THOMAS BERENGER PULLED ANNA DRAYEK aside ten minutes before they were set to rendezvous with their buyer. He was a head taller than she was, with a stocky torso and broad, powerful shoulders. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked in an undertone, pinning her to the bulkhead with dark, serious eyes.
Anna quirked an eyebrow at him. “Of course I’m serious. Viktor can’t leave the ship this time—we need him here keeping an eye on things.” She smiled, punched his arm affectionately. “That’s why you’re coming with me.”
Still, he hesitated. “If you’re sure … ”
“I’m sure, Bear.”
He shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
“See you on the landing ramp in ten.” Anna clapped him on the shoulder and threaded her way through the freighter to find her brother. Her knee-high black boots thudded lightly against the metal grating that made up the deck in the lower half of the ship. The Iliana was a Delta-class Pythian freighter, which tended to resemble large rectangular boxes with tapered ends. She had four decks, and a cargo hold large enough to carry just about anything they’d ever encountered.
The Iliana was also faster than she looked, which was important when one needed to make a quick getaway from Federation forces.
“Anna!” Viktor’s deep voice called from down the rust-gray corridor.
She whirled around with a smile; the braid keeping her brown, curly hair contained thumped against her back. “All set?”
“All set.” Viktor—her elder by three years and taller by a head, but similar to her in coloring—met her halfway and handed her a small leather satchel. “They’re all there. Packed ‘em as carefully as I could, but you don’t want to be dropping that if you can help it.”
“Got it.” Anna slung the satchel over her head and let it slide beneath one side of her battered black leather jacket.
“Hand off at the same time,” Viktor instructed, “or else make him give you the jewels first.”
“I got it, Vik, don’t worry.” She raised her eyebrows at him, smiling slightly. “Bear’s coming with me—we’ve got this.”
“I know you do.” He patted her on the back. “I just don’t like Lobai.”
“Can’t say I’ve run into many people who do, but … ” Anna shrugged. “At least he pays.”
Her brother huffed a laugh. “True. Okay, get outta here, kiddo. Knock ‘em dead.”
Anna saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Leaving her brother behind, she made her way to the landing ramp. Berenger was already there with one shoulder propped against the strut, waiting for her. She nodded to their crewmates who had gotten their ground transport ready and turned to him. “Ready?”
He shoved off from the strut. “Let’s do it.”
Anna climbed into the driver’s seat; Berenger would be keeping an eye out for possible ambushes or any other signs of betrayal. She put the transport into gear and they rumbled their way down the landing ramp and out into the late afternoon sky.
Not that anyone unfamiliar with this world would know it was afternoon instead of twilight. Primus was not known for an abundance of sunshine. It was actually more famous for the network of caverns that honeycombed just below its surface. Some had been renovated for comfortable human existence, but others remained in their natural state—dark and damp.
She and Berenger were headed for one such natural cavern, known as Ninh’s Cavern.
“Stay sharp, Bear,” she said as they made their way through thinning traffic to the edge of the city. “Ninh’s Cavern is more out of the way than I’d have liked for a drop.”
“Don’t know why we couldn’t have just met up over a drink like normal people.” Berenger’s dark eyes scanned their surroundings, checking for anything out of the ordinary.
Anna snorted. “Chalk it up to Lobai being eccentric. At least he pays well.” She nodded to their right. “Ninh’s Cavern, coming up. Where do we park?”
“Hit your lights and just coast in. Park far enough in that nobody could see us from the outside, but not so far in that we can’t get back out in a hurry.”
“I like the way you think.”
A moment later, Anna parked and killed the engine. She paused before exiting the vehicle. “Bear, if anything smells fishy—if anything looks wrong or something strikes you as out of place—we cut our losses and scram. Got it?”
“Understood.” His smile was a sharp flash in the darkness. “There are other stars in space.”
Here at the cave system’s entrance, the rocky walls and floor were only slightly damp from condensation. Anna had never been in here before, but she and Viktor had done as much research as they could. Unfortunately, all they had been able to determine was that Ninh’s Cavern contained an underground lake somewhere, which the City eventually planned to tap.
