Jamila turned over and brought one of her pillows along to cover her ears. The intercom was stuck on one volume: loud. It also caught some kind of awful static from the latest and greatest SkyTemple stabilizers. But the stabilizers were necessary. The planet Larus was prone to terrible windstorms that brought a house crashing to the earth at least once a year.
“Jamila,” her father’s voice carried through the intercom again, “if I send a servant to check on you, and you’re asleep, I’ll take your shopping allowance away for a week.”
That wasn’t a big threat, considering she had enough allowance saved to last her a year. And that was if she shopped at the finest tailors in New Kent. If she chose to wear peasant clothing she couldn’t begin to guess how long it would last.
Jamila sighed and released her pillow. She hated it when her father was home. He was one of those early risers, while she usually slept till noon. But then, she’d kept one of the servants up till five in the morning flying virtual combat missions over Dramam. Her father would never play games or associate with the 'lower' classes.
“Jamila Christianna Clearborne!”
She flinched at the high-pitched squeal of faulty electronics as her father concluded the call. One day she was going to shoot the ’com.
The floor was ice-cold when she rolled out of bed. Another thing that was malfunctioning because of the constant remodels. When father was home, he seemed to think the place needed fixing.
Jamila slipped her feet into her self-heating slippers and pulled on a silk robe before going to see what her father wanted. She took her time, just to be a pain in the ass. It was an awful day out. In the summer the open, villa type architecture was beautiful. The SkyTemple could be closer to the ocean, so the warm sea breeze could waft through the windows. Now the Temple was higher in the air to avoid waves, and closed up tighter than a tomb. Rain lashed the windows and lightning lit the dark sky.
She tried to shake her case of the bored-as-hell blues. Six more months of this. Luckily, her father was due back at the Senate next week, so she would be able to leave the villa again. He always insisted that it was dangerous outside these walls, and when he was home he had the ability to make her stay…for the most part.
She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand and stretched as she entered the large dining room. She came to an abrupt halt. Father sat on one end of the table and a strange little man with pinched, rat like features sat on the other. To the left, against the wall, a line of dirty, haggard slaves stretched down the length of the table.
One man stood out. He was the tallest, most muscular man she’d ever seen. She was used to being around noblemen, who were usually varying degrees of short and shorter, and tended to be quite thin and frail from the pollution of the cities. At six feet, Jamila was a grotesquely tall woman among the rich, towering over them all. But this man had her by almost a foot.
His hard forearms flexed beneath the thick slave bands he wore. He had dense sleeves of tattoos down his arms. Nobles had given up tattoos long ago as a perverse, disgusting form of body modification. She usually felt the same way about them, but on him, they were extraordinary. Detailed tropical forest scenes with vibrant colors and animals she’d never seen. He only wore loose pants, showing off his chest and tattoos.
When she could close her gaping mouth, she asked, “Father, what’s going on here?” She kept her voice as neutral as possible. Disagreeing with her father was never a good idea. If he knew how much she abhorred slavery, he would probably surround her with slaves.
“You need a bodyguard. Someone to protect you and keep you in the house while I’m away.”
She swallowed, and tried to think of a good way to wiggle out of this little disaster. “But Father, what could possibly encourage a slave, a criminal most likely, to defend his captor?”
The weasel man spoke. His voice was high pitched and squeaky. “Simple. If you die, they die.”
She raised a scornful eyebrow. “For some, slavery is a worse fate than death. I’ve met many slaves who would die to escape their torment.” She turned to her father. “Daddy, I don’t think this is a good idea. It could get me killed.”
Jamila resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She doubted she was in enough danger to need a bodyguard. This was probably a ploy to get a spy on the senator's side. He didn't want her going out and partying. Last year he couldn't have cared less but this was election year, and he was more paranoid than ever about their image.
He shook his head, his stubborn chin set. “If you die, it would be a fate worse than death for them. The poison that would be released into their system would eat at their insides for over a month before it finally killed them. There is no cure. It’s a very slow, agonizing way to go. But if they accept, and keep you alive, they get a warm, soft bed, as much food as they can eat, baths, new clothes, and any entertainment they escort you to. All they have to do is follow a child around. It’s not a bad deal.”
She tensed. Jamila hated being called a child. It was a sure sign her father was trying to put her in her place and force his will on her. She was twenty-four and far past the need for a babysitter.
It was clear that some of these men were dying for a chance to be a high class servant. Some of the slaves were salivating. Not that she could blame them. They were thin and frail. A few even had bloated bellies—a sure sign of malnutrition. Couldn’t this slaver spare one nutrition bar a day to keep them from appearing like they could drop dead at any second? And they were definitely beaten often.
“Well, daughter? Examine them. Choose.”
She rolled her eyes. “Most hardly look fit enough for any work, let alone being a bodyguard.”
In fact, there was only one that was fit for that kind of duty. Glancing at his ridged body and the angry set of his jaw, she seriously doubted he’d be grateful if she chose him. However, it was her one chance to save him from some other horrible person. Other nobles would take one look at his handsome, stubborn face and have him beaten.
She walked down the line, pretending to consider them. The men didn’t get better upon closer inspection. They were even more malnourished than she’d suspected. Some could barely stay on their feet, swaying back and forth, their eyes glazed over. Others smelled awful, as if they couldn’t hold their bowel movements.
