Authors: Jessa Slade
Tags: #Firefly spaceship captain, #Linnea Sinclair, #Susan Grant, #Nalini Singh, #Ann Aguirre, #Queen of Starlight: Sheerspace Book 1, #alpha male, #space opera, #hot sexy, #futuristic romance, #science fiction romance
The old man’s eyes fluttered and he stared up. His eyes shone with the same ghostly glow as the dead crystals back at the temple. “Sennis?”
Benedetta touched Corso’s shoulder. “That was his a’lurilyo.”
One hard rock being very much like another, Corso lowered the old man to the ground out of sight of Rislla.
“Sennis?” Yecho plucked weakly at the robe pooled around him. “Where did he go?”
Benedetta sank to the floor beside him. “He stepped away for a moment, Yecho. You’ll be with him again soon.”
His eyes drifted closed then widened again. “Benedetta? I have to go.”
“I know,” she murmured.
“Sennis always wanted to take a ship somewhere far away, but since he was a sheerways commissioner, we just watched from the station while the ships threaded into the dark. Maybe one day...” He took another breath as if to continue, but the sigh that came out instead held no words, merely the last of his life.
Benedetta let him slide off her lap. “I hope you’re together again,” she murmured. “If that is what you wanted.”
Just as she bowed her head, the tablet she’d taken from Icere gave one static burst. The tiny shards of discarded crystal chimed discordantly.
The raiders were coming.
Corso shifted. “You know I didn’t agree to Rislla’s offer.”
She nodded. “I heard what you said. Or didn’t say. She would have too if she weren’t so lost in her own greed and resentment.”
“Then it’s a good thing she’s lost.” He reached out to touch her cheek but stopped at the sight of the old man’s blood streaking his fingers. “Princess...”
She shook him off. “Don’t.”
His jaw ached. “Don’t what?”
She walked away from him, back into danger. She’d face the murderess and the Union slavers rather than him.
He followed her and arranged himself to one side of Rislla, out of immediate sight from the direction the raiders would enter.
Rislla glanced at him. “Are you going to shoot me and them and take the whole thing for yourself?”
“You hired me because you knew I wouldn’t.”
She grimaced. “I didn’t want to bring you at all. But contacting you did give me the idea to contact the Union directly.”
He stared at her hard. “Anyone else you’d like to blame for your crimes?”
Rislla considered. “No. I think I’m done.”
He was going to make sure of that.
Benedetta listened to the exchange as she stared down at her tunic. Yecho’s blood had left swirls not so different from her crystal markings.
Or maybe the opposite was more apropos: The crystals left marks like the last flow of life’s blood.
With the threat to his ship, she had tricked Corso into coming. With the temptation of the a’lurily key, she had tried to trap him into staying. She had lost everything, and now she feared all Qv’arratz’s flaws—as terrible as flawed crystal—were about to be inflicted on the universe.
The tablet in her pocket chirped again and then again; Icere warning them of more attackers. There was no way she and Corso were getting out of this alive.
Even as her heart sank, the thunder of many boots echoed in the chamber. The first Union raiders appeared in the opening above. They didn’t hesitate, but began their descent. Rislla must have sent them schematics of the mine.
The blue-coated man in the lead was issuing orders and pointing toward the largest remaining nodes of qva’avaq. The crystal facets reflected his dissonant shouts, a perversion of the wicked intent.
Before the first group of a dozen had reached the chamber floor, another half dozen soldiers arrayed themselves along the upper reaches of the carved path, carbines held at the ready.
The blue-coated man appeared from the maze of broken rock. His attention flicked past Benedetta without interest and settled on Rislla. “I see the coordinates you sent are accurate. Do you have the extraction and processing techniques?”
He was not unhandsome, with the steady gaze and concise movements Benedetta associated with military men. But his pale eyes were cold, and the cruel bracket of lines beside his mouth had never been cracked by a true smile.
Benedetta suppressed a shiver. He was what Corso might have been.
With placid composure, Rislla folded her gnarled knuckles into a l’auraly gesture of rudeness. Benedetta wondered why the woman bothered when no one would ever read those gestures again. “You are Gallt? Yes, here is the sacred l’auraly crystal, as I promised. Soon to be the Universalist Union’s ticket to universal domination. May it bring you much pleasure. You do have my payment, I hope.”
