Chapter One: Jessie

I don't belong here.

You can see it in their faces as they pass by my table, or by the look they give me when they walk in. I don't belong here, not in their haven.

It's amusing actually.

I watched another of the local "military" hotshots walk into the bar and give me the evil eye. They'd all learned a few days ago not to try and mess with me... and I'd only had to break three of them.

My name's Jessie Landers, Freelance Military Specialist, Covert Ops. I'm the person the Mercenaries Guild sent to this backwater planet far outside the Imperial boundries. The locals had been unimpressed when I'd arrived in answer to their call for help with local pirates... Seems they were expecting a platoon of marines. Male marines...

Seems the locals think women are inferiors. They thought the Guild sending me was an insult.

The fact that I'd gotten the job done hadn't changed that opinion.

Reason I'm sitting in this bar still is that the local bureaucrats think they can get away with only paying me half my fee. I'm really not worried about it, because the Guild will ensure they do pay the full amount, but I'm having fun annoying them. This bar I'm in is the local hangout for the gunboys and the bigwigs who hired me. It's a "Mens" club, which in local parlance means it's a bar where scantily clad (by local standards) women serve the men while they drink and brag and feel important.

My being here reminds them of the fact that a "mere woman" accomplished what their entire military couldn't.

I'd even chosen my outfit to accentuate the fact that I was female, though I'd nodded to local standards by at least making sure it was bordering on what they called decent. Poor guys would have heart attacks if I'd worn some of the less conservative outfits I have. The Empire doesn't have anything remotely resembling a nudity taboo.

I motioned one of the waitresses over to order a drink, a cute brunette who'd I'd been conversing with for several days, and when she brought it back, I invited her back to my ship after work. We'd talked enough that she knew what I meant, and blushed, stammering out a far politer refusal than she'd have given any of the male patrons. I smirked at her curvaceous derriere as she walked back to the bar. The scowls on several of the gunboys faces showed their aggravation...

What can I say... Exotic usually translates to erotic... and to the locals I was an exotic. I was only hitting on the girls exclusively to annoy the gunboys.

The bar door opening again caught my eye, and I turned to see who it was, so did the entire rest of the bar. You could almost hear the eyeballs click as they locked on the newcomer.

Have you ever seen a person who at first glance ignited every hormone in your body... who wipes your mind clean of every thought beyond sex? Magnify that by a thousand and you might come close to the effect the girl who entered had on the bar.

She was fairly tall, and at first glance it was obvious she was from one of the Empires. She was dressed in a neon green transparent skinsheath that left her right breast and pubic area bare, but encased her right leg and left arm to the wrist, the sheer cloth matching the nearly luminescent color of her hair. Her right arm and left leg were also clothed in the sheer fabric. Small bands composed of linked discs encircled her upper arms and left thigh, the only non transparent ornaments she wore. Her hair was cut into a short pixie cut around her head, but the back was pulled up into a high and flaring crest. Two slim golden horns sprung from her head, gently curving back as they rose nearly half a foot above her head.

Physically, she was an outstanding beauty, sculpted perfectly as a balance between athletic and voluptuous. Her face was gently heart shaped with full pouting lips dyed a lustrous forest green that matched the emerald of her eyes. Just that alone would have made her worthy of the looks she was getting from the gunboys, but there was something else about her that intensified it. It was almost as if a wave of pure desire had washed into the bar with her entrance. From the moment I looked at her, I couldn't tear my eyes away, my thoughts filled with images of her stripping me and taking me right on the table I was sitting at...

She crossed to the bar, her every motion mesmerizing, and quietly queried the bartender. He started and pointed over at me. The woman turned in my direction, but was blocked by one of the gunboys. I didn't hear what was said, but I could guess. She shook her head and started to step around him, but he grabbed her arm. She stopped again and coolly looked at him. He ignored the look and made another suggestive comment.

In a blur, she responded. Almost faster than I could see, she threw him across the bar. He crashed into the wall and fell unconscious to the floor.

