Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard's throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. The last rays of light from the setting sun filtered through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka's coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.
"Shit!" I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn't as if I'd never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. And then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.
This time it was pure survival.
It took me a few minutes to find my blade wedged in between the moss-covered rocks. After more than a decade on interstellar patrol ships, my eyes had problems adjusting to variations in natural light. Shades of grays and greens, muddied by Moabar's twilight sky, merged into seamless shadows. I'd never have found my only weapon if I hadn't pricked my fingers on the point. Red human blood mingled with Takan gold. I wiped the blade against my pants before letting it mold itself back around my wrist. It flowed into the form of a simple silver bracelet.
"A Grizni dagger, is it?"
I spun into a half crouch, my right hand grasping the bracelet. Quickly it uncoiled again--almost as quickly as I'd sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. The distinctly masculine voice had come from the thick stand of trees in front of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could be anywhere. It looked like tonight's agenda held a second attempt at rape and murder. Or completion of the first. That would make more sense. Takan violence against humans was rare enough that the guard's aggression had taken me--almost--by surprise. But if a human prison official had ordered him . . . that, given Moabar's reputation, would fit only too well.
I tuned out my own breathing. Instead, I listened to the hushed rustle of the thick forest around me and, farther away, the guttural roar of a shuttle departing the prison's spaceport. I watched for movement. Murky shadows, black-edged yet ill defined, taunted me. I'd have sold my soul then and there for a nightscope and a fully charged laser pistol.
But I had neither of those. Just a sloppily manipulated court martial and a life sentence without parole. And, of course, a smuggled Grizni dagger that the Takan guard had discovered a bit too late to report.
My newest assailant, unfortunately, was already forewarned.
"Let's not cause any more trouble, okay?" My voice sounded thin in the encroaching darkness. I wondered what had happened to that "tone of command" Fleet regs had insisted we adopt. It had obviously taken one look at the harsh prison world of Moabar and decided it preferred to reside elsewhere. I didn't blame it. I only wished I had the same choice.
I drew a deep breath. "If I'm on your grid, I'm leaving. Wasn't my intention to be here," I added, feeling that was probably the understatement of the century. "And if he," I said with a nod to the large body sprawled to my right, "was your partner, then I'm sorry. But I wasn't in the mood."
A brittle snap started my heart pounding again. My hand felt as slick against the smooth metal of the dagger as if the Taka's blood still ran down its surface. The sound was on my right, beyond where the Taka lay. Only a fool would try to take me over the lifeless barrier at my feet.
The first of Moabar's three moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement, then saw him step out of the shadows just as the clouds cleared away from the moon. His face was hidden, distorted. But I clearly saw the distinct shape of a short-barreled rifle propped against his shoulder. That, and the fact that he appeared humanoid, told me he wasn't a prison guard. Energy weapons were banned on Moabar. Most of the eight-foot-tall Takas didn't need them, anyway.
The man before me was tall, but not eight feet. Nor did his dark jacket glisten with official prison insignia. Another con, then. Possession of the rifle meant he had off-world sources.
I took a step back as he approached. His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll. He prodded the dead guard with the tip of the rifle, then squatted down and ran one hand over the guard's work vest as if checking for a weapon, or perhaps life signs. I could have told him the guard had neither. "Perhaps I should've warned him about you," he said, rising. "Captain Chasidah Bergren. Pride of the Sixth Fleet. One dangerous woman. But, oh, I forgot. You're not a captain anymore."
With a chill I recognized the mocking tone, the cultured voice. And suddenly the dead guard and the rifle were the least of my problems. I breathed a name in disbelief. "Sullivan! This is impossible. You're dead--"
"Well, if I'm dead, then so are you." His mirthless laugh was as soft as footsteps on a grave. "Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell."
We found two fallen trees, hunkered down, and stared at each other, each waiting for the other to make a move. It was just like old times. Except there was the harsh glow of his lightbar between us, not the blackness of space.
