Chapter One

 

THE DERELICT ship twisted in a slow, graceful spiral against the backdrop of a rogue moon. Signs of life remained. Lights flickered near the nose, slanted down as if poised for an endless dive. A stabilizer sputtered, altering the course of the ship’s rotation by degrees. Scans had come back negative for dangerous leakage, but it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be surprises whenever Riff Khora led a recon for a salvage mission.

It was easy to forget how terrifyingly vast the universe was until Riff came across sights like this and was reminded that their salvage ship, though solid and enormous, was only a speck of dust in an immense sea of stars. The derelict, Pandora, was reported missing a year ago. All this time it had waited, losing hope in its isolation.

Riff pressed his lips together at the unwelcome pang of empathy. “Any chance of survivors?” he asked, taking a step closer to the porthole.

“Still thinking like a medic, instead of a lifer. You’d think after three years of serving time that would’ve been scoured away.” Captain Vidal stood with his back to Riff, staring out the porthole, hands clasped behind him. His gaze bored into Riff from the reflection.

Riff kept his face expressionless, but the barb stung. Asshole.

Vidal was short, slight, and carried himself as if he were the largest dog in the pack, which he was. A dog with a vicious bite. His hair held more gray than red and was cut with military precision, as exacting as the way he ordered the rest of his life. He had the colorless pallor of a man who spent years away from the warmth of the sun. The blocky shape of his face, the round eyes that saw everything, and the thin-lipped mouth gave him the mien of a humorless, cold automaton.

“All signs indicate no survivors. No one left to argue over my salvage rights,” Vidal replied with a hard note of avarice in his voice.

Riff’s lip twisted in derision. Of course that was Vidal’s sole concern. His rights. His property. Not one thought for the lives lost.

Riff focused on the ship again. The captain’s suite was the only place on board the penal salvage scow that had sizable viewing ports. The derelict wasn’t large, probably belonged to a rich corporation. A pleasure yacht that had wandered off course and found trouble. Pampered travelers often forgot the dangers of space travel. They only noticed the beauty.

Vidal turned to face him, tapping a riding crop against his leg. His neatly pressed pants, shined boots, and shirt with every tuck and fold in place made Riff very aware of his own nudity. Riff’s gaze drifted to the crop and its restless tapping. He longed to feel the bite with an unrelenting hunger.

“Your attention should always be on me.” The crop came up and patted Riff’s cheek in a move meant to insult. Riff bit down on a hot flush of anger. He’d asked for this. Not for the degradation. He needed the pain, craved it long before he was sentenced here. Then the need took on a whole new life. At least while the whip was singing, Riff wasn’t haunted by screams and long-dead faces. But the slights and humiliations from Vidal burned. “Who are you picking for your team?”

“Tuputala, Quinet, Wilt, and Jakobsen.” Riff met the captain’s cold gray gaze with an insolent stare in return.

Vidal’s mouth pinched. His hand sank into Riff’s hair and fisted hard enough to make him hiss. Riff closed his eyes, savoring the sting. Just a little harder. The captain’s hand tightened as he shook Riff by his hair until he opened his eyes, pushing past the pleasure to focus on Vidal.

“Why Jakobsen? He’s raw. What makes you think he’s ready for a recon?”

“We need a fifth man,” Riff replied. “He has a knack for picking apart salvage for what’s usable. He has experience as a master engineering mechanic. I want to see how he judges an entire ship.” And Zed Jakobsen drew Riff to him on an instinctive level. A reason Riff kept to himself as Vidal studied him.

“On your knees.” The command was deceptively soft and uttered with the assurance of a man who was used to immediate obedience.

Riff hesitated, holding out until Vidal’s hand tightened again, sending pinpricks of pain over his scalp. Riff caught his breath and sank to his knees. Score one for him in their ongoing battle. It was a dance. When Vidal withheld pain, Riff withheld his submission as they waited for the other to give in first. Theirs was a twisted and perverse relationship of mutual gratification. Vidal got more pleasure out of a willing victim, and Riff used that leverage as much as he could to get what he wanted in return.

“Yes, Captain?” Riff’s excitement stirred. If only Vidal would give him a couple of licks before the mission, just enough to see him through until their next meeting.

Vidal used his hair as a handle to pull his head back at an uncomfortable angle. Riff swallowed against a tight throat as he met the captain’s glittering gaze. “Try not to lose another crew member,” Vidal taunted as he released him.

