Hello my lovelies! Happy Friday!
It has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? I spent the middle of the week at a family funeral, am trying to stay warm in the negative-degree temperatures that we have going on here, and work has been a bitch. But, despite all that, it’s been a good week. Because I get to share the first chapter of THE STAR THIEF with you today! I can’t believe it’s out in a little over a week!
And, even better, I’m also sharing some shiny new graphics that the amazing Leigh Ann Kopans created for me! Please feel free to use them if you’d like!
And now, without further ado…
Renna should have known better than to trust Boyd when he said the job would be easy. Her hand crept to the stolen pendant at her throat, squeezing it before tucking it back under her shirt. Damn Boyd and his powers of persuasion. If she’d known she’d end up spending four days crouched behind a stinking dumpster, she would have thrown the contract back in his face. Nothing was worth having the smell of rotting garbage burned into your nose. Nothing except enough money to buy a small planet.
She shifted on her heels and studied the hulking steel building in front of her. The warehouse itself seemed normal—other than the deadly, high-tech fence surrounding it and the perpetual presence of four armed guards.
The blue glow of the laser locks on each door cut through the morning sunlight like a warning beacon. A few high windows let a little light into the cavernous building, but they were framed with thick, Saltani iron bars. No matter how much she stared, she wasn’t getting in that way. Nothing cut through those suckers.
Renna sighed. At twenty-three, she was more than ready to get out of the mercenary business, but Boyd had asked her for one last job and retrieving the qualified gamma particle destabilizer was too big of a challenge to pass up. The newest tech from Aladea Science Investments could vaporize matter from long distances, even off-world. If anyone else found out it actually existed, it would start an intergalactic war.
And despite the olfactory assault, her stakeout hadn’t been a complete waste. She’d memorized the routine of the warehouse down to the second. Two men on this side, the other two around back. Shift change every four hours. If she timed it right, she could sneak in the back door when Guard Number Four went for his daily constitutional.
She shuddered. Whatever the man ate kept him regular as clockwork.
Renna slung her black polythene bag over her shoulder and twisted her ponytail tighter. She should have cut off her damn hair ages ago, but the long, dark locks were her one claim to beauty and she was vain enough to enjoy the compliments.
Not to mention all the secrets she’d been able to pick up with a sultry flip of her head.
She crept from behind the dumpster and down the filthy alley toward the back of the warehouse. The Cordozas owned most of the block, and she’d lived in this city long enough to know that a lot of their men were lazy slobs, more concerned with getting their credits than doing their jobs well. Definitely made her life easier this time around.
Her black leather boots made no sound as she cleared the corner of the compound. She smiled at the unguarded pillar grounding the entire electric fence. Stupid. The Cordozas thought they were invincible. That no one would dare steal from them. They were about to find out differently.
She pulled a nanotech spanner from her jacket pocket, directed the beam at the thick metal casing on the pole, and adjusted the frequency until the metal hummed for a long moment. The mechanism gave way in a burst of sparks, and the metal door opened with a clang.
Renna smirked. Sleeping with the chief engineer of the V’Mani Electrical Company had been one of her better decisions. Give him a few drinks and the man never shut up.
A few adjustments to the coils inside and a small section of the fence buzzed and switched off. She tucked her spanner back in her pack and slipped inside the fence, checking her watch as she darted across the courtyard. Guard Four would just be getting down to business in the bathroom. It would only take a few seconds to disable the glowing laser lock on the door, another hack she’d learned courtesy of the engineer’s loose tongue.
Renna slipped inside the warehouse, nothing more than a dark shadow against the steel building. Triumph surged through her, hot and rich. “Utterly impenetrable,” her ass. Sometimes the rush from this job was almost better than getting paid. Almost. Still didn’t change her mind about wanting out of the business though. She’d made enough enemies since starting out seven years ago that there were plenty of people who’d love to slit her throat or lock her away in prison for the rest of her life.
She closed her eyes and let her senses reach out into the warehouse, gathering her bearings. The scent of spices, Hesperian wooden crates, and engine oil wove through the space like strands of silk. It smelled like home.
There was a beep as her cranial implant downloaded the building schematics from the net, and she opened her eyes, certain now of her path. On silent feet, she skirted past stacks of crates toward the back. The Cordozas had headquarters in every major city in the star system, but the city of Veth was their clearinghouse for the smuggled items and drugs they sent out across the universe. They were one of the biggest dealers of clay in the galaxy and always looking for a stronger foothold in the Outer Rim. When she had been nothing more than a tenement rat, they’d asked Renna to join their organization.
She’d not-so-politely refused.
Renna wrinkled her nose as she passed a stack of shiny plastic crates. The smoky, burnt-sugar scent of the drug reached her even from here. Almost instinctually, her hand moved to her pack to reach for the lighter inside. Each two-pound bag of clay sold for nearly a million credits on the black market, but stealing and selling it wasn’t even tempting. Destroying every last bag though? That, she almost couldn’t resist.
On any other day, any other assignment, she might have done it. But today, get in and get out was her mantra, and setting fire to a billion credits worth of drugs would draw attention she didn’t need.
The muscles in Renna’s neck tightened, and she fluttered her fingers as she walked, keeping them loose and flexible. She rolled her shoulders, scanning the warehouse.
Her implant sent a couple of low frequency beeps to her ears as she passed the last row of crates.
Renna dropped her knapsack on the floor in front of the gleaming iron safe and rummaged for her tools. A Saltani safe had sixteen manual tumblers, an electronic lock, and the most advanced internal circuitry out there, but once she got past the tumblers, it was easy work since all their safes had a weak point in the circuitry. You just had to know where to look.
