include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Captive and Consequences by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









Captives and Consequences

By Charissa Dufour











© 2018 by Charissa Dufour

All rights reserved.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Instagram

Facebook

Twitter

Tumblr











Works by Charissa Dufour

The Series that Just Plain Sucks

Life Sucks (Prequel short story)

Sucked In (Book 1)

Sucked Away (Book 2)

That Sucked (Book 3)

Or purchase in a box set:

The Series that Just Plain Sucks: The Complete Series (Books 1-3)

Suck It Up (A little something extra. Can be read at any time in the series)



The Dothan Chronicles

Bought (Prequel short story)

Torn (Book 1)

Lost (Book 2)

Alone (Book 3)

Or purchase in a box set:

The Dothan Chronicles: The Complete Trilogy (Books 1-3)



The Void Series

Cornered Magic (Book 1)

Misguided Allies (Book 2)

Balanced Chaos (Book 3)

Sinful Redemption (Book 4)

Hostile Takeover (Book 5)

Grateful Wreckage (Book 6)



The Echoes of Sol Series

Trust and Treachery (Book 1)

Broken and Hunted (Book 2)

Profit and Peril (Book 3)

Mayhem and Mutiny (Book 4)

Lost and Found (Book 5)

Heart and Sol (Book 6)

Bits and Pieces (Book 7)

Captives and Consequences (Book 8)







Chapter One

June’s brows furrowed as she concentrated, peeling back the bristles on the toothbrush and squeezing out a few drops of food coloring. She lifted the tiny dropper away from the toothbrush, peeled back another layer of bristles, and released two more drops. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her heart raced inside her chest. Just a few more seconds.

A voice rose in the hallway. While there were more doors in the narrow corridor than just the cabin she was in, there was a likely chance they were coming for this cabin. She released three more drops into the toothbrush, returned it to its holder, and snapped the cap back onto the bottle of food coloring. She tucked the tiny glass jar into her pocket, climbed onto the desk, and grabbed the edge of the air vent. With the muscles built from doing crap like this and working alongside Vance, she dragged herself up into the vent, folding her legs as she tucked herself into the tiny space. She pulled the vent shut just as the door slid open and Reese stepped in, sweaty from his recent workout.

June waited until Reese turned his shower on before beginning the long crawl to a safe place to exit the shaft. Within the Caprice, the air ducts were far too small for an adult to fit through, but June could. Just. Another month or two of Vance’s cooking and she wouldn’t be able to fit anymore.

She slid past another vent, grimacing at the broad sweaty back working in rhythm. She scooted past as fast as she could. She had no interest in watching what the adults did on their own time—especially Evan and Bit. June rolled her eyes. Her aunt and that pilot had been going at it like they’d just invented sex. It was disgusting, and the entire crew was sick of it. So far no one had the guts to say something to them.

June reached the fork in the duct and slid around the corner to reach the proper vent. She opened the vent and dropped down into her own room, a grin on her face. As if on cue, a voice rose above the general thrum of the ship’s electronic system laced through the wall. June couldn’t make out what the voice said, but it wasn’t hard to guess. The question was, had Reese used his toothbrush or had someone eaten a tampered-with pastry?

The voice increased, drawing nearer to her room. She could no longer pretend not to understand. Dusting off the front of her clothing, she hit the button and stepped out of her private cabin. Randal, Reese, and half the security team waited at the nearest intersection, along with two of the scientists. They had just peeked in from side hallways. June didn’t know them well and couldn’t remember their names.

“June!” Randal snapped again, turning to the light sound of her sneakers against the metal flooring. Reese turned around as well, revealing his blackened lips. He had moved to brush his teeth faster than she had expected. A blush flooded her cheeks. She hadn’t had the audacity to prank the security team directly, until now.

Randal pointed at Reese’s face. “Did you do this?”

“Do wha… dude, what happened to your mouth?” June asked, doing her best to feign ignorance.

Reese’s lips quirked up for a split second before he schooled his features into a dark glare that sent a shiver down June’s spine. He had clearly been practicing.

Randal stomped up to her, grabbed her chin, and forced her to look him in the eye. “Is this you?”

June shrugged, unsure what to say in response; she wasn’t quite ready to admit it, but it wasn’t like there was someone she could pin the blame on. Before she could say anything, someone yelled from the mess hall, followed by a loud gagging sound. The door to the mess hall slid open, and Doctor Cannon stumbled out, gagging into a small tin, white powder spread across her lips.

“Doc?” Randal called.

She finished retching before dusting her mouth off. “Not. Powdered. Sugar,” she coughed out, one word at a time.

June grimaced; the doctor hadn’t been her target. Not by a long shot.

“What is it?” asked Reese, revealing more of his blackened teeth.

June tried not to giggle.

“Talcum powder, I’d guess,” the doctor replied, gagging again.

Many adult faces turned to glare at June, the most prominent being Randal. “And what do you call this?”

June grimaced again. “Bad timing?” June didn’t think their glares could get worse. She was wrong.

Before Randal could yell at her, Vance emerged from the mess hall. “Vance,” Randal called. “You have to keep her under control!”

“I ain’t a pet.”

“Silence,” Randal snapped, pointing a finger back at her. “She’s pulled two pranks this morning alone.”

June looked away. They didn’t need to know how many she had actually set into motion, but it was more than two.

“It will take weeks for Reese’s teeth to turn back to a normal color.”

A snicker escaped her lips, which she instantly regretted when Randal’s face turned red and Vance grimaced as he closed the distance.

The head steward’s features froze into a glare, except it was directed more at Randal than June. “She gets bored.”

“Is that an excuse?” snapped Randal.

Before Vance could reply, Jack appeared at the far end of the main corridor. “What is going on?” He stormed down the hallway, stopping at the edge of the growing group, his eyes flicking between Dr. Cannon’s white mouth and Reese’s black one. “Really, June?”

She shrugged.

Vance spoke up. “I told you time and again, she is too smart to be working under me. She gets bored, and when she gets bored, she acts out.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” June said before she could stop herself.

