinement and was much too regal to be a whore. A mercenary?” he baited.

“Be glad West didn’t hear you call her either. Otherwise, there would be blood, yours, staining my shop.”

Dagan shrugged with a small, sheepish smile. “I promise, I learned my lesson the last time I accused a beautiful female of being a companion or common street whore, and I have the scar to prove it. What is in that box she was coveting so?” he asked.

Sig shook his head, silently warning him it was none of his business or concern.

“You will tell me,” Dagan teasingly warned. He picked up the unremarkable black bead from the wooden box in front of him and studied its smooth surface and reveled in the heat and energy pulsating under its surface. “It must have been worth more than a Cancellarius’ ransom in miridium if she had patiently waited years to acquire it,” he commented. He placed the bead on his flattened palm and the metal instantly cooled before it pulled towards the end of the bracelet around his wrist. It attached to the matching material, and the seam between the two parts blended away leaving smooth, polished metal behind.

“Not nearly worth what I was charging,” Sig admitted, sliding the box across the display case to him. “It was in the possession of a Tamnaian Queen that most recently met her much overdue demise. The Captain had set her eyes on it years ago, but she reeled her little thief in and waited for nature to take its course.”

“That is not very Pirate-like,” Dagan commented.

Sig softly growled under his breath. “No, it is not.”

“Did you have something to do with the Queen’s overdue demise?” he asked but didn’t care either way.

“Of course not,” Sig snorted. “However, I have to pull the heartstrings to open the purse strings. It took a bit of a sleight of hand to remove them from the Queen’s cold, dead hands before she was encased in ice. That nearly cost me my life when the guards found me, but they cannot catch what they cannot see,” he teased, the hologram behind him flickering before it multiplied, filling the area behind the display case with a dozen Sigs.

Dagan gave him a look. “And you have the audacity to accuse me of theatrical, and more often than not, juvenile behavior. And, for your information, you shall reside for eternity in exile in Eden for the mottos in which you live by,” he parentally scolded.

“Eden and its fires are an acceptable destination compared to Xeorn where you will surely spend eternity in exile from the living,” he retorted, wiping down the glass, the additional Sigs disappearing.

Dagan shrugged. “Xeornians and their sexually insatiable appetites, cute button noses, and whiskers, not to mention, six breasts and sweeping tails that know the importance of caressing all erogenous zones are a more than acceptable companions to spend eternity with. Meow,” he teasingly purred, playfully swatting at him.

“Word of advice: stay away from their claws and the fangs hidden in their reproductive entry orifices,” Sig added.

“Where would the fun in that?” Dagan retorted. “And you better be careful, high and mighty Curator of Wonders, you are starting to sound like a soldier again. Whatever would the whores terrified of tarnishing the exterior and ambiance of your shop with merely their exhaled breaths think if they were to hear such nonsensical vulgarity from an Illarian of reputation?!” he gasped as if appalled.

Sig huffed and pulled his shoulders back and held his head high, his sharp chin jutting upward, and he smoothed the lines of his tailored garb down with his small hands. “Tone noted though I can only blame you for the slip of degeneration.”

“How so?”

“You have an uncanny ability to bring out the worst in creatures of all worlds, Dagan Dark,” he scathingly reminded him, reaching for the black box, but Dagan pulled it away.

“What was so precious that…” Dagan’s words trailed off when he opened the box and he looked up at the overly amused Curator. “She was going to pay how much for these?” he demanded.

Sig emptied the purse out on the display case and Dagan’s eyes widened, eying the pile of thin, stamped ingots.

“You are scandalous!” he said, shaking his head disappointedly.

“I’m a businessman,” Sig corrected.

“With a darkened soul and heart of ice,” Dagan informed him, tenderly caressing the box’s contents. “Why did she not take these?” he mumbled; they would have looked amazing with her long, slender, pale hands in his opinion.

Sig huffed, suddenly feeling guilty. “Her pilot has an addiction to ancient Nutune based music.”

Dagan looked up. “I do not understand,” he said.

“When those from the third rock in their solar system,” Sig explained, “ventured from their dying rock, the moronic creatures packed what they, and the good Captain, considered treasures even though they have no purpose or monetary value.”

“Except to you,” Dagan surmised.

“Except to me,” he agreed. “George, the pilot, enjoys, what Nutune dwellers called, rock and roll, and soul music. Mainly the, what they categorized by their means to track time, nineteen-fifties to nineteen-seventies,” he explained. “Those large, black discs housed in thin sheaths are called records. Somehow Spit was able to rig something up so they can listen to music while, what George coined, cruising through the stars.”

A small smiled pulled at the corners of Dagan’s mouth as he eyed the box’s delicate contents; he was now intrigued by this mysterious Captain and her crew.

“I’ll escort you to the docks and make arrangements for you to dine and rest before disembarking. Your transport leaves later tonight,” Sig said, well aware that he had inadvertently opened Pandora’s Box and there was only one way to put the lid back on it.

Sig prayed that it didn’t blow up in his face.

Absently Dagan nodded and replaced the lid on the box in his hand, minding the little white velvet bow, then slid it in his britches pocket and fastened the metal buckle to keep it secured.

Sig cleared his throat, cocking an eyebrow.

“I am not paying you for them, either,” Dagan informed him. “You are the worst kind of Pirate, only your means are overlooked by the Authority.”

Sig didn’t rebut him because they both knew it was true.

“I am assuming the lovely and temperamental Captain is the one you made arrangements for me with,” Dagan said, changing the subject. “Though, I will admit it sounded as if her departure time has drastically changed.”

Sig shook his head. “No. Whisper doesn’t take passengers. Captain West is purely for profit but only does trade and cargo. However, her conscience guides her to which jobs she’ll take and not take. She’s a strange Pirate. I warn you now, Boy, stay as far away from Captain West and the crew of Whisper as possible.”

That piqued Dagan’s curiosity even more. “What do you know about them? Do they have an alliance with the Authority, or do they contract with the bounty hunters and mercenaries of the Empire?”

“No on all accounts,” Sig said, silently berating himself for, once again, capturing his interest as he had inadvertently done. “Those of the Empire and the Authority are after her, as well as nearly everyone that make up the crew. They’ve yet to catch them, apparently.”

“The ship, this Whisper, is fast?” he asked.

“No,” Sig said and shook his head. “It’s a Dust Jumper.”

Dagan laughed, thinking he was kidding, but there was no mirth in the Illarian.

“How does a Dust Jumper, an antique that should be on display in one of your many shops, out run Central Empire Tracker vessels?” Dagan asked.

Sig shrugged. “I cannot tell that which I have not seen firsthand,” he said and Dagan rolled his eyes. “It’s a motley crew that spans every corner of Realm, a young crew but their wiles are beyond their years, that I know to be true. Rumor is that the Senate is after the head of more than one of them and yet not one in their ranks would ever entertain betrayal,” he said, motioning Dagan towards the door, looking over his shoulder to the lone holographic image standing there and it nodded once before disappearing.

Once outside, the Curator locked the door behind them and escorted his guest down the alley, taking a shortcut to the docks. “I know what you are entertaining, Boy, and I have to warn against it. You are already struggling to stay hidden from the perceptions of those that seek you, and now you’re entertaining going to the very people who you cannot risk being involved with.”

Dagan chuckled. “You sound very motherly, old friend.”

Sig grabbed the front of Dagan’s tunic and pulled him down to his level. “I have sacrificed more than you could possibly ever know in your limited years to help you cross Realm in the shadows of the Authority. I have risked my livelihood and life to help in this endeavor -”

“One you are graciously compensated for,” Dagan interrupted, his features hardening and voice was edged with something without a term, but it caused Sig’s eyes to widen in fear. “Do not be so bold as to think your limited assistance with this endeavor is anything but limited. You are expendable regardless of the self-imposed importance you place upon yourself. Do you understand?”

Sig nodded. “As are you,” he retorted, though they both knew it was a lie. “I will not stand silent while you endanger your life with stupidity, but more importantly, throw away what so many gave their lives to secure for you. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly,” Dagan assured him with a smile, his features softening and stance relaxed. “I will stop at nothing to finish the mission, I swear it on my life.”

“Good,” Sig huffed and released him then started back down the alley and Dagan followed.

When the lane opened up to the busy docks, Sig pulled Dagan to a stop. “Stay here, Boy. I will be back in a moment.”

Dagan nodded and leaned against the building shadowing them and studied his bracelet.

Sig easily disappeared into the crowded area; the Illarian’s lack of height was his greatest attribute, in Dagan’s opinion. Where it was impossible to follow Sig’s movements through the crowd, it was rather easy to follow the statuesque female effortlessly moving through the horde.

Dagan followed her movements from the concealment of the shadows, just as those lingering in the alley across the crowd were. West was more than a head taller than most of those swarming the docks, a trait only seen in females from a handful of species and races encompassing Realm. It made Dagan curious as to which planet she stemmed from. He also noted that the crowd seemingly parted for West as she moved, and he found himself admiring the way the sun reflected off her blue hair, making each strand look as if they were silken tresses of metallic neon. Her pale skin appeared like the moon: glowing white against the moving canvas of dark complexions and hair. The way Captain West carried herself—head high and shoulders back with pride and sense of refinement and regality—was attention worthy on a G-Class Planet, something that those now following her didn’t miss but were too stupid to question.

And before he realized what he was doing, Dagan was shadowing her movements, heading in the opposite direction that Sig went, quickly closing the distance between the Captain’s retreating form and those following her.

Dagan found it hard to believe that Captain West didn’t know she was being followed. The four miscreants quickly closing on her made no attempt to hide their approach and pushed and shoved people as they went. Concealment in the crowd was the only thing that could possibly work in their favor; their darkened complexions and garb allowed them to blend in. Dagan didn’t have that luxury; he dressed in garb not of Awesh and was more than two heads taller than those swarming the area.

When the statuesque Captain turned the corner, Dagan slowed, his attention pulling away from her retreating form to the small Curator that had come from the opposite direction, one he knew Sig hadn’t gone initially.

Distracted, Dagan turned back to the female and stopped when he found only dark skinned Aweshians filling the area.

“Cào,” he hissed, hurrying to find her and turned the corner before sliding to a stop.

The miscreants that had been following Captain West were strung across the area, slumping against the base of the far wall.

“No blood or obvious source for their sudden relocation to the afterlife. Broken necks most likely,” Dagan surmised, impressed. It was obvious their clothing had been searched and stripped of anything of value, which he was sure wasn’t much. The speed required to take four out as effortlessly as they had and strip them of valuables shouldn’t have been possible, but apparently it was. “Huh, learn something new at every turn,” he commented. When he brushed his falling navy hair out of his eyes, he stopped in mid-sweep when the unmistakable feel of a knife against the base of his skull made him hyperaware that he erred greatly.

“Why are you following me?” West hissed in his ear, her entire body pressed against the length of his from behind, and her cooler breath washed over his skin.

“It was not intentional,” Dagan admitted. “You do most impressive work.”

“Yes, I am well aware of that. Why are you following me?” she asked, again.

“Again, it was not intentional, though I can confidentially say that I would do it again.”

West scoffed. “And why is that? Your life is in my hands, Foolish Boy,” she pointed out.

“True,” Dagan agreed. “However, your breasts are pressed against my back, and I must admit, I rather enjoy the sensation and physical response as a result. Thus, dying by your hands, in this utterly scandalous position, would make the most likely painful death to follow well worth it.”

Not entirely sure what to say in regards to his blush-inducing admission, West shook her head in resignation. “You are a nonsensical, Foolish Boy,” she sneered and pushed him away from her and he chuckled. She sheathed her knife and glared at him when he turned to face her. “If it was not intentional, what was it then?” she pressed, her eyes flickering over his shoulder for a fraction of a second before they returned to his.

Dagan looked over his shoulder but didn’t see anything worthy of her attention, other than the bodies. “What was that?” he asked, turning his attention back to her then leaned back, startled to find her standing directly in front of him, her face uncomfortably close to his.

“You are testing my patience,” West warned.

A smile filled Dagan’s face. “I did not think it was possible,” he said, trying to keep from eying her cleavage, “but I do believe I favor death from the front better. The view is most acceptable and the press of your breasts against my chest is most stimulating.”

Her head tilted to the side and his eyes widened when he felt the edge of her knife against his crotch. “What game are you playing? Are you trying to distract me until reinforcements can come? I would not suggest it since your little friends never saw it coming. Are you attempting to collect the bounty on my head?” she asked, sounding slightly amused at the notion.

“No, I would-” he started, but his words choked out when Draconian iron pressed deeper between his thighs.

“You were saying?” West mused, cocking an eyebrow.

“I shadowed your movements without consciously doing so,” Dagan explained in a rush. “Sadly my selfish, yet valiant, attempt to take care of those sensing an easy target slipped through my fingers, leaving you to deal with them on your own, and making me look ridiculously foolish in the process. The typical when I am involved, I assure you.”

“Uh huh,” she scoffed, giving him a look.

“I swear it. Ask anyone! Dagan Dark is not synonymous with staying out of trouble and not looking like a ridiculous boy, as you have mentioned more than once.”

West’s top lip snarled upward on one side and her nostrils flared before she regained her composure. She couldn’t tell if he was mocking her, flirting with her, or merely biding his time before the bounty hunters or Jankoff’s men arrived. “Not ridiculous,” she corrected. “Foolish, and I fear that does not begin to accurately describe you.”

He smiled.

“Your mouth, as well as your feet, will only get you in trouble.”

“That is the consensus,” Dagan agreed.

“Foolish Boy,” West said, once again sheathing her knife and stepped back, “go back the way you came and forget my name and face.”

Dagan stepped into her, but she didn’t retreat and lowered his face to hers so they were nearly nose to nose, a first with a female that he could remember due to his height. “I could never forget your face or name. Or the feel of your blade or breath against my skin,” he said before he moistened his pale lips with his tongue and she snorted; she’d rather he was biding his time than flirting. “I seek passage, Captain West. Nothing more and nothing less,” he explained, his eyes moving over her face many times. “Rumor is your little Dust Jumper has an uncanny ability to outrun vessels. The wind speaks that you hold no alliance or allegiance to the Authority, the Senate, or those under the umbrella of power the Empire hides behind. That is precisely what I require, Captain.”

“Your ears hear much, Foolish Boy,” West retorted, her tone level.

“And your lips have yet to deny those rumors,” Dagan countered.

“And I shall not,” she informed him, her lips nearly brushing against his with each word that left them. “The wind does not speak of me or my crew, for those that do find themselves without a tongue to wag. The Curator, on the other hand, has loose lips when in the presence of those he should not be. Words I will have with him in regards to that when our paths cross next and we no longer have business to conclude.” Her eyes moved over his many times, trying to read him and find his ulterior motive, but she found none. “You are also aware that Whisper does not take passengers-”

“I can pay.”

Ever so softly, the tip of West’s tongue swiped over her bottom lip to moisten it, caressing Dagan’s in the process from their close proximity. The chill that raced down her spine she easily ignored, and the tingling sensation spreading across her lips and tongue were disregarded as nothing more than annoyance and a lapse of judgment. “You have nothing I want, Foolish Boy,” she coldly informed him. “Go back the way you came and find passage elsewhere, because you are not welcome on Whisper.”

Chapter Five

West hurried through the thinning crowd as she mumbled under her breath about an annoying, foolish boy that couldn’t leave good enough alone. Up ahead, on the far dock with the cargo bay door lowered, was Whisper.

The Dust Jumper wasn’t attention getting when docked, if anything it was worth a good chuckle to most that saw it, but to Captain West it was home. Fifteen years ago she procured the ship when she and Jax were on Tengan in the Sardarian region of Realm. They were on the run and came across a small farm that had no allegiance to either the Authority or Resistance, which was hard to find during that time in the war, and they offered the two shelter until the threat passed. After two years of working on the farm, Abram handed West the keys and papers to his Dust Jumper to do what she saw fit with for payment for their company and help. Jax shook her head and wanted to sell it for scrap, but West saw something more: a ship of her own and a home when she no longer had one.

Over the years, the vessel evolved. No longer was it used for crops, nightshade, or marrow transport between colonies, or pesticide delivery. Storage rooms were turned into living quarters. Retired fuel tanks were transformed into a means to sustain the crew and reduce operation costs. Pesticide holds were turned into wastewater recycling systems, luxuries were added, and the engines were modified for long distance space travel. Walls were reinforced and adorned with gifts from the various worlds Whisper had visited in their travels, something no other ship in all of Realm could boast of possessing.

The exterior, for appearance sake, was as unimpressive as the model of the ship. A secondary shingle and plate styled metal covering sheathed the entire body of the vessel. The pliable material seamlessly wrapped the rounded areas of the Dust Jumper, insulting for prolonged space travel and acting as a photovoltaic system for additional power. The elongated body wasn’t overly long, it was bulbous compared to dart like Tracker vessels and the massive interplanetary transport ships and gave the Dust Jumper the appearance of being slow in comparison to the others docked. Soft teal light emanated from between the solar shingles covering the twin inlets attached to the wings, and it hinted that the simple Dust Jumper may have been more than it appeared. The spinning compressors hummed with blue light which wasn’t normal for that type of ship. Heated air passed through the inverted engines and out the nozzles, keeping the Dust Jumper afloat. It created waves of distortion around the back of the ship, helping to hide the activity inside the cargo bay.

The cargo door was lowered and the reallocated crates of Thausertian wine were expertly secured inside. Nero and Spit were anchoring the outbounder to the grate floor with chains. The jumper was already secured, and Jax was checking and rechecking each of the rifles resting against the railing along the second-floor catwalk of the cargo bay. Sparks was standing on the dock. The sun reflected off the twin blades in his hands as his violet eyes scanned the area looking for danger, minding where the Captain was and following her directive to stay back. George was on the bridge and Jhannie was with her, pacing along the stair-ridden corridor leading from the cargo bay to bridge and back again, waiting to relay the Captain’s orders when they got them. Naveen was in the galley with Cynda. She was translating the runes, telling him of his future, one that Naveen didn’t care to know, but it helped to pass the time while on a planet that he was incapable of making a profit on.

West continued towards the ship with the parcel in hand when Sparks’ head snapped to the side and she abruptly stopped. Charging in from the sides were armed men; their attire was unmistakably Anterian.

Jankoff’s men.

The parcel she carried dropped to the ground as the statuesque female went for the guns tucked in the back of her pants. Before she could pull them free, something heavy slammed into her from behind, knocking her to the ground. Seemingly, out of the shadows armed men poured with no regard for their well-being.

Those gunning for the control of the docks since their former master was reallocated to the afterlife.

Gunshots echoed all around and it was accompanied by shouted orders in the Anterian tongue. Their barked commands were answered by those of Aweshian decent trying to reclaim control of their own planet. Those lingering around the docks had to run for cover, causing ships to disembark without a majority of their crew. Streaks of silver cut through the air before embedding in the throats of the intended targets. Before the body could hit the ground, the small, violet-eyed man was there, retrieving his blades then moved to the next in a blur. Orders from the second in command came from the body of Whisper as Jax expertly took aim with her toys, taking out five targets before dropping the spent rifle in hand and hurried down to the next, repeating the cycle.

West started to get up but was pushed back to the ground.

“Stay down,” Dagan hissed.

“If you do not get off of me, you will be next,” she warned, slamming her elbow into his ribs.

Dagan grunted. “Stop assaulting me, Female!” he complained. “I am once again attempting to valiantly protect you.”

“Protect me?” West scoffed and slammed her head back into his, connecting with his face. “I do not need to be protected, especially by a Foolish Boy that has been warned more than once to go back the way he had come.” She maneuvered out from under him and rolled to her feet in a defensive crouch. West pulled one of the guns from behind her, but the other was missing. She looked over her shoulder and glared when she saw the other was in Dagan’s hand and he was mirroring her position. “Foolish Boy,” she sneered.

“Yes, I am,” Dagan agreed and they turned in unison so their backs were pressing against each other. “If you do not get me killed, you owe me dinner and a drink,” he informed her.

“And if I kill you, do I get to sell your body to those hunting you?” she asked with the unmistakable sound of amusement in her voice.

“Captain, you can do whatever you like with my body. Heartbeat preferable, but not a deal breaker.”

“I shall remember that,” West said. “Try not to get yourself killed. That honor belongs solely to me.”

“Yes, Captain,” Dagan barked out then chuckled when she growled under her breath in irritation.

Patiently they waited, their tall forms compacted lower, weight balancing on their toes. Dagan’s light sea-green eyes appraised the situation from left to right and West’s teal eyes moved right to left. Sparks and Jax were impressive when working together, and they took out most of Jankoff’s men, but the rallying gangs of Awesh were flocking to the fray to claim victory and ultimate control.

“Second wave is coming through the alleyways to the sides now,” Dagan commented.

“I am well aware of that,” West said, gauging whether Jax had a clear shot or not. “Hopefully you shoot as well as you flirt, Foolish Boy,” she commented.

“One way to find out,” Dagan said and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through the head of the target and busted out the back of his skull before entering the head of the next behind him, dropping both. “Two to none,” he said with a smirk.

“This is not a game,” West informed him, pulling the trigger and three shots took out multiple targets. “Seven to two,” she said. “You truly have to admire the impressive packing of Anterian cartridges.”

Dagan nodded. “Impressive indeed. Try not to shoot yourself while gloating,” he said and dropped four more targets. From behind the fallen Aweshians, a familiar set of solid brown eyes met his and instantly Dagan’s narrowed and he pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through his head, the hologram flickering before solidifying once more, and the metal embedded in the chest of the female with a gun in hand behind him. “Eight to seven and an abruptly ended business arrangement.”

West softly snorted. “You do not get additional points for that,” she informed him and he chuckled. “Thirteen to eight. It is a shame your aim is not nearly as good your ability to flirt.”

“Flirting is truly beneath a creature of distinction,” Dagan informed her, maneuvering West towards her ship. “I am merely irresistible to every species and gender, you cannot put the fault on me for that. Twenty-nine to twenty-eight.”

“It was twenty-nine, not twenty-eight,” West argued.

“Captain, un-plant your foot so we may retreat to the safety of your ship where I will brag of my one shot victory,” he said, trying to push her along, but she was surprisingly strong.

“It was twenty-nine,” she repeated, shooting the screaming woman grasping her injured leg in the head, ending her misery.

“Now it is,” Dagan agreed and chuckled when she slammed her elbow into his side.

They retreated, back to back, watching, waiting, the guns in their hands only had one round remaining each. Neither was startled by the streaks of silver and each bullet whizzing past, barely missing them, before hitting their intended target.

Once their feet touched Whisper’s lowered door, West motioned for them to close it.

“Cào,” Dagan hissed, eying the wrapped parcel sitting amongst the bodies. “Give me sixty seconds,” he said.

West shook her head, seeing what he saw and silently berated herself for selecting the larger parcel for George over her own.

“Very well,” Dagan said with a chuckle then grabbed West by the back of the neck and pulled her to him, his mouth smashing into hers. Her full lips were unrelenting to his tongue as it swept over them more than once. When he pulled back slightly, she opened her mouth to protest, and that was the opportunity he was waiting for. His tongue darted into her mouth, easily finding her tongue and wrapped around it and he violated her mouth with his.