The swift and cutting unwelcome pain killed Riff’s desire with ruthless ease. He looked away, his jaw tightening. It infuriated him to know Vidal got more pleasure out of that blow than any physical one. Riff had no defense against those attacks.

“I accept your reasoning for Jakobsen,” Vidal said. “I expect a full report when you return.”

A full report, what a cosmic joke. It was an excuse for Riff to see him again. His report would involve him being on his knees, and nothing would be said about the derelict vessel. Vidal would get his information from the detailed reports.

“Understood.”

Still aching from the final barb, Riff dressed and left without another word, passing by the two guards at the entrance to Vidal’s suite. Another guard, Regina Flaubert, escorted him down to the prep room. Flaubert’s long face was expressionless, but Riff recognized the familiar contempt in her eyes. Contempt for a lifer. Contempt for his so-called relationship with Vidal.

“You should be grateful,” Riff said in an undertone as they passed through the security separating the captain’s side of the ship with the rest. The long, narrow hallway connecting the two sections thrummed from the giant engines underneath. The dim corridor had all of the soft luxury stripped away, leaving bare decking and cold, dark walls with no chance of seeing outside. The prison and workrooms on the other side were even starker. Riff actually preferred the reality to the illusion that Vidal and his crew were any better than their prisoners.

Flaubert glanced at him, the corner of her hard mouth slanting in a sneer. “Why? Because you suck the captain’s dick for perks you don’t deserve?”

“Because if it wasn’t for me and the other prisoners’ labor, you wouldn’t get that fine payout of yours.” Riff sneered, his voice full of scorn. The dig hit, and her eyes flashed. “And if Vidal didn’t have prisoners to use and abuse, he’d turn to a guard without a moment’s thought. He’s god on this ship, and no one would intervene if you complained.”

“Lucky for me his tastes don’t run toward women,” Flaubert replied. The decking clanged under their boots down the long passage toward the second guard station. They nodded her through, and to Riff’s surprise she stayed with him when they reached the first of the vast, echoing salvage rooms. There was no need for an escort unless she wanted to keep him from speaking with another inmate or stopping by his cell. Or just to be a bitch and make him feel even more caged.

The salvage room hummed with activity as men and women worked on sorting and repair under the watching eyes of guards. There was always work to do. The routes between planets were littered with the remnants of ships left over from the constant wars, the depredations of pirates, and the occasional ill luck of a breakdown or accident. If they weren’t working on cleaning up a mess, they were dismantling the salvageable bits to sell to the highest bidders.

“You believe you’re the feudal lord to his god, but you don’t have as much power as you think,” Flaubert continued. “You weren’t able to help Bryce, were you?”

Riff halted and turned a bitter glare on her. “The only reason I couldn’t help Bryce is because you and your cronies are the worst hypocrites I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet. You make my old sergeant seem like Lord Vishnu. One of these days, I’m going to find out who tormented Bryce so bad he felt he had no other way out.”

“And when that day comes, you won’t do a damn thing about it.” Flaubert punched in the access code for the recon prep room and gestured for Riff to go in. “Be a good boy. Take your place.”

Riff clenched his jaw, gritting his teeth against his impotency. First the captain, now Flaubert, throwing Bryce’s death at him as if he were the one responsible for his suicide. Flaubert was right. There wouldn’t be a damn thing he could do about getting payback. Picking at the guards brought temporary relief but did nothing to change the situation or stop the constant bubbling anger. No amount of prayers over his tulsi mala eased that anger. He touched the beads around his wrist and told himself he only needed time; Bryce’s death was still a raw wound, but he didn’t think time would heal this one. The light of his faith sometimes had a difficult time shining through a growing tide of pessimism.

He got to work, examining each evac suit, making sure there were no rips or worn areas where dangerous substances could slip through. His thoughts returned to the problem of the derelict. It still concerned him that the ship hadn’t had a chance to send out a distress signal when there was no obvious external damage.

“It’s about time we had another one.”

Josephina Tuputala ducked as she came through the hatch. Taller than most men, she seemed to fill the small room with broad shoulders and curves. Her jovial round face and the smile lines around her angular eyes were offset by her stoic mask and the uncompromising slant to her mouth. She shot Riff a questioning glance, and Riff jerked his chin toward the diagnostic and tool kits. Tuputala nodded and began digging through them, checking to see if they were fully equipped. She was one of the few people Riff considered a friend, and any chance he had he made sure Tuputala was at his back.

