Thrown into the past of a parallel universe, Tiber must not only find a way home before this toxic universe kills her, she must also convince a younger, more bitter Hawk that the cost of vengeance may be his honor and his love for Koori.
HONOR AMONG THIEVES
Moaning, Tiber Roland regained consciousness on the floor of her bridge. She opened her eyes and looked around.
The control room of her space yacht flickered and glowed with computer screens, and the lights of the main power system were operating. No system warnings were blaring, nothing was exploding or burning. She had expected smoke and destruction, not pristine normalcy.
“Tiber, are you hurt?” Worry creasing the brows of his kind, grandfatherly face, her android Leos knelt beside her and caressed her chestnut hair.
“I don’t think so. I hope not. I’m the only doctor on board.”
“You’re the only person on board.”
“True. How’s the ship?”
“Let me make another check.” He closed his eyes in concentration. “The Helios is intact, only minor structural damage. Simple repairs. No problems.” He picked her up and set her gently into the console chair. “How are you?”
“I don’t know. I feel numb, out of touch with myself. What happened?”
“Your Uncle Jame would be thrilled. We hit a microscopic black hole.” The android’s eyes glazed as he made mental contact with ship’s systems, then his lips parted in shock.
Fear filled Tiber. Leos had never shown such surprise.
She waited patiently for him to assess the new data the ship was feeding him. First she would worry about the ship, then about herself. It was more comforting to look toward the horizon than to gaze at the bottomless pit at one’s feet. Her own sensations and feelings frightened her more than the ship’s condition.
“We’ve moved spatially and temporally. We’re five years back in time. Several light years from Argus of all places.”
“That’s quite a jump. Well, the Helios is built to travel time as well as space so we should have no problem getting home.” She rubbed her aching temples. “I wouldn’t recommend black holes as fast transit. Still, we’re lucky. If Uncle Jame’s theories had been right, we’d have been in a lot of trouble.”
“Some of them are. I’ve analyzed outside matter. We’re in another universe.”
Her hearts twisted painfully in her chest, and her weak knees made her happy she was already sitting down. “So black holes are gateways to other universes. We must open the door and go back through.”
“We can’t do that. I don’t have enough facts. We may not return to the right universe.”
“We can keep trying till we do. Nothing will keep me from home.” She clinched her hands
fighting anger and fear. “I’m not that old. I’m willing to take as long as I must to find home.”
“According to theory, universes can be either positive or negative matter. We were lucky to land in one that is positive like our own. If we hit a negative universe....”
‘‘We would blow up and take some other universe with us.”
“Highly unlikely that the other universe would be destroyed, but we’d make one supernova of a mess of a star system or two.”
“We seek new information. Correlate more data before we do anything.”
“Agreed. You mentioned Argus?”
“Yes, this universe is astronomically parallel to ours. All present observed space is identical to our own.”
“I wonder if the people are duplicated? Could I be around in this universe, too?”
“Highly unlikely. There is less chance involved in the growth of a galaxy than in a single complex organic being like yourself.”
Unable to ignore her own condition any longer, she closed her eyes, centered herself, then opened herself and found... nothing. She grabbed her chair’s sides to keep from falling on her face.
Leos steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I feel as if my soul had been amputated. All those I was linked with are gone. My empathic links with Hawk, the children, Ari, my family, my friends -- all are gone.”
Tears ran down her cheeks. “Those I love glow deep inside my soul like tiny flames, all individual and beautiful. It’s like invisible threads stretching from my heart to their hearts. I feel them always. I touch them with my soul.
“They’re dead inside me now. The flames are gone. I’m empty, alone, dead.”
Leos wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “We’re the ones lost. Everyone else is home safe and waiting for us. We mustn’t give up so soon.”
Making herself stop dwelling on her grief, Tiber straightened, sniffed, and wiped her tears away. “No, we mustn’t. Let’s examine this universe more closely. I’ll study a planet nearby to see if the planet ecology is similar to its twin. I want you to take the ship and make a wider sample of planets and solar systems."
“We shouldn’t be separated.”
“No fear, I will be careful.” She leaned forward at her console and read sensor reports of nearby planets. “This planet is perfectly habitable, yet uninhabited. No native or colonist intelligent life forms. Something about it calls me, though. A very strong urge to go down there. My Samaritan sense. Someone is in trouble.”
“There’s a Lorelei trap there, a primitive one,” Leos said, “to pull unwary ships out of the sky for plunder.”
“In other words, space pirates have a base there.” She forced a smile. “That’s even better. I can rescue some poor soul, study one of the universe’s life forms, and put some pirates out of commission at the same time.”
“Miss Tiber, you’re reverting back to the old days before....”
