Have you ever read a snippet and known immediately that you HAD to read that book? Well that was what happened to me when I read a sample of this book. I mean is there anything better than discovering that the love of your life ISN’T dead? I didn’t think so. There is a lot I could say about this snippet…but why read me going on and on about it when you can read it for yourself.
Dardanos Station, 2269
From his shaded booth, Zed scanned the bar’s patrons for his contact. The dark, anonymous interior could’ve belonged to any bar on any station or colony in human space. It suited this sort of establishment, making sure it didn’t stand out in anyone’s memories—perfect for Dardanos Station and its rough complement of miners and support staff.
Fifteen men and women, all worn thin by the physical demands of mining the asteroid belt, sat at the bar or the tables. Some were twitchy, their eyes in constant motion as they scanned their surroundings—junkies searching for their next hit of whatever drug they could afford, maybe, or ex-soldiers who’d never quite figured out how to hit the off button. Two in particular had a haunted look about them, quiet, subdued, as if the galaxy had kicked them in the balls so many times that they expected nothing more. Zed knew that look; he saw it every morning in the fucking mirror.
War would do that to you.
Unless Elias Idowu was the sort to wear a shitload of tech—not bloody likely, since jump-space messed with cybernetics and implants, rendering them useless—the captain of the Chaos had not yet arrived.
Zed turned his attention to the wall of garish holo ads and tried to ignore the floating freeform versions that approached his table to entice his creds to leave his hands. Some days he wanted to shake the people around him and demand whether they remembered that six short months ago, humanity had been at war. Everything was just so bloody normal at times, it made his teeth ache. No, he didn’t want to sample the “Station’s Own!” beer. He was good with the generic piss sitting in front of him, seeing as he’d hardly touched it. Unlike the fifteen men and women surrounding him, he hadn’t come here to drink. The bottle was a shield, a reason for him to sit and watch the news program on the holoscreen without the notice of anyone but the ads. The sound was off, the anchor’s lips moving out of sync with the music pumping through the bar. Didn’t matter, he’d seen the report often enough to repeat the reporter’s words even without reading her lips. The image that flashed across the screen still caught him off guard, though.
So familiar and yet so freaking different. He always remembered Emma with a smile, triumph flushing her olive skin after a successful mission. Her green eyes glowed and her smile was wide enough to encourage creases in her cheeks. He’d appreciated her beauty like one might appreciate a work of art in one of Earth’s museums, with a twist in his chest and a spurt of thankfulness that he’d been allowed to witness it.
The woman staring out of the holo had dead eyes. The creases that had enchanted Zed had been etched into her skin, around her mouth, at the corners of her eyes, beneath them. Emma looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks—a state Zed knew too well.
He gritted his teeth, staring at her image until the news switched to the video that had captured Emma’s fall from grace. The security footage of a hydroponic square on Chloris Station was grainy and too distant to get the details he wanted, but he’d know Emma even if she was little more than a collection of blurry pixels. He recognized her movements. The speed of them, the accuracy, the deadly intent. She took out a squad of station security in a matter of minutes, her body her only weapon.
Zed had studied the footage, trying to find some clue to explain why Emma had attacked and killed so many. There had to be a reason. He refused to believe the assertion that Emma had acted without provocation. She wouldn’t. That wasn’t their training.
Fuck. No. He wasn’t going there. There was no point speculating until he saw her and found out for himself what had happened.
Movement at the door caught his eye. A man of just above average height stood there, dark-skinned, with brown eyes and brown hair, scanning the bar’s interior. He might be looking for a seat, but something in his demeanor suggested he sought more than an empty stool. His clothes marked him as someone who didn’t work on this particular station—for one, he had no wearable tech and, two, he was too damned clean. Like on other mining stations, the folks who called Dardanos home worked hard, long hours—though the company that managed this station made sure its workers were rewarded and cared for, miner culture was what it was. Rude, crude, rough and harsh. Most of the people sitting around the bar sported jumpsuits with rock dust ground into them so deeply that it would never be washed out. In contrast, the newcomer wore cargo pants and a vest over a plain long-sleeved SFT. Good, practical gear for a ship captain, though the smart fiber of his shirt looked worn in places.
Zed raised his hand. The newcomer spotted it immediately and started in his direction, then paused on the opposite side of the table.
“Loop?” The corner of the man’s mouth twitched, as though the name amused him.
Zed inclined his head, acknowledging the alias he’d been going by. “Elias Idowu. Have a seat.”
Elias slid into the chair Zed gestured to. A holo floated by and he ordered himself a beer, the same variety sitting in front of Zed.
“It’s piss,” Zed warned.
“Wets the throat.” Elias leaned back into his seat, the image of ease and comfort, but Zed noticed one hand stayed beneath the table. Near a weapon, probably. “So, Mr. Loop. How can the crew of the Chaos help you?”
Zed supposed the name of the ship suited a crew that made their living by less-than-legal means, not that it mattered. He wasn’t in a position to judge the people who offered the type of help he needed. Besides, hadn’t they all done what they’d needed to do to survive the past eight years of war?
“I need passage to Chloris Station and help tracking someone down once we’re there.”
Elias offered the server a smile as she set down his beer, and waited until she wandered off once more before speaking. “Passage and a bounty?”
“The Chaos isn’t a passenger ship.”
“I figure for the right amount of creds it’ll be anything I need it to be.” Zed arched a brow. “Am I wrong?”
Elias sipped his beer, then his long, dark fingers played with the bottle’s neck. A casual gesture, one that masked furious thinking. “Who are you looking for?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
“Oh, hell no. I don’t play games like that. I have a crew to watch out for, and I need to know, up front, what sort of shit I’ll be getting them into. You tell me who you’re looking for or I walk. Simple.”