“Recon, salvage, or repair?” Tuputala asked in her quiet, melodic voice. Her long black hair was gathered in a fat braid, bristling with curls that threatened to escape.

“Recon,” Riff replied. “But we’ll probably need to do some repairs before we can start a full salvage. I’m about to take a look at the scans.”

Marty Quinet and Cybil Wilt entered and went straight to work without a word, checking the air tanks first. Quinet sent darting glances around the room with a nervous air, like he saw things no one else did and wasn’t happy about it. His lean body, sagging eyes, and the way he hunched made him seem like more of a shadow than a man. Riff found him hard to get to know, but he was a genius with computers.

Wilt tapped him on the arm, commanding Quinet’s attention. She was an older woman with spiky, short gray hair, tattoos, a smattering of freckles, and a salty tongue that cut through Quinet’s tension as they suited up. The pair did everything together and had been working the recon-and-salvage gig long before Riff took over as team leader. As far as he could tell, they’d never been lovers despite sharing a cell. Other prisoners and some of the guards had issues with their closeness, perceiving it as a threat, but Riff didn’t care. They worked well together, and their skills complemented each other. That’s all that mattered.

Quinet glanced at the ceiling and a shadow passed through Riff like skeletons dancing on his heart. Then Wilt drew Quinet’s attention away with a low comment and conspiratorial nudge of her elbow. No one mentioned their missing team member, but Bryce’s presence lingered ghostlike, as if his body still hung from the ceiling. Even Riff found himself looking up and wishing he’d read the signs better or gotten to the room earlier. Maybe he could’ve done something to save Bryce, and then none of them would be feeling the ache of his absence.

If they didn’t need another mechanic Riff would’ve kept it to the four of them for this first mission without Bryce. He had to have a pair in the engine room, though, and his skills did not run in that direction. Flaubert was right in one regard. If it wasn’t for his relationship with Vidal, he’d be stuck drudging it out in the salvage rooms with no chance of leaving the ship for missions, much less leading one. He sure as hell wasn’t about to feel any shame for it.

Riff finished checking the helmets for damage and moved to study the schematics and readouts of the ship as they waited for their final team member to arrive. The rest of the crew headed to the transport bay for the preflight check and to load the tools.

The hatchway opened, and Zed Jakobsen hovered in the hallway with an uncertain expression until the guard shoved him inside. Hazel eyes flashed with anger, but Jakobsen wisely held his tongue. He wasn’t the handsomest man. His face had a florid cast, and his chin was weak. Those details didn’t matter. It was Jakobsen’s eyes that caught Riff’s attention, such an unusual green and amber. Those eyes pierced through Riff when Jakobsen looked at him. And the expression in those eyes when he’d stepped aboard with the other prisoners, the helpless anger, had called to Riff in recognition.

Riff straightened as the hatchway shut, leaving them alone. He met Jakobsen’s forthright, challenging gaze with a rush of forbidden pleasure. He hadn’t lied to the captain about Jakobsen’s eye for usable junk or his past mechanical experience, but if Vidal knew how much Riff looked forward to another chance for a stolen conversation with Jakobsen, they’d both be in trouble.

“Good to see you again,” Riff said.

“I know you didn’t call me down so we can ogle each other,” Jakobsen said with a pointed look. “I prefer to keep my balls, and I don’t think Captain will let me if he hears of us meeting alone.”

“We need another team member. I recommended you.”

Jakobsen’s gaze darkened. “I heard about Bryce. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” Riff replied. Jakobsen said what he meant without artifice or embellishment. As much as Jakobsen excited his senses, Riff found him soothing too, which was a fucking laugh because he’d never been attracted to that quality in a man before.

“So, your turn, Jakobsen. Tell me one thing about you.”

“I’ve never been planetside,” Jakobsen said after a moment. “I was born at the shipyards, was schooled there, did an apprenticeship on a freighter, but until now, that was the most traveling I’d ever done.”

Now Jakobsen was just another lifer like Riff, and he’d never get a chance to travel. The only escape he could look forward to was missions like this.

“You?” Jakobsen asked, stepping closer.

“Grew up in Bhubaneswar, on Old Earth. Signed on with the Interstellar Marines the day I hit my majority and have never gone back.” There had been too much to see, and the Marines weren’t keen on letting people go once they recruited them.

