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Authors: Karalynn Lee

slip point

Slip Point
Karalynn Lee

 

Slip Point

By Karalynn Lee

From childhood, Shay had one dream—to join the Space Corps with her best friend and sweetheart, Jayce. When the Space Corps reveals that the father she thought was dead is actually an infamous pirate and rejects her application, the dream dies and she leaves the planet without saying a word to Jayce.

Ten years later, Shay is a pirate herself. She captains her own ship and has earned a reputation as one of the slipperiest pilots around. That’s why she’s recruited for a dangerous secret government mission. But the cargo she’s assigned to smuggle turns out to be a woman with a government bodyguard—Jayce.

Jayce never thought he’d see Shay again, and when the mission forces them together on her ship, he isn’t sure he can forgive her for deserting him; but their desire for each other is stronger than ever. Jayce knows he wants to be with Shay, but how can he trust a woman who’s both a pirate and the girl who broke his heart?

35,000 words

 

Dear Reader,

What do you get when you cross summer with lots of beach time, and long hours of traveling? An executive editor who’s too busy to write the Dear Reader letter, but has time for reading. I find both the beach and the plane are excellent places to read, and thanks to plenty of time spent on both this summer (I went to Australia! And New Zealand!) I’m able to tell you with confidence: our fall lineup of books is outstanding.

We kick off the fall season with seven romantic suspense titles, during our Romantic Suspense celebration in the first week of September. We’re pleased to offer novella
Fatal Destiny
by Marie Force as a free download to get you started with the romantic suspense offerings. Also in September, fans of Eleri Stone’s sexy, hot paranormal romance debut novel,
Mercy,
can look forward to her follow-up story,
Redemption,
set in the same world of the Lost City Shifters.

Looking to dive into a new erotic romance? We have a sizzling trilogy for you. In October, look for Christine D’Abo’s Long Shots trilogy featuring three siblings who share ownership of a coffee shop, and each of whom discover steamy passion within the walls of a local sex club. Christine’s trilogy kicks off with
Double Shot.

In addition to a variety of frontlist titles in historical, paranormal, contemporary, steampunk and erotic romance, we’re also pleased to present two authors releasing backlist titles with us. In October, we’ll re-release four science fiction romance titles from the backlist of C.J. Barry, and in November four Western romance titles from the backlist of Susan Edwards.

Also in November, we’re thrilled to offer our first two chick lit titles from three debut authors,
Liar’s Guide to True Love
by Wendy Chen and
Unscripted
by Natalie Aaron and Marla Schwartz. I hope you’ll check out these fun, sometimes laugh-out-loud novels.

Whether you’re on the beach, on a plane, or sitting in your favorite recliner at home, Carina Press can offer you a diverting read to take you away on your next great adventure this fall!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

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Dedication

This one’s for my mom, who let me stay up late writing even though she couldn’t read the stories.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

About the Author

Chapter One

Atop a hill on Centuris, a girl and a boy eyed each other warily. He’d come prepared, a blanket rolled under his arm and binoculars dangling from his neck. The binoculars were still swaying with the force of his stop after he’d dashed up the hill and saw her at the same moment she’d spotted him.

Shayalin had run here, too, knowing her mother wouldn’t approve but unable to stay away. This was the best hill from which to see ships descend to the spaceport, and they came to the colony only once a year.

“I’m watching the supply ships from here,” she said, waiting for his reaction. The boys of her acquaintance liked ships, but when they played with their models they crashed them into each other in mock space battles. They never listened when she pointed out that ships used long-range weapons instead of brute collisions.

He fingered the strap of his binoculars. “So’m I.”

Return to impasse. She knew the shadows were creeping longer and arrival was approaching.

“I guess we can both watch,” he said, sounding resigned in the face of time slipping away.

She sat down on the grass and hugged her knees.

“You’re going to stain your skirt.”

She turned to stare at him, wondering if her mother had suddenly appeared in his place. But standing there still was the same boy with freckles and ruddy hair and no business telling her about the state of her clothes.

He looked abashed. “That’s all the girls in school care about, not getting dirty.”

“All the boys care about is fighting.”

“I want to fight,” he said. “But in a ship.”

“My dad fought in a ship,” she said.

He was suitably impressed. “A pilot?”

“A captain!”

But now he grew skeptical. “Of a scout ship?”

“Cargo,” she admitted.

“And he fought?”

“Pirates attacked his ship. He died. Before I was born.”

He was quiet.

She looked resolutely upward, although the stars were blurred through her tears. Shayalin had never known her father, but how many times had her mother said in exasperation that she took after him? He would have understood her and her longing to get off-planet, she was sure.

