The ship was dark.
Long shadows spilled across the corridors, our only light Vokar’s torch. He walked a few paces ahead of me, his footsteps so silent it was almost as if he wasn’t there. That shouldn’t have surprised me—he was an assassin, after all.
“I think we should be close,” I muttered, looking down at the piece of paper in my hands. The crude map gave us a rough idea of where we should go. Camilia and I had drawn it together after many trips to the shipwreck, but now it was my duty to find the ship’s medbay and salvage equipment.
I would’ve preferred to have Camilia here with me since she’d have the best chance of recognizing medical equipment, despite it being alien tech.
Unfortunately, that hadn’t been possible. She was completely swamped.
She’d been working impossible hours for weeks, training the D’Tali healers in Tahkath, the D’Tali capital, about the importance of sterilization and the details about germ theory.
It didn’t help that without microscopes, she had to try to convince the older, more stubborn of the healers to take what she said on faith.
Luckily, her successful results with the wounded in the last skirmish with the Aetamians had backed up her claims, so more and more of the younger healers were coming to her for training.
Even if that hadn’t kept her busy enough her protective mate, General Trokol, didn’t feel comfortable sending her on a dangerous expedition.
“There’s a door here,” Vokar whispered, his deep voice causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up on end. Something about him made my body react in a visceral way. All he had to do was glance at me, and my insides clenched up almost immediately. “Hold this.”
Turning on his heels, Vokar handed me the torch and then focused on the block of metal in front of us. The door didn’t seem damaged, but the locking mechanism could have jammed during our violent crash landing on this planet.
I smiled as I thought of those crazy first days.
A little less than a year had passed since we found ourselves stranded on this strange planet, but it felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. Every time I thought about it, I could scarcely believe that I had been a young engineer pursuing a career in San Francisco. I had gone jogging one night after a complicated shift, and a blinding white light appeared out of nowhere, then…
My life changed forever.
I woke up in the cargo hold of this ship surrounded by women my age, alien creatures all around. Eventually, after these ape-like creatures—the Skarg—used their translation tech on us, we figured out they intended to sell us into slavery…but that never came to pass. They were ambushed and shot at, and so they were forced to crash land on this strange and mysterious planet.
We were rescued by the D’Tali, a race of lizard-like warriors, and we had been with them ever since. And thank heavens for that—I didn’t want to think about what could’ve happened to us without the D’Tali.
Despite their primitive tech, they did their best to make sure we had a place to call home. In fact, they did more than just help us. They became our friends and, in a couple of cases, they even turned into…lovers.
Sofia ended up marrying Dojak, the D’Tali king, and Camilia fell in love with General Trokol. Believe it or not, Sofia had even become pregnant. That, of course, was part of the reason I was back at the ship. As interspecies marriage was a new concept, nobody really knew what to expect when it came to a pregnancy like this.
My thinking was that there had to be some medical devices we could retrieve from the ship’s medbay. Camilia agreed with that assessment and, since she couldn’t leave the city because of her new duties, I had been put in charge of this expedition. Despite having some experience as a lead engineer back on Earth, this task weighed heavily on me.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.
Though Vokar didn’t have an official title, everyone knew he had the king’s ear, and so the D’Tali warriors who served as my escort knew to obey him. That ensured that the ship was my sole concern.
Of course, Vokar’s presence was a distraction.
Whenever he stood just a little closer to me, it felt as if my body started boiling from the inside out. My insides clenched up, and it became almost impossible to think straight. As a result, I tended to become an awkward and bumbling idiot around him.
“I think I got it,” Vokar grunted, his voice snapping me out of my reverie.
Narrowing my eyes, I watched as he pried the door open to reveal a mid-sized room with sterile walls. I squeezed past him and held the torch up, the flames bathing the room with their warm light.
“This is it,” I said with a squeal, smiling as I noticed all the medical equipment that littered the room. At least I thought it was medical equipment. Since I was an engineer, I had become the one in charge of analyzing everything we retrieved from the shipwreck, and I thought I was familiar enough with the Skarg tech to know what their medical equipment would look like.
“Seems like some of it has been bolted down.” Kneeling beside what seemed like a futurist CT scan device, Vokar tapped the bolts that kept the machine in place. “I think we can cut it down, though.”
He looked up and his gaze found mine, that familiar heat returning to assault my body. I forced myself to focus on what he was saying.
“Do you think you’ll be able to power all this up?”
