Disclaimer: This is a free work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2020 Rhea V. May. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form, by an electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except quoted brief passages in a review, post, article or other pieces of content. This work is intended for mature audiences only (18+).
Terran Prime Station, 2398 TST
He felt as if he was in a trance. Mesmerized, he stared at the drop of sweat climbing down the column of her neck. When it reached her modest cleavage, Brayden licked his lips.
What sorcery was this? Never had a woman such a hold on him. And she made it more than clear she wanted no part of him. She detested him, and rightfully so.
So, Brayden found himself in a curious role now—the one of a seducer. Until Tessa, he only had to direct a crude joke and a lopsided smile at a woman, and she’d drop at his feet. Ready to be sampled and enjoyed for a brief time (never longer than a few hours) and then abandoned for the next.
Now… damnation upon all! But he wanted only one woman, and she was looking at him like he was lower than the dirt on the sole of her shoe.
Brayden jolted out of his musings abruptly when Tessa’s back hit the mat. Bending his knees, he offered her his hand. She had started an attack move, and, automatically, he’d counteracted, using too much force in the defense.
“I’m sorry, Tessa. Are you alright? Didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”
She glared up at him, slapping his hand away. “Stop it,” she hissed. “Stop acting so… so…”
“Chivalrous?” His left eyebrow arched in amusement.
“Annoying,” she finished, a scalding tone emphasizing the word. “It’s fine. I told you not to hold back. I won’t break.”
Frowning, Brayden watched her climb to her feet. Her lips pressed together in an angry line as she tried to conceal a groan. “I’m here to teach you, not maim you.”
Tessa sighed, rolling her eyes. “Isn’t pain part of the deal?” Then, through pursed lips, “Cavut never held back. I liked that about him.”
At the mention of the Rakh’Sha tool, her trainer, before he intervened and ordered the fucker to back off so he could take over, Brayden’s scowl deepened. “Cavut was a poor teacher.”
Tessa lifted her chin, a challenging glint in her eyes. “He was a fair teacher.”
She advanced on him, jabbing her index into his chest. “He was. He only cared about what I’ve learned, and not about the bruises I gained in the process of mastering a move.”
“I care about what you learn, too.”
“Right,” she drawled. She turned her back on him, and stepped to the edge of the mat, bending to retrieve her water bottle from the floor. After a gulp, she looked at him from over her shoulder. “Is that why you ordered him to step down? Because you think you’re a better teacher?”
So, she knew about that, didn’t she? Brayden straightened his spine and glared in her direction. “I am a better teacher.” At her bark of mirthless laughter, he continued, “I am better because I know exactly what you need—”
“Don’t be mistaken! Your title of Chief Security Officer doesn’t make you the best fighter here!” She was facing him again, hands on her hips, eyes bright as they shot daggers in his direction.
She was the most beautiful when she was angry.
Brayden inhaled deeply. “Cavut was taking the classic approach. Teaching you the correct moves, in the correct order. I’m not saying it was wrong, only that it wasn’t what you needed. Years would have passed before you became proficient. Not to mention, he didn’t take into account your weight, or strength… he never adapted the maneuvers to your own capabilities.”
The words caused her to draw back in surprise. He could see she grasped his reasoning, but she was too proud to admit he was right. “So, you’re teaching me to fight dirty?”
He shrugged. “If it keeps you alive…”
She blinked slowly, then shook her head, turning to retrieve her things from the floor. “I believe our hour’s up.”
Brayden sighed, accepting the truth of her words. “And how do you judge this first session?”
She paused, turning her head briefly. “Adequate, with lots of room for improvement.”
He chuckled, pressing one palm to his heart. “You wound me, milady.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. She swiveled around, hurrying in the door’s direction. “See you next time, Connaway.”
“Wait,” he called after her. “Where are you going? The showers are in the opposite direction.”
“I’ll use the one in my quarters,” came her clipped response.
