Shielder Series, Book One
Science Fiction Romance from RITA nominated author!
The Controllers have engineered a virus that is killing Shielders. In the hopes of finding a cure, the Shielders need a human host to get the deadly Orana virus past Controller checkpoints and to a medical lab on the planet Santerra. With her people facing extinction, outcast Nessa dan Ranul volunteers to be the host and is injected with the Orana. She has only four weeks to make it to Santerra before the virus kills her.
When her ship breaks down in deep space, she’s rescued by her most dangerous enemy—a shadower, a bounty hunter who tracks down Shielders. She can’t tell him the truth about her dilemma, or he will turn her in to the Controllers.
Shadower Chase McKnight has an agenda more pressing than claiming bounty rewards—vengeance. He doesn’t have time for a homeless waif who ignites emotions he buried long ago. He refuses to allow anything to deter him from his mission, which results in traveling away from Santerra—while the time bomb inside Nessa is ticking down. But she doesn’t dare trust this man who is an enemy of Shielders.
Their secrets and agendas don’t prevent the growing attraction between them, even as they fight their individual demons—even as time runs out for Nessa. Only love can bring them full circle, offering Chase redemption, and the chance to save Nessa—and ultimately, her people.
She was stranded in space.
Only two days out, the main stardrive quit functioning. Nessa had no expertise in repairing stardrives, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she had. A search of the ship’s engineering bay revealed no spare parts. Spaceships of any kind were in short supply among Shielders, much less parts.
Ships seldom traveled this area of the sector. She would have to send out a distress signal, even though transmitting any signal presented risks. She could attract space pirates, Anteks—or worse—Controllers.
But she had no choice. Her only other option was waiting for the Orana to incubate fully. That would solve the problem of her miserable existence, but wouldn’t help her people. Genuine fear gnawed at her. Realizing how badly she wanted to live surprised her.
She activated the signal.
A ship responded within two hours. Nessa was crouched in front of the open stardrive casing, studying a technical schematic, when the incoming message alert activated. She scrambled up and went to the cockpit. Before answering the hailing ship, she studied the sensor readings.
The approaching ship appeared much larger than her craft, possibly three or four times in size. Although the sensors classified the ship as a private long-range cruiser, they also indicated it was loaded to the hilt with advanced scanning equipment and considerable armaments.
Only Controllers or their agents were allowed to operate spaceships so equipped in this sector. Dread settled over Nessa, but she knew she had to answer the hail or raise suspicions. She opened voice communication.
“Who are you and what are you doing in this sector?” a male voice roared over the communicator. It was a deep, resonant, arrogant voice. Not the wavering, whispery utterance of a Controller. But the voice could belong to an Antek.
“I’m Nessa Ranul,” she answered, dropping the dan from her name. Only Shielders used the system of naming sons and daughters after their fathers. “I’m on a pilgrimage to Zirak to honor our mother goddess Shara.”
“Turn on your holo transmitter.”
She raised the hood of her pilgrim robe over her head, grateful the computer had provided thorough files on the cult worship of Shara. She pressed the pad, watching the screen. No visual appeared. The man had not turned on his transmitter. He could see her, but she couldn’t see him. She stood stiffly while he completed his one-way perusal.
She jumped when he suddenly barked, “Why is your distress signal on? Are you ill or injured?”
His curtness offended her. Although she couldn’t see the man, Nessa decided she didn’t like him. She stared levelly at the holocorder. “My stardrive is inoperable. I need assistance repairing my ship.”
He snorted contemptuously. “Pilgrim, your ship looks older than your sun. I don’t have the parts you’d need for repairs, and I doubt they would be for sale anywhere. When I get to the next star base, I’ll send a tow ship for you.”
Alarm edged aside her intensifying dislike for the man. With the Orana growing inside her, she couldn’t wait for a tow. If her ship couldn’t be repaired, she needed a ride to the nearest transport. Jarek’s coins would ensure her passage to Santerra. “It could take days for a ship to get here from a base,” she argued, struggling to keep her voice calm. “I can’t wait that long.”
