Desire Disguised

Love Under a New Star, Book 2

Lynn Rae

 

Chapter 1

Ping. Ping. Ping.

Bendix Zashi sighed and closed his eyes as he tried to concentrate on the tone. Flat, definitely flat, but exactly how flat was the question.

He slid the auto-hammer up a half a millimeter and struck the note again. The chordist rang out again, the dissonance of the flat note nearly lost in the clear sound of middle C. Better. A hair’s width more movement and the note sounded perfect as it chimed throughout the deserted social hall of the barracks. Solitude had been his goal in coming to the place early in the morning. If he stayed in his quarters, his datfeed would be alerting incessantly, because he could never quite bring himself to set it at emergency notification only. Responsibility for the safety and security of all four hundred and fifty-seven residents of Pearl was something he couldn’t turn off even when he was supposed to.

The next key on the chordist was perfect according to his auto tuner and his ear. Someone had set the self-tune routine on the musical instrument when it was offloaded a few weeks ago, but he’d had been meaning to manually adjust it ever since he’d seen it in the hall, its dark wood finish gleaming in the indirect lighting. It was a beautiful instrument and deserved some human care and attention.

“See, I told you I saw him in here.” A familiar and unwelcome voice intruded.

Congratulating himself for not muttering a profanity, Ben turned on the stool and looked behind him. There was young Lieutenant Soloman Erdem, staring at him and sweating through his uniform with Myltin Tarl at his side. Trust Tarl, the settlement’s self-appointed overseer, to have spotted him in here and reported it in to Security. He should have closed the doors.

“Sir! I’m glad I found you!” Lt. Erdem’s face relaxed with relief.

I’m not. Ben tried not to think impatient thoughts, but it was difficult when his unseasoned officers sought him out. If he’d known nosy Myltin was on the prowl in the barracks, he would have gone for a run through the cocker forest instead. There was no way the slight man would have been able to keep up, no matter how anxious Myltin was to spread some gossip. Suppressing a sigh, Ben tried not to resent the fact that he hadn’t had any time to really relax yet, and now he wouldn’t.

“What do you need, Soloman?” He wasn’t going to ask after Tarl, the man was simply there to pry.

“Uh, we got a message in from the jump station I thought you might be interested in hearing.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s weird.” Soloman’s eyebrows flew up as he gave his vague answer.

Ben breathed in and out before responding. He pulled out his device to double check for a missed priority alert but there were none, which indicated his perspiring officer was going on intuition. He was pleased the younger officer was gaining more confidence in trusting his instincts.

He scrolled though that morning’s official updates and located one originating from the jump ring crew about fifteen minutes prior. When he called out a timestamp to Soloman, the younger man confirmed it was the one he worried about. Ben opened the message to find a few terse sentences, alluding to a possible unauthorized skip-through, and the ship in question might have sustained damage in the jump. The orbital crew thought it could have bumped something, but they weren’t sure. Blast and afterburn, what a bunch of incompetent dolts.

“Sir, what do you think?”

“I think you were perfectly correct to find me and bring this to my attention.” Powering off the musical instrument, he rose from the stool. Ben strode to Soloman and formulated his plan of action.

“What should I do, sir?”

“Come with me back to the station and be ready to head out on a recovery mission in the next few minutes. Go to station’s stores and collect the first aid kits, fire suppression, and cutting tools. Load up two flyers. Alert medical we might have incoming wounded.” Ben used his datpad’s override code to contact the jump ring station directly as he walked toward Security, his subordinate at his side with wide eyes and flushed cheeks. Myltin followed along, his ears practically vibrating as he listened in.

“Gam Jump Ring Control,” a bored voice lazed out, and Ben had to repress his urge to bark at the woman about her sloppy protocol. If she couldn’t manage to even pronounce her title correctly, it was no wonder they’d lost track of an unauthorized arrival. “What’s doing, Chief Zashi?”

“You tell me. Somehow I have to be alerted to a potential crash landing by the quick thinking of my officer here on planet, rather than getting an immediate information ping from you.”

