The wind whipped my hair back, the ship’s engines growling furiously as they battled against gravity. I stood at the edge of the massive crater, surrounded by D’Tali and humans alike, and wrapped my cloak tighter against my body. It did little to protect me from the wind, but at least it offered some comfort.
The hulking shape of the Navigator, as it had been christened, let out a metallic groan as the thrusters finally engaged, spewing blue flames against the hard-packed soil. A cloud of dust exploded from beneath the ship and, as if on cue, everyone stepped back. Some, like me, even raised their arms to shield their eyes from the debris.
“It’s working,” King Dojak muttered beside me, his eyes widening as he watched the action unfold. He stood tall, his posture regal, but even he couldn’t stop wonder and fascination from taking over his face. “It’s actually working.”
I felt short of breath, my heart tightening inside my chest as I looked back at the ship. Slowly, but steadily, it pushed off the ground, like a sleeping giant someone had just poked with a stick. It was hard to believe this behemoth had come here all the way from Earth. There was a metallic sound and the ship shuddered. The Navigator began to ascend. First, just a couple of feet, then yards at a time.
I allowed myself a sliver of hope.
If this worked, there was a chance I could return to Earth. I could see my adoptive family again, maybe even return to the life I had worked so hard for—before the Skarg had abducted us. Maybe I’d even be able to forget about all this. As kind as the D’Tali had been to us, I needed to get back to Earth. Some of the women had already started to see this planet as their home, but not I.
“Oh, God,” I breathed out, my knees threatening to buckle under my weight.
The ship stopped its steady march into the heights, and I could tell the thrusters were working at their full capacity. What if the ship didn’t fly? What if this was all for naught? Would I remain trapped here on this planet forever?
Hope welled up inside me once more, as a metallic groan rippled through the air when the ship started ascending again. It labored higher and higher, casting its enormous shadow over the gathered crowd. I held my breath and prayed silently to whatever gods ruled this side of the galaxy.
“Please, please,” I muttered under my breath, repeating that word over and over again, like a mantra. More than anyone here, I wanted this to work. Ineeded for the ship to be fully functional. I had kept the thought to myself that since we arrived here, I only wished for one thing… to leave.
I had never been what most would consider a well-adjusted girl, but I had built a normal life back on Earth. My adoptive family had accepted me, and my career had provided meaning. After a miserable childhood, I had scraped together a promising future.
Fate, though, threw a wicked curveball.
Over a year had passed since that fateful night, but I could still recall each moment as vividly as if it were happening now. A bright light outside my window, a feeling of nausea, and my consciousness dwindling until all I could experience was dark. Then, when I awoke, everything had changed.
My old life was no more.
Even though I had never believed that aliens were a thing, that night I woke up in the cargo hold of a spaceship, trapped inside something like a cattle pen. I had gone from being a normal girl to a piece of meat trafficked by aliens. Thankfully, fate must’ve taken pity on me: instead of reaching its destination, the traffickers’ ship was ambushed and crash-landed on this planet. Even though I didn’t like it here like most of the other women, the D’Tali’s generosity and kindness had made life more tolerable.
I felt petty for resenting the women who had adjusted to life here. How could they accept it so easily? They busied themselves with dating the D’Tali instead of planning a way out, their complacence driving me insane.
It wasn’t their fault, of course. But I couldn’t help waking every night drenched in sweat, the memories of my abduction returning in the shape of haunting nightmares.
Somehow, though, no one had noticed just how close I was to my breaking point.
As hope began to solidify, one of the ship’s thrusters misfired.
Blue flames turned inward and bent the metal. A collective gasp ran through the crowd. There was a furious hiss from the Navigator. My eardrums popped as a metallic thunderclap rang throughout the landscape.
The ship banked left, losing altitude. The engines worked double-time, judging by their tempestuous roar.
It wasn’t enough.
“Step back everyone,” King Dojak cried out, the deep bass of his voice reverberating through my chest.
His security escort leaped into action and pushed the crowd further back, trying to create a safe perimeter. A wave of nausea crashed through me: the ship was going to crash.
