He never wanted to lead his people. He doesn’t have a choice.
Fate has governed his whole life.
But he’s not letting it control his future.
Prophesied as both the Rhomanii leader that will unite the clans and lead them home, as well as the destroyer, Rafe returns to the mighty wheel his clan calls home with the artifacts he’s collected along the way. Only there are forces working against him, and his uncle, the arch duke of the enclave, is out for blood.
Older, wiser, and most decidedly deadlier, Rafe is determined to solve the mystery and complete the puzzle, but his love life is a bloody mess, his double—the annoying usurper, Mikhail—thwarts his every move, and nothing goes as planned. Especially when there are rumors that entire families have gone silent, and he feels the weight of the one foretold to uncover the Rhomanii’s hidden path home.
The forces for and against Rafe are rallying, but is rebellion the only solution?
Space Gypsy Chronicles:
My First Video Album
Genre: Space Opera / Galactic Adventure
Boom. Kaboom. Boom-fucking-boom.
Rafe’s ship exploded, without much of a flash, the relentless chill of space extinguishing it before it had a chance to burn. The pieces of his craft scattered in all directions, spinning, and flipping, now and forevermore space junk.
He blinked, and in his mind’s eye, saw it again. And again. The end of his Annabelle, a ship that was more than just bolts and welded parts. His ship was real, the Annabelle a person to him. He couldn’t have said how or when it happened. One day, after a trip through a wormhole, she’d changed. His ship’s AI achieved a true personality, going from robotic and humorless to sarcastic and sassy. And now she was gone, extinguished, never to drive him to lunacy again.
“Are you fucking crying?” asked Mikhail, not even attempting to hide his disgust.
Men don’t cry. A lesson oft repeated before the cane came down across already bruised knuckles. His tutors didn’t allow weakness in their pupil. They’d also taught him what to do if someone ever saw him acting weak. Eliminate the witnesses.
Without a second thought, Rafe punched his brother. The fist hitting flesh felt good, even if his knuckles protested a bit. His face joined that protest when Mikhail slugged Rafe back. The brief flare of pain was welcome, especially since it momentarily distracted him from what had just happened.
Another punch. And another. The physical exertion felt good, so, of course, she had to ruin it.
“Stop it!” Emma hollered.
Why did the woman have to screech when men were just having fun? Rafe glared at her. “Why should I stop? He started it.”
“I started it because I am tired of looking at your woebegone expression,” Mikhail retorted. “Man up. Get some balls and act instead of wallowing.”
“I will damned well wallow if I please,” Rafe shouted back. “My fucking ship just blew up, I’m stuck in a tiny life pod with Emma and you, which means—”
Mikhail’s expression brightened, and he interrupted. “It means threesomes are possible so long as our junks don’t touch, because I don’t know if the fact that I’m your twin makes it masturbation or just really weird.”
That is a really good question. One he wasn’t in a hurry to answer.
“We are not having a sexual orgy,” Emma stated quite firmly.
His twin grinned. “You say that now, but wait until boredom sets in. Not to mention, you’ll need to do something to stay in shape.”
Look at that. Rafe’s fist hit him again. “I hate you.” With a passion.
“Poor little prince. Maybe we can find a tit for you to suckle on.”
“At least I have a tit to play with. Your hand is going to get pretty callused.” A smirk curled his lips.
“Been there. Touched that,” Mikhail taunted. Nice reminder that he’d seduced Emma when she’d mistaken him for Rafe.
Whack. Mikhail might have expected the blow, but Rafe held nothing back.
“Nice shot.” Mikhail rubbed his jaw. A jaw that was an exact copy of Rafe’s.
It still freaked him out to see his clone, the body double created soon after his birth to protect him. A clone now grown into something that shouldn’t exist. A clone with a soul, or so it seemed.
Usually, clones didn’t exist past a certain age, not sentient versions at any rate. For some reason, instead of Mikhail remaining a slobbering, mindless creature, he’d grown into a man with intelligence.
