Ambushed with her Alien Mate

Camilia

“Bandage, please.”

Without even looking to the side, I opened my hand and felt the rough fabric of a bandage against my fingers. I eyed the green D’Tali in front of me, his reptilian eyes betraying his distrust of my methods, and smiled.

“Trust me,” I said, “you’re in good hands.”

Slowly, I covered the gash in his forearm with a paste I had created, then bandaged the cut as best I could. Silently, he watched me work, but his distrust slowly gave way to wonder. I shuddered as I thought about the kind of care these guys were receiving before we arrived.

“Alright, you’re good to go.” I patted the D’Tali soldier on the shoulder and sent him on his way. He thanked me with the typical soldier’s grunt, rose to his feet, and marched out of the infirmary.

“That’s the last one, right?”

I spun around to face Sofia, who stood beside a table littered with everything from improvised gauzes to the medical concoctions I had created from native herbs. The sleeves of her long gown had been rolled up and, even though she looked like she was ready to get down to business, there was still a regal air about her.

That didn’t surprise me.

She was a queen, after all.

Not that she allowed her status to stop her from coming down here to help.

It had taken me a while to get used to it, but I was slowly starting to accept this new way of life. Every time I thought of it, I couldn’t help but wonder about how much my life had changed. A few months ago, I was just another nurse out in the sticks, trying to make a living on the West Coast, and now here I was…God knew how many light-years away from home.

Not that there’d been much for me back on Earth. No family, and friends had been lost in the constant exhaustion of keeping up with my shifts.

All things considered, though, this wasn’t a bad place to be.

If anything, it beat the alternative.

I still remembered how terrifying it had been to regain consciousness after being snatched off the streets. I woke up in a dark cargo hold, surrounded by women and monstrous aliens hell-bent on turning us all into slaves, but luck had been on our side. Their ship was attacked and we crash landed here, on this planet stuck in the Middle Ages.

Thankfully, the D’Tali were good enough hosts.

After initially struggling to talk with each other—which we resolved after using the technology in our original captors’ ship—things were now going as smoothly as possible. So much so that Sofia had even managed to claim King Dojak’s heart. Again, that didn’t surprise me. She was a true leader, and I figured that Dojak simply couldn’t resist that.

After peeking out the door, Sofia gave me a nod.

“That was the last one,” she confirmed, then closed the door behind her. She blew a stray lock of brown hair away from her face and sank onto a wooden stool. “There’s more of them coming every day. I don’t know how you’re going to keep up, Camilia.”

I stretched my back lazily, my muscles relishing the movement. After almost six hours of looking after wounded soldiers, my whole body felt like a tightly wound coil. Sofia was right—if D’Tali kept showing up here, I would need to figure something out. After all, there was only so much I could do.

“You’ll have to start teaching more of them,” Isabella said, raising her head from her improvised workstation. The former engineering student had pushed an old wooden desk into a corner of the infirmary, and the tabletop was littered with small hand-held devices. They looked like something between a tablet and a pager, with small dials on the side of the plastic case. “That’s how I’d do it.”

“Not a bad idea,” Sofia agreed. “Especially since skirmishes on the border have become a daily occurrence.” She pursed her lips and looked down at her feet. I could almost see the gears turning inside her head. “You know, I thought we were getting somewhere with the peace talks, but—”

“Those Aetamian assholes are not easy to negotiate with,” I cut in, then looked up at her and smiled. “You and Dojak are going to figure something out, though. I’m sure of that.” Not wanting to press Sofia for details about the never-ending negotiations with the belligerent kingdom on our doorstep, I turned to Isabella. “How’s that going? Have you managed to make any progress? Vokar has been helping you out, hasn’t he?”

“He has,” she replied in a hurry, but made it a point to talk about something other than the D’Tali assassin. Even though I had never expected for someone as quiet and shy as Isabella to get friendly with an actual elite assassin, the two seemed to get along pretty well. At least when it came to their shared interest in technology.

“We haven’t made much progress though,” she continued, her attention now back on the small hand-held devices. “I’ve already figured out how to turn these things on, but I can’t establish a stable frequency between them. I can only establish a link to the crash site, where the ship is, but that’s just useless.”

After getting the translator device out of the shipwreck, a few D’Tali soldiers under Vokar’s supervision had gone back with Isabella to see if there was anything else in there that we could use. Those communication devices had been part of the looting, but it seemed like there was a long way to go before we understood all that alien tech.

It was ironic.

Our ragtag group of women had been kidnapped by aliens far more technologically advanced than humans, but then we crashed on this planet stuck in the Middle Ages. As it was, we had gone from baffled humans to experts in technological progress.

Even I, with nothing but my nursing skills, had become one of the most sought after healers in the city.

Sure, I had learned a lot from them, especially when it came to the specifics of D’Tali anatomy and the traditional herbal pastes they used as medicine. They had no concept of sterilization techniques, though, and that’s where I came in. After instituting a ‘clean-hands’ policy throughout the castle, disease rates had started plummeting right away.

The differences between humans and D’Tali were significant but, according to my observations, the nutritional needs were pretty similar. That allowed me to detect vitamin insufficiencies in the soldiers and improve their recovery times and survival rates significantly. I wasn’t a qualified doctor, but it seemed that what little knowledge I had was helping the D’Tali become healthier.

That was a good thing—the D’Tali had been extremely kind to us, and every woman in our group wanted to repay them. The way I saw it, I was just doing my part.

Suddenly, our attention was drawn toward the door.

Someone knocked three times, the rhythm steady and militaristic, then the door swung back to reveal a tall, blue-skinned D’Tali. I tensed as Dojak’s right-hand, General Troko, strolled into the room. His expression was serious, the deep scar that slashed across his right cheek doing little to make him seem friendly and approachable.

“General,” Sofia chirped happily, clearly not intimidated by one of the most revered soldiers in the kingdom. “Did you come to check on your soldiers?”

“My Queen,” Troko said, his tone solemn as he lowered his head. He cleared his throat, looked around the room until his eyes met mine, and we promptly looked away from each other. I still didn’t know how to act whenever he was in the room. He was nothing but kind and polite, sure, but he was also intimidating as hell. Scary, even. “That’s the reason for my visit, yes, but I see that they’ve all received the care they needed. I can’t thank you enough.”

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Sofia elbowed me in the ribs. I straightened my back so fast that I almost fell from my seat, and looked straight at the general.

“Yes, you’re welcome…I did my best,” I stammered, feeling my cheeks burning as I withstood the general’s intense gaze. Jesus, why did I have to sound like such a babbling idiot whenever this guy was in the room? “None of them had any major wounds, and they’ll be back on active duty after a day or two.”

That seemed to please Troko.

He bowed his head to me, not a hint of a smile on his face, but I still noticed the easing of his features. That was something. After all, the general wasn’t what you’d call laid-back, his stone-faced expression a clear cut indicator of how serious he was about everything.

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Camilia,” he said. Before I could reply, he clicked his heels together, turned, and marched out of the room. Only when he’d disappeared out of sight did I realize I had been holding my breath.

Lady Camilia?” Sofia snorted, an amused smile taking over her face. “Seems to me the general is extra polite whenever he has to address Lady Camilia. Any idea why that is?”

“He’s polite to everyone,” I protested, blushing so much that my face must’ve looked like a ripe tomato. “Now, please, can you help me clean this up?” I waved one hand at the mess littering my workstation, bloody bandages everywhere. In truth, I just wanted to change the conversation. “I need to get ready for tomorrow and—”

“We are at your service,” Isabella piped up, smiling as she looked over from the communicator devices. Even though she was the quiet one of the group, she got more talkative whenever it was just me and Sofia around. Maybe that was why she had set up shop here instead of taking a room for herself. Now it seemed like she had joined the let’s-tease-Camilia bandwagon.

“Seriously?” I asked, folding my arms over my chest. “You, too?”

She bowed her head, smirking.

“Evidently, Lady Camilia.”

Troko

“Damnit.”

I leaned against the stone wall in the hallway, maybe twenty paces down from the door. It had taken me the better part of the afternoon to come up with a reason to visit the infirmary, and when I arrived, those two other women were there.

It would have been bad enough had it only been Isabella, the shy one, but our queen was there. Sofia had a set of eyes that seemed to be able to divine any secrets of our kind. And I wasn’t even sure what secrets I might have worth delving into. In truth, anything I felt was a secret to myself, as well.

Scrubbing my hands across my face, I erased as much of the memory as I could. Speaking to women had never been my strength. I’d never had much occasion to seek their company. The best of me had always been in the field, offering my service against the Aetamians. Anything else seemed like a waste of my time.

Ever since I’d come of age, unless I was able to flank something, or wear it on my sword, I had precious little interest in it. Even at my earliest onset of manhood, the Ancestors had marked me as a man of combat. Softer things were not of my element.

“Shit.”

Looking up into the torch on the wall, I sighed as I considered the flame. Our king, Dojak, who was as much of a poet as he was a warrior, might have said that it was an emblem for Sofia’s hair. Or, even further, that it mirrored the tempest of her nature. To me, it was just a tool to raze the homes of our enemies.

There was very little poetry in me for a woman like Camilia. Not that she had much time for flowery language. She was tough, competent, and pragmatic. Perhaps that was why I had found myself going out of my way to cross paths with her. And now, this awkward, stammering encounter.

I tried to banish my humiliation by grinding the points of my knuckles into my eyes. I had been bested in combat, and even that couldn’t touch the churning sickness I felt at seeing her. It wasn’t even that I wanted anything more than to talk to her.

To get to know her.

The D’Tali people had precious few women, and their almost mystical status made it difficult to approach them, even for common discourse. How was one to learn how to speak to a woman? And yet, the courtship of Dojak and Sofia had been like something out of legend. How could one come by it so easily?

“What’s eating you up, Troko?” I started, and turned to see Vokar slinking out of the darkness a few doorways down.

“By the…how long have you been hiding over there?”

“Long enough to hear you swear,” he grinned. “Twice.”

“I’m going to have to put bells on your shoes so I can hear you coming.”

Vokar just chuckled at me. “Lot of good that would do. I’d just go barefoot. So.” He leaned on the shadowed wall opposite me and folded his arms across his chest. “What could be driving our stoic general to swearing?”

“Nothing.” I made to leave, but he put a playful foot on my stomach and pushed me back to the wall.

“Oh, really?” He wore that crooked grin that always came when he had a mouthful of intelligence that he was meting out in parcels. The more you wanted, the longer he made you wait.

“Really. I was…” If only I could come up with some failing skirmish to cling to, but I hadn’t ridden into the field in weeks. Not since the great wedding. While my soldiers kept on fighting raiders and Aetamian border patrols, I was stuck behind a desk, doing my best to coordinate between all the deployed units and squads.

“You were just with the women.” Without meaning to, I looked away, betraying any mysteries I may have been holding back. “Why don’t you just ask Camilia to take a walk with you?”

“A walk?” His arrow hit right in my gut, and I sprang off the wall to stalk down the hallway. Vokar ambled beside me at an easy pace.

“What else is there? You’re not one for swimming. And, as tough as she is, I doubt she’s one to hop onto a numa to join a raid.”

“Nothing was ever accomplished on a walk.”

“We’re walking now.” Damnit. He was right. I pulled up short and itched all over. It was bad enough to be punishing myself for my insufficiencies, but now I had someone goading me into conversation about them.

“I’m not one for pleasant conversation.”

“Neither is she,” Vokar smirked. Right again. “Perhaps the next time she goes out into the fields to gather herbs, you could accompany her, carry the basket.”

“Carry her basket?” The image of me trailing behind a woman with a basketful of flowers made me squirm even worse.

“Why not?” He reached out to squeeze my bicep. “No doubt you can carry far more than her slender arms could manage.”

“Don’t you talk about her slender arms,” I snarled with a sudden flare of temper. Jealousy was a feeling I was unused to, and the flash of it startled me as much as it did my friend. He put his hands up in mock surrender and stepped back.

“Take it easy,” he said. “I will do what I can to keep the fair Camilia out of my mouth.” The innuendo rankled me again, and I stepped further down the hall.

“Good.”

“If only I could say the same for the rest of the men.”

I froze in place. Bad enough that our finest spy was able to pry into my secrets, but was I really that open?

“Is it spoken of?” I half turned to face him.

“Maybe.” He broke into a broad smile, and I scrubbed my callused hands over my face again, harder this time. Maybe if I opened up one of my scars, the blood on my face would bring me back to myself. My real self. “I don’t know what the others are saying, but if I know what’s going on…then I can only assume that others have started talking about it.”

He was trying to rile me up, and it was working.

“Rumors,” I snorted.

“You’re doing an awful lot of pawing at yourself if these are mere rumors. You’ve never let idle talk fuck you up before. If it’s all bullshit, then why are you so angry?”

Was I? Looking down, I realized that my hands were balled into tight fists. After so many years priding myself on being inscrutable, now every facet of me was revealing information.

“What I need is a fight. It’s what we all need. Too much time sitting still is making me soft. We’ve grown weak with celebration and laziness, while the Aetamians are in continual practice.”

“True. I’ve seen them.”

“As have I,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose as I remembered the countless reports stacked on my desk. “It looks like they’re preparing for something. I just wonder what that is.”

Vokar shrugged and strode up the hallway to me. “The same thing they are always preparing for.”

I snuffed heavily through my nostrils at the truth of it. In my bed at night, when I should be devising strategies, an entirely different kind of thought had crowded our enemies out. Too much of that was keeping me away from my true cause. My purpose was to lead men and kill our enemies, not drink, sleep, and seek private talk with ladies.

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You’ll have plenty of time to spend with your favorite healer soon enough.”

“What does that mean?” There was a dangerous edge under his playful tone, and I bristled that my friend was always speaking two things at once. Everything he said sounded like a riddle—even when he was asking for a drink. You couldn’t pour an honest beer without feeling as though you were being taken for a ride.

“I don’t mean anything,” he shrugged again.

“If you keep doing that, you’ll wear your shoulders out.”

“The only way I’ll wear my shoulders out is under a woman’s thighs,” he said. The image inflamed me and made me run cold at the same time. “The real question is, why are you wasting your time talking to me? You have bigger things in hand.”

“Do I?” As always, he had the advantage of me.

“I should think so. Dojak wants to see you in his chambers immediately.”

“He does?”

“Of course.” He pulled a smug, frowning smile. “That’s why I was sent to find you.”

Clapping a hand on his shoulder in thanks—and maybe a touch of aggravation—I set off down the corridor toward the king’s quarters. Vokar began to whistle and head off down the hall in the opposite direction.

“Perhaps I’ll stop by the infirmary and see if I can get something to help me sleep,” he murmured as he went. “The nights are so long lately…”

What was it about having friends that made you want to throttle them? There were very few men that I held close, and nearly every one of them had the power to prod me into fury with the slightest provocation.

I gave two brisk raps on the wooden door, and was invited in. By contrast to the passageways in the stronghold, Dojak’s chambers were bathed in a warm amber glow. He was leaning over his table, in deep conversation over some documents. Nelkar, one of his sagest counselors, was with him.

“Ah, Troko. What took you so long?”

“You sent Vokar.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “I did. Never the shortest path. You know Mox Nelkar.”

“I do.” I gave the aged D’Tali a small bow, and he waved me off with his usual mix of good humor and grumbling.

“What can I do for you, Dojak?”

“I have a mission for you.” Without another word, he plucked one of the papers from the table. With a half-smile, he strode over and placed it in my waiting hands. It only took a brief glance to get the idea. “I think you might enjoy it.”

“By the Ancestors,” I whispered. “You can’t be serious?”

Camilia

I was exhausted.

Now that the day was over, I was looking forward to heading back to the tower our group now called home and taking a long hot bath. The water was so scalding in the tower’s bathing area that I came out looking as pink as a newborn every day. I smiled as I imagined the thick, heavy robe I would put on after that. It trapped the heat, easing all my sore muscles and my tired soul.

The D’Tali warriors were patched up to the best of my ability. They didn’t complain much, as it wasn’t in their nature.

All in all, this had been a good day’s work, and they seemed to appreciate my efforts. Maybe, in the future, I could start getting some assistance. Sofia had far more important things to do than be a nurse’s assistant and, besides, it was high time some of these D’Tali learned the basics of good, responsible medicine.

“Let’s hope tomorrow you don’t have as many patients,” Sofia said, hands on her hips as she took in our surroundings. The infirmary was clean and tidy again, all evidence of a hard day’s work now disposed of.

“Maybe,” I replied. “As long as they stop doing stupid things like getting taken by surprise.”

“I agree,” she said, leading the way out of the infirmary. In the hallway outside, most of the soldiers we had treated still seemed to be milling around. Sofia turned to them and raised her voice, her tone playful but kind. “If any of you feel further pain, or it seems like your injuries are worsening, don’t be so, you know, D’Tali. Just come and ask Camilia for aid. Is that understood?”

There were nods and salutes of agreement, and some of the hardened warriors even smiled. Still, I doubted they would do as they were told. They were proud, every single one of them.

“A full afternoon,” Sofia said.

I shook my head wearily. “No doubt. I just want to get back to the tower and get into the pool. I really need to take a warm—”

At that moment, I was cut off by a D’Tali soldier walking in with a formal, stomping march. “I seek the healer Camilia!” he said, far too loudly, his voice echoing throughout the hallway.

I looked over at Sofia, arching one eyebrow, but she merely shrugged.

“That’s me,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“My Lady healer, King Dojak has requested your presence in the royal chambers!” he barked, his posture so rigid he almost seemed like a statue.

“Soldier, feel free to modulate your volume, if you please,” Sofia said, a hint of a smile on her lips. The D’Tali snapped his head in a small bow.

“Yes, my Queen!” he barked again, his tone even louder than before. “Of course, my Queen!” He probably had no idea what the word ‘modulate’ meant.

“Does the king need me now?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “He seeks an audience immediately.”

I sighed. Exhausted as I was, the last thing I wanted was to be pulled into something political. Still, it couldn’t be helped. If the king requested your presence, it was your duty to do as you were told. And that applied whether you were a D’Tali or a human.

“Very well. Tell him I will be there shortly.”

“I will.” He nodded and, before marching off, bowed deeply at Sofia. “My Queen!” Once he was gone, I turned to Sofia. If anyone knew what this was about, it had to be her.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t ask me,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders. “I’ve been with you all day. But if Dojak has summoned you like this, then I can only assume it’s important.” She waved one hand toward the hallway leading into the royal chambers. “Your king awaits you.”

I rolled my eyes at her.

“You can be a bit too much sometimes.”

Sofia nodded her head slowly up and down.

“Uh-huh,” she said with a grin. “I know.”

I shook my head, gave Sofia and Isabella a parting nod, and headed to the royal chambers. My boot heels clicked loudly on the polished stone hallway of the palace. As I always did, I marveled at the architecture and skill required to create such a thing. Despite their primitive grasp on technology, architecture was something the D’Tali seemed to have mastered. It really was remarkable.

Once I came to the royal chambers, a guard ushered me in. Candelabras stood throughout the space, little spheres of light that kept the shadows at bay. As I approached the throne, I was surprised to see Troko standing there, right next to Dojak.

I could see a hint of surprise in Troko’s eyes, but he hid it well. I, on the other hand, was doing a terrible job at hiding my discomfort.

“Camilia!” Dojak boomed, his charisma filling the space. I could see why he was such a well-loved king…and why Sofia had mated with him. “Thank you again for taking such excellent care of my soldiers. You are an incredible asset for the D’Tali.”

I bowed slightly.

“My King,” I said.

“I believe you know Troko, do you not?”

He knew that I did, but I let it go. For the moment.

“Yes, I do.”

“Excellent,” he continued, leaning slightly forward as a smile crept to his lips. “Because the two of you are to be envoys for a diplomatic mission. You’re going to Aetam.”

I blinked, not understanding.

“Your Majesty?”

“You would agree, would you not,” he said, “that this bloody and pointless conflict with the Aetamians needs to stop?”

“Without question. I’d rather not spend my time sewing D’Tali soldiers back together.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” he nodded. “That is why I am happy to report that we have an opportunity to negotiate a truce with Aetam.”

I was shocked. I knew that Dojak had been trying to broker a peace for weeks now, but it had always seemed like a pipedream.

“That’s amazing,” I muttered. “Congratulations!”

“Congratulations to us all, Camilia,” he continued, his tone warm and polite. “But this peace is tentative, we should bear that in mind.”

“Of course,” I said. “Such things are delicate.”

“That they are.” Shifting on his throne, he gave Troko a look I couldn’t quite understand. “How familiar are you with the Aetamian king?” he asked me.

I shook my head.

“Only vaguely,” I said. “I know he’s on the older side.”

Dojak laughed and Troko smirked.

“‘The older side’ is one way to put it. King Moffat makes fossils look young and vital. But, having said that, he’s still a shrewd and skilled negotiator,” Dojak said.

“I see,” I said, having no idea where this was going.

“He’s also the father of a daughter and, from what I understand, for him, the sun rises and sets on her.” He paused slightly, and then his expression became graver and more stately. “As it turns out, King Moffat’s daughter has taken ill in some way. And it’s fairly serious.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“As are we. So, in the spirit of peace, I offered him our assistance.” He paused, his gaze bearing down on me. “If you accept it, I am sending you to Moffat’s palace to see what can be done for his daughter.”

I was stunned. I’d never done anything remotely like that before. Besides, I was just a nurse, not a surgeon with a mobile hospital. There was only so much I could do.

And from what I’d understood, although the D’Tali and the Aetamians were closely related, there were differences. What if that wasn’t just in their appearance, but something deeper in their anatomy?

“That, huh…well, I’ve never done anything like that before. Do they not have their own healers among the Aetamians?”

“None so skilled as you, Camilia. I understand your knowledge of our anatomy is limited, but the Aetamian healers haven’t been able to produce any results. Your unique perspective might be what she needs. As it is, I doubt the Aetamians are aware of the sterilization techniques you use, as well as what you call basic care methods.” He smiled warmly, paused, and then continued. “We’ve brokered a temporary truce, and the convoy you’ll be a part has been granted safe passage. Should you manage to help Moffat’s daughter regain her health, then peace between our two kingdoms becomes a very real possibility.”

My head was spinning.

Travel in Aetamian territory? I just wasn’t sure I was up to it. The last time I had met those guys, they were ambushing us in the desert, too damn eager to put their arrows through us. Even though I wanted peace, it was hard to be excited about having to pay them a visit.

“I’m honored by your confidence, but are you sure I’m the one for this?”