There was a soft rustle and then, “You can sit on it too.” He’d spread out the blanket and sat on one side, leaving enough room for her.

She accepted his peace offering, scooting onto the nearest corner. “I had to come out when my mom wasn’t looking. So I didn’t have time to change.”

“She doesn’t like ships?”

“She doesn’t like that I want to be on one. She wants me to stay on Centuris and take up her hearth and help the colony grow. But I want to go up there, just like my dad.”

“Yeah, when I grow up I’m joining the Corps. I’m going to be a fighter pilot! I’ll take care of those pirates.” He aimed an imaginary blaster and pretended to blow pirates out of the air.

“I’ll take care of them myself,” she said.

“Not if I get to them first!”

They glared at each other.

She was wondering if she should get off the blanket when his gaze shifted and he threw an arm upward to point. “Look!”

It was a bright star at first, flaring against Centuris’s atmosphere, but it grew swiftly to dwarf everything else in the evening sky. She knew it was headed for the spaceport, but for a moment she imagined it was coming toward her. It was a supply ship, all bulk and blank metal, but to her it couldn’t have been more beautiful.


Horizon
-class,” the boy said, binoculars glued to his face.

She ached to ask but bit her tongue. He sensed the question anyway. To her surprise, he lowered the binoculars and said diffidently, “Want to see?”

She held them up just in time to watch the ship turn, as though to show its best profile for her. She could even read the name on its hull:
Cornucopia
.

“There’s another!” he said, and she swung the binoculars over to drink in the gleaming lines of another ship. They always sent more than one to the Rim colonies in case some misfortune befell one—pirates, perhaps, or a slipspace miscalculation.

Space was dangerous, her mother always said. That was the point, Shayalin thought. Centuris was safe because nothing more exciting than occasional livestock raids happened here. Except the ships that came every year.

She handed the binoculars back. By then the ships were close enough for her to admire with her own eyes, but he used the binoculars until both ships settled into their cradles. It was almost night but the spaceport was brightly lit, and she was sure there was a commotion of people and machines as unloading commenced.

“I guess that’s it ’til next time,” she sighed.

“Yeah, it’s too bad—but who can blame ’em?” He swept out his arm to indicate the planet they were on. “I wouldn’t want to come to Centuris, either.”

“I guess it’s like waste duty,” Shayalin said. It was the universally most hated chore, but it had to be done, and of course the adults foisted it off on the children.

“Guess what I’m supposed to be doing now…”

“Oh.” She was a little disappointed he was leaving, although there was nothing left to see.

But he didn’t start down the hill yet. And instead of the doleful expression that usually accompanied announcements of waste duty, he wore a mischievous grin. “Want to try to sneak onto the spaceport and meet the crew?”

It never would have occurred to her to even dream up such a stunt, but spoken in his conspiratorial tones it seemed like the perfect thing to do.

She opened her mouth—

“Shayalin Cho!” It was her mother, standing at the base of the hill, stern even from down there.

“That’s me,” she said with a sigh.

“I guessed.” He grinned again. “I’m Jayce.”

He was all right, she decided. “Bye, Jayce. Thanks for letting me use the binocs.”

“Bye, Shay,” he said.

She picked her way down the hill, careful now that she was under her mother’s watchful gaze.

“Who is that?” her mother asked, already holding out a jacket for Shayalin to slide her arms into.

“Jayce. He came to watch the ships too.”

Her mother’s lips thinned. “I hope you’re not planning to spend too much time with him.”

As simple as that, Shayalin decided Jayce was her new best friend.

***

“Beat you!”

Jayce won the race with his long stride and a triumphant grin cast backward as he crested the hill. He’d grown unfairly tall in the last several months, Shayalin thought as she put on a spurt of speed to catch up to him.

He wrapped an arm around her, pressing an affectionate kiss to her temple. “I counted three whole seconds,” he said. “You’re always making me wait, woman.”

She caught his double meaning. “Silly Neanderthal. You have to subdue a saber-toothed tiger first to impress me before I’ll run off with you.”

“Is your mother a tiger then?”

She groaned and gave him a little push. It was true her mother disapproved of Jayce, but Shayalin rather thought she would have warmed up to him if not for the fact that he fueled her ambitions starward.

The Steaders who had colonized Centuris had come here by star-travel themselves, of course, but what they sought was what they called hearth—a home to stay in and care for with the simplest of lifestyles, nothing to do with star-spanning travel. They took their caretaker duties seriously, to the point where children were bound to their parents’ households until they reached their majority. And Shayalin’s mother had, of course, forbidden her to apply to the Corps. Dear, loyal Jayce, raised by a more lenient aunt who had even let him take a job in the spaceport as a translator, could have already gone. But he was waiting for her.

