Sneak Peek at THE BOUNDARY ZONE
A century and a half before I was born, a Kindiran woman warned her race of their coming doom.
Her pleas for caution were met with ridicule.
She offered hope for salvation, but like all legends, interpretation of truth is often impossible until a foretelling comes to fruition.
A two-headed chameleon, born of a false mother…. Those who listened thought her mad.
Electricity crackled through Kindiran veins, igniting a pride the likes of which the universe has never since seen.
They bought her silence with a blade slicked in blood.
And within a year, their less evolved cousins hunted them to extinction.
But that’s what humans have always been good at.
Mackenzie Flack had been electrocuted more times than she’d been kissed.
And she’d enjoyed more of the zaps.
She slapped a magnetic light strip against the crumpled bulkhead. The cicada-like device glowed a steady yellow as it clicked to life and she peered into the compartment laid open like a cadaver’s chest cavity.
Clotted with splintered wire casings and grime-coated tubing, the cube held no electrical buzz of life.
Her fingers slid over the row of tools spread across her lap. Metal as cold as the stale air around her stung at her skin.
She should have brought gloves.
Studying the connections that held the tertiary atmosphere processor in place, she murmured, “Laser scalpel.”
Mack stretched out her stiff fingers and plucked the blade from its banding. It flared to life, her only option now that she’d seen the damage.
A whirring chirp echoed from her hip and she flinched at the too-loud noise. She slapped a hand against her belt to muffle it to an indistinct burble. One quick glance down the desolate corridor and she forced herself to relax. No one had come to crash the party.
She snatched the incessant comm plug from its pouch and juggled the blade into her other hand, holding it like an over-long cigarette.
Stabbing herself in the face wasn’t on the day’s agenda.
Pressing the plug into her ear and double tapping the fleshy surface, she said, “Serrano’s Pizza and Pig Wings, if we’re not there in five minutes, feel free to assault the delivery boy.”
A beleaguered sigh filtered through the comm. It laced a shiver down her spine like an expertly wielded cube of ice. Not that Commander Whitney “Cable” Carr would play that game with her.
“That’s not funny, Kenzie,” he said, using the nickname she only allowed two people to use. One, now.
“Come on, you know you want to laugh.” Crouched in the decommissioned central corridor of Celesta Station’s sector ten, Mack pursed her lips and waited for his reply.
Cable grunted and a screech echoed through her earpiece, followed by a too-familiar, heavy clunk.
“If you want to set up a play date, you have to stop calling me while I’m at work,” Mack said, flicking her scalpel between the correct fingers. “I can’t flirt with you and do my job. It’s unprofessional.”
Cable knew she wasn’t on duty. Fixing the things they still needed and decomming parts like this one already spoken for by other parts of fleet was limited to twelve hours a day, and she would have been going on sixteen.
Her job was the reason she knew the processor was here… and that no one would miss it.
Information didn’t buy itself, and her job didn't cover the cost of treason.
“Illegal Acquisition Specialist” didn’t jive with station admin’s idea of a legitimate vocation.
“Thank Goddess for budget cuts,” she muttered under her breath.
“Talking to yourself again?” The word filtered through a labored breath.
She traced a line on the wall, blue laser leaving an orange scar. “You don’t have to come bail me out. Promise.”
The sound of the air processors in Cable’s comm line disappeared as he muttered a word his mother would have sprayed his mouth out with sanitizer for--and had done, at least twice.
She had exactly twenty seconds to get the TAP out of its housing and vanish into the maintenance ducts.
“Don’t think about ghosting on me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, forcing cheeriness through clenched teeth.
Her heart hammered inside her chest like a misfiring piston. The protesting screams of the blast door made her flinch and she echoed Cable’s earlier curse.
Prying them open was an asinine move, one he would bust any security crew for.
She had ten seconds to disappear.
Dropping the scalpel on the decking and ignoring the smell of burning polymer tread, she braced her boot against the bulkhead and grabbed hold of the thing with both hands.
“Come on, you ugly piece of crap.” She leaned so far back, she could see the dark square of her escape route.
Freedom was right there.
Five feet, five inches tall with a figure that had always been made fun of as boyish, she could get through that claustrophobic spaces reserved for cleaning drones, maintenance bots, and errant orphans.
