As the seventh of nine children, Ada von Hasenberg knows that her only value to House von Hasenberg is as a political pawn in an arranged marriage. But after watching two of her older sisters get auctioned off to horrible men, Ada refuses to play her part. She flees off-planet and disappears for two years.
Ada’s father, fed up with her rebellion, offers a bounty for her safe return. The universe is a big place, but mercs are everywhere, and Ada is caught. With the merc ship full, she’s forced to share a cell with Marcus Loch, the Devil of Fornax Zero. Rumor has it he murdered every commanding officer who issued orders during the Fornax Rebellion. All anyone knows for sure is that the Royal Consortium wants his head.
Ada has no trouble believing the muscled man chained in the back of her cell is a killer. But when their ship is attacked by forces from rival House Rockhurst, Ada must decide whether to trust him—because once you release the devil, you can’t put him back. And when the attack heralds the opening salvo of a much bigger war, Ada must determine where her loyalties truly lie.
Excerpt: Chapter One
The steel toe of my boot slammed into the blond merc’s knee with a satisfying crunch. He went down with a curse, but the two men holding my arms didn’t release me, even as I struggled in their grasp. The blow had been more luck than skill, but it was enough to make the fourth mercenary pause before trying to grab my legs again.
I planted my feet and pushed back as hard as I could. The men behind me barely budged. I was a decently strong woman, but they each outweighed me by fifty or more pounds and the physics just weren’t on my side. My self-defense tutor had warned me that one day I would regret slacking off in lessons—turns out, she was right.
“Stop fighting, you little bitch, or I’ll stun you again,” the blond warned. He climbed to his feet and waved his stunstick as if I needed a visual reminder. He wasn’t the ship’s captain, so he must be the mercenary commander. He was young for commander, but mercs weren’t known to have long lives.
The ship’s captain stood back while the merc crew tried to wrestle me further into the ship. The skin around his left eye was fiercely red. He’d have a shiner by tomorrow, thanks to me. That blow had been more skill than luck, but not enough to save me.
The captain was a handsome man, older, with gray at the temples of his dark hair. He looked like a gentleman, not a bounty hunter, and that had allowed him to get close enough to grab me. The rest of his crew was standard-issue mercenary: big, mean, and calculating. As soon as I’d caught sight of them, I’d known that I’d made a mistake.
I hoped it wouldn’t be my last.
I fought on, determined. As long as the ship was still docked, I had a chance. I could escape and disappear into the crowds of the space station until I could find another ship. I was good at hiding.
The blond lost his patience. Before I could kick him away, he hit me with the stunstick. I screamed as my body lit up in agony. The mercs dropped me. My head hit the metal deck and pain blazed bright before dulling to a low throb. The world went dark and floaty.
“John, what are you doing? Don’t hurt her!” the captain shouted. “If she shows up with so much as a bruise, von Hasenberg will kill the lot of us.”
“Where do ya want her?” one of the other men asked.
“She can stay in my—” the captain started, but the blond, presumably John, cut him off.
“Put her in with Loch. That’ll teach the little hellion a lesson. It’s not like he’s using the space anyway.”
The crew laughed uneasily. Whoever Loch was, he made them nervous, and it took a lot to rattle a merc crew. Yay for me.
I tried to struggle as they picked me up by my arms and legs, but my muscles weren’t responding, thanks to the blow to the head. And the nanobots in my blood that should be repairing any tissue damage were also susceptible to the stunstick. They’d recover in a few minutes, but until then I had to wait for natural healing.
Nanobots, or nanos, were available to anyone who could afford the exorbitant price tag. I’d been injected with them as a newborn.
A door squeaked open and the men cursed quietly as they tried to maneuver me through the opening.
“Put her on the bed,” the captain said. “Carefully.”
“Why, Gerald, you shouldn’t have,” a deep voice rumbled from within the room.
“I didn’t,” the captain snapped. “She’s worth three times what you are, Loch, so you don’t want to make me choose which of you to keep,” he continued. “Keep your comments to yourself or I’ll purge you. Same thing happens if you even look at her sideways.”
One of the men grumbled something too low to catch.
“She give you that eye?” Loch asked. “Did you try to get some on the side and she took offense?”
“Stun him,” the captain said flatly.
The electric hiss of a stunstick was followed by a grunt. I’d never heard anyone get stunned without screaming; it didn’t seem possible.
