“Lean back and spread yourself out against the rockface,” I called down the line. Everyone was pouring sweat, but each face beamed with elated, nearly maniacal smiles. The ledge was so narrow, some of the men couldn’t point their feet directly out in front of them, but had to keep them turned out to the sides.
Just past the lip of the footing, the deep scoop of the ravine banked off to a range of tree freckled mountains on the other side of the valley. We were closer to the clouds than we were to the bottom of the drop. A host of birds whirled and swooped in the haze before us. All that pristine beauty tickled with the frenetic vibrancy of danger.
No guard rails, nothing to hold onto but the odd bit of scrub. Nothing dividing us from oblivion but will and scrappy determination. I’d never wanted to live any other way.
I didn’t honestly think I could.
At an elevation of seven thousand feet, pitted against nothing but self, was the most alive a person could feel. That’s why I led these expeditions. The five people who trailed me were perhaps the most experienced hikers I’d ever brought out. Most groups wouldn’t get to come on a stretch like this.
These folks were big spenders and only came to this region for the climbing. Not that there was much else to entice people to this area. To call Postpike a town would have been paying it a compliment. It wasn’t much of a spot on the map. Only about four hundred full time residents held down the fort for the tourist trade that picked up during the warm seasons.
Most of the trade came from families looking to get in on the mineral springs tucked away in the cracks of the stony landscape. They were nice, but not much to look at when push came to shove, so a couple of eateries and bars did their best to suck up the overflow. The more adventurous families might book me to take them on a hike up into the moderately exciting passes.
Cash from that sort of thing was good enough to keep me going, but what actually kept me going were groups that really wanted to test what our little corner of the world had to offer. There were some incredible, difficult climbs, and I was the only guide taking folks out. That meant I could pretty much name my price and most high-risk climbers were ready to pay it.
While I would never point it out, I could see my own cabin from where we were standing. It was about a quarter of the way up a ridge from the center of Postpike and gave me as much seclusion as a person could want.
And I wanted plenty of it.
I liked being alone. Depending on nobody but myself.
Because when it came down to it, that was all you had.
In truth, I’d rather be making this climb by myself, even if it was for the thousandth time—but the cash was necessary.
The best thing that could be said about Postpike was that it let me fly well under the radar. It seemed like most people who settled there were looking to escape from something back in civilization, and I was no exception. Most of them were bail jumpers or petty thieves, but I was something tantamount to a state criminal.
And what was it that kept me lying so low?
Not wanting to get married off to a stranger. My birthday had been called for the Friday lottery. I had two choices. Get processed or get out.
There was no doubt which one I’d chosen.
My parents had been keeping some identity documents tucked away for me since I started stomping my feet about this unjust system when I was twelve.
They’d split up when I was a kid, but on this issue, they’d stayed united.
When the day came, those papers got shoved in my pocket with enough money for me to hop a couple of ground transport units and get the hell out of there.
Did I miss my parents? Yes. Every day.
Did I miss the constant threat of getting ‘matched’ with some stranger alien and married off as recompense for defense?
Not so much.
I knew my chance of being a genetic match was low, but it was the principle of the system I stood against.
“Ferne,” came a voice from the back of the group and snapped me out of my meditation. Julie was the shakiest of the bunch, yet still a far cry ahead of the majority of climbers that came to Postpike. The edge to her voice told me I needed to get a set of eyes on her.
Bracing my backside on the rock face, I craned my shoulders out and looked hard to my left. The exhilarated smiles had dimmed into something slightly more troubled, and cautious eyes darted back and forth between me and the woman at the back of the line. As I leaned to look, that tingly pit set to work in the base of my stomach—the best feeling in the world. Maybe only bettered when coupled with that cold, jelly feeling that tucks in the back of your knees.
Yeah, Julie was on the edge. She hadn’t yet tipped over into full panic, but it was coming. Much though I hated to admit it, moments like this one were always my favorite part of the job. Not for the poor wreck going through the ordeal, but because these situations always called for me to push my own limits.
