Tess Bailey: the galaxy’s Most Wanted.
Captain Tess Bailey is in deep trouble. She and her crew are on the run, pursued by a tyrant who’ll take them dead or alive. Tess’s best hope is a tall, dark, and much-too-appealing stranger, Shade Ganavan, who says he can help her. But his motivations are far from clear…
Shade Ganavan: arrogance, charm…and that special something that makes you want to kick him.
With the dreaded Dark Watch closing in, what Tess and Shade don’t know about each other might get them killed…unless they can set aside their differences and learn to trust each other before it's too late.
I sat back in my captain’s chair and breathed,
slowly and deeply, letting my body adjust to traveling at a normal velocity again. It was risky to come here, but maybe we’d finally get a break. We needed one. So did the ship.
Outside the bridge’s large window panels, stars winked back at me from the endless Dark. The view didn’t look much different from anywhere else we’d been in the galaxy lately, but no one in their right mind would be here. I was counting on it.
It never ceased to amaze me how vast space was—-and yet not a single corner of it was free. No technology existed that could get us beyond the Overseer’s reach.
A red light sputtered to life on my console, and I shot forward in my chair and stared. Communication open/outside channel blinked back at me.
My heart rate went from normal to warp speed so fast it hurt. “Who the hell is in Sector 14 with us?” I demanded, turning to my first mate.
Jaxon’s space--pale complexion whitened even more as his eyes jumped between me and the flashing button. I figured I looked just as ghostly, and not only because we hadn’t seen direct sunlight in weeks.
“No one’s ever in Sector 14,” he said, sounding worried and pissed off. “Half of it’s the Black Widow.”
“Well, someone’s here now,” I answered sharply, days of high stress and almost no sleep adding extra bite to my voice.
We both eyed the blinking red com button again. This part of the galaxy was off--limits. Usually, I was the only one not following the rules.
I scanned the views outside the multiple windows again, not seeing the ship that was reaching out to us. I did see a portion of the gigantic ring of darkness everyone tried very hard to avoid and felt a little queasy, only part of which I could blame on the long jump we’d just made through hyperspace.
The Black Widow was the reason we’d come to Sector 14. Choosing the dicey location was a last--ditch effort to lie low and recharge after three days and seven Sectors of hot--on--our--tail leapfrog with hostile Dark Watch vessels.
I wasn’t an instant pessimist, but this couldn’t be good. The Endeavor was almost out of juice, and the Sectors were crawling with government spacecraft out looking for the vaccines we’d stolen. Only the elite and the military were given access to cure--alls. Someone needed to redistribute more fairly. But when patrol ships had started popping up all around us, instead of emptying the contents of the floating lab we’d found into our own cargo hold as usual, I’d nabbed the entire thing with a vacuum attachment. Now, the extra hunk of ship was sticking out like a sore thumb, weighing us down, and about to get us all sent back to jail. Or worse.
I even had an enormous, leather--clad, bearded man who’d accidentally come with the floating lab. Shit!
My fingers tensed around my armrests. There was no way I was reaching for that com button. Whoever was hanging around Sector 14 and a freaking black hole was going to have to talk first.
Or maybe they would fly right on by…
“Cargo Cruiser model 419, please identify yourself.”
Damn it! They talked.
I stared at the panel in front of me as if it were a poisonous snake from one of the green planets. They had water and pretty plants, but they also had all the nasties I didn’t like to think about. That was what happened when you grew up in a metal box—-nature scared the crap out of you.
“I repeat, Cargo Cruiser model 419, please identify yourself.”
I almost recoiled at the tinny, no--nonsense male voice that burst out of my console again. Interference from the Black Widow made the communication shriek like the five o’clock wake--up whistle in prison. I’d hated that whistle. It’d made my stomach hurt.
“Answer him, Tess,” Jax hissed, nodding to the flashing button. “The longer you wait, the more suspicious they’ll get.”
“They’re already suspicious.” Only a ship up to no good would be anywhere near here.
I looked from Jax to Miko. Miko’s good hand still hovered over the navigation panel, her dark--brown eyes bigger than I’d ever seen them. She looked like she hadn’t moved a muscle since typing out the coordinates for Sector 14—-where no one was supposed to be.
Swallowing a curse, I turned back to my controls and pressed down on the blinking red com button only long enough to transmit a response. “This is Cargo Cruiser model 419. It’s only polite to identify yourself first.” Even space had etiquette. Granted, I usually ignored protocol, but I could still cite it when necessary.
