Here is the opening of Edward Hoornaert’s
new science fiction romance,
The Guardian Angel of Farflung Station,
available from MuseItUp Publishing
It was sheer luck Duke spotted the girl—young, skinny, and smudged with dirt—weaving through the crowd in Magenta 7’s main corridor. Her baggy smock blended with the soiled gray walls in this crew-quarters pod. Every second lamp was out, Quartermaster MacDougall’s dismal idea of economy, and the girl loitered in the dark stretches and sped through the light. A ghost couldn’t have moved with more silent grace, or a greater air of innocent unconcern.
In other words, she was up to no good.
Probably just youthful mischief, nothing important enough to warrant the attention of Farflung Space Station’s principal security officer. Duke considered calling one of his patrollers, but rejected the thought. He wanted his staff focused on preparations for the upcoming VIP visit, so he tailed the soundless waif himself. The task might get his mind off his own problems.
In four months, he’d raised Security’s professionalism from pathetic to mediocre. Give him another four months and they’d match any station in Civ Space—or at least any antiquated station with an under-funded, undermanned detachment.
Yet his people didn’t hate him, despite how hard he rode them. They even respected him. Maybe he shouldn’t have deliberately flunked Officer Potential Training. Sure, the purple-faced apoplexy of General Father Sir and Lieutenant General Mother Sir seemed worth it at the time, but it turned out Duke had a knack for leadership. Ironic. When he discovered his niche in life, it was pretty much what his family wanted him to do…though never on a run-down backwater like this. The horror of such a posting. The degradation.
Duke chuckled. He liked Farflung Station just fine, thank you. Unlike a new station, it exuded a friendly, lived-in aura. He was getting to know folks because the place was small, with fewer than five thousand residents. Of course, a large station at Civ Space’s core would give him more chances to prove to his parents and his twin brother, Hector, he’d reformed. One day, though…
The waif turned out of Magenta 7 and into Magenta 8. Duke followed with unworried steps, because surely such an innocent-looking girl couldn’t do anything seriously illegal.
Twenty meters ahead, she paused in a shadow and looked back. She saw him—this corridor was less busy, and there was no place to hide—but she couldn’t realize he was following her. His gauzer made sure of that, blurring his features and altering them from time to time. Without one of Security’s com analyzers, she couldn’t identify him from one change to another.
As unobtrusively as possible, he pulled his own analyzer from his leather belt, a present from his mother’s Chief of Staff when he left for the Academy. He pointed the analyzer at his quarry and then waited until she vanished around the corner into Magenta 9, near the station’s outer rim. He read the analyzer.
Odd. Duke tapped the analyzer and repeated the query. Again, nothing.
Because of her dirty station-issued clothing, he’d assumed she was from one of Farflung’s poor families, but she must be off a ship. At any given time, the station housed a couple thousand transient spacers, shipping goods to or from the planet the station orbited. The analyzer should’ve found her regardless, but Duke altered the search parameters and tried again.
That was impossible—or should have been. Spacers were in the databanks, registered dockside and given a temporary ID tattoo. It must be a slipup, but Security needed to fix these kinds of things before that blasted VIP arrived.
The suspect cast a furtive glance backward when she reached the next intersection. Her eyes shifted, looking around without moving her head. Her frown, just before she turned in to a deserted cul-de-sac off Magenta 12, made her look older, more dangerous.
She was about to strike. Abandoning subterfuge, Duke ran around the corner.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
She was gone.
Vanished like a ghost.
She couldn’t be gone. All four doors on the cul-de-sac were closed, with red stripes glowing down the middle of the handles to indicate privacy locks. She couldn’t live here, because this pod housed single male crew only. She might be someone’s dolly, but if she was, he’d lock that someone up for underage sexual congress.
Switching modes on his com analyzer, he scanned each door. The only one not vacant was M128, assigned to P.R. Bahadur, a Life Support Technician new to Farflung. The analyzer screen drew a green stick person, bending at the waist in the middle of the room to stare at the room’s comp outlet. Underneath the outline, in flashing chartreuse, appeared the words Unauthorized Entry Key Detected.
Duke ran through a mental checklist to determine whether he had probable cause, which he insisted his people think about before taking action. Yes, he did. Then, on the com analyzer, he initiated an Emergency Entry and tapped in authorization and crime codes.
The pocket door slid into the wall with a whoosh. The girl was poking at Bahadur’s computer, but she jerked upright with a classic caught-in-the-act expression: wide eyes, wrinkled forehead, trembling lips.