“Silence,” Vance snapped, speaking harshly to her for the first time. “You are not getting out of this without punishment. For now, go clean up the pastries you ruined and mop the mess hall floor.”

“But Rhian already mopped the floor today.”

“And you will do it twice a day until you’ve learned your lesson,” Vance replied.

June winced, her eyes on the floor. Vance had punished her before, but it had usually been nothing more than a week without her pad or covering a chore for one of the other stewards. He had never yelled at her, and her punishment had never gone without a defined ending. She was beginning to suspect she had overstepped the line for once.

She hunched her shoulders—like she had when she was an indentured servant—and squeezed past Vance. She entered the mess hall, allowing the doors to slide shut behind her. She moved to the corner of the mess hall, scooping up a glass along the way. At the corner, she pressed the glass against the wall and her ear against the bottom end of the glass.

The Caprice was known for its thin walls—especially when two folks were getting intimate—but now June hoped it would work to her benefit.

Vance spoke loudly, almost as though he knew she would be listening. “June will continue to get into trouble so long as her mind isn’t exercised. She’s just too smart to be left to menial chores.”

“You’re smart, Vance,” Jack replied, “but you’re not pulling pranks.”

“I’m not nine.”

“Weren’t you giving her lessons?”

“I do. But to be honest, she’s soaking it up so fast I won’t be able to teach her much longer. She needs to take on more advanced lessons than I can handle. And she needs exercise.”

“Doesn’t she do manual labor with you?” asked a voice June didn’t recognize.

“She does, but it’s not enough. Not for a nine-year-old trapped on a spaceship.”

“Then maybe she doesn’t belong on a spaceship,” said a voice she couldn’t quite place; she thought it was the doctor.

“She’s family,” Jack replied.

“No. She’s Bit’s family. And where is Bit anyway?”

There was an awkward silence. June could easily imagine the looks on their faces. The whole ship knew about Bit’s extra-curricular activities with Evan. If she wasn’t training or in the mess hall for a meal, it was a safe bet she was in Evan’s bed. Of course, he was proud as punch to have seduced her, but the rest of the ship was sick of listening to the results.

June gagged at the memory of accidentally spying their activities through an air vent before placing her ear against the glass again.

“How about she spend some time training with the security team,” suggested Reese; they had clearly moved beyond the topic of Bit’s nocturnal activities. “It would be good training to have to teach someone new and, well, breakable.”

A silence met her ears, one she couldn’t interpret.

“And maybe some medical training with you,” added Jack. June assumed the “you” in question was the doctor.

She got her confirmation when the doctor replied, “Fine,” in a none-too-happy tone.

“She’ll still be punished?” asked Randal after another silent pause.

June imagined Vance nodding before saying, “Yes. Though I’d be happy to hear suggestions. I’m running out of ideas other than just making her do more and more chores.”

June grinned. It was totally worth it. She had nothing else to do on the ship other than play pranks and do chores.

The doc spoke up again. “If you want my opinion, a good spanking is in order.”

To June’s relief, multiple adult voices rose up in protest. She had clearly pushed too many of the doctor’s buttons.

Reese spoke up, overpowering the other voices. “I have an idea. It needs some work, but it might be just the thing June needs. For now, Vance, keep her doing the nastiest chores.”

That seemed to be the end of their little impromptu meeting. June scrambled away from the corner, putting the glass down on a table and racing for the pastries she supposedly had been cleaning up.











Chapter Two

Reese entered Greene’s large office, trying his best not to give Greene’s assistant his habitual smile for two reasons—mainly because his mouth was black, but also because he suspected Greene’s assistant had a bit of a crush on him. Reese couldn’t fathom why. With his scars, he looked like a horror film reject. Still, Lenard hopped up the second Reese appeared in the doorway and stood closer than necessary when they talked.

Lenard’s eyes went wide. “What happened to your mouth?”

Reese rolled his eyes. “Got pranked.”

He looked at Reese as though he had brought a dead puppy into his office. “You poor thing.”

“Is Greene available?”

Lenard scurried back to his desk and hit the button to the intercom. “Boss, Mr. Reese is here to see you. I know… Yes, sir.” He looked up with a smile. “Go right in.”

The double doors slid open to reveal Greene’s opulent office. He suspected the single room was large enough to take up a measurable percentage of the space-station’s daily oxygen usage. Unlike Lenard, Greene took one look at Reese and burst out laughing, his arms going around his sides as they began to ache with the effort.

Reese rolled his eyes and waited for the billionaire to stop laughing. It took longer than he had expected. Greene wiped tears from his eyes as he took a deep breath.

“Dare I ask who had the audacity to do that to you?”

Reese crossed his arms over his chest. “June.”

Whatever laughter remained in Greene’s eyes died away. “She’s become quite the problem.”

“Yep.” Reese nodded. “How’s your project coming along?”

Greene let out another long sigh as he perched one buttock on the corner of his desk, his fancy suit wrinkling until he remembered to unbutton the jacket. “Not good. The Planetary Senators don’t want to listen to me. They don’t seem to think we have the proof of neglect needed to actually take the department to court. Or at least not to the Galactic Supreme Court.”

“And the Space Station Senators?”

Greene shrugged. “They don’t have the same pull as Planetary Senators. Even with them on our side, it’s not enough. We have to have the Planetary Senators if we hope to go up against the Department of Logistical Labor.”

Reese pursed his lips as he crossed his arms, considering his options. “Okay. How ‘bout I go back to Earth and get us the proof we need? Quick trip. Snap a few photos. I’m off planet in twenty-four hours.”

The billionaire matched his expression as he considered. “‘Kay?”

“And I want to take June with me.”

Greene’s expression morphed into his habitual grin. “You want to take the kid who stained your teeth black?”

Reese let out a sigh. For a brief moment, he had forgotten that his teeth were black. “Yes. I think a little reminder of what her life could have been like might do her some good.”

“Interesting idea. ‘Kay. You can take her. But you need to take a female crewmember too. June is getting to an age where she shouldn’t be off alone with a man.”

Reese’s scars pulled as he glared at Greene. “What are you suggesting?”

