Mercenary Instinct (Science Fiction Romance) Chapter 1

Posted by on July 17th, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | No Comments

I’m posting chapters of my forthcoming science fiction romance here, as well as on Wattpad while I wait for the beta readers and editors to go over the manuscript. If you’d like to check out this early version (and get a free review copy of the final version later this summer), please sign up for my newsletter.

Chapter 1

Mercenary Instinct a Science Fiction Romance

Ankari Markovich dangled from a rope, making faces as she chiseled fossilized gunk from the walls of a twenty-thousand-year-old latrine shaft. It wasn’t as if the bumps and nodules she was scraping into sample containers smelled after all this time. It was just that she hadn’t imagined herself with such a hands-on role when she had incorporated her latest business. She was the marketing specialist and the majority stake holder, not the—she scraped a particularly large piece off and into a bag—ancient alien feces collector. At least her mother wasn’t here to sigh with disappointment at yet another “foolish scheme,” as she called Ankari’s dreams.

The rope shivered. A nervous jolt ran through her, and Ankari forgot her indignation.

“Someone coming?” she whispered toward the hole at the top of the crumbling shaft.

“No,” Lauren Keys, microbiologist and business partner, whispered back. “I mean, I don’t think so. Two more ships have landed while you’ve been down there, but nobody’s come this way yet. I was just shifting my weight.”

Two more ships. What was that now? Six total in the area? Six ships full of treasure hunters that had come to scavenge the ruins, but who would gladly scavenge the contents of the Marie Curie for the valuable scientific equipment inside. Not to mention scavenging her and the other two women in her crew as well.

“Warn me next time, will you?” Ankari tapped a button on her mechanical rappelling harness. It whirred softly and lowered her a few more inches, so she could scrape at a new spot.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I had to update you when I was scratching my backside.”

“Just… if you’re doing it vigorously.”

Ankari shone her flashlight on the stone underneath the patch she had scraped free, then rubbed it with her sleeve. It gleamed dully, interesting threads of green and silver shooting through the dark black. Andorkan Marble, or this world’s equivalent. A half ton slab of low- to middle-grade quality sold for two thousand aurums on the stone and metals market. With the gold and artifacts largely stripped from the ruins, someone would doubtlessly be down here with excavation equipment, going after the marble before long.

“Ankari?” Lauren whispered. “I heard something—a shifting of rocks over the hill.”

“I’m almost done.” Ankari lowered herself further, until she reached the uneven earth at the bottom. “You said to get some samples from down here, right?”

“Yes, and I also said we should do this at night.”

“We barely found this hole by day.” They had spent two hours dodging treasure hunting teams, hiding in the ruins, and following a map neither was certain was accurate to find the midden heap. Ankari scraped as she spoke, rushing to fill her collection bag. She was as worried as Lauren. This was some corporation’s protected planet, and there weren’t any settlements—nor any police—on it. Anyone they encountered would be, at the very least, a trespasser and likely much worse. “I’m done. I’m coming up.”

Lauren didn’t answer. She must have ducked behind that wall off to the side to hide. Ankari debated whether to go up or to wait until she got the all-clear from her partner. Seconds ticked by.

“Lauren?” she whispered. “You better not have wandered off. You’re the one who knows what to do with this fossilized poop.”

When she still didn’t get an answer, Ankari touched the comm-pin stuck to her vest and thought about contacting her that way, but there might be unscrupulous people out there, listening in on the various frequencies. She didn’t hear any voices or scuffs drifting down from above, so she tapped her harness, this time having it reel her up. Slowly. She kept her ear trained toward the hole’s entrance as she approached. Nothing.

At the top, she poked only her eyes out of the shaft.

The wind scraped across the remains of towers, buildings, and walls, most crumbled into barely recognizable shapes. Thorny vines meandered here and there, one of the few plants that grew in this dry desert zone, but there wasn’t much foliage to hide behind, only the ruins themselves. Ankari looked upward. Days were short on Libra, and the sun had moved across the hazy blue sky in the short time she had been down in the hole. Before long, it would be dark, and their third crew member, Jamie, who was back on the Marie Curie, would be wondering about them.

She risked tapping her comm. “Lauren, are you all right?”

The sound of someone speaking came from a pile of rocks a few feet away. Ankari flinched, her hand whipping to the Tiger 420 pistol strapped at her waist, before she realized what she was hearing. Her own voice being echoed back to her. A comm-pin identical to the one on her chest lay in the dust beside a rock. Lauren’s medical records and identification were encoded in that pin, and Jamie could have tracked her with the ship’s sensors… if she were wearing it. The sturdy fastener wouldn’t have fallen off on its own.

“Not good,” Ankari mumbled.

