This is a rough draft excerpt from Polaris Rising:
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.
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik. All rights reserved. Coming early 2019 from Harper Voyager.