Ashlynne stood at the window, watching the activity in the distance.
Enjine Base Nine was a busy station, with transports and cruisers coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
Commander Casman had told her that several cities in the area had been destroyed, but Partha, which was the capital of Tierde, had been spared. The Romarian army had driven the Hodorians away and taken up residence at the mine, which was still operational. All the slaves had been killed in the attack, so the army was working the mine until a new shipment of slaves arrived. She wondered why the Hodorians hadn't destroyed the space station as well.
With a sigh, she turned away from the window. Casman had arranged for transportation to Trellis. She should be relieved, she mused. In a few days, she would be safe again. No more trekking through the wilds, wondering where her next meal was coming from, no more sleeping on the ground, drinking from rivers and pools like a wild animal. No more verbal sparring with Falkon. Niklaus's family would look after her until the wedding.
Niklaus was a wealthy man. His family owned a large house in Arkata, which was the capital city of Trellis. She would want for nothing... except love. And independence. She would be nothing more than a decoration in Niklaus's house, of no real importance, of no value other than looking pretty on her husband's arm and providing him with an heir.
Her thoughts turned to Falkon, and she shied away. She didn't want to think of him, or of the fate that awaited him. At dinner, Commander Casman had told her that Falkon would most likely be executed. She had argued that he was her property, but Casman had told her someone high up in the Romarian command wanted the prisoner dead. It would be foolish to challenge the Romarians over a slave.
Feeling suddenly sick, she wrapped her arms around her stomach and closed her eyes. She tried to tell herself she didn't care, that she was well rid of him, but she was only lying to herself, and she knew it. He had saved her life, offered her solace and a shoulder to cry on, made her feel safe when she'd been frightened. She couldn't let him be executed, couldn't even imagine a world without him in it, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he had broad shoulders and tawny skin, that he was by far the most handsome man she had ever seen, that he made her feel vibrant and alive.
Nothing to do with the shivery feelings that he aroused in her. Nothing at all.
And even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew she was lying to herself again.
Muttering an oath she had heard on Falkon's lips, she left Gasman's quarters and stepped into the hall. A small sign indicated that the Detention Level was on DI.
Head high, shoulders back, she walked briskly toward her destination, hoping she looked as if she had every right to be there.
A uniformed guard was posted at the door. "Your business?" he asked curtly.
"I'm here to see my slave."
"Do you have clearance to be here?"
"Of course," she replied in her haughtiest tone.
"May I see it?"
"Are you doubting my word? I am Lady Ashlynne of the House of Myrafloures. My father is Lord Marcus. I have Commander Gasman's personal authorization to see my slave. Now, stand aside. The commander is expecting me in his quarters in ten minutes. I have no time to waste arguing with you."
Indecision showed in the guard's eyes.
Drawing herself up to her full height, Ashlynne looked the guard in the eye. "I am not accustomed to being questioned. I shall speak to Commander Gasman about this."
She started to turn away, her heart pounding, wondering if he would call her bluff.
"Lady Ashlynne, wait."
She turned slowly. "Yes?"
"My apologies, my lady." The guard unlocked the door and stood aside.
She didn't bother to say thank you, merely inclined her head and swept past him.
A second guard sat at a large desk. Engrossed in something on the tele- screen, he spared her hardly a glance as she passed by.
She moved into the long corridor that led to the cells, her nose wrinkling with distaste. The place smelled worse than the slime pits. Her heart pounded in her chest as her gaze darted from side to side. All the cells were empty, save the last one.
He turned at the sound of her footsteps. She had expected him to be pleased to see her. He wasn't.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asked. "Come to gloat?"
"I came to get you out of here," she retorted.
He snorted. "How do you plan to do that?"
"With this." She slipped her hand into her pocket and withdrew a small weapon.
"Where the hell did you get that?"
"I stole it from Gasman's quarters."
He grinned at her. "Do you know how to use it?"
"No. Don't you?"
"It's not much different from the controller," Falkon said. "Squeeze the front trigger, and it will paralyze. The second trigger will kill."