Greene held up his hands. “It’s not that I think you’d hurt her in any way, but rather that perceptions are important. Nowadays, many men would hurt a child if alone with her. You represent my company. You represent our mission. Therefore perception is important.”

“Fine. I’ll take one of the gals. Like Lazena.”

“Take Yulanda.”

“Oh, man. Do I have to?”

“I said, ‘take Yulanda.’”

Reese frowned. “Why her?”

“I want you to see how she does and report back to me.”

Reese adjusted his stance, not liking where the conversation was taking them. “With all due respect, Mr. Greene, I don’t answer to you. If I see something in Yulanda that I question, then I report it to Randal.”

“I’m the source of every ounce of funding for this mission. The buck stops here.” He jabbed his thumb at his chest.

“It is important for a mission like ours to have a chain of command. It is important for every man, woman… and child aboard the Caprice to follow that chain of command. It is all we will have when we are out there god-knows how many miles away from home. If the chain of command fails, our mission fails. That starts now.”

“Fine. You watch her. Anything catches your notice, inform Randal.”

“Deal,” Reese said, reaching out his hand to Greene.

They shook hands. “I’ll inform Jack.”

Before Reese could turn to leave, the doors slid open, revealing Dr. Keller. Since their trip to the surface, the scientist had done an impressive job of avoiding Reese, even going so far as to avoid meals until he had left.

Though Reese had wanted to chase her down more than once, he had done his best to leave her alone. It wasn’t easy, and looking at her in Greene’s office, he was reminded of why. Her bright red hair—such a rarity in the human race—framed her pale face. He wanted to hold her in his arms and show her just how beautiful and valuable she was to him.

Instead, he gave her a thin-lipped smiled and a nod, and left Greene’s office.









Bit let out a husky breath and rolled off Evan’s chest into the little gap in her bunk, simultaneously yanking the thin blanket up to cover her chest. After a moment’s pause, Evan followed her, draping his thick arm over her chest atop the blanket.

“Ugh, no.” Bit pushed on his arm. “You know the rules.”

Evan groaned. “Seriously? You still won’t let me stay?”

“‘Course not. You did your thing, now you go.”

“It’s called sex. It’s not a dirty word.”

Bit shrugged, rolling away from him until her nose nearly touched the cold wall of her small cabin. Their bunks weren’t exactly spacious. She felt the covers lift and the mattress shift as Evan climbed to his feet. She scooted into the free space, enjoying the warmth he left behind.

“You know, normal women like to snuggle.”

Bit winced at the insult, keeping her face hidden in the pillow. They both knew she wasn’t normal, just as their relationship wasn’t normal. In fact, it wasn’t even a relationship.

She remained with her back to the room until she heard the door slide closed, then she rolled out of the bunk and padded into the microscopic bathroom. It might have been small, but it was hers and only hers, which made up for the lack of elbow room. Bit enjoyed a quick, hot shower before dressing for another day on the practice mats.

Bit hurried down the hallway that connected her room to the main thoroughfare in the living level. At the next intersection, she found Jack, Jenny, Holton—the head of the science department—and Randal huddled together in discussion. The medical doctor stood beyond the group, looking as though she was waiting for Jack to finish his discussion.

Ever since he met the doctor, Jack and she had been pretty chummy. Bit looked away. At least she and Evan weren’t always at each other’s sides. They did their business and moved on with their lives.

“Look,” said Jenny—Bit tried to remember what the redhead's specialty was, but it was a lot of words she couldn’t understand. “I know I helped you with the last part, but I’m really uncomfortable with having an Electro-Fusion Transmitter on the ship.”

Bit kept her eyes down, trying to look like she wasn’t listening to her. She caught the doctor’s eyes and glanced away as the doctor’s eyes narrowed. Bit had no idea where the other woman’s aggression was coming from. Nor did she care.

“Why’s that?” asked Randal.

Jenny let out a breath through her noise loud enough for Bit to hear from the far end of the hallway. “I’m not much interested in being in the middle of another galaxy when that thing loses containment and the entire ship dies.”

“Oh,” replied her boss. “But you’re fine if we lose containment on the fusion engine?”

Bit reached their little huddle and slid past, trying her best to look preoccupied.

“If the fusion engine contaminates the ship we’ll be dead in hours, days at the most. If our ship dies, we die a slow death of hypothermia with no hope of salvation.”

Jack scratched at his chin, glancing at Bit during the split second she glanced up at him. Like the doctor, his eyes narrowed. Bit reverted her gaze to the floor and picked up the pace, finally passing the group and the doctor.

From behind her, she heard Jack say, “I hear what you’re saying Dr. Keller, but I think it will be valuable having one on board, and I get the final say. Therefore, I want you to join Reese…”

He said more, but the door to the mess hall opened filling the hall with the noise of those already eating their breakfast. Bit lost his voice and stepped inside. To her astonishment, she spotted June already working furiously to mop the mess hall floor—strangely enough, doing it on her hands and knees with a single rag and bucket of soapy water.

Bit pushed the thought aside as she spotted Yulanda at a table. She gave her a nod before going to the counter full of food, filling her plate, and returning. She took a seat and dug in.

“Dude, girl, I could hear you in my room. Mind keeping it down?” Yulanda hissed under her breath.

For a brief moment, Bit felt a blush building in her cheeks, then decided not to care. She had enjoyed it. What else mattered? She shrugged, her shoulder rubbing against Yulanda’s. “You’re just jealous.”

“Yeah. A little bit!”

Bit snorted before shoveling another bite of egg into her mouth.

“Evan is a hottie in a naughty body. I don’t think there’s a girl on this ship who hasn’t fantasized about him.”

“The trick is to insult him,” Bit replied. “You should try it.”

Yulanda leaned back to stare at Bit. “You giving me advice on how to steal your man?”

Bit scooped up the last bite of egg. “He’s not ‘my man,’ so sure, have at it.” With that she rose from her seat, taking her dishes with her.

Back in the hall, she found the group already gone. Randal was the only one remaining, having just waved goodbye to Jack and the doctor.

“Heading to the gym?” Randal asked as she emerged from the mess hall and stepped to the side to allow the captain and the doctor to enter.

