I'M YOUR VENUS
Sylvia Stryker Space Case #2
$3.99 ebook | $13 paperback
Release date: Aug 21, 2018
Sylvia Stryker is taking space by storm—and the galaxy is gearing up for adventure as national bestselling author Diane Vallere blasts Sylvia’s Moon Unit to Venus…
When Sylvia Stryker boards Moon Unit 6 as the uniform lieutenant, it’s with an eye on the future. After space pirates destroyed her life, the trek to Venus provides a fresh start. But when the winner of a promotional contest designed to hype the trip is found dead outside the uniform ward, sleuthing takes top priority.
The amorous effect of Venus on the already frisky passengers threaten to compromise the investigation—not to mention the victim’s secret relationship with Sylvia’s boss. Forward thinking, back channels, and distractions on the side lead Sylvia on a pulse-pounding probe that exposes a murderer along with the surprising truth about her past.
chapter 1: Departure point
Moon Unit 6 was twice the size of the last spaceship the company had in rotation, and, thanks to the wonders of technology, half the weight. At least that’s what the press release claimed. The ship was docked by the boarding station where families of sweepstakes finalists were gathered. The sweepstakes was a publicity stunt intended to distract the tourist-traveling public from what had happened the last time a Moon Unit promised “the adventure of a lifetime.”
A whole lot had changed for me on that trip, not the least of which was the destruction of my home planet, Plunia. So while I understood why a lot of the crew who I’d met on my first Moon Unit mission chose to seek employment elsewhere, I had my own motivation for returning to the company. In short, I had nowhere else to go.
“Stryker,” said a gruff voice behind me.
I turned to face a wall of muscle dressed in a fitted black T-shirt and a pair of cargo pants. Only one division of the Moon Unit crew wasn’t required to wear regulation uniforms on the day of departure: security. But it didn’t take the memorization of the uniform regulations to recognize the man approaching me. He was Neptune, the head of the security division. “I wasn’t sure you’d be here,” he said.
“C’mon, you know you already checked the crew manifests to see if they hired me back. Don’t lie on my account.”
Neptune raised one eyebrow. It was his signature facial expression. During some of the worst circumstances I’d experienced in my life, the only reaction I’d gotten out of him was a raised eyebrow. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to bust me this time. I’m an official crew member. See?” I held up the plastic ID that hung from a lanyard around my neck. Sylvia Stryker, Uniform Lieutenant, 2nd class, Moon Unit 6.
Neptune took my ID card between his fingers and read it. “You should have applied to work security. You’re overqualified for this assignment.” He dropped the plastic and it bounced against my chest.
“The employee manual says security positions are only for graduates of the space academy.”
“You were supposed to get your degree after Moon Unit 5 docked.”
“I got distracted.”
Neptune’s heavy, eyebrows pulled together over his intensely dark eyes, and he stared at me in a way that probably cracked a lot of criminals. It had a different effect on me. I mean, sure, my pulse picked up and I became aware of my breathing, but not because he made me feel guilty. Something about Neptune challenged me in a way I hadn’t been challenged before, and in the months after our last moon trek, I’d found my thoughts returning to the mystery behind the head of security.
Moon Unit 6 had been designed with not one but two lounges from which passengers could literally stare off into space. Today, the crew had been encouraged to board early and assemble on Observation Deck One to watch the sweepstakes festivities. OB One was connected to the ship by a diagonal beam, allowing us to look down on the hopeful passengers from an overhead perspective. Because my Plunian respiratory system required air with a higher oxygen content than humans needed, I wore an air filtration helmet that regulated my intake until the ship passed the breakaway point into zero gravity. At that point, the ship maintained a proprietary blend of nitrogen and oxygen that accommodated the widest range of species. At least on this journey, I wouldn’t have to hide my genetic shortcomings. It was hard enough trying to blend in with purple skin.
“Besides,” I said, “You’re the head of security. If you wanted me to work on your team, you could have contacted me to let me know.”
Neptune gestured at the crowds awaiting the announcement. “Moon Unit Corporation kept me busy with this contest. There’s a personnel director on the staff. It was up to him to fill vacancies on the crew, not me.”
“I met him the day I picked up my uniforms. TJ Woodward, right? Nice guy. A little too clean cut for my tastes, but he didn’t make a big deal about my background, so I figured he was okay.”
“Your name was on the pre-approved list. Staff of Moon Unit 5 were automatic hires if you applied. After what we went through, it was the easiest way for the company to avoid a lawsuit.”
“Who threatened to sue?”
Figured. From my very first run-in with the little green men, I hadn’t been a particularly big fan.
“So, Stryker. Anything I need to know before we depart for Venus?” Neptune asked. “Secrets you plan to keep that will make my job more difficult?”
“No secrets. My name is on the crew manifests. Legitimately this time. And like I told you, the biggest problem I plan to deal with is keeping the crew in clean uniforms. Maybe somebody will spill something and challenge me with a stain. Other than that, I’m just a girl looking for a free trip to Venus.”
In terms of tourist destinations, Venus was an interesting choice. It was rumored that the planet’s atmosphere triggered amorous feelings in visitors and made it desirable for honeymoons, romantic getaways, and illicit affairs. And since Venus was already zoned for residential colonies and tourist activities, the atmosphere was clear enough for me to breathe.