Strength augmentation I managed to think through the hormones. She's a Cyborg.
The sensation of desire only intensified the closer she came. I couldn't blame the gunboy. I was fighting a losing battle to actually think amidst a flood of fantasies. I didn't notice at first that she had sat down.

"Jessie Landers?"

To my surprise I found I could actually speak. "Yes."

"The Mercenaries Guild informed me I could find you here. My employer wishes to engage your services."

That small little self preservation instinct in the back of my mind activated and drove the hormones down to a manageable level. Call it my paranoia.

"What for?" My paranoia had a sneaking suspicion. People looking for a legitimate contract don't track a merc down directly, they go through the Guild.

"My employer believes you are the only person who knows how to contact someone my employer wishes to contract."

Damn. Every alarm in my head went off. "And that would be?"

"Jason Lombardi."

I leaned forward and took a sip of my drink to buy myself a few seconds to control the first second of panic. "Supposedly... He's dead."

She smiled. "Supposedly... not is. My employer has a job offer she believes he may wish to accept."

"And I'm supposed to put you in touch with him?"


I shrugged. "Can't help you."

For a second she froze, then like a mask shattering her confidence vanished. Panic welled up in her eyes. "Please don't say that." She begged. "This is my first assignment... I can't report a failure... I can't!" Tears welled up and ran down that perfect face.

My god... she's just a child. I thought.

Call me a sucker... call me an idiot... hell... call me horny, but I just couldn't bear to see tears in those eyes. I always was too softhearted for my own good. I reached out and brought her face up till her eyes met mine. "Alright... say I do know how to call him. What's in it for me?"

Hope and gratitude flared in her eyes. "Really? Oh, I'd be so grateful. And my employer authorized me to give you this."

She pulled a small rod from under the circlet of discs on her thigh and handed it to me. It was an Andromedian credstick. That answered several questions. I started racking my brains for where in Andromeda she was from. I had seen those horns before, I knew I had, but my hormones were starting to fuzz my thinking again...

The figure on the credstick fuzzed it further. Ten million was more than I'd made in the last three years. I tucked it in my belt and noticed the way her eyes lingered on my cleavage as I sat back. "I'm going to need details."

She nodded, and looked around the bar. "Not here though." There was still a hint of nervousness in her voice. I shook my head. She had to be just out of training. That confidence she had when she came in was a facade. Now, she was just a rookie kid on her first job. I stood and offered her my hand.

"We can go to my ship."

She smiled and took my hand. A feeling like electricity flowed along my arm as she drew herself up. "Thank you." She leaned foreword to kiss me.

Forget controlling the hormones. I had to fight to stay on my feet from the orgasm.

Draconian my subconscious finally said as I steadied myself. I was confused for a second till my eyes were drawn once more to her horns.

Draconian Warrior.

Oh shit. Too late now. I have taken her gold and all that. I smiled as I offered her my arm and we walked out of the bar to the jealous stares of the Gunboys.

* * * * *

Her name was Erika, and according to the conversation on the way to the spaceport, she was only twenty. A real rookie for all she'd been made a Draconian. She had a very sweet personality under the warrior training, all sugar and eagerness to please. I wondered how long that would last as a trained killer for one of the Andromedian Lords.

I mixed a drink at my mini bar as I looked her over. The body sculptors really had outdone themselves. I wondered how long I would be able resist the impulse to kneel and worship at her alter. I looked away.

"So what does your boss want Lombardi for?"

"An extraction."




"Captain Leo Stravis. Darkstarr Industries local manager for Jamsona."

I rubbed my temples at the sudden pounding headache. Could it get any worse? "Why Lombardi?"

"He has information that will make it easy for him to get close to Stravis."

Dum dum DUM... it gets worse.

"What information."

"I don't know. My employer said he would know what she meant."

Yes... I afraid he does. I sighed.

"How is the extraction to be made?"

"My employer wishes him to lead Stravis to a remote location where a ship will be waiting for a pickup. After that, Lombardi would be done."

Ah... so simple... right.

"And the pay?"

"Five billion."

Hook... line... and sinker. That was enough to make sure he'd take the job. No-one could refuse that kind of pay, regardless of how dangerous.