Dagan ignored the blade biting into his flesh, and he ignored the blood trickling down the back of his neck from it. He even ignored the coming fewer and fewer gunshots from the temperamental First Lieutenant that appeared irritated that they killed everyone. The only thing Dagan was aware of was the female in his arms. West could kill him at any moment but surprisingly refrained from doing so.

When Dagan started to pull away from her, West bit his tongue and it flooded her mouth with blood before she relinquished it.

West pulled back and glared at him through narrowed eyes.

“Thirty seconds,” he said through clenched teeth and winked before running back to the dock to recover the parcel.

West’s top lip snarled upward and she turned on her heels and headed deeper into Whisper.

In passing, she motioned for Jax to close the doors.

West spit the mouthful of Dagan’s blood out to the floor then wiped her mouth off with the back of her hand as the door closed, sealing shut, leaving Dagan behind.

Whisper started to pull away from the docks, her body shaking slightly as the thrusters pulled additional power from the reserves.

“Annoying, Foolish Boy,” West snarled and started to turn when something caught her attention.

“Captain?” Jax called out.

West shook her head and looked from the molten silver and saliva on the cargo bay floor to the back of her hand and the smudges of silver staining her pale skin. With trembling fingers, she reached up and touched her lips and pulled back silver-coated fingertips.

“Oh no,” West stammered. “Open the door!” she yelled and Jax tossed her a rifle with a smirk. “Bring him back here at all costs!” she ordered and chambered a round.

Jhannie nodded then ran down the corridor to relay the orders to the pilot.

The crew of Whisper rearmed themselves and strapped into harnesses to tether themselves to the ship as the cargo bay door slowly lowered. They took aim as the ship swept back around towards the docks and West growled in irritation because of the scene below. The lingering Anterian and Aweshian were gunned down and replaced by the uniforms of the Authority.

Dagan stood in the center of the carnage with the parcel at his feet, hands raised, and black uniformed sentries surrounding him.

“Flesh wounds,” West barked out and the crew nodded and waited for her orders.

Chapter Six

“This is not going according to plan,” Dagan commented. He was irritated that he was surrounded by sentries of the Authority, but what irritated more than anything was that West left him. In all fairness, he did violate her mouth with his. It wasn’t what he intended to do, but it seemed as if his body had a mind of its own, and it wasn’t entirely disappointing. It really shouldn’t have surprised Dagan that West bit him, but it was surprising that she didn’t bite him sooner.

“You have gotten careless on your run,” an overly amused voice called out before the speaker pushed through the circling Authority uniforms.

Dagan shrugged indifferently. “Perhaps,” he agreed to disagree. “My lack of execution usually results in horribly botched attempts at chivalry, this one included.”

The man wasn’t amused by Dagan’s jovial attitude.

He never was.

“How are you, Commandant Darkheart?” Dagan cheerfully asked with a face consuming-smile. “How is the family? Well, I hope.”

“Exchanging pleasantries, really?” Darkheart complained.

“Of course. If civility was embraced instead of brute force, could you imagine how beautiful and peaceful Realm would be?” Dagan retorted with a wink.

Softly Darkheart growled under his breath, losing his patience. “Where are the others?”

“Whoever do you mean?” Dagan asked with a coy smile.

Darkheart cocked an eyebrow. “I grow tired of your insolence.”

“Then stop seeking me and my insolence out,” Dagan suggested.

“I have told you more than once, that I shall never do, Brother.”

Dagan’s smirk fell and his features hardened. “We have not been brothers in years.” He pushed his falling hair back and showed him the side of his forehead. “Not since you took everything from me.”

Darkheart merely shrugged. “My apologies that my aim is not nearly as good as yours.”

“Indeed,” Dagan said, dropping the handful of hair. “I promised that my face would be the last thing you saw in this life,” he reminded him.

“And I promised to put you back where you belong,” Darkheart reminded him, haughtily. His long, black and silver dreadlocks blew away from him as the exhaust from another ship hastily departing blew dust and sand all around them, reducing visibility significantly.

“Your cage could not hold me then, and it will not now,” Dagan sneered.

“Who’s going to stop me?” Darkheart called out, shielding his eyes with his hand.

The sound of gunfire filled the air as a Dust Jumper dropped in below the departing transport vessel with the cargo bay door lowered.

One by one the soldiers fell without firing their weapons as bullets tore through their shoulders and legs.

“No!” Darkheart yelled, pulling his sidearm. Before he could pull the trigger, the gun exploded in his hand from a well-placed bullet, blowing most of his hand off. He cried out in pain, grasping the bloody stump with his other hand.

Dagan chuckled and picked up the parcel at his feet, his eyes never leaving the bleeding man in front of him. “I dare say, she is an incredible shot,” he informed him.

“I will kill you for this,” Darkheart snarled.

“I welcome your attempt,” Dagan said. Slowly he retreated backward, never taking his eyes off the man he once called brother, and who coincidentally, was quite possibly one the most dangerous creatures in all of Realm.

“I will kill her as well,” Darkheart hissed, his eyes flickering to the woman balancing on the lip of the cargo door with a rifle in hand.

That caused Dagan to stop. “We could have resolved this in a civil matter. However, you had to bring her into this. You will not touch her,” he said in a tone that was so menacing and void of anything remotely civilized and humanistic in nature that it caused Darkheart to start retreating with wide eyes.

Nothing good ever followed that tone.

Dagan leveled his gun at him and Darkheart stopped.

“How many bullets do you think you have left?” Darkheart sneered, stepping to the side but Dagan’s aim followed him. “You spent at least fifteen-”

“Fourteen,” Dagan interrupted. “Leaving one just for you, Brother.”

“If you kill me, atonement she’ll seek and there is no legion or skilled Pirates that will stop her,” Darkheart sneered.

Dagan smirked. “I welcome her attempt at stopping me,” he sneered. “Goodbye, Brother.”

Something wrapped around Dagan’s ankles before his feet were pulled out from under him and he hit the ground before he was pulled across it.

“No!” he yelled and pulled the trigger.

Darkheart spun through the air before landing on the mound of bodies, with a hole in his shoulder.

The ground disappeared from under Dagan and he dangled in midair, flying above the docks, remaining anchored ships, and the bloody carnage. Dagan’s eyes burned into Darkheart’s small gray eyes as he flew over him.

“Cào!” Dagan hissed then looked up to see the crew of Whisper pulling him up into the cargo bay as quickly as they could as the Dust Jumper cautiously gained altitude. The rope around his ankles painfully tightened and the grappling hook bit into his flesh, but he wasn’t going to complain. “They came back,” he mumbled, surprised.

The ferocious redhead with wild eyes expertly balanced on the lowered cargo bay door, a rifle at the ready, her attention on the ground below, the harness around her waist tethering her to the ship. On the other side, a dark-skinned male stood much the same, only his eyes were going from Dagan and the swarming mess below.

When the metal edge of the cargo bay was within reach, Dagan hurled the parcel inside to free his hands then swung upward and grabbed onto the lip of the door. A long, slender, pale hand wrapped around his wrist and struggled to pull him up into the ship.

“Go! Go! Go!” West called out.

The door started to lift and the crew retreated back into the cargo bay, unhooking harnesses and locking spent rifles away in the process. They moved with military precision though it was obvious to Dagan that most of them weren’t military trained. As the door continued to rise, Dagan slid into the cargo bay, landing on top of West. They rolled across the metal grate floor, coming to rest when his shoulder broke through one of the crates of Thausertian wine.

“The next time you say thirty seconds, that is what you will mean,” West hissed from under him.

A smile consumed Dagan’s face. “I do not know why you came back-”

“Thirty seconds,” she reiterated.

He nodded. “Thirty seconds, but one day you will tell me.”

“Not likely,” she informed him “Get off me before I throw you to them.”

Dagan nodded and rolled off of her and quickly pulled West to her feet in the process, causing a few of the bottles of wine to free themselves from the crate and they rolled across the floor. He picked one of them up and smiled wide. “Shall we have a celebratory drink?” he offered and she glared at him as she dusted herself off, grinding the toe of one boot into the floor, bending her knee. He looked at her curiously. “Captain?”

West looked to Nero and he nodded, the silent exchange piquing Dagan’s curiosity, but he bit his tone.

Jax snorted and pointed her sidearm at him. “I’m sorry. You apparently didn’t just meet the Authority. Which is rather amusing, now that I mention it because you appear to know them on a personal level. Since you all know each other do you honestly think that they’ll just let us off this rock as if it’s nothing?! Did you neglect to notice that we shot twenty sentries? That’ll earn all of us a death sentence!”

Dagan nodded. “I noticed, but I also noticed that they will all survive their wounds. You preserved life, why?”

Jax glared at him, her nostrils flaring.

“That was because of your orders,” he surmised, turning to West. “Yet another thing to tell me about later.”

“Again, not likely,” West said, uninterested.

“Very well. There is no way this Dust Jumper,” Dagan tried to say with a straight face and ended up laughing, which was answered by a fist slamming into his back.

“Dun ya be talkin’ shit ‘bout Whisper.” Spit glared at him, getting on her tippy toes, trying to close the distance between them, but he was still four heads taller than the small mechanic was.

Dagan started to laugh, she amused him greatly, when Sparks appeared between them with a knife in hand. Instantly Dagan understood and nodded, stepping back. “No offense to Whisper intended,” he apologized. “However, it is improbable that she can outrun the surface escort vessel that will collect the wounded before rejoining the fleet that is most certainly hiding in the cirrocumulus clouds in the stratosphere. It would be safe to assume three Scout vessels, four Starfighters, and a K’Pojaha-Class escort are lying in wait.”

They turned to Captain West for orders, but she was looking at Dagan. That was a very specific grouping of Authority ships, one that she hadn’t seen or heard of since the Assault of New Hope on Cydonia in the Nuthiax Quadrant.

Jax growled; she was thinking much the same. “Let me kill him, Captain, and hope tossing them the body will save our asses.”

West shook her head and took the bottle of wine from Dagan. She used her thumbnail to break the metal seal then pulled the peculiar cork from of the bottle. “What shall we drink to then?” she asked and a few of the others chuckled.

Dagan started to shrug but stopped when a familiar scent flooded his nostrils. He grabbed the bottle from West as she brought it to her lips then sniffed it. “Where did you get this?” he demanded.

“It was recently procured,” West said in a clipped tone, reaching for the bottle.

Dagan pulled it away from her. “If you drink it, you will most certainly die,” he explained, ignoring the weapons that were suddenly pointed at him. “Where is your engine room?” he asked.

West motioned for the others to lower their weapons. “Why, what is in that bottle?” she asked, softly, her tone disarming him.

In her mind, the numbers suddenly weren’t adding up.

Jankoff was paying beyond top dollar for Thausertian wine. Yes, it was something that’s considered contraband on nearly every planet because of the side effects that abuse could cause on the system, including insanity and homicidal tendencies. However, the delicate flavor of the fermented berries and subtle floral notes made it a rare delicacy to those that could afford to acquire it. Jankoff was paying ten times what a normal connoisseur of excess would. It should have warned her that something was wrong, but she didn’t question it because of the longer than usual route they had to take to acquire the shipment and then deliver it.

A mistake she would not make again.

“It is worth more than a thousand times what you were paid for it,” Dagan whispered. “We do not have the time for a Nutune history lesson or a lesson in electrochemistry,” he explained.

Nero picked up the other loose bottle and uncorked it then sniffed, his dark complexion paling. “Captain, grant him passage to the engine room,” he whispered.

West, trusting her crew more than anyone else in Realm ever would, motioned with her chin for Sparks to escort Dagan to the engine room with Spit.

Dagan grabbed one of the crates of wine. “Make sure you secure the others well. The contents within are extremely unstable and flammable,” he warned, then followed his escorts from the cargo bay.

“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” Jax said.

West bent down to recover the parcel Dagan risked his life for then crossed the cargo bay and took the stairs three at a time. She hurried down the metal corridor, ducking under the low crossbeams as she went until she reached the bridge. “Coordinate with the engine room,” she said, taking the Captain’s chair next to the pilot. She checked the passive sensors’ display for emission trails from the fleet Dagan warned them about, but it was nearly impossible to discern a vessel’s heat signature from the sweltering heat of Awesh’s stratosphere.

“I hope it was worth it,” George teasingly sang, pushing the throttle forward and the hum of the engines fully powering made the young pilot purr in perverse pleasure.

“That is for you to decide,” West said, handing the parcel to her.

George squealed in surprise and clapped excited, then quickly unwrapped the canvas package. “Oh my Gods!” she gasped, covering her mouth with a small hand; she looked over at the Captain and tears flooded her eyes. “You found them?” she whispered.

West dismissively waved for her to do what she was going to ask permission to do, and the pilot squealed in delight. She quickly flipped through the five records, blindly steering with one hand, the other shaking with anticipation. “Regrettably, the little detour was in the recovery of those,” West said and George nodded her understanding.

Jhannie, not happy that the Captain told George that, especially since the young pilot harbored guilt unlike any other creature in Realm, rolled her solid black eyes before pressing her pouty plum-colored lips against George’s cheek. “Hurry up and pick one so you can kick these silly mouth breathers’ asses and get some oral attention as a reward,” she purred then curled her long tongue, teasingly.

“This one,” George whispered, handing Jhannie the record.

Jhannie headed over to the console and pressed on the hidden compartment in the dash and the lid lifted. She placed the record on the turntable and flipped the switch, setting the pressure bar on it to keep the record in place. “Get us home, Baby,” she said, closing the lid.

The crackling of the metal needle against the grooves in the record echoed through the Dust Jumper care of the speakers located throughout the vessel.

“I see a red door and I want it painted black.

No colors anymore, I want them to turn black.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes.

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes...

The music played throughout the ship’s intercom system, typical when facing potential death, and the corners of West’s mouth twitched, fighting to contain a smile.

Content, George sighed. “The Rolling Stones,” she said with a smile, looking over at West, but she wasn’t looking at her.

Instead, West was looking out the bay of windows at the distortions in the air around them.

George’s smile fell. “How many?”

“Six with another trailing.”

“We can’t outrun them,” Jhannie said.

“I know,” West somberly agreed. “Ready the thrusters and divert all power to the engines, including solar reserves. Foolish Boy, you better know what you are doing,” she whispered the latter then hurried from the room to make sure the cargo was secure.

Chapter Seven

“What’s in dem damn bottles?” Spit asked for the tenth time.

Dagan carefully sat the crate down on the workbench and started looking around the engine room. It was much cleaner than he expected to find in a Dust Jumper, let alone a Dust Jumper seemingly without a head mechanic.

The room was built into the middle of a large, cylindrical turbine: the anti-gravity propulsion system which included matching narrow, circular bands that encircle the body of the ship on the outside in four places. A two walled metal grate walkway ran from the doorway to the back wall. In the center of the room was a clear bodied, pressurized electric steam generator that was nearly as tall as Spit and heavily modified. The lights from the instrument panels and gauges on either side caused the water within to change colors as if cycling through a kaleidoscope pointed at the sun. The twin turbines mounted inside quickly turned the water, generating a vortex of bubbles that shot across the length of the tube. On each end, stretching upward towards the rotating ceiling before doubling back down and out above the rotating floor, were insulated tubes that collected the wastewater and another set for steam distribution that acted as radiant heating. The tubing ran under the walkway before splitting when they reached the corridor and went throughout the ship.

In the back of the room, four metal, cylindrical doors filled the wall; each was evenly spaced from the next and enclosed the power sources for the main engines. There was a workbench that stretched the length of the room on one side. The other side displayed gauges, electronic monitoring devices, digital readouts for all of the systems, most of which didn’t belong on a Dust Jumper. An out-of-place hammock hung from two hooks sticking out from the wall with a violet silk blanket and embroidered satin teal pillow balled up in the middle of it.

After appraising the room, Dagan turned to the strange pair watching him. “Magnetically accelerated ion drives?” he asked, hopeful, tapping on the blue digital gauge that prompted his question.

Spit shrugged. “What’s it to ya?”

“Those bottles are pressurized and thermally insulated containers,” he explained, knowing that they hadn’t time to argue the point. “They are a rather ingenious design, one I might have possibly seen before or in a hand in creating, but I cannot be sure. Either way,” he paused and shook his head, trying to clear it. “Sorry. Those bottles are filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Together, in a liquid form, were used as an archaic propellant,” he explained. “Where is the auxiliary fuel...the reserves?”

Spit looked to Sparks since she didn’t understand most of what Dagan said and Sparks nodded, his attention on the stranger.

“I’ll show ya,” Spit said and ducked under the generator in the center of the room. “It’s a tight squeeze and I reckon yer giant ass ain’t gonna fit,” she warned. Spit pulled her shirt off and tossed it on the hammock and repeated with her britches until she was standing in only a tank top and boxers.

Sparks continued to glare at Dagan, but his blades were noticeably absent from his hands since Dagan’s eyes didn’t flicker to the nearly naked girl once.

They were on the readings displayed on the wall of gauges.

Spit rolled a bedroll out on the floor in front of the wall housing the power sources before freeing a metal grate on the bottom of the wall, revealing a narrow crawlspace.

“‘bout two of me long and half of me down is the access panel to the reserves,” Spit said, not educated in measurements that didn’t involve fluids. “But I like I said, ya ain’t gonna fit in dere,” she warned, looking over her shoulder at Dagan. “Hold my ankles and I’ll do it for ya... Wait, what’cha doin? Dumpin’ wine in da tanks? If ya clog up da lines, I’ll whoop yer ass.”

Dagan nodded then shook his head. “It is an accelerant. Those from Nutune used it as rocket fuel. It will give a quick burst of power and we should, in theory, be able to slingshot past the Authority’s waiting armada by using the planet’s gravitational pull.”

Spit snorted. “I ain’t undastandin’ a damn word out of yer mouth, but I’ll do it.”

Sparks appeared next to her with the crate of bottles and motioned that he’d hold her ankles.

“Evenly distribute them between the tanks. Four engines, four tanks, twenty-four bottles per crate: six bottles each,” Dagan said, realizing that he was confusing the young mechanic. “Do not drink the contents, try not to inhale them either, just pour each bottle in a reserve, alternating between tanks. Understand?”

Spit scratched her shaved head, looking from Dagan to the crate next to her on the floor.

Sparks nodded once and dismissively waved Dagan away. He grabbed the respirator hanging from the end of the steam generator and handed it to Spit.

“Much obliged,” she mumbled, slipping the brass riveted rust colored, black leather accented, respirator mask over the lower half of her face. The two brass and mesh cylinders protruded about one inch from the respirator on each side and contained protective filters. Spit breathed heavily into it to test the fit, adjusting the padded nosepiece in an attempt at creating a better seal. “It’s loose,” she yelled, the mask muffling the sound.

Sparks nodded and adjusted the dual straps, tightening the brass buckles on the back of her head. He gave her a look and she tested it again and gave him two thumbs up when it passed the test.

Surprisingly content that the young mechanic and lethal male could handle it, Dagan hurried back the way they had come to make sure the cargo was secured. The Authority would be the least of their problems if any of the crates broke open and spilled their contents. Besides being extremely flammable, liquid oxygen’s cryogenic nature can cause the materials it touches to become extremely brittle, and if spilled it could possibly compromise the hull of the ship.

Dagan was surprised to see West in the cargo bay, pulling a strap tight, securing the last crate, instead of one of her crew.

“Sparks did not kill you, I see,” West said without turning to regard him.

Dagan nodded. “There was no mistaking that he wanted to,” he agreed.

“I wish I could say you simply had that effect on people, however, I cannot, in this case,” she said.

“I hear that often. They are an unusual pairing, I will admit,” he said conversationally, inspecting the Captain’s work. “I have never heard of a Kishoian on a Dust Jumper before.”

Instantly West was in his face. “Those that call Whisper home do not ask questions of the others they share their home with, regardless of how temporary their stay may be.”

Dagan cocked an eyebrow. “The others do not know, do they?” he surmised.

“It is not my place to say,” she said then resumed checking the cargo.

“Does it not concern you to have a trained assassin running loose, let alone one from Kisho, on your ship?” he pressed, curious.

“Obviously not,” she retorted with the unmistakable sound of amusement in her tone. “We all have a past, Foolish Boy-”

“Dagan Dark,” he interrupted, “not Boy.”

“Foolish Boy,” she continued, “you are, and until you prove otherwise, that is what you will be called. Every creature in Realm has a past, just as you do. The only question the Captain of Whisper has is what threat does that past pose for her and her crew?” She turned and looked at him. “Only time will answer that question because your actions contradict what I know to be right. Contradict what I have grown to expect from those that have fraternized with the Authority, but most importantly, those that carried rank in the Sovereign Plutocracy.”

He cocked a black eyebrow.

“I know more than you could possibly imagine. Do not make me regret saving your life,” West warned.

Dagan opened his mouth to assure her that he had no allegiance to anyone other than his conscience, but the words never got the chance to leave his lips.

The floor under them violently shook from the explosions just outside the walls of the ship.

“They are firing on us,” Dagan stated the obvious.

West nodded. “Yes, I suppose they are. Who would have thought they would resort to using weaponized means to procure the target?”

“Tone noted,” he dryly informed her.

“I would have been disappointed if it was not.”

“Does this modified Dust Jumper have shields?” he asked.

“It does, but they are not needed.”

“Pray tell, why is that?”

“They want you alive,” she said as if it were obvious as she headed towards the communication box on the wall at the base of the stairs.

“I could have told you that,” Dagan mumbled.

“Yes, I suppose you could have, and yet you did not.” West pressed the call button. “All hands, strap in and prepare to deploy countermeasures. George, do the needful, and if you do not change the music you are grounded. This Rolling Stones song is ominously foreboding.”

A giggle from the control bridge was the only response.

Dagan looked at West curiously.

“This, as Spit would say, is not our first rodeo,” West informed him as the entire Dust Jumper groaned in protest.

The music stopped and the speakers littered throughout Whisper crackled with static. “This is the pilot speaking,” George said before giggling. “Strap in, hold on tight, and let’s dust these silly little boys. As always, the exits are one at the back and that’s about it unless we get shot to shit, so let’s try not to die! As a special treat, a request from our fearless Captain: one from her collection. Enjoy,” she beamed.

“Your pilot, George, is a female?” Dagan asked with a chuckle.

West smirked. “And yet it surprises you.”

“The music?” he asked when guitar riffs filled the air.

West merely shrugged.

“Back in black.

I hit the sack.

I’ve been too long I’m glad to be back.

Yes. I’m, let loose, from the noose.

That’s kept me hanging about.

I keep looking at the sky.

‘Cause it’s gettin’ me high.

Forget the herse ‘cause I’ll never die.

I got nine lives Cat’s eyes.

Usin’ every one of them and running wild...”

“What in the...” Dagan started to ask but ended up roaring with laughter.

Again, West shrugged. “AC/DC,” she said as if it explained it all.

“Okay,” he said, changing the subject. “George knows how to slingshot a ship using the planet’s gravitational pull, correct?”

West gave him a look. “I will pretend you did not just ask that. Believe it or not, the best pilot I have ever had the honor and privilege of flying with is that young female singing at the top of her lungs on the bridge.” She braced herself against the metal beams on the nearest wall just as the ship started to roll.

Dagan slid into West, his hands and feet braced against the metal next to hers, his body pressing West’s against the wall as the Dust Jumper continued to barrel roll.

“Though, I will admit,” West said with a huff of resignation, “she does get a little carried away sometimes.”

He nodded. “Impressive.”