I cracked my eyes open a tiny bit. The light panel on the ceiling glowed softly. Were there supposed to be two of them?
“She’s coming to,” one of the men warned.
I squinted, trying to get my vision to clear, and when that didn’t work, I closed my eyes and willed the nanos to work faster. They weren’t affected by my desire for speed, sadly, so I resigned myself to wait.
“Everyone out. Pull up the separator and leave it up. Let’s see how the little princess likes her new palace,” John said.
The faint ozone smell of an active energy field reached my nose. Booted footsteps exited the room, then the door creaked closed and locked with a metallic thunk.
I wiggled my fingers and toes. It was a start.
“You alive?” Loch asked.
“Mostly,” I slurred. “They stunned me then dropped me head-first onto the deck. I’ll live.”
“Where are we?”
“Station orbiting Theta Sagittarii Dwarf One,” I said. I sat up and closed my eyes against the lightheadedness. In addition to my throbbing head, I was sore from being hit with a stunstick twice in an hour. Overall, it could’ve been worse, but not by much.
“Damn,” he muttered. I was with him there. I didn’t know why he was concerned, but I knew that we were just two short jumps away from the gate that would deliver us directly to Earth. That only gave me a little over a week—in open space no less—to escape.
I cracked my eyes open. I sat on a narrow cot with a thin mattress and no sheets or blankets. A quick glance confirmed I was in a standard holding cell on a Yamado frigate—only the Yamado’s etched their House symbol, a crane, on every door.
Far more interesting than the Yamado door was the man sharing the cell with me. Even through the slight distortion of the blue energy barrier, I saw that deeply bronzed flesh wrapped his heavily muscled frame. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist with rippling abs. Defined arms and muscled legs completed the picture.
It was only after I’d stared for a solid five seconds that I realized why I was seeing quite so much of him: he had been stripped down to only a skin-tight pair of black boxer briefs.
I jerked my gaze up to his face and blinked in surprise when I met luminescent eyes. But when I met his eyes a second time, they were brown. Ocular augments existed, but as far as I knew, they permanently altered your eyes. It could’ve been a trick of the light, but it was worth watching.
His gaze was sharp and direct. Several weeks’ worth of dark beard shadowed his jaw. His hair was the same length and I wondered if he normally kept his head shaved. The scruffiness made it hard to tell his exact age, but he was probably a few years older than my twenty-three.
“Like what you see?” he asked with a smirk.
“Yes,” I said after a few more seconds of frank appraisal. Surprise flashed across his face, but why would I lie? He was beautifully built. He was perhaps not conventionally handsome but he had a deep, primal appeal. One glance and you knew that this was a man who could take care of problems. Add that deep, gravelly voice and he was temptation incarnate.
Now that I wasn’t mesmerized by the amount of flesh on display, I saw that he was chained to the wall behind him from both ankles and wrists. The chains disappeared into the wall and their length could be adjusted. Right now, they were short enough that he couldn’t sit comfortably. Whoever he was, the mercs weren’t taking any chances with him.
I stood and wavered as sore muscles protested. Damn stunsticks to hell. With the bed taking up more than half of the floor space, there was barely any room to walk. I knew from the schematics that the cell was a meter and a half wide by three meters long. The barrier dropped down just past the two-meter mark, leaving my unfortunate cellmate trapped in a one-and-a-half by one meter box. He wouldn’t be able to lie flat even if they released the chains enough to let him.
The barrier was blue, which should mean safe, but I’d known some people who thought it was funny to reprogram the system. I carefully reached out a finger and pressed it against the field. I didn’t get shocked, so I wouldn’t have to worry about avoiding it. Today was finally looking up.
“What are you doing?” Loch asked.
He raised a skeptical eyebrow but didn’t say anything else.
In addition to the bed, the only other features of the room were a tiny sink and, on the other side of the barrier, a toilet. The cell wasn’t designed to be permanently divided the way the mercs were using it. The barrier was meant to hold the prisoner away from the door while the cell was cleaned or maintained.
“Do you know how many crew are on board?” I asked.
“At least eight, maybe nine.”
A merchant ship of this size could be efficiently managed by as few as six, but the standard crew size was between eight and ten. If it was loaded out for maximum crew space, they could have up to fourteen.
