by Sara King
Her lover had been playing her from the start. What's a pirate to do?
A Really Big Reward
Athenais met Ragnar and the colonists the next morning in the helm. She sat in her favorite chair at the control panel, an energy-pistol and a communications handheld in her lap. The first thing she did once they stepped into the room was push the security-lock button for the door behind them and say, “You lied to me.”
Ragnar looked like a space-rat before his execution. It had been a long time since Athenais had seen anyone so pale.
“You know what this is?” she asked, lifting the weapon from her lap.
Shock turned to fear and disbelief. No one spoke.
“This,” Athenais continued, “Is a J-29 Phoenix quick-charge pistol. It is set to recognize living flesh. In the right hands—my hands—it represents certain death.” She grinned at them.
“Attie…” Ragnar began.
“And this,” Athenais said, lifting the communications handheld, “Represents six million credits, plus whatever they’ll give me for a couple of escaped colonists. It’s got the number of T-9 police headquarters dialed into it already. All I have to do is push a button and you’re going back to Eriad in stasis shells.”
The four men glanced at each other.
“Don’t even think about it. I will use this.” She hefted the Phoenix.
“So what do you want?” Paul asked. The shifter looked like a wary cat that was trying to decide just what kind of dangerous creature he had pounced on.
“Well, quite frankly, I want what you want,” Athenais said. “Six million credits is useless to me. I have twice that stored up in every major bank in the universe.”
“Then why…” Ragnar began. He paused, his eyes catching the Phoenix. He swallowed.
“Why turn you in?” Athenais asked. “Because even after infiltrating my bed, you still didn’t do your homework. There’s one huge, glaring error in your thinking.”
“What’s that?” Morgan asked. Of the three, he seemed the least perturbed, though his eyes were still fixed on her gun.
“You failed to notice that I don’t like being lied to. It makes me angry and as you know, I hold a grudge for a very, very long time.” She stared long and hard at Ragnar until he looked away.
“So,” Athenais continued, “Let’s start from the beginning. The room is sealed. The only way you’re getting out of here free men is if you convince me to help you. If you don’t, I am pressing SEND.”
Ragnar glanced at his brother. “Attie, we—”
“Stop,” Athenais interrupted. “For the rest of this interview, you will either address me as Captain or you will be shot.”
Ragnar bristled and went silent.
Morgan smoothly took up where he left off. “Captain Owlborne, this is the best chance you’re ever going to get to undo everything your father has done.”
“Do I look like a crusader to you?” Athenais asked. “I’m a pirate. I break the law for money. If I helped you, I'd have to pay my crew’s wages myself. I’d end up losing money.”
“You just said money doesn’t matter to you,” Paul said from against the wall.
“I said that it was useless to me. I never said it didn’t matter.”
“You’re nothing more than a hoarder, then,” Ragnar said.
Athenais flashed him a smile. “This hoarder can always find more places to tuck away six million credits.”
“Athenais,” Morgan said, “What do you want from us? We already showed you our underbellies. We trusted you.”
“And I trusted Ragnar,” Athenais said. “When all along, he was really only using me.”
“I was not!”
Athenais looked at him.
Morgan spoke again. “It seems to me, Ragnar, that you owe her an apology.” His voice held a note of command in it. Athenais examined the big man more closely. Aside from the thick brown beard swathing his face, he had the general look of a grizzly bear. All shoulders and torso.
“So if they’re both shifters, who the hell are you?” Athenais demanded.
“Their father,” Morgan said.
Athenais gave Ragnar a piercing glare, “Odd, you said you and Paul were the only two.”
“He did that for my protection, of course,” Morgan said. “But since I’d be found out just as soon as you turned us in, there’s no use pretending anymore.”
Athenais was interested despite herself. “So you’re their father? Do they have a mother? Or did you impregnate yourself?”
“Att—” Ragnar choked off his words, his face turning red. “Captain. That’s hardly important right now.”
Athenais glanced down at the Phoenix. “Well, seeing how I’m holding the gun, I get to decide what’s important, don’t I, sweetie?”
“We’re here to talk about destroying the Millennium Potion, Captain. Not my father’s sex life.”