“I am,” Dojak nodded. “I understand your concerns, believe me, but Troko here will be accompanying you. He will make sure that you are safe. We don’t want to send in a whole squad of warriors, of course, as that would be too aggressive a gesture. Still, a small number of experienced warriors will be part of this diplomatic convoy.”

I looked at Troko, but the hardened general remained impassive. Still, I thought I detected the vaguest, tiniest hint of a smile on his lips. Being alone with him wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen, I thought.

Suddenly, Dojak stepped down off the dais of his throne and approached me. Standing in front of me, he reached out a hand and put it on my shoulder. “Camilia, you hold the future of our people in your hands,” he said. “And I’ve never known a steadier pair. I have every faith in your ability.”

I bowed deeply.

“You humble me,” I whispered. “Thank you.”

He waved it off.

“If all goes well, we will all be thanking you.” He turned to Troko and gave him a smirk. “And Troko. Just try to keep your focus on the mission.” He offered me one last smile, his fingers gently squeezing my shoulder, then marched out of the room, his long cloak whipping behind him.

Troko sighed and shook his head.

“What did he mean by that?” I said, following Dojak with my gaze. Troko stepped down to meet me on the floor. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“I’m not entirely sure,” he said, but I didn’t know if I believed him. As he grew closer to me, there was an undeniable charge in the air. I could feel it right away.

“So,” I continued, working hard to be oh-so-casual, “we will be working together.”

“Yes,” Troko said simply.

“And traveling together.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll be…protecting me.”

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat once again, “that’s part of my role, yes. I’ve also been assigned to the convoy so that I may be part of any peace conversations that may arise. But don’t worry. My priority is to make sure you’re safe.”

I didn’t know what it was, but there was something about his tone that sent a shiver up my spine. And it was a pleasant shiver. I stepped back and took him in, the full view. Despite the scars, despite his ever-serious appearance…he actually looked good.

“Let me ask you something,” I said.

“Please do.”

“Do you get the sense that the king and queen are maybe having a little fun at our expense?”

He gave me an amused look, some emotion finally showing on his face.

“I’m not sure they’re ‘having fun’ as you put it. But I am certain they’re doing a little matchmaking, at the very least.”

“Yes,” I said. “I think that’s pretty accurate.”

We stood there, looking at each other.

A little awkward, a little intrigued, a little unsure.

“Well,” I finally said. “If anything, this is going to be an adventure.”

“An adventure,” he repeated then, miraculously, a smile dawned on his lips. “Yes, I believe so. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’ll be a safe adventure. This I promise you—no matter what happens, I’ll make sure that nothing happens to you.”

Intimidating as he was, it was hard not to believe him.

With him around, I’d be safe.

Rescued by her Alien Mate

Sofia

The cargo hold was dark.

An oppressive heat had kept my clothes sticking to my body for the past three days and even when I hid in the shadows by the corner, it was useless to fight it. A series of pens lined the flat metallic walls, much like those you’d encounter in a slaughterhouse, with two women in each of them.

Separating each of the pens was a shimmering force field, making it impossible to escape. There were no locks we could pick, nor any hinges we could burst open, and the force field was as resistant as a concrete wall, even if the only sign that it was there was the occasional flash of color.

“They’re coming our way.”

Fingers dug into my forearm and I looked to the side to see Isabella’s eyes widening, studying our enemy.

I fidgeted with my bracelet. It had been a gift from my nieces and I had worn it the night I was kidnapped. Now it was my only connection back to Earth.

Locks of sweat-darkened hair were plastered to her forehead, and her lips were pressed into a white line of concentration. Her large brown eyes were honed in on something outside our pen and when I followed her gaze, I shuddered.

Despite what should have been growing familiarity, there was something repellent about our captors.

Eight-feet tall but, despite their height, there was nothing elegant about them. Their bodies were compact, hard muscles bulging under their ragged uniforms, and the way they moved spoke of raw power. They had four arms, each slightly longer than a human’s, and their skin was of a deep-blue pigmentation, one that almost made it seem as if they could glow in the dark.

Two of them stopped right outside our pen, their dark eyes turning into slits as they looked at us. Their faces reminded me of angry gorillas, and the slabs of muscle on their shoulders reinforced that idea.

I pushed Isabella back as gently as I could. I had no idea what these two wanted with us, but I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

Time after time I’d caught her studying them and the energy walls that made our cages, carefully observing everything around us.

If someone was going to get us out of here, it was going to be her.

One of the aliens pulled back his lips into what resembled a smile, then used his elbow to poke the other in the ribs. They clicked their tongues, a guttural sound emerging from their throats, and I had no doubt they were talking about us.

Even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they seemed to be amused with how quiet Isabella was. Gritting my teeth, I took one step forward and straightened my back, showing that I wasn’t afraid of them. Of course, I was afraid. I was freaking terrified.

How could I not be?

I still remembered how it had felt to wake up here, my head throbbing with pain. Before that, the last thing I remembered was that I had finished my night shift at the diner and that I had decided to go out for a quick run. Then, I had vague memories of a blinding white light and, next thing I knew, I was being held up inside a pen as if I were some kind of animal.

The aliens began to confer between themselves and, for a moment, it looked like they had forgotten about us.

“The first time I saw those alien creatures, I think my brain froze,” Isabella murmured. “I mean, I always believed there might be intelligent life in the galaxy, but…”

“I know,” I said. “It was like seeing one of those creatures emerge from the shadows shattered my whole worldview in less than a second.”

“I can’t figure out what the tie is,” she continued. “There’s nothing in common among all of us. Location, age, health, not education or background. Were they just near Southern California and we were convenient?”

I had no idea why a group of four-armed aliens had decided to capture an overworked waitress like me, or why a shy bookworm like Isabella had been thrown in this pen, and I wasn’t sure if we’d ever find any answers to all our questions.

We couldn’t understand a word of what the aliens said and, besides, they didn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with us. The only time we interacted with them was when they pushed a few plates of a foul-smelling soup into our pens.

Now, though, it seemed like things were changing.

One of the blue aliens shuffled his feet and grabbed a handheld device from his large belt. He pressed a button on it and part of the force field shimmered weakly for a moment. Then it disappeared. Putting the force field remote back on his belt, the alien pointed at Isabella and barked something.

“They want me to go with them,” Isabella whispered, face pale, walking back until she had her back pressed against the cold wall of the cargo hold. “Oh, God, this isn’t good.”

“Hey, assholes,” someone shouted from one of the other pens, and I recognized that voice as Camilia’s. According to what she had told our ragtag group of captive women, she was a nurse.

She was also one of the kindest women in our group. Instead of wallowing in fear and despair, she had spent the last three days ensuring we all remained healthy, or at least as much as she could from another pen. That didn’t mean that she was soft—in fact, for all her kindness, she seemed pretty tough on the inside. “Leave her alone, you stupid apes!”

The alien that had spoken growled something unintelligible, then strode into our pen. He shoved me to the side, causing me to stumble, and he reached for Isabella.

Before he could grab ahold of her, I sprung up to my feet and stood between him and a terrified Isabella.

“If you want to get to her,” I said, my heart beating at a thousand miles an hour, “you’ll have to go through me.”

I doubted that he had understood me, but that was irrelevant. He glanced back at his friend—or colleague, or whatever these stupid ape-looking aliens were—and shrugged. Then he grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out of the pen. He clicked on the remote again, reactivating the force field, and started leading me toward the chair at the center of the room.

That thing had been there from day one, a monstrosity of unpolished metal, but none of us had figured out a reason why. The aliens didn’t sit on it, and we had never seen them use it for anything. Now, though, I was about to find out why they had put it there.

I felt a ball of anxiety growing in my stomach as I looked at the monstrous chair, one so large that it’d make me look like a toddler if I sat in it, and I immediately tried to dig my heels into the floor.

That didn’t help.

The aliens pushed me forward despite my thrashing and forced me to sit down. Leather straps were fastened around my head, wrists, and ankles, so tight that I couldn’t move an inch.

“Leave her alone, you bastards,” Camilia continued crying out, her voice echoing throughout the cargo hold.

The others joined her in an angry chorus so deafening that a few other aliens appeared in the cargo hold, each of them obviously tasked with scaring the women into shutting the hell up.

I wasn’t sure if they retreated into silence or not, by then the only thing I could hear was the thunderous pounding of my own heartbeat. The two aliens were now opening some sort of metallic briefcase, and even from my position, I could see an electronic dashboard with a jungle of wires inside.

Grabbing some of the wires, which resembled the electrodes you’d find in a neurosurgeon’s exam room, they attached them to my temples. My throat grew dry, panic welling up inside me, but I did my best to remain calm.

The aliens talked for a couple of seconds, then one of them pressed a couple of buttons on the briefcase’s dashboard. Almost immediately, I felt as if someone was driving a nail through the base of my skull. I felt electricity running through my brain, and I gritted my teeth so hard that pain shot up my jaw.

I closed my eyes as my thoughts scattered like birds taking flight and, for a weird and terrifying moment, the way I thought seemed to change. I was no longer thinking in words, but in images. Then, as fast as it had appeared, the electrical current started to dissipate.

I opened my eyes, as tired as if I had just finished an ultra-marathon. My breathing was ragged, and I was feeling dizzy and nauseous. When the aliens removed the straps that were keeping me in place, I didn’t move an inch. I remained glued to the chair, unable to lift a single finger.

 “Did you fry her brain, or what?” the taller of the aliens asked, looking at the other with narrowed eyes. “They’re small. Maybe they can’t handle it.”

“She’s fine,” the other replied, waving a hand at me. “She just needs a minute.”

Only then did it dawn on me.

Somehow, I was able to understand them perfectly. I could tell that they weren’t speaking English, my brain was decoding their words and translating them into syllables I could understand. The machine had messed with my brain, no doubt, but it had given me instant-translation powers. Dazed and confused, I finally rose to my feet.

“What is going on here?” I asked the two aliens, and they turned around to face me. They didn’t seem too happy about the fact that I was asking questions. “Who the hell are you? What’s all this about? Let us go right now!”

Before I realized what was happening, a giant blue hand flew toward my face, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my mouth. The alien slapped me so hard that I stumbled back and landed on the chair again, my cheek burning from the impact.

“The first lesson of being a slave,” the alien that had slapped me growled, “is that you only speak when spoken to.”

“Slave?” I repeated, my heart tightening inside my chest.

“What did you think you were?” he asked, leaning into me so that his face was level with mine. He was grinning. “I’m not running a cruise ship here, woman, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Oh, shit.

This was bad.

This was really bad.

Dojak

“I don’t like this,” General Troko said. “I don’t like it one bit.”

Grabbing the monocular from his hands, I brought it up and peered into the lens. In the distance, no more than a two-hour ride away from our current position, we could see the bright glow of a camp. The night was dark and filled with shadows and even though I could see the faint outline of our red moons, they were nothing but two waning crescents. The only true light came from that camp.

“You really think those raiders are soldiers from Aetam in disguise?” I asked the general as he perched atop his numa. Even though the Kingdom of Aetam hadn’t flexed its muscles in a long while, the increasing reports of raiders in the borderlands brought the worries of war to the forefront.

“It’s likely,” he replied. “If nothing else, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Aetam is incentivizing their own troublemakers to come here. It’d be in line with how they operate.”

“Does any of this really matter?” Spurring his mount forward, Lomav stopped beside us. My younger cousin was smaller than I, although he was just as broad-shouldered. He had placed a couple of thick pads on his saddle, and only that way did he seem as tall as Troko or I. “They’re a threat to the realm, to the stability of the kingdom. I say we go there and slaughter ’em all.”

“That’s not how we do things,” I snapped at him.

“Then what’s the plan?” he asked, trying to hide his annoyance. It was there, though. “Should we go there and ask them nicely to return to wherever they came from?”

“No,” I said, and now it was my turn to hide my own annoyance. I was better at it than Lomav, though. “We flank their position and capture them. Once we have them rounded up, we can start asking questions. There’s no need for bloodshed tonight.”

Clicking my boots against the shell of my own numa, I headed down the hill we were on. Our troops were waiting there, thirty full-bodied D’Tali clad in leather armor and ready for action. Only one of them didn’t wear any armor—he had a black cloak on, the hood pulled over his head—but nobody seemed surprised. Even though most soldiers weren’t exactly sure of Vokar’s role, they all knew he was one of the most fearsome soldiers in the entire army.

Dismounting, I waited as Vokar made his way toward me.

“Have you beaten some sense into that little fucker’s head yet?” he asked me, pulling his hood back to reveal a hard expression. He tilted his chin toward Lomav, and his expression broke as an amused smile appeared on his lips. “The idiot has been telling our troops about how he could take the entire camp by himself. I say we let him do it.”

“As tempting as that is, I can’t afford to let my family line disappear,” I said, laying one hand on my sword’s pommel, the same sword my father had wielded in countless battles against the armies of Aetam. “He’s right about one thing, though, the kingdom needs stability.”

“I doubt he’d bring any kind of stability,” Vokar said, jerking his thumb at Lomav. By now, the squat D’Tali noble was talking with a group of three soldiers, swinging his sword around as he retold some bullshit war story he had probably made up. It was embarrassing.

“Anyone have a solution for the kid?” I heard someone say beside me, and I glanced back to see Troko dismounting from his ride. The general clicked his tongue, his eyes set on Lomav as he continued his boasting.

“He’ll learn,” I said, deciding to put an end to this conversation. Neither Troko nor Vokar liked or trusted Lomav, but I still hoped that my young cousin would learn the ways of the D’Tali. He had to.

His enthusiasm would be tempered in time; experience would give him prudence.

“Now, does everyone know what we need to do?”

“I’ve briefed the men,” Troko replied. “They’re ready.”

“Then let’s make it happen.”

Moving as one, we all climbed onto the backs of our respective numas, and the hulking beasts ambled through the vast plain under the cover of night. Two hours later, when we finally closed in on the raiders’ camp, the entire platoon split into four different squads. I led the one tasked with charging the front, and Vokar and Troko were in charge of the flanks. As for Lomav, he was responsible for bringing up the rear and stopping any of the raiders from fleeing.

We moved fast, and we moved hard.

Spurring our numas on, we galloped into the camp and through the empty spaces between the tents, knocking out a lone sentry in the process. The raiders, all of them Aetamians clad in scavenged armor, clambered from their tents, reaching for swords and bows in a panicked frenzy.

Once we were closer, it was impossible to mistake them.

The slightly different skull shape from the D’Tali and the broad, but slightly hunched posture, were easy to spot.

Our people might be cousins, but there had never been a lasting peace between us.

A few arrows whistled past my ears, but soon enough the Aetamians decided against taking us on. As soon as they heard the other squads coming up on their flanks, they turned on their heels and started running into the darkness of the night.

“Herd ’em up,” I cried, urging my men to keep pushing the raiders toward Lomav’s men. Everything was going according to plan. No more than a few seconds later, though, I started hearing the clang of swords, as well as the hollow cries of Aetamians being cut down.

Rushing toward the rear of the camp, I came across Lomav, atop his numa. He wiped the blade of his sword against his cloak and sheathed it. At his feet were the Aetamian, all of them dead.

“They refused to surrender,” he said, horns held high. “They were a risk to us all.”

 Dammit.

Once again, he had gone against my direct orders, and now we couldn’t interrogate any of the raiders.

If things kept going this way, I’d have to cut Lomav out of any military operations.

He meant well, I knew, but sometimes he was just a little too loyal.

I ordered him to check the bodies, my tone harsh, then turned on my heel.

“The kid fucked it up, huh?” Troko asked me. He was standing by the entrance of the largest tent, Vokar beside him, and the two watched as the soldiers rummaged through the contents of a large trunk. “That’s too bad. Aside from the usual junk, there’s nothing here that ties these assholes to an officially ordered attack by Aetam.” He shook his head and sighed. “Well, at least we got rid of another group of raiders. I guess that has to count for something.”

“You’re right,” I said.

“About what?”

“About smacking him.” Shaking my head, I looked up at the night sky, a million stars sprinkled on that dark canvas. “I know he’s my cousin, but this shit is starting to get ridiculous.”

“Want me to pay him a visit?” Vokar offered with a grim smile. “I’m pretty sure I can make it clear that love for the kingdom is all well and good, but it doesn’t count if he doesn’t obey his king’s orders.”

I frowned, then shook my head. “Tempting, but unless things change, I need to keep him around.”

“I know you haven’t had any luck yet, but there’s no reason to assume the situation will remain the same.” Laying one hand on my shoulder, Troko looked straight into my eyes. “You’re going to find a mate, Dojak, I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah, right.” I pursed my lips. “How many D’Tali women have I met these past few years? Let’s face it, I’m not going to find a mate anytime soon.”

I hated to face the truth, but it had to be done.

A D’Tali could only procreate with his true mate, and so far, none of the D’Tali women I had met seemed to be the one.

That, of course, was a problem. D’Tali women were rare, which meant there weren’t many I could meet.

My options were becoming extremely limited and if I didn’t produce an heir, Lomav was the next in line for the throne.

“It will happen,” Troko insisted. “Why don’t you ask the Ancestors for a sign? I know you’re not big on tradition, but maybe if you tried it…”

“As if that would happen.” Sighing, I looked up at the sky once more, then lifted both my hands up. “Oh, mighty Ancestors,” I continued, half-frustrated, half-mocking. “If there’s someone out there for me, show me a sign. Guide the way toward my fated mate.”

“Hilarious,” Troko said with a frown. Clearly, he wasn’t happy that I hadn’t taken him seriously.

“See?” I asked. “The Ancestors couldn’t care any less about—”

I was cut short by a deafening, thunderous sound.

Then, no more than a second later, a bright glow took over the sky, pushing the darkness away. With my mouth hanging open, I watched as a fireball cut through the sky, moving so fast that I could barely follow it with my own eyes. It descended until, with a violent thud, it finally crashed behind the hills in the distance.

“What the fuck was that?” Vokar said, sounding just as awed as I.

That was a sign.” With his hands on his hips, Troko seemed immensely proud of what we had just witnessed.

“I doubt that it’s a sign,” I said, “but if it is, we’re going to find out soon enough.” I gave the two of them a nod and looked toward the hills. “Mount up. It’s time for us to go on a ride.”

Sofia

“Stay strong, Camilia.”

“Do I have a choice?” She didn’t. It was bad enough to have been the first, but I felt pity for all of those who had to listen to the terrible cries of those before them, knowing their time would come.

No amount of comfort would help, and there was precious little on offer. Being able to understand the language of the Skarg—which I now knew to be the name of our captors— was no prize.

Camilia may have been strong, but even she was no match for these massive aliens. She had two good arms, but the monster manhandling her into the chair had four. It was best to save the energy and offer as little resistance as possible.

The brutes clamped her into the chair and fixed the electrodes to her temples. It had happened so many times now, that they had settled into a kind of rote pattern. Or maybe it was the fact that we had stopped struggling as vehemently that was making everything run more smoothly.

“Ready,” the Skarg said after he had locked her into place.

“I don’t want to do this,” Camilia called out to no one in particular.

“You don’t have a choice,” chuckled one of the creatures, despite the fact that she couldn’t understand him. Yet. 

The device hummed to life, and Isabella and I gritted our teeth as Camilia writhed in the iron seat, hissing out a long, ugly groan. As tough as she could be, the searing pain of having your brain’s electrical makeup reordered would be enough to bring anyone to their knees. The sound of her agony raised goosebumps across my skin, and laughter from the devils in command.

“Do you have any idea how that thing might work?” I whispered.

“I’ve been watching,” Isabella answered, keeping her gaze fixed on the Skarg’s thick fingers as he fidgeted with the controls, “but it’s impossible to say. The closest I can imagine is that it reorders the comprehension centers, releasing any anchors to individual language.”

“So, you think we could understand anything?”

“It’s the best answer I’ve got.”

Camilia’s screams subsided and she went limp in the chair.

“Get another one,” the beast at the controls grunted, resetting all the dials. Peeling away the diodes, the other Skarg hoisted Camilia onto his shoulder and lumbered back to where she had been penned. It was a horrifying process, but since it had become evident that we were each to be subjected to it, and it came with some benefit, the process of harvesting women had become less violent.

It’s terrible how quickly inevitability can numb one into being a complacent, if not willing, victim. There had been reason to the way we were paired for captivity. Anyone deemed as physically strong had been confined with someone definably weaker. It was an ingenious way to prevent any possibility of escape.

But they’d overlooked other kinds of strength. With every woman the Skargs had worked the device on, Isabella had watched, every movement, every button pushed, every reaction, her expression blank with intense focus.

“Last one,” he called, dumping Camilia’s inert body onto the floor and shepherding out the last of us. “You know,” the ape leered as he passed our cell, “they’re all good looking, for humans. We’re going to get a good price for them.”

“Are you kidding?” The answer came with a bark of horrible laughter. “We’re going to be rich. It’s like I said during the harvest, when you pick the slaves carefully, you always reap the rewards.” They chuckled together as they bound Rebecca in place. The word slave lodged itself in my stomach, and I felt as though I could hear a wince echo out from each of the women.

An unearthly screech tore through the chamber, resounding off the metal walls and piercing my skull. Strobing light streaked out over everything, reducing our captors to flashed images of torment.

“What the hell is that?” the Skarg at the controls snarled in terror.

“The klaxon system has been engaged. We’ve been spotted.”

“Who is it? A security patrol? Or do you think it’s a Truvilian slaving vessel?”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know? I can’t see any more than you can.”

“We can’t lose this batch. There’s too much riding on it. If it’s the Truvilians come to loot us…”

“There’s no telling what it is!”

“Well, find out,” the sitting Skarg bellowed. Isabella clung to me again, her eyes wide with terror. Things had been bad, but it felt very possible that they were about to get a whole lot worse.

“Sofia,” she whispered into my ear. “Please tell me you’ve got a plan.”

“The only plan I’ve got right now is that we all survive.” Turning to face her, I caught the full weight of the fear roiling inside her. “There’s not much any of us can do about it from in here.” It was true. We were all helpless. As much as I would have loved to have been able to rise to the occasion and become a leader, I was a prisoner, just like the rest of the women.

With a sudden jerk, the entire ship lurched to one side, groaning with the uneasy sound of straining metal. The sirens and flashing lights cut out, and an eerie dim glow from the emergency system cast dark shadows across everything. Our force field walls sputtered and dimmed, but stayed active.

“We’re hit,” the Skarg in control wailed.

“Shut up, and put her through it. I’ll be back.” Unholstering a nasty looking weapon from his belt, the hulking bastard shoved open the door and disappeared into the darkness. As loud as the siren had been, Rebecca’s scream was louder. It cut through my stomach, and I found myself clutching at Isabella to keep from going to my knees.

