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The Key [MultiFormat]
eBook by Pauline Baird Jones

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: When Sara Donovan joins Project Enterprise she finds out that what doesn't kill her makes her stronger.... An Air Force pilot--the best of the best to be assigned to this mission--Sara isn't afraid to travel far beyond the Milky Way on an assignment that takes her into a galaxy torn apart by a long and bitter warfare between the Dusan and the Gadi. After she's shot down and manages to land safely on an inhospitable planet, Sara encounters Kiernan Fyn--a seriously hot alien with a few secrets of his own--he's a member of a resistance group called the Ojemba, lead by the mysterious and ruthless Kalian. Together they must avoid capture, but can they avoid their growing attraction to each other? A mysterious, hidden city on the planet brings Sara closer to the answers she seeks--about her baffling abilities and her mother's past. She has no idea she's being pulled into the same danger her mother fled--the key to a secret left behind by a lost civilization, the Garradians. The Dusan and the Gadi want the key. So do the Ojemba. They think Sara has it. They are willing to do anything to get it. Sara will have to do anything to stop them?

eBook Publisher: L&L Dreamspell/L&L Dreamspell, Published: 2007, 2007
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2007


135 Reader Ratings:
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"Great plot! Superb workmanship on the characters! So sit back and take the ride of your life."--Simegen Reviews

"Action is the name of the game as a feisty and hard-hitting heroine rises to the challenge in this rousing space adventure."--Romantic Times


Kiernan Fyn heard the high-pitched whine of a ship and could tell it was in trouble, even without the dark smoke trail spewing from the tail. It was coming in too fast and too steep.

The pilot must be dead--before the thought finished, the ship started a series of brutally sharp turns. Okay, not dead ... yet.

Fyn strained with him through each turn, remembering how those turns felt, remembering trying not to crash.

And crashing anyway.

The pilot still hadn't slowed enough, and if he didn't turn soon, he'd go straight into the water. Kikk had a lot of water. Not a lot of ground. Only one place that was flat enough to attempt a landing.

The nose of the ship edged up a bit, but still not enough ... it made a sudden turn toward him. Okay, he'd seen the beach. Now he just had to make it...

It dropped below the tree line, and after a bit, Fyn felt the impact ripple through the ground under his feet. The ship popped briefly into view again, then dropped out of sight. Another impact tremor. Longer this time, then ... nothing.

No explosion. That was good. There'd be something to salvage.

He broke clear of the thick jungle and saw a deep hole in the sand. A break, then a furrow stretching down the beach so far he couldn't see the end.

He hesitated, searching the blue-green sky for any pursuit, but it was empty of everything but the drifting remains of the ship's smoke trail. He jumped down on to the white sand and walked along the furrow. Soon he could see the downed ship, the front crunched up against a tree.

He approached with caution, doing a complete circuit, looking for signs of a secondary explosion, but it just hissed a bit, then subsided into a resigned silence.

It wasn't like any ship he'd seen, though he liked the look of it. It was long and sleek and dark.

He traced an odd drawing on the side, under some unfamiliar symbols. A small square of dark sky and stars, and a larger section of dark and light stripes.

The damage from contact with the tree wasn't too bad, but--he walked to the rear--weapons fire was. He bent close and sniffed. Dusan energy blast. There was another scorch mark on the side. That it had landed almost intact told him it was a tough, little ship--and a decent pilot.

He looked at the cockpit and saw a figure slumped over the controls. Fyn climbed up on the wing, studying the mechanism that kept the cover in place. After a few tries, it retracted with a loud, almost angry hiss.

The pilot's gear was as dark as his ship, his face hidden by a sturdy looking head covering. He also wore a heavy, dark flight suit, with the same symbols from the ship imbedded in the material.

Some flexible tubing stretched from his facemask to the ship. Probably his air supply. Fyn felt along the side of the mask and managed to unhook it.

Now he could see a gap between the suit and the headgear. He worked his fingers in until he felt skin and was surprised to feel blood pumping beneath the still warm surface. He found the strap, undid it and lifted the headgear off. The pilot's head fell back against the seat.

A woman?

He'd never seen a woman fly a ship and he'd been all over the galaxy. Her hair was red, it was so many shades of red, it flashed in the sunlight, catching the rays in the strands and reflecting them back as fire. He touched it, almost afraid it would burn, but it was as soft as the skin it lay against. Matching lashes lay in neat half moons against pale cheeks.

She moaned and shifted, turning her head and he saw a nasty gash on the side of her face, near the hairline. Blood dripped sluggishly down the side of her face.