She didn’t take her eyes from her surroundings as she picked up the pin and stuffed it in her pack. She unbuckled the rappelling harness and thrust it and the rope into the pack too. She wasn’t sure whether to search for Lauren here or run back to the ship, where they could search from the air. Unfortunately, the Marie Curie had the same problem down here that she did: as soon as it left its hiding spot, it would become a target. The bulky modified freighter wasn’t exactly a warship. It was possible would-be captors would be too busy laughing at its rainbows-and-flowers paint job to attack, but Ankari would prefer not to test that hypothesis.

She tapped her comm again. “Jamie? Are you listening? Have you heard from Lauren?”

A splatter of static answered her.

“Wonderful.”

Ankari slung her pack over her shoulder and turned around. She halted before taking a single step along the path that led back to the ship.

Six well-armed people stood on the ridge, all with cold, hard faces, most displaying a fearsome collection of tattoos, piercings, and scars. One was a woman, dark-skinned and broad-shouldered, with a build just as muscular as that of the men. They all had the miens of soldiers—or ex-soldiers—even if they weren’t clad in anything resembling uniforms now.

Ankari’s shoulders slumped. The man on the far side held Lauren, the meaty hand wrapped around her arm as yielding as shackles. His laser pistol was pressed into her temple.

Ankari was a decent shot, but didn’t doubt that these people could blast her before she got her own weapon out. And, depending on what they wanted, they might kill Lauren if Ankari ran or dove for cover. Or twitched in a way they didn’t like.

“If you’re looking for aliuolite, I can direct you to a good source.” Ankari pointed toward the midden hole rather than mentioning the samples stashed in her pack. Fossilized alien feces was only worth a few aurums an ounce, but there were a lot of ounces down there.

The burly thugs looked to the person at the center the group, a broad-shouldered man in a leather duster and boots that seemed antiquated next to his intricate mesh vest armor and a digital scanner he wore over one eye. The armor, which could deflect bullets and lasers, was standard issue for police and Galactic Conglomeration Fleet soldiers. Ankari doubted the man was either. He was handsome, in a cold and aloof way, with green eyes that stood out from his olive skin and short black hair, but there was nothing friendly about his face as he considered her words. Or perhaps he was considering what fancy dinner he might treat himself to with the money he got from selling her into slavery.

“What’s aliuolite?” the man holding Lauren whispered. He was a squat tank with bronze skin and almond-shaped eyes.

The woman squinted thoughtfully, like the term might be familiar, but ultimately she shrugged and didn’t answer.

Without taking his eyes from Ankari, the leader said, “Old alien shit.”

“That’s what aliuolite is?” Lauren’s captor asked. “Or that’s what we’re standing in?”

“Probably both.”

“If you were known for your sense of humor, Captain, I’d assume you were joking with us.”

Captain? Maybe this was some kind of military outfit after all. Either that, or treasure hunters these days had delusions of grandeur. But nothing about the man’s grim face, scarred hands, or hard eyes said he was a poser. He looked like a veteran who had survived a lot of battles, including some that hadn’t gone his way.

“It’s used in the jewelry business,” the captain said, surprising Ankari with his knowledge—it wasn’t a widely known piece of trivia. “For those who can’t afford real gems. Or just like quirk.” His eyebrow twitched. He was still staring at Ankari, and she wondered if that was a dig. Did he think her a freak because she was collecting the stuff? He couldn’t possibly know what her team really wanted it for, so he must. She scowled at him. As if collecting fossilized poop was any less noble than kidnapping people.

“It worth anything, Captain?” Lauren’s captor asked, speculation narrowing his eyes.

Another man snorted. “How much can shit earrings be worth? I think you’re right, Corporal. The captain is joking.”

Most of the men smirked, their faces losing some of their hardness, though it was difficult to find them anything but menacing when that one still held a gun to Lauren’s head.

“Enough,” the captain said. No smirk had ever softened his face. “Striker, get the girl before those vines start growing up our legs.”

Ankari took a step back, lifting a hand toward the spiky-haired man who approached her. He wore no less than four guns, numerous daggers, and what looked to be a chain of grenades on a bandolier across his chest.

“You’re right,” Ankari rushed to say—her hand wasn’t doing anything to stay the brute. “Aliuolite is used for jewelry, and it’s actually trading for more on the market this year than it has in the past twenty.” A true statement. “There’s a fascination with all things related to the ancient aliens, you know.” Also true. “And there’s enough aliuolite down there that you could make a small fortune.” That was less true, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if they all dove down that shaft in their eagerness to get at the stuff? “Far more than you’d ever get for us.”

The captain snorted. “If you think that, you don’t know how much you’re worth, girl.”