The weapon fit neatly into her palm. She curled her finger around the front trigger, then looked at Falkon. "Now what?"
He grinned at her. "Call the guard."
She did as he asked, her whole being quivering with nervous tension.
Moments later, the guard who had been sitting at the desk appeared. "Is there a problem?"
"Yes," Ashlynne said, smiling sweetly. "This door appears to be locked."
The guard frowned at her.
"Unlock it, please."
"I can't do that without written authorization, my lady. I'm sorry."
Ashlynne lifted her hand until the weapon was pointed at the guard's chest. "I think you can."
He grunted, clearly amused. He took a step forward, his hand reaching for the weapon.
"What are you waiting for? Shoot!"
Ashlynne took a quick step backward, her gaze darting toward Falkon.
"Shoot, dammit! Pretend it's me."
With Falkon's voice ringing in her ears, she squeezed the trigger. A burst of brilliant white exploded from the muzzle of the weapon, wrapping around the guard like strands of light. He dropped to the floor and lay still.
"Is he dead?"
"No. Get the key. Hurry! The effect will fade in a few minutes."
"Where is it?"
"Look in his pockets."
She didn't want to touch him. Hesitantly, she went through the guards pockets. Unable to move or speak, he stared up at her, his gaze malevolent.
"It's not here," she said.
"Try the desk."
Dropping the stun gun into her skirt pocket, she ran down the corridor. In the light of the tele-screen, she saw a ring of keys on the desk top. And the controller beside it. She grabbed the keys, thrust the controller into her pocket, then hurried back to the cell. She tried to fit one of the keys into the lock, but her hands were shaking so badly, she couldn't manage it.
Muttering an oath, Falkon grabbed the key ring from her hand. The third key unlocked the cell door. Stepping out of the cell, Falkon grabbed the guard under the arms, dragged him inside the cell and locked the door.
"Have you got the controller with you?"
He crossed his wrists. "Okay, activate the damn thing."
"What?" She stared at him a moment, then nodded. Pulling the controller from her pocket, she activated the manacles on his wrists, then opened the door that led out of the cellblock.
The guard outside frowned when he saw Falkon. "I'm afraid I can't let you take the prisoner."
"And why not? This man is my personal slave. He was detained at my request, and now I'm taking him with me."
"I'll have to get clearance from my superior."
Ashlynne glanced at Falkon, who nodded.
"Of course," she said. "We'll wait."
With a nod, the guard turned to pick up his communicator.
As soon as he turned his back, Ashlynne pulled the stun gun from her pocket and squeezed the trigger.
The guard hit the floor with a dull thud.
"Release me," Falkon said.
For once, she didn't argue.
When his hands were free, Falkon removed the gun from the guard's
holster. He handed it to Ashlynne, then dragged the guard into the cellblock.
Stripping the guard of his coat, Falkon put it on, as well as the man's helmet and boots. Leaving the cellblock, he closed the door.
Ashlynne gasped as a man emerged from the cellblock a few minutes later, then sighed in relief when she recognized Falkon beneath the black helmet.
"All right," he said, taking the guard's weapon from her hand, "let's get the hell out of here."
She had expected him to try to be inconspicuous, to keep his head down, but Falkon walked arrogantly down the center of the corridor, head high, eyes looking up and out, as if he had nothing to hide. She followed close behind him, trying to look as if she belonged there. Surprisingly, no one paid them any attention.
He paused at an intersection where four corridors came together, then turned right.
They walked down a long narrow passageway. Ahead, Ashlynne saw a dozen or so spacecraft. Several men clad in dark gray overalls milled about, talking and laughing as they worked on a sleek-looking fighter.
"Stay close," Falkon whispered. He nodded to one of the men they passed, moving down the line until he came to a two-man cruiser. It was a small ship, used mainly for short hops between space stations. He would have preferred a fighter, but the cruiser offered living quarters, which might come in handy. If they were lucky, it would be stocked with food and water.
He glanced around, then climbed aboard. Turning, he shoved the gun into his pocket, then reached down to help Ashlynne up the ladder.
