Authors: Veronica Scott
2012 by Jean D. Walker
This book is a work of fiction. The names, places, characters and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Art by Fiona Jayde
To the 2,223 people who set sail on the Titanic in 1912, and especially for the 1,500+ who never made it to the far shores
And to my daughters, Valerie and Elizabeth, without whom this book would never have been published
Two hours ago, Nick Jameson hadn’t cared when they would leave, or even whether they got space borne in time to join the cruise ship. He was in no rush to get to Sector Hub. Most likely his military career was going to be ending there, after that last disaster of a mission.
So why should I worry about reaching the Nebula Dream before she leaves orbit? The next ship would suit me fine. Or even the ship after that.
Nick knew he’d been a silent minority of one in the crowd on this, the last shuttle to leave planet Glideon for rendezvous with the majestic space liner. His fellow passengers – or their employers – had paid gigantic sums for the privilege of being on the
’s maiden cruise between the stars. Politely stressed panic thickened the air as the orbit
departure time ticked ever nearer. The liner waited, hundreds of miles above, as they sat, inexplicably tethered to the launch pad on Glideon. No one was rash enough to think the
captain was going to delay his own much-publicized departure from orbit for the benefit of one late shuttle, carrying only fifty or so passengers.
Nick had been assured there was no mechanical problem with the shuttle itself, no solar flare danger from Glideon’s erratic star.
Must be waiting for someone with even more gravity than any of the First Level passengers already sitting around me.
Then, after so much forced inactivity, the crew bustled, carrying out their duties with alacrity. The lead attendant and her two assistants moved to the passenger loading ramp, located just aft of the row where Nick had stationed himself to wait, glass in hand. As the attendants came down the aisle toward him, the subtle humming of the idling engines deepened.
The pilots must have transmitted word to Flight Control our departure’s imminent.
Setting his latest, as-yet-untouched drink on the tray table, Nick watched as the cause of the delay finally came onto the shuttle. His guess had been correct – everyone already aboard, including Nick, had indeed been waiting on the convenience of a highborn noble from some inner world. The man came with quite an entourage, three or four of his wives, several servants, and two highly pampered, perfumed pets of a six-legged, fur-bearing variety Nick had never seen before. One wife, solicitously supported by the others, was hugely pregnant beneath her aqua and gray robes and veils. She waited with her attendants near Nick’s seat while the issue of where the animals would travel was hashed out with the crew.
Fate of the pets finally settled to the prestigious passenger’s satisfaction, if not anyone else’s, the dignitary and his party were shepherded deeper into the shuttle. The two assistant attendants hastened to clear a path for the entire group, including beasts, through the crowded main cabin to the private area at the bow, right beneath the flight deck. Unhappy or ill, the pregnant woman had been moaning and crying softly beneath her veils. Nick got the impression she was being forced to proceed by her outwardly supportive attendants. Striding ahead of his women, her husband talked to his two male companions, not glancing around. Something about the set of his shoulders beneath the foppish, brocaded green robes suggested to Nick the man was tense.
Oh yeah, he knows everyone’s pissed at him
“We’ll be departing from the spaceport in five minutes standard,” was the lead attendant’s welcome announcement as she reemerged from the curtained-off private space. Stressed over the delay, she spoke in a professionally mellow voice that was a bit shrill. Two hours of coping with increasingly bellicose First Level passengers had been wearing enough, but the final argument over the new passenger’s pets had apparently used up the last of her customer service instincts.
“Any later and we’d miss the
’s flight altogether,” said a man near Nick, addressing his wife. “They desperately want to set a new speed record on this maiden voyage for the publicity and the bragging rights. The ship won’t wait for us.”
Nick gazed after the noble’s party, pondering. If truth be told, he was almost as unhappy to be here as that pampered but miserable young wife.
A kindred soul among the passengers.
Smiling, he lifted his drink again, taking a sip and then a longer swallow.
No need to stay sober. This isn’t a military transport, and I’m not on a mission. Might never be on a mission again, the way things are going.
While he savored the fine Suavarian brandy, Nick heard clanging outside as the grav clamps disengaged from the hull. The engines on the small luxury shuttle ramped up, nearly inaudible inside the well-insulated cabin. A lot of credits had been spent on every appointment of this transit ship, to keep the high-paying customers content during their brief flit from spaceport to space liner.
Too bad all the effort has gone to waste, goodwill eroded by endless sitting, waiting for the final party to arrive
. Even the liquid feelgoods the cabin crew had been so liberally pouring in the final half hour hadn’t done much to improve the tension among fifty-odd passengers afraid of missing their departure time, thereby losing their part in the historic maiden voyage of the
Sprawled comfortably in his luxurious black leather seat, foot rest tilted up, sipping at his drink, Nick glanced around at his fellow passengers. He’d checked them all out previously, of course, but there wasn’t much else for diversion. Nick had no interest in any of the sports events being broadcast on the vid screens. Sure, he’d bet on a game from time to time, but constant missions behind enemy lines made it hard to follow a team. Nor did the latest adventure fic selections appeal to him. Being a Special Forces operator provided enough real adventure – no need for the vicarious kind invented by people who’d never actually ventured from their safe Inner Sector planets.