But then, in spite of my effort, I was on my knees, my ears ringing. Isabella was sprawled on the floor beside me, and I looked up in a daze to see Rebecca straining in the chair amid a shower of sparks. The world around us lurched again with a greater violence, and I slammed against the metal wall.

“How close?” Our captor burst back through the door, a deep gash across his shoulder, and clung to the side of the horrible chair to maintain his balance.

“Soon,” the other shouted, and I realized that it wasn’t screaming that was deafening us all anymore. It was a deeper, much more terrible sound. While I couldn’t comprehend the immensity of what it might mean, an animal dread bristled through me.

Hot wind came rushing through the open door, blasting over us as a thunderous crack ripped through the air. In an instant, the world fell into a terrible tumble.

We were all going to die.

Whatever force was firing on us had decimated any chance of keeping the ship intact. We were hurtling at an impossible speed, and I knew that some kind of crash was inevitable. Reaching into the chaos, I caught Isabella by the wrist and pulled her to me. It seemed that if we could manage to hang together, we might be able to minimize the danger.

It was an absurd thought, but anything that seemed like a plan was a comfort. We smashed into something, and I realized it was another body. A woman’s hands scrabbled across me until they caught hold of my belt.

Another woman’s grip could only mean one thing. The fields were down.

“Hang on,” I screamed, but it would have been impossible to hear me over the roar drowning out all sense. I could just see Rebecca, bolted to the chair as the rest of us were flung about in the shattering spiral.

Somehow, our cluster collected more bodies, and we clung together amid the madness in one sweating, terrified human mass.

With an unholy crunch, we slammed to the side of the vessel and felt the drag as it tore into the ground. It jerked, and spun again, tearing our knot apart and sending women sprawling amid the detritus clattering through the fuselage. With a horrifying rip, a hunk of metal peeled back, letting a blast of fresh air and blinding dust tear into the fetid darkness.

We ground on for a moment, then the creaking hulk rocked to stillness.

A collective groan wheezed up from all sides, and all I wanted to do was call out to make sure everyone was alive. With relief, I saw one of the other women help Rebecca out of the chair she was strapped to. But I couldn’t. My mouth opened, but there was no breath inside me to push words out. Instead, my head rocked to the side to marvel at the dazzling night sky above me. Light like I thought I would never see again.

Something in the rubble moved. There was a clatter of metal, and the acrid smell of electrical smoke stung my nostrils. From amid the debris, a massive figure rose unsteadily. It was one of the Skarg.

“Yugil? Yugil!” His voice croaked into the silence, until answered by an anguished moan. Picking through the wreckage, the hulking monster pulled his compatriot to standing. “Are you alive?”

“I hope to be.” With a shambling leap, the two apes heaved themselves through the jagged hole torn in the side of the ship, and disappeared into the daylight.

Every part of me ached with the kind of agony you only hear about. But, running a quick inventory, I was relatively certain that no bones were broken. At least none that would hinder me from rising.

Forcing the sweet air into my lungs and using a hand to try to filter out some of the dust, I pushed myself to a seated position, then found my feet. Too quickly. For a hazy, oddly pleasant moment, everything went gray. Then it went completely black.

Zotar: Sneak Peek

Natalie

Out of the kitchen, and into outer space.

That’s not the way I thought my life would go, but there I was.

Leaning back on the plush leather seat, I stared out the small observation window and felt odd that I couldn’t even feel the sub dermal translation chip they’d implanted in me shortly before taking off. Outside, the darkness of space seemed to swallow my shuttle, billions of stars peppering that dark canvas as far as the eye could see. It was terrifying, but it was also beautiful. For the hundredth time that night, I pinched myself in the arm.

Yup, this is happening, no doubt about it, I thought, still struggling to accept the fact that I wasn’t hallucinating or having a particularly vivid dream. No matter how strange it all seemed, it was real.

“How are you feeling?” A tall man appeared beside me, his crisp dark suit giving him the expected generic appearance of a federal employee. “Interstellar travel can be tough on the stomach if it’s your first time.”

“I’m fine, Agent Starmer,” I said, then put on a smile on my face. “I’ll get used to it.” I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d ever get used to it, truth be told, but what else could I say? I had come willingly, after all, and it wasn’t like we could make a quick stop for me to stretch my legs. “About that call…do you think I can have it now?”

He hesitated for a moment, then fished a small electronic device from his pocket. It looked like a cellphone, but it was entirely made of some kind of transparent material. Pushing it into my hands, he gave me a quick explanation of how it worked. It didn’t sound complicated. I thanked him, then let out a heavy sigh as I watched him return to his seat.

“Just remember,” he shouted down the aisle, “don’t reveal anything that you can’t.”

“Got it,” I muttered, still looking down at the space phone. Apparently, this went against the regulations. Once you were pulled out of your normal life, you weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone back on Earth. The fact that I had come willingly had earned me some leeway, though. “Alright, let’s do this.”

Biting on the corner of my lip, I typed Alissa’s phone number, then pressed the phone against my ear. There was static for a couple of seconds, but then her voice came through, as clear as if she were standing right next to me.

“What’s up, girl?” she asked. “You’re already running five minutes late. The chéf is going apeshit crazy in here. He has some big names comin’ in tonight and he—”

“I’m not going to make it today,” I said, then cleared my throat as I carefully chose my next words. “In fact, I might not return for a while.” I hated doing this to Alissa, but it had to be done. We had been supporting each other as we tried to make it in the world of haute cuisine, and this felt like I was hanging her out to dry. Still, I was sure she was going to understand.

“What’s going on? Did something happen, Natalie?”

“I…I met someone, Alissa.”

“You met someone?” She sounded incredulous, and I didn’t blame her. I wasn’t exactly the kind of girl who had an active dating life, and she knew it. In fact, the only adjective I could use to describe my dating life would be ‘defunct’.

“It’s not like that,” I hurried to say. “I met a high-roller from Monte Carlo, and he has some connections back there. He liked my cooking, and he asked me to accompany him to Europe. I think I might have found the investor I needed for the restaurant.”

All lies, but I couldn’t exactly tell her the truth. If I told her I was now part of an interstellar matchmaking program, she’d just think I had finally lost my marbles. Besides, I was forbidden from revealing the truth.

“Seriously?” she cried out, and her excitement couldn’t be more evident. “Oh, the chéf is going to lose it. I can’t wait to see the look on his face once he realizes that the best cook in his line-up has just walked out the door.”

“Listen, I’m sorry it was all so sudden. I really didn’t have the time to—”

“Oh, stop it,” she cut me short. “We both know that you want to open your own restaurant. You’ve sacrificed a lot for that dream, Natalie. If you have an opportunity, you’d be dumb not to take it.”

“Thank you, Alissa, it really means a lot to…” I trailed off, the static suddenly becoming so loud that I winced. I pulled the phone away from my ear, and frowned as I saw a ‘connection lost’ message appear on its transparent screen. Sighing, I pinched the bridge of my nose, my mind feeling like an overstuffed suitcase.

It had happened last night—I had been finishing my shift at the restaurant when two federal agents strolled into the kitchen and flashed me their badges. I had absolutely no idea why two suits from Washington were standing there in my kitchen and, for a moment, I actually thought it was all some kind of elaborate prank.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a prank.

They told me that aliens were real and that the human race wasn’t alone in the universe. Yeah, cue the X-files theme. They also told me that Earth had entered into an agreement with the Jorkan, some kind of warrior-like aliens that were protecting Earth from the galaxy’s common enemy, the Rippers.

Apparently, these Ripper guys unleashed a biological weapon against the Jorkan a couple of years ago, and that made their women become infertile. Now, care to guess the only race in the universe that’s genetically compatible with the Jorkan? Yeah, the good ol’ humans. That’s the main pillar supporting the Jorkan/Earth alliance: the Jorkan defend Earth, and Earth offers them women capable of producing offspring in return. Whenever a woman is genetically matched with one of these Jorkan guys, the protocol kicks in.

I had never been lucky in my life, and scratch tickets were the bane of my existence, but it seemed like I had hit the jackpot when it came to this intergalactic genetic lottery. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good thing, though. Still, my name had come up on their database, and now I was on my way to some kind of exotic planet where I was supposed to meet my so-called mate.

It all sounded nasty but, as I had been told, the Jorkan weren’t exactly barbarians. See, I was half-expecting to not have a say in any of this but, as it turned out, I wasn’t stripped of my free will. Thirty days—that was all that was being asked of me.

I’d have to spend these thirty with my mate and get to know him better but, at the end of it, I would be offered a choice: either return to my normal life and collect $5 million, or stay in a relationship and split the money with him.

Simple enough, right?

That sweetened the deal enough for me to come here willingly. All I would have to do was spend thirty days with some alien guy and, at the end of the month, I’d be able to return home with a suitcase full of money, enough for me to start my own restaurant. I had told Alissa a bunch of lies, but at least that much was true: I had found a potential source of money to make my dream come true.

A dream that until now had been hazy wishful thinking. With this money I would finally have my shot, and nothing was going to keep me from grabbing this windfall with both hands. Certainly not the mere temptation of falling in love.

“Almost there,” I muttered under my breath, eyeing the holographic screen in front of my seat. A small icon representing the shuttle navigated through a three-dimensional map, showing that we were no more than an hour away from Tarkun IV.

According to what Starmer had told me, Tarkun IV was a small tropical moon lauded as the number one destination in the galaxy. There were tropical beaches, luxurious casinos, and mind-blowing restaurants…and I’d be able to explore all of that. Despite the strangeness of the entire situation, I couldn’t help but feel excited.

Lazily, I reached for the small brochure I had been given. Clearly designed by someone back on Earth, all the images boasted a certain tackiness, but what really interested me was its list of activities. From snorkeling and cooking a gourmet meal, to spear-fishing and mountain climbing, it all seemed to have been based around my personality and Zotar’s.

The moment I thought of him, I immediately felt my heart tighten up inside my chest. That was my mate: Zotar. A high-ranking officer in the Jorkan military and evidently some kind of big deal, so much so that protocol was actually being skirted because of him. Supposedly, an initial overnight stay in Pluto—these guys had a space station there—was mandatory, but it couldn’t happen with Zotar.

Why? No idea.

All I knew was that I was going to meet him in Tarkun IV, not sooner.

I was still wondering about what kind of man Zotar would be when the klaxons suddenly started blaring through the ship.

“What the…?”

I straightened my back and looked around, having no idea what was going on. The dim lights mounted overhead turned red, and the entire shuttle became immersed in an aura of pure terror. My excitement drained, quickly replaced by a sense of total dread.

“What’s going on?” I cried out, nervously fastening my seatbelt. Agents Starmer and Krazinski ran down the aisle, struggling not to be jerked around as the shuttle picked up speed, their expressions white as snow.

“The Rippers,” Starmer said. “They’re here.”

Zotar

“You’re one lucky bastard, Zotar.”

“How do you figure that?” I asked, my feet propped up on the console as I chugged down a beer. It wasn’t protocol to allow alcohol inside a military vessel but, then again, I wasn’t exactly a fan of protocol. I was a fan of getting shit done. “The mission was almost done, and now I’m being pulled out for an entire month? Yeah, I wouldn’t call that lucky. I would call it bullshit.”

“You need to unwind, that’s just a fact,” Commander Ranak said, his face occupying the entire viewscreen. He was donning his grey uniform, which contrasted with his blue skin, but the top buttons on his shirt were undone. He held a glass of whiskey he regularly had shipped in from Earth. Much like me, he didn’t care much for protocol. All he cared about was getting the job done, and that’s why our partnership was such a fruitful one. “Just think of it, Zotar. Thirty days of paid vacation time. What’s there not to like about it?”

“Do I need to remind you I haven’t taken a single day off in four years now?” I threw back at him, allowing some smugness onto my face. I was a high-performer, and I was proud of it. “Vacations aren’t my thing, Commander. I’d rather be shooting down Rippers than sit on my ass all day.”

“Orders are orders,” he said, shrugging as he took a sip of his drink. “I like it just as much as you do. Still, you know how this goes. It’s important for the Jorkan to ensure the continued survival of our species and…”

I stopped listening after the first sentence.

Every Jorkan had heard that story at least a thousand times before. Now that our women had become sterile, all courtesy of the Rippers, the only way for us not to go extinct was to mate with genetically compatible human females. I understood the importance of it, as every Jorkan did, but I never really expected I’d have a match. I mean, the odds for something like that were ridiculously low.

“Just have some fun, Zotar,” Ranak insisted. “It’s only a month, not a life sentence. Unless you decide to pair up with that woman.” I noticed an anxious edge to his voice as he mentioned ‘that woman’, and it didn’t take a genius to know what that was about. I was Ranak’s most valuable asset and he was terrified of losing me.

“You don’t have to worry,” I said, finishing the rest of my beer with a single gulp. “Once those thirty days are up, I’ll be back at it.” From the corner of my eye, I saw a light turn blue on the control panel, indicating that I was now five minutes away from Tarkun IV’s spaceport. “Alright, I’m gonna have to get ready for docking.”

“Just be sure not to enjoy docking with that human too much,” Ranak said, a cockeyed smile on his face. With that, he shut the comms link off, and his image vanished from the viewscreen. As I thought of his joke, I didn’t know whether I should frown or smile.

I hadn’t met a single human female and, although I knew they were beautiful creatures, I wasn’t exactly sure if the one I had been matched with would appreciate the situation. After all, I wasn’t happy about it either, and I knew about the protocol beforehand. Most humans were kept in the dark when it came to the galaxy at large, so this whole thing had probably been a shock to her.

Trying not to think of how awkward our first meeting would be, I directed my mind someplace else. It didn’t help. These thirty days were going to derail my mission—I had been setting up listening satellites all over Rippers’ space, and not a single one of them had been found so far—and that thought never really left my mind.

It was no life for some soft human woman used to the comforts of home. It was dangerous, solitary, and a woman would just be a liability. It wasn’t fair to ask her to wait for me while I traveled the stars either. Even worse if we had children—when would they ever see me?

No, Ranak didn’t have to worry. A mate and family weren’t for me, matched or not.

In the end, I just focused on the docking procedures.

It had been a long time since my last stop in Tarkun IV’s spaceport, and I knew the officials there were pretty strict about docking procedure, all with the important assholes that went through the port on a daily basis.

Sitting comfortably in the pilot’s chair, I switched controls from automatic to manual. On the viewscreen, the spaceport grew until it occupied my entire field of vision. It was a gigantic contraption of rotating rings, hundreds of ships flying in and out from the hangars like wasps guarding their nest.

“Bluefire One requesting clearance to dock,” I said, pressing the button that connected me to the spaceport’s control room. My ship’s name wasn’t Bluefire One—no way I’d ever use such a lame name—but it still checked out. I was a black-ops operative, and that meant all information concerning my job had to be kept under wraps. I even doubted that the spaceport knew I was en route.

Slowly, I led the ship around the concentric rings then dipped down toward the hangar’s open mouth. I was expecting to see the transport that left the Earth Solar System already docked there, but it was nowhere to be seen. That was odd. According to my sensors, the transport had at least thirty minutes on me, so they should have already been here.

I paused my descent into the hangar and hit the comms button.

“This is Bluefire One,” I said. “I’m about to dock on Hangar 17B and I just noticed the Pluto flight isn’t here yet. Any information on that?” For a moment I only heard the crackle of static, then came the hesitant voice of some rookie traffic controller.

“I’m getting Alert messages from the automated defense mechanism.” From the way he was speaking, I could tell he had just pulled up the flight log. “Oh fuck. There’s a Ripper capital ship that’s been spotted! A military patrol has just been dispatched and—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I growled, and immediately shut the comms off. I pulled away from the hangar and, as soon as I had put enough distance between the spaceport and the ship, I diverted all power to the engines. Soon enough I was cutting through space like a sharp knife through a Rippers’ belly, the sudden increase in g-force keeping me pushed against the seat.

I didn’t like what I had heard, and I knew I had to move fast. No Ripper activity had been recorded in this sector for at least a decade, and it made no sense for the Pluto transport to come across one of their ships randomly. No, the Rippers had to be targeting that transport.

Ten minutes later I was zooming past the military patrol the spaceport had dispatched. Most of their ships had brand new fuselage, but the drives and engines powering them didn’t hold a candle to what my ship could do. I piloted a stealth frigate, which I had customized into a deadly fighting scalpel, and I was pretty sure no ship this side of the galaxy stood a chance against me. The best part was that the frigate came equipped with enough space to hold quarters, a cargo bay, and other aspects of a normal capital class ship so I didn’t have to cramp my style to fight the Rippers.

It didn’t take long before the military patrol disappeared from my sensors. I had put so much distance between us that I could no longer pick up their signals. That meant trouble—if I could no longer pick up their signals, then I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to follow the Pluto transport for much longer.

It was just me now.  

“What the fuck is going on?” I muttered, struggling to catch up with the transport. The ship was moving fast, and it was clear as day that whoever was piloting it was pushing the damn thing to the limit. A few more minutes of that and the engine would start to sputter and die. Knowing time was of the essence, I kicked some more power into my dual engines and I finally started closing the gap.

The Pluto transport finally came into sight, its power exhaust almost iridescent, a clear cut sign that they were in deep shit. Behind them flew a Rippers’ light fighter, taunting them with steady torpedo-fire. A grin spread across my lips.

“Alright, motherfuckers,” I whispered, my hands on the weapons’ controls. “Let’s have some fun.” 

Natalie

This wasn’t good.

The seatbelt was digging into my chest hard enough to make it feel as if my ribs were going to crack, and I was being slammed into my seat. I didn’t know much about space travel, but I sure as hell could feel that the ship was being pushed past its limitations. The damn thing was rattling like a can someone had kicked down the road, and it rocked so suddenly I half-expected us to blow up anytime now.

I had been dreaming of lounging on a tropical beach, a fruity cocktail in my hands, but I was now trapped inside Titanic’s space remake. If that was the case, though, where the hell was my DiCaprio? I only had two FBI agents—or whatever the hell they were—with me, and they didn’t look particularly capable of saving the day.

Crewmen ran back and forth over and over again, looking as disoriented as I was, but the two agents that had brought me here remained glued to their seats. They had put on their seatbelts and, even though I didn’t have a clear line of sight, I was pretty sure they were holding hands. Sweet, but not entirely comforting. At all.

“What the hell is going on?” I cried out one more time, raising my voice so that I could be heard over the growl of the engine. Agent Krazinski shifted in his seat, and he looked back at me over one shoulder. He was livid.

“There’s a Ripper ship on our tail,” he replied, doing a mighty effort not to let any fear show in his voice. It worked, but only up to a certain point.

“You told me this was going to be safe,” I protested, struggling to get the words out. My lungs felt like two balloons about to pop, the pressure on my chest so much that I could barely breathe. “This doesn’t feel safe to me.”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he continued, and his voice trembled a little. “I don’t remember the last time the Rippers showed up in this sector. This doesn’t make any sense.” He was about to continue speaking when another explosion rocked the ship, slamming him back against his seat. “Jesus Christ! We’re going to die here.”

“What?”

“I said it’s going to be fine,” he lied. Bastard. “I’m sure Tarkun has already dispatched a military patrol. They’ll be here in about…” he hesitated as he looked down at his datapad, a see-through device that looked like a regular tablet, then pursed his lips so tightly they turned white. “They’ll be here soon, I’m sure.”

It was another lie, as whatever he had seen on his datapad had drained what little color still remained in his face. The two agents were scared shitless and, by the looks of it, so was the entire crew. I didn’t know much about the Rippers, but it was pretty evident that everyone was afraid of them.

Suddenly, the cockpit door slid open, and two men marched down the aisle. They wore bland grey uniforms; right above their hearts was some kind of ID tag and, below it, a small badge with golden wings. They didn’t look at either me or the agents as they walked past us.

“Where the hell are you going?” Krazinski cried out, but the pilots didn’t even slow down. They simply kept on going until they disappeared. “Holy shit, this isn’t good.”

“What’s happening?” I asked, even though I had an idea of what the situation was: the pilots were jumping ship. So much for the bravery of the human race. No wonder we depended on these Jorkan guys to keep Earth safe.

“What’s happening is that it’s time for us to bail,” Krazinski replied, jumping out of his seat so fast you’d think he had coiled springs under the sole of his shoes. He helped Starmer out from his seat and, right when he was doing it, the ship jerked once more. The two men were flung down the aisle, and they hit one of the concave walls as hard as a wrecking ball.

Once they were back on their feet, Starmer leaned against Krazinski to remain standing up. They dragged themselves beside me, then Starmer unclipped my seatbelt.

“What are you doing?” I cried out, not excited about the prospect of being flung around like a pinball. Immediately, I started putting my seat belt back on. “I’d rather stay in my seat, thank you very much. Where are you going?”

“In case you didn’t notice, the ship’s pilots just bailed on us. Unless you want the Rippers to turn you into minced meat, I’d suggest you come with us. This ship is rigged with a fairly decent system of escape pods and—”

Before he could finish his sentence, the ship jerked again, and the pair tumbled down the aisle. I gripped the armrests so tightly that my knuckles turned white and, miraculously, I stopped the same thing from happening to me. Still, Starmer was right—if the pilots were no longer behind the ship’s controls, it’d be suicide for me to remain on this seat. Whether I liked it or not, it was time for me to leave.

Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself off the seat once the ship started rocking. Carefully, I made my way toward the two agents, and the three of us headed to the back of the ship. We entered what seemed like a cargo hold, except there was no cargo—the room was completely empty, the walls lined with dozens of circular holes roughly the size of a manhole cover.

“Get in, Natalie,” Starmer said, pushing me toward one of those holes.

“What? I’m not getting in there.”

“Yes, you are,” he insisted, still pointing at the hole. “The Rippers are going to blow this ship up. If we want to survive, we’ll have to eject.”

“Is it…safe?”

“Stupid questions will only get stupid answers,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation, and that was all that I needed to know: there was nothing safe about ejecting from a spaceship while under attack.

Before I had the time for a follow-up question, Starmer placed one hand on my lower back and shoved me into the hole. I tumbled headfirst, my knees hitting the plastic surface with a dull thud, and I found myself sliding down a never-ending tunnel. I’m not proud to admit it, but I screamed as hard as I could.

I crash-landed onto a padded seat, and self-moving straps immediately wrapped themselves around my shoulders and waist. A lid slid over the hole I had come through, closing it with a hissing sound as the cramped little capsule pressurized. There was a monitor in front of me, as well as a terminal crammed with all manners of switches and buttons, but I had no idea what I should do.

