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Her Instruments, Book 1
Twelve men appeared out of the nauseous nowhere that filled a Pad tunnel. All of them human. All of them carrying themselves like muscle. The one at point had a short amber beard and changeable eyes, the kind that could be any light color, the kind that got most of their character from their owner’s expression.
The man was grinning, but Reese hated him on sight. She hardened herself and prepared her bluff.
“So, Captain,” he said. “Having a little extra trouble? Or was that explosion an attempt to weasel your way out of a tight spot?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Reese said. Beside her Irine and Kis’eh’t remained very quiet.
“I don’t like dawdling, Captain, so let’s just lay things out, shall we? You’re carrying special cargo for our mutual employer. Either you’ve actually had engine trouble, which we’ll fix, or you were trying to get out of your contract… which we’ll also fix. Either way we’re here to do the job. You can either help us or we’ll make sure you don’t make any more mistakes.”
“Are you suggesting that I’d bust up my own engines just to yell for help?” Reese asked. “You must be kidding. You know how much money I spent fixing my engines?”
“I can imagine,” he said, still showing teeth.
“Just give us the parts so we can fix the blood-cursed things and get the shipment to the boss,” Reese said. “I don’t want your help and I certainly don’t need you playing nursemaid. The money’s talked. I’m not missing out on it.”
“Tough words,” he said. “But we’re not leaving until we’re sure you’re not going to sneak away when we turn our backs.”
“I signed a contract,” Reese said hotly. “That might not mean anything to you people, but keeping my word is what keeps me in business.”
“Nice speech,” he said. “You should be glad I’m not one of those types what gets angry at being called names.” He nodded to the men behind him. “Move.”
They spread out. More than half headed down the corridor. Two started setting up a portable Pad, one that would allow them to return to the Crawler. The others stood at their leader’s back.
“Should I offer you coffee or are we going to just stand here until your people finish their survey?” Reese asked, exasperated.
“I was about to escort you to your engine room,” he said and grinned. “If your problems are real, I’ll have that coffee with you later and maybe we’ll… talk.”
She was so accustomed to ignoring the twins that it took her several heart-beats to realize that he wasn’t interested in talking. “You’re not my type.”
“You might change your mind,” he said.
“I doubt it,” Reese said.
“Don’t even say ‘I like them with fire,’” Reese said. “I’ll vomit.”
“I was thinking more ‘I like them spunky,’ but that might be improper language in front of a lady.” He drew the last word out until it passed the realm of insult and entered the realm of threat. “Move along then, Captain. I’m sure you know the way. And take your two pretty minions with you, slowly.”
“Go in front,” Reese said to the two, and was glad when they didn’t object. She wanted to be between them and their boarders; they couldn’t fit in the corridor abreast and she couldn’t bear the image of them so close to the men. It made the trip to the engines the longest ever. She could hear their breathing and the creak of their leather vests, and the smell of metal and animal musk made the hair along the back of her neck rise.
They entered the engine compartment to find six of the men crawling over the Well drive. Bryer was being held by an additional two.
One of them dropped to the ground next to the joint attachment. “We’re still looking.”
“Take your time,” the leader said. “Wouldn’t want any mistakes.”
The other guffawed and ducked back into the housing. Reese had been hoping they would shuffle or sound drugged or act like undisciplined thugs, but though they weren’t saluting or marching in formation their motions were crisp and their gazes alert and their patter, alas, indicated they had a good understanding of mechanics.
Bryer worked magic, as far as Reese was concerned. But he’d always worked it to fix the engines, not to take them apart. She stared at a fixed point on the wall and tried not to think about what would happen if—no. She just wouldn’t think.
One, two, four men appeared. A fifth.
“Looks legit,” the fifth said.
“Can you fix it?”
He shrugged. “Sure. It’s a basic repair.”
The leader prodded Reese between the shoulder-blades. “And you don’t have equipment for a basic repair?”
“I’m not exactly swimming in money,” Reese said.
“Get to it, then,” the leader said.
They turned back to the Well drive and their leader said, “About that cup of coffee, then—”
Reese’s heart thudded so hard she shook.
“Damn, this is clever! And it almost worked!” The sixth man laughed. “Don’t kill the Phoenix. I want his secrets.”
“It’s a fake?” the leader asked, his voice hardening.
“Sabotage,” the last man said, sliding off one of the bars and wiping his forehead with the back of a grease-streaked hand. “But subtle as a snake. They stressed the parts themselves so they’d fail exactly the way they would with time. I almost missed it, but a good screening of the parts showed the metal’s not as old as it would have to be to have built up that much pressure.”
