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Judgment [MultiFormat]
eBook by Mary Calmes

eBook Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Jeritt Troy is a Scourge, a guardian tasked with patrolling cracks in time and righting the unspoken wrongs in history. His next task is a killer--not just for him, but for his husband and partner, Frost Ramsey, because Jeritt's not just tracking a bad guy; he's tracking his previous partner--his best friend. Brekin Creed is as deadly as he's ever been, and when Jeritt finds himself both abandoned and stranded in time, he has only a handful of years to figure out what went wrong with Brekin and, in doing so, save Frost's life. Is there time enough for Jeritt to save Frost, or will he be locked in the judgment of his mistakes for eternity? A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2012 Daily Dose package ""Time Is Eternity"".

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2012


6 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *
* * * *

Chapter One

"Who was right," Frost prodded me, bumping me with his shoulder as we stood leaning together in the alley.

"You were right."

"I'm sorry." He huffed out the words, trying to tease me but apparently too nauseous to pull it off. "I didn't hear you."

I rolled my eyes because I knew it was going to be this way as soon as the warning sirens had begun to blare on the ship. It had been my idea to try to bring the corsair through two thousand plus years of time and space. The return trip, with another person on board, would have been so much easier. We could secure him, confine him to quarters, and more than anything, we wouldn't have to use a net. I hated the "molecular filter" and would do anything not to have to employ one. Normally we went by ship through a navigational wormhole, landed in orbit around the planet where we were needed, and then used a smaller wormhole, or "string," to reach our location. Unfortunately, the corsair, though it was made for extended galactic travel, could not take the aging process. It had started to pull apart at fifteen hundred years of travel through the fissure and we'd had to leap free. Of course, at that point we were back to a normal thousand-year jump, but we basically ejected, and the ship blew apart not from an explosion but from rapid aging. Already, the mission would be categorized as a failure.

"Cher?"

"You were right," I repeated, all my focus on the instrument on my wrist before it beeped and I was suddenly looking at a three-dimensional holographic map projected in front of me. "The ship never stood a chance; I shouldn't have suggested trying to bring it."

"No," he agreed, "you should have listened to me."

But I hadn't started the mission that way--listening--so what would have compelled me to start with his concerns about the ship?

The briefing to debate the operation had already become a volley of words from all sides when Colonel Dorsey had turned and looked at me. And I had known when the man had first opened his mouth and explained what was needed that it would come down to whether I would go. The AWOL scourge was my old partner, after all. If anyone should have been sent to save him, bring him back, or judge him beyond redemption, it should have been me. So as all the other scourges in attendance had declined the mission, agreeing instead to Brekin Creed's death, the colonel had finally turned his pale blue eyes on me.

"Captain Troy?"

It was far too dangerous to do anything but ask for volunteers. Close to a twenty-five-hundred-year leap was not something we routinely attempted. From our year, 4510, it was considered risky. Travel in the fissure, the crack in time, was precise to a second at a thousand years. More than that, and percentages got slightly shaved, and even being off a tenth of one could move you twenty years either backward or forward.

So already the jump was problematic, but it wasn't fair to simply send the pulse that would kill Lieutenant Creed through his compass without first trying to convince him to give himself up and return home. The scourges had been looking for him, tracking his whereabouts, for three years, since he first went AWOL, and had finally pinned him down. The time to approach him was at hand, so someone had to go.

I had been weighing the pros and cons the whole time the room had been erupting in sound, cataloging the many dangers in my head, all the possible outcomes, and mulling it over. But what finally made up my mind for me was not that the worst-case scenario was death but instead that I could fail him, my ex-partner, Brekin Creed, again. That had been my impetus for the nod of my head--guilt. The room had gone instantly, eerily silent.

"I'll make the jump, Colonel," I said with much more conviction than I felt.

No one was breathing.

"Are you certain, Captain?"

I had wondered why only those of lower rank--the noncommissioned men, not the commissioned ones--had been invited to the briefing, and I finally had my answer. Officers were far too valuable to even consider sending on what probably amounted to a suicide mission.

"I am."

He nodded. "You may be going alone. In this instance a partner is not a certainty, and no one could be ordered to accompany you, even yours."

"Yes, sir," I said, feeling hollow suddenly, because that was the one piece I had not considered: the prospect that Frost would not go with me.