I was a freaking cook, for God’s sake, not an astronaut.

It didn’t help that the only light in here was red, giving a horror movie vibe to the place. Scared out of my mind, I reacted on pure instinct and started hitting all the buttons at random. Something started to beep on the terminal, but the capsule didn’t move a single inch. I was going nowhere fast. Only then did I notice the red lever with the words LAUNCH engraved on it in both Jorkan and one of the human languages. I don’t know which one, due to the fact that they gave me a memory dump of all human languages and dialects in preparation for meeting my match.

Without thinking twice about it, I pulled on it.

Next thing I knew, the capsule was being hurled out into the vastness of space.

Razar: Sneak Peek

Alicia

“It’s time, Ben.” I dropped the rack of glasses onto the counter, the loud clatter stirring Ben from his sleep. Awkwardly, he raised his head from the crook of his elbow and looked at me as if he had never seen me before. His eyes were red, but then again, so were his cheeks.

“What time is it?” he mumbled, raking one hand over his face. Looking down at the non-existent watch on his wrist, he pushed himself off his seat. He kept both hands on the counter to steady himself, but that didn’t stop him from swaying like a drunken pirate during a thunderstorm.

“It’s time for you to head home,” I replied, collecting the half-empty beer in front of him.

He watched me, still rocking back and forth on his heels, then started ambling toward the door. I followed after him, just in case he fell back, but that didn’t happen. Ben was a professional drunkard, one of those men capable of drinking their own bodyweight in alcohol every single day, and he was pretty damn good at it. I had never seen him fall, throw up, or start a fight.

Maybe that was why I didn’t mind him. Small bars like The Golden Crown which was nothing more than a cramped watering hole in a forgotten alleyway, tended to attract the worst kind of binge-drinkers, and quiet patrons like Ben were a rare sight.

“Be safe,” I said, waving Ben goodbye as I watched him get into a taxi.

Sighing, I ran one hand through my hair and turned around, ready to lock the place down. My hand was already on the door when two men in dark suits approached. They were tall and clean-shaven, with the appearance of mild-mannered professionals, and they didn’t stink of cheap booze. What they were doing here, I had no idea.

“Can we still get a drink?” the taller of them asked, and flashed me a toothy grin. “I know you’re about to close up, but we promise we won’t linger. One drink and we’ll be on our way.”

I hesitated.

Usually, I didn’t allow any patrons in while I closed up, but these two didn’t seem like trouble. Smiling back, I gave them a quick nod and stepped aside to let them in.

“One quick drink,” I said. “Just while I mop up the floor.”

“You got it.”

Orderly, they marched inside the bar and I locked the door behind them. While I was feeling kind enough to serve two final drinks, I sure as hell wasn’t dumb enough to leave the door open—that would just be an open invitation for strays.

“Two whiskeys, neat,” the taller man said, and I dutifully poured two fingers of Jameson into lowball glasses. They perched themselves on the stools by the bar, and I returned to the mop. I had already turned the chairs and placed them on top of the tables, and now I just had to handle the floor.

Grunt work, but it had to be done. 

As I pushed and pulled on the mop, tracing steady circles with the wet brush, I suddenly realized that the two men weren’t talking. They were just sitting there, quietly sipping on their whiskeys. The TV wasn’t on, either, so they definitely weren’t distracted by it. That was weird. More than just that, I felt as if they were observing me despite the fact that they had their backs turned to me.

Stop being paranoid, Alicia, I admonished myself.

I had never liked working the night shift by myself, but after almost a year of it, I had already outgrown most of my fears. I could handle the rowdiest of patrons, and I wasn’t above kicking assholes in the nuts. Sure, I preferred being kind and graceful, but a year and a half of living in New York had been enough for me to learn that kindness doesn’t really pay.

It still annoyed me to think of how naive I had been when I’d decided to leave home and head to New York. My parents were against it, especially since it meant I was dropping out of college, but I didn’t wanna hear it. I was confident that I’d be able to secure a decent-paying job here, something that’d allow me to send some money back to my parents and lead an exciting city life, and no one could stop me.

Suffice to say, that didn’t work out.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” the shorter man finally spoke up, derailing my train of thought. He twisted on his stool so that he was facing me, and his friend did the same. A shiver ran up my spine, my recently acquired bartender senses tingling.

“Can’t say that I am,” I replied, then lowered my gaze and continued mopping up the floor. The less I talked with them, the better.

“Why did you come to New York?” he continued, his tone even and controlled. There was nothing menacing about his demeanor, but I still felt a sharp stab of anxiety. “You like traveling?”

“I, uh, came here looking for work.” By now, the mop was moving across the floor at the speed of light. I wrung it one last time, then set the bucket aside. “Right, I’m all done. Time’s up.”

“Do you like being a bartender?” he continued, ignoring what I had just said.

“Can’t say that I do, but it pays the bills.”

Or, really, it helped paying the bills.

After arriving in the city, I had struggled to find a job and, after months of nonstop searching, I eventually settled on working three part-time jobs: grocery store cashier, bartender, and waitress. Yeah, the city had turned me into a real Renaissance woman.

It was hard, but it wasn’t like I had much of a choice—even though my parents lived in a small town, deep in the heart of rural America, they were still counting on me to help. Sure, they would’ve been happier if I had finished college, but I knew that wasn’t the path I needed to take. I either went to college and racked up debt, or joined the workforce and started helping out my parents—in the end, it was an easy choice to make.

“Right, it’s time for you to go,” I insisted, but I was about to be ignored one more time.

“Would you say you’re an adventurous person?” he now asked me, doing his best impression of an unwanted Facebook quiz.

When I didn’t reply, he exchanged a knowing glance with his colleague, then reached for something inside his jacket. He held up some kind of badge, the dim lights bouncing off its golden surface, but put it away just as quickly. “You don’t need to worry. We’re federal agents. I’m Agent Starmer, and this is Agent Krasinski.”

I wasn’t exactly a worldly girl who had seen it all, but if there was something that I knew for sure, it was that the sentences ‘you don’t need to worry’ and ‘we’re federal agents’ don’t really make for a comforting announcement.

“Federal agents?” I repeated, pulling the mop’s handle against my chest. “What’s this about?”

“Nothing much,” Starmer said. “We just have a couple of questions we need to ask you, then we’ll be on our way.” Smiling, he grabbed his glass and finished what was left of his drink. He put the glass down gently, then offered me his undivided attention. “So, Alicia Harper, do you consider yourself an adventurous person?”

“How do you know my name?” I took a couple of steps back and ended up hitting one of the tables behind me. The chair I had propped up on top of it wobbled for a moment, then it clattered to the floor. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Right, let’s try something else,” the one called Krasinski said. He smoothed out the wrinkles in his pants, and rose from his seat. “Do you have any allergies, Ms. Harper? Any health conditions we should know about? Please, this is important. Answer truthfully.”

“What? No, I don’t have any allergies or health conditions. I’m just a regular girl. I don’t know what you’re here for, but I can assure you that you have the wrong girl.”

“You’re Alicia Harper, right?” He listed my phone number, address, Social Security number, and blood type. “Yeah, judging by the look on your face, I’d say you’re exactly who we’re looking for.” Still with that creepy smile on his face, Krasinski started walking toward me. “Now, Ms. Harper, come with us and—”

I didn’t let him finish.

The moment he came within reach, my instincts kicked in and I used the mop as if it were a spear. I hit Krasinski straight in the face, messing up his perfect haircut with dirty water and soap, then spun around and slapped the handle against Starmer’s head.

“Get away from me,” I cried out, frantically backing away from them. While before I only had suspicions, now I was pretty certain that I was dealing with psychopathic stalkers. I mean, there was absolutely no way two federal agents would be interested in a random woman like me—these two guys had to be stalkers.

“Damnit, Starmer, you’ve done it again,” Krasinski cried, clutching his nose. “You always freak people out with your questions.”

“Me? You’re the one that started asking about her health right away.”

“Oh, so now it’s my fault?”

“I’m just saying, we gotta work on these questions, or else we—”

“Get the hell out,” I interrupted them, “or I’m calling the cops.”

They stopped and exchanged a glance. They weren’t particularly concerned with the cops, that much I could tell. Krasinski held his hands up, smiled, then made the mistake of walking toward me again. I retreated, making sure that I always kept a table between the two of us, and quickly found myself behind the bar.

“Not a step further,” I exclaimed, but they didn’t seem like they were listening.

“C’mon, Ms. Harper, just come with us,” Starmer tried. “We promise that—”

Moving fast, I grabbed anything I could put my hands on, and started hurling bottles and glasses at the two stalkers. My improvised projectiles exploded against the wall behind them over and over again, and soon enough I found myself short of things I could throw.

“Fine,” Krasinski sighed, and reached inside his jacket. From his inner pocket, he fished out a kind of metallic rod with a bright bulb at the end. It seemed like some kind of futuristic pen. “I didn’t want to use this on you, Ms. Harper, but you’re leaving me no choice.”

“Leave me alone, or I…”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence.

Krasinski held up his metallic pen, pressed a button, and my field of vision was inundated by bright red. I felt the light seep into my brain, and soon enough, my thoughts were nothing but tatters. My body grew so light I could almost believe I was floating but, at the same time, my eyelids became as heavy as concrete.

Don’t pass out, Alicia, my inner voice struggled to say, don’t pass out.

Next thing I knew, I was passing out.

Razar

I wasn’t being paid enough.

I’d never been the kind of guy to bitch and moan about my duties, but things were starting to get out of hand. Strippers and escorts marched down the hallway, offering me little smiles as they slipped into the room behind me, and I could do nothing but smile in return.

Here I was, head of security for one of the wealthiest Jorkan this side of the galaxy, and I was guarding his quarters as if I were nothing but a low-paid sentry. Yeah, it sucked, but the worst part was that I was already getting used to it. Varon wasn’t exactly the kind of guy to respect the hierarchy—he knew he was at the top, and to him, that meant everyone else was below him. Simple enough, and it meant he could boss people around without caring if their title was head of security, bodyguard slash babysitter, or all-purpose butler.

From inside the room came the sound of laughter and feminine voices chattering loudly. Glasses clinked amidst more laughter and the occasional moan. Varon was living the life, no doubt. Not that I was jealous. Unlike him, I didn’t need to shell out enough credits to buy a small moon just so I could get my rocks off.

Sighing, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, trying to find a comfortable position that would get me through the long shift ahead of me. Judging by the amount of Aurvelian strippers in his room—enough to crew a small artillery ship—it was pretty obvious that Varon was about to embark on one of his legendary all-night benders. Alcohol was going to flow like a raging river, synthetic drugs would be used like cheap candy, and his suite was going to be completely trashed.

I’ve never considered myself a judgmental prick, but Varon’s behavior was a damn embarrassment. His father had been one of the most respectable Jorkans I had ever met, and it seemed like his son was hell-bent on destroying his inheritance. Varon’s father, Alovan, had only died six months ago, and the conglomerate’s financials were already in a sorry state. Instead of attending board meetings, Varon preferred hopping around the galaxy on his private cruise ship, collecting strippers and expensive booze like a kid collecting bugs and rocks.

It was too bad for me that on his deathbed, Alovan had asked me to promise him that I’d look after his only son. No matter what I thought of Varon, I had to agree to the dying man’s request.

Honor tied with my respect for Alovan compelled me.

Just like honor compelled me now not to break it. I told myself that Varon might be a whoring, drunkard idiot, but at least he wasn’t actively hurting anyone. Which left me in a situation where I had to uphold my promise.

That, of course, was reflected in the company’s deteriorating financials.

“I need a new job,” I muttered under my breath, loud music booming from inside the room. Alovan had been a respectable and honorable Jorkan, and he had offered me this position when I was fresh out of the military. I’d kept him safe until he passed away, and he had trusted me. He’d had my unwavering loyalty, and so I had stuck around after his passing.

Now, I wondered if my loyalty to Varon’s father really should extend to him, as well. Part of me wanted to headbutt the spoiled little prick and tell him to go fuck himself, but I simply couldn’t walk away and let Alovan’s legacy go to shit.

“What the…?”

Straightening my back, I perked up my ears as I heard screams coming from inside the room. Instinctively, my hand dropped to my waist and I tightened my fingers around the grip of my gun. Once I was certain I recognized Varon’s voice, I spun around and pulled my gun from its holster.

I punched the access code into the panel mounted beside me and, as soon as the doors slid back, burst into the room with my gun held high. I scanned my surroundings in a fraction of a second, taking in all the empty bottles and broken glasses littering the floor, then honed in on Varon.

“Come on,” I muttered under my breath, “what the fuck?”

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Razar?” he screeched, the purple scales covering his naked shoulders darkening. One of the strippers, a voluptuous Aurvelian that was naked from the waist up, had handcuffed Varon to a lounge chair, and there was a whip in her hands. Varon’s tail whipped around aimlessly, and that was everything I needed to know—whatever was happening here, the bastard was enjoying it. “Get outta here, damn it!”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, trying to sound as indifferent as possible. In truth, I felt everything but indifference. The sight of Varon’s naked body made me nauseous, but the fact that an Aurvelian stripper was whipping him up while the other women just partied around him made me want to laugh. In the end, though, I was a professional. “Sorry, sir.”

I holstered my gun and headed out. I had barely taken a couple of steps when one of the women, a petite Aurvelian with deep pink skin, grabbed me by the arm. She pulled me toward her, dragging her teeth across her purplish lips, then offered me an inviting smile.

“Aren’t you tired of standing out there?” she asked, her voice mellifluous. “Why don’t you join us for a drink? I mean, your boss is pretty busy right now, and we wouldn’t mind having someone else join our party…especially if that someone else looks like you.” Her gaze roamed from my mouth to my feet, and could I feel her undressing me with her eyes.

“Sorry,” I said. “No partying when I’m on the clock.”

I smiled politely and tore myself away from her. Aurvelians were dangerous creatures—lower your guard around them, and soon enough you’ll be drowning in a sea of invisible pheromones.

Once outside the room, I locked the door behind me. Sighing, I raked one hand over my face, doing my best to erase what I had seen from my mind. The last thing I wanted was for Varon’s naked body to come and haunt me in my sleep.

How’s it going down there?” the ship’s communications officer asked through the comms unit hanging from my belt. “Any dead hookers we need to dump in an asteroid belt?

“Really fucking funny,” I replied, not happy with that imaginary scenario. If something like that happened, I wouldn’t help Varon cover it up. Instead, I’d beat his sorry little ass and drag him to the closest military outpost I could find. “No dead hookers to report. Everything’s calm down here. Or, well, you know…as calm as usual.”

I figured.” There was a moment of silence, then he sounded more formal. “Listen, we’ve detected a ship in the vicinity. Their drive signature matches government credentials. They’ve asked us to dock.

“Just like that?” I asked. “No foreplay?”

None. What do you want me to do?

“Patch me through. I want to talk with them.”

There was the sound of static for a moment, and I unclipped the comms unit from my belt. I held it up, waiting for the blinking red light to turn green. When it finally did, I cleared my throat and spoke up.

“This is the head of security for The Hortakala’s Revenge,” I said, grimacing as I said the ship’s name. In typical Varon fashion, he had named his private cruise ship after one of the bloodiest battles in Jorkan history. He thought it made the ship look badass while, in truth, it only made us look like clueless idiots with more money than common sense. “I’ve been told you’ve requested clearance to dock. Please state your purpose.”

We’ve just sent your crew our identification codes, and I assume you’ve read our drive signature already,” a steady voice replied. “We’re here on official business, and we have a message for your employer.

“What kind of message?”

It concerns the Earth/Jorkan Protocols,” the Jorkan on the other end of the unit said. “A genetic match has been found on Earth for your employer, and we’re here to ensure that he complies with the rule of law.

Fuck me.

Varon has been matched up with a woman from Earth? This wasn’t good.

“Are you sure of it?” I continued. “I mean—”

Our genetic database doesn’t lie. Varon is to head directly to Pluto Station as soon as possible, so he can be introduced to his mate. We’re here to deliver that message, and to ensure the Protocols are followed to the letter. Now, do we have clearance to dock?”

A demented fuck like Varon and one of those delicate creatures from Earth? Shit, that didn’t sound good at all. I pitied the poor woman who had been matched with Varon.

All of a sudden, it hit me.

For the last two or three months, Varon had been obsessed with the humans. He’d made me watch hours and hours of their media while I stood guard over him. At the time, I’d thought it was a fool’s errand brought about by a dilettante who couldn’t stay focused on any one topic. It was true that many interstellar conglomerates had business dealings on Earth with the humans through shell companies, for purposes of precious metal extraction, but it didn’t necessitate hours and hours of watching what the humans referred to as Must See TV and Netflix Original Programming.

The only thing I had gotten out of the exercise was the ability to speak in colloquial human English. And knowing that Ross and Rachel were on a break.

But this explained everything.

Varon’s woman was going to be in for a surprise.

“Clearance granted,” I said. “Come aboard.”

Alicia

My eyes cracked open, and I felt like I must have been drinking far more than I ever would have on a shift. At least, so far as I could remember. What exactly did I remember? Images of myself causing some kind of ruckus crowded into my brain, but I couldn’t place why.

Rolling over, I saw a stranger’s nightstand with no trace of my own crappy little clock. In an instant, adrenaline fired through my system and I sat bolt upright, more awake than had seemed possible even seconds before.

“Son of a bitch,” I whispered to myself, and set about prodding over my body for bruises or marks. Before I had come to New York, all the folks in my hometown had warned me about the big city. They’d all warned me about waking up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys. I shuddered to think of it, but counted it an enormous plus that I wasn’t in a tub, and seemed to be intact.

Whoever those two clowns with badges claimed to be, at least they hadn’t opted to sell me on the black market. Federal agents, my ass. This was about as clear a case of kidnapping as I could picture.

Two dirt bags in fitted black suits claiming to be agents? That’s a lousy story under any circumstances, and while I’m not from The Big City, I hadn’t fallen off a turnip truck when I moved there. So long as I was alone, maybe I could strategize.

The room was small but clean, and almost overwhelmingly white. I was still dressed, but there was no trace of my phone or anything else that could tell me the time. Or call for help. The room was woefully lacking in anything that I could use to knock those assholes around—I found myself sorely missing my mop.

On a chance, I tried the door, but there wasn’t even anything like a knob for me to get ahold of. Everything curdled up inside me at the thought that I was pretty thoroughly imprisoned. This kidnapping scenario was getting worse by the minute. On the other side of the bed was a weird panel in the wall that seemed like it might be covering some kind of window.

At least, it seemed so. Like the door, there was no kind of mechanism to open it that I could recognize. Fumbling around, I finally brushed against a sensor on the wall, and the whole thing whizzed open. It was still dark.

Really dark, actually. My stomach went small and cold before my brain had a chance to catch up. There was darkness outside, but it was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a vast emptiness, and below me was some kind of small, icy planet.

The thought peeked into the back of my mind before I was ready to deal with all that it might mean. You’re in space. Don’t be ridiculous, that’s impossible. Bad news, girl. Space it is.

“Fuck.” I doubled over and braced my hands on my knees, breathing hard. My eyes were riveted to the floor, but I wasn’t seeing anything. All my focus was turned inside, racing like the devil to sort out the pieces. I had never hyperventilated before, but I knew what it was when it started.

Across the room, the door slid open and I spun around to see Agents Tweedle-Dee and Dum sauntering in. If they were here to take care of whatever they hadn’t done last night, I was full-on determined to make them work for it. My hands found the only thing throwable near me, and I sent the lamp sailing at their heads.

“Jesus Christ!” Krasinski ducked just in time, and the lamp shattered against the wall where his head should have been. A shower of shards sprinkled over Starmer, and he threw his hands up to protect his face. If I’d had any sense, I would have rushed them and bolted through the door before they had a chance to recover, but I was still bleary from all the revelations of the morning.

“Motherfucker!” I was already hunting for any other ammunition at my disposal.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Starmer still had his hands up. “Just cool it a second.”

“Cool it? Are you serious?” Seizing a pillow, I was determined to give them the hardest thrashing I could manage. This wasn’t going to be some sorority panty-party. If a pillow was capable of drawing blood, I was going to be the person to find out.

“Hey, hey,” Starmer was trying again.

“We’re sorry,” Krasinski blurted over him. “It’s not what you think!”

“Oh, really?” My breath was heaving and I still brandished the pillow like Excalibur. “And what exactly is it that I think?”

“I’m going to guess kidnapping?”

Was Krasinski fucking with me? I let out a roar and sailed over the bed, giving him a hearty buffeting with my weapon. While he was ducking out of the way, Starmer had the presence of mind to get the door closed. I was out of luck on that front.

“That’s not what this is,” Starmer said, scrambling to the far end of the room. “You have to trust us.”

“And why the hell should I do that?”

“Because we’re two of the few humans on the station at the moment.”

That caught me up, and I felt my knees start to go. I made it to the edge of the bed, saving my knees from all the bits of broken lamp.

“Don’t say that, Starmer!” Krasinski had scrambled over to his partner, hissing under his breath. “Making her think she can’t trust a Jorkan is going to make this thing a whole lot harder.”

“Well, what the hell was I supposed to do?”

“Not that! It’s hard enough to get the women up to speed without you poisoning the well.”

“Poisoning?” They were getting a lot less cautious about their volume, almost as if they had forgotten I was here. I cleared my throat, but Starmer plowed on, “You nearly bungled things back on Earth!”

“Excuse me?” They weren’t listening.

“Me? You were the one coming on with all the talk about blood types! She probably thought we were going to yank her kidneys out or something.”

“HEY!” That got their attention. “Do either of you plan on telling me what the hell is going on?”

They got sheepish for a moment before straightening up and putting on their best game faces. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Earth/Jorkan Protocols?”

“Why would she have heard of it?” Krasinski hissed.

“Will you shut up and let me do this?” Starmer turned back to me.

I shook my head. “Why would I have heard of that?”

“Fair enough,” he nodded. “The Jorkan are an alien race who have forged a relationship with the people of Earth to help them rebuild their population. In an ongoing conflict with the Rippers, nearly their entire female population has been decimated, and their species is in danger of extinction. Their values and causes align with ours on Earth, so we were willing to enter into the Protocols as part of a larger alliance.”

“That’s…” my head was swimming, “that’s nice and all, I suppose, but what does that have to do with me?”

Starmer shifted uncomfortably, and seemed to be doing everything he could not to make eye contact with me.

“I asked you a question,” I growled.

“Tell her,” Krasinski said. The little prick smirked because his partner was the one on the hot seat. Starmer’s eyes found mine.