Cable couldn't follow her there. His were not the shoulders of a man built for navigating ducting.
Five seconds and she saw the problem.
The final terminal had sheared off at the connector and compressed on the rod.
If it was anyone else coming for her, she would have risked using her micro torch.
Anyone but Cable.
He wouldn't do anything if she let him catch her.
He hadn’t yet.
He’d caught her plenty of times.
Gritting her teeth, she grabbed the still-burning scalpel and snaked her hand into the compartment.
It broke free and she yanked as hard as she could.
One more pull….
The little bastard eased loose the same moment the shadows from her strip light shifted.
She managed not to curse. Pulling the device from its housing, she moved methodically. He didn’t need to know how much it rankled when she lost their little game. “I thought I’d die of old age before you got here.”
He shifted and she didn’t have to look up at him to know he’d crossed his arms and fixed her with that all too familiar scowl.
“Why are you dead set on getting yourself thrown in lock up?”
He was cute when he pretended to scold her.
“And,” he growled, “why are you smiling.”
Shrugging, she wrapped the TAP in anti-static padding. “I’m a bad influence on you.”
“Goddess knows you try.”
The exasperation in his voice hinted that he’d like her to be. But that was a trick her mind played, looking for things it wanted to hear.
“What are we going to do about your stalking habit?” She flicked off her scalpel and waved the handle in the direction of the light spilling into the far end of the corridor from the unseen, abandoned blast door. “Someone might think you’ve got a thing for me. Following me into decommissioned sections to watch me dissect the guts of the station. How would your superiors feel about that?”
Eyes on the corridor, he grimaced and echoed her words. “How do you think your brother would feel about this?”
Her first instinct was to punch him in the knee and see how he felt about the floor.
Her second, well…. The humorous retort caught in her throat like the dry husk of a dead beetle.
It was a low blow, and Cable had the decency to look away, face pinched as though she had punched him… just aimed a little higher.
Stretching out the fingers on the hand she’d unconsciously balled into a fist, she said, “He’d be mad I got caught.”
Cable didn’t need to know his best friend had taught her how to steal for fun and profit. Or that he’d given her half the contacts currently on her buyers list.
Aaron was dead.
She made her own trouble now.
That line of thought stabbed at her with an icy knife.
Goddess, she was a mess.
Fists resting on his gun belt, Cable glared at the floor beside her, jaw a stiff line.
Six months of redundant station duty for him--and minor crimes for her--was not long enough to heal the cavity her brother had left behind.
Blinking, she turned back to the part in her lap. “You didn’t have to come all the way down here. I don’t need supervision and we both know you aren’t going to arrest me.”
He would have hauled her up from the floor already if he’d intended anything resembling punishment.
When the silence had stretched too long, she asked, “How do you always manage to find me?”
She didn’t look up as she tucked the processor into her duffel.
“Maybe I’ve learned how to track you through the system’s sensors without the locator ID badge you so conveniently forget in your habcube, or Gunk’s bar,” he said, and then, glancing over his shoulder, he added, “Or, maybe I thought you’d been too quiet and expected something worse than this.”
It had been two days since she’d forced him to drag his ass out of his comfy chair up in station ops.
“Did you miss me?” she asked with a flirtatious lilt, knowing he wouldn’t rise to her bait.
“Get up and step away from the TAP, Kenzie.” His hand wrapped around her bicep and he pulled her to her feet. “I’m the first one here, but Bezzon and his team aren’t far behind. You don’t want to deal with that creep on your own.”
“Two seconds is all I need. Promise.” She pulled her arm from his grasp, plucked up her bag, and shoved it into the maintenance duct.
“It’s been great catching up.” Blowing a kiss, she crouched down to wiggle in behind the part.
“Not this time.” His hands wrapped around her shoulders and he pulled her upright. “You’re not getting away that easily.”
He kicked the maintenance hatch closed. It sealed with a vacuum pop as the first flicker of lights shone around the curved corridor.
Cable held her in place as though he thought she would bolt at any second. “Relax. It’s just a man you hate and an unlikely prison sentence. You’ve dealt with worse.”
Sadly, he was right.
His hand still on her shoulder, he squeezed, thumb pressing into a knot she’d had for weeks. She pulled away and shot him a coy smile.
If Bezzon was the one coming for her, she’d need all her mental faculties intact. And Cable’s touch was counterproductive to that goal.
