Authors: Bernadette Gardner
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Science Fiction
Amber Quill Press
Copyright ©2008 by Bernadette Gardner
Shrieking like a banshee, the sleek skimmer ship broke atmo above the southern forest of Lebron. The trail of black smoke it wove through the thick layer of cumulous clouds looped and dipped and corkscrewed wildly, heralding the ship's imminent demise.
In the tight little cockpit, Charity Foster let out a satisfied whoop. “Eat carbon, bloodhound!” She cursed the pilot of the dual-engine shuttle that had been dogging her tail since she'd blasted out of space dock at Valencia. The relentless bastard would see nothing but a hot splash of ions on his sensors once she cut her engines and went for a twenty-second glide.
He'd assume she crashed, or more accurately, splattered her molecules all over the forest floor. He'd limp home to his master to report her untimely death, and she'd laugh all the way to the Rim colonies.
At least that's how it was supposed to work.
Panic replaced elation when Charity dragged the nose of the skimmer up from its suicide dive, and the aft thrusters remained stubbornly silent in response to her re-ignition command.
This was her last chance to elude the bounty hunter that Gar Gremin had sent after her. If she couldn't give him the slip now while she had the swirling, pre-storm cloud cover to hide her escape, he'd chase her all the way to her check point on Gossamer. Damn.
If the skimmer emerged on the far side of the roiling bank of thunderheads, it would light up the shuttle's radar like a super nova.
Charity switched from cursing to praying and caressed the thrust igniter like a lover. “Goddess bless me. Don't you fail me now, baby! Come on, give momma some juice. I don't want to die the day before payday!"
Apparently prayers couldn't penetrate the cloud cover either. A split second after her instruments registered the sharp drop in ambient temperature, the skimmer slammed into an icy thermal column and nosed up hard.
Charity found herself staring at blue sky through the forward wind screen and her stomach made an unscheduled leap for her throat. This maneuver had never, ever failed her before. Alternately cursing and begging the Goddess for help, she hit every control within reach and toggled the thrust igniter back and forth until her hand began to ache.
No juice. No spark. Not even a sputter.
The air left Charity's lungs in a whoosh, and she clenched her eyes tight against the dizzy tumble of sky and ground that whizzed by outside the cockpit.
This was it. Damn if it wasn't a horrible way to go.
"Goddess, bless me,” she muttered between lips that had already gone cold and stiff. “It wasn't supposed to end this way."
Kol A'Kosu's shuttle burst from the cumulous bank just as the skimmer began its spiraling descent.
With a steady hand and a curt nod of satisfaction, Kol eased back on the throttle so he could watch the spectacular screw-up from a safe distance. He'd seen it all before so he felt no shock or surprise that the skimmer pilot had miscalculated one of the most basic evasive maneuvers ever invented.
His most recent vision had shown him the smaller ship tumbling from the sky and making a rather amazing landing on the next ridge, just above the tree line. The pilot, a cunning little thief, would emerge from the crunched wreckage with a few bruises and a bad attitude.
And Kol would be there to capture her.
With a casual movement he adjusted course to keep up with the skimmer's descent. He could have sent a message to the Magistrate, his current employer, announcing that he'd acquired his target—after all, by the time the transmission reached Valencia, it would be true—but regardless of the fact that his visions had never been wrong, Kol remained circumspect about his Antarean abilities.
Early in life he'd learned how to interpret the often prophetic and sometimes disjointed snippets of future events that filtered through his conscious mind. Unlike some of his people whose visions were more allegorical, though, Kol saw isolated moments in time, seemingly random, but which always had great bearing on his future decisions.
Despite the often uncanny accuracy of the images he saw, though, he would not assume his mission would succeed based on that alone. Circumspect but still confident in his impending success, he began his descent toward the tree-covered ridge.
Charity let out a weary sigh and a half-hearted curse. At least she'd survived her inauspicious landing on Lebron. Her body seemed to be in one sore, slightly bruised piece, but the view she had of the skimmer's shattered wind screen suggested her ship hadn't fared as well.
She'd been careless in her haste to escape Valencia, and now she was well and truly screwed.
She struggled a little in her flight harness until her addled senses settled and she realized she was hanging upside down. Perfect. Fortunately none of her friends were here to see this mess.
Deciding there would be time later to berate herself for not triple-checking the aft thrusters before leaving Valencia, her main concern now was hauling her aching body out of the skimmer and losing herself in the forest.
Her personal communicator seemed to be intact, so she could call her contact on Gossamer and have to endure only a few days of roughing it before someone picked her up. The value of the selenite crystals she'd lifted from Gar Gremin would ensure that she wasn't left to rot here in this goddess-forsaken forest. All she really had to worry about was eluding the bounty hunter for a little while.
With shaking fingers and a few rusty groans, she released her flight harness and tumbled out of the upended pilot's chair. Landing on her hands and knees, she stoically absorbed the blow to all four limbs and let out a slow, labored breath.
