Captain Arrah Crace has volunteered her cargo ship to deliver medicine and vaccines, but she needs a security officer, a butt-kicker to protect her vessel and crew.More info →
Lash Trag answered the alert on his secure com-link. The face of Minister Warx of Arkos Intelligence appeared. The minister’s face was thin, with a chin almost as sharp as the analytical mind working behind his bright blue eyes.
“Trag. Are you enjoying your vacation?”
Inside a massive space station orbiting Adalgo, one of the first planets settled by a scientific colony from Old Earth, was SolaWind Resort where everything was perfect — from the air and water temperature to the beautiful women strolling along the beach. A tourist had a choice of beaches built to resemble those of Old Earth. Lash had chosen Hawaii. But this trip hadn’t been about wine and women. Lash had needed to relax and heal.
“I’m enjoying the beach.”
“How’s the arm?”
A pulse blast had hit Lash in the upper arm. A section of bone had been replaced and the torn muscles and ripped tendons had healed. The arm worked fine, but there were times the pain reminded him of the mission that had almost killed him.
Warx wasn’t calling as a friend; the minister needed to know if Lash was mission ready. When the minister had a problem that didn’t fall within the normal parameters of his agency, he required an independent operative like Lash. The political climate on Arkos was tense. The coalition government was fragile and the Allied Planets council hovered like vultures, waiting for the union to collapse. AP wanted unfettered access to Arkos’ rich moons, and political chaos worked to the council’s advantage. Warx kept Lash very busy.
The missions were demanding, the action at times death defying. Lash liked living on the edge, but his last assignment had forced him to reassess his occupation. Was the action and the constant travel what he craved, or was it what kept him from looking at the emotional emptiness of his life?
“The arm is good,” Lash said.
“I’ve looked over your medical reports. Your doctor recommends more therapy.”
Lash should have known better than to use an Arkosian physician. Information was Warx’s god and his means and resources weren’t always legit.
Lash flexed his arm. “I’m ready for a mission,” he said, his response automatic. Physically, he was ready. Mentally, he wasn’t sure. Maybe a mission was exactly what he needed to snap out of the melancholy.
“You’ve heard about the outbreak on Spaceport Adana?”
“I haven’t watched the news. While on SolaWind, I try to forget the rest of the universe exists.”
“Allied Planets Security is blockading Adana space as we speak. A full quarantine has been declared on the spaceport. The official statement will be made within a few hours.”
“Since when does AP care about Adana?”
“They don’t. It’s Raxa virus.”
The rare virus was deadly and had wiped out half the population on the three inhabited planets in the Raxane system before an antiviral drug was formulated to destroy it and a vaccine developed to prevent it. The virus hadn’t been eradicated, merely contained to the Raxene system, until now. If it wasn’t stopped, the virus would spread to the planets, moons and space stations throughout the AP system.
“How did a Raxa outbreak happen on Adana?”
“AP blames the contagion on a vessel smuggling goods from a Raxane ‘port. By the time the ship arrived, the entire crew was ill. They’ve subsequently died and now the virus is spreading on Adana.”
“That’s a high price to pay to avoid Raxane’s exit tariffs.”
“Your medical record indicates that you’ve been vaccinated for Raxa?”
Lash wondered why his boss was concerned about Adana. The outbreak was an AP problem. “I have.”
“The AP force is blockading Adana to all private and commercial traffic. Nothing is allowed in or out, except for a mercy relief flight carrying drugs, vaccine, supplies and a medical team. The ship is the Avira. I’ve sent an analysis of both the ship and Captain Crace to your secure link. I want you on that ship.”
Lash stared at the azure water lapping gently against the white sand and knew he’d seen his last SolaWind sunset for a while. “Where do I find the Avira?”
“She’s presently docked on Spaceport Thkar,” Warx said.
Thkar was just a short transport ride away. Lash opened the captain’s file and initiated a holographic image. Captain Crace was a fine looking woman with straight, blonde hair that ended at her chin. Her skin was fair and her lips were lush, but it was her eyes that attracted Lash. He zoomed in on her face, saw a bit of mischief in eyes more green than brown in color.
In another image, gold streaks framed her face. Lash liked the look.
“Crace is human,” Warx said. “She has no physical enhancements.”
Lash switched to a whole body image. Crace’s breasts were full and her legs long. He rotated the image and checked out her ass. With a body like that, enhancement was a waste of cash.
“The captain is of above average intelligence, educated, but hasn’t any special powers. She shouldn’t present a problem for you.”
When Lash was a teenager, he had a way with women, of all types and ages. He had a sense of how people felt, if they liked him, and especially if they didn’t. It wasn’t until he joined the army that Lash found out he was an empath. The army put him through extensive testing and discovered he also had enhanced natural pheromones and the ability to control their powerful output. His ego took a bit of a hit upon realizing that women were more into his scent than him.
