The Keeper Series by Kristine Williams - Read Online
The Keeper Series
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Finally together in one volume, the Keeper Series: Keeper, Madness, Tools of Extinction and Sha'era.

Published: Kristine Williams on
ISBN: 9781301991723
List price: $2.99
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The Keeper Series - Kristine Williams

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KEEPER

Chapter 1

Alex was angry.

He stared into his glass of whisky, seeing nothing but his own brooding face reflected darkly back at him -- the ice a cold mirror of the heat boiling inside. When his mood was this black, few people dared approach with anything less than extremely good news. He knew that because they told him, well after his mood had changed. But he'd never before noticed that look staring back at him as the ice slowly diluted very old scotch.

Never noticed his father's eyes in that angry reflection.

Alex lifted the glass in a toast to no one. I hope you're in hell, old man.

The scotch was downed in one swallow, but the reflection remained, clinking up against the sides of an empty glass. Alex caught the eye of a waitress and motioned for a refill. The burning in his throat was perfectly appropriate, considering his mood, and he'd just decided a good hangover might do the trick. Drinking to excess might not ever solve a problem, but the pain it would cause the next morning would lend justice to his rotten mood.

Right now he wanted to brood. He wanted to sit there and contemplate the fact that -- sometime between last night and five hours ago -- fate had, for no good reason, kicked him in the ass. Or was it destiny? He could never quite figure out which one hated him so much. It was most likely a conspiracy.

Here you are, sir. I'll just charge it to your cabin. The waitress deposited the fresh drink and paused, touching the bottle on her tray with a question in her raised eyebrows.

Alex nodded, neatly avoiding eye contact. She left the bottle on his table and vanished quickly into the small crowd, muttering something about tips and attitudes. He was working up a great reputation. A mere two hours into the trip and already on his second waitress.

No matter. Casual conversation wasn't something he wanted to tolerate right now. He could barely stand his own company as it was.

Alex looked at the ice again, wondering why the angry man looking back at him didn't just go drink in his room and leave these good people alone to enjoy their cruise.

Alex?

A female voice interrupted his attempt to swallow the dark ice-face. Alex looked up sharply, fully prepared to send whoever it was away so he could be alone with his misery.

Alex Marcase? It is you! The tall, auburn-haired beauty with perfectly manicured fingernails slid gracefully and without invitation into the seat beside Alex. Just the other day I told my father I'd heard you were around this neck of the universe. Miranda Carpenter smiled her best debutant smile. How have you been?

Miranda? Alex blinked, unsure if the slight aura around the woman's face was due to the dim lighting of the cruiser's bar or a testament to the quality of the scotch and the amount he'd already consumed.

You remembered. Miranda Carpenter reached out, lightly touching his arm with a delicate hand. It's been years.

Twelve, I think. Reluctantly, the glass of whisky was set aside. Alex forced a smile and tried to appear pleased to see her.

Miranda moved her head from side to side slowly. A gesture designed to impart a sense of sadness at the time passed without actually expressing any true regret. After a perfectly timed pause only a lifetime of high society could cultivate, her gaze drifted over his head. You remember my father, don't you?

So much for a quiet, solitary evening of drinking, brooding and wallowing in self-pity. Alex looked up, then began to stand, but he was waved back down by the distinguished gentleman easing himself into the chair beside Miranda.

Paulson Carpenter was a commanding personality, tall and well built, and one of the most successful entrepreneurs from Alex's home world. He'd known the man -- and more intimately his daughter -- since childhood.

Mr. Carpenter, good to see you again, sir, he lied as he shook the offered hand.

Marcase. I'm surprised to find you on a cruise at a time like this. Shouldn't you be getting ready to leave port on the Ascalon? I'm sure I heard Franklin was already getting his ship prepped.

This was definitely a twisted union between fate and destiny, and both were laughing.

He could hear them.

I wish I was, sir. Alex adjusted his expression now that there was a man sitting at the table. A man of wealth and position, to be sure, but still a man who could understand the dark mood of another man without taking feminine offense at his demeanor. This isn't a cruise, just an unexpected trip. He straightened slightly and glanced at the whisky waiting patiently for his attention. Believe me, I'd much rather be warming up the engines myself.

Must be an important trip, to take you away at a time like this. Carpenter's eyebrows arched upwards, giving the offer of elaboration. The Pendulum Nebula, isn't it?

Is that your latest goal, Alex? Miranda purred, leaning back in her seat. To beat Franklin to the Nebula?

Alex grinned ruefully and rested the tips of his fingers on the glass in front of him. Not to it, Miranda, through it. He glanced knowingly at her father. I'm willing to stake my reputation on finding Turbidium out there.

Paulson Carpenter knew as well as anyone what Alex Marcase's reputation was worth. No matter what opinion was held regarding his lineage, or what one may have speculated about his personality, his career was widely known and well respected. When he set out to locate something in the infinite blackness of space, he didn't fail.

Actually I'm inclined to believe you. The elder man dipped his head in a slight bow. The scans are vague enough to make exploration intriguing. Who's your backer?

Alex's face darkened. Sarcasm threatened to ooze into his voice and he was loath to deny it the opportunity. I'm still open, sir. You don't happen to have a few million credits in need of good use? A small voice deep inside his mind insisted he share his scotch if he was going to hit the man up for funding.

He killed it before it could argue.

Is that what this trip is for? To drum up funding for your next exploration? Miranda ran a long, delicate finger through her hair in a mild attempt at flirting that was more instinctual reaction than thoughtful act. I thought your mother was holding a dinner so you could rub elbows with the elite?

The ice busily diluting old Earth scotch on the table shifted position impatiently.

