AVALON


CHAPTER ONE

Stealing a spaceship shouldn’t be this easy.

Jeth Seagrave peered around the corner and counted the number of sentries standing at the docking bay terminal. There were two of them, both sporting the tan uniforms of local guards, with matching bored expressions. He slipped back before being spotted. Around him, Kordan Spaceport’s massive concourse, filled with restaurants, shops and hotels, was mostly empty of people. Even in space, there was such a thing as nighttime.

Jeth brushed back auburn hair from his forehead and gazed down at his companion, who stood leaning against the wall, one leg propped up, her head tilted back, and hands on her hips. Celeste smiled up at Jeth, her lips parting in a sensual gesture, an inviting smile. An outside observer would think she had only one thing on her mind. No one would guess these two, both just seventeen, were actually casing the place.

Beside Celeste a large window looked out into open space, providing partial views of some of the ships moored at the docks beyond the terminal entrance. One of those ships was the Montrose, the cargo vessel they were here to steal. Celeste and Jeth were members of a gang of thieves known in criminal circles as Malleus Shades, named in honor of their employer, the infamous crime lord Hammer Dafoe, and indicative of their uncanny ability to come and go like ghosts in ancient stories.

“How many?” Celeste whispered, still smiling. Black hair framed her face, stopping short of her shoulders. Dark red lipstick exaggerated the paleness of her skin. The contrast accentuated her natural beauty, evident despite the digital prosthetics she wore. The prosthetics obscured Celeste’s features just enough to make her unrecognizable, even to the most sophisticated face-recognition programs. Jeth wore similar ones.

Bracing a hand against the wall, Jeth leaned down as if going in for a kiss. Celeste was tall, but he still had half a head on her. Combined with the width of his muscular shoulders, he made her seem small. “Two,” he said against her ear. “Both locals. No ITA.” Celeste sighed, the sound of it containing a definite smirk. “Too easy.” Jeth nodded as he pretended to nuzzle her neck. Local security was always easier to deal with than the ITA.

The lack of ITA presence didn’t surprise him. The Interstellar Transport Authority rarely bothered posting agents at dinky backwater spaceports like Kordan, with its low tax revenue. The ITA cared more about the bigger, wealthier spaceports, the kind that could afford to employ more than two guards to man the entrances in off-peak hours, where even in the middle of the night the shops and businesses teemed with travelers.

The ITA didn’t actually govern the planets and spaceports that made up the United Planetary Confederation, but given the amount of power they wielded, they might as well have. They controlled all aspects of space travel, including the manufacture of the metatechnology that made it possible. for the most part, no one went anywhere in the universe without the ITA’s approval – and without paying their price to fly.

Even though he knew he should be glad about how easy this job was turning out to be, Jeth couldn’t help but feel a stab of disappointment. Easy meant boring. He preferred more of a challenge.

Jeth glanced at his watch, which he’d made sure to set to Kordan time. Five minutes to go. He lowered his hand, trying to ignore his growing restlessness. He felt an urge to do something wild and stupid, just to make things more interesting. Like maybe walk through the security terminal around the corner right now and set off the spaceport alarms. That might put a little fun into his snoozefest.

But no. He couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t. There was too much at stake.

He looked back at Celeste and saw a knowing glint in her eye. Her sensual smile had turned mischievous. She was thinking the same thing he was, evidently. This was one of the reason they worked so well together. Also one of the reasons they’d had so many close calls in the past.

Celeste raised her hand to her neck, pushing back her hair as she casually placed an index finger on the communicator patch hidden behind her ear.

Understanding what she intended to do, Jeth shook his head. Somewhere, not far from here, Lizzie was supposed to be hacking into the security system to disable the alarms at the nearby terminal, allowing them access to the Montrose. Celeste wanted to see if she was done early.

“Only take a second,” Celeste said.

“No.” There was always the chance the communication could be intercepted. And even if Lizzie had finished ahead of schedule, deviating from the timeline was not an option. He and the other four Shades had carefully planned and coordinated their movements. They’d studied the flight plans for hours, making sure there were no departures or arrivals scheduled at the terminal during the time they would make their move. They’d double-checked that the Montrose’s small crew had all booked rooms in one of the nearby hotels for the night.

“Oh, come on,” Celeste whispered, wrinkling her nose.

Jeth shook his head again, even as that restless feeling prodded him once more to give in. He might’ve been willing to risk it if someone besides Lizzie had been running tech on this job.

A defiant look came over Celeste’s face, her finger hovering over the communicator. “Liz isn’t a baby.”

Jeth shook his head a third time.

Celeste dropped her hand to her side. “You are such a killjoy.”

Turning on the charm, Jeth winked at her. “That’s why I’m the boss, sweetheart.”

Besides, he thought, it’s not worth risking the money. The job might be easy, but the pay was still good. From the outside, the Montrose appeared to be a common cargo ship,but on the inside it contained a brand-new metadrive, a device that would allow a ship to make a metaspace jump independent of the ITA-manned gates.

A metadrive couldn’t take you as far in a single jump as a gate, but the anonymity it afforded outweighed those drawbacks. That kind of freedom made the drives especially valuable to Hammer’s customers, who were they type of people unlikely to pass the background check required to secure a licensed metadrive from the ITA.