She stepped in front of the large man, who was chained in the middle of the line. “Tell me about this one? Judging by the others, you must not have had him very long. He’s still fit and not diseased.” She glanced at her father. “Unless you want to spend an incredible amount of money fixing one of these poor creatures, it would have to be this man.”
Her father arched a brow at the slaver, who immediately started his sales pitch. “I don’t know about that one. I brought him at your request, but he’s a recently captured cyborg. Could be trouble. However, he’s been docile. He’s perfect for a bodyguard. A martial arts expert. Intelligent. Obedient.”
The prisoner’s head shot up to glower at the trader, and his electric blue irises seemed to glow. Jamila rolled her eyes. That was the scowl of one obedient criminal to be sure.
“He won’t be any trouble if he hopes to live. He’s lucky he wasn’t executed for abandoning his post.”
The man’s gaze shot to hers and she jumped. No slave should dare to meet his mistress’s eyes. It would get him beaten or executed. Her reaction caught her father’s attention.
“What are you doing? Don’t you dare meet my daughter’s eyes.”
The glare he gave Jamila’s father was enough to send a shiver down her spine. It was the expression of a killer. A dangerous man. The slaver stomped down his line of pitiful souls and shoved his electric guard stick in the slave’s belly. He grunted and doubled over but didn’t go down. She gaped at him. Those things had enough voltage to knock a man unconscious and he barely moved. She shivered. Cyborgs were powerful. It wasn’t a good idea to keep one as a slave. Especially one that had escaped before.
They were genetically engineered to be faster and smarter than humans and were immune to almost any illness. But unlike normal genetically engineered people, most of a cyborg's joints and bones were reinforced with metal and they were supposed to have some sort of computer enhancing their brains that could put even gen engineered intelligence to shame. Their nanobots helped to speed healing even further. None of that should have increased his ability to resist pain. In fact he was probably more sensitive to everything. What was done to them to make them so resilient?
It wasn’t a question she could voice in this room. Her father was against genetic engineering and body enhancements. She couldn’t believe he’d considered this man to guard her. Though, he was a slave, and her father probably figured that was a cyborg’s rightful place if they had to exist.
“Well, Father, this has to be the one. He’s the only one fit for any kind of work.”
Her father snorted. “A bit of a stubborn creature. You’ll have to tell me if he exhibits any willfulness. He’ll have to be punished for it.”
Jamila nodded, but couldn’t manage to say anything. If she opened her mouth she’d probably tell him he was a bastard for wanting to beat a man who had every right to be “willful.”
“How much?” He and the slaver started haggling over the price. Her father was a cheap man, and a hard bargainer. He’d likely get the slave for less than he was worth.
She examined her new acquisition while they bickered. He gave off dangerous vibes that set the hair on the back of her neck on end. No one would mess with this man without facing death. He shifted his stance and rolled his shoulders, displaying fine muscles in his chest. He definitely wasn’t what she was used to. There wasn’t a feminine feature on his face. His angular jaw was clenched as he stared arrogantly forward, instead of looking down at the ground as he was supposed to. Though, that rule probably wouldn’t apply to him. A bodyguard couldn’t stare at his feet all day.
Jamila’s gaze fell to his tattooed arms and she couldn’t resist touching the colorful flesh. Would it feel different than normal skin? She’d never seen anyone with tattoos up close. They were beautiful. She ran her hand along his warm forearm, examining them, and he tensed. When her gaze moved back to his face he was staring down at her and flashed her a crooked smile that made her stomach flip. She removed her hand and stepped away.
“If you don’t gain some manners, my father is going to have you beaten. I can’t stop him,” she whispered.
His gaze slid down her body, male appreciation showing on his face as he scanned her from head to toe. She rolled her eyes. He was sure to get hit often. Would he try to hurt her? It wouldn’t surprise her. The man was a criminal, arrogant, and impossibly stubborn. He would probably think her father would free him if he could gain an advantage over him. Such as holding his daughter hostage. Did the slave know what his bands could do if he vexed her father? They could cause more agony than any whipping.
“I’m not afraid of a little pain. It’s worth it to watch such a fine woman.” His gaze rested on her nipples, hard from the cold. She had the absurd impulse to cross her arms over her breasts. The gods only knew why. The sheerness of her robe was indecent to annoy her father, but plenty of men had seen her topless. Her breasts were probably the most famous ones in the galaxy. That’s what happened when you became a drunken party girl who flashed nosy paparazzi while stumbling out of a courtroom. She suppressed a flinch at the memory. She lived to rebel, but the year after her mother’s suicide had been a horrible one. She didn’t remember most of it.
Jamila shouldn’t have been surprised that he spoke to her. He wasn’t a normal slave, and clearly hadn’t been in the trade long enough to know any better. Most didn’t speak at all unless they were asked a direct question. She’d been in some households where slaves’ tongues were removed if they broke the rule. She shuddered. She’d have to teach him some hard and fast rules or he was going to end up dead.
Maybe her father would let her free him some day. As soon as the notion came she dismissed it. It wasn’t done, and even if she did, as a cyborg he’d go right to one of the Haven districts where the genetically engineered and enhanced people were forced to live. If he wasn’t detained or executed by the government. He’d probably have a better life with her.
“Father, if we’re done, I’d like to take this man to bathe.” Her gaze slid to the slave. “Sorry, but you stink, I’m sure due to these others and the terrible conditions you’re likely kept in.”