Having gifts made him valuable to the government. Warx snatched him from the drudgery of army life, trained him in languages, weapons, communications systems and a myriad of other talents required of an intelligence agent. Able to think on his feet and stay calm in dangerous situations, Lash was a very good operative. But he didn’t like the structure and wasn’t a team player.
Rather than lose him, Warx suggested Lash become a contract agent. The arrangement suited them both and the pay was more lucrative.
“Captain Crace is the means,” Lash said. “Why am I going?”
“Larak Srak is on Spaceport Adana.”
The implications of Warx’s statement snapped Lash’s attention away from Crace’s feminine curves. Srak was a spiritual leader who had brought the divided factions of Arkos together to form a coalition government. Many considered him the heart of Arkos. “What is Srak doing on Adana?”
“Srak goes where healing is needed.”
Lash was an empath with the ability to control his pheromone production, an atypical combination, but Srak was a super empath. He had a hypersensitivity to people of many species, animals and to nature. Srak would visit a colony and know the ills of its citizenry and if the terrain was safe for habitation. He knew what a region or area needed to become whole and healthy. Spaceport Adana, with its diverse species, non-conformists, thriving red-light district and ghettos, would have put Srak’s senses in overload.
Lash was happy his gifts didn’t push him into the arena of the masses.
“He was on a spiritual mission,” Warx said. “Adana was the last scheduled stop before he headed back to Arkos. Shortly after his arrival, there was a small explosion in the power plant of his ship. His short stop became a long visit. Then the infected ship showed up.”
“Do you think the explosion was an accident or deliberate?”
“I don’t know,” Warx said. “Communication is difficult. Too many things have happened. Raxa outbreaks are rare. Srak is on Adana when one occurs and the election is just days away. I don’t like the odds.”
“What about a diplomatic mission to fetch Srak?”
“Our premier made a plea to the AP council, guaranteeing the crew would be vaccinated. Our request was denied. Only the mercy ship will be allowed in, but no ships will be allowed to leave until the quarantine is lifted.”
“The election will be over by then,” Lash said.
“The outbreak may have been accidental, but keeping Srak on Adana is a political decision.”
“What do you think will happen if Srak misses the election?”
“The pro AP faction will make sure their candidate wins,” Warx said. “Then AP will suck up Arkos into their huge system. They’ll strip us of our independence and resources. We need Srak here for the election. I don’t care what it costs or what it takes.”
“I don’t have time to set up an identity or return to one of my safe houses to obtain a cover. I’ll have to travel under my normal cover.”
Lash’s parents believed he worked for Renko, an interplanetary fuel-brokering firm. His job as a salesman of Arkosian fuel crystals for commercial ships allowed him to travel throughout the galaxy. After the completion of a mission, Lash would discard his assumed identity and once again become just another traveling salesman.
“Your usual fee will be transferred.”
“Forget my fee. This one is for Arkos.”
Lash disconnected and focused on the image of Captain Arrah Crace. Using his gifts would be a pleasure.
* * *
“Double check those air-scrubbers and the temperature in the aft hold.” Arrah’s gaze flicked between several holographic images. “The drugs and vaccine must be maintained between two and eight degrees Celsius.”
“Zan, initiate full systems check.”
The ship’s central AI unit responded in its androgynous voice. Full systems check in process.
The holographic images before Arrah changed colors and data flashed.
Arrah pulled her gaze away from the scrolling data and looked at her second-in-command. Phadar’s silvery crystalline eyes were focused on her. She’d stepped onto his borg toes.
“I have Zan running at full capacity,” Phadar said. “Your orders are countermanding mine, reducing efficiency.”
“Sorry. I can’t stop thinking about all those people trapped on Adana waiting for the medicine to arrive. The drugs will save the infected and the vaccine will protect the others. All of them are dependent on us.”
“We won’t let them down. You need to relax, Captain. Go ashore and join the off-duty crew on the hologram level. Take a run through a forest or along a riverbank. Watch a vid.”
“You sent crew members ashore? Everyone should be working.”
“Everyone essential is working. The donated food ration containers have already been stored in cargo hold two.” Phadar never raised his voice, but every member of the crew responded to his soft-spoken commands. “We cancelled a long awaited holiday.”
Like the crew, Arrah had been looking forward to a month off. While the Avira was docked for maintenance, Arrah had planned a two-week sand and surf holiday at SolaWind Resort, but the situation on Adana had changed everything. She promised her crew a large bonus for cancelling the needed respite. SolaWind would have to wait.
“I’m giving everyone two hours ashore with a strict order of no stimulants,” Phadar said. “A critical mission of this caliber taxes the best of crews. It isn’t every day a commercial crew is sent on a mission usually reserved for trained military personnel.”
“Adana’s been nothing but a thorn in AP’s butt for decades,” Arrah said, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I think the health minister understood the political fallout once Holly Barberossa’s reports were picked up by the interplanetary media centers. Adana may be nothing more than a haven for every misfit in this part of the galaxy, but it’s the latest news crisis.”