When Duke strode into the room, she tried to dart past him. He caught her waist in the crook of his elbow. With his other elbow, he tapped the jamb, closing the door.
“Principal Officer Dukelsky,” he began, “Station—” Flailing at him, she slapped him in the mouth. “—Security,” he finished.
She raised her hand again, but he caught her wrist. She hadn’t clawed his face when she had the chance, so he was gentle but firm. With one arm, he lifted her and deposited her on the unmade bed across from the comp outlet.
She bounced back up as though the mattress were a trampoline. Grabbing her again, Duke’s legs got caught in hers and they both tripped. He landed on top of her on the bed, breaking the fall with his arms.
As she squirmed under him, Duke realized he’d been wrong. She wasn’t a girl. Her body was mature enough to remind him he hadn’t been in bed with a female in far too long. Ignoring the growing awareness, he circled her wrists with one hand and held them over her head.
“Stop fighting,” he ordered.
Though her lips were clenched and her lower jaw jutted forward, she stopped struggling.
“That’s better, ma’am. If I let you up, do you promise no more fighting?”
Her jaw remained set. She said nothing.
Duke gave an exasperated sigh. “You’re making it harder on yourself. By the book, then. State your name, occupation, tattoo ID, and residence pod.”
She said nothing. The only sound she made was a tiny shlup, as though sucking down saliva.
“What were you doing at the comp outlet?”
Nothing but silence.
“Were you transferring Technician Bahadur’s credits to your own account?”
She pursed in lips in outrage and gave a passionate headshake.
“What’s your name?”
Without answering, she stared up at him. Her fierce expression softened. Her eyes went wide and dreamy. Her hips twitched against his, reminding Duke he was lying on top of—and reacting to—a woman who didn’t mind this intimate, full-body contact.
His animal self didn’t mind, either. Silent Sally felt wonderful. Which was terrible.
She stared up with a tiny smile. From up close, he estimated her age at mid-twenties. Her small size, baggy smock, and large eyes had fooled him. Her tousled hair was black except where a shaft of light revealed brown and red undertones. Though no beauty, underneath the smudges and grease she was an appealing little elf, soft in all the right places, warm, sexy, and—
Time to get off her, man. Now.
Rolling to one side, Duke reached for the wrist ribbons tucked into the back of his belt. When he started to string them around her hands, she shook her head with the same exaggerated vehemence as when she’d denied transferring credits.
“If I don’t cuff you, will you cooperate?”
When he stood, her gaze zeroed in on his crotch. She smirked.
No, she didn’t. He expected a smirk because his unprofessional reaction deserved one, or worse, yet her face broadcast only self-satisfied surprise. He sat on the edge of the bed and laid his com analyzer across his lap. Hey, that was the only place to put it.
While he recited Farflung’s statement of prisoner rights—they’d had none before he arrived—she listened silently.
“State your name, ma’am, how you came to use an unauthorized override to gain access, and why you were fiddling with Technician Bahadur’s comp outlet.”
She gave a quick shake of the head. Her eyes glazed and a line of saliva appeared at the corner of her mouth, but the fake, don’t-blame-me-I’m-a-mental-defective routine came too late.
“By all the Draynian gods, you said you’d cooperate,” he reminded.
With a sigh and a shrug, Silent Sally studied him. Duke studied her, as well. Flawless toffee-colored skin enveloped a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were smoky gray, a concealing sort of color, as though she hid her soul behind a smokescreen, yet there was none of the guilty evasiveness of your average petty thief. Her eyes proclaimed a shy yet knowing innocence—and an unabashed interest in him.
This woman was a baffling parcel of contradictions and paradoxes hiding unselfconscious sex appeal. And in response, nerve signals shot up and down his spine in an unprecedented display of synaptic fireworks.
Like most security professionals, he believed in hunches. Translated into expert-speak, hunches were subconscious personality assessments based on years of study and professional experience. Hunches elevated human cops over robots. A hunch told him Silent Sally wasn’t dangerous…to anyone but him, that is.
Duke paused to analyze his motivation, as training dictated. Was he thinking with his groin?
Well, yes and no. Being as honest as possible, no, she probably wasn’t a case for Security. But yes, his groin was part of the inner dialogue.
With a growl, Duke tore his gaze from her mesmerizing eyes. He was getting carried away by the first delicious body he’d held since he took command of this station’s detachment. Hormones and frustration, that’s all he was feeling. Not premonitions. Not desire.
“Talk,” he barked in his best cop voice.
After another quick shlup, she opened her mouth wide.
She had no tongue.