"Be ready at 0500 tomorrow, Captain."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," I said quickly.

"Dismissed."

As I walked out of the meeting room, I felt the weight of what I had done settling over me. It was all over the base by the time I made it back to my quarters.

"What did you do?" Frost yelled the second the door slid open.

I walked in and stopped, standing my ground.

"Answer me!" he roared, charging across the space that separated us.

I put up my hands as he stopped inches from my face. "You know why he asked me."

"Of course I know, but you're an idiot for taking the bait!"

It was impossible not to touch him, and I found myself taking hold of his jacket, clutching it in my hands as I tilted my head back so I could see his eyes. He was six foot three to my own six feet, enough that I had to look up when we were that close. "This man I'm going to find--do you know who he is? Do you know why it has to--"

"I know who it is!" The muscles in his neck corded as his jaw clenched. "I know Brekin Creed was your partner, but I don't give a damn about him--I only care about you!"

He was furious and it was my fault.

"You're supposed to check with me first! Before you do anything, you're supposed to ask me! Isn't that what you said? Isn't that your own goddamn rule?"

It was, and I had broken it in a moment of overwhelming remorse. I felt responsible for what had happened to Creed. If we had stayed partners, he might not have made the decisions he had.

"Cher!"

Frost was so angry.

"When you were running through outcomes in your mind, did you even once consider that the worst scenario of all would not be dying but instead never seeing me again?"

What could I say?

"If something goes wrong--anything... what if you can't get back?"

I caught my breath.

"And you'll know that I'm here and you're there but you'll never see me again." His voice dropped low. "Did you ever think of that?"

I shook my head.

"Cher!"

Even in his rage, even in his despair, there was only the endearment.

"No," I said softly, my hands grasping at him, so tight on his jacket that the buckles cut into my palms.

"Why?" he demanded, barking the word.

"I just--"

"Why?"

I shoved him off me as I took a step back, hitting the solid steel door behind me. "Because I never thought we'd be separated. I thought you'd be coming with me!"

"Which I will! How dare you not tell Colonel Dorsey and everyone else in that bullshit briefing that there was no way you were going alone, that of course Major Ramsey was accompanying you!"

The vise on my heart loosened as I stared at him. God, he was beautiful.

"Wherever you go, I go!"

I lunged at him and he caught me, exhaling as he did it, all the tension draining away that fast. He couldn't help it. Just my touch soothed him; just looking into my eyes grounded him. It had been that way from the beginning.

He swallowed hard, and I was as captivated as I'd been the very first time I'd laid eyes on him. I had been caught staring but had been unable to stop myself or tear my gaze away. His green eyes with the flecks of brown in them, golden skin, and sharp, chiseled features were made even more noticeable without the distraction of hair close to his face. He had the same buzzed military cut we all wore, but that was where any similarities ended. The man was breathtaking. He was tall, covered in hard, sinewy muscle, with broad, powerful shoulders, a narrow waist, and long, sturdy legs. The moment I had noticed him, five years ago now, coming out of the winter formal for officers and enlisted men, the only time the two groups mixed, I had wanted to be under him. I had caught my breath, and he turned.

Impossible that he had heard me, but somehow, some way, even from the distance, he had, and in that second I demanded all of his attention. He had stared at me like he owned me even from across the room.

I heard my heart pounding in my ears, but I concentrated on slowing everything down, breathing in, breathing out, and then inhaling again, until I calmed. Closing my eyes, I let the sudden ravenous need drain out of me.

What the hell was that? Never had want changed so quickly to irritation. I scowled at him, and the look on his face was hysterical. The man's mouth dropped open, his eyes were wide, and he looked absolutely horrified. He was obviously used to being captivating, or at least that trick making him appear so.

Why I was mad I had no idea, but I gave him a head tip, a waggle of eyebrows, and then turned and walked away. He caught up with me on the stairs.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

I moved to go around him.

He blocked my path.

My response came out more sharply than I would have liked. "Captain Jeritt Troy, twelfth squadron, armored division."

He squinted. "The captain part is real, but the rest of what you said is crap."

The cover story usually worked.

"Talk to me."