The gems were her first concern. A voice in her head refused to let her dwell on her physical discomfort until she'd reclaimed the selenite. After all, she'd been in worse crashes and lived to tell. All in all, this was nothing. At least Lebron had atmo, liquid water, edible plants and only a few carnivorous predators, if memory served her. The place hadn't been colonized yet, so there would be no local authorities to give her a hard time.
Speaking of predators, it sounded like one of them was nearby. A cranky yowling echoed in the distance, reminding Charity of the big cats of Earth.
Just great. Charity permitted herself a small shiver and crawled through the wreckage of the skimmer to the miniscule cargo cabinet at the back of the cockpit. Maybe it would be wiser to make her S.O.S. call now and let her contact deal with the damned Antarean. It would beat getting eaten at any rate.
The cabinet popped open, spilling its contents on the deck. A med-pack, emergency rations, a stunner, and of course, a half-kilo sack of raw selenite now lay in a heap around her. Charity grabbed the gem sack first and hauled it into her lap. This little hard-won package represented four million on the black market. While whole colonies on the Rim went hungry, Gar Gremin used the precious stones to gamble and, no doubt, to reward his Antarean bloodhound. It wasn't fair, and if it was the last thing she did in this life, Charity planned to even up the score a little bit and find a way to put some of the profit from the selenite mines back in the hands of the colonists who'd worked so hard for it.
In between a few feminine grunts and groans she managed to pack all the essentials into the sack with the gems and hoist herself unsteadily to her feet.
Her legs protested and her back sent her a sharp reminder that she had just fallen out of the sky for Goddess's sake, but none of that stopped her.
She had to run before he found her. All she needed was a few minutes’ head start and she could lose him in the forest. She stumbled to the hatch and popped it, then wiggled the handle to speed up the interminable hiss of atmo exchange. When the outer hatch pinged, she threw it open and burst into the cool, arboreal afternoon, landing directly at the bounty hunter's feet.
The next vision assaulted Kol's senses the moment his fingers curled around the thief's slender wrist.
Ghostly images superimposed themselves on the scene around him, taking shape and fading again in the blink of an eye. No non-Antarean would notice—certainly the human female didn't—but to Kol it seemed he'd spent more than a full minute immersed in another time.
He saw himself following her through the underbrush, intent on her capture even though she was currently within his grasp. In the vision, she took a false step, slipped into a deep ravine and her startled scream echoed among the closely-spaced tree trunks. There, the vision ended, leaving Kol to speculate on whether or not he would bother to retrieve her body and return it to Valencia.
He made a conscious effort to look away from the ghost images and instinctively tightened his grip on his captive. The warning was clear. He should make sure he secured the gems before he took his eyes off her even for a moment.
"In the name of Gar Gremin, Magistrate of the Commonwealth of Valencia, I place you, Charity Foster, under arrest,” he said as he reached for the laser cuffs he wore attached to his belt.
Resignation colored her expression and she lowered long, dark lashes over tawny eyes. “Damn, you're good. How lucky for you that I crashed or you might actually have to work for your money."
Kol ignored her sarcastic comment. It was par. In his fifteen years as a bounty hunter, he'd never captured anyone who hadn't tried to insult, sass, beg, plead, bribe, or guilt their way to freedom. Judging by the look of this one, she'd probably try it all.
He jerked her small body around and slipped the cuffs on her, then kicked open the pack she'd dragged out of the wreckage with her. He confiscated the stunner first and she gave him a sour look for it. “Where are the gems?"
"What gems?” She fired the question back so fast Kol had to suppress a laugh. He'd forgotten about denial.
He nudged her aside and bent to pull out the remaining contents from the pack piece by piece. He found the gems in the bottom of the bag. Though it wouldn't be necessary to count them, Kol scooped up a handful to make sure they were genuine. He'd dealt with bait and switch routines before and he didn't want to be caught unaware when he returned the haul to the Magistrate.
The crystals glittered in various shades of pink, salmon, and ruby red. Industrial grade, but lovely nevertheless, they no doubt represented a fortune to the likes of her.
Charity Foster was human, a native of the planet Celrax. She was barely thirty solar years old, and the rap sheet Magistrate Gremin had given him listed her as an expert pilot.
That did coax a laugh from Kol. An expert pilot would never have attempted an engine stall in an atmosphere as volatile as Lebron's. With a disapproving glance at his target, he cinched the gem sack closed and tucked it in his own pack. “Are you injured?"
She tilted her head at his question as though she found it puzzling. Blond hair, decorated with a single streak of purple on one side, shimmered in the dappled light. Her pink lips quirked in a lopsided smile. “Do you really care? Maybe you should be more worried about what's going to happen to me when you turn me over to Gremin. Do you know what the penalty is for beating the esteemed Magistrate at High Aces? I'll probably be lucky if all they do is chop off a few of my smaller appendages."
"I'll take that as a no.” Kol looked her over just to be sure. Her mouth worked well enough and just as he'd seen in his earlier vision, she seemed to have a few non-lethal bruises, the worst of which discolored the pale skin of her temple just beneath that purple lock of hair. Otherwise she seemed intact, which explained how she might manage to escape from him unless he took very definite steps to prevent it.