The slave nodded. She was sure he could smell himself, and the people around him. Cyborgs were supposed to have a heightened sense of smell.
Jamila’s father flashed a tight lipped smile. “Not yet, daughter. We haven’t settled on a price, and I must speak to your slave alone before he begins his duties. He needs specific instructions and some knowledge of how this household is run. I can’t have him being as blatantly offensive as he’s been so far. Then I will call a servant to take him to you. You’re dismissed.”
Great, she could go back to bed.
After what seemed like hours of haggling, the senator had finally settled his price with the slave owner. Galen stood there the whole time, attempting not to yawn and roll his eyes. Why had he agreed to do this? Of all the missions, on all the planets in the galaxy, this was what he’d picked. But he was one of the best at subterfuge, so it made sense. The job hadn’t even begun and he already regretted taking it. Though the senator’s sexy daughter would probably make it more fun. There was something about her. Galen couldn’t quite explain it.
She was sad. And clearly fed up with her father. Not that Galen could blame her. The man was a blowhard. The classic politician. But why was she depressed? No immediate answer came to mind. What could possibly be wrong in the spoiled, little, purebred girl’s happy life?
The slaver pulled a remote from his back pocket and hit the release on the chains that bound Galen to the others. There was a crash as they hit the floor and Galen stepped out of the line. None of the slaves tried to flee. They stared at the ground, silent and subdued. Had all the fight been beaten out of these people? He hadn’t been among them long enough to know. The trader had been instructed to sell him as soon as possible. That he was dangerous.
Not that the creep was going to mention that to the senator. Even authorized cyborg dealers were greedy little fucks. One day it would be his downfall. If he sold a slave he claimed was perfectly well behaved and it happened to kill someone, the trader would likely go to trial and be executed. But it didn’t seem to matter to him as long as he made plenty of money to feed his expanding waistline.
The senator didn’t even spare him a glance as he pressed his thumb to the credit scanner. “Sit down, cyborg.”
It was on the tip of Galen’s tongue to tell him where he could shove his uppity attitude. Thankfully, he’d learned that thinking before you spoke was a better idea. So he sat.
The slaver and his remaining product filed out of the room. “Odious toad,” the senator murmured under his breath.
Galen arched an eyebrow. Maybe Cyrus Clearborne did have some good qualities. Or at least knew what made a person a son of a bitch.
He finally looked up. “What is your name?”
“Galen.” He didn’t add anything more. Most low born people no longer had last names. Identification was so instantaneous that the government felt it was a waste. They were all numbers to them.
“Well, Galen, if you fail me I’ll turn you over to the government. As long as you keep my daughter safe, we’ll have no problems. She means the world to me, and has no idea how much danger she is in. Most threats to her are idle, but we have had some that have become very specific. They are including details of places she's been. Pictures of her coming and going from shops. There has even been one attempt on her life that was thwarted by my own guards. She knows nothing about it, and you're not allowed to tell her. While my staff investigates this new threat, you’ll be responsible for making sure she’s safe at all times. That girl better not even get a splinter while under your care, or we’ll have to re-evaluate your place in life.”
Galen nodded. He knew how it was going to be. It was what he’d been sent for. But he doubted the man’s love for his daughter. He had no caring note in his voice when he spoke about her. The majority of the new threats his daughter was getting were from Galen's own people, but word of these pictures of her worried him. His people hadn't been sending those.
“I also have additional tasks for you. My only child has a bit of a rebellious streak.”
That was putting it lightly. There probably wasn’t a thing that girl hadn’t done, and the whole galaxy had probably seen her do it.
“I’d like you to keep her out of embarrassing situations. No partying, no flashing the cameras, no drug use or drinking, no getting arrested, and no sex. The voters already think she’s a whore, and I think she spends way too much time in bed with too many different men. I’m going to marry her off, and I’d like for some of the horrible rumors to fade before the wedding, so the groom isn’t bombarded with stories about the men she’s been ‘dating.’ Elections are next year. I need this girl’s reputation to become, and stay, sparkling clean until then.”
Galen hadn’t expected that. How was he supposed to keep a well-known party girl from doing what she wanted? Especially since she could threaten to have him killed if he didn’t do what she said.
“Now, I know she’s likely to threaten you, but you’ll have to hold your ground. As long as she doesn’t come to me with allegations of rape, I’ll assume you’re doing what I’ve asked, and give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“And if she comes to you with allegations of rape? Which she’ll probably do as soon as she figures out it’s the only thing that will get me off her back.”
A harsh edge entered the man’s voice. The first sign of emotion Galen had seen. “I’ll have her examined. If you have raped her, you’ll be castrated and handed to the government.”
Ouch. Don’t fuck boss’s daughter was going straight to the top of his no-no list. That was a damned shame. She was a fine piece. Probably wouldn’t touch him anyway. Well-bred women were like that. They seemed to think that genetic engineering and cybernetic systems could be passed like some disease, when in reality, a team of doctors had to be very determined to turn you into what Galen was. He didn’t want to lose his cock for some slutty senator’s daughter anyway. He’d already have one scar from this mission, he didn’t need any more. The barcode burned into his flesh might come out with cosmetic surgery, but there was no way to be sure.
“Do you understand, slave?”