“No, please, no.” My knees finally gave in, hitting the ground with a painful thud. I didn’t even register the pain. My heart became so tight it almost burst. It felt like a heavy boulder sunk in my stomach.
Kneeling, I watched as the Navigator pushed away from the crater, its original resting place. Whoever was piloting was trying not to flatten the entire crowd if the worst happened. I heard the crackle and static of comm devices going off all around me, but I was so dazed I couldn’t register what was being said.
My hopes were pulverized as the Navigator touched the ground. It wasn’t a disaster, as the pilots managed to right the ship before the hull touched the soil, but I could still see metal sheets flying everywhere. The earth trembled under my feet seconds after the impact.
I brought my arm up, realizing I was crying. I used the sleeves of my ragged shirt to dab the tears away. It was useless. It’s not that I was sad—it was something that cut way deeper. It felt as if my insides had been scooped up and flung out, leaving nothing but hollowness and desperation behind. I would never return to Earth. I would never see my family again. I would never be happy again.
The last thing I remembered was a falling sensation. That, and the emptiness of the skies overhead, their strange colors a reminder I didn’t belong here.
This wasn’t home.
King Dojak ushered the crowd of humans and D’Tali backwards, pushing us all away from the horrifying sight on the horizon—the Navigator smoking and twisted, crashed. There was pandemonium. Some of the D’Tali children wept from the loud noise—one babe had gotten lost in the scuffle and was desperately searching for his mother. Ordinarily, I would have been the first to scoop him up and return him, but not today.
All around me, humans and D’Tali coursed backwards, pushing against each other to make sure they were at a safe distance should the Navigator burn. Meanwhile, Amber, Riley, and Isabella, the three human women leading the effort to get the Navigator up and running, bolted toward the smoldering ship. They were followed by their team of D’Tali engineers. I thought about making myself useful. The small D’Tali child behind me stopped wailing as someone ushered him to his mother. Throughout this chaos, I could only stand still.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Janis swayed the minute the Navigator had begun to descend and we all realized something was wrong. The moment the Navigator crash-landed, she crumpled like an autumn leaf.
I had to get to her.
When the human women first landed in the D’Tali kingdom and I laid eyes on Janis, something ignited inside me. I tried to shake off the feeling, assuming it was just a natural curiosity for a creature that looked and behaved so differently, but as the days wore on and more of the human women began to mix with the D’Tali and the Lukadians, I started to suspect something else was going on.
Janis always seemed distant, apart. She reminded me of the traumatized numas I worked with in King Dojak’s stable. He always laughed and bragged about my work, telling anyone who would listen that I could rehabilitate any numa, no matter how misbehaved. I was always quick to follow up that numas didn’t “misbehave”—they protected themselves from dangers that we just couldn’t see.
I’d suspected that what was happening inside of me for Janis wasn’t simple curiosity when I noticed her continuously putting distance between herself and the other women. Once, weeks ago, a large D’Tali had put down a plate of food with a jovial clang near Janis, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She bolted from the table and, unable to stop myself, I followed her. I found her moments later huddled over a barrel of water, shaking from head to toe, taking in deep, steadying, calming breaths.
That night, I’d hung back in the shadows, positive that had I made myself known, I would have sent her spiraling down into an even darker fear. Instead, I watched from a distance as she dipped her hands in the water barrel and washed her face clean, calming herself enough to eventually rejoin the others at the table. I stayed out, trying to parse through the confusing feelings. Why had she captured my attention like this? It was stronger than just curiosity. The sight of her shaking made me explode in pain. I found my own limbs quivering, too.
And now, seeing her unconscious body twisted under her cloak made me want to howl in misery.
I had avoided approaching her for so long, though whenever she was near, I couldn’t help but stare at her. I was positive I had memorized every detail of her face. The freckles across the bridge of her nose, the dusty hazel of her eyes, and her warm auburn hair cascading around her face, brushing the tips of her delicate shoulders. Over the weeks I had noticed her eyes developing a slightly bruised look—as if the very act of drinking in the visual stimulus of the D’Tali kingdom was making her sick.