“Well sir, we didn’t really think it was going to be a problem since it took off under its own power after we released it.” Now the voice was more clipped and attentive.

“So why did your update indicate it was damaged?” Ben reached the security station at this point and waved Soloman off toward the equipment bays to begin outfitting the flyer. Hopefully, the unknown ship was still safely in orbit far above and they’d soon pick up its signal. If it was experiencing problems, any response they made now might be too late. He left Myltin with a small nod at the reception desk, grateful to escape him and his eavesdropping.

“Uh, I don’t know, sir…I was taking a break then.” The ring control officer stammered at this point, likely anticipating the reprimand Ben was going to write as part of his eventual report on this incident.

Ben barreled past the lobby area and went directly into communications. Adel Lee spotted him and nodded a greeting; she was too caught up in monitoring feeds to stop for something more formal. “I’m uploading this feed directly to my comm station.”

With a snap of his fingers, he slid the datpad up his sleeve and picked up the conversation again as Adel smoothly linked everything together.

“I want an immediate download of all data regarding the incident, get the ring monitor who saw the jump on this link now, and send your latest read on the position of the vehicle.”

There was no audible response from the station circling miles overhead, but some of Adel’s monitors wavered and scrolled new data. Ben pulled close to the overview display and watched the main feed visual of the jump ring glow white as the link between portals commenced. The sudden emergence of a standard freighter filled the screen. It lumbered along for a few seconds as it entered Gamaliel space, and just as its tail fins cleared the gate, another ship blinked into view. This one was much smaller and designed for interplanetary hops rather than jumping across the galaxy. It appeared to be a customized Mootean cruiser, about twenty years out of date, but he wasn’t sure since as soon as the vehicle emerged from the white glow of trans space, it accelerated and banked away at a sharp angle. Classic smuggler move. Dangerous, hard to trace, and arrogant.

“Where’s that staffer? I need information now.” Ben knew he barked his command, but they didn’t have time to wait. If there had been damage, which seemed likely considering how close the ships had been in transit, the rogue vessel might not be able to maintain a safe orbit. If they’d lost power or stabilizers, the passengers on that little ship might be plummeting into the planet as he stared at an event that had occurred twenty minutes ago.

Shifting his attention to the tracking feed, Ben tried to locate the renegade cruiser. His assistant, Wren, appeared at his elbow, holding out hiking boots. Ben nodded at the young woman and kicked off his shoes before pushing his feet into the sturdy footgear in front of him. His shoes were fine for use in the settlement, but in less than a minute, he planned to be piloting a flyer into the sky and heading for an impact site, so rescue gear was a necessity. If he could determine where to go for said rescue.

Wren knelt at his feet and tightened the straps for him, and he gave her another nod as she buckled on his belt loaded with equipment. Adel swept her fingertips across a pad, and the planetary display shivered as she enlarged a section where an arcing parabola glowed strident orange. The disabled ship was in definite trouble. There was no way its orbital path would rise above the atmosphere again. It was just a matter of time before it burned and plummeted. The trajectory indicated it was going to hit in the far north of the continent. At least he wasn’t going to have to fly halfway around the globe to get to it.

“We have your ship. Get that officer on talk with me now.” Ben turned his attention to his staff. “Adel, load the flight path and time to impact in the team’s data and continue to monitor. We’ll be giving constant updates as we move. Wren, inform Tam she’s on duty until I get back. Soloman!”

Ben tried not to shout, but there wasn’t time for conversation, just bare essential orders.

“Yes, sir!” the young man’s voice boomed over the comm desk.

“Locked tight and loaded to go?”

“Yes, sir!”

“On my way.” Ben exited Security with nods to the rest of his staff on duty as Wren shoved a pack in his arms. Unless the pilot of the failing ship was incredibly skilled, Ben and his crew were probably deploying on an evidence recovery mission instead of a rescue.

* * * *

“Mat, stay still,” Caraline Belasco begged her younger brother. She wanted to cry too, but it wasn’t going to help matters to panic. If they survived this hellish descent, she was sure there’d be plenty to cry about if any of them were alive to do it.

