Evil is everywhere. It surrounds us like a black stain. We try to keep it at bay with our good deeds—helping the elderly with their groceries, holding open the door to the lift—but these small acts mean little in the face of such resounding wickedness.
Reese understands this better than most. He sees the darkness closing in on humanity and before he leaves the Sol System, he must make one last bid to push the darkness back. While trying to capture proof of the foul play inside the Indentured Servant program, Reese loses June to the hands of human traffickers. Now, Reese must go up against a vile plot that goes all the way to the very top of the Sol System.
While Reese battles the evil around Seattle, Bit must fight her own demons lurking in the shadows of the Caprice. If they would only take on human form she could conquer them with her fists, but the longer she battles the more she realizes her issues aren’t with other crew members but with her own memories.
June’s brows furrowed as she concentrated, peeling back the bristles on the toothbrush and squeezing out a few drops of food coloring. She lifted the tiny dropper away from the toothbrush, peeled back another layer of bristles, and released two more drops. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her heart raced inside her chest. Just a few more seconds.
A voice rose in the hallway. While there were more doors in the narrow corridor than just the cabin she was in, there was a likely chance they were coming for this cabin. She released three more drops into the toothbrush, returned it to its holder, and snapped the cap back onto the bottle of food coloring. She tucked the tiny glass jar into her pocket, climbed onto the desk, and grabbed the edge of the air vent. With the muscles built from doing crap like this and working alongside Vance, she dragged herself up into the vent, folding her legs as she tucked herself into the tiny space. She pulled the vent shut just as the door slid open and Reese stepped in, sweaty from his recent workout.
June waited until Reese turned his shower on before beginning the long crawl to a safe place to exit the shaft. Within the Caprice, the air ducts were far too small for an adult to fit through, but June could. Just. Another month or two of Vance’s cooking and she wouldn’t be able to fit anymore.
She slid past another vent, grimacing at the broad sweaty back working in rhythm. She scooted past as fast as she could. She had no interest in watching what the adults did on their own time—especially Evan and Bit. June rolled her eyes. Her aunt and that pilot had been going at it like they’d just invented sex. It was disgusting, and the entire crew was sick of it. So far no one had the guts to say something to them.
June reached the fork in the duct and slid around the corner to reach the proper vent. She opened the vent and dropped down into her own room, a grin on her face. As if on cue, a voice rose above the general thrum of the ship’s electronic system laced through the wall. June couldn’t make out what the voice said, but it wasn’t hard to guess. The question was, had Reese used his toothbrush or had someone eaten a tampered-with pastry?
The voice increased, drawing nearer to her room. She could no longer pretend not to understand. Dusting off the front of her clothing, she hit the button and stepped out of her private cabin. Randal, Reese, and half the security team waited at the nearest intersection, along with two of the scientists. They had just peeked in from side hallways. June didn’t know them well and couldn’t remember their names.
“June!” Randal snapped again, turning to the light sound of her sneakers against the metal flooring. Reese turned around as well, revealing his blackened lips. He had moved to brush his teeth faster than she had expected. A blush flooded her cheeks. She hadn’t had the audacity to prank the security team directly, until now.
Randal pointed at Reese’s face. “Did you do this?”
“Do wha… dude, what happened to your mouth?” June asked, doing her best to feign ignorance.
Reese’s lips quirked up for a split second before he schooled his features into a dark glare that sent a shiver down June’s spine. He had clearly been practicing.
Randal stomped up to her, grabbed her chin, and forced her to look him in the eye. “Is this you?”
June shrugged, unsure what to say in response; she wasn’t quite ready to admit it, but it wasn’t like there was someone she could pin the blame on. Before she could say anything, someone yelled from the mess hall, followed by a loud gagging sound. The door to the mess hall slid open, and Doctor Cannon stumbled out, gagging into a small tin, white powder spread across her lips.
“Doc?” Randal called.
She finished retching before dusting her mouth off. “Not. Powdered. Sugar,” she coughed out, one word at a time.
June grimaced; the doctor hadn’t been her target. Not by a long shot.
“What is it?” asked Reese, revealing more of his blackened teeth.
June tried not to giggle.
“Talcum powder, I’d guess,” the doctor replied, gagging again.
Many adult faces turned to glare at June, the most prominent being Randal. “And what do you call this?”
June grimaced again. “Bad timing?” June didn’t think their glares could get worse. She was wrong.
Before Randal could yell at her, Vance emerged from the mess hall. “Vance,” Randal called. “You have to keep her under control!”
“I ain’t a pet.”