When she was inside, he secured the hatch and moved into the cockpit.
Removing his helmet, he tossed it on the floor, then slid into the seat. "Hope this baby's fueled and ready to go," he muttered. "Or this is gonna be a mighty short flight."
He ran an instrument check, muttering under his breath as he familiarized himself with the controls.
"Are you sure you know how to fly this thing?" Ashlynne asked as she slid into the copilot's seat.
Falkon shrugged. "It's a little different from what I'm used to, but I think I can manage."
"Here we go," he said, and opened the throttle.
As soon as the cruiser lifted off, the com deck crackled to life. "Cruiser twenty-two. You have not been cleared for takeoff. Please report your identity and destination."
Falkon looked over at Ashlynne and grinned. "Hang on," he said, and goosed the throttle to full ahead.
Ashlynne shrieked as the cruiser shot forward, skimming over the ground.
Everything passed by in a blur, and then they were rising, soaring skyward like a bird of prey in flight. The thrill was unlike anything she had ever known - exhilarating and frightening, like the man sitting beside her.
His face was set in determined lines as he piloted the sleek craft.
The radio crackled to life again. "Cruiser twenty-two, you are not authorized for flight. Return to base immediately. I repeat, return to base
Falkon looked at the instrument panel, and she heard him swear softly.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"We might be in trouble?"
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
"There are two fighters on our tail."
"What?" She leaned forward. At first, all she saw was a jumble of multicolored blinking lights, and then she saw what looked like two green arrows moving side by side across the view screen.
She jumped when the radio crackled to life yet again. "Cruiser twenty- two, return to base immediately or we will fire."
Ashlynne grabbed his arm. "Turn around! They're going to shoot us."
"No way, sweetheart. I'm not going back."
"Are you crazy? Didn't you hear what they said? They're going to start shooting at us."
"Sit back and hang on."
"Not a chance."
Delving into her pocket, she withdrew the controller. "Turn back," she warned.
He looked over at her and grinned a roguish, devil-may-care grin. "You gonna use that now?"
"If I have to. Turn this ship around before it's too late."
"It was too late the minute we climbed aboard, princess. Now put that damn thing away."
"I'm not bluffing."
Falkon sat back, his arms folded across his chest. "Go ahead. But who's gonna man the controls when I'm writhing on the floor like a snake on a hot rock? You?"
She stared at him, fear and anger and helpless rage smoldering within her. She slammed her hand on the armrest, wishing she dared slap that insufferable grin off his face.
"Sit back, princess, and enjoy the ride."
With a wordless cry, she shoved the controller back in her pocket, locked herself into the seat, and screamed as the cruiser rolled over and then shot straight up.
"Damn!" Falkon muttered. "That was a close one."
Looking out the window, she saw a brilliant flash of blue light. "What was that?"
"They fired on us."
She was going to die. She knew it. Closing her eyes, she tried to pray, but she was too afraid. It wasn't fair. Her life was going to be over before it had even begun. She would never get married, never have children, never see the triple waterfall of Demurre, or the dragons of Riv.
She shrieked as the cruiser rolled left, then right, then plummeted downward. They were going to crash. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
Please, she thought, please let it be quick.
The cruiser shuddered and bounced before it skidded to a bone-jarring stop. Ashlynne opened her eyes slowly, amazed to discover the ship was still
in one piece. That she was still in one piece.
She looked over at Falkon to find him grinning at her.
"Hell of a ride," he said.
She scowled at him. "Where are we?"
"Darned if I know. I checked the charts, but there's nothing listed at these coordinates."
"So we're on a planet that doesn't even exist?"
He grinned. "Something like that."
Ashlynne looked out the window at what appeared to be a swamp. Tall trees trailing fingers of silver moss rose up all around them. Spiny brush with bloodred blossoms sprang up here and there, along with spiky clumps of blue-green grass. She saw a pool a short distance away, shrouded in a hazy blue-gray mist.
Falkon shut down the engine, then rose to his feet. "Wonder if there's anything to eat on board," he mused.