Nervously, I ran my tongue over my lips and nodded. “I think so. Judging by how their tech functions, I’m assuming there’s a power core somewhere deeper in the ship. It’s only a matter of finding it and getting it back to the city.” I looked at the map I still held in my hands. “It’s probably not that far from here. It should be in the engine room or nearby. Judging by what we’ve drawn from the ship’s layout, we’re close to it.”
“Then lead the way.”
Together, we walked out of the medbay and down that dark corridor. Despite the mazelike appearance of the ship’s innards, it was fairly easy not to get lost, and it took us less than twenty minutes to find what I thought to be the engine room. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as Vokar pried the door open, and then we slipped inside the room.
The moment we were inside, I immediately noticed something bright on the corner. Ignoring the machinery that filled the large room, I beelined toward it.
It was some sort of spherical crystal, no bigger than a closed fist.
“Well, that’s interesting,” I muttered. Carefully, I tossed a tiny scrap of wire towards it, to see if it gave of any sort of telltale electrical crackle.
Quickly I poked it.
“Here goes nothing,” I muttered, and picked it up from the floor.
Despite the glow, it was cold to the touch. Turning on my heels, I headed toward the main engine block and immediately noticed a hook which seemed to have been designed with the crystal’s shape in mind. Turning it slightly, I pushed the crystal into it.
The moment the sphere touched the plate behind the hook, the lights mounted on the ceiling flickered and came alive, flooding the room with light. Even the engine started humming, power surging through the entire ship like fresh blood coursing through a newly awakened giant.
“It works,” I shouted, pumping one fist up into the air. “It works!”
I jumped up with joy. Before I knew what I was doing, I launched myself into Vokar’s arms and hugged him as tightly as I could.
Even if just for a momnt, all my shyness was gone.
At first, I didn’t know what to do.
Physical contact remained something I wasn’t terribly accustomed to—especially of the affectionate variety. Camaraderie among soldiers allowed for some liberty, but an embrace by a woman was something else entirely.
I looked down at this usually shy, petite creature and tried to figure out exactly what I should do. No matter how I reacted, I might betray how much I enjoyed Isabella’s touch.
That wasn’t a good thing, was it?
Finally, I settled for a few pats on her back.
As quickly as she had flung her arms around me, she stepped away. The instant she released me, I realized how much I was relishing being held. It felt like dangerous territory, so I did my best to avoid it for the time being.
“We should head back to the medbay,” she said without looking at me. “There is some equipment back there I think we’ll need.” As she ducked through the doorway, I thought I could see her cheeks flushed a reddish pink. My stomach flooded with an unaccountable feeling.
I hustled after her, unwilling to let her out of my sight. How was it that this slender human female had come to occupy such a large place in my thoughts? It seemed like I was always seeking her out. Every time I was around her, I felt refreshed.
It was terrible.
After giving Trokol so much shit over Camilia, I hated to think what was coming my way.
But Camilia was Trokol’s mate, so it was completely different—wasn’t it? It couldn’t be possible that Isabella was mine. Even as I thought that, I caught myself watching the gentle sway of her ass as she strode up the corridor ahead of me. Okay, this could actually be trouble.
“How much of this do you think we’ll need?” I asked as we came back into the medbay, a few of the D’Tali soldiers we had brought with us already there.
“Hard to say.” The color had gone from her cheeks, and I found myself wishing it were back. “With Sofia’s baby on the way, a fair amount of this could be really useful.”
“Just point out what you want, and I’ll see to it that our men bring it back with us.”
“Really?” It seemed like such a small offer, but she turned a radiant face to me, her eyes shimmering. My chest tightened.
“Of course.” I sketched a small bow. It felt unbelievably awkward, but I had to do something to keep from staring into her eyes. One or two of the D’Tali close at hand chuckled lightly, and I made a mental note that they would pay for it later.
As I watched, she made her way around the bay, pointing out the things she thought we would need back at Tahkath. I took note of everything, but the men were already setting themselves to work hauling things out. She had an unusual power over men that way, and my stomach burned at the thought that any of the other D’Tali might be harboring thoughts over her.
“What else?” I asked after she had finished her inventory.
“The weapons, of course. If we can activate them, they would be invaluable.”
“Oh.” She stopped in place and flashed those large blue eyes up at me. “We’ll need the sphere. To power everything.”
