Lovin’ the Odds

Vicky Burkholder

 

Chapter 1

Sabrina’s ears rang from the strident klaxons as she rushed through the corridors of the space station, squeezing through the doors as they sealed. “Come on, just one more door. Please, just let me get through the last door.”

She rounded a corner at a dead run. The door ahead inched shut. Could she get through?

“Stop!”

“Shit.” She didn’t look back. She knew who was following her. The name didn’t make any difference—one of Tyler Adams’ goons was as bad as any other. She found reserves of energy she didn’t know she had, drew in a deep breath, and skinned through the door, catching her coat as it sealed. She slipped out of the garment and kept running, her breath coming in great gulping gasps. Brina jumped into the small shuttle she’d picked out earlier, hit the emergency engine start, and pushed the throttle. She wasn’t in the clear yet.

She punched in the codes to the bay and watched as the huge doors parted, but too slowly. She also saw security men entering the bay probably looking for her. Rather than wait, she pushed the little shuttle forward through the bay doors, the squeal of metal on metal making her cringe. Then she was out. Another code shut the doors behind her, and a nice little virus she’d developed sealed them so no one could follow her.

Now if she could just be lucky enough that no security ships were out. She set her course and headed for the planet below. Unfortunately, her shuttle wasn’t powerful enough to get her any farther than that, but hopefully, once she landed on the planet, she could lose herself in the populace until she could get away. The information she had was enough to put Tyler Adams away for a very long time. She just had to find a Fleet official to give it to, preferably someone who wasn’t in Tyler’s pocket.

* * * *

Magda, Tyler’s assistant, watched from her chair by the bar as Tyler cursed and paced his opulent office. She knew when to keep silent, and this was one of those times.

“How did she do it?” Tyler snarled.

“She must have been planning this for some time,” Magda said. “She had all the codes and knew exactly when to leave so we couldn’t catch her.”

“Of course she did.” Tyler rounded on Magda. She didn’t flinch, even in the face of his rage. She was his assistant, but also his bodyguard, and more. He paid her to remain calm, so she did. He grabbed the glass of expensive Denubian whiskey she had poured for him and tossed it back like water. “With her abilities, she had the probabilities figured down to the nearest nanosecond. What I want to know is what we’re doing about finding her. I want her back, or I want her dead. She knows too much.”

“We’re tracking her shuttle, but we can’t get out right now. She jammed the doors and changed the codes.”

“Then find someone who can get out. I want this taken care of. Now!” The expensive crystal shattered against the wall.

“What about our incoming? We’ve got a shipment scheduled for arrival in an hour. And we’re supposed to be breaking orbit in three.”

“Redirect them to the casino on planet! Get me Rutledge!”

Less than a space station, but much more than just a ship, Tyler’s Floating Fun Palace was due to leave orbit to head for their next stop. It looked like they’d be staying a little longer, which could be dangerous. If they didn’t make their next delivery on time, heads would roll. Magda and Tyler would do what was necessary to make sure theirs stayed intact. But others? That was their problem as far as Magda was concerned. Though this job had been lucrative and had nice perks, maybe it was time to cut her losses and look for a new…employer.

Once she was out of Tyler’s office, Magda headed for main control. Thankfully, the alarms had stopped, but the emergency doors were not yet open. She passed a maintenance worker who had a panel pulled off one wall.

“How long?”

“A few more minutes, ma’am. We have to do each one individually. Nobody’s been able to access the main components yet, and the AI keeps spouting some stupid line about offing people’s heads. Thank the stars we got that muted.”

Magda knew what he meant. The repeated line from some old children’s story had been driving her nuts. The girl had done her work well. “Great. Just great. What is open?”

“Between here and the promenade. We worked on getting the public stuff open first. Figured Mr. Adams would want that.”

Magda spun on her heel and headed back in the other direction. A touch on the button on her collar brought up security. “Where’s Mikels?”

“On his way in from our next port. He’s handling some stuff for the boss.”

“How long?”

“Not due for four hours.”

“Who do we have who’s either close or can get out?”

“Jamison is on his way back. He was coming in from planetside when we went dark.”

“Don’t dock him. I need to talk to him. I’ll be there in two.” Using Jamison for this wasn’t her first choice, but if she twisted it right, maybe she could make it work to her advantage.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Magda pushed her way through the crowds of patrons. Of all the times for Sabrina to run, this was the worst. People from multiple worlds attending a dozen conventions packed the station. Magda changed her thought processes. Actually, Tyler was right. This was the perfect time for the woman to have run. And of course, Sabrina knew it.

