Captain Aurora Hawke is trapped in a web of lies, but none of them are hers.
At least, not yet. As the list of people who’ve betrayed her grows, even the crew of the Starhawke becomes tainted, leaving her without a refuge.
Grabbing an opportunity to jump ship, she joins Cade Ellis on a twisted trail to locate Admiral Schreiber, the man who holds the key to her past…and her future. But to uncover the answers she seeks, she’ll have to trade her freedom for servitude at the hands of a monster.
It had been a while since Aurora had visited anyone at Fleet HQ besides Admiral Schreiber, and the sterility of Admiral Payne’s office threw her off balance. Admiral Schreiber’s suite was welcoming, his walls lined with pictures, many of them taken during the years he’d been a captain in the Fleet. The walls in Payne’s office were conspicuously bare.
The Admiral stood as Aurora entered. “A pleasure to see you again, Captain.” She extended her hand, the burgundy polish on her manicured nails flashing in the overhead lights. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Aurora accepted the offered handshake, but her empathic senses snapped to attention. The Admiral’s body language indicated friendliness and ease, but her underlying emotions were laced with apprehension and fear. And her palm felt clammy.
“It’s nice to see you, as well.”
“Please, sit.” The Admiral gestured to the chairs in front of her desk. “I understand you recently returned from Drakar. Not many of us have had the opportunity to visit. How did you enjoy your time there?”
The question felt like a baited hook. Aurora’s uneasiness grew, but she pasted on a smile as she settled into one of the chairs. “It was lovely.”
“So the reports of dangerous predators are exaggerated?”
An image of an enormous greewtaith dragging down a relquir flashed in her mind’s eye. “Not exactly. The Kraed have their share of…challenges.”
“Sounds interesting.” Payne paused, her expression expectant. But when Aurora didn’t elaborate, she moved on. “And your ship? They were able to complete all the repairs?”
Payne smiled, her teeth white against her caramel skin. “That’s wonderful news. I have an important research mission for your crew that’s been on hold since you left Gaia.”
Was it her imagination, or did Payne stutter a bit on that last word? “What’s the mission?”
“A wonderful opportunity to study a binary system just beyond our borders. It’s in Teeli territory, but they’ve given us special dispensation for a two-month research project.”
It was a legitimate request given her crew’s skill set, but Aurora didn’t buy it for a moment. Not after Cade’s warning. The Admiral’s emotional grid had shifted, anxiety pushing to the forefront.
She needed to keep the Admiral talking. “What can you tell me about the system?”
The Admiral’s unease ramped up by a factor of ten as she laid out the details of the mission parameters. Her outward behavior remained cool and profession—so at odds with what Aurora was sensing that only one conclusion made sense—Payne was setting her up.
Comments Admiral Schreiber had made the last time she’d talked to him filtered back. He’d been concerned that he couldn’t trust anyone at the Council. Had the security breach infiltrated the Fleet, too? Was Payne compromised?
The idea took root and wouldn’t go away.
“How soon can your crew leave?” Payne’s enthusiasm came out a little forced, her emotions drawn tight as a bow.
Thank goodness she had no idea Aurora was an empath. Aurora kept her own smile in place. “I’ll need to check with my crew before I can answer that question. We’ll discuss it and I’ll contact you to confirm our departure date.”
The first cracks appeared in the Admiral’s façade, her skin glistening with a faint sheen of perspiration. “The sooner the better. We’re already behind on this project. We don’t want to impose on the Teeli’s generosity by pushing back the timetable more than we already have.”
“I understand. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Aurora stood to go, then paused as if something had just occurred to her. “I’m surprised Admiral Schreiber didn’t contact me about this while I was on Drakar.”
The cracks in Admiral Payne’s composure turned into fissures as the comment pushed on a fault line. “He’s…away…at the moment. Personal leave.”
Aurora pretended surprise. “Oh, I hadn’t heard. Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“I couldn’t say.”
Uh-huh. But her emotions were saying plenty. Aurora shrugged as if Payne’s reaction was perfectly normal. “It’s not important. I was just hoping to see him.” She headed for the door. “I’ll be in touch.”
On the way to the address Cade had given her, she analyzed the bizarre conversation. She’d been in too many mission briefings to accept the Admiral’s behavior as normal. It had to be a setup. But for what?
The location for their proposed mission seemed odd, too. Studying a binary system in Teeli space? That was unprecedented. The Teeli had always been cordial in their dealings with the Fleet, but to her knowledge they’d never invited cooperation on matters of science.
The Council was deliberately maneuvering her crew out of Fleet space. She could think of several reasons why, none of them good.