"I never pegged you for an easy kill," I told him. Which was true. The reports of his death two years ago had actually surprised me more than his reappearance just now. I balanced the dagger in my hand, not yet content to let it wrap itself around my wrist. "When I heard what happened at Garno, I didn't buy it." I shrugged and pushed aside what else I'd thought, and felt, when I'd heard the news. My feelings about the death of a known mercenary and smuggler mattered little anymore.
He seemed to hear my unspoken comment. "It wasn't planned to fool anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Only the government. And, of course, their newshounds. But tell me the news of my passing pained
you," he continued, dropping his voice to a well-remembered low rumble, "and I'll do my best to assuage your fears."
A muted boom sounded in the distance, rattling through the forest. Another shuttle arriving, breaking the sound barrier on descent. He turned toward it, so I was spared answering what I knew to be a jibe. Regardless, I had no intention of telling him about my pain.
Patches of light and shadow moved over his face. Sullivan's profile had always been strong, aristocratic, dominating the Imperial police bulletins and Fleet patrol advisories. He had his father's lean jawline, his mother's thick dark hair. Both were more than famous in their own right, but not for the same reasons as Sully. They'd been members of the Empire's elite; he was simply elusive.
The lightbar reached full power. It was almost like shiplight, crisp and clear. He turned back to me, his lips curved in a wry smile, as if he knew I'd been studying him.
He'd aged since I last saw him, about six months before his highly publicized demise. The thick, short-cropped black hair was sprinkled with silver. The dark eyes had more lines at the corners. The mouth still claimed its share of arrogance, though--as if he knew he'd always be one handsome bastard.
All the more reason to ignore his attempt at taunting me. His existence had been far more troublesome to me than his purported passing. "What went down on Garno? You cut a deal?" Moabar or death had been offered to a lot of people, but not to me. Most chose death. I hadn't had that luxury.
He snorted and raised the rifle almost to my nose. "What's this look like? How long have you been here, three weeks?"
I knew what it was. Illegal. Damn difficult to come by. A rifle didn't wrap around your wrist like my dagger, or fit in the sole of a boot.
A thought chilled me. Maybe the Taka weren't the only guards the prison authorities used.
"Yeah, three weeks, two days, and seventeen hours. Time flies, you know." I held his gaze evenly. His eyes were dark, like pieces of obsidian, unreadable. "That's a Norlack 473 rifle. Sniper model. Modified, it appears, to handle illegal wide-load slash charges."
He laughed. "On point as ever, Bergren. Dedicated captain of a peashooter squad out in no-man's land. Keeping those freighters safe from dangerous pirates like me. And even when they damn you and ship you here, every inch of you still belongs to Fleet Ops." He shook his head. "Your mama wore army boots, and so do you."
"What do you want, Sully?" I jerked my chin toward the dead Taka. "You cleaning up after him? Or finishing what he didn't?"
He turned the rifle in his hands. "This isn't prison stock. This is contraband, wasn't that how your orders phrased it? Stolen. Modified." He paused and pinned me intently with his obsidian gaze. "Mine."
We'd had conversations like this before--me, on the bridge of my small patrol ship. He'd be on the bridge of the Boru Karn, his pilot and bridge crew flickering in and out of the shadows behind him. He rarely answered anything directly. He threw words at you, phrases, like hints to a puzzle he'd taunt you to solve. Or like free-form poetry, the kind that always sounded better after a few beers. He loved to play with words.
I didn't. "Okay. So no deal was cut and you're not working for the Ministry of Corrections. Don't tell me you've added Moabar to your vacation plans?"
He laughed again, more easily this time. But not easily enough for me to put my dagger back around my wrist.
"A resort for the suicidal but faint of heart? Don't bother to slit your own throat, we'll do it for you." He gestured theatrically. "If I couldn't market it, hell, no one could."
"Not a lot of repeat business."
"Ah, but that is the operative word. Business."
"Is it? What are you funding here, prison breaks?" If he wasn't with the MOC, then he had to be working against them. But I'd never heard of any successful escapes from Moabar. There was no formal prison, per se. Just an inhospitable, barely habitable world of long frigid winters that brought airborne viruses, and bleak, chilled summers. Like now. I was lucky my sentence started when it did. I'd have time to acclimate. Others, dumped dirtside in the midst of a blizzard, often died within hours.