She glanced around the cramped and battered interior of the shuddering cruiser. Unsecured baggage and equipment rained around them as it shifted with every tilt of the ship’s axis against the gravity of the strange planet. Their companion, Soren, sat opposite her, secured in the foam pads of emergency landing pods as she and Mat were. The protective layer of foam was too tight as it pressed against her arms, legs, torso, and especially her neck and head. She couldn’t move anything but her eyes and mouth, so her view was limited to the lined face of Soren in the pod across the cabin. Her ears worked just fine. She could hear Mat’s anguished gulps and cries and the scream of the ship’s metallic skin as they fell through the sky of some unknown world. She could even hear Captain Falk as he let out the occasional curse word while he strained to control his ship.

All the years of running, hiding, and lying had come to this. She and her brother were going to be smeared across some planet, the last survivors of the La Torre monarchy finally destroyed as they should have been over a decade before. No, Cara corrected herself automatically. Not survivors of the La Torre lineage, merely the children of the most powerful and trusted retainer of the royal family. Her father had been despised more than the king himself, so perhaps that made her the princess of something vile.

It was difficult to swallow. The foam constricted her throat along with her fear. She wished she’d visited the head before the emergency klaxon began to howl and Falk had screamed at them to secure themselves to the seats. It seemed as if the interior temperature was climbing, and she sweated against the foam securing her body, a disgusting sensation a small part of her brain was surprised she even noticed, considering she’d be dead soon.

“Mat, it’s going to work out. Just like it always does.” She made an empty promise to her still crying brother. All she wanted to do was have him hear her voice through the comm frequency for the next few and final minutes. “I think we were in a worse jam that time on Luneta, when those assassins surrounded the tavern we were hiding in.”

“Too bad we didn’t realize they were coming for someone else. We could have finished our dinner in peace instead of hiding in the chimney and coughing out soot for the next few days,” Soren added, his eyes canted over in Mat’s direction. Cara hoped they could see each other.

“Cara, I’m scared,” Mat’s voice quavered, and her heart clenched in her chest. Considering how many terrifying moments they’d gone through, she still quaked with fear for him. Wishing she believed in something enough for prayer, Cara tried to ignore the screeching noises, intense heat, and their imminent death and instead started to sing one of the old lullabies. She remembered someone kind and soft singing it to her when she was a child and had sung it to Mat many times since they’d been exiled. Hopefully, its lovely tune and words would calm them all.

The ship bucked and shuddered as if it was coming apart, and all the interior lights winked out, leaving them in terrible darkness. The comm frequency disappeared with a crack. Mat screamed loud enough to be heard over the howling echoes inside the hull of the ship, and Cara winced as tears coursed down her cheeks. There was a terrible shrieking noise, Falk squealed, and then the world fell apart.

* * * *

They saw the ship plummeting to the surface as if a burning orange comet trailing a pale grey trail of smoke and debris from about ten kilometers away. It was impossible to tell if the main fuselage was holding together, and Ben hoped the pilot was releasing all the fuel in the tanks.

He sucked in a deep breath and resisted the urge to reach over and take over the manual accelerator from Soloman. The young man piloted the flyer according to standard procedures, and it wouldn’t help anyone if Ben interfered. The vehicle wasn’t safe at a higher speed with the weather conditions they’d found themselves in. It was squalling rain, and the winds gusted over the entire section. Ben supposed he should be grateful the precipitation would halt any fires caused by the crash, but it was miserable flying weather.

Their path would intersect with the dying ship very soon. He glanced across the display pad showing projected trajectories and then peered out the front shield of the cart to see it happening in real time. It was hard to tell, but it seemed as if the pilot of the cruiser was still in control. The spectacle of the impending crash had all the crewmembers riveted to the viewport.

Tension filled him as the fireball ahead approached the canopy of the jungle and burrowed in with an enormous gout of smoke and flame. Rough landing. Several troopers gasped, and he noticed Soloman shaking his head as he decelerated.

“Think anyone survived?” the lieutenant asked in a low voice as others unfastened their harnesses and prepared to exit as soon as the vehicle halted. Ben had ordered them to follow proper debarkation protocols, but adrenaline and basic humanity caused his staff to bunch at the exit hatch like over-eager trainees. As soon as the doors opened and they descended to the jungle floor, they’d hew closer to their training.