She nodded and turned away. Randal fell into step with her. To her immense relief, he remained silent. They reached the gym at the stern of the Caprice to find half the security team already there. Each team member had their own morning routine—some needing extra time stretching, some wanting a little jog to get the blood flowing, others taping up injuries to protect themselves during the long day of physical exertion.

Bit’s stomach tightened as she tried to think of something to do. She tried to avoid unscheduled time if at all possible. In the hopes of keeping herself moving, she turned toward the portion of the gym where human-shaped punching dummies waited. Setting to work, she practiced each sequence a few times, then moved on to her legs.

By the time Randal called them to join up at the center, Bit was dripping with sweat. She knew she would pay for the rough start later in the day when her muscles began to burn on the practice mat.

Randal gave a few announcements before moving on to who their sparring partners would be. “Nathyn and Kyle. Bit and Wic.” Randal stopped as an audible sigh passed around the rest of the team.

Bit frowned, glancing around at her teammates. To her further astonishment, Wic seemed to have rolled his eyes, his lips thinning in some emotion Bit couldn’t fathom. Before she could even consider ignoring his expression, Randal finished dividing them up and the team was beginning to pair off.

“What was that about?” she asked as she came up to Wic’s side.

“What was what?” Wic’s cheeks turned a faint pink as he settled onto the balls of his feet, indicating he was ready to start sparring

Bit did the same. “You know what I’m talking about.”

Wic didn’t answer, but lunged forward, jabbing a few quick punches at her face to test her. Bit easily dodged out of the way, accustomed to his normal testing punches. As they settled back to eye each other again, Bit spoke. “C’mon, Wic. What was that about?”

This time, Bit jumped forward, ducking under his arms and scrambling for a grip on his leg in order to take him down to the mat, but Wic was nearly two hundred pounds heavier than she was. When it became clear she wouldn’t be hoisting him up to slam him down on his back again, she hooked a leg around his and yanked his knee out from under him, taking them both down to the semi-soft mat.

For a brief moment, they both froze, their arms wrapped around each other. “Well?” she asked again.

When he didn’t answer, she released one arm and punched him a few times in the head. They weren’t hard punches, what with her body trapped by his arms, but they annoyed him. He grabbed her free arm, trapping it against her side. They both squirmed against each other, trying to free a limb and trap their opponent all at the same time. When she began to run out of breath, she resorted to another move.

As fast as she could, Bit lifted her head out of Wic’s shoulder and slammed her forehead into his face. A cry escaped his lips, spitting blood over her face before she could scramble away. Wic was a mere second behind her, despite the tears in his eyes and blood dripping into his mouth.

“That’s why,” he snapped as he swung hard at her face; they were no longer warming up.

She escaped the first swing, but he was ready for the jerk of her shoulders and his other fist collided with her cheek. Bit stumbled to the side, nearly losing her balance. She regained her footing, ducked under another swing of Wic’s long arms, and kicked out with her right leg, hitting him square in the chest.

Wic staggered back, his eyes filling with anger. Bit didn’t give him a chance to regain composure. As she landed on the other foot, she kicked up again. The second kick missed and sent her off balance, giving Wic the second he needed. Forgetting any sort of finesse, Wic charged at her, grabbing her by the waist, hoisting her up, and slamming her into the mat. While her back was still on the mat, her head bounced against the metal flooring.

While she was dazed, Wic quickly flipped her over and pinned her arms behind her back. “You are completely oblivious to other people’s feelings. We’re just warming up, for crying out loud, and you take a cheap shot at me like that. All you care about is the win.”

Bit jerked, trying to free herself, but his grip was just right to keep her under his control.

“Yield,” Wic ordered.

“No,” Bit grumbled into the mat, his blood now smeared across the mat, staining her face.

Wic held her for another moment before releasing her. He had already danced back to the opposite edge of the mat by the time she made it to her feet.

“What is up with you, Bit?” he asked as he danced around her.

Bit lunged, grabbing his leg again, and taking them both to the ground. “Nothing.” She grunted as his knee hit her gut. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do!” Wic used all his strength to fold her up in his arms.

Bit tried to wrap her legs around his neck while trapping one arm between her legs at the same time.

“It’s just easier… to not feel anything…to pretend nothing is wrong,” he said between moves.

In an impressive twist, Wic was out of her leg lock and pulling on her leg until she thought the hip would dislocate. His knee pressed into the back of her neck, pinning her to the mat. “What do you feel?”

“Nothing,” she said unwilling to give him the satisfaction of hurting her.

She twisted out of his grip, but he quickly reclaimed her limbs, folding her into a different pretzel.

“What do you feel?”

“Nothing,” she screamed back.

In the back of her mind, she heard Randal say, “No, get back to work.”

Wic pulled on her arm until the joint strained against the tendons. “What do you feel?”

Bit screamed something beyond words, rage and pain filling her, making her heart beat against her ribcage until it, too, hurt.

“What do you feel?” Wic repeated, screaming into her ear at such a volume her head began to pound.

“Pain.”

“Where?”

“My shoulder.”

“Where else?”

“My back.”

“And your heart?” he whispered.











Chapter Three

Bit gave a jerk—one last attempt to free herself. Another burst of pain in her shoulder caught her off guard, and the dam broke. A great sob shook her chest, somehow making no noise. The second sob, though, was loud and choking. Naturally, the tears followed. They streamed down her face, hot against her sweaty and bruised skin. As she shook, Wic released his grip on her wrist and wrapped his arms around her, pressing her back into his chest.

She shook her head, unable to speak.

“Bit,” Wic whispered in her ear. “I’ve been your enemy. I know the passion you carry inside of you. I’ve seen what you can do when you set your mind to it when you care.”

Another sob escaped her throat.

“You’ve been fighting all the wrong battles, Bit. Come back to us. Fight alongside us, not against us.” Wic began rocking her on the mats, their limbs tangled and her tears wetting everyone and everything involved. “We love you. We’re still here.” Another pause to just hold her. “Come back to us.”

