My parents might never recover from the trauma of having to ask me to put my hacking skills to good use after dissuading me from using them all these years.
—from the journal of Payton Marcus Townsend
January 15, 4830: The Lady Anna, two parsecs outside the Englor system
“HURRY, HURRY, hurry.” Payton darted a glance around the engine room, then back to the monitors in front of him. Almost done—download 98 percent complete. Come on. If he could just get into the IN mainframes….
Dust. His hands were sweating, and no sooner had he wiped them on his trousers than a drop of perspiration dripped down his temple as well. He dashed it away. Get it together, Pay. If you’re going to spy for your planet, you can’t go around looking like a nervous ninny.
Nate had brought him on this trip to work on deciphering the messages Aiden and Trouble had downloaded, but Payton wanted to get a head start on researching Colonel Hollister, whose picture they found in the belongings of an Englorian spy on Regelence. This was the perfect plan. Hacking into the Englor Marines’ message database from the Lady Anna would make it nearly impossible to trace. Even if there were cyber footprints, they wouldn’t be detected until he was on Englor, and no one would suspect him. Unless, of course, he failed to get out of here and back to his room unseen.
His com-pad beeped, signaling it was done. “Yes.” Payton closed the two screens together, with the displays facing out so he could monitor the ship’s cameras and get back to his room undetected. Bypassing sensors and cameras to hide his whereabouts was simple, but sneaking past crewmembers—Nate in particular—would be a little more challenging.
Pulling up the first camera on his screen, Payton hurried to the door. He could turn the camera off remotely, but he needed to see if anyone was outside the door first. He brought up the view immediately outside the engine room and then the next hallway to make certain no one was walking into this corridor. Nothing out there but the ugly purple carpet and stark metal bulkhead. The IN colors were black, white, and gold. Why not black carpet?
He opened the door and closed it quietly behind him. As he rushed toward the end of the hall, he pulled up the next camera. Still clear. With a couple of touches of his fingertip, he turned off the camera and opened a window with the next view in it. Dust. Two sailors were headed his way. Payton looked around and spotted a hatch directly across from where he stood. He did some fast tapping on the screen and opened a map. The room was an officer’s apartment. That wouldn’t work. Where was a maintenance closet when you needed one?
He had mere seconds to decide what to do. Ducking his head, Payton plowed forward, like he was where he was supposed to be. Really, he had no other choice; just waiting there looking for a hiding place would definitely make him stand out. Note to self: next time steal—no, not steal, a Townsend did not steal—borrow a uniform.
The sailors came around the corner. Both were privates, both a little taller than Payton’s five feet six inches, and he hadn’t seen either one of them before. Of course, that wasn’t surprising; the Lady Anna had a crew of over two hundred. Fortunately neither man paid Payton any mind and walked right past him, still engrossed in their conversation.
Payton let out the breath he’d been holding and brought up the next camera. This was where it could get tricky. The corridor opened up into a four-way intersection. Two of the branches led to the public areas of the ship. The hall he was in led to the engine room, and the hall directly across from him led to his quarters. On his screen the intersection appeared devoid of personnel, but Payton had no illusions it would stay that way. Maybe the same trick would work? At this point he had nothing to lose. He turned off the camera, put his com-pad under his arm and raised his nose in the air. Nothing to see here. Just taking a stroll, stretching my legs.
As Payton reached the halfway point of the intersection, a husky female voice said, “Aye, aye, Admiral.”
Star dust and imploding planets. There was only one admiral on board. Payton looked over in time to see Nate turning away from Captain Brittani Kindros and toward the intersection. Dust. Payton took off running and didn’t stop until he reached his hatch. He darted inside and leaned against the smooth metallic panel when it closed behind him. He’d tell Nate what he’d done, but he wanted to wait until after he had some information to impart. His hardheaded, macho admiral brother-in-law would throttle him if he got caught. Despite bringing Payton for his hacking talent, Nate was trying to keep Payton’s involvement to a minimum. At least that was what Payton suspected.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled himself together and used his screen to bring the cameras back up.
Nate turned down the hallway that led to Payton’s room. He had such a commanding air about him. Even though he was so big and masculine, he moved with an elegant grace that spoke of his upbringing. Today Nate looked every inch the earl, in his crisp brown morning coat, brown pinstriped waistcoat, and cream-colored cravat. Aiden was a lucky man… and any minute Payton would be a dead one.
He’d told Nate he was going to nap after Nate had soundly beaten him at chess. His black leather case sat by the chaise he’d deserted to go play spy. He raced toward it and deposited his com-pad into it. Searching the outer pocket of his case, he found his leather-bound journal and a pen. The knock came just as he pulled both of them into his lap.
Payton took a deep shuddering breath, trying to slow his racing heart, opened the book, and held his pen like he was writing. “Come in.”
Nate met Payton’s gaze and smiled almost reluctantly. “You’ve been writing in your journal?” The hatch shut behind him.
“Yes.” Please don’t let him see how hard I’m breathing.
Nate’s brows pulled together, his forehead furrowing. “Okay, I thought I—never mind. So tell me, how is it someone as computer savvy as you records his journal on paper rather than his computer? You’ve rarely been without that thing”—Nate dipped his head toward Payton’s computer bag beside the chaise—“the entire trip. You’re nearly as bad as your brother with his sketchscreens.”
Payton shrugged. “I know better than anyone how easy it is to hack into computers.”