“I don’t have time to play rescuer. A ship will be here in a week. If you’re low on supplies, I can give you some. What do you need? Be quick about it.”
A week! Full-blown panic surged. Nessa searched for words to convince this insolent, cold person to help her without revealing her true identity. “I can’t wait a week. I need to get to the shrine of Shara. I must be there for the eclipse. Please, you have to help me.”
“I don’t have to help anyone. If you don’t need supplies, I’m on my way.”
“No, wait!” Nessa felt beginning tremors and feared she’d have a seizure then and there. Taking a deep breath, she willed herself to calm. “The eclipse coinciding with the festival of Shara occurs only once every fifty seasons. I’ll never again have this opportunity to receive the full blessing of the goddess.”
She paused, mentally sorting arguments. “Take me with you. You can leave me at the star base. I’ll catch a transport from there. Please. This is very important.”
A long, tortuous interval of silence ensued. “How many are aboard your ship?” he finally demanded.
Nessa hesitated, surprised. His advanced scanners should have provided him that information.
“Answer me. How many?”
“That’s odd. I’m picking up two life forms. I don’t give passage to people I can’t trust. No deal.”
Her thoughts whirled. His readings made no sense, unless—Turi. “I also have a pet on board. But he’s the only other living creature on the ship. I swear on the goddess.”
“I don’t give a flying meteorite about your goddess.” An irritated sigh rumbled over the com. “But since you foolishly carry no viable armament, you probably won’t last the week against pirates if I leave you here. Prepare for boarding.”
Relieved, she sagged against the console, easing the weight off her throbbing leg. The arrogant voice thundered through the com again. “You may bring only what you can carry. I’m not a freighter service. And be fast about it. We leave in five minutes.”
Seeing no need for further discussion, she nodded and cut the visual. She rushed to gather her few belongings. The pouch with the coins went into the inside pocket of her tunic. She slipped her magnasteel dagger, the only weapon she’d managed to keep in her possession since her injury, into her boot.
She filled a large knapsack with her meager food supply. Turi went, chattering in protest, into a smaller pack. “Hush,” she told him. “Not a peep out of you.”
Her last act was to erase all records from the computer. No information that might lead to Liron could be left behind. The Controllers offered persuasive rewards to those who found Shielder colonies. Their determination to wipe out the only race capable of resisting their mind domination was fanatical.
As she finished activating the delete program, she felt the thud of a ship docking with hers. Her rescuer, whoever—or whatever he was—had arrived.
Nessa slipped the small pack with Turi over one shoulder and picked up her supplies. She walked to the airlock as the panel slid open. The man stepping through the panel towered over her, but he wasn’t an Antek. The apelike Anteks were stupid brutes. She sighed in relief, realizing her rescuer’s obvious intelligence should have negated that possibility. The innate ability to sense her own kind—which all Shielders possessed—told her he wasn’t a Shielder either.
He was large, with broad shoulders and an impressive chest. The black flightsuit stretched taut across his muscled frame emphasized his size. Cold gray eyes pinned her to the spot, glaring at her from a harsh, chiseled face. Dark blond hair brushed against the top of his shoulders. Distracted by his appearance, she realized belatedly he had an activated stunner trained on her.
He moved quickly for his size, striding to her and skimming her with a hand scanner. His sudden loud sneeze sent her heart pounding even faster. “Blazing hells, the dust in here! Your air filtration system must not be working properly.” Scowling fiercely at her as if that were her fault, he resumed scanning. “Remove your weapon.”
Defiance was risky, but Nessa hesitated giving up her only protection. “What weapon?”
His eyes narrowed to silver slits. “The weapon in your boot. Don’t play games with me. One more challenge from you, and I’ll leave you here to rot. Is that clear?”
She nodded, slipping the dagger out and offering it to him. He slid the scanner into his flightsuit and took it, his large hand engulfing hers. He sneezed again.
