Propping her boots on the console, Jade leaned back in her chair and admired the blue-green disk in the distance. It had grown from a speck to something substantial and the outlines of the continents were clearly visible.
She grinned and hummed a childhood tune. She’d proved them wrong. They’d all said it was too early for her to go solo. Yet, here she was on her first mission and about to deliver much needed supplies to the stricken rebels of Planet Kalamar.
The metallic voice rocked her out of her daydreaming and she swung her legs off the console. A red light was flashing, indicating the navigation system was making rapid calculations.
“Where?” She peered out the windows into the void of space. Nothing there but stars and her destination—Kalamar.
The monotonous female repeated her warning. Jade wished she’d reprogrammed it with a male voice, something that matched the forthright bark.
Approaching from the stern.
Jade zoomed out a view screen, which took its source from the rear camera. She saw a huge black shadow blocking out the stars. It was big and moving fast.
Her spacecraft, which she’d nicknamed Stealth, was basic: no armaments and built for speed. It also had a good size cargo hold and a few nifty maneuvering thrusts.
She flicked a few switches and the ship swerved to the left.
A loud clang ended the movement and the violence of the stoppage threw her off her seat. “What was that?”
Tractor beam engaged!
“Who has one of them?” she asked nobody. The downside of flying solo—no ear to bend when trouble came knocking.
The military had sophisticated technology, some of the large rebel factions, too, but the relief organization with which she was associated had nothing like it.
The engine cut out. It had to. The force of the beam would rip Stealth apart. What kind of mighty ship had ensnared her? Whatever it was, she couldn’t outrun it.
“Shut down everything but life support,” she commanded.
Under attack. Forced docking in progress. Confirm command.
“You heard me. Do it,” Jade snarled at the annoying computer.
The lights on the console flickered, then went dull. The flight bridge descended into semi-darkness.
Jade hurried down a passageway toward the cargo bay. She punched the key panel and entered the lockdown code. Another deep clang echoed along the corridor. Somebody was attempting to gain access through the airlock.
She ran to the far end of the bay, crouched and pressed her palm to the unlit panel. The hidden hatch released and she crawled into the small space, closed the hatch behind her, and curled into a ball and waited.
It was her best hope—playing dead. If she could persuade the intruders the ship was abandoned, hopefully they’d leave her and the precious cargo alone.
She waited in silence. More clanging, and strange sounds she couldn’t identify, then footsteps. The stomping footfalls of a solitary person. They stopped, restarted, and gradually moved closer. Jade held her breath, convinced that her heartbeats were so loud they would be audible throughout the ship.
Then somebody, the intruder, kicked the hatch door.
“Open it or else I’ll shoot it open and I can’t guarantee you won’t be hurt.” The deep voice of the man easily penetrated the walls of the bolt hole.
Jade wrung her hands together. What to do?
One trip out. Just one and she’d been caught. But by whom? A bunch of rogues, lowlifes who stole, or the military?
She was in trouble either way.
“Last warning. I’m gonna count to three. One. Two…”
A girl! Mason’s eyes widened in disbelief as she crawled out of the hiding space. She rose to her feet. No, not a child, a woman, but young and short in stature. Probably from one of the outlying system planets, given her black hair and bronze skin, someplace where the sun shone, unlike his icy home-world.
The emergency light behind him cast his shadow over her. She flinched when she saw the gun in his hands. He pointed it at her chest. It was a nonlethal weapon, but it packed a punch and the stun would knock her out for hours.
“Identify yourself,” he demanded. His weapon contained a retinal scanner and the beam had already struck the back of her eye. Her identity was about to be revealed, confirming his suspicion that the ship was a rogue vessel. In his earpiece, the link to his ship’s computer uploaded a list of offenses and the droning voice rattled them off. Not exactly a hardened criminal, but a criminal nonetheless. She wouldn’t add a fortune to his bonus, but every little bit helped.
“Get lost,” she croaked, then cleared her voice. “I should ask who the fuck you are and why have you commandeered my craft.”
He kicked the loose panel. “Watch your tongue, young lady. Disrespect won’t be tolerated and I think it would be best if I ask the questions.”
“Then you’ll get no answers.” She folded her arms across her chest.