“Not nearly as impressive as what you have yet to see her do,” she said with a throaty purr that caused Dagan to smirk.

Chapter Eight

“Deploy flares,” George said.

Jhannie nodded from the Captain’s seat and quickly flipped the switches.

The crackling and popping of the flares deploying were barely heard over the loud music, but the blanketing of flares from behind them exploding, violently shook the ship and drowned out the chorus of Back in Black.

“Deploy another blanket?” Jhannie asked.

George shook her head. “Not yet, Honey. Let’s show these dickheads what this tin bird’s got!” she said seductively, looking over at her wife then smooched her lips together.

“Tease,” Jhannie playfully pouted and pulled her harness tighter, firmly anchoring her to the chair. “Show them how a real pilot does it.”

George didn’t wait to be told twice, she pulled the yolk back and Whisper pulled upward. When they were upside down, she pressed the flashing white button for the thrusters. The extra push sent the Dust Jumper up and over the pursuing Scout vessels.

Jhannie opened fire, using the joysticks on the captain’s chair to control the dual guns mounted on the top and bottom of Whisper.

The large-caliber rounds weren’t effective in space, but while still tethered to the gravitational pull of a planet, they were more useful than Authority plasma weapons.

“Take that, mouth breather!” Jhannie yelled, sheering through the wings of one Scout and it spiraled out of control towards the surface.

“Captain isn’t going to be too happy with you,” George teasingly said.

“Are you going to tell on me?” she asked.

“Not at all, Honey,” George assured her. “Let’s see if we can thin the herd a little more before kicking this tin bird into overdrive.”

“Excellent suggestion, Baby!”

****

“You have ground artillery weapons mounted to a Dust Jumper?” Dagan asked, his arms and legs straining to keep him pressed against West while George flew the Dust Jumper as if it was a Resistance Fighter Dart.

West gave him a look. “Tell me something, Foolish Boy, why does any of which you have seen and heard still surprise you?”

“I wish I could say it did not,” he admitted, “but it does. Your ship... The engine room was... I have never seen anything like it. I am most impressed,” he said, sounding aspirated.

“I take that as a compliment,” she said and her long, blue hair fell away from her as the ship’s trajectory, once again, drastically changed. Now it was her body that was pressing against his. “I am going to ground her if she does not stop fooling around,” she mumbled under her breath.

“Are you her mother?” Dagan asked the obvious.

“No, but sometimes it is as if I am the only mother some of them have,” she admitted in a whisper, stealing the mirth from him. “If you call me mother, I will shoot you,” she added and he nodded his understanding.

“Seven vessels?” he asked, straining to hear.

“There was,” West agreed, thankful for the subject change. “Now there appears to be three.”

“Impressive.”

“You say that often when in my presence,” she commented.

“And I fear I will continue to do such,” he admitted with a smile. “You are an unusual creature.”

“Most say incredible, and I am well aware of that.”

“Ooh, humble as well. Now, that truly is a surprise,” Dagan said.

The corners of her mouth twitched, fighting to contain her amusement, and her body slammed back against the hull with Dagan’s body entirely pressing against it. “Your words, they are...a mixture of Realm. Where do you stem from?” West asked before she could stop herself.

He shrugged. “I do not know.”

“What do you mean you do not know?” she demanded.

“I was shot. After that, everything was shadowed in ignorance. That is how one doctor worded it. She either was a poet at heart or was trying to spare my feelings… Or perhaps she was trying to bed me, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference with Vordanian females.”

Her eyes widened. “Tell me you jest.”

“If I were, it would not be a very amusing joke,” he informed her. “However, there were a few close encounters in my rebirth into ignorance with a couple of Vordanians that looked remarkably like their female kin. It was an awkward morning to say the least.”

“Who shot you?” she asked, not entertaining his infantile comment.

Dagan chuckled. “My brother.”

“Brother?” she whispered, confused.

“The one you shot in the hand,” he said. “Brilliant shot, I must say.”

Her brow furrowed. “His blood was dark crimson.”

“Yes, I suppose it was,” Dagan agreed.

“Yours is not,” her words trailed off when he cocked an eyebrow. “What are you?”

His expression hardened and his eyes narrowed. “The question is,” he hissed in her face, his playful demeanor changing in a fraction of a second and it was as if an entirely different person was suddenly in front of her. “What will you do with the answer?” he sneered.

A chill ran down her spine.

There was something unbelievably attractive, in West’s mind, about Dagan at that moment. Raw masculinity seeped from his pores, his light sea-green eyes had hardened, as did each of his features, and the tendons in his jaw clenched and bulged, fighting to keep his temper in check.

They both knew it was a losing battle.

“You will answer me,” Dagan warned.

“I suppose I will,” West agreed then slammed her forehead into his face, knocking him back from her.

Dagan answered the assault with one of his own and slammed his fist into her stomach and she gasped as the air rushed out of her. She blocked the next hit and countered with punches to his lower back in rapid succession. When he staggered back, West pulled herself up on the lip of the support beam above and slammed her feet into Dagan’s stomach, sending him flying across the cargo bay. He landed on the floor and rolled across it before he grabbed onto the grate flooring, his fingers knotting in the mesh to stop his progression.

West strolled towards him, rolling her neck and shoulders as she went, causing them to pop loudly. She kicked Dagan in the stomach as hard as she could. His body lifted up off the floor, but his hold on the grate didn’t falter. When his body dropped back down, he kicked his leg out and took hers out from under her and she landed on her back and he was quick to climb on top of her. As he punched, she blocked, and when the opportunity presented, she hit him in the crotch as hard as she could and he fell off her.

When the trajectory changed again, they rolled on the floor before slamming into the wall before they started fighting again. They punched and kicked, head butted and elbowed each other. Neither said anything, the occasional grunt or choked gasp that escaped their bloodied lips was the extent of the verbal exchange.

When they eventually got to their feet, they each shook their heads to clear them before squaring their shoulders, readying for the next assault. Before they could close the distance between them, George tapped into the reserves and the force sent Dagan and West flying through the air. Their progression abruptly stopped when they slammed into the cargo bay door. The additional gravitational force held them firmly against the unyielding metal, their limbs too heavy to move, and their vision started to lose hue, turning everything into grayscale.

Dagan struggled against the force, his fingers clawing at the metal. Each inch he moved felt as if it took centuries to achieve, and eventually his finger brushed against what he was looking for. He hooked his fingers around West’s and she returned the painful embrace before unconsciousness washed over them.

When the additional burst of force was exhausted, and the exerting gravitational forces leveled out and returned to normal, Dagan and West dropped from the door to their knees before falling forward to the floor, their fingers intertwined.

Chapter nine

“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” the woman said, pinching the bridge of her long, slender nose, trying to keep from losing her temper. “You had him in your grasp and you lost him to Pirates on a Dust Jumper?” she said, the statement in itself was comical, but the truth in it was infuriating.

Darkheart reluctantly nodded, grateful the lethal female was on the other side of Realm since the Senate was in session. The secure channel would only remain open for minutes so his update was quick and to the point. If they stayed on the line longer than needed, the feed could be hacked and the implications would be staggering.

“A Dust Jumper?” she reiterated, the speaker crackling as her voice echoed through it.

“Yes,” he hissed, reminding her to keep her voice down. “And I lost my hand for it!” He held the bandaged appendage up for her to see.

She gave him a look. “Last time I lost an eye, so now we are nearly even,” she reminded him, pointing to the leather patch over her left eye.

“They are not remotely close, Sister,” he argued.

She cocked an eyebrow in warning.

“I recant the statement, Sevi,” Darkheart instantly corrected.

Sevi nodded and leaned back in her chair. “Tell me about these Pirates, Nulav” she ordered.

Darkheart shook his head. “Sadly there is nothing to tell. The dust of Awesh effectively veiled those coming to the annoying creature’s aid.”

She nodded her understanding. “The ship? You clearly saw that it was a Dust Jumper. Thus, it had markings.”

He gnawed on his bottom lip; his tell.

“You cannot be serious,” Sevi sneered.

“The shape is the only thing hinting it was a Dust Jumper,” Darkheart explained. “The body had no markings of origin, license, or allegiance. It had features that are not common of a Dust Jumper, including ground artillery weapons that put down four of our ships!”

That was very hard to believe, but she had seen the report from the docks that went live the moment the Aweshian authorities started the cleanup of the bodies from the recently reallocated to the afterlife henchmen. The Authority ships that were shot down were done so in a manner that allowed for the crews to eject or land safely, and the recovery of flight data was possible. Each sentry on the ground was incapacitated when they could have easily been taken out like the others. Triage was filled, but there was no loss of life.

Those weren’t the actions of Pirates.

“Ground artillery like those of the Resistance?” Sevi asked.

“Modified,” Darkheart speculated.

She nodded, her long, slender index finger tapping against her chin as her mind put together the pieces of the puzzle. As much as mysteries intrigued her and helped to pass the time between missions, Dagan needed to be acquired at all costs, and her inept brother allowed the annoyingly evasive creature to slip through his hands again.

“The line,” he reminded her, watching the digital timer on his display screen that flashed, warning the secure connection would be lost soon.

“The pilots reported the body shimmered in the atmosphere, correct?” Sevi asked.

“They did. They believe it was either a temporal distortion or the powering of some type of unknown weaponry that they didn’t deploy.”

Sevi threw her head back when she laughed and he glared at her. “That is why you never leave it to a male to do a female’s job,” she said. “The body of the ship is covered in Pallavia,” she informed him.

His eyes widened. “How do you know? There hasn’t been Pallavia on the black market in many lifetimes.”

“The mineral mirrors the environment around it, allowing for cloaking in a sense,” she reminded him as if that was the only possible solution. “The completely unique composition of the mineral allows it to absorb solar energy. There are only three planets in Realm that contain the exceptionally rare mineral. You’ll be heading to the Vartoxia System to ask around, and I suggest you do it with extreme discretion since that system is still under the Resistance’s control. That much Pallavia had to cost a King’s ransom and utilized all resources of a planet, not something easily forgotten or overlooked.”

Softly, Darkheart growled under his breath; that was the very last place he wanted to go.

“I will dispatch Maszen Rilynund to follow up on the other clue this Dust Jumper and her unusual and surprisingly conscience heavy Pirates have given us. Using that many rounds will require reloading, and no Captain, regardless of possessing a conscience, would go for long with empty guns.”

“Why must I go to the Vartoxia System and the questionable Merc gets the easy job?” Darkheart complained. “Do you care so little for the life of your brother?”

Sevi smirked and instantly he knew the answer. “Safe travel, Brother, and pray you return with at least one hand,” she mused then ended the call from her side.

“Bitch,” he sneered, pushing away from the communications console and headed from the room without noticing the flashing warning on the control panel.

****

“What do you think happened to them?” George asked. “Oh my Gods! Was it my flying?” she stammered and tears flooded her eyes.

Jhannie wrapped her arms around her wife and tenderly caressed George’s small backside. “Not at all, Baby. Those are contusions from fists, not smacking into everything while you flew,” she said, eying the unconscious ‘giants’ holding hands on the floor of the cargo bay.

“Why’d they do dat?” Spit asked, drying her head with a towel. The crawlspace leading to the reserves was even dirtier than the Little Grease Monkey could tolerate. “Cynda, do dem twos know each otha?”

Cynda shrugged. “Everything in Realm is connected.”

Jax groaned. “Not this shit again,” she complained and headed from the room to enjoy being in command since the Captain was unconscious and there was obviously no threat there.

Naveen dismissively waved her away; the First Lieutenant and Companion had never gotten along. “Yes, go sit on your throne of hollow power until the rightful owner of said throne awakens and once again stakes claim to what she has earned through honor and valor,” he sneered.

Jax held her hand up over her head and flipped him off as she went.

“It truly is beneath all creatures to even admit to knowing, let alone embracing, the barbaric practices of those last to join Realm,” Naveen scoffed with a shiver.

Cynda softly smacked him upside the head, giving the smug Companion a warning look.

“Um, okay,” Spit said, scratching her head. “I dun get it. Dem twos, not yous twos. Wait, where’s Gerald?” she asked, just now noticing that the pervert wasn’t with them.

Nero gave her an apologetic smile which quickly fell.

“Oh, I see,” Spit huffed then punched Sparks in the arm and he glared at her. Anyone else he would have caught their hand then broke their arm, but never would he lay a finger on that female. “Stop killin’ people dat get on our nerves just ‘cause they get on our nerves. Got it?” she scolded.

Sparks nodded, trying to keep from smiling because she referred to it as their problem instead of hers or his.

“Good,” she said.

The crew was constantly underestimating the young woman and her reactions to such disturbing events.

Nero breathed a sigh of relief. “Looks as if you have been promoted to head mechanic.”

A gapped-tooth smile filled Spit’s face. “No shit? Hell yeah!” she squealed, threw her towel up in the air and ran for the stairs.

“Where are you going, Little Grease Monkey?” Nero asked.

“I got shit to do and a steam generata’ to service since we’re grounded,” she called out, taking the stairs two at a time.

“But you just took a bath,” he said with a chuckle.

“And yer point is what?” she asked before disappearing down the corridor.

Sparks glared at Nero.

“Sorry,” Nero instantly apologized, trying to keep from laughing. “At least she bathed today,” he offered with a shrug, but the violet-eyed man wasn’t amused in the least.

Spit wasn’t one to acknowledge or grasp the importance of personal hygiene. More often than not it was at the Captain’s orders that she bathed. Getting a brush through her hair was impossible so she shaved her head whenever her blonde hair started to get long enough to get caught in the buckles of her respirator.

The two on the floor began to stir and it pulled the others attention.

“The swecass pliss thess ocoss the therm dice ue thece ist doveass thecid the secasts. Tha imbre pliss we bene, acass the diss ist Nuss ess ucevalm,” they mumbled in unison.

“What language is that?” Naveen asked; it was unfamiliar to him and that was a hard thing to find in his profession.

“I don’t know. What are they saying?” George asked, turning to Cynda.

The Seer sighed, shaking her head. “The darkness will swarm across the stars like a plague of locusts swarming the harvest. No one will be saved, unless the Light of Realm is embraced,” she translated.

“That is rather depressing,” Naveen dryly commented. “As if our plight wasn’t miserable enough, especially with the stench of Awesh still seeping from each of your pores, now we have an unconscious Captain and a trigger happy redhead at the controls.” He pulled a handkerchief from his inside jacket pocket and covered his nose with it. “I dare say, you all reek of poverty,” he said.

Jhannie punched him in the shoulder and he gasped. “Shut up, Mouth Breather. What does it mean, Cy?” she demanded, looking from the Seer to the semi-conscious couple on the floor.

“The thim ecks om tharknen thight be ininenelm erkne by erkne om the danem suam the thine theat thet, illeneny wenenif oght ecks Wom all danem,” was murmured from the floor.

The light of each planet will be extinguished one by one as the Darkness sucks the life from them, eventually rendering all of Realm in Darkness,” Cynda translated.

Naveen shook his head. “This is too melancholic for someone of my stature to listen to. I am retiring to my quarters. Summon me when dinner is served,” he said and headed for the stairs.

“I hate that pompous prick,” Jhannie growled and George smacked her backside, warning her to play nice.

“Fere and plorere the rite, ple fame the sin harero, fe reend whirs sin ple hothame all fe tinsef es fet ar and waret all, in plensed whirs fe houch sin ocerach tess in whirs sorensed set fe narend find corurnet ar.”

There is nowhere to hide. No place to find sanctuary. The heart will find no solace in the rivers of blood it is bathed in. Never will the soul find eternal rest and will forever feed the Darkness which consumed it,” Cynda whispered.

The others looked at each other before turning their attention to the groaning couple.

“What... I don’t... I’m confused,” George huffed.

“You and me both, Baby,” Jhannie assured her.

Cynda put her hand up to silence them. “It is not meant for the pointed ears of those from Hypool, or the rounded ears of those from Luesha, or the expertly trained ears from Kisho to understand. It is a prophecy, a foretelling that only those of a world lost long ago are meant to understand.”

The others looked at each other confused.

“A lost world would mean that all have perished,” Nero whispered, more informed compared to the others on that particular subject simply from his additional schooling.

Cynda motioned towards West and Dagan. “The last of their species, though one was unaware of the other, and the other is completely unaware of himself. It is an interesting conundrum, to be sure.”

West groaned and started to pick herself up. “Report,” she ordered.

When the hold on her fingers tightened, instincts took over and she punched with her free hand. It connected to the side of Dagan’s head, and he answered it with a punch of his own and they resumed their fighting.

The others scrambled away from the fighting ‘giants’ as they threw each other into everything in the vicinity. Jhannie was whispering the odds, and Nero and Sparks nodded their agreement to the seven to one odds in Captain West’s favor.

It appeared as if the two were fighting with blind fury, but there was nothing emotional or irrational about it. Each hit was expertly delivered with pinpoint accuracy to inflict the most pain without causing permanent damage. Their position changed often. First West was on top and then Dagan; she wrapped her legs around his neck and flipped him over her. Dagan rolled to his feet just in time to take the full brunt of her leaping attack, knocking them to the floor once again.

To those watching, it was vicious and emotionally heated; something they had never seen from their Captain before. And yet it was strangely seductive at the same time; another first from the Captain.

“Is it just me, or it starting to get hot in here?” Jhannie purred, fanning herself.

That was an understatement.

Dagan’s slender hand wrapped around West’s throat and he effortlessly picked her up off her feet and held her dangling in mid-air. To the woman’s credit, her hands never went to her throat in an attempt to pull his hand away.

“Yes, that is beyond arousing,” Nero scoffed, giving his sister-in-law a look.

Dagan ignored the knee West was repeatedly slamming into his ribs before he threw her.

West slammed down on the hood of the mini-jumper and slid across it to the floor with an oomph. “Stubborn female,” he grumbled then ducked, narrowly avoiding the wrench that was hurled at his face. “That was not nice,” he scolded, using the mini-jumper to get to his feet just as West slid across the hood and slammed her feet into his chest, sending him reeling back.

“How long do you think they’ll be going at it?” George asked.

“Have you ever known the Captain to back down from a fight, let alone yield?” Nero said then cringed when West was kicked in the stomach, her body lifting off the floor, her progression abruptly stopping when she slammed into one of the support beams.

“Ouch,” all but one of the spectators said in unison.

When Dagan headed towards her, West kicked his legs out from under him and slammed the heel of her boot down on his crotch causing the males watching to cringe and cup themselves.

“This is ridiculous,” George groaned and hurried from the cargo bay.

“Where you going, Baby?” Jhannie called out after her but didn’t follow.

“Voicing my seldom heard opinion on a matter,” George said, disappearing down the corridor leading to the bridge.

“That’s why they’re both so tall,” Nero whispered under his breath, watching the seemingly evenly matched Draconians go at it. “They were considered the race of gentle giants.”

Jhannie snorted. “Oh yes, gentle.”

Sparks absently nodded his agreement.

“I know, they aren’t very good-,” he started to agree with a chuckle, but Cynda cut him off with the shake of her head.

“Your higher education does not make you an expert on the species and races of Realm. And the last time I checked, none of you are excellent representations of your respective species. An assassin that cannot take orders. A male that believes females are the foundation of Realm and deserve to be treated with respect. A Princess of the water that turned her back on the very world that breathed its watery breath into her lungs for an existence in the stars. I will admit, I find myself included in that poor representation. As is the Companion that is too picky, and the young mechanic that did the impossible according to gender and society class and found herself amongst the stars. Do not be so quick to judge. They are exactly what the other needed, knowing it or not. And a word of caution to the one that knows more than he should: keep this knowledge to yourself.”

Nero nodded and turned his attention back to the fighting couple.

Most would have been yelling or arguing while they exchanged punches and kicks, but West and Dagan were eerily quiet. On occasion, one would mumble something under their breath, but it was only muttered for the ears of the other to hear. Both were bleeding from their mouths and noses. Trickles of molten silver stained their pale skin, and there was gray bruising blemishing the ridge of West’s jaw and neck and the entire side of Dagan’s face. His tunic was torn at the neck and one sleeve was barely hanging on by a thread. West’s connected leather sleeves were ripped and discarded on the floor and her officer’s vest was ripped open, causing her small breasts to rise and fall even more with each level breath she took.

“Hey!” George called out, hurrying down the steps. “This is completely ridiculous,” she scolded, trying to position herself between the fighting giants, but they continued to swing over her head. “I said stop it!” she yelled before screaming at the top of her lungs, stealing their attention. When she finished, a smile filled her face. “Good. Now that you’ve stopped beating on each other, I think that you need to listen for a moment.”

West cocked an eyebrow.

George cocked an eyebrow in return. “Just listen,” she snapped. “Please,” she quickly added then batted her lashes and smiled.

Piano music had filled the air before the band joined.

Why can’t we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

I seen you ‘round for a long, long time.

I really ‘membered you when you drink my wine,” War sang.

West sighed, nodding her resignation.

Dagan chuckled, wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand.

George had smiled wide before she started singing along. “Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?” she sang, dancing a little jig that caused Jhannie to laugh.

The crew was never known to take anything seriously when it was a ‘within the walls of Whisper’ problem. George always went with musical means to de-escalate any and all problems when possible.

West looked from the young pilot to Dagan and offered a little shrug before slamming her fist into the side of his head, dropping him to the ground. “Now we are even,” she said and patted George on the top of the head when she pouted. “He may stay, for now,” West said then headed to the stairs. “Nero, make sure you inoculate him so Whisper does not kill him when we are not looking. The temptation is great, I speak from experience.”

Nero nodded. “Of course, Captain,” he said.

George squatted down next to Dagan, and carefully brushed his falling hair off of his face. “Welcome to Whisper,” she said with a smile.

Chapter ten

“You’ve already seen the cargo bay,” George said with a giggle.

Dagan nodded, rubbing the side of his neck from where Nero pressed the pneumatic delivery device to his neck harder than warranted. Nero assured Dagan that it wasn’t him and that the injection site was already bruised from the vicious assault earlier. That was a possibility. West hit harder than any creature he’d ever met. “What was the inoculation for?” he asked since that wasn’t clear to him.

George stopped and her shoulders dropped before she turned to face him. “Whisper is protective of those within her womb,” she explained.

Dagan gave her a look. “You speak as if this Dust Jumper is a sentient being,” he pointed out.

George shrugged. “It feels like it. The bridge is this way,” she said, turning then headed down the corridor. She winced when a hollow thud came from behind her. “Sorry, watch your head,” she said, looking over her shoulder at their guest who was now rubbing his forehead. “Whisper wasn’t designed for giants,” she explained then hurried to the bridge. “You’ll get used to ducking,” she called out, and again winced when she heard another thud, “eventually,” she added. “Sometimes Nero still smacks his head and we’ve called Whisper home for years.”

“How long have you called her home?” Dagan asked, following her voice up a short set of steps, minding the height of the support beams as he went, then joined her on the bridge. “Wow,” he said, stopping just inside the doorway.

George giggled and went to put the War album away.

Dagan had never been in a Dust Jumper before, that he was aware of, so he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but after seeing the engine room he knew he’d be pleasantly surprised.

The area wasn’t overly large, but it was functional and had a higher ceiling so he could stand without ducking. It housed three out of place fancy leather chairs with wood and metal accents mounted to the metal floor on swivels, each had a dangling harness. The far left seat was for communications and had an impressive collection of electronics, most which would be found in ships of the Authority. The digital display screens were dimmed to nearly black as they monitored communication channels and scanned the area for threats.