Shayalin glanced up at him. They were both sweaty from their run, his hair wind-tousled, the sun warm on the features of his face. He looked, she thought, utterly irresistible.

She stood on tiptoe and pulled his head down so she could kiss him. He made a noise, surprised but not unhappy, and kissed her back. His arms came up around her, and she drank in the feel of him, the musk of his sweat, the insistent weavings of his tongue. It was enough to make her forget the aches of the day’s work.

When they eased away from each other he said, “See you tonight?”

She grimaced. “Can’t. Sheep-watch. We lost some last night, and I’ve got to stand guard.” She thought the sheep had simply strayed, as they were wont to do, but her mother insisted they’d been stolen.

“Your mother thinks rustlers would’ve stuck around?”

“That’s what
I
said. But she gave me that look—you know the one—and a lecture about how the thief had already figured out how to do it, and that he’ll try again. Just a few each night, so we’ll think they wandered off on their own.”

“How does she figure?” Jayce sounded genuinely curious. “It almost sounds like she’s tried her own hand at rustling.”

“She says people are lazy.” She sighed. “I guess I haven’t helped convince her otherwise, the way I take forever at my chores.” Because she kept sneaking off to see Jayce. “And apparently the easiest place to hide is right under the seeker’s nose.”

“She has a point,” he said thoughtfully.

“Don’t you two start agreeing now.”

He grinned. “What I meant was, how about I come out and help you guard?”

The offer was tempting, but… “You’ve got to get up early for your job in the spaceport. Besides, you’d distract me too much. They’d take the whole herd while we were fooling around.”

“Why, Shay,” he said, “I do believe that was a compliment.”

“My mistake,” she said archly. “What I meant was that I’d distract
you
.” She stepped in close and rested her fingertips upon his face, centering his gaze on her. She ran her tongue over her lower lip.

His breathing roughened.

She kissed him deep and slow and heated, and one of his hands slid onto her waist. Then he suddenly bent and swept his other arm behind her knees, lifting her off her feet. She squeaked. “Jayce!”

He laid her down on the grass and bent over her to continue the kiss as though it had never been interrupted, stealing away her indignation. And her breath. And any intention to get back home anywhere near on time to guard the brainless, wandering sheep.

He pulled back to take in the sight of her. “Hey,” he said softly, as though he’d only just discovered her.

“Hey, yourself.” She arched up toward him, unwilling to keep any distance between them. She could feel her effect upon him, and she let her body slide along his length.

Jayce sucked in his breath and rolled off to one side. “Careful,” he said, and there was a new note in his voice.

“Something the matter?” she asked innocently.

“You should get back before we go any further,” he said.

“So sure of yourself?” She grinned, feeling cocky herself.

“Tease.”

“Arrogant bastard.”

“Witch.” He closed his eyes and let his head fall back as she licked her way up his neck and along the curve of his ear.

“You think I’m a hag?” She nipped at the lobe then sucked.

His breath caught before he could manage to respond. “As in bewitching.”

“Flatterer.” But when he opened his eyes she saw how he looked at her with simple wonder. There was only one other thing that put that look on his face—the promise of the stars.

He could’ve been there already. He was waiting for her.

Her birthday was still months away, and it felt like an eternity. After that, they’d have to wait for a supply ship to come in and ride it to the nearest station with a recruiting center.

She rolled onto her back and gazed skyward. The sun had dipped low, and darkness was gathering. In a while they’d be able to see the telltale shine of the next planet over, and the countless points of light that stretched farther than their eyes could see—but not past the reach of their dreams.

“We’ll be going there soon,” she said.

He didn’t ask where, for they’d talked of it a thousand times. She slid her hand through the grass to find his. Their fingers tangled.

After a little bit she disengaged her hand, stood and dusted herself off. He didn’t protest her going this time. After all, they would leave Centuris together.

Chapter Two

“Applicant Shayalin Cho?”

Jayce squeezed her hand in silent encouragement. She stood and made her way to the office whose door had just opened.

The officer’s face told her nothing as he closed the door after her and walked behind the desk. “I’m Recruitment Officer Patrin Hu. Take a seat,” he said, doing so himself.

She sat, spine so straight even her mother would have found no fault with her posture.

He consulted a screen. “You passed the physical, and your knowledge base test scores were above average except in interstellar history. Understandable, since you were raised on a Steader colony. It’s noted that your slipspace computations were quite elegant.”

Shayalin allowed herself a smidgeon of hope. She didn’t breathe.

“There were some concerns about your psych exam, however. Normally they would not be a sufficient deterrent, but your family connections prejudice your application,” the officer said.