Feisty creature, except it was a brave front—her legs were shaking and her lower lip trembled. She’d a pretty pair of lips to go with her bright, splendidly dark eyes, high cheekbones, and button-ended nose. Everything about her was finely tuned, a cut above many of the females he encountered through his line of work.
“You are Jade Kryst, absconded citizen of the planet Malimor. You left Malimor without permission of the migratory authorities. You are a known associate of a criminal gang—”
“I left to serve a cause. I’m not a member of a gang. I fly relief missions—”
He raised his gun in line with her throat. “These are the charges. You’re a smuggler of contraband and therefore a fugitive from justice. There is an arrest warrant out for you.”
Her sweet, kissable mouth opened and shut before she spoke in a squeak. “You’re a cop,” she exclaimed. “You don’t look like an enforcer.”
“I’m Federal Space Marshal Mason Hadley. Uniforms aren’t compulsory for federal marshals while on missions; I need to blend into the surroundings. Although, if it makes you more compliant, I’ll put one on especially for you.” He hated wearing the damn thing. Made him look like a toy soldier. He preferred his leathers, the feel of natural fabric against his skin and definitely not synthetics, especially armored synths—he creaked walking in them, hardly the best for stealth operations.
She slouched her weight onto one hip and folded her arms across her curvaceous chest. “Sure, go ahead. I’ll just wait here,” she smirked, cocking her head to one side.
He liked her, but not in a way that he should because she’d a bad attitude toward authority and that wouldn’t last very long if she continued to sass him. Teaching her a lesson or two appealed, although she’d not take kindly to his techniques. Pity he had to lock her up. More than lock her up, he was required to search her.
“You’re a fugitive,” he repeated. “I have the authority to detain you and this vessel including its cargo.”
She gaped once again, showing a little of her dainty pink tongue. “Please. There’re medical supplies. Essentials. They’re needed.”
“They’re needed by rebels. Kalamar is designated a forbidden destination. Now, put your hands on your head and walk.”
“No,” she snapped. “I’m not a criminal.”
Petulant, too. She was young, way too young to be flying solo, but all the same, Mason shook his head in disappointment at her belligerent tone of voice. However, that disappointment didn’t extent to her appearance—she possessed the perfect package of physical attributes: attractive figure and clever eyes that watched his every move. She bounced on her toes, ready to take flight. Spending time with her, finding out why she was alone in space like him, would make dull days more interesting. Sadly for her, he’d had his orders and he didn’t have time to argue. There were bigger prizes to catch.
Focus, Mason, keep things moving. Jade wasn’t his intended target. She might end up being an extra sweetener to add to his pot, but she’d amount to little up against his real targets.
“Have you heard of the five ‘S’s?” he asked.
She frowned, clearly bemused by his sudden question. “No.”
“The five stages of apprehending a fugitive. Stun.” He tilted the gun, but kept it aimed on her. “Stupefy, strip, search, and stasis.”
She swallowed. “I don’t understand.”
She probably did, but like many he caught, she’d gone into denial.
“I’ve not taken a female into custody before now,” he admitted soberly, reflecting on the process in all of its intricate details and the ramifications of touching her without her explicit consent. One solution—ensure she cooperated. “So, I’m going to bend the rules a little so there is no question of my taking advantage of you and just so you appreciate what a nice guy I can be, when I want to be.”
She wrinkled her nostrils. “This is nice?”
“Sure, you’ll see. Stun, well, it hurts, but it’s quick. Stupefy, that’s the toughie. A neuro-drug is injected into the bloodstream, which dulls the response time, sends you into a suggestive state similar to a hypnotic trance. Then the strip and body search to check for sequestered contraband.”
Her jaw dropped lower as he described each stage of the process.
“After that, it’s easy. I zap you into a cryo tube and you snooze in the liquid freezer all the way to the federal justice center, where you’ll be tried and sentenced.”
The color drained from her face. “Please. Don’t.” She took a step back, glancing over her shoulder. The sass was gone along with a dramatic change in her tone of voice. Now, she was probably going to start cooperating.
He lowered his weapon slightly. “I said I’ll be nice. No stunning. No stupefying. But the strip search—”
“I have the authority. I have to produce a full report and in it, a detailed inspection. So, hands on your head, turn and walk to the air lock. Once we’re on my ship, we can make a start. I’m on a schedule.” He waved the gun toward the exit of the cargo bay.