* * * *
Sandrina paused in the corridor and gazed back into the open room. After Principal Officer Dukelsky had checked the comp outlet and discovered only a repair manual had been opened, he apologized and let her go.
Why? He hadn’t said, but undoubtedly, it was because she was disfigured. Crippled.
At one level, his sympathy delighted her. The piercing intelligence of his eyes had enthralled her during the very first news feed announcing his hiring. Her crush intensified after listening—from the back of the room—whenever he gave a witty yet earnest speech about improvements to security. She was three-quarters in love even before he climbed on top of her.
But deep down, his sympathy infuriated her. He should’ve chucked her in a chicken coop for breaking and entering, with added time for having an illegal lock override. At a bare minimum, he should have frisked her. With extreme thoroughness.
She edged away while he watched from near the foot of the bed, his forehead wrinkled with a bemused, lopsided expression. As the door slid shut, their gazes met. Sandrina thrust out an arm to stop the door, and then stalked over to him. With every step, she warned herself to turn around.
What are you going to do, demand he arrest you? Scat while the scatting’s good, you idiot. Don’t press your luck.
Yet she pressed on. Stopping close to him, she craned her neck upward. He needed to shave. His lips were parted, revealing straight, white teeth hinting at conscientious, caring parents. A cleft added character to a strong, square chin, proclaiming his effortless masculine dominance. By all the stars, he was lovely.
“I apologize again, ma’am, for my roughness. You have to admit, though, you were acting mighty sus—”
With the stiffened fingers of both hands, Sandrina jabbed his chest. He stumbled back and hit the bed. Oofing and flailing, he toppled backward onto the mattress.
Dusting off her palms in a theatrical manner, Sandrina marched away.
As soon as the door was closed, she leaned against a bulkhead and hugged her elbows. He was so strong and tall and broad-shouldered. He’d casually overpowered her, but hadn’t hurt her—like a determined yet gentle lover. Best of all, he stood on the starry side of the war between darkness and light, good and evil.
Never had she felt anything as thrilling as his hot, hard body pressing her into the mattress. And she was sure he’d felt—
Her daydream burst with an almost audible pop. Fleeting lust, that’s all he’d felt. Principal Officer Dukelsky, powerful, intelligent, righteous, and handsome, could have any unmarried woman on the station. Lots of the married ones, too. No way he’d be interested in her, except as a charity case. Sandrina heaved a sigh that seemed to empty her of life.
Oh, get over it, you idiot. This is just one more disappointment in a life crammed with disappointments. You’ll survive. You always have.
On the bright side, she’d achieved her goal—to insert an electronic bookmark into Technician Bahadur’s Life Support Upkeep manual. She tried to focus on that success.
Two hours ago, she had slunk through Farflung’s dark and dirty mechanical underbelly, her favored route across the station because it was usually deserted. This time, though, Bahadur was there, prodding a dusty machine and cursing. Curious, Sandrina snuck as close as possible without being seen. Her psi senses, although limited to reading a person’s greatest need and greatest fear at short range, had told his story.
His greatest fear: People in the station would notice stale air if he didn’t get the plarking, mother-effing CO2 stabilized. Mere months into a new career, his reputation on Farflung Station would be dirt.
His greatest need: Bring the carbon dioxide levels back below 1000 ppm…but he hadn’t been trained on centuries-old equipment like Farflung’s.
Sandrina hadn’t either, of course, but she’d read every tech manual in the restricted sections of the space station’s memory banks. One of her hobbies, you might say. She had a knack for recognizing and remembering important sections. She could visualize the exact passage Bahadur needed. That page was a masterpiece of succinct technical writing, featuring a charming table with links to all possible atmospheric adjustments.
She couldn’t walk up and tell him, obviously. In addition to being mute, she wasn’t authorized to be down there. Experience warned that if she wrote out her suggestion, he’d just laugh and call her a defective. So she had resorted to her other hobby: stealth. No one had ever caught her, until Principal Officer Dukelsky.
Despite that embarrassing and stimulating setback, everything should work out. She would forget about Duke, eventually. He would forget about her, quickly. If Bahadur had any intelligence, he’d search his manuals again and stumble on the bookmark she’d inserted. Maybe he’d think some previous technician entered it. Maybe he’d curse himself for missing the obvious and thank his lucky stars for saving him from his greatest fear.
And a pinprick of light would blaze like a distant sun, dispelling a corner of the station’s eternal, infernal darkness. Such tiny, anonymous victories over the galaxy’s pervasive evil made her lonely existence bearable.