Third shift and I couldn't sleep. I loved the big wide darkness—it's been said I was born for a stellar helm—but I usually don't love it enough to give up a warm bed and an even warmer man after the normal aggravations of onboard duties. Yet that's exactly what I did, slipping out from under the sheet, away from the heat of Sully's body so I could stand in the crisp recycled air at the back of the Boru Karn's bridge and wonder what felt so terribly, horribly wrong.
Besides the obvious. We were fugitives with a high price on our heads, largely due to the man whose bed I'd just left: Gabriel Ross Sullivan, a rare human Kyi-Ragkiril whose secret telepathic and telekinetic abilities were hated, even feared. However, thanks to the rather large amount of honeylace he'd indulged in earlier, those abilities were dormant at the moment, or I'd not have the luxury of being on his ship's bridge at this hour, unquestioned, watching the starfield spatter elegantly across the forward screens, watching Verno's large furred hands move with surprising grace over the glowing control screens, and listening to the soft beeping and trilling of the ship's systems—sounds that were almost as much a part of me as my own breath, my own heartbeat.
My breath had lately become a little too tight, my heartbeat a little too rapid. So I needed to stand in the shadows of the bridge and I needed to do so without Sully's knowing I was here. And why.
"Are you sure I can't call up some tea, Captain Chasidah?" Verno's voice, like most Takas', was a rumbling growl, guttural without being harsh.
"I'm just a bit restless. It's okay." Those emotions that swirled through me were one of the downsides of being Sully's ky'sara. He sensed all my thoughts and emotions, and could transmit his. It had been almost three months since I'd granted him permission to become so intimately a part of me. It wasn't that I didn't love him. I did, beyond all measure—words he often used to describe his love for me. It just took some getting used to.
A stream of red data on a blue-tinged screen to my left snagged my attention. We were on the outer fringes of an Imperial GA-7's signal—a data relay drone normally not accessible to renegade ships like the Karn, and definitely not at this distance. But this was the Karn, Sully's ghost ship that routinely defied government regulations and just as routinely ignored ship's specs. So I slipped into the vacant seat at communications and executed the grab filter with an ease that even Sully would have been proud of.
Captain Chasidah Bergren. One-time pride of the Sixth Fleet and staunch defender of the Empire, illegally hacking into a GA-7 beacon.
Verno glanced at me, a thin-lipped, knowing grin carving a half-circle in his dark-furred face. "Sully-sir is anxious for those scores in the Baris Cup finals, is he?"
Sully's penchant for gambling was well known among his crew, as were his losses to Ren—something I still hadn't quite figured out. A telepathic Kyi-Ragkiril losing to a blind empath? It made no sense, but that wasn't what puzzled me at the moment. My issue lay much deeper, something I couldn't define except that it was a haunting, disturbing feeling.
Stress, my rational mind informed me. Sully handled the stress his unusual talents put on him by numbing them now and then with a glass or two of honeylace. That same amount would put me flat out on the decking. I always handled stress by doing something quantitative. Like downloading ship advisories, fleet movements, and the latest news.
"Sully gave Ren the Walker Colonies and four points," I told Verno. Being on third shift, he might not have heard Sully's latest betting strategies, expounded upon several hours ago in the galley. It also kept us off the topic of what I was doing here on third shift, while Sully slept alone.
"Ren should have asked me about Walker's team." Verno's voice almost held a purr. His vocation as an Englarian monk—that is, when he wasn't helmsman of the Karn—had done nothing to quash his love of sports, especially zero-G racquetball.
"You want in on the bet?"
"Not me, Captain Chasidah." Verno's sharp chuckle rumbled around the bridge, vibrating loose a few screws, no doubt. "Ren's the gambler in the family."
Intraship trilled. Aubry, I saw from the small icon on the screen before me. A routine update from engineering. Verno answered it and I returned to my pilfering, Verno's gravelly voice and Aubry's higher-pitched one fading to the back of my mind. I shunted three news reports on the first round of the Cup finals to Sully's and Ren's in-boxes, headlines of "Celebrations on Walker" telling me all I needed to know. Sully would not be pleased, yet I could almost hear him intone, "It's not where you start but where you finish." The series wasn't over yet.
Then I snagged a packet of ship movements through Calth and Dafir. In spite of Sully's passion for sport, these were infinitely more interesting and the real reason for my perusal of the data stored in the Imperial drone. We were hunting a ship breeding monsters before those monsters started hunting us.