Muttering under his breath, he whirled and strode to the engineering bay. She followed and watched as he squatted beside the open stardrive. He studied it a moment, then released a low whistle. “The primary driver coil is cracked right down the middle. The whole unit will have to be overhauled. This ship isn’t going anywhere.”
He rose and sneezed again. “By the fires of the Abyss, your polluted air is going to suffocate me. We’ll finish this on my ship. Come on, get moving.” Picking up Nessa’s bag of supplies, he swung behind her, prodding her toward the airlock. Well aware of the weapon still trained on her, she tried to move as fast as she could.
But her leg, stiff from her first crouching in front of the stardrive, then standing too long, refused to cooperate. It gave out, and she pitched forward. The man snaked an arm around her and yanked her up before she hit the floor.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
His arm pressed upward against her breasts like a steel band. Nessa balanced on her good leg and tried to pry his arm away. He didn’t budge.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she gasped, still tugging. “I tripped.”
He released her and she almost stumbled again. “Try to be less clumsy. Let’s go.”
Her leg held the weight this time, although she couldn’t control her limp. He didn’t comment, but then, he was too busy sneezing—three times—before they got through the airlock into his ship.
He closed the hatch and lowered her supplies to the floor. His relentless gaze settled on her again. “What’s wrong with your leg?”
Nessa didn’t discuss her injury with anyone, not even Jarek. “Nothing. I’m just stiff from standing so long.”
He sneezed and shook his head angrily. “That’s what I get for stopping,” he muttered, taking her arm. “Over here. No one enters my ship without going through decontamination first.”
“What’s that?” she asked warily, digging in her heels.
He gave an impatient jerk, pulling her toward a panel. “Just some sterilizing rays that remove germs and dirt.” He stopped in front of the panel, pointing to her tunic. “Take that filthy rag off. I’ll clean it in the conclave. If that doesn’t do the job, it’s refuse.”
She clutched her tunic. She had never bared her body to anyone. “I will not. You can’t destroy this. I have nothing else to wear.”
He started to speak, then sneezed again twice. She noticed his eyes beginning to water. “By the gods!” he snarled. “You try my patience, lady. And you brought that polluted air in here with you. Either that, or something on you is irritating my allergies.” He jerked up her bag of supplies and began rifling through it.
Allergies? This incredible specimen of a warrior had allergies? Nessa found his behavior bewildering. And her people thought she was crazy. Tossing the supplies down, he spun her toward him. “Let me see the other bag.”
Turi was in that bag. “No.” She fought to hang on to the knapsack, but he wrested it from her grasp. He raised the flap and Turi popped out, hissing angrily.
“A lanrax! You brought a frigging lanrax on my ship. I knew you were trouble the minute I saw your wretched excuse of a space vehicle.” He hauled Turi from the sack by the scruff of his neck.
“That’s the last time I stop to help anyone!” he roared. “By the gods, a pilgrim with a lanrax. It’s not staying here.” He strode down the corridor, sneezing repeatedly. Turi writhed and snarled, to no avail.
“What are you doing?” Alarmed, Nessa limped behind him, cursing her leg for slowing her down.
Halting, he opened a window airlock and stuffed Turi in. “I’m allergic to lanraxes—very allergic. Any lanrax crossing my path regrets it. I’m jettisoning this creature out of here.”
“No!” Frantic, she lunged forward and grabbed his arm before he could push the eject pad. “You can’t jettison him into space. He’ll die!”
A diabolical grin spread across the man’s face. “Exactly.”
Hysteria flooded her. Losing all restraint, she threw herself against him, screaming. “No! You can’t do this. You don’t understand . . . he’s all I have. Please don’t do this. Please . . . don’t . . . . He’s all I have!”
Sudden streaks of light flashed behind her eyes and she felt the beginning spasms rock her body. No! Not now . . .
It was her last conscious thought.