“Next thing I know, you’ll be pulling my hair.” She tugged the tie from her sloppy bun and shook out the long locks everyone thought she dyed.
It was a sort of shield, and Bezzon was more of a creep than Cable knew.
Her hair was among the lieutenant’s favorite subjects. How much he liked that it fell to the top of her ass. How much he’d enjoy learning just what it covered, sans jumpsuit.
It was a subtle weapon of distraction she had no problem employing. Especially when the one person on the station he was afraid of stood next to her.
Cable glanced at the curls falling down her back and for half a second, she hoped he’d call her bluff. Catching Commander Carr in a PDA would set the rumor mills abuzz.
That she was the second party would likely start them ablaze.
He gave her a sidelong glance, “I’ll offer the next time I’m not in a position to arrest you.”
“I always knew you wanted to use those cuffs on me for non-regulation purposes.” She glanced at the items secured in the pouch at his hip and watched him flush.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, he looked at the ceiling as if asking the Goddess for patience. “Someday, a doctor is going to ask me how I got an ulcer the size of the Horsehead Nebula. My only available reply is going to be ‘Mackenzie Dee Flack’ and they won’t understand.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.” Mack managed to keep in a laugh. “They’d be too afraid to do anything other than nod in vehement agreement.”
He snorted, a low, quick sound. “You’re not afraid of me.”
“I’ve known you too long. And besides, I’m too clever for you to punish.” She met his gaze and raised her brows, waiting for his contradiction.
For a moment, he was so still, she thought he’d let it go.
“We’ll see about that.” He studied her face and then, he reached out.
And tugged a single curl.
She couldn’t look at him. Swallowing the jumbled mess of possible responses, Mack watched the darkness of the distant corridor wall and put all her energy into rolling her tool kit and securing it to her belt.
Cable knew he shouldn’t have done it.
Her teasing was a temptation he wasn’t allowed to fall victim to, and yet… he toed that line every damned day.
Kenzie was the sort of person who delighted in confusing people. It started with her appearance: she could have been her older brother’s twin--and had, on several occasions pinned her hair up and painted her face to match. In the right outfit, few people could tell the difference… until she opened her mouth.
She spoke softly when people expected her to scream--and the uninformed took that to mean she wasn’t dangerous.
And every once in awhile, she did exactly what was expected of her… just to throw everyone off.
That was why she was on the station. They’d expected her to follow him here. Which was why he’d flinched at the sight of her. Or, it could have been the fact that she’d looked more like her dead brother that day, and he’d thought he was seeing a ghost.
But Aaron was a soldier who liked his guns and played tech because he was good at it, not because he enjoyed it.
Kenzie… she lived for live wires.
She practically glowed when she was around a system in need of repair.
Joy had always been something Aaron lacked. Maybe the military had beaten it out of him. Maybe that was why….
Swallowing against those thoughts, he focused on Kenzie. She wasn’t looking at him now, and he took the brief moment. Opportunities to remind himself people like her did exist in the universe were few and far between… and soon, they’d be gone. Or, rather, his regular diet of late, would be interrupted.
She’d done more to heal him in the last six months than anything the fleet could have prescribed.
As much as Cable wanted to be on Celesta, the station kept him caged, and helping one of his friends meant he was unable to help others.
The Boundary Wars were coming to an end. The last of the rogue states were slowly being dealt with. But somehow, Maeltar’s rebellious forces still attacked them with startling results.
When the reports of the Curran’s disappearance came through, Cable knew there was only one woman who had the manpower and the hubris to steal a warship and think she could get away with it.
Maeltar had always been his problem. And now Cable was on the sidelines, watching someone else hunt his nemesis down.
Maybe they’d be able to do what he never had. The universe would be better off without the woman who claimed to be a queen.
He squatted down and looked into the empty cavity. Slapped to the wall, the strip light was bright enough to leave phantom blurs in his vision. He’d caught sight of the side readout before he’d looked away. 110% output. And it had been running three minutes longer than its listed lifespan.
But that was one of the reasons he’d been able to get Kenzie the Celesta contract. Batteries seemed to last longer when she’d installed them. An ‘unfixable’ disconnect would be able to stagger along until a replacement was found, or the system attached to it was taken fully off line.
She joked that she was magic… he was more than ready to believe it.