“Hang on, girl. I’ll be right there.” Now that I had said it, I had to make good on the promise and actually get past four other people on this tiny ledge and get to her. To my right, the outcropping we were passing actually widened out to just over a foot. That ought to be enough.
“Alright. Harry, Yazmin, Tate, Viv—you guys follow me. Julia, you stay put. This will only take a second.”
It was a big promise considering I wasn’t entirely sure how this whole thing was going to work, or what I was going to do when I reached her. Still, there’s nothing like having a task to stir up the blood. The four others fired up with a wicked gleam of determination, and started shuffling after me.
When I hit the widest margin of our footing, I inverted my feet and did a quick spin, slamming my stomach flat to the rock face and pressing hard so that the momentum didn’t carry me over into a freefall.
“Holy fucking shit!” Harry’s eyes were wide and I could see fresh sweat beading upon his face.
“Don’t even think about it. You are nowhere near ready for that kind of thing.” I inched further down the path and coaxed Harry to the place where I had just been standing. “Come on.” He crept into place, watching me for instruction.
“Alright, flatten as hard as you can.”
He did and I slid back over to him, placing my right hand on the far side of his chest, and my foot on the gap between his. I began to inch past him.
“Put your hands on my waist and lean back into the rock as hard as you can.”
He obeyed, and I pressed my body against his and snugged across him. As I did, I could feel his hard piece digging up against me. Turning my face to his, we were nearly nose to nose as I stared into his eyes with my best no-nonsense glare.
“Couldn’t help it.”
Couldn’t argue with that. These situations gave rise to all kinds of reactions. Landing on the other side of him, I looked at Yazmin.
“You got the idea?”
She nodded, and we repeated the process until there was nothing between me and Julie but about fifty feet of narrow rock. After all the wriggling I had just done, this ought to be a piece of cake.
“Julie, can you hear me?” She nodded but didn’t turn to look my way. She was in full lockdown mode, and it was apparent the fringes of panic eating at her earlier had blossomed into the full thing. This might be trickier than I thought. Harder even than whatever Henry had been packing when I slithered over his body.
“Listen. I’m going to come over to you and take your hand, okay?” Julie nodded again. “Good. Now, I know you don’t want to look but just focus on the sounds of my feet on the ledge. See if you can hear how much room I’ve got over here.” I made sure to shuffle more than usual, moving quickly to demonstrate the ease of it.
Within seconds, my fingers laced with hers, prying her hand away from the rock. She gripped so hard, I could feel the bones in my hand buckle.
“I don’t get what the big deal is. You’ve already passed the narrowest part of the pass,” I lied. “Everything ahead of you is wide open compared to what you just went past.”
“Really?” The tension in her neck broke just enough for her to turn her head to look at me.
“Are you kidding? I do this pass in my sleep. I mean, look out at that view. It’s what you came up here for.” It was a risky move on my part, getting her to look out, but it paid off immediately. Her breath settled deeper and her shoulders dropped.
“Not bad, huh? Just keep your eyes on the horizon and follow me.”
We crept along, every foot gained a major victory for the group. Just as we were about to reach the other four, my foot lost purchase. It was my own fault for keeping my focus so intently on Julie. But when that telltale scrape skittered up under my foot, I couldn’t do anything but look at Julie.
“Let go of my hand.”
Even if she didn’t seem to understand, her body heard me and she turned loose her grip as I rocked backward off the ledge and out into the open air. My body went cold, and somebody turned out the lights.
Three days ago, we’d arrived on Gravum IV and had been stuck there ever since. The original plan was only to touch down for a night, enough to get our bearings and recoup from the journey, but the comms systems went down as soon as we’d landed.
With no way to get in touch with command and no details provided about the mission upfront, we were essentially stranded. There was nothing for us to do but wait.