* * * *
“It’s about time you came around.” The gruff voice penetrated the edge of Nessa’s consciousness, but she didn’t respond. Although necessity had trained her to sleep lightly and awaken instantly, the seizures left her sluggish and disoriented. And for some reason she couldn’t quite grasp, she didn’t want to wake up.
A faint hum vibrated over her forehead. “Come now, pilgrim, I know you can hear me. Open your eyes.”
She knew the commanding, arrogant voice from somewhere. . . . No, she didn’t want to remember that voice. She shook her head.
“Still trying my patience. How about this: Either open your eyes or get a stimulant injection.”
Her eyes flew open. Steel-gray eyes, set in a cold face etched with disapproval, stared back. Him. His black-clad bulk filled her field of vision, making avoidance impossible. Memory returned, every excruciating detail of the moments before the darkness.
Turi! Grief slashed like a sharp blade through her body. She arched from the agony. He had jettisoned Turi. She clenched her eyes shut against the pain. Tension curled through her and light sparked behind her lids.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” A sharp twinge pierced her neck and the tightness flowed out of her muscles immediately. Limp, she sagged to the surface beneath her. But although her body was relaxed, her thoughts flowed clearly. The seizure. He must have stopped it.
Amazed, she opened her eyes again. He watched her, a frown on his face. His attention shifted to the medical monitor he was scanning over her chest—over the metallic blanket covering her bare chest. Her tunic was gone. As she struggled to absorb this information, he set the monitor aside.
“What just upset you so badly you almost sent yourself into another episode? I assume it’s not my face, since you didn’t react this way when you first saw me.”
The painful memory rushed back, forming a burning knot in her chest. Grasping the blanket in her fists, she glared at the man responsible for Turi’s demise. She had ceased hurling words long ago, instead internalizing her hurt and pain, so she held her silence.
His golden brows shot up as he looked at the knotted cover. “There you go again.” His warm hand slid over her cold fist. “Don’t tell me all this stress is over a worthless lanrax.”
Her stricken expression must have been answer enough. He shook his head in disgust. Moving back, he motioned toward the opposite wall. “That particular lanrax?”
Her head whirled to the side. There in a plexishield case, Turi stared back at her. Alive. He was plastered against the side, his mouth opening and closing in indignant protest. The case must be soundproof, since she couldn’t hear his chattering.
She nodded, overwhelmed by relief, her attention fixed on the case. As the immediate joy of discovering Turi unharmed faded, worry about her predicament resumed. She shifted her attention to the man. He wasn’t sneezing and his eyes were no longer red. What was he planning now?
He seemed to read her thoughts. “Don’t worry. That worthless creature is safe.” He shot a damning glare at Turi. “As long as he’s in the case, the dander is contained. I figure it’s easier to let him live than to revive you from a seizure every five minutes.” A determined expression crossed his face. “Now, about these seizures. How long have you been having them?”
Shame and humiliation engulfed her. She couldn’t bear to go through this again, to go though the degradation and disgrace. If he thought she was possessed, he might jettison her. Jarek wasn’t around to protect her this time. Scrambling upright, she grabbed the blanket, barely preventing it from slipping off her chest.
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
She started to get off the table, but he moved like light speed, grabbing her waist and pinning her there. His gaze bored into hers. “My examination and medical monitor say differently. Not just these episodes, but your leg—”
“My leg is fine,” Nessa insisted, struggling in earnest now. He restrained her easily, but she continued thrashing, mindless from rushing adrenaline. “There’s nothing wrong with my leg! It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s—”
“Stop it! I saw your injury. And I want to know why it wasn’t medically tended.”
She slumped back, trembling uncontrollably. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she whispered.
He stared at her, his expression incredulous, but he eased his grasp. “Your leg could have been repaired. And you should receive treatment for your seizures.”
She looked away. “I’m fine now, I tell you.”
“There’s no dishonor because you have seizures. You have a condition—a medical condition that has a name—and a treatment. You don’t have to suffer these episodes. And there are surgical procedures that could help your leg.”