“I’m. Fine,” she sobbed, finally able to catch her breath.

“No, friend, you’re not. You’re gone. You’ve left us. You’re oblivious to what’s going on around you.”

Once again, she tried to shake free of his arms, no longer wanting to listen, but he was too strong.

“Bit, you’ve lost sight of your real friends. You’ve lost sight of the real you.”

Anger began to override the ache in her heart. “Who are you to say I’m lost? Maybe you just don’t know me that well.”

“Oh no. I looked into your eyes when you were trying to kill me—and vice versa. And if that wasn’t enough, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with your friends. I’ve heard the stories. I know the stubborn, protective woman you used to be. The one who gave up everything to save her niece. Now… now you don’t even talk to her.” His arms squeezed tighter. “Now, you don’t even know she’s on her way back to Earth to free those orphans.”

The tears suddenly dried up, and her sobs clogged her throat. Bit froze, forcing him to stop his rocking. “Whhat!”

“See what I mean?”

Bit jerked free of his grasp, his attention momentarily distracted from holding her captive. She scrambled on all fours to the edge of the mat before spinning around. “What are you talking about, Wic?”

Wic held up his hands as though to surrender. “Look, June has been getting into a lot of trouble on the ship.”

“What?”

“Like pranks. Every freaking day. Vance was beside himself to know what to do with her.”

“What’s that have to do with her going to Earth without my consent?”

Wic rolled his eyes. “That’s my point, Bit. Your consent? That’s a joke. You’ve been so outta touch since…”

“Don’t!”

Wic raised his hands. “Why would we ask your consent about her? You haven’t given two shits about her lately.”

“I…”

“Don’t,” Wic snapped, repeating her tone. “You can’t pretend you’ve been a loving, involved guardian of late. Not with me, you can’t.”

Bit gave him her darkest look.

“Hoping to, I don’t know, distract her or teach her how lucky she is, Reese took her with him and Yulanda to go get evidence of the neglect at that orphanage in Seattle. You know more about that than me.”

Bit nodded. “Why are Reese and Yulanda going to get more evidence?”

“Reese, with Greene’s help, has been trying to get the place shut down ever since you all signed the contract with Greene before I came along.”

“Why didn’t he tell me?”

It was Wic’s turn to give her a dark look. “Because you’ve been checked out. You haven’t cared about anything but fighting and having sex with Evan… and Evan of all people! The guy is a total douchebag.”

Bit raised her hand to stop him. “Let’s keep Evan out of this.”

“Whatever.” Wic rolled his eyes. “The point is, Jack had no reason to think you’d care if he sent your niece on a trip, even if it was in a freaking war zone.”

She opened her mouth to contest his statement but stopped short, her mouth hanging open. Memories flashed before her eyes—memories of her with Evan and glimpses of a sad little child clinging to Vance. As if the memories weren’t enough, her reasoning returned. She’d had thoughts like “Vance is way better with her than I could ever be” or “I wouldn’t know what to say to her.”

“I’m going to talk to Jack.”











Chapter Four

June adjusted the strap of the backpack on her shoulder. The weight didn’t feel right, though she couldn’t explain it to herself. Butterflies danced within her stomach at the thought of leaving the Caprice. The Caprice had taught her what it meant to be safe. Well, maybe not the ship but rather Vance. A smile pulled on her lips. He had prepared her to be brave elsewhere. She could do it.

She glanced at the door to mess hall on her way toward the lift. She had wanted to say goodbye to her aunt during breakfast, but Bit had been in cahoots with Yulanda. Interrupting didn’t seem worth the hassle. Bit always seemed to have a sarcastic word for her—something she’d picked up from Evan.

But not the only thing.

June took a deep breath, her shoulders suddenly feeling heavy though having little to do with her pack. She took the lift down to Deck 7. Reese and Yulanda were already waiting beside one of the transport ships. Charlie, a curly-haired apprentice pilot, had drawn the short straw and was stuck on flight deck duty.

“Ready, kiddo?” Reese asked, patting her on the shoulder.

June glanced up at Yulanda, surprised to see the abrasive security team member loitering by the hatch. She clapped June on the shoulder, nearly knocking her off her feet.

“C’mon, you two,” Reese said as he climbed into the shuttle.

As June stepped into the shuttle, she caught Yulanda waving to the apprentice. She eyed the interior of the small shuttle and wondered how three people were going to survive in it all the way back to Earth. She knew the flight only lasted two days what with the latest technology, but to her young mind, that seemed like an eternity.

The front of the little ship held the cockpit. The back was just large enough for a double bunk on one side and a built-in footlocker on the other side. June took a seat on the footlocker, amazed to find single-point seatbelts available.

Reese was already in the pilot’s seat, preparing for take-off. Though Reese was a far cry from one of the Caprice’s pilots, most members of the security team could manage a little shuttle. Except for Bit. It seemed her aunt was a hopeless pilot.

Yulanda stepped in and began keying in the command for the hatch when a voice cried out. It wasn’t the apprentice waiting to secure the deck before they opened the outer doors. It was a woman’s voice.

“Wait,” the voice called again, sounding that much closer.

Reese glanced back, his expression perked up, as though the trip had suddenly morphed from a chore to a joy. At the same time, Yulanda ducked to look out into the deck beneath the half-closed hatch.

“Ah, jeez,” Yulanda muttered under her breath, just loud enough for June to hear.

A second later, the red-headed scientist ducked into the shuttle, her own pack slung over her shoulder suggesting she was joining the little crew. “Sorry, I’m late.”

Everyone just looked at her for a second before going back to their tasks. Reese got the shuttle started, Yulanda secured the hatch, and June stowed her pack in the footlocker. The scientist came to her side and offered up her own pack for the footlocker.

“Take the co-pilot seat,” Yulanda suggested to the scientist.

June wracked her brain to remember what the scientist was called, but the best she came up with was Jeller or Kenner. No that wasn’t right. Yulanda settled beside June, doing up her own belt. June wondered if they would be stuck on the bench the entire trip.