I pulled up the right sleeve of my gray dress uniform jacket and showed him the encryptor that all scourges wore. They were called compasses; it was the slang we all used, even though that was a wild oversimplification of the functions of the precision instrument. It was a rudder, a timepiece, a lifeline, a medical scanner, a homing device, and so much more, but mostly, more than anything, it was a symbol of a lifetime commitment to patrolling the fissure, the tear in time.

He nodded as he lifted his left arm, and it was there, the same instrument I wore, cuffed to his left wrist.

It was my turn to be startled.

"We're the same," he said, and his eyes narrowed as he looked at me.

All cadets in the union were put through a battery of tests to see if they had the qualities that the scourges were looking for. It was an elite group, those who patrolled the fissure, the men and women who understood that strategy was as important as finesse. Tactical problem solving, stamina, physical strength and endurance, adaptability, and an encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry were just the basic requirements. It took a year of training after being selected before an individual was granted first, distinctive warfare status, then top-level security clearance, and finally introduced to the teacher who would train him or her. After two years of brutal testing, a board decided on the status of the recruit, considering the recommendation of their mentor. If you were accepted into the fold, the compass was locked into place on your wrist, never to be removed until death. It was a vow that every branch of the military respected.

"Come home with me."

The words jolted me from my thoughts as the stranger took a step closer and put his hand on the lapel of my jacket.

"My place is close by."

"So is mine," I told him.

"Then I'll follow you."

But I had seen the insignia on his jacket, and he was my superior. That was just asking for trouble.

After stepping around him, I took the stairs by twos until I reached the bottom of the grand staircase and turned toward the front door to leave.

I walked fast, and I had a long stride for a guy who was only six feet tall. I jogged down the enormous rose-lined cobblestone drive that opened out onto the street I could follow home. I had ten more days on leave, and I didn't want to waste a moment. I could go to the pub, pick up a willing bed mate, and be home getting fucked within the hour. I would leave the uniform on; a lot of civilians found it romantic.

I ducked behind the Museum of Antiquities, just one of the many buildings in the historic quarter, close to where I lived, and used a little-known shortcut between that and the Hall of Records. Normally the pathway was deserted, so I was surprised when I was suddenly slammed hard into the jagged brick facade on one side.

"What the hell?" I railed at him, realizing, even in the shadowy darkness, that I was again looking at the major.

"You don't walk away from me," he said, and his voice was low and ominous. "You will never walk away from me."

"Why not?"

He was startled, and it clicked in my head, and then I understood why. He was used to that feeling that had rolled through me working.

"Oh." I nodded, wiggling out from under the hand he was using to hold me to the wall. "That trick you pulled back at the governor's mansion, normally that works, huh? What is that, hypnosis? You learn that at the academy? All those extra techniques to make traveling the fissure easier, get people to trust you faster?"

"I--"

"You're like a snake. One look in those eyes and your prey falls at your feet."

His breath was warm on my face as he leaned in, his hands on my hips.

"No," I told him, twisting free of his grip only to be grabbed again halfway to the end of the path, beneath a small safety light, and pushed up against the wall.

"Why not?"

"How do you trust someone who could just be hypnotizing you?" I grinned at him.

The muscles in his jaw twitched, and I heard a frustrated whine that I liked the sound of.

"Major what?" I asked, licking my lips, giving in just a little.

"Ramsey," he answered, eyes locked on my mouth as he pinned me with his big hard body. "Frost Ramsey."

"It's trouble neither of us need."

"But I want," he whispered huskily, inhaling my scent, his knee parting my thighs, one hand back on my hip, holding tight.

I shook my head. "No."

"One kiss."

But I could tell already--he was completely my type, and I wasn't brave enough to let my heart out along with my libido. The organ was still recovering from the last evisceration, the result of mistaken identity. I had thought the pilot I was seeing was the love of my life; he had thought fidelity an antiquated ideal.

"You're only playing around because you haven't found anyone worthy," he told me, bending close, inhaling my scent. "Same here."

My smile couldn't be helped, because seeing the heat in Frost's eyes and hearing the low, hoarse purr/growl rise up from his chest, I admitted to myself that I wasn't letting him go. I would willingly be his next conquest.

"Give me the first kiss of many."

"That's quite a line," I taunted him.

It was almost a snarl, the sound he made before his hand went around my neck and he tipped my head back. "Don't fight me."

"No," I agreed, and he leaned in.