Nessa refused to listen, refused to accept. She had survived too long by convincing herself she was okay, or at least functional. She didn’t dare dwell on far-fetched hopes beyond her reach. She shook her head. “I can get by. Just take me to the nearest star base. Then you’ll be rid of me.”
He exhaled angrily and released her. “Fine. Believe what you want.”
He took her tunic from a nearby cabinet and tossed it to her. “I sterilized this while you were resting, as you choose to call it. Get dressed. Join me in the cockpit when you’re done. It’s at the end of the corridor. We’ll discuss the rules of this ship. And believe me, there are plenty.”
The panel whirred shut behind him. Nessa slid from the table, avoiding the sight of her scarred leg. Still trembling, she fumbled into her tunic, her cold hands clumsy. One thought dominated her mind—her rescuer knew about her intolerable flaws. He hadn’t seemed particularly upset, but he might react later when he had time to reconsider the facts.
Perhaps his mocking suggestion of a cure for her seizures was his way of reacting, a cruel response to another’s unfortunate circumstances. He hadn’t displayed any inclination to help thus far; her plight appeared but an irritating inconvenience to him.
He might decide not to help at all. He might just turn her in at the nearest Controller prison. Fear churned in Nessa’s chest. She had to find a way to check his navigational system and ensure he was really headed to the closest star base. But there was no time now. He was waiting for her in the cockpit.
Her attention turned to Turi, still protesting in his container. She placed her palm against the cool plexishield, noting the filtered air vents on the sides. Turi flattened even more, trying to reach her through the barrier. She hesitated to release him. It was probably safer for him to remain in the case, especially if his containment averted further sneezing episodes from their host.
“Sorry, Turi. I have to leave you here for now. But I’ll be back.” Nessa glanced around the room. Gleaming, antiseptic-white walls of cabinets filled two sides. The table she’d vacated ran half the length of the third wall. Only it looked more like a bed than a table, with one end slightly elevated. A computer screen headed that end.
A counter skirted part of the fourth wall, where Turi’s case rested. An array of equipment lined the counter and the inset in the backdrop. A huge instrument took up the rest of the floor space beside the counter. The broad base angled upward into a metal column almost as tall as Nessa, with a double eyepiece centered in it. Upon closer inspection, she identified it as a scanning electron microscope. She’d seen a picture of one while browsing Liron’s computer data files. They were used mainly in medical research. This room must be a laboratory or sick bay.
“I don’t remember giving you permission to snoop. I’m waiting for you. Now.” The arrogant voice booming over the com jolted Nessa from her speculation. There was probably a holoviewer as well as the intercom in the room. She hastily located her boots.
When she tried to put on the first one, she found her pouch of coins stuffed inside. She’d forgotten all about the money. Relief rushed through her. At least her rescuer wasn’t a thief, whatever else he might be. She stuffed the pouch back into her tunic pocket and pulled on her boots.
The panel opened automatically at her approach. She stepped into a corridor illuminated by glowing light strips running along both the top and bottom of the walls. Fresh, temperate air issued from overhead vents.
She walked slowly along, craning her neck to see every detail. An electronic hum alerted her to an alcove ahead on her left. As she approached, she realized the alcove was actually a recessed chamber. A man stood just inside, watching her. Of medium height, with short blond hair and intense green eyes, he wore an expensive-looking tunic over leggings.
“Well, what have we here?” he drawled, looking her over. “You don’t look like a wanted person to me.”
Nessa gaped at him. She had assumed her rescuer was traveling alone. “Who are you?”
“Nathan Long, at your service,” he answered with a graceful sweep of his hand and a small bow. He straightened, his eyes calculating as they again swept her from head to toe. “I’d be delighted to foster an acquaintance with such a lovely lady. If you’d be so kind as to deactivate this force field, we could get to know each other better. The deact pad is to your right.”
Knowing full well no man would ever find her attractive, Nessa ignored his charming smile. “You’re a prisoner?” She eyed his cubbyhole curiously. She’d never seen a ship’s brig before. A narrow bunk and wall-recessed hygiene facilities were all it contained.
