Authors: Chandra Ryan
“I’ve done this dozens of times, Parker. I don’t need a
“Are we back to calling each other by name now?”
Concentrating on the food in front of her, she barely heard
“You called me Parker. You haven’t called me anything but XO
for the last three days.”
She could have kicked herself for the slip but there was
nothing that could be done about it now but tell the truth. Glancing up, she
caught his eye. “I’m in uncharted space here. I don’t know how I’m supposed to
act or what I’m supposed to call you anymore. Everything changed so quickly. I’m
still trying to figure out what it all means.”
He looked sad for a moment but then the expression vanished
and he nodded. “I understand. Maybe we could just go back one step. Try for
friends. Or, at the very least, friendly.” When he smiled she almost believed
she could do it.
“I’m willing to give it a shot if you are.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
They finished their dinner in silence but it was a
comfortable silence. The tension that always surrounded them remained. She
still wanted him and there was no doubt that he felt the same. But the anger
and frustration that dogged them the last three days was gone. She only wished
the aching in her heart would ease as well.
A half hour later Parker was sitting at his console trying
to think about anything other than the dinner he’d just had with Harlow.
Actually the dinner had gone much better than he’d anticipated. It still hurt
for him to be around her but knowing she was having a hard time of it helped a
It was the conversation he couldn’t get out of his head. In
just a few minutes they’d reach Salaan and then she’d be leaving the safety of
to venture down to the prison world—without him. Yes, she’d
probably done it countless times. But this was the first time he’d watch her
leave. And as he decreased the power to the ship’s engines he knew that time
was coming very soon.
“Please report our current status, XO.”
He looked down at his instrument panel. “We’ve reached the
“Turn on the viewscreen and establish an orbit with the
Within a few minutes he could see the small prison planet in
front of them on the main screen. “Done, sir.”
“Good. XO has the bridge.”
He nodded stiffly. “Acknowledged, Captain.” He didn’t turn
to see her leave but listened to the click of heels on the metal floor until
they’d disappeared behind the heavy door. When he could no longer hear them he
typed in the return coordinates.
“Captain to XO.”
“We’re in the shuttle. Open the bay doors and set the timer.”
He punched in the command. “Bay doors opened and timer set,
There were a few minutes of silence as the shuttle made its
way to the planet surface but he could track their progress from the digital
readout on his monitor.
“We’re at the prison gates. Please start the timer.”
And that was it. The last he’d hear from her until she was
safely aboard the shuttle again and on her way back to the
minutes ticked by slowly as he waited. Every time he closed his eyes his mind
taunted him with the memory of her body laid out in front of him. Her eyes were
heavy with desire and her breath was already raspy. He could almost feel the
silken texture of her skin. But then he’d open his eyes to the hell of waiting
again. It was torture. And only fifteen minutes had crawled by so far.
He drummed his fingertips against the desktop.
“It gets easier.”
He turned to look at Barkswell. Which part was the man
talking about? Being around Harlow even though they were no longer physically
involved, or being left behind as she walked into a dangerous situation? Really,
though, did it matter? “Does it now?”
“The first time lasts the longest. It’s the hardest.”
Barkswell probably meant his words to be helpful but Parker
didn’t want the man’s help. He couldn’t exactly tell him that though. “It’s not
exactly difficult to just sit around waiting.”
“Of course it isn’t,” he said dryly. “Sorry. I must have
been confused by your continuous sighing and the annoying clock checking.”
He ignored the pointed looks he received and went back to
watching the clock. Twenty minutes. He had ten minutes left. Ten minutes and
Harlow would return. He wouldn’t let himself consider the alternative.
As the minutes ticked off, though, the alternative loomed on
the edge of his mind. And when the clock hit twenty-eight minutes he had to
ask, “She wouldn’t actually expect us to leave her behind, would she?”
“She’d kick your ass if you didn’t.”
“Captain to XO.”
Parker nearly jumped with excitement at her voice but he
managed to pull it together before he embarrassed himself. “XO here. Good to
hear your voice, Captain.”
“Likewise. We’ve got the prisoners and are boarding the
The time passed slowly as he watched the computerized
progress of the shuttle. It crept slowly across the monitor until he heard her
“Captain to XO.”