“Ah, there you are, sweetheart,” she said, probing with her tweezers. A few twists and she’d rewired the combination panel back to its factory settings. From there, all she had to do was enter the standard code.
The safe opened with a click, and Renna sank back onto her heels. Inside were three datapads, which she ignored. Instead, she helped herself to several stacks of credits and a sleek silver laser gun before finally spotting the box she needed buried under several bags of platinum coins.
She hefted one of the coin bags in her hand. Probably worth a hundred thousand credits. Not chump change by any means. It found its way into her knapsack.
The destabilizer was stored in a heavy wooden box about the size of her hand. She unlatched the lid and pushed it open. There was no way she’d make a mistake on retrieving this item. It was worth more than her life.
Red velvet cradled the globe of shiny metal, the electronic keypad on its face currently in sleep mode. She let out a breath, then locked the box back up and slipped it into her pack. She wouldn’t want to be within two planets if that thing detonated. Luckily, she was handing it over to Boyd as soon as she got out of here. And then those shiny credits would be in her bank account and she could kiss this life goodbye once and for all.
Renna flipped the safe closed and locked it back up. She tweaked the wires again, resetting the combination back to what the Cordozas had set. Nothing quite like confusing the hell out of your targets.
Whistling softly, she slung the bag over her shoulder. Now all she needed was to slip back out the way she’d come in and turn the fence back on, with no one the wiser. But she had one quick detour to make first.
Her implant had detected a store of fibroseparators in the corner of the warehouse, and she’d almost danced with glee. Each device could fetch up to fifty thousand on the market, especially if you knew the right mercenaries—the ones who didn’t want to report their gunshot wounds or blade slices. And, boy, did she know the right mercenaries. They would offer double if she could keep them in stock. Plus the couple she kept for herself. You never knew when a job would go tits up.
She found the stash without a problem and shoved a dozen into her pack with a smile. She’d already picked out the perfect cottage on a beach, far away from the drugs and stench of her current life. It would be peaceful. Relaxing. Safe. She’d change her name, and Renna Carrizal would finally be dead. She’d worked hard to put the past behind her, to break away from the tenement life and her abusive mother. Now it was time to figure out who she was without all that baggage.
Her hand played with the sapphire around her neck idly, and lost in her dreams, she barely registered the whimper until her implant squawked in her ear.
“Human presence detected.”
Renna froze, hand on her pistol. She scanned the rows of crates, the shelves along the back wall, but the warehouse stood still and silent. Damn this implant. It couldn’t be time for a new upgrade already.
“Report,” she ordered.
“Thirteen meters to the left. Crate 107.” The mechanical female voice was emotionless as always, but Renna’s heart thudded in her chest. She turned and stared at the number 107 burned roughly into the wood of the crate. The thing looked barely big enough to hold a dog, let alone a human.
Another symbol was burned alongside the numbers: a strange eye crossed by two spears. She didn’t recognize the mark. Maybe the crate was destined for one of the Outer Rim gangs. Were the Cordozas trafficking in slaves now, too?
The whimpering grew louder. “Is someone out there? Please help me.”
She stared at the crate, lips parted at the young voice. She twitched her heavy bag higher on her shoulder, glancing toward the exit.
So much for getting in and out quickly. This was a complication she couldn’t afford.
“Please! Help me! I know you’re out there!” The terror in the kid’s voice was thick and palpable.
Renna frowned. Took a step toward the exit. She wanted to help, really she did, but…
“Please. I’ve been here for days. I promise my uncle will pay you.” The boy’s voice broke on the last word, and she froze.
If that was the case, she would be more than happy to take the kid off the Cordozas’ hands. Drugs and weapons were bad enough. She shouldn’t let them get away with trafficking, too.
“Hold on, I’ll have you out in a sec,” she said softly, using the spanner to remove the nails from the crate. She stepped lithely out of the way as the front panel fell to the floor.
Renna’s eyes widened, but she was too good a mercenary to let any other shock show. Inside the crate was a cage, and inside the cage was a small, dark-skinned boy, half-naked. The smell of unwashed skin made her stomach churn. He’d obviously been there more than a few days.
She gritted her teeth as he cowered in the corner, his dark eyes shadowed and haunted. Bruises and cuts marred his chest and arms. She dropped to a crouch before the laser lock.
“What’s your name?” she asked gently, careful not to let her anger show.
“Myka. Myka Aldani.”
“Nice to meet you, Myka. My name is Renna, and I’m going to get you out of here.”
The boy nodded and crept forward from his corner.
“So where do you come from, Myka?” she asked as she tackled the lock with her tools. She tried to ignore how gaunt his bare chest was, every rib poking from his skin. Her fingers tightened around her nanospanner. If she ever ran into the Cordozas in a dark alley…
“I was living with my uncle in New Rome Colony, but my parents and I are from Banos Prime.” His voice stayed expressionless, and Renna nodded. Banos Prime had been destroyed three years ago. Most of the population had been wiped out.
“Were your parents killed in the attack?”
The boy stared at her silently before nodding once.
“I’m sorry.” Renna bowed her head over the last tumbler on the lock. What the hell were the Cordozas doing with this little boy?
The last tumbler fell into place, and the laser light shut off. “There we go. No problem.” Renna smiled at the boy and tugged the cage front open. “You’re free.”
He stared at the open door as if he didn’t believe his eyes.
And then the shrieking alarms began.