“What type of a ship are we dealing with?” Tuputala asked, leading the team back into the room. Riff bit back a swear of disappointment. Another interlude with Jakobsen cut short.

“Looks to be a modified Scimitar-class ship dubbed Pandora. Been missing a year. Scans picked up no life signs.” Riff brought up the live feed of the derelict, drifting off their portside.

“Jakobsen, you’re new to the salvage part of our operation. Meet Joey Tuputala, Cybil Wilt, and Marty Quinet.” Riff pointed to each of the crew in turn. Tuputala towered over Jakobsen, making him seem shorter than he was. Wilt nodded an acknowledgment while Quinet looked away, biting the inside of his cheek. “You have any questions or issues, run it by me first. If you give me any problems, you lose your chance on going out on another mission. Do we understand each other?”

“Loud and clear,” Jakobsen replied in an even tone. His attention seemed to be more on the screen, which showed the ship spinning, helpless and hopeless in the vacuum. A chill touched Riff’s spine. The ominous image captivated him.

“Tuputala, I want you to get the stabilizers and life support running. Jakobsen, if you’re done with your look-see, I want you to help Tuputala with repairs. I also want an analysis of what you think can be salvaged out of the equipment, including fuel reserves.”

Jakobsen glanced at him, his eyes narrowing, assessing, and a rush of heat went through Riff. It had been a long damn time since somebody had affected him like that. Riff maintained eye contact, and Jakobsen stared back steadily until Riff looked away. Oh yeah, the man got under his skin.

“You’d better know what you’re doing,” Tuputala rumbled under her breath to Jakobsen as she pulled on her evac suit.

“I’ve been around an engine or two,” Jakobsen replied.

“Just keep up,” Tuputala said, fastening the suit before stepping into her boots. “I’m not waiting for you to adjust.”

Jakobsen’s jaw tightened, but he made no other response as he began putting on his own equipment. He wore his ever-present thin leather gloves and kept them on as he suited up. Every time Riff saw him, he was gloved and swathed from neck to ankles in an oversized jumpsuit. A stickler for safety, Riff supposed. There were worse quirks.

“Quinet, I want you to find the captain’s log and see what information you can get out of the ship’s computers. Wilt, make an inventory of supplies we can scrounge from the galley. They may have some gourmet protein packs we haven’t seen yet.” Riff glanced at the schematics, noting the location of the ship’s infirmary. He’d head there at some point. He might be able to find some medicine to help with an infection currently running through the weaker inmates. The penal wing held almost two hundred prisoners, a mix of men and women, young and old. There was always somebody who needed care, especially since Dr. Barboza was stingy when it came to doling out medicines.

“You’ve got it, boss man.” Wilt grabbed two helmets and tossed one to Quinet.

“Good. I’m going to check out the hold and will be on hand if any of you need aid. If you run into any bodies, tag ’em and let me know immediately so I can take a look.” They might give him the clues he needed to figure out what happened over there.

Jakobsen looked a little uneasy but remained silent. He’d better not get squeamish on them if they did come upon a slaughterhouse. Riff had witnessed too many battlefields and worked in too many hastily erected field hospitals for it to have that effect on him. Those sights weighed on his heart, not his stomach.

“Okay, gather around,” Riff said once the team had their equipment on. He enlarged the schematics of the ship. “We’ll enter here, near the hold. The more intel we have, the more we can accomplish the next round. Wilt, it’s your turn to handle the explosives.”

“Hot damn,” Wilt replied with a grin and a gleam in her eyes. “’Bout time I get to kick in a door. Mama’s coming home.”

Quinet smiled and shook his head. “Then I’m on docking duty?”

“Yep.” Riff caught Jakobsen’s eye. “You ever manually dock a transport before?”

Jakobsen nodded and offered no embellishment as he crowded closer for a better look.

Riff pointed out the significant areas and gave his team a chance to study the layout. “Ready?”

“Ready to get off this damn ship,” Tuputala grumbled, a sentiment Riff echoed. They moved fast, both with the ease of long practice, except for Jakobsen, and with the knowledge that for a few hours they’d be relatively free. They’d have to come back to their prison, there was nowhere else to go, but no one would be looking over their shoulders, breathing down their necks.

Riff took his place in the pilot’s seat, Tuputala beside him. He fired up the engines and tensed as it rumbled awake. There wasn’t much holding the transport together but the prayers of lifers and scavenged equipment. He’d have to swallow his pride and ask Vidal for the supplies to make some necessary repairs, or they wouldn’t be making many more trips. It was only a matter of time before a critical element blew.