Elite elbows are being rubbed as we speak. Alex tried a smile, but it didn't fit. She's holding the dinner, and none too pleased that I'm not there. He looked at her father again, arching one eyebrow. I can beat him. Franklin's ship might be fast, but he's predictable. He's always been predictable.

I'm sure you can, Paulson nodded easily. He's the only pilot who could ever compete. And you beat him to Carmex 6 by three days. The news wires were abuzz with that story for weeks.

Three days that cost his investors seventeen billion credits. The Elias Corporation has a new system to mine and unlimited employment security for the next hundred years, thanks to my having beat Franklin there. Alex paused to listen to the little voice he thought he'd killed flop about in protest. He really hadn't come here to talk shop, or find a new financial backer to get his next voyage paid for. And he wasn't in any kind of mood to take advantage of the only situation he found himself in. He was beginning to wonder if jettisoning himself out the nearest airlock might not solve everything rather quickly. The only problem with that plan was the fact that it would then leave Jason Franklin with the most likely chance of discovering what lay inside the Pendulum Nebula before he did. Alex couldn't live with that.

He couldn't die with it either.

Paulson shook his head, perplexed. So what could possibly be so important as to drag you away from your ship at a time like this?

Alex clamped his teeth down hard and let an index finger slide around the rim of the glass. The Carpenters were members of a very small group of people who knew exactly who his father was. He hated that they knew. He hated that anyone knew. But at least this time, he didn't have to mentally search his stock of forged replies or manufactured responses.

My father's dead. He forced his gaze off the ice and made eye contact with Paulson. I got a call this morning. They said it was imperative that I take possession of the estate immediately. I think his old partners are circling the corpse or something. That was a mental picture he wanted to hang on to. It kept him from completely regretting his decision to accept the inheritance.

Carpenter pursed his lips and nodded, knowingly. He had no others, then? I know your mother contracted for other children, before you were born.

Alex shook his head and let his gaze return to the scotch. None he registered, anyway.

But he was wealthy, wasn't he? Miranda's question belied her own knowledge of the man. You're heading out there now, when you should be launching for that Nebula. So it must be worth it. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. It is worth it, isn't it?

Miranda!

Don't scold, father. Miranda sat back in her seat, looking for all the world like a petulant twelve year old instead of the grown woman of twenty-nine. I was just thinking if his father's estate is worth what I'm betting it is, he could just fund that expedition himself, investors be damned.

I really don't know what he was worth, Alex lied while meeting her gaze.

Yes, of course. Paulson, at least, understood these things. I tell you what. Miranda and I are going to visit her aunt, on Sirui. We'll be on this ship when it makes the round trip back. If you're onboard, and you haven't found funding for this exploration of yours, we'll talk. I could probably do with another tax break.

Alex looked up, eyebrows creeping up in hopeful surprise. I might take you up on that, sir.

Carpenter stood, motioning to his daughter. We'll talk more about the prospects later. He glanced pointedly at the bottle of scotch. Come along, Miranda. When she failed to respond, he reached for her arm. Can't you see this man would like to be alone?

I'll be along shortly, father. Miranda shot him a look, but leaned closer to Alex, smiling. We haven't seen each other in years, there's a lot to catch up on.

Father and daughter shared a momentary stare that appeared to communicate on a level Alex could only imagine. He knew if you were close to someone, close enough to really know someone, you could practically communicate without words. But he'd never experienced that intimacy himself.

# # #

Of course, he had nothing to communicate either verbally or otherwise with Miranda Carpenter. Fate, destiny and every other force both real and imagined had placed the young woman in the center of wealth and position. Her family had known privilege for generations, and showed no signs of regret. Alex's mother had seen to it he was raised as close to money as she could manage, being somewhat touched by wealth herself. But most of those around her understood her grasp on the position was tenuous at best. She afforded Alex the opportunities he'd needed to gain scholarships, and sustained a position socially high enough to bring her into the proper circles where important elbows could be rubbed, though he'd never been particularly friendly with any of them himself. And if more had known exactly who his father was, aside from the Carpenters and one or two others, he knew what little position he'd had would have collapsed years ago.

Alex poured another glass of whisky and watched the new chunks of ice settle into position.

Miranda was on the bed in his small cabin, still wrapped in the shimmering white sheet. Her idea of catching up had involved very little conversation. Do you always drink scotch?

Only when I'm angry. Alex turned to face her and leaned back against the liquor cabinet.

I hope you're not angry with me. She moved her legs until they were underneath her, then flicked hair off her shoulder.

He laughed shortly, the glass so close to his body, he could feel the coolness of the ice against his bare stomach. No, of course not.

Interesting hobby.

A sudden memory sent a smile creeping slowly over his face. When I was a kid, I saw an ad. There was this man sitting at a table, staring into a glass of whisky. He had this look on his face, and I remember thinking -- he was someone you wouldn't want to mess with. He glanced at Miranda and she nodded. It was obvious she had no idea what he was talking about, but he accepted her polite response and continued. I thought this guy had found the perfect tool to keep people away. And, being a kid, I figured it must have been the scotch that did it. He shrugged. So I made up my mind that when I was old enough to drink, that's what I'd use.

To keep people at bay? Miranda eyed him as if judging his looks. You've managed that pretty well since we were five. Finally she nodded and slid off the bed, wrapping her slender body in the sheet. Anger is a very good look on you. You get all dark and dangerous. She traced his chin with one delicate finger, letting the tip tickle the slight growth of beard often allowed to take shape in the hollow between Alex's lip and chin. I like this.

I should get rid of it. Alex was far too tired to react to her touch, so he let her have her fun.

Her eyes twinkled like a schoolgirl playing with fire. It makes you look like a rogue.

It makes me look like my father. Alex pulled his chin away from her fingers and moved aside, looking for his shirt. I need to shave.

Miranda accepted defeat and went in search of her own clothes. Are you planning to work the crowd, take advantage of your situation?