“I know, before I was a sensible wife and mother. If we’re stuck here, I might as well have some fun, and it will keep my mind off my worries. I’ll be careful. Space pirates are vicious animals, and I’ll give them a wide berth, if I can.” She grinned. “You might as well accept that, Leos. That’s the only concession you’ll get out of me.”
“So it seems, Tiber. So it seems.”
“Sir, look what I found wandering around outside.” The guard shoved Tiber into a large shabby room filled with computer equipment and paramilitary supplies.
Memorizing and assessing, Tiber glanced around surreptitiously. The computer set up told her this was a fairly permanent headquarters for the pirates. Not just pirates, but mercenaries-for-hire. The military discipline would not be so evident in pirates who thrived on a wolf-pack structure, not military structure. The Lorelei trap was just a sideline, part of their defense system.
If the person in trouble was still alive, this was the most probable place to find him. She’d get herself thrown into a cell, break him out, and and take him to safety.
Then it was a simple matter of destroying this nest of maggots and their Lorelei trap.
The tall, fair man strode toward her and stopped. His stride and his aggressive assurance told her he was their leader.
Standing submissively and cowering before him, she prayed her frumpy middle-aged disguise would have its desired lack of appeal.
He pulled her head up so her silver-gray eyes met his. The physical contact told her he was human and evil.
“Who are you, missy? What are you doing on my world?”
“I didn’t mean no harm. My ship crashed here,” she whined.
He glanced toward one of his two subordinates nearby. “I knew nothing about a ship being pulled in. The Lorelei must be malfunctioning. See to it.” He studied her coolly. “Where is your ship?”
“I don’t know. When I crashed, I got out to look for help.” Her voice rose in an hysterical wail. “I got lost. I couldn’t find my ship again.”
“Stupid woman. What were you doing near this planet? We’re on no standard space lane.”
“I was going to Zandros from Throm to pick up my children, who are visiting my parents. My ship developed navigational problems.”
One of the subordinates snorted. “She can’t do anything but get lost.”
The leader was rapidly losing interest in her. “I’m afraid your kids will have a long wait, a permanent one.”
Tiber advanced toward the leader and spoke in supplication, “Please don’t kill. . . .“ A movement caught her eye, and something in the familiarity of it made her turn.
“Hawk!” she blurted, the word torn out of her, then bit her lip in dismay but could not turn away from the male who was her mate in her universe and time.
Slumped weakly in a chair, Hawk stared at her with profound disinterest. Two large men stood on each side of him.
The leader spun her around. “You know him.”
“No. No, I don’t. I’ve only heard of him. He’s from my planet Throm. His people lived there. They were killed, all of them, over a year ago. I heard he survived. He’s a legend among our people. Some fear him.”
“Tell me the truth. You know him. There was greeting in your voice. Tell me the truth. My persuasive techniques are brutal as you can see from the condition of your feathered friend.”
Tiber’s stomach lurched as she examined her fellow prisoner. Hawk had been viciously tortured and abused. His face and body were battered and bloody, and his bare chest, covered in bloodied white feathers, had been cut and burnt as well.
From the ashen, shocky gray of his skin and his lackluster eyes, she could tell that he must have internal injuries. An untended gash on his leg had been responsible for a severe blood loss too. Only a mad animal was capable of such cruelty. “You must relish your work for such good results.”
The leader smirked. “At last, a trace of spirit. Your interrogation may be interesting after all.”
“I despise brutality.”
“Tell me of him. Tell me of his treasure.”
Tiber gaped. “I know nothing of treasure. I’ve never met him before. I’ve only heard of him.”
The leader struck her across the face and knocked her to the floor. “Tell me the truth.”
Galvanized out his lethargy, Hawk was halfway to the other man before his guards dragged him to a halt. “Stop that.”
“You do know each other.”
“She is human. I know no humans. I wish to know no humans. But she is female. It is unspeakable to hit a female of your own species. A genocide should not stoop so low.”
Throwing back his head, the leader laughed. “Lessons in chivalry from a birdman. I will kill her with the same ease as I killed your people. The same pleasure I took in killing your wife. I’m not moved by such sweet sentiments.”
Tiber cowered, weeping and thinking very fast.
The leader yanked her to her feet. “Tell me the truth.”
“I told you the truth. I know nothing more. Please don’t hit me again.”
“A perfect idea.” The leader smashed her to the floor again. Kneeling beside her, he swore softly. “She’s out cold. Stupid, weak woman.”
He leered at Hawk who struggled violently against the two men pinning him. “Since you like her so much, I might as well keep you two together. Charlie, put them in Cell C.”