“Silence,” Randal snapped, pointing a finger back at her. “She’s pulled two pranks this morning alone.”
June looked away. They didn’t need to know how many she had actually set into motion, but it was more than two.
“It will take weeks for Reese’s teeth to turn back to a normal color.”
A snicker escaped her lips, which she instantly regretted when Randal’s face turned red and Vance grimaced as he closed the distance.
The head steward’s features froze into a glare, except it was directed more at Randal than June. “She gets bored.”
“Is that an excuse?” snapped Randal.
Before Vance could reply, Jack appeared at the far end of the main corridor. “What is going on?” He stormed down the hallway, stopping at the edge of the growing group, his eyes flicking between Dr. Cannon’s white mouth and Reese’s black one. “Really, June?”
Vance spoke up. “I told you time and again, she is too smart to be working under me. She gets bored, and when she gets bored, she acts out.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” June said before she could stop herself.
“Silence,” Vance snapped, speaking harshly to her for the first time. “You are not getting out of this without punishment. For now, go clean up the pastries you ruined and mop the mess hall floor.”
“But Rhian already mopped the floor today.”
“And you will do it twice a day until you’ve learned your lesson,” Vance replied.
June winced, her eyes on the floor. Vance had punished her before, but it had usually been nothing more than a week without her pad or covering a chore for one of the other stewards. He had never yelled at her, and her punishment had never gone without a defined ending. She was beginning to suspect she had overstepped the line for once.
She hunched her shoulders—like she had when she was an indentured servant—and squeezed past Vance. She entered the mess hall, allowing the doors to slide shut behind her. She moved to the corner of the mess hall, scooping up a glass along the way. At the corner, she pressed the glass against the wall and her ear against the bottom end of the glass.
The Caprice was known for its thin walls—especially when two folks were getting intimate—but now June hoped it would work to her benefit.
Vance spoke loudly, almost as though he knew she would be listening. “June will continue to get into trouble so long as her mind isn’t exercised. She’s just too smart to be left to menial chores.”
“You’re smart, Vance,” Jack replied, “but you’re not pulling pranks.”
“I’m not nine.”
“Weren’t you giving her lessons?”
“I do. But to be honest, she’s soaking it up so fast I won’t be able to teach her much longer. She needs to take on more advanced lessons than I can handle. And she needs exercise.”
“Doesn’t she do manual labor with you?” asked a voice June didn’t recognize.
“She does, but it’s not enough. Not for a nine-year-old trapped on a spaceship.”
“Then maybe she doesn’t belong on a spaceship,” said a voice she couldn’t quite place; she thought it was the doctor.
“She’s family,” Jack replied.
“No. She’s Bit’s family. And where is Bit anyway?”
There was an awkward silence. June could easily imagine the looks on their faces. The whole ship knew about Bit’s extra-curricular activities with Evan. If she wasn’t training or in the mess hall for a meal, it was a safe bet she was in Evan’s bed. Of course, he was proud as punch to have seduced her, but the rest of the ship was sick of listening to the results.
June gagged at the memory of accidentally spying their activities through an air vent before placing her ear against the glass again.
“How about she spend some time training with the security team,” suggested Reese; they had clearly moved beyond the topic of Bit’s nocturnal activities. “It would be good training to have to teach someone new and, well, breakable.”
A silence met her ears, one she couldn’t interpret.
“And maybe some medical training with you,” added Jack. June assumed the “you” in question was the doctor.
She got her confirmation when the doctor replied, “Fine,” in a none-too-happy tone.
“She’ll still be punished?” asked Randal after another silent pause.
June imagined Vance nodding before saying, “Yes. Though I’d be happy to hear suggestions. I’m running out of ideas other than just making her do more and more chores.”
June grinned. It was totally worth it. She had nothing else to do on the ship other than play pranks and do chores.
The doc spoke up again. “If you want my opinion, a good spanking is in order.”
To June’s relief, multiple adult voices rose up in protest. She had clearly pushed too many of the doctor’s buttons.
Reese spoke up, overpowering the other voices. “I have an idea. It needs some work, but it might be just the thing June needs. For now, Vance, keep her doing the nastiest chores.”
That seemed to be the end of their little impromptu meeting. June scrambled away from the corner, putting the glass down on a table and racing for the pastries she supposedly had been cleaning up.
Reese entered Greene’s large office, trying his best not to give Greene’s assistant his habitual smile for two reasons—mainly because his mouth was black, but also because he suspected Greene’s assistant had a bit of a crush on him. Reese couldn’t fathom why. With his scars, he looked like a horror film reject. Still, Lenard hopped up the second Reese appeared in the doorway and stood closer than necessary when they talked.