The lights flickered and the floor vibrated with the subtle hum of running engines. The captain wasn’t wasting any time getting underway. I moved around the room, touching the cool steel walls seemingly at random. I knew we were being watched, and I didn’t want to make our audience nervous just yet.
“First time in a cell?”
“It’s rather small,” I said.
Loch barked out a laugh. “You get used to it. Let me guess, you’re a surfacer.”
Surfacers were people who grew up primarily on planets. Every day they woke up to big blue—or green or pink—skies, lots of solid ground under their feet, and plenty of room to roam.
Spacers, the people who grew up in the ships and stations floating around and between those same planets, seemed to think that surfacers had it easier. Even I knew that wasn’t always the case.
“What gave me away?” I asked. I’d lived entirely on ships and stations for the last two years. I’d gotten used to the smaller spaces, but I still longed for the wide-open blue sky of my home.
His answer was interrupted by a male voice through the intercom speaker. “Stand away from the door.”
I had not expected anyone so soon and this cell didn’t give me much room to fight. Chains rattled behind me. I glanced back as Loch stood to his full height. At a meter eighty in boots, I was a tall woman. Loch still had me beat by at least ten centimeters. Damn. Why were the attractive ones always criminals?
The door swung inward to reveal a young man with a shaggy mop of blond hair that looked like it had never seen a brush. He held an armful of frilly fuchsia fabric and a stunstick. “Give me any trouble and I’ve got permission to zap you,” he warned.
“Give me any trouble, and you’ll get a boot to the teeth,” I replied. “No permission required.”
He almost smiled. What do you know, a merc with a sense of humor—it was like I’d found a unicorn. I’d have to blame it on his age because he looked all of sixteen.
“You’re having dinner with the captain,” he said. “Here’s your dress.” He dropped the frilly monstrosity on the bed.
“No,” I said. I didn’t balk because of the frills, which were horrible, or the color, which was equally horrible. I refused because it was a dress. I had no problem with dresses in general, but on a ship full of hostile men, it was smarter for everyone if I didn’t go out of my way to advertise the fact that I was female.
“Umm, no to which part?” he asked hesitantly.
“I’ll dine with the captain, but I’m wearing my own clothes.” I had on a sturdy pair of black cargo pants, heavy black boots, and a long-sleeved black shirt. I wasn’t trying to win Monochromatic Monthly’s best dressed award, but black was easy to find, easy to match, and generally didn’t show dirt or grease stains as fast as other colors. Win, win, win.
I tilted my head ever so slightly and let my expression frost over. “I will dine with the captain, but I will be wearing my own clothes.”
He ducked his head. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Right this way.”
A deep chuckle followed us out.
The kid gripped the stunstick like he expected me to jump him at any moment. I guess word of my arrival had already spread to the rest of the crew. And, honestly, if they’d sent anyone else, I probably would’ve made an attempt at escape. If it came down to it, I would go through the kid if he stood between me and freedom, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
As we walked, I took in my surroundings. The captain had not spent much on interior upgrades. The walls were flat gray metal, the floor was steel grating, and the lights were few and far between. I saw at least three major wiring issues that would get them grounded if a safety officer ever bothered to do an inspection. The ship was holding up well for her age, but it was apparent that either the captain or his crew didn’t truly love her.
I, however, saw plenty to love. Access panels were open or missing. The wiring issues would be an easy way to disable some key ship systems. And the layout matched the reference layout, so I could find my way around even in the dark.
The kid led me to the captain’s chambers, which were exactly where I expected them to be. Yamado had been making this style ship for approximately a thousand years, give or take a few, and I was suddenly very glad that they liked to stick to tradition.
The captain’s entertaining space was brightly lit, with real wood floors, thick rugs, and antique furniture. A table that could seat sixteen dominated the middle of the room. Two place settings were laid out on the right side. The captain sat in an overstuffed chair next to a sideboard that was being used as a liquor cabinet. He rose to meet me. The skin around his left eye was already darkening.
I pulled on my public persona, affixed my politest smile to my lips, and tried not to think stabby thoughts. “Thank you for the dinner invitation, Captain.”
“Of course, my dear, of course,” he said. “Ada, may I call you Ada?” He continued before I had a chance to respond, “I know we got off to a bad start, but now that we are underway, I thought we could put all of that behind us. I know your father is quite eager to have you home.”