I had never been kissed like that, opened, ravaged, his mouth mauling mine, drawing quick blood. When I felt him nibble up the side of my neck, I hardened fast and didn't care that he could feel it. His hands on me were rough, and he tore at my clothes to get to my skin. The press of his body on mine, the sounds he made in the back of his throat, all were drugging, and I went boneless in his arms. When he dropped to his knees, I moaned loudly as he got roughly into my pants, my belt, and worked the fastening open frantically.

"You're dripping already," he whispered as my cock bobbed free of my briefs and his hand closed around it. His thumb dragging over the end, into the slit, tore a low groan from me. "And you smell so good."

I wanted his mouth on me, needed his lips on my skin.

"Come home with me," he said, looking up at me, into my eyes, as he dragged his callused fingers over my shaft.

Reason was gone, caution buried in lust. I promised I would if he would just suck me.

He deep-throated me in one smooth motion, and I lost all conscious thought when he swallowed around my length, the suction hard and strong and annihilating. His hands on my hips were like a vise; I wasn't getting away.

The hot suction of his mouth, his wicked tongue, and the enjoyment I could hear in the sounds he was making--whimpers, sucking--had me ready to explode down his throat. "Stop... I can't...."

He pressed deeper instead, his nose buried in my groin, and I shuddered with my release as he drank me down, swallowed every drop, and then licked and laved me clean. When he rose over me, I could only stare up into his beautiful, glittering eyes.

"What?"

"That might have been dangerous," I said simply.

"Could it?" he asked, arching an eyebrow for my benefit before lifting his left arm and pushing his jacket sleeve back from the compass. "Initiate disease scan."

A blue holographic web was suddenly at my feet.

"Subject identified as Captain Jeritt Troy of the Union Guard. Permission required before scanning may commence; subject is beta-class retrieval and tactical specialist."

"Beta." He grinned wickedly.

I rolled my eyes. "And you're alpha-class, of course."

"Of course." He was flippant, even as he stepped forward onto the grid with me.

"Oh, so we're going with full disclosure here."

"I don't plan to have my cock in a sheath tonight, so let's take care of this right now."

"What makes you think I won't be the one on top?"

His smile was hot and carnal and wicked. My knees went weak. "I want to be inside you, and you want me there."

Yes, I did. Badly.

He was very arrogant, and it was making my stomach flutter. I craved his brand of dominance. "Permission granted to scan," I said softly.

The light rose, and we were covered in the illuminated net.

"Remind me to take you out dancing. I see that club lighting agrees with you."

I chuckled until he palmed my cock, which had decided to take notice of his closeness and was beginning to harden again.

"I can work with this recovery time of yours."

Eyes closed, head back, I felt his lips graze my collarbone as I shivered in the cool breeze.

"Scan completed," his compass chirped out. "Captain Jeritt Troy and Major Frost Ramsey are negative of any and all terran, non-terran, bio--"

"End scan," he said quickly, and since I had not wanted to hear his encryptor list every possible permutation of disease that we didn't have either, I was thankful.

"So." I smiled wide. "I guess what you did wasn't dangerous at all."

"Which I was confident of before I started," he said, stepping close, shoving me gently back, the heat jumping off his skin almost as dizzying as his nearness. "Now, will you follow me willingly, or shall I carry you?"

"I can walk," I answered, lifting my face to his throat and breathing him in, unable to keep from pressing my lips there.

"You're going to look really good in my bed," he assured me, leaning back to stare down into my eyes.

"Am I?"

"Oh yes."

It was crap, all seduction, no substance, but I didn't care. The man was gorgeous, and I wanted to see his home. "So lead the way."

"You know, I can't remember when I've worked this hard," he said dryly.

I laughed, and he told me to pull up my pants.

"Hurry, I don't want anyone to see you."

The man was possessive, and I liked that. To an orphan who had never been claimed by anyone, his desire and interest were new and welcome.

As we walked together, he draped an arm around my shoulders, and when we took the left near the Capital, instead of the right I normally took, I realized that we lived only two blocks from each other. Funny that we had never crossed paths before.

