Thelkor: Chapter Four

Rachel

The swirling light blinded me and I shut my eyes as the floor rocked. Nothing actually moved during the process, but it felt like everything solid I could use to balance myself became as fluid as an ocean.

I was struck by a wave of nausea and worried for a moment that I was going to come out on the other side barfing, but the floor steadied again and, the second I found my balance, the sickness passed.

I’d never pilot anything at a decent speed if I got squeamish over being tossed around a little.

I blinked several times to clear my eyes and looked around as I stepped gingerly off the transport pad. There were some big aliens staring at me and I stared straight back.

I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. These guys didn’t look particularly welcoming. I mean, at least they weren’t fighting over me or anything like that, but I sure as hell didn’t feel welcome.

I think I might have walked in at exactly the wrong time. Something is going down here.

The air held the atmosphere of an argument in progress. Almost like the smell of gas, you knew the wrong move at exactly the wrong time would ignite the air.

“Hi, guys.” I tried to sound cheerful. “How are we today?”

Still silence and stares. I blinked and found myself grinning.

Maybe these guys are all big, soft teddy bears.

“I was told that one of you guys is my mate?” I asked, making eye contact with each one.

Their expressions didn’t change. They kept staring at me. I was starting to get worried—weren’t they expecting me?

“Welcome,” the guy in the middle said. “I’m Captain Timcur.”

“I’m Rachel,” I said slowly. Timcur was giving me a nice smile, but the others still just looked confused.

“What is she doing here?” one of them muttered.

He swayed, and I could smell the alcohol from across the room. His face was twisted and intense and that was a pity. He could have been very cute if he hadn’t looked so pissed about everything.

“I signed you up for mates,” the captain grinned. “I was so proud of you all, I thought you would appreciate it.”

“Really?” The most refined-looking one crossed the room in two strides and gently reached for my hand. “I am Storgin, my dear. I am very pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.” I grinned at him as he air-kissed above my hand and gave a little bow. Even though he came close enough for me to feel the tickle of his skin, he didn’t quite touch me.

It was a little weird, but I could tell he was genuine. His eyes sparkled with mischief and I knew he was making fun of his own affected pose. I liked him immediately.

“Who says I wanted to be signed up?” the drunk one asked. “You had no right.”

“Are you seriously complaining, Thelkor?” The one standing by the captain glared at him. “This is a marvelous opportunity. Welcome, Rachel. I’m Olath.”

“Great to meet you.” I nodded his way, trying to evade the glare of the other one.

Thelkor.

“As if this place wasn’t already a fucking circus!” he said angrily. “Now this! Honestly, we have enough problems today without having little girls showing up that we have to babysit.”

“Excuse me—” I thundered, ready to give the guy a verbal blasting that he would never forget. But my attempt was drowned out by the other guys.

“Thelkor, shut the fuck up. If anything, this has brightened the day,” Storgin was still close to me, glaring at Thelkor. It was obvious that the guy was a literal train wreck, and his buddies were used to his difficult nature.

I didn’t think I was going to get used to it.

“I agree, the timing is poor,” the captain said. “We are neck deep in it right now. We have to move out and that means we have to choose a pilot, but—”

“I’m a pilot,” I cut in. They all turned to look at me as if I’d grown two extra heads.

“That is very lucky for us,” Storgin said, smiling. “Let us go to the bridge, and you can look over the controls.”

Thelkor spluttered as he followed, almost dropping his bottle of booze. “Oh, great. She teleports in from who knows where, we know nothing about her skills, but you’re going to just let her fly? Great, this is fucking great—”

Will you shut up!” Captain Timcur snapped, spinning to face Thelkor.

As the captain engaged him in an argument, Storgin quietly left my side and walked smoothly across the room. He pulled a small device from his pocket and stepped behind Thelkor, then pressed it to Thelkor’s neck. Thelkor’s eyes closed and he hit the deck with a loud thud, obviously tranquilized.

“Thank you,” Olath breathed. “I was going to resort to a crowbar soon if he didn’t shut up.”

Storgin shrugged. “A crowbar would have the same effect.”

“But far more fun,” muttered Olath.

I looked around the room, wondering if that sort of thing was usual around here. The guys seemed very comfortable, and Thelkor had started to snore softly.

“Okay, Rachel,” Timcur said. “Let’s get you settled in. We have a mission and it’s vital that we leave now. We can get your match straightened out later. Right now, we have to deploy.”

I nodded. It was a comfort to me that I was going straight to the pilot’s chair. Even though I was in an unfamiliar place, I had a job to do and it was one I knew very well.

Thelkor: Chapter Three

Thelkor

I was in the midst of throwing down another big swallow of delicious booze when the young man in front of us started winding up his spiel. If I didn’t fill my mouth with something, I was going to scream at the little bastard.

I’d rather stab myself in the eye than go through another one of these.

My eyes slid around the control room, trying to catch the captain’s eye. He was focused on the newest applicant with a mixed expression of shock and disbelief.

I’d started drinking at least three applicants ago, I think. I had to distract myself from the relentless stupidity. What a pity that instead of merely being distracted, I was now galloping straight past annoyance into full blown malice.

If he doesn’t shut the fuck up, I’m going to jump in and wrestle the little fucker to the ground. Then I’ll tie him in knots with his own tongue just to stop the flood of fucking nonsense.

My fingers tightened a little on the bottle. I’d like to throw it at him, but that would have been a waste of perfectly good booze.

How did every single pilot on this base wind up an imbecile? I thought, completely mystified. Surely pilots were highly trained, professional individuals. So far, it looked more like we were advertising for a court jester.

Not because they are deliberately trying to be funny, but because they just randomly amuse me by being themselves.

I was far from being amused. For the first few applicants, it was funny. Then it was worrisome. Now, it was downright fucking terrifying to be considering the possibility that there really wasn’t anyone on this base that could properly pilot the ship.

“How long would it take to get a rookie from Lunar Flight Academy?” When I heard my own voice bursting out in frustration, I was actually surprised. I guess my thoughts just got so loud they refused to stay in my mind.

“There won’t be another class graduation for a month,” Captain Timcur said irritably. “I thought of that, of course.”

“You aren’t considering one of these morons, are you?” I asked in shock.

He shrugged, his face twisting in a scowl. “Something needs to be done. We can’t wait a month, we could get our orders at any time.”

As I let out a sharp gasp, my fingers lost their grip, and I almost dropped the bottle. I recovered quickly and squeezed it tightly enough to threaten the glass.

“I am the captain, Thelkor,” he said. “You’re a gunner. You’ll have to abide by my decision.”

Olath gave me a sidelong glance and I took a deep breath, ready to impose my will upon the room by force. I took a good hard gulp of booze and suddenly getting up didn’t seem like such a good idea.

Maybe I’ll finish the bottle first.

“Do we have many more to see?” I asked. Before anyone could answer me, the ship’s comm crackled, and a message came through.

“We have intercepted data regarding the location of Zarklac. He is travelling on a long-haul ferry from Vyrlis to the Demeter Cluster. If the Golden Meridian leaves now, she can slingshot around Mars and intercept at Baker VII. Over and out.”

There was a moment of deep silence. None of us moved for a good thirty seconds. The tension rose in the room, a palpable weight built by the urgency in  every man here.

“We have to go,” my voice came out in a roar. “Now!”

“We need to choose a fucking pilot!” Olath roared back at me. “Grab one of those fucking jokers from out there and let’s go!”

“Are you serious?” I stood up, holding the bottle in one hand. “Just pick one. Anyone? Are you out of your mind?”

“Mission priority,” Captain Timcur snapped. “We have to move. It doesn’t matter who we pick, so long as we move out now.”

“If our pilot can’t fucking fly to the right location or gets us blown up, it won’t matter when we move out, because we won’t be catching up to him!”

“Are you going to fucking fly, then?” Olath frowned at me, crossing his arms over his chest. I held the bottle loosely in two fingers and took a step closer. My blood was on fire from the frustration and the booze. I needed to hit something.

This is not the time for a fucking brawl, but then again, it beats choosing a fucking pilot out of these deadbeats.

“Thelkor,” Timcur said, in a warning tone. “Get your shit together.”

“Me?” I turned on him, fury rising like the wind in a storm.

His face became a mask of calm as he took a step towards me.

This is it. Fists up, impact in one minute.

For a second, everyone simply bounced their eyes around at everyone else, as if waiting for a solution to magically appear. I mean, I was drunk. I had a great excuse for appearing confused. The others had none.

The arguments began again. I added my voice to the fight, but I didn’t get far. The sound of the transporter activating silenced me. The others shut their mouths, too. Could it be possible the solution would just magically appear?

On any other day, I’d say ‘no’. I was drunk enough today to believe in just about anything, though. It could just be wishful thinking, but for some reason I believed the answer to all our problems was coming in on that transport pad.

Thelkor: Chapter Two

Rachel

“This is the hauler Potomac, license number X782B,” I said, leaning slightly forward so that the ancient intercom would pick up my voice. The light didn’t turn green, and so I punched the console with one closed fist. “I repeat, this is the hauler Potomac. Do I have clearance for landing?”

I waited for almost a minute, nothing but static coming from the intercom, but I didn’t let that stop me. I took a sip of my coffee, and then started reducing thrust and lining the ship with the docking port. State-of-the-art haulers had an AI-assisted interface that allowed for easier docking maneuvers, but this rustbucket had none of those bells and whistles.

Slowly, I maneuvered the ship until it was perfectly lined up with my assigned docking port.

“Potomac, you have been granted clearance.”

Much like I had done hundreds of times before, I approached the heavy structures that had been built just outside the lunar base on Shackleton Crater.

Once the ship was docked, I checked in with the customs officials and signed off on the manifesto. It’d take a couple of days to unload the ship, which meant that I’d have some time to kill on the lunar base. Some people wouldn’t mind a few days of leave here, but that wasn’t me. I didn’t know anyone local, after all, and I’d never been much of a bar-hopper or club-goer.

I took one of the magnetic pods that connected the docks to the commercial hub and, no more than fifteen minutes later, I was inside the base’s domed structure. Holographic signs flashed all around me, advertising an endless choice of entertainment venues and lodging, and little food stalls littered most of the district’s squares and narrow streets, the vendors hurriedly trying to keep up with the demand.

Mahdfel and human workers walked past me, keeping that hurried step of someone with an important job to do, and I made an effort to keep out of everyone’s way. The SCLB was a busy place most of the time, but that busyness ramped up after the latest Suhlik attack.

There were Mahdfel soldiers stationed on every corner, presumably to ensure the base’s security, and there were signs of construction everywhere. The loud grinding screech of drills meshed with the din of vendors hawking their wares. Construction workers in grey overalls zoomed overhead in small pods, hurrying between sites.

Ignoring the chaos, I chose a little Chinese food stall and, while waiting for my chop suey, grabbed my personal tablet and laid it down on the counter. I logged into the base’s network and started searching for a place to stay. I discarded the hotels I really wanted—the hauling company would pay for my lodgings, but the cheapskates in charge of admin would never reimburse me if I chose something fancy—and scrolled down to the bottom of the list.

I was almost done with dinner when I finally settled on a tiny motel on the corner of Armstrong’s plaza. The place had undergone extensive renovations recently, the rooms weren’t as cramped as usual, and the prices weren’t out of my range. All things considered, not a bad option.

I pressed my thumb against the tablet’s bioscanner, wanting to confirm the booking, but an advert for the mating lottery popped up on the screen.

“Crap,” I grumbled. I should’ve just deleted the ad and continued with the booking, but I didn’t. The flashing ‘$1 million cash reward’ underneath the image of a happy woman captured my attention.

I propped my elbows on the counter and ordered another beer. I took a small sip, its bitterness coating my tongue, and wondered about the lottery. From what I’d heard, only a few women got matched with an alien mate but, when that happened, their families were compensated with a cool $1 million.

I opened the advert, scrolled through the lottery’s network, and then pulled up the fine print. “Right on,” I muttered, smiling as I found what I was looking for. In cases where the human female didn’t have a family, she was awarded the full sum. And what did you know? That applied to me.

You can’t be serious, Rachel, my inner voice said, but I barely paid any attention to it. Sure, it was a little crazy I was considering signing up to be tested for the genetic lottery before my number was called…but the money!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was perfectly happy working as a hauler pilot. I liked the quiet that came with it and, since the company paid for my lodgings, I could save a lot of my paycheck. Besides, all the downtime gave me the opportunity to pick up some extra skills—even though I didn’t put that in my reports, I spent a lot of time messing with the ship’s systems, trying to teach myself the dark arts of computer hacking.

Still, a steady paycheck and some free time wasn’t enough to keep me happy. I had always dreamt of buying my own cargo ship, and that wasn’t going to happen on a pilot’s paycheck. According to my accountant, it’d take more than twenty years for me to save up enough money for something like that.

Before I even knew what I was doing, my fingers were already tapping at the tablet’s screen. I pulled up a map, a red dot indicating the closest Testing Center, and rose to my feet. Even though I wasn’t sure if I’d go through with it, I still followed the map’s directions. I only stopped once I was standing in front of the Center, the glare of its white lights forcing me to narrow my eyes.

“I’m not doing this,” I whispered, letting out a nervous chuckle. No, it’d be madness to do it. Then again, what’d be the harm in trying? It wasn’t like I’d get a match, right? That was rare. And, even if I did get a match, Earth would put enough money on my account for a ship of my own. I could finally start living the life I’d always wanted. “Alright, maybe I’m doing this.”

I stepped forward, the doors slid open to welcome me. I stepped in.

Thelkor: Chapter One

Thelkor

“I have close to fifteen thousand hours behind a Spitzler X9’s controls, and I have vast experience in docking procedures that follow the Epsylon Luna B9 protocol.”

The young candidate stood in front of The Golden Meridian’s crew, hands clasped behind his back and stoic expression on his face. He was trying to keep his nerves from showing, which was a plus, but there was something about his story which didn’t sit right with me.

“A Spitzler X9,” I muttered, letting the others pepper our latest candidate with more questions. I had never heard of such a ship. Could it be a military vessel in the Lunar Base’s fleet? Maybe something from the Lunar Flight academy? The humans were known to be secretive about their ships, so that could be it.

Discreetly, I grabbed my personal tablet and pulled up whatever information was available on Shackleton Crater’s intraweb. The moment words appeared on my screen, I suppressed the irresistible urge to jump over the table and punch the idiot we were interviewing.

You’ve gotta be shitting me, I thought.

Or maybe I said it out loud.

Everyone stopped talking and turned to face me. Captain Timur furrowed his brow, Olath arched an eyebrow, and Storgin just looked at me with eyes as wide as a satellite dish.

I tossed the tablet on the table and rose. We held these interviews in the ship’s galley, which we hoped would make for a non-threatening setting, but what I needed right now was a healthy dose of intimidation.

That and a strong drink.

Pressing my lips together, I eyed our potential recruit, the man who’d be in charge of piloting The Golden Meridian if we accepted him. Not an easy job. We were talking about an interstellar sweetheart of 250 metric tons, fitted with enough weapons to take on a fully-armored Suhlik squadron.

Sure, we called our starship Goldie, but this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill ship. Goldie was a flying hammer, one that hauled our ass around the galaxy and meted out justice whenever necessary.

As for the recruit, he was just a lanky human with a buzzcut and a nervous expression.

It was rare for Vaznik warriors to have a non-Vaznik crew member but, since our former pilot had decided to settle up on Shackleton Crater Lunar Base with his human mate, we needed to find another pilot as soon as possible. The captain had told us that we’d have word from the headquarters before long, and we needed to be ready for a quick departure.

Unfortunately, our adverts seemed to have only produced inexperienced idiots.

The man in front of us was no different.

“Why exactly do you want to fly a ship like The Golden Meridian?” I asked him, not sure if I should be pissed or amused. This situation was laughable.

“Well…” He cleared his throat, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He looked uncomfortable. “The pay is good and I…well, I kinda need the money. Besides, I always dreamed of flying a ship like this.”

“No wonder,” I said. “Tired of picking up the trash, I imagine.”

His face paled like he was going to pass out. Did he really expect us not to find out?

“What are you talking about?” Olath asked me, his eyebrow still frozen in that questioning arch. “Collecting the trash? There’s nothing about that in this guy’s file.”

“If you know where to look, there is.” I grabbed my tablet and swiped across the screen. I pulled up the information on a Spitzler X9 vessel and slid the holopad toward Olath. “It’s a trash collection vessel.”

“Is that true?” Captain Timur rose to his feet, his steely gaze locked on the recruit.

The man looked as if he was about to piss his pants—not that I could blame him. He was alone here, with nothing but four alien warriors for company. We were far taller, had horns that could gut him in a split second, and weren’t particularly fond of being deceived.

“Yes,” the recruit muttered, already taking a step toward the door. “I’m sorry, I was only trying to—”

“And what’s this about an Epsylon Luna B9 protocol?” the captain continued.

“It’s the protocol used by the trash collection ships for docking,” I explained, making my peace with the absurdity of what was happening. We were a team of highly-trained Vaznik warriors, and we were considering a trash collector as our new pilot.

Just brilliant.

“Go,” the captain said, dismissing the young man with a wave of his hand, “before I change my mind.” The anxious candidate turned on his heel and left the galley so fast you’d never think he’d been there in the first place.

“We’re screwed,” Olath groaned, throwing the tablet on top of the table. “Are there no good pilots on Shackleton Crater? How are we supposed to be mission-ready when all we get are guys like that one?” He turned on his seat so that he was facing the captain. “Maybe we could lure Korath back into the job.”

“Let Korath be,” Timur said. “The man’s happy here. We need to focus on…” He trailed off when his comms unit chimed, and his frown reappeared when he read the contents of whatever message he had just received. “Shit, we just got our marching orders.”