“Would you like a drink?” Before I could answer, he waved in front of another sensor and a cabinet slid open in the wall. “Wine? Whiskey? Vodka? Gin? Tequila?”

“Whiskey.”

He nodded, snatched up a tumbler, and splashed a hearty slug out for me. “If I come over there, are you going to hit me?”

“We’ll see,” I said.

Krasinski let out a little chuckle behind him, and Starmer inched over. I might have lashed out at him if I’d had the will to do it. A much larger part of me wanted to know how the rest of this was going to shake out. An even bigger part than that wanted the whiskey.

“So, the essence of the Protocols has to do with the Jorkan population problem.” Behind Starmer, Krasinski was helping himself to a strong belt of the whiskey. At least he was keeping me from drinking alone.

“Part of how the Jorkan approached us had to do with certain… shall we say, compatibilities?”

My stomach tightened—again being just a step ahead of my brain. “I’m going to need you to spell that out for me.”

“Why don’t you take a drink?” He didn’t need to suggest it twice.

“The Jorkan performed a survey of the races in our galaxy most likely to be a genetic match in the hopes of rebuilding their population. Humans came the closest. When we find a woman who has the capacity to carry a Jorkan child to term, we match them with the most likely compatible mate. People who are selected have thirty days that they spend with their prospective mate. At the end of the thirty days, we will credit a lump sum of currency to you in any medium you wish that will be the equivalent of five million of your US dollars. But only if you stay the whole thirty days.”

“So, you’ve brought me here to hook me up with an alien and have his baby?” I asked. “Why doesn’t anyone even know about this?”

“Your government is always denying those UFO videos,” Starmer said. “Can you imagine the financial and economic panic that would happen if people knew? All the toilet paper would be sold out for years.”

“In so many words,” Krasinski piped up from the bar, “yes.”

If I hadn’t already been sitting down, I would have needed to now. My ears started ringing and I felt like I couldn’t see. Almost on instinct, I raised my hand and shook my glass at them.

I don’t know which one of them filled it up, but I could hear the clink of the bottle on my glass, and felt it getting heavier. Once it had been freshened up, I drained the glass and let it fall on the bed next to me.

“Ms. Harper, may I just…” I put my hand up, and whichever one of them was talking shut right up. Smart man.

“I’m… I’m going to need some time to process this.”

“You’d better make it quick.” The laughter in Krasinski’s voice brought me back to myself. Rage stormed up through me and I snatched up my glass so hard my knuckles turned white. It probably hadn’t been their best call to give me another missile.

Surging to my feet, I cocked my arm back and both men did their dead-level best to duck out of the way. As much as I would have loved to, I wasn’t going to launch this attack until I either had a straight answer or a clear shot.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, you jackass?”

“I’m just saying,” his smile was gone as he cowered away from my aim, “process away, but there’s not a lot of time.”

“And why the hell is that?”

“Because he’s already here,” he whimpered.

“WHAT?!”

“What my partner means is that Varon, the Jorkan you have matched with, should be arriving at Pluto Station any minute.”

Kazan: Sneak Peak

Chapter 1

Elle

“Sign.” I tapped the contract with my pen, right below the dotted line. Impatience, fueled by exhaustion, sharpened my voice. “Now.”

“We don’t feel that the terms are favorable enough to—”

Now.”

There was silence as the small army of lawyers sitting across the table shifted uncomfortably and stared at me. They weren’t happy, but I didn’t blame them for it. They had just taken a beating.

I stared right back at them, slowly arching one eyebrow up. A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. “Well? What’s it gonna be?”

“You drive a hard bargain, Elle.” Sighing, the old man at the head of the pack of angry lawyers grabbed the pen from my hand, and finally put his name down on the contract. “I hope this settlement will be the end of it.”

“You bet.” I grabbed the contract from the desk, put it in my bag, and rose to my feet. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen.” I marched out of the room without bothering to look back. Cue the music—another multimillion-dollar settlement was in the bag, and I was one step close to making partner. If only I cared more.

I left the building with my head held high, as my Manolo Blahniks clicked across the marble floor onto the sidewalk. Just another day in the life of Elle Ashby, corporate lawyer and boardroom assassin. This day, though, was significant. After six long years of grinding, I was finally about to become a full partner at Schwartz-Eriksson.

“Where to, Miss Ashby?” Standing beside the jet-black limo, my driver tipped his hat at me as I approached the car. I slid into the backseat as he held the door for me and sunk into the leather seat. “Should I drive you home?”

“Yes, please,” I replied, already grabbing my cellphone to let the firm’s two name partners know that the ink had already dried on the settlement. A mere few seconds after I sent them a text, my phone started blowing up as they tried to call me. A settlement like this would make the headlines tomorrow, and they knew I was already being hounded by headhunters. They were terrified of losing me—as they should be. I pushed the phone into my purse and ignored them. It didn’t matter if we’re talking about seduction or business: hot-and-cold never failed to leave men even more desperate for you.

The limo rolled down Park Avenue at a slow pace, the frantic Manhattan traffic its usual self. The sun had already started dipping past the skyline, bathing Grand Central Station with a warm orange glow, and the shadow of the Waldorf-Astoria stretched over the avenue like a blanket.

New York—corporate arena…and my home.

It’s hard to believe that a country girl like me would make it in the city, but that’s the magic of laser-focus and hard work. I’d glued my backside to a chair when I was no more than a teenager, studied like a maniac, and gotten into Harvard. From there, it was only a matter of being the absolute best and climbing the ranks. I’d set myself a relentless pace, and lately I was beginning to wonder when I would break.

“We’re here, Miss Ashby,” my driver announced, the limo coming to a halt outside my apartment building.

He opened the door for me, and I thanked him with a nod and a smile. Five minutes later, I was kicking off my Manolos and walking barefoot into the penthouse’s kitchen. I opened the wine fridge, poured myself a cold Pinot Grigio, and waltzed onto the balcony.

“Here’s to you, Elle,” I whispered, raising my glass as I took in Manhattan’s skyline with a glance, the skyscrapers rising up into the heights like monuments to human ambition. Suddenly, my phone started ringing again. I smiled ironically: I had sunk the hooks, and now it was time to reel it all in.

Back in my living room, I grabbed my phone from my purse, Schwartz’s name flashing on the screen. I was about to put the phone up to my ear when I heard someone knock at my door. That was odd—no one should be able to come up here without the receptionist getting the green light from me.

I threw the phone onto the couch, then made my way toward the door and flung it open. Standing in the corridor outside my apartment were two men in black suits. Both had short haircuts and a clean-shaven appearance, but despite the fact that they were smiling, their smiles didn’t reach their eyes.

“What’s this?” I asked them, folding my arms over my chest.

“We’re here on U.S. government business, Miss Ashby,” the taller one replied, his formality enough for me to peg them as federal agents.

He flashed his badge, too quickly for me to notice what agency they belonged to, then they simply strolled into the apartment uninvited. Sometimes I wished federal agents were more like vampires—life would be so much easier for everyone if they required an invitation to enter a building.

“What’s this about?” I insisted, closing the door behind me. “Are you with the Securities and Exchange Commission? If that’s the case, I’m telling you that the settlement Schwartz-Eriksson secured today is completely above board and—”

“We’re not with the SEC.” Still with that creepy smile on his face, the tall man sat down on one of my couches, and waved at the one facing him. “Please, have a seat, Miss Ashby.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Frowning, I sat down, still nursing my glass of wine. Federal agents were never good news, but I wasn’t about to let them ruin my day. I was about to reach the pinnacle of my career, and before my thirtieth birthday. I wasn’t going to let some bullshit federal agents put a stop to it. No way. “Now, care to explain why I have two U.S. government employees inside my apartment?”

“There’s nothing for you to worry about,” the shorter one said, his hands folded in his lap. “My name is Agent Starmer, and this is Agent Krasinski. We’re here because we have a couple of questions we need to ask you, Miss Ashby. It’s nothing you should be worrying about.”

“That’s for me to decide.” Bringing the glass to my lips, I finished what was left of the wine, then set the glass down on the coffee table and regarded them for a moment. This was different. Different enough that some of my constant low-level fatigue faded under a surge of curiosity. “Let’s get this over with, then. What do you want to know?”

“Very well.” Clearing his throat, Agent Krasinski grabbed a notepad from his shirt pocket and flipped through it. “What would you consider most important? A family or your career?”

I opened my mouth to say something, but words didn’t come out. I just stared at the two men and blinked, my eyebrows knitted together. What the hell was this? The government’s live-version of a Facebook quiz? Were these two idiots part of the Bureau of Astrology Investigation and Unrelated Personality Quizzes?

No, this had to be a joke. 

“Please, respond truthfully,” Krasinski continued, his tone never wavering. He clutched his pen tightly, ready to note down my answers. So, this wasn’t a joke. They were really expecting me to answer that stupid question.

“My career is more important, evidently,” I finally replied. “I didn’t work my ass off to become one of the best lawyers in New York just so I could end up barefoot and pregnant on some—”

“Interesting,” he said. “Would you say that you have an argumentative personality?”

“What? I’m a lawyer, so I—”

“I see.” Scribbling on his notepad, he only looked back at me once he was done. “What about allergies or health conditions? Are there any that we should know about?”

“Why the hell do you want to know that?” Sighing, I shook my head. “Alright, fine. No, I don’t have any allergies or underlying health conditions. I work hard, but I don’t let my health suffer because of that.”

“You do yoga, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, narrowing my eyes at them. “How do you know that?”

“How do you feel about long-distance travel?” Agent Starmer continued, ignoring my ever-growing confusion. “According to your notes, you’ve been all over the globe. From Tokyo to Dubai to—”

“Yes, I’m used to traveling,” I cut him short, curiosity giving way to annoyance. “My work with Schwartz-Eriksson means that I have to represent a lot of multinational companies, and so I have to travel constantly. Now, gentlemen, you either tell me what this is about, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“Just one more question, if you will,” Krasinski said. “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?”

“What?” Tightening my lips, I rose to my feet and pointed at the door. “I’m done with these stupid questions. I want you out of my apartment…right now.”

“Very well.” Starmer stood up and exchanged a knowing glance with his partner. “You’re right, Miss Ashby. We’re running a tight ship here, and our schedule doesn’t really allow for delays. I think we have everything that we need.”

“Good riddance.”

“Oh, you misunderstand me,” Starmer continued, his smile finally reaching his eyes, the tiniest hints of crow’s feet showing there. “You’re coming with us, Miss Ashby.”

“I’m—what?”

“How would you like a vacation, Miss Ashby?” He glanced at Krasinski.

The word vacation snagged my attention just long enough for Agent Krasinski to grab something from inside his jacket—some kind of metallic pen with a bright bulbous tip—and place it in front of my eyes. “Just look into the light, Miss Ashby. Just look into the…”

I didn’t hear the rest of his sentence—I was still thinking about vacation.

The red light on his pen lured me in, and I dove straight into unconsciousness.

Chapter 2

Kazan

“Kazan! Kazan! Kazan!”

“Alright, alright.” Grinning from ear to ear, I waved down the drunken Jorkan guys surrounding me. They patted me on the back, pushing drinks into my hands, and kept on chanting my name as if I were some sort of god-emperor. “Cool your tits, boys. You keep on stroking my ego, soon enough I won’t be able to fit through the door.”

“C’mon, you’ve earned this,” Tarnik shouted, slapping me on the back while raising his shot glass. His scale-covered muscles rippled under his shirt as he moved, his pectorals looking almost desperate to escape from his tight shirt. It always weirded me out to see him outside his tactical uniform, and tonight was no different. “Here’s to another well-delivered kick to the Rippers’ nutsacks.”

“Well, shit, I’ve gotta drink to that.” Laughing, I touched glasses with him and downed my own shot, the alcohol burning its way down my throat. Tarnik was right—after another successful op, we needed to celebrate. My men, all of them elite Jorkan soldiers who hated the Rippers as much as they loved drinking, had proved their mettle once more, and they deserved to let off some steam.

Of course, more often than not, that involved hard drinking, crazy gambling, and the occasional visit to the most expensive strip joints in this part of the galaxy. As their leader, I always did my best to curb their craziness, but…truth be told, it didn’t really help that I was even crazier than they were.

Not that I cared.

I had devoted my life to beating Ripper assholes into a pulp, and I had enough medals pinned on my chest to remind me that I was pretty fucking good at it. Yeah, my life was absolutely perfect, and I wouldn’t change it for a thing. What more could a Jorkan want?

I got to spend my time flying around the galaxy with guys I was proud to call my brothers and, when we weren’t busy mopping the floor with the Rippers, partied hard enough to make an Aurvelian stripper blush.

“Shit,” Tarnik growled all of a sudden, tipping the edge of his shot glass toward the far end of the club. “Suits, dead ahead. You think they’re here to shut this party down?”

Turning on my heels, I narrowed my eyes as I looked in the direction Tarnik was pointing. Two Jorkan bureaucrat-looking assholes were coming down the neon-lit stairs of the club, walking so closely together you’d think they were tethered at the hips.

They had their tails wrapped around their waists as if they were belts, and their curved horns had been polished to a shine, a clear sign that these guys were desk-jockeys. Sighing, I raked one hand over my face. High Command had already warned me more than once, insisting that my team had to calm down when it came to all the partying—especially with us being known Jorkan soldiers, who were supposed to be healthy role models—and I was pretty sure these guys had been sent here to shut us down.

“Leave it to me,” I told Tarnik, cracking the tip of my tail as I moved through the crowd. The clubgoers hopped to the side as I marched through them, my seven-foot stature ensuring I didn’t have to be polite, and I quickly made my way toward the two Jorkan bureaucrats.

They stood at the bar, a pair of bright green drinks topped with umbrellas in front of them. What a damn embarrassment. Moving as automatons, they both turned in their seats as they noticed my approach, their faces masks of pure discipline. They were in one of the most prestigious clubs on the planet, and they looked as if they were bored out of their damn minds.

“Alright, boys,” I started, standing between the two of them and draping my arms over their shoulders. “What’s this about? We’re just having some fun here. We haven’t kicked anyone’s ass, as the High Command recommended, and I must remind you that we’ve just destroyed a Ripper military base on the edge of—”

“Have a seat, Colonel Kazan,” one of them said, his bland expression never changing as he spoke. I remained where I was, not sure if I liked this asshole’s tone. “Please, Colonel. We’re not here to shut down your, uh, party. We have other matters to discuss.”

“Well, spill it, then.” Grudgingly, I pulled over a stool and sat between them. I rapped my knuckles against the counter and, as if by magic, the droid bartender quickly poured me a drink. I looked to the Jorkan sitting on my right, my horns towering over his, and the guy seemed to shrink in size. “What’s this about?”

“Are you aware of the Earth-Jorkan Protocols, Colonel?” he finally said, his lips twitching slightly as a smile emerged. “You must know of them, correct?”

“Get the fuck out of here,” I exclaimed, the words slipping out of my mouth before I could think it through. “I don’t want to have a part in any of that bullshit.”

Jumping to my feet, I was ready to leave these two morons to their umbrella drinks. Surprisingly, one of them reached out and placed one hand on my shoulder.

“No so fast, Colonel.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he repeated, the smile he had on his face slowly fading. “I’m afraid your participation in these procedures isn’t going to be optional. We have found a genetic match for you on Earth, and you are obliged to follow the protocols. There’s a mandatory thirty-day period, during which you’re obliged to work with us and your potential mate.”

“Fuck me,” I muttered under my breath. “You guys are lawyers, aren’t you?”

They exchanged a  glance, and that was the only answer I needed. Of course these bastards were lawyers, both working on behalf of High Command, and they were here to ensure that I complied with whatever bullshit the Earth-Jorkan Protocols mandated.

“Colonel, I understand your hesitation, but this has to be done,” the one sitting to my left said, his nasally voice adding to my annoyance. “As you’re aware, the entire Jorkan civilization is still reeling from the biological weapon used on us by the Rippers, and as such—”

“Yeah, I know about that,” I cut him short.

Who didn’t know about it?

Fifty years ago, the Rippers were on the verge of finally being defeated by the Jorkan, and they decided to start thinking long-term. Instead of going toe-to-toe with us, they unleashed a biological weapon that made all the female Jorkan infertile. No more babies, no more soldiers to feed the machine.

Tests have been conducted these past decades to counter those effects, but to no avail. That was, of course, until the Jorkan military jumped in to save Earth from being obliterated by the Rippers. Although the majority of the humans remained unaware of the intergalactic war happening on their doorstep, their top officials worked closely with Jorkan High Command, and a pleasant surprise was discovered in that partnership.

As it turned out, human females were genetically and biologically compatible with the Jorkan. Just as long as there was a genetic match, a human female would be able to carry a Jorkan child, and that resulted in the Earth-Jorkan Protocols. In order to repay the Jorkan for their assistance against the Rippers, a matching program was created, its purpose to bring together those who could ensure the Jorkan genetic heritage could live on.

In short, space dating on steroids.

I’d never really paid much attention to any of that, truth be told.

I’d never met a single Jorkan who was genetically matched with an Earthling, and I sure as hell hadn’t thought it would happen to me. I mean, children? I’m a fucking warrior, an intergalactic thunderstorm whose sole purpose lies in defeating the Rippers. I couldn’t give any less of a shit about playing house with some delicate human female.

“I’m sorry, guys, but I’ll pass.” Reaching inside my pocket, I threw a couple of hard credits onto the counter and turned my back to the two lawyers. “Buy yourself another round. I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time.”

“We didn’t waste our time.” Again, I felt one of them holding me by the shoulder. Instinctively, I turned on my heels, my hands balling into fists. “This is the law, Colonel, and you’ll have to adhere to it. There’s already a shuttle waiting for you on the rooftop, and it’ll take you to a ship that’s waiting in orbit. Earth and the Jorkan have a small station on Pluto, and you are expected there.”

“What if I say no?”

“In that case, you’ll be stripped of your military rank and court martialed.” The answer came in a deadpan tone, and I had to make a very conscious effort not to punch these two assholes into oblivion. “Again, this is the law. All Jorkan have to obey it.”

I gritted my teeth. “Thirty days, right?”

“Thirty days,” the lawyer replied. “After that, you and your genetic mate will be free to go your separate ways, if you haven’t reached a mating agreement. That’s all we’re asking of you, thirty days.”

“Alright,” I sighed. “Let’s get it done.”

Chapter 3

Elle

I jolted awake, a little like waking up hungover.

It felt like a hand grenade had gone off inside my head, and now it was time to be conscious. God, I thought to myself, I really have to find a wine that doesn’t have this effect on me. And the dream I’d had—I’d never dreamed anything like it. Whenever federal agents decided to visit me in my dreams, I was usually the one tying them in knots, making them uncomfortable.

I stretched my arms over my head and squeezed my eyes shut. Damn, I was going to need a good hour of yoga to shake off this night. An hour of yoga on a remote beach, preferably with cocktails after, and no work to come home to. The company of a sexy distraction wouldn’t go amiss, either.

As I raised my hands up, I hit a padded headboard.

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I opened my eyes and was nearly blinded by crisp white everywhere I looked. Crisp white curtains and crisp white bedding, a crisp white lounge chair next to a light wood TV table. The room was impossibly luxurious and impeccably clean, although a little small for all its expensive taste. I was under a lightweight, tufted bedspread and a beige throw blanket, as if someone had no idea how I liked to sleep.

Where the hell am I? Some sort of luxury hotel? The room seemed so…devoid of personality, yet full of expense. Was this some sort of partner hazing? There had been no hazing when I became a junior partner. My mind was racing, jumping from thought to thought, trying to work out where I was and what the hell was happening.

I had no patience for uncertainty. I grabbed my growing fear and panic by the throat and stuffed them back into a mental box. No problem could be resolved through panic. I could sit in the middle of the floor and have a fit once I was safely home.

Finally, I flipped back the blankets and swung my legs to the side of the bed. I was barefoot, but otherwise still wearing my pencil skirt and white button-up shirt I had used the day before, two pieces which I had picked out specially for the day I would finally become a full partner.

Was it just the day before?

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

In a way, though, I was relieved to be in an outfit chosen for power. I needed to feel powerful right now. Standing up, I smoothed the wrinkles carefully, knowing they would stay wrinkled, but I found a sense of grounding in the movement. Wherever I was, I was Elle Ashby and I was in charge. It didn’t matter who else knew it or not—I knew it. A mantra for this crazy day.

I noticed that in front of me was a large window with curtains drawn tightly together. All I needed to do was open those curtains, let in the sun, and find someone to explain to me why any of this was happening. Determined, I crossed the room and threw open the curtains.

Staring back at me was the deep, dark blackness of space. I really had never seen anything like it. It was darker than any night, pinpricks of starlight faintly in the distance. Nothing, nothing, and more black nothing for as far as I could see.

I felt bile rise in my throat.

I can’t handle this, I thought, I can’t handle any of this. I must still be dreaming—this was a nightmare because of all the stress of making partner. I found a small beige trashcan tucked in the corner and reflexively bent down over it. I was going to throw up, I was sure of it.

Instead, I just spit into the can.

NO! I was Elle Ashby and I was in charge.

I spat out the last thought of throwing up and shoved the can back in the corner.

I jumped up and smoothed the wrinkles again. If it worked once, it would work again. I would be grounded. I would find someone to explain all of this. Just in that moment, I heard the sound of a door opening behind me. I turned, and nearly fainted. My physiology was being pushed to its limit, and I was pretty sure that my mind had already broken.

This wasn’t a dream—it was a goddamn hallucination.

In the doorway stood a giant, scaly man at least seven feet tall. Well, he had the outline of a man. The face of a man. Plus horns. He was blue, with scales scintillating in the overhead lights, and as he walked through the doorway a tail swung behind him. A very big, quite long tail, I should say.

“Hello, Elle, did you sleep well?” the alien slash hallucination slash man asked. “Sometimes the loss of consciousness affects the rest of the body and that can be unpleasant.”

“I… did I sleep well? Are you fucking kidding me?” A seven-foot blue man was asking me if I had slept well after I had been drugged, kidnapped, and woken up in deep space. “NO, I DID NOT SLEEP WELL!”

“I understand you’re frustrated, but please, try to calm yourself. Things will—”

“Calm myself? Calm myself? You calm your fucking self!” I was frozen with rage. Rage was more dignified than gibbering fear. If I moved a muscle, I would destroy the room and twist that blue bastard’s neck.

“Things will go more smoothly and easily. I promise, I will tell you what is going on.”