It was nice when we bolted across the street, thick with hover carriages, that he grabbed my hand so we wouldn't be separated, and kept hold of it down the sidewalk, up the front stoop of his graystone, and inside. We moved to the edge of the entranceway, and the floor rose under us, no enclosure, only the usual gentle lift most of the newer buildings had. After we stopped on his level, he pulled me off after him, tugging gently but firmly, in a hurry. I saw it all in brief, the long marble corridor, his front door that slid open and then swooshed closed behind us.

"What is your plan, Major?"

He shoved me forward into a wall. "I need you."

I caught myself, stopping my forward momentum with hands splayed on the rough plaster. "You're not going to offer me a glass of wine?"

"No."

Looking over my shoulder, I grinned at him. "No drink for me at all?"

"After," he said, and I heard the rumble in his chest.

I needed to slow things down. "All you want to do is fuck me?"

"First... yes," he murmured, bumping the hard bulge of his groin into my ass.

"You're serious." I couldn't stop smiling. "No foreplay, just--"

His breath caught. "I need you."

"You're going to do what? Just spit in your hand and--"

"No," he said as he grabbed my bicep, yanked me off the wall, and walked me through the enormous loft to his bedroom.

Lights came on and dimmed as we walked, and finally I was pushed forward down across his bed. I rolled over on my back to look up at him, laugh at him, with him, but his face, his eyes, were only full of me. I felt like prey.

"Strip."

"You--"

"I want you," he said hoarsely, and I heard it then, the fracture in his voice, that need was gone and hunger was in its place.

I was a moment away from being attacked.

"I could have missed you...." His voice trailed off, got small, as his jaw clenched tight. "And that would have been such a loss...."

He shivered, and I saw it then, the fear and the vulnerability; this was a new thing for him.

"You don't normally bring people to your home."

"No. No one. Ever."

But he wanted me there. "Why?"

"It's not just about fucking in my bed."

His answer was raw and honest. It didn't get any better.

I sat up and leaned forward, pulled off one boot then the other, stood and unbuckled fast, hauling my pants and briefs to my ankles before stepping out of them.

"Your socks are on," he sighed, and I was glad to see the humor return.

"Yeah, well, my feet get cold." I chuckled, watching him start on his jacket, pulling hard, yanking, wanting to be free of the uniform. "Stop, you're going to rip it."

"Then help me," he growled, frustrated, as he kicked off his dress shoes.

I took over, working buckles and buttons as he bent his forehead to mine, his hands on my hips as I undressed him.

"You smell so good."

My hands on him caused trembling, and that was a revelation. Finally I reached his belt buckle and unbuttoned his fly and shucked everything, pants and underwear, to his knees.

Already, the long, hard length of him was erect and dripping.

"Where's your glide?"

"There on the shelf."

Beside his headboard was a small metal bowl with a lid. The shelf it was on was heated, so it was warm when I dipped my fingers into it and coated them.

"I need one like this," I told him as I turned back and found him inches from me.

"You can use mine from now on," he assured me as I fisted his shaft and stroked. "Everything you see will be yours."

"Even you?" I asked softly.

"You think I'm kidding, but yes, I will most especially be yours," he groaned, bucking into my grip.

It was a beautiful sight, his fat cock sliding in and out of my loose fist, and I noted that I could not touch the tip of my middle finger to my thumb; the man was too thick. I moaned just looking at him, wanting him buried inside of me that fast.

"Get on the bed," he ordered, his eyes narrowing in half, bright slits of green.

"Not yet."

The noise he made in the back of his throat made me smile. His pupils were huge and dilated, lips parted as he opened his mouth to speak. But I had seen the Louis XV antique armchair beside his desk when we walked in, and a roll of excitement had tumbled through me.

"Come here."

He followed without question and sat down with his legs parted, staring up at me.

After climbing onto the chair and straddling his hips, I aligned my entrance with the wide mushroom head and pressed slowly down.

"No, wait, I have to get you--"

"I'm good," I assured him, and I was. I wanted him badly.

A sound that was whine and cry and moan all together ripped through me as his hands reached up for my face and drew me forward so he could kiss me.

His mouth was open, so my tongue slid inside as our lips met, the sucking, biting, ravenous assault beginning instantly. When he knew I wouldn't stop kissing him, his hands moved to my ass, to my cheeks, and he parted them gently, pushing up as I lowered at the exact same moment.

I was tight, and him pressing into me, past muscles that had not been relaxed, not readied, pinched, even as the roughness and the push were arousing.