“Anything interesting?” I leaned back on my seat, clasped my hands behind my head, and propped my feet up on the table. After everything that had happened here on SCLB, I was aching to kick some Suhlik ass. The bastards had planned a terrorist attack right here on the lunar base, but our former pilot had put a stop to it.

Damn, I was going to miss that bastard.

“Yes, this job’s going to be interesting, Thelkor.” The captain took a deep breath, looked each and every one of us in the eye, and only then did he exhale. “We’re to go after a Suhlik named Zarklac. He was the mastermind behind the attacks on Shackleton Crater, and HQ wants him captured. They’re still processing some intelligence, but I’ve been warned that Goldie is to be on standby. As soon as we have a lead, we’re gonna have to depart.”

“Now all we need is a half-decent pilot,” I said with a sour laugh. “Should be easy.”

I was the only one laughing.

Yeah, I definitely needed a drink.

Lost With Her Alien Mate

Janis

The wind whipped my hair back, the ship’s engines growling furiously as they battled against gravity. I stood at the edge of the massive crater, surrounded by D’Tali and humans alike, and wrapped my cloak tighter against my body. It did little to protect me from the wind, but at least it offered some comfort. 

The hulking shape of the Navigator, as it had been christened, let out a metallic groan as the thrusters finally engaged, spewing blue flames against the hard-packed soil. A cloud of dust exploded from beneath the ship and, as if on cue, everyone stepped back. Some, like me, even raised their arms to shield their eyes from the debris.

“It’s working,” King Dojak muttered beside me, his eyes widening as he watched the action unfold. He stood tall, his posture regal, but even he couldn’t stop wonder and fascination from taking over his face. “It’s actually working.”

I felt short of breath, my heart tightening inside my chest as I looked back at the ship. Slowly, but steadily, it pushed off the ground, like a sleeping giant someone had just poked with a stick. It was hard to believe this behemoth had come here all the way from Earth. There was a metallic sound and the ship shuddered. The Navigator began to ascend. First, just a couple of feet, then yards at a time.

I allowed myself a sliver of hope.

If this worked, there was a chance I could return to Earth. I could see my adoptive family again, maybe even return to the life I had worked so hard for—before the Skarg had abducted us. Maybe I’d even be able to forget about all this. As kind as the D’Tali had been to us, I needed to get back to Earth. Some of the women had already started to see this planet as their home, but not I.

“Oh, God,” I breathed out, my knees threatening to buckle under my weight.

The ship stopped its steady march into the heights, and I could tell the thrusters were working at their full capacity. What if the ship didn’t fly? What if this was all for naught? Would I remain trapped here on this planet forever?

Hope welled up inside me once more, as a metallic groan rippled through the air when the ship started ascending again. It labored higher and higher, casting its enormous shadow over the gathered crowd. I held my breath and prayed silently to whatever gods ruled this side of the galaxy.

“Please, please,” I muttered under my breath, repeating that word over and over again, like a mantra. More than anyone here, I wanted this to work. Ineeded for the ship to be fully functional. I had kept the thought to myself that since we arrived here, I only wished for one thing… to leave.

I had never been what most would consider a well-adjusted girl, but I had built a normal life back on Earth. My adoptive family had accepted me, and my career had provided meaning. After a miserable childhood, I had scraped together a promising future.

Fate, though, threw a wicked curveball.

Over a year had passed since that fateful night, but I could still recall each moment as vividly as if it were happening now. A bright light outside my window, a feeling of nausea, and my consciousness dwindling until all I could experience was dark. Then, when I awoke, everything had changed.

My old life was no more.

Even though I had never believed that aliens were a thing, that night I woke up in the cargo hold of a spaceship, trapped inside something like a cattle pen. I had gone from being a normal girl to a piece of meat trafficked by aliens. Thankfully, fate must’ve taken pity on me: instead of reaching its destination, the traffickers’ ship was ambushed and crash-landed on this planet. Even though I didn’t like it here like most of the other women, the D’Tali’s generosity and kindness had made life more tolerable.

I felt petty for resenting the women who had adjusted to life here. How could they accept it so easily? They busied themselves with dating the D’Tali instead of planning a way out, their complacence driving me insane.

It wasn’t their fault, of course. But I couldn’t help waking every night drenched in sweat, the memories of my abduction returning in the shape of haunting nightmares.

Somehow, though, no one had noticed just how close I was to my breaking point.

As hope began to solidify, one of the ship’s thrusters misfired.

Blue flames turned inward and bent the metal. A collective gasp ran through the crowd. There was a furious hiss from the Navigator. My eardrums popped as a metallic thunderclap rang throughout the landscape.

The ship banked left, losing altitude. The engines worked double-time, judging by their tempestuous roar.

It wasn’t enough.

“Step back everyone,” King Dojak cried out, the deep bass of his voice reverberating through my chest.

His security escort leaped into action and pushed the crowd further back, trying to create a safe perimeter. A wave of nausea crashed through me: the ship was going to crash.

“No, please, no.” My knees finally gave in, hitting the ground with a painful thud. I didn’t even register the pain. My heart became so tight it almost burst. It felt like a heavy boulder sunk in my stomach.

Kneeling, I watched as the Navigator pushed away from the crater, its original resting place. Whoever was piloting was trying not to flatten the entire crowd if the worst happened. I heard the crackle and static of comm devices going off all around me, but I was so dazed I couldn’t register what was being said.

My hopes were pulverized as the Navigator touched the ground. It wasn’t a disaster, as the pilots managed to right the ship before the hull touched the soil, but I could still see metal sheets flying everywhere. The earth trembled under my feet seconds after the impact.

I brought my arm up, realizing I was crying. I used the sleeves of my ragged shirt to dab the tears away. It was useless. It’s not that I was sad—it was something that cut way deeper. It felt as if my insides had been scooped up and flung out, leaving nothing but hollowness and desperation behind. I would never return to Earth. I would never see my family again. I would never be happy again.

The last thing I remembered was a falling sensation. That, and the emptiness of the skies overhead, their strange colors a reminder I didn’t belong here.

This wasn’t home.

Nadan

“Get back!”

King Dojak ushered the crowd of humans and D’Tali backwards, pushing us all away from the horrifying sight on the horizon—the Navigator smoking and twisted, crashed. There was pandemonium. Some of the D’Tali children wept from the loud noise—one babe had gotten lost in the scuffle and was desperately searching for his mother. Ordinarily, I would have been the first to scoop him up and return him, but not today.

All around me, humans and D’Tali coursed backwards, pushing against each other to make sure they were at a safe distance should the Navigator burn. Meanwhile, Amber, Riley, and Isabella, the three human women leading the effort to get the Navigator up and running, bolted toward the smoldering ship. They were followed by their team of D’Tali engineers. I thought about making myself useful. The small D’Tali child behind me stopped wailing as someone ushered him to his mother. Throughout this chaos, I could only stand still.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Janis swayed the minute the Navigator had begun to descend and we all realized something was wrong. The moment the Navigator crash-landed, she crumpled like an autumn leaf.

I had to get to her.

When the human women first landed in the D’Tali kingdom and I laid eyes on Janis, something ignited inside me. I tried to shake off the feeling, assuming it was just a natural curiosity for a creature that looked and behaved so differently, but as the days wore on and more of the human women began to mix with the D’Tali and the Lukadians, I started to suspect something else was going on.

Janis always seemed distant, apart. She reminded me of the traumatized numas I worked with in King Dojak’s stable. He always laughed and bragged about my work, telling anyone who would listen that I could rehabilitate any numa, no matter how misbehaved. I was always quick to follow up that numas didn’t “misbehave”—they protected themselves from dangers that we just couldn’t see.

I’d suspected that what was happening inside of me for Janis wasn’t simple curiosity when I noticed her continuously putting distance between herself and the other women. Once, weeks ago, a large D’Tali had put down a plate of food with a jovial clang near Janis, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She bolted from the table and, unable to stop myself, I followed her. I found her moments later huddled over a barrel of water, shaking from head to toe, taking in deep, steadying, calming breaths.

That night, I’d hung back in the shadows, positive that had I made myself known, I would have sent her spiraling down into an even darker fear. Instead, I watched from a distance as she dipped her hands in the water barrel and washed her face clean, calming herself enough to eventually rejoin the others at the table. I stayed out, trying to parse through the confusing feelings. Why had she captured my attention like this? It was stronger than just curiosity. The sight of her shaking made me explode in pain. I found my own limbs quivering, too.

And now, seeing her unconscious body twisted under her cloak made me want to howl in misery.

I had avoided approaching her for so long, though whenever she was near, I couldn’t help but stare at her. I was positive I had memorized every detail of her face. The freckles across the bridge of her nose, the dusty hazel of her eyes, and her warm auburn hair cascading around her face, brushing the tips of her delicate shoulders. Over the weeks I had noticed her eyes developing a slightly bruised look—as if the very act of drinking in the visual stimulus of the D’Tali kingdom was making her sick.

Wait, I had told myself that night at the water barrel. Wait, I had said as I watched her separate herself from the rest of the human women. Wait, just wait. She won’t trust you if you push.

The Navigator crashed, and all my cautious reasoning crashed with it.

“Move,” I barked with frustration as I pushed against the D’Tali guards shepherding the crowd back through the main gates. No one seemed to have noticed Janis collapsing. Was I the only one who’d seen her fall?

I finally broke free of the crushing, worried bodies and crossed the empty distance between the throng to where Janis lay unconscious on the ground. I became suddenly aware of how fast my heart was beating against my rib cage. I had never been this close to her.

“Janis,” I murmured softly, kneeling next to her.

She was unresponsive.

My heart slammed against my chest, quickening its pace even more. This wasn’t good—I needed to get her to someone who could help revive her.

I put my hand on her cloaked shoulder and rolled her over gently so she faced me. Seeing her face so close took my breath away. Even unconscious, she appeared to be in pain.

“Janis,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”

Nothing.

Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Enough was enough—she obviously wasn’t going to wake. I needed to jump into action.

Moving carefully so I didn’t jostle her, I scooped my hands underneath her frail body and lifted her up easily into my arms. Her head lolled onto my shoulder, fitting perfectly against the crook of my neck. As I hoisted her into a more comfortable position, her hand brushed briefly against my cheek.

It was as if my whole body suddenly awoke.

The world around me felt sharper, more alive, like the volume and color saturation had been turned up. I gasped and almost dropped Janis in shock. My body had reacted so dramatically to just the gentlest of her touches.

Was this the bond?

I’d suspected Janis and I were fated, but up until now had had no way of truly knowing. And yet, I still wasn’t positive—the sun’s unrelenting rays made it hard for me to examine my skin. My fluorescent bond sign should have flared at Janis’s touch, but I couldn’t quite discern it in the sunlight.

All I knew was Janis was in pain and it caused me pain. Fighting back panic, I looked up and scanned the horizon. There were teams of D’Tali and a few human women over by the Navigator, assessing the damage. Meanwhile, most of the crowd had already headed back to the city by now. Just outside the gate stood King Dojak and several of his advisors and humans. My need to get Janis somewhere safe where she could be revived throbbed in me as a painful reminder, and I began to stride swiftly towards the king.

“My King!” I called out. I heard my voice as if it were outside of me. I sounded winded and panicked.

King Dojak and his human wife, Sofia, looked up in alarm. My shout also got the attention of Camilia, a human healer, who appeared from behind the king and watched me approach.

“What’s happened, Nadan?” King Dojak asked as I rushed up to them with Janis in my arms.

“It’s Janis! She—I don’t know what happened, but she collapsed,” I said desperately, holding tight to her. “I tried to wake her but she wouldn’t move.” I looked pleadingly between King Dojak and Sofia. Someone in charge had to tell me what to do.

“When did she collapse?” It was Camilia, appearing suddenly by my side, her baby Ania on her hip. Ania stared up at me with wide-eyed curiosity.

“Just after the Navigator crashed—she just fell, and she won’t wake up,” I said.

Camilia threw her hand out and grabbed Janis’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. Her normally composed face wrinkled in concern.

“Your Majesty, would you hold Ania for me?” Camilia asked gently, though her face showed urgency. Without waiting for a response, she deposited the small child into the king’s arms, who looked at first surprised then happy to cuddle the baby.

“Of course, Camilia,” King Dojak replied, pinching Ania’s nose and grinning at her subsequent shrieks of laughter. “Take care of Janis. Ania is safe here.”

Without waiting another beat, Camilia strode through the camp gates, leading me toward the temporary infirmary, weaving through the thinning crowd still jabbering animatedly about the crash.

“I set up an infirmary in Rover’s cargo hold to care for the pilots, just in case.”

“Very thoughtful, Lady Camilia.”

I felt as if Janis’s body pulsed in my arms, in rhythm with my heartbeat. I knew she needed Camilia’s help, but I also knew how likely she was to startle in fright when she saw two people looming over her, one of them a strange, unknown D’Tali. It was just like the numas that I trained—get too close too fast, and they spooked.

But I knew what I’d felt when our skin touched—was it possible she would react differently to me? If we were bonded, could Janis open her eyes and feel a sense of calm? Or would she be alarmed?

I gritted my teeth as I followed Camilia through the crowd. I did not know what would happen next, but now more than ever, my heart thrummed with one word:

Janis.

Janis

When I opened my eyes, a wave of nausea and confusion crashed over me. My temples pounded. A dusty amber light floated up around my head, making me wince. I felt in my body rather than my heart the effects of the deep sadness which had overtaken my consciousness just moments before. I was achy, a little delirious, and exhausted. Why was I so exhausted? Then I remembered…

“Janis,” someone said.

I turned my head and saw Camilia standing beside me, her face full of compassion. She pulled up a nearby storage box and sat on it, taking my hand in hers. She was being so kind to me. I hated that.

You don’t deserve it.

My own voice in my head rang out like a shot. It made my temples pound even harder. I tried to shake it off. I’d worked hard over years of therapy to handle these negative intrusive thoughts—but I was more vulnerable when tired and stressed.

“How are you feeling, Janis?” Camilia asked gently.

I swallowed, considering how I could answer that, when I heard a rustling from somewhere behind Camilia. In spite of my exhaustion, I shot up, peering around her to get a look at who was there.

“Whoa, whoa,” Camilia said soothingly. “Easy there, Janis. It’s only Nadan.”

It was him, the D’Tali man I’d caught staring at me once or twice. He stood awkwardly by the door, his hands clasped in front of him. He was peering at me intently, but looked up at the ceiling when I met his gaze.

“What is he doing here?” I asked rigidly, putting a hand to my forehead to try to quell the aching.

“He brought you here,” Camilia replied. She turned to glance back at Nadan and nodded at him. “He was the only one who saw you collapse in front of the Navigator. Thank goodness he did—you owe him your gratitude.”

My fists curled as I inhaled sharply. I didn’t owe anyone anything.

He could have left you to bake in the sun.

My head spun. My eyes throbbed. I put my hands over my eyes and tried to keep breathing. I felt a warm feminine hand on my shoulder. Why was Camilia being so kind to me? I had tried for so long to distance myself from her and the other women.

“Janis—you gave us all quite a fright,” Camilia said. “Have you been feeling faint recently?”

Yes, I had. But I shook my head no.

“What about food?” Camilia stood and scooped my wrist up to check my pulse. “When was the last time you ate?”

“This morning,” I lied. “I had breakfast with the rest of you.”

“Hmm,” Camilia hummed, her eyebrow furrowing. “That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing you.”

“I snuck away. I ate in the back.” You’re such a liar, I thought to myself viciously.

“Alright, well…” Camilia bit her lip and glanced around the supplies at her disposal, lost in thought. Suddenly, she turned to the doorway. “Nadan?” she called.

The D’Tali man perked up, eyebrows arched.

“Could you come help me with this?” She grabbed what looked like a sensor attached to a long hose that fed into a small hand-held device.

Nadan crossed from the door to my bed with a few easy strides and stood carefully at attention as Camilia deftly put the sensor on my chest underneath my shirt.

“Oh, I—” I started, but it didn’t matter what I would have said. It would have fallen on deaf ears. Camilia kept her hand over the sensor positioned above my heart and handed Nadan the device.

“You’ll have to read it for me, since this thing only really works when I press on it,” Camilia explained as Nadan took the device with curiosity. “It’ll beep once it’s finished its reading—I need you to read out the second number that flashes.”

I felt a suction at my chest where the sensor was positioned and an increase in pressure as Camilia pressed with both hands. I started to flush—there was so much going on and I barely had any time to protest. When I’d woken up this morning, I had only pictured myself on the ship going back home, not lying on a bed with a woman’s hands under my shirt and a strange alien hovering at my shoulder.

Suddenly the device in Nadan’s hands beeped. The noise went through my headache like a sledgehammer.

“What’s it say?” Camilia prompted.

“Thirty-two,” Nadan said, his voice calm.

“Woowee!” Camilia exclaimed. She lifted her head to look at me and there was a smile on her face, but her eyes were serious. “Your cortisol levels are… astronomically high.”

“I did just watch our only way off this planet crash to the ground,” I said before I could help myself. “What’s going on with the ship, by the way?” I swallowed. It’s done. You’re done. You’re stuck here forever. “Can it fly? Is it ruined? Was—uh, was anyone hurt?”

Camilia narrowed her eyes shrewdly and peered at me with a knowing look. My gaze darted to my hands. I realized I was clutching the fabric of my shirt so tightly my knuckles were turning white.

You’re stuck here.

I needed to convince Camilia that I was okay, because I needed to get out of this room. I didn’t like her watching me and I didn’t like that the D’Tali man had found me in such a state. I took in a deep breath.

“I need to relax,” I said in what I hoped was my most serious voice. “I know, you’re right. I just got a little swept away in the excitement about the ship.”

“A little,” Camilia snorted, but she pried the sensor off my chest and began wrapping the hose around the device in Nadan’s hands. When she finished, she stowed it back in its box and sat back down on the crate by my bedside. Nadan stood still, as if he was afraid sudden movements would frighten us.

