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.
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.
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?”