I didn't come here to schmooze the rich and famous.

I'm sure you didn't come here to sleep with their daughters, either. But that shouldn't stop you. Until you know for sure what this estate is worth, you should keep your options open. She pulled the expensive dress over her head and smoothed down the rare fabric with her hands, all the while keeping both eyes on him. Ooh, but not with that face.

Alex finished pulling on his shirt and looked at her, one eyebrow arching.

That's your brooding face. You'll scare them all away with that one.

Well it's the only face I brought with me.

A word of advice? Miranda stood in front of him, fully dressed except for the jewelry still dangling in one hand.

Alex forced himself to relax his features and shrug.

There happen to be a lot of people on this cruise who might very well be interested in your little venture. Wealthy, bored people who like to invest in discoveries so they can feel they've taken a dangerous risk themselves. You'd do well to let them know you're here. She smiled and fingered the jewels in her hand. We may have lost touch over the years, but I do know your reputation as an explorer. My father has always been impressed. Besides, if word spreads that you're here, and my father is considering funding your trip, it could spark some interest and net you more credits than you need.

Maybe you should join my crew, be our recruiter. Alex dragged a hand through his hair and exhaled strongly, considering her words while silently praying she'd understood the joke in his.

Miranda's light laughter proved him right. Deep space explorer? Me? That's very funny. She finished attaching her jewelry and touched his shoulder. If you feel like working off any more of that anger, you know where to find me.

Alex nodded at her back as she left in a swirl of bright fabric and fresh perfume. The scotch was staring at him from the counter, but his stomach growled at the thought.

Get your act together, Marcase. He walked to the bar and lifted the glass, then dumped it into the potable recycling tube. Nobody's gonna do it for you. The whisky bottle was still half full, so he stored it away and checked himself in the small mirror. Cruise ship dining areas were notoriously dark, and the hour was late enough to avoid the more fastidious early diners, so he decided a shower wasn't needed. This shirt had to go; it had Ascalon insignia all over it. Can't be too obvious on the first pass.

After a change of shirt and a quick check for messages, Alex stuffed his PDA into a thigh pocket of his pants and headed for the dining section of the massive ship.

The Terria Rose was a high-end cruise vessel catering to the most prestigious of travelers. No luxury was out of the question, and special requests were encouraged -- at a slightly elevated price, conveniently and quietly added to the traveler's bill prior to disembarking. She typically carried a full contingent of passengers, usually families on holiday or businessmen desperately trying to impress a prospective client or sexual partner. Because she was one of the fastest ships in the galaxy, if a passenger wanted a longer cruise, they were forced to book several destinations and pay the added expense of stopping in more than one port.

Alex sat at a back table in the dark dining room and watched the wealthy people eat, laugh, and pretend not to be discussing business proposals. He hated that he was sitting on the Terria Rose, watching such misuse of credits the average person couldn't even dream of. Credits he could put to excellent use funding his exploration of the nebula. But he needed a fast ship, something that could get him to his father's planet and back without losing too much time. His mother's cousin was a navigator on board who didn't mind using some influence to make the last empty cabin available at a reduced rate, so he'd promised to use the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and pitch his offer.

This was the one aspect of his life he hated, almost more than his lineage.

Wealth was as easy to spot as poverty, even in the dark. It glowed like an aura and penetrated a room as sharply as a searchlight. Something about a man's carriage, a woman's attitude, spoke volumes and set them apart with a gaze down a slender nose or the rise of a sculpted eyebrow. Money attracted money, just as poverty perpetuated its lack. But as with everything else, there was a gray area. A side that hovered between the two, dancing so fast only the experienced eye could see it for what it really was. Courting rich widows, conning wealthy men, dating the well-to-do's offspring, hoping for a payoff. Chameleons who could conform and adapt well enough to fool both the rich and the poor, taking full advantage of both.

People like that were the enemies. They soured potential investors against honest ventures. There were a few vampires working the room, but Alex could spot them and try to work around their maneuvers. He would just have to find the right targets, before the leeches made their first failures and searched for new marks.

Even in a darkness designed for intimacy, faces could be recognized after a moment of intense gazing. To his left, three tables away, sat Theodore Welsford, of Dakable Mining and Exports. A fat, lazy man, Theodore Welsford had never physically worked a day of his life. Alex hated men like that. Inheritors of someone else's hard work and determination, who did nothing to improve or add to the legacy. Approaching him with an investment offer would be a waste of time. He looked at the next table and recognized the woman sitting with three vastly younger men as the widow of Marcus Rogonian Cog, one of the most famous scientists of his time. The widow, Sadie Rogonian Cog, had been left with a fortune of credits and plenty of youth left to spend them. Alex seriously considered speaking with her. Sadie had been incredibly devoted to her husband for over six years of contracted habitation. If he could approach her just right, explain how her husband's legend could live on by having a discovery as important as Turbidium named after him, she might be swayed to invest in Alex's expedition, rather than the young suitors making fools of themselves at her table.

There were others in the room that Alex ranked by probability, and several faces he didn't recognize that might be worth a try. But not tonight. He finished his dinner without speaking to anyone, then returned to the cabin and kicked off his shoes as soon as he entered the room.

Messages?

There was a soft chime, and then a mechanical voice filled the wall speaker. You have no messages at this time.

No news is good news. Alex sighed and tossed his shirt over the back of the only chair in his small cabin. The washroom was generously sized for an economy cabin, and sported a full shower, but he was too weary to enjoy it. Within seconds after stuffing his feet under the thin, insulating blanket, he was asleep.

# # #

The time is now 0700 Standard. Breakfast is being served on --

Shut up. Alex opened one eye to make sure he saw the green light on the table unit acknowledge his response, then closed it again and pressed his face further into the pillow. He was on his stomach, one leg errantly drifting off the bed, and in no mood to get up. Slowly and with very little effort, he felt the fog of sleep return.