Jax groaned softly. Miko looked like she was about to pee her pants, which was odd, because I knew just how hard--core she could get when push came to shove.
The same sharp voice came through in immediate response. “This is Dark Watch 12. Captain Bridgebane speaking.”
Shock jolted me. So did fear. Battleship 12? And Bridgebane? He was a high--ranking galactic general and part of the Overseer’s band of science freaks who had come close to carving me up when I was a kid. All the higher--ups had wanted to know what made me tick differently from everyone else.
Maybe it was having a freaking heart.
I shot a look at Jax, who shot me one back. This whole mess had just gotten exponentially worse.
There was no doubt in my mind that Bridgebane would recognize me. I’d grown up, but I hadn’t changed that much. I still had the same straight reddish--brown hair, wispy bangs, unusual height—-which now put me eye to eye with most men—-and blue eyes that stood out from a mile away. Before she died, Mom used to tell me that my eyes made her dream of the great oceans and blue skies she’d never see. And she never did. Dad kept us both under lock and key.
And now ancient history was coming to bite me in the neck and shake me hard. Dark Watch 12 was one of the Galactic Overseer’s premier warships and could blow my faithful little Endeavor to pieces with only two or three direct hits. It was a fully armored beast. And I knew my way around it. If not for my oddities—-and my conscience—-DW 12 might one day have been mine.
“Please identify yourself,” Captain Bridgebane ordered, “or we will be compelled to board your ship and ascertain your identity ourselves.”
And there was the galactic military in all its glory—-polite, even while putting a gun to your head.
Boarding us was out of the question. There was nothing on my ship that wasn’t stolen. Hell, even the ship was stolen. Even the crew was stolen because, well, jailbreak.
I reached out and pushed the communications button without letting my hand shake. “This is Captain T. Bailey. You’re looking at the Endeavor,” I answered in the flattest voice I could muster.
“Captain Bailey, Sector 14 is a no--fly zone. What are you doing in this area of the galaxy?” Bridgebane asked.
I wanted to ask him the same question but managed to refrain. I pressed the com button again and calmly said, “Taking in the view. The crew wanted a peek at the Widow.”
I lifted my hand, cutting off all sound from our end, and the longest few heartbeats of my life passed in total silence as the bridge crew stared at me, waiting for their orders.
My mind bounced from one possibility to the next. I’d given my usual false name—-any Bailey, especially with only a first initial, was extremely hard to pin down since it was one of the most common surnames in the galaxy—-and the Endeavor had fake ID numbers stickered on both sides. I could peel them off and get new numbers up in less than forty--five minutes, even with the necessary spacewalk. But I couldn’t do it with Bridgebane watching.
“Power up, Jax. Time to jump us out of here.” The only problem was, we hadn’t found a safe Sector in days. “Miko, move us closer to the Outer Zones.”
“We can’t, Tess.” Jax shook his head as he examined the data readings on our current energy levels. “We don’t have enough power left to get us out of 14. And they’ve locked on to our com channel now and can follow short--range leaps, even if we use warp speed to stay out of sight and jump around the Sector.”
I stared at my first mate. I’d known we were low on juice, but that was very bad news.
He pivoted the screen portion of his console in my direction, showing me just how fucked we were. Repeatedly hauling the lab at warp speed had put a huge strain on the ship’s energy reserves, and that last, big jump had drained even more power than I’d anticipated. We’d come here to try to fix our power problem, not make it worse.
“Can we get close enough to the nearest star to recharge the Endeavor’s energy core as planned, not fry, and still keep away from the Dark Watch?” I asked, knowing what Jax would probably answer.
He winced. “Even short jumps to stay away from the warship would drain our reserves faster than the solar panels could build them up again.”
I winced, too. “We’ll end up a floating duck.”
“We already have a target on our back, and this is the end of the line.” Usually softly lilting with Sector 10’s melodious accent, Miko’s urgent words flooded the bridge with the near panic I was trying hard to keep at bay. “What choices do we have?”
Bad ones. Without recharging, our already crippled capacity for warp speed would fizzle to nothing in no time, and simply flying away wasn’t going to work, either. A Dark Watch vessel could chase a lot faster than a cargo cruiser could run.