Nathan sighed dramatically. “I’d prefer to think of it as temporary custody. What’s your name? You look like you might need some assistance yourself. If you’d release me, I could—”
“You could rot in the Abyss,” a deep voice rang out.
Nessa whirled. Her rescuer strode toward them, scowling. He halted mere millimeters away, forcing her to tilt her head to look up at him. He glared at the prisoner. “As a matter of fact, you will burn in agony, Long. I’ll make certain of it.”
The prisoner shrugged indifferently. “I doubt that, McKnight. You don’t have anything on me. No proof. Just your deranged hallucinations.”
So her rescuer had a name. McKnight. Nessa rolled it around in her mind. McKnight bared his teeth in a feral grin. “Oh, yeah? Then why do you suppose the Controllers have a galaxy-wide sanction out for your capture? One with a reward of five thousand miterons attached?”
At the mention of the Controllers, a shiver racked Nessa’s body. Nathan wasn’t unaffected either; apprehension flitted across his face, but rapidly changed to arrogance. “Just a little misunderstanding, McKnight. I’ll be free very quickly. You’ll regret the day you crossed my path.”
“I’ll have no regrets when you suffer a slow, painful death,” McKnight growled. Grabbing Nessa’s arm, he pivoted and marched toward the end of the corridor, dragging her with him, heedless of her stumbling gait.
“Getting pretty desperate, aren’t you?” Nathan sneered after them. “I didn’t think females were your type. She’s pretty scrawny, but she doesn’t look like a boy to me.”
McKnight stiffened. He held his silence, but sped their pace. Breathless, Nessa noted two more brig cubicles as she bumped along behind him. A prison ship! This must be a Controller prison ship. Which confirmed McKnight was one of their designated agents.
He halted before the panel next to the airlock, the same one he had demanded she enter when they boarded the ship. “You still need to go through decontamination, along with your possessions. All of them. Wait here.” Whirling, he strode back down the corridor, entering the area Nessa had just vacated.
Having never experienced decontamination, she stared at the panel warily. A flashing light a few feet to the right of the panel drew her attention to a computer screen inset in the wall. The screen displayed a spacescape. Curious, she touched the screen. Instantly the image rippled, replaced by a gallery of holograms. Faces—rows of faces. Beneath each hologram were listed physical characteristics of each person, their last-known location, and the reward offered for their capture and delivery to the Controller prison base on Alta. At the bottom of the screen, a map depicted the entire quadrant, with flashing cursors on the last-known locations.
The full implication of the data hit Nessa just as the panel down the corridor slid open. Frozen with horror, she stared at McKnight coming toward her, the heavy plexishield case containing Turi resting easily on one arm.
The prisoner in the brig, the computer information, McKnight’s sense of urgency, all pointed to one thing. He wasn’t just a designated Controller agent. No, he was something far worse.
This man was a shadower. A bounty hunter.
And in this quadrant so cruelly ruled by the Controllers, Shielders were those most frequently hunted.
“Intruiging, imaginative, and HOT. Catherine Spangler takes us to a new dimension in her debut novel, Shielder.” ~ Kathy Baker, Waldenbooks
“Catherine Spangler has created an unforgettable world of chaos, revenge, redemption, and passion, set among the stars. Shielder is a captivating tale that you won’t want to put down . . . a fast-paced, action-packed romance that will leave your wanting more. Ms. Spangler is a new star on the romance horizon.”~ CompuServe Romance Reviews
“More than just a futuristic romance . . . filled with action and suspense. A sensational space story that will leave fans of SF and futuristic romance seeking out her previous titles even as they await her future novels!” ~ Under the Covers Book Reviews
“Shielder is great for its characters and love scenes… Boldly alive! A future full of danger, tempered with passion! Shielder is remarkable in its intensity! Characters that heat like wild fire! Catherine Spangler’s Shielder is fast and furious! Passion that builds an attraction that won’t die!” ~ Karen Ellington, Literary Times, Inc.