A pretty little thief caught red-handed.
A shifter alien prince, acting as both judge and jury.
Curvy space courier Corby lives hand to mouth in the Galactic Empire. Rules don't mean much to her. Survival is all that matters, and she's been lucky.
But her luck just ran out.
When she’s hauled onto the Imperial Order Starship, Corby comes face to face with Prince Jalton – the handsome lion shifter who will decide her future. Since she stole information that incriminates the Imperial Order royal family, Corby’s certain he’ll sign her death warrant. Or even kill her himself. If she gets out of this alive, it’ll be a miracle.
Prince Jalton isn’t used to working amongst the grubby criminal class. He only came to the Imperial Starship Prison because he lost a bet with his brother. Now he has to spend the day with cutthroats, thugs and ruffians.
The last thing he expects to see is…her.
The girl makes his lion stir and snarl. Her bluster pleases him. And the lush curves under her tunic do more than please him. He’d like to steal her away from the rough prisoners. He wants to keep her and shelter her from danger. He can't wait to wrap her wild auburn hair around his fist, tilt her head back, and kiss the sass from her berry lips.
And slowly and leisurely, he’ll show that fiery girl that she's his.
“Put the weapon down, Ms. Frayne.”
The leatherclad enforcer and I circle one another, guns pointed squarely in each other’s faces. Neither one of us shows any sign of giving up.
“This is a Lazerjet 7TX. Fastest blaster in the galaxy.” The enforcer looks down at my thrift store ray gun and smirks. “You don’t stand a chance, lady.”
I smile mysteriously like I have an amazing secret, and the secret is that my gun is actually way more powerful than his. But I’m bluffing. He’s right. My gun’s a beat-up piece of sh*t. I’m just hoping my cockiness will encourage him to walk away.
Enforcers don’t like taking risks unnecessarily. After all, if they had any guts, they’d work against the Imperial Order, not for it. Like I do.
He sighs sharply. “If you don’t drop your weapon, I’ll have to shoot you.”
“Really? Well okay then, if you have to.”READ MORE
He shakes his head, frowning, like he can’t quite believe my sarcasm. Can’t blame him. Openly defying an enforcer like this really is insane. His firepower way outclasses mine. A single blast from his Lazerjet would atomize me. All I have to bring to this fight is attitude.
Still, attitude has never failed me yet.
He hits some button or touchpad or something, and his gun pulses with a blue glow. Is he trying to intimidate me into backing down?
Then I realize he’s scanning me. Good luck with that.
“Nice trick,” I say, raising my eyebrows in mock admiration. “What a pretty blue light on your gun. Does it play a little tune too?”
His eyes narrow, and a jolt of adrenaline hits me. For the first time, it feels like there’s a real risk of getting shot here. Is he mad enough to hit the trigger after all?
He waits just a second too long before he responds. I take that to mean he doesn’t plan to hurt me. Interesting. And it’s true, because instead of shooting, he just hits the blue glow button again. Then he smirks at me.
“Yeah. My pretty gun plays the Stars and Stripes every time it blows a guy’s head off.”
“So cute. And if it blows a girl’s head off?”
The enforcer is quiet again for a second. There’s a high-pitched bleep noise, and he frowns. “Both scans say you’re clear.” He looks up at me, all the wind knocked out of his sails. “Then where the hell have you stashed the stolen goods?”
“What stolen goods?”
I grin, because we both know I do have something illegal concealed somewhere. But he’d flip if he knew what it was, or where.
Anyway, he’s not getting it today. My retina camera transmits footage directly to my probation officer during working hours, and the enforcer will be only too aware of that. He’ll have my entire checkered history at his fingertips. And no matter what this dumbass thinks he knows about me, a clear scan means he has to let me walk out of here. That’s the law. He can’t do a damn thing to stop me.
“F***ing Wildcats,” he says under his breath, as he shoves his gun back in his belt holster.
Wildcats is what enforcers call freelance space couriers like me. We’re wily and fast, and live on our wits. We’re also small-time punks, and no real match for the trueborn members of the Imperial Order. God forbid I ever run into one of those guys. “Neither fish nor flesh,” as my grandma used to say. I can deal with the average human patrol enforcer, no problem. Handling an Imperial Order pureblood would be way above my pay grade.
If an Imperial Order dude decided a human Wildcat was taking liberties, he’d swat them like a fly. Even if galactic law ordered them otherwise.The Imperial Order families are all shifters, with patchwork DNA that combines to make them super-strong and super-tall. They’re part-human too, believe it or not. But with threads of ancestry drawn from all over the galaxy, they’re capable of kicking more ass than the rest of us put together. They’re the alphas of this corner of the universe. Luckily they don’t really bother with us little people much.
But this guy here? This enforcer is all-human, and pretty low down the food chain, and I thank my lucky stars for that.
“Pleasure talking with you, sir,” I say, because the sass never stops. He glares at me, and I saunter back to my ship, whistling.
Once I’m on board, I drop the calm act. I slump into my pilot seat, elbows on the dash, head in hands, panting. My hands are trembling. I feel like I just ran a marathon, in high heels.
“Narrow escape?” my ship’s computer Neela asks.
“Your heart rate is approaching one hundred sixty beats per minute. Please assume the meditation position.”