The time is now 0800 Standard. Breakfast is --

Shut up! This time the announcement had startled him straight out of oblivion and onto his elbows. Blearily he glared at the table unit until the green light appeared. Now both legs were on the bed, but the blanket had somehow abandoned him and gone to the floor. He left it there and rolled over, shoving one arm under the pillow. The room was dark and quiet; the hum of gigantic drive engines twelve decks below barely perceptible even to those who tried to listen for them. Alex found the sound soothing, as he did on his own ship, and used the deep hum to numb his mind back into sleep.

The time is now 0900 Standard. You have messages.

Alex opened both eyes and stared at the ceiling as he calculated the ship's Standard time with that of the planet he'd just left. Replay messages. He sat up reluctantly and ran both hands over his head, through bed-tussled hair.

First message as follows. . .

The voice of Alex's mother, Madam Duvia, immediately replaced that of the computer.

Alex, the dinner was a partial success. Commodore Wilcox is interested, but he needs facts and you weren't here. Her disapproval couldn't have been plainer. Call me the instant you get this business over with, so I'll know if I have to invite the Commodore for tea next week. The I'd rather eat Denuvian Ledworm inference came through just as clearly as the disapproval.

Second message as follows . . . This voice was equally female, but much softer.

Alex, it's Sara. We have to talk. Call me as soon as you get this.

End of messages. Do you wish to make a call?

No. Alex dragged himself off the bed and padded barefoot to the washroom. He stared at his reflection for a moment, but the answer he was looking for wasn't there. Hell, the question wasn't even there. Just this nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with last night's whisky. He showered and shaved, then found a clean set of clothes before ordering breakfast from the automated room server. While he waited for delivery, he pulled the PDA from the pocket of his other pants and dialed Sara's number.

It seemed too long before she answered, but the little screen finally flicked to life with the familiar face. Sara Feller was three years older than Alex, having just recently celebrated entering her thirty-third year, and never looked more beautiful. Blonde hair gently curled its way to the top of her smooth shoulders, framing perfect skin and sparkling blue eyes that could light up a room from miles away.

Alex, you got my message?

What's up? He sat back in the room's single chair, resting the small computer on one knee, and tried to figure out why his ship's doctor was talking to him outside what appeared to be a strange hangar bay.

I hate to break this to you over the com, Alex, but you left before I could get a chance to sit down and talk to you.

Considering we share a bunk, I think we can agree whose fault that was. Alex knew what she was about to say before she could answer. She was leaving, just like the others. Sara, I'm going to be back in two weeks.

Then what? You may or may not have inherited enough for the expedition? You may or may not have found a backer on the trip? Alex, I've had an offer.

An offer? Alex blinked, wondering if he was still asleep. Look, I know we've both been busy lately . . .

Alex, I've waited as long as I can. I can't wait any longer. She sighed, shaking her head sadly. I'm sorry. It's been fantastic being with you, but I need a paying job, just as much as you do.

Being with me? Sara . . .

I am sorry, Alex.

Dammit, I can't take a ship out with that many crew without a physician onboard! The Council would shut me down before I pulled out of the system.

I left several recommendations on file in your quarters. There are plenty of good doctors available, I'm sure. Her face morphed quickly from regret to resignation. I'm sorry, Alex. I'll see you around. Good luck.

Before he could argue, she canceled the call. Shit! Alex threw the PDA toward the bed and watched it bounce off the mattress and hit the carpeted floor, undamaged. Sara Feller was the twenty-seventh crewmember to bail on him, to accept new jobs that could pay now. He'd lost his engineer to his main competition, Jason Franklin. The man had his funding, and could pull his ship out of port within the month. Alex couldn't, in all conscience, blame anyone for leaving the uncertain future of his ship for a good year's worth of paid work. He just reserved the right to be angry about it.

But Sara . . . They'd shared more than a job, and -- he'd thought -- more than just a bed.

Marcase, you better have died a rich man. Alex walked to the door and accepted his breakfast order from the service 'bot, glad he didn't have to be polite to any human deliverer just then.

Breakfast was coffee, toast, and a residual headache from the night before. And he hadn't even managed to get drunk. At least he had a half bottle of whisky to fall back on if the return trip saw him still without enough credits to fund a ship of one hundred trained crew out past the edge of explored space and back. That is, if he still had a crew of one hundred.

Alex retrieved the PDA and dialed his ship. He'd left one man in charge, the only man he ever trusted with anything of importance, his second-in-command. After three chimes, the screen lit up and an older man's face smiled back at him from his own office on the bridge of the Ascalon.

Jeff, please tell me I haven't lost more crew.

You heard from Sara, I take it? Jeff's eyes looked dark from lack of sleep, and his hair dusted with a bit more grey. Since her, no, we haven't lost any more. Yet. Trouble is, Franklin's over there getting fitted, cash in hand, taking on new crew.

I know, I know. Alex rubbed his eyes, his mind fleetingly contemplating the whisky again. He found himself desperately in need of someone he could confide in, someone he could go to for advice in situations like these. But he was alone. It had always been like that, and probably always would be. While Jeff could help in many ways, Alex never shared that much of himself with any one person. It was a habit he pretended not to be conscious of, but one he couldn't seem to break. I never should have left.

You had to. Listen, if that guy left you a fortune, our troubles are over.

And if he didn't? Jeff wasn't one of the few who knew Alex's lineage, only that a wealthy man he knew from his childhood had died, and left him his estate. It was easy to assume that meant something, but it could just as easily be sentimental pocket lint.

Plenty of rich passengers on that cruise, I imagine. Are you working the crowd?