Jeth leaned toward Celeste again. They needed to keep up the farce that they were two teenagers who’d come to this remote corner of the spaceport to get the kind of privacy they couldn’t get at home. She turned her face toward his, playing along. It was convenient how easily adults ignored a romantic interlude between a pair of teenagers. You could hide all kinds of suspicious behavior behind the appearance of recklessness. That attitude had helped Jeth and his crew become one of the most successful gangs of thieves in the galaxy.

Jeth checked his watch twice more. When it was finally time to go, he scanned the concourse for activity. It remained lifeless, the only movement from the flashing neon sign in the window of a bar across the way.

He turned back to Celeste and nodded. Grinning, she pulled out a sleeper pill from the front pocket of the snug black pants she wore. She placed the small pill in her mouth, pushing it as far back on her tongue as she could without swallowing it. Then taking a deep breath, she wrapped her hands around Jeth’s head and yanked his mouth down to her hers, kissing him. She was careful not to exhale. The pill itself was harmless, but the fumes it produced as it dissolved would knock a person out for hours.

Holding his breath as well, Jeth stumbled backward as Celeste pushed him around the corner with her body, playing the part of eager lover. Now in view of the two sentries, he grabbed her by the hips, kissing her back. Their performance was completely believable. This was just a part of the job, a con to get them in position.

“Hey, you two!” one of the sentries called. “You’re going to set off the alarm.”

Jeth kept his eyes closed and his body engaged in the make-out session, but he focused his attention on the sound of the approaching footsteps. They now stood within a meter of the alarm sensor, but Jeth didn’t worry. Lizzie would’ve signaled if she hadn’t gotten the job done in time. He refused to consider the possibility that she might’ve been caught. Such thoughts only led to mistakes.

“What are you doing down here?” the man said.

Jeth pretended not to hear as he pulled Celeste even closer.

“All right, come on.” The sentry prodded Jeth in the shoulder with the barrel of his stunner.

Jeth held the kiss a moment longer, then pushed Celeste away from him. She swayed on her feet as if drunk.

“You kids can’t be down here.” The sentry’s eyes shifted from Jeth to Celeste and back again. He had a narrow, pointed face, like a rat’s and his tan uniform hung loose on his slight frame.

Jeth glanced at the other sentry, still standing at the security station a good twenty meters away and watching them warily.

Maybe this won’t be so boring after all.

Jeth’s body tensed in anticipation, as if his muscles were threaded with strings pulled taut by the idea of danger. If the other sentry called for help, this was all over. Remembering the part he had to play, Jeth forced his gaze back to Rat Face. He flashed a grin, wiping away the wetness on his lips. “Oh, sorry. We were…uh…just…you know.” The man shook his head, annoyed. “Not here you’re not. This corridor is for docking customers only. Find another place for this.”

Celeste giggled and stepped toward Jeth, making to kiss him again.

“Whoa.” Jeth grabbed her hands before she could seize his head. Then with practiced ease, he pushed her sideways toward the sentry. Celeste stumbled into him, and the man caught her one-handed, righting her.

“Is she drugged?” Rat Face’s eyes narrowed on Jeth’s face. “Did you give her something?” Jeth shrugged, flashing the man a rakish wink. “Whatever works, right?

Celeste giggled again and grabbed Rat Face by the shoulders before he could respond. Then she kissed him, spreading her mouth wide and finally exhaling the dangerous fumes from the sleeper pill. The sentry was so taken by surprise, he made no effort to pull away. They never did. Celeste was fast and far too attractive to resist.

Rat Face’s eyes rolled back as the drug took effect. Pretending to catch him, Jeth grabbed the man by the elbow and simultaneously yanked the stunner from his hand.

Before Rat Face had finished falling, Jeth strode through the terminal entrance, taking aim at the other sentry. The grinning, cocky teenager from a moment before vanished, replaced by someone with command beyond his years and possessed of a singular purpose. No alarm sounded as he passed. Lizzie had gotten the job done.

Jeth closed the distance between him and the other sentry, who raised his own stunner. Blood pounded in Jeth’s ears, adrenaline pumping through his veins, but he resisted the urge to panic or speed up. He knew not to fire early or let his aim wander from the target with unnecessary motion. Instead he took a deep, almost lazy breath, letting a calm sweep over him.

Like so many before him, the sentry didn’t know what to do about this teenage boy with the cold, calculating gaze charging him, whether to fire or hit the alarm. He stood there, frozen in indecision.

The moment Jeth was in range, he exhaled and pulled the trigger. The flash of the electric bolt lit up the gray walls, turning them blue as it soared toward the sentry and struck him in the chest. The man stumbled backward, then slumped to the ground.

Grim satisfaction, mingled with relief, came over Jeth, and an involuntary smile crossed his lips. Celeste rushed past him, withdrawing a syringe from her pocket as she went. She stopped beside the fallen sentry, knelt, and then plunged the needle into his arm.

Scanning the entrances for more sentries, Jeth headed toward her, the stunner already charged for another shot.