Stealing Coal Page 2

Fear caused the man to take a quick step back. Jill relaxed. Her father had a widespread vicious reputation and was the only reason she hadn’t been killed―yet. If they knew he’d died a year before and that she really ran his trading business now… She hid a shudder of fear, just considering the possibilities of what would happen. A lone woman dealing with the lowest forms of humanity wouldn’t have lasted a week without being raped or sold into sexual slavery at a space whorehouse, and eventually killed. It could be brutal in space.

Her com beeped and she looked down. Right on time. She pushed the button. “I’m hurrying, Big Jim. Please don’t get mad. They aren’t screwing with me and the transfer just passed. Check it yourself. Please don’t blow up their ship.”

The captain of the freighter got a wild look as he backed up more, bumped into one of the boxes of food she’d just offloaded, and nearly tripped.

“Hurry up,” a gruff male voice snarled. “I’m in a bad mood today and would love to kill shit. I’m monitoring every move you make. You need to undock my shuttle now to make the meeting point with my warship.”

The com beeped, signaling the end of the connection. Jill peered up to see the effect on the man who’d just hit on her. He paled and his fingers gripped the electric pad so hard she wondered if he’d break it.

“He sounds mean.”

“He is. Everything you’ve ever heard about him is all true.” She pretended to be terrified. “I gave him coffee he didn’t think I made hot enough last year and he broke my arm in two places. I once saw him skin a guy alive for cheating him out of a crate of gel fuel.” The lies were easier to tell with a lot of practice. “He enjoys killing.”

“You need to go now.” The captain paled more. “It’s good doing business with Big Jim. Please tell him we appreciate it a lot and hope to do it again soon.”

“I will.”

Male laughter had Jill turning her head to discover the source. There were four crew members surrounding the bound gray-skinned male on the freight table. One of them punched the helpless man in the stomach. The sound carried as fist hit flesh. She inwardly winced.

“Don’t mind that.”

Jill hesitated. “Is that a cyborg? I’ve never seen one before. I didn’t even know there were any left alive.”

“It was the damnedest thing.” The captain’s voice grew excited. “We were hailed by this life capsule. You know the law about having to respond to all emergency beacons and intercept them. We scooped it up and there were two of them inside.”

Glancing around, she frowned. “I don’t see the other one.”

“You won’t. We contacted Earth when we found them to see if they were worth anything, hoping to score a big reward. I only told them I had one, you know, in case the government tried to pull any shit and they did.” Anger tinged his voice. “They sent a damn warship right at us and forced me to hand it over to them. That one they didn’t know about.” He gave her a wink. “I’m real smart.”

And heartless, mean, and a total jerk, she silently added. “What a brilliant plan.”

“You know how Earth is.” His lip curled. “Damn Government these days. I long for the old days before it all turned to shit when they began telling everybody how to live. The last straw for me happened when they started charging fees for surviving past a hundred and ten. It’s a sad day when you literally can’t afford to live there. They send out death squads to kill older folks if they can’t pay up. They seized my cargo, spouting off some law I never heard of, claiming I had their property illegally. My ass. They just didn’t want to pay for him. I would have fought it but they threatened to blow us up.”

“That’s why I don’t live on Earth anymore.” She tensed when she witnessed another crew member hit the restrained cyborg. He didn’t make a sound but she knew it had to hurt. “Aren’t you afraid they are going to kill him?”

“Naw. Those cyborg bastards are tough and my men are just warming him up. He needs to learn how to handle pain. I’m taking him to the Arris Station. They offered me real good money for him.”

Oh shit. The Arris Station had become well known and feared. If they were selling the cyborg there his lifespan would be pretty short unless he happened to be super tough. The station broadcasted their twisted form of entertainment out to paying customers everywhere in the galaxies. They usually used criminals or mutated space pirates to put inside a locked cage together to fight until one died. The death matches were said to be so brutal most official programming signal senders wouldn’t carry the option to buy the feed.

“Want to see him up close? I kept this one because he’s got scars and looked meaner. The other one was kind of pretty and I figured he didn’t fight much. I made a good deal with Arris. They really wanted him bad when I sent a vid of him. I not only get a flat-out payment but a small percentage of however many fights he survives.”

Jill hesitated. Pity welled up inside her for the poor cyborg. Soon enough he’d find himself in a living hell far worse than the one he currently had been dealt. The captain took her silence for agreement and started to move toward the flat freight-loader table, leaving her to follow.

“Come on.”

The crew torturing the poor gray-skinned male moved back, all giving Jill’s body a thorough examination when she stopped about five feet from them. Her gaze wandered slowly over the biggest man she’d ever seen. They’d chained his arms above his head, stretching them high up, and muscles bulged in his thick biceps. His skin—a warm, sleek metallic gray—reminded her of the bulkhead color on her shuttle. She stared into his dark, furious gaze.

She forgot to breathe as they studied each other. He had really pretty eyes, though fury darkened them. They appeared nearly black under the bright, overhead cargo lights but she knew they weren’t. They were probably deep brown. A low growl came from his parted, full lips, drawing her focus to them. There was no denying his handsome looks—in a rugged, strong-boned sort of way. The cyborg reeked of an overload of testosterone in her opinion.