Curious, he headed over to communications station and waved his hand over the center display, summoning it to activate.

It remained dimmed.

“Biometric?” Dagan asked.

George nodded. “Captain has to grant permission before I can let you play. Sorry.”

He huffed, nodding his understanding. “If I did not know any better I would say this, this, and this,” he said, pointing to each, “were from an Authority Scouting vessel. That one is the same as a communication interspace decryption system on long-distance convoy ships, and that one is an Empire communications array.”

George shrugged. “I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you.”

“Can you show me?” he asked, batting his lashes.

She gave him a look. “That only works with my wife,” she informed him. “Besides, we’re in stealth mode until the threat passes.”

Dagan, not entirely sure what that meant, nodded his understanding.

The center chair was the pilot’s seat. Various ways of steering for different types of transport—land, sea, air, and space—were within reach of the small pilot with merely the releasing and locking of a metal pin. On the dash console were compasses that spun aimlessly, as if they couldn’t find a magnetic pull. There was a speaker for incoming transmissions and intercom for in-ship communications. Many unlabeled switches and knobs filled the dash area, none of which he could identify the purpose of.

One captured his interest, though. Once again it was something that didn’t belong on a Dust Jumper: the rectangle of clear glass was mounted on a swivel so it could lay flat, out of the way when not in use. On the glass, digital readings in an unfamiliar language consisting mainly of mathematical algorithms that he didn’t have time to attempt to solve were displayed. Each scrolling reading was in a different color, causing an ambient rainbow glow of data to illuminate the darkened console around it.

“What is that gauge monitoring?” he asked.

George looked over to see what he was looking at. “Environmental monitors for Utopia.”

Dagan gave her a look. “Utopia?”

“It’s my brother’s thing,” she said, not elaborating.

“Does it have something to do with the unusual scent in the air from the means for oxygen scrubbing or distribution?”

She gave him a look. “Not that I’m aware of.”

Dagan nodded; the pilot wasn’t the one to ask about that particular mystery. “Captain West’s chair?” he asked, motioning towards the third chair that had control of the weapons system.

George shrugged. “It’s supposed to be, but the First Lieutenant usually sits there. The weapons are Jax’s thing. She’s the rude redhead that will indubitably throw a fit over the amount of .950-caliber rounds Jhannie went through most recently. We’ll need to find some scrap to meltdown to reload the casings so that’ll most likely put us in the Stiham Quadrant,” she explained. She waved her hand over a portion of the dash and Dagan jumped back, startled, when a star system map appeared. Thin lasers in various colors moved back and forth faster than the eye could track from a hidden mount on the dash, creating the detailed, interactive image. “We’re here,” she said, running her small hands in front of the display then pulled them apart causing the interactive display to enlarge, showing that section of the system. “The Stiham Quadrant is over there.” Again, she pulled her hands and the image zoomed out and she touched the Quadrant they needed and it flashed. “They have the heaviest deposits of heavy metals that are suited for that application and no regulation system in place in the outer colonies.”

Dagan absently nodded, studying the system map illuminating the area. “How long will it take to go from here to there?” he asked.

George looked at the map, her head tilting to the side. “One week if we go through the Haavad System.”

He gave her a look. “That system?” he asked, pointing to the off course system. “That is not a straight line.”

She giggled. “No, it is not. A straight line will take four weeks or more and the risk of being pinged by Empire trackers is much too great. Canaboo in the Haavad System has a jump point overseen by the Resistance. Captain will have to call in a favor or two, but it’ll keep us from being, as Spit calls it, sitting space ducks.”

“You cannot be serious,” he said. “The Authority controls all jump points and warp docks.”

Again, George giggled. “No, they don’t. Welcome to the world of Pirates!” she beamed, causing him to chuckle. “When we get to the Stiham Quadrant, you’ll have time to look under Whisper’s skirt with Spit.”

Dagan smiled; he liked the way she worded things, and he was eager to see an interstellar jump point, one that wasn’t under Authority control. “I would enjoy that immensely. How long have you been with the gracious Captain?”

Again, George shrugged, pulling her hands together and the map condensed into a glowing ball before blinking out. “After the first couple of years the rest blend together,” she said, busying herself by putting away her new records in order by genre then by artist. “We’re a family, for the most part. Some we wouldn’t mind leaving on a barren rock somewhere. The old mechanic didn’t make it back on board, most likely Sparks killed him for making rude and inappropriate comments towards Spit. He was warned over and over, but apparently he went too far and Sparks took care of it, or Captain did. He wasn’t that great of a mechanic, but Captain had her reasons for keeping him around. Did you want to pick the dinner music?” she asked, changing the subject.

Dagan shook his head. “Whatever you feel is appropriate is acceptable,” he assured her. He looked back to the front of the bridge. “There is glass beyond the mapping display, I see it, but I do not see through it. Why?”

“Whisper has shields,” George said as if it were obvious. “Depending on means of transportation those guards move accordingly to allow for easier navigation, distribution of weight, protection, and so forth.”

He chuckled. “Multi-terrain transport was abandoned at the end of the war as a futile endeavor.”

“It was only futile because it had no use in an environment that wasn’t war torn,” George corrected. “Limiting interplanetary transport to a singular means of surface navigation is just another way for the Authority to tax the people. You have to have a license for entering the atmosphere. Another for touching the ground, another for the breeching the water, and then they demand permits for each vehicle in a ship that could or could not be used on said planet. It is completely unacceptable and a means to keep C-Class and under planets from advancing higher than they already have. Tax them to death or destroy them and still collect taxes from those that crawled out of the rubble.”

A smile filled Dagan’s face.

“What?” she asked, blushing with embarrassment.

“You speak so passionately and for those without a voice,” Dagan said. “You see the problems that plague Realm and the collective that make her up, and yet those problems are easily overlooked by those in a position to change them,” he said. “What planet do you stem from?”

George shook her head. “Never mind, Sir. My mouth gets away from me sometimes,” she said in a soft tone, turning away from him.

Instead of pressing it, he nodded his understanding. “Where are we?” he asked since the shields were covering all of the windows.

George flipped a couple of switches then turned a dial and the exterior shield plates pulled apart in the middle, stopping in mid-slide, providing a view. “Snehill,” she said. “It’s the largest natural satellite of the five that orbit Awesh. There was no way we could outrun the remaining vessels so we dusted them. Thanks to that lovely little concoction you whipped up in the reserves, and with the use of Awesh’s naturally higher gravitational pull, we slingshotted around the planet and right behind Snehill. We’re in a cavern,” she explained, looking around at the gray rock formations she expertly nestled Whisper in. “There’s no way the Authority would risk going as deep as we are with those larger vessels. With Whisper’s engines snoozing and plates up, and communications are not transmitting, they won’t be able to pick up on our position, not even a heat signature.”

Dagan chuckled. “Very impressive. You are a very talented pilot.”

George smiled wide then hugged his waist tight. “Thanks!”

Tenderly he patted her back. “Think nothing of it,” he assured her.

“You better not be hitting on my wife, Mouth Breather,” Jhannie warned as she seemingly stepped out from the wall. The muted gray wood grain and riveted appearance of her body blended away to lavender colored skin that was littered with shimmering scales, and short, choppy green hair on her head. Jhannie’s solid black eyes narrowed, the gills on the underside of her jaw flared, and her four-web-fingered hands clenched into fists at her sides.

“No!” Dagan quickly assured her, his eyes wide. “Should you not be on Hypool?” he asked, dumbfounded.

Jhannie hissed at him, baring her white, triangular teeth.

“That did not answer my question,” he pointed out with a chuckle. Finding a resident of a water planet amongst the stars was a rarity to say the least.

George snorted. “Play nice,” she said, smacking Dagan in the chest then turned to her wife. “Honey, you know I only have eyes and a heart for females of the aquatic variety. Tall and pale does nothing for me, especially since he has external genitalia. Ew.”

Jhannie cocked a thin, green eyebrow. “Are you trying to make me jealous?” she demanded, but the corners of her full, plum-colored lips pulled up on one side.

“You can spank me later,” George purred, shaking her backside at her. “I had to give him the tour.”

“You wanted to show off, you mean,” Jhannie retorted, smacking her backside.

George smiled, batting her lashes.

“Just show him towards the baths, he stinks of filthy mouth breather,” Jhannie said and cringed. “Disgusting.”

Dagan, feeling like the third wheel all of a sudden, nodded his agreement. “A bath is a most agreeable suggestion. Shall we?” he asked, motioning back the way they had come.

Chapter Eleven

The bruising along the ridge of West’s jaw had already started to fade. The swelling in her lips and right eye would be nothing more than a tender reminder of a lapse in judgment in less than an hour. Being hit wasn’t anything new for West, she was the former High Commander of the of the Anarchic Authority of Realm’s Ground Forces after all. In the service she saw some of the bloodiest battles of the rebellion, but never in, or after, a battle did she feel as conflicted as she did now. Never had she been hit that hard before! She wasn’t complaining, but it was unexpected.

However, it was nowhere near as surprising as finding another Draconian on Awesh. There was something about Dagan that caused an unfamiliar affectivity to surface within West, but it wasn’t romantic ardor; it was purely violence based. Very rarely did the levelheaded creature lose her equanimity, but being around Dagan Dark seemingly made her forget that she was a mild-tempered Draconian. When she was in his presence, the urge to swing at him was overwhelming, and as hard as she tried initially to keep her fists to herself, she ultimately lost the battle.

“Annoying, Foolish Boy,” West mumbled under her breath. She studied her long, slender hands in the ambient overhead light. There was much that she needed to do, needed to figure out and meditate on, but at the moment a bath took precedence. The cavern would provide cover from the pinging Authority vessels. Once they exhaust their resources, they would move on and Whisper would go the opposite direction. Only one ship in their arsenal had means to make a lengthy stand, but West knew they wouldn’t. Their sentries required medical attention, their support ships had been shot down, and they were alone without weaponry support. The risk of losing their K’Pojaha-Class vessel was great, especially since it wouldn’t have an escort and that made it a target for Pirates without consciences and the lingering factions of Resistance separatists still littered throughout Realm. The closest system with support was over a week away if they ran the engines at full speed, which posed the risk of blowing a core or two. The longer the escort stayed in orbit, the more attention it would get on the dark communication channels.

That would work in West’s favor, she knew. However, she couldn’t help but kick herself for allowing her and the crew to be put in the position that they were. Never should she have returned for Dagan, regardless of him being one of her kind. It was selfish to order her crew to put themselves in harm as she had simply for selfish reasons.

Thankfully, they came out of it unscathed, but they weren’t clear of danger just yet. Now they were stuck relying on chance. It would be insultingly easy to send a message out to those looking for an easy score, and that would resolve the current problem. However, relying on the darkened consciences of others was beneath West, and never would she allow herself to be indebted to one with a blackened soul. That wasn’t the Draconian way, she knew, and it surely wasn’t the way of an honorable soldier.

“I am nearly as imprudent as the Foolish Boy,” West whispered, watching the beads of water roll across her pale skin before they fell to the bathwater, each rippling away to the edge of the copper bathing vessel she was in.

“Do you speak of me often?” an overly amused voice asked from the doorway.

West softly growled under her breath, but made no attempt to hide what the steam rising from the surface of the water was barely veiling. “No,” she said in a clipped tone.

Dagan smirked. “Think of me then,” he surmised.

“Ever since I had the extreme misfortunate of meeting your acquaintance,” she agreed.

His lips twisted into a contemplative pout as he thought of a retort that wouldn’t invoke her wrath. “I must ask since I was warned by your crew not to be presumptuous when it pertains to you, is it in a positive context or a negative?”

“There is a difference?” West asked, sounding surprised, and he smiled. “Why are you invading my time of personal solace?” she asked, looking over her shoulder to where he stood in the doorway.

Dagan shrugged, scratching his head, causing the hair to stand up slightly. “It was suggested, by a very bossy and rude green-haired female of Hypool, that this mouth breather reeks of male mouth breather and needed a bath. Thus, here I am.” He curtsied with a sweeping bow.

West cocked an eyebrow; the flirting was back and she wasn’t in the mood for it or his infantile games.

Dagan stood across the room, arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the far wall by the door. His tattered tunic was gone and he wore a stretched, white cotton tank top that masterfully presented his lean, muscular physique. Thin, black suspenders hung from his canvas britches, and his leather boots were worn and covered in clay dust from the planet.

“Admiring your handiwork?” he teased.

“Yes and no,” West admitted. “Your face is healing already,” she pointed out. “And your present attire would not suggest as if you knew what you were doing in the engine room,” she commented under her breath. “And yet, according to Spit, you did.”

Dagan made a face. “It was the first time that I have been in the engine room of a Dust Jumper, I think. And I have a strong suspicion that never again will I see another like it, especially on a Dust Jumper.”

“Safe assumption,” West agreed.

“May I join you for a bath?” he asked.

“Flirting again?” she scoffed. “That did not work out so well the first time.”

“I beg to differ, Captain. I am here on your ship, a ship that does not take passengers, thus my flirting, regardless of it being consciously done or not, secured my passage. Would you not agree?”

“Never will I,” she said, guardedly. “It was a lapse in better judgment and nothing more, and you may not make it off this rock alive.”

Dagan nodded his understanding. “May I join you for a bath?” he asked, again. “Not join you as in share a bath with you, rather utilize one of the other units,” he explained.

West gave him a look. “Do you often ramble after being threatened with death for your overly cocksure nature, or do I bring that out in you?”

“You bring out many things, Captain,” he admitted and looked away from her. “At the moment exhaustion is the reason for the rambling, I am assuming.”

“Uh huh,” she said, skeptically, eying him.

Dagan looked around the room, appraisingly, purposely trying to keep from eying the naked female only feet from him.

The room wasn’t overly large, but it was big enough that it housed four evenly spaced copper bath vessels that were anchored to the dark wood floor. Around each vessel, an intricate insulated tubing system circulated steam to maintain the water temperature within. Small, mesh-covered inlets were littered along the inside of each vessel and forced warmed air and water through them, mixing together before it was propelled back into the tub with the flip of a switch.

The space between the four vessels were marked by a circular table; the top was made up of alternating bands of wood and metal layered between the sections. The base consisted of three small mine cart wheels that were attached to a spring-loaded tri-axle which allowed for it to spin on the mounted railroad styled track that anchored it to the floor. On the far side of the room were anchored silken privacy screens with velvet tufted wooden stools and a built-in linen chest. Dirty clothing and towels littered the floor next to the soiled linen depository; Spit had never been known for her cleanliness outside of the engine room or ability to remember to pick up after herself.

Overhead, glass lanterns in a variety of colors hung from the expansive metal beams, their golden glow illuminated the area in warm, ambient light. Through the intercom system, tranquil, Nutune-based jazz music played and it was the perfect accompaniment for a relaxing bath. The air was warm and saturated with moisture from the steam rolling off West’s bathwater. It was laced with something else, a scent that was unfamiliar to Dagan, and it consumed his senses and was welcomed.

A communal bathhouse wasn’t something Dagan was expecting to find on a Dust Jumper. Then again, nothing he’d seen had been expected, and that also pertained to the crew.

“Are you going to continue to stand there or are you going to bathe?” West asked. “You do smell rather foul, not to mention, you are making me uncomfortable with your lingering.”

Dagan nodded. “It was not my intention,” he assured her. “Which vessel may I use?” he asked and headed into the room.

West motioned towards the one farthest from hers and he smirked, taking a seat on the edge of the vessel closest to her. “But of course,” she mumbled.

“The view from this one is more to my liking,” Dagan explained with a wink. “I am pleasantly surprised by your ship, Captain,” he said and started unlacing one of his boots before slipping it off and repeated with the other. “Besides her very impressive engineering assets, communications, navigation, and weaponry, the amenities are most surprising. Much like that bottle of wine you have hidden alongside your bath vessel.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Do you not wish to share?” he teased, rolling a sock off the end of his foot before shaking it out.

West smirked and reached down then picked up the crystal goblet she was, in actuality, trying to keep from his view. “There are some things that I do not share,” she informed him, watching what he was doing intently as she brought the crystal to her lips then took a drink. “And my wine is one of them.”

Dagan nodded. “So you say though your actions have been consistently contradicting those words.”

“That is merely one foolish boy’s opinion,” she said, sounding indifferent then finished her glass of wine.

He chuckled then stood and pulled his shirt off, dropping it to the floor next to his boots. “I do say. Will you be so kind as to tell me how to operate this creatively repurposed contraption so I may remove these britches?”

West refilled her glass, appearing thoughtful as she replaced the bottle on the floor.

“Well?” he complained before winking at her.

“I am weighing my options,” she said.

Dagan dramatically huffed. “I would like to discuss compensation for my passage.”

She cocked an eyebrow; that, she wasn’t expecting. “The lever on the front of the vessel will fill it: hot is on the right and cold on the left.”

“Thank you,” he said with a nod of appreciation and pulled the lever for hot, not bothering to adjust the water temperature. The tub quickly filled from the bottom up and steam danced into the air creating a hazy veil over the area. “If I may inquire, what is that intoxicating smell?”

West pointed to the round table. “Soaps, oils, salts, and fragrant water,” she said.

Dagan looked at the top of the table curiously; it appeared solid to the untrained eye. “Impressive,” he whispered, and before West could tell him how to open it, Dagan pressed on the black riveted circle in the middle of the table and pushed down. “Very impressive,” he commented under his breath and turned the depressed circle counterclockwise and the sound of grinding and groaning metal gears filled the air.

The wood and metal bands started to turn in opposite directions before they broke away in the middle of each and pulled apart, revealing a hidden compartment. Inside was a collection of small, secured bottles and jars filled with contents in every color in the spectrum.

A smile filled his face and he looked up at West; she was watching him intently. “What?” he asked, suddenly embarrassed, and pulled the lever, shutting off the water to his bath vessel off.

She shook her head. “It is nothing.”

“Which color should I select?” he asked instead of pressing the matter.

A smirk pulled at the corners of her mouth.

“Remember, you will be the one that must suffer with my scent,” he reminded her and the smirk fell.

“Three drops of the teal and silver liquid and eight drops of the one that matches your eyes,” she said and sulked down deeper in the water with her glass of wine and watched him.

After following her directions, Dagan unbuttoned his britches and started to slip out of them but stopped. “Will you not at least show me the decency of pretending to look away?” he asked.

West brought the glass to her lips. “No,” she said before taking a sip.

“Turnabout is fair play,” he reminded her and slid his britches down his hips then stepped out of them.

West’s large, teal eyes moved over his body many times, appraisingly, as Dagan took his time stepping into the tub. She appreciated that he made absolutely no attempt to hide himself from her as she eyed his muscular physique.

Once in the tub, he slid down until his knees peeked out from the surface of the water. “Did I physically meet your expectations?” he eventually asked, looking over at West.

She nodded before she could stop herself.

“I will admit I am conflicted about that,” he commented, lathering up a bar of soap from the collection to scrub the remainder of Awesh from his skin and hair.

“As am I,” West admitted, downing her entire glass of wine in a single gulp before she refilled it.

Intently she watched Dagan as he bathed, scrubbing the filth from his skin. The way his long toes wiggled when he ran the bar of soap along the arch of his foot made her smile internally. The childlike nature of the annoying creature when he quickly shook his head and the water saturating his freshly washed hair peppered West’s exposed skin caused her affinity towards the foolish boy to increase exponentially.

“What are the inlets for?” Dagan asked, looking over at her.

“Therapeutic purposes,” West said and pointed towards the small silver switch under the lip of the vessel by his hand.

Curious, more than anything, Dagan flipped the switch and jumped, startled, when the stream of water mixed air hit his back. “Ooh, you started a bad thing, Captain,” he moaned, sliding down in the water and closed his eyes, resting his head back against the edge.

“So it seems,” West agreed. “Shall we talk business now or later?”

“Are you trying to disturb my therapeutic quiet time as I disturbed yours?” he asked without bothering to open his eyes.

“Yes and no,” she said. “Very rarely do I act rashly-”

“And yet here I sit,” he interrupted, blindly reaching out, his hand searching the floor.

“Yes, here you sit. Using my bathhouse and fragrant oils, preparing to eat my food and consume my drink, and yet your passage has not been agreed upon.”

When Dagan’s fingers brushed against his britches, he opened his eyes and searched them. After releasing the clasp from the pocket and removed the parcel he tossed the soiled britches back on the floor. “Are you kicking me out?”

“No,” she answered, eying him suspiciously since she couldn’t clearly see what he was hiding from her.

“Why is that?” he asked, looking over at her.

“Should I have George pull over and let you out?” West asked, uninterested in the answer.

“We are already stationary, but that is irrelevant.” Dagan handed her the box with the little white velvet bow.

West looked from the box to Dagan before taking it. When she opened it, a small smile pulled up at the corners of her lips and a softness washed across her features. Dagan couldn’t help but think she looked beautiful and delicate at that moment, with her guard down and the role of Captain not being in the forefront of her mind.

“Why did you?” she whispered, caressing the box’s contents.

The Nutune, Victorian era lace gloves were elegant and reminded West of the ones that her mother once wore. The thick, black lace of the gloves body were lined with merlot silk that caused the intricate pattern to stand out. Black satin strings crisscrossed up the length, along the top, of each near elbow length glove. “This is too much,” she said with much reluctance, putting the lid back on the box.

Dagan turned his attention to the ceiling. “You came back for me, Captain West. A real Pirate would have considered themselves blessed for the inadvertent distraction which would have allowed for you and your ship to slip under the Authority’s nose, and yet you came back. You risked your crew, your ship, even your own life, for me. Why?”

West shook her head. “I do not know,” she eventually whispered.

“Consider that payment for saving me, for offering me a place to sleep, some food to eat, and a bar of soap.”

She sighed in resignation and leaned over the side of her tub, away from Dagan, and refilled the glass of wine and set the box down. “What are you running from?” she asked, leaning back in the water then handed him the glass of wine.

Dagan smiled when he saw the gloves on her, and they looked even better than he thought they would. “If I knew, I might entertain telling you,” he said, taking a sip of wine then moaned, sliding down into the water more. “You are a creature of exquisite taste, Captain West.”

“I am well aware of that,” she agreed.

“And humble and modest,” he added with a chuckle before taking another drink.

“Again, I am well aware of that,” West said, admiring the way her long, slender hands and arms looked in the tall gloves.

Dagan watched her from the corner of his eye, rather enjoying the companionship of the softer side of Captain West. “I honestly do not know what I run from or why, but I am aware that I must run,” he said, answering her initial question before taking another drink.

West looked at him curiously before she reached over and brushed his falling hair from his eyes. Her teal eyes studied the faint white scar blemishing the temple that his falling hair helped to hide. “How did you survive?” she whispered.

“My brother is a terrible shot,” Dagan said, making a face.

“That is more than obvious,” she agreed, sitting back. “I am to assume that the reason why he shot you was none other than the obvious-”

“If you mean my very presence that gets on the nerves of those around me and my stunningly handsome face causing a great confliction within those who behold it? Then yes, the obvious reasons as to why he shot me would apply,” he said conversationally.

West shook her head. “Of all the times to not be armed,” she said, closing her eyes.

“There is a small revolver next to the bottle and within your reach,” he retorted. “Admit it, Captain, you are starting to warm up to me,” he said before taking another drink.