Cyrus raked a hand through his graying hair before crossing his arms over his chest. He was in remarkable shape for his age and station in life. Most nobles were thin and frail. There were few that were healthy enough to gain weight, but Cyrus maintained his appearance. Why? “I want you to comprehend how much danger she’s in. My political rivals aren’t above having us both killed.”
“Then why don’t you have a bodyguard?”
“I have several assigned to me, like the rest of the senate. And she’s no doubt safe while I’m here. But I’m leaving soon. Not only does she have my political rivals to deal with but she’s also generally disliked by everyone.” The senator nodded. “Now if you’ll go with Louisa, you can bathe, and attend to my daughter at once.”
Jamila wasn’t able to go back to sleep after her encounter with the slave. Was her father threatening him now, or giving him instructions? The door to her rooms slid open and a line of servants filed in. She pushed herself up.
“What are you doing in here?”
They marched to her closet, gathered a row of clothing, and left the room without answering her. “Hello? What are you doing?”
The slave appeared at the entrance. “Get up, and get dressed. You’re moving. I’m Galen, by the way, so you don’t have to continue to call me ‘slave’ as I’m sure your father will.”
“What?” Outraged, she jumped off the bed. He couldn’t just move her wherever he pleased. Her foot got tangled in the thick blankets and she would have tumbled to the ground if he hadn’t grabbed her.
“I can’t guard you here. I need to be close. We need adjoining rooms.”
She shook her head and pushed away from him. “That’s unacceptable. I enjoy my privacy, Galen. I won’t be sharing a room with you.” She couldn’t bear to have him that close. He was beautiful, and virile, and so much more attractive than any male she’d been near. But after her recent escapades she was taking a man break.
He arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t say sharing a room, I said adjoining rooms. And you don’t have a choice. It’s my job to protect you, and considering what will happen to me if I fail, I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
She shook her foot to untangle it and stumbled away from him as she broke free. “Well, I’ll go to my father about this. It’s inappropriate for us to share a room. He’ll object.”
He flashed her a tight lipped smile. “You’d be wrong. I cleared it with him. Don’t worry, princess, you’ll be settled in another room by the end of the day, and you won’t even have to do any of the work to get there.”
Jamila rolled her eyes. “That’s not the point. I like this room.” She didn’t really care. All of the rooms were the same. There was no reason to object to moving, except that she didn’t want to share a room with this man. She wouldn’t be able to get away from him if he lived right next to her.
She opened her mouth to argue with him, and paused. Maybe she should see this as an opportunity. Her father had only bought him to keep her safe. What if she could get him to admit to her father that he couldn’t manage it? She’d chased off plenty of others. Tutors, men, governesses.
She glanced at Galen. None seemed as formidable as he did though, and it was already proven that he was stubborn. Also, she had to consider if she could do it without getting him killed. She didn’t want that, no matter how pushy and unwanted he was in her life. Still, she could annoy the hell out of him, and maybe he’d crack. Then she could ask her father to release him.
His eyes narrowed, as if he could see what was going on in her head. She smiled, trying to appear every inch the sweet Daddy’s Girl. It took all her will not to roll her eyes. She wasn’t good at playing the innocent sweetheart.
“Actually, I think that would be a good idea. I could use a servant always at my beck and call.”
He crossed his arms over his wide chest. “I’m not a servant. I won’t do anything but be your bodyguard. “
She smirked. “Now, I’m sure my father would object to that. You’re a slave, after all. You’re supposed to do what I say. I’m sure you were told what orders you should ignore, but I bet my father didn’t say I couldn’t order you around.”
She flinched internally. She hated to be a bitch to the man, but the sooner she could get rid of him, the better. If she had to be horribly spoiled she would.
“Now, if you’ll help the servants move the bed, I’d like to get back in it. I was up late.”
“No, you’re done sleeping. You were awake when we walked in.”
How dare he? He was going to order her around now? Of all the pompous, arrogant men she’d ever met, he was quickly becoming the worst.
“I’ll sleep when I please, and if I want to lounge around and spend my days in bed you can’t stop me.”
He bent over and tossed her over his shoulder, provoking more of her ire. Jamila squeaked and pounded his back with her fists. She tried to straighten, so he’d be forced to let her go, but he shifted her so she couldn’t hold her own weight. She collapsed against his hard back, cursing him.
“You, find her something to wear, and get her into it.” He strode toward her bathroom, set her on her feet, and pushed her inside. “Shower, do whatever other girly thing you have to do. Hair, makeup, what have you, and get dressed. Don’t make me come in there after you. You won’t like it if I have to dress you.”
She rolled her eyes but the heat in his voice made her insides quiver. Somehow she doubted she’d dislike it if he dressed her. Though she’d rather have him undress her. His dominance sent a little shiver down her spine. She should have found it repugnant, but it was thrilling. No nobleman would have treated her like that. And she would have fed him her fist if he dared.
She shook her head and turned on the shower. She glanced over her shoulder and found him watching her, his appreciative gaze on her backside. She straightened, stomped to the door, and slammed it in his face. “When someone has my clothes, you can open that again. Why don’t you do something useful instead of watching my ass?” she shouted.
“But, princess, it’s my job to watch your ass.”
She kicked the door with her bare foot and then cursed as pain shot up her leg. She could hear his deep, robust chuckle through the closed barrier. Damn that man. Five seconds into his company and she already wanted him gone. At least the fact that he was being pushy would help her feel less guilty.