“What’s with the new guy?” Tuputala asked as Riff made one last check to be sure nothing had shaken loose.

“We needed a new mechanic, and I’ve seen the tech he’s managed to dig up and piece together since he’s been here.” Riff eased the transport out of the docking bay and set it on a course toward the derelict.

“He’s short.” Tuputala’s large brown hands flew over the console, moving with a grace that didn’t seem possible given their size.

“A Terran giraffe would be short to you,” Riff retorted.

“I’m pointing out you have a type. Short and dominant. I saw that gleam in your eye. Before you think about having your fun on the side while we’re off ship, please remember Captain Vidal’s not one to share.” Tuputala shot him a significant look for emphasis. “I thought he was going to skin you and serve you up as the mystery meat the last time he thought you were getting a little on the side.”

“Good thing I’m not looking.” It hadn’t been as bad as Tuputala suggested, but it had been bad enough while Vidal had tried to beat the name of the other man out of him. It might’ve been worth it if Riff had actually been getting some action. Vidal had taken his lack of success with ill grace and ever since regarded new men around Riff with heavy suspicion. Enough reason to stay away from Jakobsen and not act on his attraction.

Riff slowed down the transport, swinging it under the belly of the stricken ship.

“Do you know why he was sentenced?” Tuputala asked, and Riff cast her a sharp look. Tuputala’s expression remained impassive. She never revealed her sources, and there were times when it had been useful, but Riff didn’t like rumors. It stirred up the denizens of the prison too much. “Or did you decide you don’t care because it would interfere with your hormones?”

“I don’t want to know anybody’s story. They’re all fucked-up. I care about what they do after they arrive.”

“He tried to kill the Director of the Deneb shipyards.”

“At least he didn’t succeed. They’d have executed him,” Riff murmured, concentrating on the maneuver.

“And it’s rumored he’s behind his niece’s—”

Riff held up a finger, cutting off Tuputala’s litany. “Enough. Can you work with him? Because we need another qualified mechanic, and right now he’s our best option.” Tuputala grumbled under her breath with a curt nod. “Do you think his past puts us in danger?”

“Only if you let him fuck you,” Tuputala retorted.

“Don’t worry, I’m contemplating monkhood.”

Tuputala snickered as Riff studied the derelict. He’d seen many strange phenomena since he’d been auctioned off to Vidal’s ship, and this ranked high among them. Whatever crippled the occupants happened fast. Riff slowed the transport and stopped as he located the panel they wanted to blow.

“Wilt, you’re up,” he called back. “Quinet and Jakobsen, get ready to manually dock us once Wilt has the hatch open.”

Riff listened to the team moving about as he ran another scan. Still no traces of anything unusual. A fast-acting illness could’ve decimated the ship. “It’s an interesting puzzle.”

“I don’t like it,” Tuputala muttered.

“Name one situation you have liked.” Riff kept an eye on Wilt as she drifted out of the airlock.

“You’ve got me there.” Tuputala rose and hauled out the diagnostic and tool kits. “Want me to see if I can find some parts for this unwieldy bitch of ours?”

“Only if you can manage to get them on board without Jakobsen seeing. Don’t worry about it too much. I plan on getting Vidal to let us have what we need. I’m going to see what I can do about some medicines, but until we know we can trust Jakobsen I want to keep it quiet.” Riff watched Wilt set the explosives, and moments later the hatchway dissolved.

“We’ve got entry,” Wilt confirmed. “Looks quiet.”

“Is that why you stay with Vidal? For perks like that?” Tuputala asked, giving him a penetrating look. “Doesn’t seem like it’s worth it.”

“It’s had its benefits.” Riff killed the engines and heard the clang of grappling hooks latching on. The small ship shuddered, and the computer confirmed they were docked. “But it’s not up to me to end it. As much as Vidal isn’t one to share, he’s not one to let people go either.”

“True enough.” Tuputala clapped his shoulder. “See you on the other side.”

Riff listened to the team gather their equipment and depart. While everything he said to Tuputala was true, there was more to his relationship with the captain than that. They were trapped by their mutual needs, and he didn’t see a way out of it. He supposed that made them both crazy. Despite his interest in Jakobsen, they’d both be better off if he left it unacknowledged, no matter the pull and tug he felt toward him. Fucking Vidal and the deal Riff made with him.