“Apparently your brother did much more damage than I thought possible, because you, Foolish Boy, are delusional.”

Dagan chuckled. “You call it delusional yet most call it boyish charm-”

“And you have effectively curved my appetite.”

“Oh the games we play, Captain,” he mused, offering her the nearly empty wine goblet.

West took it before draining it in a single drink. “That, Foolish Boy, is the only game we will ever play,” she said in a curt tone before refilling the glass. “I will blame it on severe exhaustion-”

“Not that you sleep more than a handful of hours a cycle,” he interrupted.

“Much like you,” she agreed.

Dagan looked over at her. “And that is why you risked your life, that of your crew and your ship,” he surmised.

West shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly before taking a drink then offered him the goblet which he took. “Yes, I risked all the above mentioned because of a lapse in better judgment due to exhaustion,” she agreed and he rolled his eyes.

“You have to be one of the most argumentative creatures to ever grace Realm.”

“If that was a compliment I would suggest working on your delivery because much was lost in translation,” she said.

He chuckled. “You will be a fun one, will you not?”

“I have been called many things, Foolish Boy. However, fun was not one of them,” she dryly commented. “Though, I will admit, stubborn is the prevailing opinion of many.”

Dagan smiled wide; he wasn’t sure if he loved a challenge or not, but he knew it’d be fun to find out.

“Where is it that you are seeking passage too, Foolish Boy?” West asked, getting down to business.

He shrugged, his attention on the way the overhead lights made the dark wine in the crystal goblet appear nearly black.

She looked over at him. “You do not know where you are going, do you?” she surmised.

A small, sheepish smile pulled at the corners of Dagan’s wide, pale lips. “You truly are wise beyond your limited years, Captain.”

West nodded. “In my business one must be able to read people, thus measurable age has nothing to do with it. However, with you I cannot clearly see what it is you are hiding.”

Dagan looked over at her, and his expression made her regard him even more. “As far as I know, Captain, I am hiding nothing from you-”

“Which is not saying much since you cannot remember care of your brother,” she interrupted.

“True,” he admitted. “And yet here I sit, enjoying the luxuries your ship has to offer, drinking priceless Angonian wine, and have an audience with the Captain of such a mysterious jewel of the stars.”

“Wiles no one will ever say you do not possess,” West admitted.

“Agreed.”

“Nero will have dinner prepared shortly. I do not suggest taking longer than needed in your bath,” she said, pulling herself out of the water with her back to him and sat on the edge of the bath vessel.

Dagan looked at her, admiring the length of her back and the roundness of her backside she was presenting for his eyes. There was something undeniably feminine about West’s long, slender body, and it was hard to look away with such temptation only inches from him.

Sensing she was being watched, West looked over her shoulder, meeting his eyes. “Are you enjoying the show?”

He smirked. “If you did not want me looking you would not have presented your body for my eyes as you have. I say it is repayment for the show I was forced to give you when shedding my clothing.”

She shrugged and returned her attention to what she was doing. “The show you gave was purely for your benefit, not mine. I would not suggest repeating the performance in the presence of others.”

“Because he with violet eyes will not look kindly upon me if I do?” he surmised.

“I will not stop him from killing you,” West confirmed.

Dagan chuckled, eying her. “For some reason, that does not surprise me, Captain. The mechanic and pilot will be shown the utmost respect. Companionship is not a priority of mine.”

West nodded. “I will pass that information along to those that would slice your throat without giving it a second thought for touching those they have sworn to protect.”

“It is appreciated,” he said.

“I suppose it is,” she agreed, causing him to smile.

When West moved, her shoulders rolling slightly, it caused the light to reflect off the water beading down the center of her back and Dagan’s smile fell. Down West’s spine were white tattoos that were nearly impossible to see against her pale complexion. However, to Dagan’s eyes they seemingly glowed in the ambient light, and told the story of her adult life and it was one that he knew wouldn’t end well for him.

Captain West was a soldier, but not just any soldier; she was one with a title and rank that warranted a seat with the Senate.

“I will have clothing brought that should fit until yours are back from the wash,” she said, standing.

“I can wash my own,” Dagan absently said, his eyes moving over her naked form from behind, lingering on her right leg from the knee down where a biomechanical leg was attached.

That surprised him most of all. Never did her movements or the assault he was on the receiving end of earlier hint that Captain West was without half of her leg and relying on a rather archaic appliance. Her movements were smooth and graceful. Not once had she limped or shifted her weight to compensate for the appliance. Each rise of her knee before it slammed into his stomach or face, each painful kick and heel to the head and groin, felt as if he was being hit by a creature three times his size and without a handicap.

She was continuing to intrigue him without conscious effort.

West stepped out of the water, making no attempt to hurry or hide what he had already seen. “You are not part of the crew, Foolish Boy,” she said, grabbing a towel and loosely wrapped it around her hips before turning to face him.

Dagan’s eyes moved from her biomechanical leg, up her pale thigh it was connected to, along her long, toned midsection, taking a moment to admire her smaller, round breasts and the pale lavender pebbled nipple on each, before meeting her eyes.

“You are a guest. Thus you will be treated as a guest,” West said with a nod then strolled from the room.

Dagan watched her walk away from him. The sway of her hips, the unimaginable grace one with a mechanical leg shouldn’t possess, and the way her long blue hair spilled over one shoulder and clung to her skin and along her right breast, was arousing. When West paused in the doorway and looked over her shoulder and saw him watching her, the small smirk that pulled at the corners of her full, pale lavender lips effortlessly aroused him to painful levels.

Once West’s tall, curvy figure disappeared around the corner, Dagan sank back in the water and glared at the ceiling, trying to will his body to control itself.

“Sig was right,” Dagan grumbled, bringing the glass of wine to his lips, “I should have stayed away from Whisper, but more importantly, Captain West.”

Chapter Twelve

There was a knock at the door before Naveen entered the bathhouse with a pile of folded clothing in hand.

Dagan looked over at him.

“These should fit and I expect them to be returned in the condition in which you got them,” Naveen warned, setting the pile of finely tailored clothing down by the silk changing screens.

“Thank you,” he said.

Naveen wasn’t nearly as broad or tall as Dagan, so he found it curious as to how he had clothing that would fit him. The others Dagan had seen in the cargo hold weren’t his build or height, and due to his tall frame, he had to get clothing custom tailored. West wore clothing that were a mixture of Realm and designated for males. Other pieces, Dagan could tell, were custom tailored for her longer, slender frame.

When Dagan continued to look at him suspiciously, Naveen cocked a delicate eyebrow. “What?” he asked, his light blue eyes swirling to red.

And now Dagan knew.

“That is rather interesting,” Dagan said when the Companion’s blond, shoulder length hair lightened to white and his complexion darkened to obsidian. “Never did I imagine finding a Shiliak of Taulis on a pirate ship.”

Naveen’s nostrils had flared before he regained his composure and his eyes returned to light blue, hair darkened to blond, and complexion lightened to alabaster. “Very rarely does my guard slip,” he admitted. “The irritation over the current situation and the fact I was forced to relinquish, regardless of how temporary, an expensive portion of my wardrobe is to blame, I am sure.”

Dagan chuckled, shaking his head. “I highly doubt that, but it does explain how I would be able to fit in the provided clothing. Do you have many clients that request the companionship of those from gravity lightened planets?” he asked, stepping out of the water.

Naveen eyed Dagan many times, his attention always returning to his virile sex.

“Ah, that is why you are on a pirate ship,” Dagan surmised, taking the towel Naveen eventually offered him.

The Companion merely shrugged, leaning back against the wall and watched Whisper’s unusual guest dry off. It wasn’t often that Naveen found entertainment on the ship, so he was going to enjoy it while he could since the Captain didn’t explicitly say he couldn’t.

“Don’t begin to presume you know anything about me,” Naveen warned.

Dagan finished drying off, not put off in the least about being watched as he was, before shaking out the folded britches then stepped into them. “Those of Taulis are bred for companionship, however, that is the extent of my knowledge of your kind.”

Naveen watched him, admiring the way his hone body moved and muscles contracted. “Taulis boasts of creating the best companionship monetary units can purchase,” he agreed. “Our entirely unique physical composition allows for us to take the form of whatever those purchasing our companionship desires.” His complexion paled considerably, lips became fuller and lightened to pale lavender, eyes enlarged with a severe almond tapering and turned vivid teal, hair lengthened and turned blue, waist narrowed and elongated, breasts swelled from his flat chest and lower body became rounder with feminine curves.

Standing where the Companion once stood was Captain West.

“Is this what you long to bed?” he asked, sounding like Captain West, and caressed the backs of his fingers along the tops his breasts.

Dagan chuckled. “No, not that I am aware of. Shapeshifters-”

“Mimics,” Naveen instantly corrected.

He nodded. “My apologies. Mimics, to my recollection, do nothing for me. As close to the exterior as they can get, and as similar as the voice may be, there is a missing element the Shiliak cannot mirror.”

Naveen nodded and his appearance changed, reverting to the blue-eyed blond. “Yes, I am aware of that though it doesn’t stop a true master of the craft from trying to resolve that particular shortcoming.”

“Are you a master of your species and craft?” Dagan asked, buttoning the front of the dress shirt provided.

Naveen shook his head. “I have no longing to possess a mastery of soul mimicking. I’m glad to see it fits,” he said, changing the subject. “It truly must be difficult to locate tailors skilled in britches and shirts for those your size.”

“I do not know,” he said before slipping into his boots then laced them up. “Sig would supply new clothing with each drop. That relationship has, I fear, come to its inevitable end. Now, I suppose, I must seek out a tailor.”

Naveen softly snorted. “You sound like the Captain. Discuss it with her in private and she may assist with clothing you. Her horde consists of mainly attire for those of the male variety and she tailors them to her frame. Vastly talented she is.”

“Thank you,” Dagan said. “I will speak with her once she is fed. I fear, like most females, she is rather hostile when hungry,” he mused with a chuckle then used the towel to clean up the floor. He wiped out both his and West’s emptied vessels, scrubbing the waterline from the bath oils and salts left behind on the inside. He then picked up Spit’s discarded mess and deposited the soiled linens and clothing into the collection bin. His actions confused Naveen. The way Dagan carried himself and how he spoke hinted that Dagan was of an A-Class planet. The knowledge he had of the planets and various races and species of Realm that Naveen had heard from him in their limited time together on Whisper, hinted it was a planet of male dominance and revere. Those planets bred superiority complexes and you would be hard pressed to find a male that cleaned up after himself or said thank you. Nero was the only male of an A-Class planet that Naveen had ever met in his long life that acted with civility towards what he was instilled from birth to believe were inferiors.

“You are a very strange creature,” Naveen said when Dagan carefully folded West’s discarded clothing that were next to her bath vessel.

“That is the prevailing opinion,” he agreed, picking up the empty wine bottle and crystal goblet. “I am assuming that West’s attire requires a delicate hand and that the communal wash will not suffice.”

Naveen nodded. “Again, you sound like the Captain. I’ll escort you to dinner after dropping those by the Captain’s quarters.”

Dagan nodded. “Thank you.”

****

“Nearly a half million rounds!” Jax shrieked.

George nodded. “Maybe? I stopped counting after a hundred,” she sheepishly admitted.

Jhannie rolled her eyes. “I did it. If you want to get stupid with someone, do it with me. Or did you want to risk losing your entire arsenal?”

Jax glared at her. “Your crown loses its power when off-world,” she scathingly reminded her.

“I don’t need a crown, Bitch. Remember, you won’t see it coming,” Jhannie retorted before her body shifted its natural coloring, her chameleon-like camouflaging skin taking on the colors and textures of the area, causing her to appear to have vanished.

Jax pulled her sidearm and pointed it at George, causing the young pilot to squeak in surprise.

“That is enough,” West called out, joining them on the stardeck where most of the crew was gathered for dinner. “Once it is clear, we will venture to the Stiham Quadrant to replace what was expended most recently,” she said.

Jax growled in irritation before holstering her sidearm. “They will be the ones reloading the casings,” she warned.

West merely nodded; everyone knew Jax would do it herself since she got off on reloading her precious toys. “Jhannie, stop antagonizing her and assist Nero with bringing dinner. We will have company.”

“You didn’t kill it?” Jax sneered.

“I did not,” West said. “Mr. Dark will be our guest until we reach his destination, regardless of how short or long that duration may be.”

George raised her hand. “Where is he going?”

“He does not know,” West admitted, taking her customary seat.

“How much are we getting for housing this annoying, troublesome male?” Jax demanded, taking a seat at the table.

West smirked. “His fare has been paid, as has his recovery from the docks,” she assured the second in command, admiring her new gloves.

Jax growled under her breath but didn’t press it. Captain West was not to be questioned, especially in front of the others.

Sparks joined them with a grease-covered girl thrown over his shoulder. She was kicking her feet in irritation because he pulled her from the backup generator. When he set Spit on her feet, he shook a scolding finger at her and she glared at him before sticking her tongue out then flopped down at the table and he joined her.

George finished setting the table then helped her brother and wife place the covered dishes on the table. “Oh good! You’re joining us,” she beamed when Naveen and Dagan entered.

Dagan absently nodded as he walked, slowly spinning in circles as he looked around the surprisingly lavish stardeck.

The others stayed seated and watched their unusual guest admire the ship they call home, leaving the dishes covering the center of the table covered until their guest joined them.

The domed roof was pressurized glass with polished brass frames and rivets securing them in place. The exterior plates were retracted, giving an unrestricted view of the cavern ceiling above. The smooth rock was littered with brightly glowing organisms that lit up the cavern and created a living, illuminated canvas above them. The center of the dome was adorned with stained glass in a rainbow of colors that depicted scenes of holy intervention that Dagan was unfamiliar with, but he thought them beautiful.

Dagan looked around with a small smile on his face.

Everything he saw intrigued him, and it honestly put him in awe.

The floor was polished maroon natural stone tile with ribbons of black and white throughout; how it was possible to have something like that on an interplanetary transport vessel was beyond him. Each metal support beam spanning the room was adorned with blown glass sconces that illuminated the vicinity in warm, golden light. Shelves were built into some of the walls and were filled with books spanning countless planets of Realm and the contents of each shelf were secured behind metal mesh doors that locked into place. The walls of the room were unusual and stole his attention. They appeared to be metal, but ribboned in shades of brown, gray and black swirled across its smooth surface.

Dagan headed over to the closest wall and reached out to touch it and the swirling recoiled from his touch as if it possessed the consciousness of a sentient intelligence. “Amazing,” he whispered with a smile.

The metal was, in actuality, wood panels over insulated metal. It was a living species of wood that was only found on one planet in Realm, and it was toxic, deadly to any of those that touched it or was in its vicinity for prolonged exposure. The inoculation Nero gave Dagan earlier was to prevent toxicity poisoning from the ship’s interior. It was ingenious, something Dagan would have never thought to attempt or was possible for that matter, and it was beautiful and functional.

“That is why the air is pure and without traces of chemical processing,” he whispered; he was curious about that, but he didn’t bring it up to prevent West from getting suspicious of him. The wood acted as a filtration system for the air, absorbing the carbon dioxide and producing purified oxygen. That typically would have been a concern since pure oxygen was highly flammable, but the air tasted of something natural and slightly heavier which prevented it from being combustible.

“You are very protective of those within your womb,” he said and placed his hand flat on the wall.

As if answering, the retreating swirls flocked towards the hand pressing against it.

“Play nice, Whisper,” West warned, stealing Dagan’s attention. “You are unfamiliar to her still thus she wants to see how far she can push before you bite back.”

Dagan hissed, pulling his hand away when it started to burn. He looked from his bleeding hand to the wall and the silver dripping from the handprint blemishing its surface before the swirling eagerly consumed the blood. A puff of green vapor from the wall caused him to step back and the blood the wall absorbed was expelled and dripped to the floor.

“That is what you get for biting me,” Dagan scolded.

Spit snorted. “She won’t do it again,” she informed him. “Whisper only likes blood in reds, purples, and blues. Green gives her gas and silver she ain’t likin’ in da least. Are ya gonna get yer ass ova here or what? I wanna eat and get back to work.”

Dagan looked from the wall to the expectant crew.

The crew was gathered around a short, round table, sitting on thick velvet cushions waiting for him. The center of the table was filled with covered dishes and empty place settings in front of each person.

“My apologies, I did not realize you were waiting for me,” he said.

Cynda headed over to Dagan and offered him her arm. “We may be Pirates, but our fearless Captain demands we show a level of civility that is not expected of those in our profession. It is a means to keep our hearts pure of intent and consciences lightened. Those without mercy in our trade do not last long, and usually it is at the hands of those they called crew.”

Dagan nodded his understanding and escorted the Seer to the table and supported her as she lowered herself down to her pillow.

Cynda patted the spot next to her. “Sit, it is a round table for equality,” she explained. “Business is usually conducted around the dinner table on Whisper.”

Dagan joined them, folding himself down on a thick velvet cushion. “That is, I believe, the most surprising yet. Captain,” he greeted with a nod.

West looked from the gloves she was admiring to him. “Foolish Boy. You are our guest and your recovery and passage has been paid,” she said, completing their business now that the rest of the crew was present. “Since you do not have a destination in sight, you may accompany us as we take care of replenishing provisions expended in your recovery effort. Do you understand?”

Dagan nodded.

“You have no position or title on Whisper,” she continued. “If you wish to venture to areas a guest would not normally be allowed, you may only do so with permission and an escort. The engine room Sparks will be your sole escort to and from. The cabin Jhannie will oversee you in. Cargo hold, weapon systems, outbounder and mini-jumper Jax will accompany you,” she said, motioning towards the irritated First Lieutenant. “If needed, Nero will hold your hand when in Whisper’s belly. Any other areas of the ship you wish to venture you will get permission from me. Do you understand?”

Again, Dagan nodded, looking slightly amused. “You do not have guests often, do you?” he surmised.

“We do not take passengers,” West reminded him.

Dagan wanted to point out the obvious, but he refrained. “I am most grateful to each of you for your assistance in my recovery,” he said humbly and with a nod of submission.

Nero chuckled, softly knocking into his sister. “He’s good,” he commented.

George nodded. “I told you,” she agreed.

“Don’t encourage him,” Jhannie groaned.

Jax growled under her breath in irritation. “I’m hungry,” she complained.

West nodded and cranked the wheel on the underside of the table by her seat and it was followed by the soft sound of metal sheets sliding into themselves as the covers on the dishes covering the center of the table folded away, revealing the food filling each platter.

The others started filling their plates and Dagan sat there looking at the food filled dishes. Each plate was secured with magnets built into the table. Their foldaway covers were rather impressive and a staple of D-Class mining planets for inner-planet meal delivery. Never had he seen them used on a ship, but he clearly saw their purpose and wondered why more hadn’t utilized them in such a way. Besides the unique means for meal service, the food was the most surprising of everything he had seen since stepping foot on Whisper.

From experience, interplanetary transports and ships served dehydrated vitamin enriched meals that were race or species specific. Those of green blood like Jhannie from water planets such as Hypool need aquatic meat that was rich in amino acids and minerals only found in marine meat and blood. Red-blooded species required meats, dairy, and fresh produce. Those with blue blood could not process protein and required significant amounts of glutinous grains, heavy mineral nightshade, and phosphorus infused colostrums. Because of their particular dietary needs, those with blue blood don’t venture far from their planets. Purple-blooded creatures were the result of red-blooded and blue-blooded species crossbreeding, creating hybrids that could survive off either diet or a combination of both, but that usually resulted in a shorter lifespan and various genetic defects.

With that said, the table was filled with fresh produce, proteins, aquatic life that was still flopping on the platter, whole grains, fresh from the oven bread, and sweetened creams to spread on them. Berries in every shade in Realm, cooked nightshades with colorful garnishes, thin slices of raw white aquatic meat wrapped around glutinous grain that were sticky, sweetened and fragrant soup was served in a single serve warmed stone cup, roasted roots, amber dessert pearls, and fluffy diary dishes Dagan hadn’t seen before. Metal decanters held drinks: water, wine, tea, and enriched plant milk.

The smell was beyond words, and it caused Dagan’s eyes to flutter and stomach growl.

“Eat,” Cynda prompted. “It is not poisoned. Nero is a talented cook.”

Dagan looked to the dark skinned man chewing with a smile on his face. “I thought you were a doctor.”

Nero chuckled. “Botanist once upon a time,” he said. “For necessity I learned to patch people up and deliver a shot or two, and Captain allowed me to tinker around and create the impressive spread before you. Botany is my passion, and Whisper has provided me a limitless exploration of that passion. If you like, and Captain gives permission, it’d be an honor to give you a tour of Utopia. It isn’t often that we have a guest I can show my passion to, someone that will understand when I start rambling.”

Dagan nodded. “I would like that very much.” He looked to West to see what she was eating then filled his plate to match hers since it was safe to assume she wouldn’t eat something that would be poisonous to her unique blood type. Dagan didn’t know what it was that those of silver blood could and could not eat, and there were many close calls that nearly killed him since his rebirth into ignorance.

The plate had a little of everything on it, but the portion size told Dagan of which West liked more than others: darker berries, roasted root, sweetened soup, and amber pearls. She drank wine but had a goblet of water as well, and she absently sipped the floral, sweetened soup between bites. Dagan followed the order she ate, matching her bite for bite. He knew that she noticed his actions, but she didn’t address it. Perhaps it was because West knew that she was now his Draconian teacher since his rebirth into ignorance.

Dagan would forever be grateful if she would continue to be that until he figured out how to recover his lost memories and past.

Amusing conversations flowed around the table, and Dagan struggled to follow each. It was the first time he felt as if he was part of something good. It didn’t matter that he was merely a passenger along for the ride, or the crew were not his friends or colleagues. He felt as if he was one of them. The darkness that had clouded his mind for so long seemed as if it was starting to lighten, and he saw glimpses of the past. However, as quickly as those glimpses came, he was left trying to unravel what he saw before it retreated into the darkness again. Sig warned him that his memories could return, and if they did, it would jeopardize the bigger picture.

That could have been a possibility, but the problem reminded Dagan that he didn’t know what that bigger picture was and Sig hadn’t been forthcoming.

Cynda leaned into him. “Are you well, Child?” she asked.

Dagan nodded and placed some berries in his mouth and fought the urge to moan as the juices flooded his mouth and caused his tongue to tingle with temporary numbness.

“If you like, later I can read the stones for you,” she offered.

He chuckled. “I am not a follower of such practices nor do I believe in them, but it would be an honor to keep you company after dinner.”

Naveen chuckled. “Apparently we have two Companions on board,” he teased with a wink.

Cynda smiled. “Mind your manner, Naveen. Not all of those offering companionship mean so in a naked capacity.”

Dagan shrugged. “If you want me naked you only had to ask, and playing hard to get is not necessary.”

The others laughed and Captain West shook her head.

Cynda patted his hand. “As enjoyable as that might be for you, you are much too pale for my liking, Child,” she said, looking over to Nero and winked.

Nero blushed.

Dagan wanted to ask how she knew that since she was blind, but he didn’t want to embarrass Nero any more than he already was or interfere in the odd relationship that may be between the two.