The implication angered him without measure. In a flash, he was in front of her, halting her progress. “I’m an asshole, Starr, I’ll admit it,” he hissed. “But that doesn’t make me a rapist.”
Wide-eyed, she took in his flaring nostrils, the clench of his jaw. She lowered her eyes to the floor, a blush staining her cheeks. “I apologize. I never intended to…”
He wasn’t mollified. “You think I’d corner you in the showers, while you were defenseless, and… what? Put the moves on you? You’re wrong, Tessa.”
She nodded, her eyes still studying the floor. “I’m sorry.”
Gently, he gripped her chin and forced her face up, so he could look into her eyes. “I’m not that kind of man.”
After searching the truth of the statement into his expression, she nodded. “I understand.”
“Fine. Now, let me go.”
He stepped back, releasing her. “See you the day after tomorrow, same time.”
He turned, strode in the showers’ direction, pausing briefly to collect his own things from the floor near the mat. After a second, he heard her following him.
In the locker room, he stopped, opening his cupboard, pulling out his work uniform and grabbing a towel. Without glancing in her direction, he stepped into the showers area, intent on occupying the last stall on the right.
A masked man jumped out of one stall, aiming a gun in his direction. Out of instinct, Brayden dove to the floor, the shot going past his head.
In a second, he was back up on his feet, right hand clutching the man’s throat, left hand slapping the gun away. The masked man grunted, pressing a knife to Brayden’s throat.
He ducked just in time, feeling the blade slashing his flesh just under the right ear, and swiveled on his feet, putting some distance between him and his attacker. Seeing the opening, the man dove for the gun on the floor.
But Brayden was faster. In the next instant, he was holding the gun and aiming, then firing. The red ball of pulse energy hit the man right in chest. The smell of seared flesh hit Brayden, followed by the sound of sizzling as the ball burrowed into his chest, and then the man collapsed to the floor, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling.
Breathing heavily, Brayden turned, seeing Tessa frozen in the doorway. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Are you alright?”
Wearing a blank expression, she nodded. He noticed her eyes were fastened on the corpse, so he moved to block her view. That made her look up at him.
“I’ve seen dead people before, Brayden,” she said in a calm tone.
Right. He remembered she was a frontier girl, and life on those planets was riddled with hardships and violence. With a jolt, he realized what made her so appealing to him: she was a paradox. Underneath that sweet exterior, she had a core made of steel.
Brayden cleared his throat, glancing down at the gun still clutched in his hand. He checked the safety, then motioned for her to be quiet and stay hidden in this room. “There could be more,” he whispered as he passed by her.
After assuring the locker room was empty, he sealed the doors and returned to the shower stalls.
“Clear?” she asked, stepping out of a stall.
“Clear.” He approached the corpse, looked down. “Go get your Correslink and bring mine also from my cupboard. The code’s 65834.”
He crouched next to the dead man as her footsteps faded, ripping out the mask. Frowning, he paused, letting his arms dangle between his knees.
“You knew him?” Tessa asked, handing him his Correslink.
“Never seen him before.”
Brayden sighed, nodding. “VALID?”
“Yes, CSO Connaway.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
A second passed before the neuronet responded, filled no doubt with countless computations that would grant the meaning behind Brayden’s words. “Presently, or…?”
Brayden straightened, then gestured to the corpse. “I mean this. What are you doing about this?”
“I apologize, CSO Connaway. I don’t understand your query.”
Pushing air out sharply through his nose, Brayden rubbed his temples. “Can you see me?”
“Who else is in the room?”
Brayden’s eyes snapped open. “And that’s it?”
“Motherfucker!” Brayden bent down over the dead man again, rifled through his pockets. Holding a small black box in his hand, he thrust it at Tessa. “It’s a Sig-scrambler.”
Her eyes grew big. “You mean your theory that… that… they’re using cloaking devices is correct…”
Brayden nodded. “We’re dealing with a conspiracy.”
The word echoed in the room.
Licking her lips, Tessa asked in a whisper, “To what end?”
“That… I don’t know.”
