Maria Watson defied her family to join the Mombasa as Chief Engineer, finding her place among a ragtag fleet of pirates and privateers. Their latest mission left her with a price on her head and a scar on her heart. When a surprise attack separates her from her ship, stranding her in hostile space with a stolen Soviet weapon, she’ll do whatever it takes to uncover that weapon’s secrets—even sacrifice herself.
Broken by the war, Combat Medic Tomas Nyota spent years drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. Sober, he found a new purpose as the Mombasa’s Chief Medical Officer. His job is to keep the crew alive, even the brilliant but contrary Chief Engineer with whom he’s constantly at odds.
Trapped together in a stolen ship, running from both the Alliance and the Soviets, they must work together to survive. But when the weapon’s horrific purpose is uncovered, their quest becomes a race against time. They must expose the truth and destroy the weapon—before it’s too late.
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This book is approximately 58,000 words
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"Can you see anything?"
Tomas was breathing down Maria's neck. Literally. He hovered behind her as though he intended to shove her aside for a turn to look through the scope, like an irritating lab partner in chemistry class. The Stryke Zone's rudimentary research and development lab was a holdover from its days as a corporate-owned mining facility, and the place did resemble a secondary school science laboratory. All it needed was a pack of unruly teenagers trying to kill each other with Bunsen burners.
"Move," Maria said.
"Is that a yes?" Tomas asked.
"Your dragon breath is singeing my hair, Doc. Move. Now."
It wasn't entirely true — she could smell Tomas, but it wasn't his breath, dragon or otherwise, that captured her attention. A cloud of his irritatingly sexy cologne enveloped her — he doused himself in the stuff to cover the antiseptic stink that came from living in the med bay. It was the one hundred and third item on the list of reasons he would never make it as an engineer. A person couldn't sniff out a fried circuit board or a coolant leak if they were smothered in perfume. Plus it was just damn irritating that Tomas's musky citrus scent tempted the hormonal part of her brain to wonder if he'd have an orange flavor if she licked him.
Out of all the men in the galaxy, Maria Watson did not want to be attracted to an arrogant asshole like Dr. Tomas Nyota. Right now the only thing she wanted to do to him was stab him, and she might well do it if he didn't fucking move.
"Let me see," he said.
"No. This is my lab time, and I'm reclaiming it. At gunpoint if necessary."
Tomas snorted, and the exhalation brushed her hair like a light breeze and tickled the back of her neck. "You're not armed."
"That you know of."
Maria drummed her fingers on the counter as she peered into the scope. No matter how long they studied it, or what equipment they used, the Project Compliance prototype remained a mystery. The KGB claimed that the device was a bloodless way to prevent future rebellions — perfect population control, ready to be mass produced and implanted in colonists any day now — but the tiny speck had no seams, no antennae, no protrusions of any sort, only a textured surface like the galaxy's tiniest and deadliest golf ball. It didn't look a damn thing like the tangled web of neural filaments of the sensory implant it was supposedly modeled after. She was beginning to wonder if this was all some sick Soviet wild goose chase meant to draw the Alliance away from the real danger.
She could make a spaceship's engines sing, but all her engineering knowledge had been defeated by one tiny Soviet speck. It was maddening.
"Let me see." Tomas touched her shoulder, and Maria whirled and elbowed him in the gut.
"What is wrong with you?"
Tomas stumbled back and winced, making a great show of rubbing his abs. "You hit me," he said.
"You touched me."
"I did?" He blinked and frowned. "Shit, I did. Sorry. Got distracted. My bad."
Maria balled her hands into fists. "Why are you here? You're supposed to be on the Mombasa."
"I brought you coffee." Tomas held out a stainless-steel thermos and two metal mugs, and she studied the peace offering with narrowed eyes in search of the catch.
"Captain's orders," he said. "Lindy understands that scientific breakthroughs require caffeinated researchers."
The corners of Maria's mouth twitched, and the need for caffeine warred with her suspicion that the beverage had been poisoned. Invoking the captain's name could be the bait to trick her into drinking. Then again, Tomas was a doctor. Doing physical harm was against his oath — he harmed her nerves on a daily basis, but she wouldn't die from that.
"I suppose I can take a coffee break."
Tomas unscrewed the thermos's cap and poured two cups. Maria nearly moaned at the scent of hot coffee — or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Real coffee was a pricy delicacy out here in the ass end of civilized space. They could probably find some in the Stryke Zone's black market — you could find just about anything there because the place was a miracle of illegal commerce — but the Mombasa's crew was almost broke.
Maria grabbed an empty rolling desk chair, and the wheels squeaked like terrified mice. She scowled and pulled the aerosolized lubricant from her tool belt and greased the wheels until they were factory-setting silent.
"Pot. Kettle. Black."
"I hate squeaky equipment," she said. "First rule of engineering — when in doubt, try lubricant."
Tomas grinned a wicked smile, and Maria's sex drive revved like an engine kicking out of standby. Bastard. It was entirely unfair that such good looks were wasted on a jackass.
Maria stabbed a finger at him in warning. "Keep your mind out of the sewer."
