“Damn it. I’m going to need another project.”
Lita stood over her nearly complete all-terrain hopper. In two hours, it would purr to life, perfectly polished without anywhere to go. In total, it had taken six months working after hours to build the flying race vehicle from scratch. Hoppers were like motorcycles without the wheels. They could move over the ground at high speeds, but hers was designed to fly anywhere from eight inches off the ground to the far reaches of space.
It should have taken a year to finish…
She was going to need another project.
Being nearly finished didn’t make her blood gush with accomplishment, however. Instead, it felt as if she had eaten the last piece of a secret stash of candy.
Living on a giant Federation spaceship, there wasn’t any entertainment to keep her occupied. Hence the after-hours project. Now that it was done, she had nothing. Worse, it wasn’t like she could go to a local junkyard and cherry-pick an engine to bring back to life.
Being a female born and raised on Earth, she was used to more options.
Lita dropped her tan leather tool bag with a plop. The dark patch that was precariously dangling with one last yellow thread broke and slipped onto the metal floor. Lita bent down and picked up the patch and rubbed a thumb over her father’s name.
Moving, she tucked the patch into a side pocket. The bag was soft and worn with black smudges on the bottom. The strong leather scent was gone, but the comfort it gave lingered.
She plucked out a Nebula green and a wrench. Adjusting her sitting position, she settled next to the back of the hopper’s engine. She remembered the first time she had taken a wrench to a rusted first-series hopper that her father bought at an estate sale. She had been ten, and her father, knowing nothing about raising a child on his own, had brought her into his shop and taught her everything about rebuilding engines, power and torque, boosting performance, body paint, and fabrication.
Lita had brought the frame and parts for the hopper when she moved from Earth to the Garna star carrier, knowing she would need something to occupy her time. Garna was a massive spaceship, miles wide and long. Built to take on a rogue planet or stop a planet-sized war. It was by far the most dangerous ship in the Federation. Which was why Lita had joined the Federation. The best ship had to have the best mechanics, right? Well, she was it. The best.
In the months of living on the ship, she had found a perfect routine. After a fourteen-hour shift, she grabbed a few packets of food, a Nebula green, and moseyed back down to Level 4—the docking bay—to work on her hopper.
Lita reached back into her bag again and scooped up a handful of bolts, stuffing them into her pocket for easy access. Gripping her wrench, she felt the tip of her spine tingle expectantly. Turning, she saw Katie, a fellow mechanic, walking up between two small ships.
Katie had survived a massive, ship-wide disease. She was a little odd and seemed to get lost in her head more often than not, but Lita assumed that was not by choice. It was likely a mental scar of living through the death of her entire crew. Out of six thousand and change, only thirty-six survived. Katie, being one of them.
“Hey.” Katie smiled. “I brought you a Nebula green, but it looks like you already have one.”
Lita took the offered can with a grin. “I don’t turn down Nebulas.”
Katie raked a cursory look over the hopper. “Your hopper’s coming along fast.”
Lita nodded. “I should have paced myself better. In two hours, I’ll be done, and looking for something to do.”
“There’s always work to be done on the ship.”
“Eh, but that stuff’s easy.” And boring.
Katie rubbed the side of her thigh and shifted from foot to foot. “Well, if you get bored…Sands tasked me with fixing 533. He said it has a leak.”
Lita nodded, remembering the spot, a dark blue liquid under 533’s tail-end.
“It will probably take me a month to find the leak…unless you already know where it is?”
Lita grinned. “You’re askin’ for my help, and all you brought was a Nebula? I thought we were better friends than that.”
“You said you were going to be bored. I was just saying, you could help if you wanted.”
With a sheepish smile, Katie pulled a small box out of her pocket and opened the top, holding it far enough away that Lita couldn’t touch it without reaching. “How about a trade? Tell me where the leak is, and I’ll give you this.”
The box was blue velvet, and Lita assumed the trinket inside was a ring or a necklace charm. “I’m not into trinkets.”
Katie held the box closer. “It’s a micro EMP with the electrical power punch of a nuclear bomb but cuts out at three feet. Super condensed.”
Holy crap. What was sweet Katie doing with an EMP like that? If anyone knew she had one, her butt would be in front of the captain in a hot minute.