“Janis, this is troubling,” Camilia began.

You’re stuck here.

“I know,” I said quickly, hoping to cut her off at the pass. “I know. I—listen, I’m just a little frazzled, that’s all, but that happens to me sometimes. I—before we came here, this used to happen to me. I fainted before I got the results of my SATs. I was just so excited to know.”

Liar. That’s not why you fainted.

“I’d like you to eat something,” Camilia said exasperatedly.

“I’m fine, really, Camilia,” I protested. “I ate a big breakfast! This is just—you know—it was a lot to take in back there.”

I could tell Camilia didn’t believe me for an instant. She pursed her lips in a frown, her expression perturbed. Finally, she sighed and stood, moving away from my bedside.

“Stay here,” she said sternly. “I need to go check on the pilots of the ship. I don’t believe anyone was hurt, but they’ll need me to inspect folks. At least the ship didn’t crash on the cockpit…”

Camilia trailed off, but meanwhile, I was desperate for any news of the ship. If the ship hadn’t crashed on the cockpit, did that mean there was a better chance that they could make repairs and get us out of here?

“Nadan?” Camilia said, and the D’Tali nodded. “Stay here with her, won’t you? I’ll be back soon.”

“Really, Camilia, I can go,” I protested, but Camilia held up a hand to quiet me.

“Stay here with Nadan, please,” she said gently. “When I come back, we’ll measure your cortisol levels again. If they’re lower, you’re free to leave.” She smiled brightly. I could tell she didn’t believe anything that had come out of my mouth in the last five minutes and was calling my bluff.

Camilia left, leaving me alone with the D’Tali. I stole a look at him in spite of myself. His scaly skin was a striking dark blue, and although he stood like a soldier, there was something gentle about his face. I supposed if anyone was to have found me completely helpless, he wasn’t the worst. I shuddered when I thought of the other D’Tali that the human women had grown so close to. How could they have been bewitched by these aliens?

One thing was certain—if I wanted to get out of this, I was going to have to convince Camilia that I was calm enough to leave. That required deep breathing. I didn’t know enough about cortisol levels to know if thirty-two was truly as high as she said, but I knew enough about self-soothing tools to remember that, if I was ever in a bind, deep breaths were the thing most likely to bring me back to my normal state.

Or rather, they were the tool most likely to get me to appear normal.

You’re trapped here.

The thought made my heart beat more rapidly and brought a quiver to my hands. If the ship couldn’t get off the ground again, then I really was trapped here. Everything that you’ve worked for on Earth—

No! I had to stop that line of thought. That was dangerous. If I was going to be able to get out from under Camilia’s scrutiny, I had to calm myself down.

All I could hope for was that Camilia’s return would bode positive news about the ship’s repairs, and that sooner or later, I’d be on my way home again.

Rekker

Rekker wasn’t expecting to be matched.


On the eve of being sent to retrieve a mysterious artifact, he’s sent something just as enigmatic.

A human woman, lush and curved.

His mate.

Even worse, she wants nothing to do with him.

His blood burns for her, but the need to make her happy overrides everything.

He’ll find a way to set her free, even if it means he’ll be alone. Forever.

But when danger comes from an unexpected source, they’re thrown together. And when his mate turns to him, he’ll protect her.

Keep her.

Claim her.

Lila Kanes never wanted any thing but a quiet life on her family farm. She certainly didn’t want to be claimed by a massive alien mate. 

Thrown into the stars, she’ll do whatever it takes to find a way home.

Back to Earth.

Back to her family.

She couldn’t possibly want to stay with the hot, horned alien with the amazing body, who made her feel like the most precious thing in the universe, could she?

Right?

Rekker is the first book of the Warriors of Vaznik, a stand alone series in the Warlord Brides universe. There’s no cheating, and a guaranteed HEA for each couple!

Keep reading for a sneak peak!


Lila

“Lila, it’s time!”

My sister Nora’s voice echoed through the old wooden barn. The little lamb I was trying to bottle feed squirmed in my arms and I muttered under my breath.

Of course it was time. Every Friday, just about now, it was always time.

“Lila!” Nora called again and I heard the squeak of the barn door opening.

“You’d better shut that tight behind you,” I yelled, even though I wouldn’t mind the distraction of having to round up the rest of the flock.

Especially today.

I scratched behind the little guy’s ears before withdrawing the empty bottle.

“I’ll be back in just a few minutes,” I promised and stood, brushing straw from the knees of my jeans.

Nora leaned over the stall door, rolling her eyes.

“You’re going to be late,” she chided.

“There’s not any way to be late,” I grumbled. “The lottery is going to happen if we’re there to listen to it with bated breath or not.”

The late spring evening wrapped the farmhouse in gentle shadows, still just a touch chilly from the last frost. Alfalfa had already started to come up, and the farm would be in full swing soon.

“What if you don’t know? Are you packed? What would you bring?” She bounced beside me as we left the barn and crossed the yard towards the house. “I’m packed. Just in case.”

Nora was the only person I knew who was excited about the lottery.

She was excited at the idea of going to strange new worlds, meeting aliens, having adventures.

All of that.

I was excited that we weren’t all dead or slaves at the hands of the Suhlik, but a treaty that involved my body, made without my input, that could turn me into a broodmare for some alien Mahdfel warrior I’ve never met?

No thanks.

I had other plans. The farm had other plans for me, even if I didn’t. I did my best not to even think about the lottery, the treaty, the testing. 

Any of it. 

Nora tugged me into the house, ignoring my grumbling. As usual.

“Come on, girls.” Mom’s voice drifted in from the family room, tight with worry as it always was on Friday.

Six daughters.

If it weren’t for the superstitious taboo that kept anyone from talking about the lottery, her friends probably would have teased her that she was tempting fate.

With six daughters, the likelihood that one of us would be selected, have our birthdate pop up on some random Friday, was higher than normal.

But the odds of being matched were the same for everyone, I reminded myself as I kicked off my filthy workboots in the mudroom and followed Nora in.

Our other sister, Jane, was already on the sofa, arms wrapped tightly around her waist.

As the third oldest, she’d just become eligible. just realized how quickly her life could change.

Posey, Farah, and Kate were too young. At fourteen, eleven, and nine, respectively, they could ignore it. Hell, I wanted them to ignore the whole thing.

Until they didn’t have a choice.

The government comms unit crackled to life and my mother froze, eyes fixed on it.

My father stopped mid-rock in the old rocking chair across the room, watching us all with the same hazel eyes I’d inherited from him.

Normally, we counted on the government communication unit for information about tornadoes, nasty hailstorms, the sort of things that you needed to know about on a rural farm.

But every Friday was lottery day.

“Good Friday, citizens,” the announcer said.

His voice was far too cheerful. Every single week, it grated on my frayed nerves.

Who on Earth had told him that this was even vaguely appropriate for the thousand, probably millions listening, waiting, hoping?

“Those lucky females born on February twenty-first should report to the testing facility nearest you.” My heart froze in my chest, as Nora’s wide eyes swung towards me.

“I repeat, February twenty-first is the date selected for this week’s lottery. Thank you for your attention and adherence to the treaty. Good luck, everyone!”

My luck had run out.

February twenty-first was my birthday.

Nora bounced up and down.

“You’re going!” she squealed. “You’re really going! Are you packed? I’ll bet you’re not even packed.”

I tuned her chatter out, my eyes focused on the bleak expression on my father’s face.

“Maybe you won’t be a match,” Jane whispered, reaching down to take my hand.

“Probably not,” I agreed, squeezing her fingers.

It was true. You had to be at least a 98.5% perfect match to be sent away. It was a crazy high level.

Still, it would mean being sent away to somewhere I’d never been, probably somewhere I’d never even heard of, to be the mate of some alien.

I’d spent my life training to be a veterinarian. It was all I’d ever wanted to be, the most wonderful future I could imagine.

Between that and growing up on my family’s farm, there was very little doubt in my mind what being someone’s mate would entail.

Would I even have a choice in the matter?

I swallowed hard, feeling faint.

“I know this wasn’t in your plans, Lila, but what have I always told you?” my father asked.

There was so much kindness and love in his eyes that I forced myself to look away.

“Never give up on your dreams, no matter what,” I recited.

The words he’d told each of us girls all our lives, that no matter what happened and no matter where we ended up, our dreams should never die. And despite my anger at being selected, I knew he was right.

Earth couldn’t be the only planet in the universe with animals that I could care for. I was sure I could be a vet anywhere, on any world out there in the black, even if it wasn’t on the farm that I’d poured my blood, sweat, tears, and love into my entire life.

I couldn’t imagine a life without this place or my family. I couldn’t imagine going even a single day without my sisters.

But I quickly pushed those thoughts from my mind. If I dwelt on them, I’d never leave, and it was that thought alone that broke my heart.

At that moment, a thought hit me. It was imperative that I report to the facility, but did I have to stay there?

What if I went and just . . . didn’t sign in? I was sure I could find somewhere to hide out for a week and then make my way back home. I’d just tell everyone I wasn’t successfully matched.

Hell, most women weren’t a match.

It seemed plausible enough, right?

“Lila, honey.” My mom’s voice broke, just a bit. “They’re here.”

Wait.

What?

Rekker

Damn, I was tired.

It had been a long mission.

Actually, it’d been long mission after long mission, so many of them that they blurred together.

I stretched, wincing a bit, as I headed down the halls of the Calliope to the med bay.

“What are you doing back here, Rekker?” Javik snapped.

He was a good medic, and a better science officer.

But not really one for the niceties of social interaction.

“Checking to see if you were done tormenting my pilot yet,” I snarled.

Alright, maybe I wasn’t at my social best, either. The day had nearly gone very, very badly.

Javik adhered a patch over Cedroc’s eye, the sterile white disturbing against Cedroc’s hunter green skin.

“Don’t tell me you lost one,” I joked, keeping my voice light in case Cedroc actually had.

The last battle against the Suhlik raiding party had been nasty.

Luckily, Sector Command had sent the Walkandro, a mobile command hub, as well as a dozen ships all our size or larger, to take care of the bastards.

Sure, the Suhlik hadn’t attacked Earth proper since the Mahdfel had driven them away, but that didn’t seem to stop them from sniping at the edges of every system they could find, looking for easy prey for their trafficking cells and breeding centers.

We’d taken superficial injuries, but no casualties, better off than some of the other ships that had been part of the operation.

The Calliope had taken damage, but nothing more than Kyre, my engineer, would be able to handle now that we were docked with the Walkandro, like a sleek spoke radiating out from a giant wheel.

A few other ships were still docked, as well, but the rest had already departed for new missions, or if they were lucky, some downtime.

“His eye will be fine if he quits squirming,” Javik spat.

Cedroc gave a tiny shrug. “Just a laceration around the socket from where that panel came loose. Doc wants me to keep it covered to avoid infection,” he answered, finally giving me the information I needed. “I’ll be ready to go when you give the order, Captain.”

“You’ll be ready to go when I say,” Javik corrected.

I watched as the tattoos on the science officer’s shoulder heated from gold to vermilion, indicating his annoyance.

All Vaznik Mahdfel had the same tattoos, broadcasting our emotions to the rest of our crewmates and families.

Not that one usually needed to guess.

“How long do you estimate it will take to heal?” I asked, not really caring that the vermillion now was a full-blown crimson against Javik’s natural deep blue. “You do realize I’ll need my pilot to get us out of this damn system, right?”

He snorted. “A week would be ideal. If you want your pilot not to lose that eye after all.”

A week, I thought grimly.

“Maybe I can make a deal,” Cedroc said, grinning. “I’ll take it easy for the next two rotations, and then he rigs up something that just covers the wound, and not half my vision?”

I left them arguing the details.

They’d figure it out.

They always did.

In the corridor outside, I came across Kyre, who was holding a thick wad of bandages over a pretty deep gash on his left arm, and Derrix, my weapons specialist, who had quite a nasty lump rising over his right eyebrow just below where his horn began.

“Shouldn’t you be in med bay, not waiting outside?” I asked them both.

“Doc’s in a cranky mood,” Kyre answered.

“He needs to find something new to poke and prod that isn’t us,” Derrix elaborated. “Maybe some nice rock would keep him busy.”

Kyre shook his head. “We’re taking on supplies from the hub, should be able to have most of the damage repaired in a day, maybe two.”

“Biggest hassle is, the teleport is down.” Derrix leaned back against the bulkhead. “We keep having to run and ferry the stuff into the cargo hold the old way.”

“We’ll take as long as we need to,” I decided. “We don’t have anything pressing, and I think Cedroc might be on restricted duty for a bit.”

Sure, we could all pull a shift at the helm, if need be.

But Cedroc was a damn master at it.

“Do you think you’ll be able to complete a systems test sometime before tomorrow morning?” I asked Kyre.

“Absolutely. Once the Doc gets me stitched up, I’m on it,” he reassured me.

“How’re the guns looking?” I asked, turning my attention to Derrix.

His eyes were a little glazed over, but he responded quickly enough that I wasn’t worried.

“One sustained heavy damage, but the other five are still operational. I’ve already put in the request for parts to get the damaged one running,” he said. “Would be faster if the teleport was working, though.”

“Thanks, Derrix. I’ll keep that in mind,” I answered.

Once I’d spoken to every crew member, I returned to the bridge and took a seat in the captain’s chair. A beam had come down near my cabin in the firefight, and while I had temporary quarters assigned on the Walkandro, it wouldn’t be the first night I’d slept sitting up.

I stretched my long legs out in front of me and folded my hands behind my head, creating a cradle against the headrest for my curved horns. 

I couldn’t help but curse whoever designed this ship.

It wasn’t a Vaznik, that much I knew. If it had been, more accommodations would have been made for our anatomy, that’s for sure.

Whenever I got enough money to build my own ship, I was going to make damn sure the chairs conformed to the horns of every one of my crew.

My eyes lingered for a moment on the massive viewport before me.

Outside, the Milky Way was burning and alive.

Meteors raced through the dark sky, sprinkling the frozen vacuum with even more shards of ice. I couldn’t help but pause for a moment to take it all in.

In all the time I’d spent out here, I’d never tired of the infinite wonder of space.

Pluto was the only dwarf planet in Earth’s solar system and was also the farthest away from its only sun.

It was the perfect location for stationing the mobile hub, convenient, but not close enough to set off Earth’s alarm bells.

The small amount of light that did reach this far orbit was muted and barely visible, but enough to set the tiny planet sparkling far below our orbit. It was eerily beautiful and even though I wanted to get my ship away from this hunk of ice as fast as possible, I couldn’t help but appreciate the frigid beauty of it all.

The blaring of the comms system interrupted the peaceful moment.

As usual.

“Captain Rekker?” a gravelly voice demanded. “If he’s not there, get him on.”

Thank the void the comms was audio only.

“I’m here, Commander Strygan.” I tore my eyes from the glittering mountains. Strygan might not be able to see me, but I was certain he’d sense any lapse in attention. “Was there a problem with my report?”

“No, not at all. From all signs, looks like the Suhlik are running scared. Maybe we’ll have a break from them for a while.”

“That would be nice, sir.” But not likely.

“You mentioned the damaged cannon and teleport. Anything else structural? Anything major?”

And . . . that was strange. Commander Strygan wasn’t exactly known for checking up on his officers. He assumed we’d get in, get the job done, and get out.

Repairs weren’t really his focus.

“No, sir,” I answered without asking about anything else. I might be curious, but I wasn’t stupid. “My engineer reports that we’ll be able to leave in a day, possibly two, tops.”

“Good, good.”

The old man was working his way around to something. I just didn’t know what.

“I’m planning on sticking around the Walkandro for a day to fix the gun and give the crew some rest before we take off for the homeworld,” I reported.

“Actually, I have another mission in mind for you and your team,” Strygan said.

My face fell. I had been looking forward to returning home—we hadn’t been back in months.

“Is this an offer or an order, sir?” I asked, choosing my words carefully.

“A little bit of both,” he said.

“You’ve got my attention.” 

There wasn’t really any choice, but I was starting to get curious.

“It’ll be an order if you refuse, Rekker, but after hearing the details, I think you’ll agree to take it,” he said.

“I’m listening.” 

“It’s a retrieval mission. If you and your team complete it successfully, you’ll earn a two week furlough, as well as striking a blow the Suhlik aren’t expecting,” Strygan told me.

My team had just gone through hell and I wanted to decline, but I knew every single one of us could use a break.

“Just yesterday, the main comms team deciphered chatter on the Suhlik channels about an ancient and powerful device. We’re not yet sure what it’s for, just that it’s important. If they want it, we can’t let the Suhlik retrieve it before we do. We have the location, and the comms crew is trying to decipher the rest of the message now.” 

“What’s the catch?” I wondered.

“I haven’t finished.” 

“Sorry, sir.”

I was pretty good at taking orders, but I was also no stranger to getting ahead of myself.

“The catch is that the device seems to be located in a cluster of planets in a relatively uncharted area. We don’t know what’s out there, other than what appears to be three large gaseous planets with four moons orbiting each, as well as two dwarf, moonless planets. You’d be going in pretty much blind,” he explained.

The crew of the Calliope was one of the best teams the Vaznik people have ever assembled.

Our victory today only proved how capable we were and, even though I would’ve liked to have provided them with more rest, I knew they’d follow me anywhere.

“Permission to make a request, sir?” I asked.

“What is it, Rekker?”

“After this recon, my crew gets a two-week furlough back on Vaznik. They need time to recoup and spend time with their families. It’s been a long six months.” 

“Granted, Rekker. So, you accept?” 

“Yes, sir. Send through the coordinates—we’ll set course as soon as the cannon is back online.” 

“Excellent. I knew I could count on you, Rekker. I look forward to seeing you back at base soon. Over and out,” Strygan said before the comms line went dead.