Magda made her way to security, not easy with more than half the corridors still sealed. The small office was a hive of activity as people tried to gain access to the systems, get things open or free.

“Give me Jamison,” Magda demanded of the communications officer.

“You’re on.”

“Jamison?” She shoved the com officer out of the way.

“Magda? What the hell is going on in there?” His face filled the screen, then backed off as she adjusted the feed. Three inches taller than her own six feet, he was an imposing figure on the screen and even more so in person. With his dark good looks and lean muscles, he got more than his share of admiring stares from women—and a few of the men. Shame he was such a cold bastard.

“I have a job for you.”

Head tilted, he gazed at her, one eyebrow raised, not saying a word. He rarely did. Magda shook off the feeling that he was danger personified. She dealt with cheats, liars, and murderers on a regular basis. Hell, she was a hired gun herself, but Carter Jamison gave her the shivers. There was something about him that said hands-off in multiple languages.

“That was fast. I’m not even back from the last one yet.”

“This one’s rather urgent. One of our employees has left with some valuable property. We want it back.”

His eyes narrowed at her statement. “Who?”

“Sabrina Rutledge. She took a shuttle down to the planet.” She mentally chewed a lip, then added, “I think she was meeting up with her latest boy toy. The two of them must have planned this together.”

“Why not go yourself?”

The twitch in his jaw let her know she’d hit pay dirt. “She disabled our ships and jammed the doors. You’re the only one off station who’s available.”

He snorted and shook his head, a half smile on his face. One that didn’t reach his eyes. “Got you good, didn’t she?”

That stung. Time to twist the knife a little, especially if it got her what she wanted. “You want the job, or should I call in Mikels?”

Mikels and Jamison had been at each other’s throats since Jamison had arrived on station two years ago. Mikels was a mean bastard, while Jamison was…effective, using his brain instead of just brawn. And Jamison wouldn’t be able to resist beating Mikels out of a job for Tyler. But this was the place where it got a little tricky. “Tyler prefers alive. But if an accident happens, he won’t shed any tears.”

Jamison didn’t ask what she’d taken, and Magda knew she didn’t have to explain. Sabrina herself was the commodity. Thanks to stupidity on the part of a colleague—one whom nobody would ever find thanks to garbage disintegration—who had allowed Sabrina to see too much. With Rutledge’s eidetic memory, Magda knew she and Tyler were in trouble if Sabrina got away.

A curt nod as Jamison reset his coordinates served as his acknowledgment, but it was enough for Magda to know he’d get Miss Sabrina Rutledge. And stars help the woman when he did. A woman scorned had nothing on a man who’d been used and dumped. Especially a man like Carter Jamison. And Jamison had been dumped hard by Sabrina Rutledge, thanks to Magda and Tyler. Magda almost felt sorry for Rutledge. Almost. The ghost of a smile cracked her face as she headed to her own office.

“Place a call to Senator McDern, Council home world.” The calmness in her voice belied the underlying stress. Magda sat at her desk, her fingers tapping on the smooth surface.

“Magda, my dear, how nice to hear from you.” The senator’s handsome face and public smile filled the screen.

“Senator, it’s good to see you again.” His eyes narrowed at her use of his title instead of his name. He glanced to one side and gave a quick shake of his head. “I was wondering if we could get together and chat soon.”

With those few words, she let the man know there was a problem that needed to be dealt with. And she was very good at dealing with problems. Tyler Adams could think he was in charge, but Magda knew where the real power was. The senator might have a great public face, but she knew the machinations going on behind that facade. He was not a man who took failure lightly, and Tyler Adams had failed gloriously.

“I would love to do that, my dear, but I’m afraid right now is not a good time. Will you be available in, say, an hour?”

She nodded. “That would be fine, Senator. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Magda signed off and tilted back in her chair. She ran over all the choices she had for taking care of Sabrina Rutledge, Carter Jamison, and Tyler Adams. Of the three, Tyler would be the easiest, but she had to make it look right. The smile returned as she rose and went to the compartment hidden in her bathing room. A moment later, she’d selected a vial of clear liquid from several in the shallow hole. “This will do the trick,” she said. “And all he has to do is be himself.”

* * * *

Brina’s head swam as she sped toward the planet. She set the coordinates for a low-orbit approach to the nearest landing station, coming in from the back side of the planet. It was a long way around, but it would keep her hidden from most of Tyler’s scans. She blew out a long breath. She’d made it. Tyler Adams and his dirty group would soon be done. Closing her eyes, she leaned back and relaxed for the first time in days.

And jerked back up when the little ship sideslipped, then rolled.