She threw off her robe, stepped into the shower, and started her morning routine. Or, rather, her afternoon routine. She was rarely up this early. It was only nine. She yawned and stretched as the warm water rushed over her body.
How dare her father do this to her? Despite the many death threats made, her father had never bothered to assign her a bodyguard. And no one ever acted on threats against her, even though she was out often among noblemen and peasants alike. But many people tried to murder her father. He was trying to trap her, like he had her mother. Panic clawed at her insides.
Was she becoming her mother? Before she’d committed suicide, she’d stayed in bed constantly; she drank and took pills prescribed by the family doctor. Jamila dismissed the idea. She stayed up late, she deserved to sleep in, even if she could barely sleep at all anymore. And her mother drank on the quiet; she didn’t party with her friends. By the end of her life she’d barely had any friends left. She’d stopped going out with them.
The whole door shook under the force of the knock from the other side and she jumped.
“What’s taking so long, princess?”
She rolled her eyes. It hadn’t even been twenty minutes. She had gotten sucked into her thoughts, but it hadn’t been that long. “I’ll be out when I’m out. I’m not done yet.”
“I’m just saying, for someone who probably bathed yesterday, you’re taking an awful long time. You can’t possibly be that dirty.”
Jamila glared at the door but shut off the water and stepped out of the shower stall. He had a point. A normal shower usually took ten minutes. The chemical spray got you clean instantly, and in richer households like this one, a conditioning agent appropriate for hair and body followed. The water ran blue until you were clean. She’d been standing in clear, fresh water for about ten minutes. The de-humidifier kicked on along with the drier, evaporating the water while it dried her hair and body.
She opened the door and poked her head out. “Now can one of the servants hand me clothes?”
He smirked and pulled them out from behind his back.
Jamila snatched them from his hands and shut the door to get dressed. When she stepped out of the bathroom most of the contents of her room were gone. The only thing that remained was the furniture, which was the same in every room, so she didn’t need it.
She put her hands on her hips. “Now what?”
“Do you have any plans for the day?”
“Not until this afternoon. So what am I supposed to do until then?”
He shrugged. “It’s your house. Surely you have something you can do.”
Doubtful. She could go shopping, that was about it. All the servants in the house were busy, so there would be no bomber simulations over some alien planet. If she watched the news, she’d likely be inundated with reports of her father, and herself. In the winter there wasn’t much to do. She was in for a boring day.
Jamila spent the day reading with her ever present guard examining her. Always sitting there like some black cloud. But now it was five in the afternoon. It was a whole different playing field. As soon as the sun set on Larus, the nightlife in the Forbidden District of the city started. Her father had warned her to stay away from there, but she wasn’t about to listen. She had a special errand to run before a night of partying kicked off. Now if she could get rid of her black cloud. She was sure he would never approve an outing, particularly one not only into the Forbidden District, but Haven as well which she couldn’t allow him to know about.
Galen was currently lounging on his bed in the room next to hers. The door was open so he could keep an eye on her from his reclined position on the bed. She stood and walked over to the door. His eyes were closed, and he appeared completely relaxed. Was the idiot sleeping? It seemed too good to be true. She quietly started to shut the door when he spoke.
“What are you doing, Jamila?”
“So you’re not asleep. Great bodyguard you are, lying around with your eyes closed.”
“I’m probably more aware of everything asleep than you would be on your best day awake. And since I wasn’t sleeping I don’t see why you care. Believe me, if someone had come in here, I would have intercepted them long before they could reach you. So I’ll ask again: what are you doing?”
Annoyance shot through her. And she’d assumed this would be easy. “I need to dress for dinner. I don’t plan on giving you a show.”
He opened one eye and peered at her, seeming to accuse her with his gaze. After all, she’d given everyone else a show. “I’ll keep my eyes closed while you change.”
She snorted. “As if I’d trust you.”
Both eyes sprang open. “Princess, you’re not my type. And I have a job to do. You don’t have to worry about me spying. My concern is that these walls are almost completely soundproof. Even for me, and I have excellent hearing.”
She didn’t doubt it. Cyborgs had excellent everything. She dragged her gaze down his body. She hadn’t quite believed that until now, but staring at him, he was definitely fine everywhere. She shook her head.
“But you can still hear?”
She cut him off by closing the door. She smirked. Mission accomplished. She made quick work hacking the locking mechanism as she’d done in the past. It wouldn’t keep him out, that was for sure—he had enough strength to tear a hole in the wall—but it might buy her a few extra seconds.
She’d actually changed in the bathroom a few minutes ago, and she’d opened her window to the bitterly cold wind in preparation for this moment. She wouldn’t make a sound as she shrugged out of her robe and slipped out the window and into the fake grass. One good thing about him moving her to this room was that it was on the first floor. She didn’t have to do any climbing to escape.
The doorknob rattled as she straddled the ledge of the window.
He banged on the door with his ham handed fist as she slipped out and dashed for the shuttle bay. His move had also put her closer to it than before. She wished she’d thought of switching rooms earlier. She had her pick of the entire Temple. Especially when her father was gone. She’d moved rooms five times in two years, and had never considered that one. She’d been a fool.
She rushed into the shuttle bay and hit the remote start on the jumper she usually used. It purred to life and the activation sequence started. It took two minutes for the auto pilot to do safety checks and heat the engine. Hopefully Mr. Hot Bodyguard wouldn’t make it out of his room before she’d taken off.