“How far in is the meeting place?” Berenger asked in an undertone, hovering protectively just off to Anna’s right flank. He shone a small light ahead of them.
“Third cavern,” she replied quietly. “Lobai said we couldn’t miss it.”
He was right.
Their cavern gave way to a smaller tunnel with several bends. Around the second bend, they saw a faint glow ahead of them.
Bingo. Anna tightened her left hand on the satchel’s strap. She wore black fingerless gloves; had worn them for years.
The glow gradually grew brighter the closer they approached, until they left their tunnel behind and stepped out into a larger cavern.
Their buyer—Lobai, a short, slight man with graying hair and an iron face to match his iron will—stood in the center of the cavern, his hands wrapped around the handle of a cane. Two burly men stood behind him, and two lanterns sat on the cave floor behind them.
“I see you brought more company than you were supposed to.” Anna stepped out of the tunnel ahead of Berenger.
Lobai turned cold brown eyes on her. “I prefer to hedge my bets, dearie.” His eyes flicked from Berenger to the pistol holstered at her right hip. “I see you brought a friend.”
“Never leave the ship without one,” she said cheerfully.
“Do you have my merchandise?” Lobai extended a hand to her.
Anna lifted the leather satchel in one hand, but did not unsling it. “Do you have our jewels?”
Lobai nodded to his bodyguards and limped forward. “I do.” Thrusting a hand into his breast jacket pocket, he withdrew a small black velvet bag.
So far so good. Anna nodded to Berenger and met Lobai halfway. Unslinging the satchel, she dangled it toward him with one hand while reaching for the velvet bag with her other.
They smoothly traded items and she stepped back to inspect the jewels. Untying the bag, she shook its contents out into her gloved palm and turned them this way and that in the light. Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and one particularly large emerald winked up at her. She fished a jeweler’s piece from her pocket and inspected a few of the jewels, before nodding in appreciation and sliding them all back into the bag.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Lobai. Viktor sends his regards. You know how to get a hold of us if you need something in the future.” The bag disappeared into her shirt and Anna nodded to Berenger. Time to get out of here.
“Not so fast, dearie.”
The back of Anna’s neck prickled; she felt ice trickle down her spine. Now what? They’d dealt with Lobai before—she’d dealt with Lobai before—and there had never before been a deviation from their usual exchange. Slowly, she pivoted to regard Lobai. Her hand hovered over her pistol butt. “Yes?”
Beside her, Berenger’s hand dropped to his own pistol.
“I’m afraid we’re not finished here.” Lobai shook his head, tapping his cane against the cavern floor. “We have one other matter to discuss.”
What is he talking about? Anna arched a haughty eyebrow, belying her internal consternation. “Is that so?”
Berenger drew his pistol in one fluid movement—and jabbed it into her side. “You’d better listen to him, Anna.”
Anna stared at him, her brown eyes wide with shock, before her face froze over. Out of their entire crew, Berenger was one of the few people she and Viktor both trusted. One of the few people she was reasonably certain wouldn’t screw them over for anything short of a vast, vast fortune.
When she found her voice, it sounded very thin and cold, like it was coming from the top of a mountain. “How much are they paying you, Bear?”
“Enough,” he said shortly. He pressed the muzzle of his pistol a little harder into her side. “Give me the jewels, Anna. Easy, now.”
He promptly relieved her of her pistol.
“Don’t suppose you’d reconsider?” Anna asked lightly, while she raced through all of the different ways things could go from here.
“The jewels, Anna. Left hand.”
She twitched her shoulders in a semblance of a shrug. “Had to try.” Slowly, she brought her hand up and fished inside her shirt for the velvet bag. Stony-faced, she pulled it out and held it up for Berenger to snatch.
“Toss them here,” Lobai instructed.
Anna expected Berenger to comply, but he hesitated. “You never told me what you’re going to do with her.”
“Do with her?” Lobai smiled…it was not a pleasant sight. “I don’t intend to do anything much with her.” He turned his cold eyes on Anna. “Your brother is not a man I’d wish as a mortal enemy.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “You have a funny way of showing it.”