I sat back in the chair, looking out the viewport to the frozen wasteland below, but not really seeing it.

Here we go again.

Lila

“We’re here, Miss Kanes,” the older soldier said gruffly.

I noticed that he hadn’t met my eyes throughout the entire trip, even though he’d sat in the back of the transport with me rather than up front with the driver.

What did soldiers think about this particular assignment? Escorting women to be tested, possibly sent away from their families, maybe forever?

The allied Terran forces had fought bravely, desperately, in the war against the Suhlik, but they’d been horribly overmatched.

Peace had been hard won.

It must have annoyed some soldiers to realize that women bought that peace with our bodies, not the military’s strategies.

“Thank you,” was all I said though.

It had been a two hour journey from our farm to the testing facility.

The entire ride, my mind had whirled, trying to come up with plans, anything that would get me out of this.

I’d visited the testing facility once, every girl did in high school. I think it was supposed to make it less scary, but that wasn’t exactly the result.

Every girl I knew had nightmares for weeks.

I looked through the thick, reinforced window at the facility as we approached the low building.

It was larger than I remembered, but that made sense if this was the central point for all of the population of this area.

Dozens of other vehicles were lined up in front of it.

“Seems like May was a busy month,” commented the driver.

An unreasonable thrill of hope ran through me.

If there were lots of us, maybe that would make it less likely that I would be the one chosen.

I knew that’s not how it worked, I really did.

But peering out the window at the facility, all I wanted to do was to cling to irrational hope.

“I’m sorry, Miss Kanes, we’ve got to go.”

I met the soldier’s eyes for a moment, and just for a moment, I wondered if he’d let me go, if I could twist away from his hand under my elbow.

I was in good shape from working on the farm.

I could do this.

Not.

Irrational hope was one thing.

Downright delusional was something else.

I grabbed the small bag that I’d hastily packed, to Jane’s disbelief, and followed him down the stairs.

98.5.

Step.

98.5.

I repeated the number to myself over and over with each step.

It was a ludicrously high percentage. I’d never known anyone who was matched.

I wasn’t sure my parents knew of anyone who had.

I had nothing to worry about.

Until the soldiers stationed outside the facility opened the door and I saw the bedlam within.

I was obviously the last to arrive, and the driver had been right.

May must have been very busy. There must have been thirty or forty of us in the small waiting room, and for some reason, there seemed to be a delay.

Nerves already tuned to a breaking point had shattered and hysteria ruled the hour.

“I don’t want to go!” a buxom blonde sobbed. “You can’t make me!”

I agreed with the sentiment, even if not her method of achieving her goal.

I glanced around the room. All eyes were on the blonde as she sagged to the floor.

Next to her, a brunette wailed, “I’ll never see my home again!”

“Oh, brother,” my escort muttered. “It only takes one. Stay here, Miss Kane.” And then he waded into the sea of young women.

Quickly I glanced at the door we had just come through. No salvation there, though, the steely faced guards maintained their post.

“Quiet down, ladies,” my escort shouted, rounding up the other soldiers to try to gently tug their wards back into line.

“No one is sending anyone anywhere until you get through the test.” He tried to dislodge a third woman from his leg, but she refused to let go.

“What are you going to do if you are matched and you don’t have any tears left?” he asked. “Or if you aren’t matched, and you got all worked up for nothing?”

The line in the wall was faint, but surely that was a slightly recessed door to the side of the room.

I slid over to it, and with my hand behind my back, wedged my nails into the crack.

It slid just a bit.

Then a bit more.

Finally, it was wide enough for me to dart inside and I dashed through the narrow hallway.

Obviously, this was an employee-only area of the testing facility, but I didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was find a way out.

Maybe find a storage room, some corner where nobody would find me.

Sure, someone had picked me up, they’d have a record of that, but surely they wouldn’t find me yet.

It could be someone else’s day.

Three more turns, and I found myself in a narrow stairway. It looked like an access staircase, with dim lighting and military olive-green walls. 

My heart beat nervously, but I didn’t have time to be scared. I took a deep breath and made it down two flights of stairs before a blaring alarm sounded, nearly deafening me.

Damn it.

I quickened my pace, but heard doors burst open from both above and below me and I knew I’d been caught. 

There must have been cameras somewhere for me to have been seen. 

Of course there were.

I froze on a landing as footsteps closed in on me from both directions.

I knew I had no choice but to go with them, but my brain had set too hard into fight or flight mode.

And if I couldn’t run, I’d fight.

Four of the younger guards took hold of my arms and legs, while my original guide shook his head.

“I really had hoped you wouldn’t, Miss Kanes,” he said sadly. “But I figure it’s always the quiet ones that make a dash for it.”

I kicked out as hard as I could, but with two of them holding my legs, it was no use—there was nothing I could do to throw them off me.

They brought me to a room I recognized as a testing room. I kept struggling so hard it took all four of them to secure me in one of the chairs. Thankfully, it was a comfortable one, cushioned and made of leather.

“This will be so much easier on all of us if you stop fighting, dear. You really have nothing to fear,” one of the approaching nurses said.

“Swap places with me then,” I snapped.

“All we’re going to do at this stage is take a little blood. It’s the easiest, most non-invasive way to tell if you’re a match,” she said, completely unruffled. “You do have your paperwork on file, correct?”

I wanted to fight her more, but I knew I’d only injure myself when she tried to stick me, so I allowed it.

Of course I did. Every woman eligible for the lottery kept their forms updated. It wasn’t exactly a choice. And it was the one decent thing out of this whole deal.

The dowry. Every matched woman was given a million credits, in exchange for the “disruption” to her entire life. 

Or it went to her family, in case she didn’t survive the birth of the child.

98.5%. It was close. But not perfect. Things could happen.

I shuddered. I’d filled out my paperwork the day I turned eighteen. My family would get the money no matter what. It would help make up for missing a set of hands at the farm.

Maybe hire more workers.

But I couldn’t hope for it. That would mean the impossible had happened.

“This will only take a moment,” the nurse said cheerily, as if struggling women were brought to her every day. Maybe they were.

She was right—the blood draw was over quickly, and she swept across the floor to load the vial into a machine attached to a computer.

“This should only take five minutes to come up with a result. If it’s inconclusive, we’ll try something else,” she told me. 

She was wrong this time.

It took less than a minute for the machine to emit a high-pitched, positive-sounding chime.

“Well, I’ll be . . . that’s the fastest we’ve ever gotten a match in this facility. And it’s perfect,” the nurse said, beaming.

Perfect wasn’t exactly the word I would have chosen.

It was my worst nightmare.

Like what you’ve read?  Grab Rekker now!

Buried With Her Alien Mate

Amber

“You piece of shit,” I growled, hitting the metallic panel over and over again. A few D’Tali workers stopped to stare at me, but I ignored them, hammering the metal ’til my arms grew tired.

Then I just started kicking it.

Finally, the damn edges of the panel slipped into place with a harsh click, covering a small part of the hull.

“What?” I stared back at the closest D’Tali worker as he arched one eyebrow. “This is what’s called high-level problem solving. This is how you fix things back on Earth.” The worker grinned and opened his mouth, but I shot him down before he could make some dumbass remark. “If you don’t get it, just move along. I’ve got plenty of shit to get done today.”

“Lunatic,” he muttered.

I made a very conscious effort not to throw the wrench at his head. Instead, I grabbed a metal sheet and tried to fit it over the panel I had installed with my patented ‘kicking-it-into-place’ technique.

 I was almost done when I heard a loud snort. I glanced over my shoulder to see a numa’s snout poking out over the edge of the crater where the ship sat. Standing, I narrowed my eyes to see past the afternoon glow of a bright, sunny day. Beads of sweat rolled down my face, the heat almost oppressive, and I wiped them off with the sleeve of my overalls.

“Isabella?” I cried out, my voice ringing throughout the crater.

When she first arrived here, she had been one the shyest women in the group, but her personality truly bloomed once she and Vokar became a thing.

Theirs wasn’t a match I had expected to see—after all, Isabella was a brilliant but shy engineer, and Vokar…well, Vokar was Vokar, always moving in the shadows, a thousand daggers hidden inside his cloak or on his body. Still, it was obvious to everyone that they loved each other. Every time they were in a room together, the atmosphere charged up.

I tensed as one second later Isabella climbed down the crater with the help of the tall, purple D’Tali with golden horns who’d been shadowing her in her workshop for weeks.

Torvok.

His gaze fixed on me, a penetrating and disconcerting blend of annoyance, amusement, confusion and something else. He rarely spoke to me, and I mostly ignored him—and the shiver of energy that swept up my arms whenever he wandered a little too close.

I said tall, but it’s not like there were many short D’Tali around. It seemed like these guys had been fed fertilizer for breakfast during childhood. And this one was not only tall, but massive, the kind of shoulders and chest that reminded me of a walking battering ram.

“Have you brought me what I need for that locking mechanism?” I asked.

“I have,” she replied, now standing right beside the ship. I sat at the top of it, right where the sun felt most punishing, which meant that I had to look down at her. “Torvok is bringing it down.”

She pointed at Torvok, and I looked up to see him enlisting the help of two other D’Tali. Using a couple of ropes and wooden beams for support, they were dragging a thick metal block down the crater’s slope.

“That thing isn’t a porcelain cup,” I shouted at the D’Tali hauling it down. “Are you afraid it’s gonna break, or what? Hurry up!”

Torvok shot me an annoyed glance but didn’t say a thing. He continued leading his slow-ass procession down the crater’s slope, driving me crazy in the process.

“Don’t rush them, Amber,” Isabella said as I climbed down the side of the ship. “What matters is that the piece is already here.”

“And thank God for that.” I wiped the sweat off my face once more, but all I managed to do was get a smudge of grease on my cheek. Oh, well. “I’ve tried opening those damn doors in every imaginable way, and I’m dying to see what might be inside that cargo bay. I really hope that this thing is gonna work.”

“It’ll work,” Isabella said, stepping aside as the D’Tali finally closed in on the ship’s ramp entrance. “The coding mechanism was damaged, which kicked the security locks into place, but with this bypass—”

“Yeah, yeah.” I waved her down, not really interested in the details. Isabella was a genius at what she did, but I wasn’t a fan of going theory-crazy like she did whenever I asked her a question. I was all about making things happen via sheer intuition.

Of course, that didn’t mean I was clueless about my job.

In fact, it was just the opposite.

I’d spent my childhood inside my pop’s garage rebuilding classic cars, and I had been pretty damn good at it. Sure, now I was rebuilding a massive starship, but there wasn’t that much of a difference. I figured that a spaceship was just a mountain-sized version of a 1965 Shelby GT 350, and it didn’t hurt that my methods worked more often than not. That’s why Isabella had placed me here.

“Where to?” Torvok asked Isabella, straightening his back.

His muscles rippled under his shirt, making his forearms seem like tree trunks. He also had a soldier’s sharp jawline, but something about him told me that he wasn’t a warrior. Not that he wouldn’t be able to fight—with muscles like that, he’d be able to punch through a brick wall. His body, though, seemed to have been shaped by something more practical than war.

“Come with me,” I barked at him, leading the way up the ramp. Isabella trailed after me. Soon enough, the grunts of the D’Tali filled the vast hallways of the ship. Shaking my head, I grabbed a heavy-duty dolly and walked toward them. “For God’s sake, put it on here. If you keep pushing it like that, this is going to take ages.”

The D’Tali did as I told them, but Torvok shot me another annoyed glance. “Can you speak softly?” he grumbled, clearly annoyed.

I folded my arms over my chest and stared him down. What, was I too loud and bossy for him? “This is who I am. Got a problem with that?”

 “Just my luck,” he muttered under his breath.

I was already cocking my arm back, ready to send a wrench on a collision course with his head, when I felt Isabella lay her hand on my arm.

“Remember, Torvok is our best blacksmith,” she said, her voice dipping into a whisper so that he wouldn’t hear us. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff he’s capable of doing. I don’t understand why you two don’t get along better.”

“Yeah,” I said with a sour laugh, “right.”

I wasn’t known as the gal that got along with people easily and, besides, I hadn’t gotten started on the right foot with this Torvok guy. We were complete opposites. But whatever. It’s not like I was particularly worried about being liked.

Once the metal block Isabella had built was on top of the dolly, I started pushing it through the maze of hallways, leading the entire group to the cargo bay. The massive doors rose in front of us, taunting me, and I stared at them with unbridled fury. It was time this obstacle was crushed into oblivion.

“Now what?” Torvok asked, hands on his hips as he looked from the doors to the piece. Eventually, he found the large hole in the wall, right next to the doors. “Is that where it’s supposed to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, surprised. “That’s exactly where it’s supposed to go.” We unloaded the piece and, side-by-side, pushed it into position. Once it filled the hole in the wall, I connected the ship’s wiring to it. I immediately heard an electric crackle. “Oh, that sounds promising.”

“What does?”

“There’s a current going through here,” I said, tapping the metal block. “That means there’s a chance this is going to work. The locking mechanism for the cargo bay was pretty banged up, but I think this is gonna solve it.”

I spun around, making a straight line toward the electrical panel on the side. The cover slid aside with the push of a button. It revealed a tangled mess of wires and connectors, but I didn’t hesitate.

I reconnected the wires, then punched the large red button mounted beside the doors. There was a whooshing sound, and the hydraulics started hissing furiously. Just a couple of seconds later, the gigantic doors slid aside, tucking themselves inside a hidden partition within the wall.

“Now this is what I’m talking about,” I exclaimed, a wave of excitement washing over me. Without thinking, I pulled Isabella into me and hugged her tightly. “You, my friend, are a goddamn genius.”

“Let’s check it out,” Isabella said, chuckling as she tilted her chin toward the massive cargo bay. I nodded and strolled inside the large room we had just unlocked. Dim lights flickered overhead, revealing mountains of crates covered in dust.

“I figure there’s at least three hundred of them,” I said, doing a quick count. They were of different sizes and shapes. With some luck, they would all contain things which would make life easier here. Or, even better, things that would help us rebuild the ship even faster.

“I think this might be where the cargo manifest is stored,” I heard Isabella say, and I looked at her, to see her messing with a wall-mounted display. She continued speaking but, once I noticed what was behind her, I stopped hearing.

“Holy shit,” I muttered, unable to believe my eyes. “Is that a…?”

I rushed past Isabella, Torvok, and the other D’Tali, toward the far end of the cargo bay and halted, marveling at the vehicle someone had stored there. It reminded me of a futuristic hovercraft from an old science fiction movie, except this one was real. It appeared to have a cockpit, with engines located underneath the—

“Amber, I’m gonna need you to do an inventory,” Isabella said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “It’s important that we—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said absently. “Paperwork. Great.”

How could I listen to her?

I enjoyed the process of working in a massive spaceship, but now I had an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in years. I was gonna tinker with this thing until its engines purred like kittens. Then, I was gonna sit behind the controls and… well, I was gonna drive the hell out of it.

I was in hog heaven.

But first… I’d made a promise to Isabella, and I should get that done first.

I wondered what was in all those crates. I walked over to some shelves along one wall of the cargo bay.

I will have to investigate this stuff if I’m going to give Isabella her inventory list… don’t lie to yourself, Amber, you know you just want to snoop.

Okay, that too.

So, I started snooping, starting with the shelves in the back. I inspected some of the crates, trying to decide which I wanted to open first. Several of them had display panels with different settings.

Wish I could read that. Maybe some of these crates are temperature controlled. That would make sense for smugglers.

I dragged a large crate from the bottom of the shelves so I could reach the smaller ones packed at the top.

Might as well, I’d need help with the larger crates and I wasn’t ready to get anyone else involved. I pulled a medium-sized one over, opening it like a Christmas present. I missed Christmas presents.

I pushed that thought to the side and focused on the here and now.

A glow poured from the crate as I lifted the lid. My eyes went wide as I saw more power crystals carefully packed into it.

Isabella was going to love this! I closed it so I wouldn’t damage them before I could give them to Isabella, placing the crate next to my legs.

I quickly scanned the shelf, looking for the next to explore. This was better than finding a suitcase of money under a floorboard!

A smaller, bright orange crate caught my eye.

Wonder what’s in there…

I pulled it to the edge, trying to be careful. This one was pretty high up. Maybe I should find another crate to step on.

I hefted a sturdy-looking crate onto the large one under my feet. I stepped atop it, used the extra six inches of height to get my fingers on the orange crate, and worked it to the edge of the shelf.

What’s even in this? Seems heavy for something so small. I pulled.

The orange one came down—and brought another with it. I tumbled off my impromptu ladder with a resounding crash and found myself on my back on the cargo bay’s floor, the orange crate cradled in my arms.

I looked over to the crate the orange one had dislodged. It looked like that one was damaged in the fall. It hung open, filled with vials filled with something fuchsia. One of the vials lay shattered on the floor near my head.

Damn, Amber, you did it this time.

Well, I didn’t know what was in it, but, at least, I didn’t break all of whatever it was.

The broken vial’s fuchsia filling lay near my face.

Then the fuchsia thing twitched.

No. That’s creepy. Is it… alive?!

It uncurled, waving what looked like tiny legs attached to the circumference of its segments.

Oh, no.

I tried to push the heavy orange crate off me so I could get away from the little creature, but it was really awkward. Before I could get distance between me and the critter, it crawled right for me.

Hell! That thing was moving fast!

I squealed as it crawled up my head and—into my ear.

Torvok

I picked up the welding torch and handed it to Isabella. As many times as I’d used that particular tool, I still marveled over it. A portable flame! Incredible heat, the kind I would usually need to build a forge to achieve, at my fingertips. Truly a small marvel.

Isabella had chosen me to assist her because of my talents, but I still had a lot of catching up to do. Despite that, I was proud of how much I had learned about human and Skarg technology. Before the humans had arrived, I was just another blacksmith, but now I had an opportunity to tinker with godlike technology.