She could look at a hole in a panel, tell you what was supposed to be there, how long it had been absent, and what it would take to bypass--even on the rare occasion she hadn’t been the one to take it.
And she could put those bypasses in even when they seemingly broke the laws of electrodynamics.
“I know you’re going to spin some boring story to Bezzon when he gets here, but you could tell me the truth. Why this one? What are you going to do with a tertiary atmosphere processor? They’re only good for emergencies. If you’re relying on one of these, you’d better have an O2 mask at hand.”
The station had redundancies stacked on backups piled on contingencies. This particular technology was old enough it couldn’t have been easily replaced if they’d intended to salvage the station.
“Half the older generation of stations runs with three tier enviro systems,” she said. As if that explained anything.
He sorted through the burnt scraps of her hasty extraction and waited for her to tell him something he didn’t already know.
“Half of those are jury-rigged to bypass their TAPs because they’re are failing from disuse. Celesta had regular tests. They switched enviros over to these babies twice every quarter, just to make sure the wires never corroded. The battle axe of a station supervisor you replaced was remarkably thorough.”
“I know, I’ve seen her notes.” He held out his hand. “Let me see your micro-torch.”
She handed it over without a question, and he cut at the bolts she’d removed, shearing things off, and gouging the inner housing at non-critical points.
“I doubt Bezzon will look too closely, but if he does, he’ll never accept you were this sloppy.”
Grimacing at the ugly mess he’d left behind, she took the torch back.
“So you’re going to sell it to some other station in desperate need.”
“No,” she said with a smile. “After all, that would be a crime, and no station supervisor worth his ballast would buy stolen goods. If I was going to do anything, I’d sell it to someone who could sell it to a broker who would then pass it along via legitimate channels.”
“And watch the price jack up each time.”
Her smile tightened before she said, “I can’t control what happens to it after it leaves my hands.”
“Hypothetically.” Cable reminded her.
She smiled, and dipped her head in a half nod. “Of course. When the subbie gets here, I’ll be sure to couch all my suppositions in hypotheticals or hyperbole.”
Bezzon wouldn’t question why Kenzie was with him. She was, after all, the head civilian tech on the station, and one of the few people in the systems who knew what went where in any system without a manual or circuit map.
Kicking a loose bolt, Kenzie sighed and sagged back against the bulkhead. She was just as impatient as her brother had been.
“I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what you’re running away from down here, and I’ll tell you who asked me to take incriminating photos of you.” She flashed him a bright smile. “I said no, of course. And not just because I know how camera shy you are.”
He considered making a counter offer--because he highly doubted her hypothetical buyer existed--but it wasn’t a trade he could make.
What he was running from was classified.
The disappearance of Curran was bad enough. As soon as that news had come down, he’d felt like he was drowning. Finding a moment to breathe in station ops was like finding a pebble in the vastness of the galaxy.
He’d hunted Kenzie down as a distraction. One she’d readily given him time and again during his temporary assignment.
Between system failures, lagging decom timetables, asinine bureaucracy getting in his way, and the small problem of the crassicau population on the station, he was ready to vent someone out an airlock… maybe he’d accept the honor himself.
Aaron had offered a dozen times, maybe he could convince Kenzie to punch the button.
Kenzie knocked his arm with her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
He bit back the impulse to say “everything.” He knew her too well to give her that opening. “It’s classified.”
“Ah, if you tell me, you’ll have to vent me.”
He looked down and away. She was too perceptive to show her exactly how that line of thought squeezed at his heart as though it was trapped in a clawed vise.
“They could do what they like, Kenz, but you’re the one person who’s safe from me.” He’d already done horrific things to protect her.
He wouldn’t choose differently if presented with the exact situation again.
Even though he had to lie about it from now until he died, or until the guilt weakened him into confessing. The latter was, sadly, more likely.
He looked at the time on his comm band and rolled his eyes. Bezzon’s team should have been on site by now.
If he’d been on a ship in the Zone, he’d have taken that as potential for foul play… here, and with that particular sub-lieutenant, chances were slim.
Though, he and Kenzie both would be happy if that particular subbie had fallen down an open lift shaft. Now that thought made him smile, and she shot him a suspicious look.
She nodded. They’d known each other long enough for her to not bother commenting.
“So what are you running away from today?”