The comment surprised Ankari. He couldn’t be talking about anything other than the slave trade, but she couldn’t imagine she would command any great price on the auction block. She was attractive enough, she supposed, but certainly wasn’t some stunning virgin beauty that could be served up on a platter to some self-proclaimed backwater prince or horny old finance lord.

Though she was confused by the comment, Ankari reacted before the walking knife collection could grab her. She leaped backward, landing in a fighting stance. It was more by habit than rational thought—her father had insisted on training her as a mashatui practitioner all through her childhood—because what could she possibly do against so many armed men? But a clatter arose from behind a wall of ruins on a nearby ridge, and all except one of the brutes turned toward it, their weapons shifting from her to the noise.

The man who had been tasked with grabbing her—Striker—didn’t falter. He lunged for her hand, pulling out a gun as he did so. With the others distracted, Ankari felt more brazen—less like she would get herself and Lauren in trouble for defiance—and jumped back. He was as fast as she and might have caught her wrist, but his toe smacked against a rock. She snatched up a handful of sand and threw it at his face, then scrambled up the side of what had once been a small tower.

She glanced back as she went over the top and into the broken structure. His gun was pointed at her, and he could have fired, but he grumbled and didn’t. Ankari didn’t question her luck. She jumped down and squeezed out through a dog-sized opening on the back side of the tower, trying for silence in the hope that he would think she was staying inside to hide.

A low wall ran off to either side of the tower, and she scrambled along the back of it on hands and knees, trying to avoid his view. If he thought she was running, he should expect her to go the other way, but she angled back toward the group. If some trouble came from up on that ridge, and there was a chance she could use it to her advantage and get Lauren, Ankari had to try. Not only would she feel horrible about getting Lauren captured by slavers, especially after talking her into coming out to help collect samples, but unemployed microbiologists didn’t wander into her orbit every day, and the business was useless without one.

A laser gun fired, the whine abrupt and over quickly. Ankari’s stomach sank. Lauren? Had Ankari’s choice to run cost her partner her life?

But more shots fired, not only from nearby from but that ridge as well.

“Take cover, Striker.” That was the captain’s voice. “We’ll get her later. Deal with these idiots first.”

Ankari risked poking her head over the wall. Red and orange bursts of laser fire were streaking across the ruins, bright against the fading light of the afternoon sky. She picked out the backs of the woman and two of the other men, including the brute holding Lauren. They had taken cover behind crumbling walls and were all facing the ridge, where two figures hid behind ruins of their own, leaning in and out of sight to shoot. Lauren was the only one looking in Ankari’s direction, and her face lit with hope when they made eye contact.

Ankari aimed at the back of her captor’s head. She had never killed someone before and she had no way to know for certain that these were criminals with bounties on their heads. Hoping she wouldn’t regret it, she shifted her aim to the man’s shoulder. That ought to get him to release Lauren.

“Ready?” Ankari mouthed.

Lauren nodded vigorously, her tangled, shoulder-length black hair flopping in her dark eyes. Her alarmed gaze darted from Ankari to the laser blasts streaking through the ruins and back again.

A scream came from the ridge.

“Nice, shooting, Captain,” someone said. “Didn’t think any of us were going to get past that full body armor. Best armed scavengers I’ve ever seen.”

“Stolen gear,” the captain said. “It doesn’t fit properly.”

The men kept ducking, dodging, and shooting as they traded this casual exchange. Another scream came from the ridge, a shot fired from the female warrior this time.

“You’re right, sir,” she said. “Armpit was open.”

The kidnappers were making quick work of their opponents. Ankari didn’t have time to waste, but she made herself wait until Lauren’s captor finished shooting a spray of red beams and paused to reload his gun. He wasn’t holding Lauren at the moment. She probably could have lunged free and ran, if she wasn’t afraid of being hit by the stray beams herself, but she merely crouched there, her round eyes riveted on Ankari. Well, nothing on her resume had said she was good in a fight. So long as she ran when she had the chance.

Ankari fired.

The beam lanced into the back of the man’s shoulder, charring through his shirt and into his skin. He didn’t cry out. He only grunted and spun toward her.

Lauren leaped to her feet without looking and sprinted toward the half wall Ankari hid behind. She didn’t so much as glance at the beams lancing through the air all around, but luck favored her mad dash, and she flung herself over the stones and to the ground. The brute who had lost her jumped to his feet, as if to charge after them, but Ankari pointed her pistol at his eyes. He considered her for a long second, but the burning hole in the back of his shoulder must have convinced him that her aim was decent. He gave her a wry smirk and even a salute, then went back to shooting at people on the hill.

“‘Suppose I shouldn’t feel indignant that he sees me as so little of a threat that he’s turning his back on me,” Ankari said and dropped below the wall again. “That way,” she added when Lauren gave her a questioning look. Ankari jerked her head in a direction that would take them away from the conflict but that should let them circle back to their ship. She hoped the Marie Curie was still hidden beneath that overhang and that nobody had noticed it. She didn’t want to return to a league of bounty hunters or slavers or whatever these people were lined up in front of the craft.