She stepped into the shuttle. But just in case he did… “Computer, close all the doors and go to full lock down.”
“Affirmative.” The deadpan, digital, female voice said.
“How long until you’re able to fly?”
“One minute, thirty-six seconds.”
She nodded. Good, he couldn’t crack the door controls in that amount of time. “Set autopilot for the Haven District. Area five.”
Now all she had to do was sit back and relax, and wait the thirty-eight minutes it took to get to the city.
“Passenger, Galen Marduk is asking for entrance. Should it be granted?”
There was a thump on the outside of the ship and it rocked slightly.
“Minor hull damage.”
“What? Holy hell. What is that mad man doing?” That wasn’t possible. He couldn’t have dinged the ship with his fists.
“This vessel was kicked with an enforced boot. My readings show the culprit cannot be human. Possible hostile.”
Damn right he was hostile. He damaged her jumper.
“What? Computer, I didn’t ask for anything.”
The doors at the back of the shuttle started to lower. He must have managed to get them open. How was that possible? “Computer, override and close the doors.”
Fuck. What now? She had to go. People were counting on her. She had to get to the Haven District. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to work his way into the piloting systems as quickly. She’d have to take him along for the ride.
“Computer, is the autopilot still set to the Haven District?”
“Good. Shut down all access to the piloting array until I say otherwise.”
Galen stomped into the ship and the doors automatically closed behind him. “Computer, get those back open.”
“Unable to comply, this shuttle is leaving the bay. The doors must stay closed. It is recommended that all occupants sit down and strap in.”
Jamila grinned at him. “I’d do what the lady says. Liftoff in these old shuttles can be a bit rocky, but I think they’re more reliable than the newer models. That old saying ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to’ definitely applies.”
“Computer, override the launch sequence.”
“Unable to comply. Autopilot is set. The piloting array is offline until Jamila Christianna Clearborne reinitializes it.”
Galen glared at Jamila like he was tempted to walk over and strangle her. “Dammit! Unlock the system, princess.”
“Nope. I have something I have to do, and I intend to do it. I don’t have a problem with you coming along for the ride. So sit down because—”
The force of the launch sent Galen tumbling to the back of the ship. He hit the doors with a loud clang and she flinched. If his boot could dent the hull, what could his whole body hitting the doors do? Luckily, they didn’t fly open.
He groaned and rubbed the back of his head and she smirked at him. “Aren’t you glad the doors close automatically for launch? You would have hit the floor of the bay awfully hard. Even your thick skull would have been damaged.”
He stood, and clenched and released his fists a few times before he stomped toward her. She realized she had one pissed off man on her hands a second too late. He hit the release on her harness, grabbed her upper arms, and hauled her out of the seat.
“Well, at least this gives us a chance to chat. From now on, you’re going to do as I say. I don’t want to die doing this job. I know you’re a little bitch, and you probably don’t care what happens to me, but I’d like to keep breathing.”
“I go out all the—”
“Don’t interrupt me,” he shouted over her. “I don’t care what you normally do. I’m responsible for you now, and your father said to keep you out of trouble.”
“I’m twenty-four. I don’t need my daddy telling me what to do. I’m a grown woman.”
“Then get a fucking job and leave so he can’t boss you around anymore. Until then you’re my problem.”
He dropped her back into the chair and raked a hand through his hair. His words stung, even though they shouldn’t. She didn’t know him at all. It shouldn’t matter if he thought she was his obligation and a spoiled little bitch. She was always someone’s problem. Her father had just decided to pass his dilemma off to someone else.
She faced the console and checked the readouts for anything strange. He had kicked the shuttle and crashed into the doors, after all.
“Turn us around, Jamila.”
She rolled her eyes but refused to look at him. “Nope.”
Somehow Galen said something that upset her. He wasn’t sure what part. Probably the bitch part. He was sure no one had ever dared call her a bitch before. He sighed in frustration. Keeping one little slip of a woman out of trouble shouldn’t be this difficult. Didn’t she realize the danger she was in? Apparently not, since the computer silently told him they were headed for the Haven District and probably the Forbidden District next to it, where her father was incredibly disliked. There had been riots on the streets over his possible reelection. To top it off, that was a dangerous area for anyone ever. It was violent on a daily basis, and not just because of recent riots. There were gangs, thieves, rapists, and murderers. And then a normal class of people who were down on their luck, and had to steal to keep food in their families’ mouths.
He knew how dangerous it could be. He’d grown up in a place exactly like it. Everyone was doing something nefarious. There was a fine line between good and bad when your children were starving, and you couldn’t get medical care for them. Life was hard. And when you put the daughter of the people’s greatest enemy at their fingertips? Eventually Jamila’s luck would run out.
But why would she go to the Haven District? Was she even allowed entrance? Some people were, but that was usually workers who had to pass through to get to their jobs.
Unfortunately, he had no choice but to go along. The computer wasn’t recognizing his commands. He’d been silently trying to take the system back with his implants and it wasn’t working. Well, he could keep her alive for one evening out. Her father was crazy if he thought he could keep her indoors all the time. However, Galen would have to try and keep her in the districts she was allowed in. Shopping and upscale clubs, not the rank bars her file said she frequented in Forbidden.