“Captain, go ashore, take a long walk along the observation deck.”
If anyone else had essentially ordered her off the bridge, Arrah would throw their ass off her ship, but Phadar’s enhanced brain performed systems’ analysis at rates she was incapable of achieving.
With his muscular body, long blond hair and adorable face, Phadar looked like an angel on steroids, but inside his head he was mostly cyborg. Emotions and human urges got lost between that amazing body and his brain. He didn’t drink alcohol. He didn’t need sex.
What a waste.
Arrah wanted to get underway. People were dying on Adana. “Mission status?”
“Preparation is processing at a rate of sixty-eight point four faster than any previous mission. Zan is tracking the transport ships. The medicine is arriving from several locations. The last vaccine shipment will be here in ten hours. The Avira will be underway within an hour after the shipment is stowed.”
“What about the med team?”
“En route. The mission is under control.”
The specialized team was comprised of a doctor, two assistants and two dozen med-droids. The droids would handle and administer the curing drugs and preventative vaccine, injecting the medicine into the orifices of the broad range of species on Adana.
“You can’t kick me off my own damn ship.”
Phadar touched his fingers to the holographic image, enlarging a section of data. “Your impatience is affecting efficiency.”
“You’re saying if I leave, things will get done faster.”
“Affirmative.” Phadar continued to watch the scrolling data. “You convinced the health minister to give the Avira this critical mission. No one but you stepped forward to help Adana. Your crew supports you. They’re committed to this mission, but they are frightened. Your edginess isn’t instilling calm.”
“But they’re vaccinated.”
“Against the Raxa virus.” Phadar looked at Arrah. “Adana is in chaos and you are taking the Avira into a combat zone. Your crew wants to survive the mission.”
“Commander Delcoltéir has assured me the Avira will be protected.”
“The commander has her hands full. Each level of Spaceport has been sealed. Her officers are in full battle mode, controlling riots, rationing food and containing the interaction of the population. Adana’s security priorities are the drugs and the med-team.”
“We’ll have to protect the Avira. What we need is a butt-kicker.”
“You don’t need a person with fighting and tactical skills. You have one.”
Arrah had met Phadar on a cargo run to Adana. He was a mercenary, and after several missions in the far edges of the galaxy he was hanging up his weapons and looking for a ride back to civilization. Arrah liked him, and by the time the Avira reached the next spaceport, she’d hired him. Phadar was proficient with a broad range of weapons, but he was also brilliant and indispensable.
“You are not leaving this bridge. Your mission is this ship. Maybe I can find a butt-kicker in the Blast Area.”
“The only thing you’ll find in that place is a problem.”
“It’s a low-life bar, but you haven’t lived until you’ve sucked down a passion flash.”
“I suggest relaxation, not intoxication.”
“I’ll be in the Blast Area,” Arrah said. “You have the con.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Make sure your butt-kicker has been vaccinated.”
* * *
Lash exited the SolaWind transport ship. Instead of following the crowd of tanned tourists through Spaceport Thakra security, he strolled along the docking bay in search of the Avira.
He located the commercial cargo ship and kept watch on the airlock doors, one used for crew and the other for cargo. Warx had informed him that the med team and the medicine were already en route. Lash stood partially hidden by a floor-to-ceiling arched girder and waited. Sooner or later a crewmember would use the airlock. Lash had to find a way to speak with Captain Crace face-to-face.
An hour slid by before two females approached the airlock. They were dressed in dark pants and sand-colored shirts. Lash moved away from the girder.
One placed her palm against the identity scanner. The airlock opened with a hiss and Lash called out before the crew members stepped into the boarding chute.
“Can you help me?” Lash smiled, imagined the taller of two naked, intentionally increasing his pheromone production.
The tall brunette returned his smile, her posture relaxing. Lash sensed the flare of her sexual receptors.
“Sorry to delay you,” he said, holding out his hand. Skin-to-skin contact sped up the process. “I’m Lash.”
The tall brunette clasped his hand. “I’m Caro.” Caro’s eyes were slightly dilated and her voice breathless. “This is Reta.”
Both the females were focused on Lash, their sensual antennae up and broadcasting. He had them. Now he needed information.
“I’m looking for Captain Crace. Can you escort me aboard, Caro?”
The tall brunette’s gaze slid over him as she moved closer. “Are you looking for work?” Her forefinger trailed along his forearm.
“The captain isn’t aboard,” Reta said. “I saw her entering the Blast Area.”
Caro frowned at her friend. “It’s a bar on Level Five.”
Lash was familiar with the bar and the rough characters drawn to its ear-splitting music and rot-gut liquor. He’d expected Crace, with her academy education and upper class upbringing, to prefer the Celestial, with its spectacular view, fine glassware and pricey appetizers.
“Thanks. I’d better hurry if I’m going to catch your captain. Wish me luck.”
Lash slowed his pheromone production and headed toward Level Five.