Alex tried to hide his disgust and nodded. Plenty of vampires here, too. But I'm doing my best. Just keep what's left of the crew there, will ya? And get replacements lined up for the ones we've lost. I'll have the funding when I get back, whatever it takes. We have to set off before Franklin.

You got it, Captain.

Alex ended the call, and then finished his breakfast, resigning himself to the dirty deed of weeding through passengers for potential investors.

Sadie Rogonian Cog, widow of famed scientist Marcus Rogonian Cog, felt it would be more interesting to have a new line of jewels bearing her name than a new system carrying her late husband's. When Alex tried to explain the significance of the potential discovery, and offered any name she chose, her eyes momentarily lit up. Unfortunately the young suitor draped over her right arm was more successful once he spotted the head of Friesian Diamonds heading for the spa. With a polite wave-off, she dismissed Alex's proposal and scurried away for a facial.

There were others, rich, famous and somewhere in between. Alan Regan, of Regan Spice, took serious interest when he learned of Carpenter's possible involvement, and assured Alex he would take the matter to his Board of Investors. It wasn't a contract, but it was more than he had from anyone else by the time he reached his destination.

Alex hadn't packed more than a few changes of clothes, crammed with little care into a small shoulder-case that stuffed easily under the seat of the twelve-passenger transfer ship. There was a message buzzing from the PDA in his thigh pocket when he settled in for the short hop from cruiser to planet. Alex secured the safety belt, then retrieved the computer and replayed the message.

Marcase, I meant what I said about taking an interest in this expedition. Paulson Carpenter's face stared back at Alex from the video display. I'll be on this ship heading back to Scotian in two weeks. If that inheritance doesn't take care of you, and you're on this ship, look me up.

The playback ended and Alex shoved the unit back into his pocket as the shuttle detached from the cruiser and turned toward Cryian. It was a small planet, one that no luxury liner worth its reputation would approach. Over the centuries, Cryian had become a safe haven for every breed of villain, criminal and scum the galaxy could produce. No one traveled here by accident, and few did so on purpose unless they were conducting a survey of the gangster population and wanted their results published posthumously.

Alex wasn't ignorant. Or innocent, for that matter. He had a pulse gun in one pocket, a knife under his belt, and eight years of military training to fall back on. What weight his name might carry in this system was still a question he wasn't ready to find the answer to, but he knew it wouldn't be long before someone let him know. He'd been doing his level best not to think about why he was where he was, but as the planet fast approached he knew he had to start.

The lawyer had been adamant. You've been named the only recipient, Mr. Marcase. I really must insist you make haste. Your father had business partners who are desperate for the opportunity you've been given. I fear I am unable to executor this will for much longer. I'm sure you understand the nature of your father's business. It truly is worth your while, I assure you.

It was impossible not to feel worth your while really meant worth Executor Lewis VanHolt's while to dump this whole mess, the quicker the better. Considering Alex's father was a celebrated smuggler and suspected murderer, he could well imagine the types of business partners chomping at the bit.

Alex had half a mind to let the estate be tossed to the crowd. There was nothing his father had that he wanted. Nothing he'd been willing to give, anyway.

Spencer Marcase had contracted with Alex's mother to produce a son, along with an initial ten-year living agreement. But before the contract came to full term, he'd found a lawyer smart enough and dirty enough to find a way out of it. Exiting a contract simply wasn't done, not when a child had been the goal. The laws were specific, and harsh, in order to prevent unnecessary production. The idea being no person would enter any world unless specifically desired by at least one parent or contracted guardian. The legal agreements could be as long, or short as the participants wished, and could involve however many offspring one or the other parent chose. But they could not be abandoned, renegotiated or defaulted on for any reason.

Spencer had found a way, freeing him up to pursue his chosen life of crime, unfettered by a son he'd supposedly wanted.

Part of Alex felt dirty even accepting this inheritance, while another part felt assured by the fact that -- with him -- the credits would be put to good use. What credits there might be. Almost every year, rumors spread through the galaxy suggesting Spencer Marcase was worth billions. But others, hinting at complete financial failure, often tempered those rumors. Alex was left with no clue what he was in for, only an urgent message that he arrive with great haste to claim it.

Well, he'd arrived.

Cryian's spaceport was as dirty and uninviting as the planet itself. Automated service 'bots in darkened corridors performed tasks no human would risk his or her life for, and the walls were conspicuously void of any colorful advertisements or cheerily posted, region-specific information. Even the meager lighting didn't want to be there, offering the traveler a dim view of the landing dock and the nearest exit as if ashamed of what it was illuminating.

Alex shouldered his pack and briefly touched the gun in his pocket before stepping off the shuttle. He'd done his time in the military, long enough to gain a Captain's rank and the experience he needed to lease a deep space exploration ship as well as mastering a few fighting talents. Those abilities might well come in handy now, as he navigated the nearly vacant spaceport, looking for an exit.

It was mid-day, and already the sky looked as dark and gloomy as the faces of the people milling about outside. Alex immediately spotted an empty ground car and made claim on its driver before the few other new arrivals could gain their bearings after departing the shuttle.

Newark building. He shut the door, ignoring the protests of a fat man trying to flag the car.

The driver dragged his gaze over Alex, head to toe, then turned on his meter and kicked the vehicle into gear. You new in town?

He ignored the man and leaned back in the seat.

Newark building . . . That's lawyers, ain't it?

Alex lowered his eyelids and caught the driver's eye in the reflector, looking as bored and -- he hoped -- as dangerous as he could. Whatever his look managed to convey, it gained him a silent trip through city streets that looked more like public awareness ads. Huge buildings stood side-by-side with dark, low-built hovels that bore short names and spewed dangerous-looking characters armed to the teeth. Alex remained uninterested in everything he saw, trying not to give the driver a reason to suspect he'd be an easy mark.

