"You bitch, you're cheating!"
Radha sighed. Today had started out so well. Or at least, it had started out less shitty than her days normally did.
She looked up and across the table at the speaker, not responding at all to his hate-filled expression. Jonas had never liked her. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Jonas had only hated her after she'd turned down his advances shortly after she'd arrived on Jericho. But she suspected the real problem wasn't the rejection and more that she wasn't scared of him like everyone else. Everyone was afraid of Jonas; he worked at making people scared of him, so that made her all the more dangerous. The fact she'd turned him down was just the icing on the cake.
Jericho sat at the ass end of the universe. A mining base in the Galeata System that people didn't come to unless they were desperate. Or, like Radha, trying to hide. Even so, you had to have a pretty damn big secret to risk coming here.
She leaned back in her chair, one booted foot on the empty seat beside her. Her posture was relaxed, but everyone in the bar knew her. Knew how she could move. She was fast and lethal when she needed to be. If her reputation wasn't enough, there were the prison tattoos on her upper arms. Even the most uneducated recognized the distinctive marks of Acheron--the United Planets' harshest prison. Acheron was so harsh that even a short sentence there was considered a death sentence. There weren't many people who survived it and wore the sort of marks Radha did.
"Piss off Jonas, the way you play cards a trained monkey could roll you over," she threw back. She spoke in a mild voice. Jonas wasn't worth getting wound up over.
The room fell silent, all eyes watching the stand-off developing at the center table. No one argued with Jonas. Not publically. Not if they wanted to live.
Radha sighed again. She hadn't been cheating but she had been winning. A fact she knew would sting Jonas more than losing money. Jonas didn't like to be beaten at anything, especially not by a woman.
She threw her cards in the center of the table and stood. "Screw this, I'm not listening to your bullshit tonight Jonas," she told him and reached forward to scoop up her winnings.
A hard hand clamped around her slender wrist. "You're not going anywhere with my money bitch," Jonas snarled.
Radha gave him a look that could melt steel. It was a look she'd perfected during her time at Acheron. Jonas flinched but covered it with a curled lip. It was his best bad-ass look. Unfortunately for him, Radha had seen it all.
"You have three seconds to let go," she said. "Or I'll break every bone in your body."
"You broke his legs, arms, crushed one hand, broke his nose, his jaw, collarbones, all his ribs ... oh no, I tell a lie, you missed a rib. The bottom one on the left side according to the medical report..."
Judge Patterson sighed and snatched his glasses off his face to look at the tall woman in handcuffs standing in front of his desk.
"Ms. Kaden, I don't think you realize quite how much trouble you're in. You almost beat a man to death and your only defense is 'he was being a tit'!" he exclaimed. "You broke every bone in his body!"
Radha quit her study of the ceiling to look at him. A shiver ran down Patterson's spine. She was a looker all right, no question of that. He wasn't that far into his dotage that he couldn't appreciate the way a woman looked. But hers was a dangerous beauty, like admiring a panther. Any moment that lethal grace could turn on you.
She looked like she should be modeling on a catwalk. She was tall, slender, and curved in all the right places. But above all it was her face that caught his eye. Almond-shaped eyes set over high cheekbones and full lips. A mass of long dark hair gave her an almost ethereal look, until you peered into those dark eyes. Patterson shuddered. Someone, somewhere had destroyed any hope or joy in her soul.
He shuffled papers and looked at her again. She hadn't moved, still looking at him.
"I'm sorry Ms. Kaden, you leave me no choice. The terms of your release were very specific. There wasn't to be any trouble. I'm going to have to send you back to the Acheron facility."
Acheron. They were sending her back to Acheron.
Radha lay on the cot in the single cell and stared upward, her hands behind her head. She'd known this would happen eventually. Acheron was the sort of place that never released its grip. The hardest penal facility of them all, it was a place where people were locked up and the key was thrown away. Most people there were serving a death sentence, whether they were given it or not. No one survived more than two years in Acheron, it was just that tough. If it wasn't the grueling physical work, mining krellerite ore, it was the brutal regime instilled by the guards or the equally brutal mentality of the inmates.
Radha had survived nearly a year during her first sentence. She wasn't stupid or naive enough to think she would make it through another. She sighed; all her running and hiding after her release had been for nothing. Acheron had found her anyway, and sunk its teeth in once again.