“See why I kept him? Doesn’t he look vicious?” The captain and his offensive stink inched closer to Jill. “Those are grade-four steel chains. He broke free twice from the lower density ones. He’s a strong bastard and on his feet, he’s six feet five—we measured him for the Arris. He weighs in at two hundred sixty pounds.”

“That’s big,” she agreed automatically.

Her gaze lowered to his massive chest. She hid her horror at seeing darkened skin there that she identified as bruises. The crew had definitely been pounding their fists on the unfortunate cyborg. His stomach tensed, showing ridged muscles from his rib cage to the waist of the black, baggy shorts he wore. Her throat dried and she swallowed at the sight of how firm and in shape he appeared to be. She’d never seen anyone that muscular.

“We had to shoot him with five doses of knockout drugs to get him down. He’s got a high tolerance to them so we’re hoping it’s the same for his pain threshold.”

She nodded, unable to speak. His thighs were substantial, muscular limbs and his legs were bent at the edge of the flat surface, his ankles chained by more steel, securing them at the bottom of the freight carrier table. Her gaze jerked back to his face when he growled low again.

“Like what you see?” He had a harsh, deep voice that sounded damaged.

No one spoke that way, that roughly, unless something bad had happened to their larynx. They must have hit him there as well. Shivers ran down Jill’s spine when she realized the cyborg was speaking to her.

He glared at the captain next. “I will break free and kill more of your men. You will all die when my friends come searching for me.”

Holy shit. Die?

The captain took a menacing step forward and shook a first. “I lost four good men, you freak. You really want to taunt me?”

“I’m going to tear you apart with my bare hands,” the cyborg promised calmly.

“Shut up,” the captain snapped. “You want my men to get the shock sticks again?” He suddenly grinned at Jill. “Want to see something fun?” He turned his head and nodded at one of the men. “Get them. Light his ass up for her and show her how he jerks around. It’s amusing as hell.”

“No!”

She backed up and then realized her mistake as all heads swung in her direction, their frowning faces staring back at her. Shit! Her reactions needed to live up to being a heartless bitch who worked for the meanest, nastiest, bloodlusting trader ever born. Watching someone be tortured should have been something entertaining to the character she played, not horrifying. She thought fast.

“I’m running late already and it’s going to piss Big Jim off if I don’t undock now. I never want to do that. You don’t want to do that either.”

The captain swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Yeah. You better get on your shuttle.” He motioned to his men. “Let’s store the new cargo. We can watch the freak suffer when we’re done.”

Jill had to look away from the struggling cyborg. He kept fighting the restraints in an attempt to break free, though it wasted his energy. She didn’t blame him. He wasn’t just going to be tortured by the crew but faced the eventual certainty of being beaten to death in a cage when he reached Arris. Pity and remorse slammed into her. Sometimes the shit she saw while trading made her wish she’d never left Earth. Not that Earth ranked that much higher but at least there humans attempted to hide their ugly sides. In space they flaunted their brutality as though it were a badge of honor.

Jill spun on her heel and forced her legs to move. Regret tugged at her conscience for the poor man she walked away from. Is he a man? She didn’t know and her mind had no answer to give. She guessed he rated as one considering he must be made of flesh and blood if he could bleed. He obviously could feel pain. She had a limited education on the subject of cyborg history. Aunt Mary hadn’t told her anything about them except the fact that they had been decommissioned for being too dangerous. Later, as she grew older, she’d realized what that entailed. The Government had slaughtered them.

Big Jim had insisted she be reared on Earth by his sister but Jill had been kept secluded from other people for her own safety. If any of her father’s enemies―there were many of those―had known he had a daughter, they would have killed her long ago. The irony of using his name to survive as an adult hadn’t been lost on her. As a child she’d been forbidden to even mention him for fear someone would discover her connection.

She lowered her chin when she approached her shuttle. “Open up, says me,” she whispered into the com at the outer door.

The docking door slid upward and a ramp slowly lowered to the floor in front of her feet. She’d had to fly her shuttle up into docking port of the larger ship to secure it to the freighter. She glanced nervously around when she moved forward, her boots making a metallic sound on the thin metal floor, and breathed out a sigh of relief after she stepped inside the cargo hold. One more safe trade had been accomplished.

She turned then, peering out at the large cargo bay. Her gaze instantly homed in on the cyborg and she knew he would haunt her. Guilt could be a horrible thing. He still fought his chains, his muscles flexing and bulging, something she could see even from a distance. Her teeth dented her lower lip over the conflict his situation caused her.

“Close the doors,” she ordered aloud. The ramp slid upward to return to the under floor she stood on and the shuttle door lowered to hide the sight of the cargo bay. She could no longer view the cyborg.

Jill stood here breathing slowly, her heart heavy from the reality that her life had turned to shit a year before when she’d received a message that her father wanted to see her. Aunt Mary had traveled with her and they’d met the dreaded Big Jim. His brutal lifestyle had finally taken its toll. He’d been on his deathbed and his body hadn’t even grown cold before his crew of brutal killers revolted.

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