Without answering, I darted back out into the hallway. A cold feeling threaded up through me at the thought that I might get back to the center of this ship and find the sphere missing. I kicked myself for the oversight in leaving it behind us in the first place.
Reaching the control center, I breathed easier to see the crystal sphere still in place. While I couldn’t fathom how this all worked, the sphere was obviously invaluable. Whatever magic it possessed was the nerve center of everything, and could be profoundly dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
I had been hearing rumblings through my intelligence contacts that some strange creatures had been spotted out in the forests and in the desert. What little description there was sounded unlike anything known to exist. The notion that these beasts could be the same creatures that stole the women from their home planet wasn’t lost on me.
It put me even further on my guard. If my suspicions were correct, then they knew their way around this ship better than anyone. Our mission felt all the more imperative, and I was determined to get anything useful out of the wreckage on this visit.
“Here you are.” I presented Isabella with the sphere, as if it were a precious fruit. She took it in both hands, and folded it carefully in a cloth she pulled from her belt.
“Thank you,” she said meekly. “You’re always the first to move if I need anything.”
“Well, I…” My mouth hung open, but no words came forward to fill it. For one terrible moment, my guard was completely down. Fortunately, if the other D’Tali noticed, they were too busy lugging equipment around to show it.
“I’ve just noticed, is all.” Isabella tucked the sphere into the satchel slung across her shoulders. “Rescuing this has been incredibly important. Without it, there’s no way to power the ship, or anything on it other than the battery packs we used recently, but that’s a finite resource that could run down anytime.”
“Then we got it just in time.”
“Why?” She looked up at me, a mixture of fear and suspicion flickering across her face. “What’s going on?”
I had spoken too quickly. After having been caught out, my defenses were down. It felt wrong to tell her of my misgivings over those monsters that brought her here. I was never one to speak on faulty intelligence, and it was far too soon to say anything for certain.
“Nothing,” I said at last. “If it can activate these things you need to aid in the birth of our king’s child, that’s what’s important.” That seemed plausible enough. It was true, but didn’t touch on the deeper reasons for my relief.
We wound our way back out of the center of the iron beast and out into the clearing. The men had been working diligently, and a fair amount of cargo was already being hoisted onto our wagons.
“Don’t forget to clear out the arsenal,” I called out. “Pull out everything you can.” A couple of numa were brought around, and I helped Isabella onto hers before mounting my own. With a couple of the other D’Tali, we set out for Tahkath.
With all of the equipment we’d removed, it was tempting to go in a straight line back to the capital.
It’d be considerably shorter, but directly between the crash site and the capital were the wild deserts.
The roundabout way was safest. For Isabella, and for the wagon wheels.
I preferred to travel alone, but no way was I letting Isabella out of my sight to make the journey.
After we were well clear of the ship, I rode ahead to scout out the path. If there was danger ahead, I wanted to know about it before anyone else came under fire. Especially Isabella.
In this world of combat, the human women seemed to need protecting. Everything about our way of life was so removed from their own experience, and I found myself increasingly aware of that. Especially where Isabella was concerned. Let the men snicker if they wanted—my job was to gather intelligence and defend.
“Vokar!” Her voice grabbed my attention, and I slowed my numa to a trot so she could ride up alongside me.
“It’s more than you said back there,” she said knowingly. I was at a loss. So much of my time was spent speaking in riddles, that I wondered which half-truth she had caught me in.
“About what?” My nature made me guarded.
“The sphere. You said we had gotten it just in time.”
“With Sofia…” I was in the midst of falling back on the lie, when she waved me off.
“It’s not that. At least, not entirely that.” Given how shy she normally was, I opted to drop the pretense. If she was willing to venture outside of her comfort zone, then I owed it to her to meet her there.
“No, it’s not.”
She nodded. “Can you tell me what the danger is?”
“I don’t know what it is,” I said plainly. “It’s not my way to speak before I’m certain.”
“Me too,” she said. After a brief silence, she spoke up. “The last thing we need is this kind of power falling into Aetamian hands. I’ve seen firsthand what adversaries they can be, and we can’t afford to give them any advantages.”
I was stunned. This beautiful creature who rode beside me noticed everything. More than that, she weighed it all out and came to her own conclusions. It didn’t take a master strategist to know that the Aetamians would leap at the kind of power the sphere offered, but it seemed that few put their minds to it.
“We can’t,” I said at last, then pointed to her satchel. “What you have there is unlike anything our world has seen. If we can use it to heal, that will be enough.”