“We’re here to talk about whatever I damn well want to talk about,” Athenais snapped. She glanced at Morgan. “How old are you?”
She lifted a brow. “A little long-lived for a shifter, aren’t you?”
“I’m old for my kind,” Morgan replied.
Athenais gave him a long look. “So are you male or female?”
“Technically, I am neither.”
“A hermaphrodite, then? You screw yourself?” She grinned as both Paul and Ragnar gave her horrified, open-jawed stares.
“We’re off subject.”
Athenais made an exasperated sound. “What is it with you guys? Can’t you just answer the question?” She glanced at Paul and Ragnar, waiting. “Oh, come on!”
“Can we get back to talking about why you’re pointing a gun at me?” Ragnar said.
“Yeah, you were threatening to turn us in,” Stuart added.
“So I was,” Athenais said. “The way I see things, you need me a lot more than I need you. I also see that if I don’t agree to help you, you will probably find some nasty way to make me help you.”
Morgan’s face was unreadable, but Ragnar winced.
“So my choice is either turn you in or help you. But as much as I would just love to spit in my father’s eye, there’s still that huge, glaring mistake you made when you decided to lie to me.” She paused and looked at Stuart. “And is he another shifter?”
“What do you think?” Ragnar said.
“So you’re all shifters.” Athenais glanced from one to the next, finally ending up on Ragnar. “That’s strange, considering you want to destroy the Millennium Potion because Marceau kills colonists to make it. Or is that a lie, too?” She cocked her head at Morgan. “Maybe there’s another reason why you want to get into my father’s labs.”
No one said anything for a long time. Finally, Ragnar said, “Our family might still be in there.”
“And the Millennium Potion? Was that a cover?”
“No,” Ragnar and Paul said together. Morgan continued, “When we landed, we made Penoi our home. Marceau is killing the people we have come to know as friends.”
“So by getting into my father’s labs, you have the chance to kill two birds with one stone, is that it?” She looked at each of them. “I’m sensing there’s something you’re not telling me.”
The four shifters hesitated.
“What is three million times four?” Athenais said.
“We want to kill Marceau and put Paul in his place.”
Athenais stared at Morgan, a little tingle of excitement threading its way up her spine. “That sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
The shifters glanced at each other uneasily.
“We might as well tell her,” Paul said. When everyone scowled at him, he shrugged and said, “We’ve got several villages scattered across Penoi. Marceau’s men raided one of these a few weeks ago when he was looking for Potion incubators. They took five of us back with them. After finding five of our kind in one spot, Marceau will know that we’ve got colonies of our own down there. He’ll sweep the whole planet looking for us.”
Athenais let this information digest a moment. “Why don’t you evacuate?”
“No time,” Morgan said. “Marceau’s still trying to figure out which village his men raided when they found us, so he locked down Penoi until he can do a search. Sneaking all of our people past the blockade would be impossible.”
“So why did you land on Penoi, of all places?” Athenais asked. “Seems like that’s the last place I’d go, with the center of the Utopia looking down on you each night.”
“At first, we crashed,” Morgan told her. “Then we were hiding in plain sight.”
“It was working, too,” Paul said, “Until we figured out what Marceau was doing. By then, there were too many of us to escape.”
Athenais rubbed the scar across her brow. “So you want to break into the labs to destroy the Millennium Potion, eliminating the need to raid Penoi. On your way out, you’ll grab any of your friends who are still alive and at the same time, you want to install Paul as Overseer of Penoi and Father of the Utopia to make sure the raiding stops and your colonies can exist in peace.” She glanced at Morgan. “Is that all?”
“You forgot the antidote,” Morgan said.
“Oh, yes,” Athenais said. “You’re going to use me to cure everyone of being a Utopi. You’re either desperate or delusional.”
“We’re desperate,” Ragnar said.
Athenais stopped rubbing her scar and gave him a cold look. “Then you’re no different than any other colonist I’ve seen. Desperation doesn’t win wars. Desperation gets you killed. I’m not risking Beetle for desperate men.”
“We’ve been planning this for years,” Ragnar told her. “Before I met you.”
“Funny, it sounds to me like you’re putting most of the burden in my hands. You want me to supply the antidote, me to find a way back onto Eriad and then Marceau’s compound, both of which are guarded by their own private armies. What will you contribute to all this?”