Emma called Mikhail his twin. They were common on Earth, apparently. Not common at all with the Rhomanii. Actually, more like unheard of. Did the fact that they shared the same genetic makeup, if different wombs—flesh versus vat—make Mikhail his brother?
He is more like my nemesis. The boy who’d stolen his childhood. How long had Rafe plotted Mikhail’s demise? Plotted and yet never followed through. He wasn’t quite sure why.
Tweet. The strident whistle stopped the tussling with ear-piercing efficiency. “Instead of getting into a pissing contest, we should be discussing what the hell we are going to do.” Emma paced. Three paces, turn. Three steps, turn. Tight quarters didn’t lend to proper agitated pacing. “I mean, let’s look at facts. We are stuck in this life pod thingy, going…” Emma, dressed in a filmy gown covered in the stained signs of the battle they’d just left, fixed him with a stare. Brown-eyed, very cute, but not very imposing given her hair tumbled in a mess over partially bared shoulders and she had a smudge of dirt on the tip of her nose. She snapped her fingers. “Life pod to Rafe, come in, Rafe. Are you even paying attention to me?”
More than she knew. “What do you want me to tell you?”
“I want you to tell me where we are.”
“Space.” He got the expected glare and grinned.
“That wasn’t helpful.”
“I know.” Said in his best Solo voice. Yes, he’d seen the movies while on Earth. Guess which character he connected with most?
“So, is this thing programmed to find a safe place to land?”
“While the pods can technically land on a planetary surface, that is only feasible if one is very close by. And before you ask, no, there is nothing suitable in the vicinity. The closest one that would support us is too far. Even if we did make it there, I doubt we’d have enough power and hull integrity left by that point to land.” Judging by the expression on her face, he should have left parts of that out.
“Are you trying to tell me we’re going to float in space forever?”
“Just you. And me. And him.” Mikhail jerked his head. “Until the first baby. Then things might get crowded.”
“Would you stop that?” Rafe snapped. “I will eject you from this pod before I let you lay a hand on her.”
“We’ll probably run out of power and food before things get that far.”
As soon as Mikhail had said it, Rafe groaned. “Now you’ve done it.”
Having experienced it before, Rafe braced himself. Time for an Emma rant.
Her lips pursed, and her hands hit her hips. “Exactly what use is a life pod if we’re just going to die in it?”
“Have a little faith.” He shrugged and tossed her the grin that usually got him out of trouble. “No one said anything about dying.”
“But you said we can’t float around forever.”
“We can’t, which is why the pod emits a signal and informs craft in the vicinity of our plight.”
“Assuming there is someone around.”
“The signal travels pretty far. Someone will hear it and retrieve our vessel.”
“Will they? And why would they bother to rescue us?” A heavy sigh left Emma as she flopped in the chair that was one of a pair. The two seats comprised the only furniture in the cramped space. “Aren’t you the one always telling me the universe is a big, bad place where no one helps anyone else?”
“Of course you can’t help.” Mikhail snorted. “Helping makes you look weak.”
“But mostly weak.”
Her brow furrowed. “If rescuing looks weak, then why on earth would this beacon thing work?”
“Because it’s not a rescue if we offer payment,” Rafe explained as he drummed his fingers on the glass screen before him inset into the wall of the craft. A panel spanning several of his hands wide and high illuminated. He quickly scanned the metrics displayed.
She leaned forward. “What are you looking at?”
“This shows me everything we need to know about our situation. The fact that you don’t see any blue means all of our systems are at optimum performance. While this”—he pointed to a green pulse—“shows our signal radiating outwards. Once it hits a ship in this system, it will ping back.”
“Unless they’re pirates who tend to jam return signals so they can sneak up on us.”
“Pirates!” she squeaked, and Rafe narrowed his gaze on Mikhail.
Without an ounce of apology, his mirror image grinned. “Don’t glare at me for telling the truth. Isn’t that what you do?”
Used to do. Rafe didn’t have a ship anymore—sob—that he could use to plunder.
For now. His first order of business after rescue was getting a new vessel. Even if nothing can ever replace my Annabelle.