“And if we can use it against our enemies?” she asked. I looked over into her serious face and smiled.
“Then, I think that would be more than enough. Don’t you?”
She smiled, and we rode together in silence. The sun was dropping, and the sky lit up over us in an array of deep, rich colors. For a moment, I tried to see it all through her eyes. The wizardry I had seen on that metal beast they arrived in was completely foreign to me. And yet, that was the world she had come from.
A woman who could control that kind of machinery, who could master it, was singular in this world. It made her an incredibly valuable asset. Still, while her value was increasing all the time, I was slowly coming to realize that she was far more than a mere ‘asset.’
I walked quickly through the palace, excited to share my news with Sophia. The medical equipment would be very helpful to her, especially since no one was really sure what was going to happen with a half human, half D’Tali baby.
King Dojak was justifiably worried—we all were. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Sofia or her baby. The D’tali and Aetam were the rare sort of reptiles that had live births, making them different than the rest of their distant cousins. It was wonderful that they were even able to conceive between species.
Now, it was mine and Camilia’s job to make sure that everything ran smoothly.
Camilia would handle the medical stuff a lot easier if I could fix it up for her. It was really a top priority.
There were only twelve women in our ship when it crashed, and we couldn’t lose any of us. There was no way I was going to let that happen.
Sofia was like a mother to all of us. And now she was the Queen. The increased pressure of that made the anxiety rise, but I breathed a little bit and walked faster, trying to burn the extra energy off.
Look forward, fix the problem, don’t look back.
That’s what I was good at.
I climbed the stairs to the tower that I shared with the other women. Well, most of the other women. Both Camilia and Sofia now lived with their D’Tali husbands. I reached the door of my quarters, and I could already hear laughter coming from the other side. I smiled as I recognized Sofia’s voice.
I strode inside to see Camilia, Sofia, Riley, Hannah and Celeste. The other women were probably out somewhere. When I walked in, they all looked at me and smiled. Sofia was lounging on a chair and she looked big.
I was running out of time to get this medical equipment up and running.
“Isabella!” Riley said, standing and coming over to give me a hug. “How did it go?”
“Good!” I said. I pulled a chair into the circle and Camilia rose and got me a glass of water. “I got the medical equipment we needed. Vokar is getting some D’Tali to haul it back here.”
Sofia raised an eyebrow at the D’Tali’s name but didn’t say anything.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her.
“Oh, it’s almost time,” she said, rubbing her belly. “So, I can definitely feel that…”
“That’s understandable,” I said, taking a sip of water. Sitting looked hard, let alone standing or walking and having to be queen. As I looked at her pregnant belly, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. Pregnancy didn’t look like it was all of that fun.
“Camilia has news,” Riley said, shooting the nurse a look.
“Well…” Camilia took a deep breath, then smiled. “I’m pregnant.”
The shock almost had me dropping my glass of water. I gaped at her, unable to really speak. She looked at me nervously.
“Holy shit,” I breathed. Then I broke into a smile. “Congratulations!” I stood up and hugged her. “Now I feel bad for making you get me a glass of water!”
“You didn’t make me,” Camilia said, laughing. “I offered. Plus, I’m not an invalid.”
“Speak for yourself,” Sofia grumbled from her chair. “I’m not getting up to get anyone anything. I’m barely getting up to go to the bathroom.”
“Wow,” I breathed, staring at the two women. “Pregnant. Both of you. Does anyone have an idea about how this is going to work?”
“Well, as I’m on a trial run, we will see with me,” Sofia said, stroking her belly. “This kid is active though. Kicking and squirming all night, I can barely get any sleep.”
“Well that’s a good sign.”
“Sure is,” Camilia said, smiling warmly. She definitely had the pregnancy glow. Either that or she was running a fever.
I honestly wasn’t sure which one was worse.
“I just really hope he isn’t ugly…” Sofia breathed. “There’s a lot of different ways a half-human, half-D’tali can come out.”
Riley and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“I promise that, if he is ugly, we will lie to you about it,” Riley said. “On my honor.”
Sofia burst out laughing. “Good,” she said. “At least I won’t know he’s ugly until later.”
“He?” I said playfully. “Do you know something we don’t?”
“Mother’s intuition. And I was tired of Dojak calling him “it” to piss me off,” Sofia grumbled.
It was hard not to laugh at her. It really was. I tried, but Riley burst into giggles and I had to follow.