The smack the leader delivered to the back of Reese’s head was so abrupt she bit her own tongue. “You’re going to be so sorry.”
Reese swallowed blood and said, “I wasn’t looking forward to our ‘date’ anyway.”
The men laughed and their leader’s humiliation bought her another blow. This one set her ears ringing.
“Ooh, I’m so scared,” Reese said.
The leader’s glare transformed into a rictus. He spun around and struck Irine so hard she cried out and crumpled, grasping at her shoulder. Reese froze.
“Now that I have your attention,” he said. “Here’s the story. You give us the cargo and the spy and we’ll leave you alone. Very simple. We’ll even leave you enough scrap metal to fix your engines… if you’re smart enough to figure it out.”
“And the alternative?” Reese asked. “Let me guess, something original. You’ll kill us all and take what you want anyway.”
The man stamped on Irine’s instep and the Harat-Shar’s shriek shattered Reese’s bravado. “Something like that. We might have a little fun with you first, just to put the living fear of God into you.”
Reese said, “Fine. I’ll take you to the cargo.”
“And the spy,” the man said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Reese said. “And no, I’m not being obstinate. What bleeding spy would we have on board? Besides an incompetent one incapable of warning us you were on our tails?”
“The Eldritch,” the man said.
“He’s dead,” Reese said.
“Then I’ll take his corpse along.”
Reese clenched her fists. “I want to keep it.”
“You want to keep a lot of things,” the man observed. “I want to take them. Guess who’s got the guns?” He smiled thinly. “First the cargo.”
“Fine,” Reese said. “This way.”
This time they forced her to take the lead and separated her from Irine and Kis’eh’t with several men. As she walked, she raced through her options… so few. Most of them involved bargaining, but there was nothing she had that the pirates couldn’t simply take given enough time. What thing of value could she possibly distract them with?
They reached the closet too soon. Reese stopped and nodded toward it. “They’re in there.”
“Unlock it,” Blond said. “I assume it’s locked.”
“She can’t,” Irine said. “Only I can… and you’ll have to fix me to make it work.”
He looked her over and said, “Awww, poor tiger-girl. Did I break a bone?”
“The door won’t open unless I’m within a certain stress range,” Irine said. “That’s not going to happen when I’m in pain.”
“Whatever,” the man said. He waved a hand. “Bring the torches.”
“You can’t do that!” Irine squeaked. “It’ll explode!”
“You bought a detonating DNA lock?” Reese asked incredulously.
Irine’s ears flattened, but not before the blush showed. “We really, really didn’t want you walking in on us.”
“She’s right,” one of the men said. “It’s got the manufacturer’s label.”
Blond shrugged. “Those things blow inward, not out. Get the torches.”
“Are you crazy?” Reese asked. “You’ll destroy the cargo!”
“Did you read your instructions, chocolate? That entire room could go up in flames and those boxes you bought will come out whole.” He nodded to the men. “Get moving. You two, find the spy and bring him to… oh, let’s say the mess hall. Somehow I doubt he’s a corpse. Besides, that cup of coffee’s sounding better and better.”
“They’re coming for me,” Hirianthial said.
Sascha said, “Reese and the others?”
“Already in their hands,” Hirianthial said.
“Then it’s up to us,” Sascha said, flexing his hands. “How many?”
“Two right now,” Hirianthial said. “Another ten on-board. They’re armed.”
Sascha growled. “We’d have to be lucky.”
Hirianthial leaned against the wall. The texture of the air around them had become too dense, too interwoven with violence and anger. “There’s only one guarding the bridge.”
“The bridge,” Sascha said. He straightened. “The distress call. They probably shut it off. We could get new a signal out… if they haven’t destroyed our comm facility.”
Hirianthial pulled the knife from his boot and tossed it to the Harat-Shar, who caught it with a frisson of silver-cold surprise.
“I can’t make it that far,” Hirianthial said. “The only way I can help is by distracting them.”
“Will that work?” Sascha asked, eyes wide.
“They’re looking for me,” Hirianthial said and managed a thin smile. “If they find me, they won’t have a reason to search the room. Good luck.”
Definitely not your swashbuckling alternate romantic interest, as you can see, Beth. :,
We have $10 toward our Saturday episode! Another $5 will get us that bonus post. And as promised, I’ll take a picture of my coffee for you.