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Copyright ©2004 Lance Shawn McGill. All rights and characters reserved.

Chapter One: Jessie

The woman in the corner of the bar was easy to tell from the rest of the crowd. Even a glance would tell a stranger that she was out of place. Between the uneasy glances of the other patrons, and the fact that she was the only woman who wasn't serving drinks, her incongruity fairly screamed "I don't belong here". The fact that she seemed to be enjoying her oddity just accentuated it.

In appearance, she was dressed far more provocatively than even the skimpily clad waitresses, her semi-transparent top cut in a deep v that exposed her generous cleavage, the wispy white material doing nothing to hide her full breasts, instead highlighting them and her pale skin. Her skintight pants were similarly translucent, a deep obsidian color that seemed opaque in certain lights, nearly transparent in others. The body so teasingly revealed was well-formed, curvy yet muscular, with long legs accentuated by a pair of high stiletto heels that appeared to be made from crystal. Long chestnut hair framed a face with high cheekbones that highlighted her warm brown eyes and full lips. By all local standards, she was pretty, but the well-used pistol in her hip holster was ample warning not to take her for a playtoy despite the outfit.

And that, more than anything, was what set her apart; that aura of dangerousness and competence. The other patrons of the bar were all military types, whether in guard uniforms or those of the local militia: a mixing mostly of lower-level troops and a few officers. But despite her lack of a uniform, the woman seemed far more dangerous than any of the soldiers.

So the mens' resentment wasn't just due to her being an outsider, an intruder in their little safe haven of male exclusion. No, it was due to the fact that this woman, who to their way of thinking should have been eager to be a man's plaything, had instead proven to be capable of outdoing their entire military machine.

Combat Specialist Jessie Landers had been the response to the planet's plea to the Imperial Mercenaries Guild. The planet's trade routes had been being disrupted by a nest of pirates. The local military had proven unable to deal with the hit-and-run tactics and had been unable to find their refuge. After six months, the politicians had petitioned the Guild to send a detachment.

However, the planet was outside Imperial space, in the loose hegemony of scattered worlds between the Andromedan Empire and the Empire of Terra, and could not afford the squad of marines they desired. Rather than simply decline the request, the Guild had contacted someone they had felt could do the job for the price offered.

And Jessie had. Two weeks of analyzing the attack data and hunting had led her to the base, and eight hours of combating a group of incompetent bully-boys with guns, none of whom would have passed the first year training course for the Mercenaries Guild. If they hadn't forced her to take out their reactor and hunt them down on the surface, she'd probably had let them live, but they'd been determined to fight to the last man. After she'd cleared the base, she'd let the local gunboys clean up the mess.

That was when the planet had decided that since she had been only one person, and a woman, that they would only pay the fee they had allocated per man for the hundred man squad they had requested. Jessie had not been pleased. Replacement for the munitions she had used and the repairs to her ship wouldn't have even been covered, let alone reimburse her for her time and skills.

The Guild had of course stepped in, and demanded payment in full, and the planet's leaders had been in council for the last two weeks on how to deal with the Guild's ultimatum. Jessie really wasn't worried about her expenses, since the Guild had paid her in full, but the fact that the locals had dared to try and cheat on a contract had annoyed her. She had been playing with them since, killing some time while she waited for a new contract.

The bar she was in today was across the plaza from the government building, the primary hangout for the various security forces and military guards for the local bigwigs. Being a male-dominated society, culturally primitive compared to the cosmopolitan Empire of Terra, the bar had been a place for the men to hang out when off duty, and ogle the barely-dressed waitresses. Jessie's presence had disrupted that; the local gunboys were not comfortable with their usual activities with her there. She was too much a reminder that not every world shared their cultural prejudices.

Jessie found that almost as amusing as their resentment with her having shown them up in their specialty. She could only have imagined how they would have reacted had she not been human. Their humanocentricity was almost as bad as Andromeda, the few other races she had seen primarily having been contractors at the spaceport.

She'd been having fun compounding their irritation by flirting exclusively with her waitress, despite the presence of several males she would have ordinarily found interesting. Bi-sexuality was an exception on this world, instead of the norm it was in the Empire, and same-sex exclusivity objectionable. So was the outfit she was wearing — the transparency going against their unspoken nudity taboo — although it was rather tame compared to typical imperial civilian fashions. But, as most places Jessie had visited outside the Imperial boundaries, her status as an exotic made her interesting to the curious and immune to many social restrictions. Making the waitress blush had been her game for the last hour. She figured another hour or two would have the girl interested enough to invite back to her ship, and score a point against the gunboys who were watching the whole affair jealously.

That was when a newcomer entered the bar. Another woman, and one as obviously foreign as Jessie.