Random conversation around the table resumed. The excited new head mechanic was giving Captain West a long list of things she’d like for Whisper, talking with her mouth full as she did. Sparks kept an eye on their guest as he ate, absently spinning a lethally sharp blade around the fingers on his free hand as he did. West was absently nodding that she heard the young mechanic and would take it under advisement as she placed obsidian colored berries in her mouth one at a time, taking her time to enjoy their sweet-tangy flavor. Jhannie was feeding her wife slices of fruit with one hand and holding a flailing fish with the other before taking a bite, causing blood to squirt to the side, landing inches shy of Jax’s plate. Jax pulled her gun and set it on the table, pointing it at the amused thief, and glared at her as she ate. Nero was speaking with Naveen about the Quadrant they would be heading to next and if he’d be able to schedule any appointments while out there. Cynda was eating, enjoying listening to Spit ramble and the unspoken words humming in the air between the Draconians sitting on opposite ends of the table.

Dagan ate with a small smile, his eyes moving around the table, immensely enjoying the dinner theater that accompanied the meal. But more than that, he was enjoying the unique company that was the crew of Whisper.

Chapter Thirteen

“Well, this is it,” Nero said then rubbed his hand over his baldhead. “I got rid of Gerald’s things and cleaned it up as much as I could in the time I had.”

Dagan nodded from next to him, looking into the small room from the doorway. It was once a storage hold and it still resembled one. Unlike the rest of the ship, the amenities were what you would expect to find on a Dust Jumper: unadorned metal walls, grate floor, cot on one wall, stack of folded linens secured under it with a strap, and single light overhead.

“Down that hall and up the stairs on the left are waste disposal facilities,” Nero continued, motioning that direction. “If solid, press the leaf to fill the bowl first. Repeat as needed. Liquid doesn’t require the leaf, but remember to flush. Gerald was notorious for… Never mind,” he said with a shake of his head.

Dagan gave him a look. “Leaf?”

“It’ll make sense when you use the facilities,” he assured him. “The odd waste disposal vessel is Jhannie’s throne, please don’t use it.”

“Why is that?”

“It leads to a different waste processing system,” Nero explained. “Because of her diet and species, her waste is richer in certain minerals and elements that Whisper requires.”

Dagan regarded him; that piqued his interest. “Whisper as in the ship or Whisper as in the wood elements adorning her?” he clarified.

Nero shrugged. “Spit says they are one in the same. Have you ever seen or heard of a ship like this, one meant for planetary transport being capable of sustaining crew for long space voyages? Or one making it through a jump gate or warp dock in one piece? Whisper is unlike any ship you’ve ever seen, but it’s because of her crew that she is. Whisper wouldn’t protect us, wouldn’t bestow us with the gifts she does, if she didn’t feel we were worthy of them. The wood is special,” he said, softly, and rested his hand on the wall next to them. The swirling brown and gold flocked to his hand, tracing the outline of his wide hand, and moving in a fashion that appeared as if it was rubbing against Nero’s hand as if it were a pet. “You know which planet it is from?”

Dagan nodded. “I suspected when I discovered it possessed sentient intelligence.”

“Zarine in the Ivaldi System,” Nero confirmed. “Never before had the life there left its home world. The Authority, and those before them, they all tried to harness the deathly power of the wood’s toxins, and to possess the wood itself because it is lightweight, pliable, impervious to fire, self-healing, and stronger than the heaviest metals in the Severan System. All attempts to possess it failed by those that wished to control her. Their attempts to destroy Zarine were answered by the planet and she took out the ships sent to destroy her.”

“How does a Dust Jumper possess such an allusive and powerful element?”

Nero chuckled, drumming his fingers on the wall and Whisper responded by following the action with swirling and puffs of white gas. “That is a story for Captain West to tell you. Whisper already possessed pieces of Zarine-”

“But your passion for botany caused it to become what it has,” Dagan surmised.

He nodded. “So it appears. We’ve all grown and evolved, for the better in most cases, since stepping foot on Whisper. If your journey truly has no destination in sight, and you are merely along for the ride for now, you’ll change too.”

Dagan nodded once then returned his attention to the offered room. He didn’t want to change, he wanted to be how he once was, but he didn’t know how that was or who he was.

“I’m sorry it isn’t much,” Nero apologized.

“It is not your fault,” Dagan assured him. “Regrettably, I cannot step foot in here.”

Nero cocked a thick, black eyebrow. “Not good enough for you?” he asked in a clipped tone, insulted that the accommodations weren’t to their guest’s liking.

“It is much too cell like,” Dagan said in a soft tone, one that was disarming. “Tight quarters and lower ceilings, cots and lack of lights and windows, remind me of a nightmare I cannot shake. There is very little I remember, but what I do is that of a cell I will not be put in again.”

Nero nodded his understanding. “Your race, species, doesn’t sleep much… At least Captain doesn’t. If you like, I can get you some linens and you can enjoy the stardeck for the nocturnal sleep cycle.”

“I would enjoy that immensely,” Dagan said, clasping him on the shoulder. “You are a good male, never question that.”

“Now you sound like my baby sister,” he said, motioning him back the way they had come.

****

After dinner, Dagan was adamant that he help with the dishes. West, not wanting to argue with him in front of the others, allowed him to do as he wished since it wouldn’t put the crew at risk. It had been a long and trying, and exceptionally eventful, day. The crew needed to rest, and she needed to organize her thoughts.

West retired to her quarters to find her clothing neatly folded outside her door. She knew Naveen didn’t do it, and after seeing the cleaned bathhouse she knew Dagan was responsible.

That left her conflicted.

What should have been an easy drop and run, turned into a firefight with the Authority and it wouldn’t end well for any of them when the call came. Injuring that many sentries, taking out the ships that they had, would cause much unwanted attention and jump her warrant to the top of the priority list. The last dozen jobs had been relatively uneventful, which naturally made West cautious. Business wasn’t slow, it was simply goods transport. Procurement requests had been hard to come by, and Jhannie had been pouting because of the lack of work for her unique skillset, but that was to be expected.

When the Senate was in session, small factions of remaining Resistance fighters always resurfaced and caused trouble for those in West’s profession. Each uprising resulted in additional Authority patrols and presence in territories normally far from the Authority’s scrutiny. In the outer regions where only Pirates and those on the run would willingly go, those of the Authority felt they were too good for such regions so they contracted mercs from the Central Empire to do the work for them. They were called Magistrates, but to West they would forever be considered mercenaries.

Those were the worst in West’s experience. Nothing was more dangerous than giving title, power, authority, and a gun to someone that couldn’t even qualify for the frontline of the ground forces that those of E-Class and below planets were assigned to in the war. Sentries with allegiances to the Authority, whenever their paths crossed, West tried to leave breathing. However, those of the Empire she reallocating to the afterlife without giving it a second thought.

Absently she opened and closed the polished brass cover of the pocket watch in her hand, the soft clicking resonating through the eerily quiet Dust Jumper. West sighed when a familiar sensation flooded her and she opened her eyes then leaned back in the communications chair on the bridge. “You are wandering without an escort,” she said, snapping the watch shut then pocketed it.

Dagan nodded from the doorway where he had been standing, watching her.

“Lingering warrants having a weapon pulled on you, thus I suggest you stop lingering,” she scolded.

He smiled and joined her, motioning towards the pilot’s chair since it was closest to where she sat.

“You will not fit,” West informed him. “It was fashioned for George’s tiny frame. She kept slipping out of the other, even when wearing a harness, whenever she embraced her inner-Resistance Fighter Pilot. You may sit in the Captain’s chair, though I would not suggest making a habit of it,” she said.

Dagan chuckled and sat in the far chair. “Thank you, Captain.”

She nodded. “It is not thankworthy, but you are welcome.”

In silence they sat. The plates over the front of the ship were retracted completely, and it offered a view of the glowing cavern. There was something undeniably beautiful about it. Each glowing body moved along, slowly, leaving a trail of phosphorescence behind, and reminded Dagan of something but he couldn’t remember what exactly.

“When in the shadow of the other satellites they glow,” West commented, talking about the organisms that called that moon home. “In the Anteus System there is a planet, one of the few remaining with life since the neighboring system went supernovae, and it is solely inhabited by creatures much like these,” she said, studiously watching the glowing bacterium. “According to lore, the planet was once home to many races of the Anteus System and they lived in harmony. They flocked to Arion for protection as the neighboring planets were extinguished one by one until only it remained. It was once in the shadows of the largest planets in their system, and it is rumored that the shadowing was what saved Arion from the same fate. Without a star of adequate light, those huddled on the planet changed in order to survive in the shadows they found themselves in.”

Dagan nodded. “Evolution for convenience.”

“Survival,” she instantly corrected.

He looked at her curiously but her attention was on the other side of the glass. The story she told wasn’t one Dagan had heard before, but the meaning behind it wasn’t lost on him. Captain West had changed and adapted, evolved even, to survive. It was all about survival.

Dagan respected that and could relate. He, himself, was a survivor.

“Are the accommodations to your liking?” West asked at length, looking at him from the corner of her eye.

“Sadly, they are not,” Dagan said.

“That is a surprise considering the awe Whisper had you in thus far,” she commented.

He chuckled, nodding his agreement. “It is nothing against Whisper or her lavish accommodations. The guest room was much too cell like,” his words trailed off when she nodded her understanding. “Your communications system is most impressive, Captain,” he said, changing the subject. “Biometric security is not cheap.”

“It is when you do not pay for it,” West replied, waving her hand over the console and it flared to life.

A smile filled Dagan’s face. “May I look over your shoulder? Your impressive communication system has captured my interest and yet your pilot would not permit me to gaze upon it without the Captain’s permission.”

There was nothing Dagan could do to the system to jeopardize the ship or crew. Even with his impressive knowledge of gadgets of the Authority he wouldn’t be able to hack into the system, she presumed. Since they were running dark, they weren’t transmitting a signal or receiving due to the depth of the cavern they were in. Once clear of the moon, they will pick up Tattletale and see what they missed while dark.

West looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Since you asked nicely,” she conceded and he hurried over to her.

Dagan’s eyes moved over each instrument; he was right when it pertained to which system was which, but there were others that surprised him. The displays with readings and transcription of communications prior to them going dark held his attention and he read over each. As expected, the surface reported the disturbance at the docks, the body count, and injured Authority personnel and lost ships. “There is something hidden in this transmission,” he absently said, taking West’s hand in his and used it to pull the information up since it was bio-coded.

West cleared her throat, cocking an eyebrow.

“You can shoot me later,” Dagan said, uninterested in arguing the point at the moment. He reached over and took her other hand in his and together they moved and pulled information from a projection display to a hardwired unit.

Curious as to what he was doing, and realizing she greatly underestimated his skill and the risk Dagan posed if he got a hold of the pirated Authority communications equipment, she allowed him to use her hands as he was. His fingers moved quickly, pulling up screens West had never seen before, and he wrote out complete coding and algorithms that were beyond her understanding. West deduced he was in the system, beyond the user interface, but she wasn’t sure how that was possible. That level of knowledge was kept under lock and key by the Authority. Those that wrote the programs, that spoke the language of the machines, and that designed the systems were held as if they were prisoners. They were invaluable resources that the Senate couldn’t afford to fall into the hands of the Resistance or those they feared may try to rise against them.

“You are staring,” Dagan commented, his brows pulling together as his eyes moved over the streaming data.

“Yes, I am,” West agreed.

“Reassessing the threat I pose to you and your crew?” he surmised.

“To say the least. You read the language of the machines,” she accused.

“It is as surprising to me as it is you,” Dagan admitted, releasing her hands then erected himself. “A secured line relayed additional information on a different frequency that was designed to be discarded as interference.”

West nodded, looking at the displays. “I cannot read it.”

“I can,” he said then turned on his heels and headed from the bridge.

“What does it say?” she asked.

“You should have left me on that planet, Captain.”

“Yes, I suppose I should have,” she agreed.

Chapter Fourteen

Dagan was stretched out on the floor under the glass dome on the stardeck and absently spun his makeshift bracelet around his finger. The circular dining table was put away, recessed into the floor to keep it from moving or coming loose when in flight. The cushions the others had used earlier he piled up then flopped in the middle of and waited it out.

West would demand to know what he knew.

What the communication said.

How he knew there was a hidden frequency.

How he was able to hack the system, in essence, and see its source code.

If Dagan knew, he wouldn’t tell her, and he knew that she wouldn’t take his ignorance as an answer. The darkness of his past, of who he was, what he did, and the knowledge he once possessed, tormented him. Nothing was more frustrating than looking at something and figuring out how it worked, of knowing why it worked without taking it apart, and without conscious effort or thought. When he saw things, gadgets and electronic marvels only seen on A and B-Class planets, he knew exactly how they worked and why. No one he met in his trek across Realm could do that, so he assumed it wasn’t natural or something to mention. Sig abruptly ended the discussion the few times Dagan started to inquire. Those holding parcels for him wouldn’t talk to him or even make eye contact so they knew nothing, or possibly they knew everything.

It was beyond frustrating.

Dagan wanted answers and yet he couldn’t find them, or at the very least, find the person to ask.

The bracelet stopped spinning and he allowed it to slide down his hand to his wrist. “You are lingering,” he said.

West stepped out from the shadows where she had been watching him. “It is my ship so I may linger as I please.”

Dagan nodded. “Stop lingering and join me, Captain. The view is lovely and cushions rather comfortable.”

“With such a tempting invitation, how can I decline?”

“You could if you like,” he said, sounding uninterested. “Or you may shoot me in the head with that archaic toy of a revolver in your hand. I cannot blame you for the latter. I have brought the enemy you are on the run from to your very doorstep. Execution is warranted,” he said, sounding strangely accepting of his potential demise. “No one will blame you for your actions, Captain. However, I must warn you, they will come after you and your motley crew and impressive ship with all they have simply to save face because of the one that got away.”

West glared and moved her wrist. The small revolver retracted into the bracer on her left forearm. “Why are they after you?” she asked, stopping next to the mound of cushions and looked down at him.

Dagan continued to look through the glass dome to the glowing canopy above. “If I knew, I would not tell you. You do not trust me and I have no reason to trust you. Allowing me on your ship alone is reason to question your intentions, not to mention sanity, Captain,” he scathingly pointed out.

West nodded. “Get out then,” she said. “We are stationary. Your ego and up and down nature are rather suited for this type of environment. Snehill will greatly benefit from one with your glowing demeanor.”

The corners of his lips twitched, fighting a smile. “Yes, I suppose Snehill would. I cannot tell you what you long to know because I do not know it myself, Captain. Those that hunt me want to put me in a cell, again, and I vowed that would never happen. I will kill them all if it means staying out of their cage.”

West softly snorted and it stole his attention.

“I dare say, does the Captain know firsthand of what that is like?” he mused.

“If I say yes, I would kill you simply to keep the admittance to myself,” she said, lowering herself to the floor and folded her legs in front of her as she did.

Dagan sat up and looked at her folded legs curiously. “How can one with such an inferior appliance sit comfortably in that manner?”

West gave him a look. “Who said it was comfortable?” she retorted. “I would like to remind you, since you are one of the very few creatures that would understand my plight, finding something for someone of our physical attributes is nearly impossible. Being on the run from those, I once associated with, means I cannot simply walk into an outpost and utilize my service provided benefits. Would you not agree that would be a rather quick way to have the warrant on my head collected?”

The way she worded it caused him to chuckle.

“I suppose,” he agreed. “You lost your leg while in the service of the Authority?” he surmised.

She continued to look at him, her expression never changing or hinting that he was correct, but she had already inadvertently confirmed it.

“Do you have another?” he asked.

“You truly lost your memory if you do not remember that our species is incapable of limb regeneration,” West said. “Did the hue of your blood not clearly hint that we are not of the Huoxon?”

Dagan chuckled. “You are a very amusing creature, Captain.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Again, the severity of your missing memories must go beyond your brother’s poor aim because I have already told you that I have been called many things, but amusing is not one of them.”

He shook his head with a smile; the proud, stubborn and strong Captain amused him greatly. “I remember, but I must warn you that if you keep this up, amusing might be added to the very long and colorful list of things you have been called.”

West nodded. “I will take it under advisement,” she said.

“Do you have another appliance?” he clarified.

“It would be foolish not to,” she said. “I do not long to pry into anyone’s past or the shadows which they are running from,” she started, not interested in continuing the conversation in regards to her missing leg. “However, I am responsible for the eight other lives on this ship. You are solely here because of me, thus each of your actions and those of the ones pursuing you I am responsible for. Details I do not require, but honesty I demand. Need I be concerned with what you transcribed from the intercepted transmission before we went dark?”

Dagan looked at her intently, absently spinning the bracelet around his wrist. “How did you lose your leg?”

“How does that pertain to my question?” she countered. “Does my original leg hold the answer in which I seek?”

He smirked. “Not that I am aware of, but it very well could.”

The look she gave him warned that he was treading in dangerous waters.

“Captain, you are asking me to trust you when you have shown none in return,” Dagan pointed out. “What will one little story of the fearless and enigmatic Captain of this equally impressive ship hurt? You do not even have to tell me the truth of how you lost it, but I would like to hear its story.”

West fought the urge to shoot him. The annoying stranger was asking about things he had no reason or right to ask about. It would be easy to lie, to fabricate a story to satiate his curiosity, but Captain West didn’t lie. If there was something West didn’t want you to know, she simply didn’t tell you. If you were right and she didn’t want to confirm it, West didn’t say anything. Silence, in West’s profession, was a rare thing to find and very few could execute the simplistic skill as effortlessly as she could. The female had no tell, was impossible to read, and there was only one creature in Realm that could invoke any type of emotional response from her.

“Captain, must I remind you that I have no need for slumber? If we have to glare at each other until the others stir then retire again, we may do so,” Dagan said, batting his lashes.

“You are not nearly as charming as you think you are,” West informed him.

“I beg to differ.”

“You would,” she said. “I did not talk, and that is how I lost it.”

He gave her a look. “You were a prisoner of war?”

West simply looked at him, her expression never changing.

Dagan stroked his chin. “No, that is not it at all. You knew something that another longed to know and your stubbornness refused to tell. As a result, they took half of your leg.”

“Foot,” she corrected.

He cocked an eyebrow. “Interesting. Did you eventually, talk that is?”

“No.”

That didn’t surprise him in the least.

“Was it worth it?” he asked.

“Without question,” she automatically replied. “Now that you have had your tale, what is it that they tried to hide in the frequency?”

Dagan made a face; he did offer the information for a story. “Your ship is covered in Pallavia?” he asked.

West cocked an eyebrow; there was no way to know that from the inside of the ship and while running dark.

“It was reported by their pilots that the Dust Jumper they were engaging shimmered before disappearing amongst the clouds,” he explained.

“Yes, I suppose it was,” she agreed, moving her left hand and the revolver that Dagan didn’t know appeared in her hand once more slid back into the bracer. “They have dispatched someone to the Vartoxia System to inquire as to who procured large quantities of Pallavia. Are they not?”

Dagan nodded.

“It shall not be a problem,” she said, not at all concerned.

“How very Pirate of you,” he dryly commented, rather annoyed that she was seemingly unconcerned with the well-being of those that she procured the rare element from.

West nodded. “It is my chosen profession,” she reminded him.

“You are still a poor specimen of what it means to be a Pirate.”

“I take that as a compliment,” she informed him.

“You would.”

“Was there more?” West asked.

Dagan smirked and instantly she was glaring at him. “I want another story. No, not another story, I want elaboration of the one you already told. Your appliance covers from the knee down, and yet you said they took a foot. What happened to the section in-between?”

Her eyes moved of his face many times. “They wanted the location of He in command of the forces in that Quadrant,” she eventually said. “He was on the ground when he should not have been. A ruse I warned them of, and they dismissed my warning and concern, and it proved to be correct. He was ready to go save those on the ground by offering himself up, and I refused to let him.”

Dagan nodded. “Valiant,” he commented.

“Selfish,” she corrected.

“Lover?”

“I love him,” West admitted. “My foot was removed and sent back to camp as a warning. I sent seven heads back as confirmation of life.”

Dagan chuckled. “That was what cost you the rest,” he surmised.

“Yes and no,” she said. “They removed the foot in a surprisingly sterile environment. However, the field surgeon at camp botched the surgery. My unique blood type was not one they were experienced with and the medication they used to clot has the opposite effect and I would have lost the entire leg if I would not have cut it off myself.”

His eyes widened. “You cannot… You cut off your own leg?” he wanted to clarify.

West nodded. “Yes.”

“Did it not hurt?” he asked.

“It was the most physically painful thing I had ever experienced,” she said as if it were obvious. “The verbal reprimanding I received from my commanding officer was much worse though.”

Dagan nodded his understanding; once again she had him in awe. “They are sending a merc named Maszen Rilynund the direction we were headed. The rounds expended would have to be replaced and they are aware of that.”

West surprised him when she didn’t seemed surprised. “It shall not be a problem,” she said, getting to her feet. “I will see to securing you a room with a view. Until then you may use the stardeck.” With a nod she turned and headed from the room.

Dagan hurried after her. “Captain,” he started, the revolver appearing in her hand, “it was suggested that I inquire with you in regards to obtaining clothing that would fit my frame. The ship’s Companion was most generous with providing me the attire I am wearing. However, he made it rather clear that he would not be proving anymore.”

Softly West groaned under her breath; she feared that would happen. “Retire for the remainder of the other’s rest cycle and I will see what I have. It will cost you.”

He nodded. “Of course,” he said.

They stopped outside her quarters and she turned to regard him.

“Regardless of what you told the others and how you feel on the matter, my passage has not been paid in full,” Dagan said. “Limited access to your ship you have graciously provided, and as you have seen I am rather proficient with my hands.”

West cocked an eyebrow. “Should I have the resident Companion schedule you a few appointments to pay for your fare?” she asked.

He smiled. “No. You know I speak the language of the machines. When I look at something I know how it works, why it works, and I feel as if I had a hand in it. I think, I feel, as if I were a Tinkerer before,” he motioned to his head. “Your impressive ship is sound, no one will say otherwise. However, if you have something you could commission me to do, to tinker with, it would keep me from wandering.”

She knew he was telling the truth, the annoying creature had yet to lie and she was starting to think he didn’t know how.

West reached down and twisted her leg to the side before erecting herself. “You do not have permission to tinker with anything on Whisper. You will have to find other ways to keep yourself preoccupied so you do not wander. Rest well, Foolish Boy,” she said with a nod then turned from him and unlocked the door to her quarters, stepping inside, closing and locking the door behind her.

Dagan looked from the door and the peculiar lock that he was more than confident he could pick with little effort to the prosthesis leg in a boot sitting on the floor where she stepped out of it. He smiled, picking it up; West gave him something to tinker with and he hoped he wouldn’t disappoint.

Chapter Fifteen

For nearly a week they had been hiding and Captain West made the call to pull out and recover Tattletale after the next slumber cycle for the crew. Then they would head to Canaboo in the Haavad System so they could jump to the Stiham Quadrant to replace the expended large caliber rounds. That trek would take them a week, if they were lucky, just to get to the jump point. From there it was two days out if they didn’t run into those of the Empire or Authority. Final preparations were being made for the first leg of their journey, one where they would be vulnerable if ships were lingering in the vicinity, waiting for them. Running through the longer run checklist presented points of concern that they needed to check into first.

