January 15, 4830: the Lady Anna: Two parsecs outside of the Englor System
"Hurry, hurry, hurry." Payton looked around the engine room then back to the monitors in front of him. Almost done, download ninety-eight percent complete. Come on. If he could just get into the IN mainframes...
Dust. His hands were sweating. No sooner than he wiped them on his trousers, a drop of perspiration dripped down his temple as well. He dashed it away. Get it together, Pay. If you're going to spy for your planet you can't go around looking like a nervous ninny. This was the perfect plan. Hacking into the Englor Marines' message database from the Lady Anna would make it nearly impossible to trace. Even if there were cyber footprints, they wouldn't be detected until he was on Englor. No one would suspect him. Unless, of course, he failed to get out of here and back to his room unseen.
His com-pad beeped, signaling it was done. "Yes." Payton closed the two screens together, with the displays facing out so he could see what the ship's cameras were seeing. He was going to need it to get back to his room undetected. Bypassing sensors and cameras to hide his whereabouts was simple, but sneaking past crewmembers--Nate in particular--unseen proved a little more challenging.
After punching the buttons on the halo keyboard of the ship to log off, he pulled up the Lady Anna's cameras on his com-pad. Nate had brought Payton on this trip to work on deciphering a message Aiden and Trouble had intercepted, but Payton wanted to get a head start on looking into Colonel Hollister, who was mentioned in an intercepted letter by an Englorian Spy on Regelence. This should prove once and for all that Payton's unconventional computer skills were a blessing.
Pulling up the first camera on his screen, Payton hurried to the door. He could turn the camera off remotely, but he needed to see if there was anyone outside the door first. He brought up the view immediately outside the engine room door and then the next hallway to make certain no one was walking into this corridor. The coast was clear. Nothing out there but the ugly purple carpet and stark metal bulkhead. Who used violet on a ship? The IN colors were black, white and gold. Why not black carpet?
He tapped the window on his screen and the corridor disappeared. Payton opened the door and closed it quietly behind him. As he rushed toward the end of the hall he pulled up the next camera. Still clear. With a couple of touches of his fingertip, he turned off the camera and opened a window with the next view in it. Dust. Two sailors were headed his way. Payton looked around. There was a hatch directly across where he stood now. He did some fast tapping on the screen and opened a map. The room across from him was an officer's apartment. That wouldn't work. Where was a broom closet when you needed one?
He had mere seconds to decide what to do. The two men were about to round the corner. What were the odds they'd mention to Nate that they saw him? Payton ducked his head and plowed forward, like he was where he was supposed to be. Really he had no other choice, just standing there looking for a hiding place would definitely make him stand out. Note to self: next time steal--no not steal, a Townsend did not steal--borrow a uniform.
The sailors came around the corner. Both were privates, both a little taller than Payton's five feet six inches. He hadn't seen either one of them before. Of course that wasn't surprising, there were over two hundred crewmen on the ship. Fortunately, neither man paid Payton any mind. They walked right past him, still engrossed in their conversation.
Payton let out the breath he'd been holding and brought up the next camera view. That had been amazingly easy. But this was where it could get tricky. The corridor opened up into a four-way intersection. Two of the branches led to the public areas of the ship. The hall he was in led to the engine room, and the hall directly across from him led to his quarters. The problem was, the cross sections were usually busy. Maybe the same trick would work? At this point he had nothing to lose. The closer he got to his room, the antsier he became. On his screen the intersection appeared devoid of personnel, but Payton had no illusions that it would stay that way. He turned off the camera, put his com-pad under his arm and raised his nose in the air. Nothing to see here. Just taking a stroll, stretching my legs.
As Payton reached the halfway point of the intersection, a husky female voice said, "Aye-aye, Admiral."
Stardust and imploding planets, there was only one Admiral on board. Payton looked in time to see Nate turning away from Captain Brittani Kindros and toward the intersection. Dust. Payton took off running. He didn't stop until he got to his hatch. He darted inside and leaned against the smooth metallic panel when it closed behind him. He'd tell Nate what he'd done, but he wanted to wait until after he had some information to impart.
His hard-headed macho Admiral brother-in-law would throttle him if he got caught. Despite bringing Payton for his hacking talent, Nate was trying to keep Payton's involvement to a minimum. At least that's what Payton suspected.
He took a deep breath and pulled himself together. Using his screen, he brought the cameras back up.
Nate turned down the hallway that led to Payton's room. Even Payton had to admit how sexy the commanding air surrounding Nate was. The man really was something. Even though he was so big and masculine, he moved with an elegant grace that spoke of his upbringing. And he looked every inch the earl right this second in his crisp brown morning coat, brown pinstriped waistcoat and cream-colored cravat. Aiden was a lucky man...and any minute Payton would be a dead one.