Why did she like going there, anyway? The bars she went to were likely holes in the wall and dirtier than a sewer. Plus, you could only get poor people drugs there. Surely she stuck to the prescription stuff. That had been her mother’s downfall. But then, maybe she wanted to do anything to make her daddy crazy.
She still hadn’t glanced at him. He sighed again and sat down. He didn’t strap in quite yet. He’d been caught off guard when they’d taken off; he’d been too focused on her. This poor little ship wouldn’t knock him on his ass if he were paying attention.
He rolled his shoulders. The silence was uncomfortable. He hadn’t meant to upset her. He should have chosen his words more carefully. She already exhibited all the symptoms of depression. She lay in bed till all hours of the day, but she didn’t sleep—instead she stared blankly at the ceiling. It was how he’d found her this morning, probably how she’d been when her father had called her to him to inspect the slaves. And even though she’d read most of the afternoon, he had caught her staring into space a few times.
Her file said she’d found her mother after she’d committed suicide. That must have done something to her. Before that she’d supposedly been the model of the perfect daughter, on her way to a high powered government job. She’d had her pick of colleges if she’d chosen to go. But he noticed she never smiled. In those pictures before her mother’s suicide, she was as stoic as her father. After, at least she’d pretended to smile. Even if it never reached her eyes. In fact, he couldn’t recall a single picture in her file where her smile lit her face. It was all pretend. He felt sorry for her. In spite of having a shit life, at least he’d had some happiness, before the government took it all away. Since then, all he’d seen was blood and death and a corrupt system that now wanted him, and everyone like him—those cyborgs they couldn’t control—dead.
He took a deep breath. That’s right. Remember why you’re here. Don’t get sucked into this girl’s problems. You have your own. You’re trying to save lives. Ignore her.
But he couldn’t. Not entirely. “What did I say to upset you? I expected you to get pissed and even with me, not sulk.”
She lifted her head and met his gaze. There was a flash of fire in her eyes and he couldn’t fight down a surge of triumph. He couldn’t stand it when he could cow people. He wanted her to fight back, even if it made his job that much harder. In spite of cyborgs being designed to subjugate people, they seemed to prefer it when people argued and fought back. Part of them always looked for a challenge—especially when it came to potential mate. Only people with fire would be any fun. It was probably more basic than that. Only tough women would create strong children. He restrained a growl. Dammit, he wasn’t looking for a mate. He wasn’t willing to risk his dick to possess her. She was needed to achieve their goals. That was all.
“I’m always an obligation for my father, but I don’t give a damn what you think of me, Galen. I’m your job. It’s your job to protect me. I’m the only thing you have to worry about aside from dying if you fail. I happen to have a life, and I intend to keep on living it no matter what you say or think. I’m not your problem. You might even earn your freedom if you’ll stop bitching and keep me alive. Now shut up. I’d like to spend the rest of this journey in peace.” She spat at him.
He arched an eyebrow as she buckled her harness, leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes. So it hadn’t been the bitch comment. Her outburst brought half a dozen questions to his mind. “Has your father really called you a burden?”
She frowned, but didn’t open her eyes. “Yes. Many times. Me and Mother both. We weren’t proper enough. No matter what my mother did, she couldn’t please him. She had darker skin, and spoke with an accent she couldn’t shake. She was born on Earth, you know? In a place they used to call Turkey. War destroyed all governments on Earth, but she’d still point out her country on an old map. She always said she would love to show me the ancient architecture. Some ruins still stand from those times. Or at least they were standing last time she was there. But I’ll never see it. Earth is too dangerous now. And because of my father’s constant complaining, she’ll never see it again either.”
Galen examined her. She still hadn’t opened her eyes. In fact, they were squeezed tight. “You blame him for your mother’s suicide.” It was a statement, not a question. He could tell by her bitter tone.
“Of course I blame him. If she hadn’t been such a ‘burden’ to him, with her thick accent and her different ways, she might have wanted to keep living. If he’d stood by her while the media judged her, she might have felt wanted. Apparently, the love of a daughter isn’t enough. She needed her husband, and he failed her.”
And she’d failed Jamila. That was how Galen saw it, anyway. She’d been weak, and left her daughter to endure a man who would never think she was good enough.
“And what does your father think of you?”
“My grades were never good enough. I was the highest ranking student at my boarding school, in all fields of study. But because I wasn’t highest on the planet, he said I could still do better. I didn’t get accepted to the one school he wanted me to go to. He hated that I did art. I danced, and drew. My mother said I was the best painter she’d seen, after her own father, and that one day I would surpass even him. And of course there are my looks. I'm too tall, too curvy and I’m the image of my mother with the exception of his ice blue eyes. And now? I will never do anything right ever again. Oh, I could turn my behavior around, but it would never fix me in his eyes.”
Jamila was beautiful to him. How anyone could find her exotic appearance appalling was beyond him. “You said you did art? Past tense?”
“Yes. After I found her there was no beauty left in the world. I haven’t bothered since. I haven’t even felt the urge. When I go out to a club I go to drink, and have sex. I’ve danced a few times, but nothing like what I would do artistically.”
There was a twinge in his chest. He felt sorry for this gorgeous, spoiled creature. A gilded cage. That was what she lived in. She couldn’t be who her father wanted her to be. She couldn’t go on being who her mother had wanted her to be. So she did what she could to piss off the last parent she had. She was a twenty-four-year-old woman going through a sixteen-year-old’s rebellion. It should have sickened him, but she had her reasons.