The red com button flashed again before I could even begin to analyze our terrible options, and Bridgebane’s clipped voice came through to the Endeavor’s bridge as clearly as if he were sitting right there. “We see you have three cargo holds and a vacuum attachment that looks like the lab that was recently stolen from the Lyronium System. Prepare your starboard port for a boarding party. Any lack of cooperation on your part will be taken as hostility, and we will not hesitate to fire to recover the lab by force.”
The communication went dead, and my heart slammed so hard against my ribs that it left me short of breath. I leaped out of my chair as I switched to a mapping screen on my console to get an idea of just how close they were.
My eyes widened. Dark Watch 12 was right behind us—-and looking straight at the stolen lab.
“Jax! Power up with what we’ve got. And tell Miko her jump range the second you know it,” I said.
“It won’t do any good.” Jax started flipping the necessary switches anyway. “They’ll just follow us and start shooting.”
I glanced at my controls again, at the terrifying digital image of the mammoth battleship hovering on our tail, and then pressed my lips together, trying to hold back what was probably the worst decision of my life. “Then jump us closer to the Widow.”
“What?” squeaked Miko. “We’ll get sucked in.”
“Well, don’t jump us that close!” I kicked the lock on my chair and shoved the whole thing back and out of my way. I didn’t plan on sitting down again while taking four other lives into my hands and also protecting the vaccines that could save thousands of people from the diseases that still ran rampant in the galaxy’s civilian populations.
I watched to confirm that Miko’s hand was flying over the navigation controls before I punched my own hand down on the yellow internal communications button. “Shiori! Get to the bridge. Fiona! You, too! Do not stop to collect your plants. This is an emergency.”
I swung my eyes back to Jax, nerves riding my spine like an icy comet. “Tell us when we’ve got the juice.”
“We’re good to go,” he answered. “At least to Miko’s new coordinates.”
I nodded. Now we waited for the other two. Usually, I’d just have told them to brace themselves for a jump, but right now, with the Dark Watch threatening to fire on our back end, I wanted everyone up front on the bridge.
The bridge was also where we could access the ship’s escape pods, if it came to that—-not that I believed they’d do us much good.
Every second lasted an eternity with the warship DW 12 and Captain Bridgebane breathing down the Endeavor’s comparatively minuscule neck. I stood there. I didn’t shake. I didn’t move. My head felt numb. But I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. Not in fear, although there was plenty of that, too. No, it was rage boiling in my chest.
Shiori rushed through the bridge doors, her fingers gliding along the wall. Miko ran to her grandmother and quickly guided the older woman toward my abandoned chair. With her good arm, Miko practically threw the tiny Shiori into my captain’s seat, strapped her in, and then locked the chair back down, not leaving me much room at my console.
Miko raced back to her navigation controls. Shiori reached out to me blindly.
“I think I got us into big trouble,” I said, taking her fragile hand.
Her skin felt paper--thin and dry and looked almost unhealthy, the creamy tan shade of it having faded into something pasty from lack of sunlight. The veins stood out, and her tremor seemed worse, but Shiori squeezed my fingers with surprising strength. “We’ve been ghosts for five years already, child. You gave us many more days.”
The heat of unwanted emotion crawled up my throat just as my console delivered new information with a warning signal. Incoming cruiser—-starboard side. 200 meters.
I glanced at Jax. “We can’t wait.” Fiona was going to have to deal with taking a fall.
He nodded, and I grabbed the edge of my console for balance.
“Go!” I cried.
Jax hit the small, round button that had saved our lives countless times, and everything went dark and weightless as the Endeavor shot through space. My bones seemed to crunch and shudder and then pop back to normal again as the ship slowed almost immediately. That was the shortest jump of my life.
I shook my head to clear it and then studied the view outside the bridge’s windows again.
Mighty Powers That Be… The Black Widow was all I could see.
“You’re certifiable, Tess,” Jax murmured.
Yeah. I kind of had to agree.
I swallowed hard. “They won’t follow.”
The outside com blared like that awful prison whistle again, sending through Bridgebane’s now--furious voice. “Captain Bailey, you are under military arrest. Jump again, and all crew members on board the Endeavor will be deprived of a trial. Our boarding cruiser jumped after you, and DW 12 followed. Prepare for entry on your starboard side.”
I cursed. How could I have forgotten that Bridgebane would do anything for the Overseer?