"You're a pilot."
The gruff male voice broke through her thoughts. The tone was level with only the faintest hint of condemnation in it. That was impressive. The fleet needed pilots, now more than ever. The Satagosians had increased their attacks, upped their raids until the United Planets Fleet was stretched to the limit. The call had gone out to every able-bodied person with flight experience to contact their nearest recruitment office.
Radha had ignored it.
"I said, you are a pilot."
She laughed, bitter amusement in the sound. "I heard you the first time handsome. But you're mistaken. I'm no pilot."
The speaker moved closer until he had to be leaning against the bars of her cell. Radha refused to look at him, her gaze firmly on the ceiling. She liked this ceiling; it was interesting to look at. It even had spots. She started to count them.
There was a sigh, a "we're going to play this game are we?" sort of sigh.
"Are you, or are you not the Radha Kaden who took fighter training at the Academy seven years ago?" he asked again. Something in his tone told Radha he'd keep at this all day, slowly whittling her down. Or trying to at least.
"Yeah," she admitted after a long pause. They could pull her record in two seconds flat so it would do her no good to lie. "What of it?"
His voice was smug and self-satisfied. "Then you're a pilot. Why didn't you answer the all-pilots call?"
Radha turned her head, her gaze colliding with his. He was a nondescript guy, the beige uniform of the admin corps making him look drab. Correction, making him look more drab than he already was.
"I didn't graduate. Ergo, I'm not a pilot."
She resumed her study of the ceiling. She might not have graduated from flight school by the grand total of a week but she'd always had a major in attitude.
Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six ... was that a spot or just a shadow? Radha squinted, trying to make it out.
There was another long suffering sigh, which she also ignored. She had no sympathy for him. If he couldn't handle shit from prisoners then he should go get a job someplace else. A place like this anyone in a position of authority was a prime target.
"I see you're headed for Acheron. How about I offer you an alternative?"
She turned her head and looked at him again. Any alternative to Acheron would catch her interest. One eyebrow went up. "Keep talking."
The flight jacket landed in the chair as he placed his helmet on the edge of the desk. Standing in front of it, Davin ran his hand through his hair as he looked at the files scattered across the surface. He flopped down into the chair, a metal structure wrapped in a thin "cushion" that did absolutely nothing to comfort him. His patrol was long, his days were longer, and--with the Satagosians knocking on the fleet's door--there were no brighter times in sight.
Davin rested two fingers under his bottom lip as his gaze drifted around the tiny office. Dingy and sparsely decorated, it was more a hole in the wall to store the multitude of personnel files and reports the wing commander of a prominent UPF battle station was responsible for. Sentinel Five was a large spinning structure that appeared to be a pointy cylinder from a distance, due to its external batteries remaining in constant deployment. As the presiding station in the Prealean System, one of the furthest-flung Earth colony systems, it was the first point of contact for the invading Satagosians.
He propped one boot onto the corner of his desk, one of the only spots not covered in random notes or files, and crossed the other on top of it. Tall with long legs, he struggled with space in the cramped office. Although required to run every day and work out in the gym once a week, most of his bulk came from beating his frustration out on the heavy bag at night. Most nights.
He spent some of his nights with Lanna, a girl from Operations he'd chased since the first day of his posting on the station. She'd been stand-offish and coy at first, but he'd eventually broken through and now they were coming up on two years together. Since war had broken out with the Satagosians though, the nights with her were few and far between.
A new file sitting atop the teetering tower in his inbox caught his eye, a personnel file. Incoming personnel were rare, especially those with the blue pilot tag on the front. Lord knew he needed more pilots. Interested despite his exhaustion he picked it up and flipped it open in his lap, the ancient chair screaming under his shifting weight. His gaze was drawn to the picture immediately. She was female, that was the first thing he noticed, and she was attractive. Not a conventional attractive though, certainly not the kind of obvious beauty Lanna worked so hard on. This woman was dark and demanding, a dangerous kind of beauty that stirred him up inside.
She'd spent time at Acheron, was released and was about to be sent back, but instead she was being sent to him to serve out her sentence in the fleet. He paused for a moment, wondering what kind of woman it would take to survive Acheron, and then continued. She'd trained at the Academy, expelled a week before graduation for seriously injuring another pilot. He scanned the remainder of her file, mostly marks she'd earned during flight tests and several citations for brawling with other students.