Yulanda gave June a gentle nudge with her elbow before nodding toward the front of the shuttle. Reese was grinning from ear to ear as the scientist struggled with the five-point harness of the front seat. June liked Reese, and she doubted she had ever seen him smile so wide. He could barely work the control on the ship as his eyes kept darting toward the scientist.

“This trip just got interesting,” Yulanda whispered into June’s ear as the doors to the bay opened beneath the shuttle.

“Why?”

“I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure Reese is crushing on her. Hard.”

“And?” asked June in the same whisper.

“And she won’t have anything to do with him.”

June’s heart ached for Reese. “She doesn’t like him?”

Yulanda grinned before leaning in again. “Oh, yeah. She’s crushing hard on him too.”

June frowned, not really understanding what the issue was.

The shuttle gave a slight drop as it shifted from artificial gravity to the freedom of space. The thrusters kicked in and it lowered more smoothly out from under the Caprice. Reese did something to start the fancy new engines and the little shuttle shot forward. Of course, June didn’t understand what the difference was between these engines and what the old ship had had, but she knew it was faster and better for long journeys like what they were about to do.

The engine had barely kicked in when another shuttle crossed their path. Reese stomped on the proverbial brakes, but forward momentum in space doesn’t exactly “stop on a dime”—whatever that meant. June didn’t even know what a dime was. In an effort to avoid the other shuttle, Reese cursed and redirected their own ship.

June and Yulanda were flung forward, their simple single-point seatbelts barely keeping them on the bench. Yulanda avoided crashing her skull into the bunk bed by mere inches. June glanced at her as she righted herself. Yulanda’s eyes were dancing with mischief.

“Who taught you how to fly?” Yulanda called from her seat.

June decided then and there to give Yulanda a “second impression.” Since June had watched Bit grow more and more distant, she had never cared for her aunt’s new friend, thinking part of the new distance may be Yulanda’s fault. Now she wasn’t so sure.

“You think you can do better?” Reese called from the pilot’s seat.

“We both know I can.”

June could practically hear Reese scoff as he corrected their direction and fired up the main engines again. As the ship’s speed increased, he fine-tuned the coordinates. Once the ship was settled into its path—not likely to need changing due to traffic now that they were in open space—Reese unhooked his harness and turned in his seat.

“See, easy-peasy.”

June grinned. A second later, Yulanda patted her on the knee. “Wanna play a card game?”

She nodded. In short order, Yulanda had a deck of cards out and had taken a seat on the floor. Reese came to join them.

“Jenny, you want to join us?” Reese asked when the scientist tried to get to the bottom bunk; it wasn’t easy to trade positions in their cramped quarters.

“No, thank you.” She settled on the bunk with her pad, seemingly content to read something.

“Your loss. Okay, guys, we’re gonna play ‘Bull Shit.’”

Jenny cleared her throat. “There is a child present.”

Yulanda grinned at Jenny. “Is that a new word for you, kiddo?”

“Nah.” June laughed. Considering the mixed bag of crazy aboard the Caprice, it was hardly the first time she’d heard a curse word.

“Right…” Yulanda proceeded to explain how they played the game, which centered around lying to each other. In short order, they were playing and crying “bullshit” more often than not.

Reese set two cards on the floor. “Two threes.”

June eyed him, eyed her cards—including her own two threes—and eyed him again. Technically speaking, he could be telling the truth, but the deck was stacked against him, so to speak. “Bull shit!”

“HA!” Reese flipped his cards over, revealing he had been telling the truth for once.

All three of them heard a quiet sigh come from the bunk behind Yulanda. Reese and June glanced up at Jenny. Yulanda, afraid to turn around, widened her eyes dramatically.

“You sure you don’t want to play, Jenny?” Reese asked.

“No, thank you. Trying to get some studying in.”

June made a face. They weren’t exactly producing the greatest atmosphere for studying. Reese and Yulanda both sighed, but it was Reese who replied. “You know what, June, Vance gave me some homework for you to work on too while we’re away. Let’s get some of that done and then we can play cards again.”

Gnawing on her bottom lip, June struggled with the desire to argue, but in the end, kept her mouth shut. She got her pad out. Before long, she was using the footlocker as a table and slugging through penmanship lessons while the adults sat in weighted silence.









Bit stormed out of the lift, ignoring Wic as he continued to try to calm her down. For some reason, Randal had stayed out of their fight. In fact, he had kept the others from becoming the peanut gallery. Wic though, refused to stay behind when she finally vacated the gym. And Randal had allowed it.

They emerged onto Deck 2 with Wic still rambling on. Bit wasn’t even listening. She turned into the other hallway and came to halt. Wic thumped into her back, his large hands bracing himself over her shoulders on the doorframe.

“Shit,” he muttered over her head.

Again, Bit ignored him as she slammed her fist into the little panel that opened the door. The panel dropped into the wall under her ministrations, but the door slid open all the same. Inside the office, they found the doctor perched on the edge of the desk, chatting with Jack as he paced.

“Bit?”

“Excuse me!”

Bit ignored the doctor. “We need to talk.”

“We were in the middle of a conversation,” cried the doctor.

“We need to talk.”

“Rida, would you mind giving us a second?” Jack asked, his eyes flicking up to Wic who hovered just beyond the door of the office.

The doctor hesitated a moment, her face frozen in that neutral expression used when trying to hide anger. Her lips thinned for a second before she nodded, rose from the edge of the desk, and slid past Bit and Wic.

“You coming in, Wic?” Jack asked. Bit heard a sigh from behind her before she felt heat from Wic’s chest as he stepped into the room. “Right. What’s got your fire cookin’?”

“June? You sent her to Earth?”

Jack glanced at the screen of his pad. “Yep. She left… oh… fifteen minutes ago.”

“Call her back.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“She’s my niece. I say if she goes on things like trips all the way to freakin’ Earth! I’m her guardian.”

“No, you’re not.”

“What?”

“No, you’re not her guardian.”

“What!”

Jack let out a sigh. “After the Venus space station blew, Greene contacted the Department of Logistical Labor and informed them of her whereabouts. He then paid off her debt, just like yours, and put me as her legal guardian. Not you.”