Nero ran a hand over his head, his attention on the environmental control panel. George relayed from the control bridge that gas levels were fluctuating so Nero went to check it out. It was nothing to be concerned with, but it could affect the next harvest and with the long run they were plotting they’d need a full, uncompromised harvest. Utopia kept the crew of Whisper fed and happy. In the beginning they only had dehydrated enriched meal pouches that were designed to sustain long space voyage crews. They tasted horrible, had questionable effects on the system, and were one of the main reasons it was near impossible to keep crew on a ship that did long space runs. When Captain West allowed Nero to convert the retired liquid fuel storage tanks into something more useful since Whisper no longer used that type of fuel, never did she image what would come of it.

“Moisture levels are above normal for being docked,” Nero mumbled, pressing one of the buttons on the wall and a section of floor disengaged then lowered and the panel slid under the next, revealing an access tunnel. After turning off the lines and draining the surrounding reservoirs, he carefully climbed down the small access ladder.

“Cào,” Dagan gasped from the doorway, his eyes wide and mouth falling open.

Nero looked up at him. “I call it Utopia,” he said, waving for Dagan to join him. “I’m assuming George sent you down because she can’t find anything wrong with the environmental sensors on her end,” he surmised, going to work removing an access panel and started checking the connections to make sure none of the fuses or circuits were blown.

Absently Dagan nodded, making no attempt to join him.

The large room was completely covered in the sentient wood, even the ceiling, but it was a different hue compared to the rest of the ship: dark turquoise with swirling molten brown throughout. Sections of each wall panel had tiered shelving overflowing with greenery and palatable flowers and ripe produce. Clear tubes were draped from what appeared to be branches along the ceiling. The tubing system was littered with polished metal valves, each with a deflector pointed towards the floor. Various types of artificial illumination systems lit the large room in a rainbow of light. The floor was covered in thick, dark green moss with walking paths throughout, each marked with color-coded tags.

“You have trees on a Dust Jumper?” Dagan stammered.

Nero nodded. “Yes.”

In the center of the room were three full-grown trees that shouldn’t have been possible. Each tree was abundant with hanging produce, and around their trunks were bushes filled with berries. The lighting was designated for each of the planter boxes with soil in a wide variety of colors: green, purple, and blue plants stuck out from the surface of each.

Now Dagan knew where the fresh produce came from and why the cook had an overabundance of it at his disposal.

“I am beyond impressed,” Dagan whispered.

Nero chuckled. “Thank you. When Captain gave me the retired fuel tanks, I didn’t think it’d work. It was what I was working on in school: self-sustaining vegetation systems for long space voyages.”

The goal of nearly all botanist were to discover a means for sustainable gardens in the stars. Interiors of ships, regardless of how complex or advanced they were, could not sustain a renewable source of food for their crew. Large, colonized outpost had nature-based means for waste and fluid collection processing, but they were unable to successfully emulate the environment needed to grow crops and produce. It took a large area and systems that required an excessive amount of energy to run. That wasn’t something Authority vessels could afford to accommodate; they were vessels for war, not exploration. On Whisper, the forest of life and sustenance simply filled two empty fuel vessels in the belly of the small ship.

“You are a genius,” Dagan said, joining him. “You do realize the implications that this could have, correct?”

Nero’s face dropped. “I wanted to save worlds, to help those classified as expendable and to elevate them to Classes that were protected. That wasn’t what my instructors wanted me trying to achieve. They were trying to force me, if successful, to create systems for the Authority. Could you imagine if I had?” he asked.

It was rhetorical, but Dagan felt the need to answer.

“They would have been unstoppable,” Dagan said.

Nero nodded. “The only thing that kept the Authority from consuming and controlling each planet in Realm was their inability to make it to the darkest recesses of her. Even with jump points and warp docks, they could never make it far enough to tether every system. If they had a means to sustain them, for generations if needed, the Authority would have total and unprecedented control.”

Dagan understood better than Nero could imagine.

“I wasn’t having much success,” Nero said, busying himself with trying to figure out where the problem in the system was. “This is why we don’t use Jhannie’s waste disposal vessel,” he said when Dagan looked over his shoulder. “The clear tubing with the roots in them is that waste processing system. It’s low tech but it works,” he said with a chuckle.

Dagan took the small torch Nero was offering him and he ducked down and examined the impressive tubing system that ran under the grate, moss covered flooring. The steam redistribution tubing was clearly marked and helped to regulate the temperature in Utopia. Multiple tubes with various colored fluids in them ran the length of the room and out through a section in the flooring in the back. The color dictated which section of vegetation it was designated for; everything was color coordinated in a fascinating organizational system that impressed him. The extensive root system pierced the waste tubing, expanding to seal each, and ran throughout the ship.

“It wasn’t until Captain West gave me a token from Zarine that my vision became reality,” Nero explained. “Never had I seen a sentient plant outside of books, and the rumors of them were completely outlandish, or so I thought. The tiny plant had a bite to it, but there was intelligence in it. I respected it, especially that intelligence and attitude,” he said with a chuckle and caressed the branch that lowered and rubbed against him. “What you see was possible in only two years.”

Dagan looked at him with wide eyes. “The size of the trees suggest centuries old,” he pointed out.

“Jhannie’s diet those of Zarine really enjoy,” Nero said with a chuckle and ignored the leafy appendages that were wrapping around him in an embrace. “It was as if overnight Whisper went from a seedling to this. The roots went everywhere and soon they spread up over the interior metal paneling. Jax bitched about it, Whisper doesn’t like her in the least and kept trying to take a bite out of her, but the migraines the irritable redhead was suffering from went away.”

“Reaction to chemically assisted life support systems,” Dagan surmised.

Nero nodded. “We didn’t realize the primary life support system had failed, and the sensors were tampered with, thus giving false levels and readings. It wasn’t until we docked again that it was discovered. We went on a three month run in the Pax System without any type of conventional life support.”

“That is very impressive,” Dagan commented.

“It was impressive and surprising. My knowledge in medicine and botany allowed me to make a means for those within this living Zarine forest amongst the stars to keep from being poisoned. It isn’t intentional. Whisper isn’t trying to hurt us, but her natural instincts to protect herself is the same as any creature,” Nero said, snatching the tool from the vine that tried pulling it from his pocket and he wagged a scolding finger at it. “No.”

Dagan chuckled. “She is very playful.”

She is an understatement,” he said. “There is no denying Whisper is female. Make her mad and she’ll kill you. Get on her bad side and your species-specific food supply suddenly doesn’t grow, don’t address her by name and you’ll freeze to death. There are some places she isn’t permitted to be, the bridge she isn’t allowed on because she doesn’t play well with the communication systems wiring. The engine room is another place she doesn’t care for. I think it’s the fluctuation in temperature: it can get pretty hot in there. Zarine is a climate controlled planet that temperature only varies by a few degrees and moisture levels are constant.”

Dagan nodded his understanding. “May I?” he asked, motioning towards the area Whisper was keeping Nero from working in.

He stepped aside.

Dagan released the locking pin to each of the sliding brackets then slid them out one by one. The clear circuit boards were color coordinated and illuminated by ambient light. Fine lines of polished metal connected each fuse and circuit to the board, and led to export relays that fed to the environmental control panels. “You would have less power consumption if you upgraded the red, purple, and orange boards to Vulia glass from the Veloka System,” he commented.

Nero chuckled. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Do you know where to get it that isn’t under Authority control? Because I don’t,” he said.

To Nero’s surprise, Dagan nodded.

“The green,” Dagan said, sliding the other boards back into place and secured them. “Something happened that forced Whisper to compensate and it blew this circuit,” he said, pointing to it. “If you have a plasma iron or flux driver I can fix it for you, but you will have to find the root of the cause otherwise you will be fixing it over and over until it damages the entire board.”

Nero went to his toolbox and returned with the needed item and handed it to Dagan. He then headed over to the green illuminated area in Utopia and went to work pulling up the planter boxes and moving them so he could access the supply lines beneath.

“Stop that,” Dagan scolded, softly smacking the branch that tried to take the tool from his hand. “You do not want me connecting circuits that should not be; it could cause a fire in your womb.”

The branch smacked him before recoiling, as if pouting.

He chuckled. “Yes, it would be most regrettable if fire ripped through you. You produce amazing sustenance. There,” he said, pushing the repaired board back into its slot and secured it.

The branch caressed against his hand so Dagan pulled his fingers down the length of it and across the leaves.

“You are an amazing creature,” he whispered.

A second branch wrapped around his waist and pulled him off his feet.

“Now you are being a flirt,” he scolded with a chuckle.

Nero shook his head. “Whisper, be nice. I think I found the problem.”

Dagan was dropped to his feet and he wagged a scolding finger at the playful tree before joining Nero.

“There’s a clog or kink somewhere in the lines for the green section and it’s causing the plant waste to recycle into itself,” Nero said, pulling a hand over his smooth head. “I don’t have the means to fix it here. We have to be docked in a warmer environment so I can take the panels off from the outside and blow the lines.”

“Who is fed by the green?” Dagan asked.

Nero made a face. “The green is for Jhannie’s food supply. She is going to complain about rationing her food. Hopefully my baby sister can keep her wife satisfied in other ways so we don’t have to listen to it.”

Dagan chuckled. “I would like to point out that you are speaking of your little sister’s sex life.”

“Yeah, and?” Nero asked.

“It is very odd behavior, especially for one from the planet class in which you are from.”

Nero replaced the planter boxes and secured them. “We’re considered Pirates,” he said at length. “There is nothing Pirate like about either of us, and yet we’re on the run for her life. My baby sister is the most important thing in my life, and unlike our family or people, I accept her exactly how she is and accept who she is. Do I approve of her wife? Not initially, but I have seen firsthand how much Jhannie loves George, and the blood staining her webbed hands and watery soul is proof of how much she loves her. That is all any brother wants for his sister. That’s what she wants for me one day. The amazing person that George has become and grown into was only achieved when we ran and hid amongst the stars. I wouldn’t change that for anything. On a selfish note, if it weren’t for her actions that caused us to run, I would have never gotten the chance to see my vision come to life. I can never thank her enough for that,” he said, changing the subject from his sister’s sex life.

Dagan nodded, eying the surrounding area, impressed with the means Nero implemented to separate the dietary needs for each member of the crew. The specific soil type for each area was contained by thin fiber mesh which was covered in moss to keep it in place when in flight. Taller bushes and plants were secured with rods and twine, allowing them to climb and flourish. The three threes in the middle of the room acted as if they were tending to the their garden; leafy extensions were caressing the lower foliage, securing some with vines, others had blemished produce plucked and tossed to the side to one of the compost receptacles. It was most impressive, in Dagan’s opinion, and Nero was correct: if the Authority discovered there was a means to grow a sustainable food source on a ship, their reach would be limitless and the bloodshed of the precious rising of the Resistance would be nothing compared to what would come.

“Do you have siblings?” Nero asked.

“Supposedly,” he said. “Though, as your Captain has pointed out, their blood does not match mine. That leads me to believe I was either adopted or held prisoner. I am leaning towards prisoner.”

Nero chuckled. “Well, my strange, giant friend, out here in the stars you are free. The only warden holding the key to your freedom is you. As you’ve deduced, we’re really bad Pirates,” he said with a chuckle.

Dagan looked over at him. “Yes, I suppose you are,” he agreed with a chuckle.

Chapter Sixteen

West’s brows pulled together, her eyes were closed, as she listened intently to the silence which was space. Tattletale told her what Dagan already had, and confirmed that the Authority weren’t willing to risk their remaining transport without an escort so they were meeting up with a fleet in the opposite direction of where the crew of Whisper were headed. The frequencies had very little chatter and the planet was on lockdown and docks closed until the Aweshian Government could squash the uprising criminal factions that had crawled out of the dark to secure control of the docks. That worked in West’s favor, but it made her suspicious.

“Any word?” George whispered through a yawn; she was pulled from bed by the Captain to start the next leg of their journey earlier than the Captain has said they would the nocturnal cycle before.

West opened her eyes and looked to the darkened light on the communication’s panel. “No, and that leaves me disquieted. Plot our course and I will make arrangements for our jump. If you get a feeling, share it immediately. It is much too quiet, even for space.”

George nodded her understanding. “Of course, Captain,” she said then lowered the arm to the record; it was tradition to start every run with Led Zeppelin.

West headed from the control bridge and went in search of the Companion.

Naveen kept to himself in one of the escape pods. His, more often than not, confrontational and haughty nature made him an easy target to those not wise enough to fear the Captain’s wrath. West didn’t mind him, and she understood his need for personal space: she, herself, had rather large quarters in order to house her horde she had acquired over the years. Despite Naveen’s seemingly incessant complaining and attitude towards those he viewed as being beneath him in stature, he has proved to be extremely useful to West and the crew of Whisper. Naveen’s completely unique physical composition would be, once again, required to survive the next threat they faced at the hands of the Authority.

West knocked on the outside of the open door of Naveen’s private quarters.

“Enter, Captain,” he called out.

She ducked down as she walked, joining him then sat. “Canaboo in the Haavad System,” she started, without being prompted.

Naveen made a face, closing the book he was reading. “I hate Resistance controlled anything,” he reminded her.

“We have not a choice in the matter, I fear. We have company waiting for us in the Stiham Quadrant,” she said.

He cocked an eyebrow. “If you are coming to me with it that means-”

“Yes.”

“Interesting,” he commented. “Thank you for the head’s up, Captain.”

West nodded.

Naveen replaced the book on the shelf next to his bed then grabbed his appointment book. “Who is it that I must mimic?”

“I will leave that to your discretion though make sure they are alive this time,” she warned.

Naveen chuckled. “Never will I live that one down,” he said, pouring them each a glass of wine. “I will update the database when we are clear of this system, that way mistakes aren’t repeated. Speaking of mistakes, why him?”

West took the goblet he was offering her and leaned back in the chair. “Why not?” she asked; that question she hadn’t an answer for just yet. “He will prove to be useful, I believe.”

“Or will prove to be our undoing,” Naveen retorted before taking a sip.

“We are all poised to be our undoing,” she reminded him.

“He is dangerous.”

West nodded. “As are you, and George, Nero, Cynda, Jhannie, Sparks, Spit, Jax, but that will purely be due to her stupidity,” she added the latter and he chuckled. “Those that stand up for themselves, and that reach beyond the limitations forced upon them at birth, are the most dangerous of all Realm’s children. If the foolish boy brings the war to our doorstep, we shall fight it without question for he is one us, even if he is not of the crew.”

Naveen cocked an eyebrow. “He is Draconian.”

“I believe he is.”

“You were the last,” he reminded her.

“It was purely conjecture that could not be disproven, until now,” she said, her tone warning him not to press it.

“Selfishness?” he teased with a wink.

“Curiosity,” West automatically replied and it piqued his interest; only the Companion could converse with the Captain on a slightly personal level. “I will not be so bold as to say that our unusual guest is not a giant beacon for trouble, because he is. However, I am curious as to why they silenced him as they did.”

Naveen refilled their drinks. “There is no denying he is of the Authority, and those of very high ranking are after him,” he said, handing her his appointment book.

West looked over the information on the handheld device.

A Companion never went anywhere without their appointment book. It was their way of becoming anyone, of accessing information on someone in order to fulfill the client’s needs. Companions were created and engineered to be selfless and have no needs themselves other than to make the client happy. They would never use their appointment book in a malicious way. Each was coded so only the one it belonged to could translate it, each Companion coded things differently so another wouldn’t be able to take their book of business for themselves, and it was protected by genetic coding. Very few outside of Taulis had ever seen one, and even fewer have touched them. Naveen’s appointment book was a bit different and contained very detailed records of those of the Resistance, Mercs of the Empire, and those of the Authority. Most hadn’t, and would never be, clients, but his role on Whisper was one that no other Companion would ever have.

“Interesting,” West said, handing the appointment book to him. “Sealed records means only one thing.”

Naveen nodded. “Trouble.”

“To say the least,” she agreed and sipped her wine.

Naveen had taken the appearance of the one Dagan called brother and uploaded that image into his appointment book. Once the Authority records were scanned, he had a name for the man but his role and which division of the Authority he resided under was covered in black.

Commandant Nulav Darkheart.

All they had was a name and a shattered memory of the one calling him brother.

“No message?” Naveen asked.

West shook her head.

“That is most regrettable,” he commented.

“Agreed,” she said.

The last time they engaged the Authority and put down more than one of their ships, they were grounded. This time, they hadn’t heard from the all-knowing one, and that meant one of two things.

“Should we check?” Naveen asked.

West shook her head. “If this was not reported through sanctioned channels that means the procuring of our guest is not authorized by means we have insight on. They want him alive and they will stop at nothing to get him.”

“And you are going to figure out why they want him,” Naveen surmised.

“It had crossed my mind,” she agreed, taking another sip of wine. “You have to admit the mystery is very alluring.”

“That is not the word I would use for it,” he said with a chuckle. “Learning why it is that they want him could be used, if needed, later.”

West nodded. “Exploiting it is always an option,” she agreed.

Naveen chuckled. “And yet you won’t. You are a terrible Pirate, Captain.”

“Yes, I am aware of that. Though, I would like to point out that each member of the crew is a poor representation of their species and race. Present company included.”

He smiled. “Yes, I suppose I am, though I only have you to blame for that. If you hadn’t taken a chance on a confused, muddied Shiliak of Taulis, I would be dead.”

West nodded her agreement. “Do you regret it?” she asked.

“Not at all, Captain. I cherish my freedom,” Naveen assured her. “I only hope that your curiosity doesn’t cause it to prematurely end.”

“It would be most regrettable,” she agreed. “Did you run his face through your book?”

Naveen shook his head. “It is much too dangerous to run facial recognition of one sought by the Authority through their own database. It would send up flags and expose the breech. I did not think you would be willing to risk it.”

“That was wise,” she said, though she would have liked to have had some type of background information on the annoyingly foolish boy. The way he fired a pistol, how he carried himself, and his knowledge of Authority systems; there was no denying he was of the Authority.

After a stretch of silence, Naveen gave her a look. “Were you in need of my services on a professional level, Captain?” he asked; typically they didn’t converse at length like that.

West shook her head. “I would have to embrace traditional Pirate like behavior in order to afford you. Your skill set it beyond my purse,” she said, motioning for a refill of wine.

Naveen chuckled, his appearance changing from the blond to that of the pale skinned, black and navy haired guest. “For you, Captain, I would offer a discount on services,” he said, sounding like Dagan, refilling her glass.

She gave him a look. “As close to the exterior as you can mimic, the soul you cannot.”

He smirked, batting his long black lashes and his sea-green eyes sparkled with amusement. “Amusing you should say that, because that is what he said.”

West cocked an eyebrow. “If I discover you mimicked me, I will let you out at the next rock without stopping first.”

He chuckled, his appearance returning to the blond companion. “I wish I could say you merely say that in jest, however we both know I cannot. Have you spoken or spent much time with our guest?”

She didn’t say anything and continued to look at him between sips of wine.

Everyone knew the answer to that question.

West had been taking dinner in her quarters where she stayed for long lengths of time in order to stay away from Dagan. There was much that needed done before they started the next run, and it didn’t take West long to prepare for it, but she double and triple checked everything she did in order to preoccupy herself. Typically she’d be in the library on the stardeck reading or enjoying the silence that accompanied the crew’s nocturnal cycle. However, the person she was hiding from remained on the stardeck and was tinkering with things, fixing every little broken thing he could get his hands on to pass the time.

“Part of a Companions training,” Naveen started, “is learning to listen. Sometimes the client doesn’t want companionship in the sexual gratification sense. Sometimes they merely need someone to listen or talk to. The impressive company I have had over my years were with some of the highest-ranking officials and those with crowns, and more often than not they merely needed to talk. You would be very surprised, Captain, by what simple conversation can bring to the forefront of one’s mind. Nothing is lost forever, Captain, especially the things those of darkened control and deeds struggle to erase.”

West nodded her understanding. “This is why I very rarely visit you,” she commented and he chuckled.

“What are you scared of?” he asked.

“The truth,” she admitted. “Draconians know not what fear means, it is a foreign concept to us, however I believe I feel it now. It troubles me.”

“Draconians weren’t incapable of fear,” Naveen informed her. “I knew many in my travels. It isn’t that they were incapable of fear or hatred, it is simply that they did not experience it. Most chose to stay grounded in their home system in sequester existences. They kept out those that could disrupt the balance, and because of that they led stress free lives. You, Captain West, are Draconian, the embodiment of what it means to be Draconian. You have seen the unimaginable in your time with the Authority, and even now when on the run you are seeing the worst those calling Realm has to offer, and not once did it affect you. You have embraced the teachings of your people, as limited as they have been in your short time with them, and those Draconian beliefs are what have made you the creature you are now. Dagan Dark does not have that. Every lesson, memory, belief, his past, who he was and why… All of that was taken from him by the very people trying to take him still. A Pirate wouldn’t be concerned with that or his well-being or how he’s adjusting, but as I’ve repeatedly said, Captain, you are a terrible Pirate.”

“Yes, I am,” she agreed before finishing her wine then stood. With a nod, she turned and headed from Naveen’s quarters.

As much as West wanted to demand answers from Dagan, she didn’t want to hear the answers, especially the truth. She had suspected that those of darkened means, the very worst of the Authority, were after him. The insignia on the uniforms of the sentries they incapacitated didn’t notate rank, division, or unit. Without being asked, Naveen did what was expected of him and ran facial recognition through the Companion’s database and beyond. Now she had a name to look into, one she was unfamiliar with: Commandant Nulav Darkheart.

The title, itself, was one of importance but usually at the lowest tiers of power in a unit. Commandants never saw battle, their blood was never spilled, until now apparently, and their roles were more clerical in nature. West suspected this Commandant Darkheart might have been more, but she knew he was an inept solider and that was why Dagan easily slipped through what remained of his hands as he had.

“There you are!” Dagan beamed, hurrying to catch up to her.

West stopped and turned to face him. “Where have you been wandering to now?” she asked.

Dagan shrugged with a sheepish smile. “Here and there,” he said then chuckled when she glared at him. “I finally saw Utopia, it was beyond words. Though, there is a problem with the green section that will require blowing the lines and finding the shorted relay. Nero said the only access to those lines is outside the ship. That will, he believes, take a couple of days to accomplish. I will assist him, if you permit it, and that will allow for it to be done in one. I am confident of that.”

She nodded. “How it stands now, will it affect the harvest?”

“Jhannie’s means to feed will be affected,” he admitted. “Nero is harvesting to save what he can now and will attempt to salvage the crop for longevity. He is a talented botanist, however, a week is all he will be able to save at best. Nero was going to commission his baby sister with delivering the news to the one affected by this system failure.”

West fought to keep from groaning; Jhannie would not be pleased if her stock of aquatic delicacies died from lack of sustenance. If they did, their next destination would be a water planet to replenish that stock and the closest was three jumps away, all of which would be under Authority control.

“Is there a problem, Captain?”

“There will be if it is not resolved in a timely manner,” she admitted. “You are still squatting on the stardeck?”

He nodded.

“You are not going anywhere, correct?”

Dagan chuckled. “Are you nervous or trying for small talk, Captain?” he asked.

“Neither,” she said in a clipped tone then turned on her heels. “Come, Foolish Boy.”

He followed, curious.

The Captain appeared to be staying away from him, he surmised. Every time one of them entered the room the other was in, she’d retire to her quarters. She was never rude or short with him, and she had only offered to let him out so he could walk a dozen times, which translated to progress in Dagan’s mind.

Down a set of steps that were tucked behind a wall and not visible unless you were familiar with it, he followed the tall female.

