Take a sneak peek at my ebook Delphinus Contract – Available from Amazon

Prologue

You have your eyes closed to your own silence. If you knew where your soul was would you rip it out?

The whispered question reverberated in the deepest recess of her mind.

“I don’t want to be here. Please. I smell burning. Fire! I need to do something. So dark…”

Every nerve ending in her body demanded a response she was powerless to produce. As the darkness receded she saw blurred shapes pass her limited field of vision and heard the clipped and commanding tones of orders being issued.

Your mind is seduced by its capacity to block everything out. Why challenge fear when it wants so badly to be your loyal companion, to sit with you in the garden?

The voice was louder now, much closer to the surface of her awareness.

“Do something. You can’t just leave me here.”

Embrace your tortured soul or I will condemn it to the abyss.

The resonance of the solitary voice skipped along her skin before plunging down her spine, electrifying her whole body.

Images and sensations flooding back, spiralling out of control. The smell of burning flesh, the feel of smoke searing her lungs, the heat of the flames and the heart-wrenching terror at the sight of her lover lying unconscious just out of reach.

“No, no, no… Jade, honey, please be okay… Stay with me…Jade!”

Chapter 1

Three days earlier

The first rule of command according to Captain Talana Xian’s former instructors was to accept the facts. If you don’t fight the moment, you might just have a chance. Responding keeps you alive. Reacting can get you and your crew killed. At the time, Talana resented the attempt to simplify the responsibilities of command to a maxim. She would never admit that she belatedly saw the wisdom behind their words. Looking in the mirror in her office, Talana knew it was time to accept exhaustion wasn’t just nipping at her heals anymore, that was yesterday, today it was gnawing on her bones.

Combing a hand through her shoulder-length black hair did little to tame the rebellious mass. Tucking it behind her ears she turned away from the site of her abnormally pale olive skin and bloodshot brown eyes.

Talana thought her reflection looked more like a woman of her mother’s age than her own youthful thirty-four years. Even her uniform wasn’t holding up to the workload. The light blue turtleneck shirt was smeared with black oil stains from her attempt to help in engineering. One sleeve was roughly pushed up to the elbow, the other bore a small tear near the wrist. Her black pants and shoes remained the only elements of respectability in her otherwise unruly appearance. Conceding her limitations, Talana decided it was time to leave the command of the Equuleus to her capable crew and retire to her quarters for some much needed rest. It was clear she had to stop fighting the fact that gaining control over the problems plaguing the ship was a desirable, yet elusive goal, for the moment at least.

Leaving her captain’s duties at the door to her quarters, Talana headed straight for the bedroom, breathing a sigh of relief at the sight of Jade curled up asleep in their bed. Though Talana would have preferred the sheets weren’t pulled all the way up so all that was visible of Jade was the spiky tufts of her dark brown hair currently streaked with red highlights to match her mood and her full lips. The command centre was where Talana was most in her element but her shared quarters with Jade was where she felt safe and secure.

As Talana reached out to place her hand on Jade’s cheek, her communicator bracelet invaded the moment with a loud beep. Although most people claimed they couldn’t live without them, Talana wished she could live just a couple of hours CB free without, of course, compromising her role as the captain of the Equuleus. Surrendering to technology and her responsibilities, Talana moved away from the bedroom and pressed the button to activate the link with far more force than required.

“Yes.”

“It’s Ensign Pudanski. Sorry to disturb you Captain but we’ve got a major problem down here.”

“That’s all? We’ve had major problems for weeks Ensign, does this really require my attention?”

“Captain, we’re losing power. There seems to be nebula gas affecting the accelerators. We’ve already dropped speed by half and may have to reduce it further. I’m really sorry, but Commander Hamilton said this can’t wait till morning.”

“We can’t afford to lose that much time. How could the nebula possibly be affecting the accelerators?” There was a long pause as Talana closed her eyes and tried to gather some semblance strength and calm. Breathe… “I’ll be there in ten minutes and Ensign, next time tell Isy to do her own dirty work and call me herself.”

Jade poked her head out from under the sheets and called sleepily from the bedroom. “Tal, what’s going on?”