Bit’s blood boiled until she thought steam might be coming from her ears and eyes. “He did what?” She turned to rush out, only to thump into Wic’s chest. He caught her shoulders and held her still. “Let me go!”

Wic spun her around to face Jack. “Listen,” he ordered.

Jack leaned back in his office seat, crossing his arms.

“June is my niece. I am in charge of her upbringing.”

“No,” snapped Jack, finally showing some of the same anger Bit felt. “You lost that right when you checked out.”

“I…” She couldn’t verbalize her excuse. Bit forced the words out. “Oden. Had. Died.”

Jack rose to his feet and rounded his desk to stand in front of her. Bit felt trapped between Wic, who was a mountain to say the least, and Jack, who had a personality that was little less than a mountain.

He tucked his finger under her chin and tilted her head up to look him in the eye. “I know. But you don’t get to check out when you’re a parent. And that’s what you did. You’ve lost the right to have a say in how she is cared for. When you’re ready to have a say again, I’ll let you know.”

Bit swallowed, distracted by the touch of his finger under her chin. She forcefully reminded herself that the same finger under her chin had caressed Doctor Cannon. He had no interest in her. “What do I have to do to ‘prove’ to you I’m ready?”

Jack gave her a disgusted little grin. “If you have to ask, you’re not ready. Now you should be training right now.” He motioned for them to leave, and Wic obediently pulled her back toward the door.

In the hallway, they found the doctor awaiting their departure. Bit didn’t even try to hide her disgust as she glared at the other woman. The doctor, always the better person, ignored her and waltzed back into the captain’s office.

Bit tried her best not to imagine what they might do next.











Chapter Five

Bit stared at her pad, no longer visualizing the story she was reading. Her eyes scanned the words. Her brain even understood them, but had she been asked to recount what she read, she wouldn’t have been able to. Her mind was a million miles away, with June in a tiny transport ship. Her own journey to Earth had proven just how dangerous space had become.

And now June was out there, with just Reese and Yulanda to protect her. It was Bit’s job. She was her aunt. Jack was wrong to push her out. Yes, she had been sad for a time. But she wasn’t sad anymore. She had even moved on. She was with Evan. Or, whatever.

The point was, Jack had no valid reason to take control over June’s life. And to actually take legal guardianship without her even knowing. That was a low blow. Jack had changed, Bit decided. He wasn’t the same man who had once kissed her. She suspected it was the doctor’s doing. He wouldn’t have taken control away unless someone else suggested it. Bit crossed her arms, leaning back on her seat.

Bit could have sworn her very body ached with the emotions coursing through her. It had been such a long time since emotion had clouded her thoughts. Then again, the very lack of emotions was just as damaging. She didn’t want to admit it, especially as it came from Jack, but she had been rather distant lately.

Before she could reconcile with the thought, the door to her cabin opened and Evan stepped in. Without waiting for the door to close, he yanked his t-shirt up and over his head. Whatever Wic might say, Evan was a perfect specimen of a man. And he knew it.

Still, Bit didn’t look up even when she heard the shirt hit the floor. Evan was talking, but she was still all those millions of miles away with her niece.

“These pilot apprentices are idiots. And now Zhuam wants to pair us up with one of them as our special apprentice…”

Evan kept talking, completely unaware that Bit was still lost in her own mind.

Even if she had been distant lately, she had a bloody good reason. After all, her boyfriend had died. And died suddenly. Bit felt the habitual pressure begin to build behind her eyes as she thought of Oden. As she had done so many times before, Bit began going through the habitual process of tuning the emotions out, pushing them down until she couldn’t feel them anymore. Halfway through the process, she stopped.

Wic had said she was “gone,” that she had “left them.” Was this what he meant? Was her defense from her emotions causing her to be distant? Were her emotions essential to connecting with others?

Evan was still talking. “So then I told Calen…”

In retrospect, it was hard to ignore the fact that she had been mostly alone since Oden’s death. Other than time with Evan—which was hardly what she would call intimate—she spent her time alone. A memory flashed before her eyes: she and Oden snuggling on the Lenore while watching the movie about the sinking ship. She would never do something like that with Evan. She’d rather go back to the gym and work out until she vomited.

Then again, she wasn’t sure there was anyone she wanted to spend time with. She searched her internal crew manifest. She missed Reese. He was a good friend. And she liked Yulanda. The woman was crazy, but that made her fun. June? Did she like her niece? Had she even gotten to know June well enough to like or dislike her?

“He’s such a prick,” continued Evan though Bit had no idea who he was talking about; out of the corner of her eye she saw him yank his trousers down.

She frowned, annoyance making her eye twitch. Evan just assumed they would be having sex. To her increased frustration, Bit realized she had never allowed Evan anything other than sex. And not intimate sex at that. It was nothing like the one time she had been with Oden. With Evan, it was selfish. It was about getting what she wanted and then moving on. With Oden, it had been about giving.

“What are you thinking about that’s got you so contemplative? You usually don’t think this much.”

Bit glared up at him, his words finally registering. “I was thinking about Oden.”

Evan snorted. “Thinking about how much better it is with me?”

Bit snorted and turned away from him, unwilling to discuss the topic. Evan came up behind her and began rubbing her shoulders, his fingers slowly trailing south towards her chest.

“You’re all tight. This isn't just about Oden?”

“Thinking about June too.”

Evan grunted. “Eh, you’ve never worried about her before.”

His words stabbed at her. Wic was right. If even Evan thought she didn’t care about her niece then she really had been too distant.

“C’mon, Babe. You’re usually more fun than this.”

Bit’s hands curled into fists as she wondered if he’d always been so rude. A few of his choice comments came back to her, making her fists tighten until her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands.

He bent down to kiss her cheek. She tensed, no longer enjoying his touch. A little piece of her couldn’t believe she had gone to bed with him.

“Bit, you’re kinda ruining the mood.”

Before he could say anything else, Bit burst from her seat, spinning around to face him. Evan tottered back, bumping into the wall in her small cabin. Bit scooped up his t-shirt and pants from the floor and shoved them into his chest as her other hand hit the release pad for the door. It slid open as Bit manhandled him out of her cabin.

