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Five fugitives head into unknown space on a daring mission to mine a priceless element.
The final frontier is shrinking. Interstellar Planetary Administration sanctions are forcing the border colonies of deep space into extinction. Kappa Max is one of the last major cutthroat outposts, home to the lawless and the lonely...
Varinia Wilcox, the star attraction of a lucrative bordello gambling house.
Solomon Bodine, spurned by his lover and looking for distraction.
Clayton Barry, AWOL and a few drinks away from having to live in the gutter.
Lyssa Foaloak, a double-crossing criminal who'll kill anyone for a few credits.
Four strangers, each with secrets that could cost them their freedom, are desperate to get off-planet. They meet Grace Peters, a cynical ex-doctor with an intriguing offer: a six-month trip to a faraway moon where she claims a stunning fortune awaits.
But this adventure is no easy escape. Danger, passion, secrets and madness await. Can they survive the mission, and each other, to make it out alive?
Queen of Hearts
Whoa, not so fast…
Varinia scrambled to catch her bra before it slipped. The violet sand under her stool shivered as yet another exodus shuttle blasted off the asteroid. The umpteenth that week. She’d wanted to keep the striptease sensual, inviting, but her bra straps were already off-shoulder and the vibration threatened to give her lecherous customer a free eyeful of her breasts.
Not on her life.
He would have to pay for that privilege. More than that, he would have to achieve something no man had ever done on Kappa Max—he would have to beat her at her specialty card game, Cydonia Face.
She glanced up through the transparent convex roof. The shuttle’s ringlet of blue flame faded as a shrinking iris into the awesome dilation of deepest space. These days the asteroid spun so fast on all three axes, owing to the gravitational tug from the nearby gas giant having shifted its orbit, that the constellations appeared every bit as rootless and aimless as Varinia felt every hour of every day. How long had she been here now? In Earth time? Something like a year plus change. Tempting sleaze-heavers and lonely-hearts haulers with glimpses of her sublime curves for over a year. Unbeaten. Unspoiled. The most sought-after prize on Kappa Max. At least that’s what the advertisements claimed.
But in that time she’d made a fortune.
Cydonia Face, the game she couldn’t lose, the game she couldn’t escape from.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to twist.” She pouted at her tin-man opponent through the reinforced glass separating them, then tapped the flesh-colored button on the left of her console, summoning another card. He licked his lips and clinked his tongue ring on the metal half of his mouth. The man’s cybernetic reconstruction wasn’t the worst she’d seen, but it gave him a creepy, unfinished appearance. The organic two-thirds of his face looked around forty-five and Creole—high cheekbones, quite handsome—and boasted a black-gray beard amusingly curtailed by the shiny titanium.
“I’ll keep what I’ve got,” he replied, ogling her cleavage. His imitation right eye flicked up to covet the silver key hanging by a red ribbon on her side of the glass. When he’d won the last item of clothing from her, the window would open, the key would be his, and he could unlock the door and have his way with her anywhere, any way he wanted. The company’s only stipulation was that their girls suffer no physical injury; that would affect their marketability. Oh, the chivalry. Other than that, in the Delfin, the customer was always right.
And always fleeced.
Varinia spied her new card and heaved a sigh of relief. A red jack. That, together with her red king, gave her one half of a Cydonia Face—all four red male face cards. The odds against her opponent having the other red jack and king were pretty high with so few cards in play, but he’d stuck with a fresh hand of five—either he was bluffing or he had face cards galore. Given his gutless playing thus far, Varinia reckoned he was about to rout her with a royal flush.
All right, Tin Man, let’s see if you really do need that heart.
She relaxed her shoulders and cupped her cards upright against the edge of the console, as though she were scrutinizing them. A huge, almost-to-bursting inhale lifted her bosom, distracted him. Her resulting lightheadedness rose and slivered loose like a small bubble escaping from a bigger one, fueling a sublimation to her secret self no one on Kappa Max was aware of.
They could never find out. Her reputation and her contract and her life depended on it.
The silent drift was by now so practiced an art, she barely even thought about it anymore. Seven or eight feet through the glass followed by a one-eighty, as conditioned a maneuver as any automated shuttlecraft in space, to spy on her opponent’s cards. To cheat. A few moments of astral travel, out of body, unseen. All in the name of money…and celibacy.
The farther she drifted, the less she felt her anchor. It had become dangerous in the early days, in her teens, when she’d daydreamed during class and ventured hundreds of miles from the real Varinia Wilcox. Breathtaking excursions, but she’d always felt, over those distances, that if someone hadn’t been there to physically shake her back to reality, she might never find her body again. Permanently alone in nether-flight, until her empty shell of a body shut down from lack of sustenance, or her apoplectic brain couldn’t wait any longer and would cast her adrift once and for all, leaving her…where? What exactly? Forever?
Tin Man kept his cards face down but that had never stopped her. For a coiner, walls were so…yesterday. She drifted over his shoulder, skimmed the slick polymer jersey taut over his cybernetic upper arm, the goose bumps on his bare, tattooed forearm, and the cheap ring inscribed with Vermillion, Always on his wedding finger. She dipped into the cards just enough to discern the shadowy scrawls of shapes and numbers.
Queen of diamonds, two black queens, an ace and a four. Not a bad hand. But a loser, nonetheless.