“I do.” He gestured at the soldier beside him, who lifted the matte bore of his carbine.
The roar of a blast in the hard-edged confines of the mine made Benedetta cry out.
From the depths of the chamber, another crystal answered her.
Her heart slammed into her throat, cutting off all noise. Somewhere here was another key to her crystal!
But she couldn’t move because in front of her, the soldier—not Rislla—stumbled back and fell.
Corso had already shifted the sights to Gallt as he edged around the rocks. “Care to adjust the price? I warn you, I once destroyed a planet completely by accident; I can easily put a plasma slug between your eyes with my death spasm.”
The sound of more than a dozen carbines powering up whined in the chamber, dampening Benedetta’s surge of shock. Since they’d all expected the first shot to be theirs, none were prepared for Corso to target their leader’s henchman. But if she started running, looking for the crystal that had resonated with her cry, they’d shoot her in a heartbeat.
And by the shining stones of Qv’arratz, she’d want them to shoot! Was she so weak and fearful of an uncharted future that she would willingly enslave herself again—enslave Corso—after she had barely tasted freedom?
And still her fists clenched reflexively at her bare throat where the torque had hung.
Gallt, staring down Corso’s hazer, pursed his lips and gestured at the next soldier in line who reached very slowly into his pocket and brought out a tablet. He clicked several times then nodded at Gallt.
“The credits are in your account now.” Gallt smiled wryly at Rislla. “You might want to add a kill bonus for your triggerman there.”
Benedetta looked at Corso’s cold, hard face. She knew this was what he had to do now, to keep them alive, just as she’d done things, hoping to keep Qv’arratz alive. They were all drifting on their fated courses. Just as she felt drawn to find the keyed crystal that had answered hers.
Except even if she had a second key, Corso hadn’t wanted the first one. He didn’t want a l’auralya. A pleasure slave was no match for a sheership warrior.
No one in the tense group looked at her. They must all assume she was with Rislla, confirming the transfer of credits. Rislla and Gallt had moved closer together as Rislla gestured toward the nearest crystals.
With the slowed thud of her heartbeat a funeral drone in her veins, Benedetta withdrew the tablet from her pocket. Corso had told her she could be and do whatever she wanted. And she hadn’t believed him. She did now. Now, when it was almost too late. But this had to stop here, now, forever.
She edged toward Corso, who hadn’t lowered his weapon. Neither had their opponents.
“I have an uplink to the
,” she murmured. “Call in the attack.”
He never shifted his gaze from Gallt, still in his sights, but his whole body tensed. She knew what she was asking, knew there was no way for him to issue commands as he liked to do. If there were this many Union shuttles and soldiers on the ground, how many ships were above? When the
emerged from her hiding spot in the Qv’arratzy rings, what would she face without Corso in her captain’s chair?
But they knew what the universe would face if they did nothing.
His gaze angled just the slightest toward her, and in the stark, dark glimmer she saw that he knew they wouldn’t survive, that no crystals must leave the chamber. “
Light the stones
is the code. Key it in twice.”
She gave him a wry smile, her heart breaking. “You have hidden depths.”
“Not hidden from you. You have all of me, including my ship.”
Her smile faltered as she thought of the unmatched key crystal, miraculously resonant to her, somewhere in the rocks around them. She could still have him, as a l’auralya had her a’lurilyo—two bodies, two souls, two songs aligned.
With icy fingers slowed by regret, she clicked his code words. As she did, she opened the sideline transmission program Icere had been working on when the Union raider triggered the mine drop the last time. The coordinates of the qva’avaq mine that she’d sent to the
were still highlighted in the tablet’s memory, so the copy and paste was quick.
She hesitated one heartbeat, her fingertip hovering over the launch command. Somewhere above, she knew the
was attacking. The Union raider ship would fire with everything it had, thinking it was aiming at the
… She triggered Icere’s hijack code and looked at Corso. “What is the ultimate freedom, Captain?”
His gaze fixed on her and his eyes widened. “Death.”
Beyond them, Gallt laughed, an ugly sound, and from the spiraling path up the wall, pulse carbines whined, prelude to a firing…
Until the chamber exploded in light and sound.