“And don’t come back,” she snapped as though she had already verbalized all the myriad of emotions currently overwhelming her. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Wic standing at the end of the hallway. She pointed a finger at him. “Don’t say a word.”

Wic raised his hands in surrender as Evan tried to speak. “Bit, what is wrong with you?”

“Nothing, but this is over. Find a new plaything. I’m out!” Bit gave him another push when he tried to follow her back into her cabin. When his back was pressed against the opposite door, she stepped back into her own cabin and hit the release pad. The door shut on his shocked face, and Bit breathed a sigh of relief.

She was free. Whatever charm he had had over her was gone.

The thing was, Bit had long lost sight of what it meant to be free—both from financial debt and from the corruption of a greedy man.











Chapter Six

Reese led their group out of the giant shuttle that had taken them down to the surface from the docking station orbiting Earth. Their little shuttle wasn’t rated to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Few ships were. In fact, it was easier to build a ship with few amenities but able to travel back and forth through the atmosphere. It had been centuries since they had given up building ships that could do that and fly to Mars with any comfort. If the ship never needed to enter Earth’s gravity, lightness wasn’t an issue—hence why the Lenore had been built like a freaking ocean freighter.

Reese sighed. His mind was tired indeed if he was thinking about the Earth weight of the now-destroyed Lenore. Two days in a microscopic ship with three vastly different women had nearly sent him over the edge. While he had been thrilled to see Jenny sliding into the copilot’s seat, he quickly started to regret her presence.

Yulanda and June had decided to tease them mercilessly throughout the trip. Had he and Jenny actually been dating, it might have been funny, but since Jenny was more than determined to stay away from him—in all regards—the teasing only made things worse. Jenny now looked at Reese like he had an STD and wanted to bite her.

He wanted to, but not in the way she seemed to think. And no, he did not have any sort of disease to give her. Whatever their intentions, Yulanda, with June in tow, had made things far worse between him and Jenny.

Jenny’s communication was now down to monosyllabic sentences. In fact, if “no” or “yes” could be used, it was all she would say. Of course, without any privacy, Reese could hardly explain to Yulanda the damage she was doing. And June, bored like any nine-year-old would be trapped in a beer-can-sized ship for two days, enjoyed the drama playing out before her.

“This way.” Reese pointed toward a corridor in the labyrinth of the transportation station.

Jenny trotted up to him, struggling to keep up with his long legs. Reese slowed down, realizing if Jenny was struggling than June was running. He glanced over his shoulder to see Yulanda holding the child by the collar and half dragging her.

“Which errand are we doing first?” Jenny asked.

“Yours. Which island?”

“Issaquah.”

Reese nodded and led them down another corridor to where the right ferry waited. For once, the volatile weather of Old Seattle was in their favor. The seagoing ferry took off at the appointed time, and Reese’s group was on it. He watched as June ran from rail to rail with Yulanda on her tail, trying to see everything all at once. With June’s effervescent energy, it was easy for Reese to ignore the stares and glares his scars received. Or was that because his teeth were still black?

Other than his trip to Mars with Jenny a few weeks ago, he hadn’t been out beyond Greene’s private space station. He’d grown accustomed to people not staring, but June kept him happily distracted. Reese took a seat on one of the carbon fiber benches, adjusting his seat in an effort to get comfortable. To his astonishment, Jenny came to his side, taking a seat next to him.

“I thought you were avoiding me,” Reese said before he could bite down on his own tongue.

Even through the crush of waves, Reese heard her intake of air. “I guess I deserve that. Look, Reese. You’re a nice guy. I just…”

He grinned at her, trying to take the sting from his words. “But you’re looking for a bad boy.” Reese knew, aside from maybe Wic, his scars gave him the most street-cred. Whatever his personality, his features already said “bad boy.”

A giggle burst from Jenny’s lips, as though she had been trying to hold it back. When she settled down, she continued. “No. I’m not going on this mission to find a husband or even a lover. If I wanted either of those things, I’d stay in Sol. I’m going to be a scientist…”

“To be everything your family said you couldn’t.”

“Exactly. I just need to focus on the job.”

Reese leaned in to speak softly into her ear. “The thing is, Jenny, you can have all the breakthroughs a scientist could wish for, but when we come back you won’t have a soul to show it to. Everyone who doubted you will be long dead, and you’ll be alone. Just you and your breakthroughs.”

With that, he rose from the bench and snatched June off her feet, throwing the small child over his shoulder. June squealed, distracting him from the exquisite beauty sitting a few feet away. Much like his scars, her unusual red hair was attracting unwanted attention.

“C’mon, June, let’s go inside.”

“What?” asked the kid, her voice turning into a whine. “Why?”

“For Jenny,” he whispered in her ear. “She’s being stared at.”

June wiggled off his shoulder, forcing him to put her down. She raced up to Jenny, taking the scientist’s hand regardless of Jenny’s personal bubble, and dragging her off the bench. Reese smiled to himself as he watched June act like the child she was. So much of her life she had been forced to work. Even on the Caprice, she pulled pranks and meddled in adult affairs. She had a lot of childhood to cram into just a few years.

His heart ached to see the child she was supposed to be.

June led Jenny toward the door that opened into the vacant indoor seating. On an unusually sunny day, no one sat inside on a ferry.

“What are we doing?” Jenny asked when the door shut on them, reducing the sound of the waves. “You were having fun.”

“We can have fun inside too,” June announced. “Someday, could I play with your hair?”

A genuine smile pulled on Jenny’s shapely lips, sending a hitch to Reese’s lungs. For a brief second, he forgot how to breathe.

“I would love that,” Jenny replied, “But we won’t have much time here. We’re almost to our stop.”

“We could totally do girl night at the hotel tonight,” announced Yulanda, joining into the conversation.

Reese blinked. What had he started? The idea of watching girls do each other’s hair and apply makeup despite no intention to go out was not how he wanted to spend the night. To his relief, a voice came over the ship’s system, announcing their docking. Once again, Reese gathered his group and ushered them toward the exit.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-36 show above.)