The first night, at Lila’s insistence, we’d set up camp outside under the stars. She’d told us about how she and her sisters sometimes used to sleep outside for fun and had made it seem like an adventure, far from what the team was used to when we’d be forced to camp on other missions. She was right—when you weren’t worrying about being killed by enemies or consumed by the native fauna, sleeping outside was enjoyable.
By the second day of our grounding, my teammates, Captain Rekker, Lila, and I had become understandably restless. To keep ourselves both sane and busy, we’d focused on various tasks around our stations. Derrix went to work disassembling and reassembling weapon after weapon, cleaning and polishing them until they shined. Cedroc checked and rechecked all flight systems. Javik, with the help of Lila, set about tidying up and reorganizing the infirmary. By the end of the day, nearly everything was back to working order.
Except for the comms. I’d done everything I could, all day, to figure out why nothing worked. I’d rewritten codes, fiddled with wires, rerouted through satellites and nothing. For some stupid reason I couldn’t figure out, The Calliope was floundering in the dark.
The thought of being isolated on an unknown world without comms abilities didn’t sit well with me. In fact, it downright freaked me out and I threw myself into finding a solution.
Since I’d tried everything, the only thing left to do was work on extending our wave range. Gravum IV was far out in an uncharted system, so we were likely inaccessible to satellites, preventing us from receiving transmissions properly. If I could figure out a way to rig something up to our main transmitter, I might be able to extend our signal just far enough to hit a satellite closer to the High Command base.
If that idea didn’t work, then I guess we’d be on our way back to base sooner than we thought. Rekker was good at following orders, but he wouldn’t just leave us out here. Not when he was already pissed that he’d been given next to no information about this place. If I couldn’t fix this mess, at least my inability to do so would get us out of here.
I spent the third day exploring the ship, visiting various stations to inspect and collect anything that might remotely work to extend our range. Anything made of metal was fair game, regardless of its size or its previously intended use. I took old weapons parts from Derrix, used scalpels and needles from Javik. Even Cedroc had a steering mechanism he wasn’t using anymore that he let me add to my growing menagerie of junk.
By the time I returned to my workshop, I’d assembled quite the trove. I laid them all out, examining each item individually, and cataloged them as best I could according to what I thought would actually work. Once everything was assembled in front of me, I saw that my options were grim indeed.
I wasn’t an idiot, by any means, but the items I’d collected were basically garbage. I wracked my brain thinking of any and all possibilities for a device I could create to hook up to Calliope, but no ideas presented themselves. For the first time in recent memory, I was truly at a loss.
Around midday, I decided to take a break. I needed to pull back, clear my mind, and do something else to focus my thoughts. Whenever I’d been faced with a tough puzzle in the past, I’d often found that distracting myself with another task helped me see the forest instead of the trees. I felt mired deep in the weeds and desperately needed something to pull me out of it. I wasn’t getting anywhere just staring at glorified trash.
My rumbling stomach determined where to best occupy myself, so I wandered to Calliope’s mess, intent on rustling up something to eat. To my surprise, I found Rekker seated at one of the long tables, stabbing angrily at a meal of his own. His eyes lit up a little upon noticing my arrival.
“Come sit with me, Kyre—I need an update,” he said, pulling a chair out for me.
“Permission to grab something to eat first, Captain?” I asked, half-jokingly.
Up until that point, I didn’t think I’d seen him smile at another crew member since we’d touched down on Gravum IV. I’m sure he’d smiled at Lila, but none of us Vaznik warriors were as pretty as his human mate.
“Of course,” he said, gesturing to the long table near the front of the room that had already been laid out with food from the replicator.
I quickly made my way over and piled a plate high with various items, unable to avoid thinking of how quickly we’d run out of rations if I didn’t get comms back up and running to get the transporter up. Without the comms working, the signal to other transport pads wouldn’t connect. Once the plate was filled, I returned to join Rekker at his table.
“Where’s Lila?” I asked.