She was striking; very young looking, with a body so perfect there was no doubt it had been sculpted. She was dressed only in a transparent neon-green skinsheath, the faintly glowing fabric as sheer as glass and very striking in the bar's dim light. The main piece covered her entire left arm and plunged down diagonally across her body to her right hip, leaving her right breast uncovered. It also covered her left leg only, the bottom of the central section curving up from the joint of her right leg up and across to high on her left hip, leaving her pubis unclad as well. Her right arm and left leg were covered by more of the glowing fabric, the cloth clinging to skin despite being unattached to the rest of the outfit. Her hair was cut into a short pixie-cut around her face, but was pulled back into a crest that fountained out in a cloud of neon-green hair as vibrantly luminescent as her clothes, and hung down nearly to her waist. Her eyes were a deep emerald, and her eye shadow and lip color were complimentary shades of green as well, all of it making a dramatic contrast with her pale peach skin. But her most striking feature was a pair of slim golden horns that arched up from her temples in a graceful curve to end in sharp points nearly a foot above her head. Her only other clothing consisted of matched pairs of ear and nipple rings and a clit ring, all of which supported long diamond shaped charms that reminded Jessie of throwing knives These matched a belt of dark green joined discs that angled across her hips the opposite direction of her skinsheath. Despite the fact that she stood as if she was wearing heels as high as Jessie's, her feet appeared to be bare, her carefully manicured toenails tinted the same green as her long oval nails. Jessie smiled, noticing the glow from her hair and clothes chased any shadows away from her, leaving every inch of her body revealed for scrutiny. It was a nice effect.

But the effect she had on the entire bar, including Jessie was far more dramatic than her clothing. The instant she had entered, every eye had been locked on the newcomer, and the lust in them had burned high. Jessie found herself entranced, her mind immediately creating idle fantasies of the girl walking over to her, kissing her, laying her down on the table and taking her….

She blinked and forced the fantasies from her mind, trying to focus. The woman's eyes had been searching, and Jessie was fairly certain who they had been searching for. As the woman's eyes locked on to hers, she knew she had been right.

The newcomer smiled and began to walk towards her, to the obvious disappointment of the male libidos. One brave officer stepped up to the girl, and Jessie saw that for all her presence, the woman was only a little over five feet; only her horns brought her up to the height of the man who had stopped her. She couldn't hear what was said, but the flat refusal the woman gave the officer suggested what the content had been. The officer wasn't too pleased, and reached out to forcibly stop the woman as she started to step around him.

Bad idea, Jessie thought.

The officer didn't even have time to react as the woman blurred. There was a sharp crack as the bones in his arm broke, the woman suddenly behind him as she twisted. She kicked the screaming officer in the rear, sending him sprawling. A couple of others started from the bar, but stopped at the glowing ball of plasma that appeared in the woman's outstretched hand. They reluctantly sat back down and left the stranger alone amid grumbles.

Jessie nodded. Cybernetically enhanced, and at least an adept level mage. It just added to the nagging familiarity the woman had triggered in her brain. Something about those horns….

As the woman sat down across from her, the fantasies resurged even stronger than before, leaving Jessie nearly breathless as she fought the overwhelming desire to throw herself on the table and beg the other woman to take her. She barely registered the fact the woman spoke her name. She nodded dumbly, then cursed herself for not being more cautious. Survival instincts honed on a thousand covert operations kicked in and drove down the raw lust as she tried to regain control.

"Yes, I'm Jessie Landers."

"The Mercenaries Guild informed me that I could reach you here. I am Arika Draco. I have been sent by my employer to contact you."

The name Draco rang bells in her head together with the horns, but she still couldn't place the reference. However, the fact that the Mercenary Guild had led Arika to her was somewhat reassuring. The Guild would not have given out the location of one of its members unless a verified contract had been offered. It was unusual that she would have been sought out by name, but then the guild only had a few thousand solo operatives, all of which had at least some reputation somewhere. Maybe Arika had heard she had a reputation as a great lover….

"What are the details?" she asked, forcing her mind back to business. Why was it so hard to focus? Why were her hormones on overload?

Arika removed one of the discs from her belt and put it on the table. A holo-screen showed above it with a Mercenaries Guild contract.

"My Employer directed me to contact you with an offer for certain information you possess."

Jessie raised an eyebrow. "Okay. What kind of information?"

"My employer believes that you can contact someone she needs for a very important mission. She informed me that you are the only person in the local group who knows how to contact this person."

Cold gripped Jessie's insides in icy talons. Dreading the certain answer, she asked anyway.


"Jason Lombardi. Former CEO of Lombardi Enterprises on Jamsona."

Jessie forced her heart to keep beating, even though she had been expecting it. His name hadn't crossed her ears for nearly seventy years.

"He's dead."

"My employer believes he is not. You are the contact I was given to pass along the contract my employer is offering to Lombardi."

"I see. So suppose I do know where to contact Lombardi. What's in it for me?"

Arika smiled, her gorgeous lips curving softly as she did, glistening in the dim light of the bar. She tapped the disc. "My employer is prepared to offer you two things in exchange for your aid in this. The first is your standard contract fee multiplied by twenty."

Jessie raised her eyebrow again. Twenty million was intended to make the offer too tempting to refuse. She had been lucky to have twenty contracts in the last five years. Mercenary work paid extremely well, but it had a very high overhead too. She could afford to buy a new ship for that amount, or rebuild her current one from the ground up.

"And the second thing?"

Arika reached back down to tap the disc again. Jessie looked over the new document. It took her a second to realize what it was. She looked back up to see Arika studying her, faint apprehension in her eyes.