Fiona burst onto the bridge, spitting mad. She was barefoot and wearing leggings and a tank top, which probably meant she’d been in a hazmat jumpsuit only a few moments earlier. If she’d had to get out of it before leaving her secure experimentation lab, it was no wonder she hadn’t shown up in time for the jump. At least she’d listened to me and hadn’t stopped to collect her specimens. Botanists got really attached to their plants.
“What the hell is going on?” Fiona stalked toward me, her high, dark ponytail swinging angrily as she walked. “I just cracked my head on the wall when you dragged me out of my lab and then jumped without even telling me to brace myself. And just when I was getting close to making a breakthrough with those new cure--alls, too. I’m even wondering if they can cure Shiori’s blindness. They’re full of good stuff—-like, superpower stuff.”
“Those vaccines just got us followed practically into the mouth of a black hole,” I said, motioning toward the bridge windows.
Fiona looked around, and her eyes widened at the sight of so much absolute darkness.
“Holy shit!” She gaped at me. “Are you crazy?”
I gave a small shrug. “The Dark Watch was breathing down our neck.”
“The Dark Watch is always breathing down our neck!”
“Yeah. Well, this time, they’re trying to board the Endeavor as we speak, and a warship got close enough to get visual confirmation on the stolen lab.”
“So jump the hell out of 14!” Fiona cried.
“We can’t. We’ve been leaping almost nonstop for three days, and the Endeavor’s power is too low to do anything other than play cat and mouse around the Sector until we completely run out of juice.”
Fiona snapped her mouth shut, her usual space--rat pallor taking an abrupt dive toward ashen.
“And then they’ll either board the ship or blow us up,” Jax added solemnly. “Either way, we’re toast.”
I caught Shiori’s serene expression out of the corner of my eye as I nervously tucked my bangs behind my ear. Shiori was always asking me to meditate with her and Miko, but I never wanted to sit still. Maybe I should have. She looked a lot calmer than I felt.
The Endeavor jolted from the hard bang of Dark Watch 12’s boarding cruiser latching on with a vacuum seal. Obviously, we hadn’t opened the port.
“Starboard side has our most solid door,” Miko said. “It’ll take them a while to break through.”
I nodded. But break through they would. They had all the tools.
“I don’t get it,” I muttered out loud. The intensity of this chase was baffling. Vaccines were important, yes, but the military was acting as though this particular batch were liquid gold.
I turned back to Fiona. “Has the big guy said anything about the vaccines?” He hadn’t threatened the crew in any way after we’d carted him off by accident along with the floating lab. He hadn’t tried to reach the bridge. He hadn’t complained about the near--constant jumps. He hadn’t so much as asked for food or water or a freaking loo in the three days we’d had him. I’d offered him the basics more than once, but he never took me up on anything. He was big, quiet, and stoic in the extreme.
I liked him. And I’d better go get him.
Will he even fit into an escape pod?
Fiona shook her head. “He left the lab only once, and I couldn’t stop him from poking around the cargo holds. He wanted to know where we were taking everything.”
Nowhere anymore. At this rate, those things had no chance of getting to where they needed to go. The food and seeds were for the dirt--poor colonies out in Sectors 17 and 18 that would never recover from the war. The books were for the Intergalactic Library’s rare and archaic section, and the drop--off I’d planned would have been stealth itself. The vaccines were for Starway 8. Orphanages never got cure--alls. I would know.
“What did you mean by ‘superpower stuff’?” I asked, suddenly zeroing in on what Fiona had just said about the vaccines.
“I meant give a few rounds to Jax, and he’d be unstoppable. Strength. Speed. Boosted healing.” Fiona huffed. “Hell, give some to Shiori, and she’d kick ass like she was twenty years old again.”
I felt my jaw loosen. “An enhancer?” The enhancer? I’d thought that was a myth. Or a bad dream. Or something that would never work.
And then it hit me. No wonder the lab had been so discreet, so empty of personnel that it shouldn’t have drawn a single eye while it floated around out in bumblefuck Lyronium. That was how the Overseer worked. Hide your best science. Destroy what you don’t understand.
Shit! I’d almost genetically modified thousands of kids.
“We can’t give that to orphans!” All those shots clearly labeled as cure--alls were in reality the abomination the galactic government had been working toward for years.
Fiona shrugged. “You can if you want to call the concoction a vaccine and turn people into super soldiers without telling them.”