“Everything we can,” Morgan replied.
The shifters waited in silence.
A grin cracked Athenais’s face. “Sounds like fun.”
They relaxed a bit.
“So you’ll help us?” Ragnar said.
Athenais turned to him. “You still owe me an apology.”
“I apologize,” Ragnar said. “I should have told you.”
“You’re right,” Athenais said. “You should have known you could trust me, you twit.”
“I was afraid you might pull a stunt like this.” He motioned to the gun and the handheld.
“The only reason I did this was because you lied to me.”
“The only reason I lied to you was because I knew you would overreact.”
“Overreact?! I’m not overreacting! If I had overreacted, you’d be a nice mushy pool of shifter goop and I’d be collecting nine million credits.”
Ragnar’s jaw looked like it was about to crack under the strain. “If I’d told you, you’d have put me to work robbing banks and fleecing gem-dealers, all the while risking my exposure.”
Athenais’s jaw dropped. “You would make a good thief, wouldn’t you?”
“You see?” Ragnar said, “You’re as single-minded as a child!”
“At least I’m not a shape-shifting blob of mucus!” Athenais screamed.
“You’re right! You’re a greedy, conniving, spoiled brat!”
The fight that followed would have made Giggles proud. The three shifters tried to restrain them, but both Athenais and Ragnar were too dangerous and too pissed to be stopped before blood had been spilt.
And blood was spilt.
“…of a bitch,” Athenais panted when they finally managed to pin her arms behind her, facedown on the floor. Her nose was bleeding, dripping a fine stream of red onto the floor beneath her face. Ragnar was in a similar position several feet away, with his father perched on his back, his face and neck coalescing into a huge yellow-black bruise.
“Enough!” Morgan shouted, “You’re acting like children!”
“I’m old enough to be your grandmother!” Athenais shrieked back. “I’ll decide who’s acting like children!”
“You see?!” Ragnar shouted. “You see what I have to put up with?!”
“Put up with?!” Athenais felt a whole new form of rage flood her senses. She tried to get up, but Stuart held both her hands painfully behind her back and Paul was sitting on her shoulders.
“Shut up, both of you!” Morgan snapped. “You will stop fighting immediately.”
“This is my ship!” Athenais shrieked. “I’ll fight wherever the hell I want!”
Above her, Stuart twisted her arm in warning.
“Now,” Morgan said, “Ragnar, can I let you up?”
“Let him up?”
Stuart twisted her arm until she howled.
Morgan released his son and stood up. Ragnar got to his knees, glared at her, and began massaging his shoulder.
“So what do we do with her?” Stuart asked.
Morgan gave her a hard look. “Can they let you up?”
As much as it pained her to do so, Athenais said, “Yes.”
“Do it,” Morgan ordered.
Stuart and Paul released her and stood back as Athenais got to her feet. For the first time, she realized that Morgan was holding the Phoenix.
“Now,” Morgan said, displaying the gun, “Can I trust you with this?”
Athenais realized with a start that he was talking to her and not one of his sons. The other three realized it as well and their voices raised in protest.
“It’s her gun,” Morgan told them. “We’re not thieves.”
“We’re not stupid, either,” Ragnar said. “You give that to her and we’ll be right back where we started.”
“Maybe,” Morgan said. Then he flipped the gun around and presented it grip-first to Athenais.
Athenais muttered under her breath and stuffed the gun into the holster on her belt.
“There,” Morgan said, glancing at everyone, “We’re adults again.”
“Shouldn’t have given her the gun,” Ragnar muttered.
Morgan ignored him and turned to Athenais, who was feeling around her jaw trying to determine how many teeth had been loosened by Ragnar’s kick. “What of our proposal? Will you help us?”
Her teeth were intact, she decided, but her upper lip was split in two different places. It was already swelling. She glanced at Ragnar. He was scowling, but his own swollen lip jutted out from his jaw and made him look ridiculous.
Unable to control herself, Athenais broke into laughter. The shifters glanced at each other uneasily, waiting.
When Athenais managed to speak, she said, “Of course I’ll help. I was just messin’ with ya.”