Enemy territory.

Places like these had only one rule -- if it looks killable, kill it. Regulars could spot a newcomer from fifty paces, further, if rumors had spread. Newcomers meant fresh meat, someone you might stand a chance of taking out, if you got there first. Someone who might have been fool enough to wander in where they didn't belong, carrying something worthwhile. Blending in never fooled anyone. The only way to survive a place like this was to look tough enough to hold your own, capable of causing your attacker harm before eventually losing the battle. Predators only attack if they're sure of their chances, and feel relatively confident they can escape unharmed.

It was hard to imagine his father living here, and yet the picture seemed to fit perfectly. What he knew of the man, anyway.

Here you are, Newark building. The driver stopped beside a short, white building on a nearly vacant street. Should I wait?

Don't bother. Alex grabbed his pack and left the car, flipping the required credits over the seat.

The irony of lawyers on a lawless planet obviously hadn't been lost on the inhabitants of Cryian. The back courtyard of the building was a cemetery, stretching out far into the distance. It was filled to overcrowding, with headstones gilded and cheap, new and old. The building had no receptionist to greet visitors, just a reader board and automated attendant that was shut down for maintenance, according to the hand-scrawled note crammed into it's neck joint. Alex scanned the board for the name he needed, finding it midway down the long list of suits-for-hire. When he started down the proper corridor bordering the back courtyard, he couldn't help notice a man sitting outside near a boldly marked grave.

He was a dark figure, wet from a recent rainfall, close to Alex's own age with short, black hair and completely black clothes of a fabric so void of color they seemed to absorb the light around them. Alex felt a chill shake his spine as he walked, still watching the man at the grave. He had the look of a mourner, but his face bore no sadness, only anger. A steaming rage heavily tempered by weariness that hit a familiar cord in Alex's mind. As the corridor began to curl around the courtyard, the darkly brooding man turned his head, making eye contact through the heavy glass. Eyes as black as space itself met Alex's, then a strange, tangled tattoo on the left side of the man's neck caught his attention.

He stopped, holding the gaze unblinking. Was this one of his father's business partners, waiting to claim an estate he felt he was due? Something about the man suggested that was far from the case, but before Alex could wonder further, a door opened behind him.

May I help you?

He turned, breaking eye contact with the dark man, and found himself face to face with someone so opposite in looks; he had to blink to adjust his vision.

I'm looking for Lewis VanHolt. Alex eyed the pale-skinned man and tried not to stare overly long at his even paler blue-white eyes.

You're Alex Marcase? A thin, shaking hand extended itself. I'm Mr. VanHolt, Executor of Spencer Marcase's last will and testament.

Alex accepted the hand. It was cold, a bit damp, and so fragile he feared it would shatter if he held it long.

VanHolt shot a glance over Alex's shoulder, and then motioned for him to enter the office. Please, come inside. I have everything prepared, we can get this over with quickly and you can be on your way.

I'd like nothing better.

The office was plush but cold, with chilled air blowing gently through the room from fans set in the floor and walls. VanHolt's desk and two hard chairs were the only other occupants of the room, but the man seemed too nervous to sit still.

We'll just need to verify your ID, and the estate will be yours. The lawyer retrieved a heavy legal reader from the top drawer of his desk and approached Alex while quickly tapping information into the scanner.

Can you tell me what exactly it is? Alex was more irritated by the chill in the room and the feel of death around the building than the lack of information, but VanHolt's attitude was beginning to set him on edge. The man was twitchy, and clearly terrified, but he couldn't tell if this was normal behavior or something he should take special note of.

If this was a trap, it bordered on the absurd.

Now, if you'll just place your right hand in here, so we can take a DNA reading. Shaking hands held out the reader while pale eyes blinked in reptilian fashion.

Alex glanced at the reader. It was a standard scan, well used by the look of it, with just a palm reader and a slightly raised input pad. At the top edge of the scanner sat a chunk of silver, almost liquid, that looked as if the last user had spilled it. He paused for a moment, his hand hovering over the pad, then resigned himself. A red light passed under the palm of his right hand the instant he rested it on the machine, while a strange magnetic pulling sensation kept it in place for the highly accurate molecular scan.

VanHolt read the data displayed on the input screen. Alexander Marcase, offspring of Spencer Marcase, deceased, and Madame Clarice Duvia. Sole benefactor named herein.

Before Alex could pull his right hand away from the machine, the glob of silver flashed to life. It vanished from the pad and instantly reappeared, wrapped around his third finger, solidifying firmly in place.

What the hell? Alex managed to pull his hand away. What is this? He grabbed at the silver with his other hand and tried to remove the ring.

Your inheritance. VanHolt's voice changed suddenly. The quivering tone immediately replaced by one of profound relief. I've never been more happy to deliver one in my life. Would you care for a drink, Mr. Marcase?

I'd care for an explanation! Alex continued to pull at the silver ring, but it wouldn't budge.

Your father was a Keeper. VanHolt reached for a bottle and two glasses from the bottom shelf of the desk. Have you heard of the Sha'erah?

Genetically altered slaves? That was outlawed centuries . . . VanHolt wasn't kidding. And the ring wasn't coming off. Alex glared at the lawyer. Are you telling me that is what my father left me? Suddenly he remembered the dark-clad man at the grave outside. He swallowed hard and reached one hand down to the gun in his pocket. I suggest you start making sense.

You'll need this. VanHolt handed Alex one of the two drinks he'd poured, and then motioned for him to take a seat. So you know what a Sha'erah is, then?

They're a myth. Alex wasn't falling for it. The government outlawed that practice hundreds of years ago.

They were morally outlawed in nearly every sector of the galaxy, but then again, nearly everything practiced here has been morally outlawed. VanHolt smiled at his own wit. If I'm not mistaken, the asking price these days is just under two hundred and seventy-five million credits.