It couldn’t hurt to disarm him with a little mindless chatter before telling him I’d not made any progress. He was already irritated enough that Strygan had refused to tell him anything about the mission. Leading with my ineptitude would only make his mood worse.
“She’s down in the infirmary with Javik. They organized the place yesterday, but she has an idea in her head on how they could make the space more efficient during emergencies. I’ve never seen Javik willingly listen to anyone else or take suggestions on how to run the infirmary before, so I’m letting her take point on it,” he said with a laugh.
“She’s a great addition to the crew, Captain. Saying I’m surprised is not technically the right way to phrase it, but I’m impressed with how well she’s amalgamated to us. I never would have thought a human woman would be an asset to our team.”
Rightfully so. The Vaznik warriors preferred to operate as a cohesive unit, without outside influence or additions. We worked and lived together and were more like family than colleagues. I’d never imagined a human female would integrate into our ranks nearly effortlessly.
Maybe it had something to do with her mate being one of us, but we’d need further evidence to confirm that. I couldn’t see us getting another human-Vaznik mated pair onboard anytime soon.
“Thank you for saying that, Kyre. I admit that I was troubled over how all of you would feel about Lila’s presence here,” he said.
“It was touch and go at first, but she’s part of us now. I think I can speak for us all when I say we’d protect her with our life, as we would any other,” I said.
He cleared his throat before speaking again, as if some kind of emotion had gotten trapped there.
“How’re things with comms? I saw you running around the ship this morning collecting various items—have any of them proved satisfactory? Will we be back in business by the end of today?” he asked.
“I can’t say for sure, Captain. At this point, I’ve tried everything I can possibly think of to get us up and running and nothing has worked. I think we’re just too far out of range. I’m trying to reason out a way to extend what we currently have but . . . so far it’s not looking good,” I said.
Rekker sighed long and deep, leaning back in his chair. “I’ll have to talk to the rest of the team, but if we can’t find a way to contact base we won’t be staying here much longer. Maybe we should try to ascend through the atmosphere just a little to see if that brings us back up?”
“Let’s make that a last resort. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work, I just have to . . . .” my voice trailed off as my mind wandered back to the puzzle.
“Is there anything I can do for you? You didn’t raid my personal stores,” Rekker said with a laugh.
“And I wouldn’t, Captain, not without your permission. I often find that focusing on something other than the task at hand helps me come up with ideas. If you’re willing, maybe you could tell me more about Lila? Are you happy with your arrangement now? I know it wasn’t so when she’d first arrived.”
Thankfully, he obliged me.
“We’re very happy, Kyre. The relationship was not expected, but I’m glad for it now. Part of why I want to get this mission over with so quickly is so I can return to the outpost and find her a ring—it’s a human custom to give one to the woman you wish to marry. A diamond, apparently, which will likely be hard to find out here but I’ll try nonetheless.”
“A diamond,” I said, the word taking root in my mind.
“Yes, a clear, white stone. They’re rare on Earth and highly coveted by human females. My research tells me they can fetch quite the price. Even small ones are worth thousands of Earth dollars.”
“A diamond,” I repeated, barely hearing Rekker’s explanation. “That’s it! If I attached some sort of gem—or—crystal to a metal arm on top of our satellite, I’m sure it would extend the range!”
“But where are you going to find something like that all the way out here on Gravum IV?” Rekker asked.
“Permission to explore the surrounding territory, Captain?” I asked, unable to keep the hope from my voice.
“Permission granted, Kyre. Let’s get this mission done and get the hell off this rock.”
The next time I opened my eyes I discovered—bewilderingly—that I was in the process of being airlifted from the side of the mountain pass. My body was wrapped tight and secured onto a long stretcher, the hard planes of it pressing roughly into my aching back. Not only was I bandaged from head to toe, but I was also quite obviously strapped down to keep my body still, but the cords felt too tight across my chest and made it difficult to breathe.