A harness held her strapped in the seat. He explored the clasp for a few minutes and finally it popped apart. He felt along her arms and legs, then checked her ribs for damage, before easing her free of the craft and laying her in the sand.

She was tall, but surprisingly light. Her suit made her look more bulky than she was.

Inside her ship, he found bandages in a box with a red cross on the outside. She stirred again, when he cleaned her wound, but she didn't wake. Once he'd contained the bleeding and applied a covering, he went back and searched the cockpit again. He found a bag of what he assumed were emergency supplies and a couple of weapons.

He would have liked to study it all in more detail, but the light was fading. He needed to get them both under cover before dark.

He carried her and her stuff back to his cave, lowering her onto his bed, a pile of leaves and vines culled from the surrounding jungle. He pulled off her heavy gloves, exposing hands that were narrow with long, well-formed fingers. Her dark suit seemed constrictive, but was secured with an odd metal track that pulled down to below her waist. Under her flight suit, she wore clothing that was unlike anything he'd ever seen. It was mottled in the shades of the earth and clouds. This clothing had many pockets, filled with more stuff. No wonder she looked so bulky. He emptied the pockets, studying each item, before adding it to a pile. She also had a knife in a holder and what looked like a holder for the smaller of the weapons he took out of the cockpit.

Two of her weapons were curious. They seemed to operate on a projectile penetration basis, unlike his energy based ones. He tucked all three behind a boulder. No reason to arm her until he found out how she felt about him.

He settled down by her, watching her and waiting for her eyes to open, wondering what color they'd be.

It was hard not to feel like the gods had sent him a gift for not giving up, but he realized she might not see her arrival in quite the same light. He ran a finger down the smooth curve of her cheek, then across her soft, full lower lip, relieved to see the slow rise and fall of her chest.

As light faded, worry replaced curiosity. Perhaps she had some injury beyond his ability to detect.

He'd expected to die here, and to die alone. None of the Ojemba would look for him. Their numbers were not large enough to risk men in fruitless searches for lost comrades. Every time he went out on a mission, he knew he went out alone.

Every day since he'd crashed on this miserable planet, he'd decide to get it over with. He'd stood by the ocean, telling himself to walk in and finish it. If he couldn't fight anymore, what good was he? And each day he turned and walked back into the jungle.

Hope was a hardy plant, to keep growing in a place like Kikk.

It was a brutal, hostile planet. In the season since he'd been stranded here, only the occasional Dusan patrol had stopped by and none of them had landed, just buzzed the surface. They came for the same reason Kalian had sent him here.

They were looking for the lost Garradian outpost.

He could have told them, if it was on Kikk, it wasn't on this continent. He'd had plenty of time to search for it.

Fyn didn't believe in the Garradians or the outpost.

He did believe in killing Dusan. Since they'd over run his planet, it was all he believed in.

But now, as he watched the woman, he remembered other things he had believed in, things he used to feel. He'd cursed the gods, and not just because they'd stranded him here. Why had they sent him this gift now? And what cost would they demand in return?

There was always a cost.

Just before the light faded outside, he pulled a weapon and fired it at the rocks, adding an orange glow to the deepening dark. It provided warmth, but also helped keep the biters out.

Finally, when he wondered if she'd ever wake, she began to stir. He retreated to the other side of the cave and waited...

* * * *

A vague throbbing in her right temple towed Sara back to a consciousness she didn't want to face, though she was a bit fuzzy on why...

She opened her eyes to zero dark thirty--a darkness somewhat lightened by an eerie orange glow.

Okay, starting to remember...

She not only wasn't in Kansas anymore, she wasn't in the cockpit of her bird. The rough hewn rock over head seemed to indicate she was in some kind of a cave, but how did she get from Dauntless to cave?

She remembered...

...the dogfight.

...the double hit to her six.

...heading for the closest planet like a fast falling star.

...doing bat turns to slow her descent.

...seeing the long stretch of flat, white beach between tangled mass of jungle and sparkling ocean.

...endless feet-wet finally giving way to feet dry.

The narrow beach had skimmed past way too fast as she struggled to manage her uncontrolled descent.

She remembered pulling her nose up long enough to clear a rugged tumble of rock spilling from high bluff into ocean, but on the other side ground was ground and no landing is a good one that ends against a tree.

Yeah, she remembered the tree.

But she didn't remember a cave.

Her head didn't seem to like all the remembering. She touched the complaining spot, finding something that felt like a bandage at the apex of the pain.

Okay ... didn't remember that either.