“Do you think there are more?”
“Yes. I fear so.” He weighed the device in his hand, found the small toggle that would turn it off. “Identify the man for me, VALID.”
The neuronet gasped. “CSO Connaway…”
“It’s alright, VALID. Identify the man for me.”
“Luis Wanderuss, Level 3 Store Keeper in the Stewarding Department.”
“New to the Prime?”
“No, sir. Been here for the past two years.”
“Brayden…” Tessa tugged on his arm. “As Corporate Chair, I demand to know what’s going on. I want the truth. All of it. Now.”
He nodded, drawing in a deep breath. In stilted words, he told her. How they started investigating after the incident involving her, how they suspected the use of cloaking devices. How they constructed sniffing algorithms, proven useless now, with this new attempt on his life. How they concluded there were a lot more conspirators on the Prime than they initially thought.
“So, what is it they want? Why now? Why here?”
He shook his head. “We don’t know.”
“Have you received any demands? If they’re a group opposing the restoration of Earth, there should have been some demands, right?”
“No demands. No words. Nothing.”
The silence stretched out between them. Then, “Why you, Brayden? Why were you the target?”
“You just thought of the answer, haven’t you?”
A look of panic morphed his features. Tessa gasped, and he glanced down to see he was squeezing her arm a bit too tightly. “Sorry,” he mumbled, absentmindedly. If he was right, then they were in big trouble. It was more than a mere group of terrorists, ready to scare them away from completing their mission on the Prime. No, this was far more menacing. A focused group, intent on taking control of the station, for reasons unknown.
Looking down at the corpse, Brayden shook his head. This was carefully planned. This man had been among them for years, dormant, waiting for the right time…
Like when all their identities were threatened by a Chief Security Officer, who was devising new update patches for the neuronet overseeing all the Prime…
Patches that would have rendered their cloaking devices obsolete.
“Tessa,” he said, looking at her with a serious expression. She looked worried, and afraid, but he saw how she was pushing it down, trying to remain rational. “If I’m right, we have little time. We need to get to CC immediately.”
Zipping up her training jacket, she nodded. “I’m ready.”
He handed her the gun. “Know how to shoot?”
She smirked. “What do you think?”
“Right.” Frontier girl. “Keep it on you at all times.”
“What about you?” she asked, but accepted the gun from him.
He moved to the locker room, going straight to his cupboard. “I have another. Alright. So, here’s the plan. We’ll move to CC immediately. On the way, don’t stop, and don’t speak to anyone. You’ll be right behind me at all times, okay?”
Tessa nodded. “Okay. I’m ready.”
He motioned her to wait. “VALID, contact Mason Miura, have him come into CC at once. Also, Zale. Tell him: Coriolis. He’ll know what to do.”
“At once, CSO Connaway,” the neuronet replied.
“Thank you. And now, is there anyone outside this door?”
“No, sir. The corridors are empty.”
Brayden turned, motioning Tessa to step right behind him. He gave her a quick once-over. “Ready?”
At her nod, he turned back to the door. “Guide us to CC, VALID.”
A curious whine accompanied the neuronet’s words. “But how can I? I’m blind to this threat.”
Brayden shared a look with Tessa. “Scout ahead for us, VALID. And that’s enough.”
Tessa pressed closer to his side. “And we’ll watch each other’s back,” she whispered.
“Deal. We’ll come out of this, sweetheart.”
“I know.” Her tone was sure, her breathing steady.
Gods of the universe, what a woman! Why did he have to be such an asshole to her in the beginning? Why couldn’t he have acted normal?
He knew the answer. Because he was afraid.
Little Tessa Starr scared him. With that perfect smile, and big eyes, and sweet manner.
With a brisk shake of head, he dismissed the thoughts. He had to stop doing this. Having inappropriate musings at inappropriate times. “Shall we?” He inclined his head to the door marking the locker room’s exit.
“After you.” She gave him a smirk.
Chuckling, he opened the door and took the first step toward safety.
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