He'd told Nate he was going to nap after Nate had soundly beaten him at chess. His black leather case sat by the chaise he'd deserted to go play spy. He raced toward it and deposited his com-pad into it. He needed to look like he'd been here the whole time. As he sat down he reached into the outer pocket of his case. The knock came just as Payton grabbed his leather-bound journal and pulled it into his lap. He scrambled for a pen.
Payton took a deep shuddering breath, trying to slow his racing heart, opened the book and held his pen like he was writing. "Come in."
Nate met Payton's gaze and smiled almost reluctantly. "You've been writing in your journal?" The hatch shut behind him.
"Yes." Payton smiled. Please don't let him see how hard I'm breathing.
Nate's brows pulled together, his forehead furrowing. "Okay, I thought I-- Never mind. So, tell me, how is it someone as computer savvy as you records his journal on paper rather than his computer? You've rarely been without that thing"--Nate dipped his head toward Payton's computer bag, which lay beside the chaise--"the entire trip. You're nearly as bad as your brother with his sketchscreens."
Payton shrugged. "I know better than anyone how easy it is to hack into computers."
Nate's face went comically blank. "Are you telling me that your personal computer is not secure?"
No computer is secure with someone who knows what he's doing. Payton laughed, hoping it didn't sound nervous. "Of course it is. If you are concerned about household computers breaking in, you need not, even Jeffers can't get into my com-pad and I've programmed him to be able to take a peek at other computers that enter the castle."
"Good." The tension in Nate's shoulders eased and he came further into the room. He smelled good, smoky and kind of sweet, like he'd smoked a flavored cigar. Payton had always liked that smell. Taking a seat on the edge of the chaise, Nate crossed one leg over the other, stretching his feet out in front of him. He gestured toward Payton's journal, making a "give it here" motion.
Payton's mouth dropped open. He shook his head and clutched it to his chest. What was wrong with Nate? Surely he didn't expect Payton to allow him to read his journal.
Nate sighed and held his hand out. "I'm not going to read it."
"Then why do you want it?" Admiral, brother-in-law and guardian at the moment not withstanding, there was no way Payton was turning it over. Nate would have to physically take it from him, and for all Nate's brute strength Payton didn't think the man had it in him. He was so gentle with Aiden. Not that Payton didn't think Nate could be rough and dangerous, the man exuded danger from every pore, but Payton didn't think Nate would, not over a journal anyway. He'd overheard his brother Aiden tell Nate to keep Payton safe. And as silly as Payton thought that was--he could take care of himself after all--he knew Nate would never break a promise to Aiden.
"Flip to a blank page and give it here." Nate's eyes narrowed. He was serious.
Payton shook his head so hard he felt like Muffin being told to get her bath. He inched his way to the side of the chaise, preparing to run. Childish and cowardly it might be, but no one read his journal.
Moving surprisingly quick for such a big man, Nate snagged the leather-bound book and the pen out of Payton's arms.
Mine. Gasping, Payton lunged at him.
Nate caught him easily and shoved him back to his seat.
Payton landed on his arse with a jolt, even on the soft cushion.
Flipping to the back of the book, Nate wrote something. Within seconds he offered the book and pen to Payton.
What in the bloody hell? Maybe Nate hadn't lost his mind. Payton snatched the book from his brother-in-law's hand, giving him a glare for good measure.
Nate smiled. "I'm impressed. Your brother probably would have attacked me if that were him and his sketchscreen."
Payton didn't bother mentioning that he had tried to attack Nate, but Nate had pretty much swatted him away like a pesky fly. Being small rained meteors. Still frowning, he looked down at the journal.
On the unlined paper was a surprisingly elegant scrawl. Can you secure this room so we can talk privately?
The tightness in Payton's chest eased. The Lady Anna, like Jeffers, had listening capabilities in the private quarters. Nate wasn't losing his mind, he just didn't want to take a chance of the IN being alerted that he had silenced the ship.
Nodding, Payton reached over the side of the chaise, stuffed his journal into his bag and grabbed his com-pad. He hadn't turned it off, so all he had to do was flip it open. In seconds, he had the computer locked out of this room and the adjoining suite that belonged to Nate, just in case the speakers were ultra sensitive. He glanced up at Nate. "Okay."
"Okay? That was quick."
Yeah, it was, since he'd already been inside the ship's computer, but he wasn't going to tell Nate that. "I'm good."