Wait, I had told myself that night at the water barrel. Wait, I had said as I watched her separate herself from the rest of the human women. Wait, just wait. She won’t trust you if you push.
The Navigator crashed, and all my cautious reasoning crashed with it.
“Move,” I barked with frustration as I pushed against the D’Tali guards shepherding the crowd back through the main gates. No one seemed to have noticed Janis collapsing. Was I the only one who’d seen her fall?
I finally broke free of the crushing, worried bodies and crossed the empty distance between the throng to where Janis lay unconscious on the ground. I became suddenly aware of how fast my heart was beating against my rib cage. I had never been this close to her.
“Janis,” I murmured softly, kneeling next to her.
She was unresponsive.
My heart slammed against my chest, quickening its pace even more. This wasn’t good—I needed to get her to someone who could help revive her.
I put my hand on her cloaked shoulder and rolled her over gently so she faced me. Seeing her face so close took my breath away. Even unconscious, she appeared to be in pain.
“Janis,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Enough was enough—she obviously wasn’t going to wake. I needed to jump into action.
Moving carefully so I didn’t jostle her, I scooped my hands underneath her frail body and lifted her up easily into my arms. Her head lolled onto my shoulder, fitting perfectly against the crook of my neck. As I hoisted her into a more comfortable position, her hand brushed briefly against my cheek.
It was as if my whole body suddenly awoke.
The world around me felt sharper, more alive, like the volume and color saturation had been turned up. I gasped and almost dropped Janis in shock. My body had reacted so dramatically to just the gentlest of her touches.
Was this the bond?
I’d suspected Janis and I were fated, but up until now had had no way of truly knowing. And yet, I still wasn’t positive—the sun’s unrelenting rays made it hard for me to examine my skin. My fluorescent bond sign should have flared at Janis’s touch, but I couldn’t quite discern it in the sunlight.
All I knew was Janis was in pain and it caused me pain. Fighting back panic, I looked up and scanned the horizon. There were teams of D’Tali and a few human women over by the Navigator, assessing the damage. Meanwhile, most of the crowd had already headed back to the city by now. Just outside the gate stood King Dojak and several of his advisors and humans. My need to get Janis somewhere safe where she could be revived throbbed in me as a painful reminder, and I began to stride swiftly towards the king.
“My King!” I called out. I heard my voice as if it were outside of me. I sounded winded and panicked.
King Dojak and his human wife, Sofia, looked up in alarm. My shout also got the attention of Camilia, a human healer, who appeared from behind the king and watched me approach.
“What’s happened, Nadan?” King Dojak asked as I rushed up to them with Janis in my arms.
“It’s Janis! She—I don’t know what happened, but she collapsed,” I said desperately, holding tight to her. “I tried to wake her but she wouldn’t move.” I looked pleadingly between King Dojak and Sofia. Someone in charge had to tell me what to do.
“When did she collapse?” It was Camilia, appearing suddenly by my side, her baby Ania on her hip. Ania stared up at me with wide-eyed curiosity.
“Just after the Navigator crashed—she just fell, and she won’t wake up,” I said.
Camilia threw her hand out and grabbed Janis’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. Her normally composed face wrinkled in concern.
“Your Majesty, would you hold Ania for me?” Camilia asked gently, though her face showed urgency. Without waiting for a response, she deposited the small child into the king’s arms, who looked at first surprised then happy to cuddle the baby.
“Of course, Camilia,” King Dojak replied, pinching Ania’s nose and grinning at her subsequent shrieks of laughter. “Take care of Janis. Ania is safe here.”
Without waiting another beat, Camilia strode through the camp gates, leading me toward the temporary infirmary, weaving through the thinning crowd still jabbering animatedly about the crash.
“I set up an infirmary in Rover’s cargo hold to care for the pilots, just in case.”
“Very thoughtful, Lady Camilia.”
I felt as if Janis’s body pulsed in my arms, in rhythm with my heartbeat. I knew she needed Camilia’s help, but I also knew how likely she was to startle in fright when she saw two people looming over her, one of them a strange, unknown D’Tali. It was just like the numas that I trained—get too close too fast, and they spooked.
