Gladys had never been good about waking up. Even after years of training herself to getting up at five a.m. every day, she still felt like something spit out of a gatto’s mouth first thing. Her head hurt. She managed to crack her eyes open and caught sight of her feet.
She didn’t often go to sleep wearing her uniform and she still wore her boots. Well, maybe that had happened once or twice, but that had been a long while ago. So what gave?
Groaning, she raised her head and peered about. Reddish, weak light filtered in through a small window. A round window, like most portholes on a spaceship, but she didn’t recognize it. It didn’t look like the window in her room. She tried to sit up, and things became even more complicated. She couldn’t move. Her hands were bound behind her back and her legs were tied together. Her head ached steadily now, and she might have thought the whole thing a bad dream brought on by too much…whatever. Except for the ties and the strange window.
Where was she?
As if to answer her question, the door slid up and a space lizard stepped into the room. Gladys stared at it. It looked familiar. She searched her badly dented memory.
“Who are you?” Gladys croaked. Her throat hurt to speak. “What is going on?”
The lizard turned a paler shade of green and its tail thrashed in agitation. “I have a little confession to make,” it said. “I’ve been following you for a while.”
“Oh?” Gladys tried to focus her eyes but the lizard seemed determined to stay blurry. Her throat was dry and now an icy trickle of fear slid down her spine. She had
been followed. “What do you want?” Suddenly her vision cleared. It didn't help. The lizard looked even meaner in focus.
The lizard hesitated, a malicious glint coming into its opalescent eyes. “You know there is a price on your head, Ms. Hawke. A steep price. I’m taking you to Zed Prime to collect my reward. The Zedis have been posting rewards for you for years, I’m surprised no one caught you.”
“Who are you?” Gladys asked between shivers. As the drug wore off, her body trembled uncontrollably.
“My name is of no importance to you. I’m a bounty hunter. You just happened to be my quarry and, you know, I always get my man. Or in this case, my woman.” It gave an evil chuckle.
Gladys’s mouth got dryer at the mention of bounty hunting. Others had tried to catch her, but usually her status as pilot for the Ever-Gee
protected her, or it had until now. “You’ll never get away with this.” Her heart pounded in her chest. “My shipmates will wonder where I am. Cha’ng will come after me, and you’ll find yourself turned into a lizard skin purse and shoes. Hell, I’ll wear you myself when I get through skinning you.”
The lizard tilted his head. “Of course, it would be nice to imagine someone rushing to your rescue, but I’ve covered my tracks. I’m a professional, you see. You’re mine now.”
“Never!” Fear jolted through her. The Zedis hated her with an unwavering fervor. She had to get away. Think Gladys, think!
“Just how do you think you’ll get away with this? I am the pilot for the—”
. I know. But they have copilots and emergency pilots and so don’t worry. You are not irreplaceable.” The lizard grinned. It was not a very nice sight. His teeth gleamed like needles. “You were very docile under the stunner’s influence. I rather enjoyed it. So be warned. Try anything funny, and I’ll use it again. And this time, maybe I won’t be as careful with the dosage.”
The venom in his voice made Gladys shudder harder. Her teeth chattered, but her mind was racing. “Why kidnap me? How can a measly reward be worth it? Besides, everyone knows you can’t trust the Zedis. They lie, they cheat—”
“And they will pay a king’s ransom to get their ruby back.”
“Ah.” Stealing the ruby from Zed Prime had seemed like a good idea at the time. She had done it on a dare from Cha’ng. Who’d have thought the Zedis worshipped it and would make such a fuss? “The ruby. Well, there is a slight problem. I don’t have the ruby.”
The lizard’s tail slashed across her legs with the force of a whip. So fast Gladys didn’t even see it coming. Tears of pain sprang into her eyes.
The lizard looked at her with narrowed eyes. “I really don’t like liars,” he said. “And anyway, it won’t matter. I know that you have it, and you know that you have it, and the people of Zed Prime know you have it. You don’t have to tell me where it is, but I bet you’ll tell them, when they get through torturing you a bit. I hear the Zedi priests have a method that uses some sort of spider.”
Gladys’s mind churned. “Zedis don’t scare me.” Their spiders, on the other hand, scared her silly. “Sell me if you will—they’ll put me in a prison and the Federation will get me out. There is such a thing as a statute of limitations.” She managed to stop shaking and took a deep breath. One last chance…make him a greedy lizard, please.
“I suppose I’m lucky you haven’t decided to sell me as a slave or something like that.”
“A slave?” The lizard gave a shrill laugh. “A slave, that’s…” His voice died and a sly look came into his eyes. “A slave? Let’s imagine that. Gladys Hawke, for auction. Why didn’t I think of it myself? Ms. Hawke—I must congratulate you. You certainly have interesting ideas, and this one is the best I’ve heard in ages. I’ll advertise, and the Zedis can bid against all your other enemies. I’ll make a fortune.” He rubbed his scaly hands together.
“It’s illegal,” Gladys reminded him. She was glad of the shivers in her voice from the stunner wearing off. It helped make her sound afraid. She was
afraid. But after what she’d been through, it was hard to get terrified by a four-foot lizard with a stun-gun.
“Yesss,” he hissed. “In the Federation. But that never stopped me. Or you.” He cracked his knuckles and grinned. “Next stop, Market Island.”
Although it was what she’d been aiming for, the name chilled her. “Market Island?” What had seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago now seemed like folly. Had she jumped out of the frying pan into the proverbial fire? “You can’t! It’s not in the Federation! They’ll blow your ship out of space before you can even land, and they’ll kill me!”
“I doubt it. Not after the publicity I’m going to send ahead of me. Good-bye, Ms. Hawke. A word of advice. Don’t struggle too hard, those ropes will cut if they get too tight.”
Gladys watched as he left the room. A few moments later, the reddish light coming from the window flared and turned white. She had a view next to the exhaust system of the spacecraft. White light meant hyper-speed. She braced herself, waiting for the inevitable jolt and sickening sensation in her middle.
It would be over soon.
In less than a week she would be on Market Island, a den of iniquity renowned for its cutthroat space pirates, riff-raff, and criminal inhabitants. And then, she would find out if her plan had worked, or if she would regret it for the rest of her most likely very short life.