At the same time, Lita shivered from the rush of tingles that tickled under her skin. Even though she didn’t know what she would use it for, her fingers itched to press the button.
“You sure it’s condensed to three feet? If I take out a ship by accident, I’m going to be pissed.” And sent to Debsa, the prison planet.
“Trust me, I got it a while back when I had a bad breakup with a cyborg. My sister, Adya, is close with our family doctor. She asked him to make something that I could use as protection.” Katie handed over the box.
Lita took the deadly treasure with both hands. Hello, beautiful. Tucking the EMP into her pocket, she told Katie, “533 has a hyper fluid leak. It’s not a seal, it’s a bolt that got loose and savaged the insides.”
Katie made a disbelieving face but didn’t contradict her. Lita explained in detail where the leak was and how to get to it. “That’s going to be a bigger job than a leak.”
“What else do you have to do?”
“True,” Katie said thoughtfully. “I don’t know how you do it. It’s like you have a telepathic link with the ships.”
“I wish,” Lita said with a sly grin. Although she was damn near omniscient when it came to anything with moving parts.
Getting back to her hopper, Lita leaned back until her spine almost touched the floor, then reached her fingertips out to catch the metal piece to be installed. Gripping the edges, she craned her neck to get a better view of a dark figure walking directly towards her.
“Sands,” Lita whispered as she used her stomach muscles to pull herself back up.
Sands didn’t interact with the crew. He usually sent their job assignments via their Minky pads and left it at that. A few times, she’d caught him working on another ship, but even then, he didn’t make a habit of talking to anyone. Not that he needed to. He did an excellent job of communicating electronically. Still, Lita couldn’t deny that every time she saw him—and his cybernetic arm—she gushed.
His arm was one-of-a-kind, and her fingertips itched to touch the rough and smooth cables. Whoever had done his work was an artful master because she had never seen anything sexier.
Katie sucked in a breath through her teeth. “He’s not happy.” The words were not an assumption, they were fact. Katie was a Hetten, a race that could read emotions.
“Bye. Thank you,” Katie said as she turned on her heel and left like a terrified pet.
Lita debated if she should stand up or stay on the floor. Deciding to stay down, she took a few breaths to remind herself that she had done nothing wrong. Yet. The EMP would go off one day. She didn’t have enough self-control not to push the button. But Sands didn’t know that.
Sands stopped at the front of the hopper, giving it a long glance. Lita’s nose caught a hint of something uniquely Sands. Warm beach, salty air, and sexy surf wax.
Restless from her physical reaction and the seconds of silence, she greeted him. “Hey, everything okay?”
His dark eyes moved from the vehicle to her. There was no expression on his face, just shrewd observance. “This hopper’s all-terrain, right? Does that include high altitudes?”
“Yes,” she answered slowly, wondering why he was asking.
“Space, too? You installed a teardrop canopy, right?”
“Yeah.” Lita did not like where this was going.
“Good. I need to borrow it.”
“It’s not done,” she said reflexively.
“You have a few body parts to put on, and it’s done. I estimate it will take you two hours.”
Lita didn’t give him the confirmation, but he was right. Two hours, and she would have finished.
“Does your silence mean yes?”
Not even close. “I don’t mean to question you, but what do you need it for?”
She waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t, so she asked, “You need my hopper for a mission? A hopper that goes into space? Won’t any of our other ships work?”
His face tilted. “If anything happens to it, I’ll pay you for it. Plus interest.”
“It’s one-of-a-kind.” He couldn’t just pay her a few thousand keleps and say, “sorry,” if he broke it.
A hiss followed by a loud snap echoed in the docking bay. Sands turned around for a second, and Lita followed his gaze. Like any mechanic worth their salt, she knew the sound of an engine starting. The guttural hum told her that it was a galleon ship, not one of the smaller ones like a transporter or sloop.
“Looks like they’re loading up. I need you and your hopper to come with me. You can finish this on the 817 galleon.” He reached down and gathered the remaining hopper parts.
He was taking her on an official mission? “Where are we going?”
He picked up a piece of the hopper and said, “You won’t have time to pack, but you have time to clean out the break room’s supply of Nebula green energy drinks. As far as I know, there isn’t any stocked on the ship.”
Lita’s mouth dropped. He knew her favorite drink?
“Close your mouth and get moving. I’ll come back for the hopper after I drop this off.”