She tried moving various body parts. Everything was a bit banged up, but still worked, which was probably good. And she knew it would get better. It always did. Her zoombag had been loosened and her gloves were gone. Add that to the list of things she couldn't remember, with an asterisk for slightly creepy.

As the rest of her senses began to come back on line she inhaled a warm, metallic scent that seemed to be emanating from a circle of rocks, the source of the orange glow. It was mixed with a warm, earthy smell and some scents she couldn't begin to identify. There was a bit of a nip in the air, the edge taken off by the ... fire? Was it a fire? It didn't flicker like a fire.

It was deeply quiet in the cave, quiet enough to hear her own breathing ... and someone else's. An icy trickle made its way down her back. Who ... or what ... was sharing this cave with her?

Sara sat up, stifling a groan when various bruises and bangs registered formal protests to her brain-housing group. She'd planned to stand up next, but something stirred across from her.

Who--or what--ever it was rose, throwing an ill-formed and very large shadow against the wall and roof of the cave. Maybe it was the bad light, but the outline was very Sasquatch-ish--shaggy and kind of ominous. The icy trickle turned to a rushing stream.

It moved toward her, passing into the half light cast by the sort of fire. Not Sasquatch, though he could have been a second cousin. He had a head full of dreads, he bristled with armament and he bulged with muscles wrapped in what appeared to be tight fitting leather. It was hard to find features--his face was darkened by dirt or camo, or both--but his eyes were deeply, sharply green.

And he was really, really tall. Sara had to tip her head way back to look up at him. He didn't speak, which upped the eerie factor a few more degrees.

She somehow managed to get her legs under her and stand up. She was a tall girl--Tall Girl was actually her call sign--but the top of her head didn't reach his chin. He'd have to be around seven feet to top her by that much.

He looked like a ragged cave man, but there was a sharp intelligence in his eyes. And he'd managed to get her clear of her bird. Not exactly cro-mag man skills.

She wanted to say something, but all she could think of was, crap.

Not particularly useful.

After a moment, she realized he was holding something out to her. A wooden-ish ... thing.

She took it, since he seemed to expect it.

"Thanks." Her voice sounded a bit loud, and a bit too bright, breaking the deep silence.

He blinked, just the once, the green of his eyes disappearing, then slowly reappearing. It was very Cheshire Cat--one channeling Tim Burton.

Not a good combo.

Sara looked down at the bowl. The assortment of dingy pieces in the curved center could have been fruit--fruit having a really bad day. She picked out a piece. It felt slimy and a bit gritty, but she'd eaten worse than that in survival training.

She hoped.

She sniffed it. The pungent aroma made her eyes water. She slid it between reluctant lips and chewed. Okay, this was worse than anything she'd eaten anywhere. Her eyes watered some more. When she swallowed, nasty lingered like thick oil in her mouth.

She looked up, blinking and wincing, and said, her voice a thin croak, "It's ... good."

Not her most convincing performance.

Was that a spark of humor in his eyes? It was gone so quickly, she couldn't be sure.

She felt the pocket of her jacket for a packet of water, but it seemed he'd picked her pockets.

"I had some water?" She patted her pocket again, not sure she needed to play charades. He seemed to understand her just fine.

He shifted slightly and she saw her stuff in a pile a few feet away. She edged past him, found the water and drank it down. It helped. A little.

Her head throbbed a reminder that her mouth wasn't the only miserable body part. She touched the bandage.

"Did you do the patch job?"

Another slow blink.

Okay.

Seems his mother hadn't taught him it wasn't polite to stare. If he thought he could intimidate her, well, he could, but she didn't have to show it. She lifted her chin and her lips thinned. Her eyes narrowed, too--a warning sign her temper was in danger of launching, her various principals could have told him, if they'd been there, which they weren't. Lucky them.

"I'm Captain Sara Donovan, United States Air Force." She thought about holding out her hand, but wasn't sure he'd take it. Wasn't sure she wanted him to take it. "And you are....?"

He blinked again. Punk. He understood her, all right. His face didn't change, but his eyes gave him away.

"...shy, I guess." She looked around. "I love what you've done with the place. It's very ... retro."

So retro, it probably didn't have a bathroom. Now that she'd thought about it, she needed one. Great. Nothing like baring your butt in the bushes on an alien planet. She tried to think of an alternative, but she hadn't seen any gas stations when she was coming in.

"I need to step out..." She pointed in the direction she thought the entrance was, though it was hard to tell. There wasn't an exit sign. He didn't move or speak. Just blinked again. Maybe he didn't have bodily functions.