Lenard’s eyes went wide. “What happened to your mouth?”
Reese rolled his eyes. “Got pranked.”
He looked at Reese as though he had brought a dead puppy into his office. “You poor thing.”
“Is Greene available?”
Lenard scurried back to his desk and hit the button to the intercom. “Boss, Mr. Reese is here to see you. I know… Yes, sir.” He looked up with a smile. “Go right in.”
The double doors slid open to reveal Greene’s opulent office. He suspected the single room was large enough to take up a measurable percentage of the space-station’s daily oxygen usage. Unlike Lenard, Greene took one look at Reese and burst out laughing, his arms going around his sides as they began to ache with the effort.
Reese rolled his eyes and waited for the billionaire to stop laughing. It took longer than he had expected. Greene wiped tears from his eyes as he took a deep breath.
“Dare I ask who had the audacity to do that to you?”
Reese crossed his arms over his chest. “June.”
Whatever laughter remained in Greene’s eyes died away. “She’s become quite the problem.”
“Yep.” Reese nodded. “How’s your project coming along?”
Greene let out another long sigh as he perched one buttock on the corner of his desk, his fancy suit wrinkling until he remembered to unbutton the jacket. “Not good. The Planetary Senators don’t want to listen to me. They don’t seem to think we have the proof of neglect needed to actually take the department to court. Or at least not to the Galactic Supreme Court.”
“And the Space Station Senators?”
Greene shrugged. “They don’t have the same pull as Planetary Senators. Even with them on our side, it’s not enough. We have to have the Planetary Senators if we hope to go up against the Department of Logistical Labor.”
Reese pursed his lips as he crossed his arms, considering his options. “Okay. How ‘bout I go back to Earth and get us the proof we need? Quick trip. Snap a few photos. I’m off planet in twenty-four hours.”
The billionaire matched his expression as he considered. “‘Kay?”
“And I want to take June with me.”
Greene’s expression morphed into his habitual grin. “You want to take the kid who stained your teeth black?”
Reese let out a sigh. For a brief moment, he had forgotten that his teeth were black. “Yes. I think a little reminder of what her life could have been like might do her some good.”
“Interesting idea. ‘Kay. You can take her. But you need to take a female crewmember too. June is getting to an age where she shouldn’t be off alone with a man.”
Reese’s scars pulled as he glared at Greene. “What are you suggesting?”
Greene held up his hands. “It’s not that I think you’d hurt her in any way, but rather that perceptions are important. Nowadays, many men would hurt a child if alone with her. You represent my company. You represent our mission. Therefore perception is important.”
“Fine. I’ll take one of the gals. Like Lazena.”
“Oh, man. Do I have to?”
“I said, ‘take Yulanda.’”
Reese frowned. “Why her?”
“I want you to see how she does and report back to me.”
Reese adjusted his stance, not liking where the conversation was taking them. “With all due respect, Mr. Greene, I don’t answer to you. If I see something in Yulanda that I question, then I report it to Randal.”
“I’m the source of every ounce of funding for this mission. The buck stops here.” He jabbed his thumb at his chest.
“It is important for a mission like ours to have a chain of command. It is important for every man, woman… and child aboard the Caprice to follow that chain of command. It is all we will have when we are out there god-knows how many miles away from home. If the chain of command fails, our mission fails. That starts now.”
“Fine. You watch her. Anything catches your notice, inform Randal.”
“Deal,” Reese said, reaching out his hand to Greene.
They shook hands. “I’ll inform Jack.”
Before Reese could turn to leave, the doors slid open, revealing Dr. Keller. Since their trip to the surface, the scientist had done an impressive job of avoiding Reese, even going so far as to avoid meals until he had left.
Though Reese had wanted to chase her down more than once, he had done his best to leave her alone. It wasn’t easy, and looking at her in Greene’s office, he was reminded of why. Her bright red hair—such a rarity in the human race—framed her pale face. He wanted to hold her in his arms and show her just how beautiful and valuable she was to him.
Instead, he gave her a thin-lipped smiled and a nod, and left Greene’s office.
Bit let out a husky breath and rolled off Evan’s chest into the little gap in her bunk, simultaneously yanking the thin blanket up to cover her chest. After a moment’s pause, Evan followed her, draping his thick arm over her chest atop the blanket.
“Ugh, no.” Bit pushed on his arm. “You know the rules.”
Evan groaned. “Seriously? You still won’t let me stay?”
“‘Course not. You did your thing, now you go.”