“Glad you guys enjoyed that,” Sofia said grumpily. “You know I can have you kicked out of here like that?” She snapped her fingers.
Riley and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Seems like an empty threat,” Riley said. “I think you’d have to catch us first to kick us out, and that seems like it will be a problem.”
It was Sofia’s turn to laugh. “Don’t make me pee myself,” she said with a giggle.
“She’s really selling pregnancy,” I said to Camilia. “How can you not be excited?”
Camilia shrugged with a wide smile.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Any nausea or anything?”
“A little, if I don’t eat early enough,” Camilia answered. “I feel good, though. I’ve heard horror stories of pregnancies and I seem to be feeling really well. I hate the smell of food cooking, but I love food, so Trokol has been busy.”
“How’s that going?”
Riley laughed. “She’s knocked up, so probably pretty well.”
Camilia blushed. “You’re not wrong,” she said. “He’s pretty amazing. I’m lucky to have him.”
“You say that now,” Sofia said. “Then you’ll be nine months and the sound of him snoring will make you want to smother him in his sleep.” She smiled at us as we laughed again.
“You’re not fooling anyone,” Riley said. “I saw you two together yesterday. Madly in love is the term I would use to describe you two.”
Sofia smiled, but didn’t say anything.
“What about you?” Camilia asked, sagely changing the subject. “What’s new?”
“Oh, not much,” I said. “I’m pretty excited that I got that med equipment to turn on. I figured out how the ship was being powered, and I brought with me the crystal the Skarg were using to do it, so I’m pretty sure I can tinker with it until it works. I’ll have the equipment up and running soon enough.”
“What about Vokar?” Sofia asked.
I turned and stared at her.
“That’s what Camilia is getting at,” Riley chimed in. “We really just want to know about Vokar.”
“What about him?”
I felt my cheeks rush to bright red, the heat radiating off of me. I liked being around Vokar, but he was pretty broody. He followed me everywhere and always made sure I was safe, but I had assumed that he was just bored with no one to assassinate right now. Anxiety rose as I thought about other people noticing something I didn’t.
“He’s been going with you lots,” Sofia said. “I was just wondering if there was anything going on there?”
“Not that I know of,” I said a little too quickly.
I didn’t want to talk about this anymore. It was causing me too much anxiety. As if sensing this, Sofia changed the subject, pulling Hannah and Celeste into the conversation, leaving me to think while I ignored them.
What did they see that I didn’t?
Sure, the more I saw Vokar the more attractive I found him. He was an assassin, after all. I knew he’d protect me, and I felt safe with him…but I’d feel safe with any assassin who was on my side, wouldn’t I?
His green scaly skin should be a turn off, but the tone accentuated his muscular arms. He had the strongest jawline I’d seen in any D’Tali, and I was starting to notice how he moved and talked more.
Maybe I was just into him because I couldn’t have him. He was a bad boy, so he definitely wouldn’t be interested in someone like me. Besides, his job was to sneak up in the shadows and kill people. That didn’t really make for a stable partner.
I caught Sofia rubbing her belly contently, and I felt the envy start in my stomach. The envy was soon replaced by nausea and nerves. I didn’t want a baby. I’d told myself that for years. I was an engineer, smart and capable; a baby just slowed you down and stopped you from reaching your goals.
But Sofia looked so happy, and Camilia was damn near glowing. And there was something inside me that wanted the same thing as them. The same thing they had.
A partner in life. A mate to look after them, to care for them.
The picture of me hugging Vokar worked its way into my head. No, he couldn’t be the one for me. He was attractive, sure, but that was just because he was a badass. That was it. It’s not like he could actually care for me, nor could he give me the support that I needed…or the love and stability that I craved.
He just couldn’t.
No, I could never be with someone like that. Plus, I had too much work to do. I didn’t have time to pursue a relationship with anyone, especially Vokar. With Sofia so close to term and Camilia now pregnant, I needed to get this medical equipment up and running.
Soon, Camilia’s pregnancy would force her to slow down, and she needed to train one of the other healers how to do everything for when she had her baby. Even with the D’tali healers on hand, that meant that the next month was going to be busy caring for Sofia and learning all I could so I could help care for Camilia, too.
That was a good thing. If we spent some time apart, I knew I would lose the lust I had for Vokar. And that was really what was best. After all, I was far too busy for a relationship right now…and probably ever.
Yeah, it was for the best.