The wild thought flew through her mind that the man had somehow met her mother and the full force of her disapproval. “My family connections?”

“Your father was Kennick Bailey, captain of the
Burricus
?”

She nodded.

“His reputation’s well-known among spacefarers.”

His obvious discomfort caused a gnawing hole in her belly. “What do you mean?”

“He’s the most notorious pirate in the Cassandra sector.”

She jolted to her feet. “You mean he’s still alive?”

The officer looked over Shayalin carefully, only now realizing what he had stepped into. His mouth firmed. “He gutted a trader ship from Urioq just yesterday.”

She sank back into her chair, feeling the blood leave her face as she finally took in his words. “He’s a
pirate
?” Her voice cracked.

He glanced down at his screen. “The reports say that Mara Cho was told of his actions when the
Burricus
first went rogue.”

Her mother had lied to her.

“Thank you for telling me.” She managed to stand again by using his desk as support. Her balance felt skewed, but she wasn’t going to stay here and let this officer witness her humiliation any longer.

“Applicant Cho—”

“I’m grateful for your time,” she said, and through sheer will turned and took the four steps necessary to reach the door. Her mind was numb, but her hand remembered to press the pad to make the door slide open.

With the same mechanical precision she walked down the hallway and back to the lobby.

“Shay!” Jayce’s grin faded as he took in her expression. “They didn’t take you?”

She jerked her shoulder away from his outstretched hand. How could she tell him? She’d boasted about her father to him the very first time they’d met.

“Shay?”

She didn’t meet his eyes, just began to run.

“Shayalin!”

Somewhere behind her a door opened. “Recruit—that is, Applicant Jayce Dietrich?”

She welcomed the interruption, bitter though it was.
Recruit,
he’d said. It had been both their dreams, and now only Jayce was picked for it. But the officer’s slip distracted Jayce long enough for her to round the corner and get out of sight. There were people in her way, exclaiming as she rushed past them, so she chose a door at random and passed through it to escape the disapproval their blur of faces would surely resolve into.

She didn’t know where she was going, except away. Jayce would be happy joining the Corps—he’d gotten what he wanted, hadn’t he? But she would never get to learn to pilot a ship or have the chance to serve on another world. Her mother would be glad to see her return to Centuris and settle down as a planet-bound homesteader—or perhaps she would be scornful. The Steaders prided themselves on sticking out their projects, and Shayalin hadn’t been able to see this through.

She clenched her hands. Her bones still ached with the desire to fly in space. She wasn’t going to get any closer than on this station, so why waste the chance?

She retrieved her bag from the storage locker she’d stashed it in and found her way to a station bar overlooking one of the docking bays. Recklessly, she asked the bartender to surprise her, and carried the startlingly blue beverage she received over to a stool that offered a perfect view.

There were so many ships, too many to count. Some, drifting right by the station, were leviathans with bulging cargo holds, but others were slender arrows that nearly disappeared when viewed in profile. If she closed one eye and brought her thumb and forefinger close together in front of her face, it was almost as though she could pinch one out of space and take it for her own.

She sighed and took a long swallow of her drink.

A man settled himself a couple of seats down from her. “Wei makes those strong—better take it slow,” he said.

She looked over at him. He was gray-haired, his chin a bit grizzled and his face seamed with laughter. She decided he was simply being friendly. “Wei?”

“The bartender. I stop in here between trade runs a lot. I’ve gotten to know most of her repertoire, and that drink of yours looks like a Blue Python. She likes to foist it off on newcomers who don’t know any better.”

She was still focused on his mention of trade runs. “You have a ship?”

“I pilot one,” he said. “Thirty-two years now.”

“You must have been to so many places…”

“A lot of it’s back and forth,” he said. “Same runs, same stations, same planets. Not as exciting as it seems.”

“Oh.” She stared out at all those ships again, unable to imagine being on any one of them as boring.

“Why, where do you want to go?” he asked with mild interest.

The answer leapt out of her. “Urioq.”

“Huh. We’re headed that direction. Balba’s our stop, but you could easily find someone to pick you up there and take you the rest of the way. It’s practically a shuttle hop.”

She’d never considered simply leaving before. She had some funds carefully saved up—not to be squandered on this, she was sure, but suddenly she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to Centuris.

“How much is passage?”

“Four hundred fifty standards. You from one of the Rim colonies?”

He spoke with the same easy curiosity as before, so she nodded.

“Thought so. The accent. There are some who’d try to take advantage of that, you know.”

“I know. That’s why I’m going to check the fare with other ships.”

He chuckled. “Fair enough. We’ll call it four twenty-five, and you go ahead and ask around. That’ll be the best price you get. I’m Mohit Pareau of the
Alioqui
. Anyone in this bar can tell you where we’re docked.”