“Oh, drat.” Isabella sighed, holding the unlit torch but making no move to use it. She ran her fingers over a spot on the ship’s hull.

“Is there a problem, Lady Isabella?” I stepped closer and looked at the area myself.

Whatever she’d been about to say was cut off by a burst of sound near the rear of the ship. Rattling, clanging, and a loud whirring noise. Isabella and I exchanged looks and began to run toward the commotion.

Before we rounded the corner of the hallway, the source became clear. It was the thing Amber had called a ‘transport’ that we’d discovered within the cargo bay. The huge gray shape careened into view, its back-end flailing like mad.

“Oh my god!” Isabella shrieked and sped up. “What is going on?”

I gaped. I’d never seen anything like the sight in front of me. The hunk of metal was larger than several small D’Tali dwellings put together, yet it hovered off the ground—and moved! Despite its massive size, the vehicle was faster than any numa. I couldn’t believe it.

The transport veered towards us, that deep whirring intensifying as it neared our position. I caught up to Isabella and grabbed her, pulling her flat against the wall. We pressed ourselves back as the transport whooshed by us. We couldn’t relax our guard yet, though. The thing turned away from the wall, backed up, turned again, and backed up more.

Isabella sucked in a breath as the back of the transport almost crashed into the hull of the ship. It skimmed mere inches from the curved metal, to our great relief. That would’ve been a breach that would take weeks to patch up, and who knew what internal mechanisms might have been harmed by such a collision.

The transport finished its many-pointed turn and shot back the way it had come. Zooming past us, it headed back down to the central work site. Isabella pushed herself away from the wall and chased after the vehicle.

I gulped. If something happened to her, Vokar would kill me. I ran after the assassin’s mate, hoping to keep her out of harm’s way.

We rushed past the thrusters and into the main clearing, right as the end of the transport clipped a stack of crates. They made a tremendous clatter as they fell and scattered, thankfully all of them revealed as empty.

“Is that… Amber in there?” Isabella pointed at the wedge-shaped front of the transport.

To my horror, I saw what she meant. A blonde head glinted behind the transparent window. As the thing rocketed past us in a wide arc, I caught a clearer glimpse inside.

Amber was laughing. That crazy female was being beyond reckless and enjoying it to the hilt. What was she thinking? I kept myself from cursing in front of Isabella, but only barely.

Amber was mad.

Maddening.

Every time I saw her, I didn’t know what to think. But something deep inside me felt like it knew what it wanted to do.

As I said. Mad.

The triangular front of the transport suddenly detached. Connected to the boxy body only by a hinge on one side, it swiveled so it was almost flush against itself. Both the back end of the vehicle and the driver’s window were now facing Isabella and me.

Then, the rectangular second part swung slowly around on that hinge, until it reattached to the wedge with Amber in it. The vehicle had accomplished a complete turnabout much quicker than it had with the many-step turn we’d seen a few moments ago.

My mind wanted to be impressed by the neatness of that turning mechanism, but my thoughts were too filled by panic. The transport hurtled directly at us. All I could see was Amber sitting in the driver’s seat, glowing with maniacal glee.

We were going to die, crushed by an insane human female at the helm of an impossible invention.

I put Isabella behind me, despite being aware of the futility of the gesture. As I tried to accept my fate, a high squealing noise filled my ears.

Somehow, the transport came to a miraculous stop, mere feet in front of us. It shuddered as it halted, and a side door in the wedged front popped open. Amber leaned out of it, waving happily.

“How cool is this thing?” she shouted down, a wide grin on her face. “I’m naming him Rover!”

Amber

I leaped down from Rover’s cockpit. Beaming with pride, I headed for Isabella and Torvok. He looked a little like he might barf on me.

Why would he be nauseous? I asked myself. Nobody gets motion sick from watching someone else drive a car.

“Look what I did!” I bounced up to Isabella, pointing back at Rover. “He’s ready to go! He was in greatshape, fixing him up barely took any time at all.”

Looking a bit dazed, Isabella didn’t respond. I figured she needed a minute to take in the fact that we now had a high-speed ground vessel. It was a game changer, for sure.

Torvok, on the other hand, had gone from looking queasy to looking horrified. If his skin wasn’t purple, I’d bet his cheeks would’ve been red, which was confusing. What did he have to be upset about?

“Why… were you driving around so much?” asked Isabella, her voice faint.

“I was working out the kinks on how to maneuver it.” I shrugged. “I’ve always been a learn-by-doing kind of girl.”

“Ah.” Isabella’s eyes were still wide.

“Isn’t that turning trick cool?” I grinned, remembering the moment I figured out Rover could do something so fancy. “That hinge mechanism is way more efficient than a three-point turn. Smugglers get the best toys!”

Neither Isabella nor Torvok responded, even though they’d been right there when I gave the hinge a try. Giving them both up as a lost cause, I headed for the cargo bay. Most people didn’t have my enthusiasm for cars—or hover vehicles, clearly. I was used to it.

“Were you not aware of how dangerous a situation you put us in?” called Torvok from behind me.

“You weren’t in danger,” I shouted back over my shoulder. “I’m a terrific pilot, I was in control the entire time.”

Well, except for the little matter of the pile of crates, I amended silently. That was an accident, but Grumpvok over there doesn’t need to know that.

The D’Tali in question was still sputtering in frustration when I dragged the crate I wanted over to them. Isabella’s gaze kept darting between me and Rover. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Opened it again and sighed instead of saying anything.

I decided whenever she figured out what she wanted to tell me, she would. Until then, I had something to show her. I was about to make Isabella very happy.

“Check it out!” I pried off the top of the crate, which I’d loosely reattached for protection once I’d seen the contents. Then I removed the top layer of cushioning. “Power crystals!”

Isabella blinked at me and looked down.

“Oh my god! Amber! This is amazing!” She knelt, staring at the gleaming spheres.

There were three of them, nestled in individual cradles. The material around them was soft, yet molded to make for secure packaging. For all their ickiness, the Skarg had done a good job with this crate. I was impressed that all three globes were intact, despite two crash landings.

Isabella picked up one of the power crystals and examined it.

“I can’t believe you found so many of them,” she murmured. “This is an incredible discovery.”

“It makes sense, actually,” I told her. “If the ship needed a power crystal to work, there’s no way they’d only have one. It’s common sense to have some back-ups for a part that important. I’ve been wondering if we’d find a stash like this.”

“Well, it’s quite unexpected for me!” Isabella replaced the power crystal in its nest and stood, her face animated. “This one crate changes everything. So many of our problems just got solved. What else did you find?”

“I haven’t completed a full inventory yet,” I admitted. “It’s a little difficult to identify everything. Oh! There are a few more things I think you’ll like, though, hang on.”

I dashed back into the dark cargo bay. Surveying the assorted contents, I tried to remember where I’d put everything.

Why is it that I never forget where a single bolt goes in an engine, but lose track of everything else? I wondered, looking at the mess I’d created. Because engines make sense, when not much else does. Especially now that I’m on this alien planet.

My eyes found what I was searching for—a small crate crushed on one side. I went to drag it out, but when I turned back towards the entrance, I saw Isabella and Torvok had followed me inside the ship.

“Come here!” I waved them over. Well, I waved Isabella over, and Torvok followed like a dopey puppy, a cute, but cranky, overly serious puppy.

“What are those?” Isabella peered into the crate.

“Translator bugs!” I plucked out one of the vials and held it out to her.

Gingerly, she took it from me. Lifting it so the light was behind the glass tube, she squeaked. A fuchsia worm with thin tendrils wriggled in the container.

“A parasite?” Torvok drew closer, staring at the segmented shape. “Why would the Skarg carry around parasites?”

“They’re not parasites,” I said, then paused. “Well, they aren’t just parasites. They’re translator bugs, and they work great!”

“What do you mean, they work great?” Isabella lowered the vial. “Amber, did you open one of these up?”

“No! Well, not on purpose. I was crawling around in here, and I knocked over this crate. It had obviously already been damaged in the crash, so when it hit the deck one of these babies popped right out. It shattered—see that mess over there—and a bug crawled right in my ear.”

Once again, both Isabella and Torvok were speechless, gawping at me like I’d just sprouted a new head.

“Never want to do that again,” I shuddered, remembering the bizarre slippery feeling of all those cilia slithering into my ear canal.

“Amber,” breathed Isabella. “You have got to be more careful. What if it had hurt you? Or worse!”

“I didn’t mean to let it in my brain! But I survived! I’m right here!” I tapped my temple. “And now I can read more of the labels on this stuff. Cool, right?”

“That may not be the only effect,” she warned.

“I’m pretty sure it is.” I bent back over the crate and produced the universal instruction manual I’d found—of course, after one of the little buggers had already made me its new home.

“Are those diagrams?” asked Torvok, sounding interested.

“See for yourself.” I held the slim pamphlet out to him.

The D’Tali took it, arranging himself so Isabella could see too. I knew what they were looking at and wondered if they’d find it as instructive, yet hilarious, as I did.

The pamphlet depicted two sad-faced aliens—one with tentacles and one with antenna—trying to talk to each other. Their speech bubbles were filled with scratches and scribbles. In the next panel, antenna-alien was shown sticking a translator bug up its nose. That sounded even worse to me than my ear entry method.

The final panel was the clincher. Post-translator bug, the two aliens had happy faces. Their speech bubbles were filled with small drawings of recognizable things, like a sun, a flame, a spaceship, and inexplicably, a fish.

Do the D’Tali have fish around here? I pursued my lips in thought. I hadn’t seen any.

“I guess this explains that those critters were meant for this purpose,” said Isabella, hesitantly.

“The diagrams are remarkably clear,” agreed Torvok.

“I’d call them cartoons, not diagrams, but whatever!” I rummaged through more crates, looking for the second coolest thing I’d found.

“I do not know this word ‘cartoons’,” Torvok said.

“Simplistic drawings,” Isabella told him. “Don’t worry about it, they’re an Earth thing.”

“So, after the translator bug, I could read what these are!” I hefted the crate of personal communication devices I’d found. I dropped it gently down on another pile so that the contents would be waist-high.

“They look like big coins.” Isabella picked one up. “But are those buttons?”

“Yep! It’s a personal communication device, according to the manifest I found… where did I put that?” I decided to look later. “That light shows you when someone wants to talk to you. You press this button to respond voice only, and this one to open up holographic communications. That third one sends what’s essentially a “call me back later” response. Oh, right, and if you get one of those when trying to contact someone, this other light will come on.”

Torvok and Isabella gaped at me.

“How do you know all that already?” Torvok looked bewildered. It was kind of a cute expression.

“I told you! Translator bug means I can read everything, including instructions. Plus, I tested two of them already.”

Finally, Isabella looked appropriately excited. I was glad to see a grin on her face, and hoped she’d gotten over her anxiety regarding all these alien creations.

“These are amazing discoveries. I had no idea the cargo in this thing would be so useful!” She tossed me a communication device and took another for herself. “What else did you find?”

“Mmm, over here—or maybe over there?—I found some crates of what seem to be medical supplies. They’re a little confusing, though, and don’t have clear instructions. Aliens all have different physiologies, which makes it hard, I guess. One of them—”

“Excuse me! Lady Isabella?” A new voice echoed into the cargo bay.

“I’m over here, Gorvo!” Isabella waved and I flicked on my light. It was pretty dim in here after the sunny outside.

A blue-skinned D’Tali picked his way through the maze of crates. Isabella began heading in his direction, moving faster. They reached each other, and I heard the D’Tali say something I couldn’t quite catch.

Isabella’s response, though, I caught clear as a bell. She stepped back, looking appalled.

“What do you mean, we’re out of metal?”

Captured By Her Alien Mate

Riley

“Riley!” I heard someone call for me, the sound echoing from the metal walls.

“Could you come back here? I could use a hand.”

I clambered my way through the wrecked ship. I hadn’t been there since the crash. I felt the stirring of old ghosts who’d just as soon not be disturbed. It reminded me somehow of the occasional car accidents I had to deal with when I was a police officer.

It gave me pause to think. Twisted metal, broken mechanisms. Things used to run and now were so much junk. Things that used to carry us safely from one point to another. An illusion. That’s the one thing you learn as a cop –safety isn’t something that lasts for as long as you hope it will.

“Riley!” the voice called again. It was Isabella. Our resident tech guru. She loved being here in the wreckage.

She didn’t see ghosts. She saw possibilities. I gave her credit for that.

Me? I could barely tell a hammer from a wrench. But I was glad to help her.

It had been a strange journey so far, being here on another world, caught in the midst of an ongoing war between the D’Tali, our hosts and the Aetam, their sworn enemies.

Who were two species on this planet that were so similar they might as well have been kissing cousins.

I couldn’t figure out exactly what the beef was between the two tribes. It didn’t make much sense to me. But another thing you learn as a cop is that it doesn’t take much for folks to not get along. And it doesn’t take much for folks to end up hating each other.

So, you put yourself in the middle and try to keep the peace as best you can. There’s not much more you can do beyond that when it came down to it.

I finally stumbled my way to the back of the ship. Isabella was trying to pry something off a control panel.

“Hey there,” she said with a smile. She loved being back here in the ship, taking it apart and putting it back together.

“What’s up?”

“I need those big muscles you have to help me get this off. It’s a little rusted tight. I’m not able to get it off on my own.”

I gave her a little salute.

“Your wish is my command,” I said and I assumed a position next to her. We put our collective four hands on the panel on each corner.

“On the count of three?” I asked.

Isabella nodded.

“One. Two. THREE!”

The pair of us tugged hard and yanked the damn thing right off and sent ourselves flying backwards onto the deck of the ship.

We both landed hard, cracking our heads.

“Ow,” I said, rubbing the back of my skull. “That hurt.”

“Sure, but hey, we got the panel off!” Isabella said brightly, holding the panel up like a fisherman with his prize catch.

Vokar came bolting around the corner with alarm in his eyes.

“You ladies all right? What happened?”

“We’re fine, honey,” Isabella said, climbing to her feet.

“Yeah, Vokar, we’re good. Just didn’t know our own strength for a moment. We’re super powerful you know,” I said with a wink.

He looked over to Isabella with a truly love-sick look.

“Don’t I know it,” he said and leaned in to kiss her.

Ever since Isabella had been taken by the Aetam, Vokar was incredibly protective of her. Which I get. We all were. In many ways, Isabella was the most important among us. While Camille was the nurse and Sofia was our Queen, Isabella was the one who knew the tech. That’s what gave us a slight advantage (very slight) over the Aetamians. They’d love to get their hands on her, to improve their weaponry and tracking systems.

Isabella was working on teaching us all a little bit more about the tech we had and had been making some progress in that regard. We had all figured that it would make more sense if that knowledge was spread out a touch.

But even with that, Isabella was still the boss when it came to mechanics. Which was fine by me.

My attitude towards tech was slightly above “cavewoman.” I understood its value and how much it benefited us. But beyond that, I was more likely to rely on my eyes and ears to get me through situations.

Being the only sister with three brothers will do that to you. You gotta stay sharp or you’d be likely to find a frog slipped down your dress.

I had found a natural role among the D’Tali in the security detail, helping with defensive planning and strategies. I liked helping in that regard. It was what I was good at. And I liked being the lone human female in amongst the “proud” D’Tali warriors. It felt like I was back among my brothers again.

Don’t get me wrong, my brothers could be a pain in the ass, but I missed them, nonetheless. I supposed that would be true for anyone.

Vokar and Isabella broke off their kiss and I laughed.

“Decided to come up for air?” I said with a smirk.

Isabella blushed.

“Honestly, Riley, sometimes I think she’s just going to swallow me whole,” Vokar said playfully.

“Oh, stop it,” she said, whacking his arm.

“Let’s get some air,” I said. “I think we could all use some.”

The couple agreed and we climbed our way out of the downed ship. There was a cool breeze and it felt good on my face.

Sometimes the best part about my old job was you were outside so much. And whenever things got rough (and believe me, they did), some fresh air in your lungs always worked wonders. Still did, it turned out.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in and held it for a moment, before letting it out slowly.

“You ok?” Isabella asked with some small concern.

“Oh yeah,” I nodded. “Just enjoying the moment.”

But as soon as I said that the moment ended.

Over Isabella’s shoulder, out in the tree line, I spotted movement. It was subtle, but it was there for sure.

“Vokar,” I said cautiously, “what do you make of—”

Before I could finish my thought, there was a terrific bang and shouting from all around us.

It was the Aetam. They were attacking, hurling heavy stones with some kind of crude catapult. They’d crept up on us around the perimeter of the ship’s crash zone.

Seriously, it was like these guys were never going to give up.

“Fuck,” I said. “They caught us napping!”

“Damnit, I was hoping for more time before they showed up again,” Vokar said, annoyance clear in his tone. He turned to me. “Riley, take Isabella and try to get out of here.”

“Vokar, wait a second,” Isabella began but he cut her off.

“No, Isabella. This isn’t time for a debate.”

The small attachment of D’Tali which had come with us to the ship were already responding to the assault, firing crossbow bolts and setting up smoke screens to give a little cover.

Vokar gripped me by the arm.

“I’m counting on you, Riley. I have to go help fight them off.”

“I got this, Vokar. Go. Don’t wait on us,” I said.

He pulled Isabella into him by the waist, kissing her deeply.

“I’ll find you. Stay with Riley,” he said and then he was gone, drawing his weapons and running headlong into the battle.

“C’mon, Izzy,” I said. “We gotta boogie outta here.”

“But—” she said, looking after Vokar.

I shook my head.

“He can take care of himself. Right now, we gotta take care of you, ok? Don’t be stubborn and make me knock you out and carry you.”

She nodded and I took her hand. We took off running, sticking close to the ship, while I scanned the tree line for Aetam soldiers.