“It’s called sex. It’s not a dirty word.”
Bit shrugged, rolling away from him until her nose nearly touched the cold wall of her small cabin. Their bunks weren’t exactly spacious. She felt the covers lift and the mattress shift as Evan climbed to his feet. She scooted into the free space, enjoying the warmth he left behind.
“You know, normal women like to snuggle.”
Bit winced at the insult, keeping her face hidden in the pillow. They both knew she wasn’t normal, just as their relationship wasn’t normal. In fact, it wasn’t even a relationship.
She remained with her back to the room until she heard the door slide closed, then she rolled out of the bunk and padded into the microscopic bathroom. It might have been small, but it was hers and only hers, which made up for the lack of elbow room. Bit enjoyed a quick, hot shower before dressing for another day on the practice mats.
Bit hurried down the hallway that connected her room to the main thoroughfare in the living level. At the next intersection, she found Jack, Jenny, Holton—the head of the science department—and Randal huddled together in discussion. The medical doctor stood beyond the group, looking as though she was waiting for Jack to finish his discussion.
Ever since he met the doctor, Jack and she had been pretty chummy. Bit looked away. At least she and Evan weren’t always at each other’s sides. They did their business and moved on with their lives.
“Look,” said Jenny—Bit tried to remember what the redhead’s specialty was, but it was a lot of words she couldn’t understand. “I know I helped you with the last part, but I’m really uncomfortable with having an Electro-Fusion Transmitter on the ship.”
Bit kept her eyes down, trying to look like she wasn’t listening to her. She caught the doctor’s eyes and glanced away as the doctor’s eyes narrowed. Bit had no idea where the other woman’s aggression was coming from. Nor did she care.
“Why’s that?” asked Randal.
Jenny let out a breath through her noise loud enough for Bit to hear from the far end of the hallway. “I’m not much interested in being in the middle of another galaxy when that thing loses containment and the entire ship dies.”
“Oh,” replied her boss. “But you’re fine if we lose containment on the fusion engine?”
Bit reached their little huddle and slid past, trying her best to look preoccupied.
“If the fusion engine contaminates the ship we’ll be dead in hours, days at the most. If our ship dies, we die a slow death of hypothermia with no hope of salvation.”
Jack scratched at his chin, glancing at Bit during the split second she glanced up at him. Like the doctor, his eyes narrowed. Bit reverted her gaze to the floor and picked up the pace, finally passing the group and the doctor.
From behind her, she heard Jack say, “I hear what you’re saying Dr. Keller, but I think it will be valuable having one on board, and I get the final say. Therefore, I want you to join Reese…”
He said more, but the door to the mess hall opened filling the hall with the noise of those already eating their breakfast. Bit lost his voice and stepped inside. To her astonishment, she spotted June already working furiously to mop the mess hall floor—strangely enough, doing it on her hands and knees with a single rag and bucket of soapy water.
Bit pushed the thought aside as she spotted Yulanda at a table. She gave her a nod before going to the counter full of food, filling her plate, and returning. She took a seat and dug in.
“Dude, girl, I could hear you in my room. Mind keeping it down?” Yulanda hissed under her breath.
For a brief moment, Bit felt a blush building in her cheeks, then decided not to care. She had enjoyed it. What else mattered? She shrugged, her shoulder rubbing against Yulanda’s. “You’re just jealous.”
“Yeah. A little bit!”
Bit snorted before shoveling another bite of egg into her mouth.
“Evan is a hottie in a naughty body. I don’t think there’s a girl on this ship who hasn’t fantasized about him.”
“The trick is to insult him,” Bit replied. “You should try it.”
Yulanda leaned back to stare at Bit. “You giving me advice on how to steal your man?”
Bit scooped up the last bite of egg. “He’s not ‘my man,’ so sure, have at it.” With that she rose from her seat, taking her dishes with her.
Back in the hall, she found the group already gone. Randal was the only one remaining, having just waved goodbye to Jack and the doctor.
“Heading to the gym?” Randal asked as she emerged from the mess hall and stepped to the side to allow the captain and the doctor to enter.
She nodded and turned away. Randal fell into step with her. To her immense relief, he remained silent. They reached the gym at the stern of the Caprice to find half the security team already there. Each team member had their own morning routine—some needing extra time stretching, some wanting a little jog to get the blood flowing, others taping up injuries to protect themselves during the long day of physical exertion.
Bit’s stomach tightened as she tried to think of something to do. She tried to avoid unscheduled time if at all possible. In the hopes of keeping herself moving, she turned toward the portion of the gym where human-shaped punching dummies waited. Setting to work, she practiced each sequence a few times, then moved on to her legs.