“I’m sure he is,” I murmured. Albrecht von Hasenberg was nothing if not thorough. When his security team couldn’t find me and drag me back for my engagement party, he went above and beyond by posting an enormous bounty for my safe return. Of course, he told the news, he was devastated that I was “missing.” He failed to mention that I had left of my own volition. Or that I’d been gone for two years.
“Can I get you some wine? Or perhaps brandy?” the captain asked.
“Wine would be lovely, thank you,” I said. I knew where this road led. I’d been playing this game since I could talk. The captain wanted something, and he thought—rightly—that House von Hasenberg could help him get it. As patriarch of one of the three High Houses, very few people in the universe wielded more power than my father.
As the seventh of nine children, I wielded no power in House von Hasenberg at all. But the good captain didn’t know that, and outside of the Consortium, my name carried its own power.
“Please, call me Gerald,” he interrupted as he handed me a glass of wine with a shallow bow, “Gerald Pearson, at your service.”
I let a chill creep into my expression and he flushed. You did not interrupt a member of a High House if you wanted to keep breathing. By acknowledging who my father was, he’d moved me from bounty to potential ally, and now I was quickly moving to superior. It was his first mistake, but I didn’t hold it against him. He’d never had to swim with the glittering sharks of the Consortium. I had, and I excelled at it.
I hated it, but I excelled at it.
“Gerald,” I said with a dismissive little sniff, “have you already sent word to my father that I was found?”
“Of course, my lady,” he said, practically tripping over himself to get back into my good graces. “I let him know as soon as I returned to the ship. I also sent along a copy of our flight plan.”
Damn. Interstellar communication could be slow, but we were close enough to the gate that the message had probably already made it through. I would not put it past my father to send a fleet escort to meet us at the gate. My escape time just dropped to three or four days.
I sized the captain up as I toyed with my wine glass and made polite small talk. He was not a merc who had worked his way up to captain. He didn’t have the hardness, the craftiness that mercenaries wore like second skins. A true merc commander would never be so easy to play.
“Shall we dine?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
I made sure his wine glass was kept topped off and waited until the second course had been cleared away. “How can I help you, Gerald?” I asked in my warmest tone.
It took two more courses, but eventually the story came out. He was a merchant fallen on hard times, but he still had a ship. He’d partnered with the bounty hunters specifically to hunt Loch. They’d found him, but Loch had killed two men during his capture, including the previous commander.
The mercenaries didn’t respect Gerald and he was afraid they were plotting his demise. And he was just so lucky to have found me because his third cousin once removed was married to a von Hasenberg second cousin’s sister-in-law and he just knew he had a great deal he could contribute to the House, considering he was almost family.
I nodded along and made all the right encouraging noises. The picture became clear. Even if I managed to overpower Gerald and take him hostage, the mercs wouldn’t care. He’d already created the flight plan, so the ship would deliver us to Earth without any further input from him. It was time to end the evening.
“I should go,” I said.
“You should stay,” he slurred. “You can sleep in my room.” He staggered to his feet.
I considered it. He was drunk enough that he’d probably be asleep as soon as he hit the bed. But I needed time to devise an escape plan and I couldn’t be caught wandering around the ship. So I just had to make sure this wasn’t my last dinner with the captain. I stood as well.
“Gerald, you naughty man,” I laughed and lightly touched his arm. “I never sleep with a man on the first date.”
He flushed and spluttered. “I didn’t mean—”
The tone of the engine changed and my stomach dropped as the FTL drive engaged. We’d travelled far enough away from the station for our first jump. The lights flickered as the ship switched to auxiliary power. The hum of the engines ratcheted up and then went silent. Less than a minute later, my stomach settled and the main engines started up again. Depending on the age of the ship, it would take up to a week to recharge the FTL drive for the next jump. I had to be gone before that time was up.
“I will see you tomorrow for dinner, yes?” I asked with a coy smile.
“Yes, yes, of course, my lady. The lad’ll see you back to your quarte—” He flinched. “I’m terribly sorry for your accommodations, but I’m afraid the mercs won’t like it if I move you.”
“It is fine. I like it; it makes me feel safe.” And I was surprised to find that it was true.
The same kid from before was waiting for me outside of the captain’s door. I wondered if he stood there all the time, and if so, was he looking out for the captain’s interests or the mercenaries’?
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Charles, but everyone calls me Chuck.”