But I knew what I’d felt when our skin touched—was it possible she would react differently to me? If we were bonded, could Janis open her eyes and feel a sense of calm? Or would she be alarmed?
I gritted my teeth as I followed Camilia through the crowd. I did not know what would happen next, but now more than ever, my heart thrummed with one word:
When I opened my eyes, a wave of nausea and confusion crashed over me. My temples pounded. A dusty amber light floated up around my head, making me wince. I felt in my body rather than my heart the effects of the deep sadness which had overtaken my consciousness just moments before. I was achy, a little delirious, and exhausted. Why was I so exhausted? Then I remembered…
“Janis,” someone said.
I turned my head and saw Camilia standing beside me, her face full of compassion. She pulled up a nearby storage box and sat on it, taking my hand in hers. She was being so kind to me. I hated that.
You don’t deserve it.
My own voice in my head rang out like a shot. It made my temples pound even harder. I tried to shake it off. I’d worked hard over years of therapy to handle these negative intrusive thoughts—but I was more vulnerable when tired and stressed.
“How are you feeling, Janis?” Camilia asked gently.
I swallowed, considering how I could answer that, when I heard a rustling from somewhere behind Camilia. In spite of my exhaustion, I shot up, peering around her to get a look at who was there.
“Whoa, whoa,” Camilia said soothingly. “Easy there, Janis. It’s only Nadan.”
It was him, the D’Tali man I’d caught staring at me once or twice. He stood awkwardly by the door, his hands clasped in front of him. He was peering at me intently, but looked up at the ceiling when I met his gaze.
“What is he doing here?” I asked rigidly, putting a hand to my forehead to try to quell the aching.
“He brought you here,” Camilia replied. She turned to glance back at Nadan and nodded at him. “He was the only one who saw you collapse in front of the Navigator. Thank goodness he did—you owe him your gratitude.”
My fists curled as I inhaled sharply. I didn’t owe anyone anything.
He could have left you to bake in the sun.
My head spun. My eyes throbbed. I put my hands over my eyes and tried to keep breathing. I felt a warm feminine hand on my shoulder. Why was Camilia being so kind to me? I had tried for so long to distance myself from her and the other women.
“Janis—you gave us all quite a fright,” Camilia said. “Have you been feeling faint recently?”
Yes, I had. But I shook my head no.
“What about food?” Camilia stood and scooped my wrist up to check my pulse. “When was the last time you ate?”
“This morning,” I lied. “I had breakfast with the rest of you.”
“Hmm,” Camilia hummed, her eyebrow furrowing. “That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I snuck away. I ate in the back.” You’re such a liar, I thought to myself viciously.
“Alright, well…” Camilia bit her lip and glanced around the supplies at her disposal, lost in thought. Suddenly, she turned to the doorway. “Nadan?” she called.
The D’Tali man perked up, eyebrows arched.
“Could you come help me with this?” She grabbed what looked like a sensor attached to a long hose that fed into a small hand-held device.
Nadan crossed from the door to my bed with a few easy strides and stood carefully at attention as Camilia deftly put the sensor on my chest underneath my shirt.
“Oh, I—” I started, but it didn’t matter what I would have said. It would have fallen on deaf ears. Camilia kept her hand over the sensor positioned above my heart and handed Nadan the device.
“You’ll have to read it for me, since this thing only really works when I press on it,” Camilia explained as Nadan took the device with curiosity. “It’ll beep once it’s finished its reading—I need you to read out the second number that flashes.”
I felt a suction at my chest where the sensor was positioned and an increase in pressure as Camilia pressed with both hands. I started to flush—there was so much going on and I barely had any time to protest. When I’d woken up this morning, I had only pictured myself on the ship going back home, not lying on a bed with a woman’s hands under my shirt and a strange alien hovering at my shoulder.
Suddenly the device in Nadan’s hands beeped. The noise went through my headache like a sledgehammer.