“What the…” She grabbed the controls, wrestling the little ship. A quick glance out the forward viewscreen showed a desert area with no towns or spaceports in sight. The ship fought back as it rocked and rolled, climbing and diving, making her queasy. Her coordinates spun all over the place. It was as if everything in the ship had suddenly gone berserk.

A virus? But how? She’d chosen the ship at random, and nobody had known she was leaving. Nobody. Besides, it wasn’t acting like a virus. More like something was haywire with the electronics.

If she had had a free hand, Sabrina would have slapped her forehead. “Of course! Idiot. Ki crystals.” Though she’d never visited this planet beyond the main spaceport, she’d heard about the unique crystals found in the surrounding deserts. A crystal the size of her fist could power a midsize space station. But unless they were specially shielded, they could also disrupt electronic devices, including small shuttle ships. She’d calculated their disruption, but the reality was much worse than she’d counted on.

She tried to gain enough control to rise above the desert, but nothing she did worked. “Maybe it won’t be so bad,” she tried to convince herself. “After all, if I can’t track anything, Tyler can’t track me. Right? Right.”

If she could keep control of the shuttle and if she could land safely. Two very big ifs at that point. The ship flipped over, and she saw the ground rushing up at her. Nothing she did righted the craft. She struggled with the controls as the electronic interference continued. “Buckle up, folks,” she whispered. “It’s gonna get rough.”

She finally managed to right the craft, but the ground came up fast. Too fast. She fought the buffeting. The one disadvantage of being a statistical engineer was that she could never get the numbers just right for herself. Anyone or anything else, yes, but not herself. When she’d calculated the odds of her surviving this trip, they hadn’t been good. In fact, almost every scenario ended up with her dead.

“So I cross my fingers and hope for the best,” she said as the little ship headed for the rocky terrain. A minute later, her head bounced off the seat and her safety straps jerked, biting into her shoulders as she hit dirt. Rocks splattered her viewport and pinged off the outside as the craft rolled and skidded. Inside, sparks flew from damaged wiring, stinging where they touched her skin. The copilot’s side buckled in, and a panel popped off and flew at her, catching her in the side. Pain exploded through her body.

What seemed like an eternity later, the ship shuddered to a stop. Fortunately, it was more or less upright. Sabrina smelled burned components, and smoke curled from one corner. The corner where she’d stowed her survival gear. She had to get it and get out of there.

She reached up to unlatch the harness and gasped in pain. Her vision narrowed to a tunnel. Passing out was definitely a possibility. She breathed deeply, willing the pain to abate, then took stock. Her right arm might be broken. A gash caused by the flying panel showed through a tear in her left pant leg, and her head felt as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to it.

Brina used her left hand to release the harness, biting her lip as her shoulder came free of the restraints. Jaw clenched, she swiveled the pilot seat around to face the four passenger seats behind her. She used her good hand and arm to stand and shuffle to the first row. Next to the left seat, she opened a panel and pulled out the first-aid kit. She coughed in the thickening smoke and grabbed a tube of sealant. There wasn’t enough salve in the tube to cover a knee scrape. She squeezed what cream there was onto her leg.

Whoever had said the stuff was pain free had lied. She panted, tears streaming until the analgesic set in, bringing a welcome numbness to the jagged cut. At least the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. It would hold until she could bind the wound.

Hobbling to the back where the smoke was the thickest, she held her breath and felt around for her bag. Once she had it, she fumbled for the airlock pad and punched in the code to open the hatch.

It didn’t budge.

“No! Open your damned door!” Brina pounded on the solid mass and crouched down to the floor to get a breath of fresher air. She couldn’t think. There had to be another way out. Shuttles always had two ways out. The main one, and one for an emergency, which this certainly was.

“Think, Sabrina. Use your brain. If the back is blocked, where would the other exit be?”

Brina limped to the front and studied the controls. She knew enough to get the thing from station to planet and back again, but that was about it. Squinting through the thickening air, she spied a bright red handle. “Best guess.”

She yanked the lever, but nothing happened. Then she saw a switch underneath. “Of course. Can’t make it easy, otherwise it would open in space.” She hit the switch and yanked again and the front viewscreen popped up, letting in a gush of hot, dry desert air. Thankful enough to want to kiss the grainy ground, she took in deep breaths. “At least it’s fresh.”

Behind her, something burst, and she scrambled out seconds ahead of spouting flames. Screaming at the pain, she rolled off the shuttle onto the rocky ground. “Get away. Move your ass, Sabrina.” She tried to get up, but couldn’t so she crawled toward an overhang, the grit and sand digging into her injured leg. She reached the blessed shade, then darkness overtook her.