By the time Randal called them to join up at the center, Bit was dripping with sweat. She knew she would pay for the rough start later in the day when her muscles began to burn on the practice mat.
Randal gave a few announcements before moving on to who their sparring partners would be. “Nathyn and Kyle. Bit and Wic.” Randal stopped as an audible sigh passed around the rest of the team.
Bit frowned, glancing around at her teammates. To her further astonishment, Wic seemed to have rolled his eyes, his lips thinning in some emotion Bit couldn’t fathom. Before she could even consider ignoring his expression, Randal finished dividing them up and the team was beginning to pair off.
“What was that about?” she asked as she came up to Wic’s side.
“What was what?” Wic’s cheeks turned a faint pink as he settled onto the balls of his feet, indicating he was ready to start sparring
Bit did the same. “You know what I’m talking about.”
Wic didn’t answer, but lunged forward, jabbing a few quick punches at her face to test her. Bit easily dodged out of the way, accustomed to his normal testing punches. As they settled back to eye each other again, Bit spoke. “C’mon, Wic. What was that about?”
This time, Bit jumped forward, ducking under his arms and scrambling for a grip on his leg in order to take him down to the mat, but Wic was nearly two hundred pounds heavier than she was. When it became clear she wouldn’t be hoisting him up to slam him down on his back again, she hooked a leg around his and yanked his knee out from under him, taking them both down to the semi-soft mat.
For a brief moment, they both froze, their arms wrapped around each other. “Well?” she asked again.
When he didn’t answer, she released one arm and punched him a few times in the head. They weren’t hard punches, what with her body trapped by his arms, but they annoyed him. He grabbed her free arm, trapping it against her side. They both squirmed against each other, trying to free a limb and trap their opponent all at the same time. When she began to run out of breath, she resorted to another move.
As fast as she could, Bit lifted her head out of Wic’s shoulder and slammed her forehead into his face. A cry escaped his lips, spitting blood over her face before she could scramble away. Wic was a mere second behind her, despite the tears in his eyes and blood dripping into his mouth.
“That’s why,” he snapped as he swung hard at her face; they were no longer warming up.
She escaped the first swing, but he was ready for the jerk of her shoulders and his other fist collided with her cheek. Bit stumbled to the side, nearly losing her balance. She regained her footing, ducked under another swing of Wic’s long arms, and kicked out with her right leg, hitting him square in the chest.
Wic staggered back, his eyes filling with anger. Bit didn’t give him a chance to regain composure. As she landed on the other foot, she kicked up again. The second kick missed and sent her off balance, giving Wic the second he needed. Forgetting any sort of finesse, Wic charged at her, grabbing her by the waist, hoisting her up, and slamming her into the mat. While her back was still on the mat, her head bounced against the metal flooring.
While she was dazed, Wic quickly flipped her over and pinned her arms behind her back. “You are completely oblivious to other people’s feelings. We’re just warming up, for crying out loud, and you take a cheap shot at me like that. All you care about is the win.”
Bit jerked, trying to free herself, but his grip was just right to keep her under his control.
“Yield,” Wic ordered.
“No,” Bit grumbled into the mat, his blood now smeared across the mat, staining her face.
Wic held her for another moment before releasing her. He had already danced back to the opposite edge of the mat by the time she made it to her feet.
“What is up with you, Bit?” he asked as he danced around her.
Bit lunged, grabbing his leg again, and taking them both to the ground. “Nothing.” She grunted as his knee hit her gut. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do!” Wic used all his strength to fold her up in his arms.
Bit tried to wrap her legs around his neck while trapping one arm between her legs at the same time.
“It’s just easier… to not feel anything…to pretend nothing is wrong,” he said between moves.
In an impressive twist, Wic was out of her leg lock and pulling on her leg until she thought the hip would dislocate. His knee pressed into the back of her neck, pinning her to the mat. “What do you feel?”
“Nothing,” she said unwilling to give him the satisfaction of hurting her.
She twisted out of his grip, but he quickly reclaimed her limbs, folding her into a different pretzel.
“What do you feel?”
“Nothing,” she screamed back.
In the back of her mind, she heard Randal say, “No, get back to work.”
Wic pulled on her arm until the joint strained against the tendons. “What do you feel?”
Bit screamed something beyond words, rage and pain filling her, making her heart beat against her ribcage until it, too, hurt.
“What do you feel?” Wic repeated, screaming into her ear at such a volume her head began to pound.
“And your heart?” he whispered.