Soloman banked over the destroyed swathe of forest, shattered trees and smoke obscuring whatever had made it to the ground. Scans indicated most of the ship was in one piece, and the lieutenant circled it until he found a landing spot. With a gentle hand, he brought the flyer down.

“Let’s find out.” Ben’s hand was on his harness clasp, and as soon as the door seal released with a puff of air, he was on his feet and debarking, his team close on his heels as they made their way down the ramp and stood on soggy ground.

The air was filled with acrid smoke, and he could hear flames crackling from the direction of the downed ship. A few steps away from the rescue flyer the wind shifted, and they could finally get a visual on the crash site. The formerly sleek cruiser was now a crumpled and charred lump, half buried in the boggy ground. Orange glints of flame glowed around the crash site as any combustible bit of vegetation in the vicinity burned.

Ben checked over the people assembled around him. All were properly geared up and carrying the equipment they’d need to suppress the fire and crack open the ship. At the moment, the metal skin was still too hot from reentry to approach. A sudden downpour of rain sizzled and steamed on the hot metal. Fog and smoke obscured the broken ship for a few seconds as they squelched their way around the perimeter of the crash and inspected it, putting out flickering fires along the way.

“Sir, it looks fairly intact. And if I read the alignment right, she isn’t upside down.”

Ben nodded. It appeared as if the ship was embedded at a forty-five degree angle. Pulling up specs on the cruiser, helpfully forwarded by Wren from the station, he plotted a couple of potential entry sites. Pointing them out to his people, two teams assembled and took temperature readings.

“It’s hot, but our suits will manage it,” Officer Rand yelled back as he hopped up the side of the ship, slipping on the wet surface as he climbed. Ben shook his head. Rand was energetic and prone to choosing the most challenging approach to everything. So far it had landed him in medical twice after parkour misjudgments and once when he approached an uninterested woman for sex.

Ben watched the crews operate their cutters for a few moments and approached the team that had made the most progress as they clamped on a pull and tugged at the metal. The ship’s skin groaned as it buckled and bent apart, allowing atmosphere from the inside to escape in a puff of what seemed to be steam. Not a good sign if the interior had heated that intensely. The officers parted as Ben approached the opening. Better for him to assess it on his own. Too many of his people were relatively unseasoned. He suspected none on this crew had seen a victim of violent death yet. A rancid stench of hydraulic fluid filled the dank and smoky air, and he breathed deep before leaning in and activating his hand light.

The interior of the ship was chaotic. Wiring and debris littered every surface. It looked as if they’d cut their way into the far rear of the hold. With an echoing groan and squeal, Rand’s crew peeled back a layer at the top and sunlight filtered in from overhead. That’s when he spotted the activated crash pods. Three foam lumps attached to the walls of the hold, and the dark, humanoid shapes visible within indicated the passengers had time to activate them before everything fell apart.

Watching his step in the deep drifts of debris littering the deck, he made his way in and approached the first crash pod. Whoever was inside had been alone on that side of the ship. The monitor glowed red indicating the pod was experiencing failures, and the readings for the health of the inhabitant blinked erratically. The occupant was in serious medical trouble. He peered in the visor and saw an elderly man who was pale and comatose.

“Trin, get in here with a carry cot. We’ve got someone alive but not for long.” Ben heard the people outside shout orders at each other as he turned to inspect the two pods attached to the other bulkhead. One contained a boy, perhaps ten or so years old. His pod was functional, and his monitor indicated he was unconscious but essentially stable. The next pod’s monitor glowed green, and Ben breathed out with relief. Two survivors, possibly three. He had to check on the pilot next, but first, he glanced in the faceplate to get a visual on the third passenger. A young woman, stands of wet hair plastered across her forehead, bruises under her closed eyes. Someone yelled behind him, and the woman inside the crash pod woke, her blue-green eyes fluttering open, and her confused gaze met his. He tensed as if someone had punched him in the stomach.