Authors: Michelle Diener
© 2016 by Michelle Diener
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
a work of fiction and all names, people, places and incidents are either used fictitiously or are a product of the author’s imagination.
the readers who were so enthusiastic about Dark Horse, thank you! And to Gav, who has supported me through all the ups and downs.
escue might just be
the death of her.
Far from home . . .
Fiona Russell has been snatched from Earth, imprisoned and used as slave labor, but nothing about her abduction makes sense. When she's rescued by the Grih, she realizes there's a much bigger game in play than she could ever have imagined, and she's right in the middle of it.
Far from safe . . .
Battleship captain Hal Vakeri is chasing down pirates when he stumbles across a woman abducted from Earth. She's the second one the Grih have found in two months, and her presence is potentially explosive in the Grih's ongoing negotiations with their enemies, the Tecran. The Tecran and the Grih are on the cusp of war, and Fiona might just tip the balance.
Far from done . . .
Fiona has had to bide her time while she's been a prisoner, pretending to be less than she is, but when the chance comes for her to forge her own destiny in the new world she's found herself in, she grabs it with both hands. After all, actions speak louder than words.
heavy boxes in the launch bay, Fiona heard a ship come through the gel wall. Hard.
There was a harsh grinding of metal on metal.
The smell of burning, the hot scent of friction, blew over her a moment before the smoke. Black and choking, it engulfed her before being sucked out through the air filters.
She crouched down behind the crates, grateful for the first time for the hood Captain Tak had forced her to wear for the last four weeks. It fitted tightly over her head, with strange, protruding ears, like a child's whimsical winter hat, and the bottom half covered her mouth, ending just below her nose. It helped filter out the noxious fumes.
The loud grating sound ended with a shrieking crash that cut off abruptly, and in the sudden silence she heard a loud clang. She guessed the ship's ramp had just hit the launch bay floor.
She'd never been allowed in the bay when one of the smaller merchant vessels entered to do business with the Garmman trading ship she was on. Hury always came and dragged her back to her cell long before they arrived, only letting her out when they were gone.
So, this wasn't a scheduled arrival. And she didn't think every landing was quite so hard, or the launch bay would look a little worse for wear.
She peered around the high stack of containers and froze.
The ship that had come through was badly damaged, but she hardly noticed that.
It was the occupants who had her unwavering attention.
They came cautiously down the ramp, shockguns raised. They were slender, almost willowy, with hair that grew long and thick. Some had grown it to their shoulders or lower, others had cut it level with their ears. The pearl white of it contrasted with the delicate peach of their skin.
They moved like a slick, well-trained team, and there was something predatory about them. They were in a sort of uniform, not identical, but close enough. Dark pants and shirt, boots that ended well above their ankles. The contrast of the dark color with their pastel skin and hair made them all the more astonishing.
The launch bay door opened to her left and she turned to see Hecta and Nark stop dead in the doorway, mouths open at the smoldering ship, the damage to the bay.
Without any sign of hesitation, two of the peach people lifted their shockguns and fired.
Hecta and Nark went down, and two other interlopers ran over to them, pushed them clear of the doors and hit the button to close them again.
One signaled to another of the group, and he ran over, took out a tiny silver rectangle and pressed it to the keypad next to the door. She heard the locks engage, locking the Garmman crew on the other side of the launch bay.
Fiona bent her head for a moment, sucking in a breath through the thick fabric of her hood.
They could kill her.
But she was going to die here anyway.
It would be drawn out for a little longer, as some of the crew got up their courage to follow Captain Tak's unspoken request, but they would beat her to death sooner or later.
She rubbed her hip where Hury had kicked her yesterday, and knew it was true.
These people might kill her right now, but it was well worth the risk.
She started to rise, and felt the hard plastic-like ears built into her hood wobble. She crouched back down.
Captain Tak wanted her to wear the hood to hide what she was, and also to make her look like something she wasn't. It had become really important to him that she not be seen without it.
And anything that Tak wanted, she was determined to do the opposite.
She wasn't sure who the aliens in front of her were, but for all she knew, people who wore hoods like hers were their worst enemy. Whereas they couldn't have any negative history with a human.
She got a good grip and pulled the hood off her head, and just to make sure, slid it between two of the containers, completely out of sight.
The lingering smoke caught immediately at her throat, and as she stood and took a step out from behind the stack, she couldn't help coughing a little.