She took a step in the direction that she thought was the way out and he shifted to block her.

She felt color flood her face.

"I really need to visit the head ... make a pit stop? Powder my nose? Empty the radiator? Visit the little girls' room?" She was running out of euphemisms. "Pee?"

She gave him a get-a-clue look and after a long pause, saw his eyes widen. This time she was sure it was humor passing through the old eyeballs. He pointed in the other direction, a very pitch-black direction.

"Right."

She bent and snagged her flashlight and a bum wipe packet. She flipped the light around, so it pointed down, and turned it on, flinching from the light stabbing into wide-open pupils. When she could see again, she looked back, avoiding looking directly at him.

"Excuse me."

The surface of the floor was surprisingly smooth, but she kept the light trained on it, as she paced forward, wondering just where he expected her to--

A sort of crevasse opened to one side. Great, a pit toilet for her pit stop. She shone the light back the way she'd come, but he hadn't followed her.

Smart man.

When she finished, she picked up her zoombag and headed back, noting he'd retreated to his spot on the other side of ... Sara could see it now ... a pile of glowing rocks. Yet another clue she wasn't in Kansas, in case she had any doubts left. Sara stopped by her stuff, dropped her zoombag and picked out her bottle of waterless soap, so she could clean her hands.

She could feel him watching everything she did. Didn't take long to figure out her side arm, knife and P-90 were not among the jumble of her stuff.

Very smart man.

Back on earth, she wouldn't have had a P-90 or the ABU's--a pixilated camo uniform--under her zoombag, but she'd received a lot of specialized training and been given a lot more gear prior to the mission. Lucky for her, all he'd done was take it. Be a real bummer if he used it against her. And embarrassing.

Not that he needed her stuff to kick her ass.

Though she was careful not to turn the light on him, in the reflected glow she could see him a bit better.

He was younger than she'd first thought, probably close to her own age. He was also very nicely built, thanks to the generosity of all the leather, and her impression that he was well armed was confirmed. He had side arms of some sort on both hips, a sword looking thing strapped to his back and at least three knife sheaths that she could see. Probably more she couldn't see. On his wrists she could see spikes sticking out in a deadly fan.

Dang. Must be a rough neighborhood.

What was he doing here?

And where was here?

She turned off the flashlight and dropped it back on the pile, then returned to her seat, a pile of dried ... stuff. She looked around. It seemed to be the only pile of ... stuff. His bed? That was kind of disturbing.

On the other hand, he was keeping his distance. She knew she was no beauty queen. There were no cushy love lies in foster care. She was too tall, too thin, her hair was too red and her eyes were too big for her face. That said, as far as she could tell, she was the last woman on this earth and there he sat.

On his side of the cave.

Not that she wanted to get hit on by a caveman. She was just ... curious. How desperate did a guy have to get to hit on her?

She noticed the glowing dial of her watch. One thing he hadn't taken. If she didn't count her virginity. But she was moving on from that.

The time meant nothing, since she hadn't been in position to look at her watch before the crash. The alarm had sounded at 1200. The dogfight, well it seemed long, but it probably wasn't. According to her watch it was either 0500 or 1700.

She rubbed her aching head.

"I don't suppose you'd tell me how long I was out?" She looked up suddenly and saw the green glow of his eyes. "I know you understand me. I can see it in your eyes."

The eyes abruptly turned away. Sara smiled to herself. She picked up the bowl of food, took another piece and examined it, then popped it in her mouth. Okay, that was worse than the last one. She spit it out in her hand and looked at him. He still wasn't looking, so she dumped it back in the wooden thing, and set it aside.

She leaned back against the wall, shifting until she found a semi-comfortable position, then pulled her legs in until her knees were against her chest and rested her arms on them, watching her host.

After a time, she saw his gaze turn toward her again.

Oddly enough, the silence wasn't uncomfortable. Sara didn't have a problem with not talking. She'd spent a lot of her life not talking.

The problem with this silence, it allowed worry to creep in. When her Dauntless got hit, the Doolittle had been engaged in a battle with an unknown, alien force. Had it survived? Did anyone see her get hit or where she went? How far from her ship had he taken her? Was any of it still intact? And all questions led back to, why had he taken her? What did he want? Who was he? Why was he here, apparently all alone?

When she was fourteen, she'd thought the worst thing that could happen to her was foster care. What a difference thirteen years ... and another galaxy ... made.

As always, when she was nervous, she began to tap out a song against the sides of her arms.

The song got slower...

Sara's chin sank down to rest on her arms, then her lashes drifted down....


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