“I’m Shayalin Cho,” she said. “I’ll keep you in mind.”

It was difficult not to, as she circulated throughout the bar and asked about her prospects for getting to Urioq. She collected three fares higher than Mohit’s and a lewd proposition—thankfully right at the bar, where Wei the bartender took up station right across from them and quelled the man’s rudeness with a deliberate stare.

“Thanks,” Shayalin said to her once the offender had slunk off.

“Mohit asked me to keep an eye out for you,” she said, sliding a glass of clear liquid over to her.

Shayalin sniffed at it suspiciously. “Then what’s this?”

Wei chuckled. “Water. On the house.”

Embarrassed, she mumbled her thanks and sipped it. There was a dullness to the taste she couldn’t quite describe—it was water, as she had said, but nothing like the fresh spring water on Centuris.

Did she really want to leave?

“So you really want to go to Urioq?” Wei asked, as if reading her mind.

“Yes,” she said, suddenly decisive.

“What takes you there?”

“Family,” Shayalin said vaguely.

“Running to or from?”

She’d just been about to take another swallow but lowered the glass instead. “How could you tell?”

Wei shrugged. “I’ve seen it all.”

“Have you ever met a pirate?” she asked impulsively.

“Maybe,” Wei said breezily, brushing off the query. But she saw how Shayalin’s face fell and sighed, giving in. “Yes. It’s not something you go around admitting, though. Being one
or
meeting one.”

“So how did you know?”

“They’re arrogant. You don’t break the law then show your face in here unless you’re a cocky son of a bitch. It shows—they’ve got a swagger. And they always try to run a tab, since they know they won’t be staying around long enough to pay it.”

Shayalin couldn’t imagine willfully failing to pay one of her debts, but that might be as much from fear of what her mother would say. And pirates, she knew, did far worse than shorting people out of a few drinks’ worth of credits. “You can really tell from that?”

The bartender snorted. “People give away far more than they realize. See the fellow at that end stool? No, don’t turn around so obviously. He’s a courier. He’s carrying something important that needs to be hand-delivered—look down.”

Shayalin noted the small case tucked between the man’s foot and one of the stool legs so that he’d notice if anyone moved it. “What’s he doing here?” she asked.

“Couriers are picky about which ships they ride on. They’ve got good relationships with a lot of independent ships, but you can’t schedule your jobs with their routes perfectly all the time, and you’ll have to ride with a stranger at some point. He’s here checking out some captains in person, trying to see if they’re trustworthy. Buying plenty of drinks for others, but I only brought him the one.”

“What about her?” Shayalin let her eyes slide over to a young woman lingering at a standing table by herself.

“Just looking for companionship. See how she takes a look at every man who walks in? She’ll try to catch the eye of one of the better-looking ones.”

Shayalin was impressed by the bartender’s observations. Perhaps this could be a suitable life for her, pouring drinks behind a bar, talking to people of varied origins and destinations, sussing out their stories. But no, she would never be satisfied by the thrills of someone else’s life. It was time to get on with her own.

She drained the last of her water and set the glass on the bar. “Where’s the
Alioqui
docked?”

“Lower quadrant, past the Cyclops being repaired. Can’t miss it,” Wei said. “Be careful on your way to Urioq.”

“Thanks.” She practiced a cocky smile on her and left the bartender shaking her head.

It took her an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to reach the lower quadrant, with so many identically smooth walls and little clue as to which doors led to private spaces or to public elevators. But once she made her way down and to an outer corridor, the bartender was right—the view was filled with the skeleton of a battleship, a repair crew busy along its metal joints and skin.

The sight was disconcerting. For all her obsessing about ships, she’d thought of them foremost as a way of getting off Centuris and less as a collection of mechanical parts. It was like witnessing a dream in the middle of assembly. But not her dream, not yet. And she didn’t want something the size of a Cyclops, anyway. Too unwieldy.

As though she could be choosy at this point, she thought wryly, and walked to the next dock over.

The merchant ship there was considerably smaller and shabbier, but Shayalin immediately felt more comfortable about it. It carried its age with the air of a vessel a bit worn but still cared for—the sheen of its metal had faded, but its name was freshly painted. Well-loved, her mother would have described it. Several people were involved in loading its hold, and one man stood at the bottom of the ramp, consulting a tablet. He had a familiar calm air amidst all the movement.

“Mohit?”

He turned and broke into a smile. “Shayalin. Couldn’t beat our price, eh?”

“You won on charm too,” she admitted.

“Hope you didn’t run into any trouble,” he said, his face concerned.

“I took care of it,” she said. “Or rather, Wei did.”