“Open the bay doors.”
Fifteen minutes later he heard her voice over the
communicator again. “We’re onboard and the prisoners are secured. Take us out
of here, XO.”
He breathed a sigh of relief before hitting the last button
in the sequence. They’d flown through normal space to get here but with the
prisoners onboard they couldn’t take that chance. The ship was a target now.
And they’d have to use the cover that subspace would provide them. Black
surrounded him, closed in on him, and then a burst of light flared though the
room as the ship tore back into regular space.
“Give me our status, XO.” Her voice crackled over the
Staring out the viewscreen, he felt his throat tighten at
the two large vessels that flanked them. “We’ve reached the coordinates,
Captain. But I think we might have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
A low, hollow boom shook the ship as they were fired on.
“That kind of problem, sir. Two R48-type fighters.” How the
hell had they found them?
“I’m almost to the bridge. Tactical, shields to full and
return fire. XO, get us the hell out of here.”
The bridge burst to life as the crew began following the
captain’s orders. Punching in coordinates, Parker had to grab on to his chair
as another missile hit the hull of the ship. When the ship stilled he turned
back to his screen. He’d entered the coordinates but nothing had happened. The
ship wasn’t responding.
“Subspace engines are off-line, Captain.”
“Like hell! That blast wasn’t enough to take out the
engines. Engineering, report!”
“It wasn’t the blast. We haven’t isolated the source of the
malfunction yet, but it appears to be software related.”
“Find it and fix it!”
Software didn’t write itself. If it was a software
malfunction there was only one plausible explanation. And judging by the
captain’s reaction she knew what it was.
“We’re working on it, Captain.”
The swoosh of the bridge door opening and the sound of her
heels striking against the metal floor told Parker the captain was back.
“Tactical, aim everything at the lead vessel.
Communications, send out a distress beacon. Hopefully there’s someone close
enough to pick it up. XO, are the fixed-space engines still up?”
Looking at his monitor, he nodded. “Yes, Captain.”
“Then turn us forty degrees to portside. That should give
our communications array some protection.”
Barkswell turned to the captain. “They’ve launched drop
He turned to see the radar. Six small blips were headed
toward them. Each one could hold fifty hostiles.
“Shit! They’re going to try to board.” Her voice had an edge
to it. “Blue team to holding cells, red team to the port and aft hatches.”
He turned his attention back to the monitor in front of him,
waiting. The second the engines came up all he had to do was enter the
coordinates he’d already punched in. But her next command snapped his attention
back to her.
“I’m going to make sure the prisoners are secure. XO has the
She’d shed her heels and jacket and had slung a heavy
assault rifle over a shoulder. It should have looked preposterous but it fit
her much better than her polished uniform ever could.
“I’m going with you, Captain.” He almost didn’t recognize
the words as his own.
Her face paled but she didn’t pause. “No. I need you to stay
here in case we get the subspace engines up.”
“The coordinates are plotted, it doesn’t take a specialist
to hit enter.”
Her eyebrow arched in suspicion as she studied him but she
The young man stepped forward at his name.
“You have the bridge. The moment the subspace engines are
up, enter the coordinates Lieutenant Commander Parker plotted. Until then, keep
me informed and make sure no one but Lieutenant Commander Parker or myself get
through that door.”
He wasn’t exactly happy about leaving Barkswell alone but he
wasn’t going to argue. If he did she might make him stay behind instead. “Let’s
She held her hand out to one of her security entourage. The
man handed her an assault rifle, which she immediately gave to Parker. The look
on the security officer’s face reminded him of a chastising uncle.
“Know how to use that thing?”
Parker braced the weapon on his shoulder and found he was
happy with its weight and balance. Looking through the scope, he smiled to
himself. The gun wedged up against his body and the adrenaline pumping through
him was pretty damn close to a homecoming for him. “Yeah, I think I’ll manage.”
He took the clip out to check the ammo then reloaded it and
hung the weapon over his shoulder. He was ready. Which was good since the rest
of the group was already leaving the bridge. He followed Harlow and two security
officers as they made their way through the intersecting metal corridors. When
they reached the weapons lock she stopped and motioned the security officers to
break right before turning to him.