Nate chuckled. "You are indeed, I'm impressed. I wanted to talk to you about our plan. You're going to Englor as my aide and an IN lieutenant."
Huh? Payton's jaw dropped open for the second time in minutes. "Beg pardon?"
"I've had Brittani fake your records. No one will know but the two of us...and Brittani."
"And Captain Kindros is trustworthy?"
"Absolutely." Nate said it so quickly and with such confidence. "But you trust no one but myself. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. What if someone recognizes me?"
"I doubt that will be a problem. But if they do you will just pretend to be flattered and tell them thank you, being a Regelen it is quite an honor to be mistaken for Prince Payton." Nate grinned. "You are, however, not Payton Townsend, but Lieutenant Payton Jeffers. You answer only to me. I have uniforms for you with my things. We will change on the space station before going down to Englor. Do you think you can act like a soldier?"
"Jeffers?" Jeffers was the name of his family's computer butler. Payton smiled. This was going to be fun. "Aye-aye, Admiral, I think I can handle it. Are you forgetting where I was raised and how revered soldiers are on Regelence?" He gave Nate a crisp salute. Pretending to be a soldier would be simple.
Nate chuckled and shook his head. "Good. I'll have to talk to my family to make certain they don't give you away, but other than that I believe we are set."
One of Nate's dark brows rose. "Oh?"
They were fairly certain the IN was behind the stolen weapons stash and the kidnapping of Payton's brother Aiden a few months ago since Nate had identified the spy as an IN Intelligence Agent, but even after Aiden's return they weren't certain if Englor was involved or, if so, to what extent. Englor could be a great ally in a confrontation with the IN, but first they had to be certain Englor wasn't in bed with the enemy. "What other sources do you want me to try? Should I get into IN Intelligence and Colonel Hollister's computer for a peek around?"
Payton was nearly positive the encoded message Nate's son, Trouble, had intercepted a few months back had been a stolen message intended for Colonel Hollister from his spy Benson. Benson had been Aiden's valet for several months but no one had realized he was a spy until after he was killed trying to protect Aiden.
After some digging around Payton had ascertained that the code was Englorian, but since he didn't know Englorian encryption, that still left him with a lot of work to do. Hopefully, his recent adventure, breaking into the Englor message system, would aid him in figuring out the code. "We still need to learn what Benson was doing on Regelence," Payton reminded Nate.
"I'm going to ask around...discreetly. And if that doesn't work, we'll ask a little more forcefully."
Yes. "Like an interrogation? Torture?" Payton leaned forward. The danger of getting caught was exciting. It would be like shutting down Jeffers, their butler at Townsend castle, only more intense, more like setting up the program to hack Englor's mainframes.
Nate laughed and shook his head. "No. Well yes, but you aren't going to be with me if it comes to that."
Dust. Payton sat back in his seat, his shoulders slumping. Wait. He leaned forward again. "You can't do it by yourself, you'll need back up." Nate shook his head again, but Payton didn't wait to be turned down. "I'm an excellent shot with a fragger and competent with a sword. I'm also trained in hand-to-hand combat, although admittedly I haven't a lot of practice with it."
"No. You're here to help me decipher that coded message. There's no way I'm going to put you in the line of fire. Any information I need you to decipher, I'll bring to you."
Oh bloody hell. Payton slumped back into the chaise. "What good is all my schooling if I'm never going to use it?"
"Are you not using your computer skills?"
"I wasn't taught the particular computer skills I'm using, I learned them myself. I was referring to the different survival techniques all young lords are forced to learn. Like fencing and martial arts." Here he was away from home and he was still going to be coddled like a child. At least Nate did want him using his more controversial technological knowledge. That was something.
"What exactly does your education consist of? Aiden thinks the majority of it is useless, that it's all about obtaining a consort and running a household."
"Some of it was. I suppose for Aiden a lot of it was a waste of time. After taking his first art class, all he ever wanted to do was draw. He only did enough of the other stuff to keep from getting in trouble so he could get back to his art. But for the rest of us..." Payton used a little of all of it. "We're taught math and English of course, French, Latin and Italian. The basic computer skills, economics and diplomacy are touched on as well as history and science. I don't see myself ever using music or art and I wish I didn't have to use dancing, but all of those were included as well as basic self-defense. We probably learned more self-defense than most lords do. Cony thought it was very important. He still makes us spar with him on occasion just to make certain we remember."
Nate seemed to consider it for a moment. "Very well, should the need arise I'll include you on the breaking and entering."
Payton smiled. This trip was promising to be quite an adventure. "Perhaps this is a good time to tell you I've hacked into the Englor message center."