He shook his head at whatever jackass in the Admiralty decided to send him an ex-con with an attitude problem. Someone was either pissed off or it was supposed to signify his ability to handle it. He tossed the file onto the stack on his desk. The wing was bursting at the seams with hot-headed pilots. Male pilots. She would be swimming in a sea of testosterone that hadn't had much female contact since the Satagosians had first launched their attack. Considering her record, it was just a matter of time before she put one of his men in the brig for hitting on her.
Without warning, the door to his office swung open. Standing on the other side was Glenn Bertrand, commanding officer of the station. Davin's feet dropped immediately. The bottom one had fallen asleep on the desk, something Davin was used to. He stood and stiffened, despite the thousands of needles digging into his right foot, to throw a salute.
"At ease. What the hell are you doing still in flight gear?"
Davin relaxed, glancing down. He'd forgotten what he was wearing. The standard-issue tight-fitting sleeveless T-shirt from the waist up, but his bottom half was still wrapped in his bulky flight suit. Moving forward to remove his flight jacket from the only other chair in the room, he shrugged at the captain's question.
"Just like to decompress a little before heading to the locker room," he replied, waving toward the chair.
Bertrand fell into it, sighing heavily and kneading his forehead. The captain seemed to always have a headache, sometimes caused by the crew, sometimes by the situation. His eyes were always a patchwork of bloodshot and dryness. Davin wondered how long it had been since the man slept.
"You get the file I left for you?"
"Yessir. Just finished reviewing it. She sounds like a handful." Davin offered a smile he didn't feel.
"She's a handful all right. We need the help though, and I told the brass you could handle it."
Davin nodded, the new information cementing his jackass suspicion. It made sense that Bertrand would think him capable; everyone thought him capable. His facade was the type his superiors ate up and asked for seconds. Follow orders, don't ask questions and do it by the book. That's how he'd gotten where he was, what his father would've wanted.
"Thank you, sir," Davin said, feigning some sense of sincerity. He was a good actor with plenty of practice, so he sounded like he meant it.
"I want you to put her on your wing, keep an eye on her. The last thing we need is some loose cannon laying out our boys before we can even get them in their birds."
Davin wanted to scream. Not only would she drive him insane, but he would be responsible for whatever trouble she caused. Jealous of any other woman around him, Lanna certainly wouldn't be happy about a woman pilot in the barracks where Davin and the other pilots were practically living on top of one another. He wanted to give Bertrand the finger and tell him where to put it. But Davin was Davin; a leopard couldn't change its spots, so instead he nodded and gave a thin smile.
Hot water was a blessing and a luxury all rolled into one. Radha sighed in contentment as she stood under the hot stream and let it flow over her, washing all her cares away. She'd missed hot water most of all. Hell, some places she'd been clean water was a luxury. Clean and hot was out of the question. Radha was grinning like the cat that got the cream.
Hot water, three squares a day and no mine duty? All she'd had to do was sign on to fight the Satagosians, pledge what was left of her life to the fleet and sign in triplicate in the blood of someone's first born. Okay, perhaps the first born was a bit far but by the time she'd gotten halfway through the forms required to transfer her sentence from Acheron into fleet service, she'd been ready to agree to anything.
Her lips quirked in amusement as she emerged from under the shower. Death by form-filling, a new form of punishment. Twitching the shower curtain aside, she reached out and grabbed her towel off the hook outside the shower. Quickly she wrapped herself in the voluminous sheet.
"God, I love the fleet," she murmured, feeling clean, really clean for the first time in months. Wringing the excess moisture from her hair, she stepped from the shower and padded into the main locker room.
Well heeello handsome, where have you been all my life? She pulled up short, a small pause in her step, when she realized she wasn't alone anymore. There was someone rooting in the locker next to hers. A tall, well-built male someone. She pursed her lips as her gaze travelled down his back in appreciation.
Nice ass too. This might be more interesting than she'd thought.
Davin slid his jacket to the right for the tenth time, stretching to comb the corner of the locker with his fingers. What he had done with Baxter's lighter since the last card game was beyond him. Had he actually used the lighter, he would probably know where it was. He was keeping it more for the spoils of victory than for use, though, and the guy's incessant whining about it was driving him mad. So he'd decided to give it back. He just had to find the bloody thing now.