Ten shockguns turned in her direction, and her heart gave a jump as they bared their teeth.
They had incisors, their lips pulling back over their gums to expose them fully.
It brought baboons from nature documentaries to mind.
She slowly raised her hands to show she was unarmed. Then held her breath as they watched her, and she watched them right back.
The pupils of their eyes were red, and she pushed down her rising panic at their very interested gaze.
She may have made a mistake.
One of them cocked his head to the side, and gestured for her to come closer.
Before she'd seen the teeth, the eyes, she'd been willing enough to take the chance. Now she had to force herself to step slowly out of the shadows and into the harsh light of the landing area.
“Grih?” The one who'd motioned her forward asked.
She nodded, relieved. “I do speak Grih. And Garmman. And a little Bukari.” Fitali was too strange for her, she hadn't come close to working it out yet, and Tecran made her uneasy, made her heart beat faster and her hands shake. She had skipped over all the Tecran language lessons.
“I mean, are you Grihan?” He spoke Garmman, his voice sibilant, his sharp incisors peeking out as he spoke.
She frowned. He thought she looked Grihan? “No.”
One of the team circled behind her, and she turned her head to keep him in sight.
She flinched when he suddenly moved right in front of her.
“Too short. And the ears.” The finger he reached out had too many joints and he touched the tip of her ear, shockgun resting directly against her chest as he did it.
She shuddered, forcing herself to keep still.
They weren't that much taller than she was, although close up she saw that while their limbs were slender, every muscle was defined.
“Pity. We have a Grihan battleship chasing us and it would have been good to use you as a hostage.” The leader stared at her, and she saw there was a sly and calculating look in his eye. “What are you, then?”
“I'm a prisoner.” She took a breath when the gun lifted slightly off her chest. “I wanted to ask if you'd take me with you? Help me escape?”
The leader barked out a laugh. “No.” He looked back at his still-smoking ship. “How can we get out of here?”
Suddenly, the shockgun was back on her chest, and she could hear the whine as it got to full strength.
If a Grihan battleship was chasing them, then the Grih would come here to look for them, surely? That meant another group to appeal to for help.
All wasn't lost.
She held on to that.
“How close are the Grih behind you?” she asked.
The leader narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“Well,” she pointed to one of the small loaders parked to one side, “those will get you out, but they don't go very fast, I don't think.”
One of his team was already looking at them, and he shook his head. “Deep-space work only. What else?”
There was something else, but if she told them, she'd better have a way off the ship, because Tak would kill her for revealing it.
“There may be something, but only if I can come, too.”
Suddenly the shockgun was pressed hard against her chest again and the leader stepped closer to her.
“I don't think you're in a position to negotiate.”
She swallowed. “If I tell you, they will kill me for it. The only way I can survive is if you take me with you.”
“We will kill you if you don't tell us.” The one holding the shockgun snarled at her.
“Then you won't have a way off the ship.” She spoke calmly as she met his eyes but excitement danced a jig in her stomach, because it was true. For the first time in a long time she had some bargaining power.
“Until you tell me what the way off is, I can't say whether we can take you or not. But I give my word if it is possible, I will.” There was something insincere on the leader's face, his words too slick, and Fiona had a sinking sense he would have no problem breaking a promise. The excitement she'd felt only a moment before morphed into disappointment, because no matter what, it came down to trusting someone she didn't think was trustworthy.
She could refuse to tell him, and maybe die right now, or she could take a chance he was being honest.
“Whose word am I taking?” Might as well know his name, whether he was going to cheat her or not.
“I'm Gerwa, of the Krik battalion V8.” He inclined his head.
“And him?” Fiona jerked her head at the one holding the shockgun against her.
“That is Jiy.”
Gerwa didn't give himself a title, although he was clearly the leader.
“So, tell.” Jiy poked at her with the gun.
“There is an emergency pod.”
“Emergency pod?” Gerwa looked around the bay, frowning.
“I had to pull all the supplies out of it so they could be checked for expiry dates, and then reload it.” Not that Tak would allow her to check the actual dates. He didn't trust her enough. And he was right not to.
“How many does it seat?”
She thought about it. “Eight. I think.”
Jiy pressed the barrel into her a little harder. “Where is it?”