I gasped. Wasn’t the military already unstoppable enough?
An earsplitting hammering started on the starboard side just as the edge of the Dark Watch ship came into view. It was immense and intimidating. Too bad I couldn’t incinerate it with just the heat of my glare.
Apparently, the galactic generals weren’t only lying to civilians anymore; they were lying to their own.
Furious on behalf of just about everything that lived, I slammed out a combination on my console. “I won’t give it back. I’ll die before the Overseer gets his serum back and uses super soldiers to terrorize the Outer Zones even worse than he already does.”
The bridge lights flickered from the sudden power drain, and the hammering abruptly stopped.
“I just electrified the whole starboard side,” I announced. Best--case scenario? I fried their jackhammer, and they’d have to return to the warship for another. Worst case? We were pretty much already living it.
Bridgebane’s voice barked across the com again. “You are now accountable for an attack on the military, three burn victims, and a damaged Type--4 Heavy Armor Hammer. Galactic records show no Captain T. Bailey and no cargo cruiser matching your ID numbers or called Endeavor. We’ve definitively identified the floating lab. We will fire on the bridge if you continue to resist.”
Jax looked at me. “They can blow up the bridge and still recover the lab.”
I watched the behemoth warship hovering over our starboard side. DW 12 definitely wasn’t behind us anymore. “If they board, we’re dead.”
They’d consider us all repeat offenders simply for breaking out of prison. Now I had the vaccine heist and an attack on the military against me as well. There’d be no jury, no trial, and no more wasting food and space on a criminal like me. Jaxon was in the same position, but not for theft. I called what he’d done in the Outer Zones heroic. The galactic government called it murder—-because they’d won.
Shiori had never technically been arrested, but Fiona was a bio--criminal who’d created at least three major airborne plagues when she’d been fighting alongside the rebels out in 17, just like Jax. And Miko had cut off her own left hand to get out of shackles, so I was pretty damn sure she didn’t like being chained up.
I glanced at my navigator. Miko’s glossy black hair, fine-boned features, and delicate-seeming beauty had landed her in a position she didn’t want to be in when she was nineteen years old. I could only guess at the details, but Miko’s sporadic comments about the violent appetites of powerful men spoke volumes. And Miko’s death sentence spoke volumes about her violent response. She’d escaped with her grandmother’s help the day before she was slated to die. Shiori went where Miko went, even if that was a galactic prison—-or a cargo cruiser that looked like a good place to hide.
Five years together now—-Jax, Fiona, Miko, Shiori, and me—-and my obsession with kids and their health was about to get my loyal band of misfits killed. If I hadn’t taken the lab, no galactic warships would have been out looking for us. There wouldn’t have been a Dark Watch frigate in Sector 14. Nathaniel Bridgebane would have been stalking someone else.
I looked out the front and portside windows at the looming Black Widow and curled my hands into fists. Almost the entire view outside the ship was darkness, the stars that edged the rim of the black sphere so startlingly bright in comparison. I wondered how long it would take before they were swallowed up, and then the whole Sector, and then the neighboring ones, too. How far could oblivion expand? Such nothingness was terrifying. I could almost feel its unholy pull.
I should have stayed away from the vaccines—-the super soldier serum. I should have known the almighty Galactic Overseer could never produce anything good or pure. But I’d been so set on giving the orphans on Starway 8 a defense against some of the things that killed in silence, since I could do very little about those that did it loudly.
The ship lurched—-the Dark Watch’s boarding cruiser latching on again with new equipment. Probably insulated this time. My tricks never worked twice.
“I’m getting some of those vials before it’s too late,” Fiona said, racing for the door. “I can work backward and figure out the organics, I’m sure!”
“Stay put.” My voice rang out loudly over the bridge. “I’ll get the samples. And the big guy.”
Fiona pulled up short. At least everyone here listened to me. When I said stop, they stopped. When I said move, they moved. My father might have stripped me of my identity and tried to get rid of me when he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but I’d obviously inherited his imperial vibe and knew how to use it, despite eighteen years of abandonment and four Sectors of separation.
I looked at my crew one by one. At my friends. My real family. “Anyone preparing an escape pod when I get back can take their chances with the authorities. If you choose to stay on the ship, you’re dying today with the Endeavor, me, and a hell of a lot of super soldier serum. You have five minutes to decide.”
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