There was a small family group across the way – father, mother, two children. The latter were eating a snack, brought by a harried attendant a few minutes earlier, before the grand arrival of the late passengers took everyone’s attention. The young boy, probably eight or ten, had bumped into Nick once, playing some game in the shuttle’s open aisle. He’d apologized politely. His younger sister stayed in her mother’s lap, sucking on her thumb and clutching a large, old-fashioned stuffed animal of some kind. Her big, soft brown eyes, fringed with extravagant lashes, kept closing sleepily. Then some sound would reawaken her with a jerk.
Bothered by his own painful memories, Nick averted his gaze from the cozy family group, sampling the drink again, crunching an ice cube.
Diagonally across from Nick sat a woman in the sober business suit of a major cit executive.
No pain in looking at her, that’s for sure.
The lines of her expensive, tailored clothing were softened by the muted shades of blue and cream in the finely woven fabric. Her gleaming golden-brown hair was pulled severely away from the perfect oval of her face, held in an old-fashioned chignon and pinned with tiny iridescent clips.
I’d like a chance to take those clips out, let that hair down.
Small, rebellious curls escaping from the discipline of the braided chignon and a pair of beautiful, intensely blue eyes under elegantly arching brows contrasted with the overall businesslike impression. Nick had received the full attention of her spectacular eyes only once, in the waiting room at the spaceport, as he stepped past her to stare at the shuttle. There’d been something electric, enigmatic in her glance.
Those eyes definitely made a man want to know more. She could project the no-nonsense businesswoman façade extremely well, but those eyes drew a man in anyway.
She wore the suit skirt short, accenting long, shapely legs.
Nick was a leg man.
Taking a bigger swallow of the brandy, Nick enjoyed the warmth spreading through his body.
Kidding yourself, Jameson
Yeah, she stared at you when you practically fell over her feet, accepted your apology with a graceful nod, but there was certainly nothing more to it. Talk about intense! She’s all about her work, even here on the shuttle.
Ostentatiously multitasking on several screens of her miniAI, efficiently using the time, she was shutting out the rest of them, Nick realized. He envied her. Being between assignments was an uncomfortable thing.
Man, I suck at doing downtime
. This lady was utilizing every nanosecond, and taking up three prime seats in furtherance of whatever she did. The cabin attendants had obviously recognized her, which probably meant she was a high-powered, big-tipping, frequent flier. Guessing with a flicker of mild regret he’d never know any more about her, he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop staring at her; not just yet.
She doesn’t fit the profile of a woman who’d be remotely interested in small talk over drinks with a soldier on leave. If there was a seat empty, though, maybe I’d try my luck.
He tilted his head, contemplating her activity.
Nah, probably only has time for overachievers like herself, who could talk the interstellar business lingo. Well, maybe I’m not being entirely fair
After all, the aloof businesswoman had taken a voluntary break from her data processing and analysis to play some game on her AI’s largest screen with the boy, when he and his sister had gotten cranky and hungry. Much to the relief of the parents and the other passengers, she’d kept the boy amused while the cabin attendants cobbled together a snack after it became obvious they weren’t going to make it to the
in time for early dinner service.
Then, hardly missing a beat, she’d resumed her work as soon as the boy sat next to his father, munching the small snack the attendants supplied. She’d not glanced up from her screens since.
She’s the most beautiful passenger, hands down, even with that tight-assed attitude, but she’s not the one who’s out of place. Like me.
Sipping his drink, he assessed the only other man on the shuttle who was as deadly as Nick himself could be when the occasion demanded – a D’nvannae Brother, dressed all in close-fitting, soft black leather, as they usually were when traveling outside their world. The swirling red tattoo all D’nvannae wore proudly inscribed on the right side of the face, as a sign of fealty to their Deity, was particularly well defined on this man.
He must be senior in the hierarchy, given the number of details in the tattoo. Gotta earn those the hard way in the Lady’s service
. Halfway paying attention to a broadcast of an inter Sector sports semifinal, the Brother was unbraiding his long, jet black hair, signifying his contract had been successfully completed and he was now at liberty to accept another.
Who on backwater Glideon might have needed such a high-priced, exotic bodyguard? Or been the target of such a relentless assassin?
The D’nvannae could be hired for either purpose, conflicting offers resolved by the whim of the goddess.
As if sensing Nick’s gaze, the Brother turned, eyeing him for a long minute, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. He had a strong face, thin lips, high, chiseled cheekbones, and intense black eyes that betrayed nothing of the thoughts going on behind them. Sensing no challenge, nothing on Nick’s part but bored curiosity, the other man nodded, the fine muscles of his face relaxing.
Raising his glass in salute, Nick tossed off the drink as the Brother dismissed him in favor of watching a replay.
Getting a pleasant buzz already from the high-priced feelgood, Nick signaled for another drink.
Better watch myself
The attendant had brought his next drink. Her arrival was so timely Nick had to wonder with a stab of concealed amusement if she’d been watching him, even as he was observing everyone else.