“Good woman. I hope you tipped her well.”

“Tipped her?”

He chuckled at her bewilderment. “Never mind, I suppose they don’t do that where you’re from. She’ll figure that out. But we should settle up—our policy is half up front.”

She produced her chip, and he trotted over to a console where he ran the exchange of credits through. She declined to look at her balance, knowing it would be far less than she’d like.

“Welcome aboard the
Alioqui
,” he said with a broad smile. “Or rather, you can head in now or take a look around the station for—” he checked his chrono, “—the next six hours. We’re just about to get the last of our cargo in early.”

It was tempting to explore further, but the thought of bumping into Jayce quelled that notion. She owed him so much—an explanation, a farewell and even congratulations—but she just couldn’t bear to face him right now, especially after the way she’d up and left him in kneejerk panic. She summoned a shaky smile to cover up her inner turmoil. “In, then. I’m tired from running around and trying to find a bargain.”

He led her to her cabin, modestly sized and furnished with little more than a berth pulled out from the wall and a comm unit. “It’s not much,” he said apologetically. “
Aequitus
-class ships are really meant for mid-sized cargo loads, not luxury cruises. But you only need to be in here for departure, landing and the slip. We’re a friendly bunch, so feel free to wander around the ship otherwise. There are a few other passengers too.”

She noted this last with interest. She’d met some offworlders in the spaceport through Jayce, but people who chose to go to Centuris generally didn’t have colorful stories behind why. “Thanks, Mohit,” she said.

Shayalin stashed her bag, but the space was so small she accidentally keyed on the comm doing so. It chirruped at her invitingly.

Why not? She keyed in a search for information about Kennick Bailey and was flooded with newsfeed articles. Raid after daring raid… He’d caused some serious mischief, and had never been apprehended.

So how had her mother snared his interest? A pirate was hardly the kind of man who would say he’d share the next harvest-time with her and everything in between, which was how the Steaders promised marriage.

Shayalin was tempted to send her mother a message, to confront her with the truth and ask a tangle of questions, but she’d lied to Shayalin for eighteen years. Why would she do differently now?

Instead of keying in her mother’s address, she looked up the
Alioqui
. The ship had served proudly for a good number of years, all under the same captain. Mohit was listed in the crew manifests from the start, as well. The routes the ship ran were unremarkable, but it had a good record of completed runs on time. She started reading about
Aequitus
-class specs. Jayce had always wanted a sleek fighter, but she hadn’t seen anything wrong with a trader ship, not when that was what her father had supposedly flown.

She couldn’t think about Jayce now. She stabbed at a random word on the screen, and it pulled up the corresponding entry on the vulnerability of trade routes to piracy.

She only thought to check her data limit after flipping through a hundred different screens, following link after link. To her delight, there was none for newsfeeds. Access on Centuris terminals had always been throttled after a stingy allowance was exhausted.

She could have stayed there forever. Terminals on Centuris contained only approved texts, not this infinite bounty of information. But her stomach growled, and she realized she’d been reading through articles for at least a couple hours. Meals were included in standard fare, weren’t they? She squeezed her way out of her cabin and wandered through the ship, hoping she’d come across a kitchen.

A crewmember nodded in a friendly way as he passed her in a corridor. “
Hal beemkani mosa’adatuk
?”

“Hi,” she said, embarrassed. She’d done poorly in her language studies.

He grinned. “Sorry, bad guess on my part. Can I help you? You look a bit lost.”

“I’m hoping to find food,” she confessed.

“You almost made it on your own! The mess is just farther down this way and hook a left.”

“Thanks,” she said, and followed his directions.

There were various snacks set out on a table, almost none of which Shayalin recognized. Seated there was a woman with a long, dark braid and flowing garb, sipping a beverage. She glanced up and smiled a welcome at Shayalin, crow’s feet crinkling at the corners of her eyes. “Looks like Mohit’s charming aboard all the ladies.”

Shayalin sat on the bolted-down bench across from her. “You’re a passenger too?”

“Mmm-hmm. Thana Akbari. I’m a travel agent on vacation, so you know you’re on a reputable ship.”

“I’m Shayalin Cho. If I’d met you earlier, you could’ve saved me a lot of talking in bars,” Shayalin said ruefully. She reached for the most exotic-looking food—something like a starfruit crossed with an eel—and took an exploratory bite. It was both tart and sweet, and chewier than she’d been expecting.

“That’s what we do,” Thana said. “We save people the time and trouble of asking around.” She cocked her head. “I flatter myself that I’m one of the best here, but there are a few on the station you could’ve used even though I fled my office early.”