The words clicked in place—words I shouldn’t understand. I did want to know what was happening. Rage wasn’t control. The name’s Elle Ashby and I am in control, I reminded myself. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it out through my mouth.

“I am calm,” I said, throwing all of my lawyerly poise into the sentence. “Please, tell me everything you know, starting with why I can understand you.” The words coming out of the alien’s mouth weren’t English, but my brain reformatted the syllables into the language I understood.

“We took the liberty of fitting you with a translator patch for ease of communication. I assure you, there are no known side effects with human physiology. We are the Jorkan, a race of what the humans might call ‘aliens’. Earth has a treaty with our people, as we are protecting your planet from what are known as the Rippers.”

“What kind of bullshit treaty is this? One that entails kidnapping?”

“Not exactly, but… yes.” He took one step toward me, and I instinctively stepped back. “You see, the Rippers have made all of the Jorkan females unable to conceive children. And so, we need genetically viable women to mate with our men. It just so happens that some Earth women are able to bear Jorkan children. So, we struck a deal in exchange for continued protection of your planet. We call this the Earth-Jorkan Protocols. When we find a genetic match for a Jorkan male, your government helps set up the match. We have a mandatory thirty-day period in which you spend time with your potential future mate.”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing.

“After the thirty days are up, if you and your mate accept your union, you two will be joined together by the Signing Day. We expect you to become pregnant and bear a child. While we can’t force you to, we very much expect you to. The future of our entire race falls on your choice to bear our children.”

The man grew very solemn as he said these last words. For once in my life, I was absolutely speechless. For a moment. Then I was filled with words.

“And so, what am I supposed to do? Fall over and spread my legs for someone who looks like you? Just like that?”

The alien man flushed a pale blue that I supposed must have been him blushing.

“That’s what the thirty-day period is for. We simply hope that, after thirty days together, you’ll find enough attachment to bear a child.”

I laughed. I mean, what else was there to do other than laugh?

He turned a dark blue color and scowled.

“You will meet your mate soon. We suggest freshening up from the long journey here. We thought you might like some fresh clothes.” He walked over to a small door and opened a closet. “I hope you’ll find something to your liking.” Then he walked to the other side of the room and opened another door. I could see sparkling white tile and the lip of a high-end tub. “In here, you’ll find the bathtub.” With that, he strolled out of the room, leaving me in a stunned silence.

I don’t know how long I stood there. After I worked through my rage, my sense of injustice, the total what the fuck that this was happening to me, I took a deep, cleansing breath. What could I control? Right now, nothing but my emotions and reactions.

So first things first. A bath would help calm the fight-or-flight hormones rushing through my blood so I could think clearly and begin to prepare a strategy. And lacking a coherent strategy, the appearance of compliance never hurt anything.

I mustered up the resolve to examine the bathroom. It was gorgeous. A pity. Under normal circumstances I would have loved it. White tile, white tub with jets lining the edge of it. It did look relaxing. Maybe I could enjoy a steamy bath. Maybe. But first, I had to find out about those clothes.

Hanging in the closet were three different outfits, all dresses. One was a little black thing, thin spaghetti straps and flowing, just long enough to graze my butt. Another was a red tube dress, sleeveless with a deep V cut out, again just long enough to leave a man guessing and wanting more, but not long enough to cover my thighs. What did these assholes think I was? A space stripper?

Gritting my teeth, I looked at the third dress.

It was a laughable attempt at modesty. A floral dress, tight on top and cut like a tank. It at least looked comfortable, and the dress would come to the top of my knees. Despite the faux modesty, it remained a sexy dress. It seemed that every piece of clothing in here had been cut out from a lingerie magazine, outfits to express sexuality with every curve, from overt sex with the red number, to the soft femininity of the floral dress.

Whoever these people were, they had another think coming. I felt the determined energy rising up in me again. I would not be pushed around by some aliens. They thought a little time would have me falling for some tall and hunky alien man?

I didn’t have time for this kind of ridiculous game.

But, if I was being forced to remain here, I sure as hell would make sure nobody would play me for a fool. I stared at the floral dress again, narrowing my eyes. It was the least slutty dress, and I figured it’d help. Men always expected the least from you when you played into their expectations, so it was time for me to turn the tables. 

This “future mate” had no idea what he was in for.

Javik: Sneak Peek

Addie

In the morning, I rose with the sun. It was another beautiful, sunny, spring day. For the first time since winter, birds chirped outside my window, almost as if they were wishing me well. I chose to take it as a good omen, even though I had no reason to. I’d never been one to romanticize anything.

Life had been too hard for dreams.

John knew of my plan, but I was sure he’d still be in bed by the time I left. When I entered the kitchen, I was surprised to find my brother already awake and seated in the only chair at the table, waiting for me.

“You’re really going through with this,” he said.

It wasn’t a question. His piercing blue eyes, so like my own, burned like glacier ice into mine.

“Of course I am,” I said. “You know my feelings. It’s not like we haven’t discussed this to death. Think of the money, John. We could finally leave this trash heap and have a better life!”

I was exasperated at having to have this discussion again on the morning of my departure. It truly was beating a dead horse. He’d been against the idea since I’d come up with it and for seemingly no good reason.

“There has to be a better plan, Addie. One that doesn’t involve you leaving for a year to give birth to a half-alien child that you’re just going to abandon—just like our parents did to us. Doesn’t the thought of that upset you?”

It didn’t, actually. I’d always been someone to focus on immediate issues, not hypothetical ones. John and I needed to move on, to escape the chains of our upbringing. Any child I bore would be taken care of by its father and his people—it wouldn’t have the life I’d had. It wouldn’t be left alone.

“It’s only for a year. Mate and pay, remember?” The words had become my mantra, ever since I’d decided on this path. “Once the child is born, I can come back and things will go back to normal—better than normal, because we won’t have to scrape and beg anymore. It’ll be fine. Mrs. Tobias will be here to help and maybe you could finally find something you like to do around town. It’ll be easier for you once I’m not here to look after everything.”

Truthfully, one of the reasons I wanted to do this so badly was to force John to wake up and get his own life together. I was only a year younger than him, but because our parents always crowed on about how females are “natural caregivers” I was forced to do all the work. It was time for him to step up and look after himself.

He sure as shit wasn’t going to do it if I was still there.

He turned silent then, just staring at me with a sullen gaze. Nothing he could say would make me change my mind and he knew it.

Without another word, I moved to the counter to make something to eat before my journey to the matching center. All we had was a piece of bread that was starting to get moldy, but I cut off the bad edge and ate it plain. We didn’t have anything to put on top of it anyway.

John remained at the table as I returned to my room to pack, arms crossed as he stared out the small window over the sink, refusing to look at me.

It didn’t take long to gather up my things—there wasn’t much to gather, after all. I stuffed a pair of jeans and the only three shirts I owned into a threadbare knapsack, along with some undergarments I barely ever wore because I didn’t have enough to last an entire week, and sealed it up before getting dressed.

Thinking it best to make a good first impression, I pulled on the only nice outfit I owned: a thin yellow cotton slip dress with a pattern of tiny, cornflower blue flowers on it, paired with a matching blue cardigan. It was a dress I’d barely worn over the years, reserved for holidays and special occasions, so it was still in near-perfect condition.

We rarely celebrated holidays. That kind of thing required money and love, both of which were sorely lacking in our home.

I pulled half of my long dark hair up into a ponytail to highlight the fine bones of my face and my eyes, and let the rest hang straight down my back. I’m sure there would be prettier girls at the matching center, but it’d have to do. I didn’t think appearance mattered much during the matching process anyway.

I took one final glance around my room, in disbelief that I might not be back here for a year.

I could do this.

Of course I could.

To hear the whispers around town, all the Mahdfel were concerned about was perpetuating their race anyway, so my leaving my match would be a non-issue one I gave up the baby.

Before I switched off the light, my eyes settled on a small stuffed bear that sat on my dresser.

John had won it for me years ago at the county fair. It was the only soft thing I’d ever owned. I stared at it for a moment before returning to grab it, stuffing it down deep beneath my clothes in my bag.

By the time I returned to the kitchen, the cab I’d hired the night before was waiting outside. John was still sitting at the table, glaring angrily at me.

“You’ll be fine,” I told him. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can, if you care to know how things turned out.”

His eyes softened at my words. “Of course, I care, Addie. You’re right—I’ll be fine. I’ll just…miss you, is all.”

His words shocked me a little. I cared for him, but we’d never been affectionate siblings, and I didn’t let them dent my resolve.

“I’ll see you in a year,” I said, and left the house.

Two years ago, my parents disappeared on another bright, sunny, spring morning—not the kind of day you’d expect to turn your world upside down—but to be honest, my world was never right-side-up anyway.

At first, I was sure they’d come back.

They always did. It wasn’t the first time I’d awoken to find them missing. Most times, though, they’d return after a few days, after their drug-filled bender had come to an end and they remembered they had children.

Then they’d drag themselves home, bleary-eyed and mean, and the short reprieve my older brother John and I enjoyed during their absence would quickly come to an end.

I’d taken care of them for longer than I should have, especially at my age. When they should have been taking care of me I was cooking their meals, keeping their house—if you could even call our ramshackle, two-room hovel that—and working odd jobs around town to pay not only the bills, but for their drugs, too.

So when I woke to find them gone that spring morning, I didn’t think much of it. The longest John and I had ever been alone was two weeks. They’d be back. I was convinced of it.

Except, after two weeks, they didn’t show. Then four passed. A whole month. Then two months, then six, then a year.

After a year of scraping by, supporting John because he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—bring himself to leave the house, I promised myself if another year passed without my parents showing up, I’d volunteer for the Mahdfel genetic matching program.

My birthdate hadn’t yet been called, but I knew all about the money. That kind of money would save my and my brother’s lives. We’d never want for anything ever again.

The night before the two-year anniversary of my parents’ disappearance, I went to bed early. I felt raw, like my nerve endings were too close to the surface of my skin. My heart beat ferociously in my chest, like a bird in a cage trying desperately to escape.

Part of me was scared to go to the matching center the next day, but the other part of me was excited. I wouldn’t allow myself to hope to find someone to actually love me—who ever had, after all?—but being away from my life for a while wouldn’t be too bad.

I’d only be gone a year at most, anyway. A year to meet my mate, get knocked up, give him the child his race so badly needed, and get back here with a million dollars for John and me. It’d be a hard sacrifice, but we were used to those.

And if I died, well, the money would go to John anyway.

I’d already arranged assistance for John from our neighbor, a kindly elderly lady who’d always tried her best to help us. She’d check in on him from time to time while I was off on my mission.

That’s what I thought of it as—a mission to start a better life.

The drive to the matching center didn’t take long. We lived on the outskirts of a main hub city, so I arrived within a half-hour of departing home. Reporting to the reception desk, I told the woman seated there I’d come to volunteer for the matching program.

I made sure not to say a word about ‘mate and pay.’ Somehow I didn’t think they’d appreciate it, even if I thought it was a perfectly reasonable idea. Easy steps. Things I could do.

“Well, look at you, pretty as pie! Not many girls volunteer for the service. Those who do don’t need to wait, though, so I’ll bring you back to the labs myself,” she said in a strong accent.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied, remembering my manners.

The hallway she led me down was lined with closed doors, all testing facilities. I knew this already because every girl received a tour of their closest matching center when they turned sixteen, just to learn the process if it ever came time to pass.

We stopped at Laboratory #4 and she led me inside. She introduced me to the clinician already present, and then she was gone.

“You have a seat there, Adaline,” the clinician said, using my full given name as she read the identification card I’d handed her, which nobody ever did.

I followed her instructions and sat down, used to doing what I was told.

“This is the easy part—I’m just going to take a bit of blood from your fingertip and run it through this machine here and we’ll know within five minutes if you have a match,” she said as she slid a sterilization swab over my finger and then punctured it with a tiny needle.

She collected the subsequent drop of blood onto a thin glass slide and then wheeled her chair over to the machine she’d mentioned, inserting it into a little window.

I held my breath as the machine set to work, not knowing what result I truly wanted. In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. Before I had time to decide, the machine beeped and a green light lit up, determining my fate for me.

Somewhere out there I had a match, and it was time for my new life to begin.

Javik

After what seemed like the longest mission ever, my team and I had finally secured the cursed object our superiors had sent us on a wild hunt searching for. I never would’ve guessed it would turn out to be a giant egg, but there I was, sitting in my lab, examining an egg of unknown origin and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with it.

The first day had been…interesting. Oby had curled over the egg, fluttering and hissing, just as she had back in the caves.

It had taken Lila and Wiley hours to coax her away, convince her that I wasn’t going to hurt her treasure.

And I was becoming convinced that’s what it was. Egg shaped, and possibly an actual egg, but every analysis I ran indicated that it wasn’t Oby’s egg.

Which was good. Lila might have Rekker wrapped around her finger, but I wasn’t sure what he would say with another flying snake thing on the ship.

The ladies would love it, though.

At first, I’d merely observed it. For over a day, I’d let it sit in a makeshift incubator I’d created, thinking it just might…do whatever it was supposed to do on its own. Open? Hatch?

Was there even anything inside it? It was hard to tell, to be honest. 

After nothing happened from leaving it alone, I started running tests. I performed heat and cold tests. I submerged it in various solutions to determine its density. I chipped off a small piece of it and ran it through one of my spectrometers, discovering it was made of some kind of calcium and stone hybrid that was tougher than nails and much heavier. 

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I’d seen a lot.

As the Calliope’s ​resident doctor and scientist, there wasn’t much I hadn’t come across over the years. My team, the Vaznik warriors, belonged to the Mahdfel race, so we were used to seeing some crazy shit. I’d repaired more gruesome injuries than I cared to remember. I’d witnessed the other guys, Rekker, Kyre, Cedroc, and Derrix, get into more scrapes than I ever thought possible, but we’d survived them all together. 

This last mission, to retrieve this artifact our commanding officers simply had to have, had been by far the most intense. We’d journeyed to a far-off, uncharted planet, met a race we’d never even heard of before, delved deep beneath the surface into caverns of lava and stone, and lived to tell the tale. 

But craziest of all, four out of the five of us had been matched with mates, even as the situation unfolded. Sent from Earth, Lila, Ferne, Coralie, and Wiley had joined our ranks, bringing a certain sense of femininity and grace to our group. Each male had quickly become completely enamored with his mate, even if he’d been reluctant to have one assigned to him in the first place.

One by one, I’d watched them fall in line and then fall in love. It had amused me greatly, as out of the five of us, I was the one who most wanted a mate of my own and I had yet to be matched. I’d never told the others that, of course, but my lack of transparency with my team didn’t make it any less true. 

They all thought of me as a scientist, concerned with logic and facts above all, not love and fornication. Even though I was completely comfortable around them—we’d been a team for so long and relied on each other so much I couldn’t be anything else—the thought of letting them see my softer side always made me nervous. Like if they knew I wanted something…romantic out of life, they wouldn’t take me seriously anymore.

As a doctor, the one responsible for keeping them healthy and in top condition, they had to take me seriously. They had to trust me. Personally, I didn’t place much stock in anyone I found to be too emotional. Emotional people were irrational and unreliable, and I never wanted those two adjectives applied to me. 

But even still, I’d felt left out seeing them all pair up and take part in the mission with their mates. Sitting back alone and mostly observing, waiting for them to need my assistance, definitely wasn’t fun at all. 

At first, when it was only Rekker and Kyre who’d been matched, it hadn’t been so bad, but once Cedroc matched with Coralie it was almost a foregone conclusion that Derrix would be next. My hypothesis had been correct—Wiley had shown up and, after a bit of a rocky start, had stolen his heart.

It was strange at first, seeing him go from being so reluctant to have her, to risking his very life for her within days of her arrival. At first, I’d wanted to deck him because I couldn’t understand his reticence to being with her when it was all I wanted for myself. Wiley was beautiful, and clearly very interested in him, and he’d been so standoffish. They’re thick as thieves now, but for a while, I’d been worried. 

Even though I wouldn’t be at all surprised to have my own mate arrive soon, seeing as we’d seemed to have fallen into a bit of a pattern, there’s a part of me that worried I may not have a perfect genetic match. I knew I wasn’t easy to be around, too straight-laced and logical. I was practically married to my work and research. 

Those who know me well tend to describe me as cold and aloof. I wasn’t sure how well my personality would fare if matched to the kind of woman my fellow Vaznik have found as mates. The women who have joined us are all soft and lovely. They’re warm and friendly and although I’ve come to care for them as I do for any other member of my team, I didn’t know how I’d do with a mate of my own.

Would she understand the importance of my work? How vital my role was to maintaining the functioning order of the team? How much of my time would she demand I dedicate to her alone, and would she understand if I couldn’t give it to her?

I hadn’t even been matched yet and already I felt like a bundle of raw nerves thinking about it, which proved how much of an emotional mess I really was, despite the image of myself I projected. 

I took a long, deep breath and leaned far back in my chair, removing the magnifying spectacles from my face and placing my head in my hands. Perhaps I needed a break from my research on the egg. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept or had anything to eat. I could feel my energy levels swiftly depleting. 

I hated having a lack of knowledge about anything, so being stuck on what seemed like an unsolvable problem with the egg was driving me insane. My brain actually hurt from trying to figure out how to—both literally and figuratively—crack it. 

But that was the issue, wasn’t it? I couldn’t just crack it and risk destroying the damn thing. Upper Command would have my hide for that, especially when it seemed to be such a huge deal for us to find it in the first place. And anyway, we’d risked our lives for it—I’d hang myself if I did anything to jeopardize it.

All I could do was keep running tests until we could deliver it to the High Council and have his research team take over, if that was even his plan. There seemed to be an awful lot they weren’t telling us about this so-called artifact, so it could be possible he already knew what it did and had a plan for it. 

I didn’t allow myself to dwell on that thought, though. It would just drive me crazy, knowing someone else knew something I didn’t, especially if it made me waste my time. 

I was just about to rise from my chair, intent on wandering to the dining hall to find something to satisfy the now-constant rumbling in my stomach, when the ship’s teleportation pad, nestled in the corner of my lab, hummed to life. Shocked, I flew to my feet and approached it swiftly, wondering what was going on, but nearly sure I already knew. 

Just as I’d suspected, the coordinates read that whoever was coming through was on their way from Earth. This had happened four times already, so I knew what to expect. And since there were only five of us on this ship and everyone else had been matched already, it could only mean that if it was indeed a human woman coming through, she was my genetic match. 

My palms instantly began to sweat at the thought of it. My heart started to race, pounding a rhythmic staccato deep beneath my ribs. I could scarcely breathe with the anticipation of her arrival—I had, after all, been waiting for this my entire life. 

When she finally materialized through the pad, I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was a stunning beauty, slight, but with curves in all the right places, long dark hair that fell down to her waist, and the most brightly piercing blue eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe that this woman was meant to be mine. 

I was more than ready for the next phase of my life to begin, and how fortunate I was for this beautiful creature to be part of it. 

Addie

“What the…?”

I stumbled forward, narrowing my eyes.

Bright white lights flooded my field of vision, and I felt a sudden spell of dizziness. For a moment, I actually thought that I was going to throw up, but I took a deep breath and my stomach settled down. Dazed and confused, I raked one hand over my face. It only took me a couple of seconds before I felt like myself again. Even though teleportation wasn’t fun, it wasn’t as bad as some people had told me it would be.

“Where am I?” I muttered under my breath, taking in my surroundings as my eyes adjusted to the lights. I was standing in some sort of lab, but in no way did it resemble the one at the testing facility. The walls seemed to be made of naked steel, thick metallic beams going from the floor to the ceiling at regular intervals, and every piece of furniture was bolted down to the floor. I thought I was completely alone…except I wasn’t.

My breath caught in my throat as I noticed the hulking shape of a man by the corner of the lab. He had a white lab coat thrown over his massive shoulders, and he was standing beside some kind of incubator, the transparent glass reflecting the lights mounted overhead. Inside it was what appeared to be a giant egg, laser sensors projected all over its smooth surface.

Behind me, the teleportation pad hummed softly, and I looked back over my shoulder just in time to see it shut down. The faint glimmer of light radiating from the platform faded into nothingness, and a gentle chime indicated that the connection between the two teleporting platforms had been severed.

Goodbye, Earth, I thought. Hello, new place, wherever you might be.

When I finally glanced at the man once more, my heart tightened into a fist as I realized he was staring at me.

He had turned to fully face me, and his eyes were alight. His skin was of a deep blue, and there were golden tattoos peeking from underneath the collar of his black shirt. He had an imposing frame, one that made the lab coat he was wearing fit him awkwardly. He also had horns, long and smooth protrusions of bone with a gentle curvature, their tips as sharp as a knife. More than a scientist, he looked like a barbarian.

A very sexy barbarian.

I gave myself a slight nod, and then strode forward.

“Hello, I’m Addie,” I said, doing my best to keep a perfect posture. My back was straight, my chin was held high, and I felt a confident smile hanging on my lips. So far, I was doing a great job following my self-imposed script. “Am I right to believe that you’re my assigned mate?”

“Addie,” he repeated.

I wondered if he could understand a word of what I was saying. Translation chips were supposed to do the heavy lifting when it came to stuff like this, but I wasn’t exactly an expert when it came to communicating with alien species.

“I, huh, don’t know…” he continued, then took a step back and removed his lab coat. Before I could stop him, he pulled his shirt over his head. I hadn’t really expected for things to move this fast but, hey, I had volunteered for it.

“Can I at least know your name first?” I asked him, but I couldn’t even tell if he was paying any attention to what I was saying. He was too busy looking at his own body, his fingertips running over the intricate pattern someone had inked on the back of his shoulder. The ink glowed, the golden hue emanating from the thin lines so strong that I had to narrow my eyes again. Weird. I had never seen a tattoo glow before.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered to himself, and then he turned his attention back to me. His face was expressionless, but there was something in his eyes that gave me pause. There was curiosity there, but it was more than just that. “The name’s Javik.”

“Nice to meet you, Javik.”

“It seems like you are correct,” he continued, his deep voice enough for the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up on end. In an unconscious gesture, he brought one hand up and brushed his fingers over the glowing tattoo once more. “It appears that you are right. We are a match.”

“Alright,” I said, wondering if that glowing pattern on his shoulder had something to do with his sudden realization. I wanted to ask him about it, but I couldn’t find the right words. As it turned out, a shirtless hot alien made it almost impossible for me to remain focused. I had to make a conscious effort for my eyes not to wander down his body, but it didn’t take long before I caved in.