"This is your ownership contract, Arika."

Arika nodded.

"Your owner is offering you to me in addition to the fee."

Arika nodded again.

The slave contract had finally put all the pieces together. The horns, the name "Draco", the cybernetic enhancements. Arika was a Draconian warrior, a young girl who had been sold to an Andromedan Magister and rebuilt into one of their private soldiers. She had given up her freedom to allow her family to survive. And if she was being offered as part of the price….

Jessie sighed. Arika's owner had done their research. By adding Arika to the contract, there a no way Jessie would turn it down… if for no other reason than to release Arika from the slave contract.

She touched the disc again to close the contract. "What does your employer want Lombardi for?"

Arika's eyes were still on the disc under Jessie's fingers. "Do you accept the contract?"

Jessie closed her eyes and mentally chanted the Mercenary Code. We have accepted your gold. "I accept the contract."

The disc under her finger grew warm as it momentarily shifted color from emerald green to florescent and back. Arika let out her breath. "Thank you, mistress."

"That is going to change as soon as I file your release from contract, Arika. Your ex-boss is rather insistent on getting my aid."

The Draconian nodded. "Yes, Mistress. I have the information for Lombardi's mission, but was directed to only give it to you in private."

Once more the fantasies surged to the front of Jessie's mind at the thought of having Arika alone, but she fought them down. She stood, barely forcing her legs to support her weight, Arika's presence making her so aroused the simple friction of her clothes nearly drove her to orgasm.

Arika had stood as well, and stepped closer. "I-I want to thank you for accepting me, Mistress. H-had you refused, I would have been…."

She leaned forward and Jessie didn't stop her as their lips touched. A jolt of fire seemed to run down her spine as her body shook slightly, the kiss being the spark that drove her over the edge into climax. As Arika stepped back Jessie took several shallow breaths to steady herself. She looked at the softly smiling girl with an amused grin.

"At least wait till we get back to the ship before you do that again."

The ship was large for a fighter, a planetary bomber retrofitted with living quarters in the old ordinance bays, and numerous modifications to increase its speed, armor, and firepower. While not quite as agile as a small fighter, its engines were more than sufficient to outrun all but the most speedy of interceptors, and the added armor and shields could withstand most ordinance below that mounted on a capital ship. Several scorch marks still showed on her hull, but the primary damage from the recent firefight had been repaired days ago. Jessie looked around the field and noted the absence of any new vessels.

"What ship did you come on?" she asked Arika, glad that being out in the open had seemed to lessen the impact the girl's presence had on her libido.

Arika shook her head. "I didn't. I was dropped by a fellow Draconian. I don't have a bond."


"To a dragon. I-I'm just out of reconstruction and imprint. I was created for you, so I was not bonded as other Draconians are. I am incomplete."

Jessie nodded, remembering the main reason Draconians were so feared. It was not just because Arika had been rebuilt into a sophisticated killing machine, but because a normal warrior was psionically and cyberneticly partnered with a dragon, the rarest of all the intelligent races. Andromeda possessed their home world, and had immediately seen the military value of a forty-foot-tall creature capable of ripping apart hull plate like it was tissue, and able to breathe superheated plasma at will. When outfitted with a weapons harness, a dragon could carry the firepower of a small battleship, in addition to their skills as mages. No doubt Arika had been assigned in full knowledge that Jessie would release her, and Andromeda would never allow a dragon to go so easily. Jessie had only ever met one: her aerial tactics trainer in the guild. She could still remember the intimidation his sheer size had made on her.

"I don't consider you incomplete, Arika. Nor do I consider you a slave. As I said, as soon as we're aboard ship, I'm transmitting your release from the slave contract."

"It makes no difference to me, Mistress. Whether I am slave or free, my programming is to be your companion and servant in any capacity you desire of me. I have been imprinted to you, and to you alone. Had you not accepted my contract, I would have been destroyed. If you had initially refused my contract, that was my final card to play."

Jessie stopped and looked at Arika. "You had to succeed or die?"

"It is the way of the Draconian. I have but one master, and that is you, Mistress. I was employed by my maker, but I did not serve her."

Jessie shook her head. "You're hardwired?"

Arika nodded. "Yes, Mistress. In most situations I am free-willed, but in these areas I cannot deviate. You are my Mistress, and I must obey any command you give and protect you. My memory banks have been wiped of any data that might compromise Andromedan military intelligence, but my combat programming and my tactical AI is fully functional. I am aware that the Empire of Terra does not allow slave ownership, and that my contract will be released, but I beg you, do not dispose of me. I have no other purpose than to serve you."

"I thought you were a cyborg… a modified human."

"Yes. I was born an equuis. All Draconians are rebuilt as humans. The majority of us come from the lesser races."

Jessie sighed. "You're not a lesser race, Arika. Only Andromeda views humans as superior. I'm sure we can get you restructured back to your original form if you desire."

"I cannot, Mistress. My systems will not allow it. I am programmed to defend against such invasions. I am comfortable as I am now, Mistress. In truth, I have no memory of my existence as an equuis. I am only five years old, Mistress. I have no memories before I was made a Draconian."

