Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 7: The Pirate and the Professor

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The end result was the same. Her father and mother were dead, despite their ship being clearly marked an ambassadorial vessel and transmitting their identification on all frequencies. Their deaths hadn't been an accident. Pikken, her father's first mate nodded, baring his teeth in a fierce grin, and handed her an old-style tankard made for drinking in free-fall, full of murky, faintly glowing greenish-brown liquid. The fumes tore into Kiryn's nostrils before she had the tankard in her hand. Some liquid splashed out and seemed to hiss as it splattered on the highly polished surface of the table.

She knew her mother would probably have laughed at the damage, rather than be horrified. Mirabella came from a family of scholars, artists and ambassadors, as well as military geniuses, as refined as the highest-ranking family lines in the Central Allied Worlds could ever be.

She had put far more value on people and principles than on things, no matter how rare and expensive. It wouldn't numb the raw, torn place that used to be her heart, but it helped her stop probing the wound for a little while. Slowly, those grim faces brightened. Kiryn didn't know if it was the homebrew making her brain go foggy on the edges, or the challenge she had thrown them, but they looked younger, more alert and alive than she had seen them in years.

Civilization hadn't been kind to these former rebels, criminals, smugglers and space-borne pirates. Darrak Cain preferred research over teaching, and written reports over verbal, and he hated the political game-playing that stole so much precious time, energy and resources from his scientific studies.

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He stood on the bridge of the starship christened Stellar Peace specifically for this mission, and wished for the bad old days of student teaching and struggling to ensure his thesis didn't get tossed out because some amoral rival stole his notes and copied his results. How had he ended up as a peace envoy to the neighboring star systems? He was a scientist who once specialized in explosives and energy weapons, until his colony was abandoned by the disintegrating government.

By massive irony, everything he developed was always turned to use on the massive military star cruisers that now seemed to be in the hands of rebels who attacked neglected, abandoned, defenseless colony worlds like his. How did that sort of background qualify him to speak about peace? Common sense said the pirate vessel blockading the colony world Sorendaal wouldn't be very impressed to know he was on board the Stellar Peace. Not unless they wanted him to do some weapons research for them.

He sounded surprised. Darrak didn't turn to look at the man. He could tell by the rank, salty damp odor that the man had ruined his uniform with nervous sweat. If he had been part of the military instead of a volunteer for a semi-suicidal peace mission, he would have been booted from the service. Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on the viewpoint--this wasn't the military. Darrak hoped he never saw any military belonging to the Central Allied Worlds, because they were the enemy.

Ironic, considering that the pirate crew that effectively blockaded Sorendaal from the rest of the universe was high on the list of preferred allies in this battle to hold civilization together. It just proved how turned around and inside out everything had become, when the government he once served was the enemy and the pirates that had claimed control of this colony world presented the best chance of stability and safety. We have received your signal," a woman said. We are not a ghost ship, as we will prove if you give us any reason to believe you're here to cause trouble.

I mean, besides a pirate ship," Darrak hurried to add. Our mission is to talk to you, and we'll do whatever it takes to obtain safe passage to the surface. Who are you to make promises like that? The peace delegation. Haven't you heard? This planet is a haven for pirates and rebels and terrorists. Darrak wondered if she looked even half as sleek and exotic as she sounded. What did a female pirate look like? He mentally shook himself and gripped the back of the captain's chair a little harder, to try to yank his thoughts back on track.

They were about to get blown into atoms, if they couldn't prove themselves trustworthy. We need your strength, and you need allies. Which Captain Encardi? He made the mistake of trusting the government to match him in honor, and it blew him into stellar dust as payment. It was easy to image this woman as the pirate captain's lover and partner. Trusting someone sight unseen isn't on my list of chores for the day.

Darrak barely heard, caught in the sudden falling sensation of relief--Encardi was her father , not her lover or husband. Back on target, stupid! You're here to forge a peace alliance, not break your heart over another woman who has no use for a scholar. The words of Captain Marker of the Stellar Peace and wasn't that a name to provoke someone to shoot them out of space?