Wait a minute. Hang on. He held up one hand, the new ring of silver flashing from a red, throbbing finger. You're telling me . . . they still exist? Someone is still manufacturing human beings, genetically wired to follow orders? This still goes on somewhere in the galaxy?

VanHolt nodded.

Alex swallowed most of his drink and stared blankly at the desk, struggling with confused thoughts that wouldn't form coherent sentences. Genetically altered.

Some say alien engineering is molecularly bonded to their DNA. But proof of aliens is still unfounded, and no one ever confesses to knowing where or how the Sha'erah are made.

Made? His muddled brain caught one word and ran with it.

VanHolt nodded and seemed to fall into an introspective curiosity. Yes, they're altered while still unborn. I understand your father had this one made specifically. They can be custom ordered.

Alex slowly shook his head. He was in shock. He was sure of that. Nothing this man said made sense. He was talking about a childhood myth whispered around the schoolyards, joked about by children, contemplated by adults looking for a subject no one could prove or deny. Slavery was morally offensive to all cultured societies. But Sha'erah, it was said, were altered genetically with unknown -- and presumed alien -- technology that first removed their ability to be anything except what they were created for, then made up for it by empowering them in strange ways. Alex once heard of one who had the ability to read minds, and another who could operate space-faring ships without ever being onboard. But those were just stories.

They all had certain things in common -- or so it was said -- that would readily identify them to anyone. Alex searched his memories for the old stories. There was something about metal implanted in their bodies . . . He stared at the ring. And they had strange eyes, if he remembered correctly. And there were tattoos.

So they're not human?

Well yes, they are to begin with. Then they're . . . enhanced. In the womb, then more is done after birth. I'm not perfectly clear on the origins, but I understand no one really is. VanHolt sipped his drink, then cocked his head to the side. Mr. Marcase, are you all right?

No. Alex set the empty glass down. He couldn't focus on anything in particular, so he continued to stare at the desk. My father left me a person. His eyebrows knit together with force as he struggled to make words come out clearly and distinctly. He owned a person worth two hundred and seventy-five million credits, and he left it -- him -- to me. Slowly Alex managed to locate VanHolt's face. No, I'm not all right. Their eyes locked. What in hell am I supposed to do now? And why can't I get this damned ring off?

That ring identifies you as the Keeper. VanHolt let out a huge sigh. I don't mind telling you, while it was in my possession I've never been more afraid in my life.

Why didn't you just take it? If this thing -- Alex immediately realized he'd just referred to another human being as a thing. How human were Sha'erah? If he's worth so much, why didn't someone steal it from you? Why hadn't someone possessed enough foresight to keep him from having to deal with this?

Only the legal owner can wear that ring. It's something too alien for anyone to truly comprehend, even me. VanHolt waved a hand in dismissal. All I know is, your father was the Keeper, and that was his ring. The Sha'erah can only follow the commands of the wearer of the ring. As such, when your father died, the ring was bound by his legally registered last will and testament, and could only transfer to the legal heir. That being you.

Me.

Now, what you do with this inheritance is your own concern. But the only way to pass that ring on to someone else is to officially sell the slave, or die. And I strongly encourage you to alter your own will immediately. If there's no one set to inherit, I think the Sha'erah dies. Though I can't be sure about that. The only good thing is the fact that no one can kill you and just take it. Whatever you do, it has to be legally documented. Somehow it . . . well, the ring knows.

Wait, wait, wait. Alex held up both hands, trying to ignore the silver around his finger. This is a bit much. You're kidding me, right? He knew VanHolt wasn't kidding. The man probably had no clue how to kid about anything. There was no humor in the pale eyes looking at him, and no airlock Alex could throw himself straight out of. My father kept a slave? It wasn't sinking in.

They're Sha'erah, technically not slaves by the old term. These are custom made. But the basic idea is there. I'm rather afraid of them myself. I mean, God knows what they're capable of, really. Spencer had many friends as well as enemies who are rather disappointed they didn't inherit this legacy. I'm sure -- should you so choose -- you'd have no trouble finding a qualified buyer.

This is a man we're talking about, isn't it? Alex tried to pace around the small room. That guy out there by the grave, right? The one who looked angry enough to rip those headstones apart with his bare hands? That one?

Yes.

What's he so angry about?

Well, the man has just been passed on in a will. I can imagine he's not too pleased.

Alex felt his face flush. Has he been here since the burial?

I've had to keep him here while we waited for you to arrive to claim him. I didn't feel very safe anywhere else. Not that they could have stolen him, but one never knows what these people might try. I don't think he would have stopped them from killing me, anyway.

What would have happened if I hadn't come?

VanHolt shrugged. He would have remained in my custody until we found you, but he doesn't obey me. I'm not a Keeper, just your father's legal advisor.

But if I'd never come, what would have happened?

Frankly, I don't have a clue. I was assured by your father when he made out this will that you would come.

That's ridiculous. My father didn't even know me, how could he say that?

I'm sorry, Mr. Marcase. There are things I simply don't know the answer to.

Great! Alex threw a hand in the air, then glared at the far wall. There was no answer there, only white paint.

Your father had an apartment, but it was rented I'm afraid. You'll be welcome there until the lease is up, if you need a place to stay while you're here. VanHolt motioned toward the door and began walking to it, inviting his guest to leave. I'll just make the introductions and you two can be on your way. His name is Evan.

I can't believe this. Alex stared at the albino man, unable to accept this bizarre turn of events.

I understand your reaction, Mr. Marcase. Believe me. This must be especially hard for someone who didn't realize Sha'erah were real. It isn't much easier for those of us who already did. He stepped closer, looking down at Alex with a consolatory gaze. My advice to you is to sell him to the first buyer. Two hundred and seventy-five million credits is a lot more money than most men ever see. Sell him and get back to your life. These -- things -- aren't what you expect. Frankly they frighten me.