“What’s it say?” Camilia prompted.
“Thirty-two,” Nadan said, his voice calm.
“Woowee!” Camilia exclaimed. She lifted her head to look at me and there was a smile on her face, but her eyes were serious. “Your cortisol levels are… astronomically high.”
“I did just watch our only way off this planet crash to the ground,” I said before I could help myself. “What’s going on with the ship, by the way?” I swallowed. It’s done. You’re done. You’re stuck here forever. “Can it fly? Is it ruined? Was—uh, was anyone hurt?”
Camilia narrowed her eyes shrewdly and peered at me with a knowing look. My gaze darted to my hands. I realized I was clutching the fabric of my shirt so tightly my knuckles were turning white.
You’re stuck here.
I needed to convince Camilia that I was okay, because I needed to get out of this room. I didn’t like her watching me and I didn’t like that the D’Tali man had found me in such a state. I took in a deep breath.
“I need to relax,” I said in what I hoped was my most serious voice. “I know, you’re right. I just got a little swept away in the excitement about the ship.”
“A little,” Camilia snorted, but she pried the sensor off my chest and began wrapping the hose around the device in Nadan’s hands. When she finished, she stowed it back in its box and sat back down on the crate by my bedside. Nadan stood still, as if he was afraid sudden movements would frighten us.
“Janis, this is troubling,” Camilia began.
You’re stuck here.
“I know,” I said quickly, hoping to cut her off at the pass. “I know. I—listen, I’m just a little frazzled, that’s all, but that happens to me sometimes. I—before we came here, this used to happen to me. I fainted before I got the results of my SATs. I was just so excited to know.”
Liar. That’s not why you fainted.
“I’d like you to eat something,” Camilia said exasperatedly.
“I’m fine, really, Camilia,” I protested. “I ate a big breakfast! This is just—you know—it was a lot to take in back there.”
I could tell Camilia didn’t believe me for an instant. She pursed her lips in a frown, her expression perturbed. Finally, she sighed and stood, moving away from my bedside.
“Stay here,” she said sternly. “I need to go check on the pilots of the ship. I don’t believe anyone was hurt, but they’ll need me to inspect folks. At least the ship didn’t crash on the cockpit…”
Camilia trailed off, but meanwhile, I was desperate for any news of the ship. If the ship hadn’t crashed on the cockpit, did that mean there was a better chance that they could make repairs and get us out of here?
“Nadan?” Camilia said, and the D’Tali nodded. “Stay here with her, won’t you? I’ll be back soon.”
“Really, Camilia, I can go,” I protested, but Camilia held up a hand to quiet me.
“Stay here with Nadan, please,” she said gently. “When I come back, we’ll measure your cortisol levels again. If they’re lower, you’re free to leave.” She smiled brightly. I could tell she didn’t believe anything that had come out of my mouth in the last five minutes and was calling my bluff.
Camilia left, leaving me alone with the D’Tali. I stole a look at him in spite of myself. His scaly skin was a striking dark blue, and although he stood like a soldier, there was something gentle about his face. I supposed if anyone was to have found me completely helpless, he wasn’t the worst. I shuddered when I thought of the other D’Tali that the human women had grown so close to. How could they have been bewitched by these aliens?
One thing was certain—if I wanted to get out of this, I was going to have to convince Camilia that I was calm enough to leave. That required deep breathing. I didn’t know enough about cortisol levels to know if thirty-two was truly as high as she said, but I knew enough about self-soothing tools to remember that, if I was ever in a bind, deep breaths were the thing most likely to bring me back to my normal state.
Or rather, they were the tool most likely to get me to appear normal.
You’re trapped here.
The thought made my heart beat more rapidly and brought a quiver to my hands. If the ship couldn’t get off the ground again, then I really was trapped here. Everything that you’ve worked for on Earth—
No! I had to stop that line of thought. That was dangerous. If I was going to be able to get out from under Camilia’s scrutiny, I had to calm myself down.
All I could hope for was that Camilia’s return would bode positive news about the ship’s repairs, and that sooner or later, I’d be on my way home again.