“I didn’t know about travel agents,” Shayalin said. When the woman’s eyes widened, she added defensively, “I’ve lived in a Steader colony all my life.”

“No, I can’t say I’ve had many Steader clients,” the woman said slowly. “They usually don’t leave their hearths, do they? Well, good for you, getting away. That couldn’t have been easy.” She laughed suddenly. “You can tell I’m not in vacation mode yet, because I just had to stop myself from telling you about all the glorious places you should visit.” She raised a hand to forestall Shayalin. “And I won’t, because I really do want to get away from work. You’ve done fine so far, and you can look up a good agent in Balba. I don’t think anyone would turn down the chance to work with a Steader—we usually have to deal with the jaded travelers who’ve been to every spoke of the Wheel. It’s nice to get a client who wants something different.”

Shayalin couldn’t imagine walking up to a travel agent and asking for the swiftest route to her father. On second thought, why not, if she just asked the right way?

“So they know the safest ways to travel?” she asked. “Away from unstable routes and pirates?” To avoid pirates, you’d have to know their haunts.

Thana hesitated. “The reputable ones will steer you right,” she said. “Just be careful. Some of the shadier agents forward their information on to pirates, I’ve heard. It’s how they find their targets. Don’t get aboard anything that looks like it has important people or cargo.”

“How can I tell?”

“The station master’s a good resource. He has all the cargo manifests, so he can tell who’s carrying goods that need special handling or rushed delivery. That’s like honey to pirates. And couriers are usually carrying something valuable, but then again, they tend to know the most reliable routes, so that’s a mixed signal.”

The seed of an idea took root in Shayalin’s mind. “Is there a way to check which agents are reputable?”

“Honestly, the best way’s to get a recommendation from a satisfied customer. I get most of my business from referrals. Failing that…” She shrugged. “If you’re not sure of an independent, then go to a big chain. They won’t get you the cheapest prices or offer the most original ideas, but they’re dependable.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Shayalin said. “There’s so much I don’t know.”

Thana chuckled. “That’s what datalinks are for.” But she proved a fount of information herself. She’d traveled to a fair number of planets and had her share of stories about them. Whenever a crewmember wandered in for a quick cup of coffee, he ended up listening to the current anecdote, which flowed seamlessly into the next.

Mohit finally found them all there, gathered around Thana. He shook his head, smiling. “We’ll be taking off soon, if anyone cares to tend to his duties.”

The crew dispersed, although some lingered to exchange a few last words with Thana. Shayalin was in awe of the woman’s breadth of experience. The travel agent had been to all the Hub worlds and along the spokes of half of them.

“We’ll be reaching the slip point shortly after take-off,” Mohit said, catching Shayalin before she headed off to her cabin. “Can you handle it all right, or do you need to be sedated?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. Some people had adverse reactions to entering slipspace, but she had been untroubled on the way to this station. She and Jayce had joked it was a sign they were meant to lead spacefarers’ lives. And here she was, already on her second space flight. She wished she could share it with him.

He might be on a ship, too, only his destination would be a Corps training camp. She told herself she was happy for him, even as she fiercely blinked back tears.

Thana excused herself to her cabin, and Shayalin retreated as well. She curled up on the berth under the safety webbing and tried desperately not to miss Jayce, despite the hollow in her heart.

The ship hummed as it undocked. She spread her fingers on the wall, letting the vibrations thrum their way down her arm as though setting into her bones a reminder of what she wanted. Jayce was lost to her, and so was her chance at the Corps. She had to find something else to drive toward. Silently, she willed the
Alioqui
to move faster. And as though on cue, she felt the blurring sensation that was the slip point entry. It felt like being forced through a needle’s eye, although with an impossible fluidity.

They reached the station without incident, as promised by the ship’s record. Shayalin knew the names of each crewmember by the time she disembarked, as well as the stories of two passengers besides Thana. They led lives that would have thrilled her back on Centuris, but only two slip points out, she was already looking for something grander.

Although she was tempted to wander the station, she went straight to a public console, pulled up a directory and looked up travel agents. This time she wasn’t looking for the lowest fare or safest route. Remembering what Thana had said, she passed over ones that looked too upscale and found some smaller operations. She messaged them about the possibility of booking a trip to Urioq.

Most of them warned her of the danger, but a couple took an optimistic tone, saying that since their shipping lane had just been hit by pirates, they were likely safe now. Shayalin wasn’t counting on it, and in fact was hoping the dread pirate would strike twice in the same place. She just had to present too tempting a target for him to pass up.

One simply replied that there were many options she’d be happy to discuss. Shayalin noted the location of that one, navigated the station’s levels and subsectors and found the office. She stepped in.