This was really happening? She was going on a mission? Feelings bubbled, and she wasn’t sure if it was excited squiggles or nervous needles in her stomach.
“Lita. The break room. Now.”
Right. The Nebula greens. Half-turned, she paused and asked, “Where are we going? Just wondering if I need to grab anything else from the break room like…a handful of knives.”
Sands grabbed another part from the floor. “Your bolt gun and welding knife will do more damage than a disposable utensil. We’re going to the Outworlds.”
The Outworlds…where nightmares lived and thrived. It was forbidden.
A smile tickled her lips. If they were crossing the lines, this was a bigger mission than he was letting on. “I can do some damage with a disposable knife. You sure you don’t want me to grab some?”
Sands did not look like he appreciated her joke. The cyborg stood there, arms full of metal parts, holding her gaze, his jaw set.
Trying to look properly chastised, she said, “I’m going to the break room.”
“You do that.”
Sands was waiting for her near the hopper. Her baby was locked down with magnetic tip-toe tethers.
Lita leaned over and picked up her tool bag and then blew out a breath. “I’m ready.”
Sands scanned her from her feet up and said, “We’ll see.”
She suppressed an eye roll, and Sands unlocked the dolly and pulled it towards the idling ship. The heavy, textured, grey ramp was down. The angle was steep, and Sands pulled the dolly up as easily as if it were a hover dolly instead of one with wheels. It smoothly glided up and into the receiving bay that transitioned into the cargo bay.
Lita wasn’t one to stare because she’d worked alongside males before, but Sands had a presence. Not a bulking maelstrom of testosterone with a cleft chin and hydraulic grease on his cheek, but a quiet, unstoppable ocean current that refused to explain where he went or why.
A male like that hadn’t been born that way. He became that way. And she wondered if she’d ever hear that story.
Maybe in the confines of the mission, he might do more than ask questions or send her work orders. Perhaps…they could have a real conversation.
One could only hope.
Inside 817, she saw the well-organized straps and packs for emergencies. But there was a wall, ten feet directly in front of the ramp, that shouldn’t be there.
“You modified the receiving area.”
“You asking or telling me?” he said, not stopping as he moved forward.
Both. “Why would you build a wall?”
“Because I needed it.”
At that, she rolled her eyes even though he couldn’t see her.
At the far back of the cargo bay, he stopped and locked the wheels of the dolly and then leaned on the tongue, resting his flesh and blood arm on the top handle part. His shirt was black with a Federation logo, but the sleeves were missing. The small frays she saw meant that he’d likely cut or ripped them, and she liked him even more for the bold, rebellious display.
“I assume you have everything you need to complete the hopper, right?” His chin shot out, pointing to her tool bag.
“Yep. And when I finish, I will make sure it’s good. There’s enough room to run the engine.”
Sands scanned the bay and said, “Yeah, it shouldn’t be an issue, considering you put in a belirium core instead of alloric.”
Why was he acting like he knew everything about her personal project?
And why was he insulting her engine core? “Belirium’s better,” she said, looking at the engine and picturing all the hard banks and dives it would be able to do. A mechanical masterpiece.
“Alloric has more power.”
“It does,” she said, agreeing with him as she ran her fingertips over the polished metal. A condescending smirk flashed on her lips before she remembered that she needed to be polite to her boss. “But I built her to have three hundred sixty-degree torque on a dip. Better torque, better agility. Can’t get that kind of responsiveness with an alloric booster.”
Sands stepped next to her, and she saw him nod before adding, “You would’ve had the same control if you’d installed hydraulics in the handles.”
There were hydraulics in the handles. But he was talking about negative-z drive hydraulics. “Yeah z-hydraulics would work for a while, but the pressures would change in higher altitudes, and the hopper would stall.”
“The odds would be minimal if you did it right.”
If she did it right? Did he want to get slapped with her wrench? “Two point five percent chance of a stall, even when I do it right. I’ve built enough hoppers to see it happen.” Lita crossed her arms and waited for Sands’ undoubtedly stupid reply.
Sands held her eyes for a moment too long before saying, “I’ve never built one before. But I’ve been a crank since I was twelve.”
“I’ve been cranking since I was ten.”
“Those two years don’t give you more time as a crank. I’m older.”