"If I'm funding anything, it's freedom for a cause. I've found, since my untimely but useful demise, that this place can provide me with a source of cheap, willing labor."
"Willing being the operative word, I take it?"
"Willing being the operative word, yes."
"Doing what?" I knew many of Sully's operations before Garno: stolen cargo, weapons, illegal drugs, ships, and everything that fell in between. I just couldn't see why he'd chosen to seek me out. Unless he'd lost his pilot, needed someone to captain a ship for him. But why come to me? He could have his pick from those who lined the barstools in any spaceport pub.
But then, I'd ignored his all-important earlier comment: my mother wore army boots.
"You know the system," he told me. "You were raised in it. As were your parents, and your parents' parents. Captain Chasidah 'Chaz' Bergren. Daughter of Engineering Specialist Amaris Deirdre Bergren and Lieutenant Commander Lars Bergren. Sister of Commander Thaddeus Bergren, currently second in command at the Marker Shipyards. Granddaughter of Lieutenant--"
"I know who I am."
"So do I."
"Good. Then you know my mother's been dead for almost twenty years. I haven't spoken to my father in over ten. And my brother, since the trial, won't permit my name to be mentioned within earshot. What's the point?"
"The point, my lovely angel--and no, don't look so skeptical. Though I may be a veritable walking list of negative personality traits, the one thing I am not, and never have been, is a liar. It's my great downfall, Chaz. So if I say you're lovely--" He reached for my chin with his fingertips. I jerked back, almost fell off my log, and had to drag my boot heel in the dirt to keep my balance.
"Don't tumble for me yet, darlin'." He laughed. "We have business to attend to first. As I was saying, death has afforded me a new perspective. A new maturity, if you will. While my goals haven't changed, my methodology has. That's where you come in."
"A mere captain of a peashooter squadron?"
"That's Fleet's appraisal of your talents. Not mine."
"No, you always called me an interfering bitch."
"If you must quote me, please be accurate. A beautiful, interfering bitch. And now that I find I'm in need of one particular beautiful, interfering bitch, I can't think of one better. So tell me, my angel, are you ready to leave this veritable paradise and make a pact with the ghost from Hell?"
I turned the dagger in my hand, watched the light play over the blade. I'd been willing to sell my soul earlier for a nightscope and a laser pistol. On Moabar, that would guarantee survival. But Sully was offering me more. He was offering me a way off Moabar. Freedom. On Hell's terms, but freedom nonetheless.
I nodded, stuck my hand out. "Officers' agreement."
He clasped my hand firmly, then went down on one knee and brought it to his lips.
I pulled my fingers away from his mouth, angry at the invisible firemoths that seemed to dance across my skin at his touch. "This is a business deal, Sullivan."
He sat back on his heel, grinning. "Whatever you say."
"Damn straight." I pushed myself to my feet, transferred the dagger to my right hand, and started to let it wrap around my left wrist. Then stopped. He'd retrieved the rifle and now stood towering over me, his dark eyes glinting brightly from the lightbar in his hand.
I let my fingers close around the hilt of the dagger, kept it between us as I followed him into the forest. Maybe I'd hold on to it this way for a while. Just in case my ghost's good humor dissolved like mist from the moons.
Sully tabbed the lightbar down to half power, just enough to guide us over fallen logs and rock-filled ditches. He held it low, our bodies blocking its telltale glow. I lengthened my strides to match his.
The only sounds were our footsteps crunching against the carpet of brittle twigs, the occasional slap of a branch against our dark jackets.
We slipped like shadows between the shaggy trees. It was as if I were twenty-two years old again, back in basic training, on a dirtside recon exercise. Sully moved that way too, with a cautious grace. A bright patch of moonlight cascaded through an opening in the forest canopy. As one, we edged around it.
I caught a wry half smile on his face. He angled his mouth down to my ear, echoing my thoughts. "Feels like boot camp."
I couldn't remember any stint in the military on his dossier. I was about to ask where he'd trained when something glinted ahead of us, far off to the right.
Excerpted from Gabriel's Ghost by Linnea Sinclair. Copyright © 2005 by Linnea Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.