Jessie blinked. "I see." She touched the ident-plate on her ship and waved Arika inside the opening hatch.

The intensity of lust she had felt in the bar returned full force the moment she followed the Draconian inside. She glanced at the atmospheric controls as she closed the airlock and noted the warning of an unknown airborne contaminant.

"Okay, Arika. Do you have any way of controlling whatever it is you're doing to overload my libido?"

"Yes, Mistress."

"Then please turn it off? I'd like to be able to think."

Almost immediately the desire to throw the girl on the bed and bury her head between her legs dropped to manageable levels.

"My apologies, Mistress. I merely sought to increase my appeal to you. I have reduced my pheromone output to minimum level."

"Those are some damn effective pheromones," Jessie noted.

"I am equipped for covert data collection and infiltration operations, Mistress. My pheromones are designed to aid in these tasks, as well as to cause distraction in combat. I can adjust my output from nearly triple what I was producing, to my baseline. I did not seek to offend, merely increase my desirability, Mistress. I am programmed to attempt to be pleasing in all ways."

Jessie dropped into the seat before her terminal. "Okay. Rest assured I find you appealing without them, okay? And now that I know what's been done to you, I won't send you away either. Just let me get used to you. Your slave contract is still going to be terminated, but you're free to stay. Just remember, I'm a mercenary, not a politician. I can take care of myself in a fight."

"I understand, Mistress. I will seek to support you as needed."

"And please, don't call me Mistress all the time."

Arika nodded.

Jessie leaned back in the chair and rubbed her eyes. "Now, how about the details on why I'm supposed to contact Lombardi for you?"

Arika nodded. "Yes, Mistress. The assignment is simple. My creator needs Jason Lombardi to effect an extraction of someone with information my employer desires. His task is to get close to this person and exfiltrate him out of the security net to a waiting pickup point. Once the target has been delivered, his assignment is fulfilled."

Jessie groaned. "Great. Let me guess; it somehow involves Jamsona and Darkstarr Industries."

"Yes. The target is the current Chief of Operations for Darkstarr's holdings on Jamsona."

Jessie cursed. Would she ever be free of that damn planet?

Arika held out another disc. "The contract is for three times the monetary amount you have already received, an additional sixty million added to the twenty million contract for simply considering the contract."

Jessie gave Arika a raised eyebrow. "So… you know?"

Arika nodded. "I am programmed to serve only you, Mistress. I could not do so were I not aware of your identity."

"I haven't been Jason Lombardi for over seventy years. I arranged to fake my death for a reason, you know."

"Yes, Mistress. I am aware of your past difficulties with Darkstarr Industries. My creator believes they make excellent incentive, above and beyond the financial ones, as well as an irresistible lure to the target. The contract is under the name Jessie Landers, and the data trail that led my creator to you has been disrupted even further than you had managed. The mission cannot be successful if you are capable of being found once the mission is completed. Darkstarr must have no trace that my creator was behind the extraction."

Jessie sighed again. "You realize, I'm going to have to have the Mercenary Guild examine you for time traps."

"I am aware, Mistress. As stated, my systems have been purged of any sensitive data. My combat protocols are only activated if attempts to reprogram my core components occur. Examination alone will not trigger them." Arika paused. "Please, Mistress, I know this must be done to reassure you of my loyalty, but I beg of you, do not allow them to reverse engineer me."

"Whatever you may have been told, Arika, the EOT is not a barbaric place. You are a thinking being, and have rights under Terran law. By your statements, I would suspect they will classify you as a type-two sentient, free-willed with overriding instincts. That means you cannot be forced to go against your programming, nor can you be held responsible if your programmed responses are triggered deliberately. Trust me, you won't be disassembled simply to study your cyber systems."

"Thank you, Mistress."

Jessie called up a screen on her terminal. "JL Zero Niner to Flight Control."

"Flight Control. Go ahead JL Zero Niner."

"Request clearance for lift off."

"What is your destination JL Zero Niner?"

"City of the Rings."

"Confirmed. We have a freighter inbound on the Hyperstream. It is expected to emerge in twenty minutes standard."

"Affirmative, Flight Control. I am jump capable. The Stream Gate is not a necessity."

"Acknowledged. Checking local traffic. How long will your preflight take?"

Jessie touched another screen into existence and tapped a few icons. "Preflight boards are green, Flight Control. Autonav available for your signal."

"Confirmed, we have you on system. Please prepare for flight in ten minutes. Onboard control will be available once outside fifth orbit. Estimated time to manual control one hour twenty minutes."

"Acknowledged, Flight Control, JL Zero Niner out." Jessie tapped the hologram closed. "Okay, we're outbound. The trip to The City of the Rings is going to take about a hundred and eighty hours from this far out, even via the Stream."

Arika nodded. "Is there anything I may assist with, Mistress."

Jessie shook her head. "It's all controlled from their end until we get outsystem. The jump drive won't work this deep in gravity well. We're on electrogravitics until then. Of course, I'm going to have to get the reaction drives fueled at the City of the Rings if we're going to Jamsona. The magnetic field there plays havoc with electrograv."

Arika nodded. "Are you accepting the contract, Mistress?"