“Hey, beautiful, I’m just going to clean up a bit then I have to remind Isy that she’s here to work engineering miracles not keep her captain up all night.”

“You’re leaving again? Tal, not even you can keep this up.” Jade pulled back the sheet to reveal her naked body. “Please come join me. Your crew will survive without you. I need you to come and keep me warm.” Patting the bed, Jade added, “And I need you to stop for a while, so I don’t have to worry about you.”

“I should be back soon, go back to sleep sweetie.” Talana quickly turned away, trying not to think about how comfortable the bed looked and how enticing Jade looked in it.

Standing in front of the storage unit, Talana let out her usual loud sigh when trying to choose a code to enter to shuffle a new uniform to the front. Talana still didn’t understand her crew’s desire to have so many variations on their uniform. As far as Talana was concerned, it just meant another decision to make. She’d reluctantly agreed to the different designs, but had used her captain’s prerogative to keep it to only two colour variations, light blue and black. Talana opted for the all black version of their uniform. She crossed the room to the bed and sat down to put her shoes back on. Jade encircled Talana in her arms from behind, stopping Talana from completing her task.

“I’m sorry but I can’t let you go anywhere. I’m suffering from withdrawal. We haven’t been in this bed at the same time for I don’t know how long and sleeping is all we’ve done when we’re together. Or at least I sleep, you just toss and turn and—”

Talana turned to face Jade. “You have no idea how much I want to stay but Isy wouldn’t have called me back if it wasn’t important. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Kissing Jade gently on the lips, nose and forehead, Talana whispered. “I love you, beautiful.”

“Isy and I need to have a serious talk again. How many times do I have to tell her there’s more to life than this ship and her engines. You’re both pushing too hard lately. Not every little electron out of place requires the captain’s attention,” Jade said brusquely, pulling up the sheet.

Although the words were spoken harshly, Talana knew it was born of frustration and fatigue. Isabelle Hamilton was head of engineering, second in command and, more importantly, their best friend since all three women had attended the United Defence Training Centre together over ten years ago.

“I’ll pass the message along, now go back to sleep, captain’s orders.”

“I’m too tired to argue with either of you. But as head of the Navigation Department I should tell you you’re heading in the wrong direction. You know I just spent the last twenty hours piloting through the Bendl Asteroid Belt so we could have a little extra time off before the next contract.”

“I know.”

“There’s not even a scratch on the hull.”

“I know.”

Jade let out a loud sigh. “Just come back to bed as soon as you can.” Jade curled up under the covers. “Night, Captain Gorgeous.”

Talana barely heard the goodbye. She was already contemplating how she would get through this next crisis, whatever it was. She could see only one option available to keep her body and mind going long enough to perform her duties. A detour to the doctor’s office was required. Jade was right. She was sleeping even less than normal lately and she didn’t feel even slightly revitalised when she woke up. When this latest problem was fixed, Talana knew she would have to come clean with Jade about why she was tossing and turning and why her dreams, though far from nightmares, haunted her all the same.

Leaning against the slightly curved bronze wall outside sickbay Talana accessed a hall console to check no one was inside. Pushing herself off the wall she squinting as she entered the stark white medical facility. Stepping up to the chemical dispenser Talana punched in the four digit security code and requested a Dren prick.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Doctor Galen asked.

Spinning around Talana wished she had thought to lock the door. She knew it wouldn’t have kept Mattare Galen out for long, this was her domain but at least the computer would have told her the lock was being overridden. Even as the captain it was impossible not to feel like a child with her hand in the cookie jar as Mattare marched over to the dispenser. She was an imposing figure with cropped grey hair atop an angular face and a tall, big-boned body that she kept in peak physical condition. Only Talana, Isabelle, and Jade had the courage to use the nickname “Mother Goose” to her face. Paully, her partner and part-time nurse, part-time ship’s cook was her complete opposite, with soft features, a rounded body and a friend to everyone. They were the only original members of the crew before Talana took over as captain.

“What’re you doing here? I though you didn’t do nights any more, since Paully put her foot down about your extra shifts.”

“I’m not here for small talk, Talana Xian. What chem did you just order?”