His pectorals emanated raw strength, and his wall of abs seemed to have been cut out of a marble block. Further down, the muscles below his abs cut into a perfect V. Each line and groove on his torso was a testament to perfection. My body immediately reacted to the sight of all that perfection, a pleasant warmth spreading from my belly throughout the rest of me.

Focus, damn it, I thought, and then snapped my eyes back to his face. Clearing my throat, I took one more step forward and offered him my hand. He looked down at it and knitted his eyebrows together. Eventually, he realized my intentions and grabbed my hand, his fingers so long that they brushed against the inside of my wrist. My imagination kicked into overdrive right away, and I wondered how it’d feel to have those large hands wandering all over my body, their warmth spreading onto my skin. I had thought I was making a sacrifice by coming here, but maybe I was being too pessimistic.

“Happy to make your acquaintance, Javik,” I said, returning his gaze as we shook hands. I made it a point of having a firm handshake, my posture never wavering as I did it. “Where am I?”

“You’re, huh, aboard the Calliope,” he replied. His speech was careful, almost as if he was a predator circling its prey, wondering from which angle it should strike. “It’s a Vaznik military vessel.”

It made sense. After all, this guy looked like he’d be right at home among a bunch of meatheads, never mind the fact that he also knew how to rock a lab coat.  

“So, you’re some sort of scientist slash soldier?”

“I guess you could say that.” He glanced around the room, and then waved one hand at all the scientific paraphernalia surrounding us. There was all manner of screens with complicated readouts, workstations littered with vials, high-definition microscopes in every corner, and some other things I had no idea what they were. “If it can be done inside a lab, then I’m the guy for it. Aboard the Calliope, my role is that of science officer and ship’s doctor.”

“I see.” Not bad—he was brawny, but he still had brains. At least I wouldn’t have to wonder about the genetic quality of our offspring. Without a moment’s hesitation, I took one more step forward and closed the distance between us. We were so close now that you wouldn’t be able to fit a hand between our bodies. “I guess a lab is as good a place as any.”

He looked down at me, the lines on his forehead deepening. In order to return his gaze, I had to tilt my head up, almost as if I were standing at the base of a skyscraper while trying to figure where the penthouse floor was.

“What are you talking about?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked him. “You’re my mate.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t follow.”

“We’re mates,” I insisted. “We have to consummate our relationship.”

“We have to…what?”

Chapter Three: Indira

Well, that was weird.

It almost sounded like Bana didn’t want me to come along. I thought we were friends. Why wouldn’t he want me around?

To be honest, I’d wanted to be more than friends with him since the moment I saw him, but there was never a good time to talk about it. Being wanted criminals and never knowing if we were going to live to see the next day took priority. Not to mention all the shady business with the Dominion and Adastria. It was just one life-threatening distraction after another.

Good thing I hadn’t said anything in the past, now that Bana didn’t appear to want me along. Didn’t he trust my abilities? Granted, he’d never gotten a chance to see me in action, but I was alive, wasn’t I? That counted for something.

I walked into my quarters and looked around. I didn’t have much worth packing. Before I loaded up, I needed to ask Aavat what kind of weapons I should check out from the armory.

A soft knock on my door startled me. I assumed it was Bana, coming to apologize for being so weird in the meeting. Instead, Kalyn stood in my doorway.

“Oh! Commander, I wasn’t expecting you,” I stammered. “Come in. I’d offer you a place to sit, but there isn’t one.”

“It’s fine,” she said with a tight smile. The usual warmth in her expression was gone. It looked like smiling was taxing for her. “I won’t keep you. I know you’re heading out soon.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got time.” I checked the timepiece on my wrist and let out a gasp. “Actually, I have ten minutes. Where did the time go? I have next to nothing to pack!”

“Pack while I talk,” Kalyn urged. “I don’t mind.”

“Thanks.” I flashed her a smile before grabbing a bag I’d made out of a discarded grain sack.

“I have an assignment for you,” she said. I went still and looked up at her, brow furrowed. “It’s to be completed while you’re on your mission for Aavat.”

“What do you need?”

“I want you to tell our story to as many people as you can,” Kalyn said. “Tell them everything, from the Persephone Station to what my mother did. Leave nothing out.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “But why?”

“You’re going to help forge an alliance, right? This will make your case all the more sympathetic,” Kalyn replied.

“But do we want to garner pity? Will that make the Hark System feel secure in an alliance?”

Kalyn’s expression brightened.

“Very good question,” she nodded with approval. “I knew you’d be good at this job.”

“You knew about the assignment?” I asked.

“Who do you think recommended you? Lynna told me about how you’ve been trying to rally the women while I’ve been…recovering.”

“That’s mostly because I can’t stand being idle,” I said with a dismissive wave. “But I appreciate you putting in a good word. I’m so excited for this opportunity.”

“Good. Enthusiasm like yours is hard to come by, especially now.”

I couldn’t help but beam at her words.

“Now, about spinning the right story,” Kalyn moved on. “You’re right. We don’t want to appear downtrodden and pitiful to the Hark System people, but we do want them to understand the devastation the Dominion is capable of.”

“So, be honest but not pathetic?”

“Exactly.” Kalyn smile looked more genuine now. “Consider this a training opportunity.”

“Training?” I tipped my head to one side.

“When you get back, we’ll have work to do,” Kalyn said. “I want to establish an official chain of command when you return.”

“Oh?” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Captain Dejar and crew have a distinct chain of command. I’ve seen how beneficial it is to the day-to-day running of the Rogue Star. Every crewmember knows exactly what their place is. I don’t feel like that’s the case for the Persephone women.”

“It’s been difficult knowing what to do lately,” I admitted. “We all felt lost.”

“That’s my fault,” Kalyn let out a sigh.

“No, it’s not,” I said firmly. “You reacted in a natural, totally understandable way to something shocking and painful. None of us hold anything against you. In fact, we’re glad you took time away for yourself.”

“I appreciate that.” Kalyn smiled weakly. I could see tears brimming in her eyes. She looked away suddenly, probably to blink back her tears. My heart went out to her.

“Recent developments aside,” she said with a sniff, “we still need more organization around here.”

“Right,” I said brightly, eager to move on to a subject more productive and less painful than Adastria’s betrayal.

“I’d like your input when you return.”

“Mine?” I blinked in surprise. “Are you sure? Wouldn’t Lynna or Maris be more qualified?”

“Perhaps, but they aren’t the ones who took the initiative. You did.” Kalyn gave me a knowing smile.

“Fair,” I conceded. “But you don’t know me very well. How do you know you’re making the right choice?” I felt foolish for arguing against Kalyn’s wishes, especially when I only stood to benefit from her offer.

“I know you better than you think,” Kalyn replied. “Your mother is a renowned geneticist and she’s passed her gifts on to you. You were set to follow her footsteps when you were sent to the Persephone Station for your sentence. The others regard you as ‘an annoying beam of sunshine’.”

“Excuse me?” I sputtered.

“Maris’s words, not mine,” Kalyn chuckled.

“Oh, in that case, I’m honored,” I laughed. I knew Maris well enough to know that most of her insults were actually compliments. It had taken me forever to figure that out.

“My point is, you’re not as invisible as you think you are. I wouldn’t make this decision based on an isolated incident,” Kalyn continued.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “I didn’t realize you were that-”

“Observant?” Kalyn arched her brow.

“No! I know you’re observant.” I backtracked quickly. “Just, with everything going on, I haven’t been on the front lines or anything. Not like the others have.”

“But you took over the duties of others when they were needed elsewhere. You kept the place running. Why are you making this so difficult?” Kalyn laughed.

“I’m not trying to, I swear!” I placed a hand over my mouth to stifle my giggle. “This is all just such a surprise! I’m grateful for any opportunity you’re willing to throw my way.”

“Good. If things go the way I want them to, there will be more opportunities for everyone. Oh, by the way, it’s been ten minutes.”

“Shit!” I shrieked, threw my bag over my shoulder, and bolted out the door.

“We’ll talk when you get back?” Kalyn called after me.

“Sounds good, Commander!” I shouted over my shoulder.

I ran off the Rogue Star as fast as my legs would carry me.

“Just in time,” Aavat said as I approached. “I was prepared to send them off without you.”

“Commander Kalyn wanted a word with me before I left,” I panted.

“Ah,” Aavat nodded.

“I forgot to check stuff out from the armory,” I suddenly realized.

“Don’t fret. I’ve stocked the ship with everything you might need.” Aavat patted the wall of the cargo bay affectionately. “Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

Aavat knelt down so I could use his leg as a step for climbing into the space vessel. It was a small but streamlined little ship that could be managed either manually by a pilot or run on autopilot if needed.

I threw myself into the first open seat and started digging through my bag, worried I’d forgotten something. After double- and triple-checking everything, I leaned against my seat with a sigh.

“Settled in?”

I jumped at the sound of Bana’s voice. He occupied the seat beside me. I felt like a jerk and an idiot for not noticing him until now.

“Nervous?”

“Just a little,” I replied. I still remembered his odd comments from before.

“I was worried you’d changed your mind,” he said.

“I thought that was what you wanted.” I furrowed my brow.

“No!” he said quickly. “Well, sort of. I don’t want anything to happen to you on this mission, regardless of how capable you are. Trust me, I know you’re capable. I just worry because you’re my friend.” He struggled over the last two words.

“I see,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “If Aavat hadn’t picked you himself, I would’ve requested you.”

“Really?” I tried to sound casual, but I couldn’t quite pull it off.

“Of course!” Bana grinned. “We’re in for a long flight. I need someone to play crossbrack with.”

“I know some other games we can play,” I suggested.

“You’re just tired of me constantly beating you at crossbrack,” he smirked.

“No,” I insisted even though that was sort of true. “But don’t you want to learn some human games? Hangman is one of my favorites!”

“That sounds violent.” Bana looked concerned. “Is it an appropriate game for such a small location?”

“It’s a word game,” I explained with a barking laugh. “You have to guess the word I’m thinking of before your stick figure dies. But you can only guess one letter at a time.”

“Stick figure?”

“Pass me your datapad.”

Bana handed his datapad over and I opened it up to a blank note page. With my finger, I drew a basic stick figure.

“That’s a stick figure.”

I sketched out the basic outline of a hangman game and made enough dashes to accommodate the word ADVENTURE.

“This is the word I’m thinking of,” I explained. “Each dash represents a letter. Now, you guess a letter.”

“Krix,” Bana said.

“What?”

“Krix.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

Bana took the datapad from me and drew a symbol next to the hangman game.

“That’s a letter from your alphabet, isn’t it?” I realized with a laugh.

“Of course!”

“I don’t know your alphabet. The word I’m thinking of is spelled in the human alphabet.”

“I don’t know your alphabet, either,” Bana chuckled.

“Well, I know what we’re doing until we get to the Hark System,” I grinned. “It’s time for you to learn your A-B-Cs.”

Chapter Two: Bana

One week after the Dominion attack and I was so busy it was amazing my hands had not fallen off yet. I was carrying a load of scrap metal salvaged from parts of the wrecked city to the warehouse we had been working out of. A few small ships from the human fleet were harbored inside the warehouse. 

Jik, a Gaed mechanic who’d been glued to my side for the last five days, rushed up to me.

“Those won’t do,” he sighed heavily, and pressed his hands against his slightly bulbous eyes. “That one’s too rusted. That one’s cracked. That one wouldn’t withstand the pressure of air travel. Honestly, have you ever built a ship before?”

“Built with my bare hands? No,” I shook my head.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Designed several models from little space Skimmers all the way up to intergalactic dreadnoughts? Absolutely,” I smirked. “What do you think I did before I became a soldier?”

“I don’t think about you often enough to ponder it,” Jik replied. I tipped my head back and laughed. The longer our days got, the more irritable Jik got. Pushing his buttons was one of my few sources of entertainment. I tried not to do it too often, but he couldn’t seem to help creating perfect opportunities.

“Any chance you could convince the humans to hand over their blueprints as we help them try and rebuild their fleet?” I asked. “Unless I have something to go off, I’ll just keep bringing back scrap, hoping it fits our needs. I’m not familiar with human metals and building techniques.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Jik said. “But you can’t blame the humans for being guarded.”

“I don’t,” I sighed heavily.

Aliens from another galaxy, a galaxy most of the humans hadn’t even known existed, swooped down and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives in the blink of an eye. Even though no one in the Rogue Star crew had anything to do with the attack, I could understand the human’s reluctance not to give proprietary information out to aliens.

“I could try repair techniques I’m already familiar with,” I offered. “But there are no guarantees the human ships will be able to withstand them.”

“Better not.” Jik clicked his forked tongue. “There’s no reason to strain their already limited resources.”

“Fair enough.” I put my hands on my hips. “You know, even if you were to secure the blueprints, I don’t think this fleet will be operational for months. That’s even assuming we get the necessary materials.”

“Which we probably won’t,” Jik finished my thought. “It’s looking rather hopeless, isn’t it?”

“Don’t say that,” a voice came from behind me. I turned to find Commander Aavat.

“Don’t look so surprised to see me,” he chuckled when he got a look at my expression.

“Sorry, sir. I wasn’t expecting to see you today.”

“I know. I’ve been locked in meetings with everyone under the Terran sun. Dejar is still tending to personal affairs,” he said tactfully.

“I understand.” 

The familiar wash of rage swept through my mind and, like always, I pushed it back. Not now. Not ever.

“Are things really as hopeless as our ever-optimistic Jik seems to think?” Aavat gave Jik a friendly clap on the shoulder, which Jik didn’t seem to appreciate, though he said nothing.

“It’s looking that way, sir,” I nodded.

“In that case, I hope you won’t mind if I pull you to another, more pressing assignment.”

“I’ll do whatever you need me to do,” I shrugged. Truthfully, a change of scenery sounded nice. One more day in this warehouse with Jik for company was going to drive me insane.

“I need you to go to the Hark System.”

My eyebrows shot up. I wasn’t expecting that big of a scenery change.

“Sounds exciting.”

“It is. We know the Dominion is going to target the Hark System next. We have proof. I want you to bring the proof to whoever is in charge over there and negotiate an alliance,” Aavat explained.

“I’d be honored to, sir,” I stammered. “But why me? Surely you have someone more qualified.”

“This is Dejar’s area of expertise,” Aavat said heavily. “He’s not in the right mindset to negotiate anything, and time is short. I respect your talents as a soldier and as an engineer, but what I need right now are your interpersonal relationship skills.”

“I have interpersonal relationship skills?” I blinked.

“You’re not an asshole,” Aavat shrugged. “That’s good enough for me right now.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment, sir.”

“Does that mean you accept?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great.” Aavat clapped me on the shoulder. “Follow me back to the Rogue Star. There’s some debriefing that needs to be done. And you’ll need to get to know your team.”

“My team?”

“Of course,” Aavat said over his shoulder as he started walking out of the warehouse. “You didn’t think you were going by yourself, did you?”

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the mission itself, sir,” I admitted as I fell into step beside him. “Does the Hark System know we’re coming?”

“We’ve tried to get a message out to them, but we don’t want to risk alerting the Dominion either,” Aavat explained. “It’s likely going to be a surprise visit.”

“How do we know they won’t react in a hostile manner?”

“We don’t. But you have aerial combat and ground combat training, so you should be fine.”

Fantastic.

Aavat and I boarded the Rogue Star. The usual flurry of activity I expected to see on the ship was absent. He led me into a small meeting room. To my surprise, Indira sat in one of the chairs. When she saw me, she smiled. I grinned back.

She and I had been friends since the humans came aboard the ship. None of the women had trusted us Shein at the time. Indira didn’t either, but she was also smart enough to realize that playing nice would get her farther.

She sat next to me in the dining hall one day and started talking to me about my tattoos. I believed her curiosity to be genuine at the time. From then on, we ate together often. A friendship formed. Though, if I was being honest, I had felt something more than friendship for her for a long time now.

She wasn’t interested. If she was, I would’ve noticed. It was for the best, I supposed. Now wasn’t the time to lose focus. Still, I was happy to see her.

“Indira,” I grinned. “What brings you here?”

“Aavat has an assignment for me.” She was practically wiggling with excitement. Indira didn’t like to sit still for too long. Sitting on the Rogue Star for the last week must’ve been torture for her.

“What a coincidence.” I took the seat next to her and looked at Aavat.  

“I told you that you weren’t going alone,” Aavat said to me.

“I believe you said the word ‘team’,” I replied.

“Two is a team. Besides, the only transport we could scrounge up that has more than one seat and room for enough provisions to get you to the Hark System isn’t very big.”

“The Hark System?” Indira shot up in her seat. “That’s on the other side of Dominion space from here, isn’t it?” I couldn’t miss the spark of excitement in her eyes.

“That’s right,” Aavat nodded. “I need you-”

“That’s so exciting!” she gushed and turned to me. “Have you been there before? What’s it like?”

“I’ve never been,” I told her. “I’m excited to see what it’s like.”

“What do you think they eat there?” she wondered. “I hope it’s human-friendly.”

“If you don’t mind,” Aavat spoke up, “I’d like to continue with the briefing.”

“Right.” Indira shrunk down in her seat and gave Aavat a shy smile. “Carry on.”

“Why, thank you,” Aavat gave a mock bow. “There’s one stop you’ll need to make after the Hark System.”

“We get to go somewhere else, too?” Indira blurted excitedly. I fought to hold back my smile.

“You’ll be going to Tola,” Aavat replied. “That’s where you’ll find the rest of your team.”

“Aren’t Wyann and Paila in Tola?” I asked.

“That’s right. They’ve been lying low, but now is the perfect opportunity to retrieve them,” Aavat explained. 

“I agree,” I nodded. “Any extraction procedure you’d like us to follow?”

“Trust your gut. I don’t know what you’ll be facing when you get there.”

“When do we leave? I can’t wait to get started!” Indira was already out of her seat, ready to get going right then and there.

“Be ready in two hours,” Aavat instructed. “The vessel you’re taking is still being fine-tuned.”

“The vessel took damage during the Dominion attack?” I asked.

“Yes, but everything should be fine.”

“Famous last words,” Indira snorted.

“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked her. “It sounds like it’s going to be dangerous.”

Hurt flickered in her eyes, but she quickly covered it up with a bright grin.

“Are you kidding? I’ve been pestering Aavat all week for something to do. Isn’t that right?” She turned to Aavat with a smug smile.

“That’s right.” Aavat suddenly looked weary. Indira must’ve worn him down. “She’s technically the second-in-command now, after Kalyn.”

“Is that so?” I turned back to Indira. “Congratulations on your new title.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, but I could see how proud she was under her demure exterior.

“I disagree,” Aavat said. “Kalyn won’t be up for much. The women will look to you now.”

“All the more reason to sit this one out,” I warned her. As much as I wanted her to come along, I couldn’t stand the idea of putting her in danger.

She’d escaped the clutches of the Dominion once, after all 

“Aavat asked me specifically.” There was an edge in her voice now, though her smile didn’t falter. “I’m going.”

Panic flared in my chest. I’d just have to keep her safe, whether she liked it or not.

I forced a smile. “In that case, I’ll see you in two hours.”

I reached out to shake her hand, which she shook with a confused look.

“See you then,” she replied, and left the room.

“What was that?” Aavat asked once we were alone.

That was my past bleeding into my present.

I sighed. “That was me being an idiot.”

Chapter One: Indira

Captain Dejar rounded the corner with a scowl marring his usually kind face. I had been listening to the quiet hum of the ship as we maintained orbit around Mars, but Dejar’s heavy breathing was enough to shake me out of my reverie.

“Captain,” I nodded, falling into step with him. He returned my greeting with only a grunt of acknowledgment. Undeterred, I carried on.

“I was wondering if we are going to meet soon,” I said. “I’m anxious to know our next steps.”

He said nothing in response. I bit my cheek to quell my rising irritation. I followed him, not realizing he was walking to the quarters he shared with Kalyn until he stopped before the doorway.

“It would be unwise to follow me further,” he growled. I took a step back.

“Apologies,” I muttered.

I turned on my heel and walked away. I heard the door to Dejar and Kalyn’s chambers open. From inside, I could just barely make out the muffled sound of Kalyn crying. My heart broke for her.

It was only natural that she’d be so distraught. Her mother had helped organize the most devastating attack the Terran System had ever known.  

Weeks ago, we’d discovered that Kalyn’s mother, Adastria, had helped arrange the destruction of the Persephone Station as some kind of twisted first act of an alliance with the Dominion. Adastria wanted the Terran System to be included within Dominion space and was willing to offer up her own daughter’s life to do it.

When that was discovered, Kalyn was crushed. It took some time, but she rallied. Returning to the Terran System was tougher for her than it was for the rest of us, for obvious reasons. She didn’t see Adastria as her mother anymore. She saw her as an enemy and a threat.

All of us onboard the Rogue Star figured that Adastria had already betrayed us, and the Terran System, once so it couldn’t get any worse. How stupid of us.

Kalyn recovered from the shock of her mother’s betrayal once, but couldn’t do it a second time. Not when her mother was responsible for so many lives lost.

I fought the urge to turn back at the sound of her soft sobs. Dejar quickly closed the door. I lingered in the corridor for a few moments, unsure of what to do.

In the end, I decided to go to the dining hall. Most of the Persephone women convened there since all of our rooms were too cramped to be good for anything other than sleeping.

I entered the hall to find clusters of silent and furious women sitting at empty tables. There was usually an endless stream of food coming from the kitchen. Right now, there was nothing.

“We need to do something,” I blurted because I could think of nothing else to say.

Maris barked out a dry laugh. Xyla looked at me with dull interest before a glower took over her features again.

“The captain hasn’t given orders,” Aryn said. “There’s not much we can do until then.”

“Bullshit,” I groaned. “The captain and our commander are just as shaken as we are. We can’t rely on them to give orders right now.”

“There’s a little thing called the chain of command,” Maris said. “We follow it for a reason.”

Maris was the last person I’d ever expect to reference respecting a chain of command.

“Besides, the captain’s made it clear that we’re going after the Dominion,” Lynna piped up.

“We have a single ship,” I exclaimed. “Going after the entirety of the Dominion is a fool’s errand at best and a suicide mission at worst.”

“If you want to get the captain in here to speak, go for it. Until then, I’m not doing anything without orders.”

“Kalyn is in no position to give orders and the captain is going to let his anger get the best of him,” I argued.

“No one is saying you’re wrong,” Shenna said as she absentmindedly petted one of her creatures. “We’re all shaken. It’s difficult to get organized when our leader is just as shaken as we are.”

I tapped my foot as my mind raced to come up with some kind of solution. I couldn’t take another day of waiting around for something to happen.

