The year is 3033, the place Zurin Five, a moon-size mining planet with an underground high security prison.
An artist at heart, Rhonda Alendresis never wanted this prison job. When the civilian personnel vanishes and an earthquake damages the nuclear reactor, she must go down to effect the repairs with Captain Perfect himself, Cole Riggeur, who always plays by the rules and never trusted a woman in his life. But deep in the underground penitentiary, something has gone terribly wrong. The most wicked convicts in the Galaxy are loose, and a treacherous shape-shifter plans his revenge. Disconnected from the Garrison, against impossible odds, Cole and Rhonda now face their greatest challenge... trusting each other in order to survive.
Zurin Five Penitentiary, Andromeda Galaxy, 3033 C.E.
Underground Level Six - The Garrison
“For the love of God, answer if you can hear me!" Rhonda’s growing alarm made her voice tremble. She felt cold sweat dripping down her spine.
In the cobalt glow of the circular control room, the monitors displayed empty offices. Where had the civilian employees gone? Why did no one answer the morning call? Had Rhonda made a mistake? She dreaded getting in trouble on her first solo watch.
Swallowing a clump in her throat, prison guard Rhonda Alendresis punched an emergency broadcast key on the central console. “Garrison calling all office personnel. Anyone up there at all?" Seconds ticked by and a chill crossed her spine. Still no response.
Something seemed very wrong near the surface, but the main computer didn’t detect any emergency. On the high-vaulted ceiling, the Artificial Intelligence that ran the facility hummed softly. Its concentric blue circles pulsed in a normal pattern. Rhonda addressed the A.I. “Skipper? What’s wrong in the upper levels?”
“All is as it should be, Miss Alendresis." The cheery disembodied voice filled the room, coming from all directions. “Nothing to report.”
It didn’t make sense. If the A.I. didn’t detect any emergency, maybe she shouldn’t worry so much. New in the prison business, Rhonda wondered whether her fellow guards had concocted a sick joke to scare her. If they did, Rhonda would make them pay in the most devious way. She could be creative, too.
The bank of monitors displaying the deeper levels of the prison facility showed the inmates in their cells, some still asleep, others washing and eating breakfast as usual. All looked normal and secure down below.
But in the office
s just above, nothing moved. Feverishly, Rhonda double-checked the cameras of all the civilian areas. Even the cafeteria and the gym looked devoid of life while they should effervesce with early morning activity.
Even if it was a prank, Rhonda couldn’t take any chances. She hated to disturb the Captain, mainly to call for help. Reluctantly, she opened a channel to Captain Riggeur’s personal quarters.
The Captain’s face and smooth torso filled the screen. He shaved while watching a family hologram. Rhonda wondered about the toddler playing with a ship in the holoplay. She didn’t know anything about Captain Riggeur’s family, never thought he had one. In the background, she could hear a symphonic orchestra above the soft hum of his shaver. The Captain had good taste in music.
Riggeur stopped the holoplay and the picture of the child vanished. “Quiet,” he ordered, and the music stopped. He turned off his shaver. “What is it, Rhonda?" His cerulean blue eyes transfixed her through the camera as if he could see right through her. How did he do that?
Trying not to feel foolish under his intense gaze, Rhonda composed herself. “Sorry to disturb you this early, Captain, but we may have an emergency!”
“May have? Make up your mind, Rhonda. Do we, or don’t we?" He quickly combed back short blond hair.
Irritated by his patronizing attitude, Rhonda refrained a comment that might get her fired. Instead, she said, “The A.I. has nothing to report, but...”
“So, what could possibly be the emergency?" The light marble background of the bathroom and the soft lighting emphasized the Captain’s perfect tan.
Rhonda took a deep, calming breath. “I can’t establish contact with the Duran offices on the upper levels for the morning call. No one answers the comsystem and the offices are empty.”
“Empty?" The Captain’s square jaw tightened. “You must be mistaken. There has to be someone there. It’s not like they could have gone out for a stroll." He opened a bottle, squeezed aftershave in his hands and slapped it on his cheeks.
“I checked all the security cameras." Rhonda pushed back a dark, curly strand of hair, painfully aware that uniform regulations prohibited loose hair, as well as scarves like the red one around her neck. As an artist, she found the gray uniform drab and liked a touch of color near her face. She knew the Captain enforced the rules, but she’d not expected to see him on this shift. “It’s as if no one got out of bed this morning."
“Could it be some weird holiday?" Captain Cole Riggeur squinted in the mirror. “Maybe they are attending a religious ritual in the chapel?”
I checked that, too."
“Can’t you locate any of them?”
Frustrated by his lack of trust, Rhonda blurted, “Civilians don’t wear locator chips, Captain.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass, Rhonda." His deep blue eyes narrowed. “I meant did you broadcast in all the common areas?”
“Yes, Captain, I did. No response.”
When he walked away from the camera toward the towel rack, Rhonda realized with a start that he was stark naked. From the back he looked like a statue from ancient Greece she’d seen in a museum on Banoi. Tall, athletic, the Captain had tightly curved muscles under a smooth, flawless skin.
Taken aback, Rhonda couldn’t control the flush heating her neck and rising to her cheeks. She’d never thought of Captain Cole Riggeur sexually, never pictured him naked, but this incident would make it difficult to erase the heavenly vision from her memory, a prime subject to keep in mind for one of her future paintings.
Although she felt silly for invading the man’s privacy, Rhonda knew the Garrison, unlike the civilian areas, had cameras everywhere. Any blind room could potentially hide an escapee. She’d better get used to it.
When he faced her again, Captain Riggeur wore a white towel around his waist. “Wake up the whole crew, send two teams to the surface to investigate and continue security sweeps. I’ll be right there.”
“Yes, Captain." Had he seen her blush? She couldn’t wait to end the call.
“Lose the scarf and tie back that curly mane of yours.”
Rhonda bit back a sharp retort. The man might be gorgeous, smart, and a genius in his field, but he enforced discipline on the job like a ruthless bully.