"Okay. I'll tell him."

Her hand fell on my shoulder as she drew me around to see her once more. She'd shed the skinsheath. "Let me show you how much I appreciate your help..."

Bye bye brain...

* * * * *

Much later, while Erika slept, I scanned over the mission particulars from the data crystal she'd given me. It was a fairly routine job. Capture an enemy commander and all that. Routine skullduggery for the two Empires, particularly on Andromeda's part. The only reason Erika's employer wanted Jason Lombardi was because he had a past history with Darkstarr Industries on Jamsona. The brief showed Stravis had put out a call for someone with particular knowledge... knowledge he knew Lombardi had, but since Lombardi was officially "dead" he was trolling to see if anyone else had the knowledge too.

My problem with the whole deal is that by sending Erika to me to find Lombardi, her employer was basically telling me she knew too much about me. And that meant that Lombardi was probably not intended to "survive" the job.

That was fine by me. "He" was already dead as far as legalities were concerned.

I turned to look at the sleeping figure on my bed. That wave of desire she seemed to broadcast was much lessened when she was sleeping. As far as I could tell, she'd been given the minimum info needed to complete her assignment. Typical for an agent of one of the Andromedian Lords. They didn't trust anyone, not even their own troops.

One less worry at least.

I keyed in the passcode that allowed me to transfer the first half of the fee to a unmarked account, then sent the code to the MercGuild mainframe that signaled the activation of a contract for Jason Lombardi. That insured that so long as Lombardi actually lived through the assignment, the contractor would have to pay.

"Jessie?" came a sleepy query from behind me... along with a strengthening of the desire effect. Idly I wondered if she was fully aware of it. She wasn't an empath as far as I could tell...

"Tell your boss Lombardi took the job."

Now all he had to do was live through it.

* * * * *

I suppose a little background is in order, particularly if you're not from one of the major worlds.

The Empire of Terra consists of the Milky way and the eight galaxies around it. It's a cosmopolitan place, one where personal freedom and liberty are pretty much guaranteed so long as it doesn't conflict with Guild Business. It's a technical Empire, ruled by an Emperor who's mostly figurehead. The Guilds run the empire through the Senate. The general populace has a life of sybaritic luxury and cares little for politics beyond its comforts, which makes people like me unsuited for civilian life. Not being the type to simply settle for a silver platter, I had signed up for the MercGuild early on.

The various Guilds keep order in the EoT and much of the various hegemonies, insuring trade and maintaining the web of connections that keep the various farflung planets minimally social, and caring not at all what race or planet you're from, unlike Andromeda.

The Great Andromedian Empire, a pretentious name if there ever was one, is the EoT's rival, in name at least. Like the EoT, your average citizen knows little and cares less about politics, but in their case, it's because being political can get you dead in a hurry. Andromeda is a humanocentric Mageocracy, ruled by a loose alliance of powerful mages who either were thrown out of the Mage's Guild, or left it for one reason or another. Most of them are contemptuous of the common populace, using them for cannon fodder, experiments or just plain play toys, but they're so few, and the population base is so large their depredations are almost unnoticeable.

The biggest difference between the two lies in their philosophy on power. The old might makes right vs. might for right. Andromeda is rife with power plays as the various Lords oneup one another, and it makes private armies, like the Draconians, a necessity. Cute little Erika had been a poor kid who'd more or less sold herself to her Lord in exchange for a lot of upgrades, and more importantly, because she was in love with Dragons.

The Dragons are one of the few things only Andromeda has, and they keep them rather tightly leashed. I've only met one who wasn't a soldier in the AE, and that was because he'd escaped, and had run to the MercGuild for asylum. Naturally, they had realized the value of a forty foot tall winged humanoid with a natural diamond based skeletal system and the strength to rip apart hull plating barehanded. That was the big problem, so had the AE.

Anyway, to bring my ramblings to a close, the EoT and the AE weren't the best of neighbors, but they kept the disputes small, rather than destroy both houses. Erika's boss was throwing Jason into their latest little powerplay, one little very well paid pawn in their eternal game of chess.