Damn. It’d been worth a try. Zed jerked his chin at the news program playing above Elias, which had cycled around to the portrait he knew so well, and yet didn’t.
“Her name’s Emma Katze.”
“Huh.” Elias watched the holo for a few more seconds. “You’re chasing down an AEF bounty?”
Zed grimaced. No, this had nothing to do with the price the Allied Earth Forces had put on Emma’s head. Or, rather, everything to do with it. Anyone else going after her might end up in a body bag and send her deeper into the shadows as a result.
“She’s a friend.”
“You keep interesting company, man.”
You don’t know the half of it. “She’s in trouble.”
“And you’re, what? Her white knight?” Elias gifted him with a crooked grin.
“No. Just a friend.” Zed stared at the label on his beer bottle for a minute. The curlicues of the lettering seemed to shift, writhing across the logo. He blinked. “I’m not going to get into the history. You don’t need to know it.”
“It’s the truth. You ever been responsible for anyone, Idowu?”
“I’m a ship’s captain, of course I—”
“No. I mean beyond duty. Not being responsible because it’s what’s required of you or expected of you, but being responsible because you’ve chosen to be.”
Elias’s expression sobered. “Like family.”
Family had a lot of meanings. Soldiers had two families: the one you were born with and the one you found with your unit. Zed had always figured he’d lucked out in both cases, with parents and brothers who loved him and soldiers he’d been proud to serve with. Thing was, war tended to pull you away from one family and toss you at the other, and you had to go with it or you’d crumble. Worse, your unit would crumble. And then, sometimes, there was just no finding your way back to the family you’d been born with.
Sometimes, there was no finding yourself at all.
The captain turned back to the holoscreen, lifting his beer to his lips as he watched the cycle of the top stories restart. Zed waited, pulling on patience he hadn’t used much lately. Elias had to come to his own conclusions about this job. After a few minutes, once the security footage rolled around again, he let out a soft curse.
“Your little sister’s gotten herself into some deep shit.”
Little sister. That almost made Zed chuckle, since other than their size difference—he had about twenty centimeters on her—it couldn’t be further from the truth. They’d attended Shepard Academy together, an elite private school that funneled its graduates into specialized AEF training. Most of the time since graduation, Emma had acted like his big sister, offering advice, being a shoulder to lean on, a constant connection to his childhood. They’d watched out for one another.
Lately he’d done a piss-poor job of holding up his end of that unspoken bargain.
“That’s why I need to find her. You familiar with Chloris Station?”
“Been there a few times. It smells weird. Plants aren’t meant to grow in space, not like that.”
Zed tilted his head to one side, acknowledging the point. “I have the schematics for the station, but I don’t have the connections to know where someone would hole up. Word is, you do.”
“Where the hell did you get the schematics? Never mind, I don’t want to know.” Elias glanced at the holoscreen again. “I might have some contacts. But I don’t want to bring the AEF down on their heads.”
“And you’re going to guarantee that.”
Zed’s gaze held steady. “The AEF won’t touch you or your contacts.”
“You’ve got balls, man, to make a statement like that.”
The way his eyes narrowed indicated he didn’t believe Zed for a minute—not that Zed could blame him. To the man sitting across from him, Zed was nothing more than a muscular guy in plain, serviceable clothes. The scar on his right cheek indicated he’d seen action of some sort—but then, the war had been over for barely six months. Most men and women of a certain age had seen battle, whether under the AEF’s banner or privately. Zed knew if he dropped his full name, the captain’s attitude would change. But he wouldn’t risk it here. Last thing he needed was to be identified and have to deal with all the damned attention that would bring. If it became necessary to let Idowu in on that secret later, he would.
So, instead, all he said was, “I have connections too.”
“Uh-huh. Those kinds of connections wouldn’t have you sitting in a shitty dive hooking up a ride on a thirty-year-old corvette.” Elias took a long swallow from his beer before setting it on the table. “Good luck, man. You’re gonna need it.” He started to get up.
Zed didn’t move. “Two hundred k.”
“Two hundred k what? Good luck wishes?”
“Creds.” Zed nudged a flexible plastic square across the table. A wallet of unhooked credits. “Nice, clean and untraceable.”
The captain settled back into his seat but didn’t call any further attention to the wallet. Smart. “You’re paying that up front?”
“That’s half. You get me to Chloris and we track down Emma, and you get another two hundred k.”
Elias didn’t bother to hide his shock. “Holy shit. That’s…Who the hell are you?”
Zed’s lips twisted into something between a smile and a grimace. “Her big brother. Do we have a deal, Captain Idowu?”
Elias let out a breath and extended a hand. “Welcome aboard the Chaos, Mr. Loop.”
The war with the alien stin is over, but Felix Ingesson has given up on seeing his lover, Zander Anatolius, ever again. Zander’s military file is sealed tighter than an airlock. A former prisoner of war, Felix is attempting a much quieter life keeping his ship, the Chaos, aloft. He almost succeeds, until Zander walks on board and insists that Felix isn’t real.
A retired, broken super soldier, Zander is reeling from the aftereffects of his experimental training and wants nothing more than to disappear and wait for insanity to claim him. Then he sees footage of a friend and ally—a super soldier like him—murdering an entire security squad with her bare hands and a cold, dead look in her eyes. He never expected to find Felix, the man he’d thought dead for years, on the ship he hired to track her down.
Working with Felix to rescue his teammate is a dream come true…and a nightmare. Zander has no exit strategy that will leave Felix unscathed—or his own heart unbroken.