Despite it going against his nature, he attempted reassurance. “Don’t worry about pirates.”
“Says the pirate.” Muttered under her breath.
“How much are you offering to rescue us?” Mikhail asked as he leaned in and perused the screen.
Rafe almost growled. “Stop calling it rescue. It’s payment for services rendered.”
“Whatever. How much is the bribe?”
As Rafe slid his finger on the screen, the amount scrolled up.
A low whistle slid past Mikhail’s lips. “Very nice. Half of it upfront. The other half at a destination of your choice.”
That was the deal Rafe offered. However, that wasn’t the end of it. A male had a certain reputation to maintain. Getting plucked from space and then having to travel under the guest rule of a fellow commander was more than his two balls could take. To counteract the emasculation of it all, there would be only one solution. Eliminate whoever rescued him.
“At least you made the bounty higher than our worth.”
“What do you mean by ‘our worth?’” Emma stood, only to flop herself on his lap. No warning, just trusting in the familiarity they’d achieved during their time together since they’d fled Earth. Can you imagine how mad she’d be if I shoved her off? Maybe later if he needed entertainment.
“By worth, he means that we’d make good salvage. There are many ways to profit off the lives of others, starting with the markets that are looking for goods. Across the universe, there are buyers looking to acquire new flesh as slaves or concubines.”
“And then there are those seeking a delicate cut of flesh, a treat for a refined palate. The sentient snails aren’t just collected for their poems and lovely custom shells. They are excellent sautéed in a butter reduction served with a twice-reduced cream sauce.” Mikhail rubbed his stomach.
A moue of distaste twisted Emma’s lips. “Space is not a nice place.”
“I’m glad you finally understand that.” Rafe had certainly been trying to make her see the truth, but it didn’t prove easy for Emma to adjust. The companion he’d stolen from Earth struggled so much to understand the strange new existence he’d submerged her in. She still thought the majority of people would do the right thing. The nice thing.
Only if there was profit.
Profit didn’t explain, though, why he kept Emma around and didn’t toss his clone out an airlock.
Stupid feelings. For an evolved species, the Rhomanii had one major failing. They cared too damned much. Then again, the histrionics from a good temper tantrum did provide entertainment—and kept the glass industry in high demand.
His mother and sisters loved to throw things. Breakable things, usually. It made more noise and gave the men who’d peeved them a chance to buy them something in apology. In that, the Rhomaniis and Earthlings had much in common.
And Earthlings, while not from a recognized sentient planet, were smart. Too smart at times. And Emma wasn’t easily fooled. While Rafe had done his best to remain calm and reassure her, the truth of their situation remained dire, so he wasn’t surprised when she turned in his arms and gripped his shirt, her eyes wide with panic. “We could be floating in space forever if someone doesn’t find us.”
Adrift in space. Many succumbed to momentary madness as they realized they required luck and the right price to stay alive.
He didn’t panic. I still have a destiny to fulfill. Surely there were gods out there that would give events a nudge to ensure that he remained alive to play his part. “Someone will find us.”
“How reassuring. Someone will find our rotting corpses,” she said darkly.
“Actually, we’d mummify,” Mikhail interjected with his usual helpfulness.
“And how are we going to die?” She craned to look at him, and he struggled with what to reply.
Mikhail didn’t. “Would you like a list?”
Rafe didn’t even bother trying to punch Mikhail this time. It didn’t seem to do any good. The moron didn’t have enough brains to scramble.
“Anyone thirsty?” He was. Rafe leaned back in his chair and opened a cupboard hatch. He pulled out three nutritional drinks and handed them out.
Emma eyed the pouch before asking, “How much food and water do we have on board?”
“It’s not starving you have to worry about. We’ll probably run out of breathable air long before that because the filters in this thing are beyond expired,” Mikhail noted. “And that’s if the heating system doesn’t conk out first. Meat-sicles. The traders love finding them.”
“Shut up! What is wrong with you? Can’t you think of anything positive to say?”