Humans weren't the only ones threatened. Takas—Verno's people—were being slaughtered in an attempt by two very powerful men—Hayden Burke and Darius Tage—to secretly re-create mutant beasts banned decades ago in the Empire. These beasts were called jukors, a name that was an amalgam of science terms I no longer remembered. But I could never forget their rotting-garbage smell, their strong wings that looked like brittle glass, their razor-clawed talons. Their towering hideousness. Loosely fashioned in the image of mythical soul-stealers, they were developed during the Boundary Wars by Imperial leaders fearful of the intrusive telepathic talents of Stolorth Ragkirils. A jukor's primitive yet structured mind couldn't be controlled by Stolorth Ragkiril methods. It was the one last thing the Empire needed to ensure that Stolorths—like humans, yet in their six-fingered, blue-skinned way, so not like us—could be licensed and controlled.
The fact that there were also human Ragkirils was never even considered—at least not by any expert I'd known at Fleet HQ.
But there were human ones. I'd left one sleeping in my bed.
After three months of searching—and listening and bribing—we'd uncovered a source of information on the illegal gen-lab ship and its whereabouts. That's what brought us here to the Empire's edge, not quite a shipday past the Calth-Dafir border, heading for Narfial Starport.
"I'll tell Marsh to bump up that port grid on the repair schedule."
Aubry's thin tones over intraship broke into my thoughts and made me realize I'd been staring at nothing for several minutes, while information continued to download into the Karn's secured file storage.
"Noted. Will do," Verno answered.
There'd been some brownouts in the port section of a secondary power grid that fed the galley and the recyc system. A fairly routine occurrence on a ship composed of refurbished parts. That's why Verno and Aubry's conversation hadn't fully snagged my attention, though it had registered. Anything about a ship always does.
I waited until Verno closed intraship before glancing over my shoulder at him. "Walker took game one."
The shaggy head jerked toward me. "Ah! Ren will be pleased. But Sully-sir . . ." The rumbling groan that followed was the Taka's version of a theatrical sigh.
I turned back to my data and started the grab-filter's disconnect sequence. A subject tag in a final news feed caught my eye. A name. Bergren.
It was my name, my family's name. An oily, cold sense of foreboding flooded my veins. Captain Chaz Bergren was a fugitive, a disgraced member of the Imperial Fleet. There were at least a dozen reasons why my name might be in a news headline.
But the headline wasn't about Chaz. It was about my older brother.
"Commander Thaddeus L. Bergren Charged in Conspiracy Plot at Marker Shipyards."
I stared at the words, dread and disbelief rising inside me. My breath caught, my heart hammered in my chest. But this time, for a very definable reason.
Thad and my ex-husband, Admiral Philip Guthrie, had damned near risked their lives and careers to save me, Sully, Verno, and Ren a few months back on Marker when we'd destroyed the first jukor lab. Now it seemed Thad's actions had caught up with him, despite Philip's assurances that wouldn't—couldn't—happen.
I scanned the article's brief summary as I quickly tagged two copies of the download, just in case one skewed through the filters. My name wasn't mentioned but Sully's was: renegade mercenary Gabriel Ross Sullivan.
We were in big trouble. If Hayden Burke's henchman or First Barrister Darius Tage's interrogators used one of the licensed Stolorth Ragkirils to pull information from my brother's mind, Thad could die for what he knew about Burke and Tage. And for what he knew about Sully. I doubted they'd use anything as benign as a zral—a simple mind-probe. No, they would probably use a zragkor—a probe that ultimately erased and killed the mind.
Thad was one of the few in the Empire who knew what Sully was. If that leaked out, our entire mission to destroy the gen-labs would slam to a halt. The fear of mind-ripping talents was even stronger in the rim worlds than in-system, where licensed Stolorths were tolerated. If it was revealed that Sully was not only a Ragkiril but a high-level Kyi, our contacts and most of our safe havens and hidey-holes would disappear.
And more than half of Sully's crew would mutiny. If they didn't kill Sully first.
I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and shoved myself to my feet.
"Captain Chasidah?" Verno turned in his seat, my sudden movement no doubt catching his attention.
"Trouble, Verno. Tage arrested Thad. Hayden Burke's involved, I'm sure of it." I waved toward his console. "I sent you a copy of the summary I found. Read it and erase it. I have to wake up Sully and get the full article decoded."