I obey, because Neela knows her sh*t. It’s actually a relief to hand over responsibility for a few moments. I fold my legs into the lotus position and rest the backs of my hands on my knees. The ship’s lighting dims to a soft pink, and the sound of Earth rain surrounds me.
I close my eyes, still and quiet. The sound of the rain is hypnotic, especially when I haven’t heard it in so long. The last time my feet touched Earth was months ago. That’s because I don’t have anything to go back to, since my hometown was razed in the last Milky Way war. Homesickness floods through my stomach, mixed with leftover adrenaline. I feel a little nauseous, and my limbs are tingling, but I know it’ll pass.
The scent of lavender drifts across the air. My heart still hammers against my ribcage, but the sense of acute terror is gone already. Neela drops a little birdsong into the soundtrack. I concentrate on steadying my breathing, moving it from shallow and fast to deep and slow. My mind feels tidy again. My nausea fades away completely.
“Your heart rate is now seventy-five beats per minute. Would you like to continue into a full round of meditation, or return to flight mode?”
I fill my lungs with one last hit of lavender-scented air, and exhale. “Back to flight mode, I guess. I need to get off this planet before another enforcer decides to mess with me.”
Neela obeys instantly without a word, because robots aren’t assholes like me, and the flight deck lights up again. I tap the touchscreen and pull up our coordinates.
“We need to get to Quintagon as soon as possible. I have a contact standing by to take the chip into safekeeping. Can you plot our route, Neela?”
“Indeed I can, commander.”
Star charts and cosmic debris forecasts flicker across the screen and disappear again. I use the time to scroll through my messages. A bunch of outstanding payment reminders, a weekly check-in notice from my probation officer, some spam from a company selling holographic vehicle cloaking devices… And a parking ticket for leaving the ship in a no-fly zone on Drancolia. Aw, shit. The last thing I need is an unexpected expense.
“I was only parked for a few minutes,” I whine, as I hit Open. What do I have to pay? I scan the message. Seven thousand xenons! Holy sh*t. There’s no way I can afford that.
But if I don’t pay, I’ll have to stay out of this quadrant altogether. That means I can’t work. All the work is here. And I can’t come back without having paid the debt. There’s no way around it. If my ship gets logged in the quadrant with an unpaid fine, it’ll be zapped to ashes before I can say “Who, me?”
Maybe my next job will have to be stealing one of those holographic vehicle cloaking devices, so I can sneak back to this quadrant for business. I’m sure as hell not going to be able to afford one the legal way.
“Commander, we have a problem,” Neela says, in her tranquil voice.
I tap my message screen closed. “You’re not kidding. Wait, you mean another one? What’s up?”
“There’s an Imperial Order ship in our path.”
“Just fly around it.” Those patrol ships are everywhere. They don’t care about little nobodies like me. It’s not like Neela to bother me with something so trivial.
“Not really possible.” She pauses, to ramp up the suspense a little. “It’s one of the big ones.”
A picture of the ship fills the viewing screen. It looks like a small planet, all by itself. I gape at it. We’re on a backwater planet, light years from anywhere significant. This seems all wrong.
“F***, Neela,” I bluster. “It’s a Level A ship. What the hell is that monster doing in this part of the galaxy?”
“I will attempt to find out. Please sit down and fasten your safety belt in the meantime.”
I do what I’m told, without taking my eyes off the screen. With a lurch, my ship launches vertically into the air, then darts across the sky at an oblique angle.
“This diagonal flight path is happening for a reason, right?” I shout, as my cheeks flap around from the sheer force of our acceleration. Dignity is impossible.
“We are deliberately launching at an unexpected trajectory, yes. This will allow me to analyse the other ship’s response.”
My nails dig into the armrests. I can’t move my head at all, because we’re accelerating so fast. My ship might be old, but she’s pretty nimble. At least, if you don’t call on her for a speed boost too often.
At last, we burst through the atmosphere into open space. Neela switches off the boosters, and we cruise for a moment.
“So what did the other ship do when we left the area?” I ask.
“It recalibrated its flight path in response to our movement.”
I stare at the gigantic ship on the screen. My little ship flying toward a ship of that size is like a bug buzzing around a whale. Put it this way: the Imperial Order ship does not have to move to allow us to pass. Why did it move at all?
“Wait a second, Neela. Recalibrated its flight path? You mean it responded to our movement? It’s watching us?” I stare at the screen as the truth sinks in. “Where’s that ship going now?”
“It’s heading right for us,” Neela says, her voice as gentle and soothing as ever. “Yes, when we moved, it did too. The ship now appears to be following us.”
I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry. Why would a massive ship like that be coming for a little wildcat like me?
“They know,” I whisper. “F***. They know.”
I tap the tiny recess in my boot with my other foot, to check it’s still there. The chip is safe for now, inside its anti-scanning container. That tiny recess is secret Quintagonian technology that far outstrips anything humans have achieved so far. Even the establishment enforcer couldn’t locate the container. It means the chip is almost entirely undetectable.
But if I wind up anywhere near Imperial Order shifters, they’ll sniff it out in a second.
Pulling my bootlace tighter, I take one more deep calming breath.
“Neela, take any steps you need to take. Fly down a black hole. Hitch a ride on a comet. Anything. I have faith in your ability to find an alternative.” The huge ship looms closer on the screen. “Do what you’ve got to do, Neela. Just get us the hell out of here.”COLLAPSE