Mikhail tapped his chin in thought. “Positive, eh? Well, we could conserve energy by lowering the interior temperature and relying on body heat instead. We’ll take turns being the naked person spooned in the middle.”
“Not helping!” Emma’s small fist punched Mikhail, unafraid to hit him below the waist, a solid blow to the sac.
Ouch. Rafe shared Mikhail’s wince. Then he dealt with a few panic attacks. Enjoyed a few more fistfights, which caused more panic attacks by Emma. And once they’d gotten some of their issues worked out, he shared his bottle of vodka, the two-liter size bought on Earth and kept stashed in the pod for an emergency. I think this counts.
He sloshed a generous amount in a shot glass he’d salvaged from a bag he’d stashed on board in another hidden cubby. The dice decorating the glass were a nice touch. They were relying on chance. He handed it to Emma. “Drink this.”
She did, several shot glasses full actually. Enough to get her tipsy and giggly, followed by maudlin, but the best part was when she uttered a horrified, “I have to pee.”
“Then go. I’m not stopping you.” He held out his hands so she could get up from his lap.
“I can’t go!” she wailed.
“Can’t? But you said you had to.”
“I do.” The words snapped out. “But I can’t go with you here.”
That was why she freaked? “I won’t watch. And neither will Mikhail.”
“But you’ll hear it.”
Earthlings and their strange notions. “I’ll plug my ears.”
“I don’t need to go.” Emma crossed her legs.
He leaned back in the seat and laced his fingers over his chest. “Are you seriously not going to pee because you have stage fright? What if I dare you to go?”
“That’s just stupid.”
“No more stupid than refusing to go.”
“All this talk, and now I have to piss.” Mikhail stood from the seat and headed the few steps to the back. He slapped the wall, and a cylinder rose around him, encasing him.
Emma blinked a few times before turning an accusing stare his way. “You knew the bathroom had privacy this entire time.”
“Yes.” But screwing with her proved much too entertaining.
The bathroom fiasco, the serviceable yet bland food, and the copious amounts of arguing served to pass the time, as did Rafe’s baiting of Mikhail.
The problem with that was every time he threw a zinger at his twin, he got just as good back.
“I wish you’d do the right thing and die,” Rafe grumbled at one point.
“You’re not the only one who wishes he was an only child.”
Identical glare back.
A proximity alarm beeped. He and Mikhail spun and froze as they perused the screen. As if by practice, they turned to meet the other’s gaze. It was like looking in a mirror as Mikhail’s lips curved at the same speed as Rafe’s.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
A metallic glint brought attention to the pommel of a blade sitting in the palm of Mikhail’s hand. “I’ve still got a knife.”
One weapon. What else did they have? The vodka wasn’t the only thing Rafe kept stashed in the pod. He rummaged under a seat, the compartment jammed with stuff. His fingers touched and rejected a few items until they wrapped around the grip of a blaster. As he pulled it free, he peeked at the meter on its side. “It’s got a full charge.” But would it be enough?
“What’s happening?” Emma asked.
“We have company.”
“Is that a good or bad thing?” She bounced a glance between them. “Why are you getting weapons ready?” Her eyes widened. “Is it pirates?”
“Probably.” Who else would roam this stretch of space? Actually, given the abandonment of Lac’uus, the dead moon they’d recently escaped from, it could be any number of miscreants trying to sneak up on them. Miscreants with ships.
I could use a new ship. How nice of them to accommodate.
A bright light pierced through the porthole window. Emma raised her arm to block the intense illumination. “What is that?”
“Tractor beam. Someone is bringing us on board.” He couldn’t contain his glee. What luck being found so quickly. Now the question was, were they interested in the bribe or the contents of the life pod? The other ship remained cloaked until the very last moment and made no attempt to communicate as they dragged the pod toward the open bay of a much larger vessel.
Big and with no markings. At least none the scanner on this vessel could locate. Rafe peered through the single small window, absorbing all the clues he could while Mikhail recited more mundane findings as they scrolled across the pod’s utility screen.