I couldn’t move, but as I returned to consciousness, I recalled what happened. I’d gone back down the ledge to help Julie through a particularly difficult section of the climb and slipped. Knowing I’d take her down with me I’d ordered her to let me fall and she had. I held no ill will towards her for doing as I’d instructed and I hoped I was the only one who’d suffered this fate.
I couldn’t help but wonder exactly how far I’d fallen. A sick part of me thrilled to discover the distance. Once a daredevil, always a daredevil.
As my mind woke and started processing what had happened, the pain came flooding in alongside the memories. My arm throbbed so excruciatingly it had to be broken, at least in multiple places. Fleetingly, I’d hoped it would be able to be repaired and wasn’t so badly mangled that it would have to be amputated. I’d be determined and stupid enough to learn how to climb with only one arm, but I’d really prefer not to.
I could only move my head a fraction of an inch, but it was enough to see that my hands had been left exposed and were covered in scratches and bruises. I knew some of them were old wounds, but there was fresh blood where some of my nails had been torn off. I’d likely scrabbled for purchase along the cliff face as I’d fallen, ripping them off on the stone as I’d tried to save myself.
At least I’d have a good story if I made it out of this alive.
When the stretcher finally reached its destination inside the medivac chopper, I was greeted by two flight nurses. They already knew my name and provided theirs, but my head was so sore I couldn’t remember them. When I saw their faces, I realized they meant to take me to a hospital, which was the last thing I wanted.
Even though my head was pounding and my mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, I begged them to reroute to a remote cabin close by where a friend of mine could patch me up. She lived alone near the base camp of another peak and had treated many of the various injuries I’d received over the years. She’d have no problem doing it again.
I couldn’t go to a government-run hospital. Better I’d died falling down that mountain than end up in the hands of the feds.
The nurses would have none of it.
“Don’t be silly, dear,” the head nurse, an older woman with a no-nonsense attitude clucked. “you’re lucky you’re not dead, or significantly brain damaged.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Although if you keep insisting on unreasonable things, I’ll have to rerun that scan.”
“Really, I’m fine,” I ground out.
“Really, the hospital is the best place for you,” she snapped. “You’ll be safe there.”
If only they knew.
I watched helplessly as they started their assessment of my injuries.
“Right arm is definitely broken, possibly in three places. Head trauma is likely, as evidenced by the patient’s slurred speech and nonsensical requests. We can’t yet rule out internal injuries—she’ll need a full-body scan to assess that,” one of them said.
The other nurse was typing all of this up onto a portable tablet, but her brow was furrowed. I didn’t think my heart could sink any further, but I was quickly proven wrong.
“I’m trying to add your notes to the system so the hospital can access them prior to our arrival, but I can’t find her. You sure her name is Ferne Whittaker? With or without the ‘e’ at the end?” she asked.
“With. Try it without?” the other nurse suggested.
It didn’t matter, they could spell it however they wanted; they wouldn’t find me in any of their tracking systems. I was a ghost.
“That’s odd,” I laughed, but even to my ears it sounded weak. “Maybe it’ll be easier for everyone if you just take me to my friend. She’s pretty close, right?”
She just ignored me, typing away, searching for information.
I tried to knock the tablet out of the nurse’s hands, but I was so weak I could barely think straight, much less physically assault an unrestrained nurse in perfect health.
My head was so sore it felt like it was about to split. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and it was evident that the nurses had given me some sort of sedative, but whether it was before or after I’d tried to fight them I wasn’t sure.
Before I knew it or could say another word, I’d passed out again.
I opened my eyes again once we’d landed, the jolt of the chopper hitting the concrete shaking me back to reality.
My mind could focus on nothing but the fact I was being wheeled into a hospital. It was pristinely white, even on the outside, clinical and foreboding.
Once inside, they brought me straight to surgery. There was no time to form words before they hooked me up to even more machines and pumped me full of anesthetic, dragging me under again to where everything was black and painless.