“No plans to do anything that will require me to lock you up?”
“Nope. I’m going to be the best uniform lieutenant the new Moon Unit owners have ever seen. I passed the physical with flying colors, and I fit everything I need into one bag to minimize the weight print of the ship. If Yeoman D’Nar gives me even a hint of attitude, I’m going to wave my hiring papers in her face.”
“Yeoman D’Nar isn’t on this trek. She left the company. You didn’t run your own background checks?”
“No,” I said. “I thought I’d learn about my coworkers the regular way.”
Our conversation was cut short when a spokesperson for Moon Unit Corporation took to the stage below the observation deck. Families crowded closer to compartmentalized viewing and listening stations to hear if their loved one was the winner of the I’m Your Venus Promotional Contest.
“How do the announcers know the name they draw is cleared for the trip?” I asked, partially to myself.
“Part of the application process. Each of the finalists signed waivers that said their likeness could be used in the media campaign surrounding the trip.”
“What about background checks and physicals? Stuff like that? Moon Unit Corp has been promoting this contest for the past two months. We’re scheduled for departure today. How do they know nothing happened in that time to disqualify a person from being eligible?”
“You’re overly suspicious,” Neptune said.
“You’re security section. Aren’t you?”
His arms were crossed over his chest, and his feet were shoulder-width apart. It was the Neptune stance. The effect was intentional intimidation and judging from the way non-crew members gave him a wide berth as they passed, it was effective. Just not on me. I’d developed a mental immunity to his tactics somewhere around the point when he risked his position to protect me. I had so many questions about his actions, but I hadn’t asked them, and now, after what I’d learned about him during our break, I didn’t know if those questions were better left ignored.
And while my brain had questions about Neptune’s motivations, my vital signs had an agenda of their own. Whenever I thought about him for any length of time, my purple coloring intensified. Right now, standing next to him for the first time since we’d parted after the last trip, I was thankful for the long sleeves of my uniform.
“There’s a list of finalists in the main computer,” Neptune said. “I’ve been monitoring each of them for the past thirty days. Daily routine, job, health, colleagues, financial status. The system pings when one of them so much as puts on an unusually colored pair of socks. Moon Unit Corp wasn’t going to take any chances on who they let on board this ship.”
“But it’s supposed to be random, right? There’s a giant fiberglass ball on the stage next to the spokesperson. She’s going to spin the ball and then pull a name and announce it in front of all these people. Random.”
He leaned closer. My bubble helmet kept me from detecting his scent or feeling his breath on my ear, but I flushed anyway. I pulled my sleeves down over my hands to hide the glow. “That’s what they want you to think,” he said. He pulled away and raised his eyebrow again.
It made sense that the company would have some sort of control over their passengers, but I hadn’t expected them to fool the general public of our galaxy with something of this magnitude. Once upon a time people may have signed up for a sweepstakes and not thought about the trade-off of their personal information, but after Earth became so overpopulated that earthlings had moved onto other planets, and galaxies that had gone largely undiscovered became fair game for developers, everything changed. Now everybody was looking to make a buck. For some, all it took was a decent bribe and a knowledge of back channels to find out what they wanted to know.
That, I knew firsthand.
My skills with computers and electronics had been my main source of income since the moon trek three months ago. Despite my claims of being on the up and up for the trip to Venus, I’d engaged in more than one illegal act since the last time he’d seen me. A girl’s gotta make a living. Even a Plunian.
The general noise level from the dock rose, and chutes released pressurized steam into the sky around the platform. Giant light filters had been angled around the stage, and the steam took on shades of bright yellow, citrine, and chartreuse. For about seventeen seconds, everybody looked Martian. And then, a name was projected onto the wall behind the stage: Xina Astryd. A tall woman with shimmery skin that appeared to glow from within strolled toward the stage. Her luminous hair caught the tones of the filters and lit up like filaments. Her deliberate pace didn’t fit the excitement of the event or the surroundings, and others in the crowd bent their heads together and whispered as she passed them.
“Is she the winner?” I asked. “She doesn’t look particularly happy.”
“Xina Astryd. Venusian. Notoriously reserved. Left Venus to pursue a career in the entertainment industry on Colony 7.”
“I thought Colony 7 was mostly Gremlons.”
“Mostly, but not exclusively.”
I wanted Neptune to keep talking, but his focus had shifted from our casual conversation to the platform below. Xina had a regal quality about her, not exactly hurt by the fact that she was seven feet tall—a full head and shoulders above everyone else. Venusians averaged taller height than most aliens in the galaxy, especially the women. Their planet was a decadent vacation spot enjoyed by those with money to burn, and since my home planet had been populated with ice miners and potato farmers, I’d never had the wherewithal to go. Even before space pirates had destroyed it, we’d mostly stayed where we were.
A light on the interior of the observation deck blinked yellow. It was a reminder to general crew to head to our positions for takeoff. I pointed to the lights. “Time to get to our stations. Are you coming?”
If Neptune answered, I didn’t hear him. All noise in the observation deck was drowned out by an explosion on the docking deck below.