How could he think of food at a time like this? She drew back as a long brown-and-yellow snake, its body easily as thick as her upper thigh, slithered down one of the trees. What other creatures lurked out there? She could hear Falkon moving around in the back of the ship. Curious, she slid out of the seat and went into what she assumed was the kitchen. It was small and square and gray, hardly large enough for the two of them.
Falkon looked up. "We're in luck. You hungry?"
She shook her head. She was too scared to be hungry.
He punched a number into a small panel on the wall; a moment later, a tray slid out of a slot at the bottom. The aroma of roast karu-atar and coffee filled the small cabin.
He sat down at the small table that was attached to one wall. "Sure you don't want something?"
She shook her head.
"Well, sit down and keep me company."
She slid into the seat across from him, her hand folded around the controller in her pocket. "How long are we going to stay here?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. At the moment, it seems like a safe port."
She thought of the enormous snake she had seen outside. "Safe?"
"Sure. As long as we keep still and quiet, they can't track the ship."
"But I want to go to Arkata."
"Arkata? That's on Trellis, isn't it? What's there?"
"My fiance." She had never been eager to marry. Niklaus was, after all, not only a man she had never met, but fifteen years her senior. But now he was her only refuge in the world. He would marry her and protect her.
Falkon stared at her. "You're engaged?"
"Yes." She lifted her chin defiantly. "Why?"
"Just surprised me, that's all."
"He's a wonderful man. Very handsome. Very rich."
"Rich," Falkon said with a sneer. "I could have guessed that."
"There's nothing wrong with being rich," she snapped.
"How'd he get rich?"
"His family owns a factory that produces laser cannons."
"You're nothing but a mercenary. Who are you to judge him?"
"I'm not judging him. After all, if it wasn't for men like him, the Romarians couldn't have firebombed my house." He didn't add that laser cannons had destroyed her home and family as well. She seemed to have put it out of her mind for the moment and he saw no need to remind her.
There was enough pain in the world already.
Ashlynne bit down on her lower lip, silenced by the anger in his eyes, by the certainty that he had lost more than a house. "Are you... have you family somewhere?"
"Not anymore." Falkon pushed the tray away, his meal unfinished. "My wife and daughter were in the house when they burned it."
She had a sudden, horrible image of her own home going up in flames, felt again the loss of her parents. "I'm sorry," she said quietly, and knew in her heart that the words were inadequate, that there were not enough words in the galaxy to ease his pain. Or hers.
"Yeah," he muttered. "Me, too." He stood abruptly. "I'm going outside to have a look around."
"Do you think that's a good idea?"
Falkon shrugged. "Beats staying cooped up in here."
"But you don't know what's out there. I saw a snake."
"I'm not afraid of snakes."
She tilted her head to one side, her expression thoughtful. "What are you afraid of?"
"That controller in your pocket."
"So am I."
"What am I supposed to do if something happens to you?"
"Learn how to fly, I guess."
"That's not funny."
"Am I laughing?"
"Darn you, Falkon."
"I'm going. You can come with me, or stay here, but I'm going out."
Ashlynne glanced around. "You don't like small places, do you?" she remarked, thinking of the tiny cell that had imprisoned him. It hadn't been much larger than the galley.
"Not much." He moved past her, opening doors as he went. There were two cabins, fore and aft, a head, the galley, and a small combination storage area and closet.
She trailed behind, her hand caressing the controller.
Falkon opened the closet and pulled out a furlined jacket. It was more to his taste than the coat he was wearing. "Nice," he muttered as he removed the guards coat and slipped the jacket on. "There's another one in here. You want it?"
She was torn between staying inside where it was relatively safe and going outside with him. In the end, being alone was less appealing than being with Falkon. The knowledge surprised her.
She held out her hand, scowling when he grinned at her.
"Guess that means you're going with me."
"I guess so," she said curtly.
"Where's the stun gun you took from Gasman?"
"In my pocket."
"Well, keep it handy."
"Do you think I'll need it?" she asked, and then she remembered the snake.
Slipping on the jacket he handed her, she followed him down the companionway and out into an uncharted world.