When I woke for the third time, I was lying in a basic, yet comfortable hospital bed. Someone had taken great care in treating me, tucking the sheets around my aching body and dimming the lights so as not to hurt my sensitive eyes once I woke. I felt a sharp surge of gratitude for whoever had done so.
But my contentment was short-lived as the memories of the chopper flight flooded back. My guts roiled as I recalled the nurses’ conversation about how they couldn’t find my name in their system and how I’d tried—and failed—to discourage them from bringing me here. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have a government officer on my trail.
I calmed my rapid breathing as my eyes attempted to focus. My right arm was splinted and the cuts and bruises on my body were treated. Thick white gauze had been taped down all over my skin. I tried to pull myself up into a sitting position, hoping I could see out of the window in front of me and signal a doctor over, but I could barely move without my entire body barking in pain.
“It’s probably not a good idea for you to be moving so much,” a voice I didn’t recognize said from near the foot of the bed.
I shot straight up despite the pain, locating what could only be a government operative sitting in a hard, plastic chair, eyes trained on me and holding.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked, my voice croaking out of me.
“You must know that evading registration is a criminal offense. Otherwise, why would you have told the nurses not to bring you to the hospital? You would have died,” the operative said, a cunning smile playing on his lips.
“A friend of mine who’s a healer lived closer to the site of my accident than this hospital—I figured she could help me faster,” I lied.
The operative only stared at me, his face a blank mask.
“Besides, forcing anyone to enter into a database for the sole purpose of putting them into a breeding program against their will is disgusting. I reserve the right to have no part in it,” I said before I could stop myself.
The operative’s face remained completely emotionless. He was silent for a long moment before he spoke again.
“You have two options, Ferne Whittaker. You can go to jail for upwards of twenty years for failing to register, or you can be tested right here, today, for your mate. Choose.”
“No,” I refused.
It was a risky game to play.
“Choose now. You don’t want me choosing for you—I have no pity for criminals of any sort.”
“It’s not a crime to demand sovereignty over my body,” I snapped.
“It is when it violates a peace treaty that’s kept hostile aliens from invading our planet again,” he retorted. “Make your choice.”
Fuck that stupid treaty.
“I’ve just come out of surgery. I want more time to think about this—I need more time to think about this.”
“You’ve had more than enough time to think about this while you were out here pretending to be something you’re not. Choose.” His expression remained implacable, but subtle malice glinted in his eyes.
My thoughts were racing a mile a minute. If I went to jail I’d be utterly and completely trapped, no chance of getting out for years to come. If I chose to get tested, maybe I could eventually escape to another planet. I was nothing if not resourceful—at least I’d have options if I went the testing route.
And what were the odds I’d even get matched anyway? Slim to none? I’d probably be fine and then this doofus would be forced to leave me alone.
I hoped I wouldn’t live to regret my decision.
“Fine. I’ll get tested, but please, let me get some rest first?” I asked.
A rictus grin took up residence on his previously bland face, striking fear into the very marrow of my bones.
“Nope,” was all he said, lips popping on the ‘p.’
Before I could utter a word of protest, someone—a nurse, I assumed—entered the room and began fiddling with my bed. She was quick and efficient and whisked me, bed and all, out of the room and down several long, winding corridors. By the time we stopped, it was clear I was deep within the hospital.
The room she brought me to was small and windowless, filled with many machines and devices I’d never seen before, clearly alien tech. She remained silent as she worked, moving me this way and that, using so many machines on me I lost count.
By the time she was finished, my body was completely healed, including my mangled arm. She’d scrubbed and groomed me, and I couldn’t recall the last time I’d ever felt so clean.
Lastly, she took a blood sample from one of my fingertips and loaded it into a computer. The test took no time at all to run, emitting a cheerful chime within a minute or so.
“That’s a match,” she said, smiling as she turned to look at me. “We’re implanting you with a translator.”
I’d been healed so I could have fought her, but my brain was far too addled to process what had happened. That moment’s hesitation was all she needed to paralyze me momentarily so that they could load me into the teleportation room.