The tallest member of the party wasn't in uniform, which meant he was a delegate rather than ship's crew. A few strands of tangled black hair escaped the cord tying his hair back in a neat queue at the base of his neck. Kiryn startled herself with an urge to step across the neutral zone of the corridor outside the docking bay, to brush that hair back into place. Those wide, strong-looking shoulders were stooped, his skin was pale, indicating more time spent indoors doing whatever peace delegates did, instead of skimming through space, harassing pirates and rebels into joining his alliance of disenfranchised colonies.

Still, he looked clean, healthy and Kiryn thought back to the comments of her officers just last night over a dinner of increasingly boring rations. The tough, commonsense pirates and scoundrels of her childhood were turning into old men who thought about things like gardens and babies.

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Four years of struggle had ensured their world was safe from the dregs of the Central Allied Worlds' disintegrated military, or anyone with delusions of authority. Now, these old men who had once counseled her to have no mercy and give no quarter, wanted her to find a husband and have children to carry on the Encardi legacy. She didn't know what terrified her more--having to make nice to the young men of her planet who couldn't measure up to her standards as warriors, or trying to figure out how to take care of the baby once she made it.

Engines, life support failures and battle tactics had filled her mind for so long, she wasn't sure if she could find her female side in the dark closet where she had stashed it.

Looking at this peace delegate, however, she felt something stirring to life. Something warm and a little jittery.

Were those her hormones? Her parents, she knew, had lived in dread of the day she decided to stop besting the local boys in sports and start flirting--or, Fi'in forbid, let them actually catch her. Kiryn did a quick evaluation of the tall, pale-skinned specimen standing before her, and wondered if her hormones had been shoved into hibernation so long, they had malfunctioned. The last thing she needed was a scholar or a diplomat.

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Survival needed a warrior. So why did she get that funny knotted sensation in her belly, stronger with every second she looked at his mouth and wondered what his lips would taste like? Why was she even looking at his mouth? The philosopher said it best: the eyes were the windows of the soul. He did have beautiful, big, warm gray eyes.

Her Irresistible Guardian

An instant later, Kiryn knew she acted like a child, but there was nothing she could do now except go forward. The big delegate hunched his shoulders more and fumbled at the frames covering both eyes and extending long, slim bars to go behind his ears. Then she flinched as the sound of his voice triggered memories. Kiryn settled for a short, sharp nod and let Pikken do the talking. She studied the new hostages--that's all they were, until her planet's defenders could be sure they were truthful and not about to blow the blockade wide open--and watched their reactions.

That was her job, reading people, deducing their true motivations and predicting their reactions. The former military were easy to pick out--the captain and executive officer and two junior members of the diplomatic team. They stood very still and their eyes managed to take in all the details even as their heads never turned away and their attention seemed focused on Pikken. It surprised Kiryn a little to realize that Darrak Cain wasn't ex-military.

His interest in the ship was almost childlike.


She imagined him growing up on stories of stellar pirates, wide-eyed and imaginative. Maybe he was a farmer who turned to diplomacy? She would have to find out what colony world he hailed from, and how far it was from the main space lanes. Kiryn found it hard to believe the Central Allied World's military branches hadn't tried to conscript him. Even with those antiquated glasses perched on his aquiline nose, he wouldn't have been rejected. There were plenty of procedures to correct even the most defective eyesight, and all free if he had gone military.

So what was he? Kiryn's men all took a collective breath, not quite freezing in shock so much as they took a step back and braced for trouble. Pikken had just told them they weren't to talk to anyone besides their guards, and never speak outside their quarters.

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Then Don't be Stupid. She wondered if Darrak Cain could read her thoughts and knew she would never let anyone, even a troublesome hostage, even the idiot who tried to kill her two Lunars ago, be killed.