His hand was suddenly on my cock, tugging and stroking, taking the edge from the burn until it succumbed to a throb of pleasure.

"Do I feel good?"

"Oh yes." His voice cracked as I lifted up only to lever back down faster, harder.

I could sense his body thrumming under my hands, and I deepened the kiss as I rose and then sank lower, impaling myself the last few inches, feeling his balls against my ass.

He jolted under me, his body spasming with too many sensations at once, my mouth, my hands, my muscles clenching tight around him. His groan, low and seductive, made me smile against his lips.

"I'm so full," I murmured against his throat, riding him. I let my head loll back on my shoulders as he gripped my hips tight.

"You're so decadent." He sounded hoarse, his voice full of gravel, as he pinched a nipple hard, making me gasp.

The first roll of my orgasm hit, and I came a little.

His growl was primitive and fierce as he lifted me up off him and then flipped me around, walked me the few feet to his bed, and put me facedown onto it. When he thrust back inside me, I yelled his name.

He took me hard and fast, his thrusts hammering as his hips snapped forward again and again. The feel of him inside me, the slide, the stretch, was overwhelming. I came hard, splattering his comforter, and he was lost in a frenzy of motion as he followed with his own release, flooding my clenching channel seconds later.

He collapsed across my back, skin to skin, plastering us together with sticky sweat. I laughed softly, holding us both up on my quivering arms.

"Get off me before I drop you, you evil creature."

He chuckled into my hair, kissed my ear, and then nuzzled his face into the nape of my neck.

"I'm dripping with you."

He wrapped his arms around me, squeezing tight, biting down on the sensitive skin that joined neck to shoulder. "As you should always be."

I smiled wide. "I'm going to let you fall."

"You would never do that."

And it was sweet how he said it. "No, I wouldn't."

"I know, Cher."

"Jeritt. You forgot my name already?"

"I didn't forget. Jere... Cher."

"You're so wretch."

His laughter came loud then, bubbling up out of him as he dissolved behind me. When I found myself laughing as well, I realized that I could fall for the man so very easily.

After a moment he took hold of the back of my neck and slowly turned my head for a kiss. "You're going to be mine," he promised a second before he plundered my mouth.

I really hoped so.

When I awoke the following morning in his bed, the smile I got was luminous.

"Tell me you'll stay," he pleaded, his eyes locked on mine. "I need the words."

"Why?"

"We fit, you know we do."

"Sex means nothing."

"Don't be stupid," he warned as he moved closer. "We both know that wasn't just sex."

"You want to keep me?" I asked breathlessly.

"Yes," he promised, "more than anything. Now you say it."

I reached for him in answer.

* * * *

Now, five years and hundreds of missions later, we were partners in every sense of the word, on paper--our marriage officially logged six months after we met--as well as being permanently assigned together.

"Cher."

I returned from my wildly roaming thoughts. "Sorry."

He was scowling at me as he patted the transmitter on his shoulder. "Archway to base, come in, base."

Nothing.

"Archway to base, come in, base," he tried again.

Still dead air.

"Try his private line," I suggested.

He pressed buttons that he didn't even need to see anymore to program and then made the call again. "Major Frost Ramsey to Colonel Dorsey, come in, Colonel."

"Oh thank heavens," came the heavy sigh over the com line. "Are you fit for duty, Ramsey?"

The coalition communication feeds through the fissure were normally reliable, but if those failed, every scourge had an emergency com link to his commanding officer. It was SOP for every mission.

"Yes, sir."

"Is Captain Troy with you?"

"Affirmative."

His sigh of relief made me smile. The man obviously cared for both of us more than he would ever let on. "Your ship transmitted a code twelve for mechanical distress, and then the log came through, and seconds later the beacon began signaling your last known location."

"I'm surprised the probe jettisoned in time." Frost exhaled sharply. "It was fast."

"Unfortunately we've had to learn this truth the hard way, Major. No ship can make a full two-quadrant run--only men and whatever has contact with organic material."

"Why can't he just say skin?" I asked Frost.

The link was between my husband and the commander; my superior officer couldn't hear me at all.

Frost made a cutting motion anyway to shut me up before he started talking again. "We will proceed with the mission, Colonel, and report back with a status update in twenty-four hours."