Shots continued to fire, but they grew less loud as Ankari and Lauren scurried through the ruins. If other treasure hunters lurked in the area, Ankari and Lauren didn’t run into them on their way back to the ship. Scavengers or not, they were probably smart enough to stay away from a firefight—at least until the carrion birds were circling and the bodies could be looted. As she weaved around and over the dusty ruins, Ankari acknowledged that she and her team were technically scavengers down here too. And they, too, ultimately wanted to make money from what they were pulling off the planet, if in a roundabout way.

“Judge not lest ye be judged…” Wasn’t that some saying from one of the old Earth religions?

When the Marie Curie came into view, sans a brute squad, Ankari gasped a relieved, “Yes!”

The rainbow-striped freighter with its flower highlights wasn’t exactly designed to blend in here—or anywhere—but with night’s approach, the deep shadows beneath the overhang should be hiding it, at least from the air.

“Jamie, you there?” Ankari asked into the comm. “If you could open the door, we’d appreciate it.” No need to mention the squad of men she feared would be tracking them to this spot within minutes.

“Mission accomplished, boss?” Jamie asked as the big cargo bay door on the back lowered, providing a ramp for Ankari and Lauren to run up.

“Yes, but we may have company soon. Get us out of here.”

“Will do.”

The deck shivered beneath its shaggy blue carpeting as Ankari and Lauren ran past the science stations that dominated the old cargo hold. Ankari charged into the compact navigation cabin first, breathing hard.

Jamie, hands on the controls, glanced back, her blue eyes widening. “You weren’t kidding. Someone really is after you.”

Twenty years old with blonde pigtails, Jamie didn’t look old enough to be a pilot, much less the ship’s engineer, but, like Lauren, she was willing to work for a share of the business. Few people with more experience—and without criminal records—were so inclined.

“Yes. Are we in the air yet?” The view on the screen was depressingly similar to the view Ankari had left behind.

“We’re almost out from under the ledge,” Jamie said dryly.

“This ship’s a real cheetah, isn’t she?”

“She’s not that bad.” Jamie gave the console a friendly pat.

Lauren stepped into the hatchway. “If you’ll give me that pack, I can get to work.” Her face was red, her clothes were torn, and she was smeared with dirt, and she wanted to get right to her research?

Ankari could have hugged her, though she wasn’t ready to drag her eyes from the viewer to remove her pack, not with the dusty ground inching along at a snail’s pace. Once they were in the air… Better yet, once they were completely off the planet, it would be a different story.

“Let’s see if we make it out from under this ledge first,” Ankari said.

“Almost there.” Jamie tapped a display flashing a clearance warning.

The burly captain stepped out from behind a boulder, and Ankari almost peed down her leg. He had removed the scanner on his head, and his two hard green eyes were staring straight at the view screen. She expected him to raise his pistol and point it at them, but even if the freighter wasn’t a sleek warship, its hull would easily withstand the firepower of a hand weapon. Those grenades that other brute had been carrying might do some damage, but Ankari didn’t see him. The captain was alone. But his lips were moving. Issuing some command to the rest of his team? Letting them know he had found Ankari’s ship and that he needed help bringing it down? Well, the Marie Curie wasn’t waiting around for that.

“Who’s he?” Jamie asked. “He’s handsome. Pissed looking, but handsome.”

“Calm your teenage hormones down and get us some altitude,” Ankari said.

“I haven’t been a teenager for weeks now, you know.”

“He wants to kidnap us, not get in bed with us. Now, go.”

“Really? Kidnap all of us?” Fortunately, Jamie’s fingers danced across the controls as she spoke, and the captain disappeared from view as the ship rose from the ground. Soon, he and his men would be powerless to stop them.

That didn’t keep Ankari’s fingers from digging into the back of Jamie’s chair. “Lauren and me for sure. I don’t know if they’re aware of your existence.”

“Typical.” Jamie sniffed. “Let me get us turned away from that mountain, and it’ll be a clear shot into space.”

“Good.” As the view rotated, Ankari was on the verge of loosening her fingers when a sleek black shuttlecraft glided out of the twilight sky. Before she could do more than wonder if it had weapons, a torpedo launched from its bow.

“No, no, no,” Jamie said over and over, trying to navigate out of the way.

But even the most agile GalCon fighter couldn’t have dodged at that close of range. Ankari didn’t have time to brace herself before the world exploded in her face.

Her last thought, as she was hurled backward, was that she should have known the captain was calling to a ship, not talking to his crew. Then her head struck the bulkhead, and darkness swallowed the world.

Chapter 2

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