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In Ageless Sleep

Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 17,000
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Mal is a spy, a misanthrope, and a coward; growing up in the brutal Reaches has taught her that honor is a quality best left to the dead. Her latest mission: to hijack a cryo-ship carrying the brilliant daughter of the Sovereign King, and deliver her straight into enemy hands.

But when a vital component of the ship's cryostasis system malfunctions, the only person who can keep the unconscious passengers alive is the woman Mal was sent to kidnap. Alone together on a ship of silent sleepers, Mal must remember that she and Aurora are enemies—or risk them becoming something much more dangerous.

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Everything looked good on the cryo deck. Systems optimal, vitals holding, smooth sailing. Mal could keep every human being on The Royal Arc asleep for as long as it took to fly straight into the nearest sun if she wanted to. Unfortunately, what she wanted was off the table at the moment. It didn’t matter what they were going towards, but what was coming towards them.

She leaned back in the chair and gnawed at the end of her nutristick. The screen to her right displayed the security feed. What it showed made her smile. One hundred-forty-eight slack faces tucked inside their glass prisons, eyes closed, never to wake—unless Mal let them. That was something, she supposed. She may have no control over the forces that were closing in around her little speck on the solar winds, but inside the ship, she was a god.

Mal clicked through the various security feeds, covering every corner of the four cryo decks. Gloating was a bad look for anyone, but there wasn’t much else to do. And Mal certainly had plenty to gloat about: she’d captured the crew of an entire sleeper-ship completely single-handedly. And it had almost been too easy. Perfectly executed, too—well, except for that, blinking at her from the far corner of the computer’s module. She pointedly ignored it.

Her own ship was where she had left it, attached like a lamprey to the Arc’s auxiliary airlock. Her stealth field had held true. The larger ship’s sensors had not detected her as she slid out of the inky darkness and latched on to its side. She’d known its specs, had them pounded into her head over and over by handlers who thought her incapable of generating a single original thought. She’d done exactly what they’d told her to do; but Mal had made one mistake. Maybe even a fatal one.

The memory left a sour coating on her tongue—or maybe that was the nutristick. She kept chewing at it anyway, and let her fingers flip to one feed in particular, the one she always saved for last. Seeing it was enough to tease out a smile, her lips curling with self-satisfaction. So much tubing going into another person’s flesh had never looked so good.

But then the blinking light caught Mal’s eyes again, and her good mood dissolved like a bitter pill in water.

She dimmed the monitors and reached for the cane left propped against the module. With its help she stood, the vertebrae in her back cracking as she did. All those years of cheap artificial-g were finally catching up to her. On the Royal Arc they had the good stuff, real planet-grade gravity fields. She didn’t know why, when there was only bound to be two crewmembers out of cryo at any given time. Well, alright: she did know why. It was because the people who built it were filthy rich and could afford all the extra fixings. Mal, on the other hand, had been doing two hours a day in the grav-reset chair for most of her life, stretching muscles and putting pressure on joints so they wouldn’t forget how to carry her weight. She’d been crunching vitamin tablets to keep herself alive for so long her skin had taken a greenish cast, her eyes the charming color of jaundice. There were only so many planets with the right air and gravity to go around. The rest just had to make do, trust in machines to keep them human when space tried to twist them into something unrecognizable.

Mal never could get used to the warm, natural light that illuminated the ship’s hallways, almost like actual sunlight. When she first boarded, she could have basked under it for hours. After so long aboard, she hardly saw it. She was thinking about the control room, the red light blinking on the module. She’d tried for days to turn the damn thing off. That would only be turning off the indicator, and not what it was indicating; but it would give Mal a chance to forget about it for maybe five minutes at a time. Were it not for that one, tiny detail, her entire mission would have gone off flawlessly. But there it was. Blinking, even in her brain. A light that led to a circuit board that led to a radio, which was currently broadcasting a distress signal. By then it had undoubtedly been received by the exact people whose attention Mal was most desperate to avoid. They knew she was there. And they wouldn’t wait around to see what she was going to do next. The Sovereigns valued action—and very powerful guns.

At the same time, a ship from her people in the Reaches was heading towards a rendezvous point, ready to pull her out of the fire. In the end, it would come down to whichever ship got to her faster.

Mal ground her teeth as she walked, her cane a constant sharp-edged click against the floor. The plan had been perfect. A ship like this was run on a tight, inflexible schedule. Two crewmembers were awake at all times to keep watch over their sleeping friends, and make sure the ship didn’t decide to self-destruct. Through shrewd spy-work, Mal’s handlers had discovered exactly when the watchmen would be changed, one pair put to bed as the others woke up to take the helm. There was a window—an incredibly brief window—between the old watch strapping in and the new one waking up. A window of minutes. It had been Mal’s job to land, infiltrate the ship (past its incredibly complex automated security systems, by the way), and cancel the wake-up procedure before the next crewmembers could open their eyes. All in a couple of minutes, which was impressive, vanity aside. A bloodless coup. The crewmembers would never even know that an enemy agent was on board.

That was the idea, at least. How many spies could dance on the head of a pin? As it turned out, one. And not all that gracefully.

One of the two guards had gone under by the time Mal docked. The other was halfway into the first stages of cryo sleep when Mal triggered a minor failsafe from the computer’s control room. One wrong keystroke, and the guard on the cryo deck received a ping. He came to investigate. And she couldn’t kill him fast enough.

Couldn’t kill him at all, in fact. That was what really jarred her. Not only had he managed to activate the distress beacon, but he’d slipped away on an escape pod heading back for home sweet home. When the cavalry of Sovereign plasma-slingers and hull-borers showed up, she had no doubt he, Lt. Warren Adams would be leading the charge. A regular hero. Mal hated heroes.

Her footsteps down the hallway slowed. She knew exactly where she was on the ship, massive as it was. The thing was built like a castle, its base housing the ship’s guts and brains and heart, and of course, the engines. Rising out of it like turrets were four narrow decks, and it was down the largest one Mal went limping. She took her time, sidling past the doors, which opened up to her like a pair of arms. Inside, the air was cool and dry. The walls and ceiling of the hall were dedicated to the bulk of the machinery, cables spilling out like multicolored guts. Cryo wasn’t cheap and it sure wasn’t compact. Her cane landed with a hollow echo on the gleaming floor. Lying not so far below, sleeping faces watched the bottoms of Mal’s boots pass by.

The crew lay beneath the glass panels of the floor, laid out straight-backed on their cryo beds in a nest of tubes and needles, the apparatus that kept them asleep and alive. In truth, Mal found the sleepers a bit unsettling. They were like ghosts, looking human but empty inside, unless she flipped a switch.

But it wasn’t the crew she cared about. Her footsteps took her to the end of the deck, the hallway opening up to a circular room where the ship’s officers were stored. Mal made her way slowly to the center of the floor and stared down at the sleeping figure below. Slowly, her smile crept back onto her face.

She tapped her cane lightly on the glass. The face beneath it did not stir.

“Hello, Beautiful,” Mal said softly.