“Are you kicking me out without pulling over?” he asked.

“Tempting offer,” West commented. “Perhaps later. Will this suffice?” she asked, stepping down into a tall room.

Dagan joined her and looked around.

The room was surprisingly tall and he wouldn’t have to duck down. Boxes were stacked against two walls and secured with cords. There was an area that would work as a workbench with a bolted down chair, a bed folded away against another wall, and metal slats were on the other.

“I hope the view helps to dispel the cell feeling,” West said, pushing a level on the wall next to the wide metal slats and they groaned in protest before they opened.

Dagan joined her and followed her gaze out the window and smiled. “Are we under the bridge?”

She nodded. “Access to all lines and wiring is above you,” she said.

“You trust me?” he blurted out.

“I have no reason to other than I have no reason not to,” West said. “You have exhibited nothing but trustworthy behavior. Your actions are those of a conflicted male, one that is struggling to remember a past that eludes him while struggling to fit into the present which he has been forced into. I understand that better than you could imagine. If you wanted to hurt the crew, you have had more than enough opportunities to do such, and yet you have not. That is reason to trust you, I have been told, and I am attempting it. Will this room work as quarters for you?”

Dagan smiled. “Yes, thank you.”

“It is not thankworthy,” she said then stepped around him, heading from the room. She stopped, pausing in the doorway. “Welcome to Whisper,” she said before hurrying from the room.

“Thank you, Captain,” he said, looking from the doorway to out the window. “Thank you very much.”

Chapter Seventeen

The uneventful flight to Resistance controlled space had the crew on edge. Luck and the crew of Whisper weren’t synonymous with each other. Instead of a week, they made it in five days thanks to unexpected solar winds in the region.

“Which tag did you want to use?” Jax asked when George pulled the Dust Jumper to stop in the neutral zone just outside of the sensor range.

West continued to monitor the activity in the area. The procured Authority long-range communication system picked up the chatter from the crowded space station. With the Senate in session, various factions of the Resistance were moving what they could before session released and the Authority presence resumed. The price of a jump pass was climbing with each ship that docked, waiting for clearance. Despite those of the Resistance being bloodthirsty radicals, there was one kind of transport that wouldn’t get held up and would be moved to the front of the line.

“Medical transport from Elderin with patient heading to Hadaron 8 just outside the Stiham System,” West said.

Jax nodded and keyed it into the system.

West pressed the internal communications button. “Medical transport with one patient. Naveen, make sure they are alive this time and you know of their current location so we do not cross paths,” she said before releasing the button.

George chuckled. “Like last time? That was a big mess.”

Jax snorted. “Mess isn’t the word I would use,” she dryly commented.

Last time Naveen mimicked a high-ranking official of the Resistance in order to secure them passage through controlled territory, he mistakenly mimicked one that had most recently been reallocated to the afterlife. That turned into a firefight that nearly cost them their ship.

“I have selected one that will work,” Naveen said, his voice coming through the speaker on the control panel. “Tell your fish to keep her hands off my ass though,” he added, his voice turning feminine in tone and with a seductive purr.

George shivered. “I hate it when he does that.”

Jax smirked. “I don’t mind it,” she said.

West ignored them and continued to monitor the frequency, waiting for an opening; three ships were of concern and that was because they were Pirates that didn’t care for West and her motley crew because of their reputation and selective nature.

“Once Harron and his crew of scumbags jump, take us in,” West said.

George nodded her understanding. “Aye aye, Captain,” she said before giggling when West shook her head.

The crew knew what to do and they began preparing.

Whisper prepared as well.

George pulled levers and pushed buttons in a combination that only she knew, and Whisper responded accordingly. The Pallavia covering the exterior of the ship started to darken before lifting to white with red accents and medical markings and tags. The retractable plates extended over the front and top of the ship, some angling under others to force the pliable metal upward, changing the shape of the ship slightly. The nose appeared to elongate and glass plates slid into place giving the cabin the appearance of being able to house the traditional five-person flight crew required on medical transports.

George pressed the intercom button. “Hold onto your asses because we’re kicking this tin bird into overdrive,” she said. “As always, your exits are one to the back and that’s about it unless we get shot to shit. Enjoy!” she beamed then released the button.

In the belly, Spit danced and spun around, humming under her breath as she flipped switches and turned dials, changing the fuel distribution and combination of liquid, plasma and gas. Medical transport were required to be red fuel powered, which was from a fuel regulated by the Authority. It emanated red light when burned, and it was near impossible to procure outside of sanctioned channels. Because of that, when those of the Resistance used Authority medical means it was never questioned because of the cost associated with it; only those with position or desperate enough would pay the exorbitant cost.

West had no means to acquire red fuel, not that she would allow it on her ship. The additives the refineries put in it would eat through an engine that wasn’t designed for it in minutes. Whisper didn’t need to burn red fuel in order to appear as if she was. She just needed the right lighting and gas and plasma combination.

“What are you doing?” Dagan asked from the doorway; Nero asked him to check on Spit.

“Playin’ wif lights,” Spit said as if it were obvious. “Gotta have red comin’ from dem engines, so I’m gonna give ‘em red.”

Dagan joined her with Sparks appearing behind him, watching them. He looked over the control panels then chuckled. “Very impressive, Spit,” Dagan commented. “Changing the fuel distribution between engines and the reserves, and adding additional propellant, removing liquid and increasing the other base components, will force the heat to distribute differently before passing through the propulsion engines and thrusters, thus causing red light.”

Spit snort. “Yup. Red is easy, so are blues and greens. Purple ain’t so hard either, but white and black I ain’t figured out just yet. I will though. Last time I tried white I blew engine two and four coils in engine three. Captain wasn’t happy.”

He nodded his understanding. “Do you require any assistance?”

“Nope,” she said, pushing a lever upward then moaned when the engines groaned and lights flickered from the redistribution of power. “If ya dun hurry, ya’ll pull the short straw and end up the patient.”

Not sure what that meant, and confident in the young mechanic’s ability in the engine room, Dagan turned to Sparks and he nodded and motioned for him to follow him to the cargo bay where the others were getting ready.

Nero was going from wall to wall, releasing locking pins before moving onto the next. Panels slid free, covering the wood paneling and darker interior with shimmering panels. As he moved onto the next, the shimmering solidified into white polished metal and chrome wall panels that resembled that of a medical transport vessel. Cynda waited in a pair of white medical scrubs with the insignia of the Sisters of Trinity on the front pocket; she would be the patient this time. In the middle of the room was a medical transport bed, the retractable glass shields were pulled back and illuminated the inside with ambient light. Digital gauges and flashing lights displayed various, preprogrammed vitals for the patient.

“Did you require assistance?” Dagan asked.

“Almost done,” Nero said, releasing the last panel and it slid into place. “Captain was trying to figure out which cover she wanted to use. Medical is the least delayed and scrutinized, especially if there is a possible contagion onboard. At least in our experience it is.”

He nodded his understanding. “The markings?”

“Pallavia has many properties, they just aren’t widely known,” Nero explained as he hurried around, pulling out props from the various storage compartments in the cargo bay. “I think the wood and mineral like each other because once they were introduced they took on minds of their own and developed defensive properties and a higher level of self-awareness and self-preservation. They work together to protect us and we go out of our way to keep them looking beautiful.”

That sounded a bit farfetched to Dagan, but he was starting to realize everything he thought he knew, regardless of how limited it was, apparently didn’t apply to the Dust Jumper and her crew.

“This is all medical equipment, working medical equipment,” Dagan said, examining one of the units. “Very expensive medical equipment belonging to the Authority,” he mumbled.

Nero looked from Sparks to Dagan. “Yes,” he said, guardedly. “It’ll be offloaded once we get to the Stiham Quadrant.”

“I do not understand,” Dagan admitted.

“It is payment,” West said from the top of the stairs. She entered a code into the control panel and the upper level catwalk started flickering before holographic imagery snapped into place, completely concealing the cargo hold and making it appear smaller and with a lower ceiling. “Scrap metal processing is not cheap, and in order to stay out of the eyes of the Authority and Resistance, we pay or exchange services. We have held onto this medical horde because we had no reason to unload it until now.”

Dagan gave her a look, watching her pull on a medical transport jumpsuit on. “You are a really bad Pirate,” he commented.

“Yes, I am well aware of that,” she dryly agreed, zipping the suit up then tossed him one. “I will give you the bill since this is solely because of you.”

He smiled wide.

“Indeed,” she said. “Sparks, give us eyes.”

The violet-eyed male nodded then hurried across the cargo bay, when he crossed a shadow he seemingly disappeared altogether.

Dagan shook his head. “Those of Kisho are every bit as impressive as they are temperamental, at least that one is.”

“One of his best qualities,” West agreed. “I shall finish, Nero. Prepare for questioning,” she said and went to help get Cynda situated. “Did you need anything?” she asked the Seer.

Cynda shook her head, making herself comfortable in the transport bed. “Refrain from stabbing me this time, Captain.”

West gave her an apologetic shrug. “I shall try my best, though I make no promises,” she said then pressed the button and the protective glass covers slid into place and locked. Once she confirmed oxygen levels were where they needed to be, and all monitors were displaying the programmed readings, she made sure everything was in order.

“What do I need to do?” Dagan asked.

“Don’t say anything,” Naveen said as he passed through the hologram causing it to flicker before solidifying once more. “Nurses don’t talk,” he said, his voice changing, “and unless you have a medical degree you are hiding in that darkened memory of yours, you will keep your mouth shut.”

West eyed him. “That is enough, Naveen,” she scolded. “You are positive this one is alive?”

Naveen nodded, his appearance changing to a large busted woman with short black hair, solid black eyes and lips, pale white skin, scars on one side of her face, and arm awkwardly hanging at her side. “Oh yes. She is a dear old friend of yours. Verity Wahid of Shotoku is in the Onias System where she is currently doing what limited demons do.”

West wasn’t amused with his choice, but she understood it.

“Verity’s reputation is that of a remorseless killer that gassed many worlds, wiping out entire colonies without allegiance to the Authority. The last that crossed her took an entire space dock with them,” Naveen informed their guest.

Dagan shook his head. “Why was she permitted to live?” he asked himself, disgusted by such behavior.

West shrugged. “Obviously you never saw the frontlines in your time with the Authority,” she scathingly accused. “The actions of Verity Wahid were nothing compared to the Dark Operations of the Authority. The Resistance, I am more than certain, kept her around simply because it kept her from the hands of the Authority where her means would be turned against the Resistance. Knowing ones enemy and housing them as to keep from being at the hands of said enemy.”

Dagan didn’t appreciate her accusatory tone, but he didn’t press it and put the jumpsuit on.

Jhannie joined them and headed across the cargo bay to the door then took her position off to the side, her skin taking on the pale, polished look of the interior panels, before she seemingly disappeared into the wall.

Naveen stood next to the medical transport chamber and looked down at the old woman looking up at the unfamiliar face above her. “Did you want some of the fun stuff?” he asked with a smirk.

Cynda nodded and Naveen flipped the switch on the side.

“You will be the one dealing with her giggling fits,” West warned.

“A little nitrous oxide never hurt anyone,” Naveen reminded her. “Besides, she looks happy for being on her deathbed. Wouldn’t you agree?”

West glared at him. “I will shoot you,” she warned, pulling one of the masks from a medical cart and tossed it to Dagan before pulling one out for herself. “Do not take it off,” she instructed. “Those in contagion transport will not remove their masks regardless of having a gun pulled on them. Do you understand?”

Dagan nodded and put the full coverage mask on that hid most of his face, leaving only an unrestricted glass-covered section for his eyes.

They took their positions and waited.

On the bridge, Jax manned communications while George flew.

“LWSS, please identify,” a man asked through the communication’s speaker.

“SS Avalon, identification Zacnor, LWSS medical transport from Elderin with single patient plus one requesting jump to Hadaron 8,” Jax said. “License ISV ALPHA TANGO BRAVO 889-1. Please confirm priority jump status.”

When there was no response, George looked over at her.

It was always agony for the young pilot when there was silence on the other end.

“LWSS, confirm identity and affiliation of patient.”

Jax made a face. “Avalon, the channel is unsecure. That should be proof enough of the allegiance of our patient and plus one,” she said.

Again, silence from the other side.

‘You better not get me killed,’ George mouthed.

Jax rolled her eyes.

“LWSS, proceed to docking bay KILO TANGO for patient authorization,” he said.

“SS, orders received. We are on a very tight schedule and the patient has coded more than once while in flight. When you see the plus one you will understand our need for discretion and timely passage,” she warned, hoping that would iterate the severity of the patient’s condition.

“LWSS, warning acknowledged. An additional fee will apply to jump fee for delay in exercising orders. Proceed to KILO TANGO.”

“Roger,” Jax said and disconnected the line. “Qù nǐde,” she hissed.

“Captain’s going to have your ass for that one,” George teasingly sang, following the flight path provided by the SS on the digital holographic display in front of her.

“Shut up,” Jax grumbled. “It’s worked before.”

“Not out here,” she reminded her. “Monetary units is all they care about. Hopefully Naveen pulled some terrifying bitch out of his appointment book and they won’t try to collect their now quadrupled fee.”

Jax groaned; she would be lucky to pay off that mistake with two years of her take from whatever jobs would come their way once the Senate concluded their session.

Chapter Eighteen

“I hate this one,” George whispered when their destination came into view.

The Resistance controlled jump point was in a military space station. Rumor was it had been reported destroyed at the beginning of the Great War between the Resistance and Authority.

It wasn’t destroyed, it wasn’t even stolen.

Apparently it was misplaced.

Somehow the entire vessel, which shouldn’t have been possible due to the size of it, and crew were jumped from one corner of Realm to another. One day it just appeared in orbit over a gas planet without inhabitants. The crew was missing and presumed dead. What took or killed them was never discovered since all systems were functional and the reports they could pull didn’t state any types of system failures that would have resulted in mass casualties or an attack from those of the darkened regions of Realm. There were no weapons aboard, and was, apparently, a research facility that Resistance scientists couldn’t deduce what was being researched.

The Resistance saw an opportunity and they took it, claiming the space station and got it operational for their needs. Most of the systems they couldn’t get to work, they appeared to be bio-coded and were dormant. The ones that weren’t, they use to fund their position in the war.

“They say it is haunted,” George whispered as they went, the large, imposing, darkened orbiting station casting a shadow over Whisper as they passed.

The name of the imposing station stood out against the darkness as if mocking them.

Avalon.

Jax nodded; she had heard the stories herself. Normally not a believer in the supernatural, she refused to step foot on Avalon because it didn’t feel right to her. There was something, a hum of residual energy with a consciousness, and it warned her to stay away.

“What do you think happened to the crew?” George asked.

Jax shook her head. “Speculating might lure you to join the Ghosts of Avalon,” she warned; that was what Cynda had said. “If we stay on the bridge we’ll be fine,” she said, pulling her sidearm and made sure a round was chambered.

George nodded her understanding and struggled to swallow the lump in her throat.

When the display of their descent went from white as they followed to red, George pulled Whisper around then reversed into the assigned docking bay. Once inside, hydraulic clamps secured the ship in place. She put the engines in conservation mode, something that would keep from filling the area with exhaust and would allow for them to make a quick getaway if needed. The exterior bay doors slid into place, sealing them in before the room was pressurized. The lights at the back of the docking bay went from red to blue, confirming the docking bay was habitable.

West motioned with her chin and Jhannie released the door and it lowered to the dock where a contingency of armed guards stood.

Naveen sat with a hand resting on the medical transport vessel, eyes narrowed in irritation and wide, thin black lips snarling.

“Identify…” the one in charge started to demand but his words trailed off.

“Do I really need to tell you my name?” she sneered.

“No, Ma’am,” he automatically said, saluting. “If the pilot would have-”

“What?” she snapped. “Told you over an unsecure channel that Verity Wahid was on board you would have granted passage without question?” she sneered. “Oh yes, that is genius. Broadcast to the Authority, to the Empire salivating to collect the bounty on her head, that the most feared creature in Realm was on Avalon waiting for inept bastards to grant passage for she and her poor mother. Yes, that would have ended brilliantly,” she said, scathingly.

The guard looked from the irritated woman to the medical transport unit then to the tall nurses with their faces hidden behind masks.

Dagan’s head tilted to the side and his attention went past the guards to the area behind them.

West sensed the change in him and she regarded him curiously; his posture had changed, eyes darkened, hands were balled into fists, and she could tell he was fighting to stay where he stood.

“No disrespect, Ma’am,” the guard said, eying West and Dagan suspiciously, “but I was unaware you possessed any type of emotion or affinity towards another that would constitute devotion to someone other than you.”

She chuckled. “Because I do not. You see, foolish guard, while you sit here surrounded by ghosts and little bastards with guns, children that have never spilled blood or known the joys of gassing an entire colony, or blowing up a religious temple for no reason other than to do it, I am still fighting the war. The Resistance may have fallen, in the eyes of the Authority, but the war still rages on. Only now,” she paused and caressed her hand against the glass over Cynda’s face, “I am taking it to them. A biological weapon that will simply stroll into the middle of the Senate while in session and take them out. Isn’t she beautiful?” she asked, looking over at them with a smirk. “Or perhaps you would like a demonstration?” she mused and started pressing buttons causing hisses of pressurized gas to fill the air. “The Ghosts of Avalon could use some new company.”

West stepped back, pulling Dagan with her, as if retreating, as did Nero.

“No!” the guard shouted. “A very beautiful carrier,” he agreed. “Your destination-”

“Is none of your concern,” she interrupted with a snarl. “My little gift is still cooking, and elements for an explosive delivery I must procure. Surely you understand.”

He nodded.

“If there is nothing else, I am on a very tight schedule.”

The guards looked between each other.

“What is it?” she snarled, growing impatient.

The one in charge cleared his throat as he struggled to say the words. “Another medical transport broke down. They were headed to the same Quadrant that you are. One of my men got a little trigger-happy and… Can you, a favor I would owe you and passage granted without fee, have your medical staff deliver the other patient once you have reached your destination? I fear another of high stature in the movement would have my head if it was delayed any longer.”

She gave him a look then scoffed. “Tell me you jest. What favor would I need from a low-level guard? For all that is unholy, the safety is on,” she complained, motioning towards the gun in his hands.

He looked from her to his gun then flipped the safety off. “Did not want a repeat, Ma’am,” he said in a clipped tone when those behind him started chuckling.

“I do not have-” she started.

The flashing of lights cut her complaint off and a dozen more armed guards hurried to join them.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” the guard admitted.

“Sir,” a young female whispered, “they need you on the bridge. The systems… Dormant systems are starting to wake up. The communications array is down and weapons we didn’t know Avalon possessed are powering up on their own,” she said, her tone urgent.

The guard looked from the young female to those in Whisper.

West’s attention was on him, biting at her tongue were orders for Sparks to take them out.

Nero stood with his hands up, as a doctor would in this situation.

Dagan continued to look past them to the interior of Avalon.

“Bring the other patient so I can get out of here before the Ghosts of Avalon add my toy to their awakening arsenal,” she complained, stealing their attention. “Now!” she barked.

The guard motioned for the others to grab the other additional patient.

“I will see to your passage. Instructions will be sent to your pilot,” he said with a nod then hurried off.

West’s hand snapped out and grabbed Dagan’s arm when he started to follow.

When she made contact with him, her eyes widened. All around them were people. Their corporal state was compromised, causing them to appear as apparitions. They wore the garb of the Authority’s Research and Development Division, but the insignia was unfamiliar to her. Each person moved with purpose and were seeing to a specific task or job. There was no fear in them, no sense of urgency, nothing that would suggest they were anything other than a crew seeing to day-to-day responsibilities.

A young, dark skinned female headed towards them with an information recorder in hand, and when she passed through West, the Captain gasped.

Dagan’s head snapped to the side to regard her and he instantly pulled away from her touch.

The moment they no longer had contact, the apparitions vanished.

West looked at him with wide eyes.

“Vessel transport,” a guard said, handing over the paperwork to Nero after they pushed a second, sealed transport bed into the cargo bay. “The body has to arrive in good condition for reanimation. The receiving end has the key for obvious reasons. Keep it hooked up or whatever you do and you should be fine. Safe passage, Ma’am,” he said, turning to the irritated woman. “It was a pleasure meeting you. I am a fan of your work.”

“Of course you are,” she sneered, dismissively waving him away.

Once the last of the guards exited, Jhannie hit the console and the door closed.

“Leave me here,” Dagan demanded, pulling his mask off.

West looked at him curiously before her fist slammed into the side of his head, knocking him to the floor. “No. If you do not control the darkened nature of your eyes, you will be put in time out and nitrous oxide will not be supplied. Do you understand?” she asked when the ship started to vibrate slightly as the engines powered up.

Dagan glared at her as he picked himself up. “You do not understand,” he snarled.

West motioned for Jhannie and Sparks to get ready to jump. “Yes, I do,” she retorted when they disappeared through the holograms and headed up the stairs. “The ghosts of your past are exactly that, Foolish Boy. If we stay here any longer they will discover the truth.” She motioned towards Naveen and he wiggled his fingers at them as his appearance reverted to the blond male. “The reputation of the horrible creature is what allowed us passage. Regrettably, the reputation of that horrible creature is what will get us caught if we linger. Verity Wahid does not venture from her Quadrant, and rumor of her being seen requesting a jump from Avalon will flood the region we must venture to with Resistance fighters. Do you understand?”

He continued to glare at her. “You do not understand, Captain. And you cannot possibly know that.”

“Who do you think was the one that put her in that chair?” West asked. “My aim was off by mere hairs. Instead of death, she lost the use of her legs and left arm and is confined to a chair. That has not stopped her evil, bloody ways, they are only limited now. It will be gossip worthy, seeing her with a means to take out the Senate. I hope that Naveen did not give them ideas with his overly creative performance,” she added, her tone warning and he shrugged. “Nero, get Cynda situated since she is now heavily medicated, and make sure the other unit is secured.” She glanced over to the other medical vessel. “I have a feeling it will be even more troublesome than the Foolish Boy is…” she started to say when she noticed the door to the vessel was ajar, and the rest of her words trailed off when the clicking of a hammer echoed throughout the cargo bay.

West looked over her shoulder and cocked an eyebrow when he appeared, stepping out from the holographic projection on that wall.

The uninvited guest didn’t wear the uniform of the Resistance. Instead he donned a brown leather jumpsuit without insignia, plated helmet that was retracted into the collar of his jumpsuit, short swords were secured to his back, sidearm holstered to one thigh, and the other holster was empty.

“Captain West, I have to say, this is an honor,” he said, his molten gray eyes moving over her face for confirmation. The small bandings of metallic blue flared in one eye and captured the Captain’s image as streaming data was collected from the cyber-implant.

West merely shrugged, as if she wasn’t concerned in the least. “Agree to disagree, Maszen.”

Maszen Rilynund smirked and pressed his gun against her head. “A short lived honor,” he said with a smile. “It truly was insultingly easy. I am greatly disappointed.”

“Put the gun away and I shall remedy that,” she said, motioning for Dagan to stay.

Maszen scoffed, the blue turning red with confirmation of her identity. “Fool me once, shame on me, Captain. Fool me twice, shame on you. Goodbye, Captain West,” he said and the area exploded in light.

Coming Soon

Episode Two in The

Dark Novella Trilogy