"Got it." Tomas handed her a mug. He gulped his coffee, and Maria winced at the burn that had to be scorching its way down the doc's throat.
"Thanks." She took a sip of caffeinated heaven and couldn't restrain a small, happy sigh.
"Find anything new?" Tomas nodded toward the scope.
"Nada. If we want progress we need to change tactics."
Maria squared her shoulders. "I have a new idea on how to crack the egg, and I want to pitch it to the group."
Tomas's eyes narrowed. "What kind of new idea?"
"It involves drowning it in acid and —"
"Just let me finish. If we —"
"No," he repeated. "Everyone agreed that we're not going to pierce the device's shell."
"This isn't piercing. It's melting. It's a completely different process."
"Semantics. We don't know what will happen if we damage the casing, and this is the only one we have. We can't risk destroying it just to prove a theory, because then we'll be back at square one."
Maria set the coffee down, took a deep breath, closed her eyes and counted. Uno, dos, tres ...
She'd served aboard the Mombasa almost as long as Tomas and his sister had owned the ship, and under normal circumstances Maria avoided him like the plague on her nerves that he was. But recently they'd been forced into close proximity, and he questioned her actions at every single turn like the reincarnation of a doubting Thomas. If he kept this up she was going to murder him and incinerate his corpse in a plasma field.
She took another deep breath when she reached ten and opened her eyes. "We're still at square one. We don't have equipment powerful enough to scan the interior without piercing the exterior. Here —" She stepped toward the scope, and Tomas put his hands out and blocked her.
"Did you suddenly lose your hearing, Chief?" he asked. "Everyone on the team agreed not to break it open. It's too dangerous. We can't afford to blow our one shot of understanding the device."
"I'm not trying to break it. I'm trying to peel it, like an onion."
Tomas advanced and Maria backed into the worktable. She cursed and spun to check if she had jostled the device loose from its spot beneath the high-powered lenses of the scope, and sighed in relief when she found it still in place. She carefully removed the prototype with a pair of tweezers and placed it in its storage cylinder.
"You can present your idea to the group when everyone's here," he said, "and we can vote on it. That's why we assembled a team of researchers — to work together."
"Researchers is being a bit generous, don't you think?" she muttered.
Tomas shrugged. "Beggars can't be choosers."
"And we were clearly not choosy in the team-building process." Maria scowled. Their ragtag fleet was comprised of pirates and privateers, and their crews were generally not made up of the best and brightest of the STEM community. She had the utmost confidence in the Mombasa's team, but she didn't trust the rest of their "colleagues" as far as she could throw them.
"It would be a pleasant change if you backed my play for once," Maria said.
"It would be a pleasant change if you suggested an idea I can support. We have rules for a reason." Aside from his penchant for invading the engine room despite being banned from entry, Dr. Tomas Nyota was as by the book as they came. On the rare occasion that she visited the med bay she would move his equipment slightly out of place just to watch him twitch.
"We don't have time to play it safe."
"We've lost too much to blow our one shot at finding out how it works. I said no. That's final."
Idiot man. It was almost as bad as arguing with her mule-headed stepfather — almost. A vein in Maria's jaw twitched as she picked up the cylinder to return it to its secured locker, but then the lights died and plunged the lab into silent darkness.
Maria froze — she'd never been afraid of the dark, because most of an engine rat's life was lived in cramped, pitch-black spaces. But after a recent misadventure spent trapped in an access tube on an enemy ship, she broke out in a cold sweat in the slightest bit of darkness.
"Tomas?" Her voice jumped a panicked octave.
"Hang on, I have my handlamp." A thin beam of light speared the room and she winced as he shined it in her face. "Sorry." Tomas cut the beam away. "Talk to me, Chief."
Maria shoved the cylinder into her safest storage device — her bra — and grabbed her personal data tablet. The screen lit thanks to its independent power source, but she frowned at its readout. "I can't connect to the local data network. Looks like a partial power loss. Life support and artificial gravity are online, but that's about it."
"Good. I'd hate to float around here in zero g."
Maria agreed — the lab was filled with sharp, breakable things and hazardous chemicals. "I'm going to ping the Mombasa."
The emergency lights flickered on and bathed the room in a sickly yellow glow, followed by the shriek of blaring alarms.
"Contamination alert?" Tomas asked.
"No, the pitch is wrong. That's battle stations."
He frowned. "On an asteroid? Does this place even have weapons?" "It's a pirate asteroid. Anything is possible." She tapped commands into her tablet until she got a clear comm channel. "Mombasa, this is Chief Watson. What's your status?"
"Chief, this is Chen." Lieutenant Jiang Chen was the ship's pilot and the person most likely to be in the cockpit even when the ship was docked. "Get your ass back here ASAP. We've got hostiles."
"What kind of hostiles?" Maria asked.
"The whole damn Soviet Navy kind," Lieutenant Chen said. "Is the doc with you?"
"Yes," Maria said.
"Good. You're the only crew still offboard. We're good to go as soon as you return. Double time, Chief."