“Kalyn is our Commander.” I perked up as an idea came to me.

“Very good,” Aryn smirked.

“Commanders always have a second-in-command. Kalyn never elected one,” I went on. “Kalyn’s second-in-command could make decisions for her while she’s indisposed.”

“Why don’t you do it?” Lynna suggested.

“I’m not qualified,” I stammered. “Kalyn’s supposed to choose her second. What about Shenna? Or Aryn?”

“Kalyn’s not speaking to anyone but Dejar right now,” Maris pointed out. “Dejar is ready to combust at any moment. And they don’t have the presence that you do.”

“Let’s speak to Aavat, then,” I said. “He’s the First Mate. He’s allowed to make decisions in the captain’s absence.”

“He’s not technically absent, though,” Shenna pointed out.

“He’s absent enough,” I replied. “Shall we speak to Aavat?”

The Persephone women agreed. I couldn’t help but smile. Finally, something was happening. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. I’d be happy with that for now.

Rogue’s Return Sneak Peek

Vianne

If there was one part of working security that I hated more than anything else, it was dealing with fake IDs. Now I was helping make them to spy on the Dominion.

I loved every damn second of it.

Back in the main government building on Mars where Kalyn’s mother, Adastria, and the rest of the Martian governmental honchos did their work, I used to be head of security. My job was to create the security protocols and systems there, and how to beat them.

I ensured that each security team was where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there, and ran numerous scenarios regarding attacks on the offices to test each team’s readiness. Which included making sure that there were numerous ways out for each politician, each council member, each participant in Martian government.

People used to call me paranoid, and I didn’t really give a damn. Paranoia kept people alive. That’s what I was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, one minor slip in my paranoia cost me and I was sent to Persephone on a “temporary” assignment. I was there over two years.

The “bright” side to things was that I was still in contact with Mars, and even Earth. I had been commissioned by certain business leaders on Earth to keep them apprised of some of the experiments at Persephone. Meanwhile, I kept in contact with Adastria, who fed me bullshit about people on Pluto that were actually traitors and I was needed there to give her any and all information that I deemed necessary for her to figure out who it was.

I took the bait and did what she wanted me to do.

The lying bitch played me for a fool.

Now I was sitting on a foreign planet, way out in a part of the universe that was beyond any place that I could have ever imagined, working on finding a way to take down a corrupt government that had decided it was okay to take women, experiment on them, and steal DNA from them in order to find a way to create a so-called “perfect” race.

The problem that I had with the whole thing, besides the buying and selling of women—I mean, who does that?—was how were they going to create a “perfect” race? Whose definition of perfect were they using? How did they know that whatever concoction they came up with was actually going to be perfect?

I mean, the human race was a mystery of cells, blood, DNA profiles, and personalities that have studied themselves since the beginning of its existence, and we still didn’t have a solid clue as to how we worked. Okay, we did, but we also still struggled to find out why people were born with blue eyes instead of brown when both parents had brown. We still struggled to figure out why people were born with Down Syndrome, or ADHD, or why people succumbed to the urge to take drugs.

“Whoa.”

I was broken out of the recesses of my mind by Emmery’s little shout of dismay, or was it shock?

“What’s up?” I asked as I snapped back to reality and looked at her.

“I’m picking up a lot of chatter on Dominion comm traffic,” Emmery answered as her fingers flew over the keyboard, the clickety-clack of the keys drumming into my head like a tap-dancer’s routine.

“Like what?”

“Lots of talk coming out of various non-military channels regarding ship movement, medicinal shipments, and—well, this is weird—bulk paperfilm orders.”

“Wait, what? ‘Bulk film orders’? What’s that about?”

“Not sure.”

We stared at one another in confusion. The idea that the Dominion would be ordering bulk amounts of film seemed odd. “So, based on some experience of my own, if an organization is going to make an odd purchase, most of the time it means that it certainly isn’t that odd purchase, it’s code for something else.”

“Like what?” Emmery asked.

“If I was running the show, paper would be code for either weapons or munitions. Do we know where from and where to?”

“No. They’re pretty good at keeping locations quiet unless it’s something that is meant to be public.”

“Okay. We need to look into…what’s that?” I pointed at something blinking on the screen.

“That’s a message coming in on a secure frequency.”

“Can you open it?”

“Do you really think I should? What if it’s some sort of spyware from the Dominion to see what we’re up to?”

I smiled at her, a little smug—my paranoia was rubbing off on some people. “Good catch. Call Valtic.” She got on the comm, asking him to come up to the communications room. Within minutes, he was there.

“What can I do for you ladies?” he asked as he walked into the room.

I turned to greet him, a small nod of the head that he returned in perfect imitation. “We’ve just received a message on a secure frequency, but we’re a little wary of it. You mind running some of your software on it to make sure it’s safe?”

“Sure,” he said as he walked over to where we sat.

Emmery rose from her chair to let Valtic take her place. She pointed at the unopened message and he took a look at it. After a few minutes of pointing and clicking, typing, and sitting, he finally pushed back from the desk. “You’re all clear. You can open it and see what was sent.”

I wheeled my chair over, taking Emmery’s place at the computer as she sat down. “Hey.”

I glanced at her and smirked. “Sorry,” I said as I clicked on the file to open it.

“Bullshit,” she coughed.

What could I say, I was curious. Suddenly, dread replaced curiosity. It was a message from Wyann and Paila, and it was not good. Emmery gasped and even Valtic let out a small string of curses.

“What is it?” I asked.

“These files,” Emmery said. “Wyann and Paila say it relates to an invasion. But the coordinates don’t make sense. They’re not in the known star charts for Dominion or surrounding space.”

“That’s because the target is outside of Dominion space,” Valtic said, expression grim. “Look at the coordinates.”

I took a look again and placed them on the chart.

This was a detailed battle plan.

Pointed right at the Terran System.

Shit.

The Dominion was going after humans and they were going to send a big-ass fleet to tear them up. While it hadn’t been my home for a year, and for a couple of years I’d been on the far outskirts away from everything I knew, it was still home.

“They’re going to destroy everything,” Emmery said through a choked whisper.

“Does the Terran System have any way of protecting themselves?” Valtic asked, his voice muffled and hollow. It barely registered in my mind as I kept thinking about those billions of lives between Mars, Earth, and the numerous space stations that filled our system.

Someone shook me and I looked up at this obscenely tall man with shiny skin. I didn’t know who he was at first, then reality started to take back over. It was Valtic.

“What?” I asked, finally clearing my head.

“Does the Terran System have any way of protecting themselves?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “They have some ships and they have weapons, but if this report is even a quarter correct, we’re still getting blown out of the cosmos. We just don’t have the technology.”

“I see. We need to bring this to Dejar’s attention.”

I nodded in understanding, but I didn’t understand anything at all. There was, if the report could be believed, going to be a fleet larger than anyone had ever seen coming for us and wiping us out of existence, leaving us, the few humans that were sitting on the Rogue Star as the last of our kind, and with no males, the human race would die with us.

Within ten minutes, we were all in a conference room explaining what the message said. After I finished talking, I looked around the room at the different faces and their reactions. The women in the room ranged from tears and fear to anger and fury. The men, they were displaying a range of emotions that extended from shock to a need for action.

“Well,” Dejar started. “This puts us into a situation where we need to decide if we sit back or if we act. Do we try to save the Terran System?”

The chorus of shouts, threats, and yelling—almost entirely from the human females, but a little from the other men—answered Dejar’s question. He held up his hands to quiet us all down.

“Ask a stupid question,” he muttered, bringing out some nervous laughter from a few of us. He looked over at a quartet of people that I hadn’t paid much attention to when we started the meeting. “Shar, Zayne, Morgan, Siran, the four of you were originally tasked with trying to bring some extra allies to our rebellion. I need you to do something else now.” 

Zayne looked like a younger version of Dejar, just copper-toned instead of gold-skinned. The young medic had been bad at his job when we first joined the crew, a temperamental, slightly spoiled boy that hadn’t grown into his body yet. He’d since matured in form and competence. Shar was a big man that had a pudge when we joined, and still had a pudge now, but he was a beast of a man and powerful as hell. They both stood behind Morgan and Siran, and each of them nodded.

“Whatever you need of us, sir,” Shar said.

“Good,” Dejar said. “Then I need the four of you to investigate this fleet and let us know if it’s real. Do nothing but find and report, that is all. Clear?” They nodded. “Good. Go. The faster you go, the faster we get the information we need.”

The four of them nodded again, in unison, then left the conference room.

“We still have more to talk about,” Dejar said. “Everyone settle in. This is going to take a while.”

Colm

“I just don’t see evacuation as a realistic option.” Valtic’s creased face was set in a scowl as we surveyed the holomap of the Terran System. A three-dimensional representation of the human females’ home system floated above the command console in the security headquarters of the Star.

“I agree, but what else can we do? From what we know, I don’t think the humans’ technology will be much use against a coordinated Dominion attack of the scale we’re expecting.” I stroked my chin absentmindedly as I analyzed the chart.

I instructed the computer to highlight all of the high-risk targets based on the projected entry point of the Dominion attack fleet. Red dots popped up all over the system, too many to count.

“There’s no way we can evacuate a significant portion of those targets in time. We don’t know when the fleet will deploy, but even if we had a full year, there wouldn’t be time.” Valtic shook his head, the corners of his thin mouth pulled down into a frown. “Even with a full fleet of Rogue Stars, it’d be a challenge to square up against the Dominion, and we’ve only got the one.”

“You’re not wrong.” I turned away from the display, pacing to the back of the room and turning around, my frustration simmering just below the surface. My irritation mounted despite my struggle to control my emotions.

My anger finally burst. “You know who does have a whole fleet of Rogue Stars? The Gaed. This would be so much easier if they would just get off their pedestals already and join the fight. They’re the only ones with enough fire power to challenge the Dominion, and yet they cower behind their defenses in their home system.” I kicked the bottom of the command console, furious at the timid, cautious nature of our allies. “How much longer can they allow the Dominion free rein to torment the galaxy?”

Although the Gaed had been helpful as covert allies, their refusal to confront the Dominion openly frustrated me. I couldn’t understand how they could sit back and watch as the corrupt empire exploited world after world.

Valtic nodded, his face hard but calm. “That would certainly simplify things. But they’ve made their position clear. The Gaed leadership won’t risk the lives of their civilians by engaging in open war with the Dominion. It’s taken them too long to negotiate the current tenuous peace, and they won’t jeopardize it for an uncertain rebellion.”

“Well, the umbba rebellion wouldn’t be so uncertain if they would join in already. If they threw their full support behind us, we’d actually have a chance.” I seethed with anger. “How can they justify this? How many lives will be lost because of Gaed cowardice?”

Valtic clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you who harbors us right now. The Gaed have already offered us tremendous help, and I’m certain they will have still more to offer before this rebellion is finished. You can’t entirely blame them for their hesitance. Their people are left in peace through their treaty with the Dominion. How many Gaed lives were lost to secure that agreement? How many Gaed lives would be lost in the breaking of it? It’s simple for us, we had little choice. But the Gaed have a prosperous, peaceful existence. It would be a lot to sacrifice.”

“And what about us? What about the rest of the galaxy? We have risked everything. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone.” My anger subsided, reduced to a resentment at the challenges before us. But I had always relished a strategic challenge, and I was determined to solve this one.

“You can’t expect everyone to act as we do. We were thrust into unique circumstances.” Valtic flashed me a wicked smile.

I was still trying to get used to seeing the hardened, severe man smile. I didn’t think it had ever happened before he and Lynna started spending so much time together. It was still far from a common occurrence, but no longer unheard of. There could be no doubt that the man’s demeanor had improved immeasurably since he had paired off with the human.

“Speaking of those unique circumstances, do we know if any of the human females have any knowledge of their system’s defenses?”

“Not sure, but that would probably be useful.” Valtic sent out a ship-wide alert that asked anyone with knowledge of the Terran defense network to report to the security center immediately. “Hopefully, one of them will be able to provide some insight.”

“If they do, they will have proved more useful to this particular operation than the whole of the Gaed empire.” Obviously, I hadn’t completely let go of my anger.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Colm. The Gaed have provided us ships, shield technology, covert reconnaissance information, and most importantly, safe harbor. They’ve done plenty to assist this rebellion already. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

I grunted dismissively, my face set in a hard scowl as I stared at the holomap. Valtic frowned at me and, seeing that no further response was forthcoming, continued.

“And if we succeed in striking a decisive blow against the Dominion, I have no doubt that they will join in our cause directly. They’re waiting to see if this is a real rebellion, or just the ravings of one aggravated band of fugitives. They’ve shown tremendous faith in us up to this point. I think you expect too much from them.”

I scoffed. “I expect a little courage. Is that really too much?”

“For some, yes. Not for a couple of grizzled veterans like us, of course. But it doesn’t come so easy to others, throwing themselves into open conflict. It’s up to us to show them that we can win, brother.” Valtic’s face was still severe, but his features were alight with hope.

I couldn’t stop a wide grin from spreading across my face. “Oh, you have changed, Valtic. That human girl’s got you believing in stuff, doesn’t she?”

He shot me a dirty look, but his bronze eyes still glittered with passion.

“Yes, I see it clearly. It’s love. You’re in love, and it’s made you soft, my friend. You’re full of hope now.”

He scowled, his eyes boring into mine, and I thought for a moment that it might come to blows. But he relented, his expression softening.

“Ah, scro.” He sighed as a soft, wistful smile played across his lips. “You know, you might be right.” He shook his head, looking down at the floor.

I clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s good. I’m glad to see you happy. You deserve it.”

“You know, there are many other fine women on the ship. Maybe one of them can stir the hope within you, as well.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Oh, I don’t think so, friend. Besides, we have too much work to focus on right now. Frankly, I don’t understand how so many have found the time for romance, but I’m certain that there couldn’t be a worse time for it.”

He raised his brow, smiling doubtfully. But before he could respond, the door chimed the approach of a visitor.

I buzzed the door open, and a human female strode confidently into the room with her shoulders pulled back and chin held high. I was pretty sure I’d met her briefly before, and that her name was Vianne.

Her chin-length black hair was as straight as her rigid posture, and it shone like polished obsidian. Her stormy blue eyes sparkled with intense intelligence as she shifted her gaze between Valtic and me.

“You guys asked for anyone with a knowledge of the Terran defense systems, right?”

Valtic nodded as he spoke. “We did. We’re trying to map out a rough plan with the little information we have, and we were hoping one of your group could provide us with some information about security and defense technology, that sort of thing.”

She laughed, but her eyes remained hard. “Well, I’m definitely the woman for that job.”

“And why is that?” I regarded the woman curiously, intrigued by her intense demeanor.

She met my gaze. “I used to be the head of security for the Mars Assembly’s capitol building. I pretty much managed all of the personnel responsible for the safety of the most important figures in the whole system. Including Adastria Askvig.”

Valtic and I exchanged surprised looks, rendered speechless. I found my voice after a moment, turning to address this fascinating woman.

“Uh, well, sounds like that should be pretty helpful.” I extended my hand toward her in what I had learned was a courteous human gesture. “Welcome to the security team. Vianne, right?”

She gripped my hand with surprising strength and shook it professionally, but the huge smile on her lips reached all the way to her brilliant blue eyes. “Glad to be here. Colm, isn’t it?”

I nodded, a smile spreading across my own face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Valtic was grinning wider than either of us.

Vianne

I wasn’t entirely sure what had crossed between the two men that would put such a large grin on Valtic’s face and make Colm glare at him, but I decided that none of it was my business.

“So, what did you want to know?” I asked.

“Well,” Colm said as he finally let go of my hand, “come take a look at this.” He led me over to an impressive three-dimensional display of the Milky Way.

“This is really in depth and impressive. What are the red dots?”

“High-risk targets based on where we think the Dominion will fold into the galaxy,” Colm answered.

“That bad, huh?” I asked rhetorically. “Okay. Well, first thing I need to know is, how old is this map?”

Colm looked a bit embarrassed when he answered. “In honesty, we haven’t updated it since the last time we were near the system.”

“So, when you accidentally broke the station and had to rescue us?”

Both he and Valtic nodded.

“Any idea if the Gaed have an updated map?” I asked. “Or maybe Qal?”

“Qal’s the one that gave us this map,” Colm responded. “Since we haven’t been back near your system, we’re missing some information.”

I nodded again. I felt like a damn bobblehead, nodding so much. “Well, while one of you talks to the Gaed about an updated map, I’ll put in what information I can.”

I played with the map, learning the controls of how to zoom in, zoom out, move things around, and how to add things and take things away. I started looking at it like it was one of the war games the commanders back in the Space Force liked to play, and I was able to pick up on things quickly.

“Hey, Colm, come here,” I called back over my shoulder as I added space stations, ship patrols from my last bit of knowledge, and defense satellites.

“What can I do for you, Vianne?” Colm asked in a voice that had me wondering what he was trying to accomplish. It was flirty, but it didn’t sound intentional. Was he trying to flirt with me? Was he just trying to be nonchalant and failing miserably?

“Hey, I need to know where you think the Dominion is going to come in. I want to see if you have better instincts about it than I do.” While we hadn’t been around one another much over the year we’ve been on a ship together, I did know a little bit about him and I knew he had a good head on his shoulders.

“If I were running things and wanted to make the best entry point to cause the most damage with the least amount of danger to my own people, I would,” he stopped talking to study the map a little more. After nearly a minute of study, he finally pointed to a spot just outside of Saturn’s orbit. “I would come in there. It’s close enough to give the Dominion the element of surprise while keeping them out of a potential pincer attack.”

I nodded. He had done what everyone back on Earth and Mars had done, he had fallen for the trap, only thinking linearly since the orbits of all of our planets were linear.

“Why not up here or down here?” I asked, putting two yellow dots into the map.

“Because…kout,” he cursed, chuckling. “I fell for the trap of looking at the orbits as the only direction to go.”

“You think the Dominion will do the same?” I asked, a tiny spark of hope in my voice.

He looked at me, then back to the map, then back to me. “Well, there is a chance. Psychologically speaking, most people go with what is simplest and are usually easily influenced by what they see. They tend to not look beyond what they see.”

“So, again, I ask you, do you think the Dominion will do the same?”

“I’ll answer the same way. There’s a chance. They have some smart people in command of their military forces, but they just might take the Terrans for granted and believe that they don’t stand a chance.”

Colm was right, unfortunately we Terrans weren’t known for an overabundance of intelligence, and when compared to what I’ve seen over the past year, we definitely didn’t have the technology. The only thing that I would say humans had over the Dominion forces would be simple tenacity.

We were a race of survivors that knew how to find a way through whatever shit was thrown at us, even if we were the ones throwing it.

We were also a race of insane bastards that were more than willing to do some seriously crazy shit in order to make stuff happen. I mean, we were willing to launch ourselves in a tiny-ass tube to Pluto knowing that there was a twenty-five percent chance we wouldn’t make it in one piece or alive.

“What are you thinking about?”

I snapped back to reality and looked at Colm. “I was thinking that if the Dominion pulls the same thing you did, we stand a chance. What if we end up placing Earth defenses here, here, here, and,” I touched three different spots on the map, then a fourth, “here.”

“That would allow Earth forces to have the Dominion surrounded on three sides. Even with inferior technology, they can do some damage. If your ships are strong enough and your captains are good at their jobs, they may even be able to drive them away, if only for a little time.”

“You think so? I mean. . .” I looked up at him as he stood over me looking at the map. His muscles stretched the fabric of his sleeves whenever he moved his arms. His reddish-gold skin caught the lights of the map and the room and seemed to glow. There was a certain muskiness about him that filled my nostrils, and I found myself liking it. I quickly brought myself back to the point I had been trying to make. “If this fleet is as big and bad as the report claims it’s going to be, I wonder if we would be able to evacuate people instead.”

“The thought came up. Is that what you want to do? Run? And how?”

I folded my arms. “Hey, sometimes it’s better to run so you can fight again.”

“Perhaps.”

We spent the next few hours looking over the map, trying to come up with new plans based on our best guesses. Even after Valtic returned with a slightly updated map, we kept at it.

Colm was fun to be around, and I discovered that he pronounced his name just like the word “calm.” He lived up to his name. He was exceedingly calm as we played mini-war games against one another in order to test the validity of the plans we were trying to come up with. He was good, but so was I. Between the two of us, we managed to come up with some pretty decent plans.

“Why haven’t the so-called head-honchos put us together before this?” I wondered out loud as we finalized one final defense plan. “I mean, we work together so unbelievably well.”

“I agree,” he said with an intoxicating smile. “You and I seem like such a natural team, it seems as though our connection should have been made long ago.”

“Yeah. Well,” I said as I stood up and stretched, making sure he got a good show in the process. I knew he was looking at me and I made sure to make the stretch last as long as I could. “I’m starving. You wanna grab a bite to eat?”

“No, thank you,” he said with a shake of his head.

That sucked. “Why not?”

“I have some more work to attend to. But, go. Eat. Don’t ignore your stomach on my account.”

Well, if he was going to practically shove me away, fine. I bid him a good night and headed off to the dining hall. Several of the women, well, truthfully, everyone was talking about the reports we had gotten from Paila and Wyann. But it was the women doing most of the talking about whether or not we should go back.

“What about what they did to us? What about our so-called ‘punishments’?” One of the ladies, one of the older ones named Sheryl, asked the table. The ladies had pushed about four tables together so they could all talk about the same subject, sometimes at the same time. A few of the men sat with them, but it was mostly the women. “Some of us were ‘punished’ for things that wouldn’t have gotten more than a warning or a night in jail in the old days. Why do we want to go back for them now?”

“Because,” Maris answered with a roll of her eyes. “They’re humans, like us. Do you want the entire human race to be obliterated? I don’t see any other men around here, so if we let the Dominion stroll in and kill everyone, we’re all that’s left. The human race will die out with us.”

“And?” Sheryl demanded. “You’re telling me we should risk our lives for the same people that betrayed us?”

“Not everyone betrayed us,” Aryn countered. “Not everyone was involved with Adastria’s little plan.”

“Besides,” I cut in before Sheryl could run her old-ass mouth again. “Most of us still have family back there. I’m not about to let my family die for something we’re partially responsible for.”

That shut Sheryl up, although Aryn looked at me. “How are we partially responsible for anything?”

“I’m not saying we are, but the Dominion damn sure thinks we are,” I answered. “So, I want to stop them.”

That brought about a lot of voices echoing my own, but a few still questioned. Not the fight, but the likelihood of us winning and if evacuation was a better option. At least we were talking civilly.

Coming August 9 to KU!