Frighten you? Alex's blood ran cold. The lease option on the Ascalon was only sixty-three million. He could pay his crew's salary for five years with the rest and still have room for system upgrades. There couldn't be any harm in selling something he didn't want, could there?

While sickening thoughts of credits, slavery and genetically altered humans muddled his brain, Alex found himself walking back out to the windows lining the graveyard. He looked up and saw the man again, this time standing beside a carved headstone, staring back at him.

It was gray outside, with a heavy mist that made the air thick and moist. Evan stood next to the slate-black stone and practically blended in with its darkness. Their eyes met through the glass as they sized each other up.

Alex looked at the dark man. The slight build didn't fool anyone. If push came to shove, Alex knew this guy could break him in half. He'd have a fight on his hands, but eventually, Alex knew, he'd lose.

It wasn't hard to imagine -- were it not for the Caucasian skin -- that the man would vanish completely in the dark. The tattoo on the left side of his neck was intricate and midnight black, mirrored by a matching but smaller mark on the back of his left hand. But his eyes were what drew Alex's attention. They were black from more than pigmentation. Something behind them was seething very close to the surface. No childhood stories or Sha'erah myths could explain the hatred burning in that darkness. Had Spencer custom-ordered a killer when he shelled out his two hundred and seventy-five million credits? Black eyes darted quickly down, apparently taking in the site of the ring adorning its new owner's finger.

His new owner.

Alex fleetingly wondered if that ring signified safety from, or source of, that angry stare.

VanHolt opened a door to the courtyard and Alex followed him out into the rain. It wasn't until he stopped in front of the grave that he realized it was his father's.

Alex Marcase, this is Evan. VanHolt gestured from one man to the other, then turned away. Well, it's been a pleasure, gentlemen, but my part in this is finished, so I'll leave you to your business. The lawyer hastened back out into the corridor without so much as a glance backward. Goodbye.

Alex stared after him. It was entirely possible he'd managed to get drunk after all, back on the Terria Rose, and this was all just a really bad hangover. A very long, very vivid one. If that were the case, he'd have to swear off whisky from now on. But something told him it wasn't a hangover, or a dream. Just one very real, very strange nightmare.

Alex turned back and faced the man standing next to the headstone, staring again into black eyes that held his gaze without wavering. He could feel a wall inside his head almost physically blocking his ability to think. His hands were beginning to shake from the cold and confusion, so he shoved one through his hair. I don't suppose you come with an instruction manual.

No. Do you?

Anger, sarcasm. What was next, a knife to his back? Great. Alex looked down at the ring on his finger again. It hung loose and not uncomfortable, but when he touched it to try and pull it over the knuckle, the metal closed tighter, preventing any attempts to remove it. He looked up at Evan again. The man was his age, or very close to it, slightly taller, thin but with the toughness of a fighter about him. Just what had his father used him for, anyway? He glanced at the gravestone and what little warmth was still lingering in his body shivered away.

He'd known his father for all of four years, and lived with his rejection for twenty-six more, but nothing prepared him for seeing that headstone.

Spencer Marcase.

No dates, no details, just the name.

Alex stared at the engraving, wondering what he was supposed to feel. A father who was never there was still a father, still a blood-relation whose death signified complete closure of any doors either of them ever might have considered opening. Not once had he attempted reconciliation, or even entertained the thought for more than a depressed, lonely evening.

But death -- the finality of it all -- was hitting him hard. Lying in that section of dirt was every embarrassment he'd endured as a child and young man, every thought of self-doubt and loathing he'd experienced.

And every possibility there could have been.

Even from the grave, Spencer confounded his only son. What the hell do I do now, old man?

Oh that's perfect.

Alex's eyebrows knit tightly. He turned back to face Evan. What?

This is what I'm left with? Dark eyes flashed angrily.

Listen, pal, I just walked in here. I get a call out of nowhere that my father died, that he left me everything, and I come here and find out 'everything' means you! Give me a break. It's a lot to deal with.

Until fifteen minutes ago, Sha'erah were a myth. Hell, they probably still were. People who lived and died by the will of a Keeper? He couldn't even get this one to explain things. Suddenly a gesture gave Alex a glimpse of silver embedded in Evan's left palm. Not entirely human. A feeling of alien fear ran down his spine.

Give you a break? I've just been passed on in a will. Do you have any idea what that's like? I've been with that bastard since I was a child, now I'm handed over to you with no say in the matter, and you want me to give you a break?

Alex instinctively put a hand on the knife at his belt. This wasn't the reaction he'd expected from someone he supposedly owned. Then again, he'd never owned anyone before, let alone a Sha'erah. He definitely had a headache. I thought you were born for this. Or created. Or whatever the hell they do. Me, I'm new to this crap. I didn't ask for this.

Neither did I.

Alex broke eye contact and focused again on the grave to give himself time to think. It was expensively done. Sealed ground covering, real stone marker, the etching lined in what looked to be gold. Years of repressed thoughts and emotions threatened to well painfully back to the surface. Alex sighed heavily and set his jaw, denying those thoughts yet again.

Before he could say another word, the sky opened up with a loud crack of thunder followed almost instantly by a flash of red-tinged lightning streaking the sky above them.

Perfect. Alex hunched further into his jacket, instantly soaked to the skin. Water was dripping off his nose, running in tickling rivulets down his neck and back. The Sha'erah just stood there, thoroughly wet and shivering, staring back at him. He nodded at the grave. I've had my fill of this. VanHolt said he had a place I could stay.

Evan jerked his head toward a side exit, leading back into the building. This way. Without asking, he shouldered Alex's soaking