Life aboard the Beautiful Star Chaser so far had been taxing but fair. The ship was a beaten-up Corinthia-class transport, far from factory-fresh, and most of her duties were of the mundane variety, while the real crew stayed busy keeping the ship together. She’d almost grown to enjoy it.
Their first stop had been a world on the edge of the Void. Their ship needed some maintenance, and the crew were given a few hours of shore leave, but they were warned to watch themselves. Laina had hoped to buy some food that didn’t come processed in a tube for the next leg of her journey.
Keeping herself well covered with a hooded coat, she’d passed by a market near the station. A group of men and women of various species had been on a raised platform, half-naked, shivering in the bright light. Some were human. Freeborn.
Slavery was illegal in most parts of the Protectorate, not in the Draxon Collective. Since the Void was a region of space that did not fall under Protectorate jurisdiction, it was easy to end up getting snatched and sold off like these poor souls.
Laina had stood there transfixed, watching as aliens had come forward and bid on them one by one until they vanished. Husbands and wives were torn apart, children ripped away from parents. It had destroyed Laina to watch it happen. She’d kept her tears at bay and hurried back to her ship. She had to keep moving.
This was why she was leaving and why she had no intention of ever looking back. She could put up with cleaning toilets for three months if it meant she could breathe a little easier.
The comm by the metal door of her chamber glowed to life. Probably someone who was going to chew her out for sleeping in or tell her that the recycler was backed up again.
“Attention, all hands. Unidentified vessel approaching. Captain Zore orders all aboard to prepare for possible boarding and inspection.” The female Nubran spoke clearly, but Laina could hear the tension in her voice.
Possible boarding and inspection? She groaned. Most likely a nearby system’s picket ship looking for smugglers or hoping for a bribe to let them pass. The problem with hitching a ride on this piece of junk was that it couldn’t outrun anything. She ran to the closet and retrieved her small pack, filling it with her belongings, just in case she needed to hide it.
The comm made a crackling noise as a transmission broke through. A baritone voice filled her small room. A Terran voice.
“This is Sub-Commander Ronan of the TCF Orion. By order of the Galactic Protectorate, the Beautiful Star Chaser is to stand down and prepare for boarding and inspection. Anyone in possession of contraband or illegal passengers will be sanctioned.” The static cut off, signaling the end of the transmission.
Laina stared numbly at the comm.
The Silver Legion is here? How?
She had to hide, had to get somewhere safe before the ship was boarded. Her identity would never stand up to a real inspection, and she wouldn’t pass for a synth if they did a gene scan.
She zipped up her small pack, for once thankful she had only a few possessions to worry about. Some data crystals with books on them and a fresh change of clothes, plus a couple of spare protein tubes that tasted like ash. It was a light load. As she turned to check the room for anything she might have left behind, a shape appeared outside her cabin window. She drew closer, unable to look away.
TCF Orion. The name was emblazed on the reflective hull as it pulled up alongside her ship. She wasn’t an expert, but she recognized a Silver Legion heavy cruiser when she saw one. It was practically synonymous with them.
The ship was a thing of beauty. Sleek, but practical and efficient. It held a lethal grace that reminded her of how equally dangerous the crew was. Silver and gray outlines gave the ship a deadly polished appearance. A pair of bright blue lights flashed near a docking tunnel that was extending itself out toward the Beautiful Star Chaser.
The front part of the cruiser had a large bridge with a viewport that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. A single chair was placed in the center of the room, with several navigation and operating stations set around it. But it wasn’t the chair that caught her attention or even the commander sitting in it, looking at her ship like it and all aboard were prey. It was the man standing closest to the viewport she couldn’t look away from.
He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Even though men weren’t usually called beautiful, she couldn’t think of a better word to describe him. Blond hair that looked silky enough to run her fingers through hung just above his shoulders. She shook herself, wondering why she was thinking about a man’s looks at a time like this.
By now the ships were almost touching, just meters apart, giving her a clear view of his face. His ice-blue eyes caught hers and swallowed her whole. No emotion lingered there, nor did any trace of feeling show upon the chiseled features of his face. His silver-and-red uniform struck fear in her, a symbol of everything she was running away from, and yet she couldn’t help but notice how well it presented his body.
He was devastating. He was a god. He was a cyborg. He had to be. And he was staring back at her through the window of the Orion. Legs braced, hands clasped behind his back, he looked every inch the predator she knew him to be. The crew’s conversation about cyborgs and sex came screaming back to her.
“It wasn’t just what he did, but how he did it…”
“He did have a way with words. And with his tongue…”
“He knew exactly where to go and what to do. Either I wasn’t his first Nubran, or he had very fine instincts…”
She was painfully reminded of just how long it had been since she’d been with anyone and just how a vision like this pressed all her buttons. Even the danger…
Why wasn’t she finding a place to hide?
The man’s lips curled into a leonine smile that seemed to say, I’m coming for you, little mouse. Laina’s heart stopped as the Orion’s docking bridge locked onto the transport’s bay doors.
The blond-haired cyborg turned to say something to one of his crew before he left the main deck. She had to hide. Now. But she had a sinking feeling that no matter where she hid they’d find her. If they knew she was on board, they’d tear the ship apart to get to her.
And then what? Right now it seemed slavery was the best she could look forward to. She almost wished the ship had been intercepted by graywalkers instead. At least with those monsters she knew what her ultimate fate would be.
She ran to the door, but it wouldn’t open. She pressed her palm on the panel, but it didn’t unlock. The light beneath her palm flared red. She tried again. Still red.
“Damn!” She tapped the comm to contact the captain.
“Captain Zore, this is Laina down in 4C. My door won’t open. Can you override the controls?”
Captain Zore’s voice came over the comm. “Laina, I’m sorry. The Legion gave me strict orders to lock down all rooms until everyone can be scanned and verified.”
Laina gulped. This was happening. It was really happening.
“Captain, I have to tell you. I’m—”
“Stop. Don’t say anything. You do and this whole crew becomes complicit. Do you understand?”
Laina sighed. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry, Laina. I really am. But there is a ceiling as to how much I am willing to risk when my ship and crew are at stake. You can’t just expect to hide from these things.”
Terror squeezed her heart. As much as she understood Zore’s reasoning, she couldn’t help but feel wounded at being so quickly abandoned. She would be handed over to the cyborgs to be punished for a crime that had occurred centuries before she was even born.
She sagged against the locked door and tipped her head back.
Wait… What did she say? Ceiling? Hide?
Her eyes opened, and she gazed up at the ceiling. It was covered with thin tiles, nestled into square outlines covering the network of pipes and wires above. She’d had to pop up there a number of times to fix some minor leaks. What if…?
Running over to her bed, she leapt up on it and climbed onto the thin metal headboard. She was just tall enough to reach the low ceiling, and soon she’d cleared a body-sized hole. She grabbed one of the pipes—thankfully not too hot—and summoned the strength to pull herself up. It was a confined space and impossibly dark, and it only got darker when she slid the tile back into place. With her pack slung over her shoulders, she started to crawl toward a distant light. Where did it lead? Who knew. Any place was better than this.
She left not a moment too soon, because the sound of the docking bridge pressurizing between the two ships told her the cyborgs had boarded.