* * * * *

Seven days later found me in the City of the Rings in the Terran Empire. Last time I had been here was seventy years ago, and what I had searched for had been difficult to find and illegal as hell. Biotech manipulation was outlawed in the Terran Empire then and I'd had to find a renegade Andromedian biosculptor. Now... well, seventy years had seen quite a few changes. I didn't even have to hunt for a biosculptor. Go figure. The civilian sectors desire for novelty can make politicians allow a lot. All I had to do was hand over the carefully encoded crystal to the technician in the local 'sculpt shop and a few hours later, Jessie was encoded on the crystal and Lombardi emerged from the tank.

It took a lot of getting used to for the first few minutes. It'd been seventy years since I'd last been male, and the body has a different center of gravity. The tech showed me to a soft walled room where I did a series of exercises to reaccustom myself to the changes and to assure myself I was still in fighting trim.

Following the sex change, I went shopping for the materials I'd need for the job and new clothes. I had a few unisex outfits, but most of the clothes I had were feminine, and intended for the civilized worlds. Jamsona was a frontier ice world, so cold-weather gear was a must. I took most of a day getting all that I needed before heading to the planet I had once called home.

I wasn't always a mercenary. True, I've been one most of my three hundred years, but I had tried to get out of it a century ago. I'd decided to settle on Jamsona and see if I could make it as a legitimate business type. I'd taken the money I'd saved and set up shop as a manufacturer of ice ships. Jamsona's an interesting world because it's magnetosphere plays havoc with gravitic drives and most other advanced propulsion systems, so the majority of the travel from the spaceport to the other communities on the planet had to be fairly low tech. The ice ships are something I developed based on small sail powered hydrofoils I'd seen on one of the worlds I'd fought on as a merc. Adapting the designs to skateblades instead of hydrofoils had been fairly easy, but there were lots of hazards on Jamsona I'd had to learn about the hard way. Thirty prototypes had met their doom before I had a practical ship that could take most anything Jamsona could throw at it. I'd turned it into one of the planets most profitable industries and for nearly thirty years, I'd sailed all over the big snowball just for fun.

It was those explorations that had lead to my downfall though. You see, I had found something on my last trip... something big.

A First Empire city.

I had come back to Sharon's Bay, the big spaceport town where my business was located and had made a few inquiries as to what salvage rights could be obtained for the site, but the next thing I know, Darkstarr Industries is knocking on my door.

What they offered for the site was pitiful. I refused. So they decided to pressure me. They bought Lombardi Enterprises out from under me, and when they found out that there were no records of where I found the city in its computers, they came after me.

By then, I'd conveniently "died" in a deep-space meteor impact.

No-one should have ever known Jessie Landers and Jason Lombardi were the same person. I had erased every track that should have been able to lead to me.

But somehow, an Andromedian Lord knew who I was.

I knew why she wanted me as bait. Stravis was looking for the city.

It was fairly obvious that this was a trap. I just wasn't sure who it was supposed to catch. Was it really a plan to draw me out? Jamsona is near the fringes of the EOT, and the First Empire technology that could be mined from the city may make it a tempting enough target that Andromeda might be planning to take it over. And seventy years of D.I.s failure to find the city would have shown them that without me, there was no hope of finding the city.

I wondered about it all the way to Jamsona, but in the end, reached no conclusions. I had enough reasons of my own for revenge against Darkstarr to make it worth the attempt. I would just have to be careful not to get caught.

I'd done it for seventy years... it shouldn't be too hard.

Keep telling yourself that Jason... maybe you'll even believe it.

* * * * *

The day dies a bloody death on Jamsona.

The sunsets were the one thing about this frozen rock I missed most. The setting sun blazed across the white snow and set everything on fire, making the harbor town of Sharon's Bay a study in black and scarlet.

I was watching the sunset from the bay windows of Iceriggers, one of the favorite hangouts of the captains who crossed the ice. It was an upscale place that was more cosmopolitan than the rough and tumble joints where the crews went. It was quiet, and the relative seclusion of the individual tables made it a perfect place for private talks.