“Oh, and Galen? That comment earlier about getting a job and moving away? I’m not allowed. The voters wouldn’t like their senator’s daughter working. Only the rich, well-bred families vote. My working would mean he doesn’t make enough money to keep me in luxury. Besides, I’m supposed to marry, and produce children. A mother can’t work. We’ve surpassed the age of space travel and gone right back to the fucking Dark Ages.”
She was right, of course. Most well-bred women, though educated, still didn’t have careers because everyone would assume their husbands couldn’t keep them. Society saw no personal fulfillment in a woman having a career. She would never get out from under her father’s thumb unless she married, and then she’d be oppressed by a husband. Some lily white dandy who was daintier than her. A man who wouldn’t be fit to spit polish her shoes. Maybe Galen was doing her a favor. He almost laughed. She certainly wouldn’t see it that way when all was said and done.
She finally opened her eyes and glanced his way. Her eyes were shiny, but no tears had escaped to spill down her cheeks. “Why am I telling you all this?”
He shrugged. “Maybe because I was the first person to ask.”
She bit her lip and nodded. “Yes, no one has ever wanted to know anything about me. Most of my friends like me for my money, and enjoy pissing off their parents at least as much as I enjoy annoying my father.”
He smiled. “Or maybe I made you so angry, you were willing to talk about anything to keep me quiet.” It was bullshit. If angering her had any effect, it got her to drop her guard. He had a lot of information on her now. Information he’d probably use to hurt her. He hoped he would never have to.
She batted her lashes at him. “Well, Galen, we’ve talked so much about me. What about you? What deep, dark, tortured past lurks behind those blue peepers? What are your secrets?”
Galen shook his head. If she knew all the things he kept from her, she’d have him executed, along with the rest of his people. But could he reveal a small part of his past without giving her enough to get himself killed? Maybe. He hadn’t shared it with many people. It wasn’t something he liked to talk about. He considered his options. Her gaze seemed to plead with him to share something. She was vulnerable right now. She needed to connect. Maybe if he gave her something small, she would feel closer to him. It might make his job easier. Both his slavery and his actual mission.
He shrugged, trying for nonchalance. In reality the wounds he was about to reveal were nowhere near healed. And every moment he spent on this mission made them that much more raw.
“There isn’t much to tell. I was in the military. When I came back, my wife claimed I’d changed, and it wasn’t for the better. She left me. Took our daughter with her. I abandoned my post to search for them, and later was taken captive by the slave trader when I was caught stealing food in a district a lot like Forbidden. He knew I would make him good money. Granted, he was only supposed to deal cyborgs the government was willing to part with. He broke the law by selling me.”
About eighty percent of that was a lie. She’d never notice. Cyborgs were the government’s dirty little secret. People knew they were created, but not for what purposes and against their will. He’d been trained to lie with almost no signs—only another one of his kind would have been able to tell that he was bullshitting. He hadn’t been in the military. He’d been trained by their government, and was better than your average soldier. He’d never looked for his wife until much later in life. He’d been kidnapped by people like him, and deprogrammed. He was a thief to be sure. Since his deprogramming, he’d stolen food, medical supplies, fuel, the government’s deep dark secrets they didn’t want anyone to know about…but it hadn’t landed him here. He’d deliberately placed himself with that slaver.
The only part he hadn’t twisted was his wife and daughter leaving him, and the reason why. He hadn’t even known she was pregnant when he’d been taken. She hadn’t gotten the nerve to tell him yet. Having a baby wasn’t a good thing. They couldn’t have gotten medical care for either of them, and it was another mouth to feed.
But it didn’t matter. He would never know his daughter and never had to take care of her. He hadn’t been worried about his wife once they’d fucked up his mind. He’d been changed, and when he was sent back to her, he’d been sickeningly loyal to the government. He’d also been aggressive, dominant, dangerous… He could see every little lie she told, and she’d held some pretty damning secrets of her own.
He shook himself. He didn’t want to dwell on his wife leaving him. At the time, it hadn’t mattered. Nothing but serving the Federation of Planets had mattered. Now, thinking about it hurt. As soon as he’d been able to remember who he was, he’d been in physical pain from his loss. No matter how hard he’d tried, he never could find Amanda, or baby Charlise, who would be far from a child by now. At twenty-seven, she would look more like his sister than his daughter. He hadn't aged since the government had accelerated his growth. None of them had. They didn't know if it was a kind of immortality due to genetic alterations, or if one day their time would run out, and they were just being kept in fighting form
“It sounds like you could add a lot more to that.” Jamila glanced at him.
“I’m sure you could add a lot more to the story of your mother’s suicide, but you aren’t going to. You can’t bear it. And I really don’t want to tell the story of how my shitty life managed to go down the toilet.”
She bit her lip. “I’m sorry about your wife and kid. I’ve only ever lost a mother. I can’t imagine losing a child, or the person I loved.”
He stared at her for a second. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She was actually showing him compassion. It was sincere. It filled her eyes with a sad light, and the slight sheen of tears. Tears for him, a man she seemed to despise, and a woman and child she’d never met.
She laid her hand over his and squeezed.
He smiled politely, because he didn’t know what to do. “Thank you.”