Just as he closed his hand on something metallic and promising, he heard a footfall. Turning and expecting one of his men, he blinked a little in surprise when his gaze fell on a woman. Not just any woman, the brooding femme fatale from the file. The one he couldn't quite get out of his head. She wasn't in flight gear though, she was in a towel--long strands of jet black hair sticking to her face as those fascinating eyes studied him.
He dropped whatever he'd found and turned, offering a hand. He figured he would start with pleasantries, if for nothing else than to say he'd done it. He was slick with sweat, wearing a thin tank top and his well-travelled gym shorts. Not exactly the way he wanted to meet her, but at least it wasn't just a towel.
"Davin McAvoy, you must be..." He already knew her name, but she didn't know that.
Radha's eyes narrowed a little. The face was just as good, no better, than the rest of the body and in her experience men that looked that good were never what they seemed. They always wanted something, either adoration for the good fortune to be born looking the way they did or an all access pass into the pants of anything female.
His hair was a bit longer than regulation, short blond spikes that stood in thin rows with a mix of gel and sweat. His eyes were an icy blue that were somehow sharp and warm at the same time. There was an innocence in them, a softness that made her uncomfortable.
"...trying to get to my locker." She ignored the hand as her paranoia kicked into high gear. She didn't trust good-looking guys. Experience had taught her that lesson.
He gave a light grin and sidestepped, swinging the hand toward the lockers. She felt those baby blues on her right arm as she approached the locker beside his. It didn't surprise her, not with the prison ink crawling up her skin there.
Here we go. The thought was automatic as Radha fought the urge to run her hand over her symbols. She wasn't ashamed of her tattoos. It was a different way of life inside. You weren't inked, you weren't part of the culture. You weren't part of the culture, you were dead. Radha had a healthy interest in staying alive, so she got the ink.
The tattoos served other purposes as well. They had their own language, their own symbology. Radha's designs would tell another inmate that she didn't recognize authority and she wasn't a "butterfly" looking for an escape; she intended to serve her sentence. Considering the average life expectancy was less than even the shortest sentences, it took a special kind of determination to wear that mark.
"No, Mrs. Twinkletoe's Finishing School for Genteel Young Ladies... What does it look like?" she drawled, already past him and ferreting in her own locker. They'd supplied her with everything, standard fleet issue everything. Even the underwear. Her nose wrinkled a little as she pulled it out of the pack and considered it. Attractive it was not.
She flicked a glance to the side. His eyes were slits, burning holes in her side as she unraveled her new underwear.
"Ouch. That hurt almost as much as not telling me your name." His words were thick with sarcasm as he crossed his arms. She fought the urge not to glance at his chest. He wasn't overly built but well defined. He must work out a lot. That or he was naturally gifted with a body like that. Radha was more inclined to go for option A.
"That's okay, I didn't tell you the whole truth either. I'm Lieutenant Commander McAvoy, as in the commander of this air wing and, more importantly, your superior. So watch your mouth or you'll be right back in Mrs. Twinkletoe's class."
Great, handsome had a colossal-sized ego to match his looks. Radha sighed a long suffering sigh. When would they learn that sort of crap didn't work with her?
"It'll take more pull than you've got on that collar sweetheart, considering the fleet needs all the pilots it can muster," she said and dropped the towel.
Silence filled the locker room. She could feel the tension pouring out of him like heat from an exhaust vent. He shifted behind her as she shimmied into her underwear. When she looked up he was struggling to hold her gaze. It always amazed her how easy it was to flip the switch and watch them squirm.
"Just because we need pilots doesn't mean you get to fly. I can have you on supply runs for the rest of your sentence if I want, so just keep pushing." His voice deepened, sounding more like the type of officer he was.
She flicked her hair over her shoulder, and looked at him in assessment. He wasn't joking. She'd only agreed to this because she'd be able to fly a Valkyrie again. Much as she disliked the fleet, flying the lethal combat fighters was something she missed.
"Yes, Lieutenant Commander, it's an Acheron tattoo. Happy now?"
His gaze drifted below hers, then returned quickly. "Getting there."
He turned back to his locker, reaching into the corner where he'd dropped whatever he was holding before she showed up. "I'm putting you on the 0900 patrol. Get your workout and your first square in before then and don't be late."