The assault seemed to be mostly concentrated at the bow of the ship, the Aetam moving in a half-circle as they advanced. Vokar and the D’Tali were fighting them off, however. In my experience, D’Tali were superior fighters to the Aetam, but with smaller numbers. When you threw in an endangered loved one… yeah, I wouldn’t want to get in Vokar’s way right now. Let’s put it that way.

Straight ahead from the back of the ship, things looked pretty clear. I looked to Izzy and gripped her hand.

“Stay low and move fast. Don’t let go of my hand, ok? No matter what.”

She nodded, her face grave. I gave her hand a squeeze and off we went, darting into the trees.

We made it safely without trouble and dove into the underbrush.

“Stay down,” I whispered to her and she gave me a thumbs-up. I peeked my head out and I could see that the D’Tali were giving the Aetam all they could handle.

Looking down to Izzy, I smiled saying, “I think we’re gonna win this.”

That’s when a crossbow bolt shot right across my field of vision, nearly taking my nose off.

“Goddamn!” I exclaimed and turned to my right. A small contingent of Aetam warriors were running towards us.

Without looking down, I said out loud to Izzy, “Flatten out! Keep still. I’m going to lead them away!”

I felt her hand tug on my ankle.

“Riley!” She whispered with force. “Don’t!”

I shook my head.

“Gave Vokar my word. I’ll be fine. When you hear them come for me, run low and fast back to the ship and the D’Tali. Don’t argue with me. Just do it. I got this,” I said.

She squeezed my ankle again and let go. I know she was making herself as small as possible.

The Aetam were only about 50 yards away, all shouting at me.

“JESUS, YOU GUYS ARE UGLY!” I shouted and took off running to my right. Not that they’d be able understand a single word.

But I’d lay money they would get my tone of voice just fine.

Another crossbow blew past me. I darted into the trees. I wouldn’t be able to outrun them for long. They were bigger and stronger than me. But I’d make them fucking work for it.

The Aetam were in hot pursuit of me and I kept shouting and yelling nonsense to antagonize them.

“Man, you fucking losers are slooooow!” I said laughing and turning my head to glance at them. “And your baseball team is never going to win, even if you invent baseball!”

And that was the moment I ran full speed into a tree. I smacked into it hard and bounced back onto the forest floor.

I groggily sat up, only to feel a knife point against my throat. I looked up and a very angry Aetam soldier was crouching there, ready to thrust his blade into me at a moment’s notice.

“Silly creature, thinking you could get away,” he said with a hiss. “You might make your strange noises now, but soon we will have your knowledge.”

Shit.

Kator

Few things drag as much as staff meetings. Fewer still are the meetings which involve the king and his high command. Even fewer are those involving discussion of taxes, of all things.

And here was I. Caught right in the damn middle of it.

“My lord,” said Aefir, the tax collector of the Aetam kingdom, “we must press even harder on this issue. Without new taxes, we will no longer able to give the Aetam forces the support they need in our struggle with the D’Tali.”

“Struggle?” snorted Jalon, commander of the palace guard. “I’d say calling it a ‘struggle’ is underselling it slightly.”

“What mean you by this, Jalon?” King Mofat said.

“My king, to put it bluntly, we had our asses handed to us by the D’Tali in the last conflict. The word amongst the guard is that the citizenry is getting tired of this endless war.”

“Nonsense,” Aefir countered. “The normal complaints of the guard. Complaining is the soldier’s lot in life. Not to be taken seriously.”

Jalon glowered, holding his chin high in annoyance. He stepped right up to Aefir, towering over him. Aefir looked concerned, but, to his credit, he didn’t back down.

“Do not…ever…speak of the Aetam under my command that way again. These soldiers have all volunteered their lives in service of the king. Their loyalty is without question. And if they say the people are tired, they would know. When they finish a shift, they go home. To their families. Their friends. Their neighbors. They hear what the people are saying,” he said.

Aefir buckled but did not break.

“My lord Mofat,” he said, looking around Jalon’s shoulders, “trust me on this. A decisive victory is exactly what’s called for to lift the populace’s spirits. And more taxes are the cost of that victory. It’s mathematics. Nothing more. Complaints will fade in the face of winning.”

Mofat looked as bored as I felt. I chuckled quietly then began to yawn, my late night in the library getting to me.

“Bored are you, Kator?” Aefir said to me with some snark in his voice.

“With you? Absolutely, Aefir. I find your prattling tiresome.”

“Hear, hear!” Jalon added.

Aefir feigned outrage and turned to the king.

“My lord! How can you—”

“Enough!” Mofat shouted, with slamming his fist on the arm of his chair. “I grow tired of you all. Jalon, while I hear you and what your sources inform you of, I must concur with Aefir.”

I wanted to slap the smug look from Aefir’s face at that moment. But the king handled it for me.

“We need a victory over the D’Tali. And we need it soon. However, Aefir, I will not permit you to dismiss the voices of my soldiers again. While you serve a valuable role for the king, you are not putting your life on the line. Is that clear to you?”

Finally, Aefir looked humbled.

“Yes, my lord,” he mumbled quietly.

“I don’t give a whit for the peasantry. They will do what they’re told. But, if I have learned anything in my years of rule, I have learned that if you disguise the poison in honey, they’re more likely to swallow it.”

“My king—” Jalon began but Mofat cut him off by raising his hand.

“No, Jalon. I will hear no more of this. I have registered your concerns and honor them to a point, but not beyond. We must defeat the D’Tali. Once and for all. Only then will we have peace. And greater power than before.”

There was a wicked gleam in Mofat’s eyes as he said that. I didn’t like the look of it. Not one bit.

He turned to his son, Hulat, who, after the death of General Mohad, he had named commander of all Aetam forces. If there was someone I liked less the Aefir (or Moffat, for that matter) it was Hulat.

He hadn’t earned his position. It was given to him. He had no respect for rank or service and the only thing he brought to the table that appealed to Mofat was brutality. Hulat was infamous for butchering children if they got in his way. Killing his own troops in the midst of combat if it somehow could give an advantage.

When Mofat made Hulat the high commander, I heard the rumor was he went home and beat his mate because he was so excited.

The fact Aetam females are as rare as D’Tali only makes such a horrendous act worse.

The gods above help us if he ever became king. However bad Moffat was, Hulat would be a nightmare. From which the Aetam may never awaken.

“Hulat, I want plans organizing a new assault on the D’Tali as quickly as possible. And just blundering it like a battering ram will not get it done. So, think a little this time,” Moffat said.

“Yes, father,” Hulat replied, nostrils flaring. I chuckled. Hulat spotted it and give me a sneer.

“What troubles you, Kator? Does the head of the Assassin’s Guild find all of this tiresome?”

I stared Hulat down.

“Not at all, Hulat,” I said. “But to think of the Aetam army being anything other than a battering ram give me pause. Seems a bit out of your purview, that.”

“And what you would advise us to do, Kator?” Moffat asked me before Hulat, whose face had turned bright red, could try tear me apart.

I shrugged.

“My lord, I’m not a military expert by any means, but if you want to win a decisive victory, it should be small. Quiet. Strike when they least expect and strike silently.”

Hulat laughed, eyes wide with pleasure. Mofat joined him.

I stared at them both and turned to Jalon, who was more often than not an ally for me in this council meetings. He shook his head. He didn’t know either.

At that moment, a messenger came running into the chamber, bowed quickly and got to one knee.

“What news?” Mofat asked. The messenger nodded his head and stood up.

“My king, the word is the operation was a success.”

“What operation?” I asked.

Now it was Hulat’s turn to chuckle at me.

“You’re not as clever as you think, Kator. Nor do you give enough credit where it is due,” he said.

“What are you talking about, Hulat? I have no time for your riddles,” I countered.

“What he means, Master Assassin,” Mofat said, “is that we had taken your advice before you had even given it.”

I looked to Jalon again, who was as confused as I was.

“What does that mean, my lord?” I asked.

“It means that we sent a small party of Aetam soldiers out to the wrecked ship crash site, to sit and wait. Knowing full well the D’Tali and their humans would be coming back there soon enough.”

I felt alarm prickle up my spine.

“Meaning what?”

“What would you say, Jalon, is the biggest discrepancy right now, between the forces of the D’Tali and our own?” Mofat asked, this tips of his fingers dancing on the edge of the table.

 “Ah…” Jalon said, looking to me and then back to the King, “I would say it was a technological advantage, my King.”

Mofat nodded. “And that technology arrived with the humans.” A menacing grin spread across his face, and there was nothing pleasant about it. “So we set out to capture one.”

What was going on here? And why didn’t I know about it?

Mofat turned to the messenger.

“The human is in custody?”

“Yes, my lord. A yellow-headed female. She had tried to flee from the crash site, but we were able to capture her as she ran through the forest. The assault team is bringing her back here now.”

Yellow-headed! They had her. They had Isabella!  The Aetam had her. Of all the damn luck.

Aefir spotted something on my face and cocked his head at me.

“What troubles you, assassin? Surely you’re not sorry that we were able to capture this human. This is precisely the advantage we have been looking for. We can now force her to share her knowledge of this technology with us. With their weapons the tides of this war will change.”

“I’d advise you not to presume to know my mind or where my sympathies lie, tax collector,” I said. “I have little time for your nonsense.”

“He raises a good point nonetheless, Kator,” Hulat said. “You look…crestfallen. As much as you can with that golden orange coloring of your scales that is.” His eyes narrowed in grim amusement.

I swallowed my anger at his crack and responded calmly.

“My concert, General, is that there were Aetam lives put at risk. If the Assassins’ Guild had been included in the planning, we could have taken this human without the loss of one Aetam warrior. When each one is worth ten of theirs. So, I think this operation foolish, regardless of the outcome. With all respect, my king,” I said, bowing low.

Mofat nodded and gestured for me to stand up.

“You show honor in that, Kator. And it is understandable, your position. But this information came to us quickly and we had to move just as fast. No time for debate,” Mofat said.

“Or overly extensive planning,” Hulat chimed in. I wanted to punch his face and knock the smirk right off it.

“Of course, my lord. I completely understand,” I said.

Mofat stood then and walked over to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. Even at his age, I could feel the strength in his grip. He wasn’t King for nothing.

“In future plans, we will include you. Your counsel is always welcome and now, more than ever. We will be moving swiftly with the next stage of our plans. But now, let us celebrate this victory!”

He headed off towards the dining chamber, where food and drink had been prepared. Everyone followed him out. Jalon hesitated a moment, looking at me, head tilted slightly.

I nodded.

“I’ll be with you all in a moment.”

He left and I was alone with my thoughts.

I walked to the window and looked out, frustrated.

How was I going to fix this problem now?

I sighed and shook my head.

Being a double-agent for the D’Tali was trickier than it looked.

Riley

There are a lot of things they teach when you enroll in the academy.

How to fire a gun, for instance. That’s a big one.  How to give comfort to victims (we could’ve been a little better at that, truth be told). How to drive a car in a high-speed chase. (No kidding, we really did that.)

But there was maybe no skill that was more useful than the one I was using now: how to assess a situation.

After the Aetam soldiers nabbed me in the forest and started dragging me through, I made sure to make a big ruckus, screaming and yelling that they would pay for kidnapping me, not that they would understand a thing I said.

All that really mattered was keeping Isabella safe.

And the real Isabella was safe.

The downside of making a big ruckus, however, was that it deeply annoyed my captors. After several attempts to get me to shut up, and my staunch refusal every time, the leader of the Aetam patrol had had enough and, with a heavy sigh as I shouted in his face that “Isabella was the pride of the D’Tali and I would be rescued and avenged for this indignity!” (I admit, I was laying it on a bit thick, but hey, you gotta throw yourself into the role) cracked me hard across the face.

I dropped like a rock, unconscious. I had a vague sense of someone picking me up and carrying me but then I was gone. Out like the proverbial light.

So it was that my situational assessment training was coming into play now. I was coming to. Slowly. I knew enough to know that I didn’t need to rush the process.

I scanned my body with my mind and, other than my head, I didn’t detect any pain or injuries. That said to me that I was relatively safe, or at the least, not in immediate danger.

Keeping my eyes closed, I could also feel there wasn’t much light (if any) in the room with me. And I was inside somewhere for sure. There was no breeze and the floor I was laying on felt like slabs of hewed stone. It was cool and damp.

I was in a cell somewhere. The Aetam had taken me from the forest all the way to their city. I’m not sure how long that journey was, but it wasn’t close. That much I knew.

I strained my ears to listen for voices or the shuffle of guards’ feet. But I heard nothing. Just the soft echo that hangs in the air of prisons. It’s there whether there is audible sound or not.

Deciding it was safe and I had learned all that I could playing dead, I moved to sit up. And immediately regretted it.

A throbbing pain shot through my head as I sat up, nearly putting me down to the floor again. I took a few deep and slow breaths, trying to calm it down. It was working, thank God. The pain was easing, if not entirely going away.

Well, I thought, let’s take what we can get.

I straightened myself up and pushed up to my feet. I was a little unsteady and the room spun but just for a moment.

I pressed my hands against the wall on my left and rested my forehead against the stone. Its cool temperature was soothing and I sucked in some more slow breaths.

The throbbing subsided slightly, and I finally opened my eyes gently.

I may as well have kept them closed.

There was practically no light. I could just make out the outline of a cell door and a faint, very faint glow through what I presumed to be a grate in the cell door.

Continuing to assess the situation, I felt my way along the walls, determining the size of the space. It wasn’t big, that’s for sure. But that made sense. You don’t make prison cells to be comfortable.

My foot kicked something, and I heard a small little splash.

Water.

Reaching down carefully, I felt a cup that had been left for me. Bringing it up to my face, I swirled it around, trying to feel the weight of the water. There wasn’t much in there, but I was grateful for whatever there was.

I brought it to my lips and carefully drank. I didn’t want to risk swallowing it all down in case it had something in it that could prove toxic. Taking a small sip, the water was cool and fresh, and I couldn’t detect anything in it dangerous.

That told me they were invested in keeping me alive.

So, I drank it all down, slowly but every drop. Getting that water in my system helped my head immeasurably.

It occurred to me that I was taking a chance drinking all that water now. They may not bring me anymore. But I suspected that wouldn’t be the case. If they still think I’m Isabella, they are going to do everything they can to keep me alive. If they had figured out that I’m not here already, they would have killed me already.

So. What to do now?

Another thing that they teach out in the police academy is maybe the single most valuable lesson of them all: to be patient.

There’s an enormous amount of time spent as a cop doing absolutely nothing at all. Sitting on stake outs. Driving around for hours on patrol. Filling out paperwork.

Crime is never as rampant as you’re led to believe. So, action is in short supply. More often than not, you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to go down. So, patience is key.

And it was going to serve me now.

I felt for the back wall of the cell and turned to put my back to it. I slid down carefully against the wall, until I was sitting down, knees up, head back, facing the door.

I took another deep breath and began the watch.

What was it that Tom Petty said?

“The Waiting…is the hardest part.”

Amen, Tom. Amen.

Turns out, however, that I didn’t have to wait too long after all.

Beyond the door grate, I saw a flash of light that grew, brightening the hallway outside. Then I heard the heavy steps of Aetam soldiers.

The door suddenly swung open and three Aetam stalked inside. One marched right up to me, towering over my seated position.

“Hey fellas. How’s tricks? I have to say, the service isn’t the best in this hotel but there’s still a chance for you to salvage a five-star rating from me. Maybe if you get some food, more water and, oh yeah, LET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”

The Aetam before me snarled “Why’d we have to get saddled with this animal?”

These assholes didn’t know I understood them, and I had no plan to clue them in any time soon, either. Maybe I can use that to my advantage at some point but for now, at least I can annoy them.

“Don’t follow, ugly,” I said and the Aetam reached down and grabbed me by the throat, pulling me up and off my feet.

“This…isn’t…gonna improve …your rating….” I managed to gasp out.

The solider pulled me close to his face, his mouth curling into a sneer. His breath was truly reprehensible. That, combined with the fact that his hand was wrapped around my throat, made air a precious commodity.

I kicked out with my feet but I may as well had been kicking a tree for all the good that it did me. The Aetam soldier started laughing at me and the other two joined in.

Maybe they weren’t so invested in keeping me alive after all.

Then another voice boomed out.

“Let her go! Now!”

I was dropped instantly, grasping at my throat and trying to suck in as much air as I could. And then it occurred to me:

As I lay trying to catch my breath, another Aetam walked in. He was tall, golden and clearly in command. The others deferred to him without question, even bowing slightly.

The golden orange one looked at me for a moment, then nodded.

“Leave us,” he said, and the soldier hesitated. The newcomer looked at them and a fire blazed in his eyes.

“Do not make me repeat myself,” he said, “or the Assassin’s Guild will have new training targets.”

That’s all it took. The soldiers left in a hurry.

The golden one walked over to me and I was able to really look at him. There was something almost… familiar about him. Something in his bearing reminded me of… the D’Tali. I didn’t know how that was possible.

He reached down and pulled me up by my wrist.

“All right, you bastard, if you’re going to kill me, then let’s get it the fuck over with,” I said.

“Silence!” he whispered fiercely.

He understood me.

This fire-scaled guy understood what I just said… How was that possible?

“I don’t know why you understand me, but if you think I’m going to tell you a goddamned thing about the D’Tali, you’re out of your mind. So, do us both a favor and don’t waste my time. Kill me and have it be done!”

To my surprise, he moved in a flash and put his hand over my mouth.

“Be quiet for a fucking second, you fool! If you’re not careful, they are going to kill you. And worse! If you want to get out of here, you’re going to have to trust me, Isabella!”

My eyes grew wide. Was this Aetam trying to…help me?

“Do you hear me?” He said. “Stay quiet and I will get you out of here, but we have to move fast!”

He removed his hand from my mouth, slowly.

“You understand?” he asked.

Still stunned, I shook my head.

“I’m not Isabella,” I said softly.