A woman with a shock of close-cropped hair and elegantly arched brows looked up. She smiled saucily at Shayalin. “Looking for a ride?”

What had the bartender called it?
Swagger.
This woman had it in spades.

“Yes. To Urioq.”

“You messaged me earlier, didn’t you? Didn’t provide much detail, though.” The agent tapped something into her console. “Were you looking for luxury, speed, price?”

“It has to be a secure route,” Shayalin said. She tightened her grip on her pack strap, self-conscious about the gesture.

The woman looked at her with new interest. “You a courier?”

She nodded, relieved she’d succeeded in giving that impression.

“What happened to your ship?”

“The pilot was…compromised. Besides, something that flashy would’ve drawn too much attention.” She’d discarded half a dozen lines before settling on this one as suitably vague but within the realm of possibility.

The woman pursed her lips. “I think I know just the ship for you. The
Palinuros
will get there the soonest—no slip, but it’s leaving within the hour on a direct route.”

“How much?”

“I can get you a special deal.” The price she named was special indeed, but not for its bargain nature.

“I didn’t expect to have to pay for another passage,” Shayalin said, her sheep-bargaining instincts rising. “And it’s almost a shuttle hop from Balba. I’ll give you half that.”

The woman grimaced. “Can’t you expense it? Leave me some commission!”

Shayalin hoped the agent would be collecting an extra commission elsewhere by reporting this activity to pirates. Hopefully her father. When pressed, the woman did accept a lower figure. Shayalin paid and noted which dock she had to hurry to.

She made one stop along the way, at a high-end importer’s shop. There, she took a deep breath before spending the very last of her credit buying a crate of fresh fruit. The price was outrageous, considering she could’ve picked the equivalent amount from her mother’s orchard in a half hour—and for free, at that—but it reassured her that it was considered exotic on this station. She arranged for it to be delivered on an urgent basis to the
Palinuros
—it would get loaded just in time. A sudden last-minute shipment marked as fragile and having biological contents should hopefully arouse interest.

She wished there was more time to explore the station but made her way directly to the dock and boarded, since it would be taking off soon.

The ship felt different from the
Alioqui
as soon as she stepped aboard. The crew was brisk and efficient, their smiles polite. She preferred Mohit’s easy familiarity.

Shayalin made her way to her cabin—more spacious than the last one—and stowed her pack. She was tempted to seek out the other passengers, but that could prove awkward when she later tried to deal with the pirates. Instead she settled in front of the comm unit and began looking up anything she could think of.

It was addictive, following reference after reference until she was as far from her original lookup as possible. She paused her reading for departure, caught as always by the thrill of the ship easing into movement, but once she was sure they were gliding free of the station she bent over the console again. This time she focused her queries on Urioq, since she’d have to figure out what to do there if the ship arrived safely and she had nothing but her clothes and a crate of fruit.

She hoped her mother was right, and pirates were as lazy as rustlers when it came to picking targets.

Her reading wasn’t reassuring. Urioq was a mining planet of less than sterling repute. Some criminals lived out their sentence in hard labor there. A few of her fellow passengers would likely be visitors, while others would be administrators or guards. There might even be a convict aboard. Not that she could afford delicate sensibilities, she reminded herself, given that she was trying to contact pirates.

The speakers chimed. “This is the captain of the
Palinuros
. We have been boarded by pirates,” a voice said calmly. “They may approach you and make demands. Please cooperate fully to minimize the risk of getting hurt.”

Shayalin hadn’t felt the jolt of another ship locking on to them, and there had been no evasive maneuvers, no alarms to alert crewmembers. How had they been boarded? Were they truly that subtle?

They must have sneaked aboard as passengers, made their way to the bridge and overpowered the pilot. It spoke of familiarity with the layout and the crew’s patterns. Could the agent have told them all that? Surely not.

Wait
. They weren’t under attack
by
a pirate ship—the
Palinuros
was
the pirate ship. Shayalin’s breath caught at the audacity of the scheme. This ship must’ve been stolen, but somehow its registration hadn’t been flagged yet. And passengers with potentially valuable cargo would board, unsuspecting…

She snatched up her pack and headed out of her cabin. She had to talk to one of the crew and convince him of who she was. But before she could take more than a couple of steps down the hall, the woman who had booked the trip for Shayalin turned the corner.

“Ah, there you are. And all ready for me.” She aimed a gun at Shayalin and divested her of her pack.

“That’s—”

The muzzle of the gun moved to point directly at her head. Shayalin shut up.

The woman deftly unfastened the pack with one hand and pulled out its contents onto the floor. Shayalin’s clothes were shaken out for anything that might be tucked within their careful folds, even her undergarments. The gun never wavered, and Shayalin swallowed all of her protests.