Verno's fixed stare told me he was as shocked and troubled as I was. He knew about Sully's Ragkiril talents and accepted them. But he also knew well that Gregor, Marsh, Aubry, and Dorsie wouldn't.
"Admiral Guthrie won't let anything happen to your brother," he said as I headed for the corridor.
But what my brother knew would also implicate Philip. He'd be stripped of rank and face a court-martial far worse than the one I had months before. With Burke and Tage pursuing him, even the old and illustrious Guthrie name wouldn't be able to save him.
Fists clenched painfully tight, I strode over the bridge's hatch tread then bolted down the corridor.
Sully propped himself on his elbows, the pale green bedsheet sliding down his bare chest as cabin lights, reacting to my presence, glowed dimly around the edges of the ceiling and floor. I reached back and palm-locked our cabin door as the first trickle of our deep mind-link blossomed open. I felt his presence much as I would a welcoming arm across my shoulders.
He sat up straighter and suddenly thrust a hand through his short dark hair. "Thad. Son of a bitch has Thad." He ripped the sheet away. "What else?"
The fact that he was asking and not culling that information from my mind told me the deadening attributes of the honeylace hadn't fully worn off yet.
"That's all I know." I dropped into the chair in front of the cabin's computer console then keyed the lights up brighter. "Right now," I amended. "It came in the last news dump. I haven't decoded it yet."
Warmth flooded me as if two strong arms now encircled my body, but Sully was still across the cabin, naked, pulling a pair of black pants and matching long-sleeved shirt from one of the drawers lining the bottom of his closet.
I sent back what warmth I could, but a chill gripped me and refused to let go. My straitlaced brother, blue eyed and ginger haired like our father. And until my reappearance in his office on Marker, distant and disapproving like our father. Or so I thought. But what I'd taken for disapproval was Thad's way of working behind the scenes to keep me alive after my sham of a court-martial, which had sentenced me to certain death on the prison planet of Moabar.
Rediscovering that my brother loved me had given me a renewed sense of strength.
Now loving me could kill him.
"I won't let that happen."
I recognized that tone in Sully's voice. His "Gabriel" tone I called it—his Kyi-Ragkiril nature coming to the fore. Strong, unshakable, focused. Sometimes too much so. His belief in his invincibility was also a defensive cloak that had the ability to blind him.
"I am aware of the risks," he countered, obviously reading me with ease now as he yanked the hem of his shirt down around his waist. He unlocked a chair from the cabin decking and slid it over next to mine. His eyes—dark and infinite—studied me. Not a threat but a promise.
"We need to read the full article," I said as he sat. "Then, I don't know, chance a contact with Philip." I don't know because Sully and Philip in the same galactic sector was never a comfortable situation. But Philip had status and deep, reliable sources in the Empire. We didn't. If Tage was behind this—we already suspected he was using billionaire Hayden Burke as a front—Philip was in a far better position to garner information than we were at the moment.
I turned back to the decoded data, aware that Sully's lack of comment on Philip was more of a comment than if he'd damned my ex-husband with words.
Admiral Philip Guthrie wasn't mentioned in the article. But Thad and his involvement "aiding and abetting the escape of the renegade mercenary Gabriel Ross Sullivan" were. There was a brief but damnably accurate recounting of Sully's movements through Marker's core after firebombing "the illegal weapons factories" there. There was no mention of me, and I had no idea if that was Philip's doing or a deliberate oversight. If Burke and Tage knew this much about Sully's escape, then they knew I'd been part of it.
Further investigation tied Sullivan to longtime Farosian terrorist Zabur Lazlo, the article continued. Lazlo was dead and probably rolling over in his grave at the purported alliance. Lazlo was not remotely associated with the Tos Faros-based supporters of Sheldon Blaine's bid for the throne. He had been Hayden Burke's bodyguard.
If there was one thing neither First Barrister Tage or megalomaniac Burke wanted, it was the Empire in Blaine's hands. Tage and the current emperor, Prewitt III, had spent too much time and money disproving Blaine's claims that Prew was not legal heir to the throne.
And Burke, an outspoken supporter of Tage's Legalist Party, wanted to see the man and the party that his family had financially endorsed for years firmly in power.
Burke also wanted Sully dead. That had been Lazlo's actual mission, to kill Gabriel Sullivan because Sully not only stood in the way of Burke's claim on the Sullivan fortune but had found proof that Burke was illegally breeding jukors.
Excerpted from Shades of Dark by Linnea Sinclair. Copyright © 2008 by Linnea Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.