“I need a stimulant,” Talana quietly replied, “I’ve been on duty for over twenty-four hours and I didn’t get much sleep before that.” She raised her hand before Mattare could respond. “I know it’s not the answer and certainly not recommended, but my brain went to mush hours ago and apparently, I have one more crisis to deal with before I can get some rest. I’m not going to argue with you over this. I don’t have the time.” Talana turned and placed her finger under the machine and completed the process. She stared at the wall monitors that were currently set to soothing ocean images as she felt the Dren prick buzz through her body.

“Well, it’s obviously too late to argue with you,” Mattare said, placing her hands on her hips. “I can at least take comfort that you’ll regret this when it wears off and you’ll feel a lot worse than you do now. What’s more, my young captain, your guilt over doing something so stupid is going to give me mileage for a long time.”

Talana headed for the door. But walking out of sickbay before you had the doctor’s permission was always a lot easier said than done.

“And one last thing before you go, Talana Xian. Did you know the whole time I worked with Captain O’Malley, she never once took a Dren prick and she was twenty-seven years your senior. For that matter I’m over thirty years your senior and I’ve never used a Dren prick. I’ll be sure to mention your current problem-solving skills next time I talk to Shan. That way she can do the lecturing and I’ll handle the guilt trip.”

Mentioning the former captain of the Equuleus and mentor to Talana pushed the intended button. “I get the message, Mother Goose. Now that I’ve received my slap on the hand, I’ll get back to work.” Talana walked out before the doctor could make any further comment other than the exasperated sigh Talana heard as she exited.

Although Talana was sure Captain O’Malley had done many things that even Mattare didn’t know about, the doctor was right, the former captain would have had the stamina to get through days like today without the aid of synthetic stimulants. Talana wondered how things had gone from a grand quest to prove their independence, to just trying to get through another crisis. It had all seemed like such a good idea nearly six years ago. Resign from United Defence, take over as captain of the Equuleus, gather a skilled and diverse crew, including her two best friends and offer their skills and services for contract. Simple really. The problem was, simple didn’t nourish Talana’s perfectionist cravings. If her crew reached a goal, then Talana moved the goal posts. At the moment, she was loathe to admit her expectations had been pitifully reduced to the mundane aim of just getting through the day.

Talana entered engineering wondering what anomaly Isabelle had waiting for her this time. With only a skeleton crew on the grave yard shift it was easy to spot Isabelle and her recruit Emei Pudanski, huddled over a computer panel talking quietly in their usual unintelligible engineering lingo.

“Whatever it is, Isy, tell me you can fix it,” Talana said, in her best imitation of Captain O’Malley’s command voice. It had no effect on Isy but Talana was pleased to see Emei almost jump to attention. Talana remembered the day the twenty-two year old stepped onto the Equuleus a year ago as a Goldtek representative. Orphaned after a mining accident she had been working for Goldtek since she was a child. A few weeks of relative freedom overseeing a contract aboard the Equuleus and Emei didn’t want to go back to her sheltered and controlled life. Talana had been more than happy to enlist someone with Emei’s abilities.

Talana still found it amusing to see the two women together, both so in tune to each other mentally, but in appearance they were galaxies apart. Emei was petite with flawless porcelain skin and short, dark blonde hair that framed her innocent green eyes. Talana was not sure she would ever be able to send Emei on a dangerous assignment; she looked too delicate and childlike. In contrast, Isabelle’s robust personality matched her athletic build and unruly long curly hair. She tended to leave most people floundering to keep up with her purposeful stride and sharp intellect.

“Sorry, Tal. But before we can fix anything we need to work out how the problem happened, so we don’t just have the same problem in a few hours,” Isy said. “All we know so far is that somehow the hydrogen-collecting tanks, which should have been closed, started to gather gas from the nebula, which in turn exposed the accelerator and conversion tubes. Consequently, we couldn’t maintain our speed and if we hadn’t found the problem, the accelerators could have ignited.” Isy folded her arms across her chest fighting the wave of nausea. A catastrophic failure occurring on her ship was inconceivable. “Of course, none of this should be possible. All the systems are protected and all have malfunction alarms and automatic shutdowns if corrupted. To top it off, I can’t get a good look at those areas or get accurate readings because we’re having problems venting the gas.”