Lita had never had this long of a conversation with Sands before, and now, she understood why the male didn’t converse often. He was a condescending prick.
Lita grabbed a piece of the body from the floor, lifted it up, not aligning it to the hopper yet. “I have a young face. I’m older than I look.”
The corners of his lips pulled back in a slow, sexy grin. The way his face lifted, and his eyes brightened, it made her want to blush. Damn him. The boss was hot.
“I checked your file. You’re not older,” he said.
Did he? Was he looking at her age or for something else? “You looked into my file to see how old I am?”
“I noticed your age, but I looked at your work history.”
When he didn’t add anything else, she chuckled. He was impressed. As he should be.
“I looked up your work history, too.” She didn’t think to check his physical section where it listed his age, race, or other things she thought were irrelevant to a person. She wanted to see his experience, to find out how good of a crank he was.
The grin faded to a moderate smile, but his tone was lighter than when he was talking trash about her engine. “You shouldn’t have been able to access those kinds of details.”
She shrugged, thinking about his entry exam. He’d maxed out the test, like she had. But his history said he was a cargo ship crank. That was all. “I noticed you have a lack of experience in planet-side jobs.”
Sands’ lips pressed together for a moment. She didn’t see anger, but withheld amusement.
Her tool bag sang out with a favorite song from Earth, bringing attention to her non-Federation communication device tucked securely in her possession. She called her device Burns because the artificial intelligence—AI—running inside needed a good name.
Sands peered at her bag. “What’s in there?”
Lita didn’t answer as Burns stopped and then started to sing again.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume you were hiding something,” he said with an underlay of warning mixed with relaxed curiosity.
Taking the opportunity, she pointed at her tool bag and said, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours, pretty boy.”
His head came forward. “What did you call me?”
Oops. “Are you going to worry about that? Or do you want to know what’s in my goody bag?”
His eyes narrowed as if he suddenly realized something about her. “You go first.”
She laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“I’m your boss.”
“Yes, you are. But if you want to see my little treasures, then you are going to have to show me what you’re working with.” She zeroed in on his metal arm with her gaze, marveling at the unpolished shades of grey and dark grey.
Sands pursed his lips and then held his cybernetic arm in front of his body. “Crescent wrench,” he said as his metal hand turned unnaturally back inside his arm, and a crescent wrench flipped out. His arm didn’t have a solid casing. Instead, it was cables and rods shaped like an arm, but in a functional and artistic way. She loved it. Needed to touch it.
That part of her that lived and breathed mechanical things woke up and took notice of Sands’ closeness. Lita watched the cogs move, and her inner need came alive. Her blood started to buzz, and she felt a flutter low in her belly. Early on in life, she’d felt like she had two souls. The Terran one and then the other. The other side had an uncontrollable need to possess everything mechanical. If it had moving parts, her dark side wanted to touch it and take it apart.
Sands continued, “Flathead screwdriver, and a ten millimeter. Pretty much…I can rebuild a battleship with these.”
Despite her coiled intensity, she laughed. Stopping shortly after realizing there was more inside that arm. She could do the math. Those four things didn’t take up that much room.
Sneaky male was holding out on her. Which was exactly what she planned to do to him.
Setting the bag down, she took a knee and opened the top. Reaching in, she pulled out Burns and stopped the song by declining the call as she held the black metal ball up with her fingertips. “I call him Burns. He’s like a walkie-talkie in that he can talk to his identical twin back on Earth. This is how my sister and I call each other.”
“Why not use the Minky pad for a quantum face-to-face call?”
Because every call and message was logged by the Federation. There was no such thing as privacy when you signed up for ten years of service. Telling him that wouldn’t go over well, so she said, “I don’t like having to hold or tip up a Minky pad to talk to my sister. This hovers around me while I work.” Lita took out her necklace from under her black t-shirt. “It has a GPS chip in it, with endless range. It’s more functional.”
He nodded then used his chin to point at the bag. “What else did you smuggle in?”
Lita didn’t bother hiding her smile. Reaching in, she said, “Reikett-powered welding knife, multi-purpose crescent wrench, socket mapper, powder adhesive, 3D molder, and a power jack.”
Sands rubbed his bottom lip. “Those aren’t tools to rebuild, those are tools to fix carnage.”
“You could say that.”
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