She eased back. “There.” She pointed. Tak had built the emergency pod into an enclosed space next to the gel wall. The walls looked like part of the ship's construction, but they contained a small pod that would find the closest livable planet once launched.
Tak's mistake was his strategy of spending as little time with Fee as possible. He didn't understand how well she spoke Garmman, and he didn't warn the crew who'd switched out the supplies not to talk in front of her.
She knew all about the pod. How it was installed for the senior officers in case of catastrophic system failure.
The crew were unhappy no such escape route had been organized for them, and they hadn't minded discussing it in front of her. They hadn't even remembered she was there.
An angry, hoarse shout from Gerwa had her turning her head. Something struck her, hard, above her ear and she staggered to the side and fell onto her knees, hands up to shield from another blow. When none came, she turned her head to see Jiy was standing absolutely still, weapon raised, as if he were playing musical statues.
She climbed slowly to her feet, saw Gerwa's shockgun was held steady on his underling. He was yelling at him in what must be Krik, the tone one of fury.
She rubbed her head gingerly, winced as she realized the skin was broken, and there was a hard knot beneath it. Blood dripped in a sinuous trickle behind her ear and onto her shoulder.
What the hell was
with these people?
The leader finally lowered his weapon when Jiy lowered his and bowed his head in submission.
Gerwa looked over at her with his strange red eyes. “He is impatient. We're all impatient. Where are you pointing? You're taking too much time.”
Time they obviously didn't have. So the Grih must be close. That was . . . encouraging. Especially if Gerwa was going to sell her out.
The pain above her ear had given her a splitting headache and she rubbed the skin above it carefully. Felt a sudden, vicious fury at the casual violence. “I'd have been a real help to you unconscious on the floor.”
Gerwa flashed his fangs at her. “I prevented him hitting you too hard.”
She stared at him for a moment, trying to work out if he was honestly saying she should be grateful she hadn't been struck harder.
Finally, seeing his fingers start to tighten on his shockgun, she turned her back on him and stalked across the launch bay, now scraped and jagged in places where the Krik spaceship had gouged it on landing.
She hit the button that hid the panel, and the keypad was revealed. “I don't know the code.” If she did, she wouldn't still be here. She'd be somewhere far, far away.
Gerwa had followed her, and now he shoved her aside, making her stumble. He peered at the keypad and called out to someone over his shoulder in quick, sharp bursts of hissing sound.
The one who'd locked the launch bay doors came running over with the tiny silver rectangle.
“So, what does the Krik battalion V8 do?” She might as well gather as much information as possible.
“We are . . . traders.” The leader lifted his head, watching her reaction.
And then she remembered. The Krik. She'd heard the crew talking about them. Heard her guards discussing them, back when she was originally confined to her cell.
They were the scourge of space.
She'd imagined them as hulking knuckle-draggers of the worst sort, though. Not the slick, almost elegant beings in front of her.
They were the fly in everyone's ointment. Thieves, brawlers, pirates.
“Why are the Grih after you?”
He ignored her, stepping back to give his teammate with the silver device access to the keypad.
It took less than five seconds for the door to pop open.
“I don't suppose you'd have a spare one of those you could let me have?”
The Krik leader tore his eyes away from the pod, now revealed in its snug hideaway, and gave her a crooked smile. The tip of an incisor peeped out. “No.” He gestured toward the pod. “How does it work?”
“It will take you to the nearest livable planet. That's all I know.”
“That's enough.” He half-lifted his shockgun in her direction, and motioned his team toward the pod. “There are ten of us, only eight places in the pod, and the nearest planet is Balco, which is a significant distance from here. I can't risk my crew by overcrowding it more than necessary, so you won't be coming with us.”
She suspected as much, but it didn't stop the burn of anger and disappointment in her gut.
Gerwa's crew disappeared inside, and from the shuffling and knocking, she guessed it was a tight fit, even without Gerwa.
“How about you do us a favor?” Gerwa looked out of the pod, his hand curled around the inner door handle, another sly look on his face.
A laugh exploded out of her. “Why would I do you a favor?”
“Because it won't cost you anything.”
“To the contrary. It's going to cost me everything.” She'd kept her feelings to herself for a long time now. Through the abduction and the incarceration, abuse and neglect, but whether the Grih came and rescued her, or Tak killed her, today would see a massive change for her, and she didn't much feel like taking the path of least resistance anymore.