The guards shoved Hawk into the small cell then dumped the human female on the floor. Backing out warily, they slid the door closed.
Hawk knelt by her. “Human? Human, are you awake?” When she didn’t respond, he shook her shoulder. Nothing.
Sighing, he examined their tiny prison. It was a small gray room with no windows and only the one door. Two threadbare cots crowded the room. The plumbing was indecent, hardly suitable for cohabiting with a female.
But better here with him than with those human males and their depravities against females. Even a female as unattractive as this one would be fair game for these beasts.
His damaged insides protesting in sharp jabs of pain, he picked her up and stumbled toward one of the two cots.
The woman spoke in his mind, “We are being observed. Put me on the cot and then go lie down on the other cot. Lie very quietly. Pretend to sleep.” She opened her eyes slightly and winked at him.
He placed her on a cot and covered her with a blanket, then collapsed on his own cot and pretended to sleep.
After ten minutes, the woman got up and sat down on the edge of his cot. “It is safe to talk now. I’ve tampered with their monitoring equipment. All they’ll hear or see from now on will be the last five minutes over and over again. They will think we’re sleeping.”
“How can you do that, Human?” Sitting up, Hawk watched her warily.
“I have certain natural skills. I’ll explain later when we have more time.”
She touched a stone necklace at her throat. “This is my true appearance.” Her face and body became hazy then changed.
He stared at her. By human standards she was a beauty -- tall, slender, and full bodied. Her hair was short and chestnut, her eyes a chiaroscuro gray-silver. She was perhaps in her early thirties.
“My name is Tiber Roland.”
“What do you wish to say in privacy? I have nothing to say.”
“They put us together hoping we’d tell each other our secrets. It’s an old trick, but a good one. It might have worked. I shouldn’t have let them know I know you, but seeing you was too much of a shock.”
“I do not know you, Human.”
Tiber sighed. “No, you don’t, and I don’t know you. Not here anyway. I hope that won’t prevent you from trusting me a little.” She placed her hand on his wrist but, when he flinched, pulled away. “Forgive me. I am an empathic healer. May I touch you?”
“No. I need no help.”
“You will need all your strength if we are to escape, and I can give you that strength. I intend to escape now, and you may come with me if you wish.”
Her certainty surprised him. “I wish.”
“Good. There are conditions. I must have your word about your conduct. When we leave, I want no violence. You will not attack anyone unless absolutely necessary. You have reason enough to hate these men, I can feel the intensity of your hate, but you mustn’t employ violence.
“Also, you will be governed by me for the next two days. By that I mean you will not act in violence against these men during that time. After that you may kill them if you wish.”
“Such conduct would be against my best interests. Will you accept these terms?”
“You would take my word?”
‘‘Your people are known for their honor.”
“Yes. I agree with your terms. You may touch me if you desire.”
The woman choked back a laugh. “Thank you. I will ease your pain, but I haven’t the time to heal you now. When we reach sanctuary, I will help you more.” She placed her cold hands on either side of his jaw against his pressure points and closed her eyes as if concentrating. Her face then her hands seemed to glow with a pure, white light.
The chill of her touch became warmth which swept through his body like a summer wind that soothed his pain and filled him with renewed energy.
After several minutes, she opened her eyes and swiped away her tears. Anger filled her voice. “Damn that man. He has really hurt you. Even with the enormous strength of your people, you do well to stay on your feet. You are hemorrhaging inside. It is good I came. You wouldn’t have survived any more questioning.”
“My own death means nothing. I live only to kill them.” He sat up and spoke grudgingly, “I feel better, thank you. How do we escape?”
“I can unlock this door easily then we walk out. They will not see us. With my mind I will prevent them from perceiving us.”
“Why were you captured if you can do this?”
“I let myself be captured. I then played weak female until I learned what I wanted. Being considered human gives me latitude. The pirate leader wasn’t surprised when I was knocked out, for example. That little love tap didn’t bruise.
“Let’s get out of here.” She stood and held out her hand. “To hide you I must have physical contact with you at all times. Please give me your bare hand.” As their fingers twined together, she laughed at his grimace of distaste. “You are less distressed by a blow than by a gentle touch. Cheer up, Hawk. You can wash my presence off when we are free from this place. I’ll loan you the soap.”
Their locked door opened, and they walked past the guards who ignored them. Only by force of will and a promise to himself to kill them later was he able to leave them and the building.
Each step was agony as his ribs and his damaged insides were jolted.
After he and the human female left the open rocky terrain near the mercenaries’s concrete headquarters and entered the forest, she stopped and released his hand. “We will rest here a few minutes.”
Swaying with weariness, Hawk propped himself upright against a great tree, clutched his fractured ribs, and groaned