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.