He looked at me, shocked, then looked towards the door. There were sounds from out in the hallway.

“Well,” he said turning back to me, “you are for now.”

Shadowed By Her Alien Mate

Isabella

The ship was dark.

Long shadows spilled across the corridors, our only light Vokar’s torch. He walked a few paces ahead of me, his footsteps so silent it was almost as if he wasn’t there. That shouldn’t have surprised me—he was an assassin, after all.

“I think we should be close,” I muttered, looking down at the piece of paper in my hands. The crude map gave us a rough idea of where we should go. Camilia and I had drawn it together after many trips to the shipwreck, but now it was my duty to find the ship’s medbay and salvage equipment.

I would’ve preferred to have Camilia here with me since she’d have the best chance of recognizing medical equipment, despite it being alien tech.

Unfortunately, that hadn’t been possible. She was completely swamped.

She’d been working impossible hours for weeks, training the D’Tali healers in Tahkath, the D’Tali capital, about the importance of sterilization and the details about germ theory.

It didn’t help that without microscopes, she had to try to convince the older, more stubborn of the healers to take what she said on faith.

Luckily, her successful results with the wounded in the last skirmish with the Aetamians had backed up her claims, so more and more of the younger healers were coming to her for training.

Even if that hadn’t kept her busy enough her protective mate, General Trokol, didn’t feel comfortable sending her on a dangerous expedition.

“There’s a door here,” Vokar whispered, his deep voice causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up on end. Something about him made my body react in a visceral way. All he had to do was glance at me, and my insides clenched up almost immediately. “Hold this.”

Turning on his heels, Vokar handed me the torch and then focused on the block of metal in front of us. The door didn’t seem damaged, but the locking mechanism could have jammed during our violent crash landing on this planet.

I smiled as I thought of those crazy first days.

A little less than a year had passed since we found ourselves stranded on this strange planet, but it felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. Every time I thought about it, I could scarcely believe that I had been a young engineer pursuing a career in San Francisco. I had gone jogging one night after a complicated shift, and a blinding white light appeared out of nowhere, then…

My life changed forever.

I woke up in the cargo hold of this ship surrounded by women my age, alien creatures all around. Eventually, after these ape-like creatures—the Skarg—used their translation tech on us, we figured out they intended to sell us into slavery…but that never came to pass. They were ambushed and shot at, and so they were forced to crash land on this strange and mysterious planet.

We were rescued by the D’Tali, a race of lizard-like warriors, and we had been with them ever since. And thank heavens for that—I didn’t want to think about what could’ve happened to us without the D’Tali.

Despite their primitive tech, they did their best to make sure we had a place to call home. In fact, they did more than just help us. They became our friends and, in a couple of cases, they even turned into…lovers.

Sofia ended up marrying Dojak, the D’Tali king, and Camilia fell in love with General Trokol. Believe it or not, Sofia had even become pregnant. That, of course, was part of the reason I was back at the ship. As interspecies marriage was a new concept, nobody really knew what to expect when it came to a pregnancy like this.

My thinking was that there had to be some medical devices we could retrieve from the ship’s medbay. Camilia agreed with that assessment and, since she couldn’t leave the city because of her new duties, I had been put in charge of this expedition. Despite having some experience as a lead engineer back on Earth, this task weighed heavily on me.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.

Though Vokar didn’t have an official title, everyone knew he had the king’s ear, and so the D’Tali warriors who served as my escort knew to obey him. That ensured that the ship was my sole concern.

Of course, Vokar’s presence was a distraction.

Whenever he stood just a little closer to me, it felt as if my body started boiling from the inside out. My insides clenched up, and it became almost impossible to think straight. As a result, I tended to become an awkward and bumbling idiot around him.

“I think I got it,” Vokar grunted, his voice snapping me out of my reverie.

Narrowing my eyes, I watched as he pried the door open to reveal a mid-sized room with sterile walls. I squeezed past him and held the torch up, the flames bathing the room with their warm light.

“This is it,” I said with a squeal, smiling as I noticed all the medical equipment that littered the room. At least I thought it was medical equipment. Since I was an engineer, I had become the one in charge of analyzing everything we retrieved from the shipwreck, and I thought I was familiar enough with the Skarg tech to know what their medical equipment would look like.

“Seems like some of it has been bolted down.” Kneeling beside what seemed like a futurist CT scan device, Vokar tapped the bolts that kept the machine in place. “I think we can cut it down, though.”

He looked up and his gaze found mine, that familiar heat returning to assault my body. I forced myself to focus on what he was saying.

“Do you think you’ll be able to power all this up?”

Nervously, I ran my tongue over my lips and nodded. “I think so. Judging by how their tech functions, I’m assuming there’s a power core somewhere deeper in the ship. It’s only a matter of finding it and getting it back to the city.” I looked at the map I still held in my hands. “It’s probably not that far from here. It should be in the engine room or nearby. Judging by what we’ve drawn from the ship’s layout, we’re close to it.”

“Then lead the way.”

 Together, we walked out of the medbay and down that dark corridor. Despite the mazelike appearance of the ship’s innards, it was fairly easy not to get lost, and it took us less than twenty minutes to find what I thought to be the engine room. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as Vokar pried the door open, and then we slipped inside the room.

The moment we were inside, I immediately noticed something bright on the corner. Ignoring the machinery that filled the large room, I beelined toward it.

It was some sort of spherical crystal, no bigger than a closed fist.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I muttered. Carefully, I tossed a tiny scrap of wire towards it, to see if it gave of any sort of telltale electrical crackle.

Nothing.

Quickly I poked it.

Still nothing.

“Here goes nothing,” I muttered, and picked it up from the floor.

Despite the glow, it was cold to the touch. Turning on my heels, I headed toward the main engine block and immediately noticed a hook which seemed to have been designed with the crystal’s shape in mind. Turning it slightly, I pushed the crystal into it.

“Oh my.”

The moment the sphere touched the plate behind the hook, the lights mounted on the ceiling flickered and came alive, flooding the room with light. Even the engine started humming, power surging through the entire ship like fresh blood coursing through a newly awakened giant.

“It works,” I shouted, pumping one fist up into the air. “It works!”

I jumped up with joy. Before I knew what I was doing, I launched myself into Vokar’s arms and hugged him as tightly as I could.

Even if just for a momnt, all my shyness was gone.

Vokar

At first, I didn’t know what to do.

Physical contact remained something I wasn’t terribly accustomed to—especially of the affectionate variety. Camaraderie among soldiers allowed for some liberty, but an embrace by a woman was something else entirely.

I looked down at this usually shy, petite creature and tried to figure out exactly what I should do. No matter how I reacted, I might betray how much I enjoyed Isabella’s touch.

That wasn’t a good thing, was it?

Finally, I settled for a few pats on her back.

As quickly as she had flung her arms around me, she stepped away. The instant she released me, I realized how much I was relishing being held. It felt like dangerous territory, so I did my best to avoid it for the time being.

“We should head back to the medbay,” she said without looking at me. “There is some equipment back there I think we’ll need.” As she ducked through the doorway, I thought I could see her cheeks flushed a reddish pink. My stomach flooded with an unaccountable feeling.

I hustled after her, unwilling to let her out of my sight. How was it that this slender human female had come to occupy such a large place in my thoughts? It seemed like I was always seeking her out. Every time I was around her, I felt refreshed.

It was terrible.

After giving Trokol so much shit over Camilia, I hated to think what was coming my way.

But Camilia was Trokol’s mate, so it was completely different—wasn’t it? It couldn’t be possible that Isabella was mine. Even as I thought that, I caught myself watching the gentle sway of her ass as she strode up the corridor ahead of me. Okay, this could actually be trouble.

“How much of this do you think we’ll need?” I asked as we came back into the medbay, a few of the D’Tali soldiers we had brought with us already there.

“Hard to say.” The color had gone from her cheeks, and I found myself wishing it were back. “With Sofia’s baby on the way, a fair amount of this could be really useful.”

“Just point out what you want, and I’ll see to it that our men bring it back with us.”

“Really?” It seemed like such a small offer, but she turned a radiant face to me, her eyes shimmering. My chest tightened.

“Of course.” I sketched a small bow. It felt unbelievably awkward, but I had to do something to keep from staring into her eyes. One or two of the D’Tali close at hand chuckled lightly, and I made a mental note that they would pay for it later.

As I watched, she made her way around the bay, pointing out the things she thought we would need back at Tahkath. I took note of everything, but the men were already setting themselves to work hauling things out. She had an unusual power over men that way, and my stomach burned at the thought that any of the other D’Tali might be harboring thoughts over her.

“What else?” I asked after she had finished her inventory.

“The weapons, of course. If we can activate them, they would be invaluable.”

“Naturally.”

“Oh.” She stopped in place and flashed those large blue eyes up at me. “We’ll need the sphere. To power everything.”

Without answering, I darted back out into the hallway. A cold feeling threaded up through me at the thought that I might get back to the center of this ship and find the sphere missing. I kicked myself for the oversight in leaving it behind us in the first place.

Reaching the control center, I breathed easier to see the crystal sphere still in place. While I couldn’t fathom how this all worked, the sphere was obviously invaluable. Whatever magic it possessed was the nerve center of everything, and could be profoundly dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.

I had been hearing rumblings through my intelligence contacts that some strange creatures had been spotted out in the forests and in the desert. What little description there was sounded unlike anything known to exist. The notion that these beasts could be the same creatures that stole the women from their home planet wasn’t lost on me.

It put me even further on my guard. If my suspicions were correct, then they knew their way around this ship better than anyone. Our mission felt all the more imperative, and I was determined to get anything useful out of the wreckage on this visit.

“Here you are.” I presented Isabella with the sphere, as if it were a precious fruit. She took it in both hands, and folded it carefully in a cloth she pulled from her belt.

“Thank you,” she said meekly. “You’re always the first to move if I need anything.”

“Well, I…” My mouth hung open, but no words came forward to fill it. For one terrible moment, my guard was completely down. Fortunately, if the other D’Tali noticed, they were too busy lugging equipment around to show it.

“I’ve just noticed, is all.” Isabella tucked the sphere into the satchel slung across her shoulders. “Rescuing this has been incredibly important. Without it, there’s no way to power the ship, or anything on it other than the battery packs we used recently, but that’s a finite resource that could run down anytime.”

“Then we got it just in time.”

“Why?” She looked up at me, a mixture of fear and suspicion flickering across her face. “What’s going on?”

I had spoken too quickly. After having been caught out, my defenses were down. It felt wrong to tell her of my misgivings over those monsters that brought her here. I was never one to speak on faulty intelligence, and it was far too soon to say anything for certain.

“Nothing,” I said at last. “If it can activate these things you need to aid in the birth of our king’s child, that’s what’s important.” That seemed plausible enough. It was true, but didn’t touch on the deeper reasons for my relief.

We wound our way back out of the center of the iron beast and out into the clearing. The men had been working diligently, and a fair amount of cargo was already being hoisted onto our wagons.

“Don’t forget to clear out the arsenal,” I called out. “Pull out everything you can.” A couple of numa were brought around, and I helped Isabella onto hers before mounting my own. With a couple of the other D’Tali, we set out for Tahkath.

With all of the equipment we’d removed, it was tempting to go in a straight line back to the capital.

It’d be considerably shorter, but directly between the crash site and the capital were the wild deserts.

The roundabout way was safest. For Isabella, and for the wagon wheels.

I preferred to travel alone, but no way was I letting Isabella out of my sight to make the journey.

After we were well clear of the ship, I rode ahead to scout out the path. If there was danger ahead, I wanted to know about it before anyone else came under fire. Especially Isabella.

In this world of combat, the human women seemed to need protecting. Everything about our way of life was so removed from their own experience, and I found myself increasingly aware of that. Especially where Isabella was concerned. Let the men snicker if they wanted—my job was to gather intelligence and defend.

“Vokar!” Her voice grabbed my attention, and I slowed my numa to a trot so she could ride up alongside me.

“It’s more than you said back there,” she said knowingly. I was at a loss. So much of my time was spent speaking in riddles, that I wondered which half-truth she had caught me in.

“About what?” My nature made me guarded.

“The sphere. You said we had gotten it just in time.”

“With Sofia…” I was in the midst of falling back on the lie, when she waved me off.

“It’s not that. At least, not entirely that.” Given how shy she normally was, I opted to drop the pretense. If she was willing to venture outside of her comfort zone, then I owed it to her to meet her there.

“No, it’s not.”

She nodded. “Can you tell me what the danger is?”

“I don’t know what it is,” I said plainly. “It’s not my way to speak before I’m certain.”

“Me too,” she said. After a brief silence, she spoke up. “The last thing we need is this kind of power falling into Aetamian hands. I’ve seen firsthand what adversaries they can be, and we can’t afford to give them any advantages.”

I was stunned. This beautiful creature who rode beside me noticed everything. More than that, she weighed it all out and came to her own conclusions. It didn’t take a master strategist to know that the Aetamians would leap at the kind of power the sphere offered, but it seemed that few put their minds to it.

“We can’t,” I said at last, then pointed to her satchel. “What you have there is unlike anything our world has seen. If we can use it to heal, that will be enough.”

“And if we can use it against our enemies?” she asked. I looked over into her serious face and smiled.

“Then, I think that would be more than enough. Don’t you?”

She smiled, and we rode together in silence. The sun was dropping, and the sky lit up over us in an array of deep, rich colors. For a moment, I tried to see it all through her eyes. The wizardry I had seen on that metal beast they arrived in was completely foreign to me. And yet, that was the world she had come from.

A woman who could control that kind of machinery, who could master it, was singular in this world. It made her an incredibly valuable asset. Still, while her value was increasing all the time, I was slowly coming to realize that she was far more than a mere ‘asset.’

Isabella

    I walked quickly through the palace, excited to share my news with Sophia. The medical equipment would be very helpful to her, especially since no one was really sure what was going to happen with a half human, half D’Tali baby.

King Dojak was justifiably worried—we all were. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Sofia or her baby. The D’tali and Aetam were the rare sort of reptiles that had live births, making them different than the rest of their distant cousins. It was wonderful that they were even able to conceive between species.

Now, it was mine and Camilia’s job to make sure that everything ran smoothly.

Camilia would handle the medical stuff a lot easier if I could fix it up for her. It was really a top priority.

There were only twelve women in our ship when it crashed, and we couldn’t lose any of us. There was no way I was going to let that happen.

Sofia was like a mother to all of us. And now she was the Queen. The increased pressure of that made the anxiety rise, but I breathed a little bit and walked faster, trying to burn the extra energy off.

Look forward, fix the problem, don’t look back.

That’s what I was good at.

I climbed the stairs to the tower that I shared with the other women. Well, most of the other women. Both Camilia and Sofia now lived with their D’Tali husbands. I reached the door of my quarters, and I could already hear laughter coming from the other side. I smiled as I recognized Sofia’s voice.

I strode inside to see Camilia, Sofia, Riley, Hannah and Celeste. The other women were probably out somewhere. When I walked in, they all looked at me and smiled. Sofia was lounging on a chair and she looked big.

I was running out of time to get this medical equipment up and running.

“Isabella!” Riley said, standing and coming over to give me a hug. “How did it go?”

“Good!” I said. I pulled a chair into the circle and Camilia rose and got me a glass of water. “I got the medical equipment we needed. Vokar is getting some D’Tali to haul it back here.”

Sofia raised an eyebrow at the D’Tali’s name but didn’t say anything.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her.

“Oh, it’s almost time,” she said, rubbing her belly. “So, I can definitely feel that…”

“That’s understandable,” I said, taking a sip of water. Sitting looked hard, let alone standing or walking and having to be queen. As I looked at her pregnant belly, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. Pregnancy didn’t look like it was all of that fun.

“Camilia has news,” Riley said, shooting the nurse a look.

“Oh?”

“Well…” Camilia took a deep breath, then smiled. “I’m pregnant.”

The shock almost had me dropping my glass of water. I gaped at her, unable to really speak. She looked at me nervously.

“Holy shit,” I breathed. Then I broke into a smile. “Congratulations!” I stood up and hugged her. “Now I feel bad for making you get me a glass of water!”

“You didn’t make me,” Camilia said, laughing. “I offered. Plus, I’m not an invalid.”

“Speak for yourself,” Sofia grumbled from her chair. “I’m not getting up to get anyone anything. I’m barely getting up to go to the bathroom.”

“Wow,” I breathed, staring at the two women. “Pregnant. Both of you. Does anyone have an idea about how this is going to work?”

“Well, as I’m on a trial run, we will see with me,” Sofia said, stroking her belly. “This kid is active though. Kicking and squirming all night, I can barely get any sleep.”

“Well that’s a good sign.”

“Sure is,” Camilia said, smiling warmly. She definitely had the pregnancy glow. Either that or she was running a fever.

I honestly wasn’t sure which one was worse.

“I just really hope he isn’t ugly…” Sofia breathed. “There’s a lot of different ways a half-human, half-D’tali can come out.”

Riley and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“I promise that, if he is ugly, we will lie to you about it,” Riley said. “On my honor.”

Sofia burst out laughing. “Good,” she said. “At least I won’t know he’s ugly until later.”

“He?” I said playfully. “Do you know something we don’t?”

“Mother’s intuition. And I was tired of Dojak calling him “it” to piss me off,” Sofia grumbled.

It was hard not to laugh at her. It really was. I tried, but Riley burst into giggles and I had to follow.

“Glad you guys enjoyed that,” Sofia said grumpily. “You know I can have you kicked out of here like that?” She snapped her fingers.

Riley and I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Seems like an empty threat,” Riley said. “I think you’d have to catch us first to kick us out, and that seems like it will be a problem.”

It was Sofia’s turn to laugh. “Don’t make me pee myself,” she said with a giggle.

“She’s really selling pregnancy,” I said to Camilia. “How can you not be excited?”