My waitress was a pretty Equuis with a pink mane and tail. She'd stopped by several times during the several hours I'd been here, and if I hadn't been on business, I'd have flirted with her. She cleared away the plates from my meal as I was watching the sunset, tucking the credchips I'd left on the table for her into the pocket of the long loincloth that was her only clothing, then turned and sauntered towards the kitchen, her polished pink hooves clicking softly on the black granite floor. I watched her swaying hips swing her tail back and forth in the reflections in the window until she walked by someone who caught my eye.

Captain Leo Stravis had finally arrived. He stopped for a long moment to watch the pair of Felino dancers on the stage gyrating to a sultry tune and gave me a chance to examine him.

Like the dancers, Stravis was a Felino, with a catlike face and a leonine beard. His hat was pushed back to let his ears poke up and his tail twitched back and forth as it poked out the back slit of his great coat. The typical heavy boots, studded for traction on ice, completed the picture of an old ice ship captain.

Had it not been for the emblem of the Darkstarr Legionnaires on his shoulder, he would have blended in anonymously.

He seemed to finally feel my eyes on him and glanced at the dancers one last time before approaching. I watched him in the reflections and didn't turn as he sat. His green eyes searched the window trying to see my face, but I'd deliberately chosen my spot for shadows. Finally he spoke.

"I hearrr ye be asking about me ship." he stated softly, drawing his Rs into a near purr.

"Yes." I stated simply.

"I had to ask meself why."

"Because you've put out the word that you need a pilot. I've been considering the job."

"I see. And ye think ye'd be the perrrson for the job?"

"I might be. You've been looking for the last six months, and you've interviewed every pilot in the Bay. You're looking for someone special. You want someone who can pilot you through the Jaws."

He started. "And how did ye ken that?"

"That's easy. It's the one place on Jamsona no other pilot is insane enough to try."

"And ye arrre?"

"I've been through them." I didn't emphasis the statement, just let it stand as was.

Stravis blinked. "Therrre's only one perrrson who's sailed the Jaws, lad. He be dead."

That was what I'd been waiting for. I took my feet down off the window sill and turned. "As a matter of fact, I'm not."

A raised eyebrow and a nod greeted the revelation of my face. "I always did figurrre ye was prrrobably still kicking." He leaned back in the chair. "So ye finally decided ta tell."

"For a price. I want eighty percent."

"I might find the city without ye."

"No chance. You may have figured out where it is in general location, but without me you'll never find the entrance."

He held my eyes for a long moment, then nodded. "I'll be needing to ask me superrriorrrs. Meet me aboarrrd the Shasha tomorrrrrrow, mid morrrning." He stood. "I'll tell ye forrr frrree, they'll not be likeing yerrr terrrms, but they'll prrrobably agrrree."

I steepled my fingers in front of my face and nodded. "I could care less how happy they are. They haven't found the city, or me, for seventy years. I can disappear again just as easily. It's my game or none."

Stravis nodded then turned to go. I watched him vanish through the door before I allowed myself a smile.

Step one complete.

* * * * *

The Shasha was a fine ship, one of my best designs. She'd been overhauled and modified from my original specs to be an exploration vessel. I noted several sensor domes scattered across the original smooth curves of the hull and the reinforced struts of the skates and sighed. No artistry at all.

I ducked under the strut to the ladder hung over the side near the grounding cables and called "Ahoy the ship." A crewman peered over the side and invited me up, then directed me to the bridge. "The Commander is waiting for you."

My hand was pressing the latch before I realized he'd said Commander, not Captain. The alarm bells in the back of my head started ringing.

The door slid open to reveal my worst fear.

She was extremely tall and had a mass of red hair the darkened to black at the ends. A white streak sprang from her temple and draped down the left side of her face, framing a pair of emerald green eyes. It was a face I had seen on a thousand holovids... and in my nightmares...

Ruby Darkstarr...

She smiled, a wide smile that revealed the elongated canines of a mage. "Hello Jason. I've been expecting you..."

The door slid closed behind me with a click that echoed like the crack of doom.