"Roger that. Also, the net is locked on you for retrieval, Major, and we can perform the capture when you call. The lag time is negligible."

"Colonel?"

"Is there a question, Major?"

"The net, sir?"

"You and Captain Troy will be returned to 4510 in twenty-four hours whether or not the mission is a success. If Lieutenant Creed is with you, he will receive a fair trial and be debriefed and returned to service after memory restructuring, or he will receive a court-martial and be sent to the work camp on Io."

It hurt, all of it, even to hear.

"If he is not with you when you arrive home, the pulse will be sent through his compass, and he and the encryptor will be terminated. The only reason it was not done the moment we triangulated his position was that Captain Troy volunteered to see if the lieutenant could be reasoned with before the sentence was carried out. You know as well as I do that this operation is without precedence, as a thousand years is the normal jump distance for acceptable travel."

I groaned.

Frost smacked me on the shoulder. "Affirmative, Colonel. Ramsey out."

Sighing heavily, I leaned back against the exposed brick wall of the alley.

"What's wrong?"

There was so much riding on us, but I didn't want to get into it. I went with the easy answer instead. "The net, it's wretch."

"How the hell else do you expect them to get us back from this distance without a net, Cher?"

But it hurt. It was the reason that those of us who patrolled the fissure normally moved through space and centuries in ships. The power to move through the wormholes was not in the corsairs that we used but in the compasses on our wrists. We could travel outside of a ship, but to return to base required a collection net that pulled our molecules from a fixed point in the past back to the present. It was like falling off something high and tumbling around, and then when you finally stopped, it took long, excruciatingly painful minutes for your body to realign under your skin. Muscle, bone, tissue, blood, all of it shifted until you were back in one piece. I had only done it once before, and I was incapacitated for three days afterward.

"Who wanted to come on this mission?"

I wasn't taking the bait.

He shook his head, and I got a look of pure exasperation as he lifted the precision instrument locked to his left wrist close to his lips. "Calibrate position."

"Calibrated," the compass responded in a very human-sounding voice.

"Locate Captain Troy," he commanded.

The encryptor on my wrist vibrated to let me know that someone had searched for and found me.

"Captain Troy located in the year 2012 in Canaan, Arizona, in Santa Cruz County, with host," the voice informed Frost.

"Why don't you have your compass address you by your name or with your rank or your call sign?" I teased. "'Host' makes it sound like it's a parasite or something."

"I'm glad this is so funny to you."

I smiled. "You're here. Yes, it's wretch that we lost the ship, but I didn't lose you, and that's all I care about."

He shook his head, pleased and annoyed at the same time. "You can't ever lose me."

"No, I can't," I assured him and saw him take the first breath since we arrived. He didn't like me in any kind of danger, and because of that, he had been rattled when we realized the ship was breaking apart and we had to jump free of it. He was very protective because he loved me, and I couldn't keep the softness from my eyes as I looked at him.

"Can you concentrate?" he snapped. "Please."

The man was very annoyed. I bit my lip so I wouldn't smile.

"Calculate exit strategy with Captain Troy," he snarled into the compass.

"Calculated," his compass said a few seconds later. "Are you angry, Major Ramsey?"

He growled again, and I started smiling.

"Tether to Captain Troy!" He barked out the order.

"Tethering."

And that command, quickly executed, was instantly transmitted.

"Tether request received," my compass chirped out, "and executed. Tether locked with Major Frost Ramsey."

Silence.

I looked over at him. "What?"

"You have your compass programmed to immediately accept any tether request from me?"

"Yes, dear," I teased him. "You know we're married, right?"

He was scowling at me.

"I go where you go."

"Which you should always keep in mind, because it works both ways," he said, unable to hold his glare, his lip lifting up in the corner. "You know that, Cher."

I smiled at him, and he tipped his head toward the end of the alley.

"We need other clothes and we need to find Creed, and we only have one day to do it."

"We could always just have the compass find him."

"And alert him to our whereabouts." He squinted. "That's not brilliant.

"It depends if he's hostile or not. Maybe he wants to come home."

"Somehow I doubt it."

"Me too," I sighed, reaching into my jacket to retrieve the heavy gold coins there. We had found that wherever we landed in history, gold was the universal commodity. "I wonder how many we'll need."

Frost was too busy turning toward the sound of the scream to answer.


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