“Oh, please.” Lobai waved a wrinkled hand. “He’ll be bitter for a few months, no doubt, over the loss of the jewels, but you and I both know there are more to be found out there.” He tipped his head toward one of his bodyguards. “Tie her up. You,” he looked back at Berenger, “toss me the jewels, if you please.”
Berenger obeyed, and Lobai caught them one-handed.
“You could just let me walk out of here,” Anna offered, as one of the burly men approached her with a length of rope. Her heart started to pound in her chest. With Berenger a traitor in possession of her pistol and holding a gun to her ribs, the odds were not on her side. “Leave me here, drop my pistol in the vehicle, and go out first.”
“I do intend to leave you here, dearie, but I don’t trust you that much.” Lobai’s eyes glinted with sharp amusement.
Anna just barely restrained a snort. He doesn’t trust me? After all this?
“Pirates have a certain…reputation, after all.”
“That was a giant misunderstanding, and you know it,” Anna retorted, glaring at him as his minion wrenched her arms behind her back and trussed her up.
“I’m afraid I know nothing of the sort.” Having safely stowed his jewels away, Lobai took this moment to investigate the contents of the leather satchel. A little of the tension cording his lean frame eased; he looked up to meet her eyes. “You and your brother are meddling in things far beyond your ken. When you get back to Viktor, tell him that.”
Anna gaped at him, confusing rapidly outpacing fear and irritation. “You came to us, remember?”
Behind her back, she tested the bonds around her wrists; they were tight, but not so tight that she couldn’t work her way free. She fought to keep her expression steady. His help is rather inept—I could just walk out of here after them. This is his plan? She swallowed. Either that or he knows about —
She squeaked in surprise as the burly man abruptly picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. “Hey! What are you doing?”
“I promised we wouldn’t lay a hand on you,” Lobai said with a nasty smile, “but I can’t have you following us out of here too soon.” He waved a hand toward his minion. “Do it. And mind what I told you earlier.”
Anna barely had time to wonder what that meant before her captor picked up on one of the lanterns and she realized she was being carted further into the cavern. “Hey!” She kicked her legs, but it was futile. His arm was like iron over the back of her thighs, and with her hands bound, all she could do was stare down at his back—and uninspiring rear end. I don’t want to look at that.
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded. “Lobai, this’ll get out! You can’t just double-cross us and waltz away!”
“Except that I will, dearie. Remember what I said,” Lobai called after them, his voice echoing weirdly through the tunnel. “Tell your brother you’d be best off packing up and flying to another sector.”
Anna’s heart leapt for an instant at Berenger’s shout, but at his next words, it plummeted like a stone.
“She’s still got her comlink.”
Lobai laughed. “She shan’t need it where she’s going, but if it makes you feel better … ”
Well, that doesn’t sound good. Fear filled Anna like a choking cloud, but she forced herself to turn it into anger. She glared at Berenger as he hurried toward her. “You’ll regret this.”
Berenger just shook his head, slipping a hand inside her jacket and relieving her of her comlink. “We’ll see about that.” He tapped her captor on the shoulder to let him know he could resume walking before turning and heading back toward Lobai.
Sensing further argument would accomplish nothing, Anna shot his retreating form another poisonous glare and settled down against her captor’s back to seethe and work on slipping out of her bonds.
And to wonder exactly how far into Ninh’s Cavern she was being taken.
This lout’s only got the one lantern. That means I’ll be finding my way out in the dark. Gulping, she glared at the cavern floor. Can’t be that hard to get out. And it’s hardly darker than deep space.
With a tiny jolt of trepidation, she realized her captor’s footsteps were echoing louder than they had just a moment before. We’re in a bigger cavern. She worked harder to free her hands.
“This is where you get off, girlie,” the man said, in an unsurprisingly deep voice. “Have fun.”
“What are you — ” Anna broke off as he stooped to pitch her off his shoulder—and the light from the lantern revealed that they stood on the edge of a dark, gaping maw. “No!” she gasped in horror. “Please. Don’t — ”
The man unceremoniously tossed her over the edge.
Free fall ripped a terrified scream from her throat—the sound bounced off the cavern walls and echoed.
In the distance, Lobai smiled and continued on his way.
Galaxy’s Way is © 2016 by E.R. Paskey