“You’re with me.”
Her words sent a rush of pride through him. She could have
sent him with one of the security team and had the other officer watch her
back. But she hadn’t. She’d chosen him. He wasn’t sure what it meant but it had
to mean something.
“I’ve already told you, I don’t need a knight. I can take
care of myself. And I can’t have an XO who feels he needs to protect me from my
The realization that she’d kept him with her to give him a
private dressing-down didn’t do wonderful things to his ego. Especially since
she was wrong. “This has nothing to do with me wanting to protect you. I
realize it’s been a while since you’ve had a functioning XO, but security is
directly under me. You’re the one stepping on toes here.”
She stopped and stared at him for a moment, her brow
furrowed. “Fuck. You’re right.”
Damn straight he was. Still, now wasn’t the time or place to
get into it. “We can define things later. But for right now we’ve got to focus.”
She nodded stiffly as she pivoted on her heel and began
walking again. They made their way to the passage that led to the holding cells
but stopped at the sight of the security officers flanking the corridor.
“Captain.” A young officer stepped forward to salute them as
“What the hell’s going on?”
“The division fields in the prison cells fell. We had to
evacuate. I tried to notify you, but our coms aren’t working.”
The division fields were the electronic shields that
separated the prisoners and kept them contained. If they had indeed failed, he
could only imagine the chaos and rioting going on behind that door.
Harlow hit her com button. “Captain to engineering.”
There was only silence.
She turned back to the security officer. “I hate to leave
you like this, but I really need to check this out with engineering.”
“We’ll be okay, Captain. Just see if they can do something
about our coms when you get there. It feels weird, being cut off from everyone
They encountered only a few crew members on their way to
engineering. Even without the com system it seemed as if they knew where they
should be and what they should be doing. It was a testament to what an amazing
captain they had. “So what do we do?”
“Engineering will get the subspace engines up and running
and we’re going to get the hell out of here. If we can get it all done before
we’re overrun, we count it as a victory.”
“And if we don’t get it done before then?”
The cryptic look she shot him made his blood cool. “A lot of
my men die.”
Her shudder made his stomach turn. He wondered how many
times she’d seen her crew massacred in the line of duty.
She opened the door to engineering and walked through
without a backward glance at him. Her back stiff, shoulders straight, she was
the image of a collected captain.
“Commander Vance, report.”
His uniform sported large sweat stains under the arms as he
saluted before making his way over to her. It took him a few minutes to get to
them as he had to pick his way around the groups of computer programmers
frantically typing and talking at monitors. “We think we’ve isolated the hack,
Captain. But it’s going to take some time to clean the system.”
“You’re sure it’s a software problem?”
“Positive, Captain. I don’t know why I didn’t see it
She turned back to the man. “Do you have any suspects?”
“That’d be for security to determine. But since we did just
have that conversation, I made a list of people who’ve had access to the
systems in anticipation.” He handed her a small chip, his eyes darting from
hers back to the small piece of metal several times. “I’ve highlighted the
personnel advanced enough for code of this sophistication, but I listed every
crew member who’s come near here just in case I misjudged someone’s aptitude.”
“Thank you, Officer.”
He nodded and licked his top lip nervously. “If there’s
nothing else, I should probably get back to—”
Harlow interrupted his obvious attempt at being dismissed,
saying, “Communications and the division fields are down. They need fixed ASAP.
But the subspace engines are top priority.”
“I’ll get teams on it when I can, but we’ve got our hands
“I understand. Just do what you can to get us out of here.
Vance saluted stiffly before leaving them.
Parker watched in disbelief as she plugged the chip into her
handheld and started scrolling through the names. “Do we really have time for
this? Wouldn’t it be better to do the investigation after we’re certain we aren’t
going to die?”
“Engineering is cleaning the system, security is protecting
not only the ship but also my crew, tactical is sending a distress beacon and
keeping us in one piece so we can leave when the engines do come up. Do you
want all that work to be for nothing? If we don’t know who the traitor is, he
could upload another hack, or release knockout gas in the ship, or do any one
of a million things to keep us from getting out of here. Every member of this
ship is doing their job right now except one, and it’s my job to find that one.”