“Looks like it was custom built,” Rafe observed as he admired the sleek underbelly of the ship.
“According to the pingback from their computer, it’s Rhomanii owned,” his brother announced.
Which meant nothing. The Rhomanii—called “gypsy” by many—were just as crooked, if not more so at times, than other races.
There were twelve clans roaming the universe; although, once upon a time, before they went extinct, there had been thirteen. Within those clans were families; Rhomanii families all playing a game of posturing to see who could inhabit the inner enclave ring. The fact that a Rhomanii ship had snared them wasn’t exactly the best news. Depending on which clan the ship belonged to, they could be in a steaming dung pile of trouble.
In many places, Rafe was worth a lot of money—and not necessarily alive. The Eternal Roamer sect, a religion born eons ago, wanted him dead and had been trying to kill him since the moment of his birth. Trying but failing. Their followers no longer had the numbers to truly cause Rafe any trouble. The backlash after the massacre of children born the day of his birth—a bloodbath that had come about because their high priestess claimed the foretold one had been born—meant the sect’s numbers got decimated. A Rhomanii mother who saw her child ripped from her arms and slaughtered showed no mercy to those doing the killing. She didn’t care if the Eternal Roamer sect was saving them from the supposed destroyer—or savior depending on the religion you followed—of their race.
That massacre was why his mother had him sent away. To keep him safe, she claimed. It meant he’d spent the early parts of his childhood on desolate worlds with rough teachers.
The Roamers were just one religious group that had a problem with Rafe. There was also the opposite of the Roamers. Just as scary, the Dom’umm Terramyn’oos crazies preached going home—and thought Rafe would lead them there.
I don’t have a clue where there is, though. Not that the true believers cared. They blindly believed their prophets, who claimed Rafe would some day be king.
I’d rather just be left alone.
Which religion would the owners of this vessel follow? Were they the fanatics who would see Rafe dead, or the ones who expected him to pull a miracle out of his anus?
Thump. The tractor beam extinguished abruptly, dropping the life pod onto a hard surface, sending Emma stumbling, face-first, into Rafe’s groin. Being a guy, he, of course, cupped the back of her head and leered at his brother. It never hurt to remind Mikhail that Emma was his, even if he was having issues with that.
I still can’t believe she made out with my twin. They might be the same male on a cellular level, but how could she not notice the differences? We are not the same person. But they were damned close.
Placing a hand on the latch for the pod door, Mikhail arched a brow at him. Odd how he deferred to Rafe. In reply, Rafe gave the slightest of nods.
The seal around the exit hissed, and Rafe held himself ready, gripping the handholds positioned around the pod. Since the landing legs hadn’t extracted, the opening of the door shifted the weight, and the pod tilted. Rafe used the motion to leap out, followed by Mikhail. Emma more or less followed, if you counted the fact that she landed with a splat on the metal grid floor.
She groaned. There was no time to give her a hand. Not with whom he was facing.
I can’t believe I got caught in a trap.
With a clap of his hands, A’Diabbloh—not as dead as Rafe had thought—welcomed them. He smirked, canines gleaming. “There you are. Both the princes, the light and the dark, in one piece, as promised. Search the pod and you’ll find the treasure pieces, too, I will wager.”
Don’t touch my precious artifacts. Words thought but not spoken. He didn’t want to let A’Diabbloh know how it bothered him.
“Uncle will be pleased.” No surprise this statement came from Rafe’s treacherous cousin, Luca.
I knew I should have killed him instead of dumping him at a way station three wormholes ago. But he’d ignored the rules of space and listened to the soft-hearted Emma as she’d said, “You can’t kill him, he’s family.” He wouldn’t make that mistake again. He raised his gun, ready to blow Luca’s head into tiny chunks of meat, but a woman’s shout stopped him. “No. Don’t shoot.”
That voice. He knew that voice, but it couldn’t be. Not here. Not now. Rafe pivoted around. He wasn’t alone in uttering a shocked, “Mother? What are you doing here?”
“Bringing you home.”