“I won’t… you can’t…” she stuttered, her cheeks turning flaming red.
“It’s just the two of us, Jade. There’s no backup nearby, so if you don’t play by the rules, you get punished.”
“Punished!” she shrilled.
“Yes. I’ve a firm hand, take my word for it.” He hadn’t intended to sound quite so literal, but it was an idea. What if… no, not unless she really played up. “I don’t want any nonsense. I’ve cut you some slack, so show me what a good girl you can be and do as you’re told.”
“Why, you—” Her eyes narrowed into slits.
He raised his eyebrows, tempting her to finish the sentence. She snapped her jaw shut, raised her arms, and placed her hands on her head.
“You’re making a mistake,” she muttered.
“Possibly,” he replied, to himself, not her.
She marched down the corridor, back straight, shoulders squared off. He admired her swaying hips and the tight line of her pants over her ass. It was too good a sight; she was making him stiff, a completely inappropriate response. She was an alien, almost, kind of… a different planet, same species. His schoolteachers had taught him carnal matters were the same, too. He focused on the back of her head, telling himself she was no one special, just another fugitive.
Reaching the airlock, she halted. The speeder was designed for midgets and he had to squeeze through the small hatch when he’d boarded the craft.
“Duck your head,” Mason said. “I don’t want you hurting yourself.”
On the other side, they both straightened up. After a few steps along the tunnel, they approached the larger hatch joining their two ships. She hesitated, almost stumbling, while he activated the code to unlock the hatch. With his gun still aimed on her back, he followed her through, staying close on her heels.
It was probably her first time on board a Titan interceptor. It was nothing like her poky shuttle. As well as having one of the fastest drives in the sector, it had an outer hull that blended with its environment, effectively hiding it.
“Keep walking,” he said, indicating the corridor on her left.
She lowered her arms. “This is an interceptor—”
“An older model, though. They replaced this one with the Delta version, didn’t they?”
He smothered a laugh. Jade had just insulted his pride, and yet, he wasn’t annoyed. “You think a marshal would be given a new interceptor? No, I earned it. I’m the highest ranked marshal in the sector. I got it after it was decommissioned from military service. Conveniently for me, Titan was used to transport troops or capture rebels, so it already had everything I need for holding fugitives. I’m the luckiest law enforcer, aren’t I? Most marshals are given the Chaser model. This way.” He held her elbow and guided her toward the detention suite.
If she’d been a male, by now she would be bound, drugged, and docile. Why hadn’t he treated her like the others? Had he finally succumbed to the effects of loneliness and wanted a companion?
He preferred to work alone. Marshals generally were loners. Cops liked working with teams, investigating and patrolling, whereas Mason wanted to hunt, capture, and bring the worst offenders to justice and it was easier to work undercover alone, creeping up on his unsuspecting targets without the hindrance of others. He’d recently dropped off six fugitives at the courts, two of them murderers. If he managed to get the last three on his list, he would have achieved the best capture rate in his unit and with it, the bonus he needed.
The problem was the last three were the most dangerous fugitives in the sector and unknown to Jade, his rotten ship was no longer in good shape. If one more thing went wrong with it, he’d have to ditch it and return to using the mediocre Chaser. The last intelligence report from his informants indicated the first of his fugitives was hiding out on Kalamar, but unlikely to stay there long. The second was supposed to be holed up on a border space station and the third… he’d no news on him.
She halted again, just by the entrance to the medical bay and pivoted on the balls of her toes to face him.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
The neat line of her eyebrows had lowered and she peered at him, inspecting his clothing and boots. “How do I know you’re a marshal? You could be one of those traffickers.”
She had a point and he couldn’t blame her for questioning his credentials. If he was to gain her cooperation, he had to give her proof.
He pursed his lips, trying not to smile and cocked his head to one side. He’d much rather keep her awake and congenial than argue with her. The company of an attractive woman was proving to be too good an opportunity to miss, even if it meant twisting the finer procedural points to prove who he was. It wasn’t as if she had a violent record or was part of a vicious gang; if anything she might provide him with a decent conversation, a better one than the pedantic computer. If she respected his authority, maybe she’d show it, save him the hassle of dealing with bad behavior. If she didn’t, well, he would deal with it—discipline was the cornerstone of his training.
“All right. This way.” He gestured further along the corridor toward his quarters. “In there.”