He couldn’t tell her that, and not because anyone would try to kill her for it.
No one who knew him would argue that Cable was the smartest man in the sector. After all, he’d let himself wind up on Celesta Station when he could have been doing more important work elsewhere.
But he was smart enough to know he shouldn’t have done that.
It didn’t change the fact he did, or that he probably would have done it again, given the opportunity.
His office up in Station Ops was more of a jail cell than the one he probably deserved, but no one on the admiral’s council had even suggested carting him off to a prison planet after the incident on XT-756-4.
They’d demoted him, of course. Couldn’t have a captain--no matter how many useless medals they’d pinned to his chest--get away with seemingly ignoring an officer’s treason. As far as they were concerned, his best friend’s death, and year on garbage duty was more than enough punishment.
They hadn’t even bothered to put the word “accessory” in his file.
But more information on the aftermath of his “problem” had come through a moment before the proverbial twelve hells broke loose.
The man who’d pushed his way into Cable’s office demanding special dispensation for his five crassicau workers was the last straw.
Fleet regulations wouldn’t allow them on the station now that the transfer was complete. Regardless of the fact Cable would gladly have kept the men who were considered anathema over the one blustering about their removal, orders were orders. A reminder of policy and threat of hefty fines on top of premature eviction had got the man moving. But the stench of his attitude had remained, and Cable couldn’t stand his office any longer.
He’d all but run into the man when he exited the lift from station ops. He and his workers--the latter heavily leathered, their malleable shackles crusted with the serum-like secretions the torture produced--stood in his way.
He was the only one with his back to Cable, and the crassicau had eyed him with the detached loathing he’d come to expect--knew he and every other human who’d let their race be subjugated deserved.
One opened his mouth in a threatening smile, and the thick patches of his skin had broken apart on his cheeks, cracking like arid clay.
A glance over his shoulder and the merchant had hustled them away.
The crassicau were genetically human, but that didn’t matter to the people in the Boundary Zone that still bought and sold them as slaves.
It was one of the many concessions the fleet had made to placate the people they’d claimed governance over. It was one of the few Cable wanted to disown them for.
The harried residents, the clattering tear down, and the stress of the data work he’d left in his office grated on him until all he wanted to do was go down to the Atrium, toss his comm band into the pond, and wait for someone to come accuse him of dereliction of duty.
So when his second in command gave him the heads up that their tech thief had tripped a sensor, he’d been more than happy to race the security team down and let Kenzie provide a distraction.
“Who’s this one for?” He asked, jerking a thumb toward the closed maintenance hatch.
“I don’t reveal my buyers to anyone. You know that.” She cracked her knuckles and moved just far enough away she could look at him without tilting her head up. “Because the people who want to know are either like you, and want to arrest them, or are looking to poach my clients. And I can’t allow that, now can I?”
She’d unzipped her jumpsuit at some point, and the vibrant pink of her undershirt glowed in the slow dimming of the strip light. She wore her brother’s ID chip on a leather cord around her neck.
He’d known what Aaron would think about her thefts before he’d asked her. Aaron had likely taught her everything he knew. And he had no doubt that Kenzie’s buyer list had started off in Aaron’s hand.
If he could remove her demand, she’d no longer have to supply, and he wouldn’t have to worry about what would happen when she wound up with the barrel of a modified PA145 hand cannon pressed against her perfect little nose.
He knew how much they were paying her to supervise the legitimate removal of parts…. Her normal salary was comfortable.
And he’d keep telling himself that when he finally found a way to cut off her secondary source of income.
“You’re doing that thing again.”
Kenzie had crossed her arms and was looking down at him like she’d like to flick his nose.
“Which one is that?” He asked, turning away so she couldn’t see his face--and the scowl she was about to scold him for.
“Playing mama bear.”
That was not the accusation he’d expected, and he laughed.
It was a sound that he’d missed. One that he knew he’d miss a while longer.
But before he could break the bad news, the sound of hard boot steps further down the corridor finally reached them, and he stood, dusting off his hands.
“Play nice. Remember, he thinks you’re flirting when you’re sarcastic.”
“I can’t be held responsible for his idiocy.”
“And I can’t let you punch him while on duty… so, don’t make me arrest you.”
She glared at him, and for a moment, he thought she’d argue.
He was going to miss this.
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