Seeing the deepening frown on Talana’s face, Isabelle rushed to get all the bad news out in the open before Talana could respond. “I wanted to tell you this now because I’m recommending we get out of this nebula as soon as possible, which means traversing it sideways and possibly adding another two days to our travel time. Assuming I can fix everything once we’re out of the nebula and assuming we don’t need to come to a complete stop to do the repairs.”

“Are these problems related to the other malfunctions over the last few months?”

Isabelle shook her head. “Not that I can tell. They’ve all been in separate areas and none of them were as serious as this. I’d like to do a full overhaul after the Tab Contract and get to the bottom of this once and for all.”

“We decided to take the shortcut through the asteroid belt and this nebula to give the crew a couple of days off before the next job,” Talana said, letting out a loud sigh. “Now you’re telling me we’re going to have to work around the clock just to make the rendezvous point in time.”

“Um… Captain,” Emei said. “You may need to ask for more time before starting the Tab Contract. At this speed and with the course change and the repairs, we can’t possibly make the deadline.”

“Right,” Talana dragged a hand through her hair. “So step one, how long until we get out of the nebula?”

Isy turned back to the panel to calculate their new trajectory and speed. She hadn’t even finished entering the equation into the computer before Emei completed her own mental calculation.

“Approximately eleven-thirty in the morning, Captain, if we don’t have to reduce speed any further.”

“So is there anything we can do now?”

“Nothing, except monitor the collecting tanks and make sure they don’t malfunction again,” Isy said. “I’ll have the night staff set up an independent alarm system, just in case. Other than that I was going to get some sleep until we clear the nebula and I think you should do the same. You look like hell.”

“Sending me to bed will earn you some brownie points with Jade but I’ve had enough comments on my appearance today. Although nobody put it quite like you.”

“I strive for honesty, old friend,” Isy said, smiling.

“That’s enough of the old, too. Anyway, you don’t look so great yourself, electric shock hair lady with a ripe two-day-old uniform.”

Isy swept back the curls of blond, brown and red hair and wrapping it in a bun on top of her head. “All right, enough of the slander, it’s time for bed for all of us,” Isabelle said.

Needing no further encouragement to return to her quarters, Talana easily slipped back into captain mode. “Right then. I’ll authorise the course change and I’ll send a message to the Tabs requesting more time. I want a report as soon as you know what’s going on,” Talana said, before turning to leave engineering.

“Yes, Captain,” Emei replied.

“Night, Tal,” Isy said.

Talana let her shoulders slump a little once she was out of sight of the engineering department. Isy didn’t require any action from her other than the order of a course change. Nothing more could be done until they had more information on the extent of the problem. She avoided the temptation to return to sick bay to find something in the dispenser to counteract the stimulant coursing through her body.

Mattare was right. She already regretted the stim prick. She had fallen into the trap of reacting to her own stress and frustration rather than responding to the situation at hand. A part of Talana also knew, if she was really honest with herself, the choice to take a stim was also about giving in to an even bigger weakness than stress. She was avoiding sleeping; sleeping meant dreaming and dreaming meant navigating an emotional minefield that was both terrifying and alluring.

Talana knew Jade wouldn’t let her get away with avoiding anything for long. Sooner or later Jade always forced Talana to let down her defences and dissect a problem so they could find a way past whatever was bothering her. But an autopsy of her personal failing would have to wait, Jade needed her sleep. Talana reasoned it was a better option to pretend to rest on the sofa in her office where there would be no witnesses to her unease. If Jade had been privy to Talana’s rationalisations she would have commented that denial was, as always, a very clingy friend.

Delphinus Contract by G.V.Nett – Available from Amazon

A futuristic love story about meeting your soul mate at the exact moment they need you the most and want you the least. The story follows Captain Talana Xian’s struggle to lead after her world is shattered by betrayal and revenge.

Take a look at the Character descriptions for Delphinus Contract

See where it all began with a collection of short stories set in the Delphinus universe

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