Reflexively, Corso grabbed for Benedetta to shield her from jagged chunks of stone tumbling from the ceilings. He had to drop the hazer to do so—not that it mattered. As the chamber rocked like a ship entangled between the sheerways, all the raiders struggled to stay upright. A few didn’t have the chance.
Benedetta gasped and ducked her head into his chest to avoid the sight of Rislla’s blind staring eyes. The faceted crystal that had cut through her chest was as big as anything still remaining in the chamber and edged like a hundred daggers.
Corso’s ears rang with the concussion but Benedetta’s explanation came through loud and clear. “Every time the Union ship fires, Icere’s hijack code will redirect the bombardment here.” She lifted her gaze to his, her gemstone-bright gaze softened, begging for his understanding. “The crystal can’t get out.”
“The crystal can’t get out,” he agreed. “But we can.”
He hauled her to her feet just as the second concussion hit. Falling crystals crushed the muzzle of his hazer, but he was prepared for the writhing earth this time and didn’t fall. He pulled Benedetta past the first line of confused soldiers clutching at the unsteady rocks.
But as they started back through the maze of mined stone, Gallt loomed in front of them. He’d taken a carbine from one of the other soldiers and his eyes were ringed in stark white.
“What are you doing?” His shriek echoed back, distorted in the disintegrating crystals. “I paid for this.”
Corso’s hands flexed in helpless desire for a weapon. “You are definitely paying now.”
“And you never bought us,” Benedetta added.
Gallt sneered. The black hole of the carbine muzzle wavered between Corso and Benedetta, as if the Union commander couldn’t decide whom he’d rather shoot first.
Corso swallowed hard as Benedetta tightened her grip on him, half hidden behind his bulk. He would die happy in her arms.
The mine rattled again and again and again as the inner layer of rock and crystal tried to tear away in slow motion like a l’auralya shedding her veil.
Gallt glanced up in consternation, just the briefest of distractions, but from her shelter behind Corso, Benedetta slung her tablet at the commander’s head. Gallt ducked, and the threatening mouth of the carbine swung wide.
Corso jolted forward and kicked the weapon away. With a vicious oath, Gallt launched a blow that caught Corso on his shoulder. The heavy strike would have rattled a smaller man, but Corso scarcely felt it through the scars and his rage.
He snarled at the other man. “You wanted to control the universe?”
“Just the important parts,” Gallt spat back. “Nothing you could aspire to.”
They grappled, and Benedetta cried a warning as they edged closer to a deeply excavated pit. They swayed on the verge, locked in combat. From the corner of Corso’s eye, the jagged rubble in the pit looked liked gnashing teeth.
But his focus was on the Union commander in his grip. “Who sent you here? You aren’t smart enough to have engineered the enslavement of the universe.”
“Many want control of the sheerways,” Gallt rasped. “But it would have been mine to give. For a price.” His eyes—slightly bulging, as Corso’s grip was on his neck—narrowed. “You can’t run forever.”
The tablet Benedetta had thrown at Gallt beeped a warning; the Union ship had launched another round.
Corso gave the other man a hard smile. “I’m not running. Not anymore.” He opened his hands.
Startled, the Union commander took a step backward.
The chamber shuddered again under the bombardment from above. Unbalanced, Gallt fell backward with a scream that echoed nowhere in the last hall of dead crystal.
Benedetta grabbed Corso’s hand. “Come on.”
“Etta, it’s too late—”
“Anything we want. Anywhere we want. That’s what you told me.”
He grinned at her. “Did I say that? And you believed me?”
Hand in hand, they raced for the exit through the dust that billowed through the air. With each moment, the chamber threatened to fall in on itself. Three soldiers with more determination than brains tried to stop them. After Corso dealt with them, they had less brains yet.
The carved path spiraling along the wall was disintegrating as they climbed. Chunks of the chamber crashed down to the floor far below, a warning of their fate should they take one wrong step. Nearly at the top, the path had sheered away to bare vertical rock, providing a sickening glimpse of the shattered stone and broken bodies below.
Without breaking stride, Corso took Benedetta in his arms and tossed her across the gap before narrowly making the leap himself. His boots slammed down, and the stone crumbled under his heels.
For a frozen heartbeat, he flailed, tilting backward toward certain death.