“Chuck, I’m Ada. Pleased to meet you.” He ducked his head but didn’t respond.
We returned to my cell by the same path we’d taken earlier. When we arrived, the display next to the door showed Loch still standing in the back section. He had to have been standing for hours, but he wasn’t slumped or fidgeting. I made a quick decision that I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret.
“The captain said to lower the barrier,” I said. “So that if I need to use the facilities, they are available.”
“Umm…” Chuck stole a glance at the control screen, but he clearly had no idea what to do.
I swept past him. “Allow me.”
“I don’t think—”
But I was already tapping on the screen. I lowered the separator, set the lights to stay on all night at a dim setting, and lengthened Loch’s chains. He wouldn’t be able to stretch out, but at least he could sit. And I would remain out of his reach.
“Easy peasy,” I said. “I could teach you, if you’d like.”
The kid eyed the video display with distrust, but it was easy to see that Loch remained chained. I prayed that Loch wouldn’t move and give away the fact that his chains were longer, but he still stood in the same position. I wondered if he was sleeping standing up. Was that even possible?
“I don’t need help from you,” Chuck said. “The crew is teaching me everything I need to know.” He swung the door open. “Now get in there and don’t give me any trouble.”
I entered the dim cell and the door slammed closed behind me. Without the energy field separating us, Loch seemed bigger, more immediate, and vastly more dangerous. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I just had to keep reminding myself that we both wanted the same thing.
I tilted my head slightly towards the door, and Loch barely shook his head. I hadn’t heard the kid leave, either, so I had to assume we had an audience.
“Did you miss me while I was gone?” I asked.
“Ah, that’s too bad. Would you like to hear about the captain’s quarters?”
I couldn’t help the slightly evil edge to my smile as I began to describe, in excruciating detail, the captain’s dining room. Every rug was lovingly described, as was every vase, flower, piece of furniture, and place setting.
After five minutes, Loch stepped away from the wall with a rattle of chains. “He’s gone, but feel free to keep talking. I was nearly asleep.”
“Did they feed you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I ate.”
I pulled two dinner rolls wrapped in a paper napkin out of one of the pockets on my pants. After all, what was the point of pants with so many pockets if I wasn’t going to use them? And if they failed to pat me down after dinner, then that was hardly my fault.
“Sadly, nothing else would transport well, so it is bread or nothing. But I’m willing to give you these two delicious rolls in exchange for your name. I know the mercs call you Loch, but I don’t know if that’s your first or last name or something they made up.”
“You’re trying to bribe me with bread?”
“Yes. Is it working? I’m Ada.”
“I know who you are,” Loch said.
It was my turn to be surprised. I might be a von Hasenberg, but I’d never been in the spotlight like my four eldest siblings. Those four all looked like younger versions of our father, even poor Francesca and Hannah. I had the golden skin and dark hair of our mother. Only our youngest sister Catarina shared my coloring.
“And so you are…?” I prompted.
“Marcus Loch,” he finally replied.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. I tossed him the bread, napkin and all. We might be making polite conversation, but I had no doubt that Mr. Marcus Loch would eat me alive if I ventured too close.
Marcus Loch. The name sounded familiar. I mentally sorted through the rosters of important people in all three High Houses, trying to place him. I knew he wasn’t part of House von Hasenberg. He couldn’t be directly part of House Yamado or House Rockhurst, either, because he would have their name. So either he was a distant relation or an in-law, but I couldn’t remember. Where had I heard that name and who had he pissed off to get such a bounty?
“Let me save you some time,” he said as if reading my mind. “I’m Marcus Loch, the so-called Devil of Fornax Zero, and the man with the highest bounty in the ‘verse… at least until you showed up.”
It was only thanks to long practice that I managed to keep my expression perfectly placid. Now the chains made sense, as did the mercs’ wariness. The Royal Consortium claimed that Marcus Loch had killed at least a dozen of his commanding officers and fellow soldiers during the suppression of the Fornax Rebellion. Then he disappeared.
The Consortium put out an ever-increasing bounty, but so far no bounty hunter had been able to bring him in to claim it. Rumor had it that he’d been caught six or seven times, but every time he had escaped and left nothing but a pile of bodies behind.
Marcus Loch was a deserter, a killer, and a traitor to the Consortium. And he was just the man I needed.
– – – – – – –
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik. All rights reserved. Coming early 2019 from Harper Voyager.