Camilia shrugged with a wide smile.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Any nausea or anything?”

“A little, if I don’t eat early enough,” Camilia answered. “I feel good, though. I’ve heard horror stories of pregnancies and I seem to be feeling really well. I hate the smell of food cooking, but I love food, so Trokol has been busy.”

“How’s that going?”

Riley laughed. “She’s knocked up, so probably pretty well.”

Camilia blushed. “You’re not wrong,” she said. “He’s pretty amazing. I’m lucky to have him.”

“You say that now,” Sofia said. “Then you’ll be nine months and the sound of him snoring will make you want to smother him in his sleep.” She smiled at us as we laughed again.

“You’re not fooling anyone,” Riley said. “I saw you two together yesterday. Madly in love is the term I would use to describe you two.”

Sofia smiled, but didn’t say anything.

“What about you?” Camilia asked, sagely changing the subject. “What’s new?”

“Oh, not much,” I said. “I’m pretty excited that I got that med equipment to turn on. I figured out how the ship was being powered, and I brought with me the crystal the Skarg were using to do it, so I’m pretty sure I can tinker with it until it works. I’ll have the equipment up and running soon enough.”

“What about Vokar?” Sofia asked.

I turned and stared at her.

“That’s what Camilia is getting at,” Riley chimed in. “We really just want to know about Vokar.”

“What about him?”

I felt my cheeks rush to bright red, the heat radiating off of me. I liked being around Vokar, but he was pretty broody. He followed me everywhere and always made sure I was safe, but I had assumed that he was just bored with no one to assassinate right now. Anxiety rose as I thought about other people noticing something I didn’t.

“He’s been going with you lots,” Sofia said. “I was just wondering if there was anything going on there?”

“Not that I know of,” I said a little too quickly.

I didn’t want to talk about this anymore. It was causing me too much anxiety. As if sensing this, Sofia changed the subject, pulling Hannah and Celeste into the conversation, leaving me to think while I ignored them.

What did they see that I didn’t?

Sure, the more I saw Vokar the more attractive I found him. He was an assassin, after all. I knew he’d protect me, and I felt safe with him…but I’d feel safe with any assassin who was on my side, wouldn’t I?

His green scaly skin should be a turn off, but the tone accentuated his muscular arms. He had the strongest jawline I’d seen in any D’Tali, and I was starting to notice how he moved and talked more.

Maybe I was just into him because I couldn’t have him. He was a bad boy, so he definitely wouldn’t be interested in someone like me. Besides, his job was to sneak up in the shadows and kill people. That didn’t really make for a stable partner.

I caught Sofia rubbing her belly contently, and I felt the envy start in my stomach. The envy was soon replaced by nausea and nerves. I didn’t want a baby. I’d told myself that for years. I was an engineer, smart and capable; a baby just slowed you down and stopped you from reaching your goals.

But Sofia looked so happy, and Camilia was damn near glowing. And there was something inside me that wanted the same thing as them. The same thing they had.

A partner in life. A mate to look after them, to care for them.

The picture of me hugging Vokar worked its way into my head. No, he couldn’t be the one for me. He was attractive, sure, but that was just because he was a badass. That was it. It’s not like he could actually care for me, nor could he give me the support that I needed…or the love and stability that I craved.

He just couldn’t.

No, I could never be with someone like that. Plus, I had too much work to do. I didn’t have time to pursue a relationship with anyone, especially Vokar. With Sofia so close to term and Camilia now pregnant, I needed to get this medical equipment up and running.

Soon, Camilia’s pregnancy would force her to slow down, and she needed to train one of the other healers how to do everything for when she had her baby. Even with the D’tali healers on hand, that meant that the next month was going to be busy caring for Sofia and learning all I could so I could help care for Camilia, too.

That was a good thing. If we spent some time apart, I knew I would lose the lust I had for Vokar. And that was really what was best. After all, I was far too busy for a relationship right now…and probably ever.

Yeah, it was for the best.

The Vaznik Warrior’s Holiday Surprise

Nadia

The spaceport was unlike anything I had ever seen.

Tourists and businessmen milled around the waiting floor, lugging chrome suitcases behind them, and there was an anxious atmosphere to the place. It felt as if the entire spaceport was buzzing with excitement.

Or it could just have been me.

I had never left Earth before, and I was aching to cut through the atmosphere and see what lay beyond.

A lot of women my age had been given that possibility through the genetic lottery, but even though I had already been tested a couple of times, I had never been matched with anyone.

I didn’t know how I felt about being shipped off to some alien I’d never met before as his ‘mate,’ but I had dreamt of seeing the galaxy countless times.

How many times had I pictured myself setting up my easel and a blank canvas on a ship’s observation deck?

I could paint the sunrise in Venus, or the solar flares in Aeon IV.

Anything in the whole galaxy.

Not that I’d had much luck selling my paintings.

Embarrassingly enough, I made more as a gamer, either in tips from streaming, or the occasional prize pot on the e-games circuit.

I wasn’t the best out there, but good enough to keep the bills paid while I kept painting.

As it was, I was restricted to painting what I knew and my imagination. It wasn’t that I disliked Earth. I loved that blue planet as much as anyone else. Still, I had that hunger for adventure, and I had never managed to quell it before.

And finally, after scrimping and saving, I was going to do it. I was going to get out into space.

Well, at least as far as I could go.

“Yes?” The attendant asked me as I made my way to the front of the line, staring at me from behind her desk. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and offered a bored expression.

“I want to buy a ticket for the Moon,” I said, trying to sound as confident as I could.

“The Moon is a big place.”

“Right.” I cleared my throat, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “I’m going to visit the Shackleton Crater Lunar Base.” It was going to be wonderful. I’d already found a hotel I could afford, and made a list of cafes and food stalls the travel blogs said were the cheapest. “I’m going to stay there for three weeks, so I’m going to need a—”

“A ticket with return,” the attendant announced, pecking at her keyboard with two fingers. “Please press your index finger here for the payment.” She turned a handheld terminal toward me and I did as instructed.

But the moment I pressed my finger against the flimsy plastic sheet, the screen lit up and a message popped up announcing that the transaction had failed. “Miss, after fees and taxes have been applied, you don’t have enough funds in your account.”

“I, well…” I straightened my back and cleared my throat, mind frantically spinning.

I’d messed up on my math somewhere.

Clearly, the money I had made from my last tournament wasn’t enough, after I had prepaid for my hotel and allocated money to a separate account for food, and paid for a cheap translation patch.

I leaned forward and lowered my voice into a faint whisper.

“Are there are any lower cost options available?”

Her fingers tapped the keyboard a couple more times, and then she looked straight at me. Her lips turned into a thin line, and she arched one eyebrow.

“There’s a small freighter that’s going there,” she said. “It’s as low cost as it can be, but you shouldn’t expect to find any amenities during your flight…or even during your wait in the terminal.”

“I’ll take it,” I hurried to say, almost as if I expected for the opportunity to disappear in a couple of seconds. As the attendant turned the banking terminal toward me, I jammed my finger against the screen once more.

This time the screen turned green, and I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

“Terminal 73B.” With a dismissive wave, she pointed at the corridor behind her. I gave her a quick nod and followed along the path she had indicated. Much like she had promised, there were no amenities to be found.

While most brochures of space travel promised cozy lounges with refreshing drinks, Terminal 73B was nothing but a service hangar loaded with drilling mechs. Maintenance workers in  blue overalls were busy loading the mechs into a shuttle that reminded me of a rusty kettle full of dents.

“Is this the shuttle to the Shackleton Crater?” I asked one of the maintenance workers, and he answered me with a grunt. He pointed toward the edge of the hangar, where a few people waited with their suitcases. It seemed like I hadn’t been the only one looking for a low-cost flight.

I joined the group and, after waiting for almost an hour, we were eventually led into the shuttle. We walked down cramped corridors until we joined a small army of workers, all of them strapped down to seats that had definitely seen better days. After putting my suitcase in a dusty overhead compartment, I found an empty seat—no numbered seats on this ship—and settled down for the flight.

I knew that I should be feeling nervous about flying in a ship like this, but I wasn’t. If anything, I was excited that I was finally going to leave Earth and do some travelling.

Sure, I wasn’t exactly going to leave the Solar System, but this was better than nothing.

After my family died during a Suhlik attack, I promised myself I wouldn’t die before making it to space, and I was finally going to keep that promise.

My parents had spent their whole life saving for a trip to Europe, and the Suhlik had robbed them of their lifelong dream. This trip I was embarking on was in my parent’s memory. Their dream of travel, my own longing for new skies.

Brace for takeoff,” a loud voice announced over the speakers, and I heard a loud rumble. The entire shuttle started vibrating, the metal dividers that had been bolted to the hull rattling in place, and I was suddenly slammed against the seat. It felt as if someone had placed an anvil on top of my chest.

I looked to the side, but none of the workers seemed particularly afflicted with any of this. They had probably done this trip countless times, and their bodies were more than ready for how brutal takeoff was. The other tourists—at least they seemed like tourists—seemed to be struggling like I was.

Eventually, though, the brutal trepidation was replaced by a feeling of weightlessness. My body started floating up and, hadn’t it been for the straps keeping me in place, I would’ve drifted toward the ceiling.

Even more excited than I already was, I watched as the dividers that lined the compartment slid back to reveal large viewports that offered a look at what was outside the ship.

I held my breath as I watched Earth turn into a blue sphere, the vastness of space rising behind it like the gaping maw of a beast. As Earth shrunk in size, I turned in my seat to see the Moon start to grow.

Surprisingly enough, the yellowish tones I had grown used to had been replaced by a dull grey. Still, the brightly-lit domes, all connected to make the sprawling Shackleton Crater Lunar Base, turned Earth’s lone satellite into one hell of a sight.

“This is amazing,” I said in a low whisper, fascinated with the view. Only the tourists were gathered around the viewports, the overall clad workers obviously jaded to the site, but I couldn’t care any less.

Space travel was new to me, and I was going to bask in the glory of it without being embarrassed.

The Universe, though, seemed to have other plans for me.

Without any warning at all, the entire compartment was flooded in a bright red light, and the klaxons started braying so loudly I thought that my eardrums were going to rupture. I looked around, having no idea what was going on, and this time I wasn’t the only one—even the maintenance workers seemed scared, and that didn’t fill me with confidence.

In fact, it was just the opposite.

Attention, brace for impact,” that loud voice came again, and I couldn’t help but notice the terror hiding behind its words. “We’ve experienced a power failure, and the thrusters are down. We’re currently adrift and in a collision course with an orbital power station. I repeat, brace for impact.

My breath caught in my throat.

My heart rammed itself against my chest.

After all I had gone through just to get into space, was this going to be the end?

Zorath

Flying a warship could be a son of a bitch.

Not the combat part, I had always enjoyed that. Fast maneuvers and finagling a way out of a tight spot were always specialties of mine.

It was when the mission was done that the job really started to suck.

“Hey, Zorath!” Thelkor leaned over the corner of my pilot station, all smiles. He was the best gunner I’d ever had the privilege to serve with, and a hell of a drinking buddy to boot – when I wasn’t on duty.

Which was a pain, because right now it felt like I was the only one that was.

“What’s up, man?” Who was I kidding? I knew what was up. This had to be the third time he’d been by since we had left the PriCon Sector.

“You sure I can’t convince you to have a toast with us?” His eyes narrowed slightly, and I had to keep my focus locked on my screen to keep from chuckling at him.

We were friends, but I always suspected he could turn in an instant.

Combat guys, you know.

“No can do.” I lifted my palms as if to indicate my job. “Somebody’s gotta fly this thing. And if Command catches me at the helm with a drink in my hand, they’ll strip me of every credit I’ve been awarded.”

“Aw, you’re no fun.” He swiped a teasing hand at me.

“Not true. I’m a lot of fun – just not when I’m on duty.”

It wasn’t always like this, but right now we all had a reason to celebrate.

After a successful raid on the Suhlik base, we had been granted three weeks leave.

Not just that, but we had all been entered in the matching lottery program. If our number came up, the prize was better than money – a DNA match.

A mate.

At least, the possibility of own.

As if the guys didn’t have reason enough to drink after crushing all those Suhlik assholes, they had already started toasting each other’s wives. We hadn’t been in the program more than three days, and some of those fellas were already picking wallpaper.

Mine was going to be vranthian eggshell blue.

“Captain Timcur? I’ve got eyes on Earth’s moon.”

“Bring us in, Zorath. Well done.”

We had been given approval to spend our leave at Shackleton Crater Lunar Base on Earth’s moon, and we all planned to take this chance to get to know some human women.

Not that they’d be our matches, but at least this way we might not be totally clueless.

Sure, there were a lot of other species in the Madhfel treaty, but as the humans were one of the newest signatories, they seemed to be making a lot of matches with warriors lately.

We’d all been obsessively learning Earth languages and slang. We watched their entertainment and puzzled out their quirks.

Off shift I’d been reading every travel blog and guidebook on the SCLB, just waiting to actually go to all of those places, see all of the sights.

But the only human women I’d ever met were already mated with other Madhfel warriors, so that kind of changed how you interacted with them.

It shouldn’t have, but it always did.

Despite my joke about the wallpaper, I didn’t exactly have the confidence in landing a match that the other guys did. As far as they were concerned, as soon as your name was in the hat, getting a mate was a foregone conclusion. I was less sure.

Not only that, but what would I do with a mate, really? I mean, sure, all anybody wants to talk about was the sex, but what about all the rest of it? Having precious little knowledge of how human women lived, the idea of living with one seemed borderline crazy.

“Captain? We’re coming in for the approach. You may want to tell the party in the back that they might want to strap in.” I deployed the docking units.

Actually, I’d take some perverse joy in rattling all those jerks around a little bit. Serve them right for starting the drinking before I could join in.

“SCLB, this is The Golden Meridian, do you read me?”

“Copy, Meridian.”

“Requesting permission to dock. See notification VPR-275.”

“Notification authorized. Permission granted.”

Whether or not those guys were buckled in, we were touching down. Locking in procedures were the same on all of the domed stations, so even though this was my first tangle with “the Moon,’ I had a pretty good idea how this was going to go.

At least I thought so.

Up in the corner of my monitor, a red icon flashed up.

It was an emergency alert.

Not anything wrong with our ship.

A distress call.

I clicked it, and the info spilled out across my screen.

Transport Shuttle R-21 Power Failure. Drifting Collision Course with Orbital Power Station Foxtrot. Immediate Assistance Requested.

That got my attention fast.

I tapped a few more icons, and saw that intervention shuttles were still being prepped down at Shackleton.

In fact, from what I could tell, we were the only live vessel within distance, and would probably beat any other responders by a handy margin.

“Captain Timcur?”

“Yeah, buddy, whatcha got?”

“I’ve got a distress call on a shuttle set to collide with an orbiter. No other ships are in line to intercept before contact. Requesting permission to initiate rescue maneuvers.”

“Zorath… you know we’re a warship, right?”

“Yes, sir – but we are the only vessel within distance. I can do this and still have us at Shackleton for cocktail hour.” There was a long beat.

“Knock yourself out.”

And it was go time.

“Shackleton, this is The Golden Meridian. Request you put a temporary hold on our docking, I’ve been authorized to launch rescue tactics on the disabled shuttle.”

“Wait, really?”

“Affirmative. We’ll be back.”

Leaning into the thrusters, we pushed away from the moon with a deep dive. I tightened my grip on the controls and hunkered down in my chair.

Come on, Goldie. This is what I live for.

The rest of the crew probably didn’t even know what was happening, so it looked like the entire enterprise was going to come down to me.

Which, honestly, was just how I liked it.

Locking in on the coordinates, it was only a few minutes before I got a visual on R-21. She was on a dead line for that orbital station, alright. It was a good thing I had spotted that call – there was no way the Quick-Intervention team would have made this.

I was going to have to think fast. My docking gear was still fully deployed, so I shifted the parameters to extend our hook lines to their limit.

That gained me another three yards, but it was still going to put me in tight quarters when it came to passing over.

This was going to be close. Just the way I liked it.

Easing back on the throttle, I let Goldie drift into a coast. Banking around from R-21’s starboard, I started to ease down on her. With the first pass, I had the instinct that I was coming in too hot and cleared distance at the last second.

My heart was racing, and I pulled around until I was facing the tiny shuttle head on. Shifting my distance readers to manual, I got a screen that would let me eyeball our approach. Not strictly regulation, but I was going to get a much more accurate bead on the whole thing. I gripped the controls and swallowed hard.

Bagging out on that first pass had cost me. This next one had to count, because it was the only shot I had left. If I didn’t manage to snag her on this round, the folks on that shuttle were liable to have a lousy afternoon.

The move was to come in low and slow, then tap the reverse thrusters just before we hooked. That would let things cinch into place without jerking the damn thing around. It wouldn’t do the travelers a whole lot of good missing an orbiting satellite if they just got scrambled in the rescue.

Keeping a close eye on my distance reader, I edged up on the disabled unit. Was I sweating? Yeah, maybe a little.

At least no one else was watching to give me grief over it.

Ticking up over the shuttle, we were within fifty feet. Which is absurd given Goldie’s size. All it would have taken was a slight tip of my wrist and it would have been curtains for R-21.

Keep it steady, Zorath. Aaaaaaand. – tap.

Just the faintest brush of the reverse thrusters. We bucked slightly, but it was enough. Shit, the underside of our ship ducked just enough that we probably clinked glasses with the back end of the shuttle. But it worked.

Two of our hook lines found purchase, and dragged R-21 just out of line enough to let Foxtrot slip by.

My breath hadn’t been that tight on our entire mission. I leaned back at my station to gulp in a deep breath. I’d been holding it since the first bank.

Just as I was coming down, Thelkor wandered back onto the bridge.

“Zorath! What the shit is going on in here?”

“We’re heroes, that’s what’s going on. I’ll take that drink now.”