Varinia focused on falling off her stool—a practiced method of returning her consciousness back to her body, quickly, through fear and shock—and shuddered when she came to. Tin Man tapped his fingernails on the console, impatient, oblivious to her spying. Indeed, when she was out of body, time and space held little dominion, and what seemed to take minutes, even hours, often passed by in seconds.
“Here we go.” She tossed her long brunette curls over her shoulder. “Show me yours, and I’ll show you something no one else has seen…” she glanced at her breasts, “…if you win.”
The poor man’s jaw squeaked partially open. Saliva pooled between his lips. Hand shaking in anticipation, he curled his fingertips and flipped the cards, immediately casting his stare to Varinia, the object of his costly fantasy. He leaned forward out of his seat, as if beckoning her cards onto their backs so he could nail them where they lay.
Expressionless, she fanned her cards down and put him out of his misery.
Tin Man glared at her then down at his denuded credit stack. A wounded, defeated face tightened into one of bitter fury. He snatched up his plastic stack and slammed a very human fist against the console.
Varinia flinched, straightened her bra, then said, “Better luck next time, sweetie?”
He blinked his good eye and took in her curves one last time before limping away across the violet sand. Despite feeling a little sorry for him—if those were all the credits he had left, he probably couldn’t even afford a cheap hooker tonight—the idea of a tin man, or any sleaze-heaver, man or woman, having their way with her after gambling for the privilege, was unconscionable.
“Not a bad show, V.W.” Her boss gave an audible yawn over the intercom after Tin Man had left. “You creamed him for five hundred and fifty. Still unbeaten. We should name a star after you or something.” A typical bored bullshit line from an admittedly shallow if affable shack-sheik. Archie Delaney co-owned the entire Delfin strip maze as well as the two-bit hotel Varinia lived at, El Oso Negro. Married seven times in all, and all wives currently living with him under the same roof, he was one of the last influential businessmen on Kappa Max, and one of the last great shack-sheiks still in business this far past the official colony outposts.
“Hon, I am the star,” she shot back while zipping up her helter-skelter blouse, its white rings each turning transparent, in random order, for a single revolution.
“Call it a night if you like. We’re booked full tomorrow morning, and we’ve got you down as Rapunzel this time. Blond wig, princess get-up, the works. Sound good?”
“Sure. Only give me a Prince Charming with the armor on the outside next time.”
“Oh right, yeah. Ha-ha. No kidding. If he’d beat you we’d have to oil the fucker first. Catch some zees, ’kay?”
“’Kay, Arch. I’ll let my hair down for you tomorrow.”
“Have a good one. Dream of me.”
Varinia rolled her eyes, playfully kicked sand out across the large oblong enclosure. For the first time in weeks, it struck her how ludicrous her still being here, still doing this for a living really was. The champagne pizzazz of her Selene modeling days bubbled up through the cool apathy she’d come to rely on. From being coveted by the entire galaxy on the greatest interstellar broadcast network ever conceived, surrounded daily by the richest clientele anywhere, to this—jizzed at under the table by the skuzziest dregs at the ass-end of space, one at a time, face to face. If her mum and dad could see her now…oh, brother.
That one flaw, that one little shove from the only career path she’d ever wanted…
No, fate didn’t take kindly to freaks. No matter how attractive and congenial and sexually desirable, if one had an incongruous edge, one had no place in streamlined paradise. For that was all Earth and the colonies existed as now for her—a wonderful dream, from which she was exiled forever.
Backstage at the swimwear contest, twenty-first in line, she’d relaxed herself by enjoying a quick out-of-body sojourn to the resort’s privet gardens under the lunar dome of Pont de Ręves. A sip for the soul. Alone. Silent. But she’d happened upon a woman’s body—white as virgin snow, collapsed on the lawn, not breathing. “Help.” Varinia’s snap back to reality and the sight of a dozen alarmed beauty queens had left her with the dilemma of her life. Apologize to them, blame her outburst on nerves, continue on her road to potential fame and fortune—or tell someone what she knew but couldn’t possibly know unless…she was “one of those,” nature gone wrong, a sly and manipulative freak who only achieved anything through her out-of-body ability.
She made the choice she’d been brought up to make.
It cost her everything.
Though the woman whose life she’d saved had thanked her and then some, the Selene committee voted to remove Varinia from the contest, for “an unfair competitive edge.” Her story was to be given a sympathetic dramatization on one of the minor networks, but Selene used its considerable heft and saw to it that the program never aired. Friends stopped holo-phoning, sponsorship offers evaporated, and even the most mundane employers blanched at the red flag on her resume—Diagnosed EPT. Extra-Physical Traveler. The three letters that posted her farthest from everything she’d ever wanted.
Varinia eased the steel door open, glanced behind her to the empty purple sandlot-cum-bordello. She strode out and slammed the door behind her. The force flung dust and sand into an air-conditioned stream, which in turn lifted the violet wisp onto its shoulders and slung it into several ventilation ducts. She scoffed. Her bitterness was now viral, a part of the lungs of the complex. And it shared that feat with a thousand others’—polluted dreams, regrets, contaminants of the misbegotten, circulated in this artificial atmosphere and the atmospheres of a thousand likewise derelict worldlets. Spindrift into the shadows of space.
She snatched her shawl from the hanger, inputted the code to the side door, then disappeared into the muggy, litter-strewn alleys of Kappa Max.