"Got it." Maria disconnected the comm and stowed her tablet with shaking hands. This just kept getting worse. The past few weeks had been one long series of disasters — KGB assassins, Soviet pirates, and then Mike ...
"Let's go." Tomas poured their cups into a sink. "Waste of good coffee."
"That was good coffee?"
He laughed as they hurried out of the lab. "Better than no coffee."
Maria snorted. "Not sure I'd go th —"
The deafening boom of an explosion swallowed the rest of her words, and the force of the blast hurled her back. Her vision blurred as she landed hard on the deck, and for a panicked moment she thought she'd lost her glasses. She raised a hand and her fingers collided with her tortoiseshell frames, and she said a silent prayer of thanks for their durable mats.
Maria rolled to her knees and then staggered to her feet. She touched the back of her head and her fingers were coated with blood that matted her hair. Tomas groaned and Maria squinted as she tried to locate the source of the noise. Yellow emergency lights illuminated what was left of the corridor. The path ahead was blocked by the tangled debris of a structure collapse, and Tomas was pinned beneath it, unmoving.
"Doc!" Maria leapt toward him and knelt at his side. He was pinned facedown, his head turned away from her, and she couldn't tell if he was breathing. She grabbed his wrist to check for a pulse and found a thready beat.
"Help! Man down. I need help." No reply. It was worth a try, but the station housed only a handful of maintenance crew.
She reactivated her comm. "This is Watson. Do you read?"
"Go ahead, Chief." Lieutenant Chen's voice was fuzzy, filled with the hiss of static.
"There's been a structure collapse. Tomas is injured and we're cut off. Can you evac us?"
A long pause. Maria imagined the lieutenant informing Captain Nyota that her brother was wounded and trapped. It would take time for the Mombasa's crew to clear a path, even with their human battering ram leading the way, and time was a diminishing resource with enemy ships on the way. Maria scowled. She needed better equipment to properly view the battle outside. Her handheld was a miracle of illegal technology thanks to her mods, but it was still just a tablet.
"Negative, Chief," Chen said. "Can you get to the Tiger Shark?" Maria glanced back and did some quick mental math. The Shark was docked on the opposite side of the base. They would have to double back through the lab and pray that nothing else had collapsed or been destroyed. It was a crappy option, but it looked like the only one they had.
"Yes," Maria said.
"Good. We'll keep you covered."
"Thanks. We'll contact you from the Shark when we get there. Watson out."
Or they'd contact the Mombasa from the afterlife. She grimaced and gnawed her bottom lip bloody as she studied the position and material makeup of the twisted pile of debris that covered Tomas — most of the metal was aluminum and should be light enough to lift, but the cables bundled together like thick lengths of rope added extra weight and the possibility of electrocution. The air was clear and free of any noxious chemicals — breathing coolant was hazardous to one's health, though not as hazardous as being trapped aboard a pirate asteroid during a Soviet bombardment — and they weren't venting atmo yet.
Maria squared her shoulders, grabbed the conduit and pulled. With a metallic groan it shifted a slight inch. She pulled again, her teeth grinding with the effort as sweat beaded on her brow, and it grudgingly gave up a few more centimeters. The deck rumbled beneath her feet and the emergency lights flickered. The small progress was going to have to be enough. She grabbed his feet and prepared to pull.
"Sorry about this, Doc."
Maria yanked, but Tomas quickly proved as difficult to move as the conduit pinning him.
"What the hell have you been eating? Rocks?" She scowled and rolled her shoulders. The man was all dense muscle and prickly attitude.
Tomas was good and stuck, so Maria did what any engineer would do in her situation — she decided to add lube. She grabbed the lube from her tool belt. The aerosol canister was small, meant for small patch jobs, but it would have to do. She sprayed Tomas, the deck and the equipment around him with the oily mist. Saying a silent prayer, she grabbed his feet again and pulled. This time he slid free with a groan, and when he was clear of the debris she rolled him over and knelt at his side.
"Wake up." She raised his eyelids to check for signs of consciousness. His pupils weren't blown, which seemed an encouraging sign. "Come on, Doc. Rise and shine."
Maria's pulse zoomed into anxious overdrive as another explosion shook the facility, and she abandoned the niceties. He had to wake up now, because they'd both be dead if a second explosion breached the hull. She grabbed two fistfuls of his shirtfront and shook.
"On your feet, soldier." Maria added a slap for good measure, and Tomas's eyes rolled open.
"Move it." She dragged him to his feet and slung one arm around her shoulders. "Get your fat ass in gear before I leave you here."
Tomas stumbled beside her like a drunk after last call as she pulled him back to the lab.
"My ass is not fat," he said.
"Well, you weigh more than a heat exchanger, so yes, it is."
The room tilted and they crashed into a lab table. Beakers, pitchers and test tubes slid from shelves and bounced across the floor — Maria once again thanked God for durable mats and added praise to cautious suppliers who only bought equipment guaranteed to last a lifetime out in the frontier. She dragged them both upright and continued to the corridor leading to the Tiger Shark.
"Wrong way," Tomas said.
"Just keep moving."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "End Transmission"
Copyright © 2019 Robyn Bachar.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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