"Not yet, Arika. I'm sorry, but I have to have you checked out first. I have no doubt of your personal sincerity, but I don't trust an Andromedan Magister. Many of them were banished from the Mages Guild for a reason."

Arika nodded, and stood, pressing the disc on her hip. Her skinsheath vanished, revealing it had been entirely holographic, and obviously generated by the belt, which then released and was set aside. "Then may I offer my mistress entertainment to while away the time?"

Jessie smiled as she eyed the nude girl, admiring the way her still luminescent hair illuminated everything as she laid back on the bed. Picked up the slave contract, she placed it on her terminal desk activating the uplink to the Guild computers. The release took only a few seconds, as did submitting the initial contract for contacting an unnamed third party. Once they were logged with the Guild, she turned back to Arika. "You are now a free woman, Arika. And I can file a request for citizenship in the Empire if you wish."

Arika nodded. "Acknowledged, Mistress. It does not lessen my desire to please you."

Jessie kicked off her heels. "No, I suppose not. But it at least gives me the illusion you might be doing it because you really want to."

Arika gave her a sultry smile. "That I can assure you of, Mistress. While I will admit I have been programmed to find you overwhelmingly appealing, my programming does not specifically command further interaction, and you have not commanded me to pleasure you." She rolled on her side, elevating one leg as she patted the bed next to her. "But I do wish to show you how happy I am that you have accepted me, Mistress. I hope I can make you as happy as you have made me."

Jessie smiled as she stood, her top and pants joining Arika's belt on the floor. "Somehow, I don't foresee that being a problem…."

"One thing I don't have in my data banks is why you attempted to disappear," Arika said several hours later as they lay tangled on the bed.

Jessie stretched languorously, careful not to pull her thigh from under Arika's head. She grabbed a pillow and propped her head up so she could look down at the other girl. "I'm not surprised. I doubt Darkstarr Industries let the real story out. I suppose you know I was a mercenary before I decided to retire and settle on Jamsona. It was an out-of-the-way ball of rock on the edge of the local group, about as far from the Empires as you can get. That was its sole appeal; otherwise, it's a snowball. Mean average temperature never gets above zero. It's just on the edge of habitability without special environmental enclosures, and it's primarily a water world, so you'd think it would be the last place trouble will find you."

"I take it you found trouble?"

"Yeah. I started up a small business. Took a design for a wind-powered transport I had seen on another planet and modified it for local conditions. Made a killing since they proved to be the most practical way to transport goods on planet. The business didn't need much to run smooth, so I had a lot of time on my hands. Used it exploring the planet. More or less became the best ship pilot on the ice ball." Jessie sighed. "And that's what got me into trouble."

"How so?"

Jessie leaned back to look at the ceiling, idly twirling Arika's curls with her fingers. "Found something one day. A big ruin under the ice. Stumbled across it by sheer happy accident. When I made inquires into salvage rights, all of a sudden, I had Darkstarr Industries breathing down my neck. When I refused to sell, they bought my company out from under me, and tried to force me to tell them where the ruins were. That's why I faked my death. They can't get to the ruins without me, and I'll be damned if I'm just going to hand them over. Sooner or later, they'll realize they're not going to find the place without me. That's probably why your creator wants me to play bait. I can get close to the target by dangling the location in front of him. Then, while he thinks I'm taking them to the ruins, I simply direct him to the pickup point, and extraction gets made. I disappear again as Jessie, and no one knows what happened."

Arika nodded. "Yes." She shifted her hips slightly to allow Jessie's fingers more playing area. "I shall aid you in any way I can, Mistress. Darkstarr should pay for hounding you so."

Jessie shrugged. "Oh, I think this little assignment will fulfill that nicely."

They came out of Hyperstream at the edge of the Imperial system, Jessie smiling as Arika got her first look at the City of the Rings.

"Why is the star so faint?" Arika asked. "And why does it seem to be divided into bands?"

Jessie tapped a few spots on the holo display to link up to the Imperial traffic net, then called up a system map.

"The City of the Rings hides most of the star. From this far out, you're basically seeing the central two rings covering about a third of the star."

"Why are there no planets on the system map?"

"Theory is that they were broken up to make the city. You have to remember that the City is a First Empire artifact. It was rediscovered five thousand years ago by Ruby Darkstarr. It's more or less what got Darkstarr Industries started. The Emperor moved the central government here and began repopulating the City, but even now, less than ten percent of the City is inhabited. The City itself consists of ninety rings, each a thousand miles thick and nearly a million miles wide. It is the single largest structure known in the local group. We're going into Ring 45, the lower central ring. That's where the Guild base is located."

Arika had been staring out the cockpit screen. "It seems I only see activity around the four central rings and the two polar caps?"

"Yeah. The Imperial Court is on the north cap, the Imperial Fleet is headquartered in the south cap. Most people live in the two rings to either side of the equatorial gap. If we're lucky, you'll get to see one of the really interesting things about the City. There is one planet in this system, a planet with a single moon about one sixth its mass. It's unknown why the First Empire put it there, unless it really is a park, like it's used currently, but it orbits inside the equatorial gap. The computer records in the city call it Terra, which is where the Empire gets its name, but most of the city's computer data was unrecoverable, so much of the city and First Empire history remains unknown. There was some kind of war, but with who and who won is a mystery. All we know is that it seemed to have been built about six hundred thousand years ago, before the beginning of current recorded history."

Arika smiled. "Very intriguing. I do not have any information on the EOT other than basic diplomatic protocols and cultural analysis. Would it surprise you to learn that Andromeda considers the EOT an honorless society that reduces its people to the lowest common denominator, rather than allowing those with superior abilities to rule as is natural?"

Jessie laughed. "No, not really. In truth, in the EOT, everyone is treated as equal in regards to rights, but everyone is also free to excel in any way they wish. I just happen to be a really good mercenary, a mediocre mage, and too restless to stand normal society for longer than a few months at a time."

"You have had mage training?" Arika asked. "Does not the EOT require all mages to be marked?"

Jessie smiled. "Yeah. Anyone who is at least apprentice level has extended canines. Adepts and above have a hair streak, and master mages will bear an emblem, usually tattooed on their right hand. I never really learned enough to make apprentice."

"The ability to use psionics is merely a matter of discipline and some talent. I am mainly gifted in the area of pyrokinetics and shielding, though I have been trained in all disciplines."

"Shielding is the only thing I picked up decently. I can block a couple of direct hits from energy based weapons, but I don't have a lot of strength, and can't block kinetic weapons at all. Luckily, I'm really good with my rapier. We'll get you outfitted while we're here."

"I am in no need of new weaponry, Mistress. I am already armed. All Draconians are taught to create dimensional pockets. When my weapons are needed I can retrieve them."

Jessie shook her head. "Okay. I don't have that gift, and I have to get some male clothing. You're welcome to anything in my wardrobe you want to wear, and we'll get cold weather gear too."

"Thank you, Mistress."

"And please stop calling me mistress all the time."

"Yes, Mistress."

Jessie sighed as Arika giggled.

Jessie was surprised to find Rylar, the dragon who was the Guild's chief instructor in aerial combat tactics, waiting the Guild hanger, fully armed and with a couple of heavy marines in full combat armor. He waited as Jessie finished her landing shutdown before opening a com channel.

"Combat Specialist, will you please ask the Draconian to exit your ship without her belt?"

Jessie looked at the monitor showing Rylar's face. "May I enquire just what the hell is going on?"

"It is simple security precautions, Combat Specialist. I am aware the Draconian has been imprinted to you, and will obey your commands. We must insist that you comply. Until we have thoroughly scanned her as you requested, she remains a major security threat. I have a fifty-man unit in backup, fully armored, and even then I am not certain we could restrain your partner."

Jessie blinked. "Okay. I think you're going overboard here, Rylar, but will comply." She looked over at Arika. "Sorry for the reception. Rylar there used to be paired with one of you. He had to kill her to escape Andromeda, and that cybernetic arm and wing he's got are reminders of it."

Arika nodded. "I understand, Mistress. He is only taking reasonable precautions." Arika smiled. "He has a much better grasp of my capabilities than you do, Mistress. I am not offended." She stood and followed Jessie to the airlock, leaving her belt on the chair by the bed, and following Jesse out unclothed. She stood unconcerned as the Dragon held a massive cannon trained on her.

"Please retrieve and hand over your personal weapons," The dragon rumbled. Jessie would have sworn the dragon's finger was twitching on the cannon's trigger, and doubted if he did pull it that even her ship would survive the blast. It looked like a modified battleship cannon.

Arika held out her hands, deliberately not pointing at anyone. A brief glow manifested and then a pair of pistols appeared in her hands. Jessie noted they appeared to be tri-barreled energy weapons, the rotating barrels likely allowing an excessively high rate of fire. Both weapons appeared to have power cells of a type she had not seen before, and long curving blades mounted under the barrels allowing them to double as hand to hand weapons. The two armored marines advanced and took the weapons, placing them in a large locker that appeared heavily shielded.

"And now the heavy weapon too," the dragon added, his gun still not wavering.

Again Arika's hand glowed briefly as a much larger weapon appeared. It appeared to be a much heavier variant of the pistols, six rotating barrels around a much heavier guage central barrel, and an underslung weapon that appeared likely to be an explosive projectile launcher. The power cell seemed similar to the pistols, but much larger, emitting a distinct hum that Jessie could feel as much as hear. A large blade extended from the rear of the weapon, and Jessie saw it could be wielded with either end forward. One of the Marines took that as well and placed it inside the locker.

"The vibroblades too."

Arika smiled and reached up to remove her ear, nipple, and clit rings, handing the set to the marine to be placed inside the locker. Rylar finally raised the cannon.

"I know you possess several more built-in weapons that I cannot remove. Be warned, if you should attempt to use any of them, you will be executed without warning. And do not seek to communicate with my cyber systems. You cannot override me, nor can you reactivate my link. You shall also be monitored and any attempt to link to Guild networks shall be met with deadly force. Do you understand this, Draconian?"

Arika nodded. "I understand, Rylar Dracos."

"I am only Rylar, Draconian. I have escaped my captors and am no longer a slave." The massive dragon pointed his wing to the marines. "You shall be escorted to the examination room by these warriors. Do not attempt to escape their custody."

Arika nodded and stepped behind the first marine, allowing herself to be escorted to the hanger's security door. Rylar seemed to deflate as she exited and turned back to Jessie.

"My apologies, Jessie, if I seemed a bit rude, but I could not take any chances."

Jessie nodded. "I understand, but is she really that dangerous?"

The dragon nodded. "The Shadowmage created them to be in all ways the physical match of the dragon they are bonded with, and then some. One on one, a Draconian bond pair is more than a match for your average cruiser, and harder to destroy than a dreadnaught. You've got one hell of a war machine there."

Jessie raised an eyebrow. "I released her from the slave contract. She's a free being."

Rylar looked down, his muzzle revealing a toothy smile. "And I'm sure she's told you that means nothing to her. The only way she'd even be with you is if she was imprinted to you. Unless you kill her, she will never stop serving you, and you alone. The Shadowmage would not allow them to ever rebel. If she could do the same to dragons, she would have never bothered with the Draconians, but she couldn't, so we were bonded, enslaved to the will of our rider, who in turn is forever loyal to her master. The only reason I managed to escape is because the link between my rider and I was damaged. I killed her before it was repaired and rebooted, but not without nearly dying myself. Her weapons are shielded because they are as much a part of her as her hands are."

Jessie whistled. "Okay… I am now impressed at how badly the Shadowmage wants my services."

Rylar nodded. "I still wouldn't trust it, Jessie. Akara has to have some ulterior motive against Darkstarr. You're a good merc, I'd hate to see you dead because you got caught up in a feud between Archmagi."

Jessie looked up at the dragon. "I take it that you've looked at the contract."

Rylar nodded. "The Guild has to approve all contracts, Jessie. When the Draconian's slave contract came in, the Guildmaster contacted me for further information. It's a legitimate contract, and as Jamsona is outside of Imperial bounds, it's on Darkstarr's head to protect its employees. It's no different than any other extraction contract, though I personally prefer open combat to these covert ops."

"Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm good at covert. I'm still alive, aren't I?"

Rylar nodded. "I know, but you're also a damn good combat pilot. Not the best I've ever trained, but up there. There aren't many students I'm friends with."

"I know. Until I got sent her, I could have sworn you and the Guildmaster were the only ones who knew. Now I have an Archmage I have to worry about."

"I know neither of us ever told, and your data trail's pretty obscured. My guess is if you don't cross her, the Shadowmage isn't going to have any further use for you, and won't bother you again. And Darkstarr hasn't found you in seventy years. Don't get caught with your hand in the mix and you should be safe again, with a wad of cash and a damn good bodyguard."

Jessie nodded. "Well, I have some things to take care of."

The dragon nodded. "I'll contact you when she's been cleared. Your ship should be serviced and ready in twenty-four standard hours."

"And then it's back to hell." Jessie smiled. "A frozen ball of ice on the backside of nowhere. What fun."

Rylar laughed as Jessie turned to go.

It took Jessie only a couple of hours to purchase the equipment she needed for the mission, including a visit to a secure holding facility to retrieve an item she'd never thought she'd use again.. Seventy years ago, it had taken weeks to find a renegade Andromedan body sculptor and have her DNA rebuilt to make her female, a process that the EOT had once banned. She mused on the whims of a populace that had once decried DNA manipulation as cruel before reversing itself and demanding it as a right. She had no problems finding a sculptor, one far better equipped and less expensive than her previous one. She had simply had to give him her DNA matrix crystal, and in less than an hour she was looking as Jason's face once more.

My face. My face and a different gender. I'm a he now. Have to get used to it.

He smiled at himself and shook out his hair before pulling it back into a ponytail. He exited the sculpt shop and got a table just down the balcony from the Guild entrance and indulged in his favorite hobby while waiting for the call that Arika was finished.

The City of the Rings never failed to amaze him. As he sat at a table at the edge of the balcony, he looked out at the vast mall that had grown up over the centuries and watched the hustle and bustle of civilian life. So many people of all races, so oblivious to the battles, treacheries, and espionage that occurred on so many worlds to give them the comfortable lives they led.

His communicator finally beeped several hours later and he headed back into the guild hall. Arika was waiting for him in the hanger along with Rylar. Jason blinked to see the Draconian's hair had completely changed color from softly luminescent neon-green to a polished mirror-silver. He did have to admit the silver strands made for an interesting play of light, especially among the tangled curls that crowned her pubis, but he hadn't expected the scans alter her in any way.

"We didn't modify her, Jason," Rylar rumbled at his raised eyebrow. "She's simply been asked to shut down her phototropic systems. That's her normal hair. Like most everything else about her but her brain, it's a synthetic."

"I am undamaged, Master. The guild technicians were far more pleasant in their examinations of my systems than I expected. I am pleased to report I have not been unknowing trapped."

Jason looked to Rylar. The big dragon nodded. "She's clean. Surprising as it may seem, it looks like Akara is playing this one straight so far as the guild is concerned."

"So the contract appears to be legitimate in all respects?"

"Yes. But let me add one word of caution, Jason. You've avoided Darkstarr for nearly seventy years, so I don't know if you've kept aware of them or not. It's not something that made the newscasts, but something big happened between D.I. and the Shadowmage about fifty years ago. No one seems to know what, but D. I. has been changing the way it does things. Don't go in expecting business as usual. A lot of really good talent has been recruited lately, some of the best of the best. Don't underestimate them."

Jason nodded. "Okay. I will keep that in mind. But is there any reason I should refuse the contract?"

Rylar shook his head. "Nothing beyond a gut instinct that the Shadowmage is never up to any good. Then again, I used to be her slave, so I'm more than just a little biased." He chuckled, the deep booming laugh vibrating the air. "Pay no mind to me, Jason. It's a good deal from your end, and the Guildmaster has judged the payment is fair for the difficulty of the task set. We have found no evidence of double-dealing to refuse the contract."

Jason smiled. "Good. I will formally accept the contract."

Rylar nodded. "Final details are being downloaded to your secure terminal. You may access them once aboard. If you need anything before you leave, let us know. I only ask that you do not allow Arika to leave your ship unescorted, as she is not a guild member, and as a type-two sentient, she is not eligible for membership."

Arika smiled. "Since I cannot overcome my programmed "instincts", I am not deemed in sufficient control of my own actions to be a mercenary." The twinkle in her eyes showed amusement. "I did, however, excel in all areas of combat skill they tested."

"There's a full readout in your terminal," Rylar added. "Should keep you busy for a while."

Jason noted the look Arika was giving him, and doubted he'd have a chance to read before they hit Jamsona's atmosphere.

"Thank you." He grinned as Arika latched onto his arm. "I will get to it as soon as she's done making sure I work correctly."

Rylar laughed as the Draconian dragged her now male owner back to the ship. Turning, he made his way out of the hanger into one of the huge hallways of the main guild. He paced along for quite some distance before coming to the large ornate door to the Guildmaster's office. The door slid aside without a challenge, showing the Guildmaster had been tracking him. The huge dragon nodded to the large figure of the Guildmaster, a stocky, equine-headed male built like a draft horse. A long spiraled horn adorned the center of his forehead.

"I take it he has accepted the contract?" the unicorn asked.

"Yes, Guildmaster."

"Very good," a feminine voice replied from an alcove. A figure stepped forth, a tall-redheaded female human, dressed in a grey uniform accented in black. A white streak split her hair down the middle and framed both sides of a very pretty face with intense green eyes. The dragon nodded.

"Good day, Milady."

"I'm not that formal anymore, Rylar. Ruby will do."

"Umm. Yes, Milady Ruby."

The redhead smiled. Turning to the Guildmaster, she nodded towards the display above his desk. "Is that the data I requested?"

The Guildmaster sighed. "Yes. The profiles of both Lombardi and our tests of his Draconian."

The redhead looked over the data, scrolling through it quickly. "Good. I hope he will meet my needs. His profile so far is better than any other candidate."

"Agreed. How do you plan to overcome his likely objections?"

The redhead sighed. "The only way I think I can. The truth."

The unicorn gave the redhead a measured look. "I am trusting you in this, Ruby. Jason is my friend from long before I rose to be Guildmaster, from when he was a green cadet under my command. I do not like deceiving him in any matter."

The redhead hung her head. "I know, Andre. But he had to take the contract to satisfy Akara. So long as the attempt is made, he has fulfilled his end of things. Once he's done… then I have my shot at him before he vanishes back into the fringe worlds. It's Jason I need… not Jessie."

"So much reliance on a reputation?"

"Sounds silly, I know; the person's the same either way, but Lombardi has a reputation Landers has carefully avoided. I need that edge if I hope to finally bring everything together."

Andre nodded. "I hope you are correct. Hard as it is for me to do so, I'm trusting you in this, trusting the changes you've displayed are in truth and not some game you are playing. You have a reputation yourself."

The redhead nodded. "I know. I have a lot of sins on my soul, Andre. Jason is one of them. Let me make my amends."

The Guildmaster popped the slim crystal from the display and handed it to the redhead. "I just pray you do, Ruby, that's all. I will never forgive myself for handing Jason over otherwise."

The redhead nodded as she took the crystal, then turned on her heel and left, her steel heels chiming on the cold metal floor of the office. The dragon waited till the door closed behind her before looking back down at the Guildmaster, who had fallen into his chair in a slump.

"What other choice did we have, Andre? Akara would never have allowed Jason to live unmolested once she tracked him down. She's the only person in the universe who can keep him from being the target of every assassin in the local group. The Shadowmage doesn't allow her pawns to go without a fight."

The unicorn sighed. "I know, Rylar. I had hoped somehow to avoid it, but when the acceptance of Arika came in, there was no other way."

The dragon nodded. "He'll be on his way in a few hours. She'll have plenty of time to get to Jamsona first. I know it's hard, Andre, but people do change. I believe she's changed."

"I hope so, Rylar